Monthly Archives: April 2014

Addressing the Situation in Ukraine

The Daily Beast yesterday reported that Russian President Vladimir Putin has cut off high level diplomatic talks with the United States in response to the US’s efforts to isolate Russia over the Ukrainian situation. The United States has repeatedly asserted that it will seek to impose “higher costs” on Russia in response to Russia’s ongoing intervention in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. Meanwhile, Ukraine’s Prime Minister, Arseny Yatseniuk on Friday accused Russia of “wanting to start World War III by occupying Ukraine militarily and politically.”

But US options in addressing Russian intervention in Ukraine appear limited. While Secretary of State John Kerry warned that “more sanctions” will likely be announced early next week, more aggressive responses appear to be off the table, and President Barack Obama has made it clear that his “red line” would be a Russian invasion of a NATO member state.

In the following video, State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki outlines the US strategy in dealing with the situation in Ukraine.

What do you think Psaki means when she says that there is “no military solution” to the situation in Ukraine, but that the US strategy is “working”? What would a successful strategy in Ukraine look like? Do you think American sanctions will be effective in resolving the situation in Crimea and Ukraine? Why?

Nuclear Disarmament Under International Law


Atmospheric nuclear tests were common in the Marshall Islands in the 1950s.

Atmospheric nuclear tests were common in the Marshall Islands in the 1950s.

The Republic of the Marshall Islands today filed suit against nine nuclear armed states at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, contending that the nine countries (China, France, India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States), were in violation of their obligations under international law to move towards complete nuclear disarmament. The Marshall Islands also filed a separate suit against the United States in the Federal District Court in San Francisco.

At its heart, the case centers on a claim by the Marshall Islands that the five countries who have signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) (China, France, Russia, the UK, and the US) are violating their obligations under the treaty to pursue complete nuclear disarmament “at the earliest possible date” as specified in the treaty. The Marshall Islands contends that the four non-signatory states (India, Israel, North Korea, and Pakistan) are violating customary international law by developing nuclear weapons.

Despite the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, several states are seeking to modernize their nuclear arsenals. In total, there are more than 17,000 nuclear warheads in existence, 16,000 of which are held by the United States and Russia. While this figure is down sharply from Cold War levels, the Marshall Islands asserts that modernization of nuclear arsenals violations NPT obligations to pursue disarmament.

The Marshall Islands were the site of US nuclear tests after World War II. In total, 67 atmospheric nuclear tests were carried out in the Marshall Islands, the last of which took place in 1958.

What do you think? Will the Marshall Islands be successful in slowing or stopping the modernization of nuclear arsenals through the international legal system? How do you think the ICJ might approach the question? How will the nuclear powers respond?

Religious Tensions and Political Socialization

Political socialization, the process by which we acquire political attitudes and behaviors and transmit political values and norms from one generation to the next, is central to the stability of political systems around the world. But in Britain, increasing tensions between radical Muslims promoting Sharia law and far right British nationalists highlight concerns over the breakdown of the process of political socialization in that country.

What do you think? How does the increasingly globalized and multicultural society in which we live resolve tensions between competing groups over their vision of the “good society”? And how might the tensions noted in the video be addressed and overcome?

The Role of the United Nations


United Nations Peacekeepers in South Sudan.

United Nations Peacekeepers in South Sudan.

At least 48 people were killed and dozens were injured when a militant group launched an attack against a United Nations compound in Bor, South Sudan, yesterday. The compound is home to more than 5,000 refugees displaced first by tensions between Sudan and South Sudan, and later by growing conflict between government and rebel forces within South Sudan.

In a public statement responding to the attack, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called the attack a “serious escalation” and noted that any attack on UN peacekeepers is “unacceptable and constitutes a war crime.” He also called on the South Sudanese government to take immediate steps to ensure the safety and security of UN personnel in the country.

United Nations peacekeepers have been in South Sudan since 2011, and currently has thousands of troops and civilians providing relief to more than 80,000 people displaced by the conflict. But the UN forces have been unable to prevent growing conflict, and as a result the Security Council last month moved to double the size of the UN operation in the country.

What do you think? Can the United Nations bring peace and stability to South Sudan? How? What steps should the organization take? And what should the United Nations avoid doing in the country?

Paper Economies and the Politics of Growth in Nigeria


Lagos, Nigeria's largest city.

Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city.

