Thinking Global

The Reichstag fire: Lessons for today

Feb 28, 2013 00:04 UTC

This week marks the 80th anniversary of the German Reichstag fire of February 27, 1933. That arson blaze ignited one of history’s ugliest stories of a fragile democracy gone tragically bad — and its generational consequences.

Adolf Hitler, leader of the Nazis, elected Germany’s dominant party six months earlier, had exploited the fire – which he claimed was set by a half-blind, disabled, Dutch communist bricklayer – to transform Germany into a militarized dictatorship. This set in motion the Third Reich, World War II, the Holocaust, the destruction of Europe and the deaths of 60 million people, 2.5 percent of the global population.

History doesn’t repeat itself, as Mark Twain famously said, but it does rhyme.

“Perhaps the most powerful parallel between 1933 and 2013 is the political and economic weakness of the West and our self-absorption and tendency toward isolationism,” said Carl Gershman, president of the National Endowment for Democracy. Now, as then, democracy’s most prominent global representatives in the United States and Europe are in political and economic disarray. At such times, Western elites often turn inward and lose confidence – disengaging from global responsibility and underestimating the potential ripples from democratic setbacks in faraway places.

In 1933, Washington was distracted by the Great Depression, which bankrupted 40 percent of U.S. financial institutions. As President Franklin Delano Roosevelt stated, a third of Americans were ill-fed, ill-housed and ill-clothed. Now, with Syria in flames and nascent Middle Eastern democracies threatened, what then-Secretary of State Madeline Albright described as “the indispensable nation” is otherwise engaged with debt, deficits and the political inability to address them.

Obama’s chance for a legacy

Feb 19, 2013 19:52 UTC

President Barack Obama devoted just one sentence in last week’s State of the Union address to call for a new transatlantic trade and investment deal. However, if negotiated with sufficient ambition and presidential engagement, it is Obama’s best chance yet at leaving a positive foreign policy legacy.

The other global issues Obama catalogued in his speech were largely about avoiding the worst: North Korea, cyber threats, Iran, Syria and other Middle Eastern upheavals.  Achieving what Obama called “a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership,” however, has all the makings of grand strategy.

It is about nothing less than combining the world’s two largest economies and communities of common interest in a manner that could reshape all global trade and investment standards. It would also reinvigorate the Cold War’s victors, known then as “the Free World,” at a new inflection point of history. Only through common cause can the United States and Europe ensure they continue to write global governance rules even as they lose relative power and influence to countries that are less committed to democratic rights and free markets.

Obama’s Afghan test

Feb 1, 2013 20:35 UTC

Munich – For America’s friends and allies, who will welcome Vice President Joe Biden to the annual Munich Security Conference this weekend, President Obama’s second inaugural address was notable for its single-minded focus on U.S. domestic issues even as global challenges proliferate. It was the clearest sign yet that Obama intends to build his historic legacy at home.

No one quibbles with Obama’s conviction that America’s global role can best be sustained through a period of “nation-building at home.” The problem is the world is unlikely to hit the pause button as America gets itself off the fiscal cliff, reforms its immigration system, modernizes its infrastructure, fixes its education system and focuses on other long-neglected home chores.

Rude reality inevitably intrudes.

Even if Washington weren’t facing a world of escalating trouble spots – Syria, Iran, North Korea, Yemen, North Africa, and the disputed waters around China (for starters) – U.S. allies would be looking to Afghanistan as the leading indicator of how Obama 2.0 will balance domestic priorities against his global commitments.