Hard Power/Soft Power

The Economist’s EU-Affairs columnist Charlemagne has a post up about the future of Europe in world affairs, which I would like to suggest to you. Charlemagne notes the concern of Brussels policy-makers over European states still not being able to ‘speak in one voice’, but wonders if such unity would be enough to make Europe relevant in a fundamentally altered international landscape. Referring to recent ‘snubs’ to US Diplomacy by China, Iran and Israel, Charlemagne writes :

But here is the question that I am starting to turn over in my mind. If our big bet in Europe is that speaking with one voice will make our norms-based, soft power approach work, what lessons should we draw when Mr Obama’s outstretched hand of friendship is smacked away? Because even in a perfect, parallel universe, in which the EU magically falls in line behind Catherine Ashton and the new EU diplomatic service, we will struggle to become one half as united as the American government is. Our 27 countries will always find it hard to match America when it comes to identifying and defending our interests. And though there can of course be differences in the messages sent out by the White House, the State Department, Congress and so on, in general America speaks with one voice to the outside world, in a way that the EU can barely hope to match.

And yet all that speaking with one voice, in defence of agreed, common interests, does not seem to shield the Obama administration from snubs.

The columnist then goes on to wonder if in this new world it would benefit Europe more to stick closer to the US in international affairs. The simple answer would be no. Europe and US indeed have strong historical ties, and have benefited greatly from this transatlantic relationship. And after the crazy Bush years, their diplomatic strategies also seem to be on a similar wavelength with an emphasis on dialogue and engagement.

However, it would certainly not be in a nascent EU’s interest to follow the American line in foreign policy. Surely, America with it’s greater foreign commitments would exert great pressure on Europe to fall behind it. Also, such bandying together on foreign policy issues would not send positive signals from the west to the rest of the world. Europe establishing its own place in the world, separate from the US, is necessary both for Europe and multi-lateralism.

Americas diplomatic failures are not the result of its soft approach, but a combination of factors that involves miscalculations on Obamas part, as well as the newly emergent powers feeling a need to assert themselves. There is no reason to believe that multilateralism would be a bed of roses, and even lesser reason for US/EU abandoning it for a ‘hard’ approach.

Europe’s best bet is to try and be an independent foreign player. Its  failure to show any sort of leadership on the international stage, an opportunity that it so gloriously squandered at Copenhagen, is more of a reason for its international stature than it’s competitive advantages. The big European powers that brought it together are now reluctant to see Europe forward. This is crucial for Europe, as Ashton recognized in her speech, to have a say in its own affairs on the international stage.

Lastly, despite the paranoia about decline that seems to be sweeping the western world, Europe certainly has the potential to be a powerful actor with great resonance in foreign affairs. Its social welfare system is the envy of  powers like China, its universities are host to millions of Asian students, its a great patron of artists, its leadership in infrastructure and R&D recognized world-over. Most importantly, its model for regional governance is one that would serve as an example for non-western powers as they try to achieve stability, security and economic prosperity in their own regions. Its internal diversity, enhanced by its assimilation of immigrants, would ensure that it has influence beyond its borers. The columnist misuses the term soft power, which refers to the influence that societies and cultures have on each other, and something that Europe has bucket-loads of.

It needs to organize itself and pull its weight as a hard power, capable of  protecting its interests and pushing its agenda based on the norms of social-democracy, welfare and respect of civil liberties. Speaking in one,independent, voice, Europe has a lot to gain, and I believe so does the world.

Makkah in the Off-season

Maureen Dowd is not known for tact (she allegedly once wrote that Al Gore was “so feminized…he’s practically lactating”). Which is why her latest column in the NYTimes is such an interesting read. Dowd writes about her disappointment at not being allowed to visit Mecca, to ‘experience the religion’ and ‘understand the complexities of Islam’.

