Sunday, March 20, 2011

The haphazard American response to the various upheavals in the Middle East, and in particular the current civil war unfolding in Libya, has provoked a great deal of speculation about the underlying strategy and reasoning guiding the Obama administration's foreign policy. This is a bit odd, since the underpinnings of its foreign policy have been crystal clear since at least the unfolding of the Honduran crisis in June of 2009, within the first six months of Obama's presidency.

During that crisis, the administration acted promptly and vigorously
  • In defense of a rabidly anti-American Honduran president, against the more pro-American branches of the Honduran government;

  • In support of generally anti-American multilateral organizations, such as the OAS; and

  • In favor of an unpopular would-be authoritarian, battling against democracy, rule of law and popular opinion in his own country.

Since then, the administration's major initiatives have included

  • A marked cooling in relations with democratic allies such as Israel, Britain and Colombia;

  • Eager (and largely failed) attempts at "engagement" with virulently anti-American, anti-democratic regimes in Russia, China, Syria and Iran; and

  • Enthusiastic embrace of anti-American multilateral institutions such as the UN and OIC.

The pattern is unmistakable--the only remaining question is whether the anti-American or anti-democratic impulse is more dominant. (Given the general hostility of multilateral organizations to American power, the multilateralist impulse is simply an aspect of the anti-American one.) And the popular uprisings in the Middle East have provided ample clarification: the most pro-American dictator in the region, Hosni Mubarak, was quickly abandoned in favor of a possibly more democratic but definitely more anti-American mob of protesters.

Since the start of the Cold War, the dominant foreign policy issue dividing politicians around the world has been the desirability of American power and influence. And in Western Europe and America, the broad coalitions of the "left" have lined up against it, while the opposing coalitions of the "right" lined up in favor of it. During the 1970s and 1980s, for instance, the leftist position was that America was supporting brutal right-wing dictators in the name of battling Communism, while conservatives made fine distinctions between "authoritarian" (i.e., pro-US) and "totalitarian" (i.e., pro-Soviet) dictatorships. Today, of course, their positions on democracy are essentially reversed, with "neoconservatives" taking an idealistic line in favor of democracy promotion, while left-wing "realists" defend pragmatic multilateral engagement with powerful tyrants.

This swap of positions demonstrates that in neither case is democracy the true motivating issue. Rather, it is the issue of American power that drives the debate on both sides, as the political contortions over Libya--the liberal obsession with avoiding the appearance of American leadership, the conservative fixation over saving America's reputation--once again demonstrate.

Monday, March 07, 2011

The recent resignation of the director of the London School of Economics over his university's lucrative and academically suspect relationship with Muammar Khaddafi's son has highlighted the general shamelessness of academics in courting wealthy foreign despots. (Daniel Drezner has a nice roundup of reports.) Middle Eastern studies gadfly Martin Kramer has been having loads of fun citing examples and implying that the academics in question--and by implication, academics in general--are essentially for sale to the highest bidder, happy to whitewash murderous tyrants if the pay is good.

In fact, the situation is far worse. Consider, for instance, the famous case of Lee Bass' $20 million-dollar grant to Yale University to expand its "Western Civilization" curriculum. Bass' grant was ultimately turned down, because he wanted to ensure that it was spent at least somewhat in the spirit in which it was offered. Similarly, Princeton sacrificed $50 million out of the Robertson's $900 million grant, plus another $40 million in legal fees, rather than accept the foundation's seemingly innocuous condition that the funds be used to prepare students for government service. Apparently, some principles are more important than mere money.

What, then, distinguishes merely questionable gifts from the unacceptably filthy ones? The easy answer, of course, is, "ideology". One could, for example, draw a parallel with universities' long history of selectively capitulating to threats of violence (only) from quarters representing the academic left's political fashions of the moment, from the appeasement of the student radicals of the 1960s to the most recent case of the Yale University Press' removal of the famous Mohammed cartoons from a scholarly book on the controversy. And no doubt a radical anti-American regime such as Khaddafi's can attract its share of ideological sympathy on American and European university campuses. But Saudi and Emirati potentates--hardly the campus revolutionary's idols--have also received more than their share of academic sycophancy. There appears to be more at work here than just ideology.

I believe Paul Rahe has identified that key extra element: prestige. It is the currency of the modern academic--indeed, of the professional scholar in every age--and he or she therefore evaluates every seductive offer or menacing threat in light of its dividends in that currency. Certainly the Khaddafis' reputations profited from their hob-nobbing with world-renowned scholars, and fromhaving the latter write glowing op-eds about them. But for the scholars, too, public engagement as an "advisor" to a national ruling family--even one as odious as Libya's--was a badge of global importance, and clearly more than one mere egghead was excited to wear it (at least until said family's status as national rulers suddenly started looking a little shaky).

Contrast this delicate quid pro quo with the Bass and Robertson cases, in which some wealthy industrialists attempted to pay a couple of leading academic institutions to do their bidding. No reciprocal status marker was offered--just cash, in return for the humiliation of being explicitly told what to teach. It's hardly surprising that the institutions in question found that deal rather unappealing.

There's a possible lesson there for philanthropists seeking to influence the direction of academia: mere bribery is unlikely to succeed. Subtler appeals to academic vanity--prizes, say, or appointments to positions of (real or apparent) influence--are likely to work much better.