Monday, 5 December 2011

Guardian: Syria flexes military muscles

News today, reported in The Guardian and several other outlets, that Syria has turned to a good old-fashioned display of its armed forces in action (this time, not against its own people....). The Syrian regime seems to be relying on classic deterrence in making this show of its military capabilities.
Syria's embattled government has flexed its muscles with live-fire exercises involving long-range missiles, armoured units and helicopters at a time of rising regional tensions over the repression of its uprising.

Official Syrian state media reported on Monday that the combined exercises were held on Sunday to test "the capabilities and readiness of missile systems to respond to any possible aggression".

Analysts suggested the timing may have been chosen to underline Syria's strategic capabilities to Israel, which is concerned about Syria's relationship with Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon. The Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, warned in October that the Middle East would "burn" if the west intervened – and threatened to turn the region into "tens of Afghanistans". Syria insisted the exercises were planned. The publicity could also be intended to signal that the armed forces remain loyal, despite some defections largely from the lower ranks.

In Damascus, meanwhile, the foreign ministry announced that Syria was now prepared to accept a delegation of observers from the Arab League, after the pan-Arab body announced unprecedented sanctions because of its refusal to comply earlier. The league has expressed concern about the need to protect civilians as the Assad regime has cracked down on protests.

A spokesman, Jihad Makdissi, said the foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem, had "responded positively" to the league's demand and sent a letter to the organisation's chief, Nabil Elaraby. But Syria did not appear yet to have signed the diplomatic protocol agreeing terms for the mission.

Recent similar moves by Damascus have come to nothing while its critics complain Syria is simply seeking to buy time and exploit divisions in Arab ranks while repression continues unchecked. According to the UN some 4,000 people have been killed since March. Syria says it is facing "armed terrorist gangs" backed by a conspiracy of its Arab and western enemies, not unarmed popular protests.

Opposition activists reported that 40 people had been killed on Sunday, including five defectors from the armed forces. The local co-ordination committees, which report on protests, said that 22 people, including two children, had been killed on Saturday. They claimed 848 people had been killed in November, including 59 children, making it the deadliest month since the uprising began. Restrictions on access for foreign press make it difficult to independently verify activists' reports.

In a related development, meanwhile, an Israeli newspaper quoted unnamed Palestinian sources as saying that Iran was pressuring the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas not to abandon its headquarters in Damascus. Haaretz said the Hamas activists were those responsible for the activities and funding of the organisation's military wing, as well as some members of the political leadership. Most have left with their families to Gaza, Sudan, Qatar and Lebanon.

But the claim was denied by a member of Hamas's political bureau, Salah al-Arouri. "The organisation's top officials are here in Damascus; our relations with the state and Syrian people are excellent," he said. "We respect all Syrians whoever they are. We have no intention of interfering in Syria's internal affairs."

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Observer: Top British commander says West must see job through in Afghanistan

The Observer today broadcasts the opinion of the ranking UK commander of British armed forces working with ISAF regarding the West's Afghan encounter:
The most senior British commander in Afghanistan says the Taliban cannot "assassinate their way to power" and too many lives have been lost over the last 10 years for the west to flinch in its campaign against the insurgents.

In an interview with the Guardian, Lieutenant General James Bucknall said the UK had made "an investment in blood" and that now was not the time for western nations to turn their back on the country.

He claimed that the Taliban had been pushed back everywhere and that relentless special forces operations are killing 130 to140 insurgent leaders every month. He conceded that too often over the last decade the military had "over-promised and under-delivered". Bucknall said he understood why politicians, the public and the armed forces themselves felt war-weary. Mistakes, he admitted, had been made.

"We almost owe it to those who have gone before to see the job through," he said. "Having made this investment in blood, I am more determined. If I didn't think we could do this I would take a very different view but I am confident we can do it."

Bucknall's comments come on the eve of an international conference in Bonn to discuss the future of Afghanistan. There is mounting concern about the amount of aid that Afghanistan will receive and a growing political clamour in the US and UK for western forces to speed up their withdrawal. But Bucknall said critics of the military campaign should ask whether the Taliban leader Mullah Omar had been able to achieve any of his goals over the last two years.

"Let's mark [his] work. If he was serious about overthrowing the government and grabbing a portion of Afghanistan for his own, you have to do three things. You have to secure your own heartland in Kandahar and central Helmand. Is he doing that? No. They lost their safe havens around Kandahar in 2010 and they didn't take them back in 2011. They are not holding their own heartland.

"Secondly, you have to spread your influence around other areas. There is absolutely no evidence anywhere in Afghanistan that they are doing that. Thirdly, you have got to affect the seat of government. There have been lots of headlines, but Kabul has about 20% of the population and less than 1% of total violence in the country. Not only is the seat of government unaffected, but Kabul is a flourishing capital city that is much safer than Karachi."

The Taliban had been reduced to a terrorist group, adopting terrorist tactics, said Bucknall.

"I have not seen any insurgents who have assassinated their way to power. One hundred and forty [Afghans] have been assassinated this year. In the press that is painted as the government cannot survive this. But we are taking out 130-140 mid-level Taliban leaders every month. Sometimes it is worth turning the egg-timer on its head. They have been driven to this much vaunted tactic of assassinations."

He said that the idea the Taliban would sit and wait until western forces had left suited Nato well because it would allow Afghan police and army more time to get up to strength.

Bucknall has just finished an 18-month tour in Kabul, during which he was in charge of all British forces, and second in command of the International Security and Assistance Force – the military coalition now commanded by the American general, John Allen. Bucknall oversaw the "surge" last year in which an extra 30,000 American troops began an offensive to push back the insurgency – a tactic that reduced attacks in some areas, but raised questions about whether progress could be sustained by Afghan police and army when NATO forces began to pull out.

The West has said none of its forces will be fighting after 2014.Bucknall admitted that Afghanistan's security was still fragile and expressed frustration that certain factors that would determine Afghanistan's future – such as diplomatic efforts to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table – were out of the military's control.

The western coalition had to stick together over the next two years during the pull-out – a coded warning to countries that might want to "run for the exit door". Pakistan had to be "part of the solution in one way or another", said Bucknall.

"These are the two top ingredients. We have to stick together. We went in together, and we go out together. Managing a coalition in a draw down requires an awful lot more work than managing a coalition during a surge."

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

BBC News: BRICS nations mark 10th birthday

BBC News Online has a couple of small features dedicated to the BRICS grouping of nations, currently celebrating its 10th anniversary.

Ten years ago, Goldman Sachs' Jim O'Neill made the bold prediction that the Bric nations - Brazil, Russia, India and China - would overtake the West's six biggest economies within four decades. Since then there's been the addition of newcomer South Africa. Together, they form a powerful bloc, but face their own challenges amid the global financial turmoil.

There's a video overview:

There's also a useful series of graphic slides:

Take a look!

Monday, 28 November 2011

The Ally from Hell

The Atlantic this coming month features a lengthy article examining the relationship between Pakistan and the USA / the West. No excerpts here, but do take time to read it - the article pulls few punches! Here's the opening blurb to provide some flavour:
Pakistan lies. It hosted Osama bin Laden (knowingly or not). Its government is barely functional. It hates the democracy next door. It is home to both radical jihadists and a large and growing nuclear arsenal (which it fears the U.S. will seize). Its intelligence service sponsors terrorists who attack American troops. With a friend like this, who needs enemies?
Supporters of an Islamic separatist group march a mock nuclear missile through the streets of Karachi, February 2011. (Reuters)

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Down and Out in Durban: End of the Line for Kyoto?

