Monthly Archives: February 2014

The Political Use of Military Force

Russian soldiers rest amid military exercises.

Russian soldiers rest amid military exercises.

In an oft-cited truism in global politics, the German military theorist Carl von Clausewitz once famously asserted that “War is merely the continuation of politics by other means.” As the situation in Ukraine continues to develop, Clausewitz’s insights into the intersection of politics and military force appears increasingly true. While Yanukovich now appears to be hiding in Russia, the Russian government today ordered readiness tests for its Western and Central Asian units, prompting concerns that the exercises are a show of force intended to signal their ongoing interest (and perhaps their willingness to intervene) in the events unfolding in Ukraine.

Indeed, there is a long history of using military exercises to signal a government’s interest in a particular region or area. The United States has used military tests with South Korea as a signal to the North Korean government, while China has used military exercises in the South China Sea to send signals to Japan about their resolve over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyado Islands. Unfortunately such exercises can just as easily escalate the situation, increasing tensions between major global players.

What do you think? Is Russia’s announced military exercise intended to inform decision-making in other countries about the situation in Ukraine? If so, what is their message? Will it be successful? Why?

The Rise (and Fall) of Viktor Yanukovych

Events in Ukraine have unfolded quickly over the past week, as the country’s President, Viktor Yanukovych was ousted by the Parliament and forced to flee to an undisclosed location in the country’s east by protesters in the capital. Clashes between anti-government protesters and police forces in the capital of Kiev last week left more than 100 dead. The clashes marked the culmination of months of growing tensions in the country, which pitted pro-European protestors against a government increasingly aligned with Russia.

Yanukovych’s rise to power reflected a sharp division within Ukraine. Drawing most of his support from the eastern portions of the country, Yanukovych narrowly defeated his rival, Yulia Tymoshenko, in 2010 in an election widely decried as being marred by voting fraud. Yanukovych’s presidency was widely criticized for corruption and cronyism. Now his presidency appears to be over, but the future of Ukraine remains uncertain.

The Political Economy of Valentine’s Day

redandwhiterosebouquetValentine’s Day is celebrated across the United States on February 14, and is often marked by the gifting of flowers. But we rarely stop to consider how the global trade in flowers—which increases sharply ahead of both Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day—connects us to the broader world.

The global trade in cut flowers is estimated to be worth $100 billion annually, with the United States alone accounting for about $13 billion. About 82 percent of all flowers sold in the United States are imported from abroad, with the majority of US-destined flowers arriving from Latin America. Europe, by contrast, tends to import the bulk of its cut flowers from Africa.

The sharp seasonal fluctuations in flower production presents challenges to customs and border officials responsible for inspecting imports. Concerns over pests and disease are the primary focus for their inspections.

Developing countries looking for a comparative advantage in the context of historical subsidies offered to food and cotton producers in the developed world have often transitioned to specialized crops like cut flowers, spices, or specialty coffees in an effort to carve a market niche where they can complete on a more equal playing field.

While the global flower trade has increased sharply over the past decade, concerns over the environmental impact of the practice are growing. A 2009 report by noted that about 80 percent of the estimated 100 million roses sold for Valentine’s Day were produced abroad, generating an estimated 9,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. A similar study by Cranfield University  in 2007 found that a single rose imported from Kenya generated about 1.1 pounds of CO2. The same report noted, however, that imported flowers were far more carbon efficient than flowers raised in greenhouses in Europe, the production of which generated an estimated 6.4 pounds of CO2 per flower. In such a case, the higher CO2 emissions associated with transporting the flowers are offset by the more favorable growing environments abroad.

Then there’s the use of pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers in the growing process, all of which raise potential questions about the ecological suitability of the cut flower trade.

What do you think? Should we be concerned about the ecological questions raised around the cut flower trade? How should we balance ecological concerns associated with climate change and chemical runoff against the clear need to secure economic development in the global south? What solutions might you envision to this tradeoff?

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

Investigating and Prosecuting War Crimes

The International Criminal Court’s chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, yesterday announced she was opening a “preliminary investigation” into possible war crimes committed during the ongoing conflict in the Central African Republic. The Central African Republic—one of Africa’s poorest countries—has been the site of ongoing sectarian violence for more than a year. Thousands of refugees have attempted to flee into neighboring countries, often escorted by African Union-backed peacekeeping forces.

