Monthly Archives: November 2008

Five Stories You Might Have Missed

The terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India’s financial center and most populous city, has dominated recent headlines.  The attacks claimed at least 192 lives and have the potential to undermine both Indian economic development and the warming of Indian-Pakistani relations. The political fallout is also likely to be steep.  Already, Shivraj Patil, India’s Home Minister, has resigned, and many are speculating that the attacks may cost India’s ruling Congress Party dearly at the polls.

Here are five other important stories from the past week:

1.  Barbara Hogan, the new Minister of Health in South Africa, has announced a new program to address the HIV/AIDS crisis.  Under the program, the South African government will expand its support for its anti-HIV program with the help of the British government.  South Africa has the highest rate of HIV inflection in the world; an estimated 1 out of every 8 Sought Africans is HIV positive.  But the administration of previous President Thabo Mbeki had refused to acknowledge the connection between HIV and AIDS, choosing to treat HIV with traditional healers rather than conventional medicine.  South African AIDS activists are celebrating the new program.

2.  Ethiopia has announced its intention to withdraw its troops from Somalia by the end of the year.  Ethiopia has maintained a force of 2,000 to 3,000 soldiers in Somalia since 2006, when it invaded in order to oust Islamic militants who had seized power.  But the interim government of Somalia has been unable to assert authority outside of a small region in the capital, and the African Union has not fully funded its peacekeeping operation in the country.  Somalia has become a failed state, home to piracy which threatens shipping through the Suez Canal.  Some have speculated that the announcement of the Ethiopian withdrawal is intended to put pressure on the United Nations to establish a new peacekeeping operation in Somalia.

3.  Flooding near the Port of Itajai, one of Brazil’s most important ports, threatens to undermine Brazil’s agricultural exports.  The River Itajai broke its banks, flooding the port and killing at least 100 people.  The flooding threatens to close the port for as long as two weeks, undermining exports from Santa Catarina state, a major exporter of meat and chicken.  The flooding could affect global food prices, potentially rekindling concerns of a global food crisis.

4.  A French program intended to address the global financial crisis has been blocked by European Union officials.  The European Commission, the bureaucracy of the European Union, has refused to permit France to proceed with its plan to recapitalize its banks through a $13.3 billion support package.  The French government has reacted angrily to the veto, calling the decision “stupid” and “ridiculous.”

5.  A European Union probe has concluded that pharmaceutical manufacturers have engaged in unfair practices intended to delay or block the release of generic drugsadding billions to the cost of healthcare.  The investigation involved raids on several of Europe’s leading drug producers leading some to believe that the EU may pursue criminal and civil cases against the largest offenders.

Global Trends 2025

You might remember that I wrote about the National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends 2025 Report in September.  The report has finally been released and is available on the NIC’s website and makes for a very interesting read!  Among the key findings:

  1. The United States will not be the world’s sole superpower, as China and India increasingly challenge U.S. supremacy.
  2. State capitalism (as practiced by countires like China) will displace the American model of free market capitalism.
  3. Conflicts over food, water, and energy will replace terrorism as key threat to international stability.

Happy reading!

Will the Real Africa Please Stand Up?

Okay, I’ll admit it.  I watched 24: Redemption on Sunday night. 

Unlike previous episodes in the series, this one was set outside the United States.  The fictional African country of Sangala played home to Jack Bauer’s latest counter-terrorist adventures.  The episode, which is supposed to be an interlude between seasons 6 and 7, fell short.  Watching 24 has always been a bit strange, sort of like watching an accident as you drive by.  You know you really shouldn’t but you just can’t seem to help yourself.  But there was something even worse about this episode.

There have always been some problems with the representation of enemies on 24.  From the Arab terrorist, to the Russian terrorist, to the corrupt American businessmen, to the corrupt American government, we often get a simple construction of good vs. evil.  We are encouraged to root against the bad guys—and for Jack Bauer—even when they engage in similar tactics.  Indeed, Jack Bauer’s reliance on torture to extract information, a technique which almost always seems to work for Bauer but is never effective against him, has had some real world implications.  Dahlia Lithwick’s August article in Newsweek outlined the limits of a counter-terrorism policy in which Jack Bauer’s fictional adventures are taken as gospel and provide the foundation for real world doctrine.