The Council for Foreign Relations yesterday published a somewhat depressing article, outlining the prospects for success at the next big global environmental summit in Durban, South Africa:
As delegates from nearly 200 countries prepare to descend on Durban, South Africa next week for the seventeenth meeting of the Conference of Parties (COP-17) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), pessimism runs high. Privately, the leaders of major established and emerging economies concede that no new climate treaty containing binding emissions reductions will be negotiated before 2016. And even if an agreement were reached, it would not come into force until 2020—eight years from now. This bleak outlook comes despite warnings from scientists and economists about the dangers of delaying dramatic action to mitigate the planet’s warming.
Just this week, the UN World Meteorological Association reported that the volume of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere reached a new record during 2010. And emissions appear to be accelerating, with carbon dioxide rising by 2.3 parts per million over the past year—a significant jump from the average (2.0) over the past decade. According to the U.S. Energy Department, recent increases in global carbon emissions exceed the worst-case projections of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).   Adding to the warnings, a recent IPCC report predicts that dramatic planetary warming during this century is “virtually certain.” Fatih Birol, chief economist of the International Energy Agency, warns that the world has a brief, five-year window to stop a worldwide mean temperature increase of 2 degrees Celsius: “If we do not have an international agreement whose effect is put into place by 2017, then the door to will be closed forever.” Two degrees Celsius may seem like a small rise, but scientists regard it as a critical threshold, beyond which the world will face more extreme weather such as melting icecaps, devastating droughts, and torrential rainfall and flooding. And without significant efforts toward mitigation, global temperatures could rise even more.
The reasons for the diplomatic deadlock are plain. Major parties to Kyoto, including Japan, Russia, and Canada, have already signaled that they will not take on a second commitment because China and the United States—the world’s top two polluters—are not included in it. The European Union (EU) is prepared to sign up for a second round, but it insists that major developing countries, whose emissions are surging as their economies grow, must embrace and follow through on real commitments. The EU’s preference is to negotiate “a single global and comprehensive legally binding instrument” including all emitters, though it would countenance an “interim” solution whereby major emerging countries would accept a “road map” and timetable for treaty commitments. Even this fall-back position faces resistance from the so-called “BASIC” caucus—Brazil, South Africa, India, and China—who are disinclined to accept binding targets that might jeopardize their domestic growth and development goals.
The United States, for its part, has abdicated leadership on climate issues. Heading into an election year, President Obama seldom mentions global warming any more. And with the laudable exception of John Huntsman—who actually believes in climate science—his Republican rivals for the presidency have mostly fallen over themselves to deny its existence or importance.
Given these international and domestic dynamics, is Durban destined to be a failure? Not entirely. While a successor treaty to Kyoto with updated, binding targets is off the table, the conferees have an incentive and the ability to snatch some measure of victory from the gathering.
  • First, governments can agree to build on the climate mitigation activities they are already undertaking individually, bilaterally, and multilaterally. Under the broad Kyoto umbrella, parties have adopted various mechanisms and initiatives designed to reduce emissions, ranging from reporting requirements to market schemes for carbon trading, investments in renewable energy, and more robust fuel standards and targets for carbon intensity. As in Copenhagen and Cancun, states parties will stress the cumulative effect of parallel national efforts, rather than a stringent, binding treaty.
  • Second, rather than admitting failure and declaring Kyoto “dead,” the assembled delegations could seek to keep it on life support, in the form of a political rather than a legally binding agreement. A looser, informal “Kyoto II” could play several roles. It could provide a framework for a more robust system to monitor and verify compliance with stated national goals. It could offer a mechanism for transfer of clean energy technology and climate financing to the developing world. And it could hold out the promise, however distant in the future, of a successor treaty.
  • Third, Durban will ultimately be judged on whether the wealthy world makes good on its financial commitments to help developing countries adapt to the climate change the world has failed to mitigate. At Cancun last December, delegations to COP-16 agreed to create a Green Climate Fund of up to $100 billion to help countries cope with global warming. Unfortunately, that target seems increasingly out of reach, as advanced market democracies grapple with slow growth, massive fiscal imbalances and swelling sovereign debts. This week Ernst and Young reported that austerity measures across ten of the world’s major economies had created a climate funding “gap” of $22.5 billion—a figure that could double to $45 billion should the crisis in the eurozone escalate.
Perhaps coincidentally, the U.S. congressional supercommittee, composed of twelve legislators from the same country, admitted defeat this week—exhibiting a complete inability to engage in practical compromise. Given the stakes involved, let’s hope all the delegations a part of the COP-17—regardless of their diverse interests—do not resign themselves to the same fate.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Guardian: Iran faces new wave of sanctions over nuclear programme

The Guardian has the story (excerpts follow) - the continuing use of 'hard power' in economic guise by a West broadly united on this issue, seeking deterrence from apparent intent towards nuclear proliferation in the Middle East:
The US and Britain are leading a new wave of international sanctions targeting Iran's banks and oil industry following the International Atomic Energy Agency's report earlier this month that said Tehran worked for many years to develop nuclear weapons and may still be doing so.

Britain has used counter-terrorism powers to order its financial sector to cut all ties with Iranian banks in an attempt to undermine funding of the nuclear programme. The US announced measures intended to limit Tehran's ability to refine its own fuel as well as targeting Iran's Revolutionary Guards' financial interests.

The French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, wrote to European leaders as well as the US and Japan calling for "unprecedented" sanctions against Iran, including a halt to buying its oil.

But the measures are expected to have a limited impact in the face of resistance from China and Russia to strengthening global sanctions against Iran through the United Nations security council.

Britain went the furthest by, for the first time, cutting an entire country's banking system off from London's financial sector. It said that Iranian banks "play a crucial role in providing financial services to individuals and entities within Iran's nuclear and ballistic missile programmes".

The foreign secretary, William Hague, said the measures are part of increasing pressure on Iran to engage with the IAEA and foreign governments about its nuclear programme.

"The IAEA's report last week provided further credible and detailed evidence about the possible military dimensions of the Iranian nuclear programme," he said. "Today we have responded resolutely by introducing a set of new sanctions that prohibit all business with Iranian banks.

"We have consistently made clear that until Iran engages meaningfully, it will find itself under increasing pressure from the international community. The swift and decisive action today co-ordinated with key international partners is a strong signal of determination to intensify this pressure."

British diplomats said the Iranian central bank plays a direct role in procuring equipment for its nuclear programme and added that the sanctions were also intended to punish Tehran for its refusal to compromise over its enrichment of uranium, which can produce reactor fuel or fissile material for a bomb, despite a series of UN security council sanctions calling on it to do so. They said that denying Iran access to the international financial hub in London would raise the cost and hassle for the Iranians of doing business with the rest of the world.

Canada took a similar step against Iran's central bank.

In Washington, President Obama said additional US sanctions are intended to discourage business with Iran's petrochemical industry, which traditionally has produced plastics and similar products but has increasingly been used to refine petrol because international sanctions have hit Tehran's refineries.

"New sanctions target for the first time Iran's petrochemical sector, prohibiting the provision of goods, services and technology to this sector and authorising penalties against any person or entity that engages in such activity," Obama said. "They expand energy sanctions, making it more difficult for Iran to operate, maintain, and modernise its oil and gas sector.

"As long as Iran continues down this dangerous path, the United States will continue to find ways, both in concert with our partners and through our own actions, to isolate and increase the pressure upon the Iranian regime."

Washington designated Iran a territory of "primary money-laundering concern" in the expectation that it will discourage foreign banks from doing business with Iranian financial institutions.

However, Washington continues to avoid directly targeting Iran's central bank because if Tehran is unable to carry through financial transactions necessary to sell its oil, that could force the cost of petroleum up and hit the US economy.

The US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, called the measures a "significant ratcheting-up of pressure" on Iran and said other countries will follow in the days ahead.

In his letter, Sarkozy said that Iran's nuclear programme represents a "serious and urgent threat to peace". He called for a halt to purchasing Iranian oil and for the assets of Iran's central bank to be frozen. EU foreign ministers are also expected to consider further measures at a meeting on 1 December.

Monday, 21 November 2011

Africa wants to be Europe without the Euro

The Wall Street Journal today features a useful article examining the process towards - and motivations behind - regionalism in Africa:
For decades, African technocrats have admired Europe's common market, where open borders and the right to work in any member country are seen as the kind of steps that would boost trade in Africa as well. Those steps are also seen as lowering barriers that now deter investors, allowing smaller African states to thrive alongside larger neighbors.

Archie Machaka, who runs a trucking company based in Zimbabwe, says that what should be a 10-day trip to drive a truckload of copper from a mine in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to a container depot outside Johannesburg in South Africa sometimes takes six weeks. His drivers must wait for exit documents in the Congo that can take a month to process. Then a new customs policy in Zambia, designed to check those papers more thoroughly, can leave his trucks idling for three or four days.

The new border regime "was supposed to improve efficiency, but it's not really coming through," Mr. Machaka said.

Faced with such problems, African countries are seeking more ways to work together.

Since 2000, the Southern African Development Community, encompassing 15 countries from the Congo to South Africa, has been lowering import and export tariffs between members. It plans eventually to eliminate them altogether.

South Africa is particularly keen to boost regional trade as an antidote to sluggish demand from Europe, the country's largest trading partner.

Last month, South Africa's finance minister, Pravin Gordhan, said his country wanted to join with its neighbors to fund large-scale infrastructure projects—such as highways running north into the heart of the continent—and a regional power grid that could attract investment from private South African energy companies. South Africa's National Planning Commission earlier this month recommended synchronizing agricultural policies among southern African countries to share crop surpluses. It also encouraged simple manufacturing in South Africa's lower-wage neighbors to create regional supply chains.

