Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Slope Steepens


I remember Mexico's economic crisis in 1994, with its abrupt devaluation of the peso and the deep recession that followed. The country recovered brilliantly then, but I continue to have a bad feeling that Mexico is heading to where Colombia was in the 1990s.

The recession has already hammered both domestic industry and workers' remittances from overseas. The swine-flu outbreak is about to crush the third pillar of Mexico's economy, foreign tourism, with Mexico City hotel bookings suddenly off by 30-50 percent, according to NPR this morning.

Most worryingly, drug-gang violence continues to expand from the area around Ciudad Juarez to yesterday's city-wide ambushes of police in Tijuana.

From a reputational standpoint, things can't get much worse for Mexico--or can they?

Currently the Mexican government, corrupt and slow to act though it may be, does function; as others have noted, the trash gets picked up, kids go to school each morning, the food supply is safe, mail is delivered, certain commodities are kept relatively inexpensive. As a result, citizens have at least a minimal level of confidence that the federal government is legitimate.

However, that feeling could easily be shaken if either of two plausible events occurs: a) swine-flu deaths increase sharply and the government fails to intervene successfully or in time, or b) drug gangs stage a stand-up, set-piece battle with Mexico's military, signaling the emergence of an alternative power center in the country.

Either of these events would also cripple much-needed foreign direct investment.

In all, it looks a lot like Colombia circa 1990: potential and actual breakdown of public services and safety with an attendant erosion of faith in the central government, while the narcotraficantes provide an alternative source of jobs and infrastructure.

I'll really start worrying if I read newspaper stories about the narcos setting up their own courts to try criminals and settle civil disputes, aping the authority and legitimacy of the legitimate government just like the FARC.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Up with USIA


I spent part of last Friday afternoon at the semi-annual meeting of the Public Diplomacy Council, a group of retired State Department and U.S. Information Agency employees whose primary goal seems to be to revive USIA through any means necessary. (I'm a member primarily because I write about PD and soft power, not from any past affiliation with these agencies.)

Not having been involved in foreign policy the Cold War, I've always wondered at some advocates' messianic zeal about reviving USIA. Luckily I ran into WhirledView's Patricia Kushlis, with whom I'd corresponded over the past few years but never met.

Pat boiled it down to unity of effort: When USIA was around, you had a specific group of people who had one mission, who had their own budget, and who had institutional knowledge and memory of how to communicate with overseas publics. Contrast that with today, where budgeting and control of USIA's functions is fractured among State, the BBG and even the Defense Department.

She implied that getting everything back under one roof would lead to smarter, more focused PD. I'm also sure that a reconstituted, independent USIA would be able to persist and carry out its work even in periods of parent-agency neglect, as the empty chair of the Undersecretary for PA and PD demonstrates today at State.

So I'm now fully on board with the new-USIA program. Extract the former USIA's functions from their current agency homes, and pour them into a new agency. Give nouveau USIA the authority to ask for its own budget. And let it start the quiet, decades-long business of rebuilding the U.S.'s reputation abroad.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Horns of Africa


I think Somali-coast piracy is self-limiting because Somalis have essentially zero blue-water capacity, with "blue water" being defined as the ability to stay afloat out of sight of land for weeks at a time.

In trying to knock over that Maersk ship a couple weeks ago, the pirates verified that their effectiveness diminishes directly with distance from the nearest friendly port--and at 200 miles out, that effectiveness clearly drops to zero. They can't run back to shore fast enough, they can't be resupplied, and they can't outgun even the smallest nation-state naval vessel.

For the U.S. and other shipping nations, the trick becomes a simple matter of containment and a shrinking of the containment zone, not one of having to aggressively, endlessly patrol all the "millions" of square miles of water off Somalia's coast. (However, I'll paraphrase Robert Kaplan's recent point and accept that the Indian Ocean is, essentially, the new Atlantic in terms of being a potential great-power arena.)

Unfortunately, there are secondary consequences of the U.S. and French navies' recent killing and capturing of Somali pirates: They have relatives in places like the U.S.

Thanks to Tom Barnett for making the lightbulb go off in my head that Somali-heavy Minneapolis could potentially be a Hamburg for the plotters of some future domestic terrorist attack.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Sports Ambassadors


Players and fans of ultimate Frisbee know that it puts an extraordinary premium on sportsmanship, particularly for an highly competitive sport that involves cleats, running for hours on end, leagues, and the drive to win national championships.

Sportsmanship, and ultimate players' equally strong commitment to teaching new players, are particularly important when you're trying to coach and teach the game to Palestinian and Israeli youths.

That's what the top-level American ultimate players in this Al-Jazeera English story are doing under the auspices of the Peres Center for Peace.

Let's hear it for amateur-sports ambassadors who don't care about what American public-diplomacy policy should look like; they're just going out and being what we'd all like American ambassadors to be.

(Thanks to Tom Coffin and others in DC for the tip-off.)
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