Monthly Archives: May 2009

Five Stories You Might Have Missed

The major news story this week was the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to replace David Souter on the U.S. Supreme Court. If confirmed by the Senate, Sotomayor would be the first Hispanic and only the third woman appointed to the highest court in the United States. Politically, Sotomayor’s nomination was a brilliant move on the part of the Obama administration. While President Obama did not take advantage of the opportunity to appoint a liberal counter-weight to the conservative ideologues of Justice Antonin Scalia, the President did manage to force Republicans into a difficult spot. Republicans had been gearing up for a protracted fight against any Obama nomination as a way to mobilize their softening political base and increase fundraising in anticipation of next year’s Congressional elections. But in nominating Sotomayor, Obama forces Republicans to balance their desire to mobilize their base against their need to expand the base of the party to include the country’s largest and fastest growing minority group.

In news from outside Washington DC last week:

1. The United States is still struggling to figure out how to deal with the challenges posed by North Korea’s increasingly belligerent policy stance. Over the past two weeks, North Korea has engaged in a nuclear warhead test (on Monday) and several missile test fire operations. While the United States has officially downplayed the situation, describing North Korea’s actions as “nothing out of the ordinary” and dismissing it as mere “posturing,” it has discussed the need for a tougher approach. Meanwhile, the United Nations Security Council seems unlikely to moved on fresh sanctions against the North Korean regime.

2. After a week of intense fighting, the Pakistani military has regained control of Mingora, the main town in the disputed Swat valley. The government of Pakistan has been fighting against Taliban militants, who have turned to terrorist  bombings in their fight against the Pakistani government. On Thursday, for example, four bombs exploded in Peshawar, a city in north-west Pakistan. Observers are speculating that the Pakistani government may turn its attention to the Waziristan region along the Afghanistan border once operations in the Swat valley are completed. But the ability of the Pakistani government to continue to exercise sovereignty over the border regions will depend on its ability to establish governmental institutions and expand the reach of the country’s central institutions into the border regions—something the central government has not been able to do so far.

3. Political tensions within the Palestinian Authority intensified on Sunday after forces loyal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (from the Palestinian Liberation Organization faction) raided a safe house belonging to Hamas, the other party in government. The clash–the bloodiest since the Abbas government revived peace talks with Israel in 2007, resulted in six deaths, including two high-ranking Hamas officials. The attack came just four days after Abbas met with President Barack Obama in Washington, DC. Obama encouraged Abbas to improve his efforts to fulfill his obligations under the road map for peace, including maintaining law and order in the West Bank. Observers believe this attack was part of that effort, intended to demonstrate to the United States that the Palestinian Authority is following through on its promises.

4. Fighting in the Niger River Delta region continued over the past week, as the government of Nigeria continued its attacks on militants in the region. The government is hoping to reopen oil wells in the Ogoniland region. But observers fear that the government’s increasingly militarized efforts to address the crisis may backfire. Groups in the Niger Delta region claim that they have received few benefits from the country’s oil wealth, suffering from severe environmental degradation and severe human rights violations resulting from oil production, but seeing little benefit from the industry. Militants in the region have already launched attacks against some oil production facilities, hoping to cut off production and increase the cost of operating. Activists in the United States have taken a different approach, attempting to sue in U.S. courts the multinational oil giant Royal Dutch Shell for their alleged involvement in the death of Ken Saro-Wiwa and other human rights activists in the region.

5. Oil prices reached a six-month high on Friday, trading at $66 per barrel. OPEC is projecting that oil should reach $70-$75 per barrel by the end of the year. While the fighting in the Niger Delta region certainly contributed to increasing prices, observers also believe that speculators are coming back into commodities markers, leading to price increases. In a move certainly linked to the higher prices, the government of Brazil announced that it would reopen its vast offshore oil fields to international bidders. Meanwhile, the oil giant Chevron is being sued in Ecuadorian courts, facing damage liabilities as high as $27 billion for alleged damage to the environment and human health caused by their operations in the country.

