As the world is on the verge of a second economic crisis in fewer than five years, western political leaders seem unable to act in as unified and determined way as they did in 2008 and 2009. All are very good at lecturing others, specially at the Europeans (as John and Jennifer have mentioned in earlier posts).
I could not believe my eyes when I read that US Treasury Secretary, Timothy Geithner, would press the EU to do more to solve its sovereign debt crisis. Then on Thursday, our own Finance Minister Jim Flaherty said Europe needed to do more: “Certainly, in Europe, we need an exercise in political will, we need decisiveness, we need clarity.” Who are we to provide advice on political courage?
It is easy to criticize European leaders for not being decisive enough. Yet we should recognize that most are, locally, in a very difficult political situation. Chancellor Angela Merkel, for instance, has seen her grip on power considerably weakened as Germans get ever angrier about footing the bill for the continent’s less disciplined nations. On the opposite side of the bill, it is difficult to imagine what more Greece’s PM George Papandreou could do to satisfy the country’s creditors.
Managers and consumers desperately need to be reassured. “We need a conductor,” said the head of an investment firm quoted by the Globe and Mail. “If we don’t get that conductor, it is going to be a very messy orchestra.” Of course. But who could it be?
Herself calling for strong, collective action, IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde added a note of realism: “There is obviously a gap between very solid, very strong governmental commitments at the highest level and the implementation time. That’s inherent to parliamentary life … we are no longer in Napoleonic times when a leader could just snap his fingers and make it happen. We are in democracies and it takes time.”
So the kind of leadership the world needs is not only one that will convince fellow heads of government to act but also that will persuade the citizens of each country to support the measures necessary to avoid the precipice.
In the US, not only is the economic situation dire but the political gridlock renders any government action impossible. President Obama may look like a great conductor but half the orchestra is looking the other way. As Mr. Geithner recognized after his first unfortunate intervention in Europe, the Americans “are not in a particularly strong position to provide advice» to other countries about political will.” Who knows how high the unemployment rate will be before the November 2012 elections free Washington.
As far as Europe is concerned, most experts believe that in the longer term, the common currency will survive only if the member countries agree to a closer coordination of their fiscal policies. European Central Bank’s President, Jean-Claude Trichet, has even called for a European Finance Minister. But such changes would need popular approval through referendums; in the current context, such a result is highly improbable.
So yes, extraordinary political leadership is desperately needed in these troubled times. But what if the world has become so complex and are democracies too weak (cynical politicians, embittered citizens) that finding and implementing solutions is beyond our capabilities?
Photo courtesy of Reuters.
Opposition parties have been calling for the resignation of Conservative MP Bob Dechert after it was revealed he had sent intimate e-mails to a journalist working for the Xinhua News Agency. The Chinese media are believed to be more interested in spying on foreign countries than in genuine reporting. As parliamentary Secretary to Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, Mr. Dechert certainly lacked judgment when he got involved with a Chinese ‘journalist’. But does this story deserve all the attention it got?
There is a tendency on Parliament Hill, when that sort of sex-spy affair comes up, to forget that Canada is not a major player in international affairs. I’d be very surprised if Mr. Baird himself had in his mind or his briefcase information that, in the hands of the ‘enemy’, would have important consequences on world affairs, or even on Canada’s interests. This is even more the case for Mr. Dechert, even though the media, to make the story more interesting, chose to call him ‘a senior Harper government MP’. In my experience, Parliamentary Secretaries have no power whatsoever. They exist to replace the Minister in Parliament while he or she attends to more important business. Whatever statements they make have been written by bureaucrats and vetted by the minister’s political staff (or the reverse).
That reminds me of Maxime Bernier, who had to resign after leaving ‘secret’ documents at his girlfriend’s apartment. The incident was a spectacular demonstration of carelessness that proved he was unfit to be part of Cabinet. But, had Julie Couillard read all 500 pages, would she have become a danger to Canada’s security? Had she given these to her former biker boyfriend, would he have been interested in the Harper government’s views on the future of NATO?
