Archive for the ‘World Politics’ Category

4 November 2019   4 comments

The US has officially given its one-year notice to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement. US President Trump gave notice of the intention to withdraw on 1 June 2017, but the Agreement requires a full-year’s notice to leave. That means the US can leave the Agreement on 4 November 2020, the day after the US Presidential election. The announcement justified the action in these terms:

“President Trump made the decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement because of the unfair economic burden imposed on American workers, businesses, and taxpayers by U.S. pledges made under the Agreement.  The United States has reduced all types of emissions, even as we grow our economy and ensure our citizens’ access to affordable energy.  Our results speak for themselves:  U.S. emissions of criteria air pollutants that impact human health and the environment declined by 74% between 1970 and 2018.  U.S. net greenhouse gas emissions dropped 13% from 2005-2017, even as our economy grew over 19 percent.”

Note that the statement uses the time frame of 2005-2017 to document a decline in US greenhouse gas emissions. The data, however, for 2018 was readily available and greenhouse gas emissions in the US rose in that year: “In fact, U.S. greenhouse gas emissions spiked in 2018, seeing a 3.1% increase over 2017.” That increase was due to much more relaxed emission regulations passed by the Trump Administration. The Agreement was hardly a panacea, but it was a start. The Washington Post assesses the success of the Agreement so far:

“Human activities are estimated to have already caused about 1 degree Celsius of warming and are increasing that at a rate of about 0.2 degrees Celsius per decade. The UN World Meteorological Organization reported last year that global temperatures were on track to rise 3 to 5 degrees by the end of this century, well beyond the targeted cap of 2 degrees. Climate Action Tracker, a research project, agrees that current policies and pledges will leave the planet “well above” the Paris accord’s “long-term temperature goal.” Even with the U.S. involved, academics were concerned that the world was headed for “extensive” species extinctions, serious crop damage and irreversible increases in sea levels.

The absence of the US weakens an already weak effort. What is necessary is for the US and other countries to make a much more sustained effort to avert catastrophe.

The US House of Representatives has released a transcript of the testimony of US Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch. It is a fascinating read, but also a very depressing read. Yovanovitch was pulled out of Ukraine because she was viewed by some in the US government as insufficiently interested in pursuing the theory that Ukraine, and not Russia, was the country that interfered in the US 2016 election. That theory was posited by President Trump in order to undermine the finding of the US intelligence agencies that Russia was the source of misinformation and intelligence leaks. The testimony makes clear that the US State Department was held hostage to the personal political objectives of Mr. Trump and the personal economic interests of Trump’s personal lawyer, Mr. Guiliani. The refusal of the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, to support Ambassador Yovanovitch is an absolute disgrace. According to the New York Times:

“It was Mr. Pompeo who helped Mr. Trump and Mr. Giuliani oust the respected American ambassador to Ukraine, Marie L. Yovanovitch, in April. Both Michael McKinley, a senior adviser to Mr. Pompeo and a four-time ambassador, and Philip T. Reeker, the acting assistant secretary for Europe, testified that they asked State Department leadership to defend Ms. Yovanovitch from false accusations, only to be rejected. Mr. McKinley said he personally urged Mr. Pompeo three times to issue a defense; the revelation of that detail in a transcript released on Monday undercut a declaration Mr. Pompeo made in an interview last month that he ‘never heard’ Mr. McKinley ‘say a single thing’ about Ms. Yovanovitch’s ouster…

“Many diplomats now contend that Mr. Pompeo has done more damage to the 75,000-person agency than even his predecessor Rex Tillerson, an aloof oil executive reviled by department employees.”

The subversion of the State Department by Administration officials is a legacy that will take years to repair. On a more sordid note, Yovanovitch was told that if she wanted to save her job as Ambassador, she needed to issue Tweets praising Trump.

Posted November 4, 2019 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

3 November 2019   3 comments

Residents of New Delhi, India, and nearby areas are suffering from pollution levels that can only be described as hazardous. Pollution levels rise at this time of year as farmers burn the stubble from their harvests and also because of the use of fireworks to celebrate the Diwali holiday. Visibility was so poor that flights into the New Delhi airport were diverted to other cities. India accounts for seven of the ten most polluted cities in the world, a record that was once held by many Chinese cities. We should not, however, think that the pollution is only due to burning stubble and shooting off firecrackers. Those activities only account for about a third of the pollution, the other two-thirds are caused by the burning of fossil fuels. Many countries in Asia are still using coal for their energy needs because it is cheap and available. But the price for this economic activity is early death for many of the most vulnerable members of the population.

