20 June 2022   Leave a comment

Posted June 20, 2022 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

2 June 2022   Leave a comment

The Pew Research Center regularly conducts a poll among US citizens on their knowledge of international affairs. The survey this year polled 3,581 adults from March 21 to 27, 2022 and asked 12 questions (4 of which were used last year). If you wish to take the quiz yourself before I outline the results, just click here.

The results this year were close to those of last year. The summary of the results is as follows:

“On average, Americans give more correct than incorrect answers to the 12 questions in the study. The mean number of correct answers is 6.3, while the median is 7. But the survey finds that levels of international knowledge vary based on who is answering. Americans with more education tend to score higher, for example, than those with less formal education. Men also tend to get more questions correct than women. Older Americans and those who are more interested in foreign policy also tend to perform better.

“Political party groups are roughly similar in their overall levels of international knowledge, although conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats tend to score higher on the scale than do their more moderate counterparts.”

Conservative Republicans had strong scores but liberal Democrats scored slightly higher. Not surprisingly, knowledge correlated strongly with intensity of the issue to specific political affiliations (the question about the siting of the US Embassy to Israel, for example, earned conservative Republicans the highest scores).

The Pew Research Center does a very good job of describing the methodology of the poll. I think the Center’s polls are very reliable.

Posted June 2, 2022 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

28 May 2022   1 comment

Posted May 28, 2022 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

25 May 2022   2 comments

Like many who live in the US, I am unable to comprehend fully the lack of effective response to the most recent mass shooting in Texas. The Onion was the only media outlet to portray accurately the pathetic reaction to what apparently is now a fact of life in America: every article in the current issue reads “‘No Way to Prevent This’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens”.

What I find especially infuriating is how the defenders of the 2nd Amendment like to shoot down every possible remedy to this epidemic of violence. Background checks, limits on the capacity of magazines, or limits on the length of the barrel are all derided as inadequate. Apparently, the only acceptable solution to the slaughter of innocents to the 2nd Amendment defenders is one that solves every possibility of evasion. I am not aware of any other policy debate that is subject to such a high threshold of effectiveness.

But I am also perplexed why the burden of proof shifts to those who would like to prevent future massacres. An absolutist position on the 2nd Amendment is flawed in two ways. First, all the rights protected by the Constitution are justified in terms of advancing common interests. The 2nd Amendment is even explicit about the public interest served by the right to bear arms: the need to have people trained in the handling of weapons in order to have a well-regulated militia. I cannot see the public interest in assuring that anyone who wishes to own a military-grade assault rifle can have one. Nor do the defenders of the 2nd Amendment articulate the public interest is guaranteeing that “right”. I think it is pass time to demand that that public interest be part of the debate and not to simply dwell on the vapid assertion that a right is a right.

The second flaw is more significant. An absolutist position on the 2nd Amendment asserts that the right to bear arms is more important than the right to life (oddly, this position is confirmed by Charlton Heston’s defiant claim at the NRA Convention in 200 that anyone who wanted to take away his flintlock rifle would have to pry it out of his “cold, dead hands”.) That position is profoundly untenable and it reveals the strange situation in which we find ourselves: those who wish to more tightly regulate the sale of military-grade assault weapons do not need to defend that moral position since the evidence that those weapons have killed far more civilians that they have protected is overwhelming. The real burden of proof rests on those who believe that the right to possess those weapons provides a tangible benefit to society.

Any defense of the 2nd Amendment that does not carry this burden of proof is bullshit.

Posted May 25, 2022 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

1 May 2022   Leave a comment

Posted May 1, 2022 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

28 April 2022   Leave a comment

One of the more unsettling aspects of the Russian war on Ukraine is the extent to which Russian authorities, including President Putin, have referred to nuclear weapons. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has produced a timeline of such statements and there were several statements that I missed when they were made. References to nuclear weapons is gratuitous: no state forgets that another has nuclear weapons when a conflict occurs. The question is why the Russians are making sure that no one forgets that there are Russian nuclear weapons.

The Russians introduced a new strategic doctrine in June 2020 entitled “On the Fundamentals of the State Policy of the Russian Federation in the Field of Nuclear Deterrence“. That document made reference to circumstances in which Russia may choose to use nuclear weapons in a conventional war. That reference is generally referred to as an “escalate to de-escalate” option. Both the US and Russia have developed tactical (or “battlefield”) nuclear weapons with explosive capabilities that can be lower than some conventional bombs. The BBC describes these weapons:

“Tactical nuclear weapons vary enormously in size and power.

“The smallest can be one kiloton or less (equivalent to a thousand tonnes of the explosive TNT) – the larger ones perhaps as big as 100 kilotons.

