Monthly Archives: May 2014

President Obama’s Foreign Policy Vision

President Obama last week delivered a speech at West Point outlining his vision of US foreign policy that would be increasingly reliant on diplomacy and public institutions, and less quick to resort to the use of force. The President noted that the major challenges to US interests abroad are likely to be regional conflicts like those in Syria and Ukraine that, because of the scope of interests involved, are unlikely to be effectively resolved through the use of force alone. “”American leadership in the 21st century,” the President observed, “is going to involve our capacity to build international institutions, coalitions that can act effectively and the promotion of norms, rules, laws, ideals and values that create greater prosperity and peace, not just in our own borders, but outside as well.”

The President also noted that two of his primary policy concerns to address before leaving office are closing the US detention facility at Guantanamo Bay and ensuring legal checks are in place to ensure that the US drone program avoids civilian casualties and protects privacy.



The Next European Parliament

EU-Flags_2907981bElections for the European Parliament were held earlier this week, and with the exception of Spain, the far-right performed very well in the elections across Europe. In Britain, the UK Independence Party (UKIP) bested both the Labour and Conservative Parties, capturing the plurality of the country’s seats (28%). The Liberal Democrats, who are currently in a coalition with the Conservatives ruling the country, lost all but one of their seats in the European Parliament. In Britain, the election results are being described as a “political earthquake.”

France and Denmark also saw “unprecedented” victories for far-right parties, and overall, approximately one-quarter of the seats held in the European Parliament are now held by parties whose platforms oppose the European Union—often called “euroskeptics.”

The long-term fallout of the election remains unclear. While some have suggested that the language of “tidal waves” and “earthquakes” overplays the real degree of change, high ranking officials across Europe are viewing the election results and urging the European Parliament to rethink its role. After the election, British Prime Minister David Cameron said that “Europe should concentrate on what matters, on growth and jobs, and not try to do so much.” Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte similarly called for “fewer rules and less fuss from Europe, and focusing Europe on where it can add value to things.”

In an interview with UKIP MEPs, Nigel Farage, the head of UKIP, noted that the EU’s “massive mistakes,” namely, the creation of the Eurozone and the expansion of the European Union into the former Soviet bloc countries, have facilitated the “growth of euroskepticism” and called into question the future of the European Union itself.

What do you think? I Nigel Farage correct? Do the most recent elections represent the fundamental failure of the European Union? What will the long-term impact of the 2014 elections be?

Climate Change, National Security, and Domestic Politics

Of all agencies of the US government, perhaps the US military has exhibited the highest level of concern over the potential impact of climate change on its operations. The Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), issued by the Pentagon in March, described climate change as a “threat multiplier” that will alter global defense priorities and policies into the future. Climate change, the report warned, will force the Pentagon to rethink both its mission and its operations, as problems like delivering humanitarian aid will be exacerbated by climate change.

But yesterday House Republicans approved an amendment to a National Defense Authorization Act that would prohibit the Pentagon from using resources to assess the impact of climate change.

Representatives Henry Waxman (D-Ca.) and Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) decried the amendment, describing the vote as “science denial at its worst [that] fails our moral obligation to our children and grandchildren.”

Thailand’s Military Coup

General Prayuth Chan-ocha addresses Thailand to announce the military seizure of power.

General Prayuth Chan-ocha addresses Thailand to announce the military seizure of power. Watch the subtitled video

After months of political unrest, the Thai military yesterday seized control of the country in a military coup and imposed martial law across the country. Prime Minister Yingluck Sinawatra has been detained by the military,  and six senior military officials have been appointed to run the government. Unlike the 2006 military coup against Yingluck’s brother (and Prime Minister of Thailand from 2001-2006), Thaksin Shinawatra, the Thai military is not promising a quick return to civilian rule. Instead, statements by General Prayuth Chan-ocha suggest that the military may seek to retain power for a considerable amount of time.

Thailand has been rocked by political instability since Prime Minister Yingluck Sinawatra assumed office in 2011. The simple version is that Thai politics have been sharply divided between rural peasants, who constitute a majority of the Thai population and support the populist Sinawatra political regime, often referred to as “Red Shirts,” and the smaller but influential urban middle and upper classes, often dubbed “Yellow Shirts.” While the Yellow Shirts have been well organized and vocal in their opposition to Yingluck’s caretaker government, they lacked the votes to affect political change through the ballot box.

