Normative Narratives


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Conflict Watch: Kurdish Awakening

Original article:

Turkey and the United States have agreed in general terms on a plan that envisions American warplanes, Syrian insurgents and Turkish forces working together to sweep Islamic State militants from a 60-mile-long strip of northern Syria along the Turkish border, American and Turkish officials say.

The plan would create what officials from both countries are calling an Islamic State-free zone controlled by relatively moderate Syrian insurgents, which the Turks say could also be a “safe zone” for displaced Syrians.

And with only 60 Syrian insurgents having been formally vetted and trained by the United States under a Pentagon program, questions also remain about which Syrian insurgents and how many will be involved in the new operation. A larger number of rebels that American officials deem relatively moderate have been trained in a covert C.I.A. program, but on the battlefield they are often enmeshed or working in concert with more hard-line Islamist insurgents.

Such Syrian Arab insurgents would gain at the expense of the People’s Protection Units, a Kurdish militia known by the initials Y.P.G. that is seeking to take the same territory from the east. While the United States views the group as one of its best partners on the ground, Turkey sees it as a threat; it is affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a militant group whose longstanding conflict with Turkey has flared anew in recent days.

The plan does not envision Turkish ground troops entering Syria, although long-range artillery could be used across the border. Turkish ground forces would work on their side of the border to stem the Islamic State’s ability to infiltrate foreign fighters and supplies into Syria.

Awakening–an act or moment of becoming suddenly aware of something. Awakening is the word used to describe the coming together of disparate Sunni tribes and U.S. coalition forces to fight and defeat al Qeada in Iraq–the “Sunni Awakening”.

But there was another “awakening” for these factions–a rude awakening. After doing the heavy lifting on the front lines, these Sunni factions were largely shut-out of the political reunification of Iraq. This was not only unjust, it contributed to the government ineptitude and subsequent power-vacuum that has helped fuel ISIL’s rapid advance across Iraq.

There is a parallel in the fights against ISIS and Assad. This time, the YPG and PKK Kurdish forces are playing the front-line role. Furthermore, the Kurds are far more ideologically aligned with “Western values” than the Sunni Awakening tribes ever were.

My first thought when I heard Turkey was stepping up its fight against ISIS was “about time”. But my enthusiasm was quickly tempered as it became clear that Turkey’s plan is more about fighting the PKK and Turkish politics than the fights against ISIS and Assad. Turkey has the capacity to play a very important role in the fights against Assad and ISIL–this plan does not fulfill that role, and will likely be a net-negative.

The Kurdish pesh merga is a capable military with boots on the ground. Kurdish political leadership is stable and able to balance security and human rights better than any Middle-Eastern government aside from Turkey, Israel, and Tunisia. For a fraction of the financial and moral support sunk into failed ME regimes, Kurdistan could probably now be a fully functioning democratic state by now–I reiterate my support for an independent Kurdistan (although not on Turkish land, but in parts of Syria and Iraq).

For its part, Kurdish political leadership must denounce terrorist attacks against the Turkish government, and distance itself from any radical elements of their parties. Such terrorist attacks are counter productive–they cost the Kurdish statehood movement public support (which is a necessary element for ever becoming an internationally recognized state) and provide Turkey with legitimate reasons to attack Kurdish positions.

The Kurds should also expand their security mandate from solidifying their borders, to actively engaging and degrading ISIL. Backed by coalition airstrikes, boots on the ground are exactly what the fight against ISIL is most lacking. Despite war at it’s front door, Turkey will still not provide ground troops. The Kurds can use this cowardly position to their advantage, juxtaposing the importance of its ground troops against moderately useful Turkish air bases (yes they allow coalition airstrikes to get to positions faster, but without boots on the ground acting in concert with these airstrikes, they are largely ineffective in the fight against ISIL).

If the Turks want to stay out of the fight against ISIL and Assad, that is its prerogative as a sovereign nation. But the U.S. government and NATO should not sanction Turkey using this fight as a cover to degrade the one capable force on the ground fighting both ISIL and Assad. There is no longer a moderate Syrian opposition without the pesh merga. We should heed the lessons of abandoning our front-line allies after they have done “the dirty work” of war. The Kurds will not remain our allies if we abandon them at the first hint of Turkish intervention in the fight against ISIL.

(Update: In a further blow to the moderate Syrian rebels who figure so prominently in Turkey’s plan to fight ISIS and Assad, the leader of the only U.S. vetted force, Nadeem Hassan, was kidnapped along with 6 other rebels. This puts the number of vetted moderate Syrian rebels somewhere between 53 and 47, a reasonably large college lecture class, but not an army capable of fighting ISIS or Assad, regardless of the level of aerial support.)

Assad and ISIL cannot last indefinitely. The question is what morning-after do we want the Kurdish people to awaken to? The one where we stood by them as partners? Or the one where we gave the thumbs up for Turkey to bomb them after months of doing the world’s dirty work fighting ISIL? 

The Obama administration misplayed its hands in Syria and Egypt. Over time, what began as legitimate democratic movements became exactly what the Assad and Sisi wanted–a fight between “strong men” and radical extremists. We cannot let Kurdistan, a budding “Island of Decency” (in the words of Thomas Friedman), become another example of a failed democratic movement in the Middle East.

Some countries are truly not ripe for democratic modernization–it is a process. Failure to realize this can lead to costly wars and greater instability than before said interventions started. This is not to say the international community cannot or should not use it’s intelligence and resources to identify and support the civil elements within a country that are laying the socioeconomic and ideological groundwork for future democratic movements–we should. But we must be realistic when considering our willingness to dedicate resources and our partners capacities when determining whether direct intervention is a pragmatic decision; moving too fast is as bad as not moving at all.

At the other end of the spectrum, failure to support movements that have the capacity to solidify universal aspirations of freedom into sustainable political infrastructure and government administration–such as Kurdish leadership–should not be an option either. Not only does this go against “Western values”, it is geopolitically short-sighted. Furthermore, continuing to make this mistake makes the “democracy cannot exist in the middle east” narrative self-fulfilling.


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The Democratic Costs of a “Grexit”

To Grexit, or not to Grexit?

Greece’s negotiations with its creditors have not gone smoothly.  The Greek government treated an interim deal reached in February as a starting point for negotiations, while it’s creditors considered it more of an non-negotiable outline of a deal. The result has been two sides talking past each other; the longer this situation persists, the more likely a “Grexit”–Greece leaving the Eurozone and / or EU–becomes.

There is a ton of middle ground for the two sides–both want Greece to return to growth and full employment. The Greek government also wants a safety-net for people negatively affected by labor market and other structural reforms; pushing already impoverished people further into poverty is not only morally reprehensible, it is bad economics.

To prevent this result, Greece has passed an “anti-poverty law” to protect its most vulnerable citizens. The problem is financing this program; the Greek government needs room to implement needed structural reforms without further destabilizing Greek society.

In addition to staving off a humanitarian crisis, Greece also needs a long-term growth strategy beyond structural reforms. There are few options for the Greek government:

1) It can completely comply with creditor demands.

2) It can continue to push its lenders for more fiscal space (smaller primary surplus and / or promises of greater EU level aid / debt relief).

Or,

3) It can default on its debts and exit the Eurozone.

The first option is a non-starter, as the Greek government feels current demands would exacerbate social and economic hardship in Greece.