The continent's most advanced regional trade bloc, the East African Community, already guarantees the right to work across Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and Tanzania. Those governments also coordinate some fiscal policies, for instance by releasing their federal budgets on the same day. National parliaments are working on legislation that would further synchronize immigration and tariff laws.

Closer ties are paying off for east Africa's biggest economy: Kenya. In 2010, the bloc surpassed the EU as the top destination for Kenyan exports.

"We want to develop this corridor vigorously and collectively," said Mugo Kibati, director of a government program to overhaul Kenya's economy by 2030 and former chief executive of East African Cables, a telecommunications and power-transmission company.

But Africa is backing away from one prominent aspect of Europe's economic union: a common currency.

An African currency was once seen as an ultimate goal of continental integration. By 2018, leaders in southern Africa had aimed to have a common currency in circulation from South Africa's Cape Town to Kinshasa in the Congo. Not anymore.

"I don't think anyone thinks this is realizable or in fact appropriate," Gill Marcus, governor of South Africa's reserve bank, said last week.

She and other officials have noted repeatedly that the euro zone couldn't reconcile feeble economies like Greece with powerhouses such as Germany. That relationship is akin to South Africa and neighboring Zimbabwe, where three years ago inflation hit an annual rate above 200 million percent. Zimbabwe has abandoned its own currency in favor of the U.S. dollar, halting an economic tailspin.

Even in west Africa, where 14 countries have used a common currency tied to the French franc and the euro since the end of World War II, officials have soured on a broader, independent monetary union. It would need to balance the likes of Nigeria, a significant oil exporter, with tiny Togo, an agrarian country with anemic growth rates.

Such vast discrepancies also mean forming an integrated market would be more difficult in west Africa. In addition to Nigeria's economic muscle and vast population, it's an English-speaking country in a generally Francophone region. A violent five-month power struggle in Ivory Coast earlier this year highlighted the risks countries in the region face in tying their fiscal well-being to one another.

Gains are being made nonetheless. A widening network of transborder highways has slashed the time it takes to transport goods across a region once infamous for its number of road blocks per mile.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

The market for state territory - Pass the hemlock

The Economist has published an intriguing little article today—asking us to imagine a world in which countries still traded land for money....
Hellenic opinion was outraged last year when Frank Schäffler, a German politician, advised “bankrupt Greeks” to “sell your islands…and sell the Acropolis too!” That is hardly practical politics: as long as Greece remains a democracy, the political, and perhaps biological, lifespan of a leader who proposed hauling down the flag over even the tiniest Aegean outcrop would be measured in hours.

The furore obscured what Mr Schäffler was proposing: lease, commercial sale or a transfer of sovereignty. The government is already selling some land. The Institute for Strategic and Development Studies, a think-tank in Athens, says the Greek state has €35 billion ($47 billion) of property immediately available, which could cover 10% of its debt. KAPPA, a business lobby, suggests €75 billion. Stefanos Manos, an ex-finance minister, says a new state investment company could manage and dispose of property worth €200 billion. But just imagine that the exasperated northerners were dreaming of something more radical: fully ceding sovereign authority.

Territorial swaps for cash seem unthinkable today. But they were once common, especially when European powers were jostling for land in the New World. The United States’ 1803 purchase of the Louisiana territory from Napoleon for $15m (now $312m) is the most famous case. Germany bought the Caroline Islands, in the Pacific, from Spain in 1899 for 25m pesetas ($107m today). And during the First World War America paid Denmark $25m ($530m) for what are now the United States Virgin Islands, mainly to stop Germany buying them.
In an era of self-determination sales of territory have come to seem anachronistic. But leases, involving a de facto transfer of control, are common. In 2010 Russia extended a deal granting Finland a canal for 50 years, and gave Ukraine concessions worth €30 billion to park its fleet at Sevastopol for 25 more years. Michael Strauss of the Centre for Diplomatic and Strategic Studies in Paris sees “no obvious reason” why countries have stopped buying and selling land. “It’s a totally legitimate way for sovereignty to change under international law.”

Arturas Zuokas, the mayor of Vilnius, has made a teasing offer to Greece; he suggested his country acquire an island as “an exclusive place for rest in the Mediterranean” and “a great global advert for Lithuania”, featuring a spa, museums and a theatre. But he did not say whether he wanted title or sovereignty. Lithuania is forecast to be the euro zone’s fastest-growing economy in 2012, but the €7m on offer would only nibble at Greece’s debts.

The thinness of the market gives little indication of what sovereignty is worth. One guide might be the net present value of future tax payments, minus the net costs of public services disbursed there. Greece’s unusual habits with tax and spending could distort that indicator; but it could tempt an outsider to try to run the territory better. Auctions are the best way of setting prices—but would risk jangling nerves. Iran might find an Aegean island a handy way of foiling NATO’s planned missile-defence shield. Perhaps Greece could scare Germany into softer terms just by threatening such a sale.

Many a private-equity firm has overestimated the profits to be wrung from buy-outs, and the sovereignty market may be no exception. When America bought Alaska from Russia for $7.2m (now $113m), in 1867, some called it folly—and how wrong they were, American schoolbooks declare. But the sceptics might be right. David Barker, a professor at the University of Iowa, says that despite its oil wealth, Alaska was so costly to develop that the Treasury has lost money on the deal.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

The future of the EU: Two-speed Europe, or two Europes?

