Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Europe's Far Right and the Tea Party

After elections last weekend, Sweden has become the latest European country with a parliament featuring a anti-immigration, anti-Islam far-right party. Like the Netherlands, home of the unabashedly anti-Muslim Geert Wilders, who is the closest thing the European far-right has to a transnational star, Sweden has enjoyed a reputation as a paragon of tolerance and and liberalism. The far-right is still weak in Sweden relative to in many other European countries, but it is rising in popularity and speaks to xenophobic fears among the Swedish people. As La Stampa points out, Sweden is indicative of a growing problem in Europe - and in the West overall - which the global economic downturn has naturally accelerated. Centrist leaders like Nicolas Sarkozy have fended off the political right by trying to attract its voters, as in the recent deportations of Roma to Romania. Such nationalist and xenophobic actions, as EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding expressed, betray European values and summon the ghosts of a dark past.

Aside from expressing worrisome intolerance among European populations, such electoral results as Sweden's can make governing difficult. With the Swedish Democrats reaching about 5.7% of the vote and entering the Riksdag, they hold the balance of power between the two tradition center-right and center-left blocks. In order to remain prime minister, Fredrik Reinfeldt will need support from the Greens. The entry of a new extremist, populist party unacceptable as a partner to the others has led to near-political-paralysis in other European parliamentary states. Wilders' Freedom Party won 24 of 150 seats in the Dutch elections in June and the country has still not been able to form a government. In Germany, the 2005 success of the Left Party, which has roots in the East German Communist Party, led to the awkward grand coalition government between the two largest parties. In another solution, the Danish People's Party, still seen as too toxic for a formal coalition government but the third-largest political force in Denmark, has informally supported minority governments of the center-right in exchange for concessions on its issues, principally immigration.

The rise of the right has real costs. Immigration to Denmark has become all but impossible. The French Roma policy is discriminatory as well as expensive and without much purpose, as the EU ensures freedom of movement and many Roma deported from France say they will soon return. Anti-foreigner measures undermine the moral authority that Europe pretends to and indeed requires on the global stage in order to fight climate change, prosecute war crimes, etc.

While Sarkozy, Hungary's Viktor Orban, and Slovakia's former prime minister Robert Fico have thrown bones to the far right to gain support from its voters (indeed, Fico's popularity among the nationalists cannibalized his smaller coalition partners and led to him losing his job when one of them didn't make it into parliament in this year's elections), Germany's Angela Merkel has refused to pander to the right, governing as a true moderate (her stance against Turkish EU membership is conservative, but perhaps the most widely shared position across the European right, and does reflect the center of European opinion as few countries' populations favor enlargement). But some worry that in doing so she is leaving an opening for the development of a far-right force in German politics. Erika Steinbach, the head of a group of Germans with ancestry in modern-day Poland, left the Christian Democratic leadership structure after her latest in a long series of insensitive comments that angered Poles. Steinbach warns that an opening is being left on the right. Meanwhile a book by a Bundesbanker Thilo Sarrazin (who was driven out of his job after its publication) entitled "Germany Does Away With Itself" labels immigrant Muslims seeking generous social benefits in Germany as genetically inferior. The New York Times notes that all that may now be missing for the rise of a far-right party in Germany is a charismatic leader willing to unite the nationalist and anti-immigrant strands and take the heat of the inevitable Nazi comparisons.

The United States is protected from extremism by its rigid two-party structure, which requires candidates to tack to the center when they face moderate electorates in November. Indeed, this is one of the major pluses of the often frustrating limited options of a bipartisan system. But extremists can win elections, and some fairly radical Tea Party candidates are probably headed to the United States Senate in January - from purple (Colorado, Nevada) and maybe blue (Delaware) states as well as red (Kentucky, Alaska, Utah) ones. Sarah Palin has a very real chance of winning the Republican nomination for the presidency, and possibly even the office itself if the economy stays bad.

The rise of the Tea Party is an interesting development, a real conservative street movement which is purging the GOP for idealogical purity through elections, eviscerating the party's already weakened moderate wing. Like the European nationalists cursing the EU and Brussels, they wrap themselves in the flag and rail against the capital, which they see as remote. They worship the Constitution and the Founding Fathers, although giving them a one-sided reading. As George Washington and Alexander Hamilton biographer Ron Chernow points out, both the father of the country and his most trusted aide believed in a strong federal government, and the Constitution of 1787 strengthened the federal government because the previous set-up of a national government under the Articles of Confederation had been to weak to act in a coherent fashion. And the American Revolution was not against taxation per se, but against taxation without representation. The only district in the continental United States that currently lives under this condition is the District of Columbia, so perhaps it is its citizens which should be flooding the public spaces of state capitals across the nation in protest.