“The effects would depend on the size of the warhead, how far above the ground it detonates and the local environment.

“But as a comparison, the atomic bomb that killed around 146,000 people in Hiroshima, Japan, during World War Two, was 15 kilotons.”

The BBC article goes on:

“US intelligence say Russia has a theory called “escalate to de-escalate” if it is in a conflict with Nato.

“This involves doing something dramatic – such as using a tactical weapon on the battlefield, or as a demonstration somewhere – or threatening to do so.

“The idea is to frighten the other side into backing down.

“The concern is that if Putin feels cornered and that his strategy in Ukraine is failing, he could use tactical nuclear weapons as a ‘game changer’, to break a stalemate or avoid defeat.

“But the situation would likely have to get worse in Ukraine – or back in Russia – for him to consider this.

“James Acton, a nuclear expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Pace in Washington DC, says: ‘I am legitimately worried that in that circumstance Putin might use a nuclear weapon, most likely on the ground in Ukraine to terrify everyone and get his way. We are not at that point yet.'”

“Dr Heather Williams, nuclear expert at Kings College London, says one problem is that it is unclear what ‘winning’ in Ukraine would look like for Putin – and thus what might drive Russia to use a nuclear weapon.”

This doctrine treats nuclear weapons almost like they are similar to conventional weapons. The exception rests in the eyes of the rest of the world–the Russians rely on shock and fear to accomplish their aims and are less interested in the actual damage done by a nuclear blast. I think that the Russians are completely mistaken in their projected reactions. It may be the case that conventional weapons can cause more damage than some tactical nuclear weapons, but that disregards the profound psychological and political reactions, not only on the part of the rest of the world but also within the Russian domestic population.

There is, however, another aspect to this strategy which troubles me a great deal. The Russians are making these nuclear threats in order to prevent substantial help to Ukraine from other powers. What is unknown is the level of help that would trigger the use of tactical nuclear weapons. This ambiguity has two effects. The first is to introduce a high level of restraint on the allies of any attacked state. This outcome could be the intended effect of the threat, depending on how risk adverse the allies are and how high the stakes to the allies actually are. But there are very few objectives that warrant the risk of a nuclear attack so the level of restraint is probably high. This condition gives the attacking state a veto over alliance cohesion and compensates for any disadvantage the attacking state may have in conventional power.

The second consequence of the ambiguity is is increases the risk of miscalculation. Does a tank tip the balance? A jet fighter? Even the leaders of the attacking power do not have a clear idea of what the tipping point may be. Introducing the prospect of a fuzzy “red line” only makes the situation more unstable.

Posted April 28, 2022 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

13 April 2022   2 comments

A staunch supporter of Russian President Putin, Timofey Sergeytsev, has written extensively for RIA Novosti and one of his more recent pieces is bone-chilling. It has been difficult to determine what Russian objectives in Ukraine actually are and even more difficult to determine the political objectives of the sustained bombing of civilian centers. But Sergeytsev articulates objectives that are truly horrific and, if they represent the thinking of President Putin, causes me to reconsider my opposition to a more extensive NATO defense of Ukraine. Sergeytsev actually considers the annihilation of the state and nation of Ukraine to be appropriate objectives:

“The Nazis who took up arms should be destroyed to the maximum on the battlefield. No significant distinction should be made between APU and the so-called national battalions, as well as the territorial defense that joined these two types of military formations. All of them are equally involved in extreme cruelty against the civilian population, equally guilty of the genocide of the Russian people, do not comply with the laws and customs of war. War criminals and active Nazis should be exemplarily and exponentially punished. There must be a total lustration. Any organizations that have associated themselves with the practice of Nazism have been liquidated and banned. However, in addition to the top, a significant part of the masses, which are passive Nazis, accomplices of Nazism, are also guilty. They supported and indulged Nazi power. The just punishment of this part of the population is possible only as bearing the inevitable hardships of a just war against the Nazi system, carried out with the utmost care and discretion in relation to civilians. Further denazification of this mass of the population consists in re-education, which is achieved by ideological repression (suppression) of Nazi attitudes and strict censorship: not only in the political sphere, but also necessarily in the sphere of culture and education….

“Denazification can only be carried out by the winner, which implies (1) his absolute control over the denazification process and (2) the power to ensure such control. In this respect, a denazified country cannot be sovereign. The denazifying state – Russia – cannot proceed from a liberal approach with regard to denazification. The ideology of the denazifier cannot be disputed by the guilty party subjected to denazification. Russia’s recognition of the need to denazify Ukraine means the recognition of the impossibility of the Crimean scenario for Ukraine as a whole. However, this scenario was not possible in 2014 in the rebellious Donbass either. Only eight years of resistance to Nazi violence and terror led to internal cohesion and a conscious unambiguous mass refusal to maintain any unity and connection with Ukraine.

