Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The UN water rights resolution

The UN General Assembly today declared access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation a human right, in a resolution that no country opposed but on which 41, including the U.S., abstained. The abstainers raised various objections, one of which had to do with the status of an ongoing 'process' on the subject at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, another with the alleged absence of a basis in international law for declaring the right to water a "free-standing" right (as the British delegate put it).

2.6 billion people, or roughly 40 percent of the world's population, lack access to sanitation, and nearly a billion people lack access to clean water. This resolution, like all General Assembly resolutions, is non-binding and must be seen as aspirational. It apparently does not commit states to any specific actions, though it does call on them to "scale up" efforts to transfer technology and expertise that would improve the situation. Aspirational resolutions are not meaningless, and abstaining on this particular one makes little sense. It only makes the abstainers look small-minded and mean-spirited. Moreover, pronouncements about the "existing state of international law" merely reinforce the accurate perception that international law in this respect is in need of renovation.

Update: S. Carvin at Duck of Minerva has a longer post about this here.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Trundling out The Liberal Tradition in America

I know I said I was reverting to silence, but of the benefits of writing an obscure blog is being able to ignore one's own pronouncements.

I just skimmed through a piece by Michael Desch (published as part of a symposium in PS, available here), who uses a line from Louis Hartz's classic The Liberal Tradition in America to explain the continuity between the Bush and Obama counter-terrorism policies. There is in fact some continuity; indeed, in certain respects -- e.g., more use of special forces operations in various parts of the world, more use of drone strikes -- the Obama admin has taken a more 'pro-active' counter-terror line than the Bush administration. (On the other hand, the Obama admin has been less inclined to sacrifice civil liberties on the altar of counter-terrorism than the Bush people were.)

Hartz's book, published in 1955 (when he was in his mid-thirties), has had a long afterlife. Desch quotes a sentence about liberalism's finding non-liberal ideas "unintelligible" and the effect this has on foreign policy. (I confess to never having read Hartz's book; I have, however, read Robert Packenham's 1973 book Liberal America and the Third World, which uses Hartz to explain and criticize U.S. efforts to advance 'political development' in poor countries.)

As a postscript, it should be pointed out, to avoid possible misunderstanding, that Hartz was not using "liberal" mainly in the liberal-versus-conservative sense of contemporary political debate, but rather to refer to a basic set of ideas that go back to the Founding and that have been broadly shared across the American political spectrum.

P.P.S. For discussion of Hartz's career at Harvard, which ended with his early retirement from teaching in 1974, see Paul Roazen's introduction to The Necessity of Choice: Nineteenth-Century Political Thought (Transaction, 1990), his edition of Hartz's lectures on that subject.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

And one more thing...

...before I revert to silence for a while. This post throws light on one of the reasons so many immigrants, particularly from poorer countries south of the border, are in the U.S. illegally -- the reason in question being that the U.S. makes it virtually impossible for unskilled workers to get green cards that would enable them to migrate legally.
H/t: IPE at UNC (link at the sidebar).

60th anniversary of start of the Korean War

The NewsHour tonight had a segment on this, including a 90-second-or-so refresher on the background. I won't say more, because I'm on a summer break from posting.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Let them eat dark chocolate

A recent issue of Perspectives on Politics (vol. 8, no. 1, March 2010) carries a symposium on Violence and Social Orders: A Conceptual Framework for Interpreting Recorded Human History (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2009), by Douglass North, John J. Wallis, and Barry Weingast (NW&W).

The first review in the symposium is by Jack Snyder, who writes that NW&W "aim at nothing less than explaining democracy, economic development, and domestic social peace, which, they say, tend to go together for reasons that have heretofore eluded explanation by social science. The 'omitted factor' that they say causes these good outcomes is the 'open access' pattern of social relationships, based on impersonal rules that provide universal access to the benefits of political and economic organizations (p.13)."

Snyder hastens to assure us that this is more than "an all-too-familiar paean to the benign efficiency of democratic and market institutions, which," he notes with considerable understatement, "might be off-putting to some readers in the wake of the global financial meltdown." Rather, NW&W's distinction between open-access societies and limited-access societies (which they call "natural states") has, according to Snyder, "profound implications for efforts to engineer democratic and economic development."
"Like recent research on red wine and dark chocolate, everything you thought was bad for you turns out to be good, and vice versa. Orderly corruption and electoral manipulation turn out to be good in natural states, because they preserve social peace and allow the gradual development of rule-governed relations among elites [except, one might think, in places where civil wars are already ongoing, but never mind that--LFC]. Natural states advance toward impersonal social relations by partial steps as they mature. Instead of making an unsustainable leap to create encompassing impersonal categories like 'citizen,' they create semi-impersonal categories that treat all individuals of a given status -- nobles, clerics, whites, party members -- as juridical equals. Once rule of law and impersonal forms of organization are established among elites in this way, such practices can be extended to the entire population, if an elite faction sees an advantage in it."
Snyder observes that this supports "the view that successful democratic transitions need to be carried out in a sequence," starting with the construction of administrative and legal institutions and only then moving to "unfettered mass electoral politics."

Fair enough, I suppose -- but it seems to me that the stuff about natural states advancing gradually rather than "leap[ing] to create encompassing impersonal categories like 'citizen'" fails to capture certain important events in "recorded human history" -- such as, say, the French Revolution. Since I've only read the review, not the book itself, I hesitate to be too critical. Still, it does give one pause.