Seamanship Quotation

“In political activity, then, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination.”
— from Michael Oakeshott's
Political Education” (1951)

Friday, October 10, 2014

Adapt to change? That’s what we do in the Middle East.

The elites we reward when we vote can handle hooded reactionaries in Eastern Europe and hooded reactionaries in the Middle East. It’s change at home that befuddles them.

Incumbent governments and their leaders in Canada, US, and Europe confidently seek re-election as steady international problem-solvers. They scorn isolationists and nationalist romantics, and promise to continue killing violent radicals.

It’s the height of sophistication to spell, pronounce, and accurately categorize the latest bad-boy sects abroad. At home, they use stale generalizations and stale labels to put down resistance that even breathes in the polls.

Insiders mortgage their lives to stay on top and tell us not to fear change. They ask us to trust them and, also, to run away from political "paranoids."

Our overstaffed governors know more about our pressure points, our private lives, and our political biases — literally, how to handle us — than any governing elite in history. 

And the gathering wave of political frontrunners stands for continuity. Justin Trudeau, Hillary Clinton, Thomas Mulcair, and Ed Miliband are born political animals. When they get emotional, it’s about the past.

If the West’s strategic advantage were strictly conservative, we’d be blessed.

Being decisive overseas, unfortunately, is making it less necessary for our leaders to lead change at home — where our true advantage lies.

Today’s nihilists and corrupt authoritarians are child’s play compared to the enemies Western leaders faced only two generations ago. That, alone, is hardly a bad thing. Making headline news by managing manageable problems elsewhere, however, has become addictive. And the skills necessary to address novel challenges here are not being effectively exercised.

Decision-makers and agenda-setters can’t get exercised about everything of consequence — at the same time. They learn from their successes, less from failures, and almost nothing from what they leave for their successors.

They make trade-offs and nudge us to as well. The people don’t want to elect a Jimmy Carter and a Ronald Reagan for the same term.

When history sums things up, there’s a decent chance Obama is going to score as the most transformative foreign policy President since Richard Nixon. America’s postwar baby — global capitalism — is growing despite a severe global recession. American foreign policy is becoming less burdensome, less beholden to old sentiments and arrangements in Europe and the Middle East, and US public opinion has moved along with him.

Domestically, however, there’s a decent chance he’ll be seen as another coy conservative who employed his eloquence and personal popularity to make it politically respectable to let significant problems fester. In his second term, “not doing stupid stuff” domestically has come to mean: don’t overreach, always appeal to tested homilies, and never fail conspicuously.

Tethering significant domestic responsibilities to entrenched clich├ęs may save a handful of unproductive Democrats in Congress. But that won’t change Congress.

Doing some good is not always better than trying to do too much.

Climate change is a classic example.

Rather than repeating what every reasonable person already knows and passing executive orders that can be scrapped by the next President unilaterally, Obama could put forward a concrete legislative plan, including an unlovable carbon tax. He has the voice, if not to win immediately in Congress, at least to bind one national political party to a concrete, comprehensive response.

Obama’s healthcare accomplishment was built on the shoulders of numerous failures. So was Roosevelt’s New Deal. A viable response to climate change probably needs at least one President who can loose big as well as give strong speeches.  

One of the essential reasons the West has been more adaptive than its ideological adversaries has been the relative freedom of its leaders to overreach, to ask a little too much of the people and powerful interests — and lose.


Happily, our vanquished leaders don’t need private armies, Swiss bank accounts, or safe houses overseas. They can fail.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Scotland’s referendum: Yes equals faith in politics, No means faith in management

Scotland’s referendum, whatever its outcome, won’t tell us much about Scotland’s future. A little more independence won’t much matter. The forces beating down on northern Europe won’t abate. The outcome, however, will reward business as usual or test the proposition that we can still innovate politically without blowing things up.

Personally, I’m a republican federalist who believes my piece of North America could be more influential and interesting within a wider American federation, but I don’t feel trapped to cheer for the No side tomorrow.

Federalism is the mechanism that allowed for the emergence of America as a great power. Europe warned it couldn’t work but; then, along with American postwar relief, they progressively adopted federalism to restore general prosperity and peace. Federalism allows for powerful government, while leaving us less fearful of one another and the world outside.

Yet, the No voices in the Scottish referendum debate decided to dwell on a nostalgic, extreme vision of national independence. This is a litmus test they imposed on Scottish voters but not on themselves.

