Sunday, November 30, 2008

Forget the Russian fleet and Venezuela

On Monday a task force of four Russian warships, including the flagship of their Northern Fleet the Peter the Great, will start joint exercises with the Venezuelan Navy. Of course with a flotilla of Russian warships in this hemisphere for the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union, terms like “new Cold War” have predictably been thrown around, but this misses the real story of both Russia’s involvement in Latin America and their navy’s role on the world stage.

While his navy was arriving off Caracas, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev was busy visiting heads of state around the region to push Russia’s growing influence. Russia has begun aggressively investing in Latin America, their trade with the region has grown by 30% each of he past three years. Granted that several billion dollars worth of that trade has been from weapons sales to Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, but Russia has been steadily building ties with the country’s energy sector as well. The two countries have been busily signing accords to grant Russian companies access to Venezuela’s oil-rich Orinoco Belt and to develop a peaceful nuclear energy sector within the country. Venezuela also agreed last week to buy two Russian-built aircraft for their domestic airlines and on a number of cultural exchange programs.

Meanwhile, Russia is also rebuilding relations with their old Soviet-era ally Cuba, relations which largely fell apart during Russia’s economic collapse in the 1990s. Russia has now agreed to help Cuba with the exploration of deep-water oil fields off the Cuban coast now thought to hold billions of barrels of oil, to participate in rebuilding a Soviet-era refinery in the port city of Cienfuegos, and to establish a new satellite-tracking center. Cuba, in turn, has discussed joining GLONAST, Russia’s home-built GPS system. During his visit to Havana this past weekend Medvedev even paid a visit to the newly consecrated Our Lady of Kazan Russian Orthodox cathedral in the Cuban capital, a move that highlights cultural links between the countries.

Elsewhere in the region, the Russian energy giant Gazprom signed deal to develop Bolivia’s rich natural gas fields and Moscow is working at building ties with Nicaragua, where the two countries have discussed oil and gas exploration deals, the development of a new deep-water port on the Caribbean, and perhaps even the construction of the Nicaraguan Canal - an idea first proposed more than a hundred years ago - to compete with the Panama Canal, which is too narrow to accommodate many modern cargo ships.

The impact of these deals will last far longer than a port call by a flotilla of warships and will bind Russia and Latin America closer together than even several billion dollars worth of weapons sales - once a gun is sold, it’s sold but developing an oil field or a nuclear power plant will require constant and ongoing involvment on the part of the Russians.

And speaking of the flotilla – sure, the image of Russian warships sailing through the Caribbean, which the United States has long considered its backyard, is loaded with symbolism. But the really important story with the Russian Navy is taking place a half a world away.

For the past month off the Horn of Africa the humble frigate Neustrashimy (“Fearless” in Russian) has been doing battle with Somali pirates. So far the Neustrashimy has helped to foil two pirate attacks and has escorted six convoys of merchant ships through the Gulf of Aden along the busy Europe-to-Asia via the Suez Canal route. The Neustrashimy has used the city of Aden in Yemen as its homeport during the mission, helping Russia to rebuild ties with another neglected Soviet-era ally.

So why is the action of one frigate more important than a whole task force featuring one of Russia’s most powerful warships? Because the Neustrashimy is actually doing something. The ships in Venezuela are basically engaged in a photo op (a photo op heavy with symbolism yes, but a photo op nonetheless), while the Neustrashimy is engaged in a military operation on an equal footing with ships from the navies of India, South Korea and a host of NATO members. It is an example that the much-maligned Russian Navy (when Russia first announced the Venezuela mission a US State Dept. official quipped that they were surprised Russia found ships that could sail that far) has the ability to participate in an operation with some of the world’s top navies. It sends a far more powerful message of Russia’s global reach than any photo op ever could.
Sphere: Related Content

Piracy update

The owners of a Ukrainian cargo ship captured two months ago by Somali pirates have apparently struck a deal for its release after agreeing to pay the pirates a $20 million ransom.

The capture of the MV Faina focused the world's attention on the piracy problem off Somalia because of the ship’s cargo - nearly three-dozen Soviet-era tanks. There was fear that the tanks could fall into the hands of terror groups or militias that are fighting for control of southern Somalia.

But the tanks apparently never left the ship and will be freed along with the boat and the crew once the ransom is delivered. The pirates reduced their demand for the Faina from $35 million. Since grabbing the Faina they have been quite busy, capturing dozens of other ships, including the 1,000-foot long Saudi tanker Sirius Star, with a cargo of oil worth approximately $100 million. The owners of the Sirius Star are still negotiating for its release.
Sphere: Related Content

Mugabe's reign nears an end

You heard it here first.

If this report from the Guardian is correct, then the regime of Robert Mugabe will soon come to an end, and it will be his own people that end it.

The Guardian is reporting that last Thursday a group of Zimbabwean soldiers rioted in the capital after not being paid. Up to now, even with Zimbabwe's economic collapse and chronic food shortages, the soldiers were always fed and paid. But apparently things have gotten so bad that now that's not even possible. One soldier told a reporter "We have no food in the barracks. There is no medication in military hospitals, and we cannot access our money in the banks."

The group of 70 soldiers from Harare's main barracks apparently waited at a bank to be paid for most of the day on Thursday, but by late in the afternoon the bank manager announced that there was no money and that the bank was closing. The soldiers then went on a vandalism spree of the bank and other nearby buildings.

As conditions in Zimbabwe have worsened, Mugabe has relied more and more on the military and state security forces to keep him in power. Earlier in the year they basically beat the opposition Movement for Democratic Change party into submission during the presidential runoff between Mugabe and the MDC's Morgan Tsvangirai, who finally dropped out of the race for his own safety and for the safety of his supporters.

But Despotism 101 says that you have to keep your troops well paid and fed. So if Mugabe isn't willing, or able, to do that, he shouldn't expect his shock troops to stay loyal to him much longer. Many a dictator in the world has been overthrown either by his own security forces or by his military deliberately choosing not to stop a popular uprising.

Mugabe could face a serious challenge as early as the middle of this week when trade unions in Zimbabwe plan a protest against his economic policy. In the past this was the kind of thing Mugabe’s troops would swiftly, and harshly, break up. We'll see how they react this time.
Sphere: Related Content

Saturday, November 29, 2008

China-EU trade war brewing

Between the Thanksgiving Day holiday and the wall-to-wall coverage of the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, one story you may have missed is the growing spat between China and the European Union (France in particular).

It all goes back to French President Nicolas Sarkozy's decision to meet with the Dalai Lama, Tibet's exiled leader. China is notoriously touchy about all things Tibet, so they abruptly cancelled a planned economic summit with the EU, and business leaders in France are worried that the cancelled meeting is only the tip of the iceberg. They're especially worried about a series of pending orders between state-run Chinese airlines and Airbus aircraft to be built in France.

China wants to isolate the Dalai Lama, and they certainly don't want him meeting with world leaders since they feel that gives him the air of being a political leader himself, which they feel will only fuel the movement in Tibet for autonomy from Beijing. Now that the Olympics are finished, China isn't afraid to play hardball where trade is concerned.

Hopefully Sarkozy will stick to his guns for two reasons. First, with its cheap exports and booming economy that needs to import things like steel, oil and (of interest to the French) airplanes, China does have a lot of weight to throw around economically. But the global slowdown is affecting China as well, and they need to keep selling their exports around the world to keep their own domestic economy going. Some experts believe that if China's economy just slows down, forget actually going into a recession, it could make for big troubles at home. So while China may be strong economically, it's also vulnerable, a fact that politicians in the EU and US too often overlook.

And second if you stand up to a bully, they usually back down. China has been pursuing an aggressive strategy to replace the culture of Tibet with a Han Chinese one (Han is the dominant ethnic group in China). The Dalai Lama has long been a public embarrassment to China because of the great respect and following he has around the world, and when people think of the Dalai Lama, they think of Tibet, so China would like nothing better than to marginalize him so that they can get on with the business of squashing the remnants of Tibetan culture.

Let's hope Sarkozy doesn't make it so easy for China.
Sphere: Related Content

Obama effect in Greenland?

On Tuesday the residents of Greenland voted for increased home-rule of the world's largest island. Greenland officially belongs to Denmark, but the voters decided overwhelmingly to back an increased level of autonomy that some hope will one day lead to independence for the island's 57,000 residents.

Denmark will still control Greenland's foreign affairs and security, but Greenlanders will now be recognized internationally as a separate people from the Danes and will have control of the island's resources. That could be very lucrative in the future since there are believed to be large oil deposits in Greenland's territory.

Ok, but what does this have to do with Obama you ask? Take a look at this photo from the BBC story of a pro-autonomy campaign poster (the bottom right corner in particular):

There among the Kalaallisut (the official language of the Inuit people in Greenland) text written in English is the familiar Obama campaign slogan "yes we can".
Sphere: Related Content

Friday, November 28, 2008

Poland: Georgian shooting was a stunt

The attempted shooting last week of Georgian President Mikhail Saakasvili and his guest Polish President Lech Kaczynski near the South Ossetia border has been branded "a stunt" by Poland's internal security agency according to Russia Today.