I have posted several times about the many protests that are going on in the world today. The causes of the unrest seem to be clear: growing income and wealth inequality, pervasive corruption in governments, and the growing fear of climate change. But one interesting feature of these protests, particularly the protests in Hong Kong, is that they seem to be leaderless. Organized political institutions, such a political parties, have been unable to harness this discontent, except in the very interesting case of the US where Donald Trump has essentially remade the Republican Party into his personal political party. Some new political parties such as Macron’s en Marche in France, also seem to be personal creations. The danger of leaderless protests is that they are susceptible to hijacking by opportunistic politicians.

Posted November 3, 2019 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

1 November 2019   2 comments

There is broad consensus among analysts that Russia has gained a great deal of leverage in the Middle East because of the US decision to withdraw from Syria. Eugene Rumer gives a brief summary of Russia’s historical role in the region:

“For centuries, Russia fought Turkey, England, and France for access to the Mediterranean, to protect fellow Christians under the Ottoman rule, and to secure a foothold in the Holy Land. For most of the post–World War II era, the Soviet Union was a major force in the Middle East. Moscow supported the Palestine Liberation Organization in its struggle against the “Zionist entity.” Egypt and Syria waged wars against Israel with Soviet weapons, help from Soviet military advisers, and occasionally even Soviet pilots. Soviet engineers and money helped build Egypt’s Aswan Dam. Then, in the late 1980s, the Soviet Union fell on hard times and rapidly withdrew. For the two decades that followed, Russia barely registered a presence in the Middle East. The United States grew accustomed to acting as the region’s hegemon—waging wars, dictating its political vision, and punishing governments that defied its will.

“Such was the new normal until 2015. In the fall of that year, Russia sent its military to Syria. A coalition of U.S.-supported opposition groups was widely expected to win the civil war in that country and overthrow the regime of Bashar al-Assad. But Putin’s bold move and his military’s unexpected prowess quickly changed the course of events, demonstrating that the Middle East without Russia was actually a departure, not the norm. The norm used to be a Middle East with Russia in it as a major power broker. By winning the war in Syria, Russia seeks to make the old normal the new one.”

What remains to be seen is how well Russia can manage its relations with the competing states in the region. It has worked hard to establish good relations with Israel and has found a willing partner in Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. But Netanyahu is now a much weaker Prime Minister and it is unlikely that he will regain his former stature, even if he manages to form a new government if Benny Gantz fails. And Russia needs to balance off its relations with Iran with Israeli hostility towards Iran–it is unlikely that Russia can maintain its position in Syria without at least the tacit consent of Iran which is strongly entrenched in Syria:

“Russian-Iranian relations have undergone an unusual transformation as a result of the Russian intervention in the Syrian civil war. Their joint victory is likely to lead to a divergence of their interests. Russia is interested in returning Syria to the status quo ante and reaping the benefits of peace and reconstruction. Iran is interested in exploiting Syria as a platform in its campaign against Israel. Russia lacks the military muscle and the diplomatic leverage to influence Iran. That poses a big obstacle to Moscow’s ambitions in the Middle East.

Second, Russia’s relations with Turkey are always difficult, even though at the present time it appears as if the two states are cooperating well. They are conducting joint patrols in the “safe zone” thanks to the US withdrawal from that area of Syria. But Syria cannot be happy about Turkish troops occupying part of its territory and at some point that tension will have to be resolved. Will Russia’s need for Assad to stay in power outweigh Turkey’s interest in suppressing the Kurds? Over time that tension will only increase, not decrease.

Third, Russia has tried very hard not to overcommit its resources in the Middle East, largely because it lacks the necessary resources to sustain a large presence in the region. But now that it is viewed by some states as a “substitute” for US power, demands on Russian resources will inevitably increase. The demands for the reconstruction of Syria will be huge, and it is unlikely that any Arab state other than Qatar might be willing to pour money into the Assad regime. Russian President is already facing unusual protests within Russia for increased spending and it will be difficult for him to spend the money necessary to rehabilitate the Syrian economy without alienating his domestic base.

