Monday, July 30, 2012

The Price of the Bomb: Why North Korea Needs to Start Playing By the Rules

When Kim Jong-il was pronounced dead just before Christmas of last year, I was not alone in exhibiting a touch of optimism at the prospect of a freer North Korea more willing to participate in the global arena under the guidance and leadership of Kim Jong-un. Years of bizarre isolation and a reluctance to obey any international laws or honor any alliances had created a sort of enigma in North Korea, and the rare glimpses outsiders got of the nation were bleak – North Koreans have experienced some of the worst living conditions in the world for decades.

Kim Jong-un has not lived up to expectations when it comes to interactions with the rest of the world. Yes, there have been talks and negotiations between the United States and North Korea since the beginning of 2012, but these negotiations have not produced any concrete results. North Korea still has nuclear weapons, is steadfast in their desire to hold on to them, and like his father, Kim Jong-un seems apathetic when it comes to the well-being of his people.

From a humanitarian standpoint, the leadership of North Korea is ineffective, and dangerously so. Just these past several weeks, torrential rain has caused rampant flooding – the New York Times reported yesterday that the death toll from these floods is now at 88 people, with 63,000 left homeless. This nation, which already has inadequate food supplies for its people, is having its farmland damaged or in the worst cases, completely destroyed. In most cases, such an unfortunate natural disaster would be offset by the generosity of outside nations in the form of aid. However, because of North Korea’s stubborn leadership and the relationship the country has with the rest of the world, not much aid is expected. The New York Times article states that last year, the United Nations requested $218 million for emergency aid in North Korea – donors together contributed just $85 million.

And why should they donate? North Korea offers nothing in return for the food, money, clothing and other resources that other countries provide for them. Furthermore, the request of the U.S., the U.N., and numerous others to re-join the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty (which North Korea formally withdrew from in 2003) has been met with a lackadaisical disinterest from North Korea.

Herein lies the key to better relations between North Korea and the rest of the world, as well as an increase in aid provided to North Korea. Kim Jong-il’s obsession with developing nuclear weaponry and fortifying his army should not be adopted by his son; President Obama has paved the way for Russia and the U.S. to begin disarming their nuclear bombs, and there seems to be greater urgency in much of the developed world to diminish the vast arsenals of WMDs. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, since its inception in 1970, has had 190 signatory states, and this number will likely increase in the upcoming decade. There is no room in the world anymore for nuclear weapons, and North Korea is the last country that should be concerned with such a powerful and devastating technology. Additionally, the exorbitant costs associated with the uranium-enrichment process of developing nuclear power could have been spent on the North Korean public, who desperately need it. If Kim Jong-il had thought that nuclear bombs would be able to feed and clothe his citizens (which he most likely didn’t), then he was sorely mistaken.

This is more of an urge to Kim Jong-un than anything else. It is a shame to see a country with such promise stuck behind in a Cold War-type weapons build-up while agricultural resources and squandered and the general public starves to death. While it may not be necessarily copious, there is aid generated by much of the developed world every year, and with a little effort on the part of Kim Jong-un, his country will receive more of it. Just look at Vicky’s article on Cuba from yesterday: after Raul Castro agreed to have talks with the U.S. recently, a weekly service of cargo ships containing aid will head from Miami to Havana. It is apparent that the U.S. is willing to help those in need so Mr. Kim – please, let us help you, and agree to further negotiations. Your people will thank you.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

"Castro said what?!": Cuba's President "Sets the Table" for Talks

As the Olympics get underway, the Syrian crisis slips closer and closer to civil war, and the U.S. is wracked by strong summer storms, a milestone in diplomacy almost passed by without notice this week. On July 26, Raul Castro, the brother of Fidel Castro and current leader of Cuba, announced that he was willing to begin talks with the United States.

Raul Castro and Che Guevara
The speech, given at ceremonies commemorating the Day of the National Rebellion, appeared to be impromptu and came on the heels of Vice President Jose Ramon Ventura’s central presentation. Castro’s speech proved to be the highlight of the event, which last year was widely mocked and criticized for its length and the boring nature of the speeches. This year’s event promised more of the same, until the President grabbed the microphone and delivered a diplomatic bombshell. Previously, no Cuban leader (that is, Fidel Castro) has opened the door for diplomatic relations between the two American states since the revolution of 1959. Raul Castro said that the “table was set for the Americans” and that Cuba would participate in any talks, at any time, as long as Cubans were treated as “equals.” He even quipped that future confrontations should take place in sports such as “baseball,” not in the political or ideological realms.

While still emphasizing Cubans’ desire for sovereignty, Castro’s words mark a clear departure from current policy towards the U.S. Yet they may also be masking ulterior motives. Recently, domestic dissent in Cuba has been bubbling to the surface of a country that tries to show the world a united front. One of the last bastions of Communism since the end of the Cold War, large swathes of Cuba’s people resent the restrictions on nearly every single one of their civil and political rights. Freedom of speech is curtailed, bloggers lament the falsehoods spread by the official press, and those who publicly oppose the regime often meet with threats, or even an untimely demise.