The Agencja Bezpieczenstwa Wewnetrznego (according to the report in Russia Today) said that the shooting was staged by Georgian authorities as a public relations stunt to build sympathy for the Georgian side in the aftermath of their August conflict with Russia. The two presidents allegedly came under fire from a South Ossetian/Russian checkpoint about 100 yards away. One reason given by the ABW for their conclusion was that neither Saakasvili nor his bodyguards reacted when the shots were fired by, supposedly, hostile Russian troops.

Click here for our earlier posting on the shooting.

Meanwhile Dmitry Rogozin, Russia's envoy to NATO, told RIA Novosti that the United States was preparing to replace Saakasvili. "Georgia's friends at NATO are deeply disappointed with Saakashvili," Rogozin said in an interview, "another leader for Georgia is being prepared." The West is supposedly upset with Saakasvili for starting the war with Russia last August, even though he had been told in no uncertain terms by the United States and several other European countries not to risk a conflict with Russia and that neither NATO nor the United States would come to their aid, militarily, if they did.

Rogozin suggested that Georgia's former speaker of the parliament Nino Burdzhanadze is seen as a more acceptable leader to the Western nations who think he is less of a hot head than Saakasvili. And if it seems odd that the West (particularly the US) could pick Georgia’s leaders, keep in mind that Georgia’s previous president Eduard Shevardnadze stayed in power from the mid-1990’s through 2003 thanks in large part to support from the West; it was the verdict of international monitors that his reelection in 2003 was rigged that led to Georgia’s “Rose Revolution” and Saakasvili’s subsequent rise to power.

While all the political factions in Georgia rallied 'round the flag in the days after the conflict with Russia, more and more opposition politicians have been speaking out against Saakasvili recently, demanding that he follow through on promises of reforming his government and take responsibility for the war.
Sphere: Related Content

Don't poke Sarkozy

So a French company decided as a joke to put out a voodoo doll kit (complete with pins) of French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Sarkozy, not thinking it was funny, sued the company, citing a French law that says a person owns the right to their own image.

A French court ruled in favor of the company on the grounds of freedom of expression. An appeals court has now upheld that ruling, with one small change: they ordered the dolls be sold with a warning that using the included needles on the doll "constitutes an attack on the personal dignity of Mr. Sarkozy."

The moral of this story: don't poke Sarkozy.
Sphere: Related Content

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Islamists threaten Somali pirates

Tension is apparently growing between Somali pirates and a militant Islamic movement that controls a wide swath of the country.

Leaders from the Islamic group Shebab (meaning "youth"), which runs much of southern and central Somalia, has condemned the pirates operating from Somalia's northern coast, reminding them that under Islamic law piracy is a crime punishable by death. Just to back up their point, Shebab has moved groups of fighters up from the south to positions just outside one of the pirate's coastal cities.

But Shebab's sudden discovery that Somalia has a problem with pirates is a little too convenient.

They only spoke out after pirates snatched the Sirius Star, a 1,000-foot long oil tanker (incidentally the largest ship ever captured by pirates), which happens to be owned by Saudi Arabia. The Saudis, in turn, have a long history of using their oil wealth to fund conservative (and militant) Islamic movements around the world, so it makes you wonder if Shebab's motive for threatening the pirates is less because they're violating Islamic law and more because they're threatening Shebab's funding.

And some residents along the pirate coast say that Shebab is divided over the whole piracy issue, with some members wanting in on what has become a very lucrative business.

Speaking of the business end of piracy, RealClearWorld posted a piece today that talked about some of the economic impacts of the recent piracy outbreak. The Danish shipping line Maersk has already ordered its tanker fleet to steer clear of the Somali coast - avoiding the much shorter Suez Canal route to Europe from Asia and the Persian Gulf and instead sailing all the way around Africa. Other shipping lines are considering the same move, all of which will likely result in higher prices for imported goods since thousands of miles will now be added onto the transport costs.

It could also make Europe more dependent on oil coming from or through Russia, and could cause real problems for Egypt where tolls for use of the Suez Canal are a major source of revenue.
Sphere: Related Content

Far-right Italian party says name your baby Benito

The Movimento Sociale-Fiamma Tricolore, a small far-right political party in southern Italy is offering parents nearly $2,000 if they name their new babies Benito or Rachele.

Benito, of course, was the name of Italy's World War II fascist dictator Benito Mussolini; Rachele was his wife's name. The MSFT said they are only trying to boost the region's low birth rate by offering money to help new parents and that the names are "nice" and merely a coincidence that they are connected to the former dictator and his wife.

Earlier in the year when Rome elected a neo-fascist mayor, his supporters greeted him with chants of "Il Duce!" - Mussolini's nickname.

Things like these tend to get a bemused shake of the head, but they shouldn't since they are indirectly glorifying one of the Axis leaders from WWII. Can you imagine the outrage there would be if some far-right German party gave cash rewards for parents who named their sons "Adolph" or to men to grow little Hitler moustaches?

Something to think about...
Sphere: Related Content

Monday, November 24, 2008

Carter: Zimbabwe "much worse" than imagined

Speaking from South Africa, former President Jimmy Carter said that the ongoing crisis in Zimbabwe is "much greater, much worse" than he had imagined.

"The entire basic structure in education, healthcare, feeding people, social services and sanitation has broken down," Carter said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times.

Carter, along with former UN chief Kofi Annan were suppose to travel to Zimbabwe last weekend, but the Zimbabwean government refused to let them in, part of a pattern, critics say, of the government refusing to admit that there are problems within the country.

Not to be outdone, the Guardian (UK) newspaper says that Zimbabwe is "on the brink of collapse". Along with its other problems, Zimbabwe is now dealing with a cholera epidemic that has, unofficially, killed 300 people, and infected an estimated 60,000 more so far. The country will also likely deal with another round of famine since the Guardian reports, this year's planting season was a loss because there was no seed available for farmers to sow. This means that Zimbabwe's farms won't be able to harvest crops until April 2010 at the earliest.

There is international help available, millions of dollars in foreign aid, but governments are waiting for the two rival factions in Zimbabwe to form a unity government, something President Robert Mugabe has been blocking for the past few months. Now South Africa, which has been serving as the mediator between Mugabe's faction and the party of opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, is threatening to withhold $30 million in food aid until the two sides start talking again.

The problem is that South Africa helped to create this mess in the first place. Tsvangirai has been complaining for months that South Africa has been favoring Mugabe in the negotiations. Even a few weeks ago South Africa’s idea for a settlement in the standoff between the two sides was to let Mugabe retain partial control over the country’s security forces, the group that has been keeping him in power for much of the last decade. It’s a solution that would only allow the current situation to continue. And to threaten to withhold food aid in the face of a growing famine just seems reckless.

Meanwhile, things will only get worse for Zimbabwe.
Sphere: Related Content

Ukraine: n8o is kewl!

The government in Ukraine will quiz the country on their knowledge of NATO this week via text message.

The goal of the 15-question quiz is to build support for NATO membership among Ukrainians, a majority of who aren't in favor of their country joining the military organization. The government hopes the quiz will change that, but I see two problems.

First is that many of those opposed to NATO membership are from Ukraine's very large ethnic Russian minority (who make up somewhere between 30 and 40% of the population depending on the source you use). They oppose NATO membership because they feel that NATO is hostile to Russia, so a text message quiz isn't likely to change those deeply held feelings. Second, the grand prize in the quiz is a tour of NATO headquarters in exotic Brussels, Belgium. Since they're heading into winter in Kyiv, maybe a trip to the sunny south of Spain would be a little more appealing.

But whether the quiz makes Ukrainians more pro-NATO or not, it is an innovative use of technology by the government.
Sphere: Related Content

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Shots fired at Georgian, Polish presidents

Reports out of Georgia are that a motorcade carrying Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili and his guest Polish President Lech Kaczynski was shot at while the two were visiting an outpost along the disputed border with South Ossetia. No one was injured in the incident that the two presidents quickly blamed on the Russians.

"Frankly, I didn't expect the Russians to open fire," Saakashvili said at a press conference afterwards. "The reality is you are dealing with unpredictable people. They weren't happy to see our guest and they weren't happy to see me either."

If it's true, the shooting is a serious event in an already troubled region. And that's the problem, "if it's true.”

The problem with Misha (Saakashvili) in the Russia-Georgia conflict this past summer is that his version of the truth didn't always match up with the facts. During the war Saakashvili claimed that Russian forces were bombing the airport in the capital Tbilisi, had attacked the important oil pipeline that runs through Georgia from Azerbaijan to Turkey and, most dramatically, he and an aide dove for cover from an air raid during an outdoor press conference in the city of Gori. Problem was that the Russians never bombed the airport; never attacked the pipeline and the skies were empty during the air raid (the reporters on hand didn't know what to make of Misha when he suddenly leapt for cover). So why the lies? Because Saakashvili is a media-savvy guy and what better way to build support for Georgia in the international community then to feed into the ongoing narrative of plucky little Georgia being savaged by big, bad Russia?

