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18 October 2020   Leave a comment

The German magazine, Spiegel, has run an article that truly surprised me. It details the concerns that many European governments have regarding the outcome of the US national election on 3 November. The fear among some of those governments is that President Trump may prematurely declare victory on the basis of incomplete returns that give him a lead after the polls close. We tend to think of the politics of deciding an election is a purely internal matter, but the Spiegel article suggests ways that foreign governments may interfere with the domestic vote-counting.

“One could imagine a scenario in which Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro rushes to congratulate the ‘re-elected’ U.S. president on election night, followed by Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un and maybe even Russian President Vladimir Putin. Soon, though, the first congratulations from Europe might find their way to the White House, from Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, for example, or his Polish counterpart Mateusz Morawiecki.

“Should a constitutional crisis in fact develop in the United States following the election, there are widespread concerns in Europe that the EU could once again be deeply divided.”

What I had neglected to remember is that international recognition makes a real difference in the legalities associated with the legitimacy of a government. Generally speaking, states grant international recognition on the basis of an assessment on whether a government effectively controls the population within its established borders. But there are many examples of states granting recognition to governments that fail this essential test. One need only remember the long period between 1949 and 1971 when the US insisted that Taiwan was the legitimate government of China despite the overwhelming evidence that the Communist Party in Beijing was actually the government in control of the population of China. We need to remember that in international law elections constitute only partial evidence that a government should be recognized. There are many dictatorships and monarchies in the world in which elections play no role whatsoever.

Americans should also remember that in the election of 2000, the Supreme Court ordered the election recount in Florida stopped, even though elections are traditionally regarded as state, and not Federal, activities.

“The Supreme Court effectively handed the presidential election to George W. Bush tonight, overturning the Florida Supreme Court and ruling by a vote of 5 to 4 that there could be no further counting of Florida’s disputed presidential votes.

“The ruling came after a long and tense day of waiting at 10 p.m., just two hours before the Dec. 12 ‘safe harbor’ for immunizing a state’s electors from challenge in Congress was to come to an end. The unsigned majority opinion said it was the immediacy of this deadline that made it impossible to come up with a way of counting the votes that could both meet ‘minimal constitutional standards’ and be accomplished within the deadline.

“The five members of the majority were Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Sandra Day O’Connor, Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy and Clarence Thomas.

“Among the four dissenters, two justices, Stephen G. Breyer and David H. Souter, agreed with the majority that the varying standards in different Florida counties for counting the punch-card ballots presented problems of both due process and equal protection. But unlike the majority, these justices said the answer should be not to shut the recount down, but to extend it until the Dec. 18 date for the meeting of the Electoral College.”

The pressures from international governments who might prematurely recognize President Trump as the victor would only complicate the process of sorting out all the ambiguities of a contested election. And I have no doubts that some leaders, such as Russian President Putin, would hesitate to do everything possible to make the outcome as messy and ambiguous as possible.

Posted October 18, 2020 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

17 October 2020   Leave a comment

Unfortunately, climate change has not emerged as a major issue in the media coverage of the US national election even though former Vice-President Biden has tried to make it one. But it seems clear that even though it is not a major topic for the talking heads, the US public considers it almost as important as the problem of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Pew Research Center conducted a poll in several major countries and found that the issue is considered important in every one.

Interestingly, the US public is ideologically divided on the issue to a degree shared by few other countries.

The last four years have not seen major international efforts to reduce carbon emissions although there has been steady progress in the development of renewable sources of energy. During this time, we have become more aware of the future dynamics of climate change–the shift to the contribution of poorer countries to the problem. There is little question that the rich countries were responsible for the bulk of carbon emission in the 20th century.

But the future of climate change rests more on the developing countries who are beginning to experience more rapid economic growth.

Posted October 17, 2020 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

16 October 2020   2 comments

Graham Allison has written an essay for The National Interest on the recent news that China has displaced the US as the largest economy in the world. The news should not be especially surprising given that the population of China is 4 times larger than the US and also given that China has historically been a dominant power, despite its travails in the 20th Century. The change from the 2nd to the 1st largest economy was based on a shift from measuring the economy in terms of market exchange rates (simply measuring yuans to dollars) to purchasing power parity (actually measuring what a yuan and a dollar actually buys). Allison describes the difference:

“In sum, while the yardstick most Americans are accustomed to still shows that the Chinese economy is one-third smaller than the U.S., when one recognizes the fact that $1 buys nearly twice as much in China than in the U.S., the Chinese economy today is one-sixth larger than the U.S. economy.”