In her report, Bensouda noted that her initial investigation has already found “hundreds of killings, acts of rape and sexual slavery, destruction of property, pillaging, torture, forced displacement and recruitment and use of children in hostilities,” and that “in many incidents, victims appear to have been deliberately targeted on religious grounds.” Some have suggested that the Central African Republic may be on the verge of genocide.

Fatou Bensoouda’s statement was published as a short, 3 minute video.

The International Criminal Court was created in 2002 to prosecute acts of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes in situations where existing national legal systems are unwilling or unable to act. The ICC has come under attack in recent years for its near-exclusive focus on Africa, as all of the ICC’s investigations to date have focused on African countries.

What do you think? Should the ICC begin an investigation into developments in the Central African Republic? Is the ICC biased against Africa? Or does it merely reflect the concentration of conflict in the region? Can the ICC effectively deal with war crimes and crimes against humanity? Why or why not?

Weekly Quiz: Test Yourself on This Week’s Events

The weekly quiz is now live. Good luck!

The Politics of the Olympics

While the International Olympic Committee has long promoted its vision of the Olympic Games as an apolitical celebration of international peace and sporting competition, the games have regularly been the focal point of considerable political attention (and often tension). In the 1936 Games in Berlin, Hitler’s hope to use the games as a showcase of German racial superiority were dashed by African American Jesse Owen’s record-breaking performance. And in 1968, Americans Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ use of the Black Power salute on the medal podium drew attention to the struggle for racial equality in the United States. In 1972, the terrorist organization Black September killed 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team before they themselves were killed in a standoff with German police. In 1980, the United States and its allies boycotted the Olympic Games in Moscow, only to have the Soviet Union and its allies return the favor four years later.

This year, the Olympic politics have centered on Russia’s repression of gay rights, a point highlighted by Greece’s rainbow-fingered gloves,  Canada’s Olympic commercial,  and the composition of the US Olympic Delegation. In this short video, the New York Times highlights the historical connection between the Olympics and politics.

(This article was previously published by the Politics Matters blog and is reprinted here with permission).

Hollywood Meets International Relations

Scarlet Johansson, Oxfam SodaStream's Global Ambassador.

Scarlet Johansson, Oxfam’s SodaStream’s Global Ambassador.

Scarlett Johansson quit as an Oxfam Global Ambassador last week, amid growing concerns about her connection with the Israeli company SodaStream. Johansson had held the post with Oxfam for more than eight years, drawing attention to the impact of natural disasters and helping in the organization’s fund raising efforts. But Johansson’s ties to SodaStream, which has a factory in an illegal Jewish settlement of Maale Adumim in the West Bank, had drawn criticism.

Johansson’s statement, issued Wednesday, said that she had “respectfully decided to end her ambassador role with Oxfam,” adding that “She and Oxfam have a fundamental difference of opinion in regards to the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement. She is very proud of her accomplishments and fundraising during her tenure with Oxfam.” Oxfam responded with a statement declaring that Oxfam “respects the independence of [its] ambassadors” but noting that “Ms Johansson’s role promoting the company SodaStream is incompatible with her role as an Oxfam Global Ambassador.”

Johansson countered, maintaining that “SodaStream is a company that is not only committed to the environment but to building a bridge to peace between Israel and Palestine, supporting neighbours working alongside each other, receiving equal pay, equal benefits and equal rights.”

Johansson has been critizied as naïve and irresponsible for endorsing SodaStream. But many of the company’s Palestinian employees argue that a boycott of SodaStream and other Israeli companies could have unintended negative impacts on their ability to earn a living.

It’s not the first time that a celebrity has come under fire for their position a global issue. Less than a month ago, Dennis Rodman’s trip to North Korea—under the self-promoted label of “basketball diplomacy”—was rounding criticized. But many A-listers have used their celebrity to draw attention to important global issues. Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Matt Damon, and others have all used their star power to draw attention to issues they feel strongly about.

What do you think? What are the advantages and disadvantages of Hollywood stars campaigning on global issues? Do you think that their celebrity helps or hurts their causes? Why? And with respect to this case, was Johansson right to terminate her relationship with Oxfam in favor of her ties with SodaStream? Why?