Such has been the case in the recent death of dissident Oswaldo Paya in a car accident. The official report of his death released this week described the crash as purely accidental, a claim supported by neither his widow nor his supporters. Cubans across the country mourned his passing as a loss of one of their luminaries, a man who would speak out for freedom while still capable of reaching across the aisle to his opponents.

This approach often led to charges he was too moderate to effect real change. If that is true, and the suspicious circumstances surrounding his death and that of the other young activist in the car, Harold Cepero Escalante, end up pointing to foul play, then even moderate activists are not safe from regime reprisals that may cost them their lives. Either way, Cuba has already lost one other opposition figurehead this year, founder of the “Ladies in White” Laura Pollan, and domestic frustration has been keenly felt.

Whether Castro’s offer is simply a smokescreen to distract from his dire domestic situation or a true attempt to rebuild bridges with the U.S., Thursday’s speech set the stage for a new era in U.S.-Cuban relations. It will remain to be seen if the two countries can ever truly repair their non-existent relationship, but some signs point to yes. On July 13, the first Miami-Havana cargo ship in 50 years left port carrying humanitarian supplies such as food and medicine as permitted by the U.S. trade embargo. It marks the beginning of a weekly service as well as another positive sign of improvements in relations between the two countries.

If Cuba works to improve civil rights, gives the U.S. security guarantees (such as turning down any plans by the Russians to build bases on the island), and expands political participation, it may just find a willing collaborator to the north. On the part of the U.S., an easing and eventual repeal of sanctions, the creation of trade, and similar security guarantees on its own part would be the least expected by the proud island nation in return for such sweeping reforms to its own policy.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

UN Arms Trade Treaty: A Missed Opportunity

Last night, after month-long talks at the United Nations headquarters in New York, the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), otherwise known as the 'small arms treaty,' failed to garner a consensus. In what could have been a foreign policy triumph for the Obama Administration in the midst of his reelection campaign, the negotiations were postponed until the 67th session of the UN in September. The United States, alongside China and Russia, requested more time to consider the implications of the legislation on their sovereignty, effectively putting it off until the fall. As a result of their inaction, the US and the world will face myriad consequences in a time of increased violence, particularly in West and North Africa, and the Middle East.

Photo by Norbert Nagel, Mörfelden-Walldorf, Germany

The potential UN Arms Trade Treaty, an idea first proposed in 2006, ultimately aims to combat the illicit arms trade industry by calling upon signatories to close loopholes in their trade policies that contribute to the multibillion-dollar black market economy. And as Snopes explains, it would not circumvent the second amendment, requiring a two-thirds majority vote in the Senate to be put up for ratification. Even if ratified, the treaty will not directly affect the American people, something that has become a recent fear in conservative circles. Instead, a limitation on arms sales would be sought at the international level. As the global leader in arms exports, the United States in particular would see tighter arms sales restrictions if the treaty were adopted and ratified. Undoubtedly, this could impact the US' ability to influence events abroad, both consciously and unintentionally. 

Aside from the concern over the potential diminishing of US influence abroad, the ATT could not have come up at a more appropriate time in recent years. But in considering the current influx of violence across the world, the failure to reach an agreement on a final resolution in this context is embarrassing. Knowing that arms sales inevitably spill over into the black market, and that the US and Russia are 'aiding' rebel and Syrian forces (respectively), a collective decision was greatly needed to set a precedent against irresponsible arms dealings. A resolution would have also sent a clear message to perpetuators of violence around the world: the international community is committed to stifling the resources that undermine democracy and the rule of law.

What's also disconcerting about the collapse of an arms treaty the world so desperately needs is the message inaction sends to oppressive governments, refugees and other victims of armed conflict. Today's events can only embolden President Assad and other such tyrants as they watch the highest international body deadlocked in an arms treaty in the General Assembly, unable to come to an agreement. Refugees and other displaced peoples are cruelly relegated to the status of collateral damage on the Security Council's chessboard, as its permanent members have a history of destabilizing arms sales that reflect the economic value of such shady dealings. If we can't stop profitting off of armed conflict now and commit to tighter legislation on the import and export of arms materials, when will we? When the domestic political forecast has tempered? 

Perhaps the Obama Administration is serious about reviewing the ATT's practical application, exercising healthy caution on the campaign trail. However, given the domestic backlash of supporting a two-state solution in Israel based on the pre-1967 borders, signing the Arms Trade Treaty would allow the United States to better posture itself in the realm of foreign policy. Ratification of the treaty could also give Obama another dimension to his approach to combatting terrorism abroad without increasing military spending, as illicit weapons often end up in the hands of organized criminals and terrorists. And yet, despite the potential rewards for signing the treaty, the US will most likely put it off until the political timing is right and/or when the presidential elections are over. Right now, domestic politics trump foreign policy for the Obama Administration amidst a civil war in Syria, chaos in Mali, suppression of popular protests across the Middle East and political transformations in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Morocco. I wouldn't call it the best time for the world's superpower to turn completely inward. 