The second option would allow Greece to leverage more public money for safety net programs, educational and workforce training programs, and public private partnerships. This would allow Greece to avoiding default while mapping out a plan to boost economic growth.

The last option would be painful in the short-run as Greece would get battered by financial markets and possibly have to deal with currency instability as it reintroduced the drachma(?), but it would open policy space and make Greece much more competitive in terms of cost of doing business. A Grexit could also lead to a domino effect–if other ailing E.U. countries see a post-E.U. Greece succeeding, it would bolster anti-E.U. parties within these countries.

It is obvious that the second choice is in everyone’s best interests. Unfortunately, that is no guarantee this route will be taken:

Herman van Rompuy [former head of the European Council of EU leaders] told a Brussels conference that if Greece were to leave the euro zone, that would also have geopolitical repercussions in the current standoff with Russiaover Ukraine, emboldening Moscow to see Europe as weak.

Van Rompuy urged all sides to consider the political and geopolitical implications of such a step and not just the economic and financial arguments.

“I hope we will never have to answer the Grexit question,” he added

Greece staying in the E.U. is important for both sides of the negotiation. There are enough crises in the world without manufacturing one in Greece. It is exactly times like these when budgetary restrictions should be relaxed in the name of pragmatic, longer-term priorities. But so far Greece and it’s lenders have been unable to map out a solution that worksall parties involved, and so the current impasse and possibility of an “accidental Grexit” persists.

Greece did submit a new proposal to it’s creditors yesterday, and it was apparently strong enough that it got an unofficial endorsement from French Prime Minister Francois Hollande. This could be meaningful development, as heads of major European states have to this point been reluctant to acknowledge Greek concessions. It is a step towards the “political dialogue” Tsipras has been pleading for (framing the debate less in adversarial terms between debtor and creditor, and more as a mutual compromise between equal partners working towards a common goal).

“Democracy in Recession”

If Greece were to leave the EU, (aside from the economic impact) there would be significant geopolitical repercussions, including a Greek pivot towards Russia. The Greek government has already signaled it disagrees with EU sanctions on Russia. More recently, it was reported that Putin and Tsipras “did not discuss financial aid” on the sidelines of the St. Peteresburg International Economic Forum. Generally speaking, whenever someone has to defend that something “wasn’t discussed”, it means it either was discussed or very likely will be in the future.

This is not to say that Greece would stop being functioning as a democracy if it leaves the EU. In fact, it is a strong belief in democratic ideals that underpin the current standoff between Greece and it’s creditors. But a fracturing of the EU would certainly be a blow to the ideals the EU stands for–peace and prosperity through a cooperative, democratic international system. Specifically, if Greece signed a natural gas pipeline deal with Russia, it would undermine the current sanctions regime against Russia.

Even more alarmingly, Greece’s problems are emblematic of a greater inward shift by major democratic powers:

A recent NATO Poll found that “At least half of Germans, French and Italians say their country should not use military force to defend a NATO ally if attacked by Russia,” the Pew Research Center said it found in its survey, which is based on interviews in 10 nations.

In the United States, the study notes, support for NATO remains fairly strong. Americans and Canadians, it says, were the only nationalities surveyed in which more than half of those polled believed that their country should take military action if Russia attacked a NATO ally.

This is further evidence of a worrying global trend, what Thomas Friedman calls Democracy in recession”:

“…perhaps the most worrisome dimension of the democratic recession has been the decline of democratic efficacy, energy, and self-confidence” in America and the West at large. After years of hyperpolarization, deadlock and corruption through campaign financing, the world’s leading democracy is increasingly dysfunctional, with government shutdowns and the inability to pass something as basic as a budget. “The world takes note of all this,” says Diamond. “Authoritarian state media gleefully publicize these travails of American democracy in order to discredit democracy in general and immunize authoritarian rule against U.S. pressure.”

Diamond urges democrats not to lose faith. Democracy, as Churchill noted, is still the worst form of government — except for all the others. And it still fires the imagination of people like no other system. But that will only stay true if the big democracies maintain a model worth following. I wish that were not so much in question today.

Look, I get it. The world is still emerging from a generational economic crisis. Democracies are first and foremost accountable to their electorates, and in the face of short-term problems it is difficult to sell the importance of dealing with seemingly longer-term issues. But this is what we should demand of our political leaders–the ability to meet peoples short term needs while simultaneously laying the groundwork for long-term peace and prosperity.

The Democratization Process

Modernization theory and recent history support the idea that sustained democratic movements must result from organic desire by local factions. When these natural movements towards democratic governance emerge, they must be nurtured.

Democratic movements are always opposed by those who stand to lose power should they succeed. If the primary champions of democracy (the U.S. and the E.U.) seem increasingly unwilling to provide the resources needed to defend those who share our values, democratic movements are less likely to take shape against adversaries that tend to have economic and military advantages.

Autocratic rulers have always used propoganda and media control to make democracy look less appealing. This job becomes easier when traditional democratic stalwarts appear unable to govern effectively at home, and unwilling to defend their ideals abroad.


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Conflict Watch: Bringing Democracy To The U.N.S.C.

https://i2.wp.com/www.worldpeace.org/images/UN/UN-Sticker.jpg

The Syrian Civil War has raged for over 3 years and claimed an estimated 150,000 lives, with no sign of abating. During this time, reports from Syria have documented every violation of humanitarian law and human rights norms imaginable, including: the targeting of civilians, including children, in armed combat; mass displacements; the use of chemical weapons / “barrel bombs” / other indiscriminate means of killing; kidnappings / torture / forced disappearances; and the reemergence of Polio to name a few. The International Community, led by the U.N., has been powerless to stop these horrific acts:

The United Nations on Tuesday rejected calls for it to deliver humanitarian aid across borders into Syria without the approval of the government in Damascus, saying such operations would be possible only under a stronger U.N. Security Council resolution.

It’s the longstanding and consistent position of the United Nations that consistent with its charter … the organization can engage in activities within the territory of a member state only with the consent of that government of that state,” U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said on Tuesday.

The only exception is where the Security Council has adopted a binding resolution under Chapter 7 of the (U.N.)Charter, authorizing the organization to act without the government’s consent,” he said.

Diplomats also said Moscow would likely be opposed to a Chapter 7 resolution to allow cross-border aid deliveries without the consent of Assad’s government.

Russia, supported by China, has shielded its ally Syria on the Security Council during the war. They vetoed three resolutions that would have condemned Syria’s government and threatened it with possible sanctions.

The purpose of this blog is not to assign blame for the situation in Syria–I have been very straightforward about my beliefs on this issue. Instead, I would like to turn attention on the inability of the U.N., in its current framework, to uphold international law in general.

In instances where governments are either ineffective in dealing with, or are themselves perpetrating gross human rights violations, the responsibility to protect (R2P) is supposed to give the U.N. authority to intervene. With the vast majority of today’s wars occurring within country borders, the R2P was a necessary modernization of U.N. peacekeeping initiatives. But R2P has not been as effective as its supporters may have hoped; [apparently] the U.N. still needs a Security Council authorized Chapter 7 approval whenever it enters a country without government approval, rendering R2P useless without unanimous Security Council support.

As a proud American, a student of the political economy of development, and a former UNDP Democratic Governance Group Intern, it is fair to say I believe in the importance of effective democratic governance from both an ideological and practical stance; I believe there is no alternative path towards sustainable human development. Democratic governance is not only a “means” to important “ends”, it is also an important “end” itself, providing and protecting the political freedoms people needed for self-determination and a life of dignity.

