Friday, 21 November 2008

Closed Doors.

It is said that Edward the Confessor once demanded that the people of Dover be put to the sword. But that Earl Godwin refused to kill those to whom he owed a Feudal duty, and so he marched to London with an army...

The principle of the people being defended from arbitrary power is not a modern one. What is meant by this has changed throughout the ages. Doubtless the provisions of the 1998 Human Rights Act would be incomprehensible to the medieval mind. However, one theme persists, that of a limited executive. The Monarch, and more recently, the government, have often had huge power. Alongside that fluctuation in power has been a fluctuation in how that power is limited by the houses of parliament, the courts, and the people's suffrage. The principle that governs this relationship is that of justice.

How today do we define what is just? On the 11th September 2001 some men, twisting the wisdom of Islam to bloody purpose, engaged in a momentous and terrible work of art. They were not interested in body count or market effect, they wanted the world to witness their faith. In doing so they changed our world, and changed our understanding of justice.

'One of the central dilemmas which our Government and other Governments face can be shortly stated: what are they to do about individuals in their country who, according to intelligence, pose a serious threat to national security, cannot be deported because they face a real risk of torture or death in their own country, and cannot, at least on current understandings of the criminal process, be prosecuted because the nature of the information against them would not be admissible in a criminal prosecution?'1
The current answer to this dilemma in the UK is the use of control orders. These orders are used for those cases where criminal trial is not an option. Control orders can involve house arrest for over 10hrs a day, electronic tagging, limitations on travel, association etc... They limit and restrict the freedoms of those who pose a threat but cannot be prosecuted. It has been argued that such arbitrary power is a breach of the right to liberty. However, the Courts have held that the stringent provisions control orders are legal and do not necessarily breach the right to liberty and security (Article 5 of the Human Rights Act 1998)2

A key issue here is evidence. The security services have given reasons why evidence they hold against individuals cannot be brought into open court for a criminal prosecution. These reasons include, that the evidence is hear-say, that it is coupled with expert analysis, that it may compromise methods or sources, or, most tellingly, that it may fall below the standards of proof required for a conviction beyond reasonable doubt.3

How then is it decided if an individual should be placed under a control order? As things stand a person can be placed under a control order on the basis of evidence which would not be admissible in a criminal trial. Moreover this evidence may be, and often is, given behind closed doors, without the accused having a chance to hear it. An individual may have his freedom limited without knowing of the claims being made, and with no chance of refuting them. This use of 'closed evidence' changed the balance of the need for state secrecy in certain areas and the right to fair trial (Article 6 Human Rights Act 1998):

'The problem of reconciling an individual defendant's right to a fair trial with such secrecy as is necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or the prevention or investigation of crime is inevitably difficult to resolve in a liberal society governed by the rule of law.'4
The courts have been critical of the use of closed evidence in control order hearings, though they have not disallowed it in principle. The argument goes, that a control order is not a punishment, so the application of one is not a conviction, so there is no criminal trial, and so no issue of whether it is fair.5

There is one safeguard in place, that is the use of a special advocate who will defend the individual. In a judgment Lord Bingham acknowledged their role in the process:

'The assistance which special advocates can give has been acknowledged ..., and it is no doubt possible for such advocates on occasion to demonstrate that evidence relied on against a controlled person is tainted, unreliable or self-contradictory'6
The characterization of closed evidence given here is deeply concerning, and the learned judge seems less than enthusiastic as to the effectiveness of the special advocate system. In fact he goes on to quote Lord Wolf:

'The use of [a special advocate] is, however, never a panacea for the grave disadvantages of a person affected not being aware of the case against him'7
It should be noted that while the special advocate can hear the closed evidence he cannot relay, or discuss this with the individual affected without special permission. Permission that in practice is almost never given.8 As such the claims made in closed evidence cannot be effectively verified or disputed.

This is a remarkable development, the state now has the power to restrict the liberty of an individual on the security services' say-so. Further to that the security services may be getting these orders on evidence that can be “tainted, unreliable or self-contradictory”. Evidence which the accused may never get to hear or oppose.

So what is justice today? When the Edward the Confessor ordered the deaths of the people of Dover Earl Godwin was there to protect them. Since then we have come a long way; we now have right to make our case and a court that will protect us from arbitrary punishment. But; in a climate where curfews, tagging, and house arrest, are no longer considered punishments; in a climate where this can be done to a citizen without ever having to tell him why; who is there to protect us?