It is also unlikely that Russia and Saudi Arabia can work together effectively over a long period of time. Russia has a strong interest in a high price for petroleum as well as high production since it relies very heavily on income from oil exports. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, prefers a stable price that will not encourage alternative fuels and wants to conserve its oil resources for the long haul. There have been times when Russia and Saudi Arabia have been able to work together for short periods of time, but their long term interests diverge.

It may be the case that Russia has emerged as a dominant power in the Middle East right now, but it has a difficult task in balancing off its competing interests. It may find itself as tangled up as the US finds itself in the region. We shall see if has the discipline to prioritize its interests in a manageable manner.

Posted November 1, 2019 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

30 October 2019   3 comments

Among the many protests going on in the world today is a protest in Lebanon that has been going on for some time. The protesters are demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri who has been leading what was once considered a unity government. The Lebanese political system is unique in that it has tried to structure the government in a manner that reflects the religious affiliations of the population.

“Under the Lebanese model, political representation is split proportionally between Christian and Muslim denominations, with certain top jobs reserved for specific sects. Dating back to the end of the French colonial mandate in the 1940s, Lebanon has always had a Maronite Christian president, a Sunni Muslim prime minister, and a Shia Muslim speaker of Parliament.”

It appears, however, that many in the country think that the traditional system made the government unresponsive to the needs of the people and that the allocation of specific posts to various sects has led to a rigid and dysfunctional system. The BBC notes:

“Last week, Mr Hariri unveiled a package of reforms that he had hoped would assuage some of the protesters’ anger. He promised to slash politicians’ pay, invest in power plants and also tax banks to help reduce public debt.

“Lebanon’s debt is equivalent to more than 150% of gross domestic product (GDP), its economy has stagnated, and its currency recently lost value against the US dollar for the first time in two decades.

“The country’s public infrastructure, which was already stretched before more than one million refugees arrived from neighbouring Syria, is also ailing. Electricity and water supplies are disrupted frequently and rubbish often piles up on the streets.”

Additionally, Lebanon hosts the highest rate of refugees on a per capita basis in the world, most of them from Syria–about one in four residents in Lebanon are refugees.

But within this broader context, there is an immediate political conflict that is paralyzing the government. Prime Minister Hariri is a Sunni Muslim who had international backing–which included Saudi Arabia until last year–and who had been able to work out a degree of accommodation with Hezbollah, a Shia-based movement backed by Iran. But that accommodation has been frayed as both Iran and Hezbollah have become more powerful. Hariri resigned his position in order to break the political deadlock, but the leader of Hezbollah, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, had urged Hariri to not resign. The economy is close to collapse and the Lebanese people are saying that they do not wish the traditional system to continue. But Hezbollah is the most organized of all the groups in the country–and has its own well-armed militia–and will not stand idly by to see the political system collapse. Nor is it likely that Iran will allow Lebanon to move beyond its orbit of control.

There are reports that Turkish and Syrian forces have fired on each other in Syria. The reports are credible since Turkey is occupying Syrian territory and the Kurds have requested the Syrian government protection as they have been forced out of the Turkish-occupied territory. Turkey had also taken the position that Syrian President Assad should be forced from office. So the differences between the Turks and the Syrians are quite deep and sharp. Russia has been trying to mediate the differences and it remains to be seen how effective those efforts might be. Reuters reports:

“Joint Russian-Turkish patrols had been set to begin on Tuesday at a depth of 10 km (6 miles) inside Syria, but Erdogan said they would begin on Friday and at a depth of just 7 km (4 miles), after a Russian delegation held three days of talks in Ankara seeking agreement on cooperation.

“’Getting the United States out of Syria was the one big interest Turkey, Russia and Iran had in common,’ said Nicholas Danforth, senior visiting fellow at the German Marshall Fund.

“’But now Russia’s longstanding support for restoring the Syrian regime’s sovereignty will come into direct conflict with Turkey’s desire to project its interests and territory in northern Syria,’ he said.