Under the current U.N. framework, permanent members of the Security Council (China, France, Russian Federation, the United Kingdom, and the United States) each hold veto power. Two of these members, China and Russia, are decided opposed to concepts of democratic governance. These two countries find themselves in a position where they do not vote on individual issues (such as whether to invoke the R2P in Syria), but rather on ideological issues (should anything trump “national sovereignty”). China and Russia are engaged in an existential battle, fighting for an authoritarian identity in an increasingly democratic world; they will NEVER vote against a national government, afraid of the precedent it may set. All the while, the actual issue at hand goes unaddressed, leading the U.N. to abandon the very people who risk their lives championing U.N. principles.

Democracy is one of the universal and indivisible core values and principles of the United Nations.” It seems antithetical that an organization dedicated to the principles of democracy, human rights, peace and international law, would leave its most important decisions to such a decidedly undemocratic process.

It is time for the U.N. to bring the democratic process to the U.N.S.C. In the event of a Security Council veto, the U.N. General Assembly should have a vote as to whether it should uphold the veto or not. This vote could either require 3/4 of member states (there are currently 193 states) to vote to overturn (an abstention could be viewed as a vote in favor of the veto; if the issue is important enough to veto, a representative will be present to vote), or it could be weighted based on member state population (similarly to many legislative branches, like the U.S. Congress).

The details at this point are unimportant, what’s important is the concept that no one nation should be able to veto the will of the vast majority of the international community. Such a resolution (which would require an amendment to the U.N. Charter, a process which itself is subject to the unanimous will of the Security Council) would cost all permanent U.N.S.C. members (including the United States) some power in U.N.S.C. decision making. The Permanent members of the Security Council must accept the necessity of such an amendment. The alternative is an ineffective U.N., leading to the eventual breakdown of the international norms which made the second half of the 20th century the most peaceful and prosperous era in history.


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Conflict Watch: Will Western Powers Stand With the Ukrainian Opposition, Or Stand By As Democracy Flounders?

Ukrainian President Yanukovych withdrew from EU trade talks in favor of Russian support, sparking protests

Secretary of State John Kerry today reaffirmed the importance of U.S. and E.U. support for the Ukrainian Opposition at the Munich Security Conference:

Secretary of State John Kerry said on Saturday that the United States and European Union support the people of Ukraine in their pursuit of stronger ties with the West…’They have decided that means their futures do not have to lie with one country alone, and certainly not coerced. The United States and EU stand with the people of Ukraine in that fight.’

However, Ukrainian opposition leaders urged U.S. and EU leaders on Friday to go beyond vocal support for their fight and demand a halt to violence they blame on Yanukovich.

“What we need is not just declarations but a very clear action plan – how to fix the problem and fix the violence, how to investigate all these killings and abductions and tortures,” protest leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk said.

The uncompromising standoff, which turned violent after Yanukovich passed a short-lived law barring protests in early January, prompted a rare intervention from the military on Friday.

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Friday in a statement on Twitter that he was “very concerned by attempts to involve the military in the crisis” and added that the “military must remain neutral,” but said he was encouraged by the eventual repeal of the anti-protest law.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Saturday accused EU leaders of interfering in Ukraine’s internal affairs, helping stoke violent anti-government protests and displaying double standards.

“What does incitement of increasingly violent street protests have to do with promoting democracy?” Lavrov said in response to European Council President Herman Van Rompuy, who earlier said Ukraine’s future lay in Europe.

The EU and Russia have been at loggerheads over Ukraine since Yanukovich ditched an EU association accord in November under pressure from a Moscow seen to be trying to bring its former Soviet satellite back into its sphere of influence.

Speaking to Al Jazeera from Munich on Saturday, Leonid Kozhara, the Ukrainian foreign minister, called on Ukranians to distance themselves from the opposition, saying there was a “big misunderstanding between the government and the opposition.”

“For the first time in our country, we can see extremist groups,” he said.

Excuse us Minister Lavrov if I scoff at democracy lessons from the Russian Foreign minister…

The Ukrainian opposition is correct, they need more than words to support their movement towards more effective democratic governance. They need capacity building and organizational support from established democratic governments. Most importantly, they need economic support.

There are already disturbing trends emerging from these protests, namely military intervention and the introduction of an extremist narrative. The world has seen what happens when Western Powers “stand with” democratic movements (but really just stand by and offer little but supportive words). Over time, legitimate grievances and moderate oppositions are overrun by opportunistic extremist forces–the extremist narrative becomes self-fulfilling if a democratic movement is not nurtured. We have seen this sequence of events play out in Syria and Egypt in recent years; do not think because of Ukraine’s geography the opposition is less susceptible to anti-Western forces.

It is important to understand that those opposing democratic movements will not sit back and do nothing. While Russia may be less wealthy than the U.S. or the E.U., its political structure allows it more autonomy in foreign affairs. Despite pressing domestic needs, the Kremlin has proven willing to support to the Ukrainian government (in the form of a $15 billion loan, although this loan was recently suspended due to the inability of Yanukavych to squash his opponents).

Recognizing authoritarian regimes are not accountable when it comes to spending, Western powers must be more pragmatic and timely in their support. In conflict resolution, the thinking used to be solidify economic reforms, then focus on political reforms; history has proven this approach to be ineffectual.

Economic gains from democratization tend to be long term–innovation takes time. Demanding immediate economic reform in return for political support can undermine a budding democratic movement. If things get worse off right away (due to economic reforms), a new democratic regime may lose popular support (think the IMF demanding painful subsidy cuts as a condition for supporting the Morsi regime).

The only condition for economically supporting a democratic movement should be a commitment to pluralistic, inclusive democracy and human rights. Failing to support the Ukrainian opposition in this way means the champions of democracy are not learning from past failures. Furthermore, continued Western inaction could inadvertently undermine future democratic movements. Why would people who desire democratic freedoms risk reprisal if they have do not believe they will receive external support? While democratic freedoms are important, rational people will not oppose their government if they do not believe they have a legitimate chance of seeing their goals achieved.

Update: EU ready with “substantial financial aid” one Ukraine sets up its new government, following the ouster of Yanukovych.


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Conflict Watch: The End Of Team America World Police (Part 5)

Well, after no installments of “The End of Team America” for a few months, I now have back-to-back blogs on the “subject”. I don’t make the news people, I just analyze it! I suppose with the specter of a potential U.S. strike on Syria, unrest in Egypt, and complications with Iran, the timing wasn’t ripe to discuss winding down America’s military involvement around the world. However, this has always been a long term goal of the Obama administration; with Assad’s regime complying with international chemical weapons experts / “Geneva 2” peace talks in the works (I am personally skeptical the Syrian opposition will participate, which would derail these talks), Egyptian unrest seemingly subsiding (or festering under the surface?), and Iran entering the fold of international diplomacy with renewed optimism (but is it just a stalling tactic or a real attempt at change?), it seems that the tune of news outlets has shifted away from imminent U.S. military intervention back towards the long-term goal of winding down America’s role in global security measures. True none of these shifts represent concrete changes in their respective debates, but they do present an opening for a different focus by news outlets, at least for the time-being. 

Original Article:

Germany called for closer military integration between groups of NATO countries on Tuesday as the alliance grappled with how to keep its defenses strong at a time of falling military spending.