Don't bet on September's UN session to go much differently, unless the US and other great powers rethink the benefits of multilateral negotiation when the world needs it most, and if Obama's reelection team decides that a foreign policy victory is good for their campaign. Let us also hope that the world's leaders will see the wisdom in the long-term effects the ATT will have: less global insecurity. 

Friday, July 27, 2012

Playing Nice at the London Olympics

Mitt Romney’s comment yesterday that he found preparation for the London Olympics “disconcerting” was immediately seized upon by English officials and American opponents to point out his diplomatic shortcomings. Prime Minister David Cameron even went for the cheap shot, calling Utah “the middle of nowhere,” which it certainly is, but that’s just rude.

Yet for once, I’m inclined to side with Mr. Romney (insert expressions of incredulity here). Compared to China’s 2008 opening ceremonies, this is going to be a hard contest for the Brits to win. How can you compete with thousands of drummers beating in unison when all you have is a mere 30 Mary Poppins actresses and only one 40-foot Voldemort? If Chinese security guards decided to not show up to work, they would be thrown in a gulag somewhere in Mongolia. But almost all of the British security guards fail to show up to their assigned hotel, and it’s simply “oops, you’re fired.”

Fireworks over the Bird's Nest in 2008 (White House photo by Chris Greenberg)

The Olympics, traditionally a forum for cooperation between nations, have become a spectator sport even when no athletics are involved. In 2008, when China unveiled its grandiose, over the top, and absolutely terrifying opening ceremonies, the world took a good look at the people who were going to run it some day. These ceremonies aren’t just a showcase for a nation’s culture anymore; they are a window into the power and money a country can throw behind what is essentially a meaningless puppet show.

Sure, it’s adorable that Britain – once the most powerful country on earth and, oh yeah, America’s overlord – can put together a grassy knoll with cows and sheep in a huge dome. Unfortunately for them, we already have those, and they’re called petting zoos. What I think Americans are really hoping for from our traditional ally in the West, our companion in such forays as Iraq and Afghanistan, and our lingual brothers and sisters, is a display that shows just how much the West is still the Best. In this particular case of theatric diplomacy, we are sure to lose.

Opera singers perform at the 2008 opening ceremony (White House photo by Eric Draper)

Sadly for the West, a little something called a recession and labor laws will prevent merry old England from even coming close to the spectacle that was the 2008 opening ceremonies. We are just going to have to make due with the sporting events themselves. Of course, swimming laps and jumping on balancing beams isn’t quite as entertaining as watching a 9-year-old lip sync to the voice of another 9-year-old deemed too ugly to perform, but somehow, I think it might be good for us. In the absence of an opening ceremony to overtake all of the actual sports, we might just remember the original intent of the Olympics.

When Pierre de Coubertin founded the Olympic Committee in 1894, he did so to provide an arena for athletes to learn the value of competition at the top tiers of the world. It became one of the only times the great powers of the turbulent 20th century could come together and cooperate. Instead of jealously eyeing each other for signs of strength and weakness during the only part of the games that isn’t a sport, we might just try to revive that sense of collaboration. The endless posturing by countries such as the US, Iran, Israel, China, Brazil, etc., seems like it can only end in one place: more war, more violence, and more death. Yet I think (being the eternal optimist) that if we worked together diplomatically, we might not have to respond to each other militarily. More talking and less strutting might just result in a world where it is possible to agree on more than just the rules of sports.

Or we could just berate England for failing to do the ceremonies as well as we would have. Let’s face it, the ceremonies in Chicago would have included a giant deep dish pizza covered in dollar bills being set aflame with an effigy of Mao on top. Now that would be a ceremony worth watching.

The important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle, the essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.

-Baron Pierre de Coubertin

All photos in this article are in the public domain.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Why The Taliban Should Become A Political Party

As 2011 marked the ten-year anniversary of the invasion of Afghanistan and the dismantling of the oppressive Taliban forces there, this year provides an interesting look at the successes and shortcomings of the past decade spent in the Middle East. Saddam Hussein is now long gone from power in Iraq, and Hamid Karzai has managed to hold on as President in Afghanistan with his democratic, albeit highly corrupt government. And for several years, the Taliban was no longer a primary concern in the region. However, now a decade later, it appears that the Taliban is more insidious of an entity than the United States had previously imagined. Taliban-related casualties and terrorist attacks have steadily increased over the past two years, with April and May this year being some of the deadliest in response to the one-year anniversary of Osama bin Laden’s death.  Furthermore, the Taliban have damaged relations between the United States and Pakistan, as the latter has been increasingly accused by the former of harboring the Taliban as they continue their terrorist attacks across the border in Afghanistan. Disappointingly, it’s beginning to seem as though the vitality of the Taliban is no more deteriorated as it was ten years ago when the first C.I.A. troops landed in Northern Afghanistan, a sign that hard military power will not be the solution in eliminating Taliban threats to the region. Instead, the U.S. should look towards the alternative approach of soft diplomatic power, and seek to legitimize the Taliban as a political entity rather than a solely terrorist one. Obviously, this is a risky move to make – the Taliban is notoriously known for their extremist limitations of women’s rights, violent persecution of opposition to their causes, and a general abhorrence of the Western world. Providing them with the means to pursue these sentiments in the political arena could prove to be a fatal mistake. On the other hand, continuing to exhaust financial and military resources fighting a guerilla war against Islamist extremists in the Middle East will ultimately prove to be a failure. With so few options on the table, it would be in the best interest of the United States to explore the alternative and hope for a successful outcome.

