Tag: United States

Hu is the better alternative

Michael J. Green in the National Interest has an excellent piece on communique diplomacy with China, but it leaves open the difficult question of the longer-term relationship between Washington and Beijing. While this question is being asked at Brookings and elsewhere, answers seem to be lacking. Clean energy technologies are far too weak a reed to support a long-term U.S./China relationship.  While some argue that what is needed is to implement what has already been agreed, that too seems a formula less robust than what is needed.

The basic problem lies in diverging values.  This is not just a matter of human rights, but it is also a matter of human rights. First ducking the question and then sounding forthcoming yesterday, President Hu Jintao said China “recognizes and also respects the universality of human rights” and acknowledged that “a lot still needs to be done in China in terms of human rights.”  This answer that will cause Hu more trouble in Beijing than in Washington.  But expert analysts are having a hard time interpreting what it means, and even whether it is boiler plate or something new.  And for the Chinese, human rights include economic and social rights, not just political ones.  Where we hear “freedom of expression” they may mean “right to health.”

My own inclination, but I admit it is not a particularly well-informed one, is to think that yesterday’s visit did open some possibilities for improved longer-term relations with China, if only because the two leaders seemed on the same wavelength and free to express their agreements and disagreements clearly and comfortably. Above all, they seemed to agree that the kinds of misunderstandings that plagued the bilateral relationship in 2010 should not be repeated in 2011 and beyond.  Tone matters in diplomacy, especially with the Chinese, and yesterday’s tones were harmonious (an important value in Beijing).

The tone of mutual respect hides however a fundamental asymetry.  Hu Jintao is the leader of a one-party system.  President Obama is not everyone’s favorite in the U.S.–I am getting a lot of Tea Party tweets these days about defeating him at the next elections–but precisely because he won office in a tough political competition he has a kind of democratic legitimacy that Hu Jintao lacks.  In fact, democracy of the sort we would recognize as such is still a great threat in China, because it calls into question the Communist Party’s monopoly on political power.

What difference does this make?  A great deal, it seems to me.  The Chinese are feeling their cheerios:  the past decade of rapid economic growth, financial success and infrastructure modernization has given even the man in the Shanghai street the sense that nothing can stop an inevitable rise, one in which competition and potentially conflict with the U.S. is regarded as likely. Chinese nationalism is a serious and rising threat to good relations with the U.S., since it sees the U.S. as hegemonic, or at least as trying to hem in China’s growing power.

There is the irony:  Hu Jintao, weak though he is in the panoply of Chinese leaders and lacking though he may be in real democratic legitimacy, is a bulwark (or at least a facade) of sorts against vigorous expressions of Chinese nationalism, which seem to be all the rage these days, especially in the military.  So the Americans are once again caught in a situation where the democratic alternative, more nationalistic than the Hu Jintao we witnessed yesterday, would be a lot more difficult to deal with than the less democratic reality.

But China’s one-party system will not persist forever.  There will be enormous risk to U.S. interests once that system starts to transition to something more obliged to reflect Chinese nationalism.  The kind of cautious, low-key  and mutually sensitive approach on display between the two presidents yesterday will not satisfy human rights hawks in the U.S. or Chinese nationalists, but it certainly sets a reasonable tone for the difficult challenges ahead.

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What would MLK say?

The rash of suicides and attempted suicides associated with popular rebellions in Tunisia, Algeria and now Egypt naturally raises the question, on Martin Luther King Day:  is suicide a useful, effective or legitimate tactic against autocratic regimes?

Let’s admit right off that in one sense it is useful:  self immolation attracts a lot of attention today, as it did decades ago during the Vietnam war.  The press seems barely able to get its fill of such stories, and if there are photographs in addition you can be sure they will run on the front page in the West.  Self immolation is treated as the ultimate testimonial to how desperate people are.  I suppose that makes it effective as well.  These protests are largely indigenous, but you can be sure that Western attention to them will still be an important factor in how the Arab regimes react.  And what are you going to do to someone who has already doused himself in gasoline and tried to light it afire?