Germany’s proposal, discussed by NATO defense ministers at a Brussels meeting, is that big NATO nations act as “framework nations” leading a cluster of smaller NATO allies.

These clusters of countries would jointly provide some military capabilities or develop new ones for the benefit of the whole alliance, with the lead nation coordinating their efforts.

The idea was welcomed by NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen and by Britain but diplomats said some other countries, including France, had concerns about the proposal, fearing it could undermine countries’ sovereignty and lead to over-specialization.

“Does that lead to a kind of specialization which could be dangerous if some nations specialize only in certain types of mission and disengage from other missions?,” one diplomat said.

Some diplomats also worry that a cluster system could make it more difficult for NATO to use forces on operations because a parliament in one country could effectively veto military action by other nations in the cluster.

The United States has repeatedly voiced alarm about the growing gulf between U.S. military spending and capabilities and those of its European allies.

The German proposal would help share the cost of expensive military systems at a time when many NATO allies are slashing defense spending in response to the economic crisis.

Only four of the 28 NATO members – the United States, Britain, Greece and Estonia – met the alliance’s target of spending 2 percent of their economic output on defense in 2012.

As a block, the EU spends only 1.7% of it’s GDP on military expenditure. The U.S., by contrast, spends 4.7% of it’s GDP on military purposes. This unequal distribution of global security expenditure (39% of global military spending is by the U.S.) has placed an unfair burden on the American tax-payer, even as it has strengthened U.S. influence over global security decisions. The U.S. is expected to foot the bill of many multilateral security operations, which as led to roughly 1/4 of all Federal expenditures to go towards military purposes. This has constrained U.S. fiscal space, draining it’s economy of resources needed to reinvest in it’s future through social programs. The aggregate result has already begun to show in the form of increasing inequality and reduced social mobility.

It is not only in other countries best interest to reclaim some say in security matters, it is also in the U.S. best interest to have such a re-balancing take place. But absent other countries stepping up, the U.S. has no choice but to continue footing the bill, otherwise the “global security commons” would suffer. It appears that Germany now agrees with the U.S. and is taking the initial steps to more evenly distribute the burden of global security.

This plan certainly has snags, which are addressed in the article. Could more “specialized” NATO tie the hands of some of it’s smaller members, requiring an impossible consensus for military action? It is possible, although I would argue that states rarely make security decisions unilaterally (with the exception of the U.S., which would likely still retain it’s ability to act unilaterally in any foreseeable agreement). With each country having to take military intervention back to it’s legislature for a vote, having more votes ultimately complicates military action. I am sure that NATO members, headed by Germany and the U.S., will take necessary steps to streamline a more cooperative process, although admittedly I do not know what these steps would be at this time.

Germany was demilitarized after WWII, that was almost 70 years ago. Germany has, since that time, proven it has the political will, stability, and foresight to be a world power. It is time to allow Germany to become a true world power, by increasing its role in global security debates. I will be sure to keep my readers up to date on any news on this important proposition.


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Conflict Watch: Snapshot of Middle-Eastern Turmoil

Obama Military Spending

The NYT released an article today, highlighting the rare opportunities for diplomacy between the U.S. (presumably representing the interests of the international community) and various Middle-Eastern nations. First I will recap some highlights of the article, then I will give my input on the situations in Syria, Iran, and Egypt:

Only two weeks after Washington and the nation were debating a unilateral military strike on Syria that was also intended as a forceful warning to Iran about its nuclear program, President Obama finds himself at the opening stages of two unexpected diplomatic initiatives with America’s biggest adversaries in the Middle East, each fraught with opportunity and danger.

For Mr. Obama, it is a shift of fortunes that one senior American diplomat described this week as “head spinning.”

In their more honest moments, White House officials concede they got here the messiest way possible — with a mix of luck in the case of Syria, years of sanctions on Iran and then some unpredicted chess moves executed by three players Mr. Obama deeply distrusts: President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, and Iran’s erratic mullahs. But, the officials say, these are the long-delayed fruits of the administration’s selective use of coercion in a part of the world where that is understood.

“The common thread is that you don’t achieve diplomatic progress in the Middle East without significant pressure,” Benjamin J. Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser, said Thursday. “In Syria, it was the serious threat of a military strike; in Iran it was a sanctions regime built up over five years.”

Skeptics — and there are plenty in the National Security Council, the Pentagon, America’s intelligence agencies and Congress — are not so optimistic. They think Mr. Obama runs the risk of being dragged into long negotiations and constant games of hide-and-seek that, ultimately, will result in little change in the status quo. They argue that the president’s hesitance to pull the trigger on Tomahawk strikes on Syria nearly two weeks ago, and the public and Congressional rebellion at the idea of even limited military strikes, were unmistakable signals to the Syrian and Iranian elites that if diplomacy fails, the chances of military action ordered by the American president are slight.

All these possibilities could evaporate quickly; just ask the State Department diplomats who in the last years of the Bush administration thought they were on the way to keeping North Korea from adding to its nuclear arsenal, or the Clinton administration officials who thought they were on the verge of a Middle East peace deal.

Iranians are desperate for relief from sanctions that have cut their oil revenue by more than half, crashed their currency and made international banking all but impossible, but they may not understand the price of relief. “I suspect they are heading for sticker shock,” one official deeply involved in developing the American negotiating strategy said recently.

I am by no means a war-hawk; as a political / development economist, I understand that no MDG has ever been sustained in a conflict region. Peace and political stability are necessary preconditions for sustainable human development, which is the ultimate goal of development practitioners / human rights advocates around the world (it is also at the core of the UNDP’s strategic plan  for 2014-2017, which is where I was introduced to the term). Sustainable development requires development not be achieved at the expense of the environment / future generations. The human-rights-based-approach to development requires that development not be achieved by exploiting the worlds most impoverished / violating their human rights. Put together, these two concepts form the concept of sustainable human development; this is the only truly sustainable form of development as it reduces the probability that conflicts–which tend to have human rights violations at their core–will undo otherwise environmentally sustainable development gains.

But I am also a realist. I understand that sometimes revolutions are needed in order to overcome structural impediments to sustainable human development, such as an autocratic regime. Such regimes are not accountable to their people, and while there may be “benevolent dictators”, there is nothing sustainable about someones rights being granted by an individuals benevolence (he may change his mind, or be succeeded by a less progressive ruler). In this vein, effective democracy is the only means to sustainable human development. It is not some “western value” that drives my passion for democratic governance, it is my belief in the power of people, self-determination, and “development as freedom” which fuels this passion.

In the real world, concepts such as human rights and effective democracy are kept at bay by vested interest who would lose power if civil societies as a whole were empowered. These vested interests rely on collective action problems (I gain a lot as-is, by changing each person only gains a little) to maintain the status-quo. When collective action problems are overcome (a process which has been aided by innovations in social media / ICTs), vested interests often turn to military power to maintain their positions. I find this to be unconscionable, and therefore give some of my time to doing what little I can to try to shape the world as I believe it should be.

Diplomacy is a powerful preventative tool. However, I am less sold on diplomacy’s “soft-power” when the gloves come off and all-out war begins. Diplomacy is always more effective in democracies (where governments are accountable to the will of the people) than in autocracies (where the survival of the regime is the governments number one priority).

