Monthly Archives: May 2013

Promoting Free Trade


Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (L, back) and Swiss President Ueli Maurer (R, back) attend a signing ceremony after their talks in Bern, Switzerland, May 24, 2013. (Xinhua/Ma Zhancheng)

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (L, back) and Swiss President Ueli Maurer (R, back) attend a signing ceremony after their talks in Bern, Switzerland, May 24, 2013. (Xinhua/Ma Zhancheng)

China and Switzerland signed a bilateral free trade agreement on Friday, marking the first such agreement between China and a Western country. Trade flows between the two countries currently account for about $26 billion a year, mostly in watches, medicines, textiles, and dairy products.

Although the agreement must still be ratified by the Swiss parliament, the official signing ceremony took place during Chinese Preimier Li Keqiant’s visit to Switzerland last week. Li said that, “This free-trade deal is the first between China and a continental European economy, and the first with one of the 20 leading economies of the globe…This has huge meaning for global free-trade.”

The new agreement adds fuel to the discussion about the relative importance of multilateral versus bilateral trade agreements. When the World Trade Organization came into being in 1995, there was much celebration of its role in reducing global trade barriers. Now, almost 20 years later, the organization seems stuck in the past. It’s been unable to make progress on key issues like agricultural subsidies, and has not successfully concluded a round to talks since it was established…this despite promises to do so in Seattle (1999), Doha (2001), Cancún (2003), Geneva (2004), Paris (2005), Potsdam (2007), and so on. In the wake of its failure, countries seem more inclined to pursue regional and bilateral trade agreements instead.

The advantage of multilateral agreements is that they encourage the establishment of a more equal playing field and generally achieve a wider scope of liberalization. But they are difficult to successfully conclude, as the track record of the WTO suggests. Bilateral agreements, by contrast, permit countries to reach agreements and make progress on liberalizing international trade. But they are not without their critics.

In a 2011 speech celebrating the conclusion of the Korea-US Free Trade Agreement (KORUS), Secretary of State Hillary Clinton observed that,

“there is now a danger of creating a hodgepodge of inconsistent and partial bilateral agreements which may lower tariffs, but which also create new inefficiencies and dizzying complexities. A small electronics shop, for example, in the Philippines might import alarm clocks from China under one free trade agreement, calculators from Malaysia under another, and so on—each with its own obscure rules and mountains of paperwork—until it no longer even makes sense to take advantage of the trade agreements at all.”

Interestingly, Clinton called in the speech not for a return to the World Trade Organization or global negotiations, but to regional agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

More radical critiques of bilateral trade deals focus on the potential inequality between negotiating partners. According to its critics, the US Trade and Development Act (previously known as the African Growth and Opportunities Act, AGOA) was essentially a series of bilateral agreements between the United States and a number of developing countries across Africa that forced African countries to agree to develop stricter intellectual property systems than would otherwise have been required under the WTO agreement—and to refrain from criticizing US foreign policy—in exchange for lower tariffs on textile exports to the United States. By wielding its bilateral muscle, the United States was able to garner greater concessions from its trading partners than it might have been able to in a multilateral negotiation.

But as a result of the (ongoing) failure of the WTO, it seems likely that such bilateral and regional agreements are the wave of the future.

What do you think? Are multilateral trade agreements preferable to bilateral agreements? Take the poll or leave a comment below and let us know what you think.

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Radicalization: Inclusivity, Poverty, and other Factors


Michael Adebowale, one of the suspects in the Woolwich (London) murder.

Michael Adebowale, one of the suspects in the Woolwich (London) murder.

A British soldier was beheaded in an attack by two Muslims on the streets of London earlier this week. The two men who murdered Lee Rigby, a soldier in the British army, who had served in Afghanistan and Cyprus, were described as Nigerian-British who converted to Islam after college. The attacks have sparked concerns about the threat of reprisal attacks against Muslims in England, and raise concerns about a general anti-Muslim sentiment in Europe.

Muslims in Europe were already concerned about laws they perceive as undermining the practice of their faith. While the United Kingdom had historically avoided much of the attention, Muslims in France, Belgium, and the Netherlands had complained of discriminatory laws which they argue impinge on their religious freedoms. A 2004 French law, for example, banned the wearing of the conspicuous display of religious symbols in school, a move which French Muslims claimed was intended to prohibit wearing the burqa or hijab. In 2010, a more expansive law was passed, prohibiting the wearing of face coverings (like the burqa) in public. Belgium and the Netherlands have passed a similar “burqa bans” in public spaces.

Such bans have proven wildly popular among the electorates. Even in countries without such prohibitions—like Sweden and Denmark—public opinion polling regularly finds support for such bans exceeding 60 percent of respondents.

Why is there so much concern over Islamic religious practices in Europe?