The COVID-19 pandemic will only amplify the differences between the two economies. The Economist explains:

“The variation is the result of differences between countries. Most important is the spread of the disease. China has all but stopped it while Europe, and perhaps soon America, is battling a costly second wave. Over the past week Paris has closed its bars and Madrid has gone into partial lockdown. In China, meanwhile, you can now down sambuca shots in nightclubs. Another difference is the pre-existing structure of economies. It is far easier to operate factories under social distancing than it is to run service-sector businesses that rely on face-to-face contact. Manufacturing makes up a bigger share of the economy in China than in any other big country. A third factor is the policy response. This is partly about size: America has injected more stimulus than Europe, including spending worth 12% of GDP and a 1.5 percentage point cut in short-term interest rates. But policy also includes how governments respond to the structural changes and creative destruction the pandemic is causing.”

There is not much significance to this change. It would be hard for the US, with only 4% of the world’s population, to retain the spot of the world’s largest economy. Moreover, one should keep in mind that the Chinese have many people to satisfy economically–not an easy task with climate change altering the patterns of viable economic activity. But the important lesson of the pandemic is that globalization is not a seamless process and figuring out how to satisfy economic interests which require a high degree of interdependence with political interests which seem to be tilting in favor of narrow national interests will be a very difficult task.

Posted October 16, 2020 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

13 October 2020   Leave a comment

Last Saturday, North Korea held a military parade it which it showcased what analysts believe could be a very formidable intercontinental ballistic missile. It has not test-launched the missile, although North Korea did in fact test the engines for the rockets last December at its vertical test facility. We do not know, therefore, if it actually works. But it is the largest liquid-fueled missile ever seen and could easily host multiple warheads if it were so equipped. CNN quotes several analysts about the significance of the missile:

“Analysts said the new missile is not known to have been tested, but a bigger weapon would allow North Korea to put multiple warheads on it, increasing the threat it would pose to any targeted foe.

“‘Largest *road-mobile* liquid-fueled missile anywhere, to be clear,’ tweeted Ankit Panda, senior fellow in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“‘Liquid fuel, Huuuuge, capable of carrying MIRV nuclear warheads,’ tweeted Melissa Hanham, deputy director of Open Nuclear Network at Stanford University.

“‘What North Korea has shown us, what appears to be a new liquid-fueled ICBM that seems to be a derivative of what was tested back in late 2017, known as the Hwasong-15, is much bigger and clearly more powerful than anything in the DPRK’s arsenal,’ said Harry Kazianis, senior director of Korean studies at the Washington DC-based Center for the National Interest.”

The fact that the missile is liquid-fueled is important because, unlike solid-fueled missiles, liquid-fueled missiles take several hours before they can be launched which gives an adversary with satellite capabilities enough time to target the missile before it is launched. But the missile, if it is indeed operational, represents a major violation of the understanding that North Korean leader Kim reached with US President Trump in Singapore three years ago. At that meeting, North Korea promised not to test any missiles that had the capability of hitting the US mainland in return for US recognition of North Korea’s status as a nuclear-armed state. While North Korea has technically kept its promise not to test such a missile, its display of such a missile represents as serious threat to American promises to defend South Korea and Japan from a nuclear attack from North Korea. It is unlikely that the US would use nuclear weapons to defend either of the two allies if such action might lead to the deaths of millions of Americans.

Under different circumstances, one would expect the President of the United States to make an issue of North Korea’s capabilities. But President Trumps has been notably silent about North Korea’s nuclear capabilities since his last meeting with leader Kim in Hanoi. Writing in Vox, Alex Ward assesses President Trump’s North Korean strategy:

“North Korea’s display of new, dangerous weapons on Saturday made one thing perfectly clear: Over the last four years, President Donald Trump has failed to curb the nuclear threat from Pyongyang….

“Which means North Korea now has a greater ability to threaten America and its regional allies today than it did when Trump entered office. Trump is by no means the first president to fall short of reversing Pyongyang’s nuclear progress, but he’s now the latest.

“According to a source familiar with his comments, Trump has been telling White House aides he’s ‘really angry about [North Korea’s] missile parade’ and ‘really disappointed’ in Kim personally. But that same person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk candidly about internal discussions, noted Trump is unlikely to change his stance toward North Korea unless it tests a new ICBM or a nuclear device.”

The Trump strategy has essentially led to a dead-end and it is not clear that there is anything now that can be done to persuade North Korea to relinquish its nuclear weapons. Robert Kelly writes in the National Interest:

“There is no big bang deal to be had with North Korea at a price Washington would find acceptable. The U.S. is not going to retrench from South Korea or Japan to end the North Korean nuclear program completely. That no one is even discussing concessions on that scale tells you that the U.S. would rather live with North Korea’s nuclear weapons than make the concessions necessary to end it. So either we simply live with it, or we start searching for smaller deals. There is no other alternative.”