Syria: As you could probably tell, I am not sold on the “solution” to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons. I think this is a stalling tactic, which will further entrench Assad’s grip on power and further marginalize the legitimate Syrian opposition. I hope I am proven wrong, but I am not optimistic.

The Syrians now face a series of deadlines. The first comes this weekend, when they must issue a declaration of their chemical stocks that “passes the laugh test,” as Gary Samore, Mr. Obama’s former top adviser on unconventional weapons, put it earlier in the week.

It is also concerning that, so soon after a deal was reached and before any part of the deal has been carried out, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is already calling for Western Nations to “force” the Syrian opposition into peace talks with Assad. Mr. Lavrov does not seem to understand that democratic governments cannot “force” people to do things; furthermore, Western powers do not have that sort of leverage as they have till this point been largely absent in aiding the Syrian opposition. It is not surprising Mr. Lavrov had this misunderstanding, in Russia the government can indeed force people to do things.

Even more concerning is President Putin’s recent assertion that the UN chemical weapons report, which did not explicitly accuse Assad but does does implicitly suggest his regime was responsible for the August 21st chemical weapons attacks, is “biased”. He later goes on to say the Assad regime has evidence suggesting the rebels are responsible. So Putin would have us believe the UN is biased, but Assad is not? Sorry, but I’m not buying that and neither should you.

The French seem to finally be willing to arm the legitimate syrian opposition, the Free Syrian Army:

“On delivering weapons we have always said that we want to control these supplies so that they do indeed go to the Free Syrian Army … because they represent the Syrian National Coalition that we recognise as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people and today they are caught between a hammer and an anvil,” Hollande said.

“The hammer is the air strikes and actions of the Syrian regime and the anvil is radical Islam,” he said.

If the U.S. also agrees to arm the FSA, and can garner international support to strike Assad in response to confirmed chemical weapons usage, the Syrian-stalemate can be overcome and the democratic aspirations of the Syrian people realized.

Egypt: With Chemical weapons use in Syria dominating news, unrest in Egypt has taken a back-seat on the international communities agenda. However, fighting between Islamic Militants and the Egyptian Army continues. It is the job of the Egyptian military to rid Egypt of these extremists and ensure stability. It is not the Egyptians army’s job to condemn all Muslim’s as terrorists (as it has in the aftermath of the Morsi ouster). The Egyptian military wishes to remain unaccountable to the Egyptian people–it is not committed to effective democratic rule–as expressed in a draft of the new Egyptian Constitutional Declaration.

(Original article):

The Islamist assembly pointedly excluded prominent feminist, activist and secularist voices. It’s unclear to whom the current committee — appointed by an interim president, backed by the army, packed with the heads of official institutions — is accountable beside the state itself. Organizations such as the Journalists’ Syndicate have already complained that their recommendations on press law and freedoms of speech have been overlooked.

And this assembly, just like the previous one, is rushing its work, and conducting it with little transparency. In fact, the Islamist assembly may have been better at sharing information about its progress: It maintained a Web site tracking the latest discussions and amendments. We learn of the workings of the current assembly only through sporadic interviews its members give to the press.

This issue could be addressed in the coming weeks. And there are many ways in which the current constitution could improve upon the last. Hoda Elsadda, a founding member of a prominent feminist research center who heads the freedoms and liberties subcommittee, says she want to include an article prohibiting discrimination and human rights violation by the security services. Several members of the assembly have voiced their opposition to military trials of civilians. The rights of religious minorities, women and children — given short shrift in the last document — will probably receive greater emphasis now.

But In a country  ruled by the military, and amid a declared war on terrorism, it seems very unlikely that the constitution’s biggest shortcomings will be addressed. The draft as it stands now subjects fundamental freedoms to vague qualifications that render them meaningless: These freedoms must be exercised “according to the law” or as long as they don’t hinder “national security.” The document places the army above oversight and accountability.

And it sets many Egyptians — not just supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood — on the sidelines of what should be a national conversation and a fresh start.

To be fair, Morsi’s constitutional drafting process was not exactly inclusive either. But Morsi’s regime was willing to work within the democratic process, while General Sisi is not. The democratic aspirations of the Egyptian people will likely come second to ensuring the military’s grip on power.

Iran: Iranian President Rouhani, a relative moderate, has been much more diplomatic towards the West than his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The Iranian economy has been crippled by 5 years of economic sanctions, and in order to have those sanctions lifted, Iranian leaders appear willing to negotiate an agreement on ending Iran’s nuclear weapons program (which it denies having):

American officials say they understand that Iran will need some kind of enrichment ability to assure its own people that it has retained its “nuclear rights,” as its negotiators say. The question is how much. Unless a good deal of the current infrastructure is dismantled, Iran will be able to maintain a threshold nuclear capability — that is, it will be just a few weeks, and a few screwdriver turns, from building a weapon. It is unclear whether Mr. Obama can live with that; the Israelis say they cannot.

The NYT article talked about “sticker shock”, the price Iran will have to pay in order to keep its nuclear rights and have sanctions against it removed. In a previous post, I laid out conditions I thought Iran should have to agree to in order to have sanctions removed:

The issue comes down to transparency, accountability, and ultimately governance. Can countries without the traditional checks and balances present in Western democracies be credible partners? Can they actually uphold their promises, or are they merely trying to buy time / have sanctions eased until it is beneficial to renege on their commitments?

The burden of proof falls on Iran and North Korea on this one. If either country wishes to be allowed to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes without dealing with crippling international sanctions, certain conditions must be met. Most notably, independent international inspectors must be given unrestricted access to known / suspected uranium enrichment facilities; if either country can fulfill this condition, then it will have earned the right to enhance uranium for peaceful purposes.

I still believe these conditions should be part of any talk to ending sanctions against Iran.

Iraq: Sectarian violence has gripped Iraq since the U.S. pulled out, and is in some ways worse than before the Sadam Hussien ouster. Iraq is a case-n-point of the limits of armed intervention in other countries.

Diplomacy is a powerful tool, but it has it’s limits. Both diplomacy and military action, as well as economic leverage and intelligence sharing, combine to form the D.I.M.E foreign policy paradigm I believe the U.S. should pursue.

5 years of sanctions were needed to bring Iran to the bargaining table, and the threat of force was needed to get Assad to admit he had chemical weapons / agree to dismantle his arsenal. Only time will tell how / if these complex issues can be resolved thought diplomacy. One thing is certain; we cannot trust dictators or take them at their word, their commitments must be verifiable. In order to hold a dictator accountable for his concessions, international investigators must be given unfettered access to any point of interest. This requires relinquishing some “national sovereignty”, something no country–democratic or otherwise–likes to do.

The U.S. failed to drive a hard enough bargain (in my mind) on chemical weapons with the Syrian regime. At least as a starting point, Western powers should make their demands clear and strong heading into negotiations with otherwise unaccountable regimes.


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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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Transparency Report: Snowden and Snow-now

preview

Just 6 days ago it seemed like their was a chance that the Edward Snowden debacle could be resolved internally:

The United States has made a formal promise to Russia not to execute or torture Edward Snowden if he is sent home to face charges of illegally disclosing government secrets, and the Kremlin said Russian and U.S. security agencies are in talks over his fate.

The 30-year-old former U.S. spy agency contractor has been stuck in the transit area of a Moscow airport for more than a month despite Washington’s calls to hand him over.