Perhaps this is the price we pay for our safety. Perhaps this power is necessary. And surely this power will only be used in the most serious of cases? Cases where the can be little doubt of the need to control these people?

“... all of them agree that groundless charges are never made and that once the court has made an accusation, it is firmly convinced of the accused man's guilt and can be dissuaded from this conviction only with great difficulty.” “Great difficulty?” asked the painter, throwing one hand into the air. “The court cannot be dissuaded at all...” - The Trial, Franz Kafka 9

1House of Lords House of Commons Joint Committee on Human Rights: Counter-Terrorism Policy and Human Rights: Prosecution and Pre-Charge Detention Twenty-fourth Report of Session 2005-06 / page 14

2Secretary of State for the Home Department v E and another [2008] 1 AC 499 – it should be noted that the court allowed that control orders could be in breach of art5 HRA 1998 if their effects were particularly onerous.

3House of Lords House of Commons Joint Committee on Human Rights: Counter-Terrorism Policy and Human Rights: Prosecution and Pre-Charge Detention Twenty-fourth Report of Session 2005-06 “The Main Obstacles to Prosecution” pp 15-16

4R v H [2004] 2 AC 134

5Secretary of State for the Home Department v MB Same v AF [2008] 1 AC 440 It should be noted that the court ruled there was protection under art6 in civil procedure terms


7Roberts [2005] 2 AC 738

8Secretary of State for the Home Department v MB Same v AF [2008] 1 AC 440

9The Trial – Franz Kafka, Vitalis 2002
Image courtesy of

Half Empty or Half Full? - A reply to James Schneider

Mr Schneider wrote a detailed and insightful reply to my last post on Russia in his latest blog entry, and makes several detailed and well thought out criticisms which I would urge any readers to examine. In general, he presents a far more optimistic view on Russian than my own. I sincerely hope he is right to do so.

Before replying to his particular criticisms, I should like to answer his concluding point, that the West should engage with Russia in a manner befitting its status as a European country, and that aggressive policies will only push it further away. This is a point we can agree on. My previous post was concerned only my fears for the direction Russia seemed to be heading, and was neutral on Western responses to that drift. Indeed, two posts prior to my latest post on Russia, I argued that Barack Obama should pursue just such a conciliatory policy. However, I do think, on present evidence, it will be hard for the West to pursue a constructive friendship with Russia without compromising either its interests or its ideals.

In addition to his central contention, that nationalism is dispensable for the Kremlin, which I will consider below, Mr Schneider makes some well-thought out specific points.

One concerns how Russia is likely to attempt to further its interests in the Ukraine indirectly: in particular, that it is extremely unlikely to start any kind of a war. Rather, it will attempt to manipulate the course of domestic politics in the Ukraine to force it towards a more Easterly orientation. I consider all this sound prediction, and I am in accordance with Mr Schneider in this respect. However, I am unsure whether he, as I, would support the West in seeking to bolster the government of the Ukraine and to discourage political infighting if at all possible, and to make it clear to the Ukraine that a path to closer integration with the EU is open to them. Mr Schneider also has some qualms regarding the merits of the War on Terror, a digression that I would be happy to discuss further in another context. However, his final specific point is one I should like to briefly consider. He argues that there is evidence that the decline in the Russian population is slowing, and that Putin has made tackling such demographic issues one of his main foci of his administration.

I would agree with him that Russia is in a state of flux, and it is exceedingly hard to find trends in population change. Certainly, fertility rate seems to be increasing. Conversely, life expectancy at birth has been steadily decreasing for some time. The most pressing issue of Russian demography, however, is migration. Since the fall of communism, young people, especially the most talented, have been fleeing Russia in droves. The relative effect of the economic downturn combined with the degree of domestic political repression, I suggest, will be crucial factors in determining whether this migration pattern continues. Putin’s government could act to improve the demographic situation, certainly. It could, for example, significantly improve healthcare, though given that its budget is likely to be significantly diminished for some time hence, the window in which it can do so effectively is closing.

Moreover, one reason for Russia’s healthcare woes is the flight of talented young medical students elsewhere. Its healthcare problems cannot be fully addressed until Russia renders itself a more enticing place to live and work, retaining its own talent as well as attracting talent from elsewhere. Moreover, I am somewhat sceptical of the ability of Putin’s administration to address some of the underlying factors in Russia’s woeful demographics, such as its very high suicide rate, its high levels of alcoholism, and the likelihood, for young Russian men, of dying a violent death.

