Normative Narratives


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Economic Outlook: Getting the International Aid Fiscal House In Order

humanitarian spedning

Mr. Lykketoft [UN General Assembly President], echoed former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, who said, ‘there can be no peace without development, no development without peace and neither without human rights.’

As the UN marks its 70th anniversary, the Organization itself is “very much at a cross roads, particularly in the area of peace and security” with the architecture developed over the seven decades now struggling to keep pace with today’s and tomorrow’s threats and geopolitical tensions, in a way that is undermining Member State trust.

…making the UN Security Council (UNSC) more representative and more effective, for example, by addressing the use of the veto in situations involving mass atrocity crimes. But it also includes agreeing budgetary and institutional reforms to prioritize political solutions and prevention across every aspect of the UN’s approach to sustaining peace.

Humanitarian spending generally goes towards natural disaster relief, aiding people in conflict zones, and helping people displaced by both types of crises. As international powers have proven themselves unable to end conflicts, and the negative affects of climate change have become more acute, humanitarian spending has (unsurprisingly) ballooned in recent years.

Investing in clean energy and environmental resilience (preparedness and early warning systems) can mitigate the damage caused by natural disasters, reducing future environmentally-related humanitarian spending. But natural disasters, while tragic, are partially unavoidable–as various sayings go, mankind cannot “beat” nature.

(Do not confuse the inevitability of natural disasters with climate pessimism–the idea that it is too late to prevent the negative aspects of climate change, so why even try? There is nothing inevitable about the current trajectory of global climate change, and there are many actions humans can take to make the global economy more environmentally sustainable and reduce both the frequency and intensity of natural disasters.)

Thankfully, natural disasters generally do not cause long-term drains on aid budgets. While devastating, the natural disaster passes and the affected area can begin to rebuild. Conflicts, however, can be persistent. Persistent conflicts require sustained humanitarian aiddiverting resources from development aid that doubles as conflict prevention.

[The number of] people in extreme poverty who are vulnerable to crisis–677 million. Efforts to end poverty remain closely related to crisis, with 76% of those in extreme poverty living in countries that are either environmentally vulnerable, politically fragile, or both.

There is something particularly discouraging–no damning–about the fact that man-made, preventable, politically solvable issues should divert such a large amount of resources–80 percent of humanitarian funding–that could otherwise be used to deal with unavoidable humanitarian crises (natural disasters) and investing in sustainable human development / conflict prevention.

There will always be strains on development and humanitarian budgets. Donor countries are asked to give resources while dealing with budgetary constraints at home. All the more reason that, if an issue is both preventable and leads to persistent future costs, it should be addressed at its root.

To this end, the international community needs to invest more into poverty reduction and capacity building for democratic governance, particularly in Least Developed Countries (LDCs) most susceptible to conflict. When conflict prevention fails, there needs to be a military deterrent (more defense spending by the E.U. and Germany specifically) and UN Security Council reform, so that conflicts can be “nipped in the bud” and not deteriorate to the point where they become a persistent source of human suffering and drain on international aid budgets.

The idea of increasing investment in preventative peacebuilding and sustainable development as means of reducing future humanitarian spending has gained steam within the United Nations system–this is good news. But failure to end emerging conflicts before they become persistent conflicts puts this plan at risk, because these persistent conflicts consume the very resources needed to make the aforementioned investments in the first place. 

The U.S. could effectively lead the fight for UNSC reform. As the world’s largest military and a veto-wielding permanent member of the Security Council, on the surface the U.S. would have the most to lose by introducing a way to circumvent a UNSC veto (perhaps through a 2/3 or 3/4 UN General Assembly vote). But while the world has become increasingly democratic, the UNSC has has not. This reality has prevented the U.N. from implementing what it knows are best practices. By relaxing its grip on power through UNSC reform, the U.S. would be able to better promote democracy and human rights abroad.

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Transparency Report: The Supply Of and Demand For Mental Healthcare

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Original article:

Shootings in places like Isla Vista, Calif., and Newtown, Conn., have turned a spotlight on the mental health system, and particularly how it handles young, troubled males with an aggressive streak. About one in 100 teenagers fits this category, according to E. Jane Costello, a psychiatric epidemiologist at Duke University School of Medicine, and they often have multiple diagnoses and are resistant to treatment.