Russia has refused to extradite Snowden, who leaked details of a secret U.S. surveillance program including phone and Internet data, and is now considering his request for a temporary asylum.

In a letter dated Tuesday July 23 and released on Friday, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder wrote that he sought to dispel claims about what would happen to Snowden if he is sent home.

“Mr. Snowden has filed papers seeking temporary asylum in Russia on the grounds that if he were returned to the United States, he would be tortured and would face the death penalty. These claims are entirely without merit. Torture is unlawful in the United States,” Holder wrote, without explicit reference to Manning. “If he returns to the United States, Mr. Snowden would promptly be brought before a civilian court.”

“Snowden was charged with theft of government property, unauthorized communication of national defense information and willful communication of classified communications intelligence information to an unauthorized person.

The latter two offenses fall under the U.S. Espionage Act and carry penalties of fines and up to 10 years in prison.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin had expressed “strong determination”, he said, not to let relations suffer over the dispute “no matter how the situation develops”. Putin himself is not personally dealing with the problem, the spokesman said.

But he reiterated Moscow’s stance that Russia “did not hand over, does not hand over and will not hand over anybody”.

Putin, a former KGB spy, has said Snowden could only be granted sanctuary in Russia if he stopped actions that could harm the United States.

However, a smooth ending to the Edward Snowden saga was not to be, as Moscow today extended “temporary asylum”  to Snowden for one. This effectively puts Snowden out of reach for the next year from the American legal system. News of this decision drew a sharply negative response from the White House:

Russia granted National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden asylum on Thursday and allowed him to leave Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport for the first time in more than a month, raising the prospect that the U.S. fugitive will remain in Russia for the foreseeable future and become a constant strain on already-tense relations with the U.S.

“We are extremely disappointed that the Russian government would take this step despite our very clear and lawful request” to have him expelled, said Mr. Obama’s chief spokesman, Jay Carney. “Mr. Snowden is not a whistleblower—he is accused of leaking classified information.”

The decision undermines long-standing law-enforcement cooperation between Moscow and Washington, Mr. Carney said.

Russia’s decision also threatens to derail a planned September summit in Moscow between President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin, which U.S. officials had viewed as a potential breakthrough moment in a monthslong drive to find common ground with Russia on important foreign-policy aims, such as ending the war in Syria. “We are evaluating the utility of a summit in light of this,” Mr. Carney said, adding that no decision had been made.

Senator John McCain, a well respected Senator with unparalleled foreign relations experience (and subsequent influence on foreign relations discourse), was even more critical of the move:

U.S. Senator John McCain is furious about whistleblower Edward Snowden’s newly-acquired asylum, and is demanding that Washington re-examine its relations with Moscow and “strip away the illusions that many Americans have had about Russia.”

Following the news of Snowden’s one-year asylum status in Russia, McCain released an angry statement in which he condemns the “disgraceful” actions of President Vladimir Putin.

“Russia’s action today is a disgrace and a deliberate effort to embarrass the United States,” the senator said. “It is a slap in the face of all Americans. Now is the time to fundamentally rethink our relationship with Putin’s Russia. We need to deal with the Russia that is, not the Russia we might wish for.”

“Today’s action by Putin’s Russia should finally strip away the illusions that many Americans have had about Russia the past few years,” he said. “We have long needed to take a more realistic approach to our relations with Russia, and I hope today we finally start.”

— 

Russia’s response to American outrage has been weak and arguably oblivious to the reality of the matter:

One of Mr. Putin’s aides, Yuri V. Ushakov, said on Thursday that Mr. Snowden’s fate was of “insignificant character” and thus would not affect relations, according to the state news agency, RIA Novosti. He added that the Kremlin was aware that Mr. Obama might cancel his trip to Moscow but had received no official notification from officials in Washington.

It is unfortunate that Russia decided to grant Snowden asylum, as more than anything it adds to what the article refers to as the “constant strain on already-tense relations with the U.S”. Russia and the U.S. have a very interesting historical relationship. Despite obvious fundamental differences, since the end of the Cold War both Russia and the U.S. have been able to coexist, and at times cooperate, in global affairs despite mistrust and misunderstanding by both sides. Because of this longstanding yet complex / secretive relationship, every official action between the two countries adds on top of an already long list of diplomatic baggage. The Snowden issue is just the most recent manifestation of the somewhat cooperative yet mostly competitive and ideologically divided relationship that defines modern US-Russian relations.

Balking at the G-20 talks would be counter productive; I have gone on record recently (here and here) about the importance of the upcoming G-20 talks. It appears the global community is ready to seriously start addressing issues that require global policy coherence, such as corporate tax evasion, environmental and security issues. Furthermore, it appears the U.S. federal government will simultaneously push legislation to operationalize international agreements, hopefully beginning a trend of coherent global-good-governance. There are a multitude of issues, both bilateral and multilateral, which the U.S. must take a leading role on at the G20 summit. How U.S.-Russia relations evolve from this incident is yet to be determined. A good way to press forward constructively is for Obama to attend G-20 talks. By all means boycott the 2018 Winter Olympics, but the G-20 summit should not be used as a diplomatic bargaining chip, there is too much at stake.

In a way, this is a fitting temporary conclusion to the Snowden saga–a life of constant limbo and uncertainty of his own human rights. These are in essence the opposite of core elements of American society–security, freedom, self-determination and expression

For Mr. Snowden, Russia’s hospitality could prove a mixed blessing. The Kremlin has demanded he cease his “political activities” in order to stay in the country, curtailing his potential options for work.

If Snowden thought the U.S. Federal government was bad, he is about the meet the Kremlin (sounds ominous no?). The Russian government violates human rights with relative impunity, and uses national sovereignty as a shield from accountability for domestic and extra-territorial human rights violations (most prominently the continued provision of advanced arms to Assad in Syria). Snowden thought he would be a hero, instead he is for all intents and purposes under house-arrest in Russia.

If recent events have taught us anything it is that governments with adequate resources, aided with advances in information and communications technology (ICTs), have virtually global surveillance capabilities;. Snowden’s every move will be watched during his time in Russia by both the Obama administration and the Kremlin. In his attempt to expose human rights violations by the U.S. government, Snowden has in effect sacrificed his own rights. He has spent the last few months in Hong Kong and Moscow, not exactly hotbeds for human rights or freedom of expression. His only permanent asylum options at the moment are in Latin American countries, where governments tend to be ill-equip at even providing basic personal security.

The U.S. is not perfect–there is no perfect country. Snowden will come to realize in time that in his pursuit of perfection (or fame or more nefarious goals), he flew too close to the sun. The U.S. Government has numerous domestic and international obligations; at times those obligations appear to be incompatible and difficult decisions have to be made. The U.S. government perhaps should have been more transparent about aspects of PRISM, but our leaders believe that by its nature disclosure would inhibit the effectiveness of PRISM, and chose to keep it secret (until Snowden came along).

I never got why the collection of metadata by the U.S. Federal is such a big deal to people. After all, private sector corporations such as Verizon already have this data; are we worried that our elected officials have information that private companies already own and probably sell to advertisers? There have been exactly 0 confirmed instances of the U.S. government using PRISM data to infringe of the rights of U.S. citizens. As a country we should focus our efforts on the real issues in-front of us–there are many of them–instead of on hypothetical rights violations by the global champion of democracy and human rights.

