Normative Narratives


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Conflict Watch: The End of Team America World Police (Part 7)

Obama’s Strategic Plan For National Security:

The latest installment of my ongoing series “The End of Team America, World Police” focuses on President Obama’s second and final National Security Strategy (full document can be found here):

“The question is never whether America should lead, but how we should lead,” Mr. Obama writes in an introduction to the document, a report that seems to mix legacy with strategy. In taking on terrorists, he argues that the United States should avoid the deployment of large ground forces like those sent more than a decade ago to Iraq and Afghanistan. In spreading democratic values, he says, America should fight corruption and reach out to young people.

“On all these fronts, America leads from a position of strength,” he writes. “But this does not mean we can or should attempt to dictate the trajectory of all unfolding events around the world. As powerful as we are and will remain, our resources and influence are not infinite. And in a complex world, many of the security problems we face do not lend themselves to quick and easy fixes.”

“There is this line of criticism that we are not leading, and it makes no sense,” said Benjamin J. Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser. “Who built the effort against ISIL? Who organized the sanctions on Russia? Who put together the international approach on Ebola?”

The strategy lists eight top strategic risks to the United States, starting with a catastrophic attack at home but including threats like climate change, disruptions in the energy market and significant problems caused by weak or failing states.

Regardless of your opinion on how effectively the Obama administration has handled foreign affairs, it is hard to argue the United States is not leading from the front on major global issues. Yet it is important that our future leaders recognize, as President Obama has, the limits of both our government’s resources and our ability to sustain democratic revolutions through unilateral military intervention.

In a highly interconnected world, confronting global problems is in America’s economic and security interests (not to mention ethical considerations). This does not mean, however, that we should rush headlong into battle without carefully considering the probability of success and costs of alternative courses of action. There are other tools in America’s foreign policy toolkit–the other components of the D.I.M.E (diplomatic, intelligence, military, economic) framework–which should be considered before sending our military (and particularly ground troops) to war.

Military interventions are never quick, easy, or cheap. Even when successful, they leave a power void that must be carefully managed, lest that void be filled by ineffective leaders or extremist groups (or, as is often the case, both). When mismanaged, even the most well intended interventions can be counter-productive, fueling anti-Western propaganda and empowering the very ideologies we seek to destroy.

American tax dollars are a precious resource. Every dollar we spend abroad is a dollar we cannot use for nation building at home. The American government is solely responsible for managing America’s domestic affairs, but we have many allies who share the same ideologies and interests as us (and who should therefore more proportionately shoulder the cost of defending them).

A NATO By Any Other Name…:

NATO was established in recognition that global security was part of the “global commons” (and remains even more-so today). This brings us to recent comments on NATO’s future by outgoing Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel:

Hagel, making his final appearance at NATO as U.S. defense chief, said the alliance faced several challenges, including violent extremism on its southern rim, Russian aggression in Ukraine and training security forces in Afghanistan.

“I am very concerned by the suggestion that this alliance can choose to focus on only one of these areas as our top priority,” Hagel told a news conference. “And I worry about the potential for division between our northern and southern allies.”

“The alliance’s ability to meet all these challenges at once, to the east, to the south and out-of-area, is NATO’s charge for the future,” Hagel said.

“This is a time for unity, shared purpose and wise, long-term investments across the spectrum of military capability,” he added. “We must address all the challenges to this alliance, all together and all at once.”

Often times, one can speak most candidly when their tenure at a position is coming to an end. Those who oppose the ideals of NATO will not coordinate their attacks one at a time. In fact, knowledge that NATO resources are strained (due to say, simultaneous humanitarian crises, a wear weary American public, or underinvestment in the global security commons by the rest of the international community) is only likely to embolden our enemies. While NATO needs to be able to effectively counter more than one major threat at a time, this does not mean the American army alone needs that capacity.

As the world becomes “smaller”, the exclusively Northern Atlantic nature of NATO should be reconsidered. Two major democracies–India and Japan–are not members of NATO, limiting the groups ability to fulfill its goals. Furthermore, having regional actors involved in security operations helps builds legitimacy, underscoring the strategic importance of greater Indian and Japanese involvement.

President’s Obama and Modi recently met and discussed, among other things, defense cooperation. India must become a major partner in promoting peace and democracy in the Middle-East (particularly in coordinating the fights against the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban) even as it itself modernizes.

More Turkey Please:

An Op-Ed published in the NYT today by two Arab professors teaching at American Universities was very supportive of Turkey’s level of involvement in the Middle East:

There have been sharp disagreements over the 2013 coup in Egypt, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the need for intervention in Syria. Turkey’s critics have called into question its reliability as a NATO ally, including in the fight against the radical Wahhabi group known as the Islamic State.

But much of this concern is misguided. The ongoing crises in the Middle East have only underscored Turkey’s pivotal geostrategic position: It’s no surprise that Pope Francis, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain have visited Ankara in the past few months. And Turkey’s detractors, partly because they do not understand the sources of its new assertiveness, fail to see that its transformation actually serves America’s long-term interests.

The United States has long allowed client states like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Israel to pursue shortsighted goals in the Middle East. This has only brought despotism and strife. Washington’s failure to fully support the democratic government of Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt contributed to its collapse, and so to the instability and violence that have occurred there since. And it was President Obama’s cynical abandonment of the Syrian opposition during the first two years of the uprising against Mr. Assad that set the stage for the advent of the Islamic State.

To avoid any more such calamities, policy makers in Washington, and other Western capitals, should abandon their counterproductive approach: They should embrace Turkey’s growing, and positive, engagement in the Middle East.

I could not agree more.

But I do not think America’s leaders are opposed to Turkey asserting itself in the Middle-East. Indeed, as a primarily Muslim democracy and NATO member, it must play a large role in Obama’s plan of relying more heavily on regional partners in curtailing Islamic extremism.

I agree the Obama administration was wrong on Syria and Egypt, I am on the record saying as much. But in this case, two wrongs don’t make a right. Turkey cannot afford to play the moral high ground on these issues while the dogs of war bark at it’s door-step. Furthermore, Erdogan’s delayed and half-hearted support of the Kurdish peshmerga reeks of political calculus, not someone who considers ISIS a serious threat to regional stability.