CSIS’s director Richard Fadden has warned that some Canadian politicians at the provincial level have fallen under the control of foreign governments, probably China. Still, I wonder why exactly the Chinese would be interested in influencing the decisions of any of our provincial governments.
The truth is, now as in the past, reporters and politicians alike cannot resist these James Bond-like stories. Remember Pierre Sévigny, war hero and Associate Defense minister in John Diefenbaker’s government? When it was discovered that Sévigny had had a close relationship with Gerda Munsinger, a prostitute from East Germany, a huge controversy erupted, threatening to derail Lester Pearson’s minority government. Yet, again, what crucial information could Sévigny have shared with Munsinger?
Like most Canadians, I like to think that our country can, as a G8 middle power, play an significant role in world affairs. Yet I have a very hard time believing that our foreign policy officers carry with them information so sensitive that, in a spy’s hands, it could have a major impact in world or continental affairs.
Photo courtesy of Reuters.
With his American Jobs Act, Barack Obama at last addressed his country’s dire economic situation with passion and determination. In his speech to Congress on Thursday, the President challenged Republicans to “pass this bill now,” filling it with tax cuts that his adversaries will find difficult to reject.
Democrats were ecstatic after the speech: their President had abandoned the conciliatory tone he had used all summer in the hope of bringing Republicans to support his debt reduction plan. Thursday’s speech may be seen as Barack Obama’s first of his campaign for reelection.
Most commentators believe that some of the measures included in the America Jobs Act will get bipartisan support. But Republicans will attack the spending parts of it, for instance the billions offered to State governments so that they can rehire teachers laid off as part of cost cutting initiatives. Whatever the amounts that get Congress approval, economists think the direct impact on the economy will be relatively small. Even when offered tax incentives to hire new employees, managers will not do so if they are not confident that there will be clients for their products. As the President said, “ultimately, our recovery will be driven not by Washington, but by our businesses and our workers.” Sure, government “can help, make a difference” (even Canadian Prime minister Stephen Harper now seems to think so…). But it may be beyond the President’s and Congress’ power to produce the kind of jolt that would quick start the economy.
American companies don’t lack money. As Moody’s has shown, they are sitting on over 1.2 trillion dollars in cash. They’re just waiting. Not for tax breaks or federal funds, but for signs that confidence is coming back, that customers are filling the stores again, that the European debt crisis does not lead to the double-dip recession everyone dreads. No confidence, no investment; no investment, no new jobs. Politicians can beg all they want, the private sector will not start hiring in the present environment. As Catherine Swift explains in her interview with the CIC, “companies’ main goal isn’t to create jobs, though that does happen; companies’ Number 1 objective is to stay in business, which means making money.”
After what happened in 2008 and 2009, can you blame the private sector for being careful? For not trusting politicians unable to set aside a little bit of their ambitions for the good of the country? Can you assail business people when you see Europe’s economy threatened by high levels of debt, badly timed austerity packages, social unrest and the impotence of its own political leaders?
No magical formula exists to bring back confidence. The oratory skill that President Obama demonstrated again on Thursday night, as pleasing as it was to his admirers, did not affect investors somber mood, as shown buy the markets’ sharp drop on Friday.
Given the current state of the American economy and the few reasons for optimism, I would be very surprised if the Obama administration put a lot of energy in defining the new grand foreign policy some are hoping for, as mentioned in Roland Paris’ latest blog entry. If unemployment remains high for a long period, the American economy might suffer long term damage and the United States may start losing some of their influence in the world, both through hard and soft power.
Photo Courtesy Reuters.
Much has been said about the Harper government’s decision to restore the traditional designations of the Canadian Forces, bringing back the word “royal” to the Canadian Navy and Canadian Air Force. Most Canadians had not heard of this as a pressing issue. No one seemed to ask for a solution to this non-existent problem.
Yet, according to a Harris Decima poll sponsored by the Canadian Press, a majority greeted the announcement favourably. Even in Québec, where opposition was expected to be very strong, a respectable 41 percent agreed with the government’s decision.
