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Op-Ed: Repression of women increases in Muslim world amid the pandemic

Mon, 24/08/2020 - 19:04

A new report by UN Women reveals that the COVID-19 crisis has intensified gender-based violence around the world: “The report observes that lockdowns and quarantine measures placed by many countries mean that millions of women are confined with their abusers, with limited options for seeking help and support.”   However, in the Muslim world, even before the pandemic, gender-based violence such as honor crimes, female gentile mutilation, rape and domestic violence was already an extremely big issue since it was extremely widespread.  Nevertheless, the coronavirus pandemic has transformed a giant issue into an epidemic of its own right, from Turkey and Iran to Bangladesh and Pakistan.  

Sadly, even though this is the situation, Turkey is considering pulling out of the Istanbul Agreement on women’s rights.  To add insult to injury, according to Ahval, Yeni Aki columnist Abdurrahman Dilipak called individuals that support the international conventions related to violence against women “prostitutes.” The AKP’s Women’s Branch reportedly filed an official complaint against Dilipak and he was also condemned by 26 different NGOs.   Turkish researcher Bartu Eken explained, “Abdurrahman Dilipak is a writer who is loved in Islamist circles in Turkey. But he is not particularly liked by the supporters of the Nationalist Movement Party, an unofficial ally of the Justice and Development Party.  He is also not liked by some Justice and Development Party supporters,”

“His discourses can sometimes be very harsh, and sometimes they are taken as absurd,” he added.  “CHP, which is the Kemalist party, is also positioned against Dilipak. The Peoples’ Democratic Party also approaches it antiphrastically.  I think Abdurrahman Dilipak has no direct impact on politics. Even sources close to the government do not agree with him.  Of course, the CHP and Turkish women reacted negatively to this rhetoric, but it is possible to say that he did not create much of an agenda.”   Nevertheless, former Israel Consul General Eli Shaked does believe the very fact that the Turkish government is mulling pulling out of the Istanbul Convention is a concern in itself, especially from a European perspective, even if the Turkish government does not agree with Dilipak: “This is another layer of conflict and tension and disagreement between Turkey and the rest of the developed world.  It seems that Erdogan does not take seriously what the world is saying about him or against him.”

However, women in Iran are not fairing much better amid the pandemic.  Iranian political theorist Reza Parchizadeh proclaimed, “Under the Islamist regime, the coronavirus pandemic has affected women in Iran in a special way.  The predefined social roles for women put them at higher risk for getting the coronavirus in Iran.”   Simultaneously, numerous media reports have confirmed that domestic violence and child abuse has risen in Iran amid the pandemic to epidemic proportions. 

At the same time, Iranian human rights activist Manel Msalmi proclaimed that the situation is even worse for Ahwaz and other minority women, especially if they happen to be political prisoners: “Several Ahwazi and Iranian women were detained recently in Sepidar prison and most of them were labor rights activists just like Sepideh Gholian, who was tortured and humiliated in prison.   The prison is overcrowded, so there is a high risk that the coronavirus will spread rapidly.  There were forced confessions and psychological pressure.   The human rights conditions during the pandemic are extremely inhumane.  The international community and women’s rights activists should act to support women in Iran, who are not only tortured in prison but who are also exposed to the coronavirus and threatened by the regime.”

“In light of the coronavirus, the suffering of Ahwazi women has increased immensely,” she proclaimed.  “Due to the existence of employment discrimination based upon their ethnicity, many Ahwazi women are forced to work in beauty salons, as sellers in the market and event halls for that is one of the few fields open to them.   However, after the implementation of the curfew, these shops and venues were forced to close down, but they are still obligated to pay all business expenses, including renting the stores and venues.  Ahwazi women are treated this way because they possess a female Arab identity that the regime wishes to eradicate.”   

During the last lockdown in the South Asian country, Bangladesh Mahila Parishad, a women’s rights group, reported that the plight of Bangladeshi women was getting worse by the day: “The lockdown has made women and children more vulnerable to domestic violence and abuse as many of them are confined to their homes with no outside support. Women were tortured physically, mentally, faced financial restrictions from their husbands, and there was increase in the number of marital rape incidents.”  Once the lockdown was eased, Shipan Kumer Basu, President of the World Hindu Struggle Committee, noted that domestic violence continued to rise unabetted and there was also an increase in the number of rapes.  He emphasized that Hindu women suffered the most torture in Bangladesh, for they faced not only repression at home but also from their Muslim neighbors: “Our women have no freedom in today’s Bangladesh and are tortured because they are Hindu.”\

Similarly, the United Nations reported: “In Pakistan, mental health professionals providing online therapy sessions also report that they have seen a rise in the cases of domestic abuse in the wake of the COVID 19 lockdown in Pakistan. ‘Domestic abuse has already been a haunting problem in Pakistan; more cases are surfacing in this time of anxiety and depression for all.’ A pandemic deepens economic and social stress coupled with restricted movement and social isolation measures, increasing gender-based violence exponentially. Evidence suggests that financial, domestic and health pressures during the lockdown increase domestic abuse and other forms of gender-based violence. Pakistan is no exception where incidents of domestic violence have been occurring at an alarming rate. ‘In a developing country like Pakistan with already very low indicators of socio- economic development, an epidemic is likely to further compound pre-existing gender inequalities.’” 

Although Pakistan has lifted their coronavirus lockdown, Basu noted that gender-based violence continues in the country at a high rate unabetted: “90 percent of Pakistani women have experienced some sort of domestic violence at home.  47% of married women in Pakistan have experienced sexual abuse, particularly marital rape.  One third of girls between age 15 and 19 are also exposed to physical abuse in Pakistan.  The conditions created by the pandemic only make this situation worse, given that these women and girls have even less support in an age of social distancing than they would have gotten before the pandemic.   In a country like Pakistan, such support was always minimal and most women and girls that are abused do not even bother reporting these incidents, yet the pandemic transformed these horrific conditions into something even worse.”          

The post Op-Ed: Repression of women increases in Muslim world amid the pandemic appeared first on Foreign Policy Blogs.

Losses, Pandemics and Stolen Taxes

Sun, 16/08/2020 - 17:13


The Covid-19 pandemic affected the world in a negative fashion and almost all countries incurred losses in their communities, often their beloved elderly parents and grandparents, neighbours, family and friends. Along with the loss of some in our communities, we also lost employment and security, and have been stapled to a generation of debt that will likely never disappear. What this pandemic has exacerbated however is how corruption can not only reduce the standard of living of average citizens, but also place them in a situation where they will lack critical health care and will be subject to situations where their lack of power in society can prevent them from having their lives saved.

The example in the Americas shows how inequality can lead to losses to society. Several countries in Latin America have been subject to scandals where PPE and other equipment was overpaid for, money was skimmed from the immediate actions to help the community during the pandemic, emergency hospital money was taken and hidden personally by government officials, N95 masks were purchased at inflated prices and aid money disappeared. The reality about corruption is that it always is a loss for average people. This is the case because average people do not have the power to steal eye watering amounts of money from the public, nor do they have the ability to have a proper legal defense when accused of wrongdoing by government officials.

It is likely the case that governments in other regions, even in North America and Europe, also operated in a corrupt fashion to some degree during the pandemic. While it is still too early to assess the damage, the financial numbers coming out on national finances of many countries are shocking, and this applies to most nations. Canada has even entered into its own Covid era scandal, while its Parliament has been closed and oversight on spending has been restricted. Canada’s government entered its third corruption scandal since 2015 over the last week, events are still unfolding daily.

What is not applicable to most nations are leaders, political or otherwise, taking advantage of a public that has lost this income, may have lost lives, and are living under a what is effectively a quarantine house arrest. To take money from a weakened public is reprehensible…and if this was done during or in connection with Covid aid spending there should be new criminal charges applied, even if the normal system of government prevents those in power from being subject to criminal charges. Those who commit such acts are essentially working against their own national interests, and to the point where people’s lives are lost because of it. When a politician barely understands the morale of the story of Robin Hood, they will always end their political career with a crime.

The post Losses, Pandemics and Stolen Taxes appeared first on Foreign Policy Blogs.

Competing With China

Fri, 14/08/2020 - 17:12
How Will This Turn Out?

A speech by Secretary of State Pompeo on July 23 gave full official notice of the Trump administration’s China policy.  The speech finalized a process started by an NSC document published in May.  The administration now contests China’s actions across the board, on trade, technology theft, human rights, geopolitics, and a host of other matters.  A flurry of actions duly corroborated this adversarial stance, from a call to ban TikTok to the closing of consulates in late July. 

The administration sets a common direction across all issues, where U.S. efforts on various matters might have worked at cross purposes before.  U.S. priorities have flitted from interest to interest since the Cold War’s end, through administrations of both parties.  We have promoted trade and borrowed from China’s currency reserves.  After Tienanmen we denounced the regime and imposed sanctions, lifting the sanctions a few years later and then inviting China into the WTO.  We have remonstrated over Tibet and Xinjiang and most recently over Hong Kong, and sent carriers through the Taiwan Straits, but also initiated a “strategic and economic” dialogue.  Even the Trans Pacific Partnership, arguably a geopolitical coalition, was a trade pact – and was dropped by all candidates in the 2016 campaign. 

Still, strategist Giselle Donnelly points out that no one has defined “the nature of the contest (or) what victory looks like.”  As Politico commentator Gary Schmitt observes, Pompeo calls for unspecified change from China, and for U.S. engagement with the Chinese people.  Pompeo also objects to China’s Marxism-Leninism.  It is unclear whether the new policy demands some number of concessions on human rights issues, a renunciation of ideology – or regime change.    

America now has an opportunity to align all our policy stances to embody the tenets of our founding.  We can and should contest China’s bad actions, but to fulfill our own core nature, protecting and promoting freedom, and not simply to oppose China.  Donnelly’s article notes how the character of our regime must steer our course in any strategy.  A nation’s deepest national interest is its basis for existence.  For America, both trace back to the nation’s conceiving itself by a principle written down in 1776.  U.S. pursuit of all other national interests, of security, material well-being, rule of law, and international norms and influence, can and should align to that fundamental end. 

The new China stance follows Washington’s current strategic discourse of “great power competition.”  In that discourse too, RAND analyst Ali Wyne sees no clarity in what the competition is over.  In a recent discussion between Donnelly, China hand Derek Scissors, and other strategists, Scissors points out how anti-China rhetoric has not been followed by action, for instance reforms in government finance to support re-armament.  He sees confrontation with China reflecting only a shallow consensus.

China has learned how to play our inconsistency.  Confident that we revert to economic interests, they take our protests over human rights or democracy lightly.  They will buy more soybeans or otherwise show a collaborative face when mutual interest or passing American complaints demand it.  And they cite that face to complain that U.S. support of dissidents, support of Taiwan, Hong Kong, Tibet and Xinjiang, or opposition to their claims in the South China Sea, are “attempt(s) to obstruct China’s development” .  All, they say, unmasking our interest in “naked hegemony.”  The constant shifting of U.S. concerns has left us without credible counterarguments.