So I am not exactly sure what these professors are talking about–they appear to be building a straw-man just to knock him down. I think it is pretty clear the Obama administration wants more Turkish involvement, including ground forces, in the fights against Assad and ISIS, not less.

Japan and Germany (Finally) Begin to Shed Their Post-WWII Identities:

Updating a previous blog about Japan and Germany shedding their post-WWII pacifist identities, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is pushing Japan to change it’s pacifist Constitution:

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has said that he wants to start the process of revising Japan’s Constitution as early as next year, a senior lawmaker in his party said Thursday, giving the clearest indication yet that the Japanese leader will seek to change a document that has undergirded the country’s postwar pacifism.

Mr. Abe told Hajime Funada, the leader of a group of Liberal Democratic Party lawmakers, on Wednesday that the best time to begin the difficult political task of amending the Constitution would be after elections for the upper house of Parliament, scheduled for the summer of 2016…

The Constitution, which also prohibits Japan from possessing the means of war, was written by American occupiers after World War II to prevent the defeated nation from ever again engaging in militarist expansion. The document proved so popular among Japan’s war-weary people that it has never been amended.

But Mr. Abe has seized on the murders of the Japanese hostages to make some of his strongest appeals yet for unshackling the nation’s military. Saying Japan was unable to save the hostages, he has called for easing restrictions on its purely defensive armed forces to allow them to conduct rescue missions, evacuations and other overseas operations to protect Japanese nationals.

The hostages, Kenji Goto, a journalist, and Haruna Yukawa, an adventurer, were beheaded a week apart by the Islamic State, a militant group in Syria and Iraq that had demanded a $200 million ransom for their release. The murders outraged and sickened Japan, which had seen itself as largely immune to the sort of violence faced by the United States and other nations that have been involved militarily in the Middle East. Since 1945, Japan has adhered to a peaceful brand of diplomacy that has seen it become a major donor of economic and humanitarian aid to the Middle East and elsewhere.

It remains unclear whether the shock of the killings will swing the Japanese public in favor of Mr. Abe’s harder line. Since the murders, opposition politicians have stepped up attacks on the prime minister, accusing him of provoking the Islamic State by allying Japan more closely with the United States-led efforts to destroy the militant group. Just days before the ransom demand appeared, Mr. Abe pledged $200 million in nonmilitary aid to countries in the region confronting the Islamic State.

However, on Thursday, the lower house of Parliament unanimously adopted a resolution condemning the killings and calling for increased coordination with the global community to combat terrorism.

Germany to Play a More Active Role in Global Security?:

Germany must ramp up defense spending starting in 2016 to ensure its military is able to take on a bigger role in crisis zones, according to two top lawmakers in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition.

Germany spends about 1.3 percent of gross domestic product on the military, short of the 2 percent level pledged informally by North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies.

Merkel’s spokesman has said no additional funding will come in the short term as the government struggles to hold on to its target of balancing the budget next year and with 2015 spending already largely negotiated.

Germany must engage in international missions “earlier, more decisively and more substantially,” Gauck told the Munich Security Conference on Jan. 31.

Fiscal responsibility is usually good, but like anything, overzealous attachment to an ideology can preclude pragmatic policy. Economics is context sensitive, and in the current context, Germany’s dedication to running a balanced budget has left holes in the Eurozone economy and the global security commons.

A large scale increase in German defense spending would bolster global security efforts (particularly in countering Russian aggression in former Soviet Republics), while simultaneously providing a partial answer to Europe’s economic stagnation (by “buying European“).

Please do not confuse my views with war-mongering or advocating for the military-industrial complex, I just recognize that there are bad actors in the world who only understand realpolitik. In order to provide room for the forces of human dignity and freedom to flourish, these bad actors must be marginalized.


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Conflict Watch: Why Reducing Military Spending Is Not A “Slam Dunk” For Sustainable Human Development

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On The Global Day of Action On Military Spending (4/14), Special Rapporteur Alfred de Zayas Urged a reduction in military expenditure and greater investment in sustainable development programs (Original Article):

Marking the Global Day of Action on Military Spending, the United Nations independent expert on the promotion of a democratic and equitable international order called on all governments to boost transparency and cuts in military expenditures, and increase investments in nutrition, health, environmental protection and other major sustainable development challenges.

“Every democracy must involve civil society in the process of establishing budgets, and all sectors of society must be consulted to determine what the real priorities of the population are,” Special Rapporteur Alfred de Zayas said in a statement. “Lobbies, including military contractors and other representatives of the military-industrial complex, must not be allowed to hijack these priorities to the detriment of the population’s real needs.”

“Tax revenue must be reoriented toward the promotion of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, for research into sustainable sources of energy and for the promotion of sustainable development,” Mr. de Zayas stressed.

“In a world where millions of human beings live in extreme poverty, die of malnutrition and lack medical care, where pandemics continue to kill, it is imperative to pursue good faith disarmament negotiations and to shift budgets away from weapons production, war-mongering, and surveillance of private persons, and devote available resources to address global challenges including humanitarian relief, environmental protection, climate change mitigation and adaptation, prevention of pandemics, and the development of a green economy,” he said.

Mr. de Zayas highlighted that such a shift in States’ spending habits is key to achieving the UN post-2015 development agenda.

“I am surprised that in the current context of global socio-economic crisis, few have voiced indignation regarding the disproportionate levels of military spending. The place to exercise austerity is in wasteful military expenditures, not in social protection,” he insisted.

In theory, I wholeheartedly support Mr. de Zayas’ position. Every dollar of military expenditure is one dollar that cannot go towards public goods and services which are essential for sustainable human development. However, I would question Mr. de Zaya’s assertion that “…in the current context of global socio-economic crisis, few have voiced indignation regarding the disproportionate levels of military spending.” In America, at least, military spending is a very contentious issues.