Charlemagne's Notebook in today's Economist newspaper explores the rumours of a united - yet divided - Europe:
Nicolas Sarkozy is causing a big stir after calling on November 8th for a two-speed Europe: a “federal” core of the 17 members of the euro zone, with a looser “confederal” outer band of the ten non-euro members. He made the comments during a debate with students at the University of Strasbourg. The key passage is below (video here, starting near the 63-minute mark):
You cannot make a single currency without economic convergence and economic integration. It's impossible. But on the contrary, one cannot plead for federalism and at the same time for the enlargement of Europe. It's impossible. There's a contradiction. We are 27. We will obviously have to open up to the Balkans. We will be 32, 33 or 34. I imagine that nobody thinks that federalismtotal integrationis possible at 33, 34, 35 countries.
So what one we do? To begin with, frankly, the single currency is a wonderful idea, but it was strange to create it without asking oneself the question of its governance, and without asking oneself about economic convergence. Honestly, it's nice to have a vision, but there are details that are missing: we made a currency, but we kept fiscal systems and economic systems that not only were not converging, but were diverging. And not only did we make a single currency without convergence, but we tried to undo the rules of the pact. It cannot work.
There will not be a single currency without greater economic integration and convergence. That is certain. And that is where we are going. Must one have the same rules for the 27? No. Absolutely not [...] In the end, clearly, there will be two European gears: one gear towards more integration in the euro zone and a gear that is more confederal in the European Union.
At first blush this is statement of the blindingly obvious. The euro zone must integrate to save itself; even the British say so. And among the ten non-euro states of the EU there are countries such as Britain and Denmark that have no intention of joining the single currency.
The European Union is, in a sense, made up not of two but of multiple speeds. Think only of the 25 members of the Schengen passport-free travel zone (excluding Britain but including some non-EU members), or of the 25 states seeking to create a common patent (including Britain, but excluding Italy and Spain).
But Mr Sarkozys comments are more worrying because, one suspects, he wants to create an exclusivist, protectionist euro zone that seeks to detach itself from the rest of the European Union. Elsewhere in the debate in Strasbourg, for instance, Mr Sarkozy seems to suggest that Europes troublesdebt and high unemploymentare all the fault of social, environmental and monetary “dumping” by developing countries that pursue “aggressive” trade policies.
For another insight into Mr Sarkozys thinking about Europe, one should listen to an interview he gave a few days earlier, at the end of the marathon-summitry in Brussels at the end of October (video here, starting at about 54:30):
I don't think there is enough economic integration in the euro zone, the 17, and too much integration in the European Union at 27.
In other words, France, or Mr Sarkozy at any rate, does not appear to have got over its resentment of the EUenlargement. At 27 nations-strong, the European Union is too big for France to lord it over the rest and is too liberal in economic terms for Frances protectionist leanings. Hence Mr Sarkozys yearning for a smaller, cosier, “federalist” euro zone.
This chimes with the idea of a Kerneuropa ("core Europe") promoted in 1994 by Karl Lamers and Wolfgang Schäuble, who happens to be Germany's current finance minister. Intriguingly, it is the first time that Mr Sarkozy, once something of a sceptic of European integration, has spoken publicly about “federalism”, although he had made a similar comment in private to European leaders in March (see my column). It echoes the views of Mr Sarkozy's Socialist predecessor, François Mitterrand.
Such ideas appeared to have been killed off by the large eastward enlargement of the EU in 2004, and by the French voters rejection of the EU's new constitution in 2005. But the euro zone’s debt crisis is reviving these old dreams.
But what sort of federalism? Mr Sarkozy probably wants to create a euro zone in Frances image, with power (and much discretion) concentrated in the hands of leaders, where the “Merkozy” duo (Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy) will dominate. Germany will no doubt want a replica of its own federal system, with strong rules and powerful independent institutions to constrain politicians. Le Monde carries a series of articles (in French) on what a two-speed Europe may mean.
If the euro zone survives the crisisand the meltdown of Italys bonds in the markets suggests that is becoming ever more difficultit will plainly require deep reform of the EUs treaties. Done properly, by keeping the euro open to countries that want to join (like Poland) and deepening the single market for those that do not (like Britain), the creation of a more flexible EU of variable geometry could ease many of the existing tensions. Further enlargement need no longer be so neuralgic; further integration need no longer be imposed on those who do not want it.
But done wrongly, as one fears Mr Sarkozy would have it, this will be a recipe for breaking up Europe. Not two-speed Europe but two separate Europes.
The first steps toward integration, the idea of holding regular summits of leaders of the 17 euro-zone countries, has already caused early friction with Britain (see my earlier post here). This week there were further cracks when, during a meeting of the euro zones finance ministers in Brussels, their colleagues from the ten non-euro states held their own separate dinner in a hotel nearby.
All this is alarming the European Commission, the EUs civil service and the guardian of its treaties. Speaking in Berlin on November 9th, its president, José Manuel Barroso, delivered what amounted to a direct rebuke to Mr Sarkozy.
The Commission welcomes, and urgesin fact we have been asking for a long timea deeper integration of policies and governance within the euro area. Such integration and convergence is the only way to enhance discipline and stability and to secure the future sustainability of the euro. In other words, we have to finish the unfinished business of Maastrichtto complete the monetary union with a truly economic union.
But stability and discipline must also go together with growth. And the single market is our greatest asset to foster growth.
Let me be cleara split union will not work. This is true for a union with different parts engaged in contradictory objectives; a union with an integrated core but a disengaged periphery; a union dominated by an unhealthy balance of power or indeed any kind of directorium. All these are unsustainable and will not work in the long term because they will put in question a fundamental, I would say a sacred, principlethe principle of justice, the principle of the respect of equality, the principle of the respect of the rule of law. And we are a union based on the respect of the rule of law and not on any power or forces.
It would be absurd if the very core of our projectand economic and monetary union as embodied in the euro area is the core of our projectso I say it would be absurd if this core were treated as a kind of "opt out" from the European Union as a whole.
Mr Sarkozys words seem to have caught the attention of Joschka Fischer, elder statesman of Germany's Green party and a former foreign minister, who said that the EU at 27 had become too unwieldy. “Let’s just forget about the EU with 27 membersunfortunately,” he told Die Zeit, a German weekly newspaper. “I just don’t see how these 27 states will ever come up with any meaningful reforms.” Indeed, some think the euro zone itself might be smaller than the 17 members (Greece may soon default and leave the euro).
The speech that everybody is waiting for now is Mrs Merkels. The chancellor wants to change the treaties, and on November 9th she called for “a breakthrough to a new Europe”. But what sort of Europe that should be was left mostly unsaid.

Friday, 4 November 2011

Russia and world trade: In at last?

The Economist discusses pronouncements this week that hint at the impending arrival of the Russian Federation at its long-awaited WTO destination:
After 18 years Russia is on the verge of joining the World Trade Organisation

There was disbelief this week when Arkady Dvorkovich, adviser to President Dmitry Medvedev, told journalists that Russia was close to joining the World Trade Organisation (WTO). Russia has been “close” for ages, but the timing has always slipped. Yet after 18 years of talks, it seems that membership now beckons.

Both America and the European Union have long agreed, as have all the other 153 WTO members bar Georgia, a small former Soviet republic which fought a brief war with Russia in August 2008 and is still partly occupied. Georgia had insisted, quite reasonably, on placing international observers to monitor the movement of goods at its sovereign border, which includes the territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Russia, which has recognised the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, said this compromised their status. Swiss mediators have found a deal that does not mention their status, refers to the border as a corridor and provides for monitoring not by a government agency but by a private foreign company accountable to the Swiss government. Now Georgia has said “yes”, clearing the way for Russia’s entry.

After a few days, Russia also accepted the deal. There is no doubt that Mr Medvedev would like to go down in history not just as somebody who tinkered with Russian time zones but as the man who took his country into the WTO. The final decision still lies with Vladimir Putin, Russia’s prime minister and likely future president, though he is unlikely to block it now.

As Vedomosti, Russia’s business daily, points out, Mr Putin has always been the real obstacle to Russia’s entry into the WTO. In 2009, when talks between Russia and America were going full steam, Mr Putin unexpectedly thwarted them by saying that Russia would join only with Belarus and Kazakhstan, with which it has a customs union. Mr Putin, initially eager for Russia to be in the big international clubs, has come to see some WTO demands as a politically motivated nuisance.

The benefits of WTO membership are debatable. Some estimate that Russia could gain at least $50 billion a year. Others argue that Russia would do better to stimulate exports before joining. As it is, two-thirds of exports are oil and gas, not covered by WTO rules. Apart from extractive industries and metal, few Russian goods are competitive. A World Bank report notes that Russian exporters have trouble not just entering foreign markets but surviving in them.

The real problem, however, is not trade barriers to Russia’s goods, but the country’s own inefficiency, institutionalised corruption and stifled competition. None of these problems can be solved by WTO membership. But Sergei Guriev, head of the New Economic School in Moscow, says that it would at least expose corruption and increase competition, deeply alien to Russia’s ruling bureaucracy. Indeed, the main benefit of WTO membership may be political. “It will be a sign that Russia is moving towards the civilised world,” says Mr Guriev, “not away from it.”

Sunday, 30 October 2011

Nuclear powers plan weapons spending spree, report finds

The Guardian has the story:
The world's nuclear powers are planning to spend hundreds of billions of pounds modernising and upgrading weapons warheads and delivery systems over the next decade, according to an authoritative report published on Monday.

Despite government budget pressures and international rhetoric about disarmament, evidence points to a new and dangerous "era of nuclear weapons", the report for the British American Security Information Council (Basic) warns. It says the US will spend $700bn (£434bn) on the nuclear weapons industry over the next decade, while Russia will spend at least $70bn on delivery systems alone. Other countries including China, India, Israel, France and Pakistan are expected to devote formidable sums on tactical and strategic missile systems.

For several countries, including Russia, Pakistan, Israel and France, nuclear weapons are being assigned roles that go well beyond deterrence, says the report. In Russia and Pakistan, it warns, nuclear weapons are assigned "war-fighting roles in military planning".

The report is the first in a series of papers for the Trident Commission, an independent cross-party initiative set up by Basic. Its leading members include former Conservative defence secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind, former Liberal Democrat leader and defence spokesman Sir Menzies Campbell and former Labour defence secretary Lord Browne.

There is a strong case, they say, for a fundamental review of UK nuclear weapons policy. The Conservatives in Britain's coalition government say they want to maintain a Trident-based nuclear weapons system. However, they have agreed to a "value for money" audit into a Trident replacement as four new nuclear missiles submarines are alone estimated to cost £25bn at the latest official estimate. The Lib Dems want to look at other options. The paper, by security analyst Ian Kearns, is entitled Beyond the United Kingdom: Trends in the Other Nuclear Armed States.

Pakistan and India, it warns, appear to be seeking smaller, lighter nuclear warheads so they have a greater range or can be deployed over shorter distances for tactical or "non-strategic" roles. "In the case of Israel, the size of its nuclear-tipped cruise missile enabled submarine fleet is being increased and the country seems to be on course, on the back of its satellite launch rocket programme, for future development of an inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM)," the report notes.

A common justification for the new nuclear weapons programmes is perceived vulnerability in the face of nuclear and conventional force development elsewhere. For example, Russia has expressed concern over the US missile defence and Conventional Prompt Global Strike programmes. China has expressed similar concerns about the US as well as India, while India's programmes are driven by fear of China and Pakistan.

Pakistan justifies its nuclear weapons programme by referring to India's conventional force superiority, the report observes.

