Thursday, May 28, 2009

Does Any of This Sound Familiar?

In the mid 1940’s Argentina was entering the era of “La Plata Dulce.” (Sweet Money) They had nearly $2 billion in foreign capital reserves and possibly the largest domestic gold reserves in the world. Through the next five years Argentina looked like the up and coming nation on the world scene. We don’t hear about much of this now, however, because Argentina made some poor decisions when they should have been making their wisest ones. They didn’t manage their programs well, they spent in foolish ways, the costs of the internal support of the government became bloated, even though they instituted severe austerity measures. They began to focus on “silver bullet” projects that had little hope of pulling them out of their downward spiral. But before we get to the failures, here is a short list of some of their incredible successes.

Between 1948 and 1952 Argentina beat the United States to become the World Basketball Champions. Mario Fangio was the world’s top Grand Prix driver, Enrique Morea won the Wimbledon Tennis Championships (the first Latin American to do so). Pedro Leopoldo Carrera won the World Billiard Championships. Pascual Perez won the World Boxing Title in Tokyo. Bernardo Houssay won the Noble Prize for Science (Medicine), again the first Latin American to win this prize. Delfo Cabrara won the Gold at the London Olympics in the Marathon. The Argentines had one of the most advance nuclear programs outside the United States (I’ve been to those facilities, and they were impressive). And the topic that got me thinking about this… In 1947 the Argentine Air Force was flying the Pulqui (arrow in the Araucana language).

The Pulqui II was so impressive the Dutch sent a contingency to buy it because they considered it a better option than the British and U.S. designs of the day. This was only the third swept wing aircraft in the world after the F-86 which would see action in the Korean War, and the MiG-15 which would have been no match for the Pulqui II.

So what happened? Why isn’t Argentina a world power today? Why are they “the country of the future”…and always will be?

The era of the “Plata Dulce” (sweet money), was also called “Los Anos Locos” (Those Crazy Years). For example, President Juan Peron spent over $600 million to buy the Argentine railroad from the British (it was worth half that). But the money was there, so why manage things too professionally. When economic times started getting tough, Peron instituted several austerity packages, but could never get a handle on his own internal government. He set strict guidelines (most of which made little sense) for the mining industry and agriculture (his money making machines), but spent money on silver bullets that would put Argentina back in the Plata Dulce, such as steel making. He cancelled the Pulqui II program and shut down his nuclear program (which thrilled the U.S.). He slammed the Catholic Church and treated the officer corps, which was his initial power base, and from whence he came, with distrust and disdain. In 1952 there was a bad harvest and Argentina could not make its balance of payments. By 1953 Argentina was in a serious economic crisis. Peron continued to woo those who promised him get well quick ideas. By 1955, Peron was ousted from power. He would come back again in the 1970’s only to institute the same types of policies he had almost 20 years prior. He and later his wife who became President when he died also used sueth sayers to make the really important decisions….

Argentina never professionalized as a country. It is almost as if they made decisions so they wouldn’t have to become a developed nation. It is as if they wanted to stay a “developing nation.” Yet today the country is undergoing severe struggles and for the first time since the Spanish floated up the La Plata River people are starving. Argentina has been blessed with incredible bounty (raw materials, self-sufficient in oil, the best and deepest top soil in the world, brilliant engineers, scientist, writers like Borges, artists like Raul Alonso, musicians like Carlos Gardel, agricultural prowess—one of the largest wheat producers in the world, the largest sunflower oil producer in the world, etc.), but they just can’t get their collective act together.

So the Pulqui II now sits on a pedestal at the Argentine Air Force Museum. Ahead of its time; a beautiful machine and a point of past pride for a nation that is “the country of the future… and always will be.”


Benjamin Franklin in the Art of Virtue suggested, “We stand at the crossroads, each minute, each hour, each day, making choices. We choose the thoughts we allow ourselves to think, the passions we allow ourselves to feel, and the actions we allow ourselves to perform. Each choice is made in the context of whatever value system we’ve selected to govern our lives. In selecting that value system, we are in a very real way, making the most important choice we will ever make.” What are our values?

U.S. financial institutions (and many individuals on every side of the political spectrum) chose a path that represented a significant change in our traditional values. They choose to make money in the short-term--no matter the long-term costs, and we as a country are now reaping the "rewards" of that short-term vision. The federal government's investment in fixing the problem may work in the short-term, but this populist spending spree is creating a deficit that we may not be able to pay back. For the first time since the Great Depression vital economic centers are experiencing unemployment rates reaching 20 percent. I won't make a list of the difficulties--we know what they are. I am also not going to attack the Obama Administration. He is our President and no matter who we voted for, he deserves our full support. That doesn't mean we have to agree with everything and we can work just as hard for our vision of success. Yet, I am so tired of both sides of the isle, in knee-jerk reaction to anything the other side proposes, rejects it and creates a laundry list of its faults. This is a time for loyal opposition, working in concert, finding a path forward that isn't just begrudging compromise, but real win-win synergy. Am I naive? I don't think so.
I have worked in and with federal,state and local government; I have walked the halls of the Pentagon, the State Department, the Department of Agriculture, the California capital, state political conventions in Utah... This is our watch and it is time we become the greatest generation since the last time this country had to stand up and be counted, because their watch demanded it. How do we do this? We can start with looking back at some of the ingredients to our historical success:

