Monthly Archives: June 2012

Nonstate Actors and Sustainable Development

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon shakes hands with Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff at the Rio +20 Conference on Sustainable Development.

The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, also known as Rio +20 (since 20 years have passed since the first Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro) wrapped up on Friday and produced some interesting results.  Sustainable development refers to economic development–an activity often associated with environmental degradation–that preserves the environment for future generations.  The Rio +20 Conference website elaborates on this concept as follows:

“Sustainable development meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Seen as the guiding principle for long-term global development, sustainable development consists of three pillars: economic development, social development and environmental protection.”

Despite numerous opportunities (e.g., Kyoto 1997, Copenhagen 2009) states have generally failed to produce environmental treaties that are both binding and include the world’s major polluters.  For example, on the issue of climate change, states that are responsible for the largest emissions of greenhouse gases (e.g., the U.S. and China) have been unwilling to cause potential harm to their economies by substantially reducing emissions.  Developed and developing countries have traded accusations as some of the former have refused to sign on to binding treaties unless the latter countries are also forced to cut emissions (a requirement developing countries view as unfair and hypocritical). 

Despite (and perhaps because of) this gridlock at the interstate level, nonstate actors have begun to pick up the slack on environmental issues in important ways.  This may be part of a general evolution away from the state-centric Westphalian international system as power in an age of globalization has become dispersed among more and more actors, including Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs)Intergovernmental Organizations (IGOs), Multinational Corporations (MNCs), terrorist groups, and even individuals.  A New York Times article summarizing the results of the conference was entitled “Progress on the Sidelines as Rio Conference Ends.”   The article describes some of these achievements as follows:

“Yet despite this record [of failure for state-centric treaties], the activity outside the main negotiating sessions here produced hundreds of side agreements that do not require ratification or direct financing by governments and that offer the promise of incremental but real progress…For instance, Microsoft said it would roll out an internal carbon fee on its operations in more than 100 countries, part of a plan to go carbon-neutral by 2030. The Italian oil giant Eni said it would reduce its flaring of natural gas. Femsa, a Latin American soft-drink bottler, said it would obtain 85 percent of its energy needs in Mexico from renewable sources…A group of development banks announced a $175 billion initiative to promote public transportation and bicycle lanes over road and highway construction in the world’s largest cities.”

MNCs are the primary type of nonstate actor featured in this article, but local governments, NGOs, and prominent individuals are increasingly active in shaping agendas and mobilizing action on environmental issues. 

What do you think?  Are nonstate actors now the leaders in dealing with environmental problems?  What are the limits of these actors’ influence (if any) in terms of tackling climate change and other issues of sustainable development?

Mercantilism, Relative Gains, and the U.S.-China Relationship

Should Americans be more concerned about maintaining economic superiority over China than enjoying economic growth themselves?

In a recent blog post, professor and foreign affairs analyst Daniel Drezner cites some interesting results from a recent poll investigating Americans’ attitudes toward national security and foreign policy.  One revealing question touches on issues of mercantilism and relative gains, important concepts in the field of international relations (and the subfields of International Security and International Political Economy, or IPE).  From Drezner’s post:

“[Question 57] asked respondents whether they preferred a high growth world in which ‘the average American’s income doubles, but China grows faster than the United States and China’s economy becomes much larger than America’s’ or a low growth world, in which ‘the average American’s income increases by only 10 percent, but the U.S. economy remains much larger than China’s.’ A majority (50.7%) preferred the low growth world, thus supporting my long-standing argument that Americans are stone-cold mercantilists.”

An American who favored the first option in this question (high American gains even though China gains more and grows relatively stronger) would prefer absolute gains.  In contrast, Americans who favor the second scenario (low American gains that nevertheless allow the U.S. to maintain relative superiority over China, our main “peer competitor”) are most concerned about relative gains.  Relative gains are associated with the realist approach to world politics and with mercantilism.  Absolute gains are associated with the idealist approach and with economic liberalism, or capitalism. 

While Drezner is overgeneralizing when he leaps from a mere 51% preference for scenario #2 to the conclusion that “Americans are stone-cold mercantilists,” he is correct in linking relative gains concerns with mercantilism.  Mercantilism was the dominant economic philosophy prior to the industrial revolution and the rise of capitalism.   Mercantilism views wealth as finite and economics as a zero-sum game, meaning that a gain for one country can only come at the expense of a loss for someone else.  Such a view naturally leads to a focus on maintaining or improving one’s relative position vis-a-vis other international actors, and it is no accident that this perspective was accompanied by imperialism and efforts to gain every trade advantage possible.  In contrast, economic liberalism believes that wealth can be created, so states need not fight over how a finite “pie” will be distributed–the pie can be enlarged and everyone can benefit.

What do you think?  Are 51% of Americans correct to focus on maintaining their position over China even if this means less absolute prosperity for themselves?  Are they wisely looking beyond mere economics to the broader implications of a much stronger China?  Or is this kind of thinking outdated and self-destructive?

Weekly Quiz: Test Yourself on This Week’s Events

The weekly quiz is now live in MyPoliSciKit. Good luck!

Institutions and The Egyptian “Counterrevolution”

Egyptian protesters voicing their displeasure at court rulings that have stalled the country’s democratic transition.