Two Canadians famous in London — historian Margaret MacMillan and central banker Mark Carney — have vividly made their case: Scotland cannot be “sovereign” and use the pound as Scotland’s currency. And England and the rest of the EU countries will be too annoyed and nervous to let Scotland into either NATO or the European Common Market.

In effect, the Scots will pay terribly for humiliating Labour and Tory politicians in Westminster. Scotland can’t become another successful interdependent 21st-century nation-state because that would set a dangerous precedent.

In rejecting the leap of faith of the Scottish independence movement, MacMillan and Carney ask us to make a different leap of faith, not about what we cannot know, but against what we do.

In fact, today, the Bank of England has only a modest degree of independence to support an independent UK economic policy. Neither Scotland alone nor the UK whole can defend themselves, cope with the next big recession, fight terrorists, or save the planet. In the event of a Yes vote tomorrow, the Bank and the British Government, before dawn on Friday, will be phoning all over London, Berlin, Brussels, and Washington assuring investors and allies that British commonsense and pragmatism with keep both the pound, London’s market, and everyone’s assets in Scotland afloat.

MacMillan’s mastery of the motives of the men and women that made European history seems to have been set aside or stopped with the launch of the European Union and the Eurozone. She understands why they came together, not how their federation will progress.

The No side's campaign has chosen to appeal to fear but little is said about what it fears. My hunch is, they are afraid to ever go back to first principles. They fear that if they had to make real changes, everything would unravel. 

Westminster surely can acknowledge, after two centuries of disdain, that numerous genuine federal arrangements, including forms of sovereignty-association, are working on both sides of the Atlantic.


Federalism and our mixed economies were never designed merely to manage the status quo. They beat authoritarian systems not because they run smoothly but because they’re built to cope with change constructively. That will atrophy if we keep rewarding politicians, public servants, and intellectuals who can’t say Yes.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Without Obama, could Twitter save us?

There are very few retired presidents we miss immediately; some it takes forever. I’m expecting to miss Barack Obama the morning of January 23, 2017. Before we get emotional, however, we have time for an adult conversation about how we’ll get along without him.

Post-Obama Washington will only be less dangerous if more questions and points of view, not fewer, have influence on its decisions. Fine-grained decision-making’s true threat is the pack. Weaken the pack and we’ll be safer. Twitter and its intrusive companions are starting to do just that and in doing so are serving deliberative democracy.

First, however, we must be adult about our problem.

(Please accept “our” from a Canadian writer as shorthand for: equally interested and ready to offer opinions and live with the North American consequences but not permitted yet by Canadian delicacy to assume the responsibility American citizens must exercise every four years.)

There will not be a candidate for president in 2016 that will solve our problem for us. The next president can’t be another second-term Barack Obama already tested by the reckless temptations of the most powerful office in the world. Retired Cabinet Secretaries can write diaries but only experience vicariously the weight of office. Most important, there’s no praetorian guard of public servants, Pentagon pensioners and print pundits that we can count on to stop the next president from doing stupid stuff.


Washington’s “strategic thinkers” can’t be trusted not because they’re cowed by extremists or Gallop and Pew reports on the temperature of the people, their dread that Canadians and the French will decide that the president of the United States of America can’t play Supremo anymore, but because they stampede like us.

Snooty whining about no-nothing populism is a dodge.

Overwhelmingly, Americans delegate world affairs to those trained in abstractions, who use their passports frequently. They don’t seek out pollsters or hold an up-to-date portfolio of geopolitical ambitions. They’re not itching for action, weary or bored with the world. The people watch the news, they get upset, but they don’t play with fire.  

On the other hand, Washington’s “strategic thinkers” are not at all intimidated by danger; otherwise, they’d stay at the lowliest rungs of their respective greasy poles. They’re actually attracted to trouble, because in trouble, power is truly manifest. They mill about the White House and adjacent media studios as children on Oscar night.

They want, if only once in their professional lives, to feel the thrill of being on the side of shock and awe. Their smooth minds race, just like ours, when serious trouble is within reach — and that brings me directly to my case for Twitter and its various manifestations.

Temperamentally, the gray network of Washington and the social network of the Internet are equally human and worthy of attention.

A tweet and an obsequious interview with Ralf Blitzer or a backgrounder for the New York Times are often one in the same — both are making it up as they go along.

