Monday, August 10, 2009

N. Korea and Aretha Franklin

Many of the IR/ foreign policy blogs have commented on Henry Kissinger's criticisms of Bill Clinton's visit to N. Korea last week which resulted in the release of two American journalists who had strayed into N. Korean territory. Kissinger argues that by sending a high profile (and Bill Clinton is definitely as high profile as it gets, even out of power) figure who just happens to be the husband of the Secretary of State - the US gave Pyongyang just what it wanted- a photo op and some much desired legitimacy.

Two reactions to this:

First, what's interesting to me here is precisely the question of what N. Korea, or more specifically Kim Jong Il wants in the first place. It's too easy and too rote to view N. Korea's behavior within two lenses- either within the deterrence/proliferation lens or the 'mad man' lens. Sure, there are elements of both but what this episode, just the latest in a series of otherwide baffling provocations by N. Korea, signifies is ultimately legitimacy and respect that a state like N. Korea desires. I doubt that N. Korea seriously sees itself as a challenger to the US geo-strategically, what it does want is the perception of being a powerful player that the US has to take seriously and contend with - more for domestic consumption than anything else. Kissinger is right that the photo op with Clinton is perhaps the biggest thing Kim Jong Il got out of the visit but if it hadn't been this one - it would have been some other piece of propoganda showing the US journalists kow towing to N. Korea.

As someone personally fascinated by the fantastic oddness of the N. Korean regime, I have read the few rare accounts of what it is like to visit and travel in the country. The most dominant image that emerges is just how concerned the N. Korean government is with image itself. The cult of Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung is reinforced on a constant, larger than life level. And it appears to be targeted mostly for domestic consumption to a people already battered and indoctrinated into the cult.

The quest for respect as Aretha Franklin knows, is powerful. It's up the US to use this realization wisely and harness it to get N. Korea to behave reasonably and minimally with regard to non-proliferation.

Second, the episode underlines one quite simple thing- Bill Clinton's still potent and effective charisma. I know that this is likely to be an unpopular opinion but I think it would be a serious waste of sheer talent and built up political capital if Bill Clinton were to be wasted by the White House. It's a pity that the domestic discourse about 'too many heads' in the White House or the personal rivalry between the Clintons or between Bill Clinton and Barack Obama were to minimize his potential role as a special envoy. Already, the Kissinger piece as well as other commentary in the US is focusing on whether this overshadows the Secretary of State or even the President, which is ridiculous and more a function of US media preoccupations than anything else. Clinton has demonstrated his ability to be restrained, follow guidelines and has not actively tried to hog the limelight in the aftermath of this success. And as far as I'm concerned, this is just the tip of the iceberg as far as his appeal and popularity in the rest of the world goes. Again, using him wisely can only be a positive thing...

Update: Although as this video shows- Hilary might not agree.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

(the return of the) D-List

The only way to get out of a slump (lets just go ahead and admit it) is to try to snap out of it. So here's the easiest kind of post for me to do. Since the last D-list (back in May)- books have been read, movies watched and meals eaten so there should be plenty of fodder for this post. So lets plunge right into it, shall we?

Best Book : A slump also means that I haven't done a lot of reading for pleasure- despite it being summer. I did however do some re-reading and some reading of work related books. In never-read-before books, I finally read Upamanyu Chatterjee's English, August. English, August was one of the first of the wave of Indian writing in English that sprang up in the 1990's and I've always intended to read it but never got around to it. The book follows the lethargic, pot-filled and utterly sluggish life of Agastya Sen, in his first posting as an IAS officer. Madna, the town he gets posted to, is the stuff of modern Indian nightmares- a crumbling, unberably hot, dusty, dilapitated and provincial dump. For a Delhi-boy like Agastya, it's like being on another planet. Agastya is eminently unlikeable- superior, snobbish, lazy, cynical and a pathaological liar. Despite that and the somewhat overdone scatological references, I liked the authenticity of the book. The repetition of mindless interactions with prominent locals, the pitch perfect Indian officialese and Agastya's hours staring at the ceiling of his hot room all rang comically and regrettably true. And I think the book is still frighteningly relevant, two decades after it was first published.

Best Academic Article: This one is easy. Timothy Pachirat's “The Political in Political Ethnography: Reflections from an Industrialized Slaughterhouse on Perspective, Power, and sight." It's the kind of article, and the kind of work that can change how you view the world. Pachirat has written the kind of dissertation that us, mere mortals can only aspire to- a clever take on important questions, theoretically rich and with deep insights. It also made me give up meat.

Best Song: My best song is actually more a best 'Musical moment': Loyal readers of my blog might recall a certain fondness I have for the musician John Mayer. What? You don't remember? ...Oh well, just take my word on it. Imagine the unbridled joy of the following scenario: it's late at night and you log into twitter briefly just to see what your friends/celebs are up to. And you see a tweet from the above mentioned favorite musician alerting you to an impromptu radio show he's doing- from his apartment! Just sitting in his apartment and playing music from his laptop to thousand of fans interspersed with commentary and stories and trademark witticisms. And the music- demos, forgotten gems, oldies I never would have known or heard, rough cuts of unreleased songs from all sorts of interesting artists. All this was incredibly organic and live and unmediated- a great twitter moment!

Best Blog: In view of the entry above, let me say that finally after a few months of being on twitter and hardly using it- I'm slooowly warming to the concept of micro-blogging. I still think it can be very banal but there is something cool about having access to unique perspectives, ideas, experiences and thoughts from people who have important things to say in their domains - in a manageable and often, witty form.

Best Movie: I finally watched Oye Lucky Lucky Oye and was really impressed by the talent of Abhay Deol. He actually can act and he picks movies that are intelligent, with strong scripts and meaningful plot. No mean feat in Bollywood.

Best Podcast: My roommate (name yet to be decided but lets use Beck-man as a placeholder) Captain Picard, who is quite well versed with podcasts, introduced me to 3 really cool different podcasts this summer: First his former professor's podcast on IR and methods (what I've heard so far is really riveting and dynamically presented- rare), the big ideas podcast - lectures on a wide variety of subjects by leaders in the field and Dan Savage's Savage love- 'enlightening' to say the least.

Best Discovery: 1. Mystery theatre night at the Spaghetti Warehouse. Food was totally but I LOVE interactive theatre 2. My new neighborhood. There's a park. And a co-op. And squirrels in the roof. 3. This American Life- it takes a special show to take almost any subject and make it moving, interesting and profound.

Worst Discovery: Squirrels in the roof. Squirrels rattling in the roof. Squirrels on the porch. They are no longer cute- they are the enemy.

Best Meal: An excellent, authentic Korean feast a couple of days ago at Chorong house, a small and simple place run out of a house right near campus. Nothing like fresh kimbap and hae mul pahjong...

Best Moments: Surviving the institute, surviving the move, surviving the fourth of july, watching the epic wimbledon mens final, hanging out with my very cool and fun friends, two of whom happen to be my new roommates (they're great :) ), the cool, rainy summer, watching my goddaughter turn one and change so quickly from week to week!

Worst moments: Dealing with my summer rash and then relatedly, getting ripped off by a quack who poses as a homeopath- suffice it to say there will be extremely bad word of mouth about this particular doctor whose name is very similar to a salad named after a famous NYC hotel.

Challenges of the Month: Four S's sum it up- Sun and Skin, Squirrels and sadly, the slump.

As I write this, I realize this summer has been about catching up- catching my breath after the institute ended and the move, catching up with friends back for the summer,catching up with news and culture that had slipped me by and catching up with what I'm supposed to do. Now I just have to catch up with the summer and all will be set. At least now you're all caught up with the D-list.