“The terms of denazification can in no way be less than one generation, which must be born, grow up and reach maturity under the conditions of denazification.

“Denazification will inevitably also be a de-Ukrainization – a rejection of the large-scale artificial inflation of the ethnic component of self-identification of the population of the territories of historical Little Russia and New Russia, begun by the Soviet authorities.”

Such language can justify anything and suggests that there are some elements in the Russian decision-making process that believe that the complete annihilation of Ukraine is justified.

If this is true, then NATO has to consider stronger measures to defend the Ukrainian population. I still would not entertain sending any troops into the conflict. But the situation is becoming as horrific as any humanitarian crisis that I have witnessed in my life. No state should be allowed to bomb a people with impunity. Perhaps it is time for NATO to supply Ukraine with planes that Ukrainian pilots can fly.

Posted April 13, 2022 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

11 April 2022   Leave a comment

The Lancet has published a peer-reviewed article entitled “National responsibility for ecological breakdown: a fair-shares assessment of resource use, 1970–2017“. The study is highly innovative and uses a measure of resource consumption that uses “an equal fair-share basis, in keeping with the principle of ecological commons”. First, the study establishes a level of resource consumption that is sustainable over the long run (it calls that level a “sustainability corridor”–a wretched term):

“Industrial ecologists have proposed that a sustainable boundary for global resource use might be around 50 billion tonnes per year. Global resource use exceeded this level in 1997. This level is generally considered to be an upper-limit boundary; Bringezu proposes a target sustainability corridor of about 25–50 billion tonnes per year (Gt/a).  Global resource use exceeded 25 Gt/a in 1970.”

The study then divides total global resource consumption by the population of each country.

These assumptions are highly contestable, starting with the assumption that everyone in the world shares the same definition of a desirable standard of living. Furthermore, the study ignores the political significance of territorial boundaries which has a powerful effect on how resources are determined to be “ours” or “theirs”. But the study is only interested in assessing what a “fair” consumption level might actually be assuming that everyone ought to have an equal claim to global resources. As such, the study offers a provocative way to think about resources consumption.

The study is certainly consistent with a globalist view of resource consumption: the rich consume much more than the poor.

“Nearly 2·5 trillion tonnes of materials were extracted and used globally from 1970–2017, with high-income and upper–middle-income countries using the vast majority of the resources. Of this, 1·1 trillion tonnes were in excess of the sustainable corridor. High-income countries (according to the World Bank classification) were collectively responsible for 74% of cumulative excess material use, and upper–middle-income countries were responsible for 25% of cumulative excess material use. Lower-middle-income countries and low-income countries were collectively responsible for less than 1%.”

The chart below shows how egregious the difference between rich and poor actually is (one has to look closely for the consumption of the low-income states in yellow–that value can be seen in the lower left-hand corner of the graph as a smidgen).

The conclusions of the study are stark:

“The fair-shares approach articulated here offers a novel method for quantifying national responsibility for ecological breakdown. High-income countries, which represent only 16% of the world population, are responsible for 74% of resource use in excess of fair shares and are therefore the primary drivers of global environmental degradation, representing a process of ecological colonisation.

“Furthermore, the majority of the ecological pressure from excess consumption in rich nations is outsourced to poorer nations. According to a recent analysis, more than 50% of excess consumption in rich nations is net appropriated from poorer nations in the Global South.

“This appropriation not only causes ecological damage in poorer nations, but depletes them of the material resources that they could otherwise use to provide for human needs and expand their sovereign industrial capacity.

“Our results show that high-income nations need to urgently scale down aggregate resource use to sustainable levels. On average, resource use needs to decline by at least 70% to reach the sustainable range. Such reductions will require strong legislation on both domestic extraction and material footprints. The European Parliament recently took steps in this direction by calling on the European Commission to adopt binding targets to reduce resource footprints by 2030 and bring them within planetary boundaries by 2050.

Share of responsibility for excess resource use by region, 1970–2017

Posted April 11, 2022 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

25 March 2022   Leave a comment

Gasoline prices in the US have increased dramatically over the last few months. The chart below reflects the price of crude oil stored in Cushing Oklahoma as recorded by the US Energy Information Administration.

The chart indicates that the current price of oil in the US is not at its highest level in recent years (and, corrected for inflation, is significantly lower than it was during the oil embargoes of 1973 and 1979). It also shows that the higher price is likely more noticeable because of the very low prices in early 2020. Nonetheless, the high price today has become a political problem for many in the US.