The U.S. government made it clear that it was willing to issue Snowden a temporary passport to come home and have his day in court. Snowden has officially rebuffed this offer, and after a year in Russia, probably will never receive it again.


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Transparency Report: Denuclearization

In a speech delivered at Brandenburg Gate in Berlin yesterday, President Obama outlined many of his global ambitions for his second term. Among those was a renewed global push for nuclear disarmament:

“President Obama plans to use a speech in Berlin on Wednesday to outline plans for further reductions in the American nuclear arsenal if Russia agrees to pare back its weapons at the same time, administration officials said Tuesday.”

“Mr. Obama will propose trimming the number of strategic warheads that each of the two big nuclear powers still maintains by up to a third, taking them below the 1,550 permitted in the treaty he signed with Russia in his first term, a senior administration official said. That would leave each country with just over 1,000 weapons.”

“Mr. Obama will also declare that he will work with NATO allies to develop proposals for major cuts in tactical nuclear weapons, which are not covered by the existing treaty. Russia, which has far more tactical nuclear weapons deployed than the United States and Europe do, has firmly resisted such cuts. There are fears that its tactical weapons are in parts of Russia where they risk being seized by terrorist groups.”
“The president, who once talked about eventually ridding the world of nuclear weapons, faces enormous obstacles to any further reductions, both in Moscow and in Washington. President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia has demanded further concessions on missile defense before entertaining deeper nuclear cuts, and Republicans in the Senate have made clear they would resist any treaty that went beyond the New Start pact ratified in 2010.”

Despite obstacles, it is heartening to see President Obama placing nuclear disarmament on his second term agenda. It is important if the U.S. seeks legitimacy in talks with Iran and North Korea; both countries, in a recent change of tone, seem ready to begin talks with the U.S.

North Korea:

“North Korea’s powerful National Defense Commission announced on Sunday that Pyongyang was ready to hold ‘broad and in-depth discussions’ with the US on a range of issues, including the building of ’a world without nuclear weapons.’”

“The country warned, however, that talks cannot take place if the US continues to set preconditions for direct dialogue. Washington has repeatedly said that North Korea must take concrete steps to abandon its nuclear weapons program before negotiations can take place.”

“The Obama administration said Sunday it was receptive to North Korea’s proposal for high-level talks, but wanted “credible negotiations” that would lead to a nuclear-free North.”

“National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said in a statement: ‘Our desire is to have credible negotiations with the North Koreans, but those talks must involve North Korea living up to its obligations to the world,’ including UN resolutions, and ‘ultimately result in denuclearization.’”

The U.S., preempting an obvious North Korean objection of America’s vast nuclear program, is taking the first step towards realizing a “world without nuclear weapons”. The issue remains whether Kim Jong-Un’s North Korea can be a credible negotiating partner.

China will have a key role to play in such negotiations, which it is hopefully ready to do after Presidents Obama and Xi summit meeting in early June. There are reasons to be optimistic, China has signed onto UN sanctions against North Korean in response to nuclear testing, frozen North Korean assets in major Chinese banks, and generally taking a much firmer tone than usual on the issue of North Korean denuclearization.

Iran:

“The election of Hassan Rowhani as Iran’s next president creates an opportunity to move forward on a negotiated agreement to stop Iran’s nuclear weapons program and to begin to repair three decades of hostility with the United States.”

“During his first news conference on Monday, Mr. Rowhani promised to “follow the path of moderation” and allow greater openness over the nuclear program. But he also restated Iran’s refusal to halt uranium enrichment as the United Nations Security Council has demanded.”

“Iran is ready to suspend enrichment of uranium to 20 percent, a key demand of world powers at talks over its disputed nuclear program, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.

In return, the Persian Gulf nation must be offered “weighty reciprocal steps,” including a gradual lifting of unilateral and United Nations sanctions, Lavrov said in an interview with the Kuwaiti news service Kuna posted today on the Foreign Ministry’s website.”

“‘This could become a breakthrough agreement that could largely remove the tension surrounding the existing problems, including concern about enrichment rising to weapons level,’ he said. ‘It would be unforgivable not to use this opportunity.’”

“Iranian chief negotiator Saeed Jalili said that while his country would consider the step of suspending enrichment at 20 percent levels, ‘we must know upon what foundations it rests.’ Recognition of Iran’s right to enrich uranium for peaceful use under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty would move the talks forward, he said.”

The interesting issue here is Iran’s continued insistence that its uranium enrichment is for peaceful means. As an American of Jewish decent, I have many reservations about legitimizing the nuclear capacity of a nation that has a history of promoting both anti-Western and anti-Israeli values.

However, the development economist and human rights advocate in me agrees with Mr. Jalili than Iran has a “right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes”. The fact that it is expressly stipulated in the NPT gives legal backing to the human rights implications of nuclear capability.

Enriched uranium can be used for peaceful purposes, such as nuclear energy and medical isotopes. Is it not the right for Iran’s citizens to have access to cheaper electricity and advances in medical care as the nation modernizes, unlocking resources for further modernization?

Further complicating matters is that nuclear energy has virtually zero GHG emissions; it is hypocritical to promote sustainable development (as Obama has done and continues to do) and at the same time disallow Iran from using nuclear energy. Nuclear energy is part of a “comprehensive energy portfolio” needed to combat climate change.

The issue comes down to transparency, accountability, and ultimately governance. Can countries without the traditional checks and balances present in Western democracies be credible partners? Can they actually uphold their promises, or are they merely trying to buy time / have sanctions eased until it is beneficial to renege on their commitments?

The burden of proof falls on Iran and North Korea on this one. If either country wishes to be allowed to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes without dealing with crippling international sanctions, certain conditions must be met. Most notably, independent international inspectors must be given unrestricted access to known / suspected uranium enrichment facilities; if either country can fulfill this condition, then it will have earned the right to enhance uranium for peaceful purposes. 

What do my readers think? Are nuclear capabilities a “right”? Can either Iran or NK (or both) be credible negotiating partners? Does nuclear energy have a role to play n combating climate change? Global denuclearization is the definition of a long-term normative goal, but we must start somewhere. To paraphrase Voltaire, we should not let perfection impede progress.


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Transparency Thursday: Making Sanctions “Smarter”

Sanctions are defined as penalties or other means of enforcement used to provide incentives for obedience with the law, or with rules and regulations. In a foreign affairs context, sanctions are generally imposed by a group of countries (the greater the participation the more effective sanctions can be, and in many cases without strategic involvement sanctions can effectively be useless) in order to influence a political/military/economic  outcome abroad. Sanctions allow countries to show their dislike of a particular course of action without infringing on the sovereign rights of states and without military intervention. Sanctions are often used in the face of gross human rights violations. Prominent examples of sanctions in use today are North Korea, Iran, and Syria (covering both the government and the opposition).

Despite the ability to hold powerful interests accountable, sanctions are not a unanimously popular foreign policy instrument.  One reason, as stated before, is that without strategic agreements (neighboring countries, trade partners, ideologically aligned states) sanctions will be ineffective. They can lead to the formation of black markets, giving criminal organizations even more resources for nefarious activities. The main concern regarding sanctions however is in regards to their human rights implications.

