A place for thoughts, pictures, experiences, and more during my year in Taiwan.

Monday, December 27, 2010

The Weight of a Weak State in The Ivory Coast

It seems that all the major holidays this year have gone hand in hand with some manner of international crisis. Thanksgiving brought us the North Korean artillery attack near the border, and this Christmas season has given us the rapidly escalating situation in the Ivory Coast. For those of you that don’t know, the Ivory Coast had a long awaited presidential election one month ago. After a very close vote, the opposition leader Alassane Ouattara was ruled the winner by several international mediators. The current president Laurent Gbagbo made accusations of fraud in the still rebel controlled northern province, where most of Mr. Alassane’s supporters are based, and refused to give up power. The result has been a month long standoff between Alassane and his international backers and Gbagbo’s supporters, with many observers fearing a return to civil war. What this crisis serves to highlight however, is that despite the great progress made in West Africa in the past years, many states still suffer from the legacies of post-independence governments and conflicts they spawned.

Like many states in the region, The Ivory Coast gained independence in the early 60’s, and its main nationalist leader Felix Houphou√ęt-Boigny quickly set about uniting the country. Like Kwame Nkrumah in neighboring Ghana, Boigny opted for a one party state. While this was not the ideal choice, the primary concern of leaders at the time was ethnic rallying and the rise of a fractious ethnic based party system. These one party systems of course all too often led to large scale political centralization and eventually authoritarianism. While Boigny’s rule was not nearly as violent or brutal as that of Mobutu in Zaire or Idi Amin in Uganda, it was nonetheless extremely firm, and in political terms highly exclusionary.

The Ivory Coast fell victim to the other symptom of political centralization: a high degree of institutional weakness. While a one party state solves the problem of ethnic rallying it presents two large problems. The first is that it drains state institutions of legitimacy. Things like the legislature and courts soon become seen as a rubber stamp that is all but inseparable from the ruling party. The second is that it lacks the institutional mechanisms for removing unpopular or incompetent leaders or parties, and all too often breeds fearsome opposition that is excluded from the political sphere. With no political recourse in the face of unpopular leadership, the method of choice for opposition groups becomes the military coup. This is what befell Boigny’s appointed successor in 1999, and shortly after we saw the election of current president Laurent Gbagbo in the country’s first really democratic outing since independence. The peace he promised was short lived however, as 2002 saw the breakout of civil war with the largely Muslim north, and the elections that were laid out in the 2005 peace treaty are the ones that just took place last month.

And so it is here that we find ourselves at the present situation. While the leadership is in the public eye, the true crisis is one of a weak state and weak institutions. Democratic mechanisms are not things that can be built overnight, and take time to develop both legitimacy and serious linkage to society itself. Just as the Western style systems created post-independence were largely hollow due to the lack of connection between the colonial states and easily swept aside by powerful leaders, the current regime is suffering from the weak societal links between society and the Boigny regime. For example, the state Supreme Court ruled in favor of Mr. Gbagbo, yet the ruling was dismissed by much of the country because the judicial branch itself lacks the legitimacy to assert itself. State constructs have been all but evacuated of all serious influence with society.

Regardless of how this crisis is resolved, the lesson to take away from it is that many African states need to look not so much at their states’ inner workings, but rather to their foundations. As the US learned so painfully in Iraq these past years, democracy is not something that can just be instituted. Legitimate democratic institutions and serious links between the state and society can only be built with time and effort on the part of the state itself. Whether this generation of African leaders can recognize this, or we once again see states descend into the brutal civil conflict we saw in the 1990’s remains to be seen.

And yes I am fully aware that this is pretty much a politics blog now. So sue me.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Bombs vs. Blogs

