Archive for the ‘World Politics’ Category

10 July 2020   Leave a comment

Jeremy A. Greene and Dora Vargha have written an essay for the Boston Review entitled “How Epidemics End“. They make an important distinction between the biological and the social roots of an epidemic. The biological roots can ultimately be identified through scientific investigation and then the question is whether there is sufficient expertise to disarm the biological agent (bacteria or virus). The social roots identify the ability and willingness of the social, political, and economic system to respond to the biological threat.

In both cases, the authors suggest that there is never a clear end to an epidemic. We tend to think of a vaccine as the silver bullet to a pandemic, but history suggests otherwise. The authors use polio vaccines as an example. The first vaccine, developed by Jonas Salk, was an important, but not conclusive, response to polio. The second vaccine, developed by Sabin, was much more effective, but its adoption was sporadic at the beginning:

“The development of the polio vaccine is relatively well known, usually told as a story of an American tragedy and triumph. Yet while polio epidemics that swept the globe in the postwar decades did not respect national borders or the Iron Curtain, the Cold War provided context for both collaboration and antagonism. Only a few years after the licensing of Jonas Salk’s inactivated vaccine in the United States, his technique became widely used across the world, although its efficacy outside of the United States was questioned. The second, live oral vaccine developed by Albert Sabin, however, involved extensive collaboration in with Eastern European and Soviet colleagues. As the success of the Soviet polio vaccine trials marked a rare landmark of Cold War cooperation, Basil O’Connor, president of the March of Dimes movement, speaking at the Fifth International Poliomyelitis Conference in 1960, proclaimed that ‘in search for the truth that frees man from disease, there is no cold war.’

“Yet the differential uptake of this vaccine retraced the divisions of Cold War geography. The Soviet Union, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia were the first countries in the world to begin nationwide immunization with the Sabin vaccine, soon followed by Cuba, the first country in the Western Hemisphere to eliminate the disease. By the time the Sabin vaccine was licensed in the United States in 1963, much of Eastern Europe had done away with epidemics and was largely polio-free. The successful ending of this epidemic within the communist world was immediately held up as proof of the superiority of their political system.

“Western experts who trusted the Soviet vaccine trials, including the Yale virologist and WHO envoy Dorothy Horstmann, nonetheless emphasized that their results were possible because of the military-like organization of the Soviet health care system. Yet these enduring concerns that authoritarianism itself was the key tool for ending epidemics—a concern reflected in current debates over China’s heavy-handed interventions in Wuhan this year—can also be overstated. The Cold War East was united not only by authoritarianism and heavy hierarchies in state organization and society, but also by a powerful shared belief in the integration of paternal state, biomedical research, and socialized medicine. Epidemic management in these countries combined an emphasis on prevention, easily mobilized health workers, top-down organization of vaccinations, and a rhetoric of solidarity, all resting on a health care system that aimed at access to all citizens.”

At this point in the COVID-19 pandemic, these lessons are clear. There is a wide discrepancy among states in effective responses. The most dramatic evidence of the social basis of the pandemic will become very obvious when a vaccine is developed: Which states will have access to the vaccine? Who will profit from the vaccine? How will the vaccine be distributed? The answers to these questions will highlight the power dynamics of the pandemic.

Turkish President Erdogan has signed a decree converting Hagia Sophia back to a mosque from its current status as a museum. Hagia Sophia was built in the 6th century by the leader of the Byzantine Empire, Justinian I. It is widely regarded as a architectural triumph and is one of the world’s great monuments. It was converted to a mosque after the Turkish capture of Constantinople by Mehmet II in 1453 (and the city’s name was changed to its current name, Istanbul). Mehmet II closed the city to European traders (mostly Venetian and Genoese) which ended the highly lucrative Silk Road trade. That closure stimulated the Europeans to find an alternative route to Asia–cue in Columbus. In 1934, Ataturk, who had a clear vision of Turkey as a secular state, converted the mosque into a museum.

