Friday, December 11, 2009

Taiwan Should Say 'No' To U.S. Arms

Recently, RealClearWorld, the international sister site to RealClearPolitics, published my op-ed on the recent movement in the Obama Administration toward selling arms to Taiwan. Here's a link to the op-ed on RealClearWorld. But for convenience, I've included the full text below. As always, I would be glad to hear your thoughts.

By Kevin Slaten

KAOHSIUNG, Taiwan - The U.S. might make a final decision for a new arms deal with Taiwan in the next two weeks. This weapons package should be put on hold, not because it's inconvenient for U.S.-China relations, but because it threatens the Taiwanese people. In fact, not one of these three countries has an interest in seeing this deal to fruition. And at best, the timing is terrible

On Dec. 9, the deputy assistant secretary of state for defense trade in the Obama Administration revealed that the U.S. is getting close to another major arms package to Taiwan, including Black Hawk helicopters, advanced Patriot missiles and diesel submarines. As expected, China responded a day later, unequivocally opposing the potential sale. President Obama's decision to notify Congress of the sale could come as early as the third week in December after Obama returns from Copenhagen.

This arms package should be frozen where it stands, namely in Congressional discussions and Pentagon war planners.

The common line of argument is that such a deal may damage the U.S.-China relationship, which is packed with important issue like climate change and trade. At the very least, it could halt the progress of Sino-U.S. military-to-military (mil-mil) exchanges.

In all likelihood, however, this arms deal would do little to affect negotiations on central economic and environmental issues. After past U.S.-Taiwan arms deals, the People's Republic of China (PRC) has not linked the security and economic realms. Despite U.S. arms deliveries to Taiwan from 2000-2007, trade between the U.S.-China grew 130% during the same period, from $116 billion to $386 billion.

But concerns over mil-mil exchanges may be more justified. In 2008, the Bush Administration approved an arms package to Taiwan, which resulted in the PRC suspending mil-mil talks. Given China's rapidly growing defense capabilities, the future of security in the Asian Pacific region depends on a more robust and less suspicious military relationship between the U.S. and China.

Despite this, the U.S.-Taiwan arms deal is much worse for the prospects of the Taiwanese people than that of their American or Chinese counterparts. Unlike the Sino-U.S. relationship, the Sino-Taiwanese relationship is not a conference of two equal powers, and Taiwan cannot afford to let its recent progress with the Mainland fall apart.

Right now, representatives of the PRC and Taiwan are negotiating an Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA), which is a partial free trade agreement (FTA). This trade pact is essential to the continuing competitiveness of Taiwan in the East Asian economy because a free trade zone is fast emerging in region. The PRC has been in talks with Korea and Japan over a trilateral FTA and a China-ASEAN FTA comes into force on Jan. 1, 2010.

President Ma Ying-jeou hopes to sign the ECFA by spring of next year. If this trade deal were to fall through, the consequences for the Taiwanese people would be serious. According to the Council of Labor Affairs in Taiwan, the country's economy stands to lose 0.2% GDP and 47,000 jobs if the ECFA were not signed. And this is on top of the expected 2.5% contraction of Taiwan's economy in 2009, which is heavily reliant on exports. Even worse, none of these numbers can take into account the damage to Taiwan's GDP once business and investment start moving to ASEAN and China in 2010.

An arms package between the U.S. and Taiwan would jeopardize the ECFA. The PRC has a much smaller economic stake in the ECFA than Taiwan. China's GDP is growing at a brisk 8% clip, and the Chinese do not have the pressure of being left out of a looming East Asian free trade zone, namely because China is central to that zone. So although the Mainland might want to sign the ECFA, it loses little from making an example of the arms deal by putting the ECFA off until 2011. But the Taiwanese cannot afford any stalling.

The gains of this arms deal for Taiwan, however, are minimal. China has near 1,500 missiles pointed at Taiwan, around 70 submarines, and another 70 combat ships. The Chinese navy could overwhelm Taiwanese defenses. Yet Taiwan's deterrent against Chinese invasion has always been, and will remain, the economic disincentive for the PRC to invade as well as a strong American military presence in the Asian Pacific. The handful of missiles, helicopters and submarines included in this arms package will not change that.

Here in Taiwan, few people foresee a war with China. But economic stagnation is an everyday reality. Taiwanese, especially young people, are uncertain if they can get a job out of college.

Of course, the Obama and Ma Administrations do not want to be viewed as acquiescent to China by their respective critiques, so they might want this arms deal for domestic political appeal. But neither has much to lose from waiting until next year. Besides, the potential damage to Taiwan's economy could quickly override any gains of an arms package to President Ma's approval ratings.

So other than a small (and forgettable) political gain for Ma and Obama, these arms would increase no one's security.

Kevin Slaten was a junior fellow in the China Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Now, he lives in Taiwan on a Fulbright Grant. His opinions in no way reflect the views of the State Department or Foundation for Scholarly Exchange. He blogs at

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Still Enemies

A North Korean ship and South Korean ship faced off in a bit of armed violence yesterday (10 November). Now, this was far from the resumption of Korean War-like hostilities, but the spat is interesting for what it means: North and South Korea are still enemies.

The hostilities took place about 11 kilometers east of Daecheong Island, marked by the red 'X' in the upper-left corner of the image.

Some analysts point out that this is probably an attempt by the Democratic People's Republic of Korea's (DPRK) to demand US attention just ahead of Obama's trip to East Asia, which begins this Thursday. Although this may be true, the very fact that the Koreas are able to exchange fire means something about the potential for Korean relations in the near- to mid-term future. Whether or not there is diplomatic positioning involved, if both sides are still willing to fire on one another, then they still staunchly view one another as enemies.

Although that may seem far from a revelation, the implications for Korean relations and stability in Northeast Asia are important. If North and South Korea cannot get past "enemies" to, at least, "suspicious neighbors", then a true Korean Peninsula peace is still a good distance down the road.

Moreover, if this true, then there are larger consequences for the region. First, China will still be able to control North Korea as a lever in gaining the attention of South Korea, Japan, and the United States. Second, the US and China will still have the Korean tension as a secondary issue of disagreement in the Sino-US relationship, given that the US seeks a denuclearized Korea while China may not necessarily find such an outcome in their favor right now. Third, until that peninsula is at peace, Japan will seriously consider a missile defense shield (via the US), and this is a tense issue in both the Sino-US and Sino-Japanese relationship.

One of these days, the Koreans will stop shooting at one another.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Buff Humans are Weird

I was listening to some recent podcasts of Science Friday, a weekly program on National Public Radio, and came across a segment that discussed humans' innate propensity for long-running or endurance exercise. (Here's the audio and here's the transcript.) Dr. Daniel Lieberman, a biologist from Harvard, was the show's guest. Here is the key part of what he said:

"If you think about humans as sprinters, we're actually really pathetic. So Usain Bolt, the world's fastest sprinter, can run in -about nine and a half meters in a second, right. So he's pretty fast compared to the rest of us. But he can only do that for about 10 or 20 seconds, and then he'll run out of gas."