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Glossary Added

I’ve added a new feature to the blog. A glossary, available at https://worldpoliticsblog.wordpress.com/glossary/ will guide provide definitions of key terms used in the blog starting this week. Feel free to add any terms you’d like to see defined there!

Rethinking IMF Policy

Dani Rodrick posted an interesting note on changes to IMF policy on Africa. Since 1980, the International Monetary Fund has promoted a policy of strict fiscal discipline, cutting state expenditures, liberalizing exchange rates, and privatizing the economy. The policy prescriptions have been labeled the “Washington Consensus,” which acts as the policy basis for structural adjustment programs required for countries experiencing balance of payments problems. But the consensus was often (and perhaps incorrectly) criticized for offering insufficient attention to the broader social context within which the economy functions. Elsewhere, Roderick advanced the notion of an “augmented” Washington Consensus, which incorporates social safety nets, poverty reduction, and anti-corruption as key elements of the consensus.

But in his blog this week, Roderick notes that the IMF “now thinks there is a role for increasing fiscal deficits even in some of the world’s poorest countries.” In countries not currently suffering from excessive debt burdens, targeted fiscal stimulus packages, focusing on expanding spending on infrastructure and social safety nets, may now be warranted. This sort of Keynesian policy has been at the heart of the U.S. response to its ongoing economic crisis. Now it appears the majority of African countries may be encouraged to follow a similar path.

You can read the entire IMF report here.

Five Stories You Might Have Missed

It’s been a relatively quiet week in domestic U.S. politics. Congress continues to spar over the Pelosi-CIA briefing debate, and observers continue to speculate about who President Barack Obama might nominate to replace Justice David Souter in the U.S. Supreme Court. Congress also moved forward with passage of a cap-and-trade system to address greenhouse gas emissions (though the legislation still has a long way to go before it becomes law). The most interesting story of the week came on Wednesday, when former Vice President Dick Cheney and President Obama gave “dueling speeches” on the topic of torture and U.S. national security.

But while it was relatively quiet in the United States, it was a busy week globally. Here are five stories you might have missed:

1. The campaign for elections to the European Parliament, scheduled for June 4, are beginning to heat up. The European Parliament is selected on the basis of nation-wide proportional representation elections, which means that national politics often play out in interesting ways at the European-wide level. Thus, observers are looking to the results of the election in the U.K. as a forecast for Gordon Brown’s political future, which has been challenged in recent weeks by the ongoing corruption scandal. In Italy, the vote is being cast as a referendum on Silvio Berlusconi’s aggressive anti-immigration platform. And in France, the campaign is centering on the question of Turkish membership in the European Union.

2. The German presidential elections took place on Saturday, with incumbent president Horst Köhler narrowly winning re-election and handing Chancellor Angela Merkel a symbolic victory ahead of her own re-election campaign. The German presidency is elected by the upper house of the country’s parliament. The position has little real authority, with executive power being vested in the office of the chancellor. However, a challenge from Merkel’s coalition partners threatened to see Köhler defeated, creating a political challenge just four months from the country’s next general election.

3. A trade agreement currently being negotiated between China and Brazil aims to see the countries use their own currencies rather than U.S. dollars in transactions. The move, seen as part of China’s broader strategy of moving the U.S. dollar out of its status as the global reserve currency, expands on a previous currency swap agreement between the two countries. In separate negotiations, China agreed to expand imports of Brazilian chicken and beef and to provide up to U.S. $10 billion to Brazil’s government-controlled oil company in exchange for guaranteed oil supplies over the next decade. China overtook the United States as Brazil’s largest trading partner earlier this year. 

4. The government of Nigeria launched a new military offensive in the Niger River Delta last week, hoping to defeat armed opposition forces in the area. The move marks a decisive shift in the politics of the delta. The previous Nigerian administration had opted for a more diplomatic approach, emphasizing negotiations with the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, an umbrella group emphasizing autonomy for the Warri region. According to observers, however, the new Nigerian government headed by Umaru Yar’Adua is opting for a military-based approach to the crisis. The oil-rich region houses operations by leading international oil companies, including Royal Dutch Shell, ExxonMobil, and Total. The conflict has led to a sharp decline in Nigerian oil exports, and observers fear that this may lead to a spike in global oil prices.

