pühapäev, märts 30, 2008

whither social democracy?

Moral cowardice. Greed. Stupidity. Those are the reasons that the current German leadership lacks the political will to send favorable signals to Ukraine and Georgia about future NATO and EU membership, according to one foreign policy thinker.

This hesitance does influence other wobbly policies in adjacent Western European countries like France and Spain, and yet the trail of breadcrumbs seems to lead us back to Berlin's grand coalition of Angela Merkel and Frank-Walter Steinmeier. Aye, the stench of the German Social Democratic Party is in the air on the eve of the NATO Bucharest Summit.

This weekend's Lennart Meri Conference was in someways a coming together of the European center-right. The representatives of former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder were not to be found. And while Lennart's soul is kept alive with anecdotes about a chain smoking Estonian intellectual with a whimsical love of history and a way with quick oneliners, I felt that the real soul of the conference was Mart Laar, who during his turn on the panel sat with his laptop open, presumably keeping abreast of world events while the other interviewees tried to explain European integration with metaphors about love making.

"Is he it?" I thought to myself. "The new, living embodiment of Estonia -- absorbed by the questions of the day and distracted by his beloved technology?" Laar strikes a nice balance between the Estonian Ambassador to NATO Jüri Luik, who seems a quiet and tough patriot, and President Toomas Hendrik Ilves, who without notice might color his arguments by referencing Wittgensteinian philosophers, the 1970s Philadelphia city government, and IKEA.

And Laar is from the parempool -- the right wing. My inner journalist cries out for some social democrats to counter the onslaught this union of right forces, maybe former Finnish PM Paavo Lipponen, or Schroeder himself. Please, come, make them mad so we can have a good show. But the truth is that they probably weren't invited because of their association with moral cowardice, greed, and stupidity.

It's as one Finnish analyst put it during a morning session. He said the Finnish NATO debate was being defined as a conflict between 'Nokia' Finns, who wish to integrate completely with Western institutions, and 'Muumin' Finns, the idealists who question the need for such a common security arrangement with the majority of their neighbors. I mean collective security, who needs it?!

Finnish FM Ilkka Kanerva was supposed to attend a session this morning, but he supposedly had to return prematurely to Helsinki to face up to the text message scandal. When I asked a Finn if he would like to see the personable social democrat Erkki Tuomioja back in the FM's seat should Kanerva step down, he told me that he liked Erkki's style, but he hoped that the Finnish Social Democrats would stay in political opposition in the Eduskunta for a long, long time

From the Estonian perspective these 'Muumin' Finns and Norwegians and Swedes and Germans are seen as untrustworthy. They were the ones who pleaded with the Baltic independence movements to not rock Gorbachev's boat back in the late 1980s. They were apparently very wrong, and their silence and sweetheart, sauna diplomacy since has soiled the legacy of social democracy. Those of us who grew up in awe of the capability of these dynamic northern countries to educate and care for their masses are now turned off by the morphing of social democracy into Schrödocracy, a self-interested coziness with illiberalism and little else.

It's the reason why there are so few Western European social democrats involved in the important debates of today. They have become stale and irrelevant. As someone pointed out over lunch, "Why would you even bother to invite the European left to a place like this when they have nothing to say?"

Nothing to say, and yet, Estonia could learn something from the Muumin welfare vikings from across the Baltic Sea. Estonia wants to transition from a low-cost, low-skill economy of tourism, transport, and manufacture, to a high-skill, high-pay economy of technological innovation -- the kind of society embodied by Laar and his laptop.

Yet do the Estonians really get the kind of state support that their northern brethren do in Finland and Sweden? People travel from all over the world to study at the Karolinska Institute or the University of Helsinki. And they go on to found university spin-outs that make the Nordic countries among the most competitive economies in the world. Much fewer are those who take the bus to Tartu, Estonia instead.