Even the Georgians themselves were unsure of what happened at the border on Sunday. Some members of the entourage backed up Saakashvili's story, though at least one lawmaker, Marika Verulashvili, said that the shots came when the motorcade approached a Georgian police checkpoint - meaning the shots could have come from the Georgians themselves.

The timing of the event is also a little suspicious. It came on the fifth anniversary of the Rose Revolution - the mass public protests that drove Georgia's old autocratic regime out of power, and swept in Saakashvili, and it happened in the presence of the Polish president, himself a fierce critic of Russia, so there’s quite a lot of symbolism at play.

But whether Russian or Ossetian forces fired the shots, or if this is another tall tale from Misha, it's not helpful in the current situation. I was at a panel discussion two weeks ago about Russian-Georgian relations and one of the panelists put the chances for a second war between the two countries was about one in three. Incidents like this certainly won't help bring tensions down.
Sphere: Related Content

Good idea to solve the banking crisis?

In a report about protests in Switzerland over the mismanagement of their country's biggest bank, UBS, the BBC might have stumbled on a good way to motivate banking executives to solve the crisis.

"UBS bosses," one Swiss wrote to the bank, "give us our money back, or we'll feed you to the crocodiles."

Interesting idea...

But seriously, even in Switzerland, a country built on banking; people are feeling the pinch from the global economic crisis. And even though banking seems to be in the Swiss DNA, it doesn't mean that they don't also make bad decisions. Shares of UBS are said to have lost half their value largely because of the bank's involvement in the sub-prime market, sparking anger among Swiss citizens, many of whom are shareholders in UBS. Recently 6,000 turned out to protest against the management of UBS.

Not only were they blaming the executives of UBS for the plunge, but also the United States.

"The whole sub-prime thing is an American invention," said one disgusted former UBS shareholder.

Policymakers in Washington should keep feelings like that in mind. After this financial crisis, the world is going to be a lot less receptive to American ideas on how the global economy should work, since many around the world are blaming the United States for creating this mess in the first place.
Sphere: Related Content

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Zimbabwe: cholera in, Carter not

The ongoing tragedy that is Zimbabwe has a new chapter - an outbreak of cholera. And like many things in Zimbabwe, the official story and what the people in the street are saying are two different things.

Officially the government says that 44 people have died in the outbreak so far, the unofficial death toll is just shy of 300, with the potential to go much higher.

The cholera outbreak is another ironic tragedy caused by the President Robert Mugabe's desperate bid to stay in power - Zimbabwe once had the best medical system in southern Africa. Now hospitals, like the rest of the country, are broke and tell patients to bring their own drugs and supplies. Even the doctors are feeling the pinch. The Times of London is reporting that thanks to Zimbabwe's runaway inflation, currently pegged at 231 million percent (that's 231,000,000%), their salaries do not pay the bus fare to and from the hospital. A group of doctors recently held a rally to protest conditions at the nation’s hospitals; riot police met them. The Times reports that the doctors said to the riot police: "Who will treat your families if you beat us up? Are you paid enough to attack us?" The police then started beating them.

Cholera outbreaks are often caused by poor sanitation. As Zimbabwe's economy collapsed, funds to repair urban sewer and water systems dried up, providing the conditions for a cholera outbreak. The international health organization Médecins Sans Frontières claims that as many as 1.4 million people in Zimbabwe are at risk of cholera.

Meanwhile on Friday Zimbabwe blocked a visit from former President Jimmy Carter and former UN chief Kofi Annan. The two leaders hoped to travel to Zimbabwe on a humanitarian mission, but were denied visas. "It is obvious the government is determined to prevent our entry in Zimbabwe," Carter said from South Africa.

Not so claimed Zimbabwean officials. They said that Carter and Annan just forgot to tell them that they were coming. It's a silly excuse, and even if it is true (which is hard to believe) most places tend to bend the rules for a former president and former UN secretary general. Carter and Annan did meet with Zimbabwe's opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai in South Africa. Tsvangirai still has not been able to form a unity government with Mugabe, even though Mugabe agreed to do so more than two months ago.

A group of mostly Western nations are prepared to give Zimbabwe hundreds of millions of dollars in aid, but are refusing to write the check until Mugabe follows through with the power-sharing deal.
Sphere: Related Content

End of the line for the Yugo

It outlived the country it was named after, but time has finally caught up with the venerable Yugo automobile.

The BBC was on hand as the last few examples of the bargain priced hatchback rolled off the assembly line in Serbia. Well, they would have been on hand, except work was delayed because the production line broke down, something that apparently happens quite often these days.

Often the butt of jokes (why does the Yugo have a rear window defroster? To keep your hands warm while you push), when production stared in 1980, the car was the pride of socialist Yugoslavia - an inexpensive auto that everyone could afford, a modern-day Model-T. It was exported to more than 70 countries, including the United States. Even this past year I would often see one Yugo in a neighborhood in Manhattan (though it never did seem to move…). Amazingly, officials in Serbia estimate that one in three Serbs have at one time owned a Yugo.

And even though production of the Yugo is stopping the factory that makes them will go on. After a much-needed modernization (amazingly Yugos were hand-built because upgrading to an automated production line was deemed too expensive, thus giving the Yugo one thing in common with Ferraris and Rolls-Royces) the factory is slated to start producing Fiats in 2010.

Yugo poster from wikipedia.
Sphere: Related Content

European Union wants in on the Arctic

The European Commission, the executive body of the European Union, announced on Thursday that the EU wants to get involved in the Arctic.

With the sea ice in the Arctic Ocean retreating, nations are getting more and more interested in a body of water that until now was largely ignored due to its permanently frozen state. But as the globe warms and the ice retreats, new sea routes are opening up - including the fabled "Northwest Passage" north of Canada and Alaska that could shave weeks off the time it takes for a cargo ship to sail from Asia to Europe; so is access to the sea floor where a quarter of all the world's remaining reserves of oil and natural gas are thought to lie.

Canada has taken note, Prime Minister Harper has pledged to open a new deep water Arctic port in Canada's far north and increase the Canadian Navy's ability to operate in the Arctic since Canada expects the waters off their northern coast to become a major shipping route for at least part of the year. The Russians are planning to build up their Northern Fleet as well and earlier in the year launched an oil platform specially designed to work in the ice and bitter cold of the Arctic. Now the EU is saying that the Union should take steps to make sure they have access to the resources of the North.

The EU is also backing a claim by Denmark that could give them control over a vast stretch of the Arctic. Under international law every nation that has a coast on one of the world's oceans can claim a 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone where only they can fish, or drill for oil, or conduct any other economic activity. This zone can be extended if a nation can prove that an underwater feature is an extension of their territory. Enter the Lomonosov Ridge, an underwater mountain range that runs along the bottom of the Arctic Ocean, right under the North Pole. Denmark claims that the Ridge is an extension of Greenland (which Denmark controls) therefore they should have the rights to it. The Russians are making the same claim to the ridge, saying it starts in Russian territory, giving them rights to the Ridge.

It's typical of one of the kinds of claims that countries will likely soon be making over the Arctic Ocean, and the resources that lie beneath it.
Sphere: Related Content

Friday, November 21, 2008

US influence to fade by 2025

According to a new report, the United States days as the world's only superpower are numbered.

The National Intelligence Council, an independent government analysis organization, comes to that conclusion in "Global Trends 2025: A Transformed World", a study that looks at the world just 17 years from now. The highlights:

While still the world's dominant power, the US will no longer be unchallenged in that role,
China will be the world's second-largest economy, and a major military power,
Terrorism will remain a problem, but al-Qaeda's influence will have waned,
Climate change and scare resources will likely lead to wars,
Cyber-terrorists, criminal gangs and other non-state groups will all pose new threats to world peace,
The dollar will continue to weaken as the world's reserve currency.

Honestly, not a lot in Global Trends 2025 is all that new. The Pentagon has been warning for several years now that wars in the future will likely be over diminishing resources like drinkable water, climate change and over-population are usually cited as the culprits. Everyone knows that China's economy is growing rapidly and that they are spending more and more on their military. Cyber-activists played a role in the Russia-Georgia conflict this past summer, and China (going back to them again) is rumored to have an entire cyber-warfare division within their military (they're also the number one suspect anytime someone makes an organized effort to crack one of the US government's websites). But if putting all the information into one place like Global Trends 2025 helps to get people thinking about these new challenges, then it's a useful thing.

And there were some interesting tidbits included in the report. One is that global warming could help Russia become an agricultural powerhouse by lengthening the growing season there.