I am not a King scholar, and the day is not long enough yet for me to have checked out his writings carefully on this subject.  But I grew up with MLK’s words ringing in my ears from well before attending the March on Washington in 1963.  This was a man whose opposition to violence and respect for human life would not permit him to support suicide of any type to prove a point.  Yes, he expected himself and his supporters to run gigantic risks and to suffer brutality at the hands of police and thugs.  But this was to bear witness, to confront oppression with human dignity, not to get killed.

This is an important message just now, as the demonstrations in several countries seem to be deteriorating into street brawls and looting.  If something good is to come of the sacrifices people are making, nonviolence and dignity–including respect for property–are vital.  If the regimes can credibly call the demonstrators criminals, decent people will hesitate to join them and the security forces will feel free to crack down.

Nonviolence for Martin Luther King was a moral as well as a practical imperative.  It was a high calling, one that really did appear to give his movement divine blessings, as it did Gandhi’s.  But not everyone can adhere to that calling.  I admit to having seen things in this world that merit a violent response.  The trouble is that violence, even violence against oneself, begets more violence.  What the demonstrations need now is MLK’s recipe of nonviolence and respect for human dignity.  The demonstrators should not be attacking the security forces but inviting the security forces to their side, as they did in the days leading up to President Ben Ali’s flight.  Self immolation will not be effective in that sense.

I have just returned this morning from Baghdad.  I can only wonder what might have happened there had demonstrations of the sort now seen in North Africa broken out against Saddam Hussein.  It would have been bloody and nasty, but could it have been as bloody and nasty as these last eight years?  I played a role in advocating the support for the Serbian opposition that brought down Slobodan Milosevic just a few years before the American invasion of Iraq.  There is no question but that Serbia is better off for having dealt with its own autocracy by largely nonviolent means.

That is what I might wish for our North African friends on Martin Luther King day:  disciplined nonviolence and respect for human dignity have the best chance of winning the day and bringing about regimes that in turn will respect human dignity and not use violence against their own people.

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Bosnia still needs the U.S. as well as Europe

International Crisis Group, in a piece published today, urges a kind of unilateral coup by the EU to take over the lead international role in Bosnia:

European Union (EU) member states should make 2011 the year when the lead international role in Bosnia and Herzegovina shifts from the Office of the High Representative (OHR) to a reinforced EU delegation.

With scarce reference to coordinating with the United States or its future role, ICG claims Bosnia and Herzegovina has outgrown the OHR, the arbiter of Dayton agreement implementation, and will do just fine if current conditions for its abolition are dropped or finessed and the weight of the international community’s intervention is shifted to the question of EU membership, with no executive authority for the EU representative.  Somehow conditions for EU membership will be much more effective, international community credibility in imposing conditions will not be reduced just because the last set is being ignored, and OHR can be left to tidy up its unfinished business and wither away.

I confess a serious temptation to support wholeheartedly ICG’s bold proposition.  The Washington has too many issues on its shrinking plate today–getting rid of a few leftovers from the 1990s would be most welcome.  Bosnia was never a vital U.S. interest.  President Clinton’s intervention there in the 1995 was precipitated by an accumulation of secondary interests, combined with Senator Dole’s sharp criticism of the Administration for not intervening as it promised it would during the previous electoral campaign.  Today, Bosnia lies way down the list of priorities.  As a taxpayer, I would count Europe taking over as a big plus.

The trouble is that I doubt Europe can do it with anything like the forcefulness and clarity required, and nothing in the ICG report convinces me otherwise.  The ICG report simply ignores Milorad Dodik’s many threats to take Republika Srpska (RS) in the direction of independence, as if they are not to be taken seriously (unless they present themselves in military guise, at which point the report seems confident the U.S. will join Turkey and the EU in preventing it from happening).  The report treats the RS’s many acts of defiance as rightful and all attempts by the international community to block or blunt them, except the most discreet, as arbitrary, mistaken or unjustified.  It is hard to imagine how the report would be much different if it had been written in Banja Luka, where RS’s masters call the tune.

The sad fact is that Europe and the U.S. need to act in close concert in Bosnia, where Europe’s voice is still weak and divided and the American voice is heard more loudly and clearly.  A quick visit to Mostar, where the EU has achieved little since 1993, and to Brcko, where the U.S. has led a real effort at reintegration, would show what difference it makes.