Chinese officials may be losing their skill at this game, growing more baldly irritating to other countries, notably in “wolf warrior” diplomats’ hectoring demands to respect Chinese claims.  American commentator Walter Russell Mead notes that Xi Jinping “has taken a wrong turn” toward his Leninist precepts,  Scissors notes that Xi is helping an American consensus to congeal.  Still, America needs to specify what we are competing over.  Absent that clarity, the current broad U.S. sense of grievance can revert to the old mix of shifting priorities.   

We should now announce that the U.S. will calibrate all aspects of U.S.-China relations, in all policy arenas, to America’s existential core, and that that principle will orient our policies globally.  Whatever past practice may suggest, we will not trade Hong Kong for soybeans, and we will defend democratic Taiwan against forcible takeover.  We will cement alliances with entrenched democracies starting with Japan, South Korea, and Australia.  We will encourage further democratic development, and tighten relations commensurately, with India, Indonesia, and the Philippines.  This strategy of alliance based on democratic norms will also apply worldwide.  To that end we will ramp up all our strategic capabilities.  The extent, depth, and make-up of those preparations as they affect China will mirror the level that China chooses, of compatibility with or opposition to our core national interest.

This moral re-basing of policy need not translate to implacable existential confrontation, as the containment of Soviet expansionism turned out to be.  We need not renounce other interests that we might share, though perforce we will be more constrained in our accommodations and less trusting of China’s cooperation.  And although the contest may be turning ideological, improvement in bilateral relations could be conceivable.  While Pompeo and others cite the Leninist doctrine of the Chinese Communist Party, as Mead says, “It’s unclear … how entrenched the country’s latest bout of authoritarianism actually is.”  A body of Chinese academic thought does say that “the survival of the state comes first, and constitutional law must serve this fundamental objective.”  But at least one Chinese scholar, Tongdong Bai envisions a system that, while not fully democratic, would include a Confucian form of consent of the governed.  Even Bai’s idea is extremely far from realization, but America and China are not doomed to intractable enmity. 

Meanwhile, the U.S. need not and must not use democracy as a tool against China.  We know not to reduce our founding principles to a tactical weapon.  Rather, preservation and natural spread of the unalienable rights is our bottom line.  The U.S. can enunciate this core discipline for U.S. priorities and let China decide how compatible they wish to be.  We can align global security arrangements to this end; the Atlantic Council’s Barry Pavel calls for an overall review of U.S. alliances, with a favorable eye on the British suggestion of a “D10” grouping of strong democracies.  A grouping aimed to set a secure ambience for rights need not threaten China as Containment threatened the USSR.  George Kennan foresaw in 1947 that the Soviets could not maintain their regime if adroitly contained.  A coalition of major democracies will be very powerful, but China need not collapse living alongside it.  The members of China’s elite, though, may grow to prefer life in a society ruled by law rather than faction, among people living openly by their choices rather than in furtive calculation of what they are allowed.    

This stance puts America on moral high ground.  Strategy, as attributed to strategist John Boyd, starts on high ground and, following a scheme inspired by Sun Tzu, should “pump up our resolve, drain away our adversary’s resolve, and attract the uncommitted.”  Sun Tzu aimed to undermine opponents’ will to fight.  U.S. diplomacy should take this approach, as our true character defuses anyone’s resolve even to be an opponent.  Claiming the high ground by stating this objective does put pressure on America.  We will have to marshal our resources to support our claim, as Scissors notes the need for financial reform to support rearmament.  But more broadly, our core interest in rights pushes Americans mostly to be better at being America.  Foreign policy would influence domestic practice, but good life at home will also enhance U.S influence abroad, in a virtuous cycle.  Living our best life is the best way to get China to change. 

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International Application of the GDPR During the Pandemic

Thu, 13/08/2020 - 17:12


My country, like many others, are starting to produce apps for people’s phones to help provide data on any Covid outbreaks and specify to individuals if they are at increased risk. While such strategies had already been applied in some countries that were able to sufficiently manage their own outbreaks over the last year, there are many concerns as to whether or not such apps may violate individual privacy rights.

In my local case, the app was produced by regional and Federal governments, and external privacy experts have come out and given their stamp of approval on our local app. Much of this approval came from their former experience being staunch monitors of privacy in the community, and the availability of open code that shows if any misdirection has been committed in the promotion of that app beyond being purely for the public good. This likely would satisfy the concerns of many that the developers have acted in good faith with regards to privacy. These tools are useful in the fight against Covid, and honest policymakers are essential in the effectiveness of applying such measures on the already weakened public.

Another layer in applying these apps is the imposition of the GDPR, the EU’s very assertively enforced privacy rules within the EU, outside of the EU and affecting all EU citizens. Many countries outside of the EU while creating these apps may have not considered how they might influence their citizens who may be protected by EU privacy laws, even outside of Europe. While many countries, like my own, have their own privacy laws in place, they often are not as protective of individuals as is the GDPR, and the EU has made a point to enforce their laws if it affects the EU or its citizens abroad. Individuals may enjoy having the external protection of the EU, as it takes the most modern approach to data privacy anywhere in the world. With the EU Commission watching over dual nationals in many countries, it is mostly a benefit to those individuals, while a burden on local governments that may want to play with privacy data of individuals.

Data and personal information has value, quite a lot of value, especially for marketing purposes and political campaigns. What could be a death blow to a prospective app may not lie in the code or honesty of the developers, but could come from the impression of good faith held by the public over those who commissioned the app in the first place. For example, if a government advises using an app, but were also found to be abusing, selling or purchasing private data for a client list for a campaign in another instance, the violation of trust over privacy in one area may sour the public on using an app recommended by the same policymakers. This could ruin an otherwise great and useful tool, because of a loss of trust by the public over their leaders.

A great policy conundrum becomes a reality in the scenario when such violations affect EU dual nationals of the country in question. It would be an interesting legal and political dilemma as the political party that broke the law in using private data for their campaign may now be sanctioned by the EU Commission over the violation of the GDPR. While such actions would give some amount of justice to those individuals who had their private information abused for the sake of an organization or party, it would also put an international government on the opposing side of a political party during a local election. It would be fascinating, but to avoid it, the powers that be should principally respect the privacy rights of its own citizens, it makes for better laws, policies, and may actually save a few lives in the process of making society more democratic.

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Op-Ed: Minority persecution in Muslim world increases amid the pandemic

Wed, 12/08/2020 - 17:14

As the world is pre-occupied with the deadly explosion in Beirut, domestic unrest and the coronavirus pandemic, the persecution of minorities in the Muslim world increases as we speak, from Turkey and Syria to Bangladesh and Pakistan.   This harsh reality was best illustrated when Sultan Erdogan decided to transform the Hagia Sophia into a mosque.  That move was condemned widely by the international community.  

“It would be an historic mistake at this difficult global moment to take actions which divide religious and cultural groups in Turkey and beyond, rather than uniting them,” Karima Bennoune, Special Rapporteur for cultural rights, and Ahmed ShaheedSpecial Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief told UN News. “The dome of the Hagia Sophia should be big enough to include everyone.”  The experts expressed concern that the Turkish government’s decision on 10 July to change the status of the building, and the “hasty implementation of this decision,” may violate Turkey’s obligations under rules derived from the 1972 UNESCO World Heritage Convention.

However, the transformation of the Hagia Sophia into a mosque was only the latest action that Erdogan’s government took against minorities.   During the pandemic, Turkey submerged the ancient settlement of Hasankeyf in order to transform the area into a dam, destroying numerous Kurdish and Armenian cultural heritage sites.  Although the preparations for the massive destruction occurred before the pandemic, the ancient site did not become fully submerged until the coronavirus pandemic erupted.  

Around the same period, Turkey continues to persecute Christians, Kurds and Yezidis in Northern Syria and to bomb the Kurdish area of Iraq.  As Sherkoh Abbas, who heads the Kurdistan National Assembly of Syria, reported, “Turkey forced the Kurds to pay taxes in order to stay in their homes.  In Northern Syria, they went from having a 99 percent to a 30 percent Kurdish population.  They are replacing them with jihadists with the blessing of the Russians, Iranians and even the Syrian government.  This is what they agreed while the US fell asleep.  It is bad for the humanity.”

However, Turkey is not the only Muslim country to take advantage of the pandemic to harm minorities.  During the coronavirus pandemic, Bangladeshi Information Minister Hassan Mahmoud together with his brother tried to seize the Gayanasarana Buddhist Monastery at Falaharia.  Honorable Ven. Saranangkar Thera Shankaranondo, the Founder of Gayanasarana Buddhist Monastery protested against this and held a press conference raising awareness about the issue.  When the media learned about what was going to happen to the Buddhist monastery, the Information Minister became furious and threatened the monk that his life would be in danger if he did not flee the country.  Soon afterwards, the monk faced charges for harming Muslim religious sentiments and speaking against the Prophet Muhammed. 

Yet sadly, no mainstream media outlet in Bangladesh came to the aid of Monk Ven Saranangkar TheraShankaranondo, so Bangladeshi blogger Asad Noor decided to raise awareness about his plight instead.  However, this soon led to the initiation of a campaign to hang both Asad Noor and the Buddhist monk in Islamist circles.  Soon afterwards, police came to Noor’s home and tried to locate him.  When they could not find him, they decided to torture and threaten his family instead.  Today, Asad Noor is a fugitive on the run, for the crime of defending a Buddhist monk in social media and speaking up for the LGBT community in Bangladesh.

Similarly, during the pandemic in Pakistan, a Christian man was forcefully converted to Islam and an Ahmadi Muslim was accused of blasphemy, before getting arrested.  When the Ahmedi man was brought into court, he was shot by an armed assailant and was killed on site. Shipan Kumer Basu, who heads the World Hindu Struggle Committee, claimed: “Now, all Pakistanis are praising him and calling him a hero for killing the accused man.  They appreciate the killer on social media and everywhere.   A lot of Muslims in Pakistan on social media say that they want to kill non-Muslim blasphemers. The world must understand that it is the law of the jungle in Pakistan.   All they want to do is to kill non-Muslims.   Pakistanis are always crying for the rights of the Kashmiris and Palestinians, but in their own country, they treat religious minorities like that.   Today, the Pakistani government supports Erdogan’s insane decision to transform the Hagia Sophia into a mosque.”

Although many nations around the world have many other issues to address, it is of critical importance that the international community also pay attention to the plight of minorities in the Muslim world and to not neglect them amid the coronavirus pandemic.  After all, while radical Islamist governments today might be busy oppressing the minorities that live within their borders, these countries in the future once the pandemic is over can also start to threaten the West as well.  For what starts with Christians, Kurds, Yezidis, Ahmedi Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and other oppressed groups never ends with them.   Therefore, the West should help non-Muslim minorities face their oppressors today, so that we in the West won’t have to face these Islamist governments tomorrow.         




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How Will U.S. Policy Address Rights?