5. Former South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun committed suicide on Saturday. Roh rose to power as a human rights lawyer representing student and union activist in the struggle against the country’s military government in the 1980s. He was elected president in 2003 on a strong anti-corruption and political reform platform, earning him the nickname “Mr. Clean.” However, after his party suffered a series of electoral defeats, he resigned from office in 2008. Shortly after Roh’s resignation, accusations of corruption in his administration began to surface, including charges that a South Korean tycoon paid his wife $1 million while another family member received $5 million from the same tycoon. Roh killed himself after losing face as a result of the scandal. However, such accusations have not been uncommon in South Korean presidential politics, and two of the four presidents who preceded Roh have been jailed on similar charges. Nevertheless, observers fear that Roh’s suicide may increase political tensions in South Korea.

Five Stories You Might Have Missed

It’s been a week of surprises by the Obama administration. On Saturday, President Barack Obama nominated Jon Huntsman to be the next U.S. ambassador to China. Huntsman was a surprising pick. With his experience as U.S. ambassador to Singapore, his previous tenure as deputy U.S. trade representative and as deputy assistant secretary of commerce, and his fluency in Mandarin, Huntsman appears to be a solid pick. However, Huntsman is a Republican currently serving as governor of Utah, and has widely been viewed as a potential Republican candidate for the presidency in 2012. Obama last week also reversed his previous position in two controversial areas. First, on Friday, Obama announced the U.S. government would revive the military tribunals created by the Bush administration but suspended by Obama in January to try some 20 prisoners currently held at Guantánamo Bay.  Obama also changed position on the release of hundreds of photograps showing U.S. soldiers abusing detainees. Obama had previously promised to release such photos, but on Wednesday said that their release would “not add any additional benefit to our understanding of what was carried out in the past by a small number of individuals” but would further enflame anti-American opinion and…put our troops in further danger.” The reversal was criticized by the American left, and even managed to draw a response from Jon Stewart’s Daily Show.  
 
In other news from the last week:

1. The Congress Party won a decisive victory over its rival Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in India’s nation-wide elections Saturday. According to most observers, the election gives the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance, a coalition of center-left parties, a mandate to push ahead with a series of economic reform. Because most Pakistianis view Congress as less hawkish than the Hindu nationalist BJP, the election could also provide an opportunity to improve relations with Pakistan, which have been strained since the terrorist attacks on the Indian city of Mumbai six months ago.

2. Parliamentary elections in Kuwait were also completed on Saturday. The country has been paralyzed by a standoff between conservative Islamists in the parliament and the government which wants to move forward with economic reforms. Kuwaiti elections are unusual insofar as there are no political parties; candidates run as individuals without formal political affiliations. Historically, the parliament has been dominated by religious figures and tribal authorities who oppose the power of the central government. Kuwait formally extended the right to vote to women in 2005, and analysts had hoped that the expansion of the franchise might moderate the parliament. But while women were elected to the national parliament for the first time in the country’s history—some sixteen of the 210 candidates for the 50 seat-assembly were women; and two women were actually elected into the parliament—the overall composition of the parliament changed little. Analysts now fear that the standoff between the government and the parliament will continue into the next legislative term.

3. A political scandal rocked Gordon Brown’s ruling Labour Party in the United Kingdom last week. On Saturday, Labour suspended MP David Chaytor after it was revealed that he claimed £13,000 of taxpayers’ money for a mortgage he had already paid off. Chaytor was the second Labour MP suspended due to allegations of misuse of taxpayer funds. The scandal has also claimed one junior minister, Shahid Malik, who is being investigated by the parliamentary oversight committee for accusations that he violated the ministerial code. David Cameron, leader of the opposition Conservative Party, has tried to seize the initiative, accusing the government of failing to provide sufficient oversight. But with members of his own party also accused of wrongdoing, some analysts believe the only real winners in the scandal are likely to be left-wing Liberal Democrats and the far-right British National Party, neither of which have been implicated in the scandal. With local and euro-elections scheduled for June 4, voters will not have long to wait to express their frustrations.