“Russia has been Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s most powerful international backer, while Turkey has supported rebels who fought for years to overthrow him.”

If Russia cannot mediate successfully, Syria will likely continue to experience violence for an extended period of time.

Posted October 30, 2019 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

29 October 2019   1 comment

Posted October 29, 2019 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

28 October 2019   Leave a comment

One of the more bizarre elements of President Trump’s Syrian policy is his decision to station troops to protect Syrian oil fields. Ostensibly, the policy is designed to prevent ISIS from controlling the oil and gaining revenues from its sale. But President Trump’s earlier statement that the US should have taken control of Iraq’s oil fields in the 2003 US invasion of Iraq raises questions about his intentions. The Guardian has several quotes on the matter:

“At a forum hosted by NBC on 7 September, Trump suggested oil seizure would have been a way to pay for the Iraq war, saying: ‘We go in, we spend $3tn, we lose thousands and thousands of lives, and then … what happens is we get nothing. You know, it used to be to the victor belong the spoils.’

He added: ‘One of the benefits we would have had if we took the oil is Isis would not have been able to take oil and use that oil to fuel themselves.’

The idea predates Trump’s presidential campaign. As far back as 2011, he was telling the Wall Street Journal that this was his policy for Iraq. ‘You heard me, I would take the oil,’ he said. ‘I would not leave Iraq and let Iran take the oil.’ And he insisted to ABC News that this did not amount to national theft.

“’You’re not stealing anything,’ Trump said. ‘We’re reimbursing ourselves … at a minimum, and I say more. We’re taking back $1.5tn to reimburse ourselves.’”

Trump’s assertions are pure nonsense. The right of conquest was nullified by the UN Charter and such imperial adventures are politically unpalatable today. But in his speech yesterday announcing the death of Baghdadi, Mr. Trump made this comment:

“We’re out.  But we are leaving soldiers to secure the oil.  And we may have to fight for the oil.  It’s okay.  Maybe somebody else wants the oil, in which case they have a hell of a fight.  But there’s massive amounts of oil.

“And we’re securing it for a couple of reasons.  Number one, it stops ISIS, because ISIS got tremendous wealth from that oil.  We have taken it.  It’s secured.

“Number two — and again, somebody else may claim it, but either we’ll negotiate a deal with whoever is claiming it, if we think it’s fair, or we will militarily stop them very quickly.  We have tremendous power in that part of the world.  We have — you know, the airport is right nearby.  A very big, very monstrous, very powerful airport, and very expensive airport that was built years ago.  We were in there — we’re in that Middle East now for $8 trillion.”

Mr. Trump went on to say “We should be able to take some also, and what I intend to do, perhaps, is make a deal with an ExxonMobil or one of our great companies to go in there and do it properly.”

What Mr. Trump is talking about is called “pillaging” and it is prohibited in both international and US domestic law. According to ABC News:

“Pillaging is illegal under international law, explicitly prohibited by the Fourth Geneva Convention, which the U.S. ratified as a treaty in 1955. The U.S. War Crimes Act of 1996 also made it punishable under U.S. law to commit a ‘grave breach’ of any of the Geneva conventions ‘whether inside or outside the United States.’

“These codifications were built on many previous legal prohibitions and military practices, from the charter of the Nuremberg trials that prosecuted the Nazis after World War II, to the Hague Convention of 1907 which was first proposed by President Theodore Roosevelt, all the way back to the 1863 Lieber Code. Commissioned and signed by President Abraham Lincoln, it governed the conduct of the Union Army in the field during the American Civil War and prohibited ‘all pillage or sacking, even after taking a place by main force,’ punishable by death.

One should also remember that the oil belongs to the Syrian state. Syria may wish to strike a deal with ExxonMobil, but it is difficult to imagine that the company would jump at the idea of managing tiny oil fields in the middle of a war zone. Mr. Trump may wish to negotiate a deal with ExxonMobil itself (I suspect that Rex Tillerson, the Secretary of State that Mr. Trump fired who was also the CEO of ExxonMobil, would not make such a deal), but that amounts to stealing from Syria. And 500 US troops would not be nearly enough to defend the oil fields from Syrian troops backed up by the Russian military. The Guardian quotes Chris Harmer, a former navy officer and naval aviator, who is now a military analyst:

“‘It would take close to 100,000 troops plus the equipment, the airborne patrols, to secure the oilfields and extract the oil,’ Harmer said. ‘Theoretically it would suck up all the deployable assets we have. Forget about the Pacific, forget about Africa. They would just have one purpose – sucking up oil assets in the Middle East.’

