Monthly Archives: March 2010

The Renewable Energy Rivalry

There’s been a great deal of concern expressed over the past couple of months about the rising influence of China. President Barack Obama’s decision to meet with the Dalai Lama in February, China’s repeated rumblings over the valuation of China’s currency, the rumbai, China’s subtle threats to slow down their purchasing of U.S. Treasury securities, and tensions over U.S. arms sales to Taiwan have all served to increase tensions between the two powers.

But here’s one you might have missed. According to the Guardian’s Datablog, Chinese investment in renewable energies in 2009 was almost twice that of the United States. Chinese investment totaled more than U.S. $34.6 billion, compared to $18.6 billion in the United States. The United States still out produces China, but just barely, 53.4 gigawatt capacity in the U.S., 52.5 gigawatts in China. It appears the Chinese government is serious about its 20 percent by 2020 target, which it set last year.

The dramatic expansion of Chinese investments in renewable energies is particularly interesting given the inability of the United States and China to reach a common agreement at the climate change talks in Copenhagen earlier this year.

The Pew Report from which the data comes makes for some interesting analysis. Among those things which you might not have guessed:

  • Investment in renewable energies in the United States fell by 40 percent in 2009.
  • Globally, more than $162 billion was invested in clean energy production in 2009.
  • The G-20 countries collectively account for more than 90 percent of global investment in renewable energy.

Cell Phones and the Developmental State

Cell Phone Use in Africa

Image Courtesy Further and Faster (

Foreign Policy often has some phenomenon reporting. One of the most recent stories starts off with a thought provoking question. “What percentage of cell phone accounts are in developing countries?”

A) 25%
B) 50%
C) 75%

The answer? C) 75%. That’s right. By 2009, 3 billion of the world’s 4 billion cell phone subscriptions were in the developing world. The reasons should be clear. Cell phones provide ready access to the rest of the world, allowing farmers to learn about forecasted weather conditions, allowing producers to access global markets to determine prices, and allowing families spread across the rural-urban divide to communicate readily. They go some way to leveling the information asymmetries that are a prime market failure, especially in the developing world. Cell phones may not be the panacea for economic development in the global south, but they certainly help rural residents to level the playing field.

The challenge, of course, is that the dramatic expansion of cell phone usage int eh global south is predicated on the failure of the state to deliver on the expansion of infrastructure to the rural communities of the global south. Like the much heralded solar power revolution in rural Africa, the proliferation of cell phones simultaneously represents both the empowerment of some rural residents in the global south and the abandonment of others. If the government is no longer responsible for ensuring access to infrastructure, some in the global south will never have access. Cell phones help to address this imbalance, but cannot overcome it.

The South China Sea Arms Race

The Financial Times last week carried a story discussing the increasing level of arms purchases by several Southeast Asian states. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Singapore recently placed an order for two new submarines and twelve fighter jets to supplement previous deliveries which included six frigates and 32 fighter aircraft. All told, between 2005 and 2009, Singapore’s spending on arms imports increased 146 percent. Not to be outdone, Indonesia increased its spending by 84 percent, and Malaysia increased its spending by 722 percent (and no, that’s not a typo).Vietnam and Thailand have also announced intensions to increase military spending.

Though many have not publically stated the reason for the increases, most observers point to growing tensions over disputed territories in the South China Sea and dramatic increases in Chinese military spending as the primary causes.

The current South China Sea arms race provides a classic example of the security dilemma [glossary], in international relations. From the perspective of each individual actor, the rational course of action is to increase defense spending in order to facilitate greater security. However, the increase in the armament level of one state leads neighboring states to feel less secure. They therefore increase their own defense spending, leading to a regional arms race. The end result is that, while pursuing rational actions intended to increase their own security individually, all states wind up feeling less secure than they would have felt absent the increase in total military spending.

Human Rights in a Global Context

Dueling human rights reports were issued by the United States and China this week. The US report accuses China of human rights violations including repression of ethic Uighur and Tibetan minorities as well as increased censorship stemming largely from the Google incident. For its part, the Chinese report accuses the United States of global human rights abuses stemming from the ongoing international economic crisis, which China asserts was caused by the United States. It also accuses the United States of human rights abuses against its own citizens due to lack of health care.

