Monthly Archives: December 2016

Trump’s USA and the United Nations

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Reacting to the UN’s recent resolution condemning Israel for its continued occupation and settlements in the West Bank, Mr. Trump immediately tweeted his rather reduced view of the United Nations, calling it a ‘club where people talk’. If that were not enough to show once again his utter ignorance of the world he lives in, T apparently also thought that the idea to ‘leave’ the UN was not an entirely bad one. Nobody seems to have told him that there is one major problem with this idea: The USA cannot leave the UN. Nope. They can’t. No, not after January 20th. No, not even with a referendum. No, not even if California secedes and the US descend into civil war. No. Simply: no.

Imagine UN membership like citizenship of a country. You can rail against the state, you can jump up and down, you can crash your explosive loaded truck into a government building like Tim McVeigh did and be hanged for it, but you will remain a US citizen. Well, the UN is the same: the US can jump up and down, they can rail against the UN, they can smash their most vicious right-winger against its edifices… the USA will remain member of the UN.  Their seat in the UN would remain empty, if they chose not to attend meetings, yes, but nobody would screw the chair from the General Assembly or Security Council floor. Every sovereign state of this world is automatically member of the United Nations. And the United Nations, someone should tell T, was actually founded by the USA. With an international treaty. Signed, ratified, done…a long, long time ago.

Of course, the USA can decide  to stay away. No representative, no attendance at General Assembly or Security Council sessions. But even T might understand that that’s not really a smart thing to do. The Soviet Union tried that in 1949. They thought ‘Hey, that’s just a club where capitalists talk, let’s not bother going there’ and then the General Assembly voted a resolution authorizing military action in Korea in its absence. The Soviet Union paid a high political and economic price for the Korea War. And guess what? The Soviet Union never again missed one single day of General Assembly or Security Council meetings.

The USA can also stop paying for its membership and maybe, if it is too outrageous in its snobbery, get its voting rights suspended — although to be fair that never happened even when Republican dominated Congress voted for years and years not to pay their dues to the UN. But then the US will still be member of the UN. Because the UN is exactly not some club where non-paying members get expelled. And of course, the outstanding membership fees remain on tab until a more reasonable Congress votes to pay them, or part of them at least.

So, no, sorry T, the USA cannot leave the UN. And that might be a greater pity for the world than for the USA.

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UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and Mr. Trump

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By coincidence, the UN and the USA came to ‘elect’ their respective leaders, Antonio Guterres and Donald Trump, at the same time. In both cases, there was not much of an election if the term is meant to designate the selection of a political person through the means of fair competition and general elections in which the will of all the people is properly translated into votes. In the USA, many voters, especially African Americans and from minorities, were disenfranchised on more than hollow grounds before the elections with the effect of low voter turnout in poor areas, and the popular vote was, to say the least, in blatant contradiction to the electoral college vote. The problem with the popular vs. electoral college vote is not so much that there are two electoral mechanisms, for this is, actually, quite common in many democracies; the problem is that these two institutions are not linked to each other or even coordinated in any way. The electoral college vote does not reflect the demographics of present-day USA and its demographic bias reduces particularly the vote of African Americans, and there is no obligation whatsoever for Great Electors to take the popular vote into account. Additionally, the election took place in a highly loaded atmosphere with incessant threats of violence from the Trump side, and a continuous flow of fake news, propaganda and extremely aggressive trolling.  The US elections did not only reflect the deep divisions running through the country but also the fragility of institutions that rely heavily on unwritten norms of civility, respect and dialogue.

Compared to the spectacle of the US elections, Antonio Guterres’ appointment as Secretary-General of the United Nations appeared as a rather civilized yet highly staged, hypocritical and fundamentally undemocratic process. But then, the UN does not pretend to be the oldest modern democracy. It actually not even pretends to be democratic, at least not in the modern sense of the word. The Secretary-General is chosen by a mixture of backroom bargaining and ballot by the Security Council members. It effectively represents the smallest common denominator of the preferences of the five permanent members of the Council because preferences, choices and rankings of all selectors will never match up, and it is mathematically impossible that any candidate would ever get a clear majority (especially not if there are more candidates than selectors; this is called the Condorcet voting paradox and is also behind the IOC’s absurd choices of Olympic cities).