The decision cements the Islamist turn of the Erdogan government. We will have to see how the Turks respond. There is no doubt that Putin will be quite angry since he regards the Eastern Orthodox church to be an important part of his right to rule. We’ll see if the decision has any effect on the Russia-Turkish standoff in Syria.

Hagia Sophia

Posted July 10, 2020 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

8 July 2020   Leave a comment

On 1 July, the government of Israel self-declared the authority to annex substantial parts of the Occupied West Bank. Most governments and international law do not recognize that right. Since the West Bank was occupied by Israel in the 1967 war, the world determined that the region was only occupied because the UN Charter, which Israel signed, no longer recognizes a right of “conquest”. Since 1967, Israel has slowly exercised sovereignty over some of those Occupied Territories such as the Golan Heights (taken from Syria) and East Jerusalem (taken from Jordan). And there are about 400,000 Israeli citizens living in settlements in the West Bank (also taken from Jordan in the 1967 war).

Prime Minister Netanyahu has pushed hard for the annexation, but plans have been delayed because of Netanyahu’s legal troubles as well as the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in Israel. Most of the European states are opposed to the annexation, largely because it vitiates the possibility of a two-state solution, the preferred course of action for most of the European governments. The US has indicated that it does not yet favor outright annexation because it is waiting to see a resumption of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. The US position is disingenuous because there is no possibility that the negotiations will resume nor will the Trump Administration oppose an outright Israeli annexation.

We do not know how the annexation will proceed–Israel has not made its plans clear. Jonathan Kuttab has written a speculative, but well-reasoned, essay on some possible implications of the Israeli annexation, but the map below clearly indicates that a viable Palestinian state is impossible after annexation. Beyond that matter are other serious issues such as the status of Palestinians living in annexed areas. Prime Minister Netanyahu has already declared that those Palestinians will not be offered Israeli citizenship. They will, nonetheless, be ruled by Israeli law.

That outcome is illegitimate, but also unsustainable. Political, economic, and social control over a people who have no equal voice in their governance is wrong and cannot be supported. The proposed annexation will undermine Israeli democracy and other states, including the US, should question whether they can continue to support the Israeli government.

Map showing region of the Jordan Valley which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to annex, if he wins the September elections, along with the Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

Posted July 8, 2020 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

6 July 2020   2 comments

Iran has suffered three explosions at facilities associated with its nuclear program over the last few weeks. According to the BBC:

Since 26 June alone, there have been several such incidents:

  • 26 June: Blast at a liquid fuel production facility for ballistic missiles in Khojir, close to Parchin, near Tehran; fire at power plant in Shiraz, causing a blackout
  • 30 June: Explosion at a medical clinic in Tehran, 19 people killed
  • 2 July: Blast and fire at Natanz nuclear site
  • 3 July: Large fire in Shiraz
  • 4 July: Explosion and fire in power plant in Ahwaz; chlorine gas leak at Karoun petrochemical plant in Mahshahr

The most recent explosion was at the facility in Natanz, at which advanced centrifuges were produced. There has been no official explanation for the explosions, but a previously unknown group, calling itself the Homeland Cheetahs, has taken credit. The group claims to be comprised of dissident members of the Iranian military and defense establishment, and they provided the BBC with photographs buttressing their claim. It is hard, however, not to suspect that the US and Israel were involved in some way. The US launched a cyberattack against the facility at Natanz in 2007 with a computer virus called Stuxnet. And the Israeli statement was ambiguous. The Guardian describes the response:

“Israeli cabinet officials spoke publicly for the first time on Sunday about the rumours. Neither the defence minister, Benny Gantz, nor the foreign minister, Gabi Ashkenazi, confirmed any Israeli role, including in the latest fire at a power plant in the south-west of the country on Saturday. But their careful statements did little to douse suspicions that at least some incidents were not accidents.

“’Not every incident that happens in Iran is necessarily connected to us,’ Gantz told Israel Radio on Sunday morning. ‘All those systems are complex, they have very high safety constraints and I’m not sure [the Iranians] always know how to maintain them.’

“Asked about Natanz, Ashkenazi told a forum in Jerusalem that Israel had a long-term policy not to allow Iran to obtain nuclear weapons, adding: ‘It is better not to mention our actions in Iran.’”