My own worst fear is that Europe, left to its own confused devices, will begin to de facto negotiate EU membership separately with the RS, which will happily volunteer to implement the acquis communitaire without any help from Sarajevo.  Already European ministers regularly call on Milorad Dodik in Banja Luka as if he is leading an independent state, something the Americans have generally tried to avoid.  If Dodik can prevent formation of a government in Sarajevo for a few more months, as he likely can given his showing in the last election, he’ll be in a position to leave Sarajevo in the figurative dust when it comes to implementing European requirements.

I would not protest a well-coordinated move to shift more weight to a truly amped up EU Delegation, but that should include a plan for meeting the conditions for closure of the OHR (the ICG description of the current state of play on these makes interesting reading) as well as for strong American participation in the European effort.  There is nothing unusual about this.  The head of the International Civilian Office, who is also the EU representative in Kosovo, has a strong American deputy, and Americans have participated in many EU missions, starting to my knowledge with the European customs mission in Bosnia right after the war.

No effort that simply drops the Americans from the picture, or ignores the local political context as much as ICG’s does, will succeed.  Bosnia still needs the U.S. as well as Europe.

NOTE TO THE PRESS:  please cite www.peacefare.net when quoting or reproducing this piece in any language.

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Introduction: getting to community policing in Afghanistan

The issue of how to train police in a place like Afghanistan is fraught:  should we be equipping and training them for a counter-insurgency fight, or encouraging them to establish strong relationships with a community they are expected to serve and protect?

David Bayley and Robert Perito argue in The Police In War that community policing is precisely what is needed during counter-insurgency operations, but implementing programs to improve police/community relations in a place like Afghanistan is not an easy sell, as US Army Captain A. Heather Coyne (no pun intended), with the NATO Training Mission–Afghanistan, explains in this initial “from the field” account (click here for her text). We have met the enemy, she suggests, and they are us:  our concepts, processes and programs are serious obstacles, which in this case have been happily surmounted.

Others with field perspective:  please contact me (daniel@peacefare.net) if you would like to publish here.

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The end is nigh…

Not really, but 2010 is coming to a close.  Never easy to look ahead a year, but let me give it a try.  It’ll make for a nice mea culpa post a year from now.  And if I cherry pick a bit maybe I’ll be able to claim clairvoyance!

