Friday, January 30, 2009

A Tale of Two Tensions

I found it useful to read Gideon Rachman's analysis for the Financial Times of the proceedings of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, since it provided an interesting perspective on how seriously the WEF took the "forum" part of their name. Like Arthur Conan Doyle's classic dog that did not bark in the night, what was most notable in that analysis was the "perceived absence," so to speak, of that "ideal speech situation" to which Jürgen Habermas seems to have aspired for so much of his intellectual career. Thus, Rachman's analysis may best be read as a study of two breakdowns in communication, related in reverse chronological order.

The more recent breakdown occurred over events in the Middle East, which, as I have already observed, remains the best counterexample for any theory Habermas has tried to develop. Here is Rachman's summary of the episode that has by now received considerable press coverage:

The organisers of the World Economic Forum like people to get along. The forum specialises in getting rivals and enemies to share platforms in Davos: Palestinians and Israelis, Indians and Pakistanis, Americans and Iranians.

But this week, the Davos consensus broke down in spectacular fashion. Recep Tayip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, stormed out of a session with Shimon Peres, the Israeli president. Angered both by events in Gaza – and by what he saw as unfair handling of the discussion he was taking part in – Mr Erdogan vowed never to return to the forum.

The cosy Davos world has already been profoundly shaken by the global financial crisis. The Erdogan walkout also pointed to the threat posed to the consensual tradition of Davos by developments in international politics.

For some years, Turkey has been a poster child for the politics of reconciliation that are promoted by the forum. It is a secular Muslim state that is also democratic, a member of Nato and has close ties to Israel. But there has been a growing, latent conflict between Turkish foreign policy and public opinion in the country. Opinion polls in Turkey have regularly revealed very high levels of anti-American and anti-Israeli sentiment. Some of those tensions burst into the open in the emotional performances of Mr Erdogan and Mr Peres in Davos.

The walkout also highlighted the extent to which the conflict in Gaza has further poisoned relations between Israel and moderates in the Islamic world.

It is that last sentence that demonstrates how ineffective the WEF has become as the forum it purports to be. Rachman's analysis does not provide much by way of trying to explain this inefficacity. I, for one, would look for an explanation in that other great "perceived absence" that seems to pervade all of their events, which is a general lack of a "sense of reality" regarding current global conditions; and it is unclear whether or not the WEF organizers will ever figure out that they have to descend from their tower before its weakening foundations bring down the whole structure.

However, as Rachman's analysis observed, it is not only Israel that is experiencing a breakdown in international relations. From the very beginning of the current gathering in Davos, it was clear that the United States was in the same position:

The two leaders who topped the bill at the forum were Wen Jiabao, the Chinese premier, and Vladimir Putin, the prime minister of Russia. Both struck a similar note. They made appeals for international co-operation. But they also pointed to America’s central role in the global financial crisis and stressed the need for a multi-polar world.

On substance, however, the Russian and Chinese reactions to the early steps taken by the Obama administration were rather different.

The Russians have reason to be pleased. They believe that a deal may be in the works in which the Americans go slow on the deployment of anti-missile systems in Poland and the Czech Republic, and play down the hopes of Georgia and Ukraine to join Nato. In return, Russia would be asked to provide more help on other important issues – in particular, the drive to halt Iran’s nuclear programme.

The Chinese delegation at Davos, however, were clearly displeased and alarmed by the suggestion by Tim Geithner, Mr Obama’s newly-confirmed Treasury secretary, that China has been “manipulating” its currency. In public and in private, they were at pains to dismiss this suggestion and to pin the blame for the global economic crisis on the US.

Rachman's conclusion that tensions over economic policy "may turn out to be more significant in the long term" than current tensions over Gaza strikes me as an unproductive attempt to compare apples and oranges. Yes, there will always be a tight coupling between economic and foreign policy; but it can still be the case that every breakdown in communications is, like Tolstoy's unhappy families, "unhappy in its own way," thus deserving to be analyzed strictly on its own terms. Put another way, our efforts to describe these situations must dwell on the specific rather than the general, which is why we should not try to rank-order their respective priorities. The only way in which these tensions can be resolved will be if each receives its own attention, deliberation, and (hopefully) corrective actions. This does not appear to be particularly important to the WEF, so perhaps it is time for that organization to stop wasting the world's precious resources for no interest other than helping the rich and mighty to feel good about themselves!

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