Wed, 29/07/2020 - 22:14

On July 16, the State Department released the Draft Report of the Commission on Unalienable Rights.  The report, as Walter Russell Mead notes, is “a thoughtful and carefully reasoned document that may serve as an important landmark.”  Given the Commission’s charge, though, it should be titled “A Comprehensive Review of U.S. Human Rights Policy,” as this blogger requests in the public comment process. 

In current policy practice, human rights policy is one among many fields of foreign policy.  In contrast, the Declaration of Independence identifies the American people as “we” who hold to unalienable rights and governments dedicated to secure them.  A policy skein is properly configured according to political mandates, choices made by the people.  The Declaration’s truths, its creed, defines the nation and should shape the foundations of all U.S. policy. 

Arguably the creed has filled that role, for long stretches only subliminally and too often in the breach, but has always held at least a latent influence.  The Report acknowledges the creed’s deep current.  Its first section is titled “The Distinctive American Rights Tradition,” and notes “Lincoln’s Return to the Declaration.”  But the section’s title also reveals the limits to the Commission’s remit, which was to examine human rights policy.  Human rights as a policy thread can reasonably take grounding from the full sweep of Enlightenment thought. The nation’s identity rests on the creed as voiced in the Declaration. 

So the Commission’s Report looks at the Declaration as “an essential element” of a human rights tradition, not as the nation’s base of identity.  It discusses traditions that formed the Declaration’s concepts, citing property and religion as central to rights, where the Declaration’s creed names neither.  True, John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government cited “property;” Jefferson named a right to the pursuit of happiness.  And yes, Locke saw liberty as necessary for true faith, but the Declaration refers to a “Creator” as the otherwise unnamed font of rights. 

This distinction between unalienable rights as a tenet of national existence and human rights as a policy arena matters, though in a manner that remains subtle in current American discourse.  Americans agree that rights are fundamental – Secretary Pompeo, in announcing the report’s release, cited as the first question for U.S. policy: “Are our foreign policy decisions rooted in our founding principles?”  But human rights in today’s policy constellation make up one skein of a very large bundle of priorities, alongside national security, economic well-being, and many others. 

The choices, the priorities assigned to the various policy skeins, are made through politics.  Often those choices show up when one, like national security, provides the lens through which the others are assessed.  Thus Secretary Pompeo says “our dedication to unalienable rights doesn’t mean we have the capacity to tackle all human rights violations everywhere and at all times.”  A different voice might say “our dedication to national security can never guarantee perfect safety against every danger, so we may have to forego the nth degree of protection against the nth threat for …” some other policy priority. 

The Declaration’s unalienable rights are not a matter of just another policy arena.  The purpose of security is to secure those rights; prosperity is an auxiliary to allow them free rein; “human rights” refer to political and social practices.  The Declaration’s creed forms America’s fundamental priority; it requires an art to synthesize the needs of security, prosperity, human rights and other demands, in a manner that best serves the unalienable rights. 

Current policy discourse is not structured with this core at its core.  It should be.  The Declaration’s creed is the last common ground that partisanship and polarization cannot dissect for rhetorical usage.  With the creed’s role reinforced as that bedrock of common American identity, policy making would be more amenable to effective compromise and less paralyzed by politicized intransigence. 

To restructure public discourse is clearly beyond any commission’s possible remit, but the distinction between human rights policy and the fundamental role of the Declaration is important.  Choices among policy threads are political, and today’s divisive discourse should not obscure the common ground of the nation’s founding.  The Commission on Unalienable Rights was formed to examine a specific distinction in human rights policy, “between unalienable rights and ad hoc rights granted by governments.”  But a broader distinction must be understood and maintained, between that particular policy debate and the Declaration’s creed as America’s first point of definition.  Titling the final report as “A Comprehensive Review of U.S. Human Rights Policy” would help mark that distinction.

The Draft Report, Released July 16

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COVID-19’s Impact on Energy Markets

Wed, 29/07/2020 - 21:58

With COVID-19 spread across the globe and spikes of cases emerging, economies have fallen into recession and energy markets have been severely impacted, bottoming out in April. The global gross domestic product (GDP) in 2020 is now projected by the International Monetary Fund to decline to -4.9%; global GDP in 2019 was 2.9%. Furthermore, historic changes in energy supply and demand has elevated calls for structural sectoral change. The energy industry has been adversely impacted as consumption has dovetailed with restrictions on economic activity and personal mobility enacted to prevent the spread of the virus.

Stable energy markets are essential to have a modern society function smoothly and for sustained economic growth. The COVID-19 impact is a prime demonstration of energy market volatility, which has broad global impact from oil producing nations to net importing countries and various stakeholders in the value chain. The pandemic has emboldened a mounting group of industry voices, advocates for climate policy and politicians to call for a system redesign to create stability of the current energy system and mix.

One of COVID-19’s lasting impacts may be such an energy transition. The impacts could reshape the way people live and energy demand may not return to 2019 highs. Oil majors have lost billions of dollars in revenue. To compensate, British Petroleum, for example, took a $17.5 billion write-down of its assets. Royal Dutch Shell is writing down up to $22 billion of its assets. These actions and market forces will force, for now, broader exploration operations to be slowed and for the companies to build strategies to operate in a less volatile market. BP has previously pledged to achieve net zero emissions by 2050 and Shell details its carbon strategy in the plan it calls Net Carbon Footprint.

Oil as important and volatile as ever

As a result of the pandemic and measures to limit the spread of the virus through mobility and economic restrictions globally, oil consumption has decreased substantially.

World oil demand is predicted by the OPEC to fall by 9 million barrels per day (b/d) in 2020 compared to 2019, which would be a record. In the United States, the Department of Energy’s Energy Information Agency (EIA) forecasts that U.S. crude oil production will average 11.6 million b/d in 2020 and 11 million b/d in 2021, the 2019 average was 12.2 million b/d. However, a historic rebound could follow suit. In 2021, demand is predicted by the International Energy Agency (IEA) to be the largest one-year gain in history by adding nearly 6 million b/d to 97 million b/d.

Crude oil has a long history of volatile price fluctuations but the volatility in April was historic. When demand and consumption plummeted, the market dropped off a cliff. With demand dried up so drastically, there was excess oil. Traders were actually paying buyers to alleviate the glut. The price of West Texas Intermediate futures contracts for May 2020 turned negative for the first time in history bottoming out at $-37. Producers needed to slow their production to ease supply of the liquid to stave off further saturating the market and, as a result, prop up prices.

The global crisis has created circumstances which require collaboration to overcome the unique obstacle. OPEC+, composed of OPEC member countries and other oil exporting countries (Russia chief among those), agreed in April to cut crude oil production by nearly 10 million b/d through July to ease the oversupply and as a contingency to attempt to provide stability for the market. Due to the precipitous drop in demand, there simply was too much oil for the market to absorb, let alone physically store.

As the OPEC+ production cut agreement actions were implemented, United States production was reduced and China and other countries lifted restrictions to “reopen” their economies, a relative market rebound followed suit. The current price of both WTI and Brent Crude has settled around $40 per barrel. Despite the gradual uptick in demand, there remains the uncertainty that the virus may bring another severe shock and consumption will plummet again. The collapse provides an opportunity for a top to bottom evaluation of the sector and examine potential transformations to less volatile markets.


The precipitous drop in energy demand, reduced earnings from lower prices and bills that will go unpaid by consumers yields shortfalls of tens of billions of dollars for governments and industry. The equation is a recipe for contracted energy investment in 2020. The IEA estimates that investment could drop by 20% compared to 2019, the largest decline in energy investment ever.

Electrify demand reverses course

After years of consumption growth, electricity demand has dropped by more than 20% in some countries as a result of the coronavirus and corresponding restrictions. The EIA predicts electricity consumption will drop 6% compared to 2019 in the United States. Electricity consumption has increased in residential applications, however, the reduction in industrial and commercial sectors, which are larger consumers, have a greater impact on the generation mix.

Renewables See the Light

Renewable energy has been a relative bright spot during the COVID-19, especially the impacts among the electricity mix. Its output is unaffected by demand, has low operating expenses and its costs have been continually decreasing for the better part of a decade making it cost competitive or even cheaper than other energy sources in some regions. In the U.S. the cost of building solar and wind power plants has decreased remarkably by 40% and 80% respectively over the past decade. With decreased electricity demand, increasing the utilization of renewables is sensible as other sources feedstocks can be costly and are subject to volatile markets. As such utilities have been increasing renewable energy uptake and demand for coal has been reduced (natural gas has a substantial role too).

Renewables have made steady progress increasing its presence in the global electricity mix. In 2019 renewables dwarfed conventional generation sources in terms of both capacity additions and investment. Nearly 78% of the net gigawatts of generating capacity added globally in 2019 were in wind, solar, biomass and waste, geothermal and small hydro facilities. Investment in renewables excluding large hydro was more than three times that in new fossil fuel plants, with developing countries now investing more than developed countries – about $280 billion total was invested, according to the IEA.

Natural gas weathering the storm

Oil touches most aspects of economic activity but natural gas plays a vital role as well. Natural gas has not been as adversely impacted as oil thus far. Consumption is predicted to decrease by 4% in 2020 due to the COVID-19 impact but also lower demand thanks to a warm winter. Major gas markets are at the forefront of the fall in demand. Developed markets in Asia, Eurasia, Europe and North America account for about 75% of decreased consumption in 2020. Half of the consumption drop is from power generation. Industrial, commercial and residential sectors account for the other half. The key driver for the global gas market return will be liquefied natural gas exports, however, currently there is overcapacity. In the U.S., the EIA expects that LNG exports will decline through the end of the summer.

Coal Drop Continues

In many developed nations, coal power plants have been phased out or replaced by natural gas or renewables prior to COVID-19. As electricity demand has fallen as a result of the virus, though, the fact that solar, wind and natural gas power plants are cheaper to operate could force utilities’ hand to continue the steady progression of the transition to natural gas and renewables. Coal demand could decline by 8%, with decreased demand for electricity also playing a large role. China’s coal large consumption offsets larger declines in other countries.

Emission are Dropping

Global carbon emissions have been curtailed 8% coinciding with the pandemic, the largest year-on-year reduction ever, according to the IEA. EIA forecasts that U.S. energy-related carbon emissions will decrease by 14% in 2020, another record. To maintain reductions and not just being a result of a pandemic, a rise in clean energy investment is necessary. If economic activity resumes full bore, the reductions may be short-lived as emission may return to prior levels or increase. Energy investment capital is either dried up or waiting on more evidence of new trends prior to sinking any new money in projects. Renewables have been trending in the right direction, though, to harness more investment. Government and companies will need to implement more policies to catalyze investment and to continue the decrease in emissions in an attempt to reach the targets in the Paris climate treaty.

What Comes Next?