Muslims in Europe are a growing and highly visible minority population. Across Europe, approximately 6 percent of the total population is Muslim. Many far-right European political parties have painted immigration—particularly Muslim immigrants—as a threat to the “traditional way of life,” arguing that immigrants pose a threat to national identity. Europe’s current economic instability no doubt contributes as well. And in the United Kingdom, British involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan likely also plays a role.

The nature of citizenship in Europe is an important underlying factor. In the United States, citizenship is based on is determined by birthplace. People born in the United States are American citizens, regardless of the citizenship of their parents. In international law, this is referred to as jus soil, the right of the soil. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, about 8 percent of all children born in the United States are born to parents who were not citizens of the United States. Many European countries, by contrast, base citizenship not on birthplace but on the citizenship of the parents. This is referred to as jus sanguinis the right of blood. Children born to German parents, for example, are German citizens regardless of where they were born. People born in Germany to non-German parents, by contrast, do not necessarily receive German citizenship. In the case of Germany, this has created a problem for millions of Turks born to parents who were guestworkers in Germany but who lacked German citizenship.

Some observers note that the differing conceptions of citizenship under such a system can help to radicalize the minority population. Because they are not accepted as “true” citizens, members of such minority populations may become more radicalized and embrace violence as a vehicle for addressing perceived grievances.

Radicalization, of course, is a far more complicated process than can be attributed to citizenship laws. Indeed, Britain is one of the most diverse countries in Europe, and London, its capital, is among the most diverse cities in the world, and Britain has been more accepting of immigrants—and their diverse identities—than has been the case in many other countries.

What do you think? What is the most important factor in explaining the radicalization of minority populations? Does citizenship play a role? Is citizenship and inclusion more important than economic factors? And what do you think will happen in Europe as Islam continues to grow as a minority religion? Take the poll or leave a comment below and let us know what you think.

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Nation Building in South Africa

University of KwaZulu-Natal Main Campus.

University of KwaZulu-Natal Main Campus.

South Africa is an incredibly diverse country, with 11 official languages and dozens of distinct ethnic groups. Zulu is the mother tongue for approximately 23 percent of South Africa’s population, but is spoken by about 80 percent of the population of the province of KwaZulu-Natal.

As a legacy of the apartheid era, much of South African education takes place in English, particularly at the university level. But even at the primary school level, UKZN Vice-Chancellor Renuka Vithal noted that, “You can come through the schooling system without learning any of the indigenous African languages. It is surprising that this is still the case, nearly 20 years after apartheid [racially-enforced segregation] ended.”

The language question in South Africa, as in many other developing countries, is closely tied to the question of national identity. While Zulu is the most common mother tongue in South Africa, Xhosa (16%), Afrikaans (14%), English (10%), Sepedi (9%), Setswana (8%), and Sesotho (8%) are also widely spoken.

Because the postcolonial boundaries often amalgamated a wide variety of national groups, boundaries between the nation and the state rarely corresponded. Postcolonial governments thus faced a challenge of developing a common sense of identity across a variety of national and ethnic groups. This was often referred to as nation-building. But national identity cents on a wide variety of variables: religious beliefs, traditions, and customs, shared history, a common language, and so on.

While UKZN’s move was welcomed by some, others argued that the move was just a political ploy to garner the favor of South African President Jacob Zuma, who is Zulu.

What do you think? Is the kind of common language education being imposed by UKZN necessary for nation-building in South Africa? Or does it violate the rights and freedom of students to chart their own course of study? Take the poll or leave a comment below and let us know what you think.

Destabilizing the Syrian Crisis

Russian Yakhont Anti-Ship Missile

Russian Yakhont Anti-Ship Missile

Quoting unnamed US officials, the New York Times today reported that Russia has sent sophisticated anti-ship missiles to Syria as part of a longstanding arms trade agreement. The missiles, known as the Yakhont, are radar-guided, supersonic missiles, with a range of 75 to 185 miles, and intended for coastal defense.

The shipment raises concerns about the viability of intervention in the Syrian crisis. The Yakhont system has advanced radar guidance systems that would enable the missile to evade ship defenses. The United States argues that the missile system would force any potential naval operations further off Syria’s coasts.

Beyond the potential impact on foreign intervention in the Syrian crisis, BBC diplomatic correspondent Jonathan Marcus argues that the missile system is significant for two reasons.

First, by following through on the sale agreed to in 2007, Russia demonstrates its ongoing support for and commitment to the Syrian regime. The sale highlights Russia’s desire to prevent possible Western intervention. It also suggests that Russia would likely oppose efforts to secure approval for such intervention through the United Nations Security Council.

Second, the sale may also raise concerns on the part of Israel about the potential transfer of weapons from Syria to its Hezbollah allies in Syria. Israel has already warned Syria that such a transfer would cross red line that could prompt a new wave of Israeli airstrikes against Syrian forces.

What do you think? Could Russia’s weapon sales to Syria undermine potential resolution of the Syrian crisis? Leave a comment below and let us know what you think.