In a country-by-country analysis, the report says:
  • The US is planning to spend $700bn on nuclear weapons over the next decade. A further $92bn will be spent on new nuclear warheads and the US also plans to build 12 nuclear ballistic missile submarines, air-launched nuclear cruise missiles and bombs.
  • Russia plans to spend $70bn on improving its strategic nuclear triad (land, sea and air delivery systems) by 2020. It is introducing mobile ICBMs with multiple warheads, and a new generation of nuclear weapons submarines to carry cruise as well as ballistic missiles. There are reports that Russia is also planning a nuclear-capable short-range missile for 10 army brigades over the next decade.
  • China is rapidly building up its medium and long-range "road mobile" missile arsenal equipped with multiple warheads. Up to five submarines are under construction capable of launching 36-60 sea-launched ballistic missiles, which could provide a continuous at-sea capability.
  • France has just completed deployment of four new submarines equipped with longer-range missiles with a "more robust warhead". It is also modernising its nuclear bomber fleet.
  • Pakistan is extending the range of its Shaheen II missiles, developing nuclear cruise missiles, improving its nuclear weapons design as well as smaller, lighter, warheads. It is also building new plutonium production reactors.
  • India is developing new versions of its Agni land-based missiles sufficient to target the whole of Pakistan and large parts of China, including Beijing. It has developed a nuclear ship-launched cruise missile and plans to build five submarines carrying ballistic nuclear missiles.
  • Israel is extending its Jericho III missile's range, and is developing an ICBM capability, expanding its nuclear-tipped cruise missile enabled submarine fleet.
  • North Korea unveiled a new Musudan missile in 2010 with a range of up to 2,500 miles and capable of reaching targets in Japan. It successfully tested the Taepodong-2 with a possible range of more than 6,000 miles sufficient to hit half the US mainland. However, the report, says, "it is unclear whether North Korea has yet developed the capability to manufacture nuclear warheads small enough to sit on top of these missiles".
Iran's nuclear aspirations are not covered by the report.

Friday, 28 October 2011

Michael Totten: Did We Lose in Iraq? No, and Here’s Why

Michael J. Totten, writing today in The New Republic, discusses the veracity of American victory in Mesopotamia in the light of President Obama's announcement of US withdrawal by the year's end. The article also makes interesting reading with regard to regional power plays, past, present—and future:
President Barack Obama has announced that nearly all American soldiers will be home from Iraq by the end of the year. Despite the fact that Iran, as the Middle East’s most serious would-be hegemon, will benefit more than any other country from our regional drawdown, the American and Iraqi governments wish to go their own separate ways.

The president has a campaign promise to keep. Most Americans are tired of sending their money, their sons, and even their daughters to Iraq, and most who haven’t spend money or blood are tired of hearing about it. The Iraqis have been trying to elbow us out for years and hope to regain a measure of sovereignty and respect when we’re finally gone.

It’s risky. In a worst-case scenario, Washington could end up evacuating its embassy a few years from now as we did in Saigon nearly four decades ago. But there’s a big difference between withdrawing from Iraq in 2011 and withdrawing from South Vietnam in 1973: The war in Iraq is over.

That's not to say that Iraq is a model of stability. “Iran is laying low right now and is riding us out,” U.S. Army sergeant Nick Franklin told me in Baghdad two years ago. “When we pull out, though, and they know we're almost out, it will be game on here in Iraq.” By aiding and abetting violent Shia militias and terrorist organizations, Iran has indeed been doing its worst to export its sectarian grievances and repressive political system to Iraq ever since coalition forces chased Saddam Hussein out of his palaces. Tehran is still striving for dominance—not only in Iraq, but everywhere else in the region, as well—and that job will surely be easier without the United States in the way.

The Obama administration knows this perfectly well. “To countries in the region,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said earlier this week in Tajikistan, “especially Iraq’s neighbors, we want to emphasize that America will stand with our allies and friends, including Iraq, in defense of our common security and interests.” Obviously she was referring to Iraq’s Iranian neighbor. No one worries that Jordan will nefariously interfere in Iraq any time soon. But Clinton’s assurances are less credible given the imminence of America’s withdrawal. Promoting our interests in Iraq will be a lot harder when our closest military forces are in Kuwait rather than Baghdad.

Even so, Iran’s Islamic Republic regime won’t benefit nearly as much from our withdrawal today as it would have five years ago. Iraq was an absolute disaster in 2006. Before General David Petraeus “surged” thousands of additional counterinsurgency troops to the country, a hurricane of car- and suicide-bombers turned Iraq into the most terrorized place on the face of the earth. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s Al Qaeda in Iraq lorded over Ramadi, the capital of Anbar Province, and points beyond. Moqtada al Sadr’s radical Shia Mahdi Army militia had its own Hezbollah-style state-within-a-state with its capital in Sadr City, a vast slum in Baghdad that’s home to millions of people.

If the United States had withdrawn its forces then, as many commentators and policymakers demanded, the Iraqi government almost certainly would have disintegrated. Iraq might not even exist as a state anymore. Al Qaeda could have claimed it beat the United States Marine Corps in a shooting war—a feat far more impressive for the purposes of propaganda than even the killing of thousands of civilians in New York and Washington. Iran, meanwhile, could have successfully replicated the quasi-imperial foreign policy it all but perfected in Lebanon where it acquired its own private army—Hezbollah—during a chaotic time of sectarian civil war and foreign occupation.

Iraq is a completely different country today. Al Qaeda in Iraq scarcely even exists anymore. No militia, either Sunni or Shia, controls territory or has its own “capital” anywhere. Baghdad’s government is not going to fall, no matter how much Tehran tries to undermine it. No one will be able to claim even implausibly that Americans were driven out of Iraq under fire. Nor can anyone plausibly say the United States lost. The enemies of the United States and Iraq’s elected government have either been vanquished, forced to give up the gun, or driven into the shadows.

“In all societies there is an acceptable level of violence,” U.S. Army captain A.J. Boyes said to me in Sadr City in 2009, suggesting that Iraq was reaching that point. Baghdad was no longer the war zone it used to be, and it’s even less violent now that it was then. No society in the world can be completely free of violence, but the “acceptable” level, given factors like history and political grievance, is higher in some countries than in others. It’s higher in the United States than it is in Japan. It’s higher in Mexico than it is in the United States. And it’s higher in Iraq than it is in Mexico. But Iraq today is less violent than Mexico, one of the most heavily touristed countries in the world.

That’s not to say there are no reasons to stay. “If there is one constant of American military history,” Max Boot wrote in Commentary, “it is that the longer our troops stay in a country the better the prospects of a successful outcome. Think of Germany, Italy, Japan or South Korea. Conversely when U.S. troops rush for the exits hard-won wartime gains can quickly evaporate. Think of the post-Civil War South, post-World War I Germany, post-1933 (and post-1995) Haiti, post-1972 Vietnam, or, more recently, post-1983 Lebanon and post-1993 Somalia.”

Boot is right about that. President Obama’s decision to withdraw may well end badly. But if it does turn out to be a mistake, it will be a much smaller mistake than a pre-surge withdrawal would have been. We are no longer staring down the possibility of a military or grand strategic defeat on the battlefield.

Iraq just isn’t as dangerous anymore, not to itself and not to others. If Iran tries to destabilize it with terror militias again, Iraq will fight back. And the Iraqis know how to fight back effectively now after so many years of American training. If Iran actually tries to invade with conventional forces—a spectacularly unlikely event, but one never knows in that part of the world—odds are excellent that the American military would respond to the breach of international law and sovereignty by again joining the fight alongside the Iraqi military.

Iraq has been gearing up to stand on its own for years. President Obama merely decided the time would come sooner rather than later. A Republican president would have eventually made the same decision even if it might have taken a little bit longer. Few Americans are in the mood for any more nation-building or babysitting. Iraqis, for their part, are tired of being built-up and babysat by Americans. Some kind of withdrawal and disengagement has been a long time coming for those reasons alone. A substantial number of American officials were persuaded that sticking around in Iraq to prevent a catastrophe was probably wise as long as we’d leave when a howling abyss no longer yawned at everyone’s feet. For better or for worse, that time has arrived.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Map reveals stark divide in who caused climate change and who's being hit

The Guardian's environment blog, edited by Damian Carrington, features an article today highlighting a new map drawn to reveal the differential effects of projected climate change around the globe. The nutshell version?: The global north is at lower risk of global warming impacts and is better placed to cope than the global south, but globalisation means we are all affected...
When the world's nations convene in Durban in November in the latest attempt to inch towards a global deal to tackle climate change, one fundamental principle will, as ever, underlie the negotiations.