With the recovery, however, markets are still pondering how the rebound will be impacted if a sustained uptick in COVID-19 appears in the near-term or months from now with a second-wave and consumption crashes again. Whenever there is a steady increase in investment it is worth pondering where will the money be going? Will the money flow back to oil and gas or will there be a more dramatic shift to renewable energy, energy efficiency, grid modernization and battery storage? Of utmost importance is also to try to understand how consumption patterns may be altered in a new normal if and when the COVID-19 pandemic is beaten.

It is not an option to underestimate uncertainties in all energy markets.



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Liberalism Going Forward

Tue, 14/07/2020 - 22:00

What’s becoming apparent to anybody without some form of clinical myopia is that American liberalism is struggling to deal with certain broad political developments. Consider societal virtues characteristically American—public, often free form political discussion; individualism; egoism; checks-on-power; short-lasting and directly-elected representatives—these things are not conducive to a fast-acting political system and consequently make our “American Experiment” not particularly well equipped to handle recent forces such as the biblical COVID-19. The real problem, though, is that other systems of government are well equipped.

For instance, lacking certain (in this case) restrictive American principles, China was able to effectively control the virus through a combination of mass surveillance and quarantine measures implemented quickly from the top-down. China behaves very much like an animal, willing to self-amputate limbs if caught in a bear trap. There are no questions of principle in the liberal sense, no considerations of rights, and any “communistic” principles espoused by the government are spurious. Cold, systemic efficiency—this is what the Chinese government advertises with its authoritarianism, this is what it believes in, and it’s already using this efficiency to gain clout on the world stage by mass producing medical equipment.

China is emblematic of a phenomenon Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek characterizes as the end of the marriage between democracy and capitalism. China exhibits in idiosyncratic ways forms of capitalism —whether it be Chinese billionaires or venture capitalists—unmarred by authoritarianism. How can liberal capitalist nations respond to Zizek’s “problems of the commons” such as COVID, or ecological destruction? It’s clear that individual-oriented responses to these issues are specious—most fossil fuel emissions are the product of merely 100 companies, who remain entrenched in the legislative system, and a hands-off approach to the pandemic is currently failing in several states. Illiberal capitalist countries can always point to their aforementioned animal efficiency. What will liberal countries do when, facing imminent ecological destruction, Chinese-style authoritarianism is seen as the only viable method of fast action?

Smug, turgid defenses of liberal values which idealize theoretical virtues but mask an underbelly of elitism and hypocrisy do no good. Reflect on arguments given by Steven Pinker, and Adam Gopnik. Where do they leave us? All they do is laud liberal values of tolerance and enterprise, forever looking back on “’formal’ victories of liberal democracies” as opposed to “the lived experience” of many people. Where is the urgency to acknowledge the failure of liberal countries regarding, say, the devastation in Yemen? Or to acknowledge the United States’ complicity? Where is the addressal of arguments which fueled right-wing momentum in 2016? The most recent American reactionary movement and its subsequent mainstream manifestations (Bannon et al.) are reactions to real problems—the withering of the American rust belt as a result of globalization, America’s perceived failure to maintain a hegemonic position, the failures of liberalism with respect to social mobility, etc.—that offer false solutions. Trade wars and performative, petulant diplomatic shenanigans are not going to re-establish American liberalism as hegemonic. But the points outlined by many liberal apologists are trite.

A detractor may claim that here I’m just stating problems without providing solutions. This is unequivocally correct. The analysis is descriptive, not prescriptive. I’m writing this piece as all politically plausible (meaning election-winnable) solutions to these problems, both internal and external to liberalism, fail to hit the mark, opting for either lip service or suicidal death-drive nihilism. Members of the younger generation are scared—it’s an abstract yet ambient terror that people my age feel talking about the state of the art so to speak with respect to liberalism and the sustainability of capitalist democracy.

When forced, however, by circumstance to engage with these problems prescriptively, the correct response is not to advocate for knee-jerk reaction or to settle for apologetic self-assurance. It is not immediately obvious that there are quick solutions, and I advocate for a brand of armchair theorizing which may be derided as unpragmatic by some in support of the aforementioned clinically myopic positions. But this piece is highly interrogative because asking questions is important. Simply identifying the problems, taking them seriously, and engaging with them theoretically is a step above-and-beyond a large number of both those championing liberalism regardless of its faults and those offering regressive solutions via nativism and blatant ignorance.

If liberal capitalism is to survive the century then it must confront itself, expand its imagination, and most importantly stop being overconfident and cavalier about its ability to self-correct in dire straits. Because with daunting alternatives clambering up over the horizon and making jarring amounts of headway, even after the triumphant and meant-to-be-epochal victory of western liberalism at the end of the Cold War, certainty is an intellectual sin.

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Our Lost Generation

Tue, 07/07/2020 - 16:00

There has been some discussion comparing modern times to that of the pre-First World War period. While that era was characterized by the social and economic effects of industrialization with little labour protections and the struggle of people living under colonial rule, the comparisons could likely be made to any era that suffered from conflict. What characterizes today’s era in relation to that period is how actions against minority groups were often ignored, even if they were done en masse and in a brutal fashion. The most stark example from that period in human history is the human rights atrocities taken against the Armenian people, actions that are often still ignored to this day and that have scarred their community indefinitely.

When looking back on our generation, it will likely be the case that those in the future will see that a lot of symbolic acts were committed to, while actual torture and human rights atrocities were almost wholly ignored. People that have suffered some of the worst treatment in modern human history, especially against women, has occurred under our watch. Minorities like the Yazidi women and girls have been brutalized to such a degree that it rivals tortures done during the Holocaust. Movements to acknowledge and help them have been more or less muted with the exception of a few small aid groups and those who are aware, committed to, and have sacrificed to save Yazidis, especially to help those women and girls who are the targets of sexual violence and torture. Many groups in the same region are some of the oldest living communities in human history, and many of those are in the process of being wiped out because they are a minority group. Human rights need to apply to everyone, even if it is not politically expedient. Consciously not doing so could be considered a criminal act.

The manner in which media and some governments have muted the actions taking place in Hong Kong is also quite surprising. For many countries there is a significant community of people from Hong Kong living there, along with historic ties to the British Commonwealth where a similar system of government and democracy exists. For those that are democratic cousins with the people of Hong Kong it might be the case in the future that we will look back at our era and ask why so little was done to assist people who share our values and commitment to a democratic system. While some countries have opened up their immigration and refugee systems to those who wish to leave Hong Kong, there is little discussion and understanding as to why the dismantling of a democratic country is so troubling, and how the value of such a society and culture would be an eternal loss to the world community. The acceptance of the loss of Hong Kong’s democracy is a reflection on how those who live in democracies view their own freedoms and rights. When democracy is devalued by those that oppose it, it is common place, when it is discarded by those who are free under it, it will be seen as absurdity by future generations.

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Trump and the Pandemic: WHO’s to Blame?

Wed, 01/07/2020 - 16:00
Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization (right), with Houlin Zhao (Zhao Houlin), secretary-general of the International Telecommunications Union, in 2017. (Photo: M. Jacobson-Gonzalez, ITU Pictures)

President Trump has clearly decided to deflect blame for the disastrous impact of the COVID-19* pandemic in the United States by attacking China and the World Health Organization (WHO). Of the two, the one that is likely to suffer more, with more consequences for the United States and the rest of the world, is WHO.

Trump has ratcheted up his attacks at an accelerating pace. He first teased at withholding funds from the organization on April 7 but then backtracked only minutes later. Then a week after that, on April 15, he announced that he was suspending U.S. funding for WHO “until its mismanagement, cover-ups, and failures can be investigated.” By the end of April, he had ordered the intelligence community to investigate whether China and WHO had conspired to conceal information about the virus and its origins.

On May 18 Trump sent a letter to, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO director-general, giving him 30 days to commit to “major substantive improvements” (otherwise unspecified) or the United States would end its funding permanently and reconsider its membership in the organization. Other members, including U.S. allies, voiced their opposition to this and support for the agency. Then, on May 29—just 11 days after his 30-day ultimatum and apparently without consulting his advisers or other relevant officials—Trump inserted into a policy statement on China that he was “terminating our relationship with the World Health Organization” and redirecting funds to other global health needs.

Despite the dramatic charges of mismanagement, cover-ups, and failures, an official fact sheet made only two specific complaints. The first is what David Fidler, a former legal consultant to WHO, interprets as a “failure to provide urgent information.” The charge required interpretation because the official White House document buries it in anti-Chinese rhetoric, such as “the WHO has shown a dangerous bias towards the Chinese government,” and assertions that “the WHO repeatedly parroted the Chinese government’s claims” about the disease and its characteristics. The wording would suggest that Trump is most bothered by the fact that WHO to deferring to China rather than to him. The second specific complaint is that WHO disagreed with the administration regarding the value of travel restrictions, or, as the fact sheet put it, “put political correctness over life-saving measures by opposing travel restrictions.”

These are not justifications for cutting off funding for WHO. As Fidler points out, the administration did not have to struggle with WHO to impose its travel restrictions. WHO is required to make recommendations; it generally makes the same one when it comes to travel restrictions in a health emergency; and the administration is not obliged to comply with it. As for information, the administration has multiple sources, including its own intelligence services. (At one time it actually had specialists on this very issue stationed in Wuhan, China, but it closed that program down.) If the administration had information from an alternative source telling it that China was misinforming WHO about what was happening, then it should have shared that information with WHO. In any event, if WHO was delayed in distributing important information, it was not as delayed as the Trump administration’s responses.

Let us quickly review the sequence of events. WHO received word of an outbreak of an “atypical pneumonia” on December 31, 2019, apparently from sources other than China, and then solicited a confirmation from the Chinese government. China verified the report via Twitter on January 4. (Presumably as a favor to China, WHO used the passive voice in reporting its first information, allowing people to assume that China had officially notified it as it was required to do under the International Health Regulations.) Chinese scientists published the coronavirus genome on January 12. On January 13 a COVID-19 case appeared in Thailand; at this point COVD-19 became a potential matter of international concern rather than a matter solely internal to China and its jurisdiction. WHO tasked a German group to develop a test for it, which was made available to countries on January 16. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) declined to adopt it and then botched its own test, delaying the onset of testing in the United States. China announced on January 20 that the coronavirus was a serious threat and that local authorities had suppressed the information. (Whether true or not in this instance, that is actually a major problem in countries like China, where local authorities face multiple, conflicting demands from the capital and are held responsible for anything that goes wrong, often without regard to actual responsibility.) A WHO delegation visited Wuhan briefly for the first time, on January 20–21, and stated that there was evidence of human-to-human transmission but that more analysis was needed. On January 22, Dr. Tedros, WHO’s director-general, began giving daily press briefings, encouraging countries to engage in testing, contact tracing, and the isolation of infected persons. WHO declared COVID-19 a “public health emergency of international concern” (PHEIC) on January 30. On that day Trump announced the formation of a coronavirus task force under Secretary Alex Azar of the Department of Health and Human Services, and he imposed partial restrictions on travel from China the following day, January 31. In mid-February, Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases said that it could have the makings of a global pandemic. A more substantial WHO visit to Beijing and Wuhan came on February 16–24. On February 25, Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said, “Ultimately, we expect we will see community spread in the United States. It’s not a question of if this will happen, but when this will happen, and how many people in this country will have severe illnesses.” She added, “Disruptions to everyday life may be severe, but people might want to start thinking about that now.” Rather than heed the warning, Trump put Vice President Mike Pence in charge of the coronavirus task force on February 26 and instructed him to tamp down the alarmist talk before it spooked the stock market. Following the lead of his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, Trump’s primary concern was that any acknowledgment of a potential crisis—or any overt effort to counter it—might roil the markets and hurt his reelection chances. It was March 15, after the markets had already begun to tank, when the Trump administration recommended social distancing and locking down the economy in the United States.

