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: 70 Years After “D Day”, Time To Move Foward

World’s top 15 military spenders in 2013

List by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (2013)[1]

Rank Country Spending ($ Bn.) % of GDP World share (%)
World total 1747.0 2.4 100
1 United States United States 640.0 3.8 36.6
2 China People’s Republic of China[a] 188.0 2.0 10.8
3 Russia Russia[a] 87.8 4.1 5.0
4 Saudi Arabia Saudi Arabia[b] 67.0 9.3 3.8
5 France France 61.2 2.2 3.5
6 United Kingdom United Kingdom 57.9 2.3 3.3
7 Germany Germany[a] 48.8 1.4 2.8
8 Japan Japan 48.6 1.0 2.8

 

The Top 10 Providers of Assessed Contributions to United Nations Peacekeeping Operations in 2013 [A/67/224/Add.1] PDF Document are:

  1. United States (28.38%)
  2. Japan (10.83%)
  3. France (7.22%)
  4. Germany (7.14%)
  5. United Kingdom (6.68%)
  6. China (6.64%)
  7. Italy (4.45%)
  8. Russian Federation (3.15%)
  9. Canada (2.98%)
  10. Spain (2.97%)

I like to think of myself as a pretty laid back guy. I don’t get worked up when people joke about stereotypes in a non-malicious way, because that’s what stereotypes are–a joke (in that they hold no value). I also believe the ability to laugh about things and engage self-deprecating humor are signs of maturity and progress.

As a Jewish American, there is one thing I cannot tolerate joking about–the Holocaust. There is a saying associated with the Holocaust–“never forget”–to both honor the victims and ensure such evil acts are never repeated. I’m sure other cultural groups have their “red-lines”, and these lines should be respected.

While we must never forget the Holocaust, we must also move on from the legacies of WWII; 70 years is a long time, and the world is a much different place. Germany and Japan no longer represent the “Axis of evil”; both of these countries have proven themselves committed to the institutions and norms that have made the second half of the 20th and 21st centuries the most progressive in the history of mankind.

Both of these countries have also benefited greatly from the global economic system put in place after WWII.  Therefore, we must not only welcome but demand that Germany and Japan play a more active role in fostering the global security which allows this system to function.

Germany:

Anger at Washington mounted Wednesday with the disclosure that American intelligence agents were suspected of having recruited a second spy in Germany, this time linked to its Defense Ministry, prompting even robust allies of the United States to suggest that a fundamental reset was needed in one of the most important of trans-Atlantic partnerships.

“At some point, the ‘no comment’ will not be enough,” Norbert Röttgen, the committee’s head and an influential member of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right Christian Democratic Party, said in a telephone interview from Washington. “The U.S. must understand what psychological damage it is inflicting. I think that will be a difficult process.”

At the same time, Mr. Röttgen cautioned his German colleagues to appreciate that Berlin and Washington had profoundly differing views on the role of an intelligence service and should not let this difference permanently damage otherwise strong ties. Analysts have said that Germans have a far more restrictive view of how intelligence agencies should operate and what a fair target is.

Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, a Social Democrat who after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks led an effort to tighten cooperation with American intelligence, seemed at a loss to understand why the United States would spy on Germany.

“We speak to each other all the time, and nobody makes a secret of their views,” he said in an interview published Wednesday by the newspaper Saarbrücker Zeitung. “The attempt to find out about Germany’s position is not just unseemly, it is unnecessary.”

Despite hurt feelings, “psychological damage”, and a degree of mistrust, US and Germany have vowed to continue cooperating in the name of global security:

The United States and Germany put a brave face on an escalating espionage dispute, stressing on Sunday the importance of their cooperation to solving several global crises but offering little indication they’ve fully mended ties.

After a meeting on the sidelines of nuclear talks in Vienna, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry each extolled the value of the two NATO allies’ work together on issues such as Iran and Israeli-Palestinian violence.

“Relations between Germany and the U.S. are necessary and indispensable, and that’s for both of our sides,” Steinmeier told reporters in German. Still, he acknowledged the recent “difficulties” and urged that relations “revive on the basis of trust and mutual respect.”

Relations between the U.S. and Germany have never been more important. With the number of humanitarian and security crises rising, and extremist threats posing a challenge to democracy and capitalism abroad, the German-U.S. relationship must be redefined.

The U.S. must focus it’s intelligence efforts on its real enemies, and stop acting like a global hegemon that must know everything about everyone at all times, friend or foe. We must learn to loosen our grip and trust our allies, especially ones as strong and stable as Germany.

Germany, for its part, must contribute a greater share to NATO and UN Peacekeeping operations. Many German’s see their World Cup victory as the beginning of an age of global prominence–I would argue Germany, as the strongest EU economy, has held this distinction for some time. Either way, Germany must assume the responsibilities that come with being a global power.

Japan:

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has disturbed many in Japan and increased anxiety in Asia by reinterpreting his country’s pacifist postwar Constitution so that the military can play a more assertive role than it has since World War II. While a shift in Japan’s military role was never going to be readily accepted by many, Mr. Abe’s nationalist politics makes this change even harder to swallow in a region that needs to reduce tension.

