Monthly Archives: April 2010

Is Belgium the Future of Britain?

Belgian Prime Minister Yves Leterme

Belgian Prime Minister Yves Leterme

It’s been a turbulent week in Belgian politics. The country, created in 1830, is often referred to as the capital of Europe as it is home to the major institutions of the European Union. But Belgium has long been wracked by a divisive language dispute, pitting the Dutch-speaking Flemish in the north against their French-speaking neighbors, the Wallonians, in the south. The linguistic division is reflected in the broader political division and structure of the country. 

Belgium is a federal state [glossary], with much of the political power of the country devolved to the regional and local governments. The devolution of political power in Belgium (and the broader federal structure of the state as well) were part of a series of efforts to maintain the political unity of the country in the face of intensifying linguistic divisions.

There are twelve major political parties in Belgium, each vying for seats in the national parliament, which are granted on the basis of proportional representation [glossary]. Parties are divided on the basis of ideology and language. Thus there are two Green parties, one for the French-speaking Waloonians and another for the Dutch-speaking Flemish. There are similarly two socialist parties, two nationalist parties, two liberal parties, and so on.

The sharp divisions in parliament make it difficult for governments to establish coalitions. Indeed, in a not-so-surprising development on Monday, the Belgian Prime Minister, Yves Leterme, tendered his resignation after the Flemish liberal party withdrew its support from the coalition government. The collapse of Leterme’s government comes just five months after he cobbled together a power-sharing agreement brining in his own Flemish Christian Democrats, the Open Flemish Liberal Party, the Waloonian Reform Movement, the Waloonian Socialist Party, and the Waloonian Human Democratic Centre Party.

The collapse of Leterme’s government is the most recent in a series of short-lived coalitions attempting to govern the country. In the last crisis, Belgium was without a national government for nearly six months as parties squabbled over the composition of the cabinet. But the timing of the most recent crisis is poor, coming just two months before Belgium is scheduled to take over the European Union’s rotating presidency. Snap elections have been scheduled, but there is little reason to believe the new parliament will be any more successful than the previous one in developing a stable coalition government. Belgian newspapers are already forecasting the dissolution of the country into two separate states, with headlines like “Bye-Bye Belgium.”

At the same time, British elections are shaping up to be an interesting affair, with many observers forecasting a hung parliament divided between the three major British parties (the Labour, Conservative, and Liberal Democratic Parties), each controlling a portion of the parliament but none able to establish a majority coalition. Add to that regional tensions, pressure for greater devolution of political authority to the governments of Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, and you’ve got the recipe for some tumultuous politics.

But is Belgium the future of Britain? It’s an interesting thought experiment, but it’s not likely. Belgium’s political divisions run far deeper than Britain’s, and the linguistic divide is probably stronger and tenser than the United Kingdom’s nationalist divide. There are far fewer viable parties in British politics as well, thanks in part to the first-past-the-post electoral system [glossary] used there.  That said, is Britain winds up with a hung parliament, we could likely look forward to more British elections in the not-too-distant future.

British Elections, 2010

Nick Clegg, Leader of the Liberal Democrats

Nick Clegg, Leader of the Liberal Democrats

The British elections scheduled to take place on May 6 are shaping up to be very interesting. The initial lead enjoyed by the Conservatives has evaporated. Although Labour has not been able to overcome their failings in the polls, the Liberal Democrats—the perennial third party of British politics—is making a contest of it. On Thursday night, the country held its first live televised debate between the three major candidates for Prime Minister. Most accounts of the debate  suggest that Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats, won the debate, with both Gordon Brown, the leader of the Labour Party and current Prime Minister, and James Cameron, leader of the Conservative Party, performing poorly. Polling after the debate confirms this analysis, with the Liberal Democrats enjoying a considerable bump in support and the election becoming a statistical dead heat between England’s three parties.

If the election results hold, the British parliament will become a very interesting place indeed. A coalition government would likely be necessary, forcing one or more of the larger parties to seek partners in their effort to establish a government. While such coalitions are common in the parliamentary systems of continental Europe, England has traditionally maintained a two-party system like the United States, with Labour and the Conservatives alternating control of the legislature much like the Democrats and Republicans alternate in the United States. Coalition governments tend to be less stable and usually force parties to compromise their agendas with other parties.