Some have complained that after its January 30 PHEIC declaration, it took WHO until March 11 to declare a pandemic. But officially, a PHEIC declaration is all there is, and the authority to declare a PHEIC has existed only since 2005; there is no such thing as an official WHO pandemic declaration. It seems that Tedros started using the scarier term pandemic to attract the attention of countries that were still not taking the issue seriously enough. (As an official WHO timeline describes the March 11 statement, “Deeply concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity, and by the alarming levels of inaction, WHO made the assessment that COVID-19 can be characterized as a pandemic.” [Emphasis added.]) Trump’s social-distancing decision came six weeks after the PHEIC declaration and weeks after warnings from his own public-health officials. How much did the delay matter? Researchers at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health looked into that question and came up with the following estimates:

In a retrospective analysis, the researchers find that, nationwide, 703,975 confirmed cases (62%) and 35,927 deaths (55%) of reported deaths up to May 3 would have been avoided if observed control measures had been adopted one week earlier—on March 8 instead of March 15. In the New York metropolitan area, 209,987 (80%) of confirmed cases and 17,514 (80%) of deaths would have been avoided if the same sequence of interventions had been applied one week earlier. Had the sequence of control measures occurred two weeks earlier, the nation would have seen a reduction of 960,937 (84%) cases and 53,990 (83%) deaths, and a reduction of 246,082 cases (94%) and 20,427 deaths (94%) in the New York metropolitan area.

Are Travel Restrictions “Life-Saving Measures”?

A major shortcoming in the administration’s argument is a fundamental failure to understand—or even to try to understand—the issues at hand. Take, for example, this statement: “The WHO put political correctness over life-saving measures by opposing travel restrictions.” Trump, it appears, simply assumes that travel restrictions are life-saving measures. It is indeed possible for travel restrictions to slow the spread of contagions. WHO itself said that restrictions, when imposed early and of limited duration, can give countries time to prepare for the arrival of the contagion (which Trump failed to do, evidently believing that the travel restrictions were sufficient in and of themselves). On the other hand, travel restrictions do not stop the spread of contagions and they cause problems of their own. Apart from the general social and economic disruption, travel restrictions make it harder to get emergency personnel into the affected area in order to combat the outbreak or slow or prevent the spread of the disease to other areas. Additionally, fear of eliciting travel and trade restrictions can lead some countries to cover up their disease outbreaks, producing worse outcomes overall. Also the announcement of imminent travel restrictions can cause panic-driven movement by people who fear being caught in a containment area. Trump did this three times in announcing restrictions related to China, then Iran, then Europe. The Europe-related announcement, in particular, led to a flood of people overwhelming airports—creating large, packed crowds, mixing virus carriers with susceptible subjects—and may well have contributed to the massive outbreak in metropolitan New York. WHO has also stated that travel restrictions can produce a “stigma,” which may be the root of Trump’s reference to “political correctness,” but that is hardly the core of the argument. For these reasons WHO generally advises against restrictions, as do other public-health authorities.

That’s Not How Any of This Works!

More generally, the administration’s arguments betray a basic misunderstanding of the nature of international organizations. They are rarely independent actors on the global stage. Rather, they are membership associations. WHO serves as a forum for debate among its members—that is, 194 separate countries that are represented in its governing body, the World Health Assembly—on issues of global health, as a vehicle for sharing information, as a pool of technical expertise, as a helper in policy coordination, and as an agent for its members in seeking to achieve common goals related to global health. In doing so, it performs an extremely useful function. But, to put it bluntly, WHO is not in a position to boss China around. It is not a supranational authority (nor, for that matter, is it an instrument of U.S. policy). The only international organization with the capacity to boss member states around is the UN Security Council, which can do so when passing resolutions under Chapter VII of the UN Charter (“Action with Respect to Threats to the Peace, Breaches of the Peace, and Acts of Aggression”). And even in that case—if this had involved a threat to the peace and were being decided by the UN Security Council—China, as a permanent member of the Security Council, could veto any action directed against it. In any event, China, which held the rotating Security Council chairmanship in March, managed to keep the pandemic entirely off the agenda throughout that month. In April, when the Security Council finally did attempt to address the issue, it was stymied both by China’s singular focus on avoiding blame and by the United States’ singular focus on blaming China (and WHO). Thus, nothing of significance was achieved.

Of course, not all of WHO’s 194 bosses have an equal say in what it does, but enough of them do to complicate any controversial decision it has to make. That is especially true when members disagree or fight each other. In this case, the repeated efforts of U.S. representatives to condemn WHO’s pro-Chinese rhetoric, highlight the Chinese origins of the pandemic, and press for Taiwan’s last-minute addition to the World Health Assembly have served no purpose but to rile the Chinese leadership and obstruct progress in dealing with the disease. WHO is a repository for information filed by member states, and thus it is highly dependent on the member states’ willingness to issue reports. It was not in a position to force China to allow its inspectors into Wuhan, and China did not allow it to do so for several weeks. If WHO was unseemly in its praise of China, then presumably Tedros believed, rightly or wrongly, that doing so was necessary to elicit China’s cooperation. Naming-and-shaming, WHO’s one other alternative, can be counterproductive when dealing with thin-skinned governments. (An administration in which cabinet meetings begin with secretaries singing the praises of the president ought to understand this.) The political situation in the United States being what it is, we have grown accustomed to focusing on the rhetoric instead of the substance—such as Tedros’s admonitions to engage in testing, contact tracing, and quarantines—and have come to view the expression of outrage as an end in itself. We thus denounce Tedros for not wasting his time in counterproductive denunciations. In any event, it was WHO that successfully solicited China’s acknowledgment of the outbreak in the first place, provided the first COVID-19 tests, and declared the PHEIC. It does not deserve to be treated so harshly.

Deflecting Blame, Undermining the U.S. and Health

Trump’s response to the pandemic—which he seems to view primarily as a political problem—was twofold: (1) Hope the pandemic works itself out, and (2) Deflect the blame onto someone else. With regard to the domestic response to the pandemic, he has shifted the blame to the state governors, who he insists are responsible for such things. With regard to the causes of the pandemic, he has shifted the blame to China and WHO. The information failures for which Trump holds WHO responsible are primarily the fault of Chinese leaders who delayed and deceived, and even that was valid for only a few weeks.

Trump’s answer to this situation—rather than cooperate to deal with the pandemic—was to punish and defund WHO in the midst of the ongoing crisis. This does not further any positive goal. The possible consequences of this are also twofold. First, the real target of the punishment will be world health. Many countries do not have the wherewithal to fight a pandemic (and innumerable other health issues) on their own and rely on assistance from WHO. They will suffer and also serve as sources of disease for others. Americans will also suffer if the world’s unified response to infectious disease is undermined. Moreover, the United States will lose WHO’s vantage point with regard to looming health threats, which ironically is especially important in China. China’s combination of diverse live animals in close proximity to large numbers of people along with modern transportation infrastructure makes it a prolific source of infectious disease. (Ironically, China’s role as a source of disease increases the importance to WHO of its cooperation.)

Second, it could result in the United States ceding its place of leadership to China, a process already under way. The fact that China has recently pledged an additional $2 billion to WHO—nearly equivalent to the agency’s entire budget in a normal year—suggests that this is likely. If Trump was serious about his complaint that China had too much influence in the organization, this is hardly the way to resolve the issue.

Of course, WHO and international organizations in general are of secondary interest to Trump, well behind his interest in personal loyalty and his own political future, as indicated by some of his personnel decisions. His first Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs and a senior adviser in that bureau were the subjects of a devastating inspector general’s report in August 2019 in which they were accused of mistreatment and harassment of staffers and retaliation against those deemed insufficiently loyal to President Trump. (The adviser had already left the department; the assistant secretary retired on his own terms in November; the inspector general who wrote the report was fired in May 2020.) As acting assistant secretary, Trump then appointed a former Sarah Palin associate known primarily for her ties to evangelical Christians and opposition to abortion. A Trump loyalist from the Presidential Personnel Office, with a reputation for assessing the loyalties of applicants for apolitical government positions, was then named Deputy Assistant Secretary for Management Issues with responsibilities for budgets, senior appointments to international organizations, and UN elections. As for WHO, the United States did not even have a representative on the agency’s rotating executive board until May 7, 2020, although the U.S. term on the board had begun in 2018 and expires in 2021. The administration nominated an Assistant Secretary of Health and Human Services, a Trump appointee who was previously best known for being fired as the head of vaccine development at Texas A&M University in 2015. In fact, the administration nominated him three times—in November 2018, January 2019, and March 2020—before the Republican-led Senate took any action toward confirmation, suggesting a lack of confidence in the choice. With regard to the WHO budget, the United States was already in arrears on its dues for 2019, and Trump’s budget proposal for Fiscal Year 2021 had called for cutting the contribution to WHO by 53 percent even before the COVID-19 issue had arisen. 

In the meantime, China has taken advantage of U.S. disinterest in international organizations and increased its influence within the UN and its allied agencies. Chinese officials now run four UN agencies, and Tedros, an Ethiopian, was promoted for the WHO position by China as well as the African bloc. In response to China’s growing influence, instead of showing leadership and engaging more energetically in multilateral diplomacy, the Trump administration has taken the adversarial approach of naming a special envoy for countering Chinese influence at the UN (formally, special envoy for multilateral integrity). This approach is likely to divert attention from the actual tasks of the UN’s specialized agencies and alienate other countries. If the United States wants to keep WHO “honest” and balance the influence of China, then it must be active within the agency, act as a counterweight, and stop emulating China’s practice of prioritizing the protection of its own image. What Trump is doing merely cedes further influence to China.

As for the fate of WHO, much will depend on whether the United States actually leaves. Under U.S. law, withdrawal from WHO requires a year’s notice and full payment of all arrears, so things could still change. There will be calls for reforms either way, and there will certainly be room for reform. But we should keep in mind that even after reforms, WHO will not boss China around. That’s just not how it works.

*Multiple terms have been used to identify the category of virus, the specific virus, and the disease it causes. The category is coronavirus. The specific coronavirus, first encountered in Wuhan, China, in 2019, was temporarily labeled Novel Coronavirus 2019, or nCoV-19; then it was officially named Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2, or SARS-CoV-2. The disease it causes is Coronavirus Disease 2019, or COVID-19.