Mr. de Zayas’ call for global demilitarization also glosses over two major issues that make slashing military spending much more difficult in reality than in theory:

1) Peace and Security Are Prerequisites For Sustainable Human Development:

If a government cannot defend it’s people from extremists and outside threats, how can people be expected to have the foresight to make investments in their future? Armed conflict can reverse decades of economic development, and results in human rights violations of its own. Insecurity cannot be a shield for military impunity (as it is in places like Egypt), but threats cannot simply be wished away either. Furthermore, the balance between security and freedom is not only a quantitative one, it also depends on the balance of power between peoples rights and the armed forces, which are generally enshrined in a country’s constitution.

The global economy runs on peace and stability; all countries have an obligation to contribute to the global security commons. Based on their current contributions, some countries (such as the U.S.) should reduce their military expenditures, while others (such as Germany and Japan) should increase their contributions. Furthermore, member states fund U.N. peacekeeping operations, which are, if anything, stretched too thin.

2) Not Everybody Believes in Human Rights:

Lets take stock of countries that generally support U.N. concepts of human rights, sustainable human development, and democratic governance, and those that do not. If “outlier countries” (notably Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, Syria, Egypt) are increasing their military investments, is it at all responsible for countries that champion U.N. concepts to reduce their military expenditure? (again, this is a country by country question, based partially on current levels of military expenditure)

Non-democratic states are naturally more insulated from public pressure, as their leaders do not rely on reelection to remain in power. While standards of living and are almost assuredly higher in effective democracies, undemocratic governments have greater discretion over military spending, as they can more freely disregard the needs of their citizens when a geopolitical opportunity presents itself.

Specifically, democratic revolutions could become even more vulnerable. “Outlier nations” would likely come to the aid of their autocratic allies, while “Western” countries would have less resources to offer (think Russia and Syria, or UAE / Saudi Arabia and Egypt). If a country’s civil society considering a democratic revolution knows that it will not receive much outside support, while the regime in power (which probably already has a military advantage) is poised to receive significant outside support, this may deter said revolution from taking place. Since democratic revolutions result from civil society initiatives, just this knowledge could slow the global democratization movement.

If every nation that cooperates with the U.N. cut military expenditures, and none of that outlier states did (which they wouldn’t, and would likely do the opposite), we could very well end up with a deterioration in the global democratic / human rights landscape.

I am by no means a “war hawk”. I dream of a utopian world where no military spending is necessary; this is not the world we currently live in. While social spending to fulfill domestic human rights obligations must not be compromised (and in many places should be increased), this cannot come at the cost of abandoning extraterritorial human rights concerns. Achieving these two goals may indeed require greater levels of taxation and public spending–sorry small government people.

Some re-balancing of global military expenditure certainly is in order; however, this cannot be a shift in spending from pro-human rights to anti-human rights countries (those are oversimplifications of countries human rights records–the world is not black and white–but certain countries openly oppose human rights rhetoric while others tend to support them).


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Economic Outlook: Reparations, Development Aid / Debt Relief, and Common But Differentiated Responsibilities

Original Article:

In recent international news, a group representing 15 Caribbean nations (CARICOM) is seeking reparations from former colonial rulers for past atrocities, which they argue continue to have negative socioeconomic development impacts to this day:

Spurred by a sense of injustice that has lingered for two centuries, the countries plan to compile an inventory of the lasting damage they believe they suffered and then demand an apology and reparations from the former colonial powers of Britain, France and the Netherlands.

To present their case, they have hired a firm of London lawyers that this year won compensation from Britain for the torture of Kenyans under British colonial rule in the 1950s.

Just as important, the discussions around reparations — in the Caribbean as in Europe — might become an occasion to delve into history, to mourn but also confront the many ways in which the past continues to shape the present.

Laurent DuBouis Op-Ed:

This is more than just creative accounting. When economists debate why some countries are poor and others are rich, they often focus on the cultural, political or economic structures of poor countries. But historians of the Caribbean have long argued that national inequality is a direct result of centuries of economic exploitation.

But a French commission concluded that, while there was a responsibility on France’s part, financial reparation was not the solution. Its report suggested that French aid to Haiti was a kind of “reparation” and urged more of it.

After the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, President Nicolas Sarkozy offered an aid and debt-forgiveness package to the country. But the French government never officially apologized, let alone offered compensation.

Despite the rightness of the Caribbean nations’ claim, European governments are likely to respond similarly this time. If Caricom accepts this approach, the call for reparations may ultimately just come to play a strategic role within international negotiations over aid and trade.

What would it mean to truly rid our world of the legacies of slavery? In the Caribbean, it would mean undoing the divisions created by colonialism, through regional economic cooperation and reduced dependence on foreign aid and foreign banks.

It would mean, above all, ending the continuing mistreatment and stereotyping of Haitians, who were the pioneers in the overthrow of slavery and have been paying for it ever since.

In Europe and the United States, it would mean abandoning condescending visions of the Caribbean and building policies on aid, trade and immigration based on an acceptance of common and connected histories.

It would mean, above all, consigning racial discrimination, exploitation and political exclusion to the past. That would be the truest form of reparation.

By framing the issue of reparations as a way to remedy past atrocities (mainly slave trade) as well as a way to move forward cooperatively, CARICOM may indeed be able to achieve its goals. Reparations fit into a broader interpretation of common but differentiated responsibilities, and are consistent with the human rights accountability based approach to development:

The concept of “common but differentiated responsibilities” in reference to the “global commons”, has until this point been used almost exclusively in the environmental and natural resource arena. I would argue that both of these terms have a much wider application. Global commons should refer to any non-excludable good / service, with positive / negative externalities, whose effective management requires global coordination (to overcome cheater and free-riders). This would include, among other things, development outcomes.

By re-framing the concept of “the global commons”, a new global partnership for development can take root through the UN Post-2015 Development Agenda, with the concept of common but differentiated responsibilities at its core. By “common but differentiated” I do not mean that countries should have ideologically different policies–quite the contrary. The “common” aspect refers to creating programs with global policy coherence, aimed at achieving a normative vision of the future. The “differentiated” aspect refers to these programs being financed in a way that takes into account past transgressions, present context, and future goals.