But on Tuesday, the Thai Constitutional Court ruled that Prime Minister Yingluck had acted illegally when she transferred her national security head, and ordered her and several key ministers to step down. This sparked the military’s decision to move into the political vacuum.

So what’s next for Thailand? With a per capital GDP of about $5,400, Thailand boasts Southeast Asia’s second largest economy, and the country was recognized for its successful economic development. But the 1997 Thai baht crisis (and sharp declines in the value of the baht again in 2013) undermined much of the progress, and inequality in Thailand remains very high. The coup will no doubt undermine tourism in the country, which accounts for more than 10 percent of all economic activity in the country. Political unrest—whether the result of the military coup or of a protracted political standoff between Red Shirts and Yellow Shirts that results in violence—will certainly not benefit the Thai economy.

What do you think? How will the political standoff in Thailand be resolved? Will the military hand power back to a civilian regime? When? And how will the regime—military or civilian—be able to bridge the ongoing political and economic divisions at the heart of Thailand’s current crisis?

The Changing Face of Indian Politics


Narendra Modi, India's Prime Minister elect.

Narendra Modi, India’s Prime Minister elect.

Nation-wide elections concluded last week in India, the world’s largest democracy. In total, more than 530 million votes were cast, and while the final votes are still being tabulated, it is clear that voters gave Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) a majority in the country’s parliament.

The results representing a sharp defeat for the ruling Congress Party, which has been a central force in Indian politics since independence from Britain in 1947. The results also suggest that the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty, which dominated Indian politics since 1947, may have reached its end.

The elections were remarkable for a number of reasons. First, last week’s elections boasted the highest turnout in Indian history. More than 130 million new voters cast their ballot this year, meaning that the number of new voters in India was about the same as the total number of voters in the 2008 US presidential elections.  Voter turnout in India was also quite high, with more than two-thirds of eligible voters casting ballots.

But the results were also fascinating. The election represents the first time in Indian history that a single party—other than the Congress Party—has captured an outright majority in the national parliament. This majority will make it much easier for the BJP to push through policies, as it will not need to rely on coalition partners for their support.

The election results were also interesting insofar as the head of the BJP and India’s newest Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, will be the first Indian Prime Minister born after the country achieved independence. For his supporters, this suggests that Modi will bring a new vision to India’s government. As a center-right Hindu nationalist party, the BJP has supported opening the Indian economy and pursuing a neoliberal program of economic development. This message resonated with many young voters, who view economic development as a key political objective and who had grown tired of the Congress Party’s inability to deliver on promises of jobs.

It’s important to remember, though, that while capturing an outright majority of the seats in parliament, the BJP received only about one-third of the popular vote. This is because India’s single-member district system—a system similar to the one used in Canada, Great Britain, and the United States—tends to exacerbate the margin of victory. As an editorial in the Washington Post points out, the BJP will capture a majority of the seats in the parliament despite winning just 31 percent of the popular vote.  Unlike a proportional representation system which allocates seats in the parliament based on the proportion of the vote received, a single-member district election sends one representative to parliament for each district, with no requirement that that candidate receive a majority of the vote. When multiple parties contest the seat, it makes it increasingly possible (indeed, increasingly likely) that the winging party will capture the seat with a plurality rather than a majority of the vote.

So with an outright majority in parliament, the BJP appears well positioned to enact its agenda. At the same time, the unique nature of this year’s elections—particularly dependent on the strong showing of various regional parties which helped to fracture the vote in individual states—raise the question of whether or not the BJP will be able to hold on to its gains in the next national election.

Eurovision 2014: An Insight into European Politics

The annual Eurovision song contest held over the weekend provided some interesting insights into contemporary European politics. The annual contest pits one artist or band from each country against each other, with the winner determined by a combination of popular national vote and expert judges.

Eurovision was created in the aftermath of World War II to encourage closer ties between the countries of Europe. Today it regularly draws a massive television audience. While organizers of the event regularly proclaim it to be non-political, politics regularly seeps over into the event.

During the semifinal round this year, the Russian entry, a pair of 17 year-old twins named Anastasia and Maria Tolmachevy, were book by the audience in protest over Russia’s intervention in Ukraine. And in the final this weekend, Austrian artist Conchita Wurst, the onstage drag persona of Thomas Neuwirth, won the final round of voting performing a ballad “Rise Like a Phoenix” in a skintight dress, glamorous makeup and hair, and a full beard.

