Monthly Archives: January 2009

Stemming the Tide of Globalization

Every now and then, an event comes along which exemplifies perfectly a concept in international politics.  Last week the city of Lucca, Italy, enacted a ban on non-Italian restaurants operating in the city center.  According to a widely circulated report, the new ban was intended to “protect” local specialties from the rising popularity of “different” (read: foreign) cuisines. The measure also bans fast food restaurants and hopes to reduce littering within the city’s ancient walls, a magnet for tourists.  According to city spokesperson Massimo Di Grazia, “By ethnic cuisine we mean a different cuisine…That means no new kebabs, Thai or Lebanese restaurants.”  It certainly means no McDonald’s or Pizza Huts as well.

A chorus of critics immediately raised concerns of “culinary racism.”  And the city did itself no favors when Di Grazia attempted to clarify the ban, stating that while it was unclear how “different” a restaurant would have to be to fall under the terms of the ban, a hypothetical French restaurant would be allowed to open but restaurants using “Middle Eastern ingredients” probably would not.

As a phenomenon, globalization is nothing new.  Marco Polo’s journey to China was but an early step in the process of increasing economic and cultural interconnections between countries and regions.  Ironically, Italian cuisine itself is the product of globalization.  Prior to the Columbian exchange in the early 1500s, there were no tomatoes in Italy.  It may be hard to imagine Italian food without tomato sauce, but prior to the 16th century, tomatoes were not part of the Italian diet.

Nevertheless, the increasing intensity of globalization today often sparks sharp responses.  Recall the purchase of American brewer Anheuser-Busch by the Belgian brewer In-Bev, which led to proposals to boycott Budweiser and “drink American.”  Political scientist Benjamin Barber analyzed the effects of globalization and cultural resistance in his seminal article “Jihad vs. McWorld,” which has increasingly become a must-read article for those interested in the topic.  Barber noted that responses to globalization often involve a strong affirmation of local identity-based politics, sometimes leading to increasing tensions.  In this sense, Lucca’s ban on foreign foods represents just another attempt to stem the tide of globalization.

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Fixing the Economic Stimulus

On Monday, two heavy hitters in economics weighed in on the economic crisis facing the United States (and the global economy more generally).  In an opinion piece published in the New York Times, Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman offered a powerful argument in favor of a Keynesian-style stimulus package.  In particular, he contends that because the Federal Funds rate is effectively at zero, the only real policy option remaining for the U.S. government is a fiscal stimulus package.  In an article writing for CNN, Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz offers an equally powerful critique of the current discourse surrounding the economic stimulus packageBoth make powerful points in addressing the current crisis.  Hopefully, Geithner is listening.

 

Five Stories You Might Have Missed

The big story of the week has to be the inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States on Tuesday.  Since then, President Obama has been moving quickly to make sweeping changes to U.S. foreign and domestic policy, including announcements that he was suspending the military tribunal system established to try terrorism suspects, closing the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay and other secret detention facilities, mandating that all U.S. interrogators comply with the Army Field Manual, and issuing orders to national security team that they should develop a plan outlining a “responsible military drawdown in Iraq.”  And that was his first day in office.

Here’s five important stories from the past week you might have missed if you were only focused on the Obama transition.

1. Seeking to improve deteriorating relations with India, Pakistan announced on Friday that it would prosecute militants with links to the November Mumbai terror attacks.  The government of Pakistan is hoping to amend its constitution to permit trials for acts of terror committed outside its borders.  In the meantime, it has announced its intention to try several militants with links to the Mumbai attacks for cyber crimes.  Last week, the Pakistani government arrested 124 alleged militantsThe United Kingdom, the United States, and other western powers have made an effort to improve relations between India and Pakistan, both nuclear powers, which have been particularly tense since the November, and Yousuf Raza Gilani, the new prime minister of Pakistan, is facing considerable domestic and international pressure

2.  The temporary ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in Gaza seems to be holding, but tensions continue to rise.  On Sunday, Hamas announced that it would terminate the ceasefire if Israel continued to maintain its blockade on Gaza.  Israel maintains that the blockade is intended to prevent the shipment of weapons into Gaza, but the blockade also prevents the shipment of food, energy, and reconstruction materials into the territory.  Both U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and U.S. President Barack Obama have called on Israel to reopen its borders with Gaza.

3.  Congolese rebel leader Laurent Nkunda was arrested last week.  A central player in the ongoing civil war in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nkunda was believed responsible for the destabilization of the region which has resulted in the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people and an estimated 5.4 million deaths—half of whom were children—during the past ten years.  Nkunda’s arrest presents an opportunity for peace in the eastern DRC.  It also represents a fundamental shift in relations between the Congo and its eastern neighbor, Rwanda.  The two countries have had tense relations since the mid-1990s, but Nkudna’s arrest was part of a joint operation and Rwandan troops are currently cooperating with the Congolese military to track down remnants of guerilla forces operating in the region.