This will not be the first time a militant organization has undergone the transformation into a political party, and in the past it has often worked. In 1992, after a little over a decade of armed conflict in Lebanon, the militant faction Hezbollah decided to participate in parliamentary elections. Today, they continue to participate democratically in the Lebanese government, while also implementing their own social reforms in the country as well as throughout the Muslim and Arab world. While Hezbollah has admitted to having ties with the Islamic Jihad Organization, terrorist attacks by Hezbollah itself have decreased significantly since their entry into politics. Hamas is another example of a somewhat successful transformation from wholly militant faction into political party. Yes, Hamas continues to execute military attacks on neighboring Israel, but as a political party, it has made several important steps towards Palestine becoming a United Nations-recognized state. Most notably, Hamas and their rival party Fatah signed an agreement in Cairo in late May of this year agreeing to form a unity government and essentially paving the way to a democratic election process sometime next year. This type of progression would not be seen if Hamas continued operating solely as a violent, militaristic entity with the sole purpose of fighting Israel. The two remain bellicose, but more often than not, diplomacy is implemented rather than physical violence. And speaking of Cairo, it was just this past week that Mohamed Morsi, of the Muslim Brotherhood was democratically elected by the people of Egypt to become the new President of Egypt. Widely considered a terrorist organization, the fact that Morsi was even permitted to run in the elections this year was perceived cautiously but much of the Western world. However, Morsi has vowed to support the people in any way he can, and has promised equality that will transcend religion, gender, and race. While these may be empty appeals to the people who just elected him, Morsi has shown willingness to progress Egypt in a democratic fashion that will hopefully allow further industrialization and economic development for the country.
Examples aside, there are important reasons to legitimize the Taliban as a political entity and begin allowing them to participate in Afghan politics. This transition will primarily have the effect of diminishing Taliban-related terrorist attacks in the reason because as a political party, the Taliban will have too much responsibility and too much on the line to risk losing their credibility. By putting the power to participate democratically in the Taliban’s hands, the world would be giving them the role of policing their own, more militaristic individual supporters. As it stands now, the Taliban has no reason to prevent terrorist attacks, even if many Taliban supporters are more peaceful individuals. Terrorism is their only way of asserting power for the time being, and so they perceive it as in their best interest to continue asserting their power in such fashion. However, once the Taliban is asserting their power diplomatically, there reliance on terrorist attacks decreases, and those in command of the Taliban will have more reason to prevent such attacks. Furthermore, the move to legitimize the Taliban will serve as a precedent for other similar organizations, just as Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Muslim Brotherhood as served as precedents. Obviously, there will be highly dangerous, violent terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda whose sole existence is founded on facilitating violent attacks that frighten the mass populations of the world. It is unlikely, or even irresponsible, to assume that these organizations will someday become legitimate political parties in their respective countries. However, some of the warlords in Somalia, for example, could benefit from entering into peaceful, diplomatic dialogues with one another and working towards a unified, democratic state. Observing an organization like the Taliban benefiting from such political emergence could help foster a greater desire to reach a similar goal elsewhere. Finally, as the relationship between the United States and Pakistan is on the verge of collapsing altogether, relieving the pressure of Pakistan harboring Taliban insurgents would be exponentially beneficial. Since Pakistan seems reluctant to address this issue, and continues to question the validity behind it, this appears to be the only solution possible. There would be no reason for a legitimized political party to have to be “harbored” by any country in such a clandestine fashion.
Obviously there are strong arguments as to why this transition should be implemented. The other concern to address, however, is how such a difficult and controversial transition would ever take place. The good news is that Qatar’s efforts over the past six months have been paramount to the goal of achieving a Taliban diplomatic outlet. In January, Qatar announced that the Taliban would be opening a political office in their country, possibly opening the door for diplomatic talks with the Western world, and especially the United States. Qatar should be applauded; this is the appropriate example to set for some of the more secular and developed states in the region. Were this to work, the Middle Eastern states should be the only states with Taliban offices, at least for the time being. The Taliban is a far cry short of being a worldwide terrorist organization, and as most of their interests lie in Afghanistan, there would be no need for further expansion. Inclusion in world forums, however, would also be of great importance to the success of such a transition. A good example of this is a Taliban representative attending a global peace conference in Japan just this past week. As they begin to network with the rest of the world, their willingness to communicate diplomatically will only increase.
This past week alone, there were over fifty Taliban-related deaths in the Middle East. The ferocity and repetition with which the Taliban executes terrorist attacks is only increasing. While there were many positive results and several major victories for the U.S.-led coalition in the Middle East over the past decade, the elimination of the Taliban was not one of them. And finally, we have arrived at a difficult question to ask: as the U.S. troops gradually begin to leave Afghanistan, what exactly are they leaving behind? Military power was unsuccessful in quelling the resilient Taliban forces, and therefore, it is time to try something new. While creating a political platform for an organization such as the Taliban is controversial, and could easily backfire, it appears to be the lesser of two evils, and there has never been a better time than now to begin working towards establishing that platform.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

