Monthly Archives: December 2013

Remembering Fukushima

In March 2011, an earthquake and tsunami devastated the Fukushima region of Japan and posed a major nuclear threat to the region. Fukushima was responsible for producing a sizable portion of the electricity consumed in northern Japan, including Tokyo. In this Vice Video, photographer Donald Weber travels to Fukushima and documents the devastation caused by the tsunami and subsequent radiation leaks in the region. The first half of the video explores Weber’s experience in Chernobyl. His exploration of Fukushima begins around the 7 minute mark.

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Political Dissidence in Russia

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putting last week ordered the release of several high profile prisoners over the past two weeks in an effort to improve the country’s beleaguered human rights record ahead of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Saatchi. Billionaire (and former political rival to Putin) Mikhail Khodorkovsky fled Russia and sought asylum in Germany. Thirty members of Greenpeace arrested for protesting Russian drilling operations in the Arctic were also freed, as were two members of the Russian punk rock group Pussy Riot.

But the move appears to have had little success, and the two members of the group took to the media to call for a “Putin-free system.”

Meanwhile, President Obama named several gay and lesbian athletes as part of the US Olympic delegation, and other international leaders have announced their intention to boycott the games. But many people are asking whether a boycott will make a difference.

What do you think? Will a boycott of the Winter Olympic Games affect human rights policy in Russia? Should the United States boycott the Olympics? Why?

Chinese Rejection of US Grain

Corn Harvest As Crop Falls to Three-Year LowChina rejected 545,000 tons of corn imported from the United States after discovering the corn included a genetically modified variety not approved in China. The variety, MIR 162, is a Bt variety developed by Syngenta for greater insect resistance. MIR 162 received regulatory approval in the United States in 2008, and has since received approval in ten other countries. China is the world’s fifth largest producer of genetically modified crops, with approximately 4 million hectares under GM cultivation (the United States, the world’s largest producer by far, has approximately 70 million hectares under GM cultivation).

But Chinese production of GM crops has largely been confined to cotton. While the government has granted safety certificates for varieties of genetically modified corn and rice, it ordered further testing before it would issue licenses for commercial production.

The Chinese response to food biotechnology reflects an interesting internal dynamic.More than 80 percent of Chinese citizens surveyed expressed opposition to genetically modified food, and the anti-GM lobby has unified Maoists, nationalists, and environmentalists. This unity presents a challenge to the Chinese government. While the Chinese government has been willing to move against environmentalist groups in the past, it has been much more hesitant to disrupt Maoist groups. But those groups have come out strongly against genetically modified products, evoking the specter of the Opium Wars and arguing that GM crops are an American effort to weaken China. According to one film produced by the groups, “America is mobilizing its strategic resources to promote GM food vigorously. This is a means of controlling the world by controlling the world’s food production.”

It’s an interesting problem for the Chinese government, which clearly views genetic modification as a mechanism to expand production on scarce land in the country. The Ministry of Agriculture has commenced an education campaign intended to convince Chinese consumers of the safety and necessity of genetically modified agriculture. But more broadly, China’s rejection of US grain this week might be seen as an effort to reassert the government’s position among Maoist opposition groups—a fascinating example of the local politics of global food.

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

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The Limits of Diplomatic Immunity

Devyani Khobragade, India's Deputy Consul General in New York.

Devyani Khobragade, India’s Deputy Consul General in New York.

US relations with India suffered a serious setback last week after federal US Marshalls arrested and strip searched India’s Deputy Consul General, Devyani Khobragade. Khobragade was detained on charges that she violated visa provisions and underpaid her Indian maid. But India’s government responded angrily at the charges and the treatment of Khobragade. They say that the Indian government was never notified of the issue, and that the United States was merely engaged in “muscle flexing.”

As an Indian diplomatic officer, Khobragade has consular but not diplomatic immunity. Consular immunity protects Khobragade from prosecution for actions undertaken as part of her official duties, but leaves her open to arrest on other charges. Diplomatic immunity, by contrast, would have prevented her detention or arrest on any charges.

Regardless, her detention left the US government on the defensive last week, as Secretary of State John Kerry was forced to issue an apology for the situation after US diplomats in India were forced to return their diplomatic ID cards and the Indian government removed barricades outside of US diplomatic compounds in India.

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China’s Moon Landing and a New Space Race

The Chinese government today landed an unmanned robotic rover on the moon. The successful landing marks the high point of China’s space program, and signals China’s continued ascendency in global politics. Much like the US moon landings, China’s lunar program is an important political statement.

The US space program was pushed forward by the Cold War with the Soviet Union, the result of a dramatic increase in spending on science and education after the USSR beat the US into space by launching Sputnik.

Today, US spending on its space program is at historic lows. The decommissioning of the Space Shuttle program left the United States dependent on other countries—most notably Russia—to ferry US astronauts to and from the international space station.

Is China’s space program emblematic of a new Cold War between the United States and China? Might China’s recent successes spark a renewed interest in space exploration in the United States? Might it also rekindle US investment in education?

A New WTO Deal

WTO Director General Roberto Azevedo presides over the meeting in Bali, Indonesia.

WTO Director General Roberto Azevedo presides over the meeting in Bali, Indonesia.

After years of stalled negotiations, the World Trade Organization concluded its first trade deal in more than a decade last week. The agreement, signed in Bali, Indonesia, could increase the value of global trade by $1 trillion and create as many as 20 million jobs, according to a report by the Peterson Institute for International Economics. The Bali package would harmonize border standards, making international trade less cumbersome—a process known as “trade facilitation.” It also includes provisions permitting developing countries to expand subsidies to their agricultural sector and provides support for developing countries to implement the trade facilitation provisions. But the agreement has widely been critiqued by development experts, who observe that the key provisions of the Doha Development Agenda—liberalization of agricultural trade, access to essential medicines, and other pro-development trade policies—were not included in the current agreement.

Bali was widely seen as a “make-or-break” moment for the World Trade Organization, which has been stalled since the Doha Round was launched 12 years ago. In the meantime, bilateral trade negotiations have proliferated, threatening to make the WTO less relevant. The agreement is seen as an important boost for the WTO, helping to repair its image in international trade circles. But parties remain very far apart in addressing the most important questions in the Doha Round, and it remains unclear whether or not the WTO will be able to translate the progress it made in the Bali Agreement into a broader consensus on the more complicated—and politically challenging—questions it still must address, including farm subsidies, tariffs on industrial goods, and liberalization of trade in services.

What do you think? Does the conclusion of the Bali Agreement signal a shift towards a more multilateral approach to trade liberalization? Or does the agreement represent the limits of the WTO and reinforce the trend towards bilateral negotiations?

Remembering Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela in 2008

Nelson Mandela in 2008

Former South African President Nelson Mandela passed away today. Most well-known for his role in helping South Africa transition to a multi-racial democracy after having been imprisoned by the apartheid government for 27 years, Mandela was a human rights icon. His ability to work peacefully with the apartheid government after such a long period of imprisonment—and his ability to reach out to white South Africans in order to begin a long process of reconciliation in the country—made him an important leader to many South Africans. And at the international level, Mandela lent his voice to several causes, particularly in combating the HIV/AIDS crisis and prompting rural development and the expansion of education in the global south.

A short video by the New York Times outlines Mandela’s achievements, particularly as the first black President of South Africa.

Mandela’s passing provides an important moment to remember his legacy and to reflect on the role of individual actors in global politics.