Wednesday, July 30, 2008

No deal on world trade talks

Another one of those seemingly big stories that you would expect to be all over the news but strangely isn't is the failure of the latest round of World Trade Organization negotiations this weekend. It's a big story since WTO agreements are the basis for most of the international trade in the world, but they're also big and complex, which is probably why there has been so little coverage of them in the press.

In short, negotiators from around the world were meeting this past week to try and finish the Doha round (named for the city of Doha where these talks began seven years ago) of agreements to eliminate a whole range of tariffs that the WTO claims restrict international trade. Going into the negotiations those involved decided that the talks would be all or nothing - either countries would agree on all 20 points to be discussed, or there would be no agreement at all.

They got pretty far, but things fell apart when the United States refused to drop subsidies to cotton farmers in the US, while China and India were unwilling to give up their right to impose tariffs to protect selected domestic markets. The European Union's top negotiator said it was like "an irresistible force meeting an immovable object".

Developing countries have long complained about subsidies that the US and EU pay their farmers, saying that it makes it impossible for their indigenous farmers to compete, even in the domestic markets. I once worked with someone from The Gambia (a small nation on the west coast of Africa). He told me once that all of the eggs in the local markets in The Gambia came from Europe - because of the subsidies paid to poultry farmers in the EU it was cheaper to buy the eggs abroad and ship them to The Gambia then it was to buy them from local farmers.

Subsidies do make for an uneven playing field, but considering how much India and China have benefitted from free trade policies recently, their opposition is a little hard to take, especially in China's case. China has reaped enormous benefits over the past few years from their government's efforts at keeping the Chinese currency (the yuan) artificially low. In other words, the yuan is much cheaper to buy with dollars or euros than it should be. In turn then its much cheaper to buy Chinese-made goods then it would be if the market were truly free - so our stores are awash in $10 Chinese-made toasters, alarm clocks, and any other home appliance you can think of.

There's enough blame to go around on this one; the US, EU, China and India all deserve a share. What happens next is anyone's guess. Negotiators talked about continuing the talks and trying again, but it has been seven years since the initial Doha agreement was outlined, but still it is no closer to going into force then it was almost a decade ago. It's hard to imagine that more talking is going to yield a different outcome. Some analysts think that the latest failure of Doha could result in countries turning away from global agreements like the WTO and instead focusing on agreements between or among smaller groups of nations. The losers, they warn, could likely be the world's poorer nations who could find themselves frozen out of these bilateral agreements.
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Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Russia's plan to avert second cold war

Here's an interesting piece on US-Russian relations by way of the Christian Science Monitor. Relations between the US and Russia have been getting steadily worse lately (something mentioned in a number of posts here), due in large part to the United States’ insistence of installing a missile defense system in Eastern Europe and its drive to pull Ukraine and Georgia into NATO.

Russia, though, has begun floating a the idea of "EATO" the Euro-Atlantic Treaty Organization as a successor to NATO and a big tent for the US, Russia and countries all across Europe to come together on mutual security issues. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev first mentioned the idea a couple of months ago when he called for a security organization that would stretch from "Vladivostok to Vancouver".

Details on what EATO would look like so far have been sparse, but I think the concept deserves some serious consideration. It's important to remember that NATO was created to defend Western Europe from an invasion by the Soviet Union. Without the Soviet Union, the whole idea of NATO makes a lot less sense. In an effort to find a rasion d'etre (as the French would say) for NATO, fighting terrorism has become its new role - NATO's biggest operation today is fighting Taleban/al-Qaeda insurgents in Afghanistan.

Russia has its own problems with terrorism along its southern border in the Caucasus region and has suffered several large-scale terror attacks in the past few years (including the massacre at a school in the southern town of Beslan and a hostage siege at a Moscow theater). At the same time Moscow enjoys much better relations with Iran (suspected of being a major funder of terrorist organizations) than do NATO powers like the US and UK, so they are likely to have more influence with Iran than any of the Western powers. For the fight against global terrorism, EATO makes a lot of sense.

And if security for former Soviet lands like Ukraine and Georgia is the reason to hurry them into NATO, uniting them, Europe, the US and Russia in EATO seems like an even better idea. Tensions between Russia and Georgia and/or Ukraine won't go away if they become members of NATO (if anything it will likely make things more tense), but get everyone together in the same organization? That could actually improve the situation - it would at least get rid of the idea that Ukraine and Georgia can only have friendly relations with either the West or Russia.

Finally, EATO could help to prevent the next Cold War. Its clear that China has designs on being the world's next superpower. Russia and China have historically had uneasy relations, but tensions with the US/NATO are helping to drive Russia and China together. China desperately needs natural resources to fuel its growth, something Russia has in abundance. Having Russia in a partnership with the Western powers in an organization like EATO though could stall the growing Russia-China alliance and weaken China's drive towards superpower status.

So far EATO is little more than a concept, but it is an interesting one, and one that deserves more discussion. It’s a West-Russian relationship build to respect rather than the threat of conflict, and that's a refreshing change.
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Monday, July 28, 2008

Who recognises Kosovo?

It's been nearly six months since the Serbian region of Kosovo declared its independence. At the time Kosovo's independence was a controversial issue, backed not by the entire United Nations, but instead promoted by the United States, Great Britain and Germany, while bitterly opposed by Serbia and their allies Russia.

So far though, only about one-fifth of the UN member states have recognized Kosovo as an independent nation, and most of the 43 nations that have are members of the European Union. Interestingly, even though Kosovo is a mostly-Muslim nation, countries in the Middle East have for the most part not recognized them.