Over a month after their release, the flood of wikileaks documents continues to generate commentary and analysis over their content, and more importantly their effects on diplomacy and geopolitics. There also remains the subject as to whether or not states implicated in the leaks (namely the US) will attempt to take punitive action against Assange himself. Buried beneath all of this however is the question that so many of us have sought to avoid and one which I have been pondering of late: in this age of soft power and free flow of information, what is the true coercive role of government?
Every state requires an aspect of coercion to function, as anyone who has taken an introductory class on politics can tell you. And while some may balk at the sinister sound of such a concept; we all must remember that this is legitimate coercion, and the ability to wield it is granted to government through a comprehensive legal framework. We not only allow state institutions like the police to use coercion, but expect it for the sake of order and stability. The problem is that once the coercive arm of government has been empowered, through a constitution or something similar, its responsibilities are highly static. The responsibilities of the police are largely the same today as they were a hundred year ago. The tools and methods may have changed but the mandate has not. The problem is that the legal power of government remains the same while the world changes around it.
It does not take an academic to notice how much global realities have been realigned in the past twenty years. The internet has changed the world in a real way, as evidenced by the fact that a simple data file can radically alter the alignment of global politics. The dilemma before modern states is how to adjust policy and procedure to reflect these new realities. The problem we face is if the handling of these new considerations resides purely with government, we the run the risk of descending into tyranny. This is not tyranny in the dystopian Orwellian sense, but rather Locke’s view of the concept where tyranny is the simply act of government exceeding the authority granted to it by society, and beginning the transition to illegitimate coercion. This of course is a slippery slope, where what are initially viewed as benign indulgences can escalate into truly monstrous abuses of power.
Prevention of this will require a radical re-examination of first principles by both the state and society. Just as Madison, Adams, and the other architects of the constitution based their construction on their times, we will need to determine the true political and social realities we are surrounded by and from there decide what the government can and cannot do. As much as some try to deny it, the age that gave birth to our democracy is dead and gone. The throne once held by hard power has been taken by its softer counterpart. Blogs can often produce more change than bombs, and few can deny Einstein’s assertion that compound interest is indeed the most powerful force in the universe. While I can’t speculate as to the form the coercive arm of government will take in this new world, I do know that the longer we wait to determine it, the less of an ability we will have to influence it.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas everyone! Much love to all my friends and family back West (or is it East? I'm so far, I'm not quite sure which direction it is anymore). I miss you all dearly and would love nothing more than to be with you. Here's a bit of holiday cheer from my favorite internet comic.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Invisible Hands?

While researching my recent wikileaks post I came across some interesting analyses of Assange’s writings that really shed some light on both his beliefs and his motivations. According to his paper “State and Terrorist Conspiracies,” the one constant that underlies all modern states is an inevitable drive towards authoritarianism. This includes both state regimes as well as what Assange calls ‘neocorporatist interests.’ Due to modern methods of societal oversight of these bodies, this authoritarian tendency necessarily gives rise to conspiratorial behavior. These conspiracies are not those akin to a Dan Brown novel, but rather simply measures used to conceal the actions and lines of communication used by the state or corporatist body.
This is where wikileaks comes in. The way one undermines these authoritarian dealings is by exposing the obfuscated dealings that are essential for their continuation. In Assange’s words, ‘How can we reduce the ability of a conspiracy to act?…We can split the conspiracy, reduce or eliminating important communication between a few high weight links or many low weight links.’
What wikileaks is therefore meant to do is reduce the conspiratorial capacity of the modern state. Every diplomatic cable released is meant to sever a strand of the web he sees running through all modern governments. What do you all think about this? His core assumption about the authoritarian nature of government is interesting but not all that well supported as far as I can tell. Sound off!

Also, for a longer and much more eloquent dissection of Assange’s writing please check out this piece. http://zunguzungu.wordpress.com/2010/11/29/julian-assange-and-the-computer-conspiracy-%e2%80%9cto-destroy-this-invisible-government%e2%80%9d/?to-destroy-this-invisible-government??/

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

And Now for Something Completely Different...

As 2010 draws to a close, I figured I would cease my political ramblings for a post and engage in every blogger’s favorite year end activity: best of 2010 entertainment picks! It was a fine year for media and I will do my part for the blogosphere and throw in my two cents on the issue. Please remember that these are merely my humble opinions, and should you be offended by my choices and feel the need to vent, go the hell back to the forums where you belong.