"A lion, if it was chasing Usain - and I hope that doesn't happen - a lion will run twice as fast as Usain, 20 meters a second, and can do it for four minutes. So as sprinters, we're just pathetic. We're always going to be lunch for the carnivores. But what we're astonishing at is really long-distance, endurance running. So there's really no other creature that's as good as us at running in very long distances at pretty good clips."
I don't debate what Dr. Lieberman is arguing at all. However, given the fact that modern humans have evolved for endurance activities (i.e. aerobic exercise), I'm interested in the implications for those humans who pursue the exact opposite: sprinting activities (i.e. anaerobic exercise).

(Full disclosure: my interest in this issue is, in part, engendered by my lifestyle. I've been an avid weightlifter for 12 years, currently weightlift 5 or 6 days in a week, and on the days that I don't weightlift, I usually go to the track and do sprints!)

The body of a person who predominantly does aerobic exercise, henceforth a "runner", is different from that of a person who usually does anaerobic exercise, a "sprinter". Runners have less muscle and, often, a stronger cardiovascular system (i.e. their pulse and blood pressure is better) than sprinters. If humans are better equipped to be runners, then it can be safely assumed that the traits of a runner are easier to obtain than the traits of a sprinter. In other words, it takes less time and energy to "look like" a runner than to "look like" a sprinter.

The implications are interesting to ponder. Since humans that "look like" sprinters are more rare, there at least are two possibilities sociologically: 1) having physical sprinter traits, like more muscle, raises one's status because the traits are rare or 2) having these sprinter traits damages one's status because the person is viewed as a deviant -- they are outside the normal body type.

General examples of both can be observed, depending on the social context. Muscular men certainly seem to benefit in status among Americans; how many women reading this have not ogled over beach pictures of Matthew Mcconaughey or Hugh Jackman? (Or for that matter, how many men reading this haven't done the same thing?) On the other hand, professional bodybuilders, like Jay Cutler, are often viewed as "freaks", which is code for "deviant from the norm".

Although you may disagree that any of the above men should be viewed as more admirable because of their bodies, you are likely to agree that these men are, at least, notable for their bodies. Contrast this with a talented person like Bill Gates, who is admirable for many things, but his body would probably not be one the things that you'd mention about him.

Of course, the status ascribed by a person's body type also does not exist in a vacuum. Our status depends on the group we are in at any a given moment as well as other social traits (like our education, income, power, or language).

It might seem all-too-obvious that a muscular body (for men or women) can be viewed as desirable. My question, though, is this: is muscularity sometimes desirable because it is rarer amongst humans? (Remember, our natural inclination is to have a runner's body.) Or is the status of muscularity like the status of wearing bell-bottom jeans in the 1970s -- a social trend that will just die off in due time like most other trends?

Perhaps it's a bit of both. But I'm done pondering it for now because I need to go to the gym to lift some weights.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

International Law and the Double Standard

A common criticism of international law -- both existing law and potential law -- is that states have their own interests and will only comply with or form new law when it aligns with those interests. Recently, Eric Posner argued this on Foreign Policy. Putting aside his weak contention that President Obama has been as equally loathsome of international law as President G.W. Bush, Posner's main theme is that countries' interests don't align enough to make international law worthwhile.

The problem with this argument is that it is being applied selectively to international law -- it's a double standard. In domestic politics, every individual citizen has their own interests. That is a given. In representative democracies, like the United States or most any other democratic country, congresspeople or parliamentarians have very distinct interests (that may or may not represent their constituents). But scholars and commentators don't disparage democracies because various people or politicians have interests. To have interests is derived directly from having needs, and to have needs means you're alive.

So, the argument that "unaligned interests makes cooperation hopeless" is absurd. If this were true, then we ought to all give up on any form of society or government.

The primary difference between international and national law is enforcement, not interests. While in the US, for example, an individual can be arrested and convicted for murder, there are no world police (technically speaking). And mechanisms like the United Nations Security Council or the International Criminal Court are hampered by a lack of strong enforcement mechanisms. (The ICC has been struggling recently to stay above water in this respect.)

But the lack of international enforcement is a choice and, perhaps, rather natural. International law is, historically, still in its nascency. The first attempt at truly global law didn't begin until the attempts at forming the League of Nations in 1916, so in this sense, international law hasn't even hit the century mark.

Compare this to the European Union. The Treaty of Westphalia, signed in 1648, was the initial attempt at Europe's first security-based international system of law. It was a full 344 years before the European Union -- states linked by domestically enforceable law -- was formed through the Treaty of Maastricht. And even now, there is no single EU military or police force. Each state's police force within the EU must, under law, uphold EU regulations.

The world is composed of many more individuals and states, so it seems predictable that the development of an international legal system should take so long.

Ironically, Posner makes a key observation in the development of effective international law: "International law is only as strong as the states with an interest in upholding it." Precisely. America's domestic system of law is upheld, at base, because the individuals and entities in that system consent to it. Americans each have an interest in social order, lest chaos abound. Likewise, international law makes the world more efficient, predictable, and (in the long run) safer.

Given so many disparate interests, we're unlikely to see a world government in our lifetimes. But today's arguments over international law may seem laughable in 2200 -- like arguments in 1733 over a religious-refugee-founded, world-dominating union of fifty states spanning the North American continent seem today.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Peace in the Taiwan Strait?

Since President Ma took office in Taiwan last March, the relationship between China and Taiwan has improved rapidly. The two governments have concluded multiple agreements on trade, travel, and finance. And an impending Taiwan-China free trade agreement (FTA) -- called the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement -- could link the two entities irreversibly.

In fact, relations have warmed sufficiently, it seems, to merit some sort of punditry tipping point. Some are beginning to talk about the consequences of a Taiwan-China peace agreement for East Asia and the US. But one piece in particular, written by Philip Saunders and Scott Kastner, is notable for its clear-minded analysis on what a peace deal across the Strait might look like and, further, what it might do to affect other political calculations in the region.

In short, a true peace agreement -- in the sense of unification -- is far off. The Taiwanese political climate is not prepared for such a step. But, as Saunders and Kastner point out, "an interim peace agreement -- trading a Taiwanese commitment not to move toward independence for a Chinese commitment not to use force -- seems increasingly possible."

This is a confidence-building measure (CBM) proposal, and I would suggest reading the full article for the details. My general take is that it is not only an opportune time for such an agreement, but it is also a necessary agreement. First, any deep step toward unification is going to require baby steps that prepare both the Chinese and the Taiwanese for the idea of being more integrated economically and politically. Second, and more importantly, Taiwan needs this FTA with China. If Taiwan holds off much longer on economic integration with East Asia, then it will lose a significant amount of jobs and investment in the next decade as these travel to countries in the East Asian bloc, like Thailand or Vietnam.

There is only one argument the authors make with which I disagree. They rightly mention that for unification to ever be a real prospect, the divergent identities of Taiwanese and Chinese people need to be addressed. In other words, people on both sides need to get comfortable enough with one another to be able to see themselves as "one" national people. Here's what the article says:

"A peace agreement might help address this issue through the exchange of 'identity goods,' measures that allow one side the chance to influence the other side's perception of national identity. Expanded media, educational, and people-to-people exchanges could give Beijing a chance to persuade people on Taiwan about the benefits of unification, and allow Taiwan a chance to press for greater openness and political changes in China that would make unification more attractive."