I guess that means that Mr. Trump will not be receiving the Nobel Peace Prize for his North Korean diplomacy.

Photograph of North Korea’s Newest Ballistic Missile

Posted October 13, 2020 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

11 October 2020   Leave a comment

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to amplify the growing wealth inequality in the US. The process seems to be fairly clear: low income earners have seen their jobs and their hours disappear while high income earners have enjoyed record gains in the value of their sticks. According to Bloomberg:

“The Fed estimates the top 10% of U.S. households hold 69% of the country’s wealth, or $77.3 trillion, up from 60.9% share at the end of the 1980s. The very richest Americans are almost entirely responsible for that gain. The top 1% held 30.5% of U.S. wealth in June, up from 23.7% in late 1989. The bottom half’s share, meanwhile, has fallen from 3.6% to 1.9%.”

The Huffington Post provides more detail:

“The rich got richer this year despite the COVID-19 pandemic — while people struggling financially found themselves in even more dire straits. COVID-19, which has killed more than 210,000 Americans, has disproportionally hurt people of color, older people, women and workers in low-paying jobs.

“The 50 richest people increased their wealth since the beginning of 2020 by nearly $339 billion to almost $2 trillion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index

“The poorest 50% of Americans — about 165 million people — hold just $2.08 trillion of net worth, or 1.9% of all household wealth, according to Federal Reserve statistics.

“More broadly, the top 1% of Americans currently have a combined net worth of $34.2 trillion. They hold 30.4% of all U.S. household wealth and more than half of the equity in corporations and in mutual fund shares, according to the data.

“The wealthy and corporations were already sailing along thanks to a massive tax cut from the administration of President Donald Trump in 2017. As a result, the nation racked up a record deficit, which hit an all-time high of $3 trillion in the first 11 months of the current budget year.

The inequality has had a dramatic effect on the different generations in American society with the youngest cohort, the Millennials, facing the worst distribution of wealth in American history.

The implications of this divergence for the political system are ominous. The US Middle Class was the bedrock of what has been called the American Dream”–a metaphor for all in the world who aspired to a better life. Sadly, as the graph below from the Pew Research Center, the American Middle Class seems to be disappearing.

Posted October 11, 2020 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

6 October 2020   1 comment

Thanks to a link from a former student, Megan van Frank, I read an essay in the Atlantic, by David Brooks, an analyst with whom I often disagree. The essay is entitled “America Is Having a Moral Convulsion“, a title which gave me the willies. But I trust Megan, who was a brilliant student, so I read the entire essay. There are many points in the essay where I took out the proverbial red pen, but, I will confess, that when I got to the end of the essay I found myself thinking furiously about Brooks’s argument that US citizens are going through an epidemic of mistrust.

“When you look back on it from the vantage of 2020, moral freedom, like the other dominant values of the time, contained within it a core assumption: If everybody does their own thing, then everything will work out for everybody. If everybody pursues their own economic self-interest, then the economy will thrive for all. If everybody chooses their own family style, then children will prosper. If each individual chooses his or her own moral code, then people will still feel solidarity with one another and be decent to one another. This was an ideology of maximum freedom and minimum sacrifice.

“It all looks naive now. We were naive about what the globalized economy would do to the working class, naive to think the internet would bring us together, naive to think the global mixing of people would breed harmony, naive to think the privileged wouldn’t pull up the ladders of opportunity behind them. We didn’t predict that oligarchs would steal entire nations, or that demagogues from Turkey to the U.S. would ignite ethnic hatreds. We didn’t see that a hyper-competitive global meritocracy would effectively turn all of childhood into elite travel sports where a few privileged performers get to play and everyone else gets left behind.

Brooks is myopic when he uses the word “we”. I, and many others, had no such illusions about the social, economic, and cultural impacts of what is loosely called “neoliberalism”. But misidentifying the audience does not vitiate the argument. In my own case, however, mistrust settled in before the age of neoliberalism which is usually associated with US President Reagan and British Prime Minister Thatcher in the 1980s. For me, the unwillingness of the political system to be truthful began with the assassinations of John and Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., Vietnam, and Watergate.

I do not think that we should assume that politicians should be truthful. But trust in a political system depends on the ability of the system to coerce truthfulness if necessary. For most of human history we depended on the concept of honor and oaths to provide truth. Apparently we no longer believe that truth is necessary.

