In “Saving the System” Bobo gurgles that the United States-led international state system faces death by a thousand cuts if the American public remains disengaged. The most terrifying line in the thing — “I help teach a grand strategy course at Yale…” He’s also got his panties in a wad because the EVIL Democrats are “slashing the defense budget.” Oh, if only… Mr. Cohen, in “The Case for Disobedience,” says captains, Eastern or Western, abandon ships in a world of irresponsibility and moral cowardice. In “Buffett Bites Back” Mr. Nocera says abstaining on Coke’s executive compensation plan sent a loud message that Berkshire Hathaway didn’t approve, he now says. Really? Mr. Bruni considers “Sterling’s Racial Honors” and says bigwigs like the Clippers owner often purchase their pedestals. Here’s Bobo:
All around, the fabric of peace and order is fraying. The leaders of Russia and Ukraine escalate their apocalyptic rhetoric. The Sunni-Shiite split worsens as Syria and Iraq slide into chaos. China pushes its weight around in the Pacific.
I help teach a grand strategy course at Yale, and I asked my colleagues to make sense of what’s going on. Charles Hill, who was a legendary State Department officer before going to Yale, wrote back:
“The ‘category error’ of our experts is to tell us that our system is doing just fine and proceeding on its eternal course toward ever-greater progress and global goodness. This is whistling past the graveyard.
“The lesson-category within grand strategic history is that when an established international system enters its phase of deterioration, many leaders nonetheless respond with insouciance, obliviousness, and self-congratulation. When the wolves of the world sense this, they, of course, will begin to make their moves to probe the ambiguities of the aging system and pick off choice pieces to devour at their leisure.
“This is what Putin is doing; this is what China has been moving toward doing in the maritime waters of Asia; this is what in the largest sense the upheavals of the Middle East are all about: i.e., who and what politico-ideological force will emerge as hegemon over the region in the new order to come. The old order, once known as ‘the American Century’ has been situated within ‘the modern era,’ an era which appears to be stalling out after some 300-plus years. The replacement era will not be modern and will not be a nice one.”
When Hill talks about the modern order he is referring to a state system that restrained the two great vices of foreign affairs: the desire for regional dominance and the desire to eliminate diversity. Throughout recorded history, large regional powers have generally gobbled up little nations. Powerful people have generally tried to impose their version of the Truth on less powerful people.
But, over these centuries, civilized leaders have banded together to restrain these vices. As far back as the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, dominant powers tried to establish procedures and norms to secure national borders and protect diversity. Hegemons like the Nazis or the Communists tried to challenge this system, but the other powers fought back.
Today that system is under assault not by a single empire but by a hundred big and little foes. As Walter Russell Mead argues in a superb article in Foreign Affairs, geopolitics is back with a vengeance. Whether it’s Russia seizing Crimea or China asserting itself, old-fashioned power plays are back in vogue. Meanwhile, pre-modern movements and people try to eliminate ethnic and religious diversity in Egypt, Ukraine and beyond.
China, Russia and Iran have different values, but all oppose this system of liberal pluralism. The U.S. faces a death by a thousand cuts dilemma. No individual problem is worth devoting giant resources to. It’s not worth it to spend huge amounts of treasure to establish stability in Syria or defend a Western-oriented Ukraine. But, collectively, all the little problems can undermine the modern system. No individual ailment is worth the expense of treating it, but, collectively, they can kill you.
John Gaddis, another grand strategy professor, directs us to George Kennan’s insights from the early Cold War, which he feels are still relevant as a corrective to the death-by-a-thousand-cuts mentality. He argues that we should contain these menaces until they collapse internally. The Moscow regime requires a hostile outside world to maintain its own internal stability. That’s a weakness. By not behaving stupidly, by not overextending ourselves for example, we can, Gaddis argues, “make sure Putin’s seeds of self-destruction are more deeply rooted than our own.”
That’s smart, but I think I’m less sure that time is on our side. The weakness with any democratic foreign policy is the problem of motivation. How do you get the electorate to support the constant burden of defending the liberal system?
It was barely possible when we were facing an obviously menacing foe like the Soviet Union. But it’s harder when the system is being gouged by a hundred sub-threshold threats. The Republicans seem to have given up global agreements that form the fabric of that system, while Democrats are slashing the defense budget that undergirds it.
