Announcement

February 8, 2010

Dear Readers:

Due to increasing professional commitments, I will no longer be posting blogs on a daily basis.  Although my blogging will be much more sporadic (perhaps once a week), I plan to continue writing when time permits.  I want to thank all of my readers, especially those who have provided feedback and insightful comments.  I hope that you will still visit this blog to read my latest posts even though they will appear less regularly. 

Best Wishes,

Jon

What’s in a Name?

February 5, 2010

Occasionally I post something  that provides comic relief for those who often study the darker side of international relations.  In that spirit, here is a link to an amusing article about Akbar Zeb, a Pakistani ambassador who was rejected by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE because the Arabic translation of his name is synonymous with a slang term for a certain part of the male anatomy.

Currency Manipulation in China

February 4, 2010

China has rebuffed American calls for the government to revaluate its currency, known as the renminbi or the yuan.  The Chinese manipulate their currency by keeping it artificially low vis-a-vis the dollar.  The consequence of this policy is that Chinese exports remain relatively cheap and American goods coming into China are more expensive than they would otherwise be.  Asia’s rising economic power is pursuing an export-led growth model to fuel its booming economy, which grew by more than 8 percent last year despite the global recession.  Leaders in Beijing know that if they let the renminbi appreciate it would almost certainly have adverse consequences in terms of the country’s trade balance; however, there are rumors that later this year China will let the yuan appreciate slightly in order to control inflation, which has been on the rise since a $585 billion stimulus package was introduced to mitigate the effects of the worldwide economic downturn that has plagued other countries.

There is little the US or other nations can do to compel the Chinese to let their currency float more.  China has helped stabilize the global economy through its continued economic expansion and facilitation of other nations’ stimulus programs, and America is dependent on its Asian partner to bankroll fiscal deficits by buying US treasurey bonds and maintaining large foreign currency reserves.  The only moves that Congress or the administration could make to punish China would be to embrace protectionism or weaken the dollar through inflationary measures such as printing more money or issuing more bonds, all of which would ultimately be counterproductive.

Instability in North Korea

February 3, 2010

Efforts by the North Korean government to revaluate the country’s currency and undermine black market trading have led to runaway inflation.  In November of last year, North Koreans were compelled to exchange their old currency for the new one at a rate of 100 to 1.  State-owned stores in one of the few remaining communist nations failed to stock enough goods to compensate for the decrease in purchases from illicit sources, and as a result the price of food has skyrocketed, which in turn has exacerbated levels of malnourishment  and starvation.  There have been reports of protests and turmoil in the isolated communist nation, and government officials are reportedly taking measures to avert an uprising.  The extent of the unrest is difficult to determine because of the limited amount of information that leaks out of the totalitarian state.

Another potential source of instability in North Korea is the upcoming transfer of authority from dictator Kim Jong-il to his son Kim Jong-un, which is anticipated to take place in 2012.  Kim Jong-il has reportedly been in ill health for some time; a fact that may explain why he will soon stepdown.  It is unknown how competent Kim Jong-un will be as a leader, nor is it clear if other top officials in the Communist Party or the military will initiate a power struggle while the change in leadership is occurring.

The international community should have a well-developed contingency plan to deal with the collapse of the North Korean government, especially China, South Korea and the US, which are in the best position to handle the issue.  The odds of such a situation developing in the near-to-medium-term may be low (as noted above, the outside world has a dearth of information about the DPRK), but the event would be disastrous if other powers are unprepared because an immense humanitarian crisis would almost certainly erupt.  The problem could entail massive refugee flows, widespread starvation and illness, large-scale violence and unsecured nuclear weapons.

It is inherently difficult to predict when a revolution will occur.  Few anticipated that the communist regimes in Eastern Europe would disintegrate in the late 1980s, and history provides many other examples of sudden political upheaval.  North Korea’s neighbors and other regional powers may not have much warning before the North Korean government falls, so they must prepare for that eventuality even if it appears that the ruling elites in the DPRK  have firm control over the country; if other nations are caught unprepared, they, and the North Korean people, will suffer the consequences.

Metrics for the Struggle Against Islamic Terrorism

February 2, 2010

The American Security Project, a Washington-based policy institute, issued an annual report in December of last year that assesses global efforts to combat Islamic terrorism; the report is titled Are We Winning?: Measuring Progress in the Struggle Against Al Qaeda and Associated Movements.   The authors, Bernard Finel and Christine Bartolf, use the following 10 metrics to judge success or failure based on changes from the previous year:

1. The number of terrorist incidents.

2. The state of the Al Qaeda leadership.

3. Terrorist financing.

4. The activities of Al Qaeda Associated Movements (AQAM)

5. The amount of ungoverned spaces in the world where terrorists can thrive.

6. International cooperation in fighting terrorism.

7. State sponsorship of terrorism.

8. Public attitudes in the Muslim world.

9. Public attitudes in the US.

10. Levels of economic prosperity and political freedom in the Muslim world.

The authors conclude that there has been progress in the following areas: diminishing the strength of Al Qaeda’s leadership, enhancing international cooperation against terrorism, dissuading states from sponsoring terrorism, and improving economic prosperity and political conditions in the Muslim world.

The report states that there have been setbacks in terms of the number of terrorist attacks and the abundance of territory in which terrorists can find safe haven.  It also says that progress has been mixed or uncertain when it comes to inhibiting the financing of terrorism, combating AQAM, changing public attitudes in the Muslim world, and American fears about the terrorist threat.

The authors’ key finding is that although the number of terrorist incidents has increased over the past year, Al Qaeda’s strength has diminished, in large part due to US drone strikes against Al Qaeda’s central leadership in Pakistan and an overall reduction in public support for Al Qaeda among Muslims.