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September 06, 2013

Reassessing the Washington Consensuses (Consensi?) -- Views from Brazil
Posted by David Shorr


Palacio PlanaltoLast month, colleagues and I spent a week in Brazil in an effort to take the pulse of Brazil's foreign policy community. The intensive itinerary was arranged with the help of leading think tank CEBRI and included senior and very senior officials. 

Our conversations were pretty wide-ranging, trying to gauge sentiment in a key emerging power. Naturally there isn't any single collective worldview of the Brazilian establishment, so instead I'll convey some of the different strains of thought. The best way to summarize, perhaps, is to take stock of the Washington Consensuses. I use the plural consensuses because the term can be used in three different senses -- two that are familiar, and another that I'd add. 

At one level the consensus remains solidly intact. The international system operates on the tacit assumption that free market economies and democratically accountable governance work best. Think of the frequent observation that China's shown no signs of being a revolutionary power or pushing an alternative 'Beijing Consensus' paradigm. And nor were any such ideas broached by Brazilians we spoke to.

Of course this level of generalities and broad principles leaves major issues open for debate, and important new debates seem to be percolating. I will discuss those further below, but first I want to raise a second sort of Washington consensus: basic confidence in, and acceptance of, American global leadership. In this area we heard notable ambivalence. 

On the one hand, an affirmation of the United States durable influence was signaled --explicitly rejecting the notion of American decline. Contrary to media depictions, we didn't get complaints about the NSA eavesdropping revealed by the Snowden leaks. We were in Brasilia at an interesting time, shortly after a visit by Secretary of State Kerry that had focused on a prospective state visit by President Rousseff to Washington. Even though our trip preceded the current Syria controversy, the debate over intervention points toward the other side of the ambivalence in Brazilian policy circles toward US leadership. It can be seen in the contrasting US and Brazilian multilateral agendas; where the US views "rogue" nations as the greatest threat, Brazil harbors significant concerns about the sole superpower going rogue.

The third meaning of Washington Consensus is the neoliberal agenda, and it's the level at which interesting renegotiation is taking place. This Washington Consensus entails unquestioning belief in the marketplace -- just stay out of the way and let the invisible hand work its magic. Many of the issues currently on the multilateral agenda represent departures from neoliberal laissez faire fundamentalism. 

Let's start with the story of Brazil's success as a major emerging economy. While Brazil stabilized its economy initially by taming inflation in the 1990s, its achievements in poverty reduction and economic equality came through state intervention -- classic social safety net. Some of the biggest issues here at the G-20 summit (I'm in St. Petersburg this week) reinforce the point: regulation of financial markets and capital flows and clamping down on corporate tax-avoidance. All run counter to the dictates of liberalization.

The food security agenda of protecting the world's poorest against sharp commodity price spikes is also part of the trend. Where liberalization calls for all the commodities produced to be on the market, the 2008 food crisis brought renewed interest in the usefulness of government-held "buffer stocks" to dampen any panic buying or speculation. And one of the rationales for regulation of derivatives is to prevent investor profiteering during a crisis.

One question after the financial meltdown was whether it would totally discredit the US economic model and prompt a wholesale abandonment of the Washington Consensus at this level. That didn't happen, and acceptance of market principles is still the accepted wisdom for many issues. Even so, other that policy approaches that used to be dominant orthodoxy are now interesting debates.

September 04, 2013

Beware the G-20 Summit Syria Freak-Out
Posted by David Shorr

782291274ST. PETERSBURG - For the next 24-48 hours, there will be a lot of breathless stories about the G-20 summit here being swamped by controversy over what to do about Syria. You might want to add a few grains of salt before consuming. 

It's true that the Syria war is quite off-topic for the G-20 -- the main focus of which is the health of the global economy -- and that world leaders can hardly avoid the subject. But in all likelihood they will handle the matter with great caution, and with minimal disruption to the existing G-20 agenda and role.

