Friday, July 22, 2011

Time for Obama to exert trade leadership

Business Times - 22 Jul 2011

Time for Obama to exert trade leadership


IF YOU are getting depressed following the never-ending bickering in Washington over extending the debt ceiling and cutting the budget deficits, the continuing legislative deadlock over global trade policy is not going to cheer you up.

US President Barack Obama is sending the proposed free trade agreements (FTAs) with South Korea, Colombia and Panama to Congress for approval. But officials in the White House are not very optimistic that the lawmakers will approve the trade pacts before they leave for the summer recess next month.

The Obama Administration has integrated the promotion of global trade into its overall economic strategy, arguing that trade agreements with emerging markets like Korea help accelerate the fragile economic recovery while creating new well-paying jobs for American workers.

Many pro-free-trade Republican lawmakers share President Obama's sentiments but are unwilling to support the extension of a programme aimed at helping workers adversely affected by global trade, known as the Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA). The White House and the Democrats have conditioned their support for the three FTAs on a Republican agreement to extend the TAA. But Republicans argue that the TAA needs to be eliminated as part of an effort to reduce government spending and cut the deficit.

It is not clear that the White House and the Republicans will be able to bridge their differences in the next two weeks, leading White House Chief of Staff, Bill Daley, to conclude that it might not be possible to win enough Congressional votes for the pacts before the August recess.

The possible setback for the White House over the trade pacts comes only a few days after World Bank president Robert Zoellick called on President Obama to assert more leadership on global trade issues and stop what he described as 'dumbing down' terms under debate in the stalled Doha Round of world trade talks. The Doha Round to reduce global trade barriers has been deadlocked, mostly because of opposition by the US and the EU to demands by emerging economies led by China, India and Brazil to cut farm subsidies.

'The whole discussion has become very defeatist,' Mr Zoellick said during a discussion in Geneva, according to The Washington Post. 'I draw out the US because the US should still be the world leader,' stressed Mr Zoellick, a former trade official under Republican administrations. He helped launch the Doha Round under President George W Bush. 'It's a missed opportunity for a pro-growth strategy at a time when the US - and the world - could use one,' he added.

He is expected to retire soon from his position at the World Bank, which perhaps explains why he had no qualms about pointing the finger at US policies.

Indeed, the failure on the part of the White House and Congress to provide leadership during the global trade negotiations and its inability to reach a bipartisan agreement on reducing the soaring budget deficit, are two sides of what is afflicting the legislative and policy process in Washington these days. As Mr Zoellick said, the opposition in Washington to cutting farm and ethanol subsidies makes almost no sense as a time when President Obama and Republican lawmakers are stressing their commitment to cut public spending.

One could empathise to some extent with the insistence on the part of the White House and the Democrats on the need to extend the TAA as part of an effort to help American workers losing their jobs as a result of the passage of new trade pacts. Even so, many experts have raised questions about the cost-effectiveness of the programme. And after all, the new trade agreements are supposed to create many more new jobs. The protection of the interests of the members of relatively prosperous - and politically powerful - American (and European) agricultural industries runs contrary to long-term US economic interests, including balancing the federal budget.

To be fair to the Americans and the Europeans, China, India and Brazil have not been very forthcoming during the trade negotiations either when it comes to protecting their own agricultural and industrial sectors from foreign competition. They seem intent on blaming Washington and Brussels for the current deadlock which threatens the collapse of the Doha Round.

What President Obama should provide now is a sense of leadership over the global trade talks, the same kind that he had exhibited in his efforts to mobilise a global response to the financial meltdown and the ensuing Great Recession in 2009. Now is the time to use his political acumen and rhetorical skills, and try to make some sort of a deal with the emerging economies over trade that would involve concessions on both sides, including a willingness to cut US farm subsidies. That is the wise thing to do.

Copyright © 2010 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.

New in the National Interest: Syria's House of Borgia

Syria's House of Borgia

June 22, 2011
Leon Hadar
In a geostrategically located region riven by political upheaval and military conflict, providing an arena for competition between great powers, the members of a powerful ruling family had a reputation for ruthlessness and immorality. Their exotic ancestral roots and clannish and secretive modus operandi raised doubts about the legitimacy of their rule and played into the hands of rivals at home and abroad, encouraging family leaders to exercise brute force and deceit in order to maintain their hold on power.

But after years of betraying friends and co-opting adversaries, of switching regional alliances and playing one local competitor against the other while relying on the support of foreign powers, the cunning balancing act performed by this dynasty of political survivors proved to be an ineffective strategy to holding power for the one of its young descendants.

American television viewers may learn about the political downfall at the age of twenty-eight of Cesare Borgia, the (illegitimate) son of Pope Alexander VI (born Roderic Borgia), the founder of the infamous Italian House of Borgia, next year when they watch season II of The Borgias, the series that aired on Showtime in 2011 (British actor Jeremy Irons plays Pope Alexander VI).