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Weekly Foreign Affairs Quiz

Mon, 29/06/2020 - 18:08

You can find the link to the quiz here.

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How China is pushing Bangladesh away from India

Fri, 26/06/2020 - 16:00

After the skirmish along the Indian-Chinese border that killed 20 Indian soldiers, many Indian commentators are presently concerned that China is increasingly trying to push New Delhi’s allies away from India and towards them.  For example, the Hindu reported that these commentators described the zero-tariff agreement for 97% of the exports between Bangladesh and China as “charity” for a “least developed” country, a critique that caused an uproar among Bangladeshi officials.  

Although there was a diplomatic cost to such remarks, it appears that India has a good reason to be concerned.  Siegfried O Wolf, director of research at the South Asia Democratic Forum (SADF), a Brussels-based think-tank, told DW: “China has a port facility [Hambantota] in Sri Lanka, they have Gwadar [in Pakistan], they are building a port facility in Myanmar [Kyaukpyu] – this gives India the feeling of being surrounded by China. This is the military dimension of Indian concern.”

He also cautioned that China might use investments to gain political influence: “So there is a threat for India that China might influence the government of Bangladesh.”  According to him, this threat may have an economic dimension: “We have seen China driving out other countries from the market. For instance, it has become very difficult for French and German companies to get contracts in African countries.”

Already, Bangladesh has increasingly been gravitating away from India and towards China.  In recent years, Bangladesh, who joined the Belt and Road Initiative that India refuses to take part in, have received $31 billion in investments from China.  In 2015, China became Bangladesh’s top trade partner, thus replacing a position that India had occupied for years.   And now, China is offering coronavirus aid to Bangladesh and there is a sister city agreement, where six Bangladeshi cities will be sister cities of cities within China. 

Shipan Kumer Basu, who heads the World Hindu Struggle Committee, added that in light of the coronavirus pandemic: “China has offered to invest around $24 billion in Bangladesh, which is among the highest level of assistance promised to a country under BRI. A large portion of the committed assistance will be in the form of credit.  BRI is criticized, basically for the debt burden and the exploitation by China that a country faces if they fail to repay the debt. The case of Sri Lanka, another South Asian country, which had to give a portion of its land on lease to China after failing to repay the loan, is well known.”  However, he noted that Bangladesh hopes that they won’t share Sri Lanka’s fate.

“Notably, Bangladesh and China today enjoy a warm and friendly relationship and have formed a strategic partnership,” he added.  “The two countries share a close military and economic relationship. However, the difference in culture between the two countries is considered a lacuna in this relationship. For bridging this gap, China is persistently enhancing its public diplomacy to foster people-to-people connectivity through measures like — encouraging educational and cultural exchanges, organizing visits of media and political parties’ delegations, establishing Chinese language institutes, organizing interaction among the trade bodies, think tanks and many other activities.  China’s public outreach has paid a dividend in forming a favorable public opinion in support of the relationship. In Bangladesh, rarely any negative sentiment about China is voiced in public. Despite the presence of trade imbalance with China, the issue is hardly highlighted and recognized as a problem in the bilateral relations between the two countries.”

However, some members of the international community (like the Sheikh Hasina government) have not been positively viewing China’s massive investment projects and the Belt and Road Initiative.  As Chinese firms seek to build the Tel Aviv light rail, JPOST reported that Chinese involvement in major infrastructure projects in the Jewish state is causing some US officials to question the continued strong American support for the Jewish state, including related to annexing 30 percent of the West Bank under Trump’s peace deal.  US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo proclaimed: “The Chinese strong arms nations to do business with Huawei, an arm of the CCP’s surveillance state.  And it’s flagrantly attacking European sovereignty by buying up ports and critical infrastructure, from Piraeus to Valencia.  Every investment from a Chinese state-owned enterprise should be viewed with suspicion.” 

Nevertheless, the Chinese government has tried to allay these concerns.  Wan Tiunji, who heads up the Chinese Cultural Center in Tel Aviv, proclaimed: “The Belt and Road Initiative is a Chinese government policy seeking to connect Asia and Europe.”   He claimed that other nations benefit from China’s cultural centers and other projects that China advances in the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative.   However, even if this is true, an article in JPOST noted that in 2013, China utilized the fact that they construct much infrastructure in Israel in order to condition Netanyahu’s stopping defense officials from testifying in a New York federal lawsuit against the Bank of China for laundering Iranian money to Hamas and the Islamic Jihad.   A report from RAND warns that China has close ties with Iran and that “the Chinese government might require Chinese companies doing business in Israel to share insights with the Iranian government in order to win friends and influence in Tehran.”  

As much as China may pose a threat to Israel, given the asymmetrical power relations between Bangladesh and China, Basu thinks that his country needs to be even more cautious than the Jewish state: “Bangladesh needs to holistically analyze the ramifications of the Chinese proposals. The principle of equidistance, which has been the guiding principle of Bangladesh’s foreign policy, will be hampered and it will impact its relationship with other powers. Maintaining autonomy in foreign policy is crucial for sustaining peace and stability in South Asia.” 

He also warned that China does not have a positive history when it comes to respecting the human rights of Muslims within their borders: “The Bangladeshi people should know that Muslims in China are in re-education centers.  They are studying a new Chinese version of the Quran.  China has persecuted millions of Uyghur Muslims.  They hold them captive.  But the Muslims of Bangladesh do not raise their voices against China.  The people of Bangladesh will soon learn what is in store for them.”  For this reason, he is greatly disturbed by the rebuke that various Bangladeshi officials recently gave to India and their strengthening of ties with Beijing.   

The post How China is pushing Bangladesh away from India appeared first on Foreign Policy Blogs.

Weekly Foreign Affairs Quiz

Wed, 24/06/2020 - 16:10

You can find the link to the quiz here.

The post Weekly Foreign Affairs Quiz appeared first on Foreign Policy Blogs.

A Shock Therapy for Somalia

Tue, 23/06/2020 - 16:00

It has been 60 years since the Italian Somaliland and the British Somaliland became independent from their respective colonial powers to form a union that miserably failed 30 years later. After a long ever-morphing saga of blood, destruction, and loss of identity Soomaalinimo (Somaliness), these two political entities, legally known as Somalia, have just concluded yet another conference to negotiate a reunion or declare their relationship irreconcilable difference and amicably part ways. Many such conferences were hosted by Turkey, and all agreements reached in Istanbul are still pending. 

While such narrative may have yielded some traction for domestic consumption, in reality, the latest so-called reconciliation on the future of Somalia and Somaliland was nothing more than a geopolitical racket of dangerous consequence to the Somali people on both sides.

Due to the secrecy in which the initiative was shrouded, the last minute marching orders given to the top leaders on both sides to come, the foreign heads of states who participated, and the outcome of appointing a reconciliation committees from both sides compels any objective analyst to conclude this was a distraction tactic for a more serious or sinister issues.

Since 2012, both sides—Somalia and Somaliland—have appointed similar technical committees a number of times only to see them fizzle before the nostalgic thrill wore off. On more than one occasion, deal-breakers were planted right into the very committees that were established to negotiate a win/win outcome for both sides. And this time is no exception.

The Foreign Engines

On June 13th, before any announcement or news bulletin from the Federal Government of Somalia or Somaliland, Djibouti President, Ismail Omar Guelleh, tweeted “Tomorrow in Djibouti, I will chair a meeting between President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo and President Moussa Bihi Abdi to follow up on the mediation efforts between the two leaders. I have also invited Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to attend the discussions.” What a comical irony. So, Abiy was in the neighborhood running some errands before getting invited to drop in the powwow? He must have been as he came dressed for the part.

Seriously though, Abiy Ahmed, the Ethiopian Prime Minister, was the most important official who attended that meeting. He is the conduit or the human thread running through all three competing grand strategies that I outlined in an article entitled Transformation Euphoria in the Horn of Africa that I wrote a couple of years ago. None of them earnestly consider Somalia a strategic partner. Each considers it the perfect dispensable pawn with the ideally useful inept and corrupt leaders.

Despite the inflated excitement surrounding the Djibouti Conference on Somalia and Somaliland, collectively they remain, as I wrote before, “the most important political theatre in the 21st century as it is where geopolitics, geo-economic, and geo-religious dynamics intersect and interplay.” It is where strategically most important waters—Indian Ocean and the Red Sea—intersect and one of the world’s largest untapped oil and gas resource is, due to chronic corruption, widely exposed for exploitation.    

To understand President Guelleh’s incentive to give cover to the real deals taking place off the center stage, one must remember that this is the 20th anniversary of the Arta Peace Conference that put Guelleh on the world stage and deservedly so. Guelleh is facing a groundswell of domestic discontent and growing accusations of human rights violations and corruption. He is also the leader that U.S considers the one who compromised its geopolitical poker game against China. And he is well aware there is no way he would defuse his domestic challengers if he does not have political capital in the West.

Now you see, now you don’t

International predators—including next door neighbors—and their domestic partners know how easy it is to send a clan-intoxicated, cash-addicted bunch of charlatans from both sides into a dramatic fool’s errand.

The Houdinis of corruption, headquartered in The Villa Somalia, are determined to auction the licensing of Somalia’s oil and gas by the first week of August 2020 without adequate and independent checks and balances. Granted President Farmajo signed into law the so-called Petroleum Bill. But, who were the experts who drafted it and the Parliamentarian experts or other independent committee that scrutinized it to protect Somalia from pending exploitation? Equally important, were all seven Somali presidents on board? The answer is: none and no. Neither Somaliland, nor Puntland, and by extension, Jubbaland are on board. Their unequivocal consent is necessary for some of these licensing shenanigans to materialize and to prevent potential resource wars.

In the meantime, the Houdinis have successfully fed two false narratives to a good portion of the Somali public: Somalia’s international loans were forgiven and the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank are giving Somalia a free grant of $800 million. This dangling carrot was good enough to lure Somaliland leadership and it was hoped to boost Presdiden Farmajo and Prime Minister Khaire’s chances for reelection by parliament. Their executive office has already co-opted the parliament unlike any of its predecessors. None of the numerous foreign deals it has been making or new loans received was brought before the parliament for scrutiny or oversight.  

The Counterintuitive Option

Somalia is a web of competing and counter-competing interests and predatory scams. To untangle and sift through all these mostly existential threats requires a moratorium period to administer the shock therapy that it so desperately needs to survive as a nation.

Current state of affairs is such that: foreign sponsored national reconciliation has been a periodical ritual since year 2000. The completion and ratification process of the transitional (provisional) constitution that already costed over $60 million has been on-going since 2004. The periodical U.S. aerial bombardments have been on-going since 2007 and are now intensified to bi-weekly deadly drones. AMISOM (including Ethiopia & Kenya with direct conflict of interest) has been fighting al-Shabaab since 2007. The Somali national army has been under a never-ending process of rebuilding since 2004 while Somalia still remains under UN arms embargo.

