Monthly Archives: December 2010

Economic Development and Intellectual Property

Chinese Solar Panel Production

Solar Panel Production: One of the areas China has been accused of engaging in development-through-copying.

Development has long been an elusive challenge. Despite more than sixty years of theorizing, debating, modeling, and discussing, I think a compelling case can be made that we really still don’t understand how and why development takes place. Sure, we understand the basics: corruption is generally bad, loans and foreign investment are insufficient, and so on. But there’s much, much more that we don’t really understand: How are democracy and development related? Is there a resource curse? What are the necessary conditions for economic growth? And so on.

So when Chris Blattman blogged on Chinese development last week, I read it with particularly interest. Blattman noted the negative coverage the Chinese purchase of a Spanish company received in the New York Times. According to the NYT,

The story of Gamesa in China follows an industrial arc traced in other businesses, like desktop computers and solar panels. Chinese companies acquire the latest Western technology by various means and then take advantage of government policies to become the world’s dominant, low-cost suppliers.

Blattman then goes on to deconstruct this narrative, noting that “there is nothing dark or nefarious here [just] good hold fashioned industrial policy at work.” He notes that the story of Chinese development-through-copying echoes previous patterns of development, including Europe in the 19th century, Japan after the Meiji Restoration, and the Asian Tigers in the 20th century.

Indeed, copying has long been a tool for developing countries to catch up with the industrial leaders of the day. For this reason, developing countries often afford much weaker intellectual property protection than developed countries. Weak IP protection, in other words, was frequently used as a developmental tool. As the U.S. Office of Technology Assessment noted in a 1986 report,

There have been political tensions between nations whose role as producers of intellectual property allowed them greater access to such products, and nations that imported technology products, and had only limited access to them.  When the United States was still a relatively young and developing country, for example, it refused to respect international intellectual property rights on the grounds that it was freely entitled to foreign works to further its social and economic development.

Ironically, however, today weak IP protection is often cited as a significant barrier to technology transfer. Further complicating the situation, the development of a uniform system of intellectual property protections deployed globally through the World Trade Organization also serves to preclude this avenue of development-through-copying.

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The Politics of (Disappearing) Statehood

Local Fishers in Kiribati

Local Fishers in Kiribati

There’s an interesting debate brewing at the intersection of global climate change and international law. Historically, the idea of national sovereignty was based on the territorial integrity of the nation-state [glossary]. That is, the idea of statehood was defined, in part, by the physical territory in which the state exists.

But what happens if that territory disappears? This question is being asked by several small, low-lying island states fearing that their territory may become uninhabitable—or indeed disappear altogether—as ocean levels rise as a result of global climate change.

The law in this area is unclear. While the breakup of countries like Yugoslavia or the Soviet Union provides precedent for the breakup of existing countries, there is no precedent for the physical disappearance of a country. The government of the Marshall Islands is asking precisely this question.

And even if the country doesn’t disappear, it may become uninhabitable. Already, countries like Tuvalu and Kiribati are suffering from increasing salinization of groundwater supplies, as ocean water seeps into wells. If the islands become uninhabitable, what would happen to the citizens of those countries? Would they become a stateless population? Would they continue to have citizenship in a country that no longer exists?

And what about the economic rights of statehood. Under current international law, states possess extensive rights over territorial waters, which can be rich fishing grounds and home to other valuable resources. What happens if the islands from which the territorial waters are measured disappears?

There are many interesting questions but few real answers.

Wikileaks: Much Ado About Nothing?

Wikileaks founder Julian Assange.

Wikileaks founder Julian Assange.

The Wikileaks publication of more than 250,000 State Department communiqués has provoked considerable discussion in the blogosphere, but the emerging consensus seems to be that there is little in the leaked documents that could not be garnered by a close reading of daily national newspapers. Judah Grunstein at World Politics Review, Sam Roggeveen at the Lowy Interpreter, and Andrew Sullivan at the Atlantic’s Daily Dish all argue that the leaked documents at most confirm that U.S. foreign policy is pursuing the national interest fairly effectively, behaving in ways that we might expect powerful states to behave in the realm of global politics.

The is another discussion to be had, though. First, as Timothy Garton Ash blogs at the Guardian, while the leaked documents provide a fascinating insight into the conduct of U.S. diplomacy, a tension exists. As he puts it, “There is a public interest in understanding how the world works and what is done in our name. There is a public interest in the confidential conduct of foreign policy. The two public interests conflict.” Is there a tension between the secret diplomacy of the U.S. government and the need for transparency in a democratic political system?

This feeds in to a second, broader point. The dramatic expansion of the use of classified communications since the September 11 terror attacks. As David Rothkopf notes on his blog at Foreign Policy,

If the U.S. continues to see fit to grant security clearances to three million individuals and all the information in these leaks can be as easily transferred as they were first to a fake Lady Gaga CD and then to the Internet or a thumb drive then we must expect that just like intrigue, deception, bad policies, and earnest public officials trying to advance their national interests, breaches of security like these will become a permanent part of the landscape of international affairs. If such leaks are really as odious and dangerous as many in the United States government are now asserting (a view with which I am sympathetic) then the place they ought to begin assigning blame is on themselves for allowing the creation of a system in which one more widely understood fact of the way the world works is that most secrets are very hard to keep. 

In the end, the leaked documents will likely to do little either to endanger the conduct of U.S. foreign policy or to change the debate over the tradeoff between secrecy and transparency in the U.S. democracy. They provide an interesting—almost voyeuristic—insight into a specific moment in the conduct of U.S. foreign policy, but likely little else.

Stephen Walt has an interesting answer. On his blog, he asks “How much difference would it really make if all these “private” diplomatic meetings were public? Suppose there was no such thing as a “private” diplomatic meeting or a backchannel discussion. I can easily imagine that world leaders wouldn’t like it very much — but how much would world politics change if all these conversations were held in public so that people could see and hear what was being said?”

His answer is intriguing. He suggests that more open diplomacy would likely present far greater challenges for authoritarian leaders and governments than democratic ones, concluding that, “And aren’t all those people who are now defending the importance of diplomatic confidentiality really saying that there is a lot of information that our leaders have to keep from us, or else the world will all go to hell?” Certainly food for thought.

Foreign Policy’s Top Global Thinkers

President Barack Obama, No. 3 on the Foreign Policy list of the top 100 global thinkers.

President Barack Obama, No. 3 on the Foreign Policy list of the top 100 global thinkers.

Foreign Policy has released its annual list of the top 100 global thinkers. It’s an interesting mix of political and economic reformers, environmentalists, and elected and unelected officials. While we might quibble about some of the rankings, the list nevertheless makes for some interesting reading.