At the same time she seems to come across , as a commentator on the web-page put it, like a fairly large ignoramus: she asks a Saudi minister to let non-Muslims visit Mecca during the ‘off season’ and expresses surprise when she finds out that Abraham built the Kaaba. Her assumption that she could learn more about a religion by being in its cradle seems odd, especially since one hardly goes to the Vatican to learn more about Christianity. She seems flippant about Islamic-Western relationship, and her attitude of entitlement would not do any favours for the reputation of Americans, or journalists, worldover.

I grew up in Saudi Arabia, and there is little reason why anyone should go there to ‘understand the complexities of Islam’. The country is ‘closed’, not only to non-Muslims, but to all non-Arabs. Thousands of expatriates and immigrant workers face all sorts of restrictions from travel to dressing. Picking up some readings, or traveling to any other place with a Muslim population would probably serve her better, perhaps even NYC.

  • clicking the Kaaba
  • clicking the Kaaba
  • However crassly, Dowd does manage to raise a point about opening places of worship to tourism. Many churches, mosques, synagogues and temples are open to the hordes worldwide. How does this affect people that are actually there to worship? Surely, large tourist groups are a nuisance anywhere the pious are praying. Many places politely ask the tourists to leave at designated prayer times. I confess that I have been a camera-toting nuisance myself, terrorizing priests in their confessional booths with my camera. (after the jump: pic of the priest i terrorised)

    Rebuilding Afghanistan with Rivers and Emigrants

    On a trip to Brussels last week I came across two research papers on rebuilding Afghanistan from the East-West Institute, which point out interesting strategies for Afghan reconstruction and security. Both papers emphasize the need for international co-operation for a regional solution for Afghanistan. The first of these stresses the importance of co-operation on water sharing, already a big security issue in South Asia.

    The almost total absence of bilateral or regional cooperation on water between Afghanistan and its neighbors is a serious threat to sustainable development and security in the region. The ever-increasing demand for water, the unpredictable availability of water, and the inefficient management of water resources combine to form a complex but solvable challenge to regional security and development. Currently there are hardly any spaces in which to cooperatively address trans-boundary water issues. There are hardly any forums for dialogue or bilateral or multilateral agreements, and possibilities for data sharing or joint action are limited. (Full report here)

    The other report points out how Gulf states could contribute to development in the region by promoting immigration from Afghanistan, especially for blue-collar workers, a lot of whom they already draw from South Asia

    The potential of remittances to enhance economic development in poor developing nations is highlighted by the many successful examples of remittance flows to Asian countries, whose workers are based in member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council. In that context, the volume of remittances sent home is, for many developing countries, the largest source by far of external capital. In many cases migrant labor contributes considerably to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of recipient countries. (Full reports here)

    These reports point to sustainable development strategies that are often ignored in conflicts. Water scarcity which feeds conflicts from Darfur to Kashmir, and addressing it is one of the easiest ways for the international community to alleviate them.  And while I have yet to come across previous evidence of it, immigration has proven to be helpful in poverty reduction and hence presents an opportunity to ensure human security.


    Further reading on Af-Pak: I would also like to point to two blogs that I find extremely informative for their detailed analysis on main-stream media reports, as well as military strategy in AfPak. The Afghan Analysts Network Blog, from the eponymous think-tank in Kabul, provides analysis and reviews of Western policy in Afghanistan on the basis of ground reports and research. provides excellent analysis of media reports on Afghanistan based on the authors experience of Central Asia, and a sustained engagement with Western policy in the region. Both these, IMO, are excellent advocates for the need for military strategists to engage with academic research, especially ground-based anthropological and sociological research, something which has been consistently been found to be lacking in AfPak.

    Previously: A Video, and My Two Bits, on Afghanistan

    Too important to be left to historians?