I think the final phrase here is unrealistic. Without a drastic change in the domestic political climate of China, there is little to no chance that the Communist Party (CCP) would allow Taiwan or Taiwanese people to press for more political openness in China. At this point, it won't even allow its own people to flirt with such propositions, so why would the authors think that the CCP would permit the Taiwanese -- the people of its "rogue province" -- to press for a more liberal political system?

Putting this criticism aside, I think Saunders and Kastner have it right on expanding educational and people-to-people exchanges. As is usually the case, the potential for great change lies in the perspective of new generations. As young Taiwanese and Chinese come to know and accept each other, the "otherness" of their parents' generation will no longer make sense to them. It is these young people that will one day shake hands and say, "peace".

Monday, September 14, 2009

More Public Funding for Test Tube Food

A few months back, I argued in the Foreign Policy website that public cash needs to be put behind in vitro meat. Recently, I read a piece in Seed magazine, in which the director of a nonprofit (called New Harvest) that supports in vitro meat was interviewed. In it, the director, Jason Matheny, explains the recent evolutions and details of the process of developing cultured meat as an alternative to livestock-derived meat.

The interview is interesting, but one thing Mateny said is particularly important: "The Oxford economic feasibility study I mentioned earlier suggests that, at an industrial scale, the cultured meat cost should be quite competitive with conventional meat, but we’re not there yet. It’s five to 10 years away, not two or three."

Later, he reiterates the "10 years off" line. This is significant because it means that investors won't take big risks on this technology right now since it probably won't be profitable for another decade. But in a year when the next climate deal is supposed to be struck at Copenhagen, this technology is too good to let it simmer below market signals. Given the amount of carbon that the livestock industry contributes to the climate, a massive revolution of in vitro meat could be a significant component of the new international climate pact. (As Mateny mentions, culture meat produces 80% less carbon than current livestock.) This is especially true because much of the future increases in carbon from livestock will come from countries who have yet to produce a lot of livestock carbon, like India or China. Through public investment, the structure should be put in place now for a large in vitro meat industry in developing countries -- it's easier to change the trajectory of an industry now than to try to change a large livestock industry in the future.

For countries like the US that already have a massive livestock industry, the political will be more difficult to find. Not only is the meat industry huge and influential, but there is so much concern over public investment right now (i.e. the economic stimulus and health care) that further climate measures might get overshadowed.

However, if China were to catapult ahead of the United States regarding in vitro meat technology and business, then it wouldn't be the first time in the past year that China had taken bolder steps than the US to do what needed to be done in terms of public investment. China already might be the future leader in electric cars, wind tech, solar tech, or just any "green tech", all of which are likely to be the cash cows of the next half-century.

Of course, that raises interesting questions about the trade-off between democracy and government efficacy. For another day...

Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Limits of Gender

Caster Semenya, an 18-year old runner from South Africa, recently took gold in the 800m race of the world championships in Germany. But her performance and medal are being disputed by some due to a debate over her gender, and the whole issue brings to light the problems with applying dichotomous gender categories in some cases.

Cleared of drug use, other athletes, sport commentators, and teams have challenged Semenya's running in a women's competition. Though the testing has yet to be done, it is possible that the running star could have a genetic mutation -- for example, a Y chromosome like men have -- which allows her to perform better despite having female genitals. Semenya could also have greater levels of testosterone due to a hyper-active adrenal gland, which could allow her to run faster.

This event brings two questions to light. First, how should biological gender (sex) be defined for athletic competitions? Second, what should be done about the Semenya's particular case?

As for sex, a line must be drawn somewhere. Either female genitalia or reproductive organs seems like a reasonable criteria. However, it is not acceptable to rule out any person with high naturally-occurring levels of testosterone, in the same way that we should not disqualify Michael Phelps for having abnormally short legs and a long torso, or Shaquille O'Neal for towering 7'1" above the ground and carrying large amounts of muscle mass. Indeed, most record-breakers or top-level athletes are born with abilities or traits which 99.9% of humans do not possess.

In fact, this concept could even be extended beyond athletics: the leading physicists are born able to understand extremely complex concepts and formulas, the best singers are born with the ability to hit otherwise-unthinkable notes, the most influential politicians were born to connect with people, etc.

So, it would be either misunderstanding or outright jealously that would drive officials to disqualify athletes for their inherent capabilities.

Second, Semenya's case: the answer is technically uncertain right now because, as mentioned, the testing must be done. However, I think we can assume that she has female genitalia, given how far she's made it without anyone pointing out this obvious problem for a woman athlete. So what could the testing reveal that would justify revoking her medal? It is difficult for me to imagine a strong case against letting Semenya celebrate her hard work and ability through a gold medal -- and probably more in the future.

In this case, we must embrace individuality, not punish it.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Missing the Point of the Public Option

The following was written by guest author Sue Ann Orsini.

Tonight, President Obama gave a press conference to further discuss the health care reform initiative. (Transcript available here.) A question was asked regarding the public plan option, particularly on whether or not Obama would use his own Administration’s plan if his family members were sick, even if the plan didn’t offer all types of available treatment. The same question was posed by a doctor during ABC’s “Prescription for America” discussion held last Friday. And while the President fumbled his way through a mostly political response at both events, I wondered why he wouldn’t just say the truth – questions of this sort are meaningless and betray a deep lack of understanding about what a public option would mean.

Certainly, these questions illicit emotional responses, particularly fearful mob reactions to the word "socialism" that inevitably pops up when the public plan is discussed, and also anger over long-standing class-based complaints that the rich and powerful always get a better product. For me, asking whether or not Obama would use his public plan overlooks two very important issues. First, a public option may improve the health of the insurance markets by providing competition and regulation of the industry. And second, anyone who insinuates that the Administration’s public option will be the only option has obviously not read the text of any Congressional proposals.

The health insurance market is complex. It's not just composed of big name companies, like Blue Cross or Aetna, but a number of side-players, including Pharmacy Benefit Managers (PBMs), that actually have great influence on cost and sometimes commit outright fraud. Hardly any regulation governs these health care middlemen, and they are left relatively free to set prices. Such rampant manipulation hurts consumers and propagates an unhealthy market. Congress has been aware of this manipulation for years - the courts have, too. Major litigation occurred only a few years ago concerning pharmaceutical price-fixing. And just last Thursday, the Senate Commerce Committee held a hearing to address issues of competition in health care insurance. The public option would attempt to regulate the health care market by providing an alternative to private plans (keyword here is alternative).

As for my second issue, I wonder how many people running around screaming "Socialism!" have actually read the part of the recently introduced House bill concerning the public option. Nowhere in that bill text does it say that we will have to choose the public plan. Nowhere does it suggest that you can't continue with the coverage you have right now. The argument that a public plan will take away your choice and drive us down the road to socialism is a lie propagated by people who fear change. And to those people I would ask this question: Do you truly have a free choice now as to what kind of doctor you can see? Do you truly have a choice as to which treatments you can seek without paying through the nose?