There have been a variety of explanations for the price increase. Some blame oil shortages caused by the sanctions against the sale of Russian oil. Others point to environmental regulations in the US, particularly with respect to building pipelines (the XL pipeline is often mentioned even though that oil was never meant for US domestic consumption). But the Dallas Fed did a survey of 132 executives from oil and gas producers in the US and came to a different conclusion, as indicated by the graph below:

The evidence seems conclusive: the oil and gas executives say that they are under pressure from investors to restrain production in order to satisfy their investors. In other words, the high prices are not due to “market” forces of supply and demand but are rather the result of a deliberate strategy to restrain production in order to induce higher prices. I am not surprised by this result and the message needs to be publicized more broadly. The New York Times suggests that this strategy is possible:

“At the urging of environmental groups, Democrats are going on the offensive on gas prices — hitting energy companies with a populist message that puts the party squarely at odds with Republicans and the oil industry.

“To do otherwise would be ‘dangerous and political malpractice,’ Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster, argued in a memo published on Thursday.

“In a survey, Garin found that 60 percent of voters viewed ‘price gouging and excessive price increases by oil companies to increase their profits’ as major reasons that gas prices have risen to a national average of $4.29 per gallon.

“’They’re jacking up prices, and people see that,’ said Pete Maysmith, a senior vice president for campaigns at the League of Conservation Voters, which co-sponsored the poll.”

Posted March 25, 2022 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

12 March 2022   1 comment

Professor John Mearsheimer is one of the most distinguished scholars of international relations in the United States. He is also a very consistent political realist, a body of thought which emphasizes the priority of interests over values in the conduct of foreign policy. I will confess that there are parts of political realism which inform my own analysis of world affairs even though, on the whole, my world view is mostly idealist. For example, Professor Mearsheimer wrote, along with Professor Stephen Walt, a book entitled The Israel Lobby which critiqued the ability of the state of Israel to influence American foreign policy to the detriment of US interests.

Mearsheimer sparked a great deal of controversy when he delivered a lecture in 2015 which sharply criticized the US and NATO for the expansion of NATO into former Warsaw Pact countries because he argued that the resultant Russian insecurity from those actions led Russia to annex Crimea and parts of eastern Ukraine. That lecture can be seen in the video below (it is one hour and 15 minutes long, but very worthwhile).

Mearsheimer’s argument has been revived by the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine, igniting an even greater controversy. Indeed, Mearsheimer’s argument has been reproduced by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs as a defense of Russian actions. The crux of the argument is that, after the dissolution of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), Russia was promised that NATO would not expand to the east. At a press briefing on 25 February 2022, the Russian spokesperson point out:

Question: German Foreign Ministry spokesperson Christopher Burger said during a briefing that treaties with Russia did not contain any promises not to expand NATO the east. What would be your comment on the statement by your German colleague?

Maria Zakharova: At first, NATO member states denied the very fact that the West had made promises not to expand NATO to the east. However, when the officials who took part in those events and negotiations started publishing their memoirs, they could no longer deny facts or claim that nothing had happened. Instead, they started saying that even if there had been some verbal promises, there were no official written documents. This collective amnesia is astonishing. However, the article published by Spiegel magazine, a German media outlet by the way, showed that this position is also at odds with reality.

Declassified archival documents showed that following the February 2, 1990, talks in Washington, Vice Chancellor and Foreign Minister of the Federal Republic of Germany Hans-Dietrich Genscher and United States Secretary of State James Baker said that they “were in full agreement that there is no intention to extend the NATO area of defence and security towards the East. This holds true not only for GDR, which we have no intention of simply incorporating, but that holds true for all the other Eastern countries.” During 2+4 talks involving the German Democratic Republic, the Federal Republic of Germany, France, the USSR, Great Britain, and the United States, the representative of the Federal Republic of Germany, Jürgen Chrobog, said: “We had made it clear during the 2+4 negotiations that we would not extend NATO beyond the Elbe. We could not therefore offer membership of NATO to Poland and the others.” Let me remind you that this meeting took place in Bonn, on March 6, 1991. Since then, NATO has accepted 14 countries as its new members.