Both articles mention the socioeconomic effects of slavery and slave trade, and corresponding financial component of reparations, an unavoidable element of any reparations argument. More tellingly, both articles also mention the emotional and psychological impacts of slavery that still persist today. What exactly should reparations look like? I believe in order to be effective–to truly “rid the world of the legacy of slavery”–reparations must have two components:

1) Debt Relief / Development Aid: Debt relief already exists, in the form of the Highly Indebted Poor Country (HIPC) Initiative. However, only five of the thirty-five HIPC countries are in Latin America (LA)–apparently Latin American countries are not poor enough to qualify for debt relief. Given the IMF’s role in the “Lost Decade” of development in LA (1980s), which was much more recent and therefore has a more direct impact on current socioeconomic conditions in Latin America than the 18th century slave trade does, it is particularly troubling that the IMF does not believe most Latin American countries should qualify for debt relief–particularly given Latin America’s substantial debt burden.

Debt relief should be extended to Latin American countries. Furthermore, donor countries should make a strong effort to reach the 0.7% of GDP for development aid target. Both initiatives should carry only the precondition of good, transparent, and accountable governance (political preconditions as opposed to economic preconditions, which are restrictive, paternalistic, and often lead to counter-productive development outcomes). This precondition gives developing countries the greatest amount of autonomy in developing their poverty reduction strategy.

2) An Admission of Wrongdoing, and an Apology: It is clear that the scars of slavery have not healed on their own over time. Drastic economic differences between the most and least developed countries play out as various power-asymmetries on a global scale, where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Instead of convergence, there is divergence, with devastating impacts such as human suffering, instability, and conflict. In light of both our common past and interdependent future, it is essential to acknowledge past wrongdoings, so the worlds leaders can move forward in a constructive manner.

Case in point is recent news concerning allegations that the N.S.A. spied on foreign leaders. While Germany, France and Spain certainly are not happy with the news, they are willing to hear America out and work with U.S. intelligence agencies–they understand the positive ends of U.S. actions even if they do not agree with the means . Latin American leaders have, in general, reacted in a much more negative way, cancelling diplomatic exercises and moving towards greater isolation. This reaction is reflective of a deep mistrust between L.A. countries and the highly developed Euro-America alliance.

By admitting to past wrongdoings via these two forms of reparations, we can move forward with greater trust and cooperation with our L.A. neighbors. These are countries we share an economic and political ideology with; there is no reason for such distrust and dislike to persist. L.A. countries also have a crucial role to play in the global partnership for development, as an intermediary between the most and least developed countries in the world (“south-south cooperation“).

To overcome the most pressing issues affecting the world in the 21st century, we need trust, coordination and cooperation between nations–especially between allies! We also need a global economic framework that will reverse the damaging trend of economic divergence and lead to more sustainable, peaceful, and inclusive development. Reparations are but one example of the “common but differentiated responsibilities” every country has in achieving this future. That we can have a debate on the merits of reparations in an open and even-handed way is a testament to how far we have come as a global community, but much work still remains to be done.


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Green News: Who Is Cutting and Who is Increasing GHG Emissions? The Answer May Suprise You

I gotta say, it is nice to not be covering the Syrian civil war in this post. Events in Syria have dominated the news lately, but it seems that at least for the immediate future diplomatic exercises have stalled the prospect of outside military intervention.

I would like to take this opportunity to highlight an interesting trend I have noticed lately, involving different countries efforts (or lack thereof) to curb greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The trend is interesting because it involves major players from both extremes (both high emitting nations and sustainability champions) moving forward with policies that would seem to contradict their historical stances on climate change. In recent news, the U.S. and China are moving to curb GHG emissions , while Australia and Canada are moving towards less sustainable energy portfolios.

(For some background, please see interactive maps on: GHG emissions by country per capita, CO2 emissions by country, renewable / fossil fuel energy production and consumption by country)

Australia and Canada have, in recent history, been global champions of sustainable development. Both countries were original ratifying members of the Kyoto Protocol, and have signed the protocol into law (although it appears Canada will not make it’s emissions targets). Australia became one of the first countries to sign a carbon tax into law, and while Canada does not have a federal carbon tax, several Providences have their own regulations in place. Canada and Australia, with their natural beauty, seemed like global poster-children for sustainable development. However, recent developments show these two countries shifting in the other direction.

Economic downturns have pitted environmentalists vs. industry in a zero-sum and short-sighted game, in which advocacy for sustainable development could be political suicide. Of course, in the long run, we need a more sustainable global energy portfolio; but these are problems for future generations who do not have the unemployment problems of today’s world, opponents of carbon taxes argue (I am not considering the climate change skeptic as a legitimate opposition anymore).

Canada has seen rising GHG emissions in recent years, with no future decline in sight–if anything, increased production of oil sands forecasts emissions trending upwards in Canada. Politics have turned against environmentalists in Canada for reasons discussed above; anybody who thinks about environmental sustainability implicitly does not care about jobs / the economy / problems facing Canadians today (sound familiar? this is a common argument for putting off action on reducing emissions around the world).

Australia recently had elections, which were won by conservatives based partially on a promise to abolish the unpopular carbon tax:

The Australian mining industry welcomed Saturday’s election of Prime Minister Tony Abbott and his coalition’s pledge to abolish the carbon tax on fugitive greenhouse gas emissions from coal mines and the Minerals Resource Rent Tax on coal and iron ore mining profits.

The coalition of Liberal and National parties campaigned on a platform to repeal the taxes within 100 days of taking the reins of government.

“On the first sitting day of Parliament under a coalition government, I will introduce legislation to repeal the Carbon Tax,” Abbott said on the Liberal party’s website that included policy documentation stating the party would also rescind the MRRT.

For some Australians, the free-rider issue seems to make being environmentally conscious not worth fronting the bill–literally:

The carbon tax is one reason Sydney resident Geoff Hamment, who normally votes for Labor, is supporting the conservatives this time around. Hamment said he’s seen his household electricity bills go “through the roof” since the tax was introduced.