4.  A national referendum on a new constitution in Bolivia is currently underway.  The constitution, promoted by Evo Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous president, is widely expected to pass given Morales’ popularity.  However, several groups are campaigning against the constitution, including the Christian groups and the country’s relatively wealthy.  If passed, the new constitution would introduce “community justice,” provide for the election of judges, remove Catholicism as the official state religion, and cap landholdings at 5,000 hectares.

5.  Europe continues to struggle with the fallout from the global economic crisis.  On Friday, French President Nicolas Sarkozy unveiled a new €600 million stimulus package targeting the French newspaper industry.  The Spanish government has called on its citizens to engage in “patriotic” shopping, buying Spanish products as a way to address the economic downturn in that country.  Meanwhile, Iceland became the first county to witness a government collapse as a result of the crisis.  The prime minister of Iceland, Geir Haarde, resigned on Friday, paving the way for early elections and a potentially dramatic shift to the left after nearly twenty years of liberalization in the country.   In November, Iceland became the first developed country to have to turn to the International Monetary Fund since 1976.

New Hopes for the Congo

Hopes for peace in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo were boosted on Friday.  In a surprising shift in policy, the government of Rwanda arrested Laurent Nkunda, the leader of rebel forces in the North Kivu region.  Nkunda’s forces, believed to be supported by the government of Rwanda, had been engaged in a guerrilla war against both the government of the DRC and Hutu militants who fled into the Congo after the 1994 Rwandan genocide.  According to the New York Times, the government of Rwanda had come under increasing pressure to move against Nkunda, who has been accused of crimes against humanity for his role in the war in the Congo.  The government of the DRC has requested Nkunda be extradited to the Congo to face trial there, but the Rwandan government has not yet confirmed whether or not they will hand their former ally over to stand trial.

The extent to which this may represent a real shift in the Congo remains unclear.  The government of the Congo is still fragile, and its ability to effectively govern is weak, particularly in the eastern Congo near the Rwandan border.  The arrest of Nkunda nevertheless represents an important—and hopeful—development in the region.  Perhaps the long period of instability in the Great Lakes region is finally drawing to a close.

The First 100 Days: Obama’s New Foreign Policy

Presidents are often (unfairly) judged by their accomplishments in the first 100 days of a new administration.  Rarely are any real policies enacted during this period.  Far more important is the tone that the new administration sets.

In this respect, the new Obama administration is off to a solid start.

President Barack Obama’s inaugural speech—the full video and text of which is available through the BBC website—set the stage for a dramatic shift in U.S. foreign policy.  Obama’s address played up themes of liberalism and idealism, of collective defense and security.  In the speech, Obama observed,

that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with the sturdy alliances and enduring convictions. They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.

In terms of policy, we’ve seen some similar shifts away from the neoconservative realpolitik that dominated the Bush administration to a more liberal foreign policy already.  In his first 36 hours in office, Obama has already issued orders to close the detention facility at Guantánamo and suspend the use of military commissions.  For the new administration, this move is likely seen as part of a larger plan to improve the standing of the U.S. in the global community. 

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s first day on the job was marked by similar overtures.  She noted that

I believe with all my heart this is a new era for America…We will make clear as we go forward that diplomacy and development are essential tools in achieving the long-term objectives of the United States.

But to be clear, the goal has not changed.  Obama’s speech was still clearly focused on the war on terror.  Obama still faces the same challenges Bush faced—global climate change, terrorism, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Israel, and a global economic crisis with the potential to rival the Great Depression—though  he may choose to deal with them differently.  Only time will tell if Obama’s foreign policy represents a return to the liberalism of Wilson and Roosevelt.

Five Stories You Might Have Missed

The major news networks yesterday were giving virtually non-stop coverage to the upcoming inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama.  Obama is already on his journey to Washington DC for Tuesday’s inauguration.  In his weekly radio address, President-elect Obama warned of the challenges facing the nation, the most critical of which include unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and a global economic crisis.  Despite the challenges, however, the television news networks focused extensively on the pomp and circumstance of the ceremonial inauguration itself. 

Here’s five important stories you might have missed among all the ceremony:

1.  Hamas and Israel reached a one-week ceasefire on Sunday, temporarily halting the three-week old conflict which has already resulted in more than 1,100 Palestinian and 13 Israeli deaths.  The political fallout of the conflict also looks to be severe, with Qatar and Mauritania announcing they would terminate political and economic ties with Israel over the conflict. With the largest Muslim and Jewish comminutes in Europe, France is also bracing for an increase in sectarian violence between Jewish and Muslim communities.