The problem with Redemption is that it presents a caricature of “those African countries,” a problem which Sean Jacobs illustrates in his ironically titled blog “Africa is a Country.”  In this simplified Africa, the victims are nameless and many, coups and political instability are rampant, and Jack Bauer is, in the words of Daniel Feinbreg, the “Great White Father, a disappointingly paternalistic and colonialistic cliché.”

Despite the horrors being perpetuated by the warlords, 24: Redemption saves its most pointed attack for the United Nations, whose peacekeeping representative is simultaneously a coward, a spineless peacenik, and ultimately a traitor.  Clearly, the UN has its faults.  Its response to the Rwandan genocide, for example, was nothing short of tragic.  But, as Alessandra Stanley’s review of the show concludes, 24’s “jingoistic political slant has not been lifted. This is the world according to a Chuck Norris movie. Heroes like Jack Bauer can save the nation from near extinction over and over, but they will still be persecuted for niggling human rights violations by pantywaist bureaucrats.”

For an interesting counterpoint, have a look at Binyavanga Wainaina’s “How (not) to Write About Africa.”

Five Stories You Might Have Missed

President-elect Barack Obama is moving forward with his transition.  According to most observers, he’s been meticulous in his vetting but has taken a pragmatic rather than partisan approach in selecting his cabinet.  Many of the most important positions have not yet been filled, but speculation is that Tim Geithner will be named Treasury Secretary and Hillary Clinton will be named to State.  A number of names have also been floated for other key positions in the administration.

Here’s five stories you might have missed during the extensive speculation about Obama’s presidency:

1.  The French left appears to be in disarray after Saturday’s leadership contestMartine Aubry narrowly won the contest fort the position, but Segolene Royal, the party’s candidate in the last presidential election, refused to concede defeat and demanded an immediate revote.  Observers fear that the leadership contest could result in the collapse of the French Socialist party.

2.  The increase in piracy off the coast of Somalia is having a dramatic impact on global trade.  Last week, pirates seized a Saudi oil supertanker carrying an estimated $100 million worth of crude oil.  The attack was a high-profile illustration of the dangers associated with shipping near Somali waters.  But Somalia is located along the Suez-canal transit path, one of the world’s busiest canals and part of a key shipping route between Europe, the Middle East, and Asia.  Shipping companies are now re-routing traffic around the Cape of Good Hope in Southern Africa to avoid the pirate infested water, adding to the cost of shipping.

3.  President Bush and President-elect Obama advanced competing economic plans this week.  President Bush appealed to the global community to embrace free trade, expressing his disappointment in Congress its refusal to approve new free trade agreements with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea before adjourning.  President-elect Obama announced his intention to develop a new public works program, echoing Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal program which helped to bring the United States out of the Great Depression.  The program would focus on job creation, particularly in the areas of construction and the green economy.

4.  The status of forces agreement between the United States and Iraqi signed last week faced its first real challenges, as thousands of protestors backed by Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr took to the streets on Friday in protest.  The rally of at least 10,000 peple demanded the immediate withdrawal of American forces from Iraq.  However, al-Sadr’s group does not appear to have the ability to defeat the agreement. 

5.  Local elections on Sunday in Venezuela are projected to presenet a challenge to incumbent president Hugo Chavez.  The president’s party rode a tidal wave of support in 2004, when it won all but two governorships in the country.  But opinion polls suggest he could lose between six and nine seats, undermining the president’s ability to deepen his revolutionary transformation of Venezuela.

Rethinking Bretton Woods

The leaders of the 20 wealthiest countries, the G20, met in Washington DC over the weekend.  Their agenda: to find a way to deal with the global economic crisis.  The meeting had initially been envisioned by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who believed that nothing short of a new Bretton Woods system was necessary to deal with the crisis.