“I don’t like it,” he said. “I think us paying so much is just pointless when you have countries like China churning it out.”

The tax is extremely unpopular, despite the fact that most Australians, but not the wealthy, get government compensation for higher electricity prices.

For all the well-founded China bashing on the environmental front–China has overtaken the U.S. as the global leader in terms of absolute GHG emissions (although the U.S., per capita, still emits more than China; this is arguably a better measure of a countries energy efficiency)–the Chinese government appears to be trending towards more sustainable environmental policies:

BEIJING — The Chinese government announced an ambitious plan on Thursday to curb air pollution across the nation, including setting some limits on burning coal and taking high-polluting vehicles off the roads to ensure a drop in the concentration of particulate matter in cities.

The plan, released by the State Council, China’s cabinet, filled in a broad outline that the government had issued this year. It represents the most concrete response yet by the Communist Party and the government to growing criticism over allowing the country’s air, soil and water to degrade to abysmal levels because of corruption and unchecked economic growth.

The criticism has been especially pronounced in some of China’s largest cities, where anxious residents grapple with choking smog that can persist for days and even weeks. In January, the concentration of fine particulate matter in Beijing reached 40 times the exposure limit recommended by the World Health Organization.

For years China has had an array of strict environmental standards on paper, and its leaders talk constantly about the need to improve the environment. But enforcement has been lax, and the environment has continued to deteriorate at an alarming rate.

“The plan successfully identifies the root cause of air pollution in China: China’s industrial structure,” said Ma Jun, a prominent environmental advocate. “Industrialization determines the structure of energy consumption. If China does not upgrade its coal-dependent industries, coal consumption can never be curbed.” he said. “The key to preventing air pollution is to curb coal burning — China burns half of all the coal consumed in the world.”

In the United States, the world’s number two GHG emitter, the issue of emissions has been divided largely down partisan lines. Liberals, led by President Obama, believe in taxing carbon and subsidizing renewable energies as part of an “all of the above” energy portfolio to meet future demand and cut emissions. Conservatives tend to argue against the need to curb GHG emissions, largely for the same reasons mentioned above with respect to Canada and Australia. However, it seems Obama intends to bypass partisan gridlock by passing executive orders, carried out through the EPA, to curb emissions from fossil fuel power plants:

The Environmental Protection Agency is due to unveil next week the first batch of regulations under President Barack Obama’s new climate action plan – a carbon emissions-rate standard for new fossil fuel power plants.

If standards are as strict as the industry expects, it could be the death knell for new coal plant construction. The recent bankruptcy of Longview, a highly efficient West Virginia coal plant, is an example of the pressures already facing the industry.

The EPA is due to issue an emissions-rate standard for new fossil fuel power plants by September 20. Proposed standards on existing plants will follow in 2014.

Obama asked the EPA to re-propose a rule it introduced last year using a section of the federal Clean Air Act that required all new power plants, including those that use coal, to meet a standard of 1,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour – the rate of an average gas-fired plant.

Sources that have met with the administration in recent weeks said the agency has likely revised its earlier proposal to provide separate standards for natural gas and coal plants, and also raised the emissions limits for coal plants.

The new rules, like those initially proposed in 2012, are also likely to include a requirement for new coal plants to use a form of carbon capture and storage (CCS), a technology that captures carbon emissions and stores the carbon underground, that is years away from being available on a commercial scale.

Eugene Trisko, a lawyer who represents clients such as the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity in energy and environmental matters, said CCS cannot be deployed if coal plants, such as Longview, are unable to run.

“If you really wanted to advance CCS, you really need to build new coal plants because those are the plants that one day or another would be the laboratories for CCS,” he said.

“Nobody is going to put CCS on plants that are 50 years old,” he added.

But some environmentalists argue that new EPA rules will only add another layer of financial risk around coal plant investment even in coal-reliant states like West Virginia.

Instead of investing in new coal plants, which will only become more costly, states should diversify their energy supply, said Cathy Kunkel, an energy research consultant and fellow at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis.

The concept behind taxing carbon emissions and subsidizing renewable energies is pretty straightforward. Emissions represent a negative externality, pollution, that is a detriment to society as a whole. A carbon tax or cap-and-trade system creates a cost for this negative externality, discouraging its use and potentially helping to fund R & D in renewables (and therefore encouraging competing cleaner energy sources). Renewable energy has positive externalities (energy with lower levels GHG emissions), subsidies compensate producers for these externalities. Furthermore, renewable energy is still a relatively infant industry, which combined with its inherent positive externalities and increasing global energy demand, make it a prime candidate for government subsidy.

Do not get me wrong, we are still a long way away from the point where China and America can lecture Australia and Canada about their emissions (especially considering that China and America represent large export markets for Australian and Canadian fossil fuels respectively). However, it is interesting to note the role reversal, which I believe at it’s root is a failure of the international community to embrace the concept of “common but differentiated responsibilities”. Previous environmental champions, discouraged by the lack of international commitment to emissions reductions, have created an environment where politicians can win elections by tapping into that frustration. “We have tried, now we are concerned with our own problems.” people in these countries may argue. Australia has taken this stance on step further, with respect to ODA:

The outgoing Labor government said in May that Australia’s long-standing pledge to increase its foreign aid spending to 0.5 percent of gross national income by 2015-16 would be postponed by two years.

The coalition said in a statement last week that it shared Labor’s commitment to reach the 0.5 percent target “over time, but cannot commit to a date given the current state of the federal budget.”

“I have to say, there are higher immediate priorities” than reaching the 0.5 percent target, Abbott told reporters last week. “The best thing we can do for our country and ultimately the best thing we can do for people around the world is to strengthen our economy.”

The plans have been condemned by opponents and aid groups, who dubbed it short-sighted and contrary to the nation’s image of global cooperation, particularly in light of Australia’s recent appointments to presidency of the U.N. Security Council and the G-20 in 2014.