Although sanctions are often meant to end human rights violations, their existence can actually exacerbate humanitarian crises, especially in the short run. While each sanction is uniquely tailored to the situation it is trying to influence, the indiscriminate shortages that sanctions generally cause affects everyone in society (and arguably vulnerable / marginalized groups the most). Because of this, the practice of imposing sanctions has evolved towards the imposition of “smart sanctions“. In essence, smart sanctions are more targeted sanctions (think freezing financial assets as opposed to a complete embargo), meant to put pressure on strategic parties while considering and sometimes providing aid to compensate for human rights issues that may arise.

Smart sanctions are the topic of today’s lesson. I am referring specifically to recent changes made in sanctions against Iran and Syria.

Iran: A little background, Iran is currently facing sanctions which are attempting to deter Iranian nuclear capacity development, which Iran has insisted is for peaceful purposes (medical), but the Western world has strongly opposed.

Iran is also in presidential campaign season, and preliminary reports do not look good for denuclearization and human rights interests:

“Mr. Jalili, known as Iran’s unyielding nuclear negotiator and a protégé of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is emerging as the presumed front-runner in Iran’s presidential election on June 14, an unsettling prospect for future relations with the West. Mr. Jalili, 47, who many analysts say has long been groomed for a top position in Iran, is by far the most outspoken hard-liner among the eight candidates approved to participate in the election.”

“He has been featured in flattering terms in recent weeks in the semiofficial Fars news agency, which is connected to the Revolutionary Guards, as well as in dozens of Web sites and other news outlets. By contrast, the other candidates now sometimes discover their campaign appearances canceled for unclear reasons and often find themselves under sharp attack in interviews on state TV, while Mr. Jalili gets softball questions.”

“If he gets elected I foresee even more isolation and conflict, as he doesn’t care about foreign relations, the economy or anything,” the analyst said.”

To make matters worse, lack of transparency has marked previous Iranian elections.

“Iran’s presidential elections, lacking independent opinion polls and subject to manipulation, are notoriously unpredictable. In 2005, Mr. Ahmadinejad came out of nowhere to win. In 2009, millions of people took to the streets to protest what they said was widespread fraud in the voting that returned Mr. Ahmadinejad to office over the more popular opposition candidate, Mir Hussein Moussavi.”

In order to prevent against corrupt election practices, and possibly to help organize opposition to Mr. Jalili, the U.S. today announced it will repeal sanctions on mobile devices and  communication software / equipment. 

“The change is intended to help Iranians communicate through social media, text messaging and mobile-phone videos in order to overcome some of the media and communications restrictions imposed by Iranian authorities.

The action “aims to empower the Iranian people as their government intensifies its efforts to stifle their access to information,” according to a Treasury Department statement.”

“Providing the democracy movement in Iran with access to the latest social media organizing tools will strengthen their efforts to bring about positive change to a government that fears information it can’t control,” Democratic Representative Jim Moran of Virginia, who has sought such action, said in an e-mailed statement today.”

“The U.S. has supported attempts to boost democratic movements and stepped up efforts to stop regimes such as those in Iran and Syria from blocking social media through what Obama has called the “malign use of technology.”

In November, the administration imposed sanctions on Iranian officials –including the nation’s communications minister — and government agencies for blocking Internet access, mobile-phone lines and satellite-television channels to stifle free speech.

The Treasury named today additional individuals and entities for “contributing to serious human rights abuses committed by the Iranian regime, including through the use of communications technology to silence and intimidate the Iranian people.” The State Department issued visa restrictions on about 60 Iranian officials linked to human rights abuses.”

This story highlights the importance of media independence and transparency for effective democracy. The use of social media has been instrumental in “The Arab Spring” revolutions, enabling  the dissemination of information, while overcoming collective action problems that tend to allow powerful interests to remain in control to the detriment of society as a whole. Communications technology also has positive uses for healthcare, education, and e-governance. But in this case, it is clear that the U.S. is trying to allow more liberal Iranians to communicate, in hopes of challenging Mr. Jalili’s candidacy. Additionally, mobile devices make it easier to report political rights abuses, such as coercive measures at polls and other means of election-rigging.

At a recent ECOSOC Partnerships forum I was lucky enough to attend in my capacity as a UNDP intern, Mr. Suneet Singh Tuli, CEO of Datawind, called access to affordable mobile internet access a human right–I agreed with him, and it seems the Obama administration is of like mind. These smarter sanctions should help uphold electoral integrity in the upcoming elections, and should help improve the average Iranian’s opinion of America.

Syria has now been engaged in a civil war that has lasted over 2 years, claimed over 80,000 lives, and lead to over 1 million refugees and internally displaced people in the Middle-East. The civil war and refugee flows have threatened the already tenuous stability of the region, and a full blow humanitarian crisis has enveloped the entire country of Syria.

Gridlock in the U.N.S.C. has prevented direct international military intervention. Russia and China have repeatedly vetoed international intervention, championing Syria’s national sovereignty despite undeniable human rights violations committed by the Assad regime. As the fighting continues, and Western support has lagged compared to Russian military support of the Assad regime (with no signs of slowing down, as Assad has apparently just received a new shipment of Russian arms), the Syrian opposition has turned towards extremists groups for support, which has further complicated international involvement.

Recent actions show that the EU is reconsidering its position on it’s Syrian arms embargo.

“Divisions among European Union foreign ministers on Monday prevented the renewal of the arms embargo on Syria, raising the possibility of a new flow of weapons to rebels fighting to bring down the government of President Bashar al-Assad.

“While we have no immediate plans to send arms to Syria, it gives us the flexibility to respond in the future if the situation continues to deteriorate and worsen,” William Hague, the British foreign secretary, said after more than 12 hours of stormy talks.”

“The ministers did agree to renew all the economic sanctions already in place against the Syrian government.”

“There were also fears that Russia, which already sends arms to the Syrian government, would feel freer to send more.”

“The only effect you could have — let’s be realistic about this — is that it will stimulate the Russians to provide even more arms,” he said. “But they’ve been providing so many arms that I’m sure even more will not make much of a difference.”

While nothing will change immediately, it is significant the Europe has left the door open to providing military aid to the Syrian opposition in the future. The fact the Europe is taking the lead on this is encouraging. It also makes much more sense, as Europe is geographically much closer to Syria and it’s main ally Russia. While I am sure any coordinated European effort would have American support, it is nice to have the spotlight off American foreign affairs for a change.

There is also some concern that increased arms flow will undermine proposed peace talks in Geneva, which would include the Assad regime, the Syrian opposition, the U.S. and Russia among other participants. This is also a legitimate claim, although I see this as more of a measure to ensure the peace talks do bear fruit. European leaders are putting pressure on the Assad regime to negotiate a political transition by signaling their willingness to further aid the rebels should the peace talks break down. Syria has been in a hurting stalemate for sometime now, perhaps European powers are giving the Assad regime one more chance at a political transition to end this war before pursuing a military end.

These two stories are linked, as Mr. Jalili, a hardliner and supporter of Hezbollah, would likely step up support to the Assad regime if elected as Iranian president. Perhaps the Assad regime is just trying to buy time with “peace talks” until it has a stauncher ally in Iran.

There has also been the issue of whether Iran should be allowed to participate in Syrian peace talks (if you have been paying attention, the usual suspects are backing the sides you would expect them to in this dispute).

Sanctions are getting smarter, as human rights considerations gain more recognition as the cornerstone of the modernization process.  Will these “smart sanctions” help achieve the desired outcome without exacerbating human rights violations? Lets be cautiously optimistic; be sure to check back for regular updates on these evolving and inter-related issues.

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