Therefore, from now on, our armed forces will be known as the Royal Canadian Navy, the Royal Canadian Air Force and the Canadian Army (no royal for these guys). That important piece of business dealt with, politicians should now begin to discuss how the country will use its armed forces from now on. What have we learned from our long engagement in Afghanistan? Did the Libyan experience confirm our need for a new state of the art fighter as costly as the F35, or should we invest in a cheaper fighter or even drones? What share of the fiscal burden should National Defence be asked to carry as the government aims for zero deficit in 2014-2015?
These are very difficult questions to which I would not dare suggest answers. But I sense many Canadians are wondering where the nation should go militarily in the future. A report leaked to the media earlier this week shows that Ottawa’s efforts to increase our armed forces’ capabilities contributed to our successes in the field but also produced a bloated bureaucracy in Ottawa. The report was written by a “transformation team” led by recently retired Lieutenant-General Andrew Leslie, the former Chief of the Land Staff.
In its analysis of the forces current situation, the “Transformation Team” doesn’t mince words. It speaks of “an increasingly cumbersome and even confusing degree of interdepartmental process,” of “stifling process, blurred authorities and accountabilities,” one consequence being that hundreds of millions attributed to National Defence has remained unspent. The report remarks that while personnel in operational jobs grew by 10 percent from 2004 to 2010, the number of employees in non-operational functions (i.e. bureaucrats) grew by 40 percent! “In far too many instances,” deplores the Team, “the headquarters and other overhead grew while ships were decommissioned, regular and reserve battalions were disbanded and whole aircraft fleets cashed in.”
General Leslie’s group recommends that “dramatic changes” be made so that the Forces are able to respond to present and future challenges while limiting costs. Among those changes: the number of bureaucrats should be reduced, 3,500 force personnel should be reallocated to priority functions, the number of full-time reservists should be cut by half, and the amount spent on outside contractors and consultants (2,7 billions) should be brought down by at least 30 percent.
Rumours indicate that the top brass are very unhappy about the report. However, reports the Globe and Mail’s John Ibbitson, the Prime Minister’s Office has shown “considerable interest” in the document. Rightly so. If one is to believe its description of the waste and disorganization that prevail at National Defence and the Forces, there is indeed an urgent need for dramatic changes. Therefore, besides tackling the hard questions about the role of the Canadian military, the government will also have to make sure that once these decisions are taken, the Department will be willing and able to manage efficiently the enormous amounts of money it receives.
Photo courtesy Reuters.
It is a question of days, if not hours, before Colonel Gadhafi’s regime is toppled by its numerous enemies. This would not have been achieved without the decisive support of NATO forces, including six Canadian fighter jets. In Monday’s Globe and Mail, we find two very different views about Canada’s participation in this UN sanctioned mission.
An article by reporter Bill Curry quotes academics and opposition MP’s who think that in deciding to be part of such a mission, the Harper government produced “a very significant shift in Canadian foreign policy.” According to Christian Leuprecht, of Queen’s Centre for International and Defence Policy, “what we see in Libya, previous governments very likely would have sat out.” The report recalls Tory campaign ads glorifying Canada’s increased military strength. The Conservative government has also made a point of “taking sides”, for instance in the Middle East conflict, instead of playing the part of an “honest broker”.
So, is Canada’s involvement in Libya another step towards a more aggressive international posture? Not according to Lloyd Axworthy. Writing in the op-ed page of the same newspaper, he defends the Libyan NATO mission as a demonstration of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) principle first put forward by Canada while he was Foreign Affairs minister. “We are seriously engaged in a resetting of the international order toward a more humane, just world, boasts Mr Axworthy. “It calls for immediate and appropriate action as called for in R2P.”