Finally, it's worth noting that these looks into the future are often dead wrong. I, for one, am still waiting for my flying car.
Sphere: Related Content

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Somali pirates catch a supertanker

Pirates operating off of Somalia's lawless east coast have caught their biggest prize yet - the "Sirius Star" a fully loaded Saudi Arabian oil tanker. The supertanker's two million barrels of oil are estimated to be worth $100 million dollars. Not only is the Sirius Star the largest ship ever caught by Somalia's pirates, it was also captured further out to sea than any other ship previously, the Sirius Star was nearly 500 miles from Somalia when it was seized.

Despite the presence of ships from a number of the world's navies, and several attacks foiled by British and Russian warships, the pirates have been having their best two weeks of piracy ever, capturing at least eight ships.

Once caught the ships, including the Sirius Star, are brought by the pirates back to Somalia. The pirates then anchor them just off the coast and force the owners of the ships to pay ransoms to get them and the crew back. Often, the pirates keep the cargo, though in the case of the Sirius Star this could be impossible since there are no oil terminals in the pirate-held part of Somalia.

Just to make the situation worse, eight suspected pirates being held in jail in the Puntland region of Somalia were reported to have escaped from prison last week. The European forces operating off of Somalia have preferred to turn the pirates they catch over to local authorities in Puntland. Of course how eager the folks in Puntland are to punish the pirates is an open question since piracy provides much of the annual income for the impoverished region.
Sphere: Related Content

Soviet officer who 'shot down McCain' speaks out

There's at least one person who is glad that John McCain lost the election earlier this month - a former Soviet officer who claims that he was the one who shot McCain down in Vietnam.

Russia's RIA Novosti recently talked to Yury Trushyekin, who said that he was operating an anti-aircraft missile battery in Hanoi the day McCain was shot down. Though it's never been officially acknowledged by any government involved in the war, some Soviet soldiers (including Trushyekin apparently) are said to have served with the Communist North Vietnamese forces during the Vietnam War. It was a similar arrangement to the one the Soviet Union had during the Korean War when veteran Soviet pilots flew MiG jet fighters for Communist North Korea (during the Korean War Soviet pilots went so far as to wear civilian clothes while flying in case they were shot down so they wouldn’t be tied to the Soviet Union).

In the interview Trushyekin said a North Vietnamese squad shot at McCain's plane first, but missed. His crew then shot, and hit, McCain's F-4 Phantom, bringing it down.

"It's good that he didn't become president. Even in the camp they said how he really hated Russians, as he knew it was our missile that shot him down," Trushyekin said. "Russian-American relations would have suffered."
Sphere: Related Content

Sunday, November 16, 2008

German Greens make Turk party leader

Last week I wrote a piece about how even though the Europeans are very excited about his election his victory would be impossible in Europe today. Well, the Green Party of Germany has at least taken a step in the right direction.

At their party conference this weekend the German Greens named Cem Ozdemir, the son of Turkish immigrants, as one of the party's two co-leaders. If the Greens become part of Germany's ruling coalition after the next elections (a good possibility since the Greens have served as a coalition partner a number of times), Ozdemir will be in line for a Cabinet post, a first for a Turk in Germany.

It's good to see the Greens take this important step. There are nearly three million ethnic Turks in Germany, yet they by and large remain at the fringe of German society, often living in rundown sections of Germany’s larger cities. Only five ethnic Turks are in the German parliament, and none of them are in leadership roles.

Like Obama, Ozdemir tried not to let his background define him, saying "don't reduce me to the roots that I — by coincidence — have". He explained that Germans tend to make assumptions about Turks based on ethnic and religious ideas (like all Turks are devout Muslims, which they all are not) and that Turks in Germany then tend to go along with those assumptions. In the end, accepting these assumptions keeps the two cultures, German and Turkish, apart. Ozdemir, 42 years old and the author of several books, sees the parallels with Obama himself, his staff named his Facebook group "Yes We Cem" a play on Obama’s “Yes We Can” campaign slogan.

So perhaps Obama is having a positive effect on race relations in Europe after all. In addition to the Green Party in Germany, groups in France and England are calling for ethnic minorities in their countries to be better represented in their national governments as well.
Sphere: Related Content

Monty Python's strange ties to ancient Greece

A lot of Shakespeare's plays were actually based on ancient Greek ones, so apparently was one of Monty Python's most famous sketches.

Researchers have found a 4th century AD Greek joke book that contains a bit very similar to their "Dead Parrot" sketch (where a man complains to a pet shop owner that he has sold him a dead parrot, which the owner keeps insisting is "just resting"). The ancient Greek version is about a man complaining that a slave he has just bought has died. The slave's seller replies: "By the gods! When he was with me, he never did any such thing!"

That, and many other jokes were collected 1,600 years ago in "Philogelos: The Laugh Addict". It seems comedians back then (who if Mel Brooks is to be believed called themselves stand-up philosophers) made jokes about a lot of the same things as comedians today: sex, stupid people and farting. Good to see that we have advanced so far as a people…
Sphere: Related Content

Friday, November 14, 2008

Sarkozy bringing Europe back to Russia

It looks like the European Union is trying to mend fences with Russia.

On Friday French President Nicolas Sarkozy (who also currently holds the EU's rotating presidency) met with his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev. That the meeting even happened in the first place marks a change of heart on the part of the Europeans. After the Russia-Georgia conflict in August, the EU suspended meetings with Russia until Russia pulled its military out of Georgia. Russia hasn't done that (though the Russians argue that since they consider Abkhazia and South Ossetia independent nations now, their troops in those places are not in Georgia so they have in fact kept their part of the bargain), yet Sarkozy still went ahead with the meeting.

Critics, mostly based in the US and UK, are calling it a sign of weakness on the part of the EU. Actually its more an acknowledgement of the facts that Russia is the EU's biggest neighbor and also the source of a lot of their oil and natural gas supplies, not to mention that more and more evidence has come out that contradicts (smashes, really) Georgia's version of the conflict being an unprovoked attack on the part of Russia. The EU suspended their contacts to protest Russia's "aggression" against their little southern neighbor, but if Georgia started the whole conflict, it puts Russia's actions in a different light.

But getting back to the Sarkozy-Medvedev meetup...if critics weren't happy that Sarkozy sat down and talked with Medvedev, they'll like what he said even less.

Sarkozy slammed the United States' plan for a missile defense shield in Poland and the Czech Republic, something that the Russians are dead set against. The US has said that the shield is needed to protect Europe against the threat of missiles fired by rogue states, the President of the European Union basically said that idea is nonsense. "Deployment of a missile defense system would bring nothing to security in Europe. It would complicate things," Sarkozy said.

The other big news from the meeting is that Sarkozy backed Medvedev's call for a new pan-European security pact, saying that a summit to lay the foundations of such an agreement could take place by the middle of next year.

It's a real boost for Medvedev and is something that could change the face of US-European relations. Back in April, Medvedev first floated the idea of a new security bloc, the "Euro-Atlantic Treaty Organization" (EATO), stretching as he said “from Vladivostok to Vancouver”. Medvedev said that a new organization was needed to meet the challenges of a new world. But a new organization would also seem to make NATO redundant (even the name seems to co-opt the idea of NATO), I don’t think it was just for a rhetorical flourish that Medvedev decided to say “Vladivostok to Vancouver” and not “Vladivostok to Seattle”, it doesn’t seem like there would be a place for the United States in the EATO (though there apparently would be a seat for Canada).

It will be interesting to see if Sarkozy is serious about following through on the EATO idea or if he was just being polite and humoring his guest Dmitry by talking about his pet project without any real intention on going through with it. NATO has been the background for the United States relations with Europe for more than a half-century now; a new security pact that includes Russia but excludes the United States would mark a drastic change of affairs. Sarkozy has been trying to use the European Presidency to set himself up as Europe’s de facto foreign minister, could he try to leave EATO as his legacy? Is he willing to make such a huge change?
Sphere: Related Content

A Chinese Moon?

The International Herald Tribune reminds us this week that there is still a space race going on, this time though it's centered in Asia.

China's space program has been following an ambitious path in recent years. In 2003 they became the only nation besides the United States and the Soviet Union/Russia to put a man into space using their own technology. But that was just a first step for China, which hopes to land a man on the moon by 2020. Now other Asian powers are gearing up their own plans to put men into outer space. India is also talking about getting a man to the moon and currently has an unmanned moon mission going on. Japan and South Korea are also talking about their own homegrown efforts to get men into orbit and perhaps the moon as well.

There are technical reasons to have satellites in space - communications and spying on other countries immediately come to mind - but as the IHT points out space programs have also always been good PR for a country, this was especially true during the original space race between the US and Soviet Union in the late 1950s/1960s. More than anything else, the Soviet Union's status as a superpower was made when it beat the United States (in terms of technology, the biggest kid on the block) in launching the first satellite (Sputnik in 1957) and first man (Yuri Gagarin in 1961) into space.