My recent journey into the health care system tells the story - I hurt my back, was constrained as to which doctors, specialists, chiropractors, etc., that I could see through my insurance plan. I was constantly on the phone with my insurance company making sure as to what they would cover. And then, when I transitioned into employer-based insurance, I had to prove to that I'd been covered before in order to waive the "pre-existing condition" clause (something which would be forbidden by the current bill). I may be able to get insurance through my employer now, but I have no choice as to which insurance company I use. Adding a public option into this mix isn't going to make my lack of choices any more or less pronounced. It may improve things.

In the end, much of the discussion over the public plan amounts to nothing more than fearmongering disguised as rhetoric. Fearmongering gets us nowhere and rhetoric can leave a bad taste in the mouth. Check out the latest bill for yourself and come to your own conclusions.

Sue Ann Orsini is a law librarian that specializes in the legislative process. She works in Washington DC.

ALTERATION: on 23 July at 11:43 AM, the title of this post was changed.

Monday, July 20, 2009

White Man's Neutrality

Last Thursday, Steven Colbert (on The Colbert Report) used his conservative pundit spoof, yet again, to express through humor what most news media either miss, skew, or don't say outrightly. In this case, he performed another in his regular segment called "The Word" -- a satire of Bill O'Reilly's "Talking Points" -- in which Steven pontificated the claim that Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor's life experience is a scar on her record while all past (white) nominees' life experience was an asset to their qualifications as a judge. Using this ridiculous argument, Steven was pointing out the hypocrisy of those (in news media or politics) that focus on Sotomayor's pride in her life experience as a problem. Most delightfully, Colbert makes this argument using a comparison between the nomination and an ordeal over the color of Band-aids. I'll let you see for yourself the brilliant connection -- watch the clip below. (If the video does not show up, then click this link.)

This clip also had me thinking: pushing out material like this four nights every week, it must be exhausting to be a writer for The Colbert Report.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

What Scares the Chinese Communist Party?

The past couple of months have seen events heat up (and then cool down) over internet censoring system in China, called Green Dam Youth Escort. This program is purportedly meant to protect Chinese youth from pornography, though many are concerned that the program could be used to expand surveillance or censorship. In May, the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) ordered that all computers sold in China have that software installed by 1 July. The ultimate result was a rare occurrence in national Chinese politics: on 30 June, the CCP retracted its directive. Actually, to be more accurate, they "postponed" the directive. In fact, a government official said that the CCP "will definitely carry on the directive on Green Dam. It's just a matter of time." But even if this does happen, it is questionable whether or not the directive will be enforced strictly.

Setting aside the distinct possibility that Green Dam will eventually be mandated on all Chinese computers, there is a more important question that bears on whether or not the directive is ever truly carried out: why did the CCP step back in the first place? In other words, what scares the CCP enough to so clearly reconsider their policy?

In short: the people of China.

The blowback against Green Dam came from both domestic (primarily netizens) and foreign (IT industry, governments, civil liberties groups) sources in China. But while some claim that pressure from the outside was important, I think that pleasing foreign audiences is only a bonus in the calculus of the CCP decision -- not the primary factor.

There are two particular reasons why Chinese citizens -- not foreign entities or foreign NGOs -- are most responsible. First, the reaction from Chinese internet users, who would be most affected by Green Dam, was powerful. This community of 300 million is a tremendous social force, particularly if a great number of them become unified behind an interest. And the CCP monitors internet chatter constantly, gauging reactions to certain policies. In the case of Green Dam, the CCP had overstepped a line. Chinese netizens saw it, at best, as a computer-wrecking software and, at worst, a threat to their rights. Most profoundly, an open letter was published by a group of anonymous Chinese netizens, in which they explicitly threaten the CCP:

"We hereby declare that we, the Anonymous Netizens, are going to launch our attack worldwide on your censorship system starting on July 1st, 2009."

The attack was never commenced. But the CCP also retracted its directive the day before the netizens' action was to take place. So it is hard to know for sure whether or not the letter was a bluff. In any case, the rejection of Green Dam by the Chinese public was clear. And as a one-party state, significant discontent of the people cannot be expressed through voting or organized lobbying. It can only be expressed through dissent. This is not a road down which the CCP wants to trek.

Second, in past events involving domestic civil liberties, foreign entities have had little to no leverage over the CCP. China and its government is now too large, powerful, and prosperous to be heavily influenced by other governments when it comes to domestic policy. The CCP knows full well that any threats of economic sanctioning are empty because most large nations are too intertwined with China's trade sector. And no amount of protest from the outside has ever changed CCP policy over, for example, forced citizen relocation for infrastructure projects and the Olympics, policy in Tibet, political prisoners, or policy in Xinjiang. (A caveat: governments or foreign entities that work to develop Chinese civil society can arguably have a long-term effect on grassroots pressure for change from within the country.)

Even foreign companies that were affected by the Green Dam directive do not have as much influence as some would like to think. Technology firms do business in China knowing very well that the government has myriad restrictions. But if and when the Green Dam directive is carried out, those companies will continue to do business in China for the same reason that they were there before the new rule: the Chinese tech market is huge. (And this is particularly attractive in a time when the world's previous champion of consumerism -- America -- is dealing with a deep recession.)

In addition to both of these reasons, Green Dam has been shown to be rather ineffectual, thus reducing the opportunity cost for the Chinese government.

The lesson here is that the CCP knows to whom it is primarily accountable. And those people are standing firmly within the borders of China. More accurately, many of them are probably sitting in front of their computers... blogging.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Beauty Amidst the Chaos

As has been widely reported, Iran is in the throws of a large social movement. Some have called it the beginning of the end for the current regime. (Another similar opinion here.) I will reserve judgment for now. But as can be gained through print and video, dissent is flowing through Tehran. And faced with such a massive political movement, the regime is threatened.

The unfortunate truth is that these movements often entail violence -- both from protesters and (especially) from a threatened government. But while surveying the many many videos of the Iranian struggle, I came across something that, I think, is worth pointing out because it rare among the footage. In a particular video (below), a motorcycle-mounted agent of the government (could have been police or Basij militia) either fell off of his bike or was forced off by protesters. Afterward, he was presumably beaten (though it is not shown in the video) by some in the crowd.

Yet in this chaotic scene filled with fire, screaming, and violence, beauty emerges. The government agent, who looks to be suffering from a concussion, is pulled out of danger by a number of protesters. Then, most profoundly, they proceed to protect and care for him. This is such a heartening act of humanity. These people had the courage and kindness to almost immediately take in the same person who, moments ago, had been beating other protesters.

It begins at about 2:20 and continues until the end of the video (3:30). I look forward to your thoughts.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

In defense of meat

A different version of my last post (regarding the myth of eating meat) was published today on the Foreign Policy website. It can be found here.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Eating meat is bad for you and the world... kind of

When reading a recent Foreign Policy article, I was reminded of the growing movement toward vegetarianism and away from meat or animal food products. I was also reminded of the nutritional falsehoods being touted in this campaign.

There are three essential lines of argument against eating meat, all of which are discussed in the linked article above.