4. The fuel shortage in Nigeria—one of the world’s leading oil exporters—appears to be drawing to a close. A standoff between Nigeria’s president, Umaru Yar’Adua, and a group of powerful Nigerian business interests had led fuel importers to cut off supplies to the country. Fuel importers receive extensive subsidies from the Nigerian government to keep domestic fuel prices artificially low. However, as the subsidies have become increasingly expensive, the government sought to reduce their levels, sparking a confrontation with fuel importers, who receive approximately $5.5 billion per year from the subsidies. The Nigerian oil industry is the primary source of foreign exchange for the country, but has also been a source of considerable controversy.

5. After announcing plans to seize more than 60 oil-servicing companies last week, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez continued his efforts to nationalize the country’s food industry last week. On Thursday, Chávez announced that the government would seize control of a pasta factory owned by the U.S. food producer Cargill. In March, the government seized a rice mill owned by Cargill, a Coca-Cola plant, and several other food factories. The government accused the companies of violating price controls aimed at controlling inflation and maintaining a sufficient national food supply. Cargill owns another 22 plants around the country, and the Chávez government warned the country that it could see further nationalizations within 90 days if it continued its “marked non-compliance with the law.” Venezuela currently suffers inflation of almost 30 percent and shortages of key staple foods are becoming increasingly common.

And in a bonus follow-up story this week:

6. Concerns over the H1N1 (swine flu) epidemic appear to be waning, but several important stories nevertheless emerged last week in the wake of the crisis. First, the Mexican tourism industry is trying to encourage visitors to return to Mexico. Concerns over visiting Mexico, the epicenter of the outbreak, had led to a collapse of tourism in the country. The resort destination of Cancún, for example, is losing an estimated $6 million per day as a result of the downturn. To counter the decline, some Mexican resort destinations are now offering flu-free guarantees to lure back visitors.

And even more importantly, the H1N1 outbreak has also rekindled debates over the tradeoffs between intellectual property rights and the right to access essential medicines. The pharmaceutical giant Roche, manufacturer of the Tamiflu antiviral flu drug, has agreed to increase production. Roche currently sells Tamiflu for €12 ($16.30) per treatment for developing countries and€15 in developed countries. However, developing countries have been pushing the World Health Organization (WHO) to classify Tamiflu as an essential medicine, a move which would bypass Roche’s intellectual property claims and allow generic production to address public health concerns in the global South. Roche maintains that it can provide sufficient stockpiles of the drug to make such a move unnecessary. While the WHO has not yet issued its opinion, a leading Indian pharmaceutical company is nevertheless planning on moving forward with its plans to produce a cheap generic version of the patented Tamiflu drug, which its says it can sell for less than half the cost of the patented brand.

Five Stories You Might Have Missed

It was mostly bad news for the U.S. economy again last week, as official figures show an increase in the unemployment rate to 8.9 percent—the highest level in more than 25 years. Attempting to put a relatively positive spin on the news, President Barack Obama noted that the number of job losses declined in April, marking the smallest monthly loss in almost six months. During that period, a total of 3.94 million jobs have been lost, the largest total on record, exceeding even the number lost during demobilization after the second world war. In the finance sector, stress tests performed by U.S. banking regulators concluded that ten of the country’s largest banks were undercapitalized and require an infusion of at least $75 billion to survive an economic downturn.