Reasons given for the lack of recognition are that some nations fear such a move could inspire ethnic minorities in their own countries to push for independence, while some others with strong business ties to Russia fear that opening relations with Kosovo could hurt their standing with Moscow. Serbia still refuses to recognize Kosovo as an independent state and has set up a separate government, loyal to Belgrade, in the Serbian-populated areas in the north of Kosovo.

But at the same time Serbia, which hopes to join the European Union itself, has taken at least a small step forward by restoring diplomatic relations recently with some of the European countries it broke them off with after they backed Kosovo’s independence in February. How this situation is resolved will be another difficult problem for the EU to solve. Kosovo won’t go back to being a part of Serbia, while Serbia so far has been determined not to let what they feel is a key part of their country go.
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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

This is ironic...

So far Zimbabwe's response to the country's runaway inflation has been to simply print more money. But that strategy may be coming to an end because the German firm that supplies the paper for the money has cut Zimbabwe off due to international pressure not to do business with Robert Mugabe's regime.

The ironic part in all this is that the German company - Giesecke & Devrient - once printed money for Germany's Weimar Republic, which itself suffered from hyperinflation like Zimbabwe does today.

Zimbabwe has been running its money presses 24/7 trying to keep up with the demand for bills caused by the runaway inflation. The denominations on Zimbabwean bills have gotten laughable - the latest is a $100 billion bill. Zimbabweans are also being limited to withdrawing $100 billion from the bank at one time, the only problem is that bus fare in the capital Harare is now $150 billion; so going to the bank to make a withdrawal is simply not worth it.

Meanwhile, negotiations on a power-sharing agreement between Mugabe's ZANU-PF party and the opposition led by Morgan Tsvangarai (who won the first round of Zimbabwe's presidential election) continue.
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The secret life of fugitive Radovan Karadzic

The details are now coming out about the secret life of Europe's most wanted man Radovan Karadzic and frankly they're pretty amazing.

Karadzic was the former president of the Bosnian Serb republic during Bosnia's civil war in the mid-1990's. He's believed to be responsible for ordering the deaths of thousands of Bosnian Muslims, including the massacre of up to 8,000 Muslim men and boys in the village of Srebrenica.

He's spent the last decade on the run. The main theory on his whereabouts was that Karadzic was being sheltered in a series of remote Serbian Orthodox monasteries. It turns out though that Karadzic was living a very public life in Serbia's capital Belgrade earning a living as an alternative healer - a sort of new age doctor. His brilliant disguise consisted of a pair of oversized eyeglasses and a fuzzy Santa Claus-style white beard.

Karadzic felt so comfortable in his adopted life he not only practiced medicine but also participated in public lectures, some of which were videotaped. He's also said to have hung out at a local bar that had a picture of Karadzic (sans glasses and beard) hanging on the wall. Still no one seemed to notice that the quiet new age doctor drinking a beer was actually Karadzic himself.

Some reports even suggest that Karadzic's arrest was a surprise even to the authorities who thought they were closing in on Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb military leader during the war and #2 on Europe's most wanted list, instead of Karadzic.

Karadzic is now headed to The Hague and the UN's International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) where he is expected to face 11 counts including genocide and war crimes charges.
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Kuwait plans new metropolis

There's nothing like having billions of dollars in oil revenues to play with.

Kuwait is planning to build a new city for 700,000 people from scratch. The city, Madinat al-Hareer ("City of Silk" in English) will be a high-tech metropolis that Kuwait hopes will become an international trade and finance hub. The whole project is expected to cost over $130 billion.

Kuwait is just the latest country to try to turn its oil boom into something more tangible. For year now, the United Arab Emirates have been working to turn the once sleepy port of Dubai into a financial center rivaling London and Hong Kong, and a world-class tourist destination. Russia is also sinking some of its oil wealth into iconic skyscrapers for Moscow and St. Petersburg as well as funding the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.

The plans for Madinat al-Hareer are no less ambitious. It will be crowned by a 1,001 foot skyscraper and linked by rail to other regional capitals like Damascus and Baghdad. The completion date for the city is 2023.
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History redux in Cuba

I'd just finished reading "One Minute to Midnight", a new history of the Cuban Missile Crisis by Michael Dobbs, when I saw this story:

US general warns Russia on nuclear bombers in Cuba

It seems the Russian newspaper Izvestia is reporting that Russia is considering basing long-range bombers capable of carrying nuclear weapons at airfields in Cuba as a response to the United States plan to build a missile defense system in Eastern Europe.

Talk about a "new Cold War" has been common lately among the pundit class, something that I thought was pretty silly since the Cold War was a clash of ideologies - Communism vs. Free Markets and Democracy. You can say a lot of things about Russia, but one thing its not is Communist, so the clash of ideologies just doesn't exist today.

But the tit-for-tat military moves between the US and Russia (and the Soviet Union before it) are showing disturbing signs of coming back. One reason the Soviet Union decided to put missiles in Cuba was because Nikita Khrushchev was outraged that NATO had stationed missiles in Turkey, just a short flight from the southern edge of the Soviet Union. The Crisis was resolved when the Kennedy administration secretly agreed to pull the missiles out of Turkey if the Soviets pulled theirs from Cuba.

Flash forward a few decades. Russia has been uncomfortably watching NATO move steadily closer toward its borders, the United States plan to put missiles in Poland is just a step too far for them (even though the US insists the missile shield they are a part of is aimed at "rogue states" and not Russia). So Russia may again be turning to Cuba as a symbolic move - if you put bases in our back yard, we can put ours in yours.