After the Storm: the Success of the Libyan Elections

In the run-up to the first Libyan elections in 42 years, news outlets speculated widely about the possible obstacles to a free and united Libya: federalist cries in the east, armed militias roaming unchecked, extreme and moderate Islamist parties entering the fray, and complaints by tribal leaders and independent candidates of unfairness. Yet in the wake of the actual voting, Libya seems to offer the world the rarest of all stories, one of success.

With a respectable 62 percent turnout reported by election officials and 94 percent of polling stations operating normally throughout the country according to head of the election commission Nuri al-Abbar, it seems that Libya has achieved a truly free and fair election. Only one death was reported during the voting and a few polling stations were burned, violence much below the level expected by analysts. As the results of the vote become clear, another shock was dealt to observers. Unlike in neighboring Tunisia and Egypt, Islamist parties failed to gain a majority in the general assembly. Instead, the liberal, reform-minded National Forces Alliance headed by the popular ex-interim PM Mohammed Jibril took 39 of the 80 seats reserved for political parties. In a turn away from the regional trend towards increased religion in government, Libyans have selected a moderately Islamic party to represent them, apparently choosing security over ideology.

While the actual design and function of the general assembly remain in the works while a constitutional committee works on a new constitution, the election itself marks a huge step forward for a nation that has not had an election since 1965 (an election in which political parties were banned). Western and Middle Eastern leaders alike have praised the Libyan transitional authorities for the admirable turnout, smooth operation, and overall transparency of the elections. As the Syrian conflict continues to dominate the headlines, the Libyan elections passed by quietly and almost unnoticed by the rest of the world, no easy feat in a region that has witnessed more turbulence following the overthrow of strongmen than preceding it.

In the few weeks running up to the election, no one could have predicted that things would go as smoothly or that the NFA would do so well, even in eastern provinces. Since the death of Muammar Gaddafi, there have been no easy answers to the problems faced by the country he left behind.  First among concerns has been the increasingly popular federalist movement in the east, or the region of Cyrenaica/Barqa. This oil-rich region, due to its connection with the former monarchy, was disenfranchised and abused under Gaddafi, fueling cries for autonomy once he was removed from power. At the time of his death, an International Republican Institute poll reported that only seven percent of eastern Libyans wanted a federalist state. Since, the movement has only become more popular as the National Transtional Council pulled back to Tripoli and took the center of government with it. Suddenly it seemed to many in the East that their region would once again be put aside for the traditional western center. Three thousand eastern leaders and citizens attended a March announcement by the Cyrenaica Transitional Council in Benghazi that the region was now independent from Fezzan and Tripolitana in the West. The move prompted protests by thousands in the west and a fatwa issued by Dr. Sadiq Al-Garyani, the head of the Libyan supreme council on fatwas, against federalism.

Libya’s regional situation is, on the surface, similar to that of Iraq: the three regions contain three distinct cultures and ethnic groups akin to Kurds in the north, Sunnis in the center, and Shi’ites in the south of Iraq. In Libya, the western region of Tripolitana is oriented to Maghrebi culture, the southern region of Fezzan to sub-Saharan African culture, and the eastern region of Cyrenaica to eastern Muslims. Due to the disproportionate oil wealth in the east, Libya also faces the issues of resource distribution and control that has plagued Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein.

While these issues have led (among other factors) to ongoing violence and unrest in Iraq, in Libya it seems that regionalism has been trumped by common concern for the country’s future in the latest elections. Even in the east where many predicted independent, regionalist/federalist tribal candidates would win the vote, the NFA came out with a distinct lead over all other political parties. Nor have the Libyans followed the examples of their North African Arab Awakening neighbors in electing Islamist parties. The NFA is liberal and somewhat secularist, and its main agenda appears to be securing the former militias and their weapons and stimulating the economy.

Indeed, it seems that security is the main concern on most Libyans' minds. In the same October 2011 poll by IRI, 33 percent of those reporting described weapons collection and security as the NTC’s top priority, over organizing a government (8 percent) and ensuring wealth distribution (4 percent). Faith in the NTC also ran high, with 84 percent “strongly supporting” the council. When tensions flared over the selection of the constitutional assembly, the NTC quickly announced that instead of appointing the assembly’s 60 members, a separate vote would be held for the citizens to select it instead. Unlike SCAF in Egypt, the NTC seems ready and willing to hand power over to the citizens of Libya and their elected officials as soon as it is able.

