Monthly Archives: August 2013

The Rise of China and the Reshuffling of Global Trade


A Mexican farmer harvests blue agave, the plant used to distill tequila.

A Mexican farmer harvests blue agave, the plant used to distill tequila.

The Mexican government last week announced it had shipped their first load of high quality blue agave tequila to China. The shipment, comprised of more than 70,000 bottles, should arrive in China next month. China had initially prohibited the sale of fine tequila in the country, citing concerns over high methanol content. But after Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Mexico in June the ban was lifted. Mexican officials hope that China will become the second largest consumer of tequila—behind only the United States—and expect to export some 10 million liters of tequila to China over the next five years.

The expansion of the high-end tequila market in China is just part of a broader shift in consumption patterns by wealthy Chinese. Demand for high quality single-malt scotcha bottle of which can sell for more than a few hundred dollars and the most expensive have sold for more than $38,000has increased sharply in recent years. The consumption of scotch and other high-end beverages plays an important symbolic role. Writing in the British daily The Independent, Russell Lynch observed,

In China, Scotch is seen as the drink for successful people. They tend to drink in a group sitting around the table and share in the occasion, be it for business entertainment or relationship building. There’s a huge element of “face” in putting a bottle of the good stuff on the table and demonstrating that you’re a good host or business partner, which is why they lean toward more expensive drinks. The houses thus lend themselves to the company’s efforts to premiumise the brand, while recruiting a new generation of drinkers from China’s smaller but faster- growing cities as beer drinkers trade up to spirits, buying Johnnie Walker Black Label and Red Label.

While growth in demand has slowed in recent months, increased global demand has nonetheless resulted in sharp price increases, with the price of single malt scotch up more than 190 percent since 2003. But global demand figures obscure regional changes in the distribution of demand. While Chinese demand increased sharply, demand for single malt scotch in France—historically the world’s largest importer—fell by a quarter over the past few years. Demand in Spain declined by twenty percent, while demand in the United States fell by 2 percent. Demand was increasing among emerging economies, particularly in Russia, Latin America, East Asia, and Africa.

The shifting demand for high-end alcohol thus reflects broader changes in the global economy. As  the emergent economies continue to grow, an increasing number of the nouveau riche seek to define their position through consumption of expensive consumer goods, signaling their arrival in “the good life.”

(This story was originally blogged at Global Food Politics and is reprinted here by permission).


What is the “National Interest”?

British PM David Cameron makes his case before Parliament.

British PM David Cameron makes his case before Parliament.

British Prime Minister David Cameron was forced to shelve a proposed strike against Syrian government forces after opposition from his own party in parliament. In his statement to parliament, Prime Minister Cameron asserted that Syria’s use of chemical weapons against its own civilians was “morally indefensible” and “cannot stand.” Cameron asked, “is it in Britain’s national interest in maintaining an international taboo against the use of chemical weapons on the battlefield?” to which he answered, “I would say yes it is.” But the House of Commons, which had been recalled from its summer recess to address the issue, seemed hesitant to embrace his claims and authorize the use of force against Syria. Instead, lawmakers seemed to prefer a more cautious response, delaying action until United Nations weapons inspectors in Syria issue their report to the UN Security Council.

US President Barack Obama faces a similar challenge. Having previously described the use of chemical weapons as a “red line” that would prompt a US response, President Obama appears to have painted himself into a corner.  While Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel says the US military is “ready to go” with a strike on Syrian forces, US lawmakers appear to be exercising greater caution, warning the President that any military action would require Congressional approval.

Certainly part of the debate centers on war fatigue and the desire to avoid another protracted conflict like the one in Iraq, where the United States, Britain, and other Western powers were drawn in to a decade-long war based on faulty intelligence around Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction—weapons that proved not to have existed in the first place. But pat of the current debate also stems from differing conceptions of what constitutes “the national interest.” A narrower version argues that no matter how reprehensible the act, American national interest was not threatened by Syria’s use of chemical weapons against its own population. A broader conceptualization argues that there is a national interest in maintaining, as Cameron suggested, a prohibition on the use of chemical weapons anywhere in the world.

What do you think? Is a strike against the Syrian government in the US national interest? Should the United States and the United Kingdom take more concrete action against the Syrian regime? Or should they wait for the international community to take action instead? And what if Russia and China veto proposed UN action, as has been suggested they might? Would that necessitate further action by the United States? Take the poll or leave a comment below and let us know what you think.

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The Intersection of US and Global Politics

Martin Luther King Jr. at the 1963 March on Washington.

Martin Luther King Jr. at the 1963 March on Washington.

The discipline of political science is usually divided into four subfields: US politics, comparative politics, political theory, and international relations. This division is a convenient way to think about relative emphases and to make our study of politics more focused and manageable. But the division is necessarily artificial. In reality, US politics might be thought as a subfield of comparative politics, which focuses on the domestic politics of countries around the world. And the line between international relations and comparative politics is also sometimes blurred.