Moreover, people will die for Mother Russia or Allah. But it is harder to get people to die for a set of pluralistic procedures to protect faraway places. It’s been pulling teeth to get people to accept commercial pain and impose sanctions.
The liberal pluralistic system is not a spontaneous natural thing. Preserving that hard-earned ecosystem requires an ever-advancing fabric of alliances, clear lines about what behavior is unacceptably system-disrupting, and the credible threat of political, financial and hard power enforcement.
Next up we have Mr. Cohen:
A recent Reuters story on the sinking of the South Korean ferry, the Sewol, attributed the high death toll among high school students in part to cultural reasons: “Many of the children did not question their elders, as is customary in hierarchical Korean society. They paid for their obedience with their lives.”
It is tempting to think that American teenagers with their liberal educations and readiness to question authority would have reacted to orders to stay put below deck as a ship lurched and began to sink with a “Hell, no, I’m out of here.” Common sense would have trumped obedience. Personal initiative would have resisted what turned out to be a death sentence from members of the crew. More would have survived. The toll of dead and missing, most from a single school, would not have reached more than 300.
There may be some truth to such speculation. Questioning and discord are central to American vitality. But I wonder.
Certainly, South Korea is a society with strong vertical lines where respect for elders and for the teacher (the pronunciation of the words for “captain” and for “teacher” are similar in Korean) is a powerful social force. On the other hand, it is one of the more rambunctious of Asian societies, a vibrant, super-wired democracy with frequent student and street protests. It is not a place of meek obedience or across-the-board Confucian deference to authority.
I am more struck, in fact, by the troubling cultural similarities between West and East that emerged in the disaster than by the differences. When the Sewol’s captain, Lee Jun-seok, opted to be among the first off the doomed ship — like 14 other now arrested crew members responsible for the ferry who boarded the first two rescue boats — he followed the craven example of Italy’s Capt. Francesco Schettino, who abandoned the sinking cruise ship Costa Concordia after it hit a reef off the Italian coast in 2012. In that disaster 32 people were killed.
Captains, Western or Eastern, don’t put their passengers first any longer, it seems. Women and children first has become a quaint notion in a globalized world of moral relativism. To go down like Capt. Edward Smith on the Titanic — to choose duty over self-preservation — is just so 20th century: Lee knew he was leaving children below deck to their fate, just as Schettino knew tourists would perish.
It may be just an unhappy coincidence that these men were the captains in the most recent maritime disasters. I don’t think so. Personal responsibility has eroded as a value. So has duty. So, even, has nobility. This is one price you pay for a hedonistic, ultra-material world — and for the unbearable lightness of cyberexistence — whether in the Orient or the West.
Koreans are in shock — at the incompetence, at the moral cowardice. The prime minister has resigned (something that would not happen in the West). President Park Geun-hye has said the flight of the crew as they told passengers to stay put was “like a murderous act that can never be understood or forgiven.”
More than the obedience of the children, this turpitude strikes me as the cultural lesson of the disaster. “The elder generation’s responsibility for the younger generation has always been a central Korean value,” Christopher Hill, a former U.S. ambassador to Seoul and the Dean of the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver, told me. “It’s absolutely counter-cultural to have crew members not take responsibility, which explains the national revulsion.”
Asian nations like Malaysia and South Korea (radically different as they are) have developed very rapidly. Inequality has grown in money cultures where growth is a supreme value. The recent aviation and maritime disasters that have left hundreds in watery graves have been reminders of the fissures — in both competence and morality — that the glossy surfaces of these societies conceal.
I said I was not persuaded that a Korean culture of obedience caused the high death toll on the Sewol. I think it was more a culture of irresponsibility that is global. Still, it is important to teach disobedience, a fact often forgotten. Disobedience to crass or unconscionable orders is of critical importance to the preservation of human dignity.
When I was based in Berlin, Germany renamed a military base after Anton Schmid, a soldier in Hitler’s army who disobeyed orders, saved hundreds of Jews and was executed by the Nazis in 1942 for his acts. Schmid, a sergeant, was moved by the suffering of Jewish children in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius who had been condemned to mass slaughter. He wrote of the children to his wife: “I could not think and had to help them.”
Schmid’s words resonate. It took decades for Germany to honor an extremely rare act of disobedience in this way. The world could use a few more monuments to disobedience.