Strategically, bombers in Cuba wouldn't mean much. If a war ever broke out between the US and Russia it would be fought with missiles, not bombers and tanks (and would be the last war either side ever fought). But they would be a powerful symbol, and in international relations, symbols can sometimes be as strong a weapon as bombs.
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Monday, July 21, 2008

Italians indifferent as girls drown

Italian beachgoers near Naples didn't let the sight of two drowned Gypsy girls ruin their day in the sun. Photos in the Italian media on Monday showed people relaxing at the beach only a few feet away from the bodies of two young girls who had drowned in the sea a short time earlier.

It would be tempting to just dismiss this as a sad example of peoples indifference to the suffering of others if it wasn't for all of the other awful things Italy has been doing in regards to their Gypsy community lately. Earlier in the month the Italian government launched a controversial program to fingerprint and catalog all the members of Italy's Gypsy community (a move that earned Italy a stern, non-binding finger-wagging from EU officials). Italian politicians recently have taken to blaming the Gypsies for a rise in street crime and unemployment; police regularly raid Gypsy encampments outside Italy's major cities while Rome's new mayor made deporting Gypsies part of his election platform.

What makes this all more disturbing is that Rome's mayor belongs to a neo-fascist party, and neo-fascists make up part of the Italian coalition government.

Fascists scapegoating an ethnic group and the public's growing indifference towards them...Didn't this happen in Europe about 70 years ago?
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Sunday, July 20, 2008

Food rise has Bolivia's coca farmers planting rice

Rising food prices are doing something the US has failed to do for decades - convince farmers in Bolivia to plant crops other than coca.

Coca is the raw ingredient for cocaine, but its also a traditional crop grown by indigenous farmers in the mountains of Bolivia - chewing the leaves helps them deal with the effects of life at high altitudes. Bolivia's president Evo Morales himself is a coca farmer and bitterly opposed US efforts to eradicate the crop.

The United States wanted farmers to grow other crops - like bananas - instead, farmers resisted though because they cold make far more money growing coca. Now rising food prices are changing that. The coca growers union is now requiring its members to also grow rice to help keep soaring food prices in Bolivia down. Food prices in Bolivia have risen to the point where growing rice can be as profitable as growing coca.

In the long run it could lead to a drastic reduction in the amount of coca grown. Agriculture experts say by growing rice or corn along side coca, farmers will be able to make a living while transitioning between crops. US-led efforts asked farmers to stop growing coca entirely and then plant new crops, meaning they would, for a period of time, be earning no money at all. And the crops the US asked them to grow - bananas or pineapples - were aimed at the export market, rather than for consumption at home.
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Friday, July 18, 2008

Ukraine ruling coalition heading toward collapse

I saw this one coming...The government of Ukraine's President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko is reported to be teetering on the edge of collapse because of infighting between the parties of the two leaders.

Yushchenko and Tymoshenko were the heroes of Ukraine's pro-democracy "Orange Revolution" in 2004. They forced a contested presidential election to be re-run and were swept into power with promises of reform and closer ties to Europe. But both Yushchenko and Tymoshenko see themselves as the leader of the Orange Revolution and the rivalry between them soon split their coalition apart. That's why when they got back together to form a second ruling coalition seven months ago I didn't see it lasting.

Infighting has meant that a lot of their political policies have stalled. Inflation in Ukraine is now the highest in Europe and relations with Russia are faltering. Russians make up a large part of the population in Eastern Ukraine and many back the party of Victor Yanukovych, who Yushchenko defeated in the contested presidential election in 2005.

Now Yushchenko may have to form a coalition with Yanukovych if his government with Tymoshenko falls, a move that could stall Ukraine's plans to join NATO and the EU.
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Thursday, July 17, 2008

And the greatest Russian is...

Rossiya television is hosting "Name of Russia", a contest to allow Russia's citizens to vote on who was the greatest Russian of all time. Its pattered after a 2002 BBC contest to choose the greatest Briton in history (according to the Brits it's Winston Churchill). Rossiya TV has narrowed it down to the top 12 candidates. So who's in the lead? Russia's last Czar, Nicholas II.

A push of internet votes by Russian monarchists pushed the murdered Czar past the long-term leader of the poll Josef Stalin. The two remain close, followed by the founder of Russian Communism, Vladimir Lenin and legendary Russian actor/singer Vladimir Vysotsky, at fourth place.

The Name of Russia contest is an interesting chance to see how Russia puts its history into perspective. Keep in mind that under the Communist regime of the Soviet Union, the Czars were looked at as a decadent group of parasites. Then when the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, those 70 years of Russian history were regarded as some sort of very long mistake – a time that was best ignored. In recent years though there has been a desire to look back and reassess the past.

Unfortunately the reassessment so far has been a little one sided. Stalin is being honored as a strong leader who forged the modern Russian state and defeated the armies of Nazi Germany. What's left out are discussions of the purges he launched that resulted in millions of deaths and millions more sent to prison camps (the infamous gulags). The unpleasant details are ignored in favor of the glorious victories.

Opinions about Nikita Khrushchev provide an even better example of the way the past is being reassessed. 2006 marked the fiftieth anniversary of his rise to power, so there was a lot of talk about him in Russia. Khrushchev was condemned by many for a speech he gave in '56 denouncing the crimes of Stalin, yet he was praised for sending troops into Hungary to put down a democratic uprising that same year since this was the mark of a 'strong leader'. Keep in mind; he was being praised for moving against democracy. It's an example again of the problem in today's Russia, the result of the economic and political crises Russia went through in the 1990s - democracy is identified with weakness and troubled times, autocracy (or "being a strong leader" like Putin) is seen as bringing power and prestige with it.