Is is the contention that while rich, industrialised nations caused climate change through past carbon emissions, it is the developing world that is bearing the brunt. It follows from that, developing nations say, that the rich nations must therefore pay to enable the developing nations to both develop cleanly and adapt to the impacts of global warming.
The point is starkly illustrated in a new map of climate vulnerability (above): the rich global north has low vulnerability, the poor global south has high vulnerability. The map is produced by risk analysts Maplecroft by combining measures of the risk of climate change impacts, such as storms, floods, and droughts, with the social and financial ability of both communities and governments to cope. The top three most vulnerable nations reflect all these factors: Haiti, Bangladesh, Zimbabwe.

But it is not until you go all the way down 103 on the list, out of 193 nations, that you encounter the first major developed nation: Greece. The first 102 nations are all developing ones. Italy is next, at 124, and like Greece ranks relatively highly due to the risk of drought. The UK is at 178 and the country on Earth least vulnerable to climate change, according to Maplecroft, is Iceland.

"Large areas of north America and northern Europe are not so exposed to actual climate risk, and are very well placed to deal with it," explains Charlie Beldon, principal analyst at Maplecroft.

The vulnerability index has been calculated down to a resolution of 25km2 and Beldon says at this scale the vulnerability of the developing world's fast growing cities becomes clear. "A lot of big cities have developed in exposed areas such as flood plains, such as in south east Asia, and in developing economies they so don't have the capacity to adapt."

Of the world's 20 fastest growing cities, six are classified as 'extreme risk' by Maplecroft, including Calcutta in India, Manila in the Philippines, Jakarta in Indonesia and Dhaka and Chittagong in Bangladesh. Addis Ababa in Ethiopia also features. A further 10 are rated as 'high risk' including Guangdong, Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai, Karachi and Lagos.

"Cities such as Manila, Jakarta and Calcutta are vital centres of economic growth in key emerging markets, but heat waves, flooding, water shortages and increasingly severe and frequent storm events may well increase as climate changes takes hold," says Beldon.

With the world on the verge of a population of seven billion people, the rapid urbanisation of many developing countries remains one of the major demographic trends, but piles on risk because of the higher pressure on resources, such as water, and city infrastructure, like roads and hospitals.

Helen Hodge, head of maps and indices at Maplecroft, says it is not only local populations at risk from climate change impacts, serious though that is. The breaking of international supply chains for businesses working in a globalised world is also a big risk, she says.

"The recent flooding in Bangkok shows how very large multinationals can have long supply chains put at risk," she says, noting that Thailand is the world's largest producer of hard-disk computer drives.

China, the world's workshop, sits almost exactly halfway in the vulnerability index at 98 out of 193. That's appropriate, as China now sits awkwardly between the nations getting rich on carbon emissions and those suffering from its effects. And that's the other major contention that will underpin the UN climate talks in Durban.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Foreign interventions - When to hold and when to fold

The Economist has a useful review of a recent publication focusing on the issue of intervention - perfect for our consideration of human rights. The book in question is Can Intervention Work? by Rory Stewart and Gerald Knaus, published by W.W. Norton, 2011 (236 pages):
CAN we intervene in foreign countries and do good? Can we stop wars and genocides and get rid of evil dictators? Can we then build modern, democratic states that thrive in our wake? The answer depends on who you ask. An anti-Qaddafi Libyan will have nice things to say about NATO’s role there right now. But you will get very different views from an Afghan, an Iraqi, a Bosnian or a Kosovar.
Rory Stewart and Gerald Knaus are well placed to pose and answer these questions. Before Mr Stewart became a Conservative MP, he was a deputy governor of two Iraqi provinces. He also walked across Afghanistan and wrote a bestseller about the experience. Mr Knaus, a political economist, runs the European Stability Initiative, a Berlin-based think-tank founded in Sarajevo in 1999, which has been particularly influential in the Balkans.
The book is structured as two essays with a lengthy joint introduction. Mr Stewart has written a colourful account of his time in Afghanistan and his failed attempts to stop what he sees as a self- defeating build-up of ambitions, troops and plans. He skewers gobbledygook notions of bringing Afghans accountable governance and Western-style rule of law. It is not that he is against such things, but that he doubts the ability of foreigners to impose it all. He cites a pragmatic admonition from English Mountain Rescue: “Be prepared to turn back if conditions turn against you.”
Writing about Bosnia, Mr Knaus deploys heavy artillery in arguments that he has made before. Intervention there has been a stunning success, he says, given the state of Bosnia at the end of its devastating war in 1995. Hundreds of thousands of refugees have returned, not a single intervening soldier was killed (after the war), and today’s problems are of the conventional political sort, not the kind that herald another war. Not only does Bosnia enjoy free and fair elections, but also it has relatively little crime. Mr Knaus argues that the only missteps came from assumptions held by those like Lord Ashdown, when he was de facto governor of Bosnia, that well-meaning envoys could behave like imperial viceroys, sacking elected yet obstructive leaders at will.
From rather successful interventions, defined as Bosnia and Kosovo, the authors convey an important lesson: that is, the experience garnered in one place is generally not much use elsewhere. Bosnia was a success because the intervention came as part of the 1995 Dayton peace agreement, which ended the war and which all the exhausted sides committed themselves to. In Kosovo the vast majority of its people—ethnic Albanians, nearly all of them Muslims—were very grateful for what they saw as their America-led liberation from the Serbs. Mr Knaus also argues that the United Nations war-crimes tribunal was vital as a form of closure and for removing from the political scene characters such as Ratko Mladic, a Bosnian Serb general now on trial for genocide in The Hague.
So, does intervention work? As any Bosnian peasant may tell you, “maybe yes, maybe no.” It depends on the circumstances and requires modest ambitions. Muddle through with a sense of purpose, says Mr Knaus. Do what you can, where you can and no more, agrees Mr Stewart. In policy terms that sounds a bit like “yes” to Libya, “no” to Syria and so on.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Economist: Human rights - A tigress and her tormentors

The Economist reviews the changing guard at the United Nations Human Rights Council, with mixed approval and approbation (full article follows):
A long-despised watchdog wakes up, barks and even bites
In its five years of life the United Nations Human Rights Council has been more pilloried than praised. The pious posturing of countries renowned for beastliness to their citizens incenses critics. So does the triumph of politics over humanitarian principle, the knee-jerk condemnation of Israel and a blind eye turned to most other countries’ abuses. Yet in this unpromising setting, some positive signs are visible.

Next week a Haitian official will deliver the final report in the first cycle of the Universal Periodic Review, a unique (for the UN) four-year process in which every government must submit an account of its human rights to the scrutiny of its peers. Few believe that this will change behaviour in Iran, Myanmar or North Korea. Even in milder cases, the practical gain will be clear only in the second four-year cycle when the council hears how governments have responded to the 20,000-odd recommendations from the first round.

But human-rights lobbyists say it has helped to highlight their cause, not least by giving local campaigners new opportunities to berate their rulers. Many governments spend a lot of time and resources polishing their act before they come to Geneva. A report by the New York-based Human Rights Watch bestows rare praise on the council in its response to emergencies. In the year to June 2011 it launched international investigations in Côte d’Ivoire, Libya and Syria; it appointed an investigator to monitor developments in Iran; and it extended the mandates of rapporteurs for Myanmar, Cambodia, Somalia and Sudan.

Much of the credit for all this goes to Latin American countries such as Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Mexico, along with Zambia and even tiny Maldives. The United States is newly engaged too, having returned to an active role in the council under the Obama administration. Earlier this year it brokered a successful cross-regional initiative promoting freedom of assembly and association.

The question now is whether new members who joined the Council in September, which include India, Indonesia, Costa Rica and Peru, will play the same activist role as their predecessors. The early signs are not promising. In October one group, under the politically correct rubric of promoting transparency and accountability, sought (so far unsuccessfully) to nobble the budget, and thus the independence, of the Office of the High Commissioner, Navi Pillay. The main instigators were Cuba, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, all of which strongly oppose an interventionist approach to human rights. Ms Pillay, a South African of Tamil extraction, had outraged the Sri Lankan government by calling for an independent investigation of alleged atrocities and war crimes by both sides in the war against the Tamil Tigers. The pro-government media there vilified her as a bullying, racist “Tamil Tigress”. In the world of UN human rights, such insults may count as compliments.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Economist: Flight of the Drones

The Economist looks at why the future of air power belongs to unmanned systems (edited version follows)....
On September 30th Anwar al-Awlaki and several of his al-Qaeda colleagues stopped their pickup truck on a remote, dusty road deep inside Yemen’s interior. He can have had only a split second to realise what was about to happen. But the missile strike that killed al-Qaeda’s most effective propagandist was no real surprise. It was just the latest example of the way America’s armed Predator and Reaper drones are changing the terms of combat with the country’s enemies, leaving them able to run but with nowhere to hide.