There is no doubt that Stephen Harper’s government’s language has been more favourable to military action than Canadians are accustomed to. But its actions? The decision to go to war against the Taliban was not taken by a conservative government. Neither was the critical one to take command of NATO’s operations in the dangerous province of Kandahar. Last spring, Michael Ignatieff’s liberals campaigned against Canada’s participation in the F35 fighter program, conveniently ignoring the fact that the first steps on this very costly road had been taken by a liberal government. I’m not saying I approve of Mr. Harper’s foreign policy. In fact, I often find it overly ideological and simplistic. I’m just asking the question to the readers and participants of this blog: is the Conservative foreign policy so different in fact from the traditional Canadian stand?
In answering the question, we have to take into account the fact that international politics and armed conflicts are not at all what they used to be. Public opinion in democracies does not tolerate that their governments ignore the sufferings of people under the boot of dictators or displaced by civil wars. Canadians may be proud of our role in traditional peacekeeping but when they learn of what goes on in Rwanda, Kosovo or Libya, they insist that the international community act immediately. In today’s world, where we learn in seconds what goes on in any corner of the world, waiting for a truce between combatants is considered a morally unacceptable option. So we have to wonder: faced with the same facts as the ones Stephen Harper had to consider in the case of Libya, what would Trudeau or Pearson have done?
Photo courtesy of Reuters.
When I first heard of the explosion in downtown Oslo, I immediately created a column on my Tweetdeck for all tweets containing the hashtag #norway. The tweets started coming in so fast that it became impossible to read them all. A few came from witnesses of what had just happened. A great number expressed sympathy for the victims and for the Norwegian people. What was the use of these hundreds of short, similar messages? After an hour, I scrapped the column, it being more distractive than instructive.
Nowadays, speed seems to be the main concern of commentators, be they professional journalists or citizens. Traditional as well as social media aim to react to events and express points of view as rapidly as technology permits. One wonders: Can the brain follow? There was a time, not that long ago, when an editorialist took many days before writing his or her opinion on an event. Today, a commentator who takes more than one day to write about a story risks becoming irrelevant.
“Nowadays,” I say. Sorry, I’m being nostalgic. In fact, history shows that speed has always been a major preoccupation of the media. 24-hour news, the internet, and social media have considerably accelerated the news tornado. But the driving motive of news organizations is the same today as it was decades ago: to be the first to report an event and the first to explain and analyze what happened. The acceleration is particularly apparent on television, where journalists and experts are required to react to a story while it is unfolding, if not before it happens. We saw a lot of that in the few hours after the Oslo blast last Friday. An exploded car, shattered windows, grey dust everywhere: it looked so much like 9-11 that most reporters and talking heads assumed al-Qaeda was behind it. They were wrong, and maybe should not have speculated thus. Yet the important thing is that the same media worked very hard so that we could know who was the real culprit and what his motives were.
Last Friday afternoon, when the scale of the tragedy had become clear, I, no doubt like many colleagues in other newspapers, thought about writing an editorial for Saturday’s edition. After a couple of hours spent weighing the pros and the cons, I decided to wait. I did not feel I had enough of a grasp on what had happened and I could only speculate as to who had committed such a heinous crime. In the evening, I felt guilty: Was I being prudent or lazy?
Relief came on Saturday morning: Had I written on Friday night, I would have lacked essential information on the author and the circumstances of this rampage. Not all editorialists were as lucky as I.
We can deplore the media’s obsession with being the first on a story, but it will be in vain; that is the nature of the beast. Journalists, however, have to work ceaselessly on attaining a proper balance between speed and quality. In the early days of the 24-hour news cycle, many mistakes were made. Deaths of celebrities were announced prematurely, erroneous election results were aired, etc. Television newsrooms realized that they needed to tame this new animal. Similar adjustments are being made now in regard to blogs and social media.
In today’s world everything moves faster. The media both follow and contribute to the trend. But speed need not compromise quality. Good journalists will remain good journalists because they will know when to hit the brakes – when moving fast is detrimental to the quality of their reporting or their analysis. They will choose the right tool – Twitter, Facebook, editorial, book – depending on what they want to say and who they want to say it to. And citizens will have access to an unprecedented array of sources of news and opinions.
Photo courtesy of Reuters.