This week’s events in Egypt indicate that a counterrevolution is under way by the ruling military authorities (the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, or SCAF).  A court appointed by former president Hosni Mubarak ruled that Egypt’s democratically elected parliament must be disbanded, effectively giving legislative power to the SCAF.  The court also ruled that the Mubarak regime’s final prime minister, Ahmed Shafik, could remain a candidate in the presidential election currently taking place.  The SCAF is also preparing a new constitutional “annex” that will define the powers of the incoming president and will set further guidelines on the composition of the assembly that will draft a new constitution.  For analysis of the implications of these events for Egypt’s transition to democracy, see here and here.

From a political science standpoint, these events provide a stark reminder of the importance of institutions in determining political outcomes.  Institutions are usually defined as including both the formal structures/processes and the informal rules and procedures that govern behavior.  In the case of Egypt, the SCAF knows that in order to preserve its power it must control the process of institution-building and not allow the creation of institutions that will severely limit or eliminate its influence (hence its insistence on micro-managing the selection of the assembly that will draft the new constitution).   The SCAF could continue to exercise power informally despite what the new constitution says–as has happened in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, for example–but relying on informal institutions in defiance of the formal ones will be politically difficult in a country gripped by revolutionary fervor and the notion that power must devolve to the people.

Institutions are worth fighting over because they play a major role in determining who wins specific political battles.  They determine the rules of the game, the cast of legitimate players, and the “victory conditions.”  For example, executives in presidential systems (like France and the U.S.) are less constrained in certain ways by their legislatures than are prime ministers in parliamentary systems.  And as comparative politics scholars have noted, certain voting rules (proportional representation systems) allow small parties a chance to be represented, while other rules (“first-past-the-post”) tend to produce two large, powerful parties while stifling minority parties.

What do you think?  Will SCAF succeed in its attempted counterrevolution by creating favorable institutions?  Or are these measures the last grasping efforts of a dying regime that will inevitably fall to an empowered public that will create new institutions of its own?  (Take the poll below to voice your opinion on the future of democracy in Egypt).

Poll: Is Egypt’s Democratic Revolution Dead?

On the eve of the country’s runoff presidential election, Egypt’s ruling military authorities disbanded the democratically elected parliament, seized for themselves the power to make laws, and began devising a constitution that would be to their liking. Do these events mean that the dream of a democratic Egypt is now dead–at least for the foreseeable future?  Take this poll and let us know your thoughts.

Weekly Quiz: Test Yourself on This Week’s Events

The weekly quiz is now live in MyPoliSciKit. Good luck!

Reciprocity, Secrecy, and Blowback

Will the covert nature of many aggressive operations conducted by the Obama Administration make Americans unprepared for the eventual retaliation?

Reciprocity involves responding in kind to another’s actions.  It can take either a positive form–where cooperation begets cooperation–or a negative form, as in “an eye for an eye” retaliation.  In the anarchic world of international politics (where no world government exists to enforce cooperation or punish wrongdoing) reciprocity is an important tool for states to achieve mutual goals and enforce otherwise unenforceable international laws and norms of behavior.   In short, states can generally expect that positive actions toward others will be rewarded while negative actions will be punished.

Reciprocity works best when information is perfect: each actor knows both (a) what they have done to others and (b) what others have done to them.  This kind of transparency is necessary in order to know how to respond to others (because you know how they treated you) and what kind of behavior to anticipate from others (because you understand the character of your actions toward them).  But when accurate information is lacking due to secrecy or misperception, carefully calibrated strategies of reciprocity can give way to confusion, ignorance, counterproductive policies, and costly conflict.

With this as background, it is interesting to read Stephen Walt’s take on the recent revelations of secret “kill lists,” drone strikes, and cyberwarfare launched by the Obama administration against an array of enemies.  As a die-hard realist, Walt is not troubled by the moral implications of these attacks, which he terms violations of the “Golden Rule.”  Rather, he has practical concerns about the consequences of these actions for American interests down the road: “…Lately I’ve been thinking that Americans ought to reflect a bit more on the long-term costs of our willingness to do unto others in ways we would most definitely not want them to do unto us.”

In other words, Walt is worried about negative reciprocity.  But most interestingly, he argues that the covert nature of these attacks makes the American people vulnerable to misperceptions about others’ motives: “…What I find troubling is the inevitable secrecy and deceit that is involved. It’s not just that we are trying to fool our adversaries; the problem is that we end up fooling ourselves, too. As I’ve noted before, when our government is doing lots of hostile things in far-flung places around the world and the public doesn’t know about them until long after the fact, then we have no way of understanding why the targets of U.S. power might be angry and hostile. As a result, we will tend to attribute their behavior to other, darker motivations.”

Middle Eastern  populations experience similar misperceptions when conspiracy theories abound that attribute any negative outcome in their societies to CIA or Israeli plotting.  In this distorted informational environment–a far cry from the ideal of perfect information–neither side is able to engage in a mature, clear-headed reciprocity relationship with the other.  Instead, each side may find itself “shadow boxing”–locked in a battle with a somewhat imaginary, stereotyped foe whose actions they don’t comprehend well enough to respond to effectively.

What do you think?  Does Walt provide a convincing explanation for many Americans’ professed ignorance on the “why do they hate us” question?  Is there any alternative to keeping these covert operations out of public view?  Short of declassifying all such operations, how might governments begin to remove distortions in the “informational environment” that might lead to suboptimal decision-making?