It is difficult to overstate the significance of what Mr. Abe has done. Since 1947, Japan’s Constitution, written and imposed by the American Army, has permitted the military, known as the Self-Defense Forces, to engage only in self-defense. That meant the large and technologically advanced armed forces was barred from “collective self-defense” — aiding friendly countries under attack — and thus was far more constrained than those of other nations.

With the reinterpretation, Japan’s military would still face restrictions on what it could do, but it would be allowed for the first time, for example, to help defend an American ship under attack, destroy a North Korean missile heading toward the United States or play a larger role in United Nations peacekeeping operations.

As I mentioned before, a large part of honoring those who perished in the Holocaust and WWII is making sure such deplorable acts are never repeated. As the world becomes more interconnected due to technological advances, people become more acutely aware of the gross human rights violations inflicted by terrorist organizations and totalitarian governments with relative impunity on a daily basis. While these acts may occur on a smaller scale than the Holocaust, they are nonetheless deplorable.

Security is a necessary precondition for both human and economic development. As the 3rd and 4th largest economies in the world respectively, Japan and Germany must contribute more than their current 2.8% of global military spending (they do perform better in terms of UN Peacekeeping contributions, but still do not do enough). To fully cast off their WWII legacies, Japan and Germany must take leadership roles alongside the U.S. in ensuring security and human rights are enjoyed by all.

As the U.S. (partially) winds down it’s disproportionate contributions towards global security, the “power void” must be filled by the rest of the international community, led by Germany and Japan. Thankfully, it seems that Germany and Japan are ready to make this transition. It is up to the rest of the international community to not only welcome this shift, but demand that it occurs to a scale that leads to real improvements to the world’s most vulnerable people.

As a Jewish American I will never forget the Holocaust. But I can forgive, so long as Germany and Japan take a more active role in defending innocent people through multilateral security pacts (such as NATO) and UN Peacekeeping operations.


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Economic Outlook: (Hopefully Learning) Lessons From Japan

Japanese economic policy, named “Abeconomics” after Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, offers a natural experiment from which the U.S. can draw lessons. There is a much more obvious natural experiment for the U.S., which is U.S. economic policy, but those against “Quantitative Easing” are never short on reasons for why QE hasn’t debased the dollar / led to soaring interest rates on U.S. bonds (but soon will ahhtheskyisfallingmoralhazard!!!!!). Perhaps Japan’s experience, which is further removed from the U.S., can allow us to be more objective in our analysis.

The basis for expansionary monetary policy is due to “liquidity trap” macroeconomics. When the Fed cut’s interest rates near zero, non-traditional means of using monetary policy are the only policy choice left to stimulate aggregate demand and reduce unemployment (as far as monetary policy goes, fiscal policy is another story to be addressed shortly).

Both the U.S. and Japan have greatly increased the supply of money in attempt to revive the economy. QE in the U.S. has basically quadrupled the Feds holdings since 2008, while Abeconomics has doubled Bank of Japan’s (BoJs) holdings. In the U.S., the dollar has remained strong despite QE. In Japan, the Yen has slid in value (and this is a desired result, to increase export competitiveness):

“Normally a weakening exchange rate might be taken as a sign of decline. The yen has fallen nearly 14 percent against the dollar this year, and no currency has fallen more except the Venezuelan bolívar.

In Japan’s case, it is a sign that the policies put in place by Mr. Abe and Haruhiko Kuroda, chairman of the Bank of Japan, are starting to work. A weaker yen makes Japanese exports more competitive around the world.”

The U.S. probably benefit from a slightly weaker dollar, making exports more competitive which could help revive U.S. manufacturing and renewable energy industries (among others). I believe the USD role as primary international reserve currency (60% of international holdings) are keeping the dollar strong despite QE. Foreign holders do not want to see the value of their reserves go down, so the dollar continues to be the safe-haven for investments despite unprecedented monetary stimulus.

How effective have these policies been? U.S. unemployment has dropped to 7.5%, although underemployment and people dropping out of the labor market may be producing a rate that doesn’t capture the stagnation in the job market in the U.S. Japanese unemployment sits at 4.1%, a rate that for the U.S. would currently constitute an economic pipe-dream.

Japan certainly has its issues, but it is not letting doomsayers dictate its economic policy. Despite much higher gross government debt to GDP (Japan has roughly 235% debt to GDP ratio, while the U.S. is at about 107%) Japan is pursuing fiscal stimulus. Abeconomics includes a 2-2.5% of GDP stimulus plan for Japan. Compare that with the fiscal contraction in the U.S.

So the U.S. and Japanese economic policies give us a natural experiment. Both are advanced countries with highly skilled labor forces and strong financial markets. Both are pursuing monetary expansion. One of the countries, despite a much higher debt-to-GDP ratio, is also pursuing fiscal stimulus, while the other is pursuing fiscal contraction. Granted Japan went through years if not decades of stagnant growth before flipping the script to “Abeconomics”. The U.S. is “only” 5 years removed from the Great Recession. Do we really need to wait decades before we pursue policy that we know will stimulate the economy and reduce unemployment / the output gap?