I. Common Identity
• Created by shared values, norms, and expressive symbols
• nurtured by celebrating our diversity

II. Leadership
1. Example. Duty before self. Your motive in working should be to set others by your example, on the path of duty. Know your stuff. Maintain absolute integrity. Stand out in front. Never ask the team to do what you don’t.
2. Motivate. No one ever stormed the Bastille because they got a memo. Declare your vision, show uncommon commitment. Over communicate.
3. Listen. It is the province of knowledge to speak and the privilege of wisdom to listen. The more you listen, the wiser you become to those doing the talking.
4. Meekness to Learn. Business is dominated by two types of people: those who understand what they do not manage, and those who manage what they do not understand.
5. Mentor. Expect positive results, and take care of your people. The final test of a leader is that he leaves behind him in others the conviction, the will and the ability to carry on.
6. Right Measures. Results over status. Accountability over popularity. Clarity over certainty. Dissonance over harmony. Trust over invulnerability. Ends never justify the means. Write your injuries in dust, your blessings in stone. Error on the side of leniency.
7. Always Do the Right Thing for the Right Reasons. Go to the right top quadrant every time.
III. Choice
We need to choose:
• results over status
• accountability over popularity
• clarity over certainty
• dissonance over harmony
• trust over invulnerability

The U.S. National Interest

There has been a lot of discussion in the media about the U.S. national interest. The term is batted back and forth across the political isle, but no one has stopped to explain what it actually is. Politicians try to communicate in sound bites and simple terms for mass appeal. Something this important deserves more time. For several blog inputs I am going to construct the philosophical and practical aspects of the U.S. national interest. This might get to be more than you want to read, but I guarantee you it will be thought provoking and hopefully a clarification of the true complexity of this issue.

A nation is a soul, a spiritual principle. Two things that actually are one come together to build this soul or spiritual principle. One of them lies in the past, the other in the present. One is the common possession of a rich heritage...; the other is a present accord, the desire to live together, and the will to continue to accumulate and build the common heritage. (from Renan’s lecture at the Sorbonne 1882)

Any discussion of the United States’ national interest reflects, in varying degrees, a lack of operational consensus on foreign policy goals, application and institutionalization. Yet, it is the national interest that must be the seed and soil of our foreign policy harvest, “the fundamental objective and ultimate determinant that guides the decision makers of a state in making foreign policy.” (Plano and Olton, International Relations Dictionary, 1982 p. 9) Although specific policy development and diplomatic actions are carried on in pursuit of national interests, the interests themselves are subjectively defined general concepts manifesting the state’s perceived most vital needs which are “deemed to represent the whole society.” (Frankel, National Interest, 1970 p. 39) On a more profound level, the national interest is also the complex tissue through which we view and handle our most vital goals and aspirations in the foreign arena. As Walter Lippmann explained, “the facts we see depend on where they are placed and the habits of our eyes;” reality to us, he suggested, “is a combination of what is there and of what we expected to find.” (Lippmann, Public Opinion, 1965, p. 65) Rarely, though, does the discussion of national interests submerge into general theories, differing views of reality, or baseline metaphysical assumptions. It is on the metaphysical level, the very foundation of national interest formulation, that a polemical conflict is clearly visible. This manifested conflict in American society has deep historical roots.

As early as the writings of Zenos of Elea (490-430 BC) political thought has observed a dyadic conflict: a sort of “Hegalian dialectic” or “dialogue” which has proceeded through history to the present day. As used by Hegel, “dialectic” relates to an argument which leads toward the truth by the interplay and synthesis of ideas. This argument centers around what is real, what is good, and is the good knowable. Theorists continually redefine these ideas to fit the political and intellectual milieu of the time. One example of synthesis is the American ideology. At one end of the spectrum is the Noumenalist (derived from Kant’s ‘noumenon,’ or ultimate reality) school of thought. At the other extreme is the Naturalist (phenomenon) school. In between these philosophical poles are the metaphysical bridge builders who have attempted to integrate the thoughts of the opposing school with their own. These divisions of thought, which I will discuss in detail below, do not necessarily parallel inductive/deductive divisions of reason, nor do they completely distinguish the different concepts of the empirical order. More importantly, this classification system is a clarifying paradigm which offers a way to understand the warfare of Plato against the 5th century B.C. Sophists and Leo Straus juxtaposed against the behavioral theorist of today. The same dialectic over the nature of the ‘good’ rages on in America today. In short, this system provides for a distinction of values, origin of values (not merely ideas) and potential to achieve the ‘best’ values. As we will see, this division offers insights not possible with idealist, materialist, realist, and pragmatist divisions. By using this metaphysical paradigm, along with its manifested societal patterns of behavior and motivation, I will trace the development of the American common identity that determines our national interest and then clarify this national interest through the case example of United States’ foreign policy in Latin America.

More to follow in a couple days...