Are we living through a second Nixon era?

Kevin Rudd at the Manama Dialogue

‘Historical analogies are often perilous and they are always inexact,’ IISS Senior Fellow for US Foreign Policy and Transatlantic Affairs Dr Dana Allin admitted, when posing a question to Australian MP and former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd (above) during the Fifth Plenary Session at the recent Manama Dialogue. Nevertheless, Allin continued, ‘I have long been intrigued by some parallels between the challenges facing the Obama administration and those that faced the Nixon administration 40 years ago.’ He ticked off a list: a war-weary American public; an economic crisis; a political crisis (although ‘largely selfinflicted by the Nixon administration and I do not think you can say the same thing about the Obama administration’); a major Middle East crisis; and the view that figuring out a relationship with China was vital.

How could America make a difference, he wondered. Was more energetic diplomacy going to be enough?

Rudd responded that he also saw ‘extraordinary parallels with the Nixon period’, partly because he was a keen China watcher. He said he had spoken to President Richard Nixon’s Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, ‘a lot’ about dealing with the major challenges that American administration faced.

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Blue-sky thinking after Sandy

President Obama waves as he boards Air Force One.

President Obama waves as he boards Air Force One.

By Dana Allin, Senior Fellow for US Foreign Policy and Transatlantic Affairs

I type these words from a sunlit kitchen while looking at mostly clear skies over Capitol Hill in Washington. Last week, the northeastern United States was pounded by Hurricane Sandy, a weather event unprecedented in nature and vastness. The presidential candidates paused for a couple days of recovery, but of course the election campaign, now in its final few days, couldn’t really stop.

The city is pretty much back to normal – if the manic days before deciding the next president can be considered normal. And my students and I remain preoccupied with what the polls will bring. I’m here in DC, among other purposes, to lead a graduate seminar and workshop on Survival at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. Editing a journal like Survival is usually one part intellectual endeavour to two parts tradesman routine. However, it certainly helps to have to explain yourself – explain what it is you think you are trying to do – to ten probing and thoughtful graduate students from four countries. (About half are American; the other half European.)

They are, naturally enough for scholars at foreign-policy school in Washington, full of ideas, and some of them will be guest-blogging on Voices from this week. I hope you find their posts as thoughtful and entertaining as I do.

Mitt Romney’s big London adventure

© Mitt Romney

By Dr Dana Allin, Senior Fellow for US Foreign Policy and Transatlantic Affairs; Editor of Survival

Mitt Romney’s now infamous gaffes during a day in London, awkward though they have been, are not the stuff of huge diplomatic significance. His problem is that the whole trip – with stops in Israel and Poland as well as London – was premised on the alleged problem of the incumbent president’s incompetence and indifference in nurturing important alliances. As New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait puts it, the UK visit ‘was supposed to have been a restoration of the “special relationship,” a goal that nestled comfortably into the general right-wing accusation that Obama spits in the faces of our friends even as he comforts our enemies.’

Instead, Romney ran into the buzz-saw of the British press, which Chait describes as ‘an outrage-generating machine the likes of which we American reporters can only gaze upon with awe’. As an American in London, I know what he’s talking about. In September 2009, a BBC producer called me at home asking if I could go on camera to talk about President Barack Obama’s ‘snub’, in New York the previous day, to then UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

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Health care and the American state

President Barack Obama talks on the phone with the US Solicitor-General after health care ruling Official White House phote Pete Souza

By Dr Dana Allin, Senior Fellow for US Foreign Policy and Transatlantic Affairs; Editor of Survival

Three months ago, CNN legal affairs analyst Jeffrey Toobin attended the Supreme Court’s oral arguments on the challenges to President Barack Obama’s health care reform, then walked outside and down the courthouse steps for a live broadcast. ‘This was a train wreck for the Obama administration,’ Toobin declaimed, waving his arms for emphasis. ‘This law looks like it’s going to be struck down. I’m telling you, all of the predictions, including mine, that the justices would not have a problem with this law were wrong.

Last Thursday, Chief Justice John Roberts led a 5–4 majority decision confounding Toobin’s ‘train wreck’ prediction. The court upheld the constitutionality of President Obama’s defining legislative accomplishment, including the ‘mandate’ – much maligned by conservative critics – that requires individuals to purchase health insurance. It did so even though Roberts found that the ‘Commerce Clause’ of the US constitution did not give the federal government authority to regulate ‘inactivity’ – that is to say, the inactivity of not purchasing health insurance. The federal government does, however, have more or less unlimited authority to tax, and Roberts deemed the mandatory penalty for not buying health insurance to be a tax by another name.

