Mittwoch, November 23, 2005

Blinders, or How Domestic Squabbles Are Read Abroad...

Haven't been posting much lately due to the fact I'm in the middle of an extended forecasting round for the fourth quarter...and it's a hard forecasting round because of major European economic problems that aren't so much showing up on the usage side of the economy (i.e. consumption and the like), but definitely are becoming apparent on the supply side (i.e. who is adding value to the economic process). I'll make a long story short: things in Europe are much, much worse than anyone in the US really understands. And the converse, of course, is that the US economy, for all its warts and wrinkles, is doing pretty damn good. But enough of that.

This link should tell you everything, if you can understand what is being said. And what is being said is critical: it's the Mayor of Tokyo who is failing to understand what has really been said and is drawing very wrong conclusions that are probably widespread, not so much in Japan but China and elsewhere. He's outspoken and brash in many ways, but he has a multiplier effect above and beyond the Japanese borders. There are a couple of themes going on here before considering an analysis:

First: there is a major asymmetry in infomation between the US and the rest of the world (ROW). Even the more enlightened and internationally oriented folks in the US tend to completely and totally ignore the fact that there are plenty of people overseas who try to follow what goes on in the US with as much interest as they would events in their own country, if not more.

Think of that: when Congress and the President squabble in public, you've got an unprecedented number of people listening who 1) don't understand exactly what is being sqabbled about; 2) don't understand how the US government works; 3) in trying to understand apply local logic and compare with local developments and 4) do this in a foreign language.

That last point shouldn't be ignored: I work day in day out in German, not in English, and even then it's not that easy. When I see my colleagues whose native tongue isn't English make all sorts of interpretation errors because they have a smattering of English, and then think of what the average German knows of English, then the nuances and subtleties of some of the political discourse in the US are completely and totally lost. And that means that you have an increasing number of people who think they understand what is going on in the US and yet no little or nothing of what is actually going on.

Second: very few Americans are aware of this vast and quietly listening group of people. International news in the US, as we all know, is something on page 12 - maybe - or doesn't get into the paper at all, since local events dominate (if any news channel ignores local events, then either they are heavily subsidized or will go bankrupt within a short period of time: people want to know local news before anything else).

Third: traditional American political discourse has always been robust and healthy, but there has been a sea change since the 1980s of demonizing your opponent. Some of this demonization has been appropriate  - Teddy Kennedy doesn't deserve to be in Congress, but should be ending instead his sentence for manslaughter :-) - but the existence of increasing polarization in US civil society has had a strongly negative effect on civil discourse.

Fourth (from a consistent theme in this blog): the distinction between truth and perception is largely lost in the maelstrom of modern communications overload and hyperbole masquerading as fact.

So what do you have?

Increasing levels of misunderstanding, coupled with almost chiliastic commitment to perception rather than truth.

Which means that the effects of poltiical punditry in the US - be it Limbaugh or be it Franken (actually a bad comparison, since Limbaugh is much more of a pundit than Franken can ever hope to be) - is vastly stronger outside of the US than it is inside of it.

So the incessant squabbling of the left about Bush lying - don't get me started on how wrong that is - that is designed for domestic consumption, of rallying the party faithful to work for the election of the unelectable, is having undesired side effects abroad: the message that people abroad are getting is that the US President isn't any better than a local warlord, who has no scruples about lying in order to further his agenda.

And while there are plenty of people in the US who believe this as well, they're wrong. But that's not my point here.

My point is that the hyperbole of the left in the US is causing the poor standing of the US internationally. It's one thing to clean your laundry in public, it's another thing to go hysterical about it.

But the left doesn't care: two Democratic ex-presidents have spoken overseas about how they percieve Bush is doing a bad job. There used to be an unwritten rule that criticism of the US President stopped at the shores. It no longer does. What is worse: it's done in the name of short-term partisan political advantage. It is the end of civil discourse as we have known it.

The Democrats have transitioned from the usual political disagreement to open political hostility that deserves serious analysis (might get around to it one of these days, but it's not something that Democrats would like to hear....). But because of their political blinders, I think the case can be made that excessive spin (spin will never be eliminated, but it really is excessive nowadays) from the Democrats are increasingly read by those abroad as something that it isn't.

The US is increasingly portrayed as a society that is unwilling to sacrifice, unwilling to make a commitment, unwilling to live up to its word. This started with the US Congress' craven abandonment of the Vietnamese in 1974 and continues today: the Democrats are calling for the same kind of craven abandonment that can only damage the standing of the US in international affairs.

And that I can't understand. And that is something that I cannot forgive the Democrats for. Their hysterical internal squabbling with the sitting US President resonates abroad in ways that they can't even imagine, nor would they want if they would bother to understand what they are doing.

Which appears to me to be nothing less than the dismantling of US leadership in world affairs.

One of the reasons that Iraq was invaded, after all, was that Saddam Hussein believed that the US was bluffing when it announced the intention of regime change, if necessary with force. He was convinced, wrongly, that the US wouldn't invade, supported in that belief by US lawmakers going to Iraq on their own and trying to run their own foreign policy. As a result, he didn't comply with the UN resolutions, trusting instead that the whole thing would blow over. After all, all of his visitors were saying, directly and indirectly, that an invasion would never happen.

Having someone go to a crisis area on their own and try to do their own foreign policy (Democrats all) is not merely stupid, it's downright dangerous. It sets up terrible precedents and fosters the belief that the US is divided, incapable of makign decisions and is nothing more than a paper tiger, unable to make true its threats.

It'll be just great if China decides that the US won't risk Los Angeles for Taiwan, or that sinking a US carrier task force would be a price that a US President would be more than willing to make in order to avoid a greater war.

International politics is more about perception than it is about reality: fostering the wrong perception is dangerous, doubly so when the perception being fostered is for short-term political gain. I see too much dismantling of US credibility abroad not by US actions, but by fostered perceptions by those wearing blinders and ignorant of the effects they are having.

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