Part of NFA leader Mohammed Jibril’s appeal is that same willingness to step down from power when he could have just as easily consolidated it. He kept his promise to his countrymen and stepped down as interim Prime Minister as soon as Gaddafi had been captured and killed. His platform is one of demobilizing the militias (he wants to absorb former fighters into the security apparatus) and identifying the right balance between a strong president and strong parliament in the new government. Absent from his positions are Islamist issues such as female dress that make the West and Libyan liberals so nervous, as well as cries for retaliation against low-level Gaddafi-era officials. Instead of rhetoric that divides, his is one that aims to unite his seemingly fragmented people.

Of course there will be stumbling blocks as the government moves ahead and a constitutional assembly is put together; of course there will be challenges as the eastern federalist movement refuses to go away and weapons and militias are still widespread in the country. Tribal score settling remains a huge concern, as well as weapons collection, regional divisions, and other ethnic tensions. Yet overall, the picture of stability in Libya is one almost never seen in a country that has experienced such a radical change in regime. Often, when the strongmen fall, the systems they built collapse with them, leaving behind a vacuum of order and structure that is frequently filled by radical elements or power-seeking politicians just as bad as the dictators they replace. In Libya, a glimmer of hope remains. Should the new government be able to weather the storms ahead, they may just find the sought-after calm that follows.  

-Vicky Kelberer

Musings on Impending Disaster in Syria

In Tony Karon's Time article yesterday, he hypothesizes about five potential disasters that await those in Syria if the rebellion persists - even, perhaps, once Assad is finally no longer in power. Mr. Karon is unfortunately spot on; Assad will most likely be killed or will himself defect within the next month or so, but the conflict is far from over. Furthermore, the longer the combat is allowed to rage on, the likelier the results in post-Assad Syria are very, very bad.

Let's quit hypothesizing for a moment, though. Reality must precede assumptions about the future, and the reality of the current situation is grave. What the United States - and the rest of the world - need to do is continue to work towards ensuring stability as cautiously and strategically as possible. This is no easy task, as the Syrian National Council and the rebel army have virtually no leadership, and barely even act as a unified opposition. The disorganization NATO encountered in the Libyan opposition forces is magnified in Syria, and the first step the developed world must take is establishing more of a cohesive and productive opposition force. Without any political entity to take the place of Assad once he is gone, Syria will collapse into a disastrous failed state, and during the worst crisis the E.U. has experienced in recent memory and an election year in the U.S., it is unlikely the Western world will be able to adequately intervene.

This is easier said than done of course, and maybe I'm being overly optimistic, but I think it can be done. The Sunnis do make up the vast majority of the Syrian population, and have overall a similar idea of what they want a new Syria to look like. Furthermore, their disillusion lies with Assad and his administration, not the entire Alawite majority, as is commonly thought. Constructive dialogue between the Sunnis and the various minorities would assuage the latter's concerns that a Sunni-led government would mean persecution of minorities. I would even argue, albeit with slight skepticism, that enough of these dialogues could result in a coalition government, ensuring political equality for all religious sects and establishing a more democratic Syria than has ever previously existed.

The rest of the world needs to act fast on this. Syria currently contains a highly destructive armed conflict that is situated in a highly volatile region of the world. Mr. Koran is right in arguing that anything from the release of dangerous chemical weapons to al-Qaeda establishing a stronghold in the country is a possibility, and the sooner the U.S. realizes this and acts on reaching a more stable post-Assad Syria, the better off we will all be.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Peace, From the Inside Out

During the past two years In Israel, the phrase ‘social justice’ has taken on a certain connotation. As mirrored in the 2011 Tel Aviv (and associated state-wide) social justice protests, anger over the housing shortage, rising living costs and conscription exemptions for ultra-Orthodox Jews has reached unprecedented levels. Over an estimated 400,000 Israelis took to the streets in one of the largest demonstrations in the nation’s history. In addition, this past May the Bank of Israel released their 2012 annual report, which had a few sobering findings: income inequality is growing faster in Israel than in any other developed country, disparities in salaries between the educated and uneducated have widened, and the salaries of the educated have increased despite the increase in supply of educated workers. In addition to citing lack of government involvement as a chief cause of the inequities (among others), the Bank of Israel’s report illuminates the social cost of political impotence, but without it’s historical context or an explanation as to how things got to where they are today. Markedly, there is no signal for institutional reform, only general calls for government action.

And now, a year since the last social justice protests, and two months since the Bank’s annual report, demonstrators have reorganized and once again made their presence known across the country. What are the roots of these crises and inequities, and how do they affect Israel’s prospects for more equitable economic growth in the future? (Political economy and political geography perspectives are quite useful)

Housing shortages are a recurring theme in Israeli domestic dialogue. In the 1950s, in the midst of surges of Jews immigrating to the newly created country, the secular-Ashkenazi (Jews from Western and Central Europe) Labor movement members dominated the political arena and faced rising demand for housing and short supply. The Labor-led Knesset met the massive influx of migrants with the construction of development towns and moshavim (cooperative farms), to be largely populated by low-income Mizrahi (Middle Eastern, North African and Caucasian) Jews. In establishing these settlements, political elites created economically, culturally and geographically segregated communities at the periphery of Israeli life. Although the Mizrahim in these settlements sought work in nearby manufacturing plants and on farms, they were hit hard by an economic downturn in 1996 and subsequent high unemployment. Additionally, the economic woes inadvertently triggered a brain drain from the development towns, moshavim and kibbutzim (communal farms), furthering the educational disparities between Jewish Israeli political and economic centers and the poorer, peripheral communities.

