Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Happy Birthday, Argentina!

Spent tonight at the Bicentennial celebration in Buenos Aires - 200 years!

¡La noche fue espectacular!

Argentines have much to be celebrating tonight!
Now, some observations as a New Yorker and an American.

Tonight capped off celebrations that have been going on since the weekend - every day parades, every night free concerts, and people everywhere at all hours.

They estimate that there were 2.5 million people gathered on Avenida 9 de Julio. And check this out:

There was no security. There were no police barricades. I did not see a single police officer the entire night, and I was able to get to the center of all the happenings.

I remember I did Times Square for New Year's to bring in 1989. Even back then, we needed a strong police presence - although crowd control was pretty loose. Nowadays, if you want to do New Year's in Times Square, you need to be searched by a metal detector and get patted down by police (yes, they do this to every one - I did it to bring in 2008).

Observation #1: It's nice to be in a great big city that is not a target of terrorism. It's really nice. Buenos Aires is lucky.

Before the concert tonight, they did a parade with floats representing major events in Argentine history.

They began with Native Americans, then they showed the arrival of Europeans. Then more immigration - on one of the most impressive floats I've ever seen in a parade. It was shaped as a huge ship that looked to be about three stories high, booming with music, draped in the flags of Europe and Asia, with people dancing and singing aboard.

Next came Import Substitution Industrialization. That's right. This was a pretty sophisticated parade, for Argentines are pretty sophisticated people when it comes to many things, including political economy. The float had a life-size automobile singing from an assembly line with workers hammering away on it, as well as other machines - like refrigerators.

Then there were floats for various strikes, protests, and demonstrations. Floats for the constitution, and then the coup d’états and brutal dictatorship. There was a beautiful float for Las Madres de Plaza de Mayo - they wore scarves that lit up so that they looked like halos. (This was an important group of human rights activists whose children were disappeared buy the government during the dictatorship's Dirty War, 1976-1983).

Then the parade presented very simply the word "Democracy," spread over 4 huge sheets (DE MO CRA CIA) in the colors of the Argentine flag.

Next, there was even a float representing financial crisis - specifically the hyperinflation of 1989. I told you these people are sophisticated about political economy!

After the parade there was a fantastic concert featuring Fito Páez - AMAZING!

The night ended with the national anthem and an amazing fireworks display directly overhead in the middle of it all. (We can't do that in NY - our buildings are just too big :-)

Oh - one more thing - near the end of the parade were great big balloons, each with the flag of the countries of the Americas. They had every Latino country, as well as the countries of the Caribbean.

There was, of course, no flag for the United States. Some might suggest this is because we are not part of Latin America. But Jamaica and Haiti had flags present, and they're not Latino. And this was a celebration of the revolution of May 25, 1810, where self-rule was demanded by the people of South America. Um, who do you think might have helped inspire a revolution for self-rule? After Argentina won independence on July 9, 1816, guess whose constitution they modeled theirs after. Hint: they choose a federal republic with separation of powers. So, it is certainly conceivable that the US flag be present. Its absence is not accidental.

See, the government running that Dirty War I mentioned above - not to mention other dictatorial coups - was not just tolerated by the United States. We embraced right-wing dictatorships as Cold War allies. We provided aid and even military training. And as for the financial crises I mentioned above, the United States (via the International Monetary Fund) came to the "rescue" with policy advice that we would never take ourselves in the face of an economic crisis. (Anyone think we should have cranked up our interest rate last year? Well, that's the advice we gave to Latin America every time they have had an economic crisis.)

But it wasn't just the absence of the flag - it was the "shout outs" during the concert. Fito shouted out to cities all around the world (for example, Marrakesh). But not to New York. Now, there was no spite in this. It just did not occur to people to shout out to New York. See, in this multi-polar world we live in, the United States is just not that important. Did I mention who was seated beside Argentina's president, (warmly known as “Christina”)? Hugo Chavez.

Observation #2: We no longer live in a unipolar or even bipolar world. And in this multipolar world, some regions are happy to do without the United States.

200 years ago, all of the peoples of the Americas had a special relationship, and the American Revolution inspired them all. But through the course of history, the United States lost any special relationship it could have had with South America. We should work to repair this, but, in all honesty, South America is done with the United States. With Brazil on the rise, and MERCOSUR as a powerful customs union, they just don't need us.

