Monthly Archives: October 2015

Is It Time to End the Cuban Embargo?

The United Nations General Assembly voted to condemn the US embargo on Cuba earlier this week. Only the United States and Israel voted against the resolution, which passed by a vote of 186 in favor and 2 against. The embargo, put in place by the United States in 1963, less than 10 years after a communist movement led by Fidel Castro seized power in the country. According to the Cuban government, the embargo has cost the island nation at least 109 billion euro. Despite improving relations between the two countries, the embargo remains in place, largely because of political differences between Congressional Republicans and the Obama White House.

What do you think? What purpose does the embargo serve? Has it been effective in achieving that goal? Why? And should the United States lift the embargo against Cuba?

A New Isolationism?

In an interview with CNN yesterday, Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump made the controversial claim that the world would be “100 percent” better with Saddam Hussein and Moammar Gadhafi still ruling Iraq and Libya respectively. While stopping short of saying he should remain in power, Trump also spoke critically of efforts by the Obama Administration to oust Syrian President Bashir al-Assad by supporting rebel movements in Syria.

In evidence of his claim, Trump asserts that Iraq and Syria have become “the Harvard of terrorism,” a veritable training ground for the world’s leading terrorist groups. He also claims that the United States doesn’t really know which groups it is supporting in Syria, and that much of the money and equipment provided by the United States to Syrian rebels is actually making its way in to the hands of the Islamic State.

Trump’s call for a renewed focus on the domestic economy in the United States and a shift away from interventionist policies in the Middle East echoes historical calls for greater isolationism after World War I. It also draws on a growing sentiment among the American people that the United States should reduce its global footprint. A 2014 survey by the Pew Research Center found that 52 percent of respondents believed the United States “should mind its own business and let other countries get along the best they can on their own.” This was up from about one-third of respondents 10 years ago.

What do you think? Was the world better off when Saddam Hussein ruled Iraq and Moammar Gadhafi ruled Libya? Should the United States be supporting the opposition in Syria? Would you support a more isolationist foreign policy for the United States? And under what conditions, if any, should the United States become involved in other countries?

Constitutional Crisis in Portugal

The government of Portugal appears to be headed for a constitutional crisis. Anibal Cavaco Silva, Portugal’s President, has refused to permit a left-leaning coalition from forming a new government in the country, despite the fact that the coalition secured an absolute majority in parliamentary elections earlier this month. Instead, incumbent Prime Minister Pedtro Passos Coelho, who leads a center-right coalition, has been asked to form a new government, despite controlling just 107 of the 230 seats in the parliament—compared to the left-leaning alliance that controls 122 seats. The country’s conservative president declared he would not ask the leftist coalition to form the government due to the coalition’s anti-austerity political platform, which the president says threatens the economic stability of Portugal.

The move creates an interesting stalemate. While the left opposition cannot form a government without approval of the president, no government formed without their support could survive a confidence vote, suggesting whatever government is formed may be short lived indeed. The leader of the Socialist Party, Antonio Costa, described the standoff as a “pointless political crisis,” and voted to oppose the first vote in parliament, paving the way for a government to be formed next month.

What do you think? Is the president of Portugal correct in his decision to deny the ability of the leftist coalition to form a government? Why? And how might this decision affect the future of Portuguese democracy?

What Difference Do Electoral Systems Make?

Justin Trudeau addresses his supporters on election night.

Justin Trudeau addresses his supporters on election night.

The Canadian elections concluded this week, with Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party of Canada soundly defeating Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s ruling Conservative Party to take control of the country’s parliament. Most observers cast the election as a stinging rebuke to the Harper’s nine year tenure.  Indeed, the center-left Liberals gained 148 seats in parliament, stealing 60 from the center-right Conservatives and 51 from the leftist New Democratic Party, marking the swing in seats in parliament for any Canadian political party since 1984. The final results give the Liberals a ruling majority in parliament, with control of 184 seats (54% of the total number of seats). The Conservatives move in to the role of official opposition, with 99 seats (29%). The New Democrats fell to third party status, with 44 seats (13%). The Bloc Québécois will control 10 seats (3%) and the Green Party has one seat (0%).

Canada’s single-member district electoral system (sometimes called a first-past-the-post system) functions in a manner similar to that of Congressional electoral districts in the United States. The candidate that receives the most votes in any district wins that seat, and the party that controls the most seats in parliament chooses the country’s Prime Minister. But Canada’s multiparty system means that the party that secures a majority of seats in the parliament does not necessary win a majority of the votes in the electorate. Indeed, the single-member district electoral system tends to amplify the support of large parties and marginalize the role of smaller parties, leading many political commentators to call for electoral reform and a shift to a more representative electoral model that allocates seats in parliament in a manner proportional to the share of the popular vote received.

If the most recent election in Canada had been held under a proportional representation system, the Liberals would have held approximately 133 seats (39.5% of the seats in parliament, based on securing 39.5% of the popular vote. This would be more seats than any other party, but not the strong majority they currently hold. Conversely, all other parties would have received more seats in parliament than they received under the current model, with the Conservatives holding 107 seats (31.9%), the New Democrats holding 67 seats (19.7%), the Bloc holding 16 seats (4.7%), and the Greens holding 11 seats (3.4%).

What do you think? Should countries like Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States—which all currently use a first-past-the-post electoral system—shift to a proportional representation system? Why? What are the strengths and weaknesses of each system? And which is more democratic?