Best Movie of 2010- Toy Story 3

This choice surely comes as a surprise to many, when this year produced a variety of blockbusters like Nolan’s ‘Inception,’ and more dramatic fare like ‘The Social Network’ or ‘The King’s Speech.’ The truth is however that ‘Toy Story 3’ was as pure a cinematic experience as one could ask for. Not only does it bring the hallmarks that Pixar has become know for: fine voice acting, clever writing, and wonderful characters, but beneath its childish veneer lies a touching story of both loss and rebirth. The film is ultimately about transition, and how all good things must come to an end. But despite the pain that accompanies loss and however much we think we can’t live any other way: life goes on. Add to this fact a near perfect ending (as well as a side-splitting performance by Michael Keaton), and you have what is certainly the finest film of 2010, and certainly among Pixar’s best efforts.

Best Album- ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’ – Kanye West

Now pretty much anyone who knows me is well aware of the fact that I don’t care for Mr. West. I find his public shenanigans and egoism annoying, and his last album was laced with enough auto-tune to kill musk ox. On his most recent outing however, he dropped the bad and played up the good and really hit one out of the park. Instrumentally, the album showcases West’s production skills at their best. The beats are tight, the samples diverse (the Aphex Twin on ‘Blame Game’ is particularly good), the each guest brings just what is needed. While on the mic, West holds his own (goodbye auto-tune!) and both analyses and revels in his own ego and public persona. The album gives a perfect picture of who West really is: an arrogant ass but a damned talented one at that. It is the year’s best album and has put Kanye back on top of the music world. At least until Radiohead releases another album.

Best Game- Mass Effect 2

2010 was truly a flagship year for gaming. It produced blockbusters (COD: Black Ops), long awaited sequels (Startcraft 2), and a host of solid indie and platformer hits (Super Meat Boy). But when all is said and done, one game towered above all others: Bioware’s ‘Mass Effect 2.’ A continuation of the epic tale of space marine Commander Shepard, Bioware improved upon the original in almost every way and delivered what is perhaps the purest role-playing experiences around. Gone is the item looting and level grinding, and in its place is choice. Mass Effect 2 is a game where choices matter in a truly noticeable way, and as a result nearly no two play-throughs are identical. Add to this a beautiful graphics engine, a start studded voice cast featuring stellar performances from Martin Sheen, Tricia Helfer, and Jennifer Hale, and some of the most fully realized characters in recent memory and Mass Effect 2 is an easy choice for game of the year.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

An Open Letter to Julian Assange

Dear Mr. Assange
The recent weeks have been wrought with discussion and argument on the subject of your most recent wikileak release, which the news networks have dubbed ‘cablegate.’ This was a monumental act, and one which promises to greatly alter diplomatic landscapes around the world. My concern however, is that the cost of these actions may outweigh the perceived benefits.
I would like to preface this by saying that I am a firm supporter of governmental transparency. I believe that a government being open about its dealings and policies is paramount if one wishes to maintain a vibrant democracy. The larger the veil of ignorance between state and society, the more they start to become separate entities as opposed to two sides of the same coin. I also believe that for a private citizen to take it upon himself to bring government dealings to light requires great courage and resolve, and for that I must commend you.
My concern however is over the content of these leaks as opposed to the act. While a great deal of insight was given into the inner workings of diplomatic procedures, none of the documents detail any particularly illegal or despicable actions. This is not a release akin to the Pentagon Papers, where we discover proof of government lies regarding military operations, or even the more recent memos that detail monstrous abuse of terror detainees in Guantanamo and elsewhere. What the great majority of these cables detail is in fact little more than gossip. They involve state department officials candidly discussing diplomatic standings, and in other cases doing little more than joke around (even I must admit I got a good chuckle out of the Putin-Batman comparison).
While these cables are of extreme interest both to the general public and students of politics such as myself, the price they carry is a heavy one. These leaks have dealt a mighty blow to diplomacy not just for the United States, but for countries around the world. It will take months if not years for diplomatic relations to be re-built to pre-leak levels, and the information revealed in the cables will hang over negations between states for a good long time.
I certainly understand the immediate impulse to bring secrets to light, the fact of the matter is that diplomacy is by nature two-faced, and that is why it works. It allows states to maintain cordial relations with one another while at the same time building their calculations on the pragmatic realities of state behavior. This is not to say that governments should be allowed to say one thing and do another in terms of diplomacy, but rather that there are always going to be things said at the negotiating table once the other side has left. And unless those things are of an illegal, immoral, or particularly monstrous nature, I think they should stay there. It may seem counter to our democratic principles, but as long as the fruits of diplomacy remain vibrant, it is a price we have to pay.
I therefore implore you to devote your significant skills and resolve to unmasking true injustices around the world and leave the gossip where it belongs.

