Monthly Archives: September 2015

Russia and the United States in Syria

More than twenty-five years since the end of the Cold War, the American and Russian foreign policy seem to be at odds in the Middle East. Today, Senator John McCain, who unsuccessfully ran against President Barack Obama for the Presidency of the United States in 2008, took to the Senate floor to condemn Russian intervention in Syria. According to McCain, Russian intervention in Syria is intended to bolster the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. US foreign policy in Syria is complicated, seeking both to destroy the capacity of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) while simultaneously opposing the al-Assad regime.

Russia announced that it had launched airstrikes against ISIS forces in Homs. But according to McCain, the strikes targeted opponents of the al-Assad regime, not ISIS forces. McCain also described the Obama administration efforts in Syria as a failure, noting the sharp increase in the number of refugees fleeing Syria for Europe and the inability of anti-Assad forces to make headway in the region.

What do you think? Has US foreign policy in Syria been a failure? What is the fundamental goal of US policy in the region? Can it be successful? Why? And how does expanded Russian involvement Syria complicate efforts to disrupt ISIS and the Assad government?

A Fragmenting Europe?

Voters in Catalonia go to the polls this weekend to cast ballots for the regional parliament. And political leaders in Spain and across the European Union are watching closely, as polls suggest a coalition of parties favoring independence for the region may win a majority in the regional parliament. The coalition brings together two parties that traditionally fall on opposite sides of the political spectrum. But the parties share a common vision for a Catalonia independent from Spain.

The Spanish government has so far declined to state how they would address a pro-independence parliament. Political leaders in Catalonia have not said they would declare independence unilaterally, but would instead likely move towards a popular referendum on independence from Spain. European Union officials have warned Catalonians that the country would not automatically become part of the European Union if it were to form. Business and financial corporations wave warned that independence would be economically problematic. And the Roman Catholic Church has espoused the benefits of Catalonia remaining part of Spain.

But voters appear to be supportive of the idea of a greater autonomy—and perhaps independence—for the region. Spain’s economic woes no doubt contribute to the movement. And a broad anti-EU sentiment that appear to be on the rise across Europe no doubt contributes as well.

What do you think? What impact would independence for Catalonia—Spain’s wealthiest region—have on Spain and the European Union? Would you support independence for Catalonia? Why?

Pope Francis’ US Visit

Pope Francis ended his four-day visit to Cuba and entered the United States to begin a six-day visit yesterday. The Pope’s visit to the United States includes many high-level meetings with the President, Congressional leaders, and others.  Controversially, the Pope also plans to canonize Rev. Junípero Serra, elevating Father Serra to sainthood. The move is a controversial one, opposed by many Native American communities across the United States, because of Serra’s work in spreading Christianity as a part of Spanish colonization of the Western United States.

During his visit, Pope Francis in expected to address a wide variety of topics, including the need to confront global climate change, tackling global poverty, and expanding care for migrants and refugees. But his message has also stirred opposition, particularly from congressional Republicans, who argue the Pope’s message is just ”socialist talk” and request the Pope limit himself to spiritual rather than secular affairs.

What do you think? Will the Pope’s visit to the United States have an impact on US policy with respect to issues like climate change and immigration? Why? And if not, what do you think his visit will accomplish?

A New Japanese Militarism?

Tens of thousands took to the streets to oppose a controversial change to Japanese defense policy last week. The parliament voted to overturn a policy prohibiting the deployment of Japanese military forces abroad. That policy was put in to place at the end of World War II, and had contributed to the pacifist foreign policy that may Japanese citizens celebrate.

The new policy would permit the deployment of Japanese combat forces abroad as part of “collective self-defense” operations. The move is seen as a key development in US efforts to counter growing Chinese influence in the Pacific Rim. The change may also strengthen coalitions against North Korea’s goring militarism.

What do you think? Should the Japanese government permit the deployment of combat forces abroad? Has Japan overcome the stigma of World War II? How should the Japanese government responds to the majority of Japanese citizens who oppose the new policy?

An Uncertain Global Economic Outlook

Citing concerns over China and other emerging market economies, volatility in global markets, and an uncertain global economic outlook led the US Federal Reserve Chair, Janet Yellen, to announce that the Federal Reserve would not increase interest rates following its current Board meeting. Interestingly, the Board noted that it could increase interest rates given the current global economic outlook, but noted that it was “waiting further evidence “ and “an improvement in the labor market” before increasing interest rates.