First, meat is bad for a human's health. Second, the meat industry emits a tremendous amount of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, which is contributing to climate change. Third, killing animals for food is immoral in and of itself.

I disagree with the third issue philosophically. (Although the manner in which many animals are farmed is horrid.) But animal rights is a much more murky issue and I'll leave it alone for now.

The second premise is accurate; the livestock sector accounts for 18% of GHG emissions. But saying just this misses some nuance within the meat industry. Beef and pork are not equal to poultry, some fish, and other sources of protein relative to GHG emissions. According to one study (page 6), poultry and milk are three times more energy efficient (in carbon emissions) than beef and six times more than pork. Herring is seventeen times more efficient than beef. And this does not even account for methane emissions, which are 25 times more potent as a GHG. With everything factored in, the beef industry emits 13 times more GHG than the chicken sector.

Lastly, the idea that meat is bad for your health is simply not true. Again, there is a huge difference between eating a diet with a lot of beef and pork and one with a lot of poultry and fish. The main difference here is saturated fat. Beef, pork, chicken, and fish all have relatively high amounts of cholesterol. But cholesterol, by itself, is not a threat to your health. It only becomes the bad stuff that clogs arteries when a person's diet is also high in saturated or trans fat. Most cuts of beef and pork are quite high in saturated fat. Chicken, however, are composed of leaner cuts.

Furthermore, to group fish in with either of these is absurd. Any fish that is high in fat is composed of very healthful Omega-3 fatty acids, specifically docosahexaenoic acid. Far from being damaging to health, a person is more likely to have a healthy cardiovascular system by eating fish, when compared to a diet without it.

The other nutritional component here is the utility of protein. The argument from a climate perspective is that more protein is not linked to better health. Again, a falsehood. Protein, as a building block in the body, may have diminishing returns, but when compared to the common alternatives for vegetarians, then the importance of protein becomes clear.

If someone is not eating protein as a source of calories, then they must be those calories from either carbohydrates or fat. Since carbohydrates are the cheapest to produce (e.g. grains, rice, sugars), this will be the most likely food choice. But these are also the foods that will raise blood sugar in high consumption. Therefore, these are the most likely to cause diabetes in people. Protein, on the other hand, has negligible effects on blood sugar. So a diet high in protein is less likely to raise blood sugar than one high in carbohydrates.

(Carbohydrates, of course, have an important role to play as well. Top among these are fiber and the many vitamins/minerals/antioxidants associated with carbohydrate foods. My point is simply that anything can be overdone.)

Rather than educating the public on the above nutritional differences, many in the climate movement generalize all meat together, using studies that also do not differentiate types of meat.

The upshot: beef and pork farming emits a lot of GHG. At the policy level, governments need to begin taxing or capping GHG emissions in order to reduce the most polluting meat sources. Furthermore, public money needs to be pumped into a solution that would make this whole issue null and void: in vitro meat. Until that happens, we all need to diversify our sources of protein, eating less of it from meat in our daily diet. Dairy, whey protein powder, soy, and poultry are some of the least energy intensive choices.

I am a strong supporter of policies and behavior that will halt climate change. That is why it bothers me when falsehoods are perpetuated by others with a common interest. Campaigns for change are a necessary part of human progress, but not if they are driven by dishonesty.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Made in the USA -- Owned in China?

There are three recent and interesting cases of Chinese businesses buying into American brands. First, in order to receive public money, Morgan Stanley had to raise some private funding. As a result, China's sovereign wealth fund now has a 10% ownership stake in Morgan Stanley, America's sixth largest bank.

Second, two Chinese investors, Jianhua Huang and Adrian Cheng, are buying a 15% combined stake in the NBA's Cleveland Cavaliers. (Incidentally, this is my hometown team.) The move by Cleveland may have a lot more to do with globalizing the team's brand than budget problems. Cleveland hopes to entice the team's phenom, LeBron James, who could be fancying a new city after the Cavs were beat -- yet again -- in the late stages of the playoffs.

Lastly, a Chinese industrial company, Tengzhong, is expected to close a deal later this year on total ownership of Hummer. General Motors, Hummer's current owner, chose to sell off Hummer as part of its restructuring deal with the federal government. 

These three bids are important for a few reasons:

1) They represent the larger economic trends underway in the US and China. During this deep and long recession, the US contracted by 6% in the first quarter of 2009 while China grew by the same amount. China has taken a hit in its export sector, but its large government stimulus and considerable investment has left many Chinese companies in strong positions. Meanwhile, the US market has made penny stocks out of heretofore dependable behemoths -- such as GM -- and these firms are cutting jobs or going belly-up. In some cases, then, Chinese companies are well-suited to buy up these quintessential American brands while the market price is dirt cheap and the US companies are desperate for cash. In short: China and its businesses are gaining from the economic destruction taking place in America. 

2) Relatedly, such investment is ultimately good for the US economy. America's deflation is worsened by the lay-offs produced by businesses shutting down. Every Chinese firm that saves a US firm from liquidation helps to counter deflationary pressure. For example, Tengzhong's buy-out of Hummer will keep employed 3,000 factory workers as well as employees at 100 Hummer dealers.  

3) These investments are signs of deepening globalization. As Chinese entities take more ownership in US entities selling in the American market, China's fate will necessarily be more connected to the fate of America. Even though the pattern, until recently, has been interconnection via cheap Chinese exports and incredible American consumption, this new direction should be expected to become more common. Furthermore, heightened interdependence will make official Sino-US relations more complicated. But at the same time, it may also assure that the relationship remains peaceful. 

Of course, you may have a problem with the loss -- partial or total -- of big American brands to foreign entities. (A "quasi-American" Hummer just doesn't have the same patriotic appeal.) I would offer a couple responses. First, if it is any comfort, most components for your favorite American products have been coming from abroad for many years. Second, find a positive coping mechanism. Globalization is quite unlikely to go away, particularly during the most globalized recession in human history.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Obama eats his own words

Want to know what a contradiction sounds like when it comes out of a highly intelligent, eloquent lawyer? Watch or read President Obama's speech today on Guantanamo Bay Prison and the detainees held there.

To be fair, Obama delivered a detailed, well-prepared response to many of the recent falsehoods being spewed about this topic. The transcript reads like a well-balanced discussion by a professor. And he ought to be commended for many of the steps he's taken to uphold his commitment to close Gitmo and deal with its prisoners in a legal manner -- which were major campaign promises. (Some of these steps include banning torture, sticking to the closure of the prison, and reviewing every case.)

But a detailed and thoughtful argument does not necessarily mean a logical one.  

Obama says that each of the 240 remaining cases will fall into one of five categories: 
1. Try them in federal court under criminal laws.

2.  Cases that include "detainees who violate the laws of war and are, therefore, best tried through military commissions." But these commissions will be reformed to fall in line with the Constitution -- torture cannot be used as evidence, hearsay is more scrutinized, and greater rights for detainees to choose their counsel.

3. Those that are deemed innocent and will be released: "The courts have spoken. They have found that there is no legitimate reason to hold 21 of the people currently held at Guantanamo."

4. "The fourth category of cases involves detainees who we have determined can be transferred safely to another country. So far, our review team has approved 50 detainees for transfer." 

