Monthly Archives: January 2013

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Israeli Elections and the Challenge of Parliamentary Democracy

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu casts his vote on Tuesday.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu casts his vote on Tuesday.

Elections were conducted in Israel on Tuesday, and the results paint an interesting picture for the future of Israeli politics as well as for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Pre-voting polling suggested that the ruling center-right coalition would be returned to power. But that was not to be. While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling Likud Party won a plurality of seats in the Knesset (the Israeli parliament), their right-wing coalition partners suffered sharp setbacks, and progressive center-left parties had an unexpectedly strong showing.

Two questions emerge. First, who will form the coalition. While suffering a sharp setback, it appears that Netanyahu should be able to retain control of the government, albeit the composition of that government remains unclear. Like many parliamentary systems, post-election negotiations are required to form a majority in the government. In these negotiations, parties trade positions and policy promises, all with the hope of influencing decisions by the new government in their favor. The defeat of Netanyahus’s current coalition partners means that he will likely have to find common ground with more centrist parties to form a government.

Two parties performed far better than had been projected in pre-election polling. The center-left Ysh Atid Party came in a surprising second, with 19 seats, while the Labour Party came in third with 15 sets. Any coalition between Likud and the center-left parties would require a radical rethinking of Likud’s platform, particularly around the question of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and the status of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Given the difficulty of these questions, it seems likely that such a coalition would focus on domestic issues rather than tackle the more difficult foreign policy questions.

What do you think? Will the new Israeli government be more or less inclined to pursue peace talks with the Palestinian Authority? Take the poll below or leave a comment and let us know what you think.

Revisiting British Membership in the European Union

British Prime Minister David Cameron delivered his long awaited speech on the future of British membership in the European Union today. The full transcript of his speech is available on the BBC website.  The 38 minute speech is also available below.

In the speech, Cameron promises a referendum on British membership in the European Union if his Conservative Party wins reelection in 2015. The ballot, according to Cameron, will permit British voters the opportunity to choose between renegotiating British membership or complete British withdrawal.

Reaction to the speech was strong and quick. Germany warned that the United Kingdom could not “cherry pick” its membership criteria, while France asserted that an “a la carte” EU membership was not on the table. The United States has also weighed in on the debate, with President Obama last week asserting that, “he United States values a strong UK in a strong European Union.”  Obama’s preferences were reiterated by US Assistant Secretary for European Affairs, Philip Gordon, who today stated  “We have a growing relationship with the EU as an institution, which has an increasing voice in the world, and we want to see a strong British voice in that EU… That is in America’s interests. We welcome an outward-looking EU with Britain in it.”

The move, as we discussed last week,  appears to be a function more of domestic British politics than broader multilateral interests. Flanked on one side by nationalist parties in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland demanding greater devolution of political authority and on the other by British nationalists expressing a strongly Eurosceptic worldview, Cameron’s maneuver appears to have more to do with securing reelection of his party than developing a coherent policy towards Europe. Nevertheless, Cameron’s policy could have interesting implications for both British and European politics…even if we have to wait until 2015 to figure out exactly what those implications are.

The Politics of Multilateral Peacekeeping

French Soldiers Deployed in Mali

French Soldiers Deployed in Mali

The French government last week called on West African leaders to “pick up the baton” and support military operations against Islamic insurgents in Mali. France has already deployed more than 2,000 soldiers and is currently conducting air and ground operations authorized by a United Nations Security Council resolution. Other governments, including Chad, Nigeria, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Niger, Togo, Benin, Ghana, and Guinea have committed to sending soldiers, and Britain, Denmark, and Belgium are providing material support. The United States has offered to provide communications support, but has declined so far to commit soldiers or air support.

It is clear that France has already moved beyond the original UN-backed strategy, which called for Western governments to provide training and material in support of an African-led military intervention. Rather, French forces appear to be taking the lead in operations, with other governments in the region responding more slowly.

The politics of military coalitions are always interesting. Basic behavioral economics suggest that there is little incentive for a government to pay for something it can get for free. In game theory, this is referred to as the free-rider dilemma. In global politics, more powerful countries (often the hegemon) pay a disproportionate cost. The United States, for example, has borne the lion’s share of the costs associated with interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But recent developments in Libya and Mali suggest a slightly different strategy at play. In both cases, the United States appeared willing to let others—France in the case of Mali, and the European Union in the case of Libya—take the leading role.