Nicholas II's reputation has also undergone a makeover. He and his entire family were made saints in the Russian Orthodox Church - the 90th anniversary of their death was marked with masses and candlelight processions by the faithful. The darker aspects of his rule - like leading Russia into two disastrous wars - like with the negatives connected to Stalin - are ignored.

The top 12 vote getters will be debated on a televised Name of Russia special before the greatest Russian is chosen.
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Silly voters...

Last month the citizens of Ireland voted to reject the Lisbon Treaty. This is a problem for the European Union since the Lisbon Treaty was basically the EU's second attempt at drawing up a constitution. Voters in several countries had rejected the earlier attempt as well.

Politicians in the EU say that a constitution will allow them to have common foreign policies, better economic cooperation and will allow the EU to expand beyond its current 27-member size, so Ireland's rejection of the Lisbon Treaty is a real problem for them.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who currently holds the EU's rotating presidency, has weighed in on the Lisbon Treaty conundrum. His solution? Tell Ireland to vote again.

Yes, Sarkozy feels that 53% of Ireland's voters made a mistake in rejecting Lisbon, so they should be given a chance to go back to the polls and get it right this time. As you might expect, the Irish aren't taking Sarkozy's suggestion well, saying that he is trying to bully them into supporting a treaty that is not in Ireland's best interests.

Opponents to the Lisbon Treaty/EU constitution claim that it takes too much decision-making power from their national governments and concentrates it in Brussels (the EU capital), and that the EU bureaucracy is already far too large and unwieldy.

Voters can be so troublesome sometimes...
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A new fleet for the US Navy

You would think a little thing like the US Navy adding a fleet would be big news. But the Navy's decision to reactivate the Fourth Fleet has passed with little notice in the United States, though its all the talk of Latin America.

The Fourth Fleet last sailed in 1950. It was deactivated and absorbed into the Second Fleet, which patrols the Atlantic Ocean that is until July 1. The Navy reactivated the Fourth, assigning it to Latin America. Officially the Navy says that the Fourth Fleet will be responsible for humanitarian missions in Central and South America. The governments of Venezuela, Bolivia and Cuba though aren't so sure, calling it a return to "gunboat diplomacy". Argentina's President Cristina Kirchner was also expected to bring up the topic of the Fourth Fleet when she meets with US State Department officials on Thursday.

The Fourth Fleet is a sign that the US plans to pay more attention to Latin America. When George Bush was sworn in at the start of 2001, many expected the US to build closer relations with Latin America - Bush had been the governor in Texas, and had a close relationship with Vincente Fox, then the president of Mexico. Then 9/11 happened and the War on Terror pushed Latin American relations to the sidelines.

In the years since, several South American countries have elected leftist governments that look at Washington with skepticism, if not outright hostility. Venezuela's Hugo Chavez has grown into a regional power and vocal critic of capitalism, and China has strengthened its ties with many nations in the region.

The Navy said that no ships would be permanently assigned to the Fourth Fleet, rather just temporarily assigned as needed. So far only two ships have - the USS Boxer that is currently cruising down the Pacific coast of South America assisting in community health projects and the USS Kearsarge that will do a similar mission along the Atlantic coast and Caribbean. Both though are also amphibious assault ships, quite capable of taking on a number of military missions.
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Saturday, July 12, 2008

Security Council shoots down Zimbabwe sanctions vote

The United Nations won't be sanctioning Zimbabwe anytime soon. Russia and China blocked a proposed sanctions motion in the UN Security Council on Friday. The motion was put forward by the United States and United Kingdom as a way of punishing the government of Robert Mugabe for crushing democratic opposition in Zimbabwe.

After the vote the government in Harare hailed the failure of the sanctions as a victory over racism and outside interference in their affairs. It’s not quite that simple.

For Russia's part the veto has a whole lot less to do with Zimbabwe and a whole lot more to do with diplomatic conflicts they are currently having with both the US and UK. Russia was angered this week by the United States moving forward with plans to install a ballistic missile shield in the Czech Republic and Poland; and with America's growing ties with Russia's neighbor Georgia (both topics were discussed in other posts here this week). Meanwhile Russia's relations with the UK are also ebbing over allegations of spying, disputes over British management of oil projects in Russia and the UK's demands that a Russian suspect in the Litvinenko case (you may remember that he was the former Russian spy poisoned with radioactive polonium in London in a plot that seemed straight out of a James Bond novel) be turned over to them for questioning. So when the chance came to derail a joint US/UK motion in the Security Council, Russia was more than happy to take it.

As for China's veto, it comes down to money. You can check out this article: Mugabe averts collapse with Chinese help for a little more background, but in short over the past few years China has become a major investor in Zimbabwe. China gets minerals from Zimbabwe that it desperately needs to fuel its rapid industrial growth; while Zimbabwe receives much needed cash and support for its farming and energy-production sectors, both of which are in a shambles thanks to the mismanagement of one Robert Mugabe.

Zimbabwe highlights the problem that China poses for reform and development in Africa. Western nations have more and more been tying their aid and investment plans to programs that ensure good government. In other words, they expect African governments to operate as democracies and respect the rights of their citizens if they want Western aid/investment. China could care less about human rights and governance, so long as they can secure the resources they need. And China has been spending very freely in Africa lately.
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Friday, July 11, 2008

Georgia says it will down Russian jets

Things between Russia and Georgia are getting hot again. On Wednesday Russia flew four fighter jets over Georgian territory, today Georgia said if the Russians did it again they would send the planes back in pieces.

