Thursday, January 27, 2005

Lectures: Prof Joseph Nye and Prof Sir Adam Roberts

I've had two very exciting lectures in two days - Oxford surprises me at every turn, and I am just so glad to be here. Yesterday the eminent Professor Joseph Nye of Harvard University, recently retired Dean of the Kennedy School, who served in the Carter administration and headed countless thinktanks, whom, as Cherfy tells me coined the term "soft-power", and as I just found out attended Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship way back when, was delivering the 2nd of his three-lecture series on power.

He was talking about the IT revolution and about how different countries dealt with it. He talked about how China was rather paradoxically trying to harness the economic potential of an open information network and yet at the same time trying to restrict its citizens access to other types of information. He recalled a particular conversation he had with a certain Mr Lee Kuan Yew, Senior Minister of Singapore. (He must not have heard about the revamp in the Cabinet and re-branding of the "Minister Mentor"...) He had asked Mr Lee about the paradox of equipping the younger generation with IT skills and yet at the same time trying to limit the information that they could access online. The eminent Mr Lee apparently replied that if the younger generation were tech-savvy and literate enough to circumvent the censorship, then he would not care if they did.

After the lecture I went up to him and asked him if he thought Mr Lee had gotten it right. He said that he had lots of respect for the man, that he didn't agree with everything he did, but that you had to give the Singapore government credit for being so astute about the impact of technological change, and recognising that they wouldn't be able to stem the tide forever. He said Singapore was wildly economically successful when they could just as well have been a poor immigrant city-state. I asked if he thought the attitude that lay behind the policy was somewhat patronising and instrumental in its conception of freedom of information. He was of the opinion that change could happen faster and that the administration tended to err on the side of caution. And, well, it is a very paternalistic state. He said that he'd often thought of Singapore as the closest thing to Plato's Republic on earth. I said that that was not an uncommon sentiment. He said, however, we have had several Singaporean students over the years, and I'm always very impressed by them.

Professor Nye was very liberal and non-reactionary for an American. But I suspect this is more the case within American academic circles, which unfortunately, are hardly representative of the whole country. In speaking about soft power, he emphasised the importance of credibility and legitimacy, and he admitted quite freely that on that front, America had bungled up the Iraq War. I'd like to think that his time at Oxford had something to do with it, because there are quite a few eminent American IR professors who belong to the more hawkish, realist school of international relations, and who, unfortunately are advising George Bush, and I would put good money on the fact that they weren't educated at Oxford. At least, I hope they weren't.

Today I went to an IR lecture given by Professor Sir Adam Roberts - possibly the coolest title on earth, and a very big mouthful. He spoke about democratisation. At the end of the lecture he took questions and I raised my hand and asked what he thought about the culturally deterministic view that some countries just cannot have democracy. He had referenced Fareed Zakaria a couple of times during his lecture, and I remembered reading an interview that Zakaria did with LKY in Foreign Affairs back in the 1990s. Essentially, what LKY was arguing was that culture is destiny.

Prof Sir said that history tends to prove these culturally deterministic theories wrong. He said in the 1960s in Europe there was quite a lot of literature that argued that there was something about Catholic societies like Spain, Portugal and the Latin American countries that meant they weren't amenable to democratic change. Of course history has since debunked that theory. Also, in Asia, there can be seen to be a distinct move towards democratisation in countries like Taiwan and South Korea, where before people had argued for the existence of a distinctly Confucian form of government. By the way, has anybody been championing Asian values post-Asian Financial Crisis? Yep. That's what I thought. Although, he said, it's very important to note that culture is hardly irrelevant - there is no single route to democracy or any single model and each country has to develop at its own pace and within its own culture. But culture is not destiny.

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