Iran’s nuclear program has been set back for many months because of the explosions. The centrifuges being produced at Natanz were highly advanced, giving the Iranians the capability to produced highly enriched uranium quickly. The Natanz facility was not active because of the nuclear agreement reached under the Obama Administration. After President Trump pulled out of the agreement, the Iranians, after waiting a year to see if the agreement could be restored, announced that it would resume uranium enrichment. I have no doubt that the Iranians will respond after they assess the damage and the likely agents responsible for the explosions. That that response will be is unknown, but it is likely to be quite dramatic.

Satellite photo of the damage to the Natanz facility

Posted July 6, 2020 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

1 July 2020   1 comment

Let’s start out the second half of this wretched year with some peace and beauty.

Posted July 1, 2020 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

30 June 2020   Leave a comment

Carl Bernstein has written a fairly long and well-documented article for CNN on US President Trump’s telephone conversations with foreign leaders. The article is highly disturbing and is based on interviews with “former secretaries of state and defense, two national security advisers and his longest-serving chief of staff”. Bernstein concludes that “the President himself posed a danger to the national security of the United States” in the eyes of these former advisers. According to Bernstein:

“The calls caused former top Trump deputies — including national security advisers H.R. McMaster and John Bolton, Defense Secretary James Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and White House chief of staff John Kelly, as well as intelligence officials — to conclude that the President was often “delusional,” as two sources put it, in his dealings with foreign leaders. The sources said there was little evidence that the President became more skillful or competent in his telephone conversations with most heads of state over time. Rather, he continued to believe that he could either charm, jawbone or bully almost any foreign leader into capitulating to his will, and often pursued goals more attuned to his own agenda than what many of his senior advisers considered the national interest.”

Bernstein continues:

“Two sources compared many of the President’s conversations with foreign leaders to Trump’s recent press “briefings” on the coronavirus pandemic: free form, fact-deficient stream-of-consciousness ramblings, full of fantasy and off-the-wall pronouncements based on his intuitions, guesswork, the opinions of Fox News TV hosts and social media misinformation.”

There are also many examples of how deferential Mr. Trump is with Russian President Putin and Turkish President Erdogan. The calls with Erdogan were especially disturbing:

“Two sources described the President as woefully uninformed about the history of the Syrian conflict and the Middle East generally, and said he was often caught off guard, and lacked sufficient knowledge to engage on equal terms in nuanced policy discussion with Erdogan. ‘Erdogan took him to the cleaners,’ said one of the sources.

“The sources said that deleterious US policy decisions on Syria — including the President’s directive to pull US forces out of the country, which then allowed Turkey to attack Kurds who had helped the US fight ISIS and weakened NATO’s role in the conflict — were directly linked to Erdogan’s ability to get his way with Trump on the phone calls.”

After three and a half years as President, it still seems to be the case that Mr. Trump does not fully understand what a President is supposed to do. He remains a reality TV actor.

Posted June 30, 2020 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

28 June 2020   Leave a comment

Today is the anniversary of the assassination of the archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, by Gavrilo Princip, a member of the Serbian group known as the Black Hand. The Black Hand was dedicated to freeing Serbia from control of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The assassination triggered events that led to World War I, although the political dynamics in Europe since 1901 had been leading up to that catastrophic war. It is also the anniversary of the French signing the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 which ended that phase of the war (which picked up again in 1939 and only ended in 1945).

Gavrilo Princip in his prison cell at the Terezín fortress, 1914. The same year, Princip had killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife Sophie of Hohenberg. On 28 June 1914, Princip and five more assassins of the Black Hand society planned to kill Franz Ferdinand for the creation of a Yugoslavian state. The result, however, led to the First World War with Austria-Hungary’s declaration of war on Serbia. Princip was too young to receive the death penalty, so received the maximum sentence of twenty years in prison. Because of being held in harsh conditions, he contracted tuberculosis and died on 28 April 1918 at Terezín short before the war had ended.