Moving on to the substantive argument of Mr Schneider’s piece, his contention as I take it, may be paraphrased as follows: “Mr Shevlin suggests that Russia’s nationalism is all that sustains the Putin regime hence Putin will only ever act nationalistically. However, Putin’s regime is popular for many reasons, so it can display flexibility, including dropping this nationalism if required.”

I agree that Putin’s regime is now popular with its people. I also agree that a lot of this popularity has a lot to do with non-ideological reasons such as economic growth. However, I think it unlikely that Putin will relinquish a nationalist platform, for several reasons.

First, he may not be able to. All the evidence is there that this nationalism is heartfelt in Russian populace. The number of attacks on foreigners, particularly people who are obviously non-ethnically Russian, has soared. In my time in Russia, I found widespread support for the war in Georgia and aggressive pursuit of what were felt to be Russia’s interests. Look also at the devastating internet attacks on Estonia. It is widely believed that the sheer scale of these is evidence of individual as well as state-sancionted attacks. Putin has done much to encourage this nationalism, and if he is seen to relinquish it, he may find his popularity suffers very seriously. A worryingly similar situation is developing in China: Chinese nationalism, once a tool for control of the populace, proved hard for the government to quell when the anti-Japanese riots took hold two years ago. The old adage about putting the genie back in the bottle comes to mind.

It might be suggested that Putin’s popularity would allow him to survive such a shift in policy. So my second reason for doubting that he would abandon this is that one of the major reasons for his popularity, the wealth and stability he has brought to ordinary Russians’ lives, is likely to be undermined in the global economic crisis. It will be interesting to see how this crisis affects attitudes towards Putin in Russia. It may be the case that it significantly harms Putin’s popularity. In this case, nationalism will be one of the few control levers that Putin has left. Alternatively, the economic meltdown might even help Putin – in times of difficulty, one seeks stability and one must show unity, including unity with one’s government. It will be interesting to see which of these scenarios transpires. However, Putin can encourage the latter scenario by displacing blame for the economic meltdown away from his party and finding a scapegoat for Russia’s economic woes, in this case the USA, so continuing to pursue an anti-American agenda. Thus under either scenario, nationalism seems likely to remain as a political prop.

Third, Mr Schneider assumes that nationalism is a purely political device for the Russian leadership, that Putin is a pragmatist wearing ideologue’s clothes. I hope that he is right. However, most of the Russians I speak to have suggested that this is an oversimplification: that there are genuine ideological elements in Putin’s character which push him to aggressively pursue Russia’s greatness in priority to the betterment of its people.

Mr Schneider points to a variety of occasions in recent months and years when Russia has seemed to wear a more conciliatory face towards the West. It is true that a mixed variety of messages might be found in Russian policy towards the West in recent years. I would like to think that these indicate a genuine willingness to engage, given suitable respect and inducement. Certainly I do not think that Russia is set on a policy of confrontation with the West. However, I do believe that Russia continues to regard diplomacy in terms that we in the West would (perhaps naively) consider anachronistic. The Kremlin weltanschauung is one of client states and spheres of influence, that regards Russia’s possession of the world’s largest nuclear arsenal as an automatic entitlement to at least half of every pie. There have been no signs that the Russian leadership takes human rights, national sovereignty, or democratic values seriously, and as long as this is the case, most of the compromises the West can make with Russia will involve compromising its own espoused ideals and interests. That is not to say that the West should pursue open hostility with Russia, as I have already indicated. There is much constructive work that can be done between Russia and the West. But nor should it be afraid to defend its interests and its allies if they come under threat.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

The Resurgent Russia

Dmitri Medvedev's recent national address made disturbing viewing for those who are already nervous about Russia. Medvedev blamed the two great crises of the year, the war in Georgia and the economic meltdown, squarely on America (all this as Obama was giving his victory speech). He also announced a planned constitutional change to increase the length of the Presidential term from 4 to 6 years. This would need to be passed a two thirds majority in Russia's Duma, and to be then ratified by two thirds of Russia's regional legislatures, but this will prove to be no real brake on the change, given United Russia's popularity and media influence. This decision looks very clearly like the opening move in a return to the Presidency by Vladimir Putin, and a further blow for Russian democratic credentials.

The problem at present for those who would like to see reconciliation between Russia and the West is that Russia has everything to gain through conflict with the United States and very little to lose. After the apathy and ennui of the Yeltsin years, Russian nationalism is the new grand narrative through which the country views itself. In this sense it binds the nation together and keeps power firmly in the hands of the siloviki. Moreover, the old Cold War ideology according to which Russia sees itself as a vital counterweight to American power is deeply flattering for the Kremlin, overemphasising Russian power in a world where its economic and military power has already been overtaken by China and will soon be overtaken by other emergent powers.

