Slate.com today ran a piece by Richard Haass entitled Storm Warning: How the Flood Compromises U.S. Foreign Policy.
Haass is an excellent source for just such a piece- he is the President of the Council on Foreign Relations
and former Director of Policy Planning for the Department of State. He can be presumed to know what he is talking about.
It is unfortunate, then, to see a piece from him that is clearly produced to garner media attention, and to reinforce the ideas it pretends to debunk. This line alone smacks of hypocrisy:The dominant overseas reaction has been sympathy mixed with shock and horror at what was seen by many as evidence of racism and a reminder of the extreme poverty in which many Americans live.
The reaction has indeed been mixed shock and horror- at what the world has been shown by many
. There has certainly been evidence of poverty; there can be no doubt of that. But there has been no evidence if racism- that charge is as hollow as the opposite sentiment which holds that all blacks are looters. Further, poverty is an extremely relative concept. While the people living in the housing projects in New Orleans are poor by American and certain Western European standards, they are far, far, from poor on global standards, and Haass knows that. As Moises Naim recently wrote in Foreign Policy
:You are not normal. If you are reading these pages, you probably belong to the minority of the world’s population that has a steady job, adequate access to social security, and enjoys substantial political freedoms. Moreover, you live on more than $2 a day, and, unlike 860 million others, you can read. The percentage of humanity that combines all of these attributes is minuscule.According to the World Bank, about half of humanity lives on less than $2 a day, while the International Labour Organization reckons that a third of the available labor force is unemployed or underemployed, and half of the world’s population has no access to any kind of social security. Freedom House, an organization that studies countries’ political systems, categorizes 103 of the world’s 192 nations as either “not free” or “partially free,” meaning that the civil liberties and basic political rights of their citizens are limited or severely curtailed. More than 3.6 billion people, or 56 percent of the world, live in such countries.Statistically, a “normal” human being in today’s world is poor, lives in oppressive physical, social, and political conditions, and is ruled by unresponsive and corrupt government. But normalcy is not only defined by statistics. Normal implies something that is “usual, typical, or expected.” Therefore, normal is not only what is statistically most frequent but also what others assume it to be. In this sense, the expectations of a tiny minority trump the realities of the vast majority. There is an enormous gap between what average citizens in advanced Western democracies—and the richer elites everywhere—assume is or should be normal, and the daily realities faced by the overwhelming majority of people.
Does Haass read FP? I don't know- but he has been out and about in the world. He should know better than to say things like:In an era of 24-hour satellite television and the Internet, public diplomacy is about who Americans are and what they do, not just what they say.
Public diplomacy has always been about who we are and what we do- how
what we do is presented to the world, and the spin placed on who we are by the 24 hour media and the internet pundits is what helps shape world opinion today, though. Many of the poor (again by local standards) in New Orleans are indeed black. Are all of them black? I doubt it. Are they poor because of racism? I doubt that too. But repeat it enough times to people who are looking for the worst in us, and it becomes the (relative) truth.
That is why we see the Taiwan News Online picking up columns from the Philadelphia Inquirer. What self respecting America-basher could resist a piece in which an American author in a leading daily says that the reaction of the government to the hurricane will lead the youth of the world to embrace totalitarianism?
If people abroad see our leaders failing to help poor blacks or unable to cope with domestic crises, our model of government becomes less appealing. It no longer stands as a global example for emulation. Nationalism or fundamentalism, or even Chinese authoritarianism become more attractive alternatives to the world's younger generation.
Haass does not go that far- but he sneaks up the edge and peers over with this statement:
It will be more difficult to make the case for free markets and more open societies if the results of such reforms come to be associated with the disorder seen in New Orleans.
Now, it is clear that he is not a free market kind of guy. He demonstrates this by attempting to personally prove the point in the Philadelphia Inquirer article- the one stating that the federal reaction to Katrina will lead some to embrace totalitarian socialism. He tells us:
"U.S. energy policy or, to be coldly honest, the lack of one, is another reality that Katrina exposes. "
His fix for our lack of an energy policy? He recommends that we interfere with the market and drastically increase fuel economy standards. Again, Haass has been around the block and he should know that gas in the U.S. has always been cheap compared to the rest of the First World (in many parts of Western Europe gas has long been near the $5 per gallon mark). When gas prices were low people were willing to pay the penalty for driving large, gas guzzling SUVs. In the old country, where it is far from cheap to tank up the market has produced the Smart Car, and affordable public transport is the norm. Haass and other fear mongers need not worry- the government of the United States of America need not cut fuel consumption because the real power of the nation, the people, will do it themselves.
One of the most valid points he makes is that the destruction of NOLA and the surrounding areas may cause many Americans to rethink our aid policy. He focuses solely on Iraq, of course, but as the debate over UN dues continues (note the almost subliminal use of the word "crises" in the url of that article) and South Koreans (among others) continue to protest our protecting them (see photo), we may indeed see a change in how the American people view our foreign policy- Iraq will be a part of it for some, but by no means will it be the single issue. We might just see a few billion less heading out the door in the next few years as we take care of our own (heaven forbid we see an end to budget pork within the country).
The level of destruction in New Orleans was the result of a force of nature- what happened just before and after that was a failure of leadership at the local, state and federal levels, to be sure- and in that order. Mistakes were made, and lives were lost that should not have been. The cries of racism and accusations that President neglected the people of devastated areas did absolutely nothing to aid the situation, and I can only hope that lessons will be learned from this- lessons in rapid response, the need for better organized evacuation plans and what, specifically, not to do should such a disaster occur again.
We will rebuild. This is the "who we are and what we do" that Haass alluded to. We are not the media; we are not the doomsday policy pundits. Our government will not fall over this; (as much as some would like to see it do) no one will be stood against a wall and shot. Last month NOLA was a first world city with some poor people who are relatively wealthy on the global scale. In a few years it will be much the same. When Bangledesh floods it will, at best, be rebuilt into the same Bangledesh it was before- and that, my friends is both a real shame and not our fault.
Such devastation at home can not but affect our foreign policy- but it is not the end of the world. Our immediate response to Katrina left much to be desired. Our long term response will not. Our emenies and "friends" may bask in this moment of our need, if only because such opportunities are few and far between. Our foreign policy has not been compromised- it may, however, have temporarily been pushed to the rear, and rightly so. We have been dealt a painful blow, and must look to our own for the time being. Oddly Russian President Putin seems to be one of the few men in the world who is seeing the this disaster clearly:
"I look at this and cannot believe my eyes," Russian President Vladimir Putin said when I asked him Monday evening about Katrina's damage. "It tells us however strong and powerful we think we are, we are nothing in the eyes of nature and of God Almighty. . . . We are all vulnerable and must cooperate to help each other."
Schadenfreude is a dangerous thing when it is expressed publicly. We know who are friends are, and they know that we will recover and that they can continue to count on us. Our enemies know we will recover too, and so they do what cowards always do, and kick at us while we are down. That is to be expected. Collaboration for political gain within the country, however, is a truly heartbreaking thing.
POST SCRIPT: As you may or may not already be aware, members of the Watcher's Council hold a vote every week on what they consider to be the most link-worthy pieces of writing around. Thanks to an e-mail suggestion (and per the Watcher's instructions) I am submitting this post for consideration in the upcoming nominations process.
Here is the most recent winning council post, here is the most recent winning non-council post, here is the list of results for the latest vote, and here is the initial posting of all the nominees that were voted on.