While this stance on international relations is obviously flawed and short-sighted, it is understandable how Canada and Australia got to this point. The U.S. and China, on the other hand, are recognizing they must lead any global initiative to reign in GHG emissions, before the costs rise further and irreparable damage is done.  China has an even more pressing problem, with the deadly smog it’s unchecked emissions has produced. This is the natural ebb and flow of accountability without coordinated global policy. Those who are mostly responsible for GHG emissions, fearing future accountability, want to work together to make those future costs as low and evenly shared as possible. Those who have forgone some economic growth for sustainable development in the past feel they have already done their part, and are beginning to forsake what they see as failed international commitments for domestic goals.
This is a failure of global policy coordination, and one the world cannot afford. The G20 would be a natural place to come up with a global environmental commitment, based on the concept of “common but differentiated responsibilities” (which is really only fair) as the worlds largest emitters are represented there. Furthermore, as a relatively new group (established in 1999, the first meeting of the G20 Leaders took place in Washington, D.C., on November 14-15, 2008)the G20 doesn’t have the history of failed negotiations that sometimes doom other global climate change efforts. Australia taking over the U.N.S.C. and G20 presidency in 2014 looked liked a “win” for sustainable development a few years back; now I am not so sure that is the case.


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G20 Kicks-Off Today, A Number of Hot-Topic Issues to be Discussed by World Leaders

G20 Russia 2013

From the international financial and monetary systems to international tax-evasion to armed conflicts, the worlds leaders are getting together to figure out how to minimize human rights violations and hold parties accountable for their violations.

The ultimate goal is to put in place global and national policies needed for sustainable human development in the 21st century–an ambitious goal indeed! Difficulty must not deter our normative visions for the future; as a global community we must attack these issues proactively and in a preventative nature whenever possible.

I urge the NN community to stay up-to-date on G20 related news. I will be sure to write a blog upon the conclusion of the G20 leaders summit.


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Transparency Report: The Global Partnership for Development, Global Commons, and Common But Differentiated Responsibilities.

A recurring topic here at NN is how globalization has shifted some of the most pressing political economy decisions away from national governments and into the global governance arena, where the rules are largely being drawn up as we go. Never has the world been as globalized as it is today, and we can be certain that tomorrow will only lead to further integration. 

A number of problems inherently arise in issues of global governance. There are innumerable public and private interests at work, none of which want to give up their legal/structural advantage for the greater global good. Politicians must balance the short-run interests of domestic actors with the long run interests of the global community (but only one of those groups is responsible for that politicians future job prospects). This may lead to a “free rider problem”, where a country may decide it will simply reap the benefits of global governance (which tend to be non-excludable), while not contributing anything (and by further complicating an already complex and differentiated international legal/policy/taxation order, undermining global governance initiatives). Differences in national regulations can lead to capital flight to low cost countries, creating another incentive to “cheat” on global commitments.

One way to overcome free-rider problems is to create forums or groups where countries can coordinate their policies and voice grievances with one another (and shine a spotlight on “cheaters” and “free riders”). The G-20 is one such organization. The 3G Global Governance Group is a similar group comprised of 30 more countries. Critics and proponents of such groups often bicker over the merits and limitations of inclusivity versus exclusivity–I am of the mind that if the stated goal is coordination, cooperation, and some element of global policy coherence, then the more the merrier. This does not mean we need a G-193; groups can determine for themselves their level of exclusivity, as long as they can interact together through global mechanisms such as the United Nations.

The concept of “common but differentiated responsibilities” in reference to the “global common”, has until this point been used almost exclusively in the environmental and natural resource arena. I would argue that both of these terms have a much wider application. Global commons should refer to any non-excludable good / service, with positive / negative externalities, whose effective management requires global coordination (to overcome cheater and free-riders). This new definition would include, among other things: environmental regulation, trade openness, financial and tax policies, issues of regional and global security and human rights concerns (and yes these are all interrelated issues, further boosting the argument for global coordination in tackling them).

By re-framing the concept of global commons, a new global partnership for development can take root through the UN Post-2015 Development Agenda, with the concept of common but differentiated responsibilities at its core. This concept itself will make countries more willing to coordinate on global commons issues. By acknowledging that countries are accountable to different degrees for the current state of global affairs, a basis for financing global initiatives that is fair yet acknowledges common goals all countries should be working towards can emerge. By “common but differentiated” I do not mean that countries should have different policies–quite the contrary. The “common” aspect refers to creating programs with global policy coherence, the “differentiated” aspect refers to how those programs will be financed in a way that allows them to fully realize their goals (as opposed to unfulfilled commitments that have dominated global agreements in the past).

Perhaps such commitments would be a more sustainable and effective way for donor countries to channel ODA, freeing up fiscal space for national governments in developing countries to finance their own domestic development programs without the distorting effects that large aid inflows can have.  

The G-20 is currently focusing on the issue of corporate tax evasion. (for a refresher, in a previous blog I explored the costs to society of corporate tax evasion)

“Government officials from the world’s largest and richest economies on Friday for the first time endorsed a blueprint to curb widely used tax avoidance strategies that allow some multinational corporations to pay only a pittance in income taxes.”

“In light of such practices – which are entirely legal, but take advantage of differing tax rules around the world – the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has proposed that all nations adopt 15 new tax principles for corporations. The plan focuses only on corporations and would, if adopted widely, shift some of the global tax burden toward large companies — the ones big and rich enough to devise complex tax-reduction strategies — and away from small businesses and individuals, which tend to spend a much bigger share of their incomes on taxes.

“Shifting profits to low-tax countries and costs to high-tax countries is less an option for small businesses and individuals, who inevitably wind up carrying more of the tax burden as a result. In the United States, for example, taxes on corporate profit contributed 40 percent of all income tax to the United States Treasury 50 years ago. Today, corporations contribute less than 20 percent, with the slack taken up by small companies and those paying individual income tax.”

“In contrast, the owners of a small coffee shop would probably not able to reduce its tax liability by claiming they had paid royalty fees to an overseas company owning the copyright to their cafe’s name.