    This is the question that an Indian chemical engineer asked of history to Barbara Metcalf, president of the American Historical Association. She discusses her views on this in her article “Historians and Chemical Engineers” from which I quote extensively:

    I have recently had e-mail correspondence with an Indian chemical engineer who wrote me because of a comment I had made in a general introduction to the modern history of India.1 In the book’s first chapter, an overview of the centuries of Turko-Afghan and Mughal dynasties, I had noted that the rulers in this period, who were of Muslim background, had no program whatsoever of mass conversion. Indeed, for the rulers, the forms of ritual, and the transmission of sacred knowledge on the part of their subjects, were, in fact, matters of indifference. (The political loyalty of their leaders was not.) This comment is unexceptionable to professional historians but it flies in the face of colonialist and indeed nationalist stereotypes about “despotic” and “fanatic” Muslims.

    My correspondent cited an older secondary source that confirmed his viewpoint. I tried to explain to him the status of different kinds of sources and the challenge of interpreting them. In a later exchange, I suggested a few titles that he might enjoy reading that illustrate the use of primary sources and that counter the stereotypical accounts of Muslim rulers. (One of my suggestions was the marvelous Somanatha by this year’s new Honorary Foreign Member of the AHA, Romila Thapar.2) It’s been a few weeks since I’ve heard from him, but in his last note he signed off in style, asking whether I agreed with him that history was too important to leave to historians. All I could say in reply was that I felt quite confident that he, in fact, would not want to entrust some challenging problem in chemical engineering to me.

    My answer was somewhat disingenuous. History may in some ways be primarily the purview of professionals, but it is also an intimate part of personal identity and a critical element in social belonging. It is learned in multiple dimensions of everyday life. Scholarly publications, and arguments communicated in a variety of settings by professional historians are, at best, only one source of anyone’s convictions about the past. This is because arguments from history become justifications for, and explanations of, public policy and public life more generally. My correspondent, the chemical engineer, bases his views of Muslims on history. I argue back that in postcolonial India, the Muslim citizens of India have suffered grievously in part precisely because of faulty misapprehensions about the past.

    West Bank Story

    The Na’avi characters from James Cameron’s blockbuster Avatar, a visually spectacular (if cliché ridden) allegory of imperialism, seem to be becoming an icon of protest.

    In the village of Bil’in on the West Bank a group of Palestinian, Israeli and Arab activists protested against the building of an Israeli barrier by costuming-up as the blue-skinned Na’avi  from the blockbuster movie (albeit the women wore hijab) . The protesters at Bil’in, who consider the barrier a land grab by Israeli security forces, equated their struggle to the intergalactic battle for Pandora, the Na’vis homeland which humans try to forcibly occupy for its mineral resources.

    Via The Lede:

    Batsheva Sobelman of The Los Angeles Times reported from Jerusalem that last month “a screening of ‘Avatar’ erupted into a small ruckus in a suburb when one moviegoer loudly announced that the Palestinians should learn from this movie what to do to the Jews, causing a commotion and angering others in the audience.” Ms. Sobelman explained that the “opinionated moviegoer was Juliano Mer-Khamis,” an actor who was “Born in Nazereth to a Jewish mother and Arab father.”

    Mr. Mer-Khamis told the Israeli newspaper Maariv:

    No one dares to make the real analogy. ‘Avatar’ is one of the bravest films made. It portrays the occupation, but people aren’t making the analogy. Many would like to be like the blue people but don’t understand the meaning. This is why people got angry at the movie theater. It is no secret that I think the Israelis are occupiers and the Palestinians occupied. Israel sits forcefully on lands that belong to others and this is exactly what the movie is talking about.

    Check out the video. Also, there are reports of state-meddling in the screening of Avatar in China since the government considered the movie to be close to ‘sensitive issues’ in China. However, other reports suggest that this maybe simply because of the Chines governments policy of helping local cinema by keeping Hollywood blockbusters out.

    Megan Fox Brings Us Together

    fb stats

    This survey, which uses an analysis of over 100 million Facebook accounts across the world and provides country wise information about popular brands and user networks, hints to something that I have long held true: Megan Fox (and, to a lesser extent, Vin Diesel) have the power to unite people across cultures and biases.