Income inequality has become a growing concern in Israel since the adoption of neoliberal economic policies throughout the 1970s-1980s. During this time, the Ashkenazi middle-class constructed private gated communities, many in close proximity to developing towns and Mizrahi and Haredi communities. With them was the educational capacity, political favor of the government and economic opportunity to attract foreign direct investment (FDI). These settlements therefore diminish the economic potential of the poorer peripheries by attracting more FDI. Real wages dropped in Mizrahi development towns while disproportionate allocation of resources resulted in the consolidation of economic activity and power by the ethno-class (Ashkenazi) elites. Access to decent education, public facilities, and greater economic opportunity was therefore limited to the secular-Ashkenazim and the secular upper- and middle- ethno-class. As a result of the economic disparity between the distinct, mostly homogenous social and ethnic groups, the peripheral communities sought political representation in the Knesset. And as the Bank of Israel’s 2012 annual report implies, more wealth is still concentrated in the areas with ethnic and class connections to the political and economic elite.

By following their economic ambitions through shortsighted social and economic policies, the Ashkenazi and secular upper- and middle-classes have, in effect, constructed a state system that has led to social polarization and ethno-class stratification. This power structure has undoubtedly created resentment between the politically- and economically-connected and the peripheries. The Labor and leftist parties, largely comprised of Ashkenazi economic and secular elites, are perceived as oppressive to Haredi and Mizrahi Jews living in the poorer periphery communities. Their frustration stems from complaints that the neoliberal economic policies advanced by Labor movement members did not distribute the fruits of economic growth evenly. This in turn has led the peripheral groups to support right-wing, pro-market parties, even though, paradoxically, the rightist bloc will likely work against their interests.

Israel’s political economy through the early 1990 was such that resources and economic gains were unequally distributed and that minority groups were relegated to periphery communities cut off from opportunity. In the first three decades of Israel’s independence, the Israeli government sought a balance between territorial expansion and economic growth. Increasing economic growth, though, was predicated on further construction of legal and illegal settlements, and this economic strategy paled in comparison to Israel’s growth since the Madrid peace conference in 1991. Israeli political elites realized that the peace process could be profitable, and that the continued subjugation of the Palestinians was unsustainable given international pressures and stronger Palestinian political alignment. It was also a historical moment of opportunity, as the U.S.—a principal power in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process—led coalition forces to victory in the Gulf War and sought to capitalize on these gains. In addition, East Asian markets were opening and the peace process helped boost Israeli trade. Reconciliation with the Palestinians, however, may be difficult given the political elite’s segregation and marginalization of minority groups that have found collective identity in their oppressed situations. These minority populations—mainly Haredi and Mizrahi Jews—could very well oppose any leftist reconciliation effort due to their residual alienation and subsequent alignment with the political right. In effect, the peripheralization of minority groups and resulting social polarization has and can hinder the peace process, which could be one of Israel’s only options for economic growth and equality.

The peace process, though, doesn’t just depend on Israel’s domestic situation: it is a confluence of separate but interconnected events. However, Israel would do well to take advantage of the housing crisis by building more non-discriminatory settlements closer to economic centers and encouraging FDI in the peripheral communities. Reexamining the institutionalized inequality between the secular elites/Ashkenazim and the minority populations is critical to understanding how and why the country is so divided today, and how these divisions could hinder future peace processes and economic growth. As stated before, the peace process involves a confluence of events, but it would be in Israel’s best interests to right the wrongs of its past so as to reposition itself for the prospects of reconciliation with the Palestinians and economic growth when the timing is right.