Most of these young men will never commit a violent crime, much less an atrocity. But the questions of how best to help them and how to pay for it are among the most intractable problems hanging over the system.

Thousands of families know this experience too well: No single diagnosis fits, no drug brings real relief, and if the teenager rejects the very idea of psychotherapy, there is little chance of lasting improvement.

Congress has taken steps to bring about so-called parity for mental health, requiring insurers to cover treatments for mental illnesses as they do those for diseases like cancer and diabetes. But parents like the Serpicos have found that, even with good insurance, they often cannot get the expensive, long-term residential treatment they believe their child needs.

And it is not clear how effective intensive residential treatment is for teenagers. Some improve, experts say, but they are usually discharged to the same environment in which they got into trouble, and precious few studies follow them for longer than several months.

“The problem is that, while some kids may benefit from these extremely costly services, we don’t know which ones they are, and we don’t have a good model for distributing those services, no matter who’s paying,” said Sherry A. Glied, dean of the Wagner Graduate School of Public Service at New York University.

Lena and Robert Serpico knew something was not right before their son was in kindergarten. They had taken him and his younger brother in as foster children from a mother who used drugs, and they later adopted both.

As the teenager became increasingly indifferent to school and defiant, the family got him into a highly recommended day therapy program. He was thrown out for bringing a razor blade to a session. The family tried again, at another day program, and this time the program kicked him out for refusing to participate.

It’s useless, all this stuff,” he said in a brief interview. “It’s a waste of my time.”

He entered an alternative school last fall, and his parents, who both work outside the house, decided they had only one option left, recommended by their son’s doctor and therapist: long-term residential care. Costs ranged from $10,000 to $60,000 a month.

“No way we could afford that,” Ms. Serpico said.

Out of options, the Serpicos did what many affluent families do: They hired a lawyer. In January, they petitioned the school district to pay for their son’s education at a therapeutic school. A consulting psychologist hired by the district concluded that their son needed “a 24-hour-a-day therapeutic milieu over an extended period of time, i.e., longer than two months, in order to keep him safe and gain the skills necessary to function post-high-school.”

Last month, they learned that the suit had been successful. The Geneva School District will pay for the young man to attend a therapeutic school in Montana for one academic year. There will be horses, physical labor, and group and one-on-one talk therapy. Ms. Serpico and her husband broke the news to their son this month.

When asked about going to the new school, he shrugged and looked away.

“I don’t know,” he said. “Probably useless, too.”

Economics traditionally treats people as rational actors seeking to maximize their “utility”. While this idea is contentious even in “normal cases”, when considering those suffering from mental illnesses, the rational maximizer model becomes almost completely irrelevant. Despite the obvious benefits for those who need mental healthcare, potential patients (particularly young men) often reject the idea of therapy because of the stigma of “weakness” or embarrassment associated with it–I know this because I was once one of these young men.

Health care reform–so called insurance “parity” for mental healthcare–has gone a long way in making treatment affordable to those who need it. This was a fix to the “supply side” of the equation. However, it is very clear that there are “demand side” issues related to mental healthcare that are leading to under-treatment.

Demand traditionally focuses on the willingness of a person to pay for a particular good or service. However, young people are almost never expected to pay the cost of their own mental healthcare–those who need treatment the most often reject it even if it is being paid for by their parents or the state (or some combination of the two). To get these people the help they need, we must address the non-monetary concerns–the stigma–associated with mental healthcare.

This is a difficult task, but it can be aided by cultural and technological progress. Culturally, those in the public spotlight (movie stars, musicians, athletes, etc.) who are comfortable with their mental health issues should open up about them. It is amazing how someone who is perceived as “cool” can get through to people and change public perceptions. To this end I would like to commend All-Pro Wide Receiver Brandon Marshall, who has become a poster-boy for mental health awareness, to the benefit of both the general public and, according to him, himself; we need more role models like Mr. Marshall. Of course, these public figures can always utilize social media to amplify the effect of their message.

Another cultural shift which makes sense would be changing how we educate kids about mental healthcare. My first semester in college, we had something called “University 101”, where students where prepped and talked about the challenges and opportunities present during college life. It seems to me like there should be a similar class required during ones first semester in high school–a common time for mental health issues to arise–with a greater focus on mental health awareness. I also took a a health class in high school, but it focused much more on drug use and safe sex, and not nearly enough about mental health issues.

