Monday, October 30, 2006

Carnegie Council, Quiet Car, and K Street

The audio file of my presentation at the Carnegie Council last Thursday and presentation with Devin Stewart moderating("North Korea's Nuclear Detonation") is now available. One point I mentioned in the talk is that it is no longer possible to neatly and deftly separate and compartmentalize issues. Dealing with North Korea's nuclear program interconnects with trade policy in China and Iran's nuclear program and Russia's relationship with Georgia and Japan's greater military profile and the U.S.-India strategic dialogue.

Two small incidents demonstrate, to me, some of the difficulties we face in foreign policy.

The first was on the way to New York. Amtrak has a "quiet car" where cell phone conversations are forbidden. Over time, they've been forced to take more drastic measures to try to ensure that the car stays quiet--they now have conductors constantly reminding passengers ("this is the quiet car") and signs posted and hanging throughout the car. But in the end the quiet car stays quiet only if passengers self-police themselves. At Baltimore, a gentlemen entered the car. Cell phone rang. Fine, there's a "grace" that most of us extend, you forget to turn it off or put the device in quiet mode. But after two more successive phone calls came in, I turned around, and said simply, this is the quiet car.

Now the section of the car was filled with people most of whom were displaying signs of growing irritation, but I was the one who took the risk that the person might get belligerent or try to make the rest of my train ride unpleasant. Luckily nothing happened, and the car returned to its quiet mode.

Two points. First, that America is eroding the basis of the liberal order which rests upon the notion that limited government is sustainable if the citizenry is prepared to self-regulate its behavior. The quiet car will not become economical for Amtrak if it needs to have a conductor on constant cell phone patrol or if the strapped line has to install cell phone jammers to ensure that no one in the car can receive or send on their units. There is no ignorance at work here--people know quite well which car is the quiet car. If we move to a society that unless something is expressly against the law it is allowable, you end up with a much more intrusive government.

Second, people (and states) are prepared to let determined rule breakers slide in order to minimize confrontation. Since I was going to New York to talk about North Korea and Iran, it seemed fitting.

The second observation: despite having signal lights, they now have to deploy two traffic police at K and 17th Sts NW to direct traffic because drivers will not obey the law about not blocking intersections and yielding to pedestrians. So the traffic light, which a century ago was touted as a labor-saving and cost-saving device is now irrelevant since we need two human police officers to direct traffic because drivers will not allow their behavior to be regulated by the light.

Traffic as metaphor for foreign policy?

I really enjoyed your comments this morning, but wanted you to bring it home – i.e., WHO or WHAT in America is eroding the basis of the liberal order? As brief and breezy as your story reads, I believe that you've crystallized an urgent and core challenge to effective goverenment here in the US.

Thanks for your post. You can reach me on my mobile with your answer.
Looks like China has been emulating you.
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