Monday, July 23, 2012

What To Do About The European Union

Since economic unrest began manifesting itself within the European Union in late 2009, the political and financial climate in the region has continuously deteriorated. Long-term interest rates have soared in the majority of countries within the eurozone, hundreds of billions in euros have been allocated in the form of bailout packages, and more than ten sovereign leaders have been unseated and replaced. With no solace in sight for Europeans, and the very real possibility of the economic crisis spreading both east to Asia and west to the United States, a global range of academics, politicians and economic experts have offered myriad potential solutions. However, it is important to consider the origins of the European Union when developing policies to relieve the current economic strain. While it may have taken decades of relative affluence and a peaceful E.U. to bring about this current crisis, the very foundation upon which the continent stands is flimsy at best, and even if the ongoing pressures let up and global fears are assuaged, that foundation will continue to be susceptible to both political and financial troubles. I do not think the solution to the crisis in Europe is further economic integration, as Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany suggests. Instead, I see the solution as being one of less integration, and perhaps the disbanding of the European Union altogether.
The European Union was established under the title of the European Economic Community in 1958. It contained just six countries, but represented a transnational desire to foster increased economic growth in a despondent post-WWII Europe. The six founding members – Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands – saw the organization as the first fundamental step to increased trade in the region and therefore a greater reliance on neighboring nations. By 1993, the EEC (then comprised of twelve nations) passed the Maastricht Treaty, not only establishing open borders for the region but also effectively changing the name of the organization to the European Union. It wasn’t until 2002 that the euro came into play, when seventeen of the twenty-seven nations in the European Union phased out their old currencies and replaced them with it. The adoption of the euro – and the creation of the “eurozone” – was a major milestone for the E.U. and seen as a further step towards total integration, at which point Europe would resemble the United States more than anything else.
Since 2002, everyone has largely ignored the fundamental difference between the United States and the European Union: the former is an entity comprised of fifty individual, smaller “states,” but with all states loyal to a single, sovereign federal government. The latter, on the other hand, will never accept such a constricting force. In theory, economic integration is an excellent idea. The concept of an economic community, with one single currency and an entirely open market, is widely regarded as the highest and most efficient form of capitalism. Economic integration cannot function independently, however; political integration is paramount to the success of such a large and complex step as the introduction of one single currency to seventeen different states. But political integration was never considered as such, and the adoption of the euro was executed despite each nation retaining its largely sovereign government. The argument against this, of course, is that there is a higher body in place, governing economic aspects (as well as agricultural, international-related criminal, and environmental aspects). This is untrue. The European Commission, the highest governing structure within the European Union’s government, is small and elected by other members of the government. But conversely, the European Parliament can be equated to the House of Congress in the sense that it is comprised of 754 representatives from all twenty-seven E.U. members, who all need to find accordance on a wide variety of issues and then establish legislature based on that accordance. This happens rarely, and that is because of the dramatically differing political views across the spectrum that is European nations. Never has there been a more inefficient political body than the European Union; so many checks and balances are in place that the end result is political bedlam, with very little policy and legislature ever gaining wide majority support.
The gist of this argument is that the European Union is too diverse as it is, and further integration would be a disaster. From a financial standpoint, Germany has bolstered itself up into being an economic powerhouse, with a large industrial sector and an impressive GDP. Spain, on the other hand, is less industrial, with a vast number of its citizens employed by the government, which allots several months paid vacation each year as well as endless other benefits that would be scoffed at anywhere else in the world. One country is pulling more than its own weight, while the other practices financial policies that are simply unsustainable. Both of these countries share the some currency though.

Politically, things are even less similar amongst the countries of the E.U. For years, Finland has been governed by a far-right conservative party, which has at times expressed xenophobic sentiments and detests the open-border policies established by the Maastricht Treaty in 1993. President-elect Francoise Hollande in France, meanwhile, is a left-leaning Socialist with liberal economic policies and differing sentiments towards immigrants. Both of these countries share the same currency.
How can such a diverse and varied region be expected to agree on policies that might come with sacrifices for some but will overall benefit the community as a whole? The polarizing effects of Europe will continue to drag down those countries more economically stable, while plunging others into further instability. Politically, there can be no greater integration than there already is, and the efficiency with which the European Union governs over the sovereign nations will not increase. As I write this, Spain is accepting a new round of bailouts valued at roughly $130 billion; they can receive as much as $37 billion this month. Meanwhile, European banks are struggling, investor confidence is at an all-time low, and President Obama is gravely concerned about the U.S.’ economy becoming mired in the ongoing chaos. Instead of looking towards a future where European states have less sovereignty and the euro prevails, it is time for the states of Europe, especially in the toxic eurozone, to look towards distancing themselves from one another and perhaps even phasing out the euro altogether.

A Welcoming Message

As a recent graduate with a BA in International Relations, I reminisce fondly on my past four years as a undergraduate and the rigorous academics associated with those years. My passion for international studies was minimal when I entered college as a freshman; as the classes I took became more involved, demanding, and stimulating, that passion steadily blossomed. Now equipped with my degree, I look forward, excited to apply what I have learned in the professional world and if I'm lucky, begin to make a difference in the world. I have begun to be engaged in eye-opening dialogues with those already years into this professional world, and through these dialogues have learned that there is still an unfathomably vast world of information out there that I have just barely begun to understand. These dialogues, I already know, are what will allow my knowledge and passion to continue to evolve now that formal academics are (temporarily, I hope) over.

That's why two good friends of mine and I have decided to create this blog. It can be whatever you would like it to be - whether it be a place to post academic papers you are particularly proud of, a debate forum where you can make your case on a certain subject and hear other opinions from other IR students, or just somewhere to come periodically and read the news. I'm proud to be starting this blog, and I sincerely hope students everywhere begin to utilize it in the way I would have utilized it while still studying for my bachelors degree.

So on behalf of myself, Vicky Kelberer, and Zachary Crawford, I welcome you to the Global Atlas.