NATO contests this interpretation and it would be bootless to try to parse out the large volume of statements made at the time of a great transformation in world politics–no one really knew what the future would bring. What is undeniable is that the eastern European countries who had been part of the Soviet bloc for so many years feared that Russia remained a serious threat to their territorial integrity and sovereignty. Patrick Rhamey points out the more powerful dynamic underlying the expansion of Western influence in eastern Europe:

“Mearsheimer’s arguments deprive Ukrainians of any agency. He consistently ignores, both in the Ukraine talk and his recent interview with the New Yorker, the possibility that Ukrainians might choose democracy and seek membership in the EU on their own volition (in this, he echoes Kremlin talking points). He draws a false equivalence between a liberal, wealthy economic bloc on the one hand and an authoritarian petrol state on the other. For Mearsheimer, both sides are motivated exclusively – or at least ultimately – by power politics. ‘Freedom’ and ‘Prosperity’ are rhetorical weapons in a contest between great powers. The aspirations of the majority of Ukrainians don’t factor into this analysis.

“Instead of focusing on ‘the West,’ Mearsheimer should consider the distinct possibility that Russia’s long history of attempted dominance over Ukraine helped drive many Ukrainians toward the EU. The Euromaidan protests that toppled Viktor Yanukovych, after all, were sparked by his decision – under pressure from Putin – to walk away from negotiations. Putin’s explicit use of irredentist language, seizure of Crimea, and role in the Ukrainian civil war have clearly shifted public opinion on the question of NATO membership; a majority now favor joining the alliance.

David Remnick, in an interview with Stephen Kotkin in the New Yorker, amplifies the point in a balance of power framework:

We’ve been hearing voices both past and present saying that the reason for what has happened is, as George Kennan put it, the strategic blunder of the eastward expansion of NATO. The great-power realist-school historian John Mearsheimer insists that a great deal of the blame for what we’re witnessing must go to the United States. I thought we’d begin with your analysis of that argument.

I have only the greatest respect for George Kennan. John Mearsheimer is a giant of a scholar. But I respectfully disagree. The problem with their argument is that it assumes that, had nato not expanded, Russia wouldn’t be the same or very likely close to what it is today. What we have today in Russia is not some kind of surprise. It’s not some kind of deviation from a historical pattern. Way before nato existed—in the nineteenth century—Russia looked like this: it had an autocrat. It had repression. It had militarism. It had suspicion of foreigners and the West. This is a Russia that we know, and it’s not a Russia that arrived yesterday or in the nineteen-nineties. It’s not a response to the actions of the West. There are internal processes in Russia that account for where we are today.

I would even go further. I would say that nato expansion has put us in a better place to deal with this historical pattern in Russia that we’re seeing again today. Where would we be now if Poland or the Baltic states were not in nato? They would be in the same limbo, in the same world that Ukraine is in. In fact, Poland’s membership in nato stiffened nato’s spine. Unlike some of the other nato countries, Poland has contested Russia many times over. In fact, you can argue that Russia broke its teeth twice on Poland: first in the nineteenth century, leading up to the twentieth century, and again at the end of the Soviet Union, with Solidarity. So George Kennan was an unbelievably important scholar and practitioner—the greatest Russia expert who ever lived—but I just don’t think blaming the West is the right analysis for where we are.

There are other considerations to take into account as we assess the accuracy of Mearsheimer’s analysis. Realists make the assumption that analyzing interests is the only way to understand not only the actions of states but also human nature. Hans Morgenthau, a pre-eminent political realist in the US right after World War II, was unequivocal on this matter: “Political realism believes that politics, like society in general, is governed by objective laws that have their roots in human nature”. Thus, political realists easily believe that Thucydides observation of how the Athenians regarded their interests in the Peloponnesian War remains true in 2022: “The strong do as they will, and the weak suffer what they must”.

In this respect, political realists miss out on an awful lot of what has happened between 431 BCE and 2022, most notably the liberation of the individual in the Enlightenment. Nick Burns, writing for the New Statesmen, summarizes the significance of this crucially important change:

“The world, in a word, is a much more complicated place than the realists project in their simple formulas of a rational computation of interest. So often accused of pessimism, Mearsheimer is, in a strange way, too optimistic in believing that Americans (or for that matter Ukrainians or Russians) should simply make decisions according to a clinical, dispassionate evaluation of their interests. Regardless of whether it is desirable, such an evaluation is impossible in practice. A full understanding of the war in Ukraine, its causes and its consequences must pay attention to the emotions of the participants – Putin’s ambition, the West’s outrage, Ukraine’s hope – in their human aspects too, and not merely as strategic calculation.”

Mearsheimer is in some respect correct: NATO underestimated how threatening its eastern expansion was viewed by Russia. But Russia also miscalculated how powerful the idea of personal freedom became in the countries it once dominated by force. Ultimately, and sadly, one side will be proven correct–the side that wins. Right now, I put my money on the Ukrainians.

Posted March 12, 2022 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

%d bloggers like this: