For people who live in the US and aren’t frequent makers of international phone calls, you might not know that all countries have an international dialing code.  And you might not know that the US international dialing code is 1,  as in, “we’re number 1.”  France’s is 33.  Germany’s is 49.  Brazil’s is 55.  The fact that the US is 1 has always struck me as a particularly blatant claim to  super-power status.  Why would we be 33 if we could be 1?

Yesterday I picked up the phone to call a Canadian colleague from my office in the UK.  Without thinking, I dialed 1 plus the area code.  It rang through.  Only today did it strike me as tremendously odd that I did not use an international dialing code to call Canada, or to put it another way, that I used the US international dialing code to call Canada.  Though I do occasionally enjoy a joke at Canada’s expense (an unappealing American habit of mine), assuming that Canada was essentially a telecom extension of the US was a sub-conscious, rather than conscious action.

It turns out that Canada, alone amongst major nations, does share an international dialing code with the US.  Poor Canada: could we not have spared them that indignity?   And noticing this made me realise that there is a definate relationship between a country’s dialing code and its power and status in the international political economy.  Only two countries have one digit calling codes: the US (1) and Russia (7).  These codes were in place during the Cold War (the USSR was 7 as well);  I don’t beleive that it’s coincidental that the only two super-powers possessed the only 1 digit calling codes.

On the second tier, what might be called great powers and regional powers, it’s 2 digit codes all around.  All of the major nations of Europe have two digit codes: as noted above France and Germany are 33 and 49, the UK is 44 and Italy is 39. Large Latin American, African and Asian countries also have two digit codes: Brazil, 55; Mexico, 52; China 86; India 91; Egypt 20; South Africa 27.  All G20 countries, with the exception of Saudi Arabia, the US and Russia, have two digit codes.

But alas, non-powers are relegated to the ignominy of three digit codes.  Nicaragua? 505.  Laos? 856.  Burkina Faso? 266.  Even less powerful European countries, though wealthy in global terms, are not spared:  Finland, with its 358 or Estonia with 372.

Indeed, the trend appeared to be so strong on first glance that I wanted to run some regressions to see how predictive international dialing codes were of some metric of power (e.g. GDP or military size).  However, I ran into two problems.  With a smaller data set (the G20, for example) the fact that the starting number is determined by the region (3 and 4 for Europe, 2 for Africa, 8 and 9 for Asia) means that you obscure the power element because you restrict yourself to two digit codes.  And secondly, though I was interested in the phenomenon, I wasn’t interested enough to spend several hours coding hundreds of countries, so you’ll have to just deal with anecdotal, rather than hard statistical, empirics.

All of this made me think: as international power begins to shift away from Western economies and towards large emerging countries, and especially Asian economies who are stuck with country codes beginning with 8s and 9s, will those countries want “better” dialing codes, just like they want more representation in the IMF?   All I can say is that if  China launches a campaign to change its international dialing code from 86 to 2, you’ll know that you heard it predicted here first.

In the 1980s, large swaths of the developing world became democratic.  Autocracies in Latin America and Africa fell, and with the downfall of the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe too became democratic.  Political scientist Samuel Huntington called this the “third wave” of democratisation.  Despite the initial euphoria, the new democracies did not always turn out to be liberal democracies with strong civil societies and democratic accountability.  In many places, elections were held (though they were not always free and fair), and constitutions existed (though they were often contradicted), and much of the day to day governance was not democratic all. Theorists of this phenomenon argued that elections were a necessary but not sufficient indicator of democracy.  A term, “procedural democracy,” came about to describe this state of affairs.

Today I’ve been wondering whether procedural democracy would be the right label for Europe.  Last week Europe held elections.  Those elections were to elect members to the European Parliament (MEPs).  If you are an American or other non-European citizen and you’re reading this thinking “gosh, how ignorant of me to not know there were European elections going on” you shouldn’t beat yourself up.  Lots of Europeans didn’t know there were European Parliamentary elections going on either.  Voter turnout was less than 50%, and many, if not most people,  did not vote on the basis of issues that have to do with governance of Europe, but rather to express their dissatisfaction with their own national governments.  In fact, many people don’t know what the European Parliament does at all: as a friend noted, it was both telling and unhelpful that the BBC waited until broadcasting election results to tell voters what the European Parliament does. One of the greatest thinkers on democracy, Robert Dahl, has argued that genuine democracy requires an educated electorate.  It’s highly problematic that Europeans don’t know (or care) what the European Parliament does.  I took a poll amongst one class of my master’s students at LSE last term, asking how many of them knew who their MEP was.  Not a single person raised their hand.

While this in and of itself does not mean that Europe’s democracy is only procedural, it’s at least worth point out that there are some paradoxical things going on with regards to democracy at the European level.   For example, an increasing number of anti-Europe MEPs are being elected. Wait,  you might be thinking, members of the European parliament that want to abolish Europe?  Yep, that’s what’s happening.  In Britain, a party called the UK Independence Party (or UKIP), who advocates withdrawing the UK from the EU, got more votes than the Labour party, which is currently in power.   A party called “No2Eu, Yes to Democracy” got 1% of the vote.  And the Conservatives, who are skeptical of further European integration, got 27% of the vote.

A further problem for European democracy is one that is long standing and much acknowledged: citizens often to seem to reject further European integration, which national leaders are in favour of.  The most recent example of this, is the long and winding road to ratifying a constitution for Europe.  The constitution was rejected by French and Dutch voters, renamed the Lisbon Treaty, and then rejected by Irish voters.  So the Irish are being asked to vote again on it, in hopes they’ll give a different answer.

European leaders are now worried that the UK could derail the process.  Why?  Because the leader of the Conservative opposition, David Cameron, plans to ask the UK public in an referendum whether or not they want to ratify the treaty if (or more likely when) he is elected. European leaders thus hope that the current government, led by Gordon Brown, can stay in place long enough to allow the treaty to be ratified. There is something terribly un-democratic about this.  The fact that the public would reject the treaty if given the chance to vote is important, even if not all political issues have to be solved by an open vote.

Perhaps the most telling quote about the current woes of European democracy came from Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian prime minister.  Discussing a dispute about whether an Italian or Pole should become the parliament’s president he said: “If we can’t negotiate, then democracy will come into play.”  Any statement of European politics which puts democracy as the second option is highly problematic.

From his speech in Cairo today: “Given our interdependence, any world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail. So whatever we think of the past, we must not be prisoners to it. Our problems must be dealt with through partnership; our progress must be shared…”

Ignoring some of the cheesy themes in the first 10 minutes (the Arabs invented algebra!), it was a ground-breaking and honest speech.  As others have noted, however, it did not provide new or detailed solutions to problems in the Middle East.  My favourite commentary about the speech was actually printed before the speech: an excellent column by FT commentator Gideon Rachman, who pointed out that while Obama is a “soft power” president, he faces “hard power” problems.

But given that Obama gets the soft power messages so consistently right on (I was reminded of his speech on race while listening today), one is hopeful that he will apply the same rational thoughtfulness to the hard power problems the US government faces.