What’s more, Nick Clegg would likely become the kingmaker in any new government, providing the support of the traditional third party of British politics, the Liberal Democrats, to the coalition partner in exchange for policy concessions. Such concessions would certainly force either party to the left.

The British elections could potentially carry other important implications as well. The Economist’s Charlemagne’s Notebook blog contends this week that observers in the European Union are hoping for a Liberal Democrat win because they view the Lib Dem’s leader, Nick Clegg, as being the most pro-Europe of the major candidates. His experience working in both the European Commission and the European Parliament certainly lends credence to this possibility.

All of this depends on whether the Liberal Democrats are able to translate their popular support into seats in the parliament. The first-past-the-post electoral system of the United Kingdom (like that of the United States) does not directly translate popular support into representation. The candidate that wins the plurality of votes in a riding (or district) wins that seat, even if they fail to secure a majority of the vote. If, for example, the Liberal Democrats win 30 percent of the vote across the country, but that support is evenly distributed, they could win far fewer seats—perhaps as little as 15-20 percent of the seats. Conversely, Labour and Conservaites, who enjoy geographically concentrated representation, may be able to translate a similar 30 percent of the vote into as much as 40 percent of the seats in parliament.

Whatever happens, the British election will be an interesting one to watch. Follow along at the BBC’s Election 2010 website.

Rethinking the Role of Nuclear Weapons

April 6 Press Conference Announcing the new Nuclear Policy Review document.

April 6 Press Conference Announcing the new Nuclear Policy Review document. Courtesy

The United States has long had an ambivalent relationship with its nuclear arsenal. As the first country to develop nuclear weapons, we tried to use our (short-lived) monopoly on nuclear weapons technology to our advantage. The policy, articulated by under the doctrine of “massive retaliation,” [glossary] threatened the Soviet Union with nuclear annihilation if they launched a massive conventional attack against Western Europe. But as the Soviets developed their own nuclear arsenal, the credibility of this policy waned. In the early 1960s, the Kennedy administration offered a new vision of U.S. nuclear policy, articulating a policy of “flexible response” [glossary] which opened new possibilities for U.S. nuclear, conventional, and unconventional forces. All the while, U.S. nuclear forces were intended to protect the United States through the deterrent effect provided by the threat of mutually assured destruction [glossary].

Today, the United States maintains one of the world’s largest (and certainly the world’s most accurate) nuclear arsenal, with an estimated 5,500 warheads. Even if the new nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia is ratified, the United States would maintain a large nuclear stockpile. On Tuesday, the Obama administration released its nuclear posture review, which is an attempt to clarify the circumstances under which the United States would use its nuclear arsenal.

The document has already receive some strong analysis in the blogosphere, ranging from Steven Clemons at the Washington Note, who argues that Obama “scored big” with the new policy, to David Hoffman at Foreign Policy, who concludes that the new policy is a “good start” but much remains to be done, to Daniel Drezner, also at Foreign Policy, who observes that the new policy is of “questionable utility,” to Stephen Walt, also at Foreign Policy, who generally agrees with Drezner but also describes the document as a public relations ploy.

To be fair, the document, as Walt points out, does not radically change the reality of U.S. nuclear weapons policy. The doctrine limits the use of the U.S. nuclear arsenal under some circumstances, declaring that the “fundamental role” of the U.S. nuclear arsenal is to deter nuclear attacks. It represents a break from the Bush administration insofar as it limits the use of nuclear weapons against states that have joined and remain in good standing with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (thus excluding Iran and North Korea from security guarantees). As Walt observes,

I’ll concede that this new statement may have some public relations value — i.e, it lowers the priority given to nuclear weapons in U.S. strategic thinking, consistent with Obama’s commitment to eventually reduce global nuclear arsenals. But from a purely strategic perspective, this new statement is largely meaningless. To the extent that it does matter, it may even be counter-productive.

