Archive for ‘October, 2020’

Counterfeiting information.

datePosted on 14:24, October 30th, 2020 by Pablo

Although trite to say so, if knowledge is power, then information is its currency. The more complete the information at hand, the more knowledge that it imparts, which can be wielded for bad or good.

In that light, spreading disinformation is akin to counterfeiting. It is fraud masquerading as fact. The more it is accepted and disseminated, the more genuine informational “currency” (including scientific and factual information) is devalued. The more legitimate information is devalued the more it becomes indistinguishable from disinformation. This is the purpose of many psychological warfare campaigns and is a standard tool for authoritarians that rely on so-called “gaslighting” tactics to keep their subjects confused or ignorant of actual reality and the circumstances of their rule.

Actors who use disinformation campaigns in liberal democracies are no more than imposters and counterfeiters attempting to influence the political market. Counterfeiters and imposters are not accepted in the financial and business markets, so there is no reason to accept them in the political and social realms. Instead, they should be seen as malignancies that need to be excised.

This should be the bottom line for political parties and social media platforms: disinformation is fraud. Peddling information counterfeits should be avoided and blocked rather than enabled, much less encouraged. This is not a “free speech” or civil liberties issue. It is a matter of countering malign deceptions deliberately designed to hinder and cloud the flow of legitimate information in the social and political spheres.

The threat to democracy posed by information counterfeiting is worsening. The proliferation of social media and the descent into “winner take all” disloyal political competition has aided the trend. Information counterfeiting is now used by both domestic and foreign actors who may or may not be working synergistically. It no longer is confined to times of open (inter-state or civil) conflict. For the foreign actor it is a means of weakening a targeted society from within by sowing division and partisan/racial/ethnic/religious/cultural rancour. For domestic actors it is a way to pursue partisan advantage and achieve political gain even if over the long-term it serves the purposes of hostile foreign agents. Be it myopic or strategic in objective, political counterfeiting is inimical to liberal democratic values because it seeks to impede or disrupt the flow of legitimate information in society.

It may seem obvious that disinformation and “fake news” is bad. But it is particularly bad when those who start the spread of disinformation turn around and accuse opponents of doing so when challenged on factual grounds. That is when Orwell meets Alice in Wonderland when it comes to the information stream framing the narrative that informs public opinion.

I have chosen here to rephrase the subject of disinformation as a form of counterfeiting. Not only because it advises caution when validating political claims, much like one would do when checking a label, stitching, material, ink or other components of a branded product, commodity or banknote. Doing so also removes arguments about free speech and rights of expression from the equation when it comes to confronting and countering disinformation in the public square because it frames the matter as one of fraud, not opinion. That should then become the basis for legal approaches to framing fair, just and proper responses to the problem.

Otherwise liars, cheats, agitators and provocateurs will continue to peddle false public narratives in pursuit of selfish gain.

When the dictator wears capes.

datePosted on 14:41, October 26th, 2020 by Pablo

Today Chileans voted overwhelmingly to elect a constitutional assembly and redraft the 1980 Constitution promulgated by the dictatorship of Agusto Pinochet. I regret that my old friend Bob Barros, whose death I wrote about a while ago, is not around to see this moment because he was the first person to write a book length analysis of the Chilean dictatorship’s attempts to institutionalise its rule via legal means, including constitution drafting.

The process for redrawing the foundational charter will involve electing a citizen constitutional convention next year, then voting on its draft version of a new charter in 2022. Presumably authoritarian clauses such as granting the military 15 percent of pre-tax copper revenues will be removed in the process.

But that is not what I am here to write about. Instead, I bring Chile up because events in the US remind me something my father told me years ago when we were watching Pinochet trying to neutralise the transition to democracy by organising a referendum in 1988 on extending his rule for another eight years. The wording of the referendum was deliberately phrased in Pinochet’s favour, with a “Yes” vote being a reaffirmation of support for the Motherland while a “No” vote was construed as unpatriotic and a negative slap at all that was good in Chile.

As it turns out, in 1989 I just happened to be a Research Fellow at a think tank at the same time that one of the architects of the 1988 “No” campaign was in residence. His name is Eugenio Tironi, a sociologist, who was one of those responsible for turning a “No” vote into a positive affirmation of support for democracy and a “Yes” vote as continued support for oppression. His accounting of the obstacles the “NO” campaigners faced, both in terms of physical intimidation (it was a murderous regime that they were confronting after all) and in terms of the institutional deck being stacked against them, was inspirational. The “No” vote won with 56 percent in that contest and the rest, as they say, is history. Yet, even though there have been amendments to the 1980 constitution, it took forty years for it to be designated for comprehensive review.