The primary argument of the Tea Party is a radical economic one - taxes and the national debt and deficit must all be slashed as soon and as much as possible, and we should do this by drastically cutting government services, including eliminating the Department of Education, scrapping unemployment benefits, etc. I believe this is disastrously bad policy and unrealistic, but it is not inherently racist, despite the fact that it would harm minorities even more than whites. Less government has more appeal to rural residents than urban residents for natural reasons: they see fewer services, don't like to pay for them, and pride themselves on their independence (with notable exceptions of farm subsidies, and the limited system of socialized medicine i.e. Medicare which America has already enjoyed for decades).

But there is a significant xenophobic element to the conservative Tea Party movement as well. The fears of older, white, rural (and suburban) Americans that their country is becoming more diverse and that they are losing political power were displayed when the right defeated President Bush's centrist immigration reform in 2007. More recently, they have been exposed by hysterical conspiracy theories over President Obama's exotic background and left-of-center politics, fanned by Fox News and mainstream politicians such as Palin, Newt Gingrich (who embraced Dinesh D'Souza's ridiculous theories about "the roots of Obama's anger"), and some who actually currently hold elected office like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. And fear of Islam has led to fury over a Muslim community center planned for an old Burlington Coat Factory building in Lower Manhattan, and a Florida preacher's threat to burn the Quran on 9/11 has already led to more protest-related deaths in places like Afghanistan and Kashmir than the preacher has souls in his flock, and undermined the security of the United States.

America continues to make social progress - we have elected a black president, and his successor could well be a woman or a Mormon. The GOP, long embarrassingly undiverse, features rising politicians like Cuban-American Marco Rubio and Indian-American Nikki Haley in the South. But the use of code language against Obama is at best cynical and dangerous, anger against Islam and the Muslim world is counterproductive to our national security, and the populist conservative approach to immigration costs the country and, given demographic trends, will cost the Republican Party in the near future if it does not evolve.

It remains to be seen whether the Tea Party can achieve its goals beyond winning (and losing) some elections. Judging by the national Republican Party's new Pledge to America, the new GOP is really the same as the old GOP (though many conservative commentators have blasted the stale ideas of the pledge, and if Palin and her allies win control of the party, perhaps we might see something new): the American right in of the 1980s, the 1990s, and the 2000s. In Europe on the right, this isn't the case. The postwar consensus of social protection and European integration continues to splinter, slowly.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Embassies of Washington, Part 17 (The End)

There are 194 countries in the world, according to the U.S. government. According to my research, 185 of them have embassies in the United States. 176 of these are in Washington, DC. With El Salvador, Guyana and Swaziland today, I have now featured 161 of DC's embassies, plus the interest sections of Cuba and Iran.

Out of DC's 176 embassies, 154 have their own building (or, in case of Sweden at the House of Sweden, are the undisputed main occupant). Another 22, mostly smaller countries but also including the Democratic Republic of Congo, save money by maintaining an embassy in an office suite in the city. These are a challenge to photograph without setting up meetings, so I'm mostly not trying. But I have managed to feature Iceland, which lives with Sweden, and the five East Caribbean States (Antigua & Barbuda, Dominica, St. Kitts & Nevis, Saint Lucia, and St. Vincent & the Grenadines) which have a building together, and since El Salvador managed to plant a flag, though not a placard, outside the Dupont area office building which holds their chancery, we feature them today. The second photo in today's set shows the Salvadorean consulado general, a no-frills storefront on Wisconsin Avenue across the street from my local Whole Foods. In addition to the 8 mentioned, Burundi, Honduras, Libya, Papau New Guinea, Kosovo, the Gambia, Timor-Leste, Fiji, Djibouti, Suriname, Sao Tome & Principe, Liechtenstein, San Marino, and Palau also have office embassies in DC.

So what's with the other 18 countries? They fall into a couple categories.
  • The United States of America. We don't have an embassy in our own country.
  • No diplomatic relations with the United States: Bhutan, Cuba, Iran, and North Korea. Bhutan was surprising to me, apparently we have informal contacts through our embassy in India. Cuba is represented by the Swiss in the US, the Swiss also represent the US in Havana. Iran is represented by the Pakistanis in the US, while the US is represented by the Swiss in Tehran. North Korea is pretty isolated, though they have a mission in the United States, since we host the United Nations in New York.
  • Every DC embassy is located in NW DC. However, the small African country of Guinea-Bissau went a little further northwest and located their embassy in Rockville, Maryland, in the DC suburbs. I'm not driving all the way out there, sorry.
  • With missions to the UN located in New York, eight countries maintain their embassy there as well. All have fewer than a million people, and other than the Spanish-French border dispute Andorra, the others are all islands or archipelagos: Comoros, the Solomon Islands, the Maldives, Samoa, Tonga, the Seychelles, and Nauru.
  • Somalia closed its embassy in 1991 when it became a failed state, but it does have a permanent mission to the UN. Vanuatu and Tuvalu also have UN missions but apparently not embassies.
  • Kiribati, an low-lying island nation in the Pacific which will apparently be the first country to vanish as a result of global warming, has been a member of the UN since 1999 but it currently does not have a permanent mission in New York - instead New Zealand casts votes for Kiribati as a proxy. The ambassador of the Marshall Islands in Washington is accredited to represent Kiribati. The country also maintains a consulate in Hawaii.
So that covers the 194 countries. The photos for this set are El Salvador chancery, El Salvador consulate, Guyana (I walked by a few times, but never caught them flying their flag for some reason), Swaziland (whose building was covered in scaffolding all summer, but has now been unveiled, impressively nice and clean), and two bonuses.