“The military footprint would have to be even larger to actually get the oil out.

“’You’d have to occupy most of Syria to get the oil out of the country, since the Syrian export pipelines travel from the oilfields in eastern Syria all the way to the Mediterranean coast, right across the central breadth of the country,’ Krane [Jim Krane, an energy studies fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy in Houston] said.

“’It wouldn’t do you much good to just capture the oilfields. If you wanted to steal the oil, it would take a full military occupation of Syria to control the full length of the pipelines, so you could move the oil to market. At a minimum, that would mean occupying the city of Homs in central Syria, as well as the main Syrian oil terminals at Banias and Tartus. All that is in addition to occupying rebel-held areas such as Deir ez-Zour where the oilfields lie.’

“…..The costs of the military operations would far exceed any revenue that could be extracted.”

The reality of the battlefield will overtake this fantasy. Let’s hope that it occurs before a major confrontation.

Posted October 28, 2019 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

26 October 2019   Leave a comment

About a million protesters gathered in the streets of Santiago, Chile, to protest the rising economic inequality in the country. Chilean President Sebastian Pinera won a significant victory in 2017, but he has presided over an economy which has failed to bring economic benefits to to lower and middle classes. His policies have been described as neo-liberal, and Jacobin fleshes out the meaning of that word in Chile’s case:

“Despite its reputation as a relatively wealthy Latin American country, Chilean society is deeply divided between the rich and poor. Income inequality is worse in Chile than in any other OECD nation. Meanwhile, public services ranging from the pension system to water remain privatized — as much a legacy of the Pinochet years as the 1980 constitution and the state of emergency.

“’Economically, Chile continues to do the same thing it’s been doing for twenty years, namely following an extractivist model, which relies heavily on copper but also has to do with forestry, fisheries, etc.,’ explains Emilia Ríos Saavedra, a Revolución Democrática (a member party of Frente Amplio) militant and city councilor in Ñuñoa, a suburb of Santiago. ‘This creates a tension and a feeling of helplessness where the political system cannot respond. There is no capacity on the one hand, and on the other hand, the political and economic elites, above all, are not capable of thinking about the larger needs of the country.’”

The protests have been largely peaceful but there are reports of police brutality and injuries to the protesters. The government has responded with a curfew and plans to roll back a planned increase in metro fares. But it seems as if the issues are deeper and more intractable.

There have been a very large number of protests in the world recently: Peru, Ecuador, Chile, Venezuela, Lebanon, Iraq, Hong Kong, Catalonia, Egypt, Bolivia, and the Extinction Rebellion protests in London, Paris, and the US. The question that has surfaced is the extent to which there is a common thread to the protests. There are three themes that seem to be common: economic inequality, corruption, and climate change.

Fareed Zakaria has an opinion on the protests.

“At first glance, the politics of each of these movements seems quite distinct. But they are all occurring against a worrisome backdrop: a collapse of economic growth. Over the past year, the International Monetary Fund has sharply cut its estimate for 2019, warning that ‘the global economy is in a synchronized slowdown,’ growing at ‘its slowest pace since the global financial crisis.’

“When growth collapses, anxieties rise, especially among the middle class who feel squeezed, get enraged by corruption and inequality, and have the capacity to voice their anger. Consider Chile, where a subway fare hike has led to the worst street violence in decades. The unrest is happening, however, in an atmosphere of diminished expectations. Not long ago, Chile was the star economy of Latin America, growing at 6 percent in the 1990s and 4 percent in the 2000s. Over the past five years, growth has averaged 2 percent . The IMF cut its estimate for Latin America as a whole from 2 percent to 0.2 percent in the past year.”

We shall see if the protests stimulate cross-border alliances among the protesters. The Arab Spring offers a possible analog.

Posted October 26, 2019 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

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