It is natural, too, to think that Russia has drawn a disturbing lesson from the success of the war in Georgia and the absence of any significant ramifications. The paranoid could compare it with the successful annexation of Alsace and Lorraine by Germany in 1870, which led to the First World War. Russia tested the West's resolve to protect its allies on Russia's borders, and found it wanting. The West, for its part, is loathe to back down a second time, but it is hard to imagine that many Western powers would call Russia's bluff if it meant the risk of nuclear war.

The next crisis could manifest itself in a number of different regions. The most talked about area is the Crimea. Here a predominantly Russian population lives in an historically Russian area, where Russia has significant assets, including its main Black Sea naval base. Moreover, there have been rumours of Russia handing out passports to residents of the region, just as it did in Abkhazia and South Ossetia before the Georgian War.

Transdniestria is another region that is often suggested as being another potential flashpoint. However, the pro-Russian inclinations of the present Moldovan government and the region's increasing integration with the rest of Europe make a war in this region seem less likely.

A final territorial claim that could spark tension between the West and Russian lies in the Arctic. Given the vast untapped oil wealth of the region, Russia is naturally pushing its claims forcefully. America, for its part, is determined to protect the claims of its NATO allies Canada and Denmark. This could easily be another potential flashpoint.

The United States has little to offer Russia as compromise. The only two cards it really has are the indefinite postponement of its missile defence plans in Eastern Europe and a cessation of NATO expansion eastwards. The second of these would be genuinely welcome to Russia, but one might worry whether Russia would see this move as effectively ceding the countries to the Russian sphere of influence. As for postponing missile defence, many cynics saw Russia's initial opposition to the plan as a simple bargaining card. The plan would pose little threat to Russia military security, but its psychological significance makes plausible Russian claims to be intimidated by the plan. If the Russian leadership does indeed view missile defence simply as a way of extracting other concessions from the West, it could be that its abandonment or postponement will win America and Europe very little in the way of good will from the Kremlin.

There are many, many ways that Russia and America could help each other further: enhanced security and anti-terrorist measures, reduction of nuclear stockpiles, and prevention of nuclear proliferation would benefit both sides. However, given the new nationalist ideology, such initiatives are low down Russia's shopping list. Indeed, if Russia is conducting itself in accordance with the old Cold War zero-sum game mentality, as suggested by its recent moves in South America, then it may see a nuclearised Iran as a potentially valuable ally, and a counterweight to America's close allegience to Israel in the Middle East.

This would be dreadfully short term thinking on Russia's part. A nuclear conflict - or even the threat of one - anywhere in the Middle East would be disastrously destabilising for the whole world, and would have vast repercussions on the world economy. Moreover, if Iran successfully nuclearises in the face of Western opposition, it is likely that many other countries will attempt to take the same route. Wider possession of nuclear weapons would diminish Russia's military might in relative terms, and its already overstretched, undermanned, and underequipped military would leave the country looking more vulnerable than ever before.

Moreover, whilst Russia is not a status quo power, and has significant revisionist interests, it is not in the same boat as the other BRIC nations. The influence of Brazil, India, and China is growing as their economies become more modern and diverse and their large populations become wealthier and more skilled. Russia's growth since the end of the Cold War has been strong, but almost entirely focused on its oil and gas industries. A Russian business consultant I recently spoke to told me that, excluding oil, gas, and related industries, real growth in Russia has been negative since the end of the Cold War. Moreover, Russian demographics make for grim reading. The UN has warned that Russia can expect to see its population fall by a third by 2050. It is a grave error, then, for Russia to see itself as a champion of the new world order.

Russia's future as a power lies in closer economic integration with Europe in the West and China, Japan, and South Korea in the East. It cannot afford to pursue a nationalist agenda while its population falls and its economy becomes ever more dependent on energy exports. By its present strategy, it is alienating those countries best positioned to help it. For now, Europe seems dependent on Russian gas exports, but it would be a mistake for Russia to assume that this will not change in the longer term. Likewise, a global recession will bring with it lower energy prices, and this will have a disproportionately negative effect on Russia's budget. Even with its captive European market, Russian will have to choose between tackling the entrenched barriers to economic growth and diversification and pursuing a self-aggrandising nationalism.

Russia's consitution is set for change, to Vladimir Putin's advantage
Moldova and Transdniestria
Russia - Getting Medvedev's Message
Russia's Western Neighbours [reference Russia handing out passports in the Crimea]

The elusive "I", or the delusive "I"?