Ron Suskind, writing in the New Yorker, quoted a George W. Bush Administration who justified the invasion of Iraq in 2003 in these terms: “The aide said that guys like me were ‘in what we call the reality-based community,’ which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.’ […] ‘That’s not the way the world really works anymore,’ he continued. ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do’.”

We now dress up the celebration of lies with phrases such as “alternative” or “fake” news. The argument was best articulated by White House Advisor Kellyanne Conway with journalist Chuck Todd:

“This Kellyanne Conway exchange with Meet the Press host Chuck Todd, on whether Sean Spicer was lying yesterday when he said Trump’s inaugural was the most-watched ever, will dominate Twitter today.

“Conway: ‘You’re saying it’s a falsehood and Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave alternative facts to that.’

“Todd: ‘Alternative facts are not facts. They are falsehoods.’

“Conway: ‘If we’re going to keep referring to the press secretary in those types of terms I think we’re going to have to rethink our relationship here.'”

The willful creation of ignorance seems to be a feature of life in the 20th century. It was perfected by the totalitarian regimes on the left and the right. It now seems to be a tactic of anyone who wishes to stay in power. Accepting this reality because of fatigue is an irresponsible act.

Posted October 6, 2020 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

5 October 2020   Leave a comment

Armenia and Azerbaijan continue to fight over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. The problems revolves around the mostly Armenian population that lives in the province which is within the sovereign territory of Azerbaijan. The conflict highlights the difficulty of maintaining the fiction of the “nation-state”, the primary agent in the traditional study of international relations. The Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh consider themselves to be part of the Armenian nation but they live under the legal rule of the Azerbaijani state.

The fighting has been going on for 8 days and there is constant use of artillery shelling, including the use of the especially lethal cluster bombs, which is threatening large numbers of civilians. The conflict is drawing in Turkey on the side of Azerbaijan and Russia on the side of Armenia–Russia has a military base in Armenia. The conflict rests on the way both countries emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, although one could trace the conflict much further back in time. After the collapse, Nagorno-Karabakh declared its independence, which led to a war that is estimated to have killed 30,000 people and ultimately left the fate of the province within the territory of Azerbaijan.

Armenians constitute a well-organized political constituency in the US and there is considerable pressure on the US government to support Armenia in this conflict. And the fact that Turkey is supporting the Muslim-dominant state of Azerbaijan brings back the ugly memories of the Armenian genocide conducted by Turkey during World War I (a characterization that Turkey adamantly denies). But the US is not taking a stand in this conflict as it is preoccupied with the national election and the COVID-19 pandemic. Some European states are actively involved in trying to mediate the conflict, but I doubt that those efforts will yield much success. Interestingly, the US and Israel seem to be on different sides of this conflict, with Israel being a prime supplier of weaponry to Azerbaijan. According to Al-Monitor:

“According to reports, the scale of commercial ties — mainly arms deals — between Israel and Azerbaijan is colossal. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, in 2016 arms exports from Israel to Azerbaijan added up to $250 million and $136 million in 2017. The institute noted that from 2015 to 2019, “A total of 60% of Azerbaijan’s arms imports came from Israel and 31% from Russia.”

“Another sphere of commercial ties is energy, with Azerbaijan exporting to Israel as much as 40% of its local petrol consumption. The Azeri petrol reaches Turkey via pipelines and from there it is shipped to Israel on boats. Azerbaijan’s state oil company SOCAR is reportedly interested in buying shares in the Israeli Ashdod refinery.

“The strategic importance of Azerbaijan could explain Israel’s mild reaction to the Armenian accusations. Still, Jerusalem has been careful not to be publicly associated with the Azeri-Turkish camp. Jerusalem certainly does not consider Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan a friend, and Israel maintains good diplomatic relations with Armenia. The Russian support of the Armenians also complicates things. Throughout his years as prime minister, Netanyahu has made a point of establishing good, even friendly ties, with Russian President Vladimir Putin. He does not want to ruin them.”

The inability of the international community to effectively protect the civilians in this conflict is a travesty. And the inability and unwillingness of the US to use its good offices to mediate the crisis is a sobering measure of how much the US has disengaged from global politics.

Posted October 5, 2020 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

3 October 2020   Leave a comment

The Pew Research Center has published the results of a poll it conducted on the attitudes of Americans toward racial and ethnic diversity. The poll indicates that most Americans are far more favorably disposed toward such diversity than was true in 2016:

“While these views have changed little since 2018, the public expresses more positive – and less negative – views of the long-term rise in racial and ethnic diversity than it did four years ago, during the last presidential campaign. Since then, the share saying a majority Black, Hispanic and Asian population is a good thing has increased by 10 percentage points, while there has been a comparable decline (11 points) in the share saying it is bad thing.”