Alexander Cooley and Daniel H. Nexon have written a fascinating essay entitled “How American Hegemony Ends” for Foreign Affairs. They persuasively argue that the liberal world order established by the US and its allies after 1945 was based upon a number of highly contingent circumstances, most notably the absence of any alternative system being plausibly supported because of the devastation of the war. That circumstance allowed the US to pursue a patronage system which induced support for the American hegemonic system. Cooley and Nexon note that that patronage no longer is as attractive to other states as it once was:

“The very forces that made U.S. hegemony so durable before are today driving its dissolution. Three developments enabled the post–Cold War U.S.-led order. First, with the defeat of communism, the United States faced no major global ideological project that could rival its own. Second, with the disintegration of the Soviet Union and its accompanying infrastructure of institutions and partnerships, weaker states lacked significant alternatives to the United States and its Western allies when it came to securing military, economic, and political support. And third, transnational activists and movements were spreading liberal values and norms that bolstered the liberal order.

“Today, those same dynamics have turned against the United States: a vicious cycle that erodes U.S. power has replaced the virtuous cycles that once reinforced it. With the rise of great powers such as China and Russia, autocratic and illiberal projects rival the U.S.-led liberal international system. Developing countries—and even many developed ones—can seek alternative patrons rather than remain dependent on Western largess and support. And illiberal, often right-wing transnational networks are pressing against the norms and pieties of the liberal international order that once seemed so implacable. In short, U.S. global leadership is not simply in retreat; it is unraveling. And the decline is not cyclical but permanent.”

The question is what will replace the liberal world order or if it will be replaced at all. The world has had experience with the absence of hegemonic power: the interwar period between 1918 and 1945 was marked by the inability of the European powers to enforce their imperial world order and the unwillingness of the US to enforce a liberal world order. That period was devastating. It witnessed horrific violations of human rights–the Holocaust, the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, and the Japanese atrocities in China. It saw the rapid retreat of the burgeoning democratic movement with the rise of Soviet totalitarianism and German, Italian, and Japanese fascism. And it permitted the total collapse of the global economic order with the Great Depression. The world is a vicious place without any cops on the beat.

But it seems unlikely that the authoritarian rule of Russia, China, the US, Brazil, India, the Philippines, Poland, Saudi Arabia, and Hungary will be attractive to young people used to the freedoms of social media and the creative arts. The large protests in the US against police brutality and systemic racism in the US have been mirrored abroad and stand as testimony to the willingness of many people to resist stronger governmental powers. We will see which way the pendulum swings.

Posted June 28, 2020 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

26 June 2020   Leave a comment

I weep for the Republic. According to today’s Miami Herald:

“A record week of surging coronavirus numbers was only heightened on Friday, as state health officials confirmed 8,942 cases, nearly doubling the previous record of cases reported in a single day, two days earlier.

“Florida’s Department of Health on Friday morning confirmed the cases, bringing the state total to 122,960. The state also announced at least 39 new deaths, bringing the total of COVID-19 deaths north of 3,360.”

Posted June 26, 2020 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

25 June 2020   Leave a comment

A Mount Holyoke College alumna, Jenna Ruddock-Franzini, has published a photographic essay on the protests over systematic racism in the US in Washington, DC . She has an extraordinarily keen eye for a moment that captures the passions and motivations of people who are protesting injustice. She also has captured the degree to which law enforcement in the US has been excessively militarized. The essay was published in The Progressive and I encourage readers to look at the photographs closely.

June 3, 2020 — Arianna Evans, an organizer with the newly established group Freedom Fighters DC, speaks to a crowd of seated protesters a block north of the White House as the already significant military presence behind her grows.