In news from outside the United States last week:

1. In Venezuela, President Hugo Chávez initiated a new round of nationalization in the oil industry, seizing 60 oil service companies, at least a dozen oil rigs, 30 oil terminals, and 300 boats. Chávez announced the move during a visit to the country’s main oil producing region, stating, “To God what is God’s, and to Caesar what is Caesar’s. Today we also say: to the people what is the people’s.” Venezuela is home to the world’s second largest oil reserves, with 172 billion barrels of proven reserves. But PDVSA, the state-owned oil company, has suffered serious losses in recent years as a result of declining oil prices and a shortage of hard currency. Analysts expect global oil prices to increase next week on the news.

2. Jacob Zuma was sworn in as the third president of post-apartheid South Africa last week, following the ANC’s victory in nation-wide elections late last month. After taking formal control of the government on Saturday, Zuma announced a cabinet reshuffle intended to placate weary business interests. South African businesses had feared that Zuma’s election might result in a political shift to the populist left. But in promoting former finance minister and key Mbeki ally Trevor Manuel to the powerful position overseeing central planning, Zuma seems to be demonstrating his interest in maintaining a positive relationship with the center-right wing of the African National Congress.

3. Experts are warning that the German welfare state could collapse this year as a result of the continuing economic crisis and poor economic measures by the government. In a move criticized by economists last week, Chancellor Angela Merkel de-linked increases in pension payments with the prevailing national wage rate. Legislation passed by the ruling party and signed into law by Merkel last week prohibits future cuts to pension rates. Economists have criticized the move as an attempt to appease retired voters ahead of a general election scheduled for September. Germany is in the midst of the worst economic crisis in decades, raising concerns about political stability and economic growth.

4. Next month’s presidential elections in Iran will be contested by four candidates. In addition to Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, who is seeking re-election, the Guardian Council is expected to approve three other candidates as meeting the qualifications to stand for office: a strong educational and political background and a proven commitment to the Islamic regime and supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The three other candidates will be: Mir-Hossein Moussavi, a leftist and former prime minister of Iran, Mehdi Karroubi, a noted reformer and former speaker of parliament, and Mohsen Rezaei, former commander of the revolutionary guard and noted hardliner.

5. Pakistan’s offensive against Taliban militants in the northern part of the country continued last week. The offensive focused on the Swat valley region, where the government had made a number of concessions to militants last month, including permission to introduce sharia law into the region. Full-scale operations began on Thursday, but the government eased a curfew on the region to permit civilians to flee on Sunday.

Leisure Time and Social Capital

The Free Exchange blog at the Economist offered some interesting coverage of the OECD’s 2009 Society at a Glance report, including a special report on measuring leisure. Some of the findings are perhaps not that surprising: Americans tend to work more hours per year (1,896 per year), than any other OECD country. In terms of leisure time, Americans tend to fall towards the middle of the pack, with about five hours (21.6 percent of their day) occupied by leisure time. There is also a strong gendered component of leisure time, with American men having almost forty percent more leisure time than women.

 The survey data get most interesting when looking at leisure activities. In most countries, respondents indicated the bulk of their leisure time was occupied with watching television or radio at home. Engaging in social activities, such as visiting friends or participating/attending events, took up a much smaller amount of time. In some countries (including Turkey, New Zealand, and Canada), social activities took a relatively large portion of time, nearly equaling the amount of time spent watching television. But in many countries (Australia, Japan, Spain, and the United States, among others), a disproportionate share of leisure time was occupied by individual activities, particularly watching television.

Why should we care how people spend their time? According to Robert Putnam, the development of social capital depends on engaging in collective, social activities. In his seminal book Bowling Alone, Putnam argues that social capital—loosely defined as networks of trust and reciprocity—depends on the development of broader social connections between individuals. Without collective activities, those connections begin to break down. This is why Putnam laments the decline of bowling leagues in the United States. In this context, the importance of bowling leagues (as opposed to bowling alone) rests in the ability of sports leagues (or dance groups, or community socials, or any other number of collective social activities) to bring desperate individuals together and encourage them to think as a collective social body, with empathy for the other members of the group. Absent that, the collective sacrifice that democracy entails begins to wane.

Think about that next time you sit down to watch an hour (or five) of American Idol.