  • Iran:  the biggest headache of the year to come.  If its nuclear program is not slowed or stopped, things are going to get tense.  Both Israel and the U.S. have preferred sanctions, covert action and diplomatic pressure to military action.  If no agreement is reached on enrichment, that might change by the end of 2011.  No Green Revolution, the clerics hang on, using the Revolutionary Guards to defend the revolution (duh).
  • Pakistan:  it isn’t getting better and it could well get worse.  The security forces don’t like the way the civilians aren’t handling things, and the civilians are in perpetual crisis.  Look for increased internal tension, but no Army takeover, and some success in American efforts to get more action against AQ and the Taliban inside Pakistan.  Judging from a report in the New York Times, we may not always be pleased with the methods the Pakistanis use.
  • North Korea:  no migraine, but pesky nonetheless, and South Korea is a lot less quiescent than it used to be.  Pretty good odds on some sort of military action during the year, but the South and the Americans will try to avoid the nightmare of a devastating artillery barrage against Seoul.
  • Afghanistan:  sure there will be military progress, enough to allow at least a minimal withdrawal from a handful of provinces by July.  But it is hard to see how Karzai becomes much more legitimate or effective.  There is a lot of heavy lifting to do before provincial government is improved, but by the end of the year we might see some serious progress in that direction, again in a handful of provinces.
  • Iraq:  no one expects much good of this government, which is large, unwieldy and fragmented.  But just for this reason, I expect Maliki to get away with continuing to govern more or less on his own, relying on different parts of his awkward coalition on different issues.  The big unknown:  can Baghdad settle, or finesse, the disputes over territory with Erbil (Kurdistan)?
  • Palestine/Israel (no meaning in the order–I try to alternate):  Palestine gets more recognitions, Israel builds more settlements, the Americans offer a detailed settlement, both sides resist but agree to go to high level talks where the Americans try to impose.  That fails and Israel continues in the direction of establishing a one-state solution with Arabs as second class citizens.  My secular Zionist ancestors turn in their graves.
  • Egypt:  trouble.  Succession plans founder as the legitimacy of the parliament is challenged in the streets and courts.  Mubarak hangs on, but the uncertainties grow.
  • Haiti:  Not clear whether the presidential runoff will be held January 16, but things are going to improve, at least until next summer’s hurricanes.  Just for that reason there will be more instability as Haitians begin to tussle over the improvements.
  • Al Qaeda:  the franchise model is working well, so no need to recentralize.  They will keep on trying for a score in the U.S. and will likely succeed at some, I hope non-spectacular, level.
  • Yemen/Somalia:  Yemen is on the brink and will likely go over it, if not in 2011 soon thereafter.  Somalia will start back from hell, with increasing stability in some regions and continuing conflict in others.
  • Sudan:  the independence referendum passes.  Khartoum and Juba reach enough of an agreement on outstanding issues to allow implementation in July, but border problems (including Abyei) and South/South violence grow into a real threat.  Darfur deteriorates as the rebels emulate the South and Khartoum takes its frustrations out on the poor souls.
  • Lebanon:  the Special Tribunal finally delivers its indictments.  Everyone yawns and stretches, having agreed to ignore them.
  • Syria:  Damascus finally realizes that it is time to reach an agreement with Israel.  The Israelis decide to go ahead with it, thus relieving pressure to stop settlements and deal seriously with the Palestinians.
  • Ivory Coast:  the French finally find the first class tickets for Gbagbo and his entourage, who go to some place that does not recognize the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court (no, not the U.S.!).
  • Zimbabwe:  Mugabe is pressing for quick adoption of his new constitution and elections in 2011, catching the opposition off balance.  If he succeeds, the place continues to go to hell in a handbasket.  If he fails, it will still be some time before it heads in the other direction.
  • Balkans:  Bosnians still stuck on constitutional reform, but Kosovo gets a visa waiver from the EU despite ongoing investigations of organ trafficking.

If the year turns out this way, it won’t be disastrous, just a bumpy downhill slide.  Hard to see it getting much better than that, but I could have made it much worse:

  • Iran:  weaponizes and deploys nukes.
  • Pakistan:  finally admits it can’t find two of its weapons, which have likely fallen into AQ hands.
  • North Korea:  goes bananas in response to some provocation, launches artillery barrage on Seoul.
  • Afghanistan:  spring Taliban offensive sweeps away Coalition-installed local institutions; Kandahar falls.
  • Iraq:  Kurds and Arabs fight, without a clear outcome.
  • Israel/Palestine:  Israel attacks Hizbollah in Lebanon, third intifada begins with Hamas suicide bombings inside Israel.
  • Egypt:  Muslim Brotherhood challenges Mubarak in the streets, prevents orderly succession process.
  • Haiti:  hurricanes, food riots, political strife, reconstruction blocked.
  • Al Qaeda:  big hit inside the U.S., thousands die.
  • Yemen/Somalia:  both go south, with AQ establishing itself firmly on both sides of the Bab al Mandab.
  • Sudan:  post-referendum negotiations fail, fighting on North/South border, chaos in Southern Sudan.
  • Lebanon:  Hizbollah reacts with violence to the Special Tribunal indictments, taking over large parts of Lebanon.  Hizbollah/Israel war wrecks havoc.
  • Syria:  succeeds in surreptitiously building nuclear facilities on commission from Iran, Israeli effort to destroy them fails.
  • Ivory Coast:  Gbagbo tries to hold on to office, imitating Mugabe’s successful effort.  Ouattara plays ball and accepts the prime ministry, pressured by internationals who don’t want to do what is necessary to airlift Gbagbo out of there.   A real opportunity to demonstrate the effectiveness of international solidarity is squandered.
  • Zimbabwe:  Mugabe succeeds, Tsvangirai is out, state in virtual collapse.
  • Balkans:  the EU unwisely begins implementing the acquis communitaire in Republika Srpska due to delays in formation of a national Bosnian government, investigations in Kosovo drag on and make progress towards the visa waiver and other EU goodies impossible.