Posted June 25, 2020 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

24 June 2020   Leave a comment

Tom McTague has written an essay for The Atlantic entitled “The Decline of the American World”. It is worthy of a very close read. McTague raises the issue of how differently US allies are assessing Mr. Trump’s foreign policy from previous Presidents. The US has been a dominant power in world affairs since the end of World War II and it enjoyed the support of strong allies even when those allies disagreed with some US actions. That general support continued despite active opposition from France over the US role in the Vietnam War and opposition from Germany over the Iraq War of 2003, to name just a few examples. McTague suspects that this general support came from broad agreement over the rules-based liberal world order to which US rhetoric aspired. The persistence of that general support is something that McTague views as significant:

It is hard to escape the feeling that this is a uniquely humiliating moment for America. As citizens of the world the United States created, we are accustomed to listening to those who loathe America, admire America, and fear America (sometimes all at the same time). But feeling pity for America? That one is new, even if the schadenfreude is painfully myopic. If it’s the aesthetic that matters, the U.S. today simply doesn’t look like the country that the rest of us should aspire to, envy, or replicate.

“Even in previous moments of American vulnerability, Washington reigned supreme. Whatever moral or strategic challenge it faced, there was a sense that its political vibrancy matched its economic and military might, that its system and democratic culture were so deeply rooted that it could always regenerate itself. It was as if the very idea of America mattered, an engine driving it on whatever other glitches existed under the hood. Now, something appears to be changing. America seems mired, its very ability to rebound in question. A new power has emerged on the world stage to challenge American supremacy—China—with a weapon the Soviet Union never possessed: mutually assured economic destruction.”

That general support seems to have evaporated as President Trump has jettisoned the idea of a liberal world order and has instead pursued a world order based upon balance of power rules that elevates a narrow definition of the national interest as the only determinant for foreign policy. In so doing, the US divested itself of any responsibility to conduct its foreign policy along lines that demonstrated common values and interests. McTague correctly identifies Mr. Trump’s interview with Bill O’Reilly of Fox News in 2017 as the clearest example of this shift: “In an interview with Bill O’Reilly on Fox News in 2017, Trump was asked to explain his respect for Putin, and he replied with the usual generalities about the Russian president leading his country and its fight against Islamist terrorism, prompting O’Reilly to interject: ‘Putin’s a killer.’ Trump then responded: ‘There are a lot of killers. We’ve got a lot of killers. What, do you think our country is so innocent?’”  With that statement, the US eschewed the role of a world leader and became just another ordinary power.

But it is not easy for the world to give up on the aspirations of a rules-based world order. After all, none of the problems facing the world, such as climate change or the sputtering world economy or the need to protect human rights, can be addressed without multilateral cooperation. And American citizens are still insisting on the protections of human rights for all. It is not coincidental that it was the sight of Americans pulling down statues honoring Confederate soldiers that led Belgian citizens to pull down the statue of King Leopold, the genocidal ruler of what was once known as the Belgian Congo. Liberal aspirations are unlikely to be pursued by Russia or China so those who wish to see those values protected must turn to those countries that are willing to defend them. McTague observes:

“By 1946, when Winston Churchill arrived in Fulton, Missouri, to deliver his famous Iron Curtain speech, the might of the United States was obvious. The U.S. had the weapons to destroy the world, the military reach to control it, and the economy to continue growing rich from it. Churchill opened his speech with a warning: ‘The United States stands at this time at the pinnacle of world power. It is a solemn moment for the American democracy. For with primacy in power is also joined an awe-inspiring accountability to the future. If you look around you, you must feel not only the sense of duty done, but also you must feel anxiety lest you fall below the level of achievement.’

“America’s problem is that the rest of the world can see when it has fallen below its achievements. In moments such as the current one, it is hard to dispute some of the criticisms leveled by the country’s most vociferous critics from abroad: that it is irredeemably racist or overly ambivalent to poverty and violence, police brutality and guns. The rights and wrongs don’t appear particularly complicated in this dilemma, even if the country itself is.

“Yet this is also a nation that is not Russia or China, as much as its own leader would have us all believe. In Moscow and Beijing, for starters, it would not be possible to protest in such numbers and with such vehemence. From a European perspective, it is also striking to see the energy, oratory, and moral authority once again bubbling up from below—the beauty of America, not the ugliness. To listen to an Atlanta rapper address a press conference, or a Houston police chief speak to a crowd of protesters, is to watch a more accomplished, powerful, and eloquent public speaker than almost any European politician I can think of.”