I would like to believe that the reason for these small, relatively remote countries success has less to do with them being of superior genetic stock, as one disgruntled German World War I veteran put it, and more to do with the fact that their governments invest heavily in their people and the investment tends to pay off. And so, despite its moral cowardice, greed, and stupidity, European social democracy has had some benefits.

Driving through the streets of Tallinn last night, I got an earful from an Estonian taxi driver named Vladimir. As we zoomed through Telliskivi, the taxi drove into a deep puddle, and you could feel the frame of the car scrape the ruined asphalt beneath as the car pulled its way out.

"Now that we are in the EU, we have EU prices," he opined in accented Estonian. "We don't have European roads, or European salaries, or European service. But we do have European prices." I pointed out that EU structural funds were being spent on renovations on the Tallinn-Tartu road. "They are going to have to renovate more than road around the airport," Vladimir said. "These roads are destroying our cabs, and who pays for the repairs? We do."

He's right. European integration has brought economic miracles to downtown Tallinn. But drive a little bit deeper into the residential neighborhoods and you'll wonder when the invisible hand of the marketplace will manage to make their sidewalks walkable and streets navigable. As for those poor dopes in the countryside, well, they'll have to wait especially long for the invisible hand to reach them. Most probably think that it will never come at all.

It would seem like these day-to-day issues would be a boon to proponents of social democracy. Fix the city roads; fix the city plumbing. Fund the universities; bring in the talent; reorient the economy. Demonstrate the capability of government to positively impact the average Vladimir's life. But no, Europe's social democrats are probably too busy cutting gas deals with Gazprom and smiling for the camera to take advantage of such opportunities. It makes me really mad.

The only thing that could distract my political malaise was people watching in Old Town. As I turned down a narrow medieval street after a deeply moving performance of Arvo Pärt's music at the Niguliste Kirik, I was stopped by a British youth in front of Olde Hansa, the living embodiment of Estonia's tourism industry.

'Pardon me, mate, but are you from around here?' he asked.

'Uh ... sort of,' I replied.

'Do you know where I can get some cocaine?' he smiled.

'Cocaine, huh?' I said. 'Well, you could try the McDonalds down the street for a hamburger instead.'

He looked at me a bit weird and then said in a perplexed voice, 'a hamburger?' I walked off, leaving him to the lights of the Raekoja Plats.

22 kommentaari:

Passer-by ütles ...

Moral cowardice. Greed. Stupidity. And all the other notions about European Social Democrats you wrote, I agree completely with.

But this is the most important thing:
Arvo Pärt truly is a genius. Estonia's great gift to music, he will be remembered and listened to for centuries. If there is any justice in the world, that is.

egan ütles ...

Great post, Justin.

Do you have any links for this Pentillä comment, btw? I'd love to be able to use it this week if there's a transcript available anywhere.

Andres ütles ...

Estonians (especially the middle-aged ones, the pensioners already think about their pensions) are extremely suspicious about social democracy and giving stuff into the common wallet. Who will govern it? Who says some guys won't just steal it? Who says the ones in need will get it and not the guys who vote for a particular party etc. The "everyone for themselves" routine is so much more simple and comfortable. I like certain aspects of social democracy myself but I am scared to vote for them since my vote could sort of "be for nothing" since the Sotsid don't boost an especially solid voting outcome usually. IRL is a good alternative in that sense... they aren't as röövkapitalistlik as Reform, but not socialist either so they won't freak out the majority.

Frank ütles ...

The Moomin family does not deserve that reference ...

space_maze ütles ...

Moral cowardice. Greed. Stupidity. And all the other notions about European Social Democrats you wrote, I agree completely with.

I would like to point out that the European League of Social Democrats was the only European trans-national organisation thingy that came out openly to support Estonia last year over the bronze soldier.

Which isn't to say that Gerhard Schröder and his ilk aren't massive douchebags.

Giustino ütles ...

Do you have any links for this Pentillä comment, btw? I'd love to be able to use it this week if there's a transcript available anywhere.

You know, I am not 100 percent he said it. He is on the program, but the photo is not matching up with the face. So let's just say 'Finnish analyst' instead.