Best Regards
Andrew Vitek

Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Short Arm of the Law

In an effort to keep this from turning into a pure politics blog, here’s a post on Taiwan. I have made a point over the past few months of raving about the serious advancements that Taiwan has made over the West. These include a highly developed and efficient public infrastructure, a stellar health care system, low poverty, etc. Yet going hand in hand with all this sophistication I have noticed a particularly high level of legal ambiguity. While this is not on the level of Japan, where organized crime is allowed to operate literally in the open, its presence is none the less apparent.
My morning job is the perfect example of this. I spend my mornings teaching at a kindergarten, yet it is illegal for foreigners to do so under Taiwanese law. Now despite this fact, there are literally thousands of westerns employed at kindergartens around the country. To top it all off, when the government conducts raids on school to enforce the law, they often call ahead and let the administration know, as if to say “tell your foreigners not to come in today.”
This kind of legal grey area is present all over the country. Drugs are also a fine example. According to Taiwanese law drug trafficking can warrant the death penalty, yet drugs are still here, available, and I have heard multiple instances of arrested dealers having all charges dropped provided they go into rehab. In fact, in many criminal and questionable dealings, the word is that a connection or two can make navigating Taiwan’s bureaucracy a walk in the park.
It’s almost as if the country as a whole admits there are certain things that, despite legality, are either highly useful to society or not worth the trouble to enforce and so choose to look the other way. Could this willingness to tolerate such indulgences contribute to the advancements Taiwan has made as a country? Food for thought 

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Twilight of the North

While the west prepared to sit down to Thanksgiving dinner last week, we in the east received a lovely surprise in the form of a North Korean artillery attack on a South Korean island near the disputed maritime border. The attack killed two South Korean marines and brought the two countries the closest they have been to war since the end of the Korean War. What we may be witnessing however, is not the beginning of new war, but the end of the North entirely.
Like so many of North Korea’s brazen acts, this attack asks the question of motivation. Tyrannical and isolationist the regime may be, it is hardly stupid and certainly employs some amount of rational deliberation. This being the case, there are two conceivable reasons behind this. The first is that it was an attempt to generate diplomatic capital in an attempt to force the West back into direct talks. This has been the prevailing tendency since the start of the war on terror, and the state department’s resources have increasingly been focused elsewhere. America starts ignoring the North, so they beat their chests to get everyone back to the table.
This may well have been a sufficient explanation if the North had not already provided such a stimulus mere days before the attack. This was in the form of the new uranium enrichment facility just recently unveiled. They went so far as to even invite Stanford physicists who later commented on its extremely high level of sophistication. Following the announcement there was already talk brewing of renewed six party talks. Therefore the assertion that the shelling was diplomatically motivated doesn’t really hold up.
The second and more likely explanation is that we are witnessing rumblings occurring within the power structure of the regime itself. Due to Kim Jong Il’s failing health, the regime will soon find itself at a critical crossroads. Everyone put on a lovely show of unity at the party conference last month, when Kim Jong Un was ‘anointed’ as the apparent successor as leader of the ruling Worker’s Party. The fact however is that the true disposition of the regime’s military and state elites is unknown right now, and the idea that they will all get behind a 26 year old, with no experience to speak of, military or otherwise, is questionable to say the least. Given these facts it then seems highly logical that the attack could be an attempt to increase the successor’s credentials before his father becomes too infirmed. He knows that should the military divide over the succession, the regime would not likely survive the resulting blowback.
Such a thing may come to pass regardless of the attack however. The critical nature of the situation became even more apparent this week, following the release of cables that showed China increasingly frustrated with the North, and even prepared to accept re-unification. We may in fact be on the verge of witnessing, as Robert Kaplan recently asserted, the implosion of the regime itself. Without Chinese aid and support, to say nothing of a strong leader to keep the elites in line, the regime would most likely crumble in a few years at the most. Contrary to what so many of us believed, the most tyrannical regime on the planet may fall without the US or South Korea firing a shot.