It is impossible for the US to return to its previous role of a dominant superpower–the world has changed too dramatically from the unique conditions of 1945. But Americans and the rest of the world need to think more seriously about how to maintain a liberal world order without the constant intervention of the US in world affairs.

Posted June 24, 2020 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

23 June 2020   Leave a comment

American exceptionalism is a phrase often used to describe the unique role in the world that Americans often ascribe to themselves. It is a phrase that suggests that Americans are “different” from citizens of other states. Usually that difference is determined to be “better”. In a number of important ways, the US is better positioned than many countries: it has easy access to both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans which also serve as a defensive moat from foreign invasion; it has the Great Plains, the most productive agricultural land on the planet; and it came into being at a decisive time, allowing it to implement the political and economic ideas of the Enlightenment without having to address the legacies of feudalism simultaneously. The belief in American exceptionalism has been a constant theme in American foreign policy and the almost constant flow of immigrants into the country served to reinforce that special sense.

The Turkish newspaper, Daily Sabah, published an op-ed that demonstrated a keen understanding of American exceptionalism and how the Trump Administration has undermined the ideology:

“Unlike many other countries, particularly compared to Russia, China and the European powers, the U.S. came into being as an experiment in nation-building, underlining the importance of secular, cosmopolitan, universal and multicultural values, uniting a diverse people around the political project of American nationalism.

“Being part of the American nation has long been considered as subscribing to the core tenets of the American creed, which has been in abject contradiction with examples of ethnic, religious and racists nationalism in other societies. Americans have thought of themselves so unique that promoting universal American values to other parts of the globe has long shaped American foreign policy practices. Americans have thought of themselves as an exceptional nation that has a God-given mandate to civilize and transform other societies in the image of American values.

“The four-year Trump presidency seems to have dented that image severely by contributing to the erosion of American soft power. We knew that Trump was a nativist politician, disparaging and belittling American exceptionalism. He said many times that it was not the U.S.’s business to teach others how to rule themselves and with him in power, the U.S. would no longer engage in nation-building exercises abroad.

Exceptionalism is a convenient ideology that is invariably used by imperial powers, largely to justify interventions in weaker powers as There is a great deal of evidence that has begun to undermine American exceptionalism. On 15 June, I posted information from the Gallup poll that indicated that the number of Americans who take great pride in being American has declined over time. Catherine Rampell wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post on how belief in American exceptionalism has been shattered by the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The comparison between the success of US efforts to contain the COVID-19 pandemic and the EU’s efforts indicates a degree of incompetence that is breathtaking. The EU does not have any tools that are not also available to the US–it is a matter of effective governance.

But the COVID-19 example is only the most recent example of where the belief in American exceptionalism is misplaced. The Middle East Eye assesses the effects of the recent protests associated with systemic racism in the US on global attitudes toward the US:

“The world has seen through the veneer of American exceptionalism. Corruption, government mismanagement, systematic injustices, police brutality and civil strife have exposed a dark underbelly that arguably represents at least one foundational element of US society. 

“While many observers have associated this shift with the Trump presidency, this is a good time to reflect on whether that is truly the cause, or merely a reflection of a deeply rooted social malaise that has gone untreated. 

“Ultimately, the global outrage over Floyd’s killing suggests that the idea of ‘America’, however much it contrasts with reality, remains something that many around the world are willing to believe in. 

Similar sentiments have been expressed in Iranian and Chinese media. The real question is whether American citizens are willing to give up the vanity of American exceptionalism. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that the US is just an ordinary country. Karen Greenberg writes:

“With Covid-19, the very idea of American exceptionalism may have seen its last days. The virus has put the realities of wealth inequality, health insecurity, and poor work conditions under a high-powered microscope. Fading from sight are the days when this country’s engagement with the world could be touted as a triumph of leadership when it came to health, economic sustenance, democratic governance, and stability. Now, we are inside the community of nations in a grim new way—as fellow patients, grievers, and supplicants in search of food and shelter, in search, along with so much of humanity, of a more secure existence.”

Posted June 23, 2020 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

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