Nigeria’s economy nearly doubled in size on Sunday, easily passing South Africa to become the continent’s largest. But the massive growth was not based in the country’s oil wealth, improvements in telecommunications and transportation infrastructure, expansion of agricultural production, or any of the other factors that typically accompany development. Rather, Nigeria’s growth merely occurred on paper.

Nigeria’s National Bureau of Statistics concluded a long process of evaluating historical data, leading the country to rebase figures on which annual economic growth data is based. Nigeria’s gross domestic product (GDP) figures had been based on extrapolations from figures nearly 25 years old. In other words, the figure was rooted in estimates based on figures that predated the rise of mobile phones, the Nigerian movie industry (Nollywood), the current era of globalization, and a host of other developments that have occurred in the last quarter century.

When the dust settled, Nigeria had officially transitioned from being a “low income” to being a “middle income” country, and the country’s gross domestic product grew to $510 billion.

But there’s an interesting shell game going on here as well. While the new figures undoubtedly present a more accurate picture of Nigeria’s economy, nothing changed for Nigerians when the economy was rebased. The country still faced the same problems. Millions of people still lacked access to basic services. And the country’s per capita GDP still remained very low. Yet in rebasing their GDP, Nigeria’s leaders can present a more positive picture and can claim the title of Africa’s largest economy…at least on paper.

Political Knowledge and Foreign Policy Opinion

In a recent public opinion poll, about 2/3 of Americans indicated that they were following the situation in the Ukraine closely or very closely. But when asked to find the Ukraine on a map, only 16 percent could find it on a map. Some located it as far away as South Africa, Greenland, or Greenland. But the most interesting finding was that those with the strongest opinions supporting intervention were the least likely to be able to find the country on a map. This finding held regardless of the age, political affiliation, or level of education of the respondent.

What factors do you think account for the findings of this study? Why are Americans who know less about Ukraine, its history, and its location, more likely to support the use of force in the country? And how does this finding influence your opinion about the role of public opinion in foreign policy decision making?

Afghan Elections

Elections in Afghanistan took place this weekend, with turnout reportedly high. The Taliban threatened to disrupt the elections, in which eight candidates are vying to succeed outgoing President Hamid Karzai.  But despite the threats, more than 12 million Afghanis cast ballots.

The ballot is widely seen as key to determining the future of Afghanistan. Among the eight candidates, two are seen as the leading contenders. Former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah—generally seen as a reformer—is the leader of the National Coalition and a long-time opponent of outgoing President Hamid Karzai. Former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, is running as an independent but has come out in support of a strategic partnership with the United States. And finally, Zalmai Rassoul was Minister of Foreign Affairs and is a close ally of President Hamid Karzai. If no candidate wins a majority of the ballot—an outcome that seems likely given the large number of candidates running and the three-way division among frontrunners—a runoff election would be scheduled for May 28.

Tax Policy, Transfer Pricing, and the Offshoring of Profits

Executives from the manufacturing firm Caterpillar—the world’s largest maker of construction and mining equipment—appeared before the Senate Permanent Committee on Investigations yesterday to defend a strategy that allowed the company to avoid paying $2.4 billion in corporate taxes in the United States. The practice, known as transfer pricing, allowed the company to shift profits from its domestic operations in the United States to a Swiss subsidiary.

Democrats attacked Caterpillar’s practice, which is widely practiced in international businesses. The subcommittee’s chair, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich), asserted that “Caterpillar is an American success story that produces phenomenal industrial machines, but it’s also a member of the corporate profit-shifting club that has shifted billions of dollars of profits offshore to avoid paying U.S. taxes…Caterpillar is shifting its parts profits to Switzerland, even though most of its parts operations and work is done right here in the United States. Nothing changed in the real world except Caterpillar’s tax bill.”

Republicans asserted that the root cause of the practice is the relatively high corporate tax rate in the United States. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) argued, “We’ve got the wrong people on trial here. The tax code needs to be on trial here.”

For their part, Caterpillar defended the practice, arguing that they had an obligation to shareholders. Julie Lagacy, a Caterpillar vice president, testified that, Caterpillar has followed the law and paid all taxes due.

But the hearing highlights both the archaic nature of the US tax code, and the ways in which corporations operate to move profits to lower-tax countries. Nevertheless, reforming the tax code to address either of these challenges seems unlikely in the current era of divisive party politics in the US Congress.


[This post was previously published at the Election Center blog and is reprinted here with permission.]