China used the Olympics this summer as a bold way of announcing they had arrived as one of the world's major powers. Putting a man on the moon could be the way they choose to declare that they've made it to superpower status.
Sphere: Related Content

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Iraq model not a good fit for Afghanistan

That's the word from Eric Edelman, undersecretary of defense for policy at the Pentagon.

The new strategy in Afghanistan seems to be to try to transfer the successful "surge" strategy from Iraq, which is probably a big part of the reason that Gen. David Petraeus, in charge of US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, is moving his headquarters from Baghdad to Kabul. But according to Edelman, "it's not going to be an easy, cookie-cutter transfer."

The idea that since the surge worked in Iraq it'll work in Afghanistan glosses over some big differences between the two places.

Afghanistan's culture is based around tribes that have a long history of trying to keep foreign influences out, Iraq on the other hand for basically its entire history has been a crossroads for many of the world's great civilizations (keep in mind that the whole idea of “modern civilization” began in Iraq's fertile crescent region between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers). As far as the war goes, the al-Qaeda militants in Afghanistan operate out of the country's vast rural areas, while Iraq's militants were mostly confined to the cities. The whole surge strategy was to send in enough troops to drive militants out of a given city then secure the area with US troops long enough for Iraqi security forces to get a grip on things and keep the militants from flooding back in (which had been the problem in the first couple years of the war in Iraq). Holding a vast stretch of empty mountains is going to be a lot more difficult than a small, densely packed urban area.

Even in the long term Afghanistan and Iraq are vastly different - Iraq generally has a well-educated population and vast reserves of oil (thought to be the second largest in the world), so prospects for development are good assuming the security situation keeps improving and the Iraqi government can stop fighting with itself. Nearly 80% of Afghanistan's population is illiterate and the country has few natural resources, so its development prospects are not nearly as good.

The surge also worked in Iraq because Sunni tribes in the western part of the country got fed up with the radical fundamentalism of al-Qaeda in Iraq; the tribes in Afghanistan so far have been far more sympathetic to their worldview. It all makes Afghanistan a much harder problem to solve than Iraq.
Sphere: Related Content

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Why bring the World Cup back to the US?

According to The Guardian, an unexpected benefit to the election of Barack Obama could be that the United States will be picked to host soccer's biggest event, the World Cup, in 2018. They cite the always infamous 'unnamed highly-placed official' in FIFA, the group that governs soccer (or football as its known everywhere else) who says that Obama's popularity will be a "huge factor" in the decision on the 2018 Cup, which will be made in 2011.

My question is why do we even want to host the World Cup?

Some consider one of the great unexplained mysteries of the sporting universe to be why is soccer, arguably the world's most popular game, just a niche sport here in the USA falling somewhere between hockey and arena football in popularity. I think the answer pretty mundane, that with the NBA, NFL, MLB, big-time college football/basketball, NASCAR, and so on, even sports-crazed America has a plate that's already overflowing.

And the US already did host the World Cup, back in 1994. That event, along with the arrivals of superstars Pele and David Beckham, and several Olympic gold metals was suppose to be ‘the thing’ that made soccer as popular in America as it is in the rest of the world.

It wasn't. So why not give the World Cup to a country that will actually appreciate it?

Meanwhile, Obama's election is also thought to boost his hometown Chicago's chances of hosting the 2016 Summer Olympics. Chicago is one of four finalists for the Games (along with Madrid, Tokyo, and Rio de Janeiro). That decision will be made in October 2009.
Sphere: Related Content

Monday, November 10, 2008

OK Europe, its your turn to deal with racism

Inspired by the success of Barack Obama a group of prominent French figures, including First Lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, published an open letter in French newspapers on Sunday titled "Oui, nous pouvons!" (the French translation of Obama's "Yes, we can!" slogan) calling for France to confront racism within their society and to provide equal opportunities for France's millions of Black and Arab citizens. I say it's about time.

In working on this site, I read a lot of European media. In the months leading up to the election it grew more and more annoying to read the sanctimonious opinion pieces in the European press saying that America had to elect Obama to prove that we weren't really racists. It's a statement that ignores some pretty ugly facts in Europe. While the European Union prides itself on respecting diversity, the European attitude towards diversity seems to be that it’s great so long as you’re white and some sort of Christian (though preferably not one of those Eastern Rite sorts). Let's take a quick look around the continent.

In France generations of people, French citizens from France's former colonial empire in Africa are warehoused in sprawling slums known as "Cités" on the edges of major metropolitan areas, isolated from French culture in general with practically no hope of ever advancing in society (residents say that to put an African-sounding name on a resume is a guarantee that it will wind up in the trash). These are the same places that exploded violently into riots during the summer of 2005. In Germany there is a similar situation with hordes of Turkish "guest workers" brought in on restrictive visas to serve as cheap labor for the German economy. Like in France they live in housing projects on the edge of German society, a situation that only promotes feelings of anger and isolation - keep in mind that the 9/11 attacks were planned not only in the caves of Afghanistan, but also the slums of Hamburg. In Italy Silvio Berlusconi returned to power by putting together a coalition of neo-fascist and openly racist parties (like the anti-immigrant Northern League), this year there has been a growing tendency to blame a host of societal problems, like rising street crime, on Italy's Roma (Gypsy) population. And there's Switzerland where one party ran this ad during the last national elections:

You don't have to speak French to get the message there. It's unthinkable that a reputable political party could run such an ad in the United States. And that gets to my main point that in Europe Barack Obama would have done well to get himself elected to a town council. Even in France, where millions can trace their heritage to former African colonies, just one member of their 555-seat lower house of parliament (equivalent to our House of Representatives) is Black. The sad truth is that across Europe, despite their respect for diversity and their scolding of America, non-Whites are practically non-existent in government, and no European commentators would say that they think their country would make a Barack Obama president (or prime minister) anytime soon.

That's why it is good to see Ms. Bruni-Sarkozy's challenge to French society, and to hear similar talk brewing in Great Britain as well. By the measure of the Euro-pundits we've "proven" we're not racists. Europe, it's your turn now.
Sphere: Related Content

No compromise in Zimbabwe

Leaders in southern Africa have failed another democracy test.

A summit of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) on Sunday called for Zimbabwe's leaders to share control over a key ministry within the government, effectively giving President Robert Mugabe another victory in his power struggle with opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai. It is another instance where leaders in the southern part of the continent have failed to stand up to Mugabe, who has impoverished his country in a desperate bid to stay in power.

In case you haven't been following the drama in Zimbabwe, a brief recap: Tsvangirai ran against Mugabe for the presidency earlier in the year. Though most observers thought Tsvangirai won the election outright, after weeks of delays the official government results showed that a runoff between Tsvangirai and Mugabe was necessary. Supporters of Tsvangirai's MDC party then suffered widespread attacks across the country during the runoff campaign, with dozens being killed in the process. Things got so bad Tsvangirai dropped out of the race for his own safety and the safety of his supporters, giving Mugabe a victory. But the international community was outraged and demanded the two men share power. Mugabe at first tried to keep all the real power to himself, while sticking Tsvangirai with the thankless task of fixing the country's ruined economy. Tsvangirai refused. After two months of negotiations (sponsored by South Africa) it was agreed that Tsvangirai would become Prime Minister (a newly created office) and their two factions would split the government ministries evenly. But again, Mugabe tried to keep all the power by grabbing the important government ministries and sticking Tsvangirai with ones like Sport and Science.

Tsvangirai wants control of Home Affairs, the ministry that controls the national police, whose job for the past decade has basically been to crush internal dissent to keep Mugabe in power. On Sunday though the SADC announced their idea for a compromise - that the two sides share control of Home Affairs.

To leave Mugabe's forces even partially in control of the Home Affairs Ministry (and the SADC had no suggestions on how two rival parties could possibly run one ministry) is to leave him as the de facto controller of the country. And this is where southern Africa's leaders have again come up short in their commitment to democracy. Regional leaders have been reluctant to speak out against Mugabe, who was a leader in Africa's fight against colonialism and was, when he took office, a fair and progressive president. But that was a generation ago and since then Mugabe has turned into the same kind of sad despot clinging to power at the expense of his people that has been all too common in Africa.

Rather than confronting Mugabe though, his neighbors have been satisfied to complain gently and propose compromises that really aren't compromises at all. Tsvangirai has again refused to sign onto a deal that will effectively leave him on the sidelines. Southern Africa's leaders, meanwhile, don't seem willing to pressure Mugabe to actually share power - probably why Tsvangirai is now taking his appeal to the UN.

Something has to be done for Zimbabwe. Tsvangirai is warning that up to a million people could starve this winter if conditions don't change drastically.
Sphere: Related Content

Sunday, November 9, 2008

UK monitors say Georgia fired the first shot

There's even more evidence today that Georgia started the conflict with Russia this past August.

The Times of London is reporting that two retired British military officers who were serving as international monitors in the disputed region of South Ossetia will give testimony to a formal inquiry that Georgian forces began bombarding the regional capital city Tskhinvali before Russian troops arrived. Georgia has repeatedly claimed that their actions in Tskhinvali were only in response to an attack by Russian troops.