Next up we’ve got Mr. Nocera:
The first Saturday in May is always a great day for Warren Buffett. That’s the day his conglomerate, Berkshire Hathaway, holds its annual meeting in Omaha.
Thousands of shareholders descend on the city — there were more than 30,000 last year — where they eat ice cream at Dairy Queen (one of Berkshire Hathaway’s holdings), shop at Borsheims (the Omaha jewelry store Berkshire has long owned) and dine at Gorat’s and Piccolo’s (Buffett’s favorite restaurants). This year, according to his annual letter, the festivities will also include a newspaper-tossing contest, and a blindfolded chess player and an American table-tennis champion who will take on all comers.
Mostly, though, investors come to hear Buffett and his longtime partner, Charlie Munger, answer questions, which they’ll do for six hours on Saturday. Some of the questions will be about Berkshire Hathaway. Others will give Buffett a chance to talk about the buy-and-hold stock strategy that has made him, at 83, the second-wealthiest American behind Bill Gates. Buffett has long called his annual meeting “Woodstock for capitalists.” But it’s really more like a revival meeting.
I wonder, though, if anyone attending this year’s meeting is going to ask him about his decision to abstain from voting Berkshire Hathaway’s 400 million shares against Coca-Cola’s equity compensation plan, even though Buffett felt the plan was, in his own words, “excessive.”
I am returning to this subject because, on Monday, following widespread criticism of his decision, Buffett gave a remarkable interview to Fortune magazine’s Stephen Gandel, an interview that was strikingly different in tone from his remarks of last week. When he first acknowledged to Becky Quick of CNBC that he had declined to vote against the compensation plan, he seemed flustered and mildly embarrassed. His reason, he said, was that he loved Coke and its management and he didn’t want to do anything that might be viewed as disparaging them. Given Buffett’s previous statements about the importance of institutional investors speaking out against excessive executive compensation, I thought he had been both cowardly and hypocritical. So did a lot of other people.
But having had a few days to lick his wounds, Buffett went on the offensive with Fortune. In abstaining, he told Gandel, he was taking a stand. “That’s a very loud voice coming from Berkshire,” he said. “It obviously means we don’t approve of the plan.” He added that the Coke board was simply acting the way all boards do: “The other guys are doing it so we will do the same thing. The idea of fundamentally re-examining the whole thing doesn’t occur to these companies.” Nor was Buffett willing to try to bring about such a re-examination, even though he was in the perfect position to do so in this case.
In fact, Buffett had it right when he spoke to Quick: He should be embarrassed. It’s actually worse than I had realized. My original assumption was that Buffett didn’t want to offend his fellow board members, especially those on the compensation committee, who had vouched for the equity plan. But Buffett left the board in 2006. (His son Howard joined the Coke board four years later.) As the company’s largest shareholder, he should have felt duty-bound to vote against the plan — or at least to let it be known beforehand how he was going to vote.
Indeed, when I asked David Winters of Wintergreen Advisers, who had led the charge against the Coke equity plan, what he thought about Buffett’s latest statement, he told me that if Buffett had announced a month before the Coke annual meeting that he was going to abstain, it might well have been a factor. “If people had known that Buffett had agreed with us that the plan was excessive, the outcome of the vote might have been significantly different,” he said. As it was, 83 percent of the shares voted favored the plan, a number Coke has been trumpeting ever since the annual meeting.
(Coke added in a statement: “The Coca-Cola Company Board respects Mr. Buffett’s philosophical stance on equity-based compensation. As our largest shareholder, Mr. Buffett is an avid supporter of the Company and its management team, and has been a wonderful counselor through the years.” In other words, no harm, no foul.)
In his annual letter to shareholders this year, Buffett gives a lovely dissertation on buy-and-hold “value” investing. He explains to readers that they shouldn’t be distracted by the white noise of the market, and that while he and Munger may make stock-picking mistakes, they won’t be the kind of disasters “that occur, for example, when a long-rising market induces purchases that are based on anticipated price behavior and a desire to be where the action is.”
When it comes to buying stocks, everybody should follow Warren Buffett’s example. But, on the subject of executive compensation, do what he says, not what he does.
As if anyone thought that a member of the 0.1% would really call out another one… Last but not least we have Mr. Bruni:
Exactly 50 years ago, the Beatles declared that money can’t buy you love.
