Monthly Archives: September 2008

Yo, Ho, Ho…A Pirate’s Life for Me?

For anyone who thought pirates were a thing of the past—confined to Disney theme parks and Johnny Depp movies—you haven’t been paying attention!  Although the “golden age” or piracy ended by the mid-eighteenth century, modern day piracy has been growing in recent years, especially off the coast of Somalia and in the Straits of Malacca.  There’s even a modern-day pirate city—Eyl, Somalia —where pirates store their captured ships and plundered cargo while awaiting ransoms demanded for their return.  Pirates generally demand between $300,000 and $1 million for the return of the ship and its crew.

But over the weekend, Somali pirates struck a far larger target.  A Ukrainian ship destined for Kenya was carrying 33 T-72 tanks, other “military hardware,” “an assortment of spare parts for use by different branches of the Kenyan military,” and “a substantial quantity of ammunition,” according to Kenyan government spokesperson and the Ukrainian foreign ministry.  The U.S. Navy is monitoring the situation, and Russian naval vessels are heading to the area.  The pirates are demanding $20 million for the return of the ship and its cargo—a bargain compared to their initial $35 million offer.

The fact that the pirates operate so freely is largely a function of the collapse of the Somali state.  Somalia has effectively been controlled by warlords, and has been without an effective national government since 1991, when a civil war tore through the country.  The internationally-recognized government of Somalia has been forced to meet in neighboring Kenya due to violence and political instability, allowing local pirates and warlords to reign free.  In June, the United Nations authorized member states to send warships into Somalia’s territorial waters to tackle piracy, but little progress has been made so far, as the most recent seizure suggests.

Peter Leeson’s article, cleverly entitled “An-arrgh-chy: The Law and Economics of Pirate Organization” contrasts the political economy of historical pirates with that of today.  It’s also a fun read!

Five Stories You Might Have Missed

John McCain decided to participate in Friday’s presidential debate, which was predictably dominated by questions on the economy.  The status of the U.S. economy continues to garner significant international attention, but other stories also developed this week.

1. In perhaps the most important development last week, Congress reached a deal on a $700 billion bailout package for the financial sector.   Progress towards an agreement had collapsed last week after House Republicans withdrew their support for President Bush’s initial proposal and Democrats refused to move forward without their support.  The impact of the financial collapse (and bailout) in the United States has yet to be felt, but already some—including Germany’s finance minister, Peer Steinbrück—are arguing that the crisis means the U.S. has lost its “financial superpower status.”

2. In the most recent development in souring Russian-American relations, Russia and Venezuela moved to cooperate more closely in areas of energy policy.  This follows on the announcement that Russian naval vessels and aircraft would participate in Venezuelan war games in the southern Caribbean.  Since 2005, Venezuela has used a portion of its oil wealth to purchase more than $4 billion worth of weapons systems, including fighter aircraft, helicopters, anti-aircraft systems, and armored personnel carriers, from Russia. 

3. The vast expanses of space are becoming a bit more crowded, as China and India expand their own space programs.  China launched the country’s third manned space mission on Friday.  The mission culminated with a successful space walk over the weekend.  Meanwhile, India is planning its own launch intended to map the surface of the moon.  According to some observers, the Chinese and Indian governments are engaged in a new space race, echoing the U.S.-Soviet rivalry of the 1960s.  

4. On Saturday, the Syrian capital Damascus was rocked by a car bomb which killed 17 and injured 44 people.   Although no group has yet claimed responsibility, suspicions have fallen on resurgent Sunni fundamentalist groups.

5. South Africa’s president Thabo Mbeki abruptly resigned last week.  Although the African National Congress’ leader Jacob Zuma is likely to be elected president in the upcoming election, Kgalema Motlanthe, former guerrilla and union leader, was selected as the interim president on Thursday.  Motlanthe says his agenda will focus on maintaining economic and political stability.


For users of MyPoliSciKit, the weekly news quiz is now available.

The Future of the U.S. Global Position

A forthcoming report by Thomas Fingar, the U.S. intelligence community’s top analyst, has received little attention, but heralds some dramatic changes for the United States in the near future.  According to the Washington Post, Fingar’s report, entitled Global Trends 2025, observes that, “The U.S. will remain the preeminent power, but that American dominance will be much diminished” over the next 15-17 years, highlighting in particular the deterioration of U.S. leadership in “political, economic and arguably, cultural arenas.”  The major challenges?  Globalization, climate change, and regional destabilization brought about by shortages of food, water, and energy.  What’s more, in Fingar’s assessment, the extensive military resources of the United States will be our “least significant” asset because “nobody is going to attack us massive conventional forces.”

Fingar predicts a world in which the United States’ position is gradually eroded as other regional powers, including Europe and China, rise.  He also envisions a declining role for multilateral institutiosn like the United Nations and the World Bank.

Interestingly, the major concerns preoccupying U.S. foreign and military policy over the past eight years receive scant attention in the report.  Instead, Fingar emphasizes the impact of growing environmental crises on regional stability, particularly in the developing world.  Climate change and its associated conditions, including food shortages, drought, floods, mass migration, and political and economic upheaval—not al-Qaeda and Iran—represent the most significant policy challenges in Fingar’s assessment.

The award for best response to the report has to go to the Climate Progress blog, which says “Duh!”…but in a good way.  More generally, however, Fingar’s report does encourage us to rethink our understanding of security and foreign policy.  Is IR as a discipline too focused on military security and national foreign policy?  Do the (neo)realist and (neo)liberal approaches to IR help us to understand contemporary challenges in a meaningful way?  Or is it time for us to rethink our approaches?