But sometimes this division inhibits our ability to make sense of events. This week marks the fiftieth anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. The speech, arguably one of the most powerful speeches delivered in the history of the United States, was the clarion call of the civil rights movement in the United States. It’s available  on YouTube and is well worth discussing in class.

While we generally remember the importance of the speech in the context of the US civil rights movement, we often forget its importance in the broader global context. King was a powerful figure in the American civil rights movement. But he was also critical to the movement for decolonization and equal rights across Africa. Indeed, Nelson Mandela, the leader of South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement and the country’s first black president, cited Martin Luther King Jr. and WEB DuBois as two of the most influential figures in his own intellectual development. Steve Biko, the South African anti-apartheid activist who founded the Black Consciousness Movement and was killed by South African police in 1977, cited MLK and Malcolm X as influences. But in breaking the discipline into discrete subfields with little overlap, we miss out on some of the most interesting and important connections.

Syrian Gas Attacks and the Responsibility To Protect

Doctors tend to a victim of sarin nerve gas near Damascus, Syria.

Doctors tend to a victim of sarin nerve gas near Damascus, Syria.

On Wednesday Syrian opposition groups released multiple videos supporting their claim that the Syrian government had launched chemical weapon attacks against opposition forces in the suburbs of Damascus. The attacks resulted in hundreds of deaths, including dozens of children. United Nations observers in Syria have so far been denied access to the area and are thus unable to confirm the attacks, but the videos leave little room for doubt that something took place. Most observers believe that the chemicals were some variety of sarin nerve gas, which induces nausea and drooling following by loss of control of bodily functions, convulsion, and ultimately death by asphyxiation.

Sarin was classified as a weapon of mass destruction by United Nations Resolution 687 of 1991, and its production or stockpiling was outlawed by the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention. If confirmed, the use of sarin gas would constitute an escalation of the ongoing conflict in Syria, notably crossing a “red line” established by the Obama administration earlier this year.

The videos that have been released are powerful and contain disturbing footage. Viewer discretion is advised.

The Russian government has issued a statement claiming that there is no evidence that sarin gas was used, and that if it was used, there’s no evidence that it was the Syrian government rather than rebel groups that were responsible for its use. This move suggests that reaching consensus at the United Nations on future action in Syria may prove difficult. At the same time, the “Responsibility to Protect” (or R2P) doctrine articulated by the United Nations in 2005 suggests that the international community has an obligation to act. R2P has three pillars:

  1. States have a responsibility to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing.
  2. The international community has a responsibility to assist states in fulfilling their obligations under the first pillar.
  3. If a state “manifestly fails” to protect its population as required under the first pillar and peaceful measures by the international community under the second pillar have failed, the international community has “the responsibility to intervene through coercive measures,” which military intervention remaining the last resort.

The R2P doctrine is considered a norm rather than in legally binding international law, but its importance (both symbolic and moral) is rooted in the failure of the international community to address genocide in Rwanda and elsewhere. How exactly it may play out the Syrian context remains unresolved, but is certainly something worth watching.

What do you think? Does the responsibility to protect doctrine necessitate international intervention in Syria? Would such intervention be productive? Why? Take the poll or leave a comment below and let us know what you think.

Weekly Quiz: Test Yourself on This Week’s Events

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The Disputed Status of Gibraltar

GibraltarThe government of Great Britain issued an urgent call to the European Union to deploy a team to Gibraltar to “gather evidence” on Spanish efforts to close traffic between the British territory and Spain. Earlier last week, the Spanish government announced it would seek to request the status of Gibraltar be taken up by the United Nations Committee on Decolonization. At issue is whether Gibraltar remains a British territory or returns to the control of Spain.

It’s rare that the United Nations Committee on Decolonization would be called on to adjudicate such a dispute, and it’s even rarer that two European Union Member States would face such a standoff. But tensions between Spain and Great Britain have intensified in recent months as Spain seeks to pressure Great Britain on the issue. Spain claims that tighter border security is necessary to curtail smuggling, with the British government maintains that the border checks are politically-motivated.

Formally, Gibraltar is a British Overseas Territory located on the Mediterranean coast of Spain. At just 26 square miles, it’s quite small. But it occupies a strategically important point, controlling access to the Mediterranean Sea from the Atlantic Ocean. The territory was ceded to Great Britain by the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 following the Spanish Wars of Succession. But Spain claims the territory and rejects British claims. A 2002 referendum saw 99 percent of Gibraltarians reject a proposal advanced by the British and Spanish government to establish shared sovereignty over the territory. Instead, under the 2006 Constitution of Gibraltar, the territory governs its own internal affairs but the British government remains responsible for foreign affairs and defense.

What do you think? Should Britain return Gibraltar to Spanish control or continue to administer the Gibraltar as an overseas territory? Does the status of Gibraltar present a challenge for European interrogation? And if so, how should that challenge be addressed? Take the poll or leave a comment below and let us know what you think.