Again, I digress. During those years my father, who had been the head of the American Chamber of Commerce and managing director of a foreign multinational in Chile in the 1970s and was a friend of Pinochet and some of his ministers, strongly debated with me the merits of the so-called “Chilean Miracle,” military authoritarians as political circuit breakers and the role of the “Chicago Boys” in crafting Chilean economic policy. I have a University of Chicago Political Science Ph.D. from that era and had many run-ins with the Chilean (and Argentine, Brazilian and South Korean) economics graduate students of the time, many of whom were junior military officers directly involved in atrocities and other human rights abuses. Let’s just say that we did not get along on or off the soccer field.

By 1989 I had written a bit about military authoritarianism, state terror, democratic transitions and issues of labour politics and civil-military relations in transitional moments. I had begun also begun my affiliation with various US security agencies, something that lasted until I emigrated to NZ. So the discussions with my father were driven by ideological difference but for both of us the conversations were grounded in practical experience in Latin America–his doing business for over 30 years in the region and mine as a result of the mix of personal and professional experiences dating back to my childhood in Argentina.

During the 1988 referendum in Chile by father and I happened to be spending time together when out of the blue he said “when the dictator starts wearing capes, he is soon to fall.” Seeing the dumbfounded look on my face he explained that it was a variation on the “emperor has no clothes” theme. To wit: when a military dictator starts looking like Elvis in his final (Las Vegas) years, it means that he no longer has anyone around him to give him objective assessments of his position. Surrounded by sycophants and yes-men, the dictator loses an important feedback loop by which to judge the efficaciousness and popularity of his actions. At that point he starts making mistakes and yet no one will point out to him where he went wrong. By the time he realises that he has gotten himself into trouble via faulty decision-making, the knives are out and the rats are jumping ship.

That was what the 1988 referendum was for Pincohet. I mean, look at the guy:

Heck, his whole entourage had the syndrome:

It is possible that “el Viejo,” as we called my old man, may have warned “Don Agusto” that his uniform had limited mileage, even if his advice went unheeded. At a minimum my father understood that the general needed to drop the capes when sharing public space with foreign executives. Around my Dad he apparently did (sorry for the scan but it tells the story nevertheless):

The captions write themselves at this point but suffice to say this was before Pinochet went full Elvis.

The larger issue is that once you reach the wearing capes state of affairs, it is all over but the shouting.

That brings me to Donald Trump. True, he does not wear capes (although he does wear long overcoats, as Barbara has kindly pointed out in a comment) and true, he is an elected wanna-be Pinochet not installed by coup. But if his ridiculous hair and fake tan are not clear indicators of his “cape syndrome,” then the fact that he is now standing on balconies and stages barking about socialism, low water pressure, “rounding the corner” on Covid-19, repeating that more testing means more cases, then refusing to quarantine or socially distance numerous infected White House employees while claiming that he is “immune” and saying that Biden is going to allow dark males to rape and pillage in white suburbia are all one needs to understand that he is mentally and politically done. Either he is not listening to his advisors or they are not telling him the truth, but either way his path is his downfall. For a guy who supposedly is the most powerful person on earth, his world is really small and strikingly insular.

I mean, really:

Come to think of it, Trump probably has a cape or two in his closets, complete with matching hoods, but breaking them out at rallies might be too much for most voters (although one has to admit that it would be a truly epic moment in US political history if he did so). So when it comes to determining if he has reached peak “cape,” we will just have to settle for what he says and does (and not do).

All of which suggests that he is delusional when shouting MAGA! when in fact he is swimming upstream into a blue tide.

PS: It has come to my attention that Darth Vader and some of his minions also wore capes. Make of that what you will.

This last week’s podcast featuring Selwyn Manning and I focused on post-election analysis in two small states, one land locked and the other surrounded by water. Check it out here.

I have been thinking about US foreign policy after the upcoming election. My working assumption is that try as he might, Trump will lose the election and be forced from office. There will be much litigating of the results and likely civil unrest, but on Jan 21, 2021 the Orange Merkin will no longer disgrace the office of US president.

The damage to the US reputation and interests done by the Trump administration has been extraordinary and will take much time and effort to reverse, and even then some of the damage may be irreparable. The scope of what has to happen is too broad to discuss in a short KP post, but here is some food for thought: If Biden wins the US election he should name Barack Obama as ambassador extraordinaire/special envoy to lead the repair, restoration and reform of US foreign relations.

That is a very big task, which is why no one can do more to undue the damage wreaked by Trump than POTUS 44. Obama is the most respected politician in the world according to global surveys and his party is (slowly) moving leftwards. The latter is important because it means that some of the old shibboleths of US foreign policy like unconditional support for Israel or Saudi Arabia can be challenged from within the Democratic establishment of which Obama is part. More broadly, he represents both continuity and change in US foreign policy, and has the stature to confront, cajole and convince international interlocutors. Unconstrained by the strictures of the presidency yet deeply aware of US failures and flaws–including his own while POTUS–as well as its strengths and interests, Obama would have relative freedom and autonomy when negotiating on the country’s behalf. That affords him some room for manoeuvre when addressing thorny matters of international import.