A few things to bear in mind. First, recall that when President Obama cancelled his bilateral Moscow summit with President Putin, he made a point of confirming his attendance at the G-20 conclave. His reason: the importance of continued cooperation on the global economy. Second, even if the G-20 had a clear role or mechanism to handle international security crises, the gap dividing the key players is too wide for them to take collective action. It's hard to see how a public display of diplomatic rancor would benefit any of the leaders.  

Then to bring it down to a practical level, ask yourself what kind of communique would be issued from a summit that became unmoored from the agenda presidential advisers developed for the past year and wrapped around the axle of the world's most sensitive current issue. Actually the question of the communique is a good departure point to imagine potential scenarios, from likeliest to improbable:

1. Syria is discussed more in the summit's margins than in the plenary sessions with all the leaders, and the communique includes brief and bland language on the subject. Regardless of how much (or little) consensus is reached, Syria will be Topic A for most of the discussions outside the main meeting room. If Obama and Putin remain sharply at odds, for instance, each will be pressing hard to gain the sympathy and support of the other leaders. In this regard, it's notable that G-20 foreign ministers have been invited to St. Petersburg (it's typically a finance ministers' show). 

2. The Syria crisis is embraced as a summit topic and communique language reflects substantive agreement or differences (or both). It could happen. As professional politicians, the G-20 leaders feel a strong need to remain relevant to world events and the daily news cycle. It's conceivable, then, that the communique gives at least a barometer of attitudes toward the Syria crisis. In that event, media parsing of the result will be worth watching. Then again, do we really envision Putin playing the consensus-building facilitator for the group? Quite a delicate task for a leader who has thus far staked a pretty strong position. But who knows, stranger things have happened. One more caveat here, there could be extensive discussion of Syria but minimal language due to lack of agreement.

3. The St. Petersburg summit turns out to be a watershed for unified collective action on Syria. As I say, the leaders must be feeling the tug of relevance and the pressure of an awful situation that doesn't reflect very well on them. We've seen vague signs of new flexibility from President Putin but that could be merely an attempt to lower the temperature. And even if there is some sort of diplomatic breakthrough, it won't be conclusive multilaterally -- never mind for the crisis itself. Since the G-20 simply doesn't have a mechanism to deal with such situations, this meeting could only tee things up for another multilateral venue, most likely the UN Security Council.

4. A full and frank exchange of views (as they say). What if the summit host decides to raise the temperature, rather than lower it? It would certainly be an odd choice, given that leaders usually volunteer themselves as hosts to make themselves look statesman-like. In the scenario of a rancorous full and frank discussion, the communique would offer little hint of how contentious it really was. For that we'd have to rely on leaks and media coverage.

But I'll make one confident prediction regardless of which scenario emerges: the summit agenda that took shape before Syria worsened will remain largely intact. For a broad variety of issues -- from financial regulation to infrastructure investment, climate change financing and food security -- a whole series of steps and agreements have been crafted by G-20 counterparts at all levels of government. For that matter, the current G-20 agenda is the result of the past five years of the forum's evolution. And perhaps that is the key point: multilateral cooperation is a patient and steady endeavor.

Photo: Russia G20 Host Photo Agency

September 03, 2013

Some Questions That Skeptics of a Syria Attack Should Ask Themselves
Posted by David Shorr

File:Syrian soldier aims an AK-47.jpgWe really have to get a few things straight for this debate over attacking Syria to be remotely constructive. Above all, we need to focus on the proposition at hand -- the proposed action and its intended aims -- rather than loading it up with the full weight of this awful situation in Syria.

The confusion has run rampant across the recent media coverage and commentary. For every paragraph on President Obama's proposal to punish Assad for using chemical weapons there is another graf criticizing the plan for failing to resolve the core conflict.

The first step to an intellectually honest debate, therefore, is for everyone involved to get clear on the first-order questions: is the use of chemical weapons in itself a distinct transgression and grounds for a discrete punishment by force?