2. After signaling that a deal had been reached last week and then seeing that deal collapse, Russia and Ukraine announced on Saturday that they had again reached an agreement which would permit Russia to resume natural gas shipments to the European Union.  Russian natural gas supplies are normally shipped through pipelines in Ukraine, and these shipments account for approximately twenty percent of the E.U.’s total natural gas consumption.  In the new one-year agreement, Russia offers Ukraine a 20 percent discount on natural gas prices in exchange for a promise not to increase transit fees for using the pipeline.  Some countries in Eastern Europe have been without heat for twelve days as Russia and Ukraine struggled to come to a solution to the standoff.  But political wrangling in Ukraine could still derail the deal.

3.  Ethiopian troops completed their planned withdrawal from Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, on Thursday.  The withdrawal raises concerns about the viability of Somalia’s pro-Western government and the increasing influence of Islamic extremists in the country.  Ethiopia threatened to withdraw its forces several months ago, complaining that the international community had not provided sufficient resources to support its mission and the government of Somalia.  In the absence of Ethiopian or other military forces, it is feared that Somalia may expand its reputation as a home to Islamic terrorists.

4.  There is growing speculation that Fidel Castro, former president of Cuba, may be in grave health.  Castro has not appeared in public since July 2006, and has recently cancelled a number of meetings with foreign dignitaries.  In a public speech on Sunday, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, one of Castro’s closest allies, appeared to offer his eulogy, noting “That Fidel is his uniform, who walked the streets and town late at night, hugging the people, won’t return.  That will remain in memories.”  Fidel’s brother, Raúl Castro, has served as president of Cuba since July 2006, when his brother was forced to resign for health reasons.  Since then, the economy of Cuba has struggled, the extensive welfare protections afforded workers have begun to decline, and the government has begun to promise greater openness and transparency.

5.  A closely fought by-election in Malaysia has been won by the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, part of the country’s Islamic opposition.  While the results will not alter the balance of power in the national parliament, they do raise concerns about the ability of the incoming National Front government to effectively govern.  

And for two bonus stories this week:

6.  In Japan, sharp divisions are appearing in the Liberal Democratic Party, the party which has ruled Japan for all but 11 months in the past 53 years.  Yoshimi Watanabe, who served as state minister for administrative reform from 2007 to 2008, tendered his resignation from the party last week amid the declining popularity of the party with the electorate.  The opposition Democratic Party of Japan appears well-positioned to win the next national election, which must take place by September. 

7.  Iran’s ex-Prime Minister, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, may run as a candidate in the presidential elections scheduled for June.  Mousavi is widely seen as a reformist candidate possessing the popularity to potentially defeat incumbent president Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad.

Five Stories You Might Have Missed

Despite the passage by the United Nations Security Council of a resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire, Israel continued its offensive in Gaza over the weekend.  The resolution was passed by the United Nations with the United States abstaining, marking the first time the United States has permitted a resolution opposed by Israel to pass.  Hillary Clinton, the incoming Secretary of State, is expected to deliver a speech on the Middle East next week, and speculation is that the speech may provide some insight into the policy of the Obama administration.

In other news from the last week:

1. More bleak data released last week dampened hopes for a speedy recovery from the global economic crisis.  On Friday, it was reported that the United States lost more than 2.6 million jobs in 2008 and the unemployment rate jumped to 7.2 percent in December—the highest level in 16 years.  Similar figures indicated that the United Kingdom and continental Europe are also suffering from falling economic output and rising unemployment

2. Russia and Ukraine reached a deal on Saturday aimed at restoring Russian natural gas shipments to the European Union.  The deal, which has yet to be formally signed by Ukraine, would permit European Union, Ukrainian, and Russian observers to monitor a pipeline that transports Russian gas through Ukraine to the E.U.  The European Union hopes the deal will prevent future disputes over the pipeline, stabilizing shipments to E.U. member states.

3. After receiving a ransom payment of U.S. $3 million, Somali pirates released a captured Saudi oil tanker sized last fall.  After the United Nations authorized military action against the pirates late last year, a number of countries have moved naval forces into the region in order to cut the level of piracy in one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.

4. A three-day long strike by employees of state-owned energy companies in India ended on Friday.  The striking workers failed to garner popular support for their demands, and the strike, which resulted in fuel shortages throughout the country, became highly unpopular. 

5. A U.S. businessman with ties to the State Department and Central Intelligence Agency has purchased lease rights over 400,000 hectares of land in Sudan.  The purchase becomes the largest private land deal in post-colonial Africa, but raises concerns over the increasing foreign control over the continent’s agricultural land.