Georgia has spent the past few months trying to portray itself as the victim of Russian aggression in the South Ossetia affair. Members of the European Union and the United States talked tough and suspended a number of diplomatic agreements with Moscow in response, but in the past few weeks, Europe's attitude towards Russia has started to soften as evidence continues to come undermining Georgia's version of the events of August 7/8.

The British observers also could not confirm Georgian claims that villages on the Georgian side of the South Ossetia border were shelled by Ossetian artillery. At most the British found there were some instances of small arms fire across the border. Of course it's important to note that gunfights across the Ossetia/Georgia border are not uncommon, especially in the summer months when temperatures grow warmer and tempers shorter. Sporadic fights between Ossetian militias and Georgian troops had been going on for several days before the attack on Tskhinvali.

Georgia's barrage of Tskhinvali damaged large swaths of the city of 40,000, killing at least 200 people. Citizens in Tskhinvali said that they weren't expecting the attack, despite high tensions between Georgia and South Ossetia, because Georgia had declared a cease-fire earlier in the evening. Russia has said that it sent troops into South Ossetia to protect the citizens of South Ossetia, many of who also hold Russian passports.

The EU is expected to announce on Monday the launch of a formal inquiry into the South Ossetia conflict.
Sphere: Related Content

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Obama views from around the world

Barack Obama’s first few days as president-elect haven’t only been threats of missile bases from Russia and racist comments from Italy’s Prime Minister; honors have been pouring in from around the world as well.

To start with there was the note of congratulations from Ukraine’s President Victor Yushchenko that instead of using the appropriate “Dear Mr. President” salutation, instead was addressed to His High Excellency (Vashe Visokoprevoskhoditelstv), a term reserved for only the highest noblemen in Czarist-era Russia.

Czarist era titles weren’t the only honor proposed for Obama. The Caribbean island nation of Antigua is considering renaming its tallest mountain in honor of the president-elect. “Mount Obama” may replace “Boggy Peak” as the name of the 1,300 foot rise at the southern point of the island, if the nation’s prime minister has anything to say about it (apparently the attorney general is reviewing Antiguan law to see if he can make the change). Antigua also hopes Mount Obama may become a tourist attraction.

But that’s nothing compared to the African nation of Sierra Leone, where according to MSNBC, hospitals are reporting that 6 in 10 boys born in the nation’s hospitals have been named “Barack Obama” (and won’t that make for some confusing classrooms a few years from now…)

The Irish village of Moneygall, meanwhile, is trying to capitalize on Obamamania with their own slice of history. It seems that Barack’s great-great-great grandfather on his mother’s side of the family, Mr. Fulmouth Kearney emigrated from Moneygall in 1850. And the votes had barely been counted before Moneygall put up a sign proclaiming it to be the ancestral home of Barack Obama (or Barack O’Bama as they have taken to calling him). Obama did once make note of his Irish roots on the campaign trail, so the town’s pub is hoping he one day makes good on a promise to drop by for a pint.

Finally, some places are just celebrating, like the Japanese town of Obama. While Barack has no Japanese ancestry, apparently “Obama” means “little beach” in Japanese, and is the name of the town of 32,000. Obama (the town) has been eagerly following Obama (the president-elect) since he entered the race. Now Obama (the town) hopes that some of the fame of Obama (the president-elect) will turn Obama (the town) into a tourist destination. Dozens of people in Obama gathered to watch the election results and see a performance by a group of hula dancers calling themselves the Obama Girls.
Sphere: Related Content

Hamas willing to accept Israel and 1967 borders

Hamas' leader in the Gaza Strip announced that he would be willing to accept a Palestinian state alongside Israel and grant them a long-term truce if Israel returned to its 1967 borders (the Gaza Strip, West Bank and Golan Heights all were captured by Israel from their Arab neighbors during the Six Day War).

Ismail Haniyeh went on to say that "our conflict is not with the Jews, our problem is with the occupation," which is kind of a surprising comment for a leader of Hamas to make since that organization's stated purpose in the past was to destroy Israel. But there have been a number of surprising statements coming out of Israel in the past few weeks around the idea of peace with the Palestinians. Outgoing Prime Minsiter Ehud Olmert also talked about Israel withdrawing from almost all of the land it captured in '67 in return for a peace deal with the Palestinians, while Israel's current Defense Minister and former Prime Minister Ehud Barak suggested Israel dust off a proposal Saudi Arabia made back in 2002 that Israel pull back to its 1967 borders in return for a comprehensive peace agreement with basically the entire Arab world.

It makes you wonder why then our Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on Saturday that the prospects for a peace deal with Palestine before President Bush leaves office were essentially dead? Yes, these are only statements being made to the media by leaders in Israel and Palestine, but they are talking about making the kinds of sacrifices that have derailed all of the other past attempts at peace. If you have the leaders of the two sides speaking so bluntly, you have to wonder why the Bush administration doesn't jump at the chance at pulling off a last-minute peace deal? It would certainly be a better foreign policy legacy for Bush than the twin quagmires of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Haniyeh made his statements during a press conference to meet a group of 11 European politicians who had sailed to Gaza from Cyprus to defy an Israeli blockade of the territory.
Sphere: Related Content

Gorbachev says Obama needs his own "perestroika"

Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, has said that President-Elect Barack Obama needs his own version of "perestroika" to fix global problems like September's financial crisis and to restore America's role as a world leader.

Perestroika (restructuring) was Gorbachev's attempt to completely overhaul the bloated and inefficient government of the Soviet Union in the 1980's and led to a thawing in relations with the United States. Now Gorbachev argues in the Friday edition of Italy's La Stampa newspaper that the same kind of drastic overhaul is needed in the United States after eight years of President Bush.

Gorbachev said that by the end of his term in office he hoped that America would engage in a series of reforms like he was trying to bring to the Soviet Union, and that the United States would create "a new model of a society, where politics, economics and morals went hand in hand." Instead, to his disappointment, Gorbachev said that the US was more interested in celebrating its victory in the Cold War. He accused American politicians, particularly the Republicans, of still being locked into a Cold War mindset.

But in the wake of the global financial crisis there is a lot of talk about the need to reform the global economic system. In his interview Gorbachev argues that the current system is too focused on the United States and Western Europe and needs to give emerging economies like China, Brazil and Russia a larger voice. This viewpoint is becoming more and more common around the world, even the current president of the World Bank Robert Zoellick has argued that the influential economic body the Group of Seven (G7) be expanded to include Russia, China, India, South Africa and Saudi Arabia.

It's clear that the world has high hopes for President Obama and that he will redefine America's place in the global community. Gorbachev said "this is a man of our times, he is capable of restarting dialogue, all the more since the circumstances will allow him to get out of a dead-end situation."
Sphere: Related Content

Friday, November 7, 2008

Protests and errors in Georgia

Exactly one year after riot police and tear gas broke up peaceful protests, thousands of Georgians returned to the streets of Tbilisi to demonstrate against President Mikhail Saakashvili. Like last year protestors spoke out against corruption and authoritarian tendencies within Saakashvili's government, though this year they also complained about Georgia's disastrous war in South Ossetia this past August.

The after effects of the war though were a reason that the protests were smaller than organizers hoped. Two of Georgia's main opposition parties steered clear of the demonstrations, fearing that they might be used by Russia in an attempt to undermine Saakashvili's rule. Those who did turn out though called for government reforms and early elections next spring, when they hope to vote Saakashvili out of office. While he is held up as a model of democracy by Western governments, critics in Georgia accuse Saakashvili of being the same type of autocrat that they marched against in the pro-democracy "Rose Revolution" in 2003 that brought Saakashvili to power in the first place. A report by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in September slammed Saakashvili for widespread irregularities during elections last May.

Meanwhile, for the first time today the US State Department called Georgia's attack against South Ossetia in August "a mistake", but added that it still did not justify Russia's actions. It is a big shift in the United States' position about the conflict, which so far as portrayed it as an outright act of Russian aggression against their smaller, democratic neighbor.

The State Department comments come on the heels of a lengthy report in Friday's New York Times that undercuts much of Georgia's version of the South Ossetian conflict. According to Georgia, they only launched their military operation in South Ossetia in response to a massive attack by Russian forces, and that widespread damage to the South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali (a city of 40,000, nearly half the population of S. Ossetia) was unintentionally caused by fighting between Georgian and Russian forces.

But the Times report - based on accounts by multi-national OSCE officials in the city at the time of the attack and other local eyewitnesses - did not find any compelling evidence of a Russian attack. Instead the report suggests that much of the damage to Tskhinvali was deliberately caused by large-scale artillery and rocket bombardment by "inexperienced" Georgian forces. The Times report matches up with a BBC report last week that also had eyewitness accounts of Georgian troops deliberately attacking civilian areas of the city (including an account of a Georgian tank methodically shelling each floor of an apartment building), suggesting that the Georgian actions could be investigated as war crimes.