They hadn’t met Donald Sterling.
Sterling, the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers basketball team, just did the impossible. He wrested the racist-of-the-moment mantle from Cliven Bundy, thanks to an audiotape that seems to capture remarks of his to a female acquaintance, who is being berated for publicly associating with black people and, worse yet, appearing in a photo with one. A lady can really ruin her reputation that way.
It’s a jaw-dropping snit, attended by this mind-bending fact: The Los Angeles chapter of the N.A.A.C.P. was about to bestow upon Sterling a lifetime achievement award, which would have been his third honor from the N.A.A.C.P. over recent years.
If you’re thinking that his recurring lionization is explained by an unblemished history until the audiotape, well, you’re as naïve as those adorable lads from Liverpool. He’s been sued repeatedly for racial discrimination, and he put an end to one case, which accused him of trying to eject minority tenants from apartments that he owned, with a multimillion-dollar settlement that was among the largest payouts ever of its kind. (He admitted no wrongdoing.) A former property supervisor of his, in sworn testimony, said that Sterling even fumed that black tenants were smelly and dirty, and that Mexican ones were lazy and drunk.
He has contested these accounts, but has also, perversely, joked about them, exhibiting amusement about his ability to sail above the rap against him. In a profile of him that appeared in ESPN’s magazine in 2009, the writer Peter Keating describes Sterling’s arrival at an N.A.A.C.P. event that year. Sterling, referring to reporters’ interest in him, reportedly says, “They want to know why the N.A.A.C.P. would give an award to someone with my track record.”
The answer’s no mystery: money, which most certainly buys you love, in the form of encomiums, endorsements, acclaim. Just as you can purchase an ambassadorship, you can purchase an image of altruism, and if you want inoculation from, or forgiveness for, the bad you’ve done or may yet do, there are few strategies wiser than taking out your checkbook. Put enough commas and zeros in the amount you’re scribbling and the love will be all the larger. It will wash over you. It will cleanse you.
Sterling surely appreciated this. He placed newspaper ads celebrating Black History Month. He gave minority children free seats at Clippers games.
“He also has, over the years we looked at, contributed to a lot of minority charities, including the N.A.A.C.P.,” said Leon Jenkins, president of the organization’s Los Angeles chapter, at a transcendently awkward news conference on Monday. Jenkins was rationalizing the latest lifetime achievement award — which the N.A.A.C.P. has now rescinded — and its coddling of Sterling over time.
Jenkins dismissed the ugliness attributed to Sterling even before the audiotape as mere “rumors about someone’s character” that were best ignored. They simply didn’t receive as much publicity as the audiotape, which isn’t ignorable.
I don’t mean to single out the N.A.A.C.P. Among many advocacy groups, there’s a cynically transactional ethic: cash for karma. You fund me, I’ll friend you. Advance my cause and I’ll absolve your sins.
In March 2013, the gay advocacy group Glaad invented a whole new honor — the Ally Award — for the Hollywood moviemaker Brett Ratner. This happened little more than a year after he publicly used a homophobic slur and was forced to resign a role as producer of the 2012 Oscar telecast.
What rehabilitated him from devil to angel? Well, he devoted his time — and money — to public service announcements for Glaad. He also raised funds for Christine Quinn, an openly lesbian candidate for mayor of New York City.
In a 2010 story in The New Yorker, Jane Mayer noted that David Koch had given tens of millions to cancer research and had also, unsurprisingly, received a seat on the National Cancer Advisory Board and the Excellence in Corporate Leadership Award from the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. Meanwhile, Koch Industries was involved in aggressive lobbying to stop the Environmental Protection Agency from classifying formaldehyde, which the company produces, as a known carcinogen.
Some philanthropy is purely generous. Some is prophylactic or penitential: The polluter supports environmentalists, while the peddler of sugary soft drinks contributes to campaigns against obesity.
And some stems from simple vanity, as givers chase glory. Charitable groups play the game, essentially selling seats on their boards and having well-publicized dinners with well-publicized accolades for bigwigs who are hardly the backbones of the cause.
No, these honorees are pathways to whole networks of potential donors. So they’re given seals of approval. They bathe in applause. It’s a strange kind of love. And it’s definitely for sale.