The reform is intended to address such inequities, the finance ministers said Friday”

“‘It’s a matter of justice and fairness,’ Angel Gurría, the secretary general of the O.E.C.D., said at the presentation of the new plan with the finance ministers of France, Britain, Germany and Russia.”

The list, presented Friday at a meeting of finance ministers of the Group of 20 countries in Moscow, includes ideas to prevent corporations from “treaty shopping” to find countries with the lowest taxes and then find ways to book their profits there, even when much the money is made elsewhere.”

“The details, however, may prove daunting and will be subject to intense lobbying by corporations. In addition, countries have long used tax policies in efforts to lure businesses to locate operations there. The O.E.C.D. plan would not seek to end such competition entirely – any country would be free to charge lower rates than others did — but it would try to keep countries from essentially offering companies ways to avoid paying taxes anywhere, something critics say Ireland did in reaching agreements with Apple.”

“The O.E.C.D. does not expect to complete work on the proposals until the fall of 2015, and after that it would be up to governments and legislatures to implement them by passing new tax laws.”

Government are coming together to address the issue of corporate tax avoidance, which could not be addressed unilaterally. Reform will take a long time and run into intense opposition, but it has to start somewhere, and the G-20 is that somewhere. If the worlds biggest economies agree on rules, smaller countries will follow suit (powerful countries often use economic leverage to secure policy changes). In time, with nowhere left to run, large corporations will have no option but to pay their fare share–to the benefit of all.


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Economic Outlook: Tax Dodging, Tax Havens, Fiscal Space and Human Rights

Two related pieces caught my eye this morning. Both pieces explore how owners of wealth (be it large corporations, wealthy individuals, or autocratic rulers) benefit from “offshore” financial centers.

The first piece, from the NYT, emphasizes how corporate tax avoidance disproportionately shifts the burden of paying for government services to regular people:

“As muddled and broken as the individual income tax system may be, the rules under which the government collects corporate levies are far more loophole-ridden and counterproductive.

That’s not entirely Washington’s fault. Unlike individuals, multinational corporations can shuttle profits — and sometimes even their headquarters — around the globe in search of the jurisdiction willing to cut them the best deal on taxes (and often other economic incentives).

Much of this occurs under the guise of “transfer pricing,” the terms under which one subsidiary of a multinational sells products to another subsidiary. The goal is to generate as high a share of profit as possible in the lowest-taxed jurisdictions.

A study by the Congressional Research Service found that subsidiaries of United States corporations operating in the top five tax havens (the Netherlands, Ireland, Bermuda, Switzerland and Luxembourg) generated 43 percent of their foreign profits in those countries in 2008, but had only 4 percent of their foreign employees and 7 percent of their foreign investment located there.

All in all, it is a race to the bottom on the part of revenue-starved governments eager to attract even a relatively small number of new jobs.

As a consequence, the effective corporate tax rate in the United States fell to 17.8 percent in 2012 from 42.5 percent in 1960, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. (The share of federal revenues arriving at the Treasury from companies has fallen even more sharply, in part because an increasing number of businesses are taxed as individuals rather than as corporations.)

That’s just not fair at a time of soaring corporate profits and stagnant family incomes.”

“Happily, the gaming of the tax system is becoming a global concern, with an action plan coming from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in July. The O.E.C.D. should work toward taxing business profits where they actually occur, not where they’ve been shifted by some tax adviser.

As we strive for a global solution, we should take a number of interim steps, including better policing of transfer pricing.”

Another piece, written by Jeff Sachs at the Earth Institute, expands on this topic to bring other forms of money-laundering into the mix, as well as crystallizing the fiscal space / austerity argument against tax evasion:

“In recent weeks, citizens in many countries suffering from government budget cutbacks have been learning more and more about one of the biggest and most dangerous scams in the world: the global web of tax havens that U.S. and European politicians and bankers have nurtured over the years. The only real purpose of these havens is to facilitate tax evasion, money laundering, bribery, and lack of accountability for environmental and social calamities inflicted by international companies.”

“During the boom years, the rich and powerful kept the public distracted from the tax haven reality. Yet now with budget austerity, the public is having a close look at tax evasion by the rich and powerful. As a result, the veil over the tax havens has started to slip, and the sight is not lovely.”

“The politicians of rich nations who protect the exorbitant privileges of bankers and hedge-fund managers, who wink at mega-tax evasion by billionaires, and who tolerate unpardonable games played by major companies, are playing with fire. We are now all sharing austerity. The havens represent unacceptable privilege and abuse, not fair sharing.”

“Developing countries too are saying that enough is enough. For decades they’ve been on the receiving end of hypocritical lectures about good governance. For them, the tax havens have served the purpose of paying bribes to potentates, and providing easy ways for elites to keep their money safe from tax collectors. Yet it is the rich countries that have fostered that system.”

The existence of tax havens represent the political power of the ultra-wealthy and the collective-action problem facing the rest of the world. However, the internet and watchdog groups, along with crushing austerity programs in the wake of The Great Recession, have thrust tax-avoidance into the spotlight. This is the first step towards pressuring governments for real, coordinated action against this unfair practice. 

At best, tax-havens allow wealthy people to avoid paying their fair share of taxes. Every dollar not paid in taxes is a dollar more of debt for a government, a dollar less available for an important social program. Forget the moral and ethical implications of this “reverse-Robin-Hood” system for a minute. Economically speaking, this system leads to stagnant growth. Less wealthy people have a higher average and marginal propensity to consume, and tend to keep their money in their home country. Also, diminishing marginal utility of money states that less wealthy people (in the aggregate, there is of course there is anecdotal evidence against this point), spend a greater percentage of their money on things that are beneficial for social welfare. The current system provides for less, more wasteful consumption. It corrodes the “American Dream” by reducing social mobility and perpetuates income inequality. And this is what I would consider the “best case scenario”.