It is a very different view of a war that had often been described by Western media and politicians as the first shot in a new Cold War by an overly aggressive Russia.
Sphere: Related Content

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Zimbabwe: violence rising, hope fading

Nearly two months after signing a landmark power-sharing agreement, the rival political forces in Zimbabwe have failed to form a government, and it looks like any hope of getting the two sides together may be finished.

That’s the word coming from the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party, who on Thursday accused President Robert Mugabe's ZANU-PF party of resorting to their old tactic of assaulting political opponents. The MDC claims 25 of their members were beaten by state security forces last week, five of them badly enough to be hospitalized; others were arrested this week. In recent years, state security forces have been becoming more brutal as they attempt to keep Mugabe in power.

After two contested elections this year, the second one effectively ending when the MDC's Morgan Tsvangirai dropped out because of widespread attacks against MDC members, a power-sharing agreement was finally reached with the ZANU-PF and Mugabe. Under the deal the two parties were to split the government ministries between them, but Mugabe quickly moved to stock the most powerful ministries (like Defense and Home Affairs, which controls the national police force) with ZANU-PF members, leaving the less important ones to the MDC. The MDC has refused since the deal was to split the ministries not only in number, but by power as well. They have been holding out for control of Home Affairs, which has effectively kept Mugabe in power for the past few years.

Meanwhile, the country once called the breadbasket of southern Africa now is plagued by epidemic levels of hunger and is suffering from hyperinflation (some estimates put it at a billion percent annually). Leaders of Zimbabwe's neighbors are set to meet this Sunday to discuss the situation amid reports that they worry the situation in Zimbabwe could destabilize all of southern Africa.
Sphere: Related Content

Berlusconi on Obama: handsome, young and suntanned

Italy's Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi did it again...

Berlusconi, who has made a number of embarrassing gaffs in the past, called President-Elect Barack Obama "handsome, young and suntanned" during a press conference on Thursday.

"Right on time, here comes the first sensational gaffe," was the opinion of La Repubblica, one of the Italy's major newspapers. Other opposition politicians in Italy called on Berlusconi to apologize.

The gaff overshadowed Berlusconi's press conference with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on Russian/Italian relations, which are growing closer. The two leaders agreed that a new framework is needed for international finance after September's Wall Street meltdown and that August's conflict with Georgia shouldn't derail cooperation between the European Union and Russia. Berlusconi also called for "the truth" about South Ossetia to come out.

As part of the meeting Russian and Italian companies signed a series of agreements, including one to allow Italian helicopters to be built and sold in Russia.

Berlusconi's comments on Obama came as he said that he thought Obama would be good for US/Russian relations.
Sphere: Related Content

Kim Jong Il: fake photo or miracle recovery?

Instead of stifling rumors about North Korean leader Kim Jong Il a new picture is only raising more questions about his health.

North Korea has been trying to quiet talk that Kim is sick, or dead, by releasing pictures of the "Dear Leader", but the photos so far have shown Kim in isolated settings, giving no indication of where or when they really were taken. So North Korea tried putting out a new photo of Kim, this time standing with a large group of military officers dressed in seasonally appropriate winter garb.

But keen-eyed observers noticed something odd - while the rest of the people in the picture cast long shadows, Kim cast barely any shadow at all, leading many to believe that he had been digitally inserted into the photo (North Korea so far hasn't tried the explanation that Kim is such a force of nature he casts his own shadows).

Kim hasn't verifiably appeared in public since mid-August. Most Korea observers now think that he suffered a stroke and has been receiving care from a team of foreign doctors. While ill, Kim is still thought to be in control of he government and military.

The notoriously secretive North Korean government though hasn't helped to squash the rumors, and this likely-faked new photo won't help. Both South Korea and China are concerned that North Korea could descend into chaos if Kim dies and there is a fight to replace him. China is especially worried about a crush of refugees if the North Korean state collapses.
Sphere: Related Content

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Obama's first foreign policy challenge

Well this didn't take long...They were still sweeping up the confetti from Barack Obama's victory rally in Chicago last night when Russia's Dmitry Medvedev issued the first foreign policy challenge of his presidency.

During his annual address to the Russian parliament Medvedev announced that in response to the United States' plans to base a ballistic missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic, Russia would base their "Iskander" medium-range missiles in the Kaliningrad region on the Baltic Sea. Russia has long opposed the American missile shield, but placing missiles in Kaliningrad (which borders Poland) is the first time they have officially announced steps to counter it. And Medvedev didn't stop there, he also said Russia would electronically jam the missile system's radar, potentially rendering it useless.

Medvedev blamed the recent global economic crisis firmly on the United States, saying that the US created the credit bubble to pump up its domestic economy then did not pay attention to warnings from the global community about the impending crash. The Russian stock market has taken a pounding in the past few months, in large part because of the global economic crunch. He also gave the United States some of the blame for Russia's conflict this summer with Georgia - Russia does not believe that Georgia would have attempted to take action in the region of South Ossetia without first getting approval from the United States.

It was a surprising broadsides from Medvedev, who in recent weeks has repeatedly talked hopefully about improved US-Russian relations under a new American president. It is useful to keep in mind though that his speech was aimed at a domestic rather than international audience, which could be a reason for his more belligerent tone.

We could get a good idea what the Medvedev/Obama relationship will look like two weeks from now. Medvedev is scheduled to travel to Washington DC on November 14 for a meeting of the G20 (a group of the world's twenty largest economies) and has said he would like to meet with President-Elect Obama.

I hope that if Obama decides to take the meeting with Medvedev he studies the Kennedy/Khrushchev meeting in Vienna first. Kennedy went into the meeting under-prepared and was bullied by the bombastic Soviet leader. Khrushchev in turn thought Kennedy was weak, so he was willing to risk putting nuclear missiles on a little island called Cuba and a year later the world would go to the brink of nuclear war.

Medvedev is no Khrushchev, but he is the leader of a Russia that wants to reclaim a place as a great power on the world stage and he shares Vladimir Putin's belief that Russia's overtures towards the United States in the past few years have been met with aggression. Obama certainly shouldn't shy away from the meeting, but he should have a firm grasp of the global situation and Russia's view of the world.
Sphere: Related Content

Monday, November 3, 2008

The final word from the Global Electoral College

If you haven't been following The Economist's Global Electoral College project, it's definitely worth a few minutes to check it out.

The basic idea is that The Economist has taken the idea of the Electoral College and expanded it to a global scale, giving countries a number of electors relative to their population. People from around the world can then log in to the Vote2008 site and cast their vote, with the winner in each country getting that nation's global electoral college votes.

As of Monday evening the world chooses Barack Obama in a landslide. Actually "landslide" is probably an understatement...

Of the countries where The Economist received enough votes to register a preference, Obama won them all except for Algeria, Iraq and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Myanmar is still a toss-up. Early leads McCain had in Georgia and Macedonia (the two countries where he was winning) have evaporated.

We'll see tomorrow how the vote goes for the real Electoral College.
Sphere: Related Content

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Steps towards peace in Nagorno-Karabakh

While tensions remain high in South Ossetia, another corner of the Caucasus region is slowly moving towards peace.

On Sunday the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan signed an agreement to work towards a peaceful resolution of the conflict over the Nagorno-Karabakh region. The two countries fought over the region (which is a largely Armenian enclave within Azerbaijan) in the early 1990's and there have been clashes between the Azeri and Armenians off and on in the years since. Nagorno-Karabakh is one of the "frozen conflicts" scattered throughout the old Soviet Union - conflicts that flared up as the Soviet Union dissolved where the active fighting has largely stopped, but no lasting peace has been achieved (South Ossetia and Abkhazia were also frozen conflicts at least until this past summer).

It was the conflict in Georgia that helped prompt the two presidents to return to the negotiating table, in talks hosted by Russia. President Dmitry Medvedev of Russia is eager to get a peaceful resolution to the situation as a way of boosting Russia's influence in the region.

Most of the residents of Nagorno-Karabakh voted for independence from Azerbaijan in 2006, though like similar votes in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the international community did not recognize the results. Future talks the status of Nagorno-Karabakh will be coordinated by Russia and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), but a final agreement could be tricky since Bako Sahakyan, president of Nagorno-Karabakh has repeatedly said that he wants full independence, something Azerbaijan isn't likely to go along with.
Sphere: Related Content

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Advice to the next president

I suspect there will be a whole pile of articles written in the coming weeks about the foreign policy challenges faced by the new president. I also suspect that most of them will focus heavily on Iraq and Afghanistan (and maybe by extension Pakistan), and I fear little else. And that’s been a problem with the current administration, while they made the War on Terror their main priority; the rest of the world went rolling along, and with America absent, our influence diminished in the process. So in an attempt to stem that tide and go about rebuilding our standing, I humbly offer the following suggestions:

Never use the term “the world’s only superpower” again. It’s a concept that has been coloring America’s foreign policy since the Soviet Union folded in 1991, mostly for the worse. Why? Because it’s given us an outsized view of our place in the world where we don’t view other countries as partners to be respected, but either as adversaries to be tamed or clients to be taught. Besides, the past eight years have shown being a superpower isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Being a superpower didn’t stop the terrorist attacks on 9/11, it didn’t make Afghanistan or Iraq bend to our will, it didn’t allow us to form true and lasting multi-national coalitions for action in either of those two countries. This summer should have let the last of the air out of the superpower balloon when Georgia apparently acted under the mistaken assumption that being our new best friend in the region would be enough to keep Russia from retaliating against them over actions in South Ossetia (it didn’t).

