Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Future of Global Energy

We've often heard the familiar warnings that the world's natural resources dwindle year after year, inching humanity closer to a point of no return. Damage to earth's forests, oceans and atmosphere, however, may not be enough to persuade policymakers to take bold steps toward cleaner, alternative energy sources and carbon emission reductions goals. Such steps shape global energy markets and trends, as does energy diversification, supply and demand. Unpredictable events, such as the Fukushima nuclear disaster, can also mold the energy markets of the future. Thus, it is critical to examine the various moving parts involved in world energy markets in order to accurately assess the future of these markets.

A few characteristics of global energy markets give some context for what we should expect in the future. The rise and fall of energy prices have ripple effects across other energy and energy-related industries. OECD countries, including  the United States, are demanding less and less oil, while burgeoning economies in East Asia see an increase in demand for petroleum that drives an expected overall increase in global demand for oil in the coming decades. Countries such as China and Germany are heavily subsidizing solar power, and new technologies in wind and solar could enable more efficient harnessing of these energy sources. And finally, much of the predictions for the future of global energy markets depend on two critical points: bringing Iraq's vast oil reserves online and the potential of unconventional oil and gas extraction (by fracking, for example), especially in the United States.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

North Korea: The Soap Opera

Making headlines again today is good old North Korea, after their decision yesterday to shut down the last military communication hot line that connects the two Koreas. This is the most significant and hostile move to come from Kim Jong-un since he succeeded his late father as leader of North Korea in 2011. Up until now, Mr. Kim has primarily stuck to harsh dialogue, rarely acting on his threats up until the nuclear test that came earlier this year. And as I wrote about earlier this year, North Korea consistently and steadily ramps up their aggression, using their words and actions intermittently with one another. Their nuclear test this year was the third since 2006, and was by most accounts successful - clearly North Korea has developed nuclear technology and may be capable of producing small, yet still powerful nuclear weapons. After sanctions coming from the UN, Mr. Kim threw a hissy fit and threatened combat with not only the U.S., but South Korea and Japan. Threats coming from the country have been so extreme as to actually receive condemnation from China, who traditionally sticks up for North Korea in these types of situations. Now, North Korea has begun prepping its arms for a possible strike, which could reach as far as Hawaii and Guam (and maybe even California), and has prepped its forces for possible combat with South Korea and Japan. There is no room left for threats, and no further actions the North could theoretically take short of armed aggression. So what is going to happen?

"My army's bigger than youuuurss"

Well, I'm sure everyone reading this is tired of hearing me write about North Korea. And, believe me, I am tired of writing about them. North Korea is, in the most accurate metaphor, the drunk friend we all have (if you are saying "I don't have that friend," then it is probably you) who has lost touch of the reality when it comes to their size and power, and picks fights with the biggest dudes at the bar. It almost always blows over after much drama ensues. And usually, that person's friends are there to back them up, albeit reluctantly. But sooner or later, the drama gets old, the recipient of the aggression fights back, and there are no friends to back that person up. North Korea has reached the end of the line here, and it seems to me that Mr. Kim truly has no sense of reality when it comes to international order, and North Korea's relative size and strength compared to the rest of the world. The incessant drama and belligerence was funny at first, but it is starting to grow old.

I am not going to attempt to predict what will happen next, because Mr. Kim has proven to be unreliable and outrageously erratic - even more so than his wacko father. Maybe he will go through with his threats finally, and attack South Korea. If this happens, North Korea will fight a losing battle, and they will likely fight it alone; China will not come to their rescue. Japan would probably assist South Korea in effectively wiping North Korea off the face of the earth, and it would surprise me if there were many nations that would condemn the action.

Or, North Korea will back off once again. But in doing this, Mr. Kim will have once and for all demonstrated that he is all talk, and is incapable of ever taking action against other countries when he knows it will end in disaster for him and his people. While this evokes rationalism on Mr. Kim's part, it also will be met with a huge, collective sigh from the rest of the world, as it means we are in for a long era of drama and unwarranted aggression from North Korea. I don't support war - I am a firm believer that armed conflict should be the absolute last action to take place in any circumstance. However, part of me wants North Korea to go through with their threats, the same way Saddam Hussein did in taking over Kuwait in 1991. Perhaps a quick and effective war would help remind Mr. Kim of his place in the world. On the other hand, the less violence the better, and while the drama will continue to annoy the rest of the world, perhaps it is better than the alternative.

My colleague Vicky and I have set the over-under for armed conflict at 72 hours. Which do you take?

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

At Bagram Prison, US leaves behind legacy of cruelty

On the tail end of Pres. Obama’s trip throughout the Middle East, Secretary of State John Kerry made his first trip to Afghanistan in his new position, during which he announced the turnover of Bagram Prison (or Parwan Detention Center, as it’s now known) to Afghan control. The detention center has been a hotspot in US-Afghanistan relations since President Karzai began his repeated demands for the prison and associated air base to be placed under Afghan jurisdiction during President Obama’s first term. Yet during Pres. George W. Bush’s terms in office, Bagram was infamous for more than causing political tensions: it was known as the “Afghan Guantanamo,” a stopover spot for suspected terrorists to be vetted before they went to Cuba. Allegations of torture and other inhumane treatment abounded from prisoners, many of who were later cleared of any wrongdoing.