All he needs is institutional (presidential, most importantly) support and the awareness that the US cannot return to the status quo ante. Post-Trump and post-pandemic, with new power contenders firmly entrenched in the international scene and with a broad erosion of international norms and mores, the world is a different place than it was during his term in office, and not necessarily one that looks to the US for unchallenged leadership or moral guidance. That is precisely why someone of his stature is needed to help redefine and reconstitute US foreign relations.

Theoretically Obama could take a step down to SecState, but that is awkward given his previous job and prior relationship with Biden. Making him a global Mr. Fix-It answering directly to POTUS 46 gives him institutional weight commensurate with his stature as ex-president. That frees up the eventual SecState to concentrate on rebuilding the foreign service (decimated by Trump’s minions) and conducting the daily business of diplomacy while Obama concentrates on the hard nuts to crack: the suspended START intermediate range missile negotiations with the Russians, the abandoned Iran nuclear limitation deal, the cancelled Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade compact, Israeli-Palestinian relations, the DPRK impasse, etc. He knows the issues, he knows the principles and principals involved and he knows the history behind and between them.

There will be much on Obama’s plate, to be sure, but with enough resources devoted to the task such a division of labor between him and the State Department could more rapidly address the myriad areas of foreign policy that have been left derelict or deliberately damaged by the mediocrities currently running the White House, Foggy Bottom and other agencies of the federal government responsible for foreign policy issues. That makes the selection of SecState especially important, as the person would need to be able to handle Obama’s plenipotentiary status and also the demands of running the foreign policy bureaucracy while supporting the ex-president’s endeavours.

Biden has already singled that he will use some “old hands” (mostly Obama staffers) in his foreign policy team and will re-assert the preference for democracy and human rights in his approach to foreign relations. But his nostalgic perspective will need to be seriously tempered by two incontrovertible facts, one internal and external. Externally, he will take office at a time when the US is a declining power confronted by rising and resurgent powers and an absence of consensus on how nation-states should behave in such transitional times. It no longer has the will or the ability to be the world’s policeman and the US-led global economic model operative during a half century has seen its frailties exposed by Covid-19. The US must adjust accordingly.

Internally, Biden must agree to a significant number of the foreign policy demands of the left-wing of the Democratic Party not only in order to win the election but in order to achieve stability within government after it. He will try to do so incrementally rather than radically but the bottom line is that he has to do so given the changing times in which we live.

Then there is the military aspect of foreign policy. Since Bush 43 the US has been over-reliant on the military as a blunt instrument of foreign policy to the detriment of diplomacy. The traditional dictum that the military should be used only when diplomacy fails has long been discarded, and the Trump administration simply does not comprehend that “military diplomacy” is not always about the deployment, threat and use of force. The relationship between diplomacy and military force is not a zero sum game. The approach to it therefore has to change.

Recently Hillary Clinton has written about the need to reconsider the “Four D’s” of foreign policy: defence, diplomacy, development and the domestic sources of US international relations. Although she (like Biden and Obama) remains wedded to the liberal internationalist school of thought whereby market economies and democratic politics are considered to be the best economic-political combination for both national as well as international politics (something that is under serious challenge on a number of fronts including from within the US), her call for a review and revision of the priority placed on the four pillars of US foreign policy represented by the “D’s” is worth considering.

In fact, although there is a need to bring in fresh and more progressive voices into the US foreign policy establishment, Hillary Clinton might just make an excellent Secretary of Defence should she be willing to take the job. After all, no one is going to say that her relatively hawkish views are ill-suited for the job running the Pentagon, and her vast experience can be used to bring entrenched interests within it into line, assuming that she believes her own words about the need for institutional reform. Like Obama, she can represent continuity and change, this time in US military policy. She knows the issues, she knows the principles and principals involved, and she knows the history behind and between them.

After the disaster that is Trump and company, her perceived flaws pale in comparison–and they will not be up for electoral scrutiny in any event since SecDef is a nominated position confirmable by Congress, not an elected position subject to the popular vote. Should the Democrats cut into the GOP Senate majority or win control of the Senate in November, then she should be given serious consideration for the job.

There will be much work to be done. The US needs experienced hands to undo the damage, but it also needs an ideological rethink given the changed context post-Trump. In an ironic way, Trump has cleaned the slate and therefore cleared the way for a new approach to US foreign policy. That moment is soon to arrive. So long as Biden, Clinton and Obama have learned from the past and are listening to the left side of the Democratic base, it seems sensible to use them in their reconfigured roles.

For more on this check out this week’s “A View from Afar” podcast.

Media Link: Pre-election craziness in the US.

datePosted on 10:06, October 9th, 2020 by Pablo

This week in our “A View from Afar” podcast Selwyn Manning and I reflect on Trump’s increasingly erratic behaviour in wake of contracting Covid-19 and the domestic and foreign implications it has in the run-up to the November 3 national elections. You can find it here.