Since the superpower thing isn’t winning us friends or scaring our adversaries, why not drop it? While the US still has the largest economy and most powerful military in the world, the world is catching up. Cooperation is going to be the key term for the next four years, coalitions of countries will need to form up to address problems ranging from terrorism to global warming, and unlike the Cold War era there won’t be two well-defined camps. It will be possible to be allies on one issue while being rivals on another (since countries ultimately do tend to act in their own best interests). Ditching the superpower talk will be a powerful signal to the rest of the world that America wants to work with them, not lecture to them.

Rethink how we spread democracy. I have to give President Bush credit for making the spread of democracy around the world one of the goals of his administration. Unfortunately we have been taking a top-down approach to a bottom-up process.

In a functioning democracy the power ultimately lies with the people since they are the ones who choose the leaders. In our recent attempts at starting democracies though (see Iraq and Afghanistan) we have looked for someone we think will make a decent leader (or at least one we think we can work with), then we lay out some ground rules, hold an election, which our chosen candidate invariably wins, and then we celebrate the birth of a new democracy.

The problem is that were doing this in places with little or no experience with the democratic process, we set the election up as a means to an end (putting our guy in power “legitimately”) but ignore the real work of getting the citizens involved in the democratic process. They’re not engaged with democracy (for example the Shiite voters in Iraq who simply voted the way the mullahs told them to). The leaders in the new democracy tend to come from whatever elite existed before our involvement; they don’t come from the masses (for lack of a better term) like you would hope for in a functioning democracy.

The result is like the situation you now have in Afghanistan, where the democratically elected Hamid Karzai (his qualifications for office were that he was formerly an executive for a Western oil company) presides over a weak, ineffective, and corrupt regime. There are no successors from the Afghan heartland waiting in the wings to run in the next elections to lead a new, more effective Afghani government. Or you get a situation like you have in Ukraine where four years after the democratic (and Western-supported) Orange Revolution the president (Yushchenko) and prime minister (Tymoshenko) are locked in a fight for power that will likely continue until at least the next presidential election in 2010 - while the country’s economy is faltering and the public is becoming apathetic. Where, you have to ask, are the next generation of leaders?

By all means Mr. President keep spreading democracy, but don’t forget that the roots of a good democracy run deep, so put in programs that work to establish town councils and other grassroots institutions and bring young people to America to study political science and other civic programs so that they can bring those lessons back to their homeland. Remember, a country’s second democratically elected leader is perhaps more important than its first.

End the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Okay, you’re probably hearing this one from a lot of people, for a lot of reasons, so let me try a new one. Let’s end the wars because neither country wants our troops there anymore. Even with a host of concessions, the Iraqi government still doesn’t want to sign a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) to keep US troops there through 2011, while Karzai in Afghanistan has been growing more and more critical of the presence of foreign troops in his country.

So, let’s end our large-scale military involvement in both places. Are the two countries up to the task of maintaining stability on their own? Probably not, but the point of our involvement in both places was to establish democratic, independent governments. They need to be free to make their own choices, even if they make bad ones – otherwise they’re not really independent governments now are they? Yes, there’s a good chance that the Iraqi government will tear itself apart along Sunni-Shia-Kurdish lines, but that will be just about as likely two years from now as it is today, if all sides know they just need to maintain the appearance of working together for two more years, they will.

The point is that while the governments of Iraq and Afghanistan face great challenges, they are challenges for the Iraqis and Afghanis themselves to solve.

China and Russia. Both countries are rising powers, and both are relationships we’ve mismanaged for the past eight (and honestly longer) years, so the start of your term will be a great chance to relaunch both.

One of the first calls I would make as President would be to China’s President Hu Jintao. I would congratulate Hu on China’s rise to the status today as one of the world’s great powers. Then I would remind him that with great power, comes great responsibility – so it’s time that China starts showing more leadership in a host of areas. I’d start with their support for some of the worst regimes in Africa: Sudan and Robert Mugabe’s government in Zimbabwe, neither of which would likely continue if not for China’s support. I’d also ask Hu for a pledge to take a leading role in the fight against climate change, since China by most accounts has now become the world’s leading polluter. If China wants to be regarded as a leading nation in the world, then simply, it has to lead.

As for Russia, yes we haven’t been happy with some of their actions recently and yes the relationship between our governments has sunk to a post-Soviet low, but becoming more adversarial (the tack the Bush administration has been taking) isn’t going to improve things.

I remember a panel discussion I helped organize while I was in grad school with Jack Matlock, the United States’ last ambassador to the Soviet Union. Amb. Matlock said that some people were amazed with the critiques would give to the Soviets on some of their actions, and were more amazed that the Soviets would listen. He explained it was because he had a genuine respect and affection for Russian culture and the Russians knew it, so they regarded him as a friend. They were much more willing to listen to criticism from someone they thought of as a friend rather than a lecture from someone they regarded as an enemy.

We need to keep in mind that Russia views our relationship differently than we do. Vladimir Putin feels that he extended a great hand of friendship to the United States after 9/11 – he was the first world leader to call George Bush after the attacks and Russia offered important technical assistance for US forces trying to establish a beachhead in Afghanistan in late 2001. In response though the United States has pushed NATO membership to Russia’s doorstep and tried to install a missile defense system that Russia is bitterly opposed to in their former satellites Poland and the Czech Republic, all actions Putin has viewed as overtly hostile.

That has colored our relationship these past few years. So since being adversaries hasn’t worked why not try a more friendly relationship if we really want to affect some change in Russia’s actions? More belligerent talk certainly won’t help things.

I won’t say that’s all Mr. President, far from it. You will face a number of challenges in a world that is more dynamic than ever. Keep that in mind and remember something that President Bush forgot in his pursuit of the War on Terror – the world doesn’t stop just because the United States is busy with something else.
Sphere: Related Content

Missile defense may be grounded (again)

The ballistic missile defense shield the United States wants to install in Europe may have hit another roadblock.

The shield is meant to protect the US and Europe against missile attack by "rogue states" and consists of up to ten interceptor missiles based in Poland and an advanced radar site in the Czech Republic. In theory the Czech radar would track any inbound rogue missiles, which would then be shot town by the rockets from Poland. So far the biggest challenge the system has faced has been getting approval from the two host countries.

After initially agreeing to host the interceptors, the Polish government balked at going through with the plan earlier this year until the US offered more cooperation with the Polish military, including an agreement to base Patriot missiles in Poland after a Russian general threatened to target the missile base itself on the ground that it was a threat to Russian security (the Russian have long opposed the missile shield, thinking that it is aimed at countering Russia’s vast nuclear missile arsenal, not some hypothetical rocket shot by a rogue state). Now it's the Czech's turn.

The Czech parliament has to give final approval to the radar site, but the ruling center-right coalition government in the Czech Republic is already on shaky ground and is facing stiff opposition. The radar base idea is not popular with the Czech public (largely because they fear it will sour relations with Russia, and because they question why they need anti-missile missiles in Europe in the first place). Though the opposition doesn't have the votes to block the plan, it's not clear that the government has the votes to approve the radar site either.

The final vote should take place sometime in early December. If the Czechs vote no then the whole system will have to go back to the drawing board, since the advanced X-Band radar is necessary to guide the interceptors to their targets.
Sphere: Related Content

US elections? Latin America indifferent

That's the word from a new poll of people across Latin America on next Tuesday's elections, where two-thirds of those surveyed say they don't care which candidate wins since it will not have a great affect US-Latin American relations.

It's a surprising result considering how tuned into the US elections the rest of the world seems to be. But the poll conducted in 18 countries across the region by Chile-based Latinobarometro found that 29% didn't think either candidate was a good choice, while 31% said they didn't know enough about either Barack Obama or John McCain to offer an opinion. Among the rest Obama was a clear choice beating McCain 29% to 8%.

According to Latinobarometro's Director Marta Lagos the apathy expressed in the poll was a reflection of the United States fading influence in a region once considered its backyard. "They believe that the U.S. election will not produce any change in Latin America," Lagos said. "The most important finding, I think, is that the United States is losing power in Latin America."

Obama had his strongest support in the Dominican Republic and Costa Rica, while McCain did best in Columbia and El Salvador.
Sphere: Related Content