Prisoners and guards inside Bagram. Source: AP

The New York Times brought national attention to the mistreatment of prisoners in Bagram when it published a 2005 investigation into the 2002 deaths of two detainees: Habibullah and Dilawar. Both men suffered extreme beatings at the hands of US service members who were both undertrained and undersupervised as they reached beyond the bounds of acceptable interrogations. Their methods of full-body suspension, threats with attack dogs, sleep deprivation, peroneal strikes, and more would later turn up in the case files at Abu Ghraib. In many ways, Bagram appears to have been the staging ground for many interrogators' later careers in the Gulf. While Habibullah was almost certainly guilty of supporting terrorists, Dilawar turned out to be a hapless taxi driver who was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, and died for it. Several US military personnel were charged for the deaths, yet if the torture was systemic (as it appears to have been), it will take more than uprooting a few bad seeds to fix the problem.

Friday, March 22, 2013

The Truce of the Year

In a moment reminiscent of Ireland in 1994, or Spain in 2011, the nation of Turkey made a giant leap forward yesterday when the leader of the Kurdistan Worker's Party, or the PKK, announced from prison his intentions to establish a ceasefire between his ethnic rebellious group and the Turkish authorities. Calling on his fighters to abandon their weapons and begin participating on the political battleground instead, Abdullah Ocalan effectively initiated the end of conflict that has lasted for nearly 30 years and claimed over 40,000 lives. The implications this will have for Turkey, and the region overall, are virtually immeasurable; furthermore, if the ceasefire is legitimate and remains unbroken, Ocalan's announcement yesterday marks the beginning of a new chapter of history for Turkey, one that is remarkably promising.

The scene yesterday in Turkey

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Cyprus Balks at Bailout

Patrick Baz / AFP - Getty Images

Today, on this International Day of Happiness, few Cypriots have reason to smile.

In what appears to be yet another chapter in the Eurozone's financial mess, the Cypriot parliament on Tuesday overwhelmingly rejected a bailout for the small European nation's financial sector, an unsurprising reflection of the public's outrage with the bailout package. The troika's--a triad of international lenders comprising of the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund--unprecedented proposal to tax bank deposits on account-holders in Cyprus met fierce public outcry, as pictured above. Cypriot officials seek €10 billion (roughly $13 billion) to help alleviate illiquidity and revive the country's banking sector. Remarkably, the much sought after bailout package represents more than half of Cyprus' €18 billion economy, pointing to the severity of the present crisis.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Enrique Peña Nieto: On a Path to Reform in Mexico?

Earlier this year, I wrote about the Mexican presidential elections and the massive wave of protests they inspired. Yet in his first few months in office, Enrique Peña Nieto has taken impressive steps that have led many to be cautiously optimistic for Mexico’s future. Despite the ongoing drug war, which saw an equal number of kidnappings under Peña Nieto as under his predecessor in the same period, the new president has enacted educational reform, arrested a famously corrupt teacher’s union leader, made a cross-party “Pact for Mexico,” and brought privatization of the state oil company PEMEX to the table. He has also initiated an investigation into the over 27,000 people who were “disappeared” during Felipe Calderon’s presidency.

"La Maestra:" Elba Esther Gordillo, teacher's union leader arrested for embezzlement

Friday, March 15, 2013

Perhaps Women Can't "Have It All" in South Korea Either

Okay, so perhaps that title is a bit misleading - what I'm referring to is not a successful professional female struggling to balance her work with her personal life, but rather a nascent leader of one of the most strategically important countries in the world right now struggling to strike a balance between complacency and bellicosity. If this sounds difficult to do, it's because it is, especially when the country I am referring to is South Korea, and their bizarre, infamous neighbors to the north have been instigating more and more in recent weeks.

Ms. Park Geun-hye

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Wrongful Deaths: Saudi Arabia’s Execution Policies

Saudi Arabia executed seven young men this morning for the crime of robbery. That might seem a bit extreme, but in the Kingdom, there is no official Penal Code that outlines crimes and their associated punishment. Thus death sentences are handed down by judges based upon their subjective interpretation of Shari’a law. While the most infamous punishment for simple theft in the country is the removal of the offending limb, executions are incredibly common in Saudi Arabia, earning the condemnation of the international community. 345 people were beheaded publicly between 2007-2010 and a person was executed on charges of “sorcery” as recently as 2012. The human rights situation in the country is dismal all around: torture abounds in places of detention, unfair trials using forced confessions as the sole piece of evidence are widespread, and arbitrary detention is commonplace for any criticism of government policies. Yet the use of the death penalty as a final solution to get rid of people the government views as “unwanted” is perhaps the most disturbing.