But what was the first Bretton Woods system?  The Bretton Woods system is the name given to the global financial and trade system created at the end of World War II.  The Bretton Woods system encompassed the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank (and was originally supposed to include an organization like the World Trade Organization as well, though this took much longer to create).  The ideas behind the original Bretton Woods system were described by John Gerard Ruggie as “embedded liberalism.”  Drawing heavily from the philosophy of Keynesianism, this system of embedded liberalism included a system of fixed currency exchange rates and an acceptance of the need for state intervention in the economy in order to ensure full employment.

The Bretton Woods system began to collapse in the 1970s, as currency values were allowed to float, or be determined by the market, restrictions on the global movement of capital were reduced, and the Keynesian commitment to full employment was replaced by a monetarist focus on keeping the rate of inflation low.  Over time, the system of embedded liberalism was gradually replaced by the system of neoliberalism we know today.

Fast forward to today, and Sarkozy’s calls for a new Bretton Wood system make greater sense.  If the current global economic crisis was caused by the failure of national systems of financial regulation to govern global financial flows, then perhaps it makes sense to think about a new Bretton Woods system.  But not everyone is convinced.  At the summit, President Bush cautioned that “a meeting is not going to solve the world’s problems.”  And he’s probably right

So what reforms are on the agenda?  Certainly a rethinking of the role of the IMF is an imporatnt beginning.  But the only firm commitment offered at the G20 meeting was an agreement to meet again, in April.  To be fair, the final communiqué coming out of the weekend’s meeting included commitments to resist pro-cyclicality in regulatory policy and to review a number of questions in anticipation of the April meeting, including assessments of global accounting standards, derivatives markets, executive compensation practices, and the mandates, governance and resource requirements of international financial institutions.  This is certainly important, but it is hard to see how this represents the type of shift to a more regulated form of capitalism, as envisioned by Sarkozy.

So how is the blogosphere responding to the weekend’s excitement?  Dani Rodrick points out that “The fundamental dilemma of financial globalization is that regulation and supervision remains national while financial markets are international.”  He credits the G20 for recognizing this problem in their final communiqué, even if they did little to address the problem

Daniel Drezner is more melancholy.  He points to a similar dilemma, arguing,

the basic conundrum is that governments would like to regulate financial institutions in such a way that private capital does not come up with a way to evade those regulations and engage in the exact same activities with a lower regulatory cost.  In the history of financial regulation, however, private capital has excelled at regulatory avoidance.  Given the complexities of financial markets, I have every confidence that even if the G-20 were to agree on common standards, they would not be airtight.  The loopholes that would be found would let the air out of any governance balloon that was inflated.

Not a very uplifting read over your morning coffee.

Five Stories You Might Have Missed

The global economic summit of the G20 countries concluded yesterday.  The meeting, intended to address the global financial crisis, concluded with a promise to take “whatever further actions are necessary” to address the crisis, but offered few concrete steps forward.  The summit was an opportunity to reconsider the international financial architecture, often referred to as the Bretton Woods system.  I’ll have a more detailed assessment of the summit tomorrow.  In the meantime, here are five other studies you might have missed:

1. Remember the timeline for withdrawal from Iraq that would have handed a victory to the terrorists?  Well, now we have one.  The Bush administration concluded a status of forces agreement with the Iraqi government that requires the complete withdrawal of U.S. forces by 2011.  The UN Security Council resolution which authorized the U.S. military presence in Iraq is due to expire in December, and without either a new Security Council authorization or an agreement with the Iraqi government, the status of American troops in Iraq would have been uncertain at best (and illegal at worst).  The timeline for withdrawal was a sticking point for approval of the Iraqi legislature. 

2.  The ceasefire between Israel and Gaza militants continued to come under strain last week.  An Israeli attack early last week resulted in the death of six Hamas militants.  Palestinian militants responded by increasing rocket and mortar attacks against Israeli towns near the Gaza Strip.  The Israeli government then closed Gaza’s borders, shutting down the flow of supplies.  The European Union on Friday called on Israel to permit the importation of food, fuel, and basic humanitarian supplies, but so far, the Israeli government has declined.