But the same does not go for all of Latin America. We are at a crossroads with Mexico. It is not too late to repair that relationship. We desperately need each other. We need each other to compete in a global economy increasingly organized along regional lines. And we need each other because actions in one country - be they drug use or financial crises, poverty or gang warfare - intimately impact life across the border.

Over this weekend - at a national celebration in Argentina - I have seen flags from many countries officially welcomed and unofficially present in the crowds. Performers from Colombia to Uruguay have been embraced by the crowd of millions. Argentina is a multi-ethnic country that embraces internationalism.

Observation #3: In a multipolar world, regional ties are important.

Have you ever seen a 4th of July where the flags of Mexico and Canada were present? Well, think about it. These are our neighbors. They are our future. If we follow in the footsteps of the crazy AZ, we're lost. The world will simply leave us behind. Whether we tear ourselves apart through drug violence or financial crisis, the rest of the world will go on without us. It’s time we fixed North America and strengthen our relationship with Mexico. And then maybe, just maybe, the United States flag might have a place next to Mexico’s at the next centennial down here in Buenos Aires.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Turkish Bridge: East meets West & Security meets Economics

Turkey is in a pivotal position on the United Nations Security Council – the United States, the United Kingdom, and France are looking to impose sanction on Iran, and they may need Turkey’s vote. But Turkey is looking to avoid the sanction option – and they’re opposed to military action against Iran.

For decades, Turkey was in the hip pocket of the West, no? The country had been trying to get into the European Union since at least the late 1980s – doing just about anything to please the West. Europe took this country for granted and kept slamming the door in Turkey’s face. But times they are a-changin’ in this multi-polar world of ours, and Turkey may now see its destiny with Asia, not Europe.

How did we get this far? I’d like to share just two observations that tie this international security issue to international economic issues.

(1) After decades of loyalty to the West, Turkey got into major financial trouble at the turn of this new century. The government entered into an International Monetary Fund (IMF) arrangement in December 1999. Conditionality was harsh. In return for IMF loans, the government was required to impose austerity on the Turkish people. Turkey – at that moment in history – was not looking so important to the Western powers, and the IMF deal was not sweet. It left many in Turkey bitter towards the West.

(2) Flash forward to the fall of 2008… the annual elections for the United Nations Security Council. Western Europe was taking turns filling the seat. And who’s turn was it? Why, Iceland, of course! Well, if you think back to the fall of 2008, it was not exactly the finest moment in Icelandic history.

Usually, regions decide who gets to be their regional representative on the Security Council. Europe had picked Iceland. But, technically, any country can nominate itself and run for election. And the winner must garner two-thirds of the votes of the United Nations General Assembly.

Guess which country believed it could beat Iceland! That’s right, Turkey – spurned by Europe over and again – decided to run for the Western European seat on the Security Council. And up against Iceland at that moment in history, well, it won decisively. It was a watershed moment in history that went unnoticed my most. (I caught it.)

1999: A financial crisis leads to an IMF arrangement that leaves Turkey bitter with the West.

2008: Another financial crisis enables Turkey to catch a seat on the Security Council in a veritable coup.

Financial crises taketh away… and they giveth back.

How can we win Turkey back? Well, the first thing the West needs to realize is that it should never have taken Turkey for granted. Interestingly, the previous times Turkey had been elected to the Security Council – back in the 1950s & 1960s – the country was elected to represent Asia. I think Turkey is the only country to have represented different regions – this special country is truly at the crossroads of Europe and Asia.

Turkey is the bridge between the East and the West, and in a multi-polar world, Turkey will be a pivotal player. We ought to be consistently treating it like one.

It may, of course, be too late to win Turkey back. If you had to choose your destiny, and could hitch your wagon to either Europe or Asia, which would you choose right now? Asia has growing economic might. But the West has proven economic strength and the promise of democracy. So, the West should not give up on winning back countries it burned in the past. If, by chance, Turkey should happen to need a loan from the IMF, let’s be sweeter next time – kind treatment from the IMF has been known to buy the West votes on the Security Council before. International economics can be a bridge to international security.