While the media is asserting that the two reports are a political tit-for-tat between the two countries, the competing reports also reflect differing conceptions of what constitute human rights in the first place. In the United States, a greater emphasis is generally placed on negative liberties, [glossary] such as freedom of speech, assembly, religion, and the press. The First Amendment of the Bill of Rights is a testimony to the role of negative liberties in the United States (and western political thought more generally). But throughout much of the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union consistently debated whether positive or negative liberty should be emphasized. The Chinese report appears to follow on that debate, emphasizing the failure of the US to provide the foundation for the well being of citizens. The Chinese definition of human rights centers on assertions based in positive liberty [glossary], the notion that citizens should be equally enabled to participate in the political life of the country. Unlike negative liberty, which requires restraint on the part of the government, positive liberty is predicated on an active state which intervenes in positive ways to ensure the equal ability of individuals to participate in the political life of the community, providing equal access to education, for example.

From this perspective, the dispute between China and the United States is not just a political game of tit-for-tat. It is a more philosophically rooted difference in what constitutes human rights in the first place.

Virtual Worlds, Real Wars

Screenshot from America's Army

Screenshot from America's Army

There’s a growing body of literature exploring the political and economic implications of virtual worlds. Although the worlds have frequently been dismissed by the mainstream as mere fiction and fantasy, many of the debates at Terra Nova—a a blog dedicated to covering such issues—provide fascinating insight into important political questions. And now the mainstream is beginning to catch on. The latest edition of Foreign Policy carried a fascinating story by PW Singer entitled “Meet the Sims…And Shoot Them,” in which Singer discusses the increasing use of virtual worlds by the U.S. military in terms of recruitment and traiing. But Singer also highlights another aspect of the question termed “militainment.” According to Singer,

The Pentagon’s embrace of video games is part of a much larger phenomenon—“militainment”—that is reshaping how the public understands today’s conflicts. The term was first coined to describe any public entertainment that celebrated the military, but today it could be redefined to mean the fascinating, but also worrisome, blurring of the line between entertainment and war. For example, while America’s Army is technically a publicly funded recruiting and training platform, its main commercial rival is Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, a game published by Activision Blizzard. The two games compete for market share, but also over who can better define contemporary war zones. In America’s Army, you deploy to the fictitious country of Ghanzia; in Modern Warfare 2, you join a U.S. special operations team that roams from Afghanistan to the Caucasus, winning hearts and minds (or losing them) with a mix of machine pistols and Predator strikes. The players also fight it out in a range of potential future areas of conflict, from Brazil’s rough urban favelas to a simulated Russian invasion of Washington, D.C. (This is actually a major flaw in the game; any invasion force would clearly get stuck in Beltway traffic.)

Interestingly, this phenomenon is not confined to the United States. Hezbollah produced a pair of games titled “Special Force,” in which players attack Israeli forces, and “Unmah Defense” in which players attack the U.S. military and Israeli settlers.

The games provide an important avenue to aid in recruiting. According to an MIT study, 30 percent of Americans 16-24 years of age had a positive impression of the Army because of the America’s Army game, and “the game had more impact on recruits than all other forms of Army advertising combined.” The military is using other virtual worlds to train drone pilots, educate soldiers on what constitutes sexual harassment, develop cross-cultural understanding, and help soldiers returning from conflict zones deal with post-traumatic stress.

But beyond the use of the technology for the training of soldiers, virtual world technologies are also changing the nature of warfare itself. Predator drone missions in Pakistan and Afghanistan, for example, are flown by pilots stationed at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, thousands of miles away from the drone itself. This separation—and the way in which conflict is covered in the media—contributes to a sensationalized understanding of contemporary conflicts. Similar problems have been discussed in criminology (the CSI-effect) and in anti-terrorist policy (the Jack Bauer effect). French philosopher Jean Baudrillard makes a similar argument in his essay “The Gulf War Did Not Take Place,” in which he argues that in the western world war has become a media event hiding the suffering inflicted on those on both sides who experience it.

The interesting question, then, is how do our altered perceptions of war affect our foreign policy?