And it is quite possible that Americans will also know in 2012 whether Syrian President Bashar Assad, the son of Hafiz Assad, the founder of the most notorious dynasty in the contemporary Levant will remain in charge in Damascus.

The Borgias, like the Medicis, the Sforzas and the other ruling families of Renaissance Italy helped foster a cultural environment that produced men of genius and some of the greatest works of art. By contrast, the Assads rule over Syria at a time when the country—and the entire Arab Middle East—experienced an overwhelming civilizational decay.

But while the Assads and other Levantine dynasties—the Jumbalatts, the Gemayels, the Chamouns—did not cultivate a Leonardo or a Michelangelo, they did embrace the kind of an approach to ruling states and conducting politics—including nepotism, brutality and treachery—that would be very familiar to the Borgias.

It is not surprising perhaps that the Borgias, who were Spanish (decried by their enemies as Marrani, reference to the Spanish Jews who publicly converted to Catholicism but continued to practice their old religion), and the Assads, members of the minority religious group, the Alawites, seen as a shadowy offshoot of Shiite Islam, would continue to feel as outsiders amongst many of their respective subjects—Syria’s Arab-Sunni majority and Italian Catholics—who suspected them of being alien and illegitimate interpolates.

That sense of political insecurity may explain why both the Assads and the Borgias never put their trust in anyone who was not a member of the family; and even when it came to the la famillia or the al 'a'ila, one never knew. Hence the conspiracy theories regarding the mysterious deaths of Giovanni Borgia and Basil el-Assad, the older sons and contenders to the thrones.

Moreover, alliances with local and regional players as well as with the great powers of the day were based on the one-night-stand rule, unprincipled and non-sentimental partnerships aimed at protecting the survival and advancing the interests of the two dynasties and the states they controlled.

Both Pope Alexander VI and Cesare Borgia did their best to strengthen their family’s rule over the papacy and expand the influence of the Papal States on central and northern Italy—where they were trying to establish a principality in Romagna—that would compete with Venice and Naples for the control of the Italian peninsula. The strategy required turning of the strategically situated city-state of Florence into a client of Borgias and the forming of ad hoc coalitions with France, Spain and Austria, the great powers that were battling for influence in Italy.

The Assads’ strategic goal of controlling the Syrian state, by ruthlessly repressing potential rivals and achieving a dominant position in Greater Syria required achieving hegemony over neighboring Lebanon (by playing the rival sects there—Maronites, Sunnis, Shiites, Druze—against each other) and by exploiting the Palestinian issue to counterbalance the main regional threat, Israel, and its de facto ally, Jordan. Military alliances with regional and outside powers (the Soviet Union, Nasserist Egypt, the Islamic Republic of Iran) and occasionally tacit cooperation with Israel were some of the major components in a very complex strategy of survival.

Machiavelli, who as an official with the Florentine government had witnessed the death and destruction brought about by religious fanatics—or “armed prophets” as he described them—and who later served as a diplomat in Borgia’s court, reflected quite admiringly on Cesare’s political and military career in his classic study of statecraft, The Prince. He cited Cesare as an example of a leader who practiced politics not on the basis on wishful thinking and moralistic (Christian) virtues, but more like scientific experiments—dealing with political reality as it is and not as it ought to be. Playing a major role in influencing that reality is fortune (fortuna), which in the case of Cesare—the sudden death of Pope Alexander VI which ended of the Borgias’ control over the papacy—was responsible for his fall.

In answer to his own question of “whether it is better to be loved than feared,” Machiavelli did respond that it was better for a leader to be feared than loved and he warned that “too much mercy,” on the part of leaders, “allows disorders to go on, from which spring killings or depredations.” Cesare Borgia “was considered cruel” he recalled. Nonetheless, “that cruelty united Romagna and brought it peace and stability.”

But it would be wrong to caricature the Florentine diplomat and political philosopher as a cynical apologist for despotism, as a, well, Machiavellian. While not an advocate of modern liberal democratic principles, Machiavelli was a defender of traditional republican values of liberty and opposed any form of tyranny. He was not only interested in discovering the most effective ways of using political power but also focused on the ultimate goals of using that power—protecting the security and providing for the well-being of the leader’s subjects, envisioning Cesare as unifier of Italy as a powerful and prosperous state that will reward all its citizens.

So while Machiavelli may have sympathized with the Assads’ concerns about maintaining order in Syria and containing the threat of radical Islamists, he would probably find the dynasty’s latest saga quite distressing and raise questions about the “realism” of trying to secure the status-quo in Syria by killing its citizens and antagonizing a regional partner (Turkey) as well as leading global players (the US and the European Union) while placing all the diplomatic eggs in the Iranian basket.

“President Assad, I served with Cesare Borgia, I knew Cesare Borgia, Cesare Borgia was a friend of mine. President Assad, you're no Cesare Borgia,” Machiavelli would say, recalling that—as viewers of The Borgias will find out next year—Cesare, who was exiled to Spain, was killed during a military battle there, and predicting that Bashar will not be showing valor or courage any time soon.

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