Wurst’s victory marked the first time in almost fifty years that Austria took home the trophy. But her victory was widely seen as a protest against anti-gay legislation in Eastern Europe, particularly Russia. Russian politician Vitaly Milnov had described Wurst as a “pervert” and accused her of turning Eurovision into the “Sodom show.” Others in Eastern Europe decried Wurst’s performance as an illustration of Western decadence. Petitions in Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus unsuccessfully sought to remove the Austrian performance from their national broadcasts—a violation of the rules of the competition.

Fighting Boko Haram

First Lady Michelle Obama yesterday released a video stating that she and her family were “outraged and heartbroken” by the mass kidnapping of more than 200 girls from their school in Nigeria. A militant Islamic group known as Boko Haram has claimed responsibility for the kidnappings. Despite threats that they would sell the girls into slavery if the West intervened, President Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron announced they would provide military and humanitarian assistance to the Nigerian government as it struggles to address the crisis.

Boko Haram’s primary goal is to establish an Islamic state free from Western influences in the northern part of Nigeria. The group is believed to be responsible for more than 10,000 deaths in Nigeria, but has limited influence outside the country.

The most recent round of kidnappings have provoked a sharp response, and the #BringBackOurGirls twitter campaign has garnered support from a wide variety of Hollywood stars,  professional athletes, music and recording artists, and celebrities. But US and British intervention in Nigeria could provoke a sharp response and have unintended consequences, further destabilizing the Nigerian government and leading to an increase in domestic support for radical elements.

What do you think? Should the United States intervene in Nigeria to address the rise of Boko Haram? Why? What kind of action, if any, do you think the United States should take? Can Western intervention be successful? Why?

Preventing a Global Pandemic

A polio vaccination clinic in Pakistan.

A polio vaccination clinic in Pakistan.

The World Health Organization (WHO) yesterday warned that the increasing number of cases of polio in Nigeria, Syria, and especially Pakistan, threatened to undermine three decades of effort to eradicate the disease. Polio, which causes paralysis, muscle atrophy, and even death, was one of the most feared diseases of the 19th and 20th centuries. But the discovery of a vaccine against polio in the 1950s, combined with a massive global effort to vaccinate the world’s population against the disease, reduced the scope of the disease from hundreds of thousands to under 1,000 today.  Efforts by the Word Health Organization and various nongovernmental organizations had the world on the verge of eradicating the disease altogether. But a recent upsurge in the number of cases—and the difficulty in vaccinating some populations—has WHO concerned once again.

The biggest concerns center on Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Syria. In Syria, the ability of WHO to address a polio outbreak in the contested region of Deir Ez Zour was undermined by ongoing fighting in the country’s civil war and complicated by the massive dislocation of people caused by the conflict.  In Pakistan, attacks against polio workers, often painted by militants as western spies, undermined the ability of WHO to vaccinate children, especially in the northern parts of the country.

To prevent the spread of the disease outside the country, the World Health Organization has established mandatory immunization checkpoints at Pakistan’s border crossings and airports. Anyone wishing to leave the country will have to provide proof of immunization or be immunized before leaving the country. Similar measures were also put in place in Cameroon and Syria, which are also believed to pose a risk of spreading polio.

What do you think? Can polio still be eradicated by the 2018 goal established in 2013? Why does the number of cases of polio appear to be increasing? How does the spread of polio highlight the complex nature of humanitarian crises in the contemporary era? And what might be done to prevent the disease’s spread?

Hitting the Reset Button on US-Israeli Relations

Secretary of State John Kerry was forced into damage control mode after off-the-cuff comments warning Israeli leaders that the country risks becoming an “apartheid state” if it continues to fail to address the Palestinian question. The evocation of the phrase “apartheid”—typically used to describe the system of state-enforced racial segregation legally mandated in South Africa until 1994—touched off a firestorm. Critics of Israeli policy, including former President Jimmy Carter, have regularly described Israel as an “apartheid state.” But both the US and the Israeli governments have objected to the term’s use in this context.

Setting aside the question of whether or not the term “apartheid” is appropriate in this context, it seems clear that Kerry’s remarks highlight ongoing challenges in the Obama White House in normalizing relations with Israel. The breakdown of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process last week was just the latest example of the slow rate of progress in addressing the question, and highlight in particular the inability of US policymakers to influence both Israeli and Palestinian decision makers as the peace process moves (or does not move) forward.

What do you think? Will Kerry’s comments undermine the Obama Administration’s efforts to move forward with the Israeli-Palestinian peace process?