As philosophers, we are often concerned with the meaning of words - justice, liberty, freedom, the good, and so on. One word that is particularly tricky to subject to this kind of analysis is the word "I". Imagine you wake up paralysed, in a state of total sensory deprivation, and with total amnesia. You can see nothing, hear nothing, and feel nothing. You cannot remember your name or anything about yourself. You cannot even be sure that you have a body. But nonetheless, you can frame the true thought “I feel terrible”. But who feels terrible? “I” is certainly not functioning as a description – because you know nothing about the person it is describing.

There are three obvious possible answers to the question of what “I” means. It is either:
(1) A name that picks something out.
(2) A referring term that is not a name, like “this” or “here”.
(3) A non-referring expression.

If “I” is a name, what does it name? One obvious answer is that it names a human being, namely the human organism who says it. However, in the above case, it seems that it cannot name a human, since we do not even know that we are human or have a body. Another natural answer is that it names a mind, a pure Cartesian ego. This would explain why we can say things like “I was an eagle in a past life”. Regardless of the merit of claims like this, they make sense, which they could not do if “I” just named a body.

If “I” names a mind, however, it should have some way of “picking out” the mind in question. And all other methods of picking things out are fallible. I can talk about the King of England even though there isn’t one, or my name could pick out the wrong target: I could mistake my friend John for his identical twin Tom. However, “I” never goes awry in this sense. I can make false attributions to myself, certainly, like “I am the King of Prussia”. But here it is the attribution rather than the name that goes awry.

Another feature that distinguishes “I” from other names is that names should have some way of ‘locking on’ to their targets. Even if a name isn’t a covert definite description, it nonetheless should be able to say something about the person it names. If someone says “I know a person called John, but I don’t know anything about him. I don’t even know that he calls himself John or is a person”, then you’d think that person didn’t in fact know anyone called John at all. But what can we say about the thing named by “I” aside from the fact that it is a thinking thing?

It is questionable whether we can even say that. How can be sure that the “I” is just one thing? It could be that whatever the true essence of consciousness is, it is not a simple thing, but a host of different things working in unison to create experience. Likewise, we cannot say that the mind is essentially something that thinks: if the mind just is the brain, then its essence is physical rather than mental.

Not all referring terms clearly pick out an object, however. I can have no idea what time it is or where I am, but “I’m here” and “this is now” are immune to failure of reference in much the same way as “I”. Perhaps “I” functions in the same way.

There are two problems with this approach. First, the imperviousness of “here” and “now” to reference failure seems parasitic on the immunity of “I” to reference failure: “here” and “now” refer to where *I* am and when *I* am. Second, there is a question of the public nature of reference. We understand “here” in conversation as picking out the place where we both are. Likewise, we understand “now” as picking out the time at which we are both having a conversation. “Here” and “now”, then, have a public face. But if “I” doesn’t pick out a human organism, then what can serve as its mutually available reference? It makes no sense to say of a friend, “John said “I’m unhappy” yesterday, and he said “I’m happy” today, but I have no idea if it’s the same “I” he’s talking about”. The fact is that, as far as public discourse is concerned, we understand John’s use of “I” in exactly the same way as we understand the use of the name “John”, namely as referring to a particular human being.

It seems, then, that we are faced with two senses of the name “I”: one public, referring to a human organism, and one private, referring to a mysterious mind about which we can say nothing except that it thinks. Moreover, we have to accept that, if these are the senses of “I”, we switch back and forth between them. Consider the sentence “I closed my eyes and thought of you”. One of these actions is a public action taken by a human organism, and the other is a private mental action. Is it plausible that we understand “I” in two different senses, even in a single utterance?

It’s not entirely implausible that this is how “I” operates. After all, English equivocates between two senses of “we”, the exclusive and the inclusive, and does so quite naturally. Imagine Tom, John, and Susan are all talking, and Tom says, “We [the three of us] should go for lunch soon, because we [Tom and John] have to leave in an hour”. This is something that would be naturally understood by all speakers. However, in this case all parties are aware that a change in reference has occurred (one that would probably be indicated by a change in tone of voice, or some pointing gesture). It’s implausible to think that a shift in reference occurs whenever we make a statement that includes both mental and physical terms, like “I closed my eyes and thought of you”.