Furthermore, the balkanization process of Somalia into clan-based political entities; each with its own foreign, defense, and immigration policies, so to speak, has been on-going since 1991. Each of these entities is ruled by an Alpha clan that claims exclusive or zero-sum rights over all other clans. And each is founded or sustained by a hate narrative.  

Sometimes what one says is the most important; other times, how one says it; other times, where one says it; other times, why one says it; yet other times, who says it. Mindful of all that, I opted to go on record and recommend the ‘T’ option. Not terrorism, but trusteeship. For a context, allow me to digress a little in order to describe these four stages of evolution.

In 1992, a small group of diverse Somalis founded a volunteer-based organization to help assist Somali refugees in Kenya with blankets and used clothes, and help settle the very few who found sponsors. That small group developed close relations. So one night, after dinner, someone raised the most sensitive question at the peak of the Somali fratricide: How do we get out of this mess?

Each one of us was given enough time to ponder the question and add something into the brainstorming basket, so to speak. Each one of us offered something that would be acceptable at the Main Street or the Macca Al-Mukarama Street. All except one of the group who said:

  • We need to ask for ‘Trusteeship’ to provide us time to cool off, address grievances, and streamline our national narrative
  • We need to change the capital, even for temporary
  • We need to redefine the five corner start in the flag to represent values of coexistence instead of lost territories that since accepted to become part of another nation or been recognized as a nation of its own.

In 2004, at the Israaca annual conference held in Columbus, members have thoroughly debated and finally approved a policy paper advocating the UN to consider placing Somalia in a trusteeship program.  

At its peak, that organization—once considered Somalia’s great hope—had a membership of more than 240 of what many considered as some of ‘Somalia’s best and brightest.’ They were from across clan and ethnic lines.

The organization’s modus operandi was to identify topics essential for peace and for the reconstitution of Soomalinimo or sense of nationhood. Debate it for two weeks. Elect an ad hoc committee to draft a policy paper to be approved at the annual conferences.

In 2008, the regional multi-national assembly or Ethiopian conduit known as IGAD has passed what it called “Declaration of the 13th Extraordinary Session of the IGAD Assembly of Heads of states and Governments” in which the transitional government led by President Abdullahi Yusuf   to “sign onto a scheme mimicking the UN Trusteeship only to place Somalia at the mercy of its (then) occupier, Ethiopia. This is a case of putting the fox in charge of the chicken barn…”

In 2013, several months after the transitional period has ended, the United Nations Political Office for Somalia was closed, and the country was welcomed back to the international community of nations, the FGS led by President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, agreed to allow the establishment of UNSOM- United Nations Assistance Mission In Somalia to keep Somalia in an indefinite silent trusteeship.  Within this on-going arrangement, the FGS cannot independently enact any significant domestic or foreign policy without getting clearance from UNSOM which is accountable to no Somali office, even symbolically. Never to be left out, President Mohamud also agreed for Ethiopia to join AMISOM.

Somalia is in a muted trusteeship in which U.K. still remains the country’s pen-holder or the official gate-keeper of all Somalia related issues at the UN Security Council.      

The trusteeship system was established to help the Trust Territories (former colonies) attain the capacity for self-determination and self-governance. This is good so long as there is a trustee willing to help in capacity-building and a trustee council providing the necessary supervision and scrutiny. Once The UN Security Council agrees to such proposal, a friendly country with proven goodwill toward Somalia will be invited to serve as a trustor for a period of 4 years.      

Painful, ego-wounding, and vanity-shattering as it may seem, that official and transparent humiliation maybe the precise condition to level the playing field and expose clan-based false narratives of superiority and equally humble all alpha clans in perpetual zero-sum clan competition: with your mentality Somalia is worse off today than before independence six decades ago.

It is the only way to streamline the multilayered Somalia’s domestic and foreign problems; the only way to form an independent reconciliation commission that is not funded and framed by foreign powers. It is the only way to genuinely negotiate a constitution that sidelines all forms of clan-based rights in favor of citizenship rights and Soomaalinimo.

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Issues Ignored

Mon, 22/06/2020 - 16:00

Years ago when writing on the plight of the Haitian people, it was evident that the quick global reaction to the 2010 Haiti earthquake may only help Haitians in the immediate term. Other issues like the kidnapping of the Nigerian school girls and the death of Neda at the hands of the Iranian regime received a great deal of attention at the time, only to become buried in stories about nonsense quickly thereafter. The end result of this eruption of immediate attention with next to no long term solutions creates the exact situation that the initial attention tried to avoid, a systemic and persistent oppression of people without power.

The aid to Haiti has been seen as being used to support already wealthy and influential individuals by some in the aid community. The fate of the Nigerian school girls has had some freed, with others still left in bondage. The Nigerian school girls were mostly ignored by international media after a strong and short bout of support for them with no actual or concrete assistance in helping them realise their freedom. The death of Neda has done little to prevent thousands more dying. Even this year with the downing of a civil airline by the same regime, there has been no appropriate support and even what could be seen as a partial submission to the killers of its citizens by officials in Canada. Change cannot be done by immediate actions and almost always gets cast aside later on for the sake of expediency. Still today, the effects of the 2010 Haitian earthquake left thousands in Haiti without proper housing or shelter. Few in Western media has discussed these issues in years.

To challenge a system that does little to invoke change in a society, the long term must take precedence over the short term photo opportunities and meaningless actions by those in control. Perhaps long term solutions are not that evident, but it is almost always the case that short term policies produce nothing more than campaign ads and photos. The reality is that if no one cares, nothing will change, and if that becomes the status quo it will enshrine itself throughout the entire system and culture.

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Why Post-Corona Russia Will Eventually Hand Crimea Back to Ukraine

Fri, 19/06/2020 - 16:00

The enormous financial means that West Germany is still transferring to East Germany, 30 years after re-unification, suggest that Moscow’s grab of Crimea in 2014 has been an ill-calculated adventure. Sustaining over a long period of time the highly-subsidised economy of the annexed peninsula will be beyond the capacities of a more and more crisis-ridden Russian state. With deep historical connections between Russians and Crimea lacking, they will be less and less ready to sacrifice scarce financial resources to the remote peninsula during a time when Russia’s own population is suffering economically.

Until a few months ago, Vladimir Putin’s resolute seizure of Crimea, in February-March 2014, looked to be the defining moment of his, so far, four presidencies. It brought momentous change not only to Russia’s foreign relations, and changed European geopolitics to its core. Moscow’s capture of the beautiful peninsula also heavily impacted Russian domestic affairs. It created, with over 70 per cent public support for annexation in Russia and over 80 per cent of measured post-annexation approval on Crimea, a so-called “Crimean Consensus” in society at large. Only in 2019, the high approval rate in public opinion polls, in view of increasing economic hardship, started to sink. Notably, this tendency appeared already before the coronavirus crisis hit Russia in March 2020.

In 2014, however, the annexation appeared to most Russians – across all social layers, professional groups and political camps – as an elegant, quick, smooth, bloodless, and exhilarating operation. It was a stroke of strategic genius deftly undertaken by a daring Kremlin, in a unique historical moment. This was a once-in-a-lifetime chance that Putin took firmly advantage of. To not go and get the gorgeous Black Sea pearl back under Moscow’s control – when it was briefly so easy to do – would have been an unforgivable omission for the Russian nation.

At least that is how not only the Kremlin and its closely controlled mass media present the “re-unification” of Russia and Crimea. This is also how many ordinary Russians – even many otherwise liberal and pro-Western observers – thought until recently about the annexation. This foreseeable effect was probably also the main reason why the Kremlin did it in the first place. Yet Putin’s ominous reference to the 1990 re-unification of Germany in his Crimea annexation speech of March 18, 2014, already indicated the major long-term challenge of his land grab. There will, as his quoted German example illustrates, be further costs for Russia, over the years and decades to come.

To be sure, the two “re-unifications” are very different in their origins, nature, status, and consequences. Neither is Crimea fully comparable to the “German Democratic Republic” nor is Russia today similar to West Germany. There was a plain Russian military aggression on Crimea, the preparation of which had already started on February 20, 2014, when Ukraine’s pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych was still in power. In East Germany, in contrast, the local population first rebelled against a Moscow-sponsored dictatorship after which a complicated domestic and international political process finally led to a peaceful reunification on October 3, 1990.

Still, for all the differences, there is, for the Russian people, a clear lesson to be drawn from the German example: the economic and social integration of new territories into an existing state is, as the Germans have learnt during the last 30 years, a rather expensive undertaking. The main question with Russia’s all too uncomplicated acquisition of Crimea in 2014 will thus not be whether Russians want Crimea or not. Rather, the issue is whether the Russian nation is ready to pay the full price for this audacious territorial enlargement of its state, and whether the Russians will still be prepared to do so once the various economic as well as social effects of the pandemic will fully kick in.

The former East German state’s territory – with such cities as Berlin, Leipzig, Dresden, Magdeburg, Halle or Jena – is flesh of the flesh of Germany. The lands of the former GDR are, in terms of their history and geography, clearly a part of Germany. An unequally large part of the cultural heritage of the German nation – such as its Protestant church, Magdeburg town law, classic and Romantic literatures and so on – were created on the territory of the 1949-1990 Soviet-German satellite state. The crucial biographical phases of such famous Germans as Martin Luther, Johann Wolfgang Goethe, Johann Sebastian Bach, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and many others played out in the lands of the post-war East rather than the (much larger) West German republic.

The historically disproportionate cultural weight of East German cities and towns in the formation of the modern all-German nation is one of the reasons why West Germans agreed to transfer approximately 1.6 trillion euros to East Germany between 1990 and 2018. This is also why they are today still ready to pay willy-nilly the so-called Solidaritätszuschlag (solidarity surcharge) which is an additional obligatory salary reduction amounting to 5.5 per cent of their income tax, almost 30 years after re-unification. One wonders whether the Russians will still be prepared for lengthy and costly financial commitments to Crimea, once the grave social repercussions of the coronavirus crisis and its various economic after-effects start biting.

The birth name of Crimea’s internationally best-known Russian son, the famous marine painter Ivan Aivazovskiy, is Hovhannes Aivazian, whose Armenian family moved to Crimea from the former Eastern Polish and today Western Ukrainian region of Galicia. The majority of Crimea’s main indigenous ethnic group, the Crimean Tatars, as well as its main political organs, the executive Mejlis and representative Qurultay, are resolutely anti-Putinist and staunchly pro-Ukrainian.

Unlike Russia and Crimea, Germany’s East and West are geographically unified. Because of, among others, earlier close connections between the FRG and West Berlin, an enclave located within the former GDR, East and West Germany’s infrastructures had already before 1990 been partially integrated. Russia only managed to create a physical link to Crimea in 2018-19 when it gradually completed the so-called “Crimean Bridge” through the Kerch Straits. This conduit, to be sure, constitutes an impressive engineering achievement.