For my part, I believe that the chemical weapons attacks stand out from Assad's sustained brutality, even in the context of the wanton massacres he has inflicted on his own people. Likewise I think that military strikes to uphold the taboo against CW can duly punish the Assad regime without further ensnaring the United States in the war. No, President Obama's proposed strikes will not bring the political resolution to the conflict that Syria so desperately needs. Achieving a peaceful settlement is a worthy aim, no question. It is also a lot harder to achieve than President Obama's objective of making Assad pay a price for gasing his own people. 

Having addressed some of the issues raised by skeptics of the proposed strikes, I'll pose the rest of my points in the form of questions I'd like them to consider. 

1. Did Assad cross a line by using chemical weapons? We can stipulate that Assad has flouted a number of humanitarian norms in the two years of his bloody campaign to hold onto power. I'm asking whether these most recent 1,000 killings stand out from the 100,000 others. Being something of a lapsed old-school arms control wonk, I place real value in international norms against categories of weapons. And for the other pertinent body of global norms, international humanitarian law, the essential point is to rule some actions out-of-bounds even amidst the horrors of war. In historical terms, we could consider punishing Assad as a way of honoring the victims of the World War I gas attacks that originally shocked the global conscience about chem weapons. I remember 20-25 years ago when the Chemical Weaopns Convention was negotiated, the first President Bush was said to be spurred by his mother's memories of that war. 

2. Is intervening really an all-or-nothing proposition? I see a lot of arguments that it's only worth striking Syrian government forces if it will tip the balance of the war in the opposition's favor -- or that initially limited strikes would inevitably lead to wider US involvement. On the latter, I don't accept the premise that our military actions cannot be kept within a relatively modest scale and objectives. Tom Nichols gives a similar view (but with the added historical perspective befitting a scholar) in his own excellent blog post / list over at the War Room. My own proposed aims are even narrower than Tom's: inflict significant damage on Syria's military capability so that Assad pays a price for his CW attacks. 

Then on the former argument about changing the course of the war, we notably have the McCain-Graham position -- and it's a strange one. Flying in the face of the American public's war-weariness, the Senate's two amigos are threatening to oppose President Obama's proposal as not enough. They want the US to get deeper into the Syrian war. Surely Senators Graham and McCain realize there's zero chance of Congress approving wider US involvement; can they explain their calculation that a limited strike would be worse than none at all? Now I'll admit that this leaves the question of how, exactly, to calibrate the attack to the punitive objective (on these difficulties, see Fred Kaplan over at Slate). My point here is to defend the very notion of a limited action. 

3. Can the taboo against chem weapons be upheld without a military strike? I don't think so. At this point, the only way to enforce the international norm is by force -- as I say, hitting Assad where it hurts militarily. The only serious alternative I've seen outlined came from our own Heather Hurlburt (aka @natsecHeather) in a series of tweets on August 29, but I think it's too late for that. While President Obama himself might draw lessons about the trickiness of red lines, even those might not spare us from the dilemmas posed by the August 21 chemical attack.

4. What is the likelihood of a Syrian / Hezbollah / Iranian retaliation, and why would they want to?  When it comes to the possibility of the US or allies facing retaliation for our attack, we have to distinguish between plausibility and probability. Just because we can imagine reprisals from Syria or its allies, doesn't mean they'd happen. I don't mean to be glib or dismissive of these parties' asymmetric options; I'd just highlight the difference when the United States is already fully involved in a war versus intervening from the outside. In other words, does Damascus or Tehran really want to provoke the US to ? I think Assad has his hands full with the opponents already lined up against him. (Actually, it's the Syrian opposition who have an interest in drawing the US all the way into the conflict.)

And what about multilateralism? The last question is one I direct to myself. I am keenly aware that the world community is not unified as it was in 2011 against Ghaddafi. And I can't really add much to Ross Douthat's pitch-perfect column on the subject. This is where the comparison to Kosovo is most apt, an intervention that could be legitimate without being legal. Because I can't see a failure to punish Assad as the right thing. 

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