It was the most direct threat to come out of weeks of rising rhetoric between the two nations. At the heart of the dispute are the regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia - two areas that revolted against Georgian rule in the early 90's and have enjoyed a de facto independence ever since.

But leaders in both the separatist territories fear that the Georgians are planning to use military force to retake Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The Russians, who have maintained peacekeeping forces in both places have sent in more troops in recent weeks. They said the flight over South Ossetia was in response to a build up of Georgian forces - a move they thought was the start of an invasion.

Georgia claimed the Russians violated their sovereignty by flying over what they feel is part of their country. What the Georgians fail to mention are repeated flights over Abkhazia by their military in the past two months - a violation of the cease-fire agreement between Abkhazia and Georgia. It seems that neither side can claim to be totally innocent here.

It may all sound like some kind of international soap opera. The problem is when nations keep ratcheting up the tension, like Russia and Georgia are doing; things can quickly spin out of control. And the United States has stuck itself firmly in the middle of this mess.

The Russian flight came at the same time Secretary of State Condi Rice was visiting Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi. The US has taken Georgia on as a close ally in the region. Why? Because of oil.

Georgia plays host to the only oil and gas pipelines from the rich Caspian Sea region that do not run through Russian territory. The US is keen to have an access route to that oil and gas outside of Russian control, so we have taken on Georgia as a strong ally in the region - much to the annoyance of Russia, which still views the nations that once made up the Soviet Union as being in their circle of influence.

The US is also pushing hard for Georgia's entry into NATO - both to solidify our relationship with them and as a part of some, frankly outdated thinking about the world. During the Cold War the United States followed a policy we called 'containment' regarding the Soviet Union, the idea was to circle the Soviet Union with strong military allies to keep the Soviet influence from spreading. Unfortunately our foreign policy makers (like Dr. Rice) seem to think this is a good policy to follow in regards to Russia, even though the business of spreading the world socialist revolution ended with the Soviet Union.

If anything these harsh words between Georgia and Russia are exactly why Georgia should NOT be made a member of NATO anytime soon, not until the status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia are resolved and relations with Russia are repaired. Not unless you like the idea of a war between the US and Russia.
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Putin tours new rig in Arctic oil drive

While politicians in the US debate whether or not to drill for oil in our coastal waters, Russia is charging ahead with a bold plan to pump oil from under the Arctic Ocean.

Vladimir Putin, in his role as prime minister, toured a new oilrig built in the far northern Russian port of Severodvinsk. The new rig is the first designed to withstand the extreme conditions of the Arctic Ocean - it can withstand impacts from Arctic pack ice and operate in temperatures of more than 50 degrees below zero.

Russia hopes to exploit vast reserves of oil and natural gas believed to exist under the Arctic Ocean. In addition to the new rig, Putin also announced tax breaks and incentives to encourage drilling in explored, but so far untapped oil fields in northern Siberia.

Russia is already the world's second largest producer of oil, right behind Saudi Arabia. Throw in natural gas production and Russia is the world's largest energy exporter.
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Thursday, July 10, 2008

Obama to speak at Brandenburg Gate?

Barack Obama is apparently considering a major speech in Germany later this moth during his junket to Europe and the Middle East. According to the plan, Obama will use Berlin's historic Brandenburg Gate as a backdrop for a major address on US foreign policy.

The Brandenburg Gate was the site of two iconic speeches by two iconic American presidents - John Kennedy's "Ich bien ien Berliner" address and Ronald Reagan's "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall" challenge.

Germany's political leaders are split over the idea. Prime Minister Angela Merkel is reported to have reservations about having one of Germany's most famous landmarks used as a backdrop for a campaign speech, while Berlin's mayor Klaus Wowereit is said to be enthusiastically behind the idea.

I hope that Barack has second thoughts about this. There's an informal agreement among American politicians: politics ends at the water's edge. When they are abroad our elected officials present a united front in representing American policy and leave any political disputes they have behind. Both Obama and John McCain are making trips abroad part of their run for the White House. But its one thing to pay a visits to foreign heads of state, or US troops stationed abroad, its something quite different to hold what's in effect a huge campaign rally on foreign soil.

Past that, it's also a move that smacks of arrogance. At the time of their speeches Kennedy and Reagan had both been elected president and their appearances at the Brandenburg Gate were not mere political stump speeches, but bold statements meant to advance their respective foreign policies. Obama's proposed appearance at the same place is a subliminal way of putting himself in the pantheon of former US presidents, and it’s about as subtle as him drawing his face on Mount Rushmore (a point I am sure the McCain camp will try to make).

Obama really ought to rethink this one.
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EU Parliament warns Italy over Gypsy fingerprinting

The European Parliament has basically just called the Italian government a bunch of racists.

They passed a motion condemning a new plan by the Italian government to fingerprint all the members of the Gypsy (or Roma) community living within Italy. The Roma have become a political scapegoat recently in Italy, being blamed by politicians for rising levels of street crime in Italian cities. In response, the Italian government has begun compelling all Roma people to be fingerprinted and have their vital statistics registered with law enforcement whether they are suspected of a crime or not. So far no other minority group within Italy is being subjected to the same process. Tens of thousands of Roma are believed to live in camps on the outskirts of Italy's largest cities, often in abject poverty.