The Secretary-General is also not the leader of a world government despite conspiracy theories that claim the contrary. The Secretary General of the United Nations is the ‘chief administrative officer’ of the UN yet with large leeway for advocacy and the potential of an important diplomatic role in the world. Whether the Secretary-General really takes up this later role, for instance by independently bringing matters of world peace onto the agenda of the Security Council, depends entirely on his stature. Secretary-Generals like Dag Hammarskjöld, Xavier Perez de Cuellar, Boutros Boutros-Ghali or Kofi Annan interpreted their role largely and widely and engaged in numerous initiatives to bolster the role of the UN as peacemaker in the world; others like U Thant, Kurt Waldheim or Ban Ki-Moon made the UN almost entirely disappear from the world political scene.

It remains to be seen in whose footsteps Guterres will step, Moon’s or Annan’s.

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Why it is important to decolonize and feminize reading lists

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This post was written before the passing of Thomas Schelling on 12 December 2016. It is not an obituary.

When I was an undergraduate student I took a political economy class in which we read exclusively white, male, mostly US American scholars. One of them was Thomas Schelling. Remembering my two childhood years in a mixed Philadelphia suburb I was particularly intrigued by his model of neighbourhood segregation. According to Schelling, not one group in a society wants to be a minority and hence, once a neighbourhood becomes predominantly ‘red’ or ‘green’ the minority neighbours will move away…to a neighbourhood where their group is strong and likely to become a majority, hence, pushing out the other group that is becoming a minority. Obviously enough, this model is easy to criticize from within its own thinking, most particularly with respect to the presumption that clearly delineated groups exist, that people think in racial/ethnic patterns and that what is supposed to be an autonomous ‘rational’ choice is, in fact, an intersubjective and socially constructed reaction to social dynamics…

Yet, Schelling also missed (or ‘forgot’) that a pretty hard materialist political economy that makes racial segregation possible in the first place, especially in the USA, as Keeanga-Yamattha Taylor’s research shows. Before the 1960s, ethnic minorities in the US, and in particular African Americans, were barred in various ways of buying houses, either because they were simply denied the right to move out of their designated neighbourhoods (Chinatown!), or  because they had no access to mortgages. In many places, public authorities in the 1960s set up public-private partnerships to offer finance for low-income house buyers, most notably from ethnic minorities — Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac for example, two key actors of the 2008 financial crisis were such organizations, were transformed from entirely federal public institutions into public-private enterprises which needed to produce profit. This had at least two effects on the housing market: first, these mortgage companies had a huge influence on where lenders could buy, hence, playing on the market value of neighbourhoods; second, many of these organizations became deeply marred in corruption and speculation, hence, creating repeated mini-crises which led to default and dispossession, again dragging down the housing market in those neighbourhoods where these occurred (think The Wire).

Schelling’s assumption that moving in and out of a neighbourhood based on ethnic preferences (birds of a feather flock together) is an example of rational choice is, in the light of the political economy of the segregated market for mortgage lending and house buying, not tenable. Of course, one can argue that the individual decision of a white houseowner to sell their houses in those neighbourhoods where filthy financed new homeowners move in might be rational in the indivdualistic and utilitarian sense of rational choice theory. However, that the market is segregated, i.e. the structural precondition of this kind of market, and that, a priori, black home ownership (or Asian or Italian or…) devalues a neighbourhood is the result of the political institutions of excluding ethnic minorities and its associated political economy of finance.

That someone like Schelling would have not taken racial segregation into account can only be explained by either ignorance or arrogance. He either didn’t know about the political economy of segregation, or he decided that it was simply not relevant to his thinking. In either case, Schelling could develop his argument about rational choice house buying only because he moved intellectually (and personally) in a white, male bubble (we can make the same argument about the political economy of housebuying for female home owners, by the way, as women’s right to own property in their own name is relatively recent, yet earlier than for ethnic minorities in the US). We can only imagine that he would have thought differently if he had been exposed to colourful reading lists which take racial and gendered political economies into account.

 

 

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