Taiwan does not have an embassy, because it's not an independent country of course, it's part of China, but we no longer recognize it as the legitimate government of China while still supporting its de facto independence and control of its island. So they have a mission in Tenleytown, but they fly their flag behind their front doors - you can at least see their seal on the placard outside, by the walking man's head. This is the last photo I shot for the project, I was in such a good position stopped at a red light that I didn't even have to park to shoot the building.

Our final bonus photo is the embassy of the Shah's Iran on Embassy Row (by the way, I'm reading an amusing and ribald Iranian novel from the 1970s, "My Uncle Napoleon"). It's still there, across the street from Bolivia and next to South Africa, but the Department of State took control of it in April 1980 after the revolution.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Embassies of Washington, Part 16

Today I hopped in my car, photographed the last four embassies in 16th Street Heights (Cambodia, Congo, Liberia and Uganda), and finished this project. This is the last set of ten. Some time in the next few days I'll post Part 17, featuring the last few embassies, some extras, and an explanation of why we've only got 163 countries covered instead of 194. For now, this bunch is Cambodia, the Republic of the Congo (sometimes known as Congo-Brazzaville, so as not to confuse it with its larger, more screwed-up neighbor the Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly Zaire, which has abandoned its old embassy building for an office so I can't get a photo of it), Ecuador, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Guinea, Liberia, Mali, Nepal, and Uganda.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Embassies of Washington, Part 15

We're nearing the end, I've got less than ten embassies left to photograph. Germany completes the EU-27, the OECD, the G20 etc. As a huge economy and the most powerful member-state of the EU, it's one of the world's most important countries and actually the foreign country I know best, having lived there for a full year, but it's also got the hardest embassy in Washington to get to without a car, and though I have access to a car, I didn't use it for this one, I decided to walk 3 miles out of my way instead to Reservoir Road west of Georgetown University, in fact further west than any other embassy in the city. It's a nice walk. I like the German embassy and it's ultra-modern exoskeleton architecture from the outside, I'll have to go to a concert or something there sometime. Today's batch is Algeria, Benin, Bolivia, Costa Rica, Germany, Guatemala, Laos, Mauritania, Tanzania and Thailand. With 150 countries covered, we're at 46 of 50 countries in Europe, 29 of 34 countries in the Americas (not including us), 36 of 42 countries in Asia, 35 of 53 countries in Africa... we're still at 4 of 14 for Oceania and going to stay that way because the rest of them prefer New York to Washington (sometimes I can't blame them).

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Embassies of Washington, Part 14

President Obama has ended American combat operations in Iraq, and now the military can focus even more on our troubled war in Afghanistan, deep into its ninth year. I just started reading Jon Krakauer's book Where Men Win Glory about Pat Tillman, it's great so far. Today this fascinating and troubled country begins the fourteenth installment of this project, out of 16 or 17, I've now photographed all but 10 of the embassy buildings in Washington (not including embassies in larger offices). We finally feature the Holy See or Vatican embassy, my neighbor on Observatory Circle, where I saw a nun running laps in the backyard on the day I first strolled down Embassy Row in its entirety and was inspired to do this project. And we also have a few of the tucked-away embassies that had eluded me until this final part of the hunt. Bahrain and Kuwait are the leftovers from International Drive, all of the embassies there are now up on the blog. Uruguay is one of my favorite embassies in the city, I think, right downtown near the World Bank. Afghanistan, Bahrain, Belize, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Holy See (Vatican), Kuwait, Malawi, Monaco, and Uruguay.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Embassies of Washington, Part 13

Our northern neighbor Canada has the privilege of having its embassy closest to the Capitol, on Pennsylvania Avenue and 4th St.. It is also a fairly friendly embassy, with galleries of Canadian art in case visitors to DC get bored of all the American and European stuff at the National Gallery across the street. In today's edition, we also feature Cuba's "embassy," under the aegis of Switzerland (we have a similar set-up in Cuba), Madagascar's embassy which looks twice as big in this photo as it actually is (it shares a building with Paraguay, whose flag is visible on the other side of the tree), the Dutch embassy which is not only the most one of the most remote in the city, but also hides in the forest, the Sultanate of Oman's embassy which is tucked behind Massachusetts Avenue's Islamic Center, and the Swiss embassy itself, which is in my neighborhood and looks like an elementary school (the ambassador's residence next to it, not pictured, is much more interesting, but it's not an embassy). Canada, the Cuban Interests Section of the Embassy of Switzerland, Eritrea, Lesotho, Madagascar, the Netherlands, Nicaragua, Oman, Switzerland, and Tunisia.