Given whose leading Italy these days, the move isn't a huge surprise. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi built his ruling coalition with two questionable parties - the Northern League, which has long held anti-foreigner views and the Alleanza Nazionale, a party described as "neo-fascist". Rome's new mayor Gianni Alemanno (also a member of Alleanza Nazionale) promised during the campaign to deport 20,000 illegal aliens and Roma people from the city.

The European Union likes to make a big deal about protecting the rights of minority groups within Europe. So will the EU step in on behalf of the Roma in Italy? So far, it doesn't look promising, the motion passed by the EP was 'non-binding', meaning there is no punishment clause against Italy should they keep the fingerprint program going.
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China arrests 'Olympic plotters'

China announced the arrests of more than 80 people they say were plotting to disrupt next month's Beijing Olympics. All of the arrests came among members of the Muslim Uighur population in Xinjiang province in the far northwest of China.

Since 9/11 China has accused the Uighur's of having ties to al-Qaeda and of planning numerous terrorist attacks in the past few years. The problem is that there is almost no basis to these claims or to any claims of Islamic militancy among the Uighurs. There is, however, a lot of very clear evidence of China oppressing the Uighur's religious faith and attempting to undermine their culture - much like China is accused of doing in Tibet, just to the south of Xinjiang. Many mosques have been closed, and many imams arrested as China regulates religion for what they claim are reasons of state security.

There are an estimated 19 million Uighurs in Xinjiang province. They adopted their Muslim faith from traders traveling from the Arabian Peninsula along the famed 'Silk Road' during the middle ages. The Uighurs tried to form an independent homeland in the late 1940's, but failed and since have been advocating for local autonomy within China - a move the Chinese government sees as subversive.

In addition to the arrests, five 'militants' were also reported killed in Xinjiang's capital city Urumqi.
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Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Prague signs on to US missile defense plan

The Czech government used a visit by Secretary of State Condi Rice to sign on to the United States' proposed missile defense system. The Czech Republic will be home to an advanced radar system designed to detect missiles launched by 'rogue states' that will then (according to the plan) be shot down by anti-ballistic missiles based in Poland. That is if the Poles ever agree to host their part of the plan.

So far, after almost agreeing on several occasions, the Poles have refused to host the missiles. Now, according to The Guardian newspaper, the Poles say they will not allow US missiles to be put on their soil unless the US also gives them Patriot missiles. The Polish government fears that the missile base will be targeted by Russia and they want some ways to defend themselves. And on the negotiations go...

Honestly, it would be nice at this point if we just abandoned this whole stupid idea.

First, there's no proof that the missile defense system even works. There have been a series of tests, but in many the interceptor missiles have had the flight plan of the target missile programmed into them (as if a rogue state would be kind enough to give us advanced warning that they were going to launch a sneak attack), and even with that advantage the system has still failed almost half the tests.

Second, bases for the missile shield program have already been built in California and Alaska - sites carefully chosen to ensure that the entire territory of the United States would be under the security umbrella of the missile defense program. Why then do we need these bases in Eastern Europe you may ask?

Third, the whole idea of 'rogue states' launching missiles at the United States is a little absurd. The nightmare scenario used to justify the missile defense system is Iran developing a nuclear missile and shooting it at the United States. Right now though, Iran does not have nuclear weapons, and their best missiles fly only about 1,000 miles (about 6,000 miles short of hitting America). And even if they do develop a missile and do develop a weapon to put on it, the question that's never asked is why in the world would they? The United States and Soviet Union spent several decades pointing nuclear weapons at each other, but never went to war because of the concept called "Mutually Assured Destruction" (a.k.a. MAD) - that both sides would be destroyed in the resulting war. Now apply that idea to Iran and their (hypothetical) one nuclear missile versus the several thousand nukes in the US arsenal. It's unilateral, not mutual, destruction and the Iranians know it.

In other words - it’s a system that may not work, to defend against a threat that does not exist, based in locations it does not need to be in the first place.

I have heard some foreign policy analysts argue that the missile defense system is a way for the United States to strengthen its ties with some of the newly democratic states in Eastern Europe. Not a bad intention I suppose, but there must be other ways to meet the same goal. Besides the agreement with the Czechs only came after a lot of negotiations, and the Poles still aren't on board, and the public in both nations are largely against the idea. It hardly seems like something that is strengthening our relationships. Just to put icing on the cake, the Russian government is dead set against the missile plan, something hurting our relationship with the Russian Federation and in turn making Europe less, rather than more secure.

Unfortunately even if Poland were to back out of the plan there is some talk about basing the missiles in Lithuania instead. Sometimes the dumbest ideas are the hardest to give up.
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Monday, July 7, 2008

When George met Dmitry

The G8 summit is underway in Japan. It’s the first summit for new Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and the last for President George Bush.

The two had a brief meeting today, "cordial" was the big word for the day. The Bush-Medvedev relationship doesn't seem like it will take on the buddy-buddy tone of the Bush-Putin relationship (well the early part of that relationship at least), but in reality the important relationship will be the one Medvedev has with the new American president next year.

Medvedev has continued his charm offensive with Western leaders, holding one-on-one talks also with the leaders of Germany, France and the UK. Medvedev is trying to the lower tensions with Western leaders that have been stoked these past few years by former President Vladimir Putin. So Bush was "George" to Medvedev, the close Russian-German relationship was lauded and French President Sarkozy was thanked again for a congratulatory call he made to Medvedev on his election earlier this year. On the issues though, Russia remains at odds with the Western powers over issues like the expansion of NATO.

As for the rest of the G8 summit, the environment was to be the big topic of discussion, though that is quickly being overshadowed by talk of energy costs. Consider this, since the previous G8 summit just last year, the price of a barrel of oil has basically doubled, and that has had a ripple effect around the globe.