The announcement came as a bit of surprise, as global markets had been bracing for an increase in rates. By not increasing rates, the Federal Reserve will help to keep the value of the US dollar low, making US exports more competitive on global markets. But also limits the ability of the Fed to use monetary policy to stimulate the US economy should the economy continue to exhibit an ongoing pattern of slow growth.

What do you think? Did the Federal Reserve make the right decision in keeping interest rates near zero? What would you have advised the Fed to do?

Is the US Losing the Fight Against ISIS?

Retired General John Allen, who currently serves as President Obama’s envoy in the global fight against ISIS, pushed back against assertions that the United States is losing its fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS/ISIL). He said that while the fight will be a long lone, progress is being made. He pointed in particular to the situation in Iraq as evidence of success.

At the same time, efforts by the United States and its allies to combat ISIS’s growing influence are complicated by the situation in Syria. Over the weekend, the Russian government announced it was stepping up its support for the government of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, who is also fighting against ISIS but has been isolated by the West due to human rights abuses in the country. But the situation in Syria is complicated. While the United States and its allies oppose the Bashir government and support Syrian rebels, Russia supports the Syrian government. And both the Syrian government and the United States and its allies are fighting against ISIS. News that ISIS is likely making and using chemical weapons in its fight further complicates the situation.

What do you think? Is the United States losing its fight against ISIS? Why? How does the situation in Syria complicate the struggle against ISIS? What, if anything, should the United States change in its strategy to fight ISIS to more quickly and effectively achieve its foreign policy goals?

Oil, Terror, and Economic Development in Nigeria

This week marks the first 100 days in office for Nigeria’s President, Muhammadu Buhari. Buhari’s election in May marked a fundamental turning point in Nigeria’s conflicted political history. Buhari first assumed political power through a military coup in 1983. But he later resigned and political power transitioned to an elected president. Buhari unsuccessfully ran for the elected office in 2003, 2007, and 2011. Earlier this year he campaigned again for the position and won the popular vote, marking the first time in Nigerian history that an incumbent president lost the office through a popular vote.

Buhari’s presidential campaign centered on three main pillars: defeating the Boko Haram terrorist group that occupied much of the northern part of the country, fighting the rampant corruption that plagues Nigeria, and spurring economic growth. How has he done? Boko Haram has been dispelled from much of the territory it held in northern Nigeria but remains a threat. Corruption remains rampant. And economic growth in Nigeria has been undermined by falling global oil prices.

What do you think? Can Buhari spur economic growth in Nigeria? How? What would you counsel him to do if you were his political and economic adviser?

The Iranian Nuclear Deal

President Obama this week appeared to have gathered sufficient support from Congressional Democrats to block a Republican effort to defeat the Iranian nuclear deal. Under the terms of legislation passed earlier this year, Congress has the authority to review and vote down the proposed agreement. But the deal will take effect if Congress is unable to vote it down. Now that President Obama has garnered the support of at least 34 Democratic Senators, the Republican bill defeating the proposed agreement will not be able to be sustained in the face of a certain Presidential veto.

From the perspective of its defenders, the agreement represents the best possible outcome of negotiations with Iran, and will make it impossible for Iran to secure a nuclear weapon for at least the next decade. From the perspective of its critics, the deal is ineffectual at best, and at worst undermines international efforts to prevent Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon. Regardless, the Obama White House clearly invested significant political capital in the deal’s success, and it appears that that investment will now pay off with the implementation of the new agreement.

What do you think? Will the Iranian nuclear deal be effective in preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons? Would you support or oppose the deal if you were a member of Congress? Why?

Dealing With Immigration in Europe

The European Union is currently in the midst of an historically unprecedented wave of immigration. In 2014, more than 130,000 people sought refugee status in Europe. Fewer than 25,000 of those qualified for some form of protection (as an asylum seeker or refugee). And this year, tens of thousands of migrants have sought to enter Europe. Many are fleeing warzones—like those immigrating from Syria—while many more are economic refugees.

Thousands of migrants have already died trying to reach Europe. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHRC) has stated that the European Union has a “clear responsibility” to aid refugees seeking to immigrate, but the response from many European Union Member States has been to close down immigration possibilities. But several tensions play out. While the European Union has rules governing immigration, many of the governments of the Member States oppose the EU’s policies and have refused to enforce them. Further, many far-right anti-EU parties have used the European Union’s immigration policies as a focal point for mobilization, increasing anti-EU sentiment.

What do you think? What steps should the European Union take to address the refugee crisis it current faces? How could the EU address the concerns expressed by many Member States, particularly those in Eastern and Southern Europe, around the financial costs imposed by the EU’s immigration policy on Member States?