Does this represent a shift in American military thinking? Likely, the answer is no. While the Obama administration expresses a stronger commitment to multilateralism than the Bush administration did, it has already shown a willingness to undertake unilateral action when it perceives the national interest is at stake. The ongoing drone strikes in Pakistan are case in point.

However, where it sees the US national interest is less at play, the Obama administration appears far more willing to let other states pursue policies that align with US interests abroad.

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The Future of Britain and the European Union

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron

Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron

The hostage crisis in Algeria forced British Prime Minister David Cameron to delay a long-awaited speech outlining his government’s view of the future of British involvement in the European Union. Nevertheless, in a truncated address over the weekend, Cameron asserted that the European Union is undergoing a process of “fundamental change,” and that a central component of that change must be addressing the “gap between the EU and tis citizens which has grown dramatically in recent years and which represents a lack of democratic accountability and consent that is—yes—felt particularly acutely in Britain. If we can’t address these challenges,” Cameron stated, “the danger is that European will fail and the British people will drift toward the exit.”

Cameron stopped short of calling for a referendum on British membership in the European Union, as some in his party had been calling for. Nevertheless, the thought that a sitting British Prime Minister would contemplate leaving the E.U. has caused concern on both sides of the Atlantic. According to the British Mail Online, President Barack Obama called Prime Minister Cameron, urging him to express his commitment to British membership in the EU and noting that the European Union has spread “peace, prosperity and security” around the world.

The idea that the European Union suffers a democratic deficit is longstanding. A democratic deficit occurs when organizations (like the United Nations or the European Union) fall short of living up to the principles of democracy and representation to which they are ostensibly committed. In the case of international organizations like the EU, the relative weakness of popularly-elected institutions (the European Parliament) vis-à-vis the power of the major players (the European Commission and the European Council) often lead to assertions of a democratic deficit. Yet the structure of the European Union privileges the position of Member States relative to the position of European citizens. The most powerful institutions within the European Union, in other words, are beholden to the governments of Europe rather than directly to its people.

So why all the fuss?

Cameron is likely responding more to domestic British politics than to changing dynamics or concerns at the European level. Certainly the ongoing economic crisis in Europe is a reason for concern. The threat of a Eurozone meltdown (led by Greece, but fueled also by Spain, Portugal, and perhaps even France) give reason for pause. But Britain is not a member of the Eurozone and consequently maintains considerable economic and fiscal policy autonomy.

Rather, the growing influence of euroscepticism on the domestic British political scene likely plays a greater role. More specifically three trends are driving policy reform. First, the traditional pro-free trade elements of the Conservative party have increasingly been challenged by more Eurosceptic elements, including the Cornerstone Group, which claims some fifty conservative MPs as members, including several members of the cabinet. Second, the rise of several small parties, including the UK Independence Party and the British National Party, have exacerbated these concerns. Finally, a broad level of euroscepticism appears to be gaining support among the British electorate. According to recent public opinion polling, half the British population now supports British withdrawal from the European Union.

Importantly, the United Kingdom is not alone in this respect. Eurobarometer polling data show that popular support for EUY membership was waning across many EU member states, most notably in Latvia, Hungary, and the UK, in which all are home to a majority population opposing EU membership. Every EU member state now has at least one political party with an anti-EU platform.

All of this raises questions about the future of the European Union. What do you think? Does has European integration hit is high water mark? Are we now witnessing the beginning of the end of the EU? Or does all this talk of withdrawal merely represent politically maneuvering and bluster? Take the poll or leave a comment below and let us know what you think.

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Pollution and Development in Beijing

Sunrise over Beijing's polluted skyline.

Sunrise over Beijing’s polluted skyline.

Air pollution in the Chinese capital Beijing reached levels deemed hazardous to human health over the weekend. According to World Health organization guidelines, air is “unhealthy” when the tiniest particles (PM 2.5) reach 100 micrograms per cubic meter. Individuals are usually warned to remain indoors when they reach 300 micrograms. Unofficial readings from the U.S. embassy recorded levels over more than 800 micrograms per cubic meter. Inhaling such particles can cause respiratory infections and increase the likelihood of developing lung cancer and heart disease.

Pollution in Beijing and other Chinese cities is primarily the result of the country’s rapid economic development. In Beijing, air pollution is derived from two primary sources: car exhaust and coal dust.