Sarkozy, meanwhile, made a call to expand the G8 to include more developing nations, specifically: China, India, Brazil, Mexico and South Africa. China, India and Brazil, along with Russia, make up the "BRIC" nations - the world's fastest growing, and most dynamic economies, so a good case could be made to include them. But Mexico and South Africa? Sarkozy has some work to do to explain how including them will improve the G8.

Finally, anti-poverty campaigners in Africa are holding a shadow summit in Mali to call attention to the G8's failing to live up to aid commitments made to Africa at the 2005 summit. There the G8 nations pledged to increase aid to Africa by $25 billion by 2010. Now, less than two years from that deadline, the G8 nations have ponied up only about $3 billion.

Many participants blasted the wealthy nations for failing to meet their commitments, though some at Mali suggested that it was time for African nations to come up with their own home-grown development plans and not to rely on wealthy, foreign powers. It was also said that African nations must do more to oppose dictators like Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe. This, I think, is a very important point. Many debt relief and development plans that have been proposed for Africa in the past few years have included provisions for good governance - basically the money will flow once nation's commit to transparent government, free and fair elections and all the other trappings of a well-functioning democracy. But good governance should also mean not tolerating or supporting dictatorships among your neighbors.
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Sunday, July 6, 2008

Lilypad solution to global warming?

Could the oceans provide a new home for people displaced by global warming?

That's the idea of award-winning Belgian architect Vincent Callebaut. He's designed what he calls "Lilypad cities". Basically they are giant, man-made islands that could house up to 50,000 people. Each lilypad features three artificial hills with an artificial lake in the middle that will collect and filter rain water. It’s part of a plan to make the lilypads energy self-sufficient. They will use solar, wind and tidal forces to generate power.

And the lilypad cities don't have to worry about rising seas - they are designed to float.

Whether anyone ever builds Callebaut's lilypads remains to be seen, but the problem they address is one very real to some low-lying island nations in the Pacific Ocean. Recently the president of Kiribati, an island nation in the South Pacific, said the end might be in sight for his country. With an average height of six feet, Kiribati is already feeling the effects of rising ocean levels. And it’s not alone. In addition to island nations, costal countries like Bangladesh could lose large stretches of coastline, making millions of people refugees in the process.

So while the ocean takes their homes, it may also provide them with new ones.
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Saturday, July 5, 2008

Stealing the election, Zimbabwe style

The Guardian website has exclusive video today of what they say is voting-rigging in the presidential election in Zimbabwe.

The results of the March election were delayed for weeks, making many think that supporters of President Robert Mugabe fixed the vote. Challenger Morgan Tsvangirai officially received more votes than Mugabe, but not enough to avoid a runoff. If you've been reading this site these last few weeks though, you know that Mugabe's forces engaged in a campaign of intimidation and violence, finally prompting Tsvangirai to drop out, letting Mugabe stay as president. The video on the Guardian site is the first visible evidence of vote rigging.

What affect it will have though remains to be seen. Mugabe's response to international pressure has been to tell critics to "go hang". South Africa's President Thabo Mbeki is trying to broker a national unity government, something Mugabe is fine with so long as he remains president. Tsvangirai has said no to a government that includes Mugabe, while Mbeki has not been viewed as an honest broker in the Zimbabwe crisis - he has been criticized as being too close to Mugabe. One report has Mbeki meeting with rebel members of Tsvangirai's MDC party, so its possible that he could negotiate a sham unity government with Mugabe in charge and some token representation by the MDC.

European companies are getting fed up with Mugabe. Shell is threatening now to pull out of Zimbabwe after claims that Mugabe was hoarding the nation's gasoline supply for his supporters. Meanwhile, the German company that provides the paper that Zimbabwe prints its money on is also threatening to end their business with the country. Zimbabwe has the world's worst inflation and continually has to print larger and larger value bank notes to keep up with inflation (denominations of $10 billion and up are not uncommon now, but they won't even buy you a loaf of bread in Harare). Of course maybe the Germans are just tired of the jokes that the money is not worth the paper it’s printed on.
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Dozens hurt in Belarus bomb blast

Something strange is going on in Belarus.

On Friday, an explosion at an outdoor concert in the capital Minsk injured at least 50 people. So far authorities are at a loss as to who's behind it, the local police say it could be an act of hooliganism.

Of course hooligans blowing up a few dozen people is something that just doesn't happen in the tightly controlled former Soviet state that Condi Rice once called "Europe's last dictatorship". Belarus is run by Alexander Lukashenko, an authoritarian leader who has kept many of the trappings of Soviet power, including his own version of the KGB. The United States and European Union have repeatedly criticized Lukashenko for his heavy-handed and anti-democratic rule.

All of which makes the bombing seem so out of place for Belarus. An attack by a group opposing Lukashenko seems unlikely since he keeps such tight rule over the country. The country is not involved in any heated disputes with its neighbors, dealing mostly with Russia, with whom Belarus has a close relationship. One thought is that the blast could have been the work of a faction within the government looking to undermine Lukashenko's rule.

Or they just have some really bad hooligans in Minsk.
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Is television worse than coal?

In terms of greenhouse gas emissions, is your new flat screen TV a bigger polluter than a coal-fired power plant? That is the (really) surprising conclusion reached by a study conducted by the environment institute at the University of California.