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Euro pique

Jose Manuel Barroso and Herman Van Rompuy at the EU-Mexico bilateral summit at Los Cabos (Phot copyright: Council of the European Union

By Dr Dana Allin, Senior Fellow for US Foreign Policy and Transatlantic Affairs; Editor of Survival

Last week was another bad one for the euro, with the eruption of a particular brand of pique that I’m frankly surprised we haven’t seen more of. At the G20 meeting in Mexico, Jose Manuel Barroso, president of the EU Commission, reacted badly to a Canadian journalist’s question about why North Americans should ‘risk their assets’ to support the Europeans. ‘Frankly’, replied Barroso, ‘we are not here to receive lessons in terms of democracy or in terms of how to handle the economy. This crisis was not originated in Europe … this crisis originated in North America and much of our financial sector was contaminated by, how can I put it, unorthodox practices from some sectors of the financial market.’

Barroso was right, of course, and he was also spectacularly wrong. He was right about the origins of the crisis, and he might have added something about long-running imbalances of American over-borrowing against Chinese over-saving that fed the housing bubble. But this would have raised the awkward parallel problem of chronic imbalances within the eurozone, such as those that fed Spain’s real-estate bubble. Except in the relatively minor case of Greece, government spending had little to do with it.

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Syria and its neighbours

The Syrian regime seems to be hanging on a year after anti-government protests started as part of the Arab Awakening. But, writes Emile Hokayem in the latest issue of Survival: Global Politics and Strategy, nothing is inevitable about the Assad regime’s fate. It could survive the current unrest, although in a much weakened shape, Hokayem’s article concludes. ‘Much will depend on whether and how its neighbours intervene.’

As the Syrian government’s crackdown on its citizens has continued, thousands have fled across the border into Turkey, and Ankara’s relationship with Damascus has become strained. Philipp C. Bleek and Aaron Stein argue that the United States and Turkey now have the motivation and opportunity to cooperate in blunting the influence of Syria’s ally Iran.

In Israel, some politicians have been making noises about military action against Iran in an attempt to stop it crossing the nuclear threshold. Washington is reluctant to become involved, even indirectly, in another preventive war, and Survival‘s editor Dana Allin looks at how the United States is working to resist letting its ally’s perspective override its own balance of risk and benefit.

The focus on the Middle East continues with an examination of Jordan’s new geopolitics and Libya’s assets and the question of sovereignty. But this issue also looks at the upcoming Georgian elections, how to enlist Islam to create a more effective Afghan police force and much more.

Read more (Don’t forget Survival is also now available on iPad)

What will Russia say today to Syria?

This seems to be the sound of failed UN diplomacy: the Baba Amr district of the city of Homs under fire days after Russia and China vetoed a UN Security Council Resolution calling on President Bashar al-Assad to relinquish power and allow for free elections. With much criticism of Russia’s veto, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has just arrived in Damascus, in the hope of launching a new Russian diplomatic initiative to stem the violence.

‘After being hammered so much by so many other countries, they [the Russians] need to regain some of their lustre, and … prove they aren’t whitewashing Assad’s crimes and oppression,’ IISS Middle East Senior Fellow Emile Hokayem, tells today’s Wall Street Journal.

However, at a discussion meeting at Arundel House yesterday, our Mideast analyst said that Russia had lost credibility among the Syrian opposition and there were doubts about whether it could broker a deal. He added that there were ‘big questions about what kind of message’ the Russians were going to have for the Syrian government. ‘If you’re very cynical you think that the Russians are going to tell them: “Do it as quickly as you can, use as much firepower as you need, and be done with this.”

‘But I assume even Russian intelligence estimates are that Assad is on very shaky ground. … More probably the Russians will ask Assad to give them something so that they can tell the world that Russia can deliver – it’s not all [about] obstruction at the Security Council, it’s also able to leverage its own influence with Assad to obtain some of those domestic reforms; we’re talking about a few constitutional changes, the promise of elections, new political parties law and so on.’

Meanwhile, Ankara has announced its own diplomatic initiative ‘with those countries who stand by the Syrian people, not the regime’.

‘Whether the Turks are confident with that role, and how overt or covert it is, are key considerations,’ Hokayem said.

Watch the full discussion above, also with IISS’s Dr Dana Allin, Brigadier Ben Barry and Adam Ward.


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