Day: June 7, 2012

Rumors of America’s demise are exaggerated

If you don’t want to be live-tweeted, don’t speak to a group in their 20s!  My 5-7 minutes or so presentation at the G8 & G20 Youth Summits at George Washington University this morning generated close to two dozen tweets.

What I said, or should have said according to my notes, was pretty much this:

1.  Contrary to what one often reads, my generation is not leaving the world worse off.  It is leaving as a legacy a freer, wealthier and more peaceful world than the one it inherited.

2.  But just because of that it is also a more uncertain world, where leadership is more difficult than when the United States and the Soviet Union faced off in nuclear confrontation. The demands made of leadership also shift in a more democratic and peaceful world, with greater emphasis on economic challenges and we hope less on security dilemmas.

3.  Even if America’s relative weight in the world is declining by some measures, the much-rumored demise of America is greatly exaggerated.

4.  The United States retains its inherent advantages:  two large, protective oceans, two cooperative neighbors north and south, immense natural resource wealth, global military superiority, a dynamic economy and political system.

5.  It also has other advantages that make it specifically well-adapted to the current world order:  an ability to pivot (as it is currently trying to do, from the Atlantic to the Pacific) and a high degree of interconnectedness with the rest of the world.  Anne-Marie Slaughter in particular has been vocal in point out how important interconnectedness can be.

6.  Interconnectedness is an interesting source of power, because it works at both ends:  I may be able to leverage my connection to you, but you may also be able to leverage your connection to me.

7.  We need to learn to use this interconnectedness to strengthen each other, not to undermine each other, and to improve the world order.

In the Q and A, Barbara Slavin and I differed on Iran and Syria.  I think President Obama is not taking military action on Syria because it would lose him Russian and Chinese participation in the P5+1 talks with Iran.  Barbara thinks the U.S. is hesitating because of uncertainty about the consequences in a Syria with a divided opposition.  We may also differ on Iran’s nuclear intentions, but writing about that I may get it wrong, so I’ll desist.

There were a lot of good questions, but the one that sticks in my mind is about how we will manage the rise of China.  A great deal depends on which China rises.  If it is an increasingly autocratic and militarized China, the task will be far more difficult.  If, as suggested in recent remarks by Wen Jiabao (I was mistaken this morning when I cited Hu Jintao), China finds it needs democratic political reform to manage its own internal problems, things will be a lot easier.

Next generation:  you were well-represented today!

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Ahmed Shafiq for president

I know I’ll get lots of flak for this post, which published yesterday under the headline “Vote Shafiq: Warts and All, Mubarak Ally is Better Choice.”  Tens of thousands of Egyptians rallied Tuesday to protest Shafiq’s candidacy.  I’d be more likely to attend that than a pro-Shafiq rally.  There is still a court challenge to his candidacy to be decided.  If he is barred and the third place candidate (Hamdeen Sabahi) put in his place, the arguments made here would need to be adjusted, but I would still see virtue in blocking a Muslim Brotherhood monopoly on power.  Please read on before getting upset:

No one interested in seeing Egypt as a thriving democracy would want to vote for either of the two candidates remaining in the June 16-17 runoff. Freedom and Justice (Muslim Brotherhood) party candidate Mohamed Morsi is an uninspiring second choice, nominated when the original candidate was barred. Former Air Force General Ahmed Shafiq was President Hosni Mubarak’s last prime minister. He accomplished nothing of note in that position and is certainly a remnant of the Mubarak regime overthrown by the January 2010 revolution.

The choice is unappetizing to one-third of the electorate, but the circumstances make Shafiq preferable. The Muslim Brotherhood already controls 48% of the seats in the first post-revolution Egyptian parliament. If Morsi wins the presidency, the Muslim Brotherhood will own Egypt. Its principal rivals in parliament are Salafists, who will try to steer Egypt in their more strictly Islamic direction. Only a president from the more “secular” side of politics — one with at least some appeal to non-Muslims and less religious Muslims — can restore some sense of balance, even if he is an anti-revolutionary figure.

Why is this important?
To Egyptians, it is important because the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists represent only a portion of the diverse electorate. At this early stage in the revolution — when the constitution that will distribute power to the president and parliament has not yet been written — it is vital that the government be broadly representative.  Shafiq is no liberal revolutionary, but he at least represents the non-Islamist strain in Egyptian politics, not to mention that “party of the couch” that wants law and order restored.
To Americans, it is important because Egypt is the largest Arab country by population and also a bellwether in the Arab world. While I would be among those most open to accepting the Islamists as a valid and responsible political force prepared to abide by democratic norms, maintaining peace and stability in the Middle East is going to be a lot harder if they dominate Egyptian politics. Cagey about what they might want as a replacement, the Islamists have been less than fully committed to the peace treaty with Israel and more than amenable to cooperation with Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood organization that controls the Gaza Strip.
Stepping back, a Muslim Brotherhood victory in the presidential contest would also signify a major shift in the Arab world more generally. If Morsi wins, there is a strong likelihood we will see echoes of his victory in Libya, Jordan, Yemen (when it eventually gets around to holding a competitive election) and elsewhere. Syria’s struggling revolution, while still predominantly non-Islamist, could turn in the Muslim Brotherhood’s direction.
Does Ahmed Shafiq threaten the revolution?  Could he take Egypt back in the direction of autocracy? I suppose he could, and even would, though there is nothing in his past performance to suggest that he is clever enough to accumulate the necessary power in an Egypt with an Islamist-dominated parliament. He will try to protect the remnants of the old regime which are still very much present in the Egyptian economy, military and society. But he is also a gray and unimpressive figure, one who will seek compromise and yield to pressure.
That’s what Egypt needs at the moment: someone attached to the more secular side of its politics but prepared to steer his way through the thicket of an Islamist-dominated parliament and more liberal-minded protesters. The Egyptian revolution would have done better with a more charismatic, less compromised, more principled leader like Nelson Mandela. But that is not what the tortuous path of its politics over the last year and a half has produced.
Better a divided government under Shafiq than a deeply Islamist government under Morsi.
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