5. Those "who cannot be prosecuted yet who pose a clear danger to the American people." The next quote is critical: 

"We're going to exhaust every avenue that we have to prosecute those at Guantanamo who pose a danger to our country. But even when this process is complete, there may be a number of people who cannot be prosecuted for past crimes, in some cases, because evidence may be tainted, but who, nonetheless, pose a threat to the security of the United States... Examples of that threat include people who've received extensive explosives training at Al Qaida training camps or commanded Taliban troops in battle or expressed their allegiance to Osama bin Laden or otherwise made it clear that they want to kill Americans. These are people who, in effect, remain at war with the United States. Let me repeat, I am not going release individuals who endanger the American people."

A minute later, the president says, "But if we continue to make decisions within a climate of fear, we will make more mistakes." And at three other points in the remarks, Obama stresses the importance of avoiding "fear-mongering" (his words) when discussing national security.

These two sets of quotes are, of course, a stark contradiction. But wait, there's more! A third set of incongruities: Obama spoke frequently about the need to uphold the rule of law and the values of the United States. The most instructive quote: "I took an oath to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution as commander-in-chief. And as a citizen, I know that we must never, ever turn our back on its enduring principles for expedient's sake."

I will simplify these three premises to make the fallacy more clear (contradiction in bold):
1. Rule of law will be upheld.
2. Appeals to fear are illegitimate means to make important decisions.
3. Some detainees will not be subject to the rule of law because Anericans should be afraid of the extraordinary security threat that they pose.

(I am not the only one that spotted this contradiction.)

One particular thing bothers me about this contradiction. As stated before, Barack Obama is a genuinely intelligent person trained in the art of logic. Thus, there is a reasonable chance that he knows, with a clear head, that he is rhetorically lying. There is no rational way that he can simultaneously uphold numbers 1, 2, and 3 above. So unless he has made a mistake, Obama is insincere about at least one of them. This bothers me. It ought to bother you. 

Leaving aside the extremely disappointing possibility that President Obama lied, there is the separate but (more) important problem of what to do about these detainees that continue to "pose a threat to the security of the United States." 

The solution: try to rehabilitate them and then let them go.   

First, the rehab step. Many of these prisoners are ideologically motivated and justify their violence through their religion. One way to change these motivations is to convince them to reinterpret their religion in a way that delegitimizes violence. It is performed by allowing religious scholars -- Islamic clerics in this case -- to argue with prisoners about doctrine. Rehab is a highly successful tool in Singapore, Saudi Arabia, and the US military in Iraq. (Here's a more detailed article on rehabilitation and its success.)

Second, whether or not rehab ultimately works, prisoners must be let go if they are not found guilty under the rule of law. This happens every day with people in the US prison system who have been trained with or have grown up within violent gangs, openly express hate toward other gangs or groups of people, or who could possibly kill Americans. Although they are effectively the same as Gitmo detainees, we would not claim that "they are at war with the United States." 

True, compared to the average citizen, these prisoners are more likely to commit a crime. But these are the sacrifices that we make in a system of law. Furthermore, if exceptions can be made for them, then they can be made for you.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

A Test for the Chinese Communist Party

Recently, the memoir of China's top leader during the 1989 Tiananmen protests was published. But this isn't just any book. 

Based on 30 hours of audio testimony by Zhao Ziyang, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) chairman from 1987-1989, the book details Zhao's opposition to the repression of protestors. He also expresses strong support for the democratic goals of the Tiananmen movement: "In fact, it is the Western parliamentary democratic system that has demonstrated the most vitality. It seems that this system is currently the best one available." Further, he says, "If we don't move toward this goal, it will be impossible to resolve the abnormal conditions in China's market economy." (Full disclosure: I am waiting for the book to be shipped to me and have not read it. My evidence is based on reports of the publication.)

The English version of this book, Prisoner of the State: The Secret Journal of Premier Zhao Ziyang, is available in Hong Kong and will soon be sold in the US. The Chinese version will be released in China at the end of May. This is, of course, right before the 20th anniversary of the June 4 Tiananmen Square protests. Thus, it is particularly inconvenient for a CCP that is already sensitive to any mention of this issue in the media or among Chinese civil society.

This will be a test for China's leadership. At the very least, Zhao's memoir is going to foment discussion and reevaluation about the reasons and legitimacy of the Chinese government's use of the army to quell dissent in Beijing two decades ago. At the most, the memoir will raise questions about the need for more political freedom in China today. 

The CCP's response to this event can vary widely:

1) Suppression. At one extreme, the CCP could ban the sale of the book anywhere in China, tighten its internet surveillance on Tiananmen discussion, and ramp up its prosecution for mention of the subject. But since the book is coming directly from the former #1 man of the CCP, this option would seem particularly paranoid and contradictory. Such steps would also express a distrust in the Chinese people to handle Zhao's accounts. This could seriously risk marring the image -- and even the legitimacy -- of the CCP among its populace.

2) More of the same. The government could allow the book to be sold but continue its policy of prohibiting open conversation on the historical events. This seems the most likely option. Not only does it require the least amount of change in policy -- always an issue in a bureaucracy -- but it still hedges strongly against the Tiananmen issue becoming a larger social movement -- always a concern for the CCP in country frequently wrought by large protests in the past century. The CCP does not plan on significant political reform in the next five years -- the focus is economic and environmental. So this response to the book seems most in line with the Communist's plan. It wouldn't score any points with the international or domestic audiences, but it wouldn't lose any either. Least risk, least reward.   

3) Opportunism. The government could allow the sale of the memoir and then allow further civil society discussion on what Zhao's testimony means for the historical account of the Tiananmen incident. Further, the CCP could release a statement responding to the new information, thereby framing the issue in the public before other prominent voices could do so. This approach holds more risk but significantly more reward. On the one hand, allowing the public to begin discussing Tiananmen more openly could provide an opportunity for democratic forces within society to readily gain support for contemporary democratic demands, possibly escalating into another movement. On the other hand, if the CCP frames the issue first as being a primarily historic one, then it can gain in two ways: a) it could prevent escalation by implicitly setting limits to the discussion and b) the CCP can continue to associate itself with Zhao, who is highly respected among the Chinese people. Finally, this option would also score big points with the international community. (However, one could argue that China has more international influence today than it has since the 19th century doesn't need the boost in international leverage right now.) 

4) Pull out all the stops. Of course, the CCP could always use this as an opening to allow the sudden open conversation of democracy in current political reforms. Not only is this highly unlikely, but such a sudden transition and reversal of policy would be risky. This step could feasibly be taken in the next five years, but the first step ought to be sorting out the facts of history in a public conversation. 

As stated earlier, #2 is the most likely reaction as it falls in line with the Communist Party's current plan. I would be elated to be wrong and see #3 come out of the the government -- the people deserve some honesty on this historical matter and should be able to discuss their past openly. But the CCP has few interests in allowing Tiananmen to be discussed now. There really aren't any compelling political reasons for the CCP to act. They don't need a mandate to govern as long as they deliver a more prosperous and green economy. 