Parliamentary Elections in Egypt

Parliamentary elections in Egypt will take place beginning this weekend, with more than 5,000 candidates running for 448 seats through single-member districts. An additional 120 seats will be allocated by proportional representation lists, and 28 will be appointed by the country’s president.

The military ousted the country’s elected President, Mohammed Morsi, in 2013, leading to a period of instability in Egypt. In 2011 as part of the Arab Spring, protestors overthrew the regime of President Hosni Mubarak, who had been in power for nearly 30 years. His pro-Western military regime was replaced by more pro-Islamic parties, leaving the military in an uncertain role. Many hopes now rest on Sunday’s elections, which will fill the country’s House of Representatives. Delegates to the House will also be charged with reviewing laws passed by the caretaker government when the House was not in session.

What do you think? Will this weekend’s elections help facilitate Egypt’s path back towards a fully functioning democracy? What challenges does Egypt face in its path? And what, if anything, should the United States and/or the European Union do to help facilitate this process?

Air Transportation Safety and Government Responsibility

The Dutch Safety Board yesterday released its final report into the cause of the crash of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 in July 2014. That flight was on its way from Amsterdam to Kuala Lampur on July 17 when it crashed over eastern Ukraine, killing all 283 passengers and 15 crew on board. The Dutch report confirmed earlier assertions by the United States and German governments that the flight was shot down by a Russian SA-11 BUK surface-to-air missile. Although the report does not confirm this, earlier evidence suggested that the missile system was under the control of pro-Russian separatists, who believed they were firing on a Ukrainian military transport. The Russian government has maintained it was not involved in the downing of the flight and released its own report pointing blame at the Ukrainian government.

The report also drew attention to the failure of the Ukrainian government to close airspace over the warzone, leading the Ukrainian government to defend its decision. A statement by the Ukrainian government asserted that “Nobody could imagine that such powerful facilities, such powerful equipment as the BUK [surface-to-air missile] could be used against a civilian aircraft.” The government had closed its airspace to flights operating below 7,900 meters (approximately 26,000 feet), but believed airspace above that altitude was safe. The decision to fly over conflict zones frequently rests with the individual carrier, but the Federal Aviation Administration has recently strengthened rules prohibiting US carries from flying over conflict zones in places like Libya, Iraq, Ukraine, Syria, and Somalia.

What do you think? Was Russia responsible for the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight 17? What responsibility, if any, do governments have to ensure that their airspace is protected? What responsibility, if any, do air carriers have to navigate safe air routes? And what lessons might we learn from the Dutch report?

Is the Middle East in Danger of Destabilization?

It was announced yesterday that missiles launched from a Russian naval vessel intended to strike targets in Syria instead veered off course and exploded in a remote part of Iran on Thursday. Then today, a Russian jet was reportedly shot down by Turkish defense forces after it strayed into Turkey’s airspace.  Russian intervention in Syria has largely been condemned by the West as an effort to prop up the Assad regime, which has been destabilized by both anti-government forces and Islamic State militants operating in the country. Although the Russia has maintained its airstrikes are intended to weaken ISIS militants, the United States and its allies have condemned Russian intervention as an effort to help shore up the Assad regime. Shortly after Russian airstrikes, the Syrian government launched a series of renewed operations which drove rebel forces in the country back. And now, key American military advisers warned the Obama Administration that it’s goal of supporting rebel forces in their efforts to overthrow the Assad regime may no longer be a viable strategy in Syria, leading the Obama Administration to concede it would end its policy of supporting rebel forces in the country.

What do you think? Is the Middle East in danger of destabilizing? How has Russian intervention changed the strategic calculus for the United States in Syria? Do you agree with the advisers warning that the United States’ goal of overthrowing the Assad regime is no longer viable? Why? And if so, how should the United States proceed?

Did the United States Commit War Crimes in Afghanistan?

The medical relief group Doctors Without Borders called for an international investigation into the US bombing of a hospital in Afghanistan today. A US airstrike in eastern Afghanistan last Saturday killed 12 medical workers and at least 10 patients at a hospital operated by the group. President Obama offered an apology for the airstrike, which commanders asserted was “a tragic, terrible mistake.”

But Doctors Without Borders has said that that strike “cannot be brushed aside,” it is requesting an investigation under the Geneva Convention. It hopes that such an investigation will clarify the rules of engagement in Afghanistan. Any investigation would require the consent of both the United States and Afghanistan, neither of which appears ready to move forward with such an independent investigation.

What do you think? Did the United States violate the Geneva Convention in the Afghan airstrike? Should an impartial international investigation take place? Why? And if a violation is found to have occurred, how should US engagement in Afghanistan change?

Unity Day Celebrations in Germany

German celebrated the 25th anniversary of the reunification of the country, which followed a year after the collapse of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. The fall of the wall was a key turnpoint in the twentieth century, effectively marking the end of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Many Germans celebrated the anniversary, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who attended festivities in Frankfurt. But during the celebrations, Chancellor Merkel highlighted the challenges faced by Germany today—most notably the refugee crisis—and observed that many of the challenges cannot be addressed alone. According to some estimates, Germany may welcome more than 1 million refugees this year—a figure that frightens many Germans and sparks political opposition both inside Germany and in the broader European Union.

What do you think? Should Germany and the European Union welcome refugees that seek political asylum in the EU? Other than the refugee crisis, what are the most important challenges faced by Germany today? And what might be done to address them?