Protests against the use of the death penalty in KSA, courtesy of EuroNews

Monday, March 11, 2013

Syria Brief: UN Peacekeeper Hostages

On Saturday, and after three days of detention by factional elements of the Syrian opposition called the Martyrs of Yarmouk, twenty-one UN peacekeepers were released into Jordan just six miles from their captivity in Jamla. UN Secretary General and other officials have demanded the release of the filipino peacekeepers, who serve in the broader UN Disengagement and Observer Force (UNDOF). UNDOF serves as the peacekeeping mission to monitor a demilitarized zone along the Golan Heights, which Israel acquired from Syria following the 1967 war. While the militants claim that the peacekeepers were "guests" and that they were just escorting the blue helmets to safety from an area under attack from government forces, the Martyrs of Yarmouk and their seemingly random capture and transport of UN peacekeepers have raised serious concerns about the radical elements within the Syrian opposition and whether or not they can be reigned in by the opposition. 

Chief of Staff greets the 21 peacekeepers in Amman after 
safely crossing the Jordan border. Jordan Pix via Getty Images.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Aftermath of Chavez: What's In Store for Venezuela?

After battling cancer for over a year, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez passed away yesterday. President of Venezuela for 14 years, and having just won re-election for another six-year term, Chavez was a charismatic, and often frighteningly influential politician in Latin America. While not necessarily ever on good terms with the U.S., Chavez was a leading figure in South American politics, garnering unwavering support from so many Venezuelans that it was unthinkable he would ever be ousted from his position. Impressive as this was, it was not necessarily a good thing for Venezuela. Chavez dominated politics in Caracas for so long that now the capital is left with a void that will be difficult to fill. Furthermore, many countries around the world are left shaking their heads, unable to fathom what it will be like dealing with a new and, much different, Venezuela.

Chavez and Maduro

The past several months have been particularly rocky for Venezuelan politics: after winning re-election late last year, Chavez was bed-ridden in a hospital in Cuba, leading Venezuela through his Vice President, Nicolas Maduro. As I wrote in January, Chavez was so ill he was unable to attend his inauguration, inciting protests and re-igniting the debate over who should really be leading the country. To the chagrin of the opposition, at the time, the Supreme Court ruled that the President could be absent during inauguration, as long as he was sworn in at a later date.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Dennis Rodman and the Era of Unconventional Diplomacy: From Ping-Pong to Basketball

Famed basketball weirdo Dennis Rodman raised many eyebrows this week as he visited the pariah state of North Korea and palled around with its notorious leader Kim Jong Un. Apparently a huge basketball and Bulls fan, Kim received Rodman and a crew of Western documentary makers as well as players for the Harlem Globetrotters to his reticent country. Rodman and Kim hit it off, with Rodman drawing fire for calling the brutal dictator “a friend for life” and stating that he does not believe the Korean leader wants war with the US.  The statements seemed bizarre given the February 12 North Korean nuclear test, the Feb. 19 threat to bring “final destruction to the South,” and a video released just this week showing Pres. Obama engulfed in flames and a US city targeted by a nuclear attack.

Best Budz: Rodman hugs Kim. Photos courtesy of AP.

Yet in East Asia, when dealing with belligerent nations the US has employed unconventional diplomacy successfully in the past. The now-infamous “ping-pong diplomacy" that was seen as leading to a marked improvement in US relations with the People’s Republic of China played a role in the visit of Pres. Richard Nixon to the PRC. At the time, China was in a similar position to North Korea in terms of its nuclear proliferation, history of poor relations with the US, and position in the Communist Bloc. While “ping-pong diplomacy” was not the only cause of the improvement in relations, the US and China made an adroit diplomatic decision in seizing a window of opportunity in the political climate to arrange a trip that was well-received by the publics on either side and that opened the door to further negotiations.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Counterinsurgency: The Tactic for North Africa?

Over the past year or so, Northern Africa has continued to experience an influx of violent and radical Islamists hell bent on disrupting everyday life, despite the French troops and African Union personnel on the ground trying to put down the insurgency. Overall, it has been a trying few years for Northern Africa - self-immolations in Tunisia were the catalyst in 2010 for what would come to be known as the "Arab Spring"; Libya endured an incredibly violent and exhaustive civil war ending with the death of Muammar Gaddafi (and the nation is still trying to put itself back together); and just about a year ago, Ansar Dine, a radical Islam group with ties to al Qaeda, stormed through Mali, destroying centuries-old religious tombs in Timbuktu and putting much of the country on lockdown. Through all of this, the United States watched leerily from afar, contributing financially and logistically in Libya but otherwise keeping a safe distance between itself and the perpetually plagued continent. Even now, as France continues to push insurgents back in Mali with not-quite-significant help from other African states, the U.S. is leery about the situation and likely will not be contributing much at all. However, the region is in total disarray and should be considered of extreme strategic importance, not just to the U.S. but to the Western world in general. France has already seen this, and other countries should see it too.

Marines on a counterinsurgency mission in Afghanistan