And let's all hope that we don't see #1. On the issue of Tiananmen, suppression of Zhao's book would, indeed, be a step back into history.   

Monday, May 11, 2009

Cold Winters

The EU recently signed an agreement with several countries to speed up the construction of the Nabucco gas pipe that will circumvent Ukraine and Russia. The goal is to both meet demand in the EU and reduce Russia's capabilities to cut off gas to shivering European countries in the dead of the Winter as it did this past season

Although meeting demand is an obvious imperative, the strategic goal of deleveraging Russia would require much more than Nabucco. According to the article, the pipeline will supply -- at best -- 5% of Europe's needs. This is compared to Russia's 20% slice of the EU's gas supply pie. So even if all 5% displaced Russian gas, Russian will remain in a strong position.

Furthermore, Nabucco won't be complete until 2014. Any advantage it might provide Europe is far-off at this point.

Seeing as global warming isn't working quite fast enough to reduce the EU's Winter gas demand by 20% in the next five years, the European Union would be wise to alter its strategy toward Russia. Together with the US, the EU needs to take away Russia's legitimate excuses. Namely, the implicit containment strategy of NATO and a missile shield in Eastern Europe. 

Obama's move to link the missile shield to Iran is smart. But in accepting new NATO members, Russia ought to be brought back into negotiations over new members through the NATO-Russia Council. (The first meeting since the Georgian war commences next week.)

Until Russia ceases to feel threatened by the West, it will continue to assert its privileged position as Gas King... and Europeans will suffer more cold winters. 

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Clinton Slips on an Easy Question

Last Friday, Secretary of State Clinton was asked if the State Department is taking a softer tone with Hugo Chavez (president of Venezuela). And if the US is doing this, then why?

And in her response (last question on this webpage), Clinton made a significant mistake: 
"So we’re going to try some different approaches. No illusions about who we’re dealing with or what the issues are. But I think it’s worth a try, because what we’ve been doing hasn’t worked very well. And, in fact, if you look at the gains, particularly in Latin America, that Iran is making and China is making, it’s quite disturbing. I mean, they are building very strong economic and political connections with a lot of these leaders. I don’t think that’s in our interest."
This was absolutely unneeded. There is no reason to -- on the record -- explicitly associate America's more cooperative posture toward Latin America with countering the "disturbing gains" that another country is making in the region. Briefly, here are some primary reasons for excluding such language:

1. First, it can be debated whether or not more cooperation (i.e. more aid and economic assistance) between China and countries in L. America is necessarily a bad thing.

2. Even if it were, it goes unsaid. Anybody who cares to know about US foreign policy knows that America would engage more readily with the world in order to have a greater degree of influence. It's implicit. And what is also implicit is that if America has more influence, then other countries necessarily have a lesser ratio of influence. 

3. Clinton herself -- as well as President Obama -- will openly agree that a healthy US relationship with China is and will continue to be one of the most important US foreign policy priorities. Publicly stating, then, that Chinese influence is "disturbing" is counter-productive. It both slaps China in the face and expresses a significant lack of trust of China. This is intensified when China is being compared to Iran, which is far more inflammatory in its rhetoric and deed than China.  

Ironically, Clinton ends her remarks with this: "My bottom line is: What’s best for America? How do we try to influence behavior that is more in our interest than not? And that’s how we’re looking at it."

I would turn the question back on her. Apparently, her behavior and her bottom line are misaligned.

Let's hope the Chinese overlook this one... 

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Follow the Trail of Bullets

A new report was recently released by SIPRI that details the flow of arms transfers around the world. So who, you may wonder, is fueling the conflicts of the world?

The answer would focus your attention on at least one country. This state is, far and away, the top exporter of arms to the conflict-ridden Middle East ($9.9 billion from 2006-2008). One out of every three weapons transferred from 2006-2008 -- this will be the period of reference in this post -- came from a factory in this country. Based on typical news reports and TV pundits, you may be forgiven if you point a finger at Russia or China. But alas, the primary global arms trader is the United States.

The US produces and exports more weapons to more countries than any other country. America exported over $37 billion in arms (30% of all arms). Russia is second, exporting $29 billion (23%). For some perspective, the next six top sellers are Western European states (arms producing is a costly business), including the UK, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, and Italy. How about the Chinese? They come in at 11th, selling $2.4 billion in arms, or about 2% of global arms exports. That leaves the People's Republic just above the arms sales of Sweden. (Ruminate over that for a few moments.)

So the US exports over 15 times more arms than China. For at least some people, this is not a revelation. But what is more interesting are some of the specifics of US firepower abroad.

By tracking the biggest recipients of US arms, it is like looking at a map and priority list of America's geostrategy. Please excuse the crudeness, but consider the following:
  • Exports: $2 billion to Australia, $2.5 billion to Japan, $1.1 billion to Taiwan, and $6.5 billion to South Korea. These three combined are 32% of all US arms sales.
  • Strategy: Hedge against China's rise.
  • Exports: $4.4 billion to Israel and $3.8 billion to the United Arab Emirates (and one may even consider the $2 billion to Egypt). Counting Eygpt, 27% of all exports.
  • Strategy: Hedge against Iranian influence.
  • Exports: $1.5 billion to Canada and $1.7 billion to the United Kingdom. 8% of total.
  • Strategy: Reassure long-time allies. These states are what Alex Wendt and the academic paradigm of constructivism would call America's "friends".
  • Exports: $2.9 billion to Poland. 7.8% of total.
  • Strategy: Hedge against Russian influence.

However, a potentially worrying figure is the $1.5 billion in US arms sold to Pakistan. It is not that anyone should be concerned about the weapons reaching militants in the Northwest provinces. Most of the weapons were not small arms and are unlikely to be stolen or transferred easily to unintended recipients. Rather, my concern is the effects of this tremendous arms transfer on Pakistan's unresolved rivalry with India. India only received 15% of the arms from America that Pakistan received. What does this portend for the balance of arms between them? Furthermore, is India party to these American decisions to shovel weaponry at its western neighbor? If not, then I worry about the consequences for the Indian-US relationship in the future. India is only going to get more prosperous and powerful in the coming decades, and the US should avoid both being on the wrong side of this trend and fomenting a South Asian conflict between India and Pakistan. (I would invite my colleague, Ashesh, to comment on the validity of these concerns.)

Of course, there are all sorts of other findings in this dataset. I'd suggest taking a gander at the linked summary above. If you want to know where the rhetoric meets mortality, then follow the trail of bullets.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

An Obama Administration Misstep on Engagement

A couple of weeks ago, I posted some positive news about two US moves to boost its international authority through diplomacy -- joining the United Nations Human Rights Council and having an initial high-level meeting with Iran. 

But unfortunately, the consistency of engagement has faltered a bit. Recently, the Obama administration has pulled out of a large international conference on anti-racism, hosted by the United Nations. After some negotiations on the wording of the conference communique, the US left the negotiations due to disagreement over deeming 'defamation of religion' as racism as well as wording that tries to equate Zionism (i.e. Israeli claims to territory and treatment of Palestinians) with racism. 