As Keynes said, “In the long run, we’re all dead”. It is not enough to say give it time and things will get better. Peoples skills and confidence in their abilities are deteriorating in the U.S.. The output gap is large and growing, and spending on safety-net policies will not decrease until unemployment goes down (hence “automatic stabilizers”). Hopefully Japan’s successes will inspire confidence in fiscal stimulus; if a country with twice as high of a debt-to-GDP ratio (and an unemployment rate almost half as low) can benefit from fiscal stimulus, surely the U.S. can as well.


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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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Monday Morning QB: The World Baseball Classic and Professional Sports as a Development Tool

https://i2.wp.com/sanfrancisco.giants.mlb.com/sf/images/ballpark/y2012/wbc_300.jpg

It seems that 200 MLB players will be participating in the World Baseball Classic this March. For those of you who do not know, the WBC is a global baseball tournament held every 3 years in March–this March will be the third such tournament. You may expect the Americans to dominate on the global stage, as baseball is the “American Pastime”, but you would be wrong. Japan has won both of the two World Baseball Classics so far, the U.S. has never even made it to the finals (and only made it to the semi-finals once).

There are a number of reasons for the lack of dominance by the U.S. For one, lots of the best MLB players come from Latin America (the Dominican Republic specifically), so the MLB talent does not favor the U.S. as much as it may have in the past (when baseball was dominated by white Americans). This map from 2011 is a pretty recent visualization of how baseball has become more global in recent years, if we had an updated map for 2013 you would expect to see even more international players.

There is also the argument that “Team America does not take the WBC seriously”. Many players from MLB rosters are barred from playing in the WBC by their team (older guys, pitchers, players coming off injury traditionally do not play in the WBC). This affects the rosters for all the clubs, but disproportionately the American team as it has the vast majority of MLB players. Also, the WBC runs parallel to spring training in America; many MLB players are just getting into playing shape and use the WBC as an opportunity to shake the rust off, as opposed to some international players whose seasons may be in “full swing” (no pun intended).

There is also the argument that MLB players will not help you win this competition. Japan, the only team to win the WBC, has never had many MLB players on their roster. This year, Japan will look to defend its WBC title with zero MLB players, that should be fun to watch. With MLB players just getting warmed up, other teams have a much better chance at competing in the WBC then one may expect.

Sports can be a powerful development tool for undeveloped countries.Professional sports bring to the table billion dollar profit margins that can go an even longer way in a poor developing country than they could in the U.S. These programs are a true win-win for professional sports leagues and developing nations. The professional sports leagues can expand their markets to new regions, and the process of discovering talented new players is essential for the future profitability of any sport.

The benefits to the developing country are not what one may think. It is natural to think of the sport star who signed a big contract giving back to his home country, and for this most part this does happen. However, these benefits are small compared to the more “organic” process of economic development. By linking sports programs to educational and nutritional programs, even those who do not go on to become professional sports stars will be helped in achieving their potential. The social capital and camaraderie learned in sports is a more abstract advantage than schooling and nutritional guidance (human capital), but are nonetheless important skills for young people to learn.

Participating in these sports development programs are not only fun for kids, but they teach them valuable life skills. Instead of selling drugs, joining militias, or working as poor child laborers, these children learn marketable skills and are given the opportunity to realize their full potential (something we in the developed world often take for granted). The next great MLB player could come from one of these programs, but so could the next Nobel Prize Laureate. The benefits from these “investments” will take time to pay dividends, but the return on these investments could be absurdly large for both professional sports leagues and developing countries. These programs are a true example of a win-win relationship, and there is a strong argument for “scaling-up” these programs.
Baseballs development initiatives tend to be in Latin America and Asia, where baseball is popular. Comparable programs exist for other major sports as well. Any NBA fan could tell you about “NBA Cares“, where star players help out in poorer communities around the U.S.. Less well known is the SEEDS program, which supports similar programs in developing countries (currently operations are based in Senegal, but the organization has an ambitious goal to expand to other countries in the future).

Certain sports naturally fit better in different countries. Asia and Latin America have a history of baseball. Also due to the fact that these regions are generally more developed than Sub-Saharan Africa, the cost of playing baseball is a bit more achievable (and is subsidized in certain cases by MLB). In Africa, basketball and soccer are more popular, as all you need to play these sports is a ball and an arena. Different sports for different folks, but they all have the same potential for spurring economic development and raising the standard of living.

Baseball seems to be making inroads in the African market as well. Uganda became the first African team to play in and win a Little League World Series game last year after missionaries brought baseball to Uganda in the 1990s. Some of the best athletes in the world are born in Africa, I would not be surprised to see MLB take further steps in promoting it’s sport in Africa in the coming years / decades.  South America is another potential untapped growth region for MLB to consider.

So while you’re enjoying the WBC, or the Olympics or World Cup in the future, know that you are not only enjoying sports, that you are not only displaying national pride, but that you are also (indirectly) advocating the use of sports as a poverty reduction tool. All that socially constructive behavior by sitting on your couch at home, not too shabby!!

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