Enter Immanuel Kant. Kant distinguished between three senses of “I”: the physical (“I lost my arm in a car accident”), the psychological (“I have a fear of commitment”), and the ‘transcendental’, the “I think...” that can accompany any experience we ever have. In practise, we resolve the physical and psychological into a single sense, the sense of ourselves as thinking animals. The transcendental, on the other hand, according to Kant, doesn’t refer to any definite object at all. This is because it is necessarily unaccompanied by anything in what Kant calls “the manifold of intuition”, that is, there is no experience we could ever have of the transcendental “I”. His comment echoes the words of David Hume:

For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light, or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe anything but the perception.

Kant concludes, then, that the transcendental “I” is something masquerading as a name of a particular object, but which really expresses something else, namely the unified nature of all our experiences, the fact that they form a single integrated system. Imagine you are explaining the rules of chess. You would say “the Bishop moves diagonally”, or “the Rook moves vertically or horizontally”. You could attach “In chess...” to both these utterances, and in so doing you are simply expressing the fact that the rules should be taken as part of an integrated system. The same is true of our ability to attach “I think” to all our experiences.

This unity is something which we know about not because we have any knowledge of a self which does unifying, but from the experiences themselves, the fact that they are all interrelated. We cannot step outside the system and say anything about the self (or selves!) which do the unifying. The transcendental “I”, then, is way of expressing a category, namely the universal category under which all our experiences fall. It has the form of the name of an object, but as to what that object is we have no idea. As Kant puts it:

Absolutely no further knowledge regarding the I [that thinks]... [the] logical I, considered as an a priori representation – is possible, neither with respect to what sort of being it is nor [with regard to] its natural constitution.

It is natural enough for us to take this “I” as being something like a Cartesian ego. We think of it as simple and indivisible simply because it is bare of content, and without content no division is possible. We think of it as the same in every case for the same reason – because it is bare, we cannot distinguish between its occurrences. Finally, we think of it as independent of any particular content (in the sense that we can conceive of being a squirrel, or existing as a disembodied soul) because it is not an object but a condition of thought in general.

In conclusion, then, we are left, then, not with two senses so much as two uses of I. Likewise, we are left with two objects, but whereas the first is a real object, the second is a bare ‘something’, which we falsely take as a simple immaterial mind or soul.

The first use is “I” functioning as a straightforward name, and names as its object the thinking animals who utters it. This is the public face of “I”.

Second, we can use “I think...” before any thought to show that all our experience constitutes an integrated whole. In so doing, we are quite naturally led to think of the system as being unified by some object, the object that provides the “I think”, and that this transcendental “I” is simple, immaterial, and so on. In fact, all we can say of it is that the unity of the system is there, and is vouchsafed by something; but a something about which we can say nothing.

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Obama's Foreign Policy Priorities

The Economist had a recent article on the strangely 19th century world of great power rivalry that Obama faces.
Whilst I'm broadly in accordance with the main policy recommendations it makes, here, as I see it, are the five most important foreign policy moves that Obama should make in his first term, in chronological order (but not necessarily in order of priority).

1) Afghanistan and Iraq. Obama should make Afghanistan his first foreign policy focus. Bluntly put, America needs to deploy far more troops to Afghanistan. Far more than any other conflict out there, America needs a clear victory in Afghanistan. If the conflict smolders on, there is a progressively greater risk of it prompting all out anarchy in Pakistan. This will require stretching an already overstretched American military still further. This can be helped by withdrawing some forces, cautiously, from Iraq. Obama should also use his massive political capital in getting more assistance from America's allies on the ground. America has to treat Pakistan with kid gloves. The administration there cannot survive full scale American attacks over the border. This will hamper America's efforts on the ground, but it will be the best option in the long run.

2) Reconciliate with Syria. This is absolutely vital to an Iran strategy. America needs to move Syria away from the pro-Iranian block. In effect, Syria gets the Golan Heights and a rapprochemente with America in exchange for severing links with Iran, Hamas, and Hizbullah and a permanent peace treaty with Israel. Obama should also make it clear to Syria that he intends to push any new Israeli Prime Minister to the negotiating table.

3) Defuse growing Russian militarism. America has too many other concerns for a second Cold War right now - it needs Russia on board, even if this involves a show of apparent weakness. American should make it clear that it will take Russia's interests seriously. This may require putting pressure on would be NATO members like Georgia and the Ukraine to cool the rhetoric, a postponement of America's missile defence shield in Europe, and a willingness to negotiate with Russia on Arctic Oil. With these two big carrots, plus a willingness to work with Russia to ameliorate the world financial crisis, America should be able to get Russia on board for negotiations with Iran, a deepening of their assistance in Afghanistan, and their assistance with international terrorism. Eastern Europe will be pissed off, but they have nowhere else to turn. Despite this, America should reiterate its commitment to democracy and warn Russia that any country that is ready for NATO membership and which is truly in favour of it will eventually get to join the club. However, America should reassure Russia that it will move slowly and be ready to address Russian concerns at every stage.

