Sunday, June 10, 2007

The Battle for Attention

It is hard to read the current news of relations between George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin without wondering about whether or not the Cold War is upon us again. However, whatever may be said in criticism of Putin (just read Anna Politkovskaya), the man definitely has better appreciation for using rhetoric as a weapon than did his Soviet predecessors, who seemed more inclined towards pounding shoes and threatening to bury us. Since Putin and his team are better at playing the rhetoric card than Bush and his team are (which says more about "our side" than "theirs"), his texts at least make for more interesting analysis, regardless of what we may think about the conclusions they draw.

Consider they way Al Jazeera has used its wire reports to frame its account of the St. Petersburg economic forum. Start with the headline: "Russian president criticises WTO." Then cut to the text that justifies this headline:

His attack on the WTO came on Sunday as a senior Russian minister held talks with European and US negotiators on Russia's more than decade-long effort to join the world trade body.

In today's world, Putin said, "structures that were made taking account of a small number of active members look archaic, undemocratic and inflexible ... . This is clearly visible in the example of the WTO".

Putin told the gathering of presidents of ex-Soviet countries and business leaders that 60 per cent of the world's GDP was produced outside the Group of Seven (G7) leading nations - the US, France, Germany, Britain, Japan, Italy and Canada.

He proposed the creation of "regional Eurasian free trade organisations" that would draw on the experience of the WTO.

On the surface Putin is just venting his frustration with a club that has not yet accepted him as a member. However, he turns his "local" issue into a "global" one by addressing the world's GDP, 60% of which is outside the G7. Putin has shifted the scene for the debate from his own "turf" to a more global perspective of the problem of "voice," which I have been discussing primarily in terms of American politics: Who has the power to speak in ways that command attention? He is trying to portray that 60% as victims of disenfranchisement, so he can then propose a solution to enfranchise them. He can then claim this his solution will draw upon lessons learned from the WTO without necessarily buying in to all of them: If you don't want us to play in your yard, we can have just as much fun (and perhaps do more good in the process) playing in our own yard!

Putin is clever enough to see that the institutions that have formed around the vision of globalization that can be traced back at least as far as the Trilateral Commission (where George H. W. Bush had a strong voice) are ripe for criticism on a global scale. He also knows that he is not alone. One doubts that Hugo Chavez has been mounting his own criticisms at Putin's behest, and China now has the economic clout to worry about their own interests without honoring Putin's global perspective. Rhetorically, he is in a strong position to challenge that "New World Order" vision that Bush I declared after his Gulf War; but can he deliver? That is why any discussion of Putin needs to account for Politkovskaya's voice (which Putin may or may not have had a hand in silencing). There is no question that we need to think about a "New New World Order;" but trying to initiate such a conversation that gets beyond the elitism of the sorts of conversations that were initiated by the Trilateral Commission members is not going to be easy if it is going to be a conversation that honors the many voices of discontent and then finds a viable path to action.

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