The culprit is nitrogen trifluoride, a gas used in making flat screen TVs. It turns out that nitrogen trifluoride is 17,000 (that's seventeen thousand) times worse than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas. To make matters worse, no one is sure just how much nitrogen trifluoride is being released into the atmosphere while all these new flat panel screens are rolling off the assembly lines, nor is it a pollutant measured under Kyoto, or other greenhouse gas reduction schemes. One estimate was that the production of flat screen TVs this year put the equivalent of 67 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

It makes me wonder if some of the old technologies weren't a better deal. Earlier in the year it came out that the compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs), meant to replace the older incandescent ones, each contain mercury - a very bad environmental pollutant. CFLs actually should be disposed of as hazardous waste when they burn out, something few consumers likely are aware of.
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Friday, July 4, 2008

Biofuels behind food price hikes: World Bank report

A leaked World Bank report blames biofuels for much of the rise in world food prices - 75% of the rise to be exact.

The United States and European Union have both made the use of biofuels a key part of their plans to fight greenhouse gas emissions. Unfortunately both the US and EU have made corn-based ethanol their biofuel of choice, and that has been the main factor driving up world food prices according to the report. Brazil's ethanol program, which is based on sugar cane, hasn't had a negative impact on food prices.

What's really disturbing about this story though, past the rise in food prices (something that makes me wish I'd made my backyard garden a little bigger) is that the report had to be leaked. Apparently the World Bank has been sitting on their report since April so as not to cause political embarrassment to the US. George Bush has been trying to blame the increase in food prices on increased demand from growing nations like China and India.
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Naomi Klein on Iraq

Author Naomi Klein writes about the deal signed between the Iraqi government and foreign oil companies in a piece titled "Big Oil's Iraq deals are the greatest stick-up in history" in today's Guardian.

Basically the Iraqi government signed contracts with five oil companies (Exxon Mobil, Chevron, Shell, BP and Total) to develop the nation's oil fields. For their efforts, the oil companies will receive 75% of the value of the contracts, while the Iraqis will keep the remaining 25%. Klein calls this an example of "disaster capitalism" - making a profit off of an engineered crisis, a key thesis behind her recent book "Shock Doctrine".

Full disclosure here - I haven't read her latest, but I did read her earlier book "No Logo". She is a good researcher and a talented writer, but I didn't think that the arguments she made in "No Logo" backed up her thesis, just like I don't think she makes her case in this Guardian piece.

For one, she says that "we" are heisting Iraq's oil. By "we" I assume she means the United States. But only two of the five oil companies listed are American. Even if you extend "we" to include the Brits (our main Iraq coalition partner), that ads BP to the mix, but still leaves out Shell (a Dutch company) and Total (French). If the goal of the Iraq war was for us to seize control of Iraq's oil, then why include these foreign companies? Especially Total when the French were opponents of the war?

Klein also cites the 75/25% split as another sigh of the Iraqi's oil being stolen. Of course that ignores the fact that Iraq's oil industry is in a shambles and needs an enormous investment to get it working at full capacity. After years of war and decades of mismanagement under Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi government simply does not have the billions and billions of dollars needed to invest in their oil sector. Is giving these foreign companies such a large share of their future oil revenues a perfect solution? No. But if the Iraqi government doesn't bring in foreign firms (and their resources), Iraq will never be able to exploit its oil wealth (this is the situation going on now in Mexico, where the Mexican government is refusing to allow foreign investors in, yet the national oil company does not have the financial resources to make needed improvements to their oil facilities).

Am I sure I'm right? No. But Naomi hasn't convinced me she's right about Iraq either.
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Tuesday, July 1, 2008

In the French heartland, the franc lives on

Tucked away in the hills of Provence, the tiny village of Collobrières is turning back the clock - in terms of money at least.

Recently merchants in this remote little town have begun accepting Francs once again. France officially switched over to the Euro in 2002, a move that should have spelled an end to the Franc. But many were unhappy with the switch, feeling that the official exchange rate that was set and merchants tendency to round prices up to the nearest Euro amount made things more expensive and left them with less money in their pockets.

A peculiarity of the French is that they also tend not to be fans of banks, meaning that many citizens - particularly ones out in the countryside - kept their savings at home. So even years after the official switch, people still had caches of Francs tucked away in closets and under mattresses.

The merchants of Collobrières were inspired by the experience of another village that began accepting Francs and decided to follow suit. Some say that they have seen an increase in their business since they started taking the old currency.

The Collobrières story though could be a symptom of growing unhappiness with the idea of the European Union. Francs featured people and scenes from France's rich history - the Euros that replaced them (in an attempt to be all-inclusive to all European nations) did not put images of people on them, only abstracts of buildings and bridges instead. Some say the abstract nature of the Euro coins reflects the ill-defined nature of the union itself.

The European Union tried to adopt a constitution that would help to define the duties and responsibilities of the Union's government, but it failed to be ratified. They reworked the agreement and repackaged it as the Lisbon Treaty. But last month voters in Ireland rejected their nation's ratification of the treaty, a move that could likely doom Lisbon. One problem these agreements face is that all 27 EU members must ratify them. Keep in mind that when the 13 American colonies set out to adopt the Constitution, they agreed that it would go into force when nine of the 13 colonies ratified it. Trying to get 27 independent states to agree to anything is an uphill struggle to say the least, meaning its hard to see how any kind of comprehensive agreement will ever be adopted by the EU.

And until that happens the EU remains a super bureaucracy with few actual powers. French President Nicolas Sarkozy takes over the rotating EU presidency this month and is promising to reinvigorate both the position and the EU itself. People in towns like Collobrières though seem like they will be hard to win over.
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