4) Do not allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons. This has to be Obama's big priority. A nuclear Iran would be the biggest threat to world peace and stability out there. As long as Iran can play divide and rule, a negotiated peace has no chance of success. This is why America needs Russia, China, and Syria on board. Very large carrots and very large sticks will need to be produced if this is to succeed, and Iran needs to be made clear that it will ultimately stand alone if it proves intractable. Iran could be reassured by an American deal with Syria, a drawdown in Iraq, and an administration determined to push for Palestinian statehood. Iranian presidential elections are next year, and anything America can do to encourage Iran to vote for a moderate will pay rich dividends. Iran's interests also coincide with America's in Afghanistan and Pakistan - Iran hates the Taliban, and is nervous at the prospect of instability in Pakistan.

5) If America can prevent the nuclearisation of Iran, achievement rapprochement with Russia, Syria, and Iran, and successfully close the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, then I will be surprised and delighted. Resolution of all of these things is necessary for the challenges that America will be facing ten years from now. In particular, I see Pakistan as likely to be a long term problem. American and Russia will clash over Arctic oil, but if this occurs in the context of a warm and successful relationship, it has a greater likelihood of success. With Iran and Syria no longer acting as agents of chaos in the Middle East, the Israeli-Palestinian problem will have a greater likelihood of success. The biggest long term threat to world peace and stability will inevitably be the rise of China as America's equal in world affairs.

Therefore, Obama's final move should be to seek to begin the process of reordering international institutions according to a more multipolar model. It should do this now, whilst its international credit is still strong. If it waits another 10 years, when the BRIC group of countries will be in an even stronger position, then its hand will be much weaker. Thus the fifth priority of an Obama presidency should be to start putting out feelers for a recasting of the UN, the IMF, the World Bank, and the WTO, to more evenly distribute power whilst ensuring that America still has a strong voice. This will be a long and time-consuming process that will make plenty of work for everyone in the diplomatic establishment. The sooner America starts, the better.

Monday, 10 November 2008

Proposition 8

Here's a video of Keith Olbermann's commentary on Prop 8:

It is sad thought for Liberals like myself to note the passing of Proposition 8 in the Californian Ballot Initiative. The philosophical issues underlying gay marriage are not easy to sift out, but it certainly seems to have become a cause celebré for Liberals everywhere. I too identify myself as a Liberal, but I use the term in its traditional philosophical sense, relating to writers like John Locke, Thomas Paine, and in particular John Stuart Mill.

I regard Mill's On Liberty as a useful starting point when considering the rights and wrongs of the issue. In particular, the following of Mill's principles seem relevant:

  • The government should restrict no interaction that occurs between rational consenting adults that does not cause direct harm to unwilling others.

Prima facie, it might seem that this principle would militate in favour of the government legalising gay marriage. After all, it concerns two consenting individuals, and the harm it does to "the institution of marriage" is sufficiently ill-defined and amorphous to be dismissed: it is not clear who would be harmed, or precisely how, by the recognition of same sex unions as marriage. Many of the arguments against gay marriage amount to nothing more than "Straw Man" attacks - those who would link it to adoption by gay couples, and who disapprove of such a policy, should restrict their attacks to that specific policy.

Secunda facie, however, government restriction of gay marriage is not quite like drug use, prostitution, abortion, or gun ownership. It is not the case that California will now suppress gay couples from calling each other husband or wife, or forbid them from calling their union a marriage. This is not a case of the government intervening in people's private lives. In seeking legalisation of their union, gay couples are seeking from the government a particular form of recognition, together with its legal and economic privileges. The kind of arrangement they are seeking exists because of, and not in spite of, a legal framework.

However, there are still strong Liberal arguments for legalising same-sex union. In particular, marriage comes with certain legal, civic, and economic privileges, and these privileges can only be enjoyed by mixed-sex pairings. This is illiberal, for the following reasons.

The Liberal state should be a minimal organ for maximising the welfare of every citizen. It has no paternalistic mandate, and its sole obligation is to ensure the happiest sustainable society. It can justify any legislation that it passes for this reason alone. Therefore it is illiberal to base any policy on the conviction that certain social arrangement are more ethical than others or certain citizens more deserving. Therefore the state must be blind to colour, gender, and sexuality. It should, for that matter, also be blind to other non-social and non-economic factors: it would be illiberal for the state to promote rural over urban living unless this policy were derived from a clear calculation relating to the welfare of its citizens.