Here’s why. No matter what the U.S. government says about its nuclear strategy, no potential adversary can confidently assume that the U.S. would stick to its declared policy in the event of a crisis or war. If you were a world leader thinking about launching a major conventional attack on an important U.S. ally or interest, or contemplating the use of chemical or biological weapons in a situation where the United States was involved, would you conclude that it was safe to do so simply because Barack Obama said back in 2010 that the U.S. wasn’t going to use nuclear weapons in that situation?  

Of course you wouldn’t, because there is absolutely nothing to stop the United States from changing its mind. You’d worry that the United States might conclude that the interests at stake were worth issuing a nuclear threat, and maybe even using a nuclear weapon, and that it really didn’t matter what anyone had said in a posture review or an interview with a few journalists. And you’d also have to worry that the situation might escalate in unpredictable or unintended ways — what Thomas Schelling famously termed the “threat that leaves something to chance — and thereby ruin your whole day.

To the extent that nuclear weapons deter — and I happen to think they do — it is the mere fact of their existence and not the specific words we use when we speak about them.  In short, nobody can know for certain if, when or how a nuclear state might actually use its arsenal to protect its interests, and that goes for any potential aggressor too. Because the prospect of nuclear use is so awful, no minimally rational aggressor is going to run that risk solely because of some words typed in a posture statement.

The Best Political Songs of All Time

The Political Studies Association is polling the greatest political songs of all times to celebrate its 60th anniversary. The list they’ve compiled is good. It includes the following:

Annie Lennox and Aretha Franklin: “Sisters Are Doing It for Themselves”
Anon: “Bella Ciao”
Barry McGuire: “Eve of Destruction”
Billie Holiday: “Strange Fruit”
Billy Bragg: “Which Side Are You On?”
Bob Dylan: “The Times They Are a-Changin'”
Bob Marley: “Redemption Song”
Bruce Springsteen: “Born in the USA”
Carl Bean: “I Was Born This Way”
Cecil A Spring-Rice: “I vow to thee my country”
Charles A Tindley: “We Shall Overcome”
Charly García: “Nos siguen pegando abajo”
Claude-Joseph Rouget de Lisle: “La Marseillaise”
Donovan: “Universal Soldier”
Edwin Starr: “War”
Elvis Costello: “Tramp the Dirt Down”
Enoch Sontonga: “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika”
Eugène Pottier: “The Internationale”
Fela Kuti: “Zombie”
Gil Scott Heron: “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”
Horst Wessel: “Die Fahne hoch”
Jim Connell: “The Red Flag”
John Lennon: “Imagine”
Joni Mitchell: “Big Yellow Taxi”
Leonard Cohen: “The Partisan”
Li Youyuan: “The East is Red (???)”
Marvin Gaye: “What’s Going on?”
Midnight Oil: “Beds Are Burning”
Nena: “99 Luftballons”
Nina Simone: “Mississippi Goddam”
Pete Seeger: “Where have all the flowers gone?”
Peter Gabriel: “Biko”
Plastic Ono Band: “Give Peace a Chance”
Public Enemy: “Fight the Power”
Randy Newman: “Political Science”
Rage Against the Machine: “Killing in the Name”
Robert Wyatt: “Shipbuilding”
Rolling Stones: “Gimme Shelter”
Sex Pistols: “God Save the Queen”
The Beatles: “Revolution”
The Clash: “Know Your Rights”
The Cranberries: “Zombie”
The Jam: “Eton Rifles”
The Police: “Invisible Sun”
The Special AKA: “Free Nelson Mandela”
The Strawbs: “Part of the Union”
Tracy Chapman: “Talkin’ ’bout a Revolution”
U2: “Sunday Bloody Sunday”
UB40: “1 in 10”
Verdi: “Chorus of Hebrew Slaves”
Victor Jara: “Te Recuerdo Amanda”
William Blake: “Jerusalem”
Woody Guthrie: “This Land Is Your Land”

Perhaps not surprisingly, the list is generally biased towards the United States and Western Europe, with few inclusions from Latin America, Africa, and Asia. There’s also not much on the list from the last decade or so.

It’s a pretty good start. But visit the blog’s site and let them know what you think is missing.