Often times young people are not comfortable talking to their problems with peers, for fear that news of their issues will become public knowledge before they are ready to be open about them, or used against them by bullies. In such an instance, virtually connecting with groups dedicated to peer-to-peer dialogue via social media (Facebook, Skype, etc.) could offer a way for children to start opening up about their issues to people they can relate too (other kids), without having to worry about those issues coming out in their immediate social circles.

As someone who went from rejecting the very idea of therapy to realizing its incredible benefits, this issue is deeply personal to me. I can say one thing–seeking mental healthcare is by no means a sign of weakness, or something one should be embarrassed about. The open, self-reflecting, honest approach needed for therapy to be effective requires incredible strength of character. This is the lesson we should be teaching our kids–pursuing mental healthcare is a sign of strength, not weakness.

For those who think Mental health issues are only a “rich country problem”, think again. According to a recently release United Nations report, depression is the number one cause of illness and disability globally among adolescents (10-19 yrs old).

In an increasingly complex and global world, it is only natural for new sources of anxiety to affect current and future generations of children. These new sources of anxiety will be reinforced by old social and cultural stigmas related to mental illness / healthcare. In the coming decades youth populations are expected to grow in developing countries, where youth unemployment tends to be highest and (relatedly) conditions are very conducive to mental health problems. The problem will only become more pronounced, unless we use all the tools we have to address adolescent mental health issues in a holistic and inclusive manner.

In a political / media landscape dominated by debates over fiscal responsibility and climate change, the potential of looming global mental health epidemic is not discussed. You want to talk about a “Great Depression”? Aggregate all the lost output that will systematically come out of the global economy if the proper resources are not dedicated to youth employment, mental healthcare and awareness programs. And then there are the linkages to poverty, insecurity, human suffering…


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Conflict Watch: Weighing in on Prospective U.S. Military Strikes in Syria

Up until this point, chemical attack allegations in Syria have been a “blame-game” dominated by circumstantial evidence, hypothetical questions / appeals to logic, murky details, and classified information. The Assad regime has blamed “terrorists”, as they have for the duration of the civil war, for launching chemical attacks. Why would we launch these attacks when UN investigators were in the country, they argue? Western powers do not believe the opposition has the capacity to launch such attacks, and blames the Assad regime of offering too little too late when it came to international investigations (this argument has been refuted by chemical weapons experts, which alongside congressional uncertainty, further complicates U.S. military intervention).

The UK dropping out of military strikes, as well as the lack of NATO, Arab League, or U.N.S.C. authorization, makes it difficult to frame a military strike as part of a global coalition. President Obama has assured war-weary Americans there will be “no boots on the ground”, and that a strike will not lead to another long-term entanglement in the region. However, direct military strikes–particularly without broad international support–will naturally lead to further engagement, particularly if  Western / American / Israeli interests are targeted in retaliation.

I actually agree with Speaker Boehner; we need more information on what intelligence the administration has and how strikes fit into Americas long term geopolitical strategy in the Middle-East. In the face of the sequester and looming budget / debt ceiling debates, how will these strikes be financed? The constraints that military spending impose on other fiscal policies affect all American’s; the citizens of this great country deserve more conclusive evidence the Assad regime used chemical weapons. Basing strikes on classified “knowledge” from unknown (to regular people) sources should not satisfy anyone’s need for a transparent and inclusive debate / decision making process leading up to possible military intervention.

Common sense tells us to wait a few days, in order to drum up more international support and get more intelligence from U.N. investigators. There is no sense rushing into action that–despite President Obama’s words and wishes–has inherent long term implications on U.S. military, foreign and fiscal policiesIt seems clear that either the Assad regime or more radical segments of the opposition as responsible for the chemical attacks in Syria. We must determine conclusively who committed this crime against humanity and hold them accountable. 

There has been a lot of talk about precedents being set; if we do not respond to the use of chemical weapons, then international laws banning their use carry very little weight. I agree with this argument, but military decisions should not be made hastily or emotionally. There is no question Bashar al-Assad is a thug who has mercilessly killed tens of thousands of his countrymen and driven well over 1 million Syrians into other countries as refugees, imposing the myriad costs of Syria’s Civil War on the region in an attempt to retain his families 4 decade rule in Syria. I also do not believe a political solution is possible, as Assad believes his rule in Syria is based on something resembling the mandate of heaven.