3.  The Eurozone has officially entered its first recession ever.  Established in 1999 and comprised of all European Union members which have adopted the Euro as their official currency, the 15-member Eurozone has now experienced two consecutive quarters of declining gross domestic product.  According to an FT editorial, the recession represents the first real challenge for European economic unity.  Already the European Central Bank has taken steps to address the economic downturn, cutting interest rates and increasing liquidity.  The effectiveness of these policies—and the difficulty of managing fifteen national economies through a single monetary policy—remains to be seen.

4.  Faced with oil prices declining below $55 per barrel and the lowest level of growth in demand for oil since 1985, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) scheduled an emergency meeting for the end of the month.  Most forecasters believe OPEC will try to trim global output in an attempt to increase world oil prices.

5.  The fighting in eastern portions of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which has resulted in the displacement of as many as 250,000 people, continued last week despite UN pressure to establish a ceasefire.  The United Nations is attempting to address the humanitarian crisis, but has so far been unsuccessful. But according to sources within the UN mission in the Congo, known as MONUC, rebel forces are attempting to force the withdrawal of UN peacekeepers from the region.

And a bonus story for this week:

6.  The Mexican Congress passed its annual budget for 2009.  In an environment characterized by the global economic downturn and tight finances, the Mexican government will increase spending by 13.1 percent in real terms in 2009.  The budget—the first in six years in which the government will run a deficit—increases spending on infrastructure, security, and social development. The new budget represents a return to Keynesian-style counter-cyclical spending which the Mexican government hopes will permit the country to avoid the worst of the global economic crisis.

Five Stories You Might Have Missed

It’s been a dramatic week.  Barack Obama became the first African American to be elected President of the United States.  For many, the election marked not just that historic first but brought the possibility of dramatic policy changes in the U.S.  There was also a series of reports bringing bad news for the global economy, including a dramatic uptick in the unemployment rate in the United States (now at its highest point since the immediate aftermath of the September 11th attacks.   It was, in short, a busy week.  Here’s five stories you might have missed amid the flurry of news.

1. Following a report showing U.S. car sales sank to their lowest levels in 25 years and reflecting the widespread impact of the global financial downturn, both the U.S. and Germany auto industries pressed for rescue packages from their respective governments.  In the United States, the Democratic Congressional leadership has requested Secretary of the Treasury Hank Paulson to assist the American auto industry as part of the $700 billion rescue passed by Congress last month.  BMW is pushing for similar relief from the German government.

2.  In   move widely seen as an attempt to open the presidency for Vladimir Putin’s return, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on Wednesday called for consituttional reforms which would extend the tenure of the Russian president from four to six years.  Putin, who remains incredibly popular among the Russian population, is currently serving as Prime Minister after being termed out of office by constitutional limitations.  Medvedev’s term is currently set to expire in 2012, at which time Putin would be eligible to stand for the office again.  However, some observers argue that Medvedev may resign before that, allowing Putin to return to the presidency even earlier.

3. An anonymous official within the U.S. government said that hackers with ties to the Chinese military successfully hacked into the White House and Department of Defense computer networks.  The source said that the hackers were not able to access classified documents during the attack, but did have access to unclassified communications between high ranking government officials.  In unrelated attacks also believed to originate with the Chinese government, computers belonging to both the McCain and Obama campaigns were also compromised, allowing hackers to obtain internal policy documents from both presidential campaigns. 

4.  The political future of Israel’s current government remains unclear.  Although polls indicate that Tzipi Livni’s ruling Kadima party holds a narrow lead in popular opinion, Israel’s current political instability undermines the ability of the government to move forward with peace negotiations with the Palestinians.  This week, Israeli’s living in Jerusalem will elect a new mayor.  But the election will likely shed little light on the future direction of the country, as the major parties have all opted not to field a candidate for the position

5. Proving the old rally ‘round the flag adage, Gordon Brown’s ruling Labour Party won an important by-election on Thursday, effectively ending discussion of both an early general election and a leadership challenge from within the party.   Brown, who served as the U.K.’s Chancellor of the Exchequer in Tony Blair’s government, had seen his popularity decline precipitously since coming into office.  But Brown’s handling of the credit crisis in the United Kingdom has effectively averted a deeper crisis in the United Kingdom and has been used as a model for governments elsewhere in the world.