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The 400 ppm CO2 Milestone

CO2 emissionsClimate scientists yesterday warned that the earth had crossed an important milestone. For the first time in 3 million years, the total amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere exceeded 400 parts per million. The last time CO2 levels were this high was during the Pliocene era, when temperatures were 2 to 3 degrees Celsius higher and the earth was in a middle of a prolonged warm period.

It’s important to remember that the 400 ppm figure is a bit arbitrary. CO2 levels have been flirting with the 400 ppm level for several months. But the overall upward trend in CO2 levels does pose reason for concern. Scientists warn that failure to stabilize CO2 levels at less than 450 ppm could have catastrophic climate effects. But over the past fifty years, CO2 levels have been on a steady upward march (see graph below), and they show no signs of leveling off.


Carbon dioxide levels can be seen climbing steadily in Scripps data from the last 55 years.  Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego
Carbon dioxide levels can be seen climbing steadily in Scripps data from the last 55 years.
Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego

But reducing CO2 levels in the atmosphere presents a classic free rider dilemma. Collectively, we face dramatic consequences: increasingly erratic weather patterns, declining overall food productivity, rising sea levels, desertification, and so on. But any individual country’s actions are unlikely to have a significant impact on the overall trend. Thus it is in every country’s individual self-interest to continue business as usual, and rely on other countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. In doing so, they capture all of the benefits of reducing greenhouse gas emissions while paying none of the costs. Every state behaving in a rational and self-interested way leads to the worst possible outcome—a classic example of the prisoners’ dilemma.

Yet we also know that there are several strategies to overcome the prisoners’ dilemma. Iteration (repeated plays) and communication (which leads to confidence building and trust) can overcome the otherwise nihilistic outcomes of the dilemma. The question, of course, is whether or not governments can work to overcome the dilemma in time to prevent the worst effects of climate change.

What do you think? Will governments be able to collectively address the challenges posed by climate change? Or are we locked into a nihilistic outcome, as the prisoners’ dilemma would suggest? Take the poll or leave a comment below and let us know what you think.

Truth and Reconciliation: The Global Politics of Justice

Bethuel Kiplagat, Chair of Kenya's Truth Justice and Reconciliation Commission in 2010.

Bethuel Kiplagat, Chair of Kenya’s Truth Justice and Reconciliation Commission in 2010.

The BBC is reporting that a long-awaited report investigating violence and human rights abuses in Kenya will recommend some prosecutions of key officials for their roles. The Truth Reconciliation and Justice Commission was established in the aftermath of post-election violence that rocked Kenya following the 2008 presidential elections. However, its mandate was broader and included looking at past injustices from the Kenyan independence in December 1963 through the disputed February 2008 elections. According to the BBC’s coverage, Ahmed Sheikh Farah, who sat on the committee, indicated that “victims would be happy” with the recommendations but also warned that “we have been centered on reconciliation—healing, unity, that kind of focus.”

The report comes at an interesting time in Kenya’s political history. About six weeks ago, Uhuru Kenyatta won the presidency and was sworn into office. However, Kenyatta has been charged by the International Criminal Court with orchestrating some of the violence following the last presidential election. That violence resulted in more than 1,500 deaths and displaced more than 300,000 people from their homes.

Truth and reconciliation commissions are interesting instruments. They are generally charged with revealing wrongdoing rather than achieving justice per se. And they have been growing in popularity in recent

Archbishop Desmond Tutu presides over South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu presides over South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

years. One of the earliest was Argentina’s National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons (the Comisión Nacional sobre la Desaparición de Personas, or CONADEP). CONADEP was established shortly after the collapse of Argentina’s military government in 1983, and was charged with investigating the fate of the estimated 30,000 persons who were “disappeared” by the Argentine government between 1976 and 1983. Perhaps the most famous was South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which was established in 1995 and was charged with witnessing and recording the crimes and human rights abuses committed by both state and opposition forces during the apartheid era. Other notable examples include Brazil’s Comissão Nacional da Verdade, which is currently investigating human rights abuses by the country’s former military government, and Canada’s Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which is currently investigating human rights abuses in the country’s residential school system for the Canada’s first nations.

Most truth and reconciliation commissions represent an effort to expand understanding rather that to achieve justice. They generally lack the power to prosecute offenders. Indeed, in many cases, like the South African TRC, individuals offering testimony before the commission were generally granted amnesty for any confessions they offered. The emphasis, in other words, is on promoting transparency and providing a historical record and testimony rather than on achieving justice in the traditional sense. But this also a source of controversy, as victims can sometimes feel as though the perpetrators of violence and human rights abuses can escape punishment.

What do you think? Do truth commissions represent an instrument of justice by witnessing and providing a historical record of human rights abuses? Or do they undermine justice by permitting human rights abusers to escape criminal prosecution? Leave a comment below and let us know what you think.

Weekly Quiz: Test Yourself on This Week’s Events

Weekly Quiz: Test Yourself on This Week’s Events