Yet the Kerch bridge is no panacea for the numerous challenges of the Crimean economy and its full integration into the Russian one. Moscow’s generous donations for Crimea’s budget and economy of, until 2019, about 20 billion US dollars, have led to significant economic growth on the peninsula since 2014. At the same time, there has been a sharp drop in Ukrainian mainland and foreign non-Russian tourism and private investment in Crimea. This momentous loss has only partly been compensated for by tourists and private investors from Russia, and will become more acutely felt on Crimea, as Russia’s economy dives into recession or even depression.

There are, moreover, some major infrastructural challenges for Crimea’s new Moscow-installed authorities. The most curious one is the peninsula’s vastly diminished supply of fresh water, after Ukraine closed its North Crimean Canal from the Dnipro river to the abolished Ukrainian Autonomous Republic of Crimea in 2014. Over the last six years, Russia has only done little to address the rising water issue on the peninsula. Above all, there is no larger project to utilise saltwater from the Black Sea. Today, there is such a wide range of technologies for the production of fresh water available that Moscow would be able to overcome the problem of sanctions on Crimea. A number of countries are now undertaking desalination on an industrial scale, including Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Israel. The main challenge for such projects is usually that of providing sufficient energy for the desalination process – an issue that for Russia as a self-ascribed “energy superpower” should, however, not be salient. Moscow has, nevertheless, not even started to implement some larger project to adequately address Crimea’s water issue although the problems have been accumulating for almost six years now.

No such challenges have been hampering the development of the East German lands since re-unification. On the contrary, international tourism, foreign investment and water quality, among many other aspects of social and economic life, have vastly improved. Nevertheless, the East German economy remains, until today, dependent on significant monthly subsidies from West Germany.

The evolving deep crisis in Russia’s economy as a result of the simultaneous effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, dropping energy prices, and continuing Western sanctions will have far-reaching social and eventually political as well as geopolitical repercussions. To be sure, as long as Putin is in power, Crimea will remain under Russia’s control. However, a sober weighing of future fiscal means of the Russian state, continuing financial needs of an internationally isolated Crimea, remaining basic infrastructural challenges of the peninsula’s economy, and dearth of emotional attachment of Russians to Crimea does not bode well for the continuation of Moscow’s expansionist adventure.

Many self-ascribed realists dismiss Crimea’s return to Ukraine as mere wishful thinking. Yet a realistic assessment of likely future developments within the Russian Federation already foretells that the Kremlin’s daring annexation of the peninsula is only a temporary phenomenon. Ukrainians (not the least Crimeans), Western diplomats, and Russian politicians should brace themselves for yet another major change in the geopolitics of Eastern Europe’s post-Soviet space – once Putin has left the political stage.

This brief was first published on the website “Emerging Europe.”


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The United States’ Indo-Pacific Strategy Needs to Balance Minilateralism with Multilateralism

Thu, 18/06/2020 - 16:00

A year has passed since the Department of Defense released the Indo-Pacific Strategy Report (IPSR); however, we still lack future visions surrounding how best to truly earn the hearts and minds of our allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific community. In the long run, America needs to institutionally convince the community that it is the endgame defender of the regionally shared common values from threats imposed by any revisionist, malign, and rogue states’ national interests.

The framework for the IPSR was explicated in the former Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan’s keynote speech during the 2019 Shangri-La security summit. Simply put, the IPSR could be understood as being a neorealist version of the Obama administration’s ‘Pivot to Asia’  rhetoric. It reasserts America’s leadership role to safeguard regionally shared principles of “respect for sovereignty and independence of all nations,” “free, fair, and reciprocal trade,” “peaceful resolution of disputes,” and “adherence to international rules and norms” through neorealist visions’ preparedness, strategic partnerships, and promotion of a networked region. Strategically speaking, the IPSR is innovative to the extent that it inclusively extends the strategic geopolitical boundary of the region from Asia-Pacific to India-Pacific to reflect the changing strategic geopolitical landscape of the region. Nevertheless, it is more or less a protraction of the deterrence theory-based power through strength logic of balancing regional security order through minimalist reinforcement of America’s traditional hub-and-spoke-centered architecture. The latter aspect could be best exonerated as minilateralist alliance management efforts to efficiently strengthen the credibility of America’s deterrence capability against the declared antagonists’ increasing instances of breaching the rules of the game in the region. However, such an immoderately hawkish stance casts an implication on critics that America’s minilateralist management of its hub-and-spoke architecture is widening the threat perception gap between America’s pursuit of hard-hedge anti-China containment and middle/small power allies/partners’ pursuit of a soft-hedge strategy against China. Furthermore, its less-prioritized view of regional multilateralism underestimates the increasingly multidimensional nature of today’s landscape of strategic warfare that rather demands skillful peace through diplomacy, full spectrum diplomacy strategies.

Widening Threat Perception Gap Between America and Allies/Partners

For many ASEAN member countries, the IPSR signals a paradigmatic shift from prosperity to security, which might peripheralize their ASEAN centrality vision and revive the Cold War Hamlet enigma of tight-roping between ‘bandwagoning’ or balancing strategies. These concerns are apprehending not only ASEAN member countries but also the members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue excluding America: Australia, India, and Japan. The four allies’ diplomatic/political willingness to hard-hedge against China is questionable due to the countries’ diverging national priorities. For instance, Japan’s growing thaw with China since the escalation of the U.S.-China trade war, the surfaced reality revealing the intensification of the country’s economic dependency on China over the last decade, implies that it is burdensome for Japan to adopt a political stance in favor of America’s radical policy shift to hard-hedging against China. Similarly, Australia’s establishment of the National Foundation for Australia-China Relations, an attempt to offset the fallouts from the U.S.-China trade war, alludes that the fallouts outweigh the country’s risk perception of China’s existential threats. For India, the IPSR’s sketch identification of the country’s security role in the region misleads the country to understand the IPSR as a complementary initiative to its regional economic policy, titled Act East.

Despite the widening threat perception gap between the Indo-Pacific community and America, the relegated importance of regional multilateralism under the Trump administration’s minilateralist pursuit of the America First doctrine has fostered a contingency-based, transactional, and top-down diplomatic culture that prioritizes practical, yet malign/revisionist partisan pursuit of national interests over sustainable regional norms or institutional mechanisms. The 2019 political rift between South Korean and Japanese elites that led to the Moon administration’s suspension of GISOMIA(General Security of Military Information Agreement) is a good example of how the spillover effects of Trumpism can boomerang to burden America. Since President Trump’s inauguration, both the Abe and Moon administrations have emulated Trumpism for their malign partisan maneuvering of the rift. Whereas the Abe administration has abused it to consolidate its right-wing nationalist supporter base, the Moon administration did the same for its left-wing nationalist supporter base. This diplomatic botch for America-led trilateral security cooperation in Northeast Asia reveals the limits of the minilateralist hub-and-spoke alliance portfolio management.

Amidst the post-INF arms race climate, which beclouds the Indo-Pacific regional security order with uncertainty, adherents of deterrence theory often abuse the controversial Thucydides’ Trap as a good excuse to argue in favor of the restoration of the Cold War certainty. Their so-called ‘peace through strength’ emphasis, however, seems to disregard one of the most important Cold War lessons, in that the Soviet Union would have walked away from the negotiation table if NATO’s dual-track approach failed to successfully calibrate the risk perception gap between America, its European allies and, eventually, the Soviet Union. Given the absence of a collective security community like NATO in the Indo-Pacific, America needs an alternative form of alliance portfolio management that is viable in the long run. Such a strategy, on the one hand, ought to be instrumental for risk perception calibration between America and its allies so that we can come up with the positive creation of peaceful resolution strategies in the escalatory phases of U.S.-China conflicts. Conversely, it should also be normatively preparatory to gradually set the cornerstone conditions for the establishment of a NATO-like value-sharing security community in the region. The historical animosity and the tradition of need-based diplomatic gathering in the Indo-Pacific cannot simply be managed by Trumpist minilateralism. In order to better strategize the risk management of future security dilemmas/conflicts, America rather needs to accommodate the fluid network of what Victor Cha calls “Complex patchworks” or, indeed, bilateral, trilateral, and plurilateral institutions that connect America, China, and small/middle-power allies/partners.

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Insuring a Systemic Collapse

Wed, 17/06/2020 - 17:16

The present and future effects of a Covid shutdown on international society will have significant consequences on our employment, economy, taxes, and even those mechanisms that protect and insure us. New laws and regulations that would be considered a violation of consumer rights and protections, labour codes, and to some degree human compassion, are taking place in many countries at once.

Protections, even ones that favoured consumers to a greater degree, are being limited or outright suspended. Anyone who has recently tried to find a recourse for having their money returned has often been denied. One notable example are those seeking compensation for their air travel or hotel reservations as they are often being told that they are no longer owed a refund. This is occurring because many regional and national governments are aware that for many large companies, covering their usual contractual obligations with their customers might place those companies in the red, and might even end the existence of those companies altogether. For this reason, many governments are suspending or altering laws that protect consumers. While they are advising their customers to change dates, the worse case scenario may be that the company gets wound up into bankruptcy and those customers lose their investment altogether.

The basis for many large economies is that the governments, the banks, and the insurance companies need to be solvent in order for commerce and society as a whole to become successful. While a coordination to reduce or remove taxes from small and medium sized business entities would likely have the effect of saving employees their wages and accompanying insurance, the governments and banks seek to push the onus of the damage caused by Covid on those with less influential interests in society. For this reason, the Covid lock-down permeates the economic system, as someone in the chain has to pay for the debt. As governments offer trillions in financial support, impressions are widely positive. In many cases governments will go beyond the call to pull out all the stops, using taxpayer money in order to help in the short term, while piling on unsustainable, eye watering debt and deficits for the future. The reality however is that if there is no money, and the government will not be able to help when the next emergency comes about. For this reason there should be strict controls and oversight on spending during the Covid crisis.

The next crisis of confidence may be in the confidence industry itself. As we see above, many companies are not honouring their original agreements with consumers, leaving the consumer to face the losses. What occurs when a state or region runs out of employment insurance assistance? More taxes will surely result, but what occurs when a private insurance company faces bankruptcy? More often than not the insurance company will not pay out as they should, may put up administrative or legal barriers or just void the policies altogether and ask the governments to alter the laws so that the company preserves itself instead of servicing their clients. Even some labour laws are being altered so that severance payments can be cruelly delayed during a possible economic depression. With a lack of insurance, any losses or damages related to Covid (and those apart from Covid) could result in the termination of otherwise healthy companies and industries.

So it will be the case that any additional damage or losses to companies may not permit them to return, as insurance may be limited or non existent. The job losses will exacerbate as private people also lose their coverage, but also do not pay into the insurance industry. Governments may have a limited capacity to tax and spend as employed people are evidently not a good source of revenue. While it will be a rocky road ahead, there has to be balance, and that balance must be met with extreme transparency. Any government or company fleecing tax money from their customers must be held to account to a great degree. Any damage to society will be now felt by most of us, because corrupt practices in 2020 will significantly hurt us all.

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Weekly Foreign Affairs Quiz

Tue, 16/06/2020 - 17:39

You can find the link to the quiz here.

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