The shift toward more favorable views is somewhat surprising given the steady stream of ethnic and racial vitriol since 2016 which infects some discussions about American politics. There is, however, a clear difference of opinion among Republicans and Democrats on the issue. The change in attitudes may reflect the changing demographics of US society. By 2044, the majority of Americans will be non-white.

Posted October 3, 2020 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

1 October 2020   Leave a comment

Researchers associated with Cornell University have studied the sources of misinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic. The study was remarkable in the number of sources that were studied. According to the researchers:

“The study was performed using Cision Media’s Next Generation Communications Cloud platform, which aggregates content from 7 million-plus sources around the world. This database was queried with an English-language search string for misinformation topics in the context of COVID-19, using an iterative cycle of different keywords.

The study evaluated over 38 million pieces of content published by English-language, traditional media worldwide between January 1 and May 26, 2020.

It analyzed engagement with traditional media stories on social channels.

The study identified over 1.1 million news articles (2.9% of the whole COVID-19 conversation) that disseminated, amplified or reported on misinformation related to the pandemic.

The major findings of the study identify US President Trump as the source of almost 38% of all misinformation references.

  • “It is apparent from the data that mentions of President Trump within the context of COVID-19 misinformation comprise by far the largest single component of the “infodemic.” Trump mentions comprised 37.9% of the overall “infodemic.”
  • • However, a substantial proportion of other topics was also driven by the president’s comments, so some overlap can be expected. This strengthens the conclusion that the President of the United States was likely the largest driver of the COVID-19 misinformation “infodemic.”
  • • Only 16.4% of the misinformation conversation was “fact-checking” in nature, suggesting that the majority of COVID misinformation is conveyed by the media without question or correction.

The study identified 11 topics that were identified as misleading or false:

1 Miracle Cures
2 New World Order / Deep State
3 Democratic Party Hoax
4 Wuhan Lab / Bioweapon
5 Bill Gates
6 5G
7 Antisemitic Conspiracies
8 Population Control
9 Dr. Anthony Fauci
10 Plandemic
11 Bat Soup

I have not myself heard the rumors about bat soup but I likely skipped over those articles in self-defense. But the findings are rather extraordinary, testifying to the power of the “bully pulpit“, a phrase first used by US President Theodore Roosevelt. But the dissemination of false or misleading information in a pandemic is intrinsically dangerous. Writing in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Herbert Lin and Harold Trinkunas point out all the problems engendered by false information. If one wishes to find reputable information about COVID-19, I would strongly recommend going to the website on the virus maintained by the Johns Hopkins University.

Posted October 1, 2020 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

28 September 2020   Leave a comment

Armenia and Azerbaijan have had a long-standing dispute over the rights of people who live in the disputed region known as Nagorno-Karabakh. That dispute has broken out into open conflict. Armenia has a Christian majority population and Azerbaijan has a majority Muslim population. The population of Nagorno-Karabakh is majority Armenian, but it falls within the national territory of Azerbaijan. The Council on Foreign Relations gives a good background to the conflict:

“In the 1920’s, the Soviet government established the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Region—where 95 percent of the population is ethnically Armenian—within Azerbaijan. Under Bolshevik rule, fighting between the two countries was kept in check, but as the Soviet Union began to collapse, so did its grip on Armenia and Azerbaijan. In 1988, Nagorno-Karabakh legislature passed a resolution to join Armenia despite the region’s legal location within Azerbaijan’s borders. As the Soviet Union was dissolving in 1991, the autonomous region officially declared independence. War erupted between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the region, leaving roughly 30,000 casualties and hundreds of thousands of refugees. By 1993, Armenia controlled Nagorno-Karabakh and occupied 20 percent of the surrounding Azerbaijani territory. In 1994, Russia brokered a cease-fire which has remained in place since.”

There have been many attempts by outsiders to mediate the conflict, most notably by the Helsinki Commission. Unfortunately, these efforts have not yielded fruit, and the recent outbreak in fighting has the potential to draw in outside powers. Russia has a defense treaty with Armenia and Turkey, a member of NATO, strongly supports Azerbaijan. Iran, a Shia Muslim state, seems to be more favorable to Armenia, largely because it fears the Turkic Azeri population even though they are Muslim, albeit Sunni Muslim. Unfortunately, outside powers are more than willing to sell weapons to both states, regardless of policy alignments. Both countries can ill-afford a sustained arms race.

Posted September 28, 2020 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

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