But the question still remains–did Assad carry out these chemical strikes? If we cannot rule out the possibility that opposition forces used chemical weapons, then a much more dangerous precedent may inadvertently be set–that extremist’s can solicit a military response by using chemical weapons on the very people they are supposed to be fighting for. While this is not what I think happened, we must be certain before making decisions with long term and unforeseeable ramifications. 

Financial considerations should ultimately be secondary once conclusive evidence is presented implicating who is responsible for these attacks. “We cannot afford to hold perpetrators of crimes humanity accountable” is not an acceptable excuse for inaction from the international community. Once conclusive evidence implicating Assad in chemical weapons attacks circulates (or at very least exonerating extremist factions within the Syrian opposition of involvement in said attacks), international intervention can be justified on any number of international law / treaty violations and/or R2P.

In an attempt to isolate these radical segments of the Syrian opposition, plans for creating a national Syrian rebel army have circulated, angering Islamist factions in the opposition:

Syria’s Western-backed political opposition plans to create the nucleus of a national army to bring order to the disparate rebel forces battling President Bashar al-Assad and counter the strength of al Qaeda-linked rebel brigades.

The latest attempt to unite the rebels coincides with fierce debates in Washington and other Western capitals over whether and how to boost support for Assad’s opponents after an alleged chemical weapons attack by government forces on Wednesday.

Chaos among opposition forces and al-Qaeda’s growing role are barriers to any intervention.

Plans for an army are still under wraps but details began emerging earlier this month before the gas attack. It has the blessing of the rebels’ patronSaudi Arabia, which took over as the main regional backer of Assad’s foes earlier this year.

Momentum behind the new force comes from Saudi Arabia and Western nations who, alarmed by the growth of radical Islamists in rebel-held areas, have thrown their weight behind the Syrian Coalition, hoping it could help stem their power.

“Once we get the (battle)field organized, then everything will be organized,” he said. “This will be the army of the new Syria. We want to integrate its ranks and unify the sources of funding and arms,” the Syrian National Coalition member said.

Western-backed rebels say the new structure might be modeled on U.S.-backed militias, known as “Awakening Councils”, which drove al Qaeda from Iraq’s Anbar region six years ago.

The leader of one moderate Islamist brigade, which operates in several parts of the country, said he supported the proposal, but would not say if his fighters would join.

Leaders of more radical groups see it as a Western-backed plot to fight them. “They are undermining the work of all of us. They want to throw it in the bin, as if it never happened,” said a senior commander in Homs province.

Opposition political sources were careful not to portray the new army as a challenge to Islamists, but a senior official said it would only welcome them if they left their brigades.

“This will be an army like any other army in the world. When you join it you leave your beliefs outside. Islamists can join as individuals, not as Islamists.”

The new body is not an alliance of brigades, as in previous attempts to unify insurgency groups; individual fighters will be expected to leave their units to sign up.

Many Syrians initially welcomed the Islamists for bringing order to the chaos of rebel-held territories, but growing resentment of their puritanical rule could win popular sympathy for any new force that challenges them.

Activists in the northern, rebel-held provinces, where Islamists are most powerful, say those criticizing the Islamists are threatened or imprisoned.

“We have challenged Assad when he was strong, and now we are being bullied by radicals who are not even Syrians in our Syria,” said an activist in Aleppo who declined to be named.

With weapons and money flooding into the country, a class of warlords has emerged, including Islamists, who have grown powerful on arms deals and oil smuggling. Activists in the north complain of high levels of theft, bullying and thuggery.

“With this army the Coalition will have a military force on the ground, one that is composed of the best Syrian fighters,” said a Syrian rebel commander in a powerful brigade that has fighters across Syria.

In the meantime, most agree that the disparate groups should work together, at least in temporary alliances against Assad’s troops. But they share a skepticism that the new group will ever see the light of day, or have much impact if it does.

“During this revolution we have seen many great ideas and many great attempts destroyed because of mismanagement. The Free Syrian Army is an example of this. As long as the roots of the problems are not solved, then nothing will change.”

“They are all failed projects; there is no awareness among those leading this revolution and also there is no clear strategy. In addition to this you have got the hesitation from the West. As long as this continues, this will be a failed project.”

A national Syrian rebel army is a good idea for overcoming extremist’s influence–who are often not of Syrian origins themselves–that have tried to hijack the legitimate grievances which originally spurred the Syrian revolution . This Army will require adequate financing and training from Western backers if it is to fulfill its goals.

However, one must be suspicious of Saudi Arabia’s intentions in funding this army. Despite being “pro-Western”, Saudi Arabia and many other Middle-Eastern monarchies are fundamentally opposed to the ideas of political Islam, as highlighted by support for the Egyptian Military Coup and it’s “interim government”. It must be made crystal clear in the rebel army’s enabling legislation that the army exists to uphold the will of all Syrian people, is accountable to the Syrian people and it’s future democratic government, and is committed to a pluralistic democratic Syria and international human rights norms. Any Islamist in favor of these goals is free to join the national Syrian rebel army, provided they renounce ties and allegiances to other groups–a precondition for joining any effective and unified army.  

The last thing we need is another military backed authoritarian regime posing as democracy. These “democracies” ultimately undermine the ability for effective democracy to take root, by reinforcing the misconception that democracy and political Islam are irreconcilable.  

It would be tactically advantageous to have this rebel army armed and ready to capitalize after any U.S. led military strikes should such strikes ever occur. It seems like the timing is not right for these two military strategies to synergize, unless this army has been in the works for some time now under-wraps and is almost ready to be rolled out (which is unlikely). It makes sense now for Obama to wait at least a week before taking any action, in order to rally international support for military strikes at the upcoming G-20 talks in Moscow.


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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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I’m Proud to be an American, Where At Least I Know I’m Free

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One thing I have learned in life, in my studies, and in my time as a blogger is that is in incredibly difficult to manage a large, diverse country in today’s modern, globalized world. In America, we are at least free to have open discourse, and have a responsive and accountable Federal government (despite current partisan bickering, at least we’ve been able to avoid Civil War / a military coup, and are no longer mired in Recession). We live in a country that indiscriminately upholds human rights and freedom from want and fear, and is attempting to spread that normative vision to all corners of the world.

We are by no means perfect, but I think America is certainly doing least worst of the World Powers; we can certainly celebrate that! Those who decry the “downfall” of America simply do not know what they are talking about. Just because other countries have seen gains in the past decades does not take away anything from America’s accomplishments. In actuality, this is the desired effect of U.S. foreign policy, the Marshal Plan, the United Nations, and any other organization / program that attempts to build peace and economic growth through cooperation and interdependence.

Today, and everyday, I am proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free to voice my opinion and realize my full potential as a person. God Bless America! Bless Americans and people everywhere who share our values!

Happy 4th of July


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Conflict Watch: Nuclear North Korea

There was a bit of optimism when North Korea’s new leader, Kim Jong-un, came to power follow his father’s (Kim Jong-il) death late in 2011. Those hopes have all but faded from memory, as it has become abundantly clear that Kim Jong-un is no more of a friend to the West than his father was. Kim Jong-un’s rule has been marked with the same lack of transparency, human rights violations, and anti-western rhetoric that came to define his father’s rule.

Kim Jong-un has been arguably even more aggressive than his father when it comes to shows of military power. Despite warnings against further nuclear testing (after 2006 and 2009 nuclear tests drew economic sanctions from the UN), Kim Jong-un authorized and conducted a third nuclear test on February 12th, 2013.

The third test has drawn the attention of the international community. Even North Korea’s largest ally, China, has condemned such tests. Kim Jong-un seems undeterred, and has vowed for further nuclear test strikes and other shows of military power in the future unless UN sanctions are suspended.

The international community is not caving the King Jong-un’s demands to stop sanctions against North Korean. To the contrary, yesterday it was reported that the U.S., China, and the U.N. had “struck a tentative deal on a draft U.N. Security Council sanctions resolution that would punish North Korea for its third nuclear test, which it conducted last month.” These sanctions are expected to be a strengthening of previously imposed sanctions following the 2006 and 2009 nuclear tests.

North Korea has replied to such threats, unsurprisingly, with more aggressive military rhetoric:

 “‘We will completely nullify the Korean armistice,’ the North’s KCNA news agency said, quoting the Korean People’s Army (KPA) Supreme Command spokesman.

The two Koreas remain technically at war since the 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce rather than a peace treaty.

‘We will be suspending the activities of the KPA representative office at Panmunjom (truce village) that had been tentatively operated by our army as the negotiating body to establish a peace regime on the Korean peninsula,’ KCNA quoted the spokesman as saying.