    The actress tops the list of ‘likes’  across cultures and continents, bridging even bitter rivalries such as that between India and Pakistan (her popularity amongst South American and African nations seems significantly lesser though, perhaps a hint of cultural preferences)

    The graphic also elaborates on another interesting aspect: how Facebook users across the world are linked. Europe and North America show high degree of regional connections. This is also true with China, whose population seems to be connected to those of East Asian countries. On the other hand such connections seem to be absent amongst South Asian nations, who seem to be significantly more connected to the US and UK.

    It also highlights how historic and diasporic links between nation are reinforced in people-to-people connections (except in the South Asian case). It also shows that the sun may have set on the British Empire, but the UK still seems to have the most globally-connected population.

    Link via ChapatiMystery

    Does Europe have a problem with Islam?

    via EuroIslamproject

    The last couple of months have seen intense debate on European society’s openness towards Muslim immigrants. Following the Swiss ban on minarets and the French proposal to ban the burqa in public life, fears have been expressed over the exclusion of Muslims from European social and political life. Politicians have gained enormous capital by channeling fears over Islam and immigrants, and populist measures such as the burqa ban in France.

    Which begs the question: does Europe have a problem with Islam? Are European politics and society inherently at-odds with the values of their Muslim citizens? One thing is clear: European politics has become increasingly obsessed with controlling and regimenting its Muslim citizens. The successful campaign in Switzerland to ban minarets, as well as the growing influence of far-right politicians in Austria and the Netherlands are testimony to the popular appeal of anti-Islam populism in Europe.

    How to reconcile radical sentiments with everyday reality in the West?

    Daniel Cooper writes in on the dilemmas of radicalism, LA and post-post-graduate life.

    Nearly six months have passed since I returned from my two years in the Erasmus Mundus program in London and Leipzig to the comforts and luxuries of my home city of Los Angeles, a sprawling, coastal metropolis in the most powerful economy in the world. Blessed with unfathomable material wealth and environmental beauty, Los Angeles to a middle-class young man can be paradise; a gentle and seemingly constant sea breeze swirls overhead as beautiful tanned women walk leisurely down sunny city streets. One can go surfing in the morning in Malibu, enjoy an afternoon hike through the Santa Monica Mountains alongside rattle snakes and deer—in January—and enjoy dinner at a delicious Ethiopian or Armenian or Peruvian restaurant all in the same day in this city. But for as much wealth and beauty, Los Angeles offers equal amounts of poverty and ugliness. Latino and Black Angelinos (the term for residents of Los Angeles) remain cramped in dilapidated housing projects, the results of racist city planning and zoning regulations from a time not too far in the city’s past. The maze of Los Angeles’ freeways and streets are congested with bulky gas-guzzling machines that inch slowly along, wearing away at the humanity of the people who sit passively behind their steering wheels. While the air quality in Los Angeles has improved, every once in a while an oppressive smog looms over the city, turning an otherwise green paradise full of trees into what looks like a nuclear waste zone, an ominous reminder of human fallibility. Basically, Los Angeles offers all that is to be expected in one of the major cities of the Western world. I have come to appreciate this city, and by extension the larger Western world, the only world I really know. But my journey to this appreciation has not been without tears and much painful soul-searching.

    What to make of the Noughties?


    Nitpickers would say that the decade is not over yet (it ends on Dec 31, 2010) and valid questions would undoubtedly be raised about the benefits of dispensing history in bite sized doses. However, none of this would stop us in indulging ourselves in a bit of pop-history. The Noughties (as British tabloids imaginatively christened the 2000s) present an exciting case and, after all, who better to go to for a decade review than global historians right (everyone seems to be doing it so why should we not weigh in)?

    At first glance there seems little to cheer about- 9/11, two wars, the recession and climate change were the big global issues. The decade saw the end of American supremacy, with the rise of the non-western nations, particularly China. This went hand in hand with the demise, almost to the point of being discredited, of the neo-liberal ideology. Government control of the markets increased in the west, while  it saved India and China them from a great degree of damage during the recession. At any rate, new great powers entered the scene.