Although both of these definitions of racism are objectionable for many (including myself), obviously there are a considerable number of people that believe in the wording or else it would not be a debated issue. (The religion and Zionism issues are supported by the 56-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference.) But as I said in the previous post, only by staying engaged in these processes of deliberation over definitions of international norms and law can the US maintain maximal influence over the outcomes. By leaving these negotiations in a huff, the US only manages to diminish its influence. This is the tact that the Bush administration followed regularly; hence the decline of US authority.

The irony in this recent move is that a few weeks ago, in its bid to join the UNHRC, the Obama administration was explicitly espousing the idea of negotiating with those people or governments with which it disagrees. A wise principle. But apparently, consistency in its principles is a problem for the new White House. 

To be fair, all governments falter on upholding stated principles -- insofar as they claim to be following principles. But the degree to which a government falters is key. The Obama administration has pinned a large part of its foreign policy on reengaging with others (refer to Obama speeches during the presidential campaign, his address on Al-Arabiya television, or any recent remarks in Europe). So to begin wobbling in highly visible diplomatic venues on a paramount foreign policy principle seems neither pragmatic nor right. 

The US should recommit to discussions on the anti-racism conference.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Frank Gaffney's "Freedom Rule"

On Thursday evening, I attended a debate with my good friend and colleague, Ali Wyne, at the New America Foundation. The clash was between Steve Clemons, president of the Foundation, and Frank Gaffney, president of the Center for Security Strategy and former Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Policy under Reagan. Essentially, the topic was the first 100 days of Obama's foreign policy.  

I had never heard Clemons speak before, but in the short time there, he struck me as a pretty pragmatic observer of US foreign policy. Gaffney, on the other hand, was touted before the debate as a neoconservative -- boy, did he deliver! (Quick note: neoconservatism is a foreign policy paradigm that strongly espouses the use of intervention -- especially military intervention -- to serve US interests and to build a liberal world order. In other words, spreading free markets and democracy by the barrel of a gun.) 

Gaffney characterized Obama's foreign policy up to this point as "submission". If you want an explanation, let Gaffney (try to) explain through his commentary in the Washington Times. But as far as I'm concerned, his views were ridiculous. He sounded out of his league debating with Clemons. 

I rarely feel this strongly about most foreign policy commentators, including neoconservative thinkers. I respect Bob Kagan -- often associated with neoconservatism -- highly for his intellectuallism. 

But Gaffney held such unrealistic perceptions of the world. His views were myopically focused on two things -- the war against Islam and the "freedom rule":

1. Gaffney repeatedly spoke on Thursday of the inevitability of the US war against Islam because Islam's ultimate goal is the downfall of the US. (Then he would contradict himself moments later by saying that "of course" not all Muslims were dangerous, but the religion of Islam is still the largest threat to the US.) The endgame is, in Gaffney's view, that we will eventually have to dominate those groups that practice Islam, like the Taliban. Communicating with such groups is futile. 

2. He also said that Obama was submitting to despotic rulers and abusers of freedom by negotiating with illiberal regimes, like Iran. Gaffney said that it was a rule of thumb that the US should not negotiate with such regimes -- I dub this the "freedom rule". America should either communicate only with forces for freedom and democracy (e.g. dissidents) or overthrow their governments by force (Iraq-style). 

Both of these views are related and absolutely unrealistic. The problem lies in two facts that Gaffney simply seemed to ignore every time it was posed to him during the debate:

Fact #1: America cannot fight a war with all illiberal regimes. It simply does not have the resources.  
Fact #2: the US has economic, security, and principled interests with many of these same regimes. 

Therefore, to refuse negotiation with these regimes is to deny reality. This is an obvious conclusion to most foreign policy thinkers, and the real debate lies in the details about when and how to negotiate.  But Gaffney doesn't even get past this, it seems.

And this is to say nothing of some other blaring problems, like the accusation that Islam itself is a prominent foreign policy threat. Also, one runs into problems when trying to argue what constitutes "illiberal". Should the US be invading every country it deems even the slightest bit less free than itself?

After the debate, I asked Frank how -- given the freedom rule -- Obama should go about dealing with China. Should the US remove all diplomatic communication in the name of freedom and work only with China's civil society? Should we militarily overthrow China? His response was that China is a "special case". Which makes the freedom rule defunct. I told him so. Frank responded that "the rule has exceptions". (Duh!) Which is exactly why this "rule" is unrealistic. 

The point here is simple: if you truly care about the well being of people that are oppressed elsewhere, then -- given the fact that the US cannot overthrow every regime in the world -- America's best hope is to engage with those regimes that restrict freedom. This will better position the US to support democratic movements. Further, as the country develops from trade with the world, its middle class will grow, and historically, this is when people demand for more political freedom.     

Really, the freedom rule just dooms those desiring freedom to economic hardship and indefinite years of suppressed freedom. 

(Also, this say nothing of what people elsewhere want the US to do. According to a Pew study completed in July 2008 [p.14], 86% of Chinese people are satisfied with the direction their country is going. That is compared to 23% in the US. Maybe Americans ought to look inward first.)

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

America's Right Diplomacy

The Obama administration has made two important diplomatic moves today: a high-level meeting with Iran and a bid to join the United Nations' Human Rights Council

In The Hague, Netherlands, a conference on the situation in Afghanistan was being convened. There, US special envoy Richard Holbrooke met with Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Mohammad Mehdi Akhundzadeh in a brief sideline meeting. Secretary Clinton claims that it was "unplanned". Whether or not this is true, it is a clear step in the right direction. 

Since 1979, the US and Iran have been throwing barbs at one another without formal diplomatic relations. Although lower-level officials have met on numerous occasions in the past, this face-to-face meeting is the first public, high-level communication in three decades. Furthermore, that it occurred at this particular conference is a signal by both sides that there are important issues -- like the stability of Afghanistan -- in which Iran and America share a similar end-goal. 

The other positive move by the Obama administration was its effort to get a seat on the Human Rights Council (UNHRC). Created in 2006 to monitor and recommend action on human rights violation, the Bush administration boycotted the UNHRC because of its membership of countries with questionable human rights records (like China) as well as the Council's numerous criticisms of Israel's treatment of Palestinians. 

Of course, the Bush administration missed the point of an international body. The idea is to get as many countries as possible invested in the international system of norms -- especially a rising power like China. And if it was a prerequisite that every country must agree on the definition of a norm -- in this case, human rights -- before coming together to deliberate, then cooperation would be hopeless. (Try to apply that conditionality to any interpersonal relationship and you would be absent friends or a spouse!) 

By joining the UNHRC, the US will have more influence over the future of human rights going forward. And it is my view that the UNHRC could use some fresh deliberation; last Thursday, the UNHRC passed a resolution aimed to curb criticism of religion. (Here's the text of the resolution.) Without more resistance to hastily passed measures, the UNHRC could become a voice for the restriction freedom of speech, which seems peculiarly devoid of a human's right.

In summary: both of these diplomatic actions by the US are important in their respective issue-areas, but they also signal an increased willingness by the US to work within cooperative frameworks to achieve its objectives. This is a necessary step to winning back international support.

What do you think of these recent events? And do you think that these steps are mitigated by other actions that the Obama administration has or has not taken?