‘Related to that, we will be making the decision in parallel to cut off the Panmunjom DPRK-U.S. military hotline.’”

While the hotline has never been used during times of diplomatic tension, it’s suspension is a symbolic move to cut off communication with the United States. By cutting off communication, Kim Jong-un is making it clear that he has no intentions of negotiating a nuclear disarmament with the United States or the “Western world”. (The U.S. is currently working on similar negotiations with Iran as well, who at least on the surface appears to be a more willing negotiating partner than North Korea).

Less symbolic, and more overtly aggressive, is the claim that North Korea will nullify the Korean armistice in response to more severe UNSC sanctions. If the armistice is nullified, North and South Korea would technically be at war, meaning that even the smallest act of aggression by either side could explode into all-out war on the Korean peninsula. The Korean peninsula is currently a “powder-keg”, but even more alarmingly, it is a “nuclear powder-keg”.

Such a war would have serious geopolitical implications, as the U.S. is an ally of South Korea while China is an ally of North Korea.

China has, so far, played the role the international community would hope it plays in the current Korea situation. By openly condemning North Korean nuclear tests, and apparently agreeing to stricter sanctions against North Korea, China has signaled it is willing to put pressure on its ally to ensure regional stability.

The issue with China, as always, is can we take China at its word? China’s own lack of transparency continues to hinder its own accession as a true world power, while simultaneously depressing the standard of living for the average Chinese citizen. China has talked the talk, but will it walk the walk? Will China really remain tough on North Korea, or is it simply telling both sides what they want to hear?

China has openly defended tyrannical dictators, such as Syria’s Bashar Al-Assad, on grounds of “national sovereignty”. While this does not amount to a lack of transparency (as China along with Russia have openly vetoed UNSC intervention in the Syrian civil war), it does show that Chinese leaders allow themselves a certain amount of moral flexibility when deciding who to align themselves with.

China’s lack of transparency, and history of supporting questionable leaders (in the spirit of fairness, the U.S. has backed some questionable leaders in the past as well), casts doubt on whether China means what it says regarding North Korea. Chinese weaponry was recently found on board an Iranian ship; if China is supplying Iran weapons, then China is directly responsible for subverting UNSC sanctions against Iran. If this is the case, why should we believe that China will remain true to its word on sanctions against North Korea? (Not to mention that Iran has become a known supplier of arms to African and Middle-Eastern conflicts, meaning China could be playing a prominent if indirect role in regional instability in these volatile regions).

Perhaps China is for real in its condemnation and proposed sanctions against North Korea. Perhaps the idea of a nuclear power so close to China’s own borders has prompted China to take a tough stance against North Korea in order to protect regional stability as well as its own national security interests.

One thing is certain—the U.S. and the “Western world” need China to take a leading role in demilitarizing North Korea. China, as an ally to North Korea, has the means to influence Kim Jong-un’s decisions in a way that Western powers cannot.

China is at a bit of a crossroads itself. With new leaders coming into power, there is hope for greater transparency, economic reform, and a more responsible foreign policy that could help China gain legitimacy in the international community. China is not North Korea; its economic growth is much more dependent on international trade and therefore global security. China has signaled it will increase its military capabilities going forward; hopefully it will use its military and diplomatic position to promote global security along with its own interests.

The lack of transparency by The People’s Republic of China has made its words cheap—we must see through China’s actions that it is serious in its stance against a nuclear North Korea. China’s opponents will point to subversion of the Iranian sanctions as a reason that China cannot be trusted as a world power. Tension in North Korea provides China with an opportunity to change its image and position in the world.  How China performs in de-militarizing North Korea will go a long way in determining its role in the international community going forward.

In a recurring theme here at Normative Narratives, we will continue to discuss Chinese-American relations. Is China a friend or foe?–time will tell.

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Transparency Thursday: The Syrian Humanitarian Crisis

A lot has been written on the Syrian Civil War, and rightfully so. Over the last 23 months, the Syrian Civil War has claimed the lives of an estimated 70,000+ people. The Assad government remains in control mainly due to UNSC vetoes by Russia and China. These two countries, natural champions of “national sovereignty”, have tied the international community’s collective hands in the matter with no ideological shift in sight. Multi-lateral intervention has failed the Syrian people.

