Halliday’s ‘The World’s Twelve Worst Ideas’

I came across a collection of essays and blogs by the late Fred Halliday, entitled Political Journeys (2007), published in the last few years of his life. Halliday, who died in 2010 at only 64 years of age, was one of my professors in the International Relations Department at the London School of Economics in the mid-nineties. By some standards he was the big departmental star, not only as a researcher, but also as a public intellectual.

Like most professors he was firmly left wing, a former communist who moved somewhat to the centre. To his credit, his teaching was immaculate: you could not tell his political ideas from his lecturing or the extensive international political theory reading list he gave. He was known for his expertise of the Middle East, revolutions, and his feminism. But he was also a good theorist, and his book Rethinking International Relations (1994) is especially a real treat.

While going through Political Journeys my eyes fell on a piece about ‘the world’s twelve worst ideas in 2007’. Most of them still stand, also from a classical liberal and libertarian viewpoint, and warrant a full discussion by themselves. Yet for now I just list them here, in descending order, with short explanations between parentheses when not self-explanatory:

12. human behaviour can be predicted (against the scientific fallacy in the social sciences)

11. the world is speeding up (large areas I human life still consume the same amount of time as ever before, despite acceleration in other areas)

10. we have no need for history

9. we live in a ‘post-feminist epoch’ (still a need for feminism, given the position of women in most parts of the world)

8. markets are a natural phenomenon, which allow for the efficient allocation of resources and preferences (clearly I strongly disagree with Halliday here, although he seems to mix up real free markets and those characterised by government interference)

7. religion should again be allowed, when not encouraged, to play a role in political and social life (points to the fight against the influence of religion on public life)

6. in the modern world we do not need utopias (aspiration to a better world as necessary part of the human condition)

5. we should welcome the spread of English as a world language (while practical it comes with cultural arrogance by the Anglo-Saxons)

4. the world is divided into comparable moral blocs or civilisations (there is indeed a set of common values shared across the world)

3. diasporas have a legitimate role to play in national and international politics (refutes the idea that diaspora have a special insight into their homeland, and Halliday then points to the negative and backward role in the resolution of the conflicts in their countries of origin)

2. the only thing ‘they’ understand is force (plain colonial and hegemonic thinking)

1. the world’s population problems and the spread of AIDS can be solved by ‘natural’ means (against those who oppose condoms use and other contraceptives)

In foreign affairs, don’t ignore “soft power”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, during his 6 day visit to India (January 14-19, 2018), made some interesting points. While arguing in favor of the advantages of hard power over soft power, Netanyahu stated:

I like soft power, but hard power is usually better. You need F-35s (fighter jets), cyber, a lot of intelligence… Where does the power for hard power come from? It comes from economic power.

Interestingly, India in recent years, under current Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has been focusing on promoting its Soft Power through a number of ways such as popularizing Yoga (The United Nations declared June 21st as International Yoga Day), Ayurveda, reaching out to its Diaspora, and rekindling Buddhist linkages with neighbours in South Asia as well as South East Asian and East Asian countries including China.

Modi has reiterated the relevance of “soft power” on more than one occasion. Even in the context of India-Israel relations, soft power has played a key role. There have been efforts toward renovating historical sites of Jews in India, and there has been an outreach towards Jews of Indian origin now settled in Israel. There have been efforts to strengthen educational linkages between both countries. During the visit of Israeli President Reuven Rivlin in November 2016, MOU’s were signed between the Hafia University of Israel and the Welingkar Institute of Management (WeSchool), and IDC Herzliya, Israel with the SP Jain School of High Technology. The joint statement issued during Netanyahu’s visit to India also made references to the importance of people-to-people linkages, the opening of an Indian cultural centre in Israel in 2018, and an MOU in film co-production.

The point made by Netanyahu has been made by a number of realists. Joseph Nye, who first put forward the concept of “soft power” as being the ability to influence outcomes without the use of force, later on argued in favour of the right blend of “hard power” and “soft power,” dubbing it as “smart power”. Along with Richard Armitage, Nye even set up a Commission on Smart Power. The concept was of course popularized by Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who at the confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2009, stated:

We must use what has been called smart power, the full range of tools at our disposal—diplomatic, economic, military, political, legal, and cultural—picking the right tool, or combination of tools, for each situation. With smart power, diplomacy will be the vanguard of our foreign policy.

While there is absolutely no doubt that economic and hard power does give an impetus to soft power, it is also a bit of a stretch to totally dismiss “soft power.” Many would argue for instance that apart from geopolitical factors, soft power did give an edge to the US over the USSR, and later on over China, for a very long time. In recent years, China has been trying to focus on “soft power,” so much so that in the past decade, a large number of Confucius Institutes have come up in different parts of the world (over 500 in around 140 countries) including roughly 100 in the US. Apart from this, China has been trying to attract foreign students, and also tourists from across the world. Even its ambitious connectivity project, One Belt One Road, which has clear economic motives, is being packaged as part of its “soft power.”