The environmental Kuznets curve helps to make sense of this relationship. According to curve, there is a relationship between environmental quality and economic development. As countries industrialize, environmental degradation (pollution, etc.) tends to increase until the country reaches a particularly level of development, at which point it begins to fall. The theory is that a “clean environment” is a post-material demand. Individuals living in deep poverty place a clean environment relatively low on their list of priorities, which generally focus on more immediate survival concerns. However, once those survival needs are satisfied, individuals begin to demand other rights. This theory has been advanced to explain everything from environmentalism to democratization and minority rights.

In the case of the environment, there is clear data that suggest that—for many contaminants—the curve holds true. Interestingly, the tipping point, the level of economic development at which pollution begins to decline, appears to vary by pollutant. Lead, for example, begins to decline at a relatively low level of economic development, while air pollution (particulates) decline at a higher level. For others—most notably carbon dioxide emissions—there appears to be no decline, and levels of CO2 emissions continue to increase in step with the size of the economy at all levels of development.

The environmental Kuznets curve raises some interesting questions for sustainable development. If correct (and the theory is itself contested), it suggests that sustainable development is really about transitioning countries from a relatively low point on the curve to a higher point. Once at that higher point, the level of economic development would result in local incentives and demands for a cleaner environment. But the lack of relationship between the level of development and levels of certain pollutants, such as greenhouse gasses, are reason for concern.

What do you think? Does China’s economic development raise environmental concerns? How might Chinese development be made greener? Take the poll or leave a comment below and let us know your thoughts.

Weekly Quiz: Test Yourself on This Week’s Events

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British Union and Devolution in Northern Ireland

Police respond to protests in East Belfast, Northern Ireland.

Police respond to protests in East Belfast, Northern Ireland.

About 100 loyalists attacked police officers in East Belfast last week, using bricks, bottles and fireworks as part of a broader (nonviolent) protest against the decision of City Hall to fly the union flag on certain days. One person was arrested on charges of attempted murder after shots were fired at police. Police closed off certain areas of the city and responded to protesters with water cannons.

The protests mark a reversal in the progress towards peace in Northern Ireland. Following protracted negotiations between loyalists (those who want to remain part of the United Kingdom) and unionists (those who want independence for Northern Ireland), the Good Friday agreement was signed in 1998. The agreement established the Northern Ireland Assembly, which ensured representation for key political groups using an electoral system that encompasses both proportional representation and single-transferrable vote elements.

Recall that proportional representation provides seats in the legislature in relation to the portion of the national vote a party receives. Thus, if a party receives 20 percent of the popular vote, it is entitled to 20 percent of the seats in the legislature. Single-transferable vote requires voters to rank-choice their preferences, so that if no candidate receives a majority of the votes cast, the votes earned by the lowest ranked candidate are redistributed to the voter’s second choice, and so on, until a candidate receives an absolute majority. Both systems are intended to promote inclusion of minority voices in the parliament.

The establishment of the Northern Ireland Assembly was also part of a broader political agenda of devolution, or the dissemination of power from the national government to regional and local governments. The most well-known example of devolution is the Scottish Parliament, established in 1998, which has successfully governed Scotland under the terms established by the British government since then. In Northern Ireland, devolution was been more problematic, and the Northern Ireland Assembly has been suspended on several occasions as a result of political instability and violence.

The devolution of political authority to Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland has raised interesting questions in British politics. Perhaps the most interesting is known as the West Lothian question (sometimes also called the England Question). The West Lothian question is the result of the devolution of political authority in the United Kingdom. National legislatures in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland were established to deal with domestic affairs in those countries, while the (national) British Parliament in London continues to deal with key areas of reserved powers (such as national defense and currency) as well as issues of local interest to England. But while all countries are represented in the national parliament in London, regional parliaments have no national representation. Thus, Scottish, Welsh, and Irish members of parliament vote on domestic English issues, while English MPs do not vote on Scottish, Welsh, or Irish domestic issues. Many English MPs view this as fundamentally unfair, and the British government recently established a panel (the Commission on the Consequences of Devolution for the House of Commons) to investigate the question and report back this year.

What do you think? Is devolution politically problematic in the United Kingdom? Is it unfair? And how is it related to recent developments in Northern Ireland? Take the poll or leave a comment below and share your thoughts.