2007/12/20

Universal human rights

Our relationship to many not-so-democratic states in the world is not the best because so many people in our Western countries demand that our politicians press for human rights in those states. The basis for this is the claim that human rights are universal.

Well, there's good reason behind this assertion, but it's worth to be discussed if the current approach is a good one even if they are universally applicable.

Let's recall what human rights are. They are the basics that we used to transform our feudal (aristocrats, clerics, commoners) societies into egalitarian ones. The process of transformation took up to two centuries for the European countries - and the enlightenment was invented there!

Transforming societies is no easy enterprise - it takes a generation at least, sometimes two or more. The old rule set needs to be replaced by new ones, and whenever that happens you have some turmoil and ineffectiveness during the transformation as new rules don't harmonize with persisting old rules.

Asking a country to adopt human rights equals the demand to transform their society, as old society rule sets cannot function anymore with human rights. Think about the prevention of sexually motivated violence, for example. Our approach is to threaten everyone with high jail sentences as we have effective criminal investigation, court and jail systems. This allows us to grant human rights and not to force women to hide their beauty.

Other cultures have a different approach - they weren't able to afford court and police systems like that in the past and knew about the severe social troubles for raped women due to all the other rules in their societies. The answer is simple; women have restricted rights - they need to minimize exposure by not leaving home without male escort and have to hide their beauty. Such a rule set works fine and prevents a lot of sexually motivated violence - without expensive police, court and prison systems. The price is instead freedom, a price much lower than to feed and equip all those policemen, judges and lawyers if you're in a society that has already troubles to sustain itself without many people in these unproductive jobs.

Well, what happens if human rights are pressed into this society? The old rule set doesn't function anymore, but the costs of the more modern rule set cannot be afforded. The state is overburdened - as can be observed in many Third World countries.

We should recognize the challenges that some human rights create and not consider human rights as something free, something that has no disadvantages except probably for those who are already in power. There's a reason why dozens of states world-wide resist our demands for more human rights.

It's a fact that pressing other countries is less in our own national interest than being befriended with them. So we shouldn't press other countries to adopt our values until they're prepared to master the challenge.

To insist that all nations adopt human right immediately is not in our national interest, and often even not so in theirs.


Sven Ortmann

2007/12/14

The press as threat

Most nations have their own press disaster, a newspaper or TV channel that doesn't deserve respect for its quality in reporting.
The German example is a newspaper which is sold in - thank god - steeply declining quantities.

This newspaper is owned by a publishing house that's known for its questionable quality output for decades. This specific publishing house has entered the market for postal services, apparently thinking that the logistical experience by newspaper deliveries was enough qualification for the business.
Well, the enterprise for the postal service market does not fare very well. It's known for unacceptably low pay and it's not in a good shape.

So far no threat to our freedom or sovereignty. But we have a discussion in Germany; the labour union of the classic postal service wants our secretary of economy to turn their collective labour agreement into one for the whole market, including said enterprise. That's possible in German law if the agreement already covers more than half of the sector.

Well, this agreement includes a minimum wage that would quickly kill the publishing house-owned enterprise - and here comes the trouble.

Said newspaper launched one of its terrible campaigns - against the minimum wage. The postal service enterprise somehow managed to have its workers protesting against the higher wages - and only one newspaper reported this nonsense.

There's much more about it, but the essence is that a part of our media landscape manipulates public opinion by extremely poor and biased reporting, much more biased than the usual newspaper bias. It has become obvious for everyone that the press is not only strengthening our democracy - it can also be a threat to democracy (and thereby to freedom), exerting unacceptable and unjustified pressure on politicians (many examples) to pursue an agenda.
Elements of the press can be a lobbyist group in themselves.

I see good arguments for strict press regulations that decentralize ownership of newspapers, TV stations and Internet portals. Italy, USA, Australia, Russia and Germany provided enough bad examples in the past 15 years alone.

edit: The campaign was not successful. The underpaid workers of the postal service get their new minimum wage and the publishing house is about to sell the company.


Sven Ortmann

2007/12/13

The doctrine of primacy

Just a couple of years ago many people believed that the military primacy of the U.S. would make it possible to defeat most nations of earth at once. Today it's clear that even the occupation of a rather minor country is too much without a conscription.

The assumption of military omnipotence was characteristic for the attitude around 2000. It was certainly true that in some types of terrain the U.S. forces could smash many enemy army divisions. It is also true that personnel exhaustion, supply consumption, terrain restrictions, opposing numbers and clever counters to U.S. strengths impose limits on this ability that were not visible in the short campaigns of the past 30 years.

But who cares if the U.S. is able to smash other armies, probably several at once? Is it really useful? And if it is useful - does it justify the costs? Loss of productivity by manpower demand, fiscal costs, social costs ... the U.S. military is the most expensive force in the world. What does this strength offer as advantage to compensate for this?

The present strength and costs were created by the assumption that these forces need to be able to defeat several mid-sized powers at once. But not only defeat - no, resounding success was expected. It wouldn't have been satisfying to defeat those powers (people usually thought of Iraq and North Korea) - the expected superiority must have been excessive or people wouldn't be satisfied with the preparations.
No weakness that could be abolished with money was acceptable, superiority had to be complete.

The primacy idea and its traps and limits was explored in a very impressive way by Carl Conetta of the PDA (Project on Defense Alternatives). He describes the quest for primacy as a zeitgeist in which the current U.S. politicians and thinkers seem to be stuck.

At any rate, when evaluating primacy, the most important comparison is not between us and other international actors, but between means and ends - that is, between our power and what we propose to do with it. The options range from simple defense and deterrence at one end to schemes of coercive national transformation on the other. If our Iraq experience teaches anything, it is that humility is in order. But this lesson is not likely to register in our policy discourse - not so long as it remains a prisoner to primacy.
Carl Conetta

The rather excessive costs and expectations of the U.S. forces as well as the willingness to use force in the whole NATO never pleased me. The Western world should prepare for the future with more preventive and constructive means.

Sven Ortmann