Want to know more?  Read Fingar’s speech to the INSA Analytic Transformation Conference.  Unfortunately the report itself is not yet available for public consumption.

Five Stories You Might Have Missed

Events this week have been dominated by the continuing crisis in the financial sector and the chaotic week in world markets

1.  In an effort to address the ongoing financial crisis, the Securities and Exchange Commission took the unusual step of banning short sales of some companies’ stock.  Announced on Friday and confirmed by similar bans in the United Kingdom, France, Portugal, Ireland, Australia, and other major markets, the move was intended to prevent future downward pressure on financial stocks.  According to an FT analysis, many hedge funds may be hurt by the move.  In an even more dramatic move, the Bush administration has proposed a $700 billion relief package for Wall Street.  The package, which will require the ceiling on the national debt be increased from $10.6 trillion to $11.3 trillion, would be the largest rescue package in the history of the country.  

2. On Saturday, South African President Thabo Mbeki agreed to step down from office after his ruling party, the African National Congress, called for his resignation.  It is widely expected that Jacob Zuma will replace Mbeki as the new President of South Africa.  There are considerable questions about what will happen to South Africa’s economic policy under a Zuma Presidency.  Mbeki moved the ANC’s economic policy towards a more open, free-market system at odds with the party’s strong union and activist base.  It remains to be seen in what direction Zuma will steer Africa’s largest economy.

3. Relations between the United States and its South American neighbors took a hit last week, as Bolivia and Venezuela expelled the U.S. ambassadors.  The United States responded by expelling the Bolivian and Venezuelan ambassadors.

4. On Thursday, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad appeared to making an overture towards Israel, confirming his close ally and vice president Esfandiar Rahim-Mashaei’s assertion that Iran was “a friend of [the] Israeli people.”  The FT speculates that the move may be part of a broader strategy of improving relations with the West.  However, Ahmadinejad’s history of calling for the destruction of Israel and denial of the holocaust suggests that he may have a great deal more work to do if that is indeed his intention.  Further, Ahmadinejad’s move was countered on Friday by a statement from Iran’s supreme spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who said it was “wrong” to claim that Iran could be a friend of Israel.

5. On Sunday, militants in Nigeria called an end to a week-long series of attacks against oil facilities in the Niger River Delta region.  The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) had claimed responsibility for the attacks, which it claims are part of its effort to establish local control over the region’s oil resources.

Good News Out of Rwanda

Most Americans know only one thing about Rwanda: it was the site one of the worst episodes of genocide in the history of the world in 1994, when Hutus killed an estimated 800,000 Tutsi.  Most people couldn’t tell you the reason for the outbreak of violence or what has happened in Rwanda since 1994.

But a bit of promising news emerged from Rwanda this week: Following election on Monday, Rwanda will be the first country in the world with a parliament dominated by women.  President Paul Kagame’s ruling Rwanda Patriotic Front, the political party which emerged from the rebel group which brought the genocide to an end, looks to win its second national election since 1994.  Preliminary results indicate that the ruling RPF will retain at least 75% of the seats in parliament.  More impressively, the results also indicate that at least 55% of the members of parliament will be women. 

How does this compare to other countries

  1. Rwanda: 48.8%
  2. Sweden: 45.3%
  3. Norway: 37.9%
  4. Finland: 37.5%
  5. Denmark: 36.9%
  6. Netherlands: 36.7%
  7. Cuba: 36%
    Spain: 36%
  8. Costa Rica: 35.1%
  9. Argentina: 35%
  10. Mozambique: 34.8%

And where does the United States fall?  According to the International Parliamentary Union, the United States ranks 69th worldwide, with women comprising 16.8% of all members of Congress.  And nine countries (Belize, Micronesia, Nauru, Oman, Palau, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the Solomon Islands, and Tuvalu) have no women in parliament.

Five Stories You Mihgt Have Missed

The big stories in the United States this week were the landfall of hurricane Ike and the impact of the failure of Lehman Brothers investment bank.  Here are other important stories that you might have missed during the past week:

1. On Wednesday, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, or OPEC, announced it would cut production by 520,000 barrels per day in an attempt to keep oil prices above $100 per barrel.  The move was quickly criticized by the International Energy Agency and the White House.  The cut, OPEC’s first since December 2006, comes as oil prices have fallen to just over $100 per barrel, a decrease of more than 30% from peak prices several months ago.

2. On Saturday night, a series of bomb blasts tore through New Delhi.  The five explosions killed 25 and wounded more than 90.  An additional four explosive devices were found before they detonated.  Although no group has yet claimed responsibility, police believe that the bombings may be linked to one of India’s banned Muslim groups, such as the Students Islamic Movement or the Indian Mujahideen.

3. The longstanding political impasse in Zimbabwe appeared to be diffused last week when the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Popular Front (ZANU-PF) and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) reached a power-sharing deal.  The details of the deal have not yet been released, but both sides view the new government of national unity as a victory.  Despite the agreement, concerns over the country’s political stability and economic collapse remain.  Inflation in Zimbabwe is currently estimated to be more than 10 million percent.

4. On Thursday, the Financial Times reported that the Chinese government had used its foreign exchange reserve funds to pressure Costa Rica to sever ties with Taiwan and establish relations with Beijing. If confirmed, the move would mark the most dramatic use of China’s $1.8 trillion forex reserves as a tool of Chinese foreign policy.

5. In an interview with Charlie Gibson last week, Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin declared on Thursday that the United States would be obligated to go to war with Russia if Georgia were a member of Nato.  McCain has advocated a more aggressive stance towards Russia over the past several months, but Palin’s announcement was the first time the idea of direct confrontation between the two Cold War rivals has been specifically mentioned.