Giustino ütles ...

I would like to point out that the European League of Social Democrats was the only European trans-national organisation thingy that came out openly to support Estonia last year over the bronze soldier.

That's a very good point. And, as I have discovered, Estonians have found an acceptable role for social democrats -- they send them to Brussels or to meet other presidents.

Anonüümne ütles ...

Good roads, bridges, highways and sidewalks should be noncontroversial matters than require consistent, mundane, ever boring effort. Are there any political parties against them?
the Estonian government spends rutinely 35 to 38 percent of GDP and this budget is 24 percent more than the last (itself 20 % higher than 2005). If these are public priorities, than some party will find an opportunity there. Yet the truth of the matter is that these things are mostly boring local and particular things that turn around slowly, are easy places to hide graft and return benefits over a Long Time.
Already Estonians pay hefty taxes by any standard outside of Europe, but must be some allowances made for the physical plant to catch up to your new found, yet perilous, prosperity. Security seems to be another issue that just might be needing effort to catch up.

Kristopher ütles ...

Sounds like Vladimir is just looking for a populist of any stripe, KERA or SD.

These are the old tired gripes, along with my favourite, "the stores are full of goods now, but we have no money to buy them with".

Besides, are Estonia's roads worse than other places? Potholes are pretty universal after a winter like this one. Last year, I had a very rough taxi cab ride in Stockholm from Arlanda to the ferry terminal. Same crumbly roads with indecipherable Eurosigns and narrow lanes.

anestesia ütles ...

Seemed like a lot of social democrats had prioritised the social democratic conference at the hotel Olümpia on saturday. Apparently they are trying to carve out a new profile for themselves in Europe after losing a lot of elections the past few years. Look out for 'New Social Europe', led on by the Party of European Socialists in the EP.

The Pärt-concert in Niguliste was wonderful. Nice to see him there in person as well. The Estonian philharmonic chamber choir are sensational.

Colm ütles ...

I agree about the roads. I drive from Saku to Tallinn everyday and it's a disgrace. I guess the snow and ice does do alot of damage but still...

Giustino ütles ...

Besides, are Estonia's roads worse than other places?

It's a pet peeve of mine. New Jersey roads are about as bad. Driving through northern New Jersey across from Manhattan, you'd be surprised to know you are in one of the wealthiest parts of the United States ...

Yet the truth of the matter is that these things are mostly boring local and particular things that turn around slowly, are easy places to hide graft and return benefits over a Long Time.

The state of the sidewalks in Kalamaja is no Bronze Soldier, that is true.

Giustino ütles ...

Apparently they are trying to carve out a new profile for themselves in Europe after losing a lot of elections the past few years.

Their weak point is foreign policy. It would be nice if they could show as much moral conviction towards China, for example, as they do towards protecting state-subsidized health care at home.

stockholm slender ütles ...

Well, largely they are the victims of their own success. What we now have in the West (even in the USA to a large degree) is a mixed economy with strong social security and safety nets combined with an open economy and liberal democracy. This, my friends is social democracy - we are all social democrats now. To a degree that parties that were once bitterly hostile to these "radical" structures are now supporting them routinely.

With this success social democracy has turned into a conservative, lethargic force, doing everything cautiously and in moderation. Idealists have turned into bureaucrats that are defending their established ground. Globalization is now slowly eroding our social democratic structures and it might be that when once again meet the naked face of unbridled capitalism, we might start missing these gray, cautious parties of Western social democracy...

Anonüümne ütles ...

Future generations shall envy us for living alongside with Arvo Pärt. Like we envy people who lived alongside Mozart. And we think them idiots for not recognizing the genius enough. Nothing ever changes.

Anonüümne ütles ...

This should have gone under the thread where we discussed Spitzer, but here it is. Why didn't anybody see it this way while it's the absolute truth: http://www.theonion.com/content/cartoon/mar-24-2008

kloty ütles ...