In conclusion, “soft power” cannot be a determining factor, but it does play a significant role in strengthening bilateral relations, as well as building a positive image for countries. While we live in an age where being transactional is confused with being a pragmatist/realist. US President Trump too has been dismissive of “soft power,” and by his insular approach towards immigration, and indifference towards democratic values he has given up on two of the essential components of American Soft Power. Dismissing “soft power” because it does not help in achieving any tangible outcomes is one of the shortcomings of such transactionalism, and is an excessively simplistic view of a very complex debate.

BC’s weekend reads

  1. Worldwide weeds
  2. The Mushroom That Explains the World
  3. …True Tales of Dharma, Demons, and Darwin
  4. From Spain to the New World via Florence and Vermont (be sure to scroll through the ‘comments’ thread)
  5. Time for Bolivians to Forget about the Sea (weak, but a good starting point for a discussion)
  6. Dissolution of the Templars

Thoughts on Life in the Diaspora

I am currently writing in Mcleodganj, the upper part of the hill station in Himachal Pradesh, India known as Dharamshala. This place is often called “Little Lhasa,” for it is the seat of the Tibetan Government in Exile, and the home of thousands of Tibetan refugees. Their influence is unmistakable. Although Mcleodganj is nominally a part of India, the only vestige of Indian culture left here is the inability to obey traffic laws. Otherwise, the dominant culture is Tibetan: most restaurants and cafes are run by Tibetans and serve Tibetan food, all tax free as a result of their refugee status. Because refugees are not taxed, they pass on the savings to the consumer, making dining at one of their establishments cheaper than at similar places run by Indian nationals.

Tibetan influence here is pervasive, but it is indicative less of a strong Tibetan civilization than of the desperation foisted on it by circumstance. When you look on the city, it is awash in the multicolored prayer flags favored by Tibetan buddhists, the snow lion flag (the banned national flag of historical Tibet), and images of the Dalai Lama. Every hour one can hear monks pound large drums to signal the progress of time. The dominant sound of Hindi loses ground here to the less melodious, harsher tones of Tibetan. The feeling this produces is strange, and I will quote from my personal travel blog here:

“Surveying it all, though, it is hard to avoid the realization of how much they have lost. Tibet has a geographical area of 970,000 square miles, or about five times the size of France. For the history of the institution, the Dalai Lama has ruled over this area, acting as political and spiritual head of state for those under his jurisdiction. Now the king has become the courtier, as his and his people’s existence in exile depends on the continued benevolence of the Indian government. Meanwhile, China continues a concerted campaign of ethnic cleansing in historical Tibet. Pumping in thousands of Han Chinese into the major cities, the Chinese government is slowly diluting the ethnic composition of the land, and eventually there will be no Tibet, though Tibetans will remain. The result is easy to see whenever a Tibetan speaks frankly about his lived experience. Sangye, who teaches cooking classes here, told us his story. He left Tibet in 1997, and for seven years had no contact with his family. When he finally obtained their phone number, he said that his mother could not speak, because her voice was too choked with tears. Though he speaks to them frequently, he has not been able to see them, as he cannot return for fear of arrest. Even when they talk, all political or news topics are strictly forbidden; only small talk is permissible. The saddest part did not come when he talked about his past, however. When we asked him, “What do you think the future holds?” he grew quiet. “I don’t think I will ever go back,” he said. “Though I hope to.” I could feel the sense of pride mixed with fear, desperation, and resignation in his voice as he told us his story, one representative of many Tibetans. Dharamshala is a place of refuge for them, but the warmest embrace will always grow cold with the thought of home.”

Dharamshala is a cautionary tale about the limits of nonviolent resistance without broad political support. For 55 years, since the ouster of the Dalai Lama and his residency in Dharamshala, the Tibetan diaspora has been waging a war of words in the international media to raise support for Tibet. Despite widespread sympathy with them, there has been little concrete action on their behalf since the failed CIA effort to train Tibetan fighters in the mid 1950s. Indeed, the current has been moving in the opposite direction, such as when the United Kingdom changed its designation of China’s role in Tibet from suzerain to sovereign in an attempt to curry favor with the PRC. Even India has ceased to care about Tibet.

Tibetan independence is not only flagging externally, but also internally. The effect of frequent Tibetan protests has been muted with the increasing influx of Han Chinese into metropolitan areas. These imports in some cases now outnumber the indigenous Tibetans, such as in Lhasa, where most Tibetans live in the small old city, which is surrounded by a larger settlement of Han Chinese. Furthermore, the Roof of the World can only support a limited number of people, and many of them flee to India each year. Tibet hemorrhages Tibetans, and Chinese fill the gap.

Most people enjoy a triumphal narrative. They like the “good guys” to succeed and the “bad guys” to fail. But history is not a narrative except in the minds of historians. It is a chaotic, jumbled mess in reality, and in this case, the triumph will likely never materialize. Like Sangye, Tibetans will always want to return home, and just like him, they likely never will. Perhaps they will fade into just another minority group in northern India, separated from their historical land and keeping it alive only in memory. Perhaps, like the Jews, they will one day return to that land after many years. It is truly impossible to say.