Here’s an instructive example of long-form persuasion by a “strategic thinker” in the long-form reader’s national paper. In the buildup for possibly another Middle East war, the NYT’s White House Memo saw fit to circulate this bon mot:

“But Mr. Obama’s determination to move deliberately and line up support from allies before confronting threats means that he has sometimes appeared to be a spectator to events outside his control.

“‘Caution is often an excellent quality,’ [NATO’s former top commander and now Dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy] James G. Stavridis said. ‘But in this case it may be a bit of a luxury.’ He noted that the challenges presented by ISIS and Russia appear to be developing faster than the administration’s response.”

The most powerful superpower in human history doesn’t have the luxury to take its time, to weigh all its options before it leaps? What’s the difference between that shallow nonsense and the shallow “dung heap” populating too much of Twitter?


Of course, much on Twitter is fevered. No one, fortunately, has any illusions about that or believes that the medium has fully evolved. Twitter, Facebook and blogs, however, already offer every bit as much space for careful analysis and dissent, in the midst of a Washington crisis, than those journals of opinion that far too long have dominated the solemn word game that drives Washington.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Obama and US Climate Change Movement: Who’s the Walrus? Who’s lunch?

Five living Presidents acknowledge the problem and must know that an effective response will demand ‘muscular’ American leadership - at home and globally. Four failed in office and the incumbent is failing too. Yet, the Climate Change Movement is still soft on Barack Obama.

The smartest, best-financed, most theatrical grassroots lobby since Sixties lacks something. The Civil Rights movement made its own mistakes and suffered for those mistakes. But it never outsmarted itself.

That movement didn’t check out its tactics or ambitious demands with Democrat Presidents Kennedy or Johnson. They challenged influential conservatives as well as liberals. There certainly wasn’t a Freedom March on Washington to celebrate Executive Orders and thank either President for their eloquent speeches. Their political savvy didn’t impress but their courage did. 

Climate change is intensifying and its Movement is anxious, a voice of alarm in every public square, explaining the science, naming deniers, and warning Obama that: he sure better do what he’s already signaled he’s comfortable doing.

New York Times explained just last week how Obama’s I’ll Do What I Can Plan can help secure a global agreement that’s less laughable than what’s on paper now:

*His negotiators will aim for a “sweeping” set of commitments from all the significant polluter nations. But it will be an “accord” not one of those clunky treaties that must be ratified by at least 67 votes in the US Senate.

*Implicitly, Congress won’t be asked to provide the US Executive any new tools to make an important difference; for instance, a staged carbon tax or standby tariff on high carbon imports.

Apparently, Obama will coax leaders of burgeoning state-directed economies to reset their priorities, threaten powerful domestic allies, without asking US legislative branches to legislate - without formally binding the next President, let alone the United States of America.

Cute? You bet.

Professional advocates quoted in this front-page story, however, are content; Obama is being “realistic” about his limits. “There’s some legal and political magic to this,” purrs Jake Schmidt, an expert in global climate negotiations with the Natural Resources Defense Council, a distinguished Washington environmental lobby.

A smooth leak gently handled by a great liberal newspaper; nothing surprising here.
After all, without the US at the table, there won’t be another UN negotiation. Diplomats, advocates and their media trackers would be stuck in Washington agonizing over another crummy Canadian pipeline.  

Many of us can accept that Obama knows - and likes - what he’s doing. And admire his subtle calculations, if not his soaring speeches.

During this fall’s Congressional elections, Obama Democrats want to brag about America’s fossil fuel boom as well as their support for clean energy - and portray Republicans as anti-science and scarier than the weather.

Moderates within the two national parties, market economists, techno optimists - and most likely Barack Obama - see that significant market changes in the US are already shifting against the dirtiest fossil fuels. So, he favors tweaking regulations that tweak business, leaving noncommittal legislators and consumer at peace.

However, do any of these mitigating explanations have a place in the heads of a radical movement?

Specifically, is it in the interests of the Climate Movement’s transformative vision to accommodate a self-styled lame duck President and his Do What I Can Plan? Is it in its interest to assist the Democratic Party paint Republicans as impossibly hostile to their cause? Is it transformative to help divide Americans along ancient party lines on a profound national responsibility?

Is it progress to accept an evasive legislative strategy that strands moderate Republicans and lets blue Democrats off the hook in Congress?


What’s fascinating about all this is the willingness of the Movement, the champions of an agenda that is determined to change how humankind lives and earns a living, to accept so easily politics as usual.  Surely their radical agenda should only reward and comfort politicians with the nerve and skill to change what’s possible.