American officers, with their passion for acronyms, prefer not to call the machine that killed al-Awlaki a drone. They have a point. In nature, drone bees are poor, useless things that produce no honey and have no sting. That hardly describes the remotely-piloted Predator MQ-1 or Reaper MQ-9 aircraft. Laden with sophisticated sensors and carrying Hellfire missiles and laser-guided bombs, they patrol the skies above Afghanistan, launch lethally accurate strikes against terrorists in the tribal areas of Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia and have helped NATO turn the tide against Muammar Qaddafi’s forces in Libya. Even calling them Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) or Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) is slightly misleading. There may not be a man in the cockpit, but each Reaper, a bigger, deadlier version of the Predator, requires more than 180 people to keep it flying. A pilot is always at the controls (albeit from a base that might be 7,500 miles, or 12,000km, away); and another officer operates its sensors and cameras.

Over the past decade UAS have become the counter-terrorism weapon of choice. Since 2005 there has been a 1,200% increase in combat air patrols by UAVs. Hardly a month passes without claims that another al-Qaeda or Taliban leader has been taken out by drone-launched missiles. There are now more hours flown by America’s UAS than by its manned strike aircraft and more pilots are being trained to fly them than their manned equivalents. While taking a knife to other cherished defence programmes last year, the defence secretary, Robert Gates, went out of his way to exempt drones from future cuts.

Under Barack Obama, the frequency of drone strikes on terrorists in Pakistan’s tribal areas has risen tenfold, from one every 40 days during George Bush’s presidency to one every four. John Brennan, Mr Obama’s counter-terrorism chief, has made it clear that as America draws down its forces in Afghanistan over the next three years, there will be no let up in drone strikes, which, he claims, are partly responsible for al-Qaeda being “on the ropes”. The grim Reaper’s ability to loiter for up to 24 hours, minutely observe human activity from five miles above while transmitting “full motion video” to its controllers and strike with pinpoint accuracy has made it the essential weapon in America’s “long war”.

But does this mean that the future belongs to UAS? As military thoughts turn to the threat posed by more powerful potential adversaries than jihadist militants—a fast-emerging China, say, or a nuclear-tipped Iran—will their enthusiasm for unmanned aircraft continue unabated? Or will having a pilot in the cockpit making life and death decisions remain the least risky option for the majority of missions, as proponents of the late and wildly over-budget F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, due to enter service in 2016, claim? If the answer favours the drones, then the world may be just at the beginning of a genuine revolution in warfare. It would be a revolution dominated, at least at the start, by America, which accounts for the overwhelming majority of UAS. Other countries, though, such as Britain and Italy, have also been quick to deploy armed drones and Israel, in particular, has a thriving UAS industry, using drones in a wide variety of roles.
The balance of this lengthy but informative article explores the current crop of drones, before examining the burgeoning phenomenon of UAS in the US and beyond.... Speculation also is given to the ethics of UAS and the possibilities for future development, including almost complete automation. Definitely worth a read—take a look!

Friday, 7 October 2011

Guardian: Is Vladimir Putin's Eurasian dream worth the effort?

Reacting to Russian news announced a few days back, Mark Mazower in an article published in today's Guardian suggests that "The Russian prime minister's union plan is not meant as a return to the Soviet past, but he would do well to check precedent"...
In Eric Ambler's masterly interwar thriller, The Mask of Dimitrios, the puppet master pulling the strings as a seedy Europe slides hopelessly into war is the shadowy Eurasian Credit Trust. The name was deliberately chosen. For most of the last century, Eurasia was scarcely a neutral term: it evoked the whiff of racial degeneration, the prospect of civilisation overrun by eastern hordes.

But now comes the Russian prime minister, Vladimir Putin, perhaps looking to lift the attention of a restive public at home to something more elevated than a peremptorily staged presidential succession, supporting the idea of creating a Eurasian union of former Soviet-bloc nations that could become "one of the poles of the modern world, serving as an efficient link between Europe and the dynamic Asia-Pacific region".

Putin explicitly denies that this is about rebuilding the USSR. Nevertheless, there has been a lot of talk of Eurasia since the collapse of the USSR and there is a close connection between the Eurasia concept and Soviet history. Belarus and Kazakhstan have already embarked on commercial integration and the new union will hope to take that further, perhaps attracting other former Soviet republics into its orbit: Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are mentioned. And in a world where EU membership is effectively barred to Russia, and where the EU is promoting its own eastern partnership, led by Poland and Sweden to intensify European links with other former Soviet republics – including both Belarus and the Ukraine – one can see the logic in Russian efforts to extend internal markets, remove barriers to labour mobility and at the same time win the fight for the hearts and minds of the inhabitants of its western gateways, above all in Ukraine.

Politicians like the occasional grand vision, especially one with historical resonance. Yet will all this be worth the effort? The precedents are not reassuring. If the EU's eastern partnership smacks of an effort to reshape the region in the image of the early modern Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth – a time of Polish and Swedish regional power when merchants and ideas travelled easily between the Baltic and the Black Sea – Putin's Eurasian union seems stuck in the Soviet era. Of course, Soviet ambitions went far beyond Eurasia; they wanted influence in the Middle East, Africa and south-east Asia. And this became clear after 1945, when Stalin's Russia really did become a world power thanks to its defeat of Nazis and the Kremlin got its chance to build a second world of socialism around the globe that united eastern Europe, the Balkans and the Soviet republics with other socialist partners further afield. Ideas and technology – above all, ideas about technology and the modernisation of peasant societies – circulated across the borders of the countries in this second world, as far away as Cuba, Angola, Ethiopia and North Korea. Today some historians remind us that the "third world" was so called precisely because of the sustained tussle for its allegiances in the 1950s and 1960s between the first and second worlds. Yet all of this can be exaggerated. The second world was concentrated on eastern Europe, and other member states came and went. The rise of China weakened the ideological prestige of Moscow. And none of it was ever a match in purely economic terms for the astonishingly powerful global alliance system put together by Washington, linking the powerhouse economies of western Europe and east Asia with the oil-producing states of the Middle East.

The first world definitely won that particular struggle and globalisation – by which I mean the extraordinary combination of industrial productivity growth in American partners such as Japan and South Korea with the financial flows that reshaped finance after the 1970s – ultimately brought the Soviet second world to its knees, both because it simply could not compete internationally and because much of eastern Europe had become addicted to western debt. Overall, the effort of sustaining this vast sphere of influence probably cost the USSR far more in purely economic terms than it got back. It had one great achievement to its credit – the industrialisation along late 19th-century lines of its own backward periphery, but by the late 20th century, that was not enough.

There is a lesson here to be learned, surely, from an earlier foray into a kind of Eurasianism by Turkey. In the early 1990s, the then president Turgut Özal imagined a coming "Turkish century" based on a new union among the Turkic-speaking states of the Eurasian heartlands. After his death, it became abundantly clear that the choice between orienting the Turkish economy east or west was no kind of choice at all. Having learned that lesson, the Erdogan government is pursuing a sort of post-imperial foreign policy of its own. But what makes it much more powerful than the earlier Özal model is not only that it is oriented to the former Ottoman lands in the Balkans and the Middle East rather than to the post-Soviet Black Sea and Caspian republics, but more importantly that it is intended as a complement rather than an alternative to the increasingly European and global orientation of the Turkish economy.

In short, it is no wonder Putin stresses his new vision of deeper integration is not meant as a return to the Soviet past. The question is whether there is any alternative model that makes sense for his proposed union. If the coupling of the Russian economy to the southern Stans brings with it a decoupling from the more powerful regional dynamos to its west and east, it will end up as a drag, not a spur, to growth and Russia will pay a heavy price for an old-fashioned dream of imperial glory.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Putin's grand vision: a new Eurasian bloc with old Soviet neighbours

The Guardian, alongside many other media outlets, brings news of Vladimir Putin's expressed ambitions to (re)create a new power bloc within Eurasia:
Russian prime minister proposes 'ambitious' union across republics based on economic interests
One week after announcing that he will return to the presidency next year Vladimir Putin has laid out a grand vision to bring Russia's former Soviet neighbours back into the fold.