Blindness towards gender includes mixed gender arrangements. It is illiberal to provide greater funding to mixed sex schools than to single sex schools, unless this can be justified by clear empirical evidence showing that one or the other is overwhelmingly in the public good. Likewise, it is illiberal to restrict certain civic and legal rights to mixed-sex unions. The only acceptable liberal justification for this would be if serious and direct harm were caused by such unions to either the individuals concerned or those around them. Needless to say, this is not the case for gay marriage. Thus there is an argument to say that, even if every one in our society were as a matter of fact heterosexual, there would be no justification for legally limiting marriage to heterosexuals, even if no-one would actually benefit from it as a policy.

As it is, however, a large group of citizens would directly benefit from that policy. There would also be many less direct welfare gains. In particular, the individuals who would benefit are those who have historically had their rights illiberally restricted by the state, and who still face discrimination in many areas of life. Therefore it would have the side benefit of reducing the sense of alienation from society among many individuals, so its benefits to welfare would be amplified.

This is a clear argument for civil unions, that is, extending the same legal and economic rights to gay couples that are enjoyed by straight couples. A more difficult question is whether this union should have the name of marriage. The state's duty to be blind to gender applies properly only to substantive policy. It is not clear that it should apply to nomenclature. For example, imagine a state that required female inheritors in legal documents to be referred to as heiresses and male inheritors as heirs. This would not be in any sense illiberal. Some people would certainly feel unhappy about a nomenclature that differentiated between men and women, but without any substantive policy underlying the difference, this unhappiness would be purely ideological. And it is by no means clear that the liberal state should make decisions based on ideology. Surely, rejection of a state ideology is part of what it is to be a non-paternalistic state?

How, then, would the state settle a linguistic issue, behind which there lurked no substantive question of policy? Presumably by recourse to welfare. If it were felt that the heir/heiress distinction in naming caused a net loss to welfare for whatever reason, then the state would have an obligation to abandon it; conversely, if it caused a net gain to welfare, to retain it. Therefore, the state must judge whether the unhappiness and alienation that would follow from calling gay unions "civil unions" rather than marriages would outweigh the unhappiness and alienation caused by calling all unions "marriages." It is my suspicion that it would, but this seems a useful area of empirical research; and it would seem that the dilemma comes down solely to a matter of empirical fact rather than any normative issue.

I would like to make one further suggestion (for which I have Sarah to thank). First off, anyone should be able to claim their union, be it a heterosexual or homosexual one, as a civil union rather than as a marriage, if the former term is felt to have less religious significance: I pity any strongly atheist couples who are forced to live out their union under a despised theist title. Second, if the term marriage does have deep religious significance, then what the hell is the state doing handing it out left, right, and centre, without giving any thought to the particular confessional issues at stake? Should couples in Las Vegas casinos who get married for 24 hours for a bit of fun and then immediately divorce be religiously endorsed by the state?

If there is anything religious about the term marriage, the state either should have no role in bestowing it, or should bestow it responsibly, where "responsibly" means in accordance with a particular set of religious principles. As a religiously neutral institution, it has no business doing the latter - that is the job of particular churches - so we are left with the former as our only option. The state should recognise no "marriages" - only civil unions. It should be down to particular faiths to endorse individual unions as meeting their requirements for the title of marriage, but this should be none of the state's concern. Thus I may proudly boast that my union is recognised as a Roman Catholic marriage; you may boast that yours is recognised as a Jewish marriage. Leave the state out of it.

(On a final note, it is interesting that, etymologically speaking, there is nothing religious about the word "marriage" or "marry", as a quick glance at the online etymology dictionary will show you. It means nothing more than provided with a young man or woman: )

Welcome to Charmed By Randomness.

The main concerns of the blog will be politics, philosophy, law, and economics. I am hoping that there will be contributions from a range of writers, though my focus will be primarily with the first two.

I would like to say that this blog will filter out some of the sound from the noise, but sadly that would be a vain hope. Why? It is my firm conviction that most of what passes for news is little more than entertainment, and most commentary and analysis upon it is no more consequential than debating the latest twists and turns in a soap opera. Thus I invite any and all readers to regard my commentary and opinion as nothing more than the extension of a noisy and random narrative. It is for this reason that I regard myself as not fooled by randomness, but merely charmed by it.