At worst, tax-havens offer a stable place for oppressive regimes to park their money. Elites can amass rents from a variety of places (most commonly extractive industries, or through black-markets / drug trade), and know that they have a safe place to keep that money. This money can then be used for personal reasons, or to build up a military to further entrench Elite control–particularly in less developed countries where democracy does not exist. It is not difficult to draw the link between entrenching autocratic, rent-seeking regimes, and human rights abuses.

A Reuters blog about the book “Treasure Islands”, by Nicholas Shaxton, articulates this point very well. “The broad brush — and this is a simplication of the overall argument — is that tax havens enable the flight of scarce capital from Africa to other regions, stunting the continent’s ability to develop on a range of fronts. Such havens inclue not only tropical destinations like the Cayman Islands but the City of London and the U.S. state of Delaware.” The book “Offshore: Tax Havens and the Rule of Global Crime”, by Alain Deneault, makes a similar argument.

The U.N. recently passed an Arms Treaty, with human rights considerations at it’s core. While arms trade was a natural starting point,  I believe this is a strong model for all international transactions. Any time large amounts of money are transferred, be it tax-avoidance or the hiding or ill-gotten gains, this money has the potential to fund / perpetuate human rights abuses. The sooner the international community realizes this, and acts in a coordinated fashion to review and (act on) the human rights implications of ALL financial flows, the sooner we will see a meaningful reduction in human rights abuses around the globe.

The U.S. famously prosecuted Al Capone, not for criminal activities, but because of tax avoidance. Autocratic regimes are in many ways similar to mafias, and they enjoy the additional protection of “national sovereignty” which allows them to continue to abuse human rights with relative impunity. Maybe we can take a page from history and allow the paper-trail bring down some of today’s worst human-rights abusers. Of course this would require a strong international justice system–with real punitive powers–which unfortunately does not currently exist.

The best case scenario of tax-avoidance is it unfairly shifts the burden of paying for government services from the wealthy to the not-wealthy, which compromises the ability of governments to pay for social programs. The worst case scenario is the perpetuation of human-rights violations. Obviously neither of these outcomes should be tolerable–we can only hope that a silver-lining of The Great Recession is that it will force governments to work together to tackle the issue of tax-avoidance and offshore financial centers, which affects developed and developing countries alike.          

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Conflict Watch: The Obama Ultimatum


To say North Korea’s recent actions and rhetoric have been anti-American would be an understatement. Within the past few months Kim Jong-Un has launched a nuclear test strike, cutoff phone lines with the U.S. and South Korea, barred South Korean workers from entering an industrial complex bordering the two Koreas, stepped up its military capacity, suggested countries shut down their North Korean embassies for the safety of their diplomats, and vowed nuclear strikes on the U.S. and its allies.

Much of this is just tough rhetoric, a young leader trying to show he can “rule with an iron fist”, that he is able to rebuff “western interests”, and will not have his national sovereignty challenged.

Experts agree that North Korea could not strike the U.S. mainland with nuclear weapons. More immediately at risk would be South Korea, Japan, and other pacific island allied states. This is alarming for the U.S. as well, who operates a close to 30,000 troop force in South Korea. South Korean has responded with it’s own stern warnings to North Korea, that it will “strike back quickly” if the North attacks. Japan has recently begun ramping up its military capabilities partially in response to North Korean rhetoric. Factor in China’s proposed military expansion, and we have a full blown arms race in Asia.

This is not an issue of China versus Japan, as both sides are essentially on the same side. The Chinese government has recently expressed dismay towards its allies in Pyongyang, agreeing in principle to tougher U.N. sanctions after North Korea’s most recent nuclear test strike.

The U.S., seizing onto this opportunity, has proposed what I call “the Obama ultimatum”:

“The Obama administration, detecting what it sees as a shift in decades of Chinese support for North Korea, is pressuring China’s new president, Xi Jinping, to crack down on the regime in Pyongyang or face a heightened American military presence in its region.”

“’The timing of this is important,’ Tom Donilon, Mr. Obama’s national security adviser, said in an interview. ‘It will be an important early exercise between the United States and China, early in the term of Xi Jinping and early in the second term of President Obama.’”

“In Beijing, officials said Mr. Kerry also wants to reinvigorate the dialogue with China on climate change… A week after Mr. Kerry’s visit, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will spend four days in China to try to improve communication between the American and Chinese militaries.”

“’What we have seen is a subtle change in Chinese thinking,’ Kurt M. Campbell, a former assistant secretary of state for East Asian affairs, said in a speech Thursday at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. The Chinese now believe North Korea’s actions are “antithetical” to their national security interests, he said.”

This article seizes on many issues brought up at Normative Narratives involving U.S. and Chinese cooperation on issues concerning the “global commons” (environmental, security, etc.). It also highlights the potential for closer Washington-Beijing relations as two supposedly progressive leaders take the helm of the first and second largest economies in the world.

But there are some issues holding back U.S.-Chinese relations. Issues of trust between the two superpowers exist; cyber-attack accusations have flown from both governments in recent months. Also, there are factions within China who believe it is in China’s best interest to have an anti-Western power in the Korean Peninsula. Some believe that if China came down hard on North Korea, even so far as to push for a reunification of the Korean Peninsula at some point in the future, this would bolster U.S. influence in the region and diminish Chinese influence.

And it is exactly because of this point that I like “the Obama ultimatum”. If China’s greatest fear is increased American military capacity in the Asian Pacific, Obama has just offered Xi Jinping a surefire way to check U.S. military capacity in the region.

Obama has essentially put the ball in Jinping’s court. The next move belongs to China. Will they rebuff the American offer in an attempt to show solidarity with North Korea and protect the interest of “national sovereignty”?

It makes little sense to think they would; when you consider the growth and development of China, there is no question as to which country, between the U.S. and North Korea, is a more important partner. Factoring in Japan’s stance and it makes little economic or military sense for China not to align itself with “western interests”.

Nothing should be taken for granted; historically nations have been known to do things against their economic interests in the pursuit of strengthening their political ideology. But in today’s globalized economy, where the political economy intersection is so prevalent in mainstream political thinking, it would be very surprising to see China not at least attempt to comply with Obama’s offer.

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