Therefore, it falls on individual nations to act either unilaterally, or more likely bi-laterally, to expedite the process of removing Bashar Al-Assad from power. It has become public knowledge that late last year President Obama rejected a plan from high ranking administration officials to arm the Syrian rebels.

It is not surprising that Obama has been very meticulous with regards to the Syria conflict. America is currently in the process of winding down its expensive “war on terror” in Afghanistan; no one has any interest in getting involved in another “conventional war” in the Middle-East.

There is also the fact that arming rebels can backfire. America has a history of backing a rebel group to topple an autocratic dictator who was seen as a threat to U.S. national security interests, only to bring to power another faction that also did not support “Western values”. For example, America armed a group led by Osama Bin-Laden to fight the Soviet Union in the 1980s, that did not end up so well.

There is an element of worry regarding arming Syrian rebels as well. Certain factions fighting Assad, notably the Al Nusra Front, are believed to have ties to Al-Qaeda. It is important we do not empower a future enemy with advanced military technology and governmental authority.

This time, however, is different. The U.S. and its allies have been central in planning an alternative government in Syria–The Syrian National Coalition. This parallel government was designed to be an inclusive organization that will protect religious pluralism and democratic rights. The fact that such a parallel system exists should help put to rest fears of backing a potential future enemy.

Lost in this Civil War and subsequent power grab is the humanitarian crisis affecting hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs). These are the people whom the Western world should be most concerned with supporting; those who have no aspirations of political power but merely want a chance to live a meaningful life. But in the midst of all the bloodshed and political jockeying, these people have generally been forgotten.

Oxfam recently put out a report that “…the United Nations’ “worst-case scenario” of more than a million refugees fleeing the country by June could be realized within weeks.”

“The surge was placing a “massive burden” on these countries, with the potential to “undermine stability in the region,” he warned.

‘The humanitarian crisis is worsening day by day, leaving agencies struggling to provide help that’s desperately needed,’ Lacasse said.

He also said that only 20 percent of the $1.5 million pledged by the U.S., other Western nations and Gulf Arab countries at a donor conference last month in Kuwait has been received.”

There is absolutely no excuse for Western nations to have not donated the $1.5 million necessary to support those most affected by the Syrian Civil War. While providing arms is riddled with political and military implications, providing humanitarian aid is a no-brainier. $1.5 million is nothing for the developed world, compared to the potential cost of regional instability associated with massive inflows of refugees into neighboring countries. One could argue that it has only been a month, but this financial aid has to be made available immediately—those on the ground who need the aid cannot wait while the Western world moves slowly to transfer the aid it has agreed to provide.

Yesterday, the White House agreed for the first time to directly assist the rebel forces opposing Assad with “non-lethal” support. While this is a good start to help bring an end to the Civil War, this support must occur in addition to, not instead of, humanitarian aid.

Update: U.S. non-lethal assistance will include $60 million in both non-lethal military aid AND humanitarian aid such as food rations and medical supplies. Good job John Kerry and the rest of the Obama administration! “The United States has also provided $385 million in humanitarian aid to the burgeoning flood of refugees outside Syria and displaced people inside the country.” Seems like I did not give the U.S. enough credit in it’s efforts to combat the humanitarian crisis in Syria and the surrounding region.

Humanitarian aid is a small sliver of the assistance the Western world will ultimately give in ending the violence in Syria. It is however the most beneficial in the short-run to those most affected by the civil war—Syrian refugees and IDPs. Guns and artillery have to be disseminated with great care to ensure the right people receive them. Humanitarian aid is not as sensitive a matter; credible NGOs such as Oxfam already exist to help the Syrian people, the only thing holding them back is a lack of funding.

There is no immediate end of the Syrian Civil War in sight; even Western artillery will only help topple Assad over a significant period of time. But providing aid to stop the humanitarian crisis is a much more immediate fix; once funding is available these people can receive whatever food, fuel, vaccinations and clean water they need to survive.

 Those who have died fighting for freedom can never be brought back. The years of lost economic and human development cannot be returned. All that can be done in the short term is to put an end to the humanitarian crisis affecting almost 1,000,000 Syrian refugees and IDPs. If the Western world wants to have a true Ally in a future democratic Syria, it must provide aid to those who will ultimately hold power in a democratic Syria—the Syrian people themselves.

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