Putin proposes the formation of a "Eurasian union", a bloc that could boost Russia's influence on the global stage. The proposal – from the man who once dubbed the Soviet Union's collapse "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century" – raises the spectre of the Russian prime minister's imperial designs.

The Eurasian union would be based on a customs union with Belarus and Kazakhstan, Putin suggests in an article published in Izvestiya newspaper on Tuesday.

"We are not going to stop there, and are setting an ambitious goal before ourselves – to get to the next, even higher, level of integration – to a Eurasian union," he has written. Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are also expected to join, he says.

Expecting critics to say he is trying to re-form the Soviet Union, Putin says: "We are not talking about recreating the USSR in one form or another. It would be naive to try to restore or copy that which remains in the past, but close integration based on new values and a political and economic foundation is imperative."

He adds: "We received a big legacy from the Soviet Union – infrastructure, current industrial specialisation, and a common linguistic, scientific and cultural space. To use this resource together for our development is in our common interest."

Putin has formed countless Moscow-led groupings aiming to maintain the power that Russia lost with the collapse of the Soviet Union. In recent years he has focused on economic integration and has pushed for former Soviet states to adopt the rouble as a regional currency.

In 2009 Russia formed a customs union with Belarus and Kazakhstan which is due to become a "unified economic zone" next year, bringing down barriers to the movement of labour and capital.

The Eurasian union would take that one step further, Putin says.

"We propose a model of powerful, supranational union, capable of becoming one of the poles of the modern world," he writes in the article.

It will be an uphill battle. The combined GDP of the EU stood at $16 trillion last year, while the Commonwealth of Independent States, an informal grouping of former Soviet states minus the Baltics, was just $1.9tn, according to the International Monetary Fund. Putin has been at pains to describe the union as an open project into which no one would be "pushed or rushed".

He has issued, however, a thinly veiled criticism aimed at Ukraine, which has continued to seek integration with the EU rather than renew ties with Russia.

"Some of our neighbours explain their reluctance to participate in advanced integration projects in the post-Soviet space by saying it allegedly contradicts their European choice," Putin writes.

"This is a false divide. The Eurasian union will be built on universal principles of integration as an integral part of greater Europe, united by common values of freedom, democracy and market laws."

The other two members of the customs union, on which the Eurasian union would be based, have been criticised for their lack of democracy, with Belarus dubbed "the last dictatorship in Europe".

The article is Putin's first foreign policy pronouncement since he announced he would return to the presidency next year, potentially getting another 12 years in power.

Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, said: "It's quite remarkable Putin would start with this.

"The logic behind it is primarily economic, and in this sense it is different from previous attempts, which were political or just decorative, to show Russian leadership."

The move could also be a sign of frustration with Russia's 18-year-long effort to join the World Trade Organisation, Lukyanov said. "The customs union was to a certain extent Putin's response to years and years of fruitless negotiations on the WTO – if global integration is not available let's turn to a regional one."

Friday, 30 September 2011

BBC News: Islamist cleric Anwar al-Awlaki killed in Yemen

BBC News publishes a report regarding the 'targeted killing' (yesterday?) of prominent al-Qaeda leader Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen by an American drone:
US-born radical Islamist cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, a key al-Qaeda leader, has been killed in Yemen, the country's defence ministry said.

US President Barack Obama said his death was a major blow to al-Qaeda.

Awlaki, of Yemeni descent, has been on the run in Yemen since December 2007.

The US said that as a key figure in al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), he had played a "significant role" in plots to blow up US airliners and had sought use poison to kill US citizens.

Mr Obama is said to have personally ordered his killing last year.

Yemen's defence ministry statement said only that Awlaki had died in Khashef in Jawf province, about 140km (87 miles) east of the capital, Sanaa, "along with some of his companions".

US and Yemeni officials later named one of those as Samir Khan, also a US citizen but of Pakistani origin, who produced an online magazine promoting al-Qaeda's ideology.

Local tribal leaders told the AFP news agency that Awlaki had been moving around within Yemen in recent weeks to evade capture. Local people told AP he had been travelling between Jawf and Marib provinces when he died.

US officials said Awlaki's convoy was hit by a US drone and jet strike.

Mr Obama said that as the leader of external operations for AQAP, Awlaki, born in 1971, had taken "a lead in planning and directing efforts to murder innocent Americans" and was also "directly responsible for the death of many Yemeni citizens".

He said the death marked another "milestone in the broader efforts to defeat al-Qaeda and its affiliates", and paid tribute to US intelligence and the Yemeni security forces for their co-operation.

"This is further proof that al-Qaeda and its affiliates will find no safe haven anywhere in the world, " he said.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Awlaki had "demonstrated his intent and ability to cause mass terror".

One US official told the American network ABC that US intelligence had had "a very intense focus" on Awlaki for some time, waiting for a chance to strike.

The unnamed official said there had been "a good opportunity to hit him" on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks this year, but that "it never materialised".
That's an extract: there's more, so take a look!

Sunday, 25 September 2011

FP: The South China Sea Is the Future of Conflict

Robert Kaplan has published an article in the Special Report section of the current edition of Foreign Policy magazine, exploring the potential for conflict within the South China Sea...

A far-reaching, determinedly Realist overview of the developing situation.

This issue of Foreign Policy also includes a link to an evocative photo-essay entitled "Tour the South China Sea". Take a look!

Saturday, 24 September 2011

Think Again: War

Foreign Policy magazine this month features a thought-provoking article that asks us to "Think Again" regarding war... Suggesting that "World peace could be closer than you think". Author Joshua S. Goldstein aids the process by repeating commonly-held beliefs regarding war in the modern world, before calling each immediately into question by holding up contradictory facts (excerpt follows):
"The World Is a More Violent Place Than It Used to Be."
No way. The early 21st century seems awash in wars: the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, street battles in Somalia, Islamist insurgencies in Pakistan, massacres in the Congo, genocidal campaigns in Sudan. All in all, regular fighting is taking place in 18 wars around the globe today. Public opinion reflects this sense of an ever more dangerous world: One survey a few years ago found that 60 percent of Americans considered a third world war likely. Expectations for the new century were bleak even before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and their bloody aftermath: Political scientist James G. Blight and former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara suggested earlier that year that we could look forward to an average of 3 million war deaths per year worldwide in the 21st century.
So far they haven't even been close. In fact, the last decade has seen fewer war deaths than any decade in the past 100 years, based on data compiled by researchers Bethany Lacina and Nils Petter Gleditsch of the Peace Research Institute Oslo. Worldwide, deaths caused directly by war-related violence in the new century have averaged about 55,000 per year, just over half of what they were in the 1990s (100,000 a year), a third of what they were during the Cold War (180,000 a year from 1950 to 1989), and a hundredth of what they were in World War II. If you factor in the growing global population, which has nearly quadrupled in the last century, the decrease is even sharper. Far from being an age of killer anarchy, the 20 years since the Cold War ended have been an era of rapid progress toward peace.

Armed conflict has declined in large part because armed conflict has fundamentally changed. Wars between big national armies all but disappeared along with the Cold War, taking with them the most horrific kinds of mass destruction. Today's asymmetrical guerrilla wars may be intractable and nasty, but they will never produce anything like the siege of Leningrad. The last conflict between two great powers, the Korean War, effectively ended nearly 60 years ago. The last sustained territorial war between two regular armies, Ethiopia and Eritrea, ended a decade ago. Even civil wars, though a persistent evil, are less common than in the past; there were about a quarter fewer in 2007 than in 1990

If the world feels like a more violent place than it actually is, that's because there's more information about wars -- not more wars themselves. Once-remote battles and war crimes now regularly make it onto our TV and computer screens, and in more or less real time. Cell-phone cameras have turned citizens into reporters in many war zones. Societal norms about what to make of this information have also changed. As Harvard University psychologist Steven Pinker has noted, "The decline of violent behavior has been paralleled by a decline in attitudes that tolerate or glorify violence," so that we see today's atrocities -- though mild by historical standards -- as "signs of how low our behavior can sink, not of how high our standards have risen."
The lengthy article proceeds to question the following assertions:
  • "America Is Fighting More Wars Than Ever." (Yes and no).
  • "War Has Gotten More Brutal for Civilians." (Hardly).
  • "Wars Will Get Worse in the Future." (Probably not).
  • "A More Democratic World Will Be a More Peaceful One." (Not necessarily).
  • "Peacekeeping Doesn't Work." (It does now).
  • "Some Conflicts Will Never End." (Never say never).
Definitely worth a read and a ponder - an opportunity to develop fresh perspective on this important topic.