Guistino, I have bad news for you. First, the chancellor of FRG is Angela Merkel a conservative and not Schroeder anymore. And this since 2005. And I can tell you that not a single politican in Germany supports membership of Ukraine and Georgia in NATO regardless if he is left or right wing. And I also can tell you why. Nobody in Germany is interested in flaming up again the cold war, we learned enough lessons from the last one. And believe me it would only weaken NATO in having members who still have border conflicts and whose majority of population is against the membership.

And the worst news for you is that social democrats in Germany are indeed loosing ground, but to the left party "Die Linken". So be prepared that after next elections Germany might have a Minister for Foreign Affairs who is even more left than Steinmayer, who is one of the most conservative social-democrats.

nipi ütles ...

Point absolutely offtopic. Last friday had chance to shoot a fine serie on a situation of winter-fun. Best shot seems to be last of small serie. Actually, got a new camera just few hours before, and things happened behind window so that the serie is formed from 296 photos taken during 2,5 hours. But, enjoy yourself.
http://picasaweb.google.com/liiklushunt
and description of situation - as much I could guess, in my blog of http://liiklushunt.blogspot.com - unfortunately only in estonian.
So, enjoy the show.

Giustino ütles ...

Guistino, I have bad news for you. First, the chancellor of FRG is Angela Merkel a conservative and not Schroeder anymore. And this since 2005.

Kloty, I remember quite well how Angie was elected, and you know as well as I do that CDU isn't the only party setting German foreign policy.

And I can tell you that not a single politican in Germany supports membership of Ukraine and Georgia in NATO regardless if he is left or right wing.

I am sure there's one. Don't exaggerate.

And believe me it would only weaken NATO in having members who still have border conflicts and whose majority of population is against the membership.

The pro-expansion argument is that Germany itself had major border conflicts (West Berlin) when it joined. But don't shoot the messenger, Kloty. I am in quasi-reporter mode.

Germany of course would take Das Baltikum into the alliance. I mean most of the cities in Estland and Lettland are hand-me-downs from the Livonian Order.

I guess they'd have to find their inner Volga Germans to expand any farther eastward.

And the worst news for you is that social democrats in Germany are indeed loosing ground, but to the left party "Die Linken".

That is bad news, because Germany rejected Marxism in 1848, 1918, and 1989. I don't think Die Linke is headed anywhere.

Frank ütles ...

From a German point of view:

- the good news are that per saldo the left parties (social democrats, the Left, German rohelised) have been losing voters over the last years;

- the bad news are that the conservatives in Germany more or less have turned into social democrats over the last decades, and are afraid to rely on their heritage proper, they are undecided;

- the worst news are that the electorate is more and more disappointed with the political class and does not see it worthwhile to vote or to participate in the political process,

- Steimmeier is a bureaucrat and used to be Schröder´s sherpa, he lacks charisma and is not anchored in the social democratic party considerable.

stalker ütles ...

Good. Now how about you write a bit about the fact that Russian co-operation with NATO is increasingly seen as vital to victory in Afghanistan? Or would you rather hack off your nose to spite your face by inviting Georgia and Ukraine to MAP, both of which have substantial problems (Georgia with frozen conflicts, Ukraine with public opposition to NATO). Perhaps consider the possibility that Germany, France and even Britain are somewhat more rational in foreign policy than the Russophobic neocons who run the US, Poland, etc.

Giustino ütles ...

Stalker,

Bush grandstands for Georgia and Ukraine because he can, because the State Department knows full well that Germany will not budge in its opposition.

So he comes off looking like Santa Claus, and yet in the end doesn't give them anything. The sakslased look the Grinch and give even less.

But what of the alliance? I think that the criteria for membership are highly subjective. Norway had a nice little maritime border conflict with Russia for years; if the Finnish elite joined NATO with less than 50 percent public support, NATO would probably take them anyway.

I do support Georgia, but I wonder what is best for the alliance. I mean when you already have such cantankerous members as Greece, does unlimited expansion really further your goals?