There are of course other places where we might see bad things happen:  Venezuela, Burma, Nigeria, Kyrgyzstan, Saudi Arabia, Russia–but I’ll leave the imagining to you.

Happy New Year!

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Capture the rent!

A former Shell exec has been making news with a prediction of $5/gallon gasoline in 2012.  I don’t know if he is right about 2012, but I am sure he is right about $5. This is inevitable, given the finite resource and (we hope) economic growth over the next few years (not to mention inflation).

The question is this:  who will capture the “rent”?  Rent is the excess return over the cost of production, distribution, refining and normal profit (which in some parts of the world is more like $5/barrel, at a time when oil is selling on the world market at over $90/barrel).  As things stand today, most of the rent goes to non-U.S. oil producers abroad, where production costs are lower than in the now declining oil fields in the U.S.

At current prices, the U.S. is sending something more than $400 billion/year abroad to pay for oil imports, much of it ending up in the pockets of people we would not want to enrich if we thought about it:  Iran and Russia foremost, Venezuela secondmost.  Even if we don’t import oil directly from them, U.S. demand contributes to the market conditions that enable them to sell into the world market at $90/barrel a product that costs them far less.  Money and oil are fungible:  any significant decline in U.S. demand would affect the price worldwide and reduce the flow of rents to oil producers worldwide.

Enriching antagonists is not the only problem.  Protecting the sea lanes through which oil is transported is costly.  As things stand today, the costs are charged to the U.S. taxpayer in general, not to oil users. Colleagues estimate these costs are $10-20/barrel of U.S. consumption. I’d like to see those costs paid by those who use more of the oil, not by those of us who use less (I am writing in a 68 degree room, with two sweaters on).

The obvious way to do this is with an oil import fee.  That, however, turns out to be neither wise nor possible.  Not wise because it would protect U.S. producers and encourage domestic production.  Wouldn’t it be smarter, the price being equal, to use someone else’s first?  Not possible because the United States, in its wisdom, long ago “bound” the tariff on imported oil.  This means we agreed not to increase the tariff, which is very low.  If we impose an oil import fee, we would have to compensate others in the form of sharply reduced tariffs (and increased imports) for doing so.  If we refused, the World Trade Organization’s rules would allow others to retaliate by raising their tariffs.  Not a good way to go for a country in need of massively increasing its exports.

The better way is to charge fees on all oil use, or if you prefer for environmental reasons on all carbon use.  This would “capture the rent” to pay for the associated security, environmental and other costs (including road infrastructure) associated with the use of oil.

One argument against comes from the left:  poor people spend more of their incomes on oil and energy generally than rich people, so an oil or carbon tax is regressive.  This can be fixed, in part, by using some of the income from the tax to provide benefits to people with lower incomes.

Another argument against comes from the right:  we wouldn’t want to do anything to discourage exploration and production of oil.  I don’t see why not:  conserving a finite resource for future use sounds the right way to go to me.  But in any event much of the money we send abroad to pay for oil is ending up not in oil exploration and production but rather in Dubai real estate and other worthy causes.

Why is this subject not discussed more often?  Well, it is:  Tom Friedman raises it regularly in the New York Times, but there is absolutely no resonance in the body politic.  Gasoline taxes aren’t the third rail of American politics, they are the train.  No one wants to get hit by it.

Barack Obama is too smart not to know all that I have written above, but to my knowledge he has not breathed a word about gasoline taxes since becoming President.  I can only hope that in a second term he would break the spell and capture the rent, but I don’t know where he’ll find a Congress willing to go along.  Maybe a lame duck in 2014?

If he needs inspiration, he might turn to Iran’s President Ahmedinejad, who despite strong opposition is cutting oil subsidies sharply and allowing domestic product prices to rise (by a factor of 4) while compensating with payments to lower-income Iranians.  Of course he can do that because the increased prices put money directly into the Iranian government’s pocket, which is what oil taxes would do for the U.S. government. Is Ahmedinejad more courageous than Obama?

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