Archive for the ‘Russia’ Category

Kristof on Costa Rica

January 8, 2010

Yesterday, the New York Times published an op-ed piece by Nicholas Kristof in which he discusses the relative “happiness” of countries around the world, focusing primarily on Costa Rica, which ranks number one according to various indeces.  The World Happiness Index ranks the US 20th, with Togo and Tanzania coming in last; another study ranks America 19th and puts Zimbabwe at the bottom of the list.

Mr. Kristof argues that the main reason that Costa Ricans are so happy is that they have low levels of military spending (the country has no armed forces) and they invest a relatively large amount in education per capita, which in turn has led to political stability.  He also credits the nation’s environmental conservation efforts as a contributor to public contentment.  Based on this assumption, he argues that the US should spend less on defense (including foreign military assistance) and more on social programs like education.  He also suggests that America should do more to protect the environment.

I respect Mr. Kristof for his efforts to highlight humanitarian disasters and violations of human rights, particularly in Darfur, but his latest article is highly flawed.  Comparing the US with Costa Rica when it comes to military expenditures is nonsensical.  Costa Rica faces no serious internal or external threats, whereas America is responsible for underwriting international security and protecting the world’s oil supply, on which the global economy is dependent.  Partly as a consequence of America’s foreign policy commitments and interventions, terrorists and insurgents are determined to attack the US and its interests overseas, and policymakers have found it necessary to provide materiel and financial assistance to governments battling anti-American militants in places like Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen.  Withholding such aid could have disastrous consequences, and reducing the size and capability of the American military would undermine the liberal international order that Mr. Kristof claims to support.

Another weak point in his argument is his assertion that “happiness” is based on social spending.  He mentions that Mexico and Colombia rank higher than the US on happiness indeces, but both nations spend less on education and medical care than America, and they are also plagued by higher levels of drug-related violence.  He himself acknowledges that a “cultural emphasis on family and friends” might be responsible for the disparity in contentment; although such things are difficult to measure and his claim that Latin Americans value family and friends more than Americans is certainly disputable.  One thing that Mr. Kristof fails to note is that Latin Americans generally work fewer hours per week than Americans do (as do Europeans, who are reportedly “happier” than people in the US), which could be an important factor when it comes to reported personal satisfaction.

I am not suggesting that education and other forms of social spending are not important, or that federal and state governments in the US should not spend more in these areas (I believe they should).  I am merely saying that Mr. Kristof’s prescriptions for increasing “happiness” in America may not have the intended results  in light of geopolitical and social conditions. 

On a separate note, Mr. Kristof’s insistense that the US reduce military spending reinforces public perceptions that liberals are weak on national defense, which inhibits the electoral success of liberal candidates and inhibits their ability to promote the political causes that Mr. Kristof supports.

The Deification of Dead Political Leaders

January 7, 2010

In an op-ed piece published today on nytimes.com titled “Asia’s 70-Percent Gods,” Roger Cohen discusses his recent trip to Asia where he saw the preserved bodies of Ho Chi Minh and Mao Zedong.  He notes that the Communists leaders who control one-party states have deified their predecessors for nationalist purposes while ignoring the socioeconomic ideas that they assiduously promoted at the cost of millions of lives (Stalin is still a revered figure in Russia, although some Russian elites, including President Dmitry Medvedev, have criticized his repressive actions).  The deceased political titans remain symbols of resistance to foreign oppression and the overthrow of corrupt governments, but current Asian powerbrokers are promoting the capitalist-type economic policies that Ho and Mao decried in an effort to stay in power by improving the living standards of their countries’ citizens.

At times other Asian nations have treated their heads of state like gods, including North Korea (which is still a communist dictatorship), and Japan; although the latter no longer considers the emperor a deity.

Contemporary Chinese leaders have so far succeeded in facilitating rapid economic growth and remaining in power while using authoritarian measures like censorship and the banning of alternative politial parties.  However, China is not as stable as many outsiders believe.  There are thousands of riots each year as well as ethnic conflict, and there is a wide and growing wealth inequality between urban dwellers and rural peasants that could eventually lead to class warfare.  And when the living standards of the middle class reach a certain level those in it may focus more on their lack of civil liberties and demand change; such a development would undermine the primary pillar of the Communist Party’s political strategy and threaten its primacy.

Political instability, as well as the aging of the population due to the one-child policy, may put a halt to China’s impressive economic growth in the coming decades.  The threat of this happening is significant but largely ignored in America where many fear that China will overtake the US economically and geopolitically by mid-century.  While some might welcome attempts to liberalize Chinese society and bring down the communists, people should be aware that the consequences of a revolutionary movement could be disastrous in terms of lives lost and the destabilization of the global economy.  If democracy emerges in China or other Asian countries one hopes that it will be the result of a peaceful process much like the velvet revolutions that occured in Eastern Europe at the end of the Cold War rather than a bloodbath.

Obama’s Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech

December 11, 2009

Yesterday, President Obama visited Norway to accept the Nobel Peace Prize.  Many people reasonably believe that the president does not deserve the award after serving less than a year in office and not having achieved many tangible goals when it comes to foreign policy.  But regardless of whether or not he earned the prestigious prize, his acceptance speech was excellent.  It was very Niebuhrian, and it revealed that the president holds a view of the world and human nature that can be described as “Christian realism,” although he did not identify it in sectarian terms  He believes that man is flawed and frequenty behaves in unethical ways, but he also maintains that the human condition can be improved through acts of goodwill motivated by moral principles.  Having just escalated the war in Afghanistan, he argued that war is sometimes justified and necessary, but he balanced his adherence to just war theory by stressing the need to achieve a just peace that serves humanitarian aims.

In addition to promoting humanitarian realism, he advocated what international relations scholars refer to as “institutionalism” and “constructivism.”  Institutionalists believe that peace and progress can best be achieved by nations acting in concert through international institutions like the United Nations and World Trade Organization, and constructivists believe that changes in norms such as notions of sovereignty and human rights can improve global society.  In his speech, President Obama said that international alliances like NATO are needed to keep the peace, and he argued that the US and other countries should embrace humanitarian concepts out of enlightened self interest.

For information about Rienhold Niebuhr, who President Obama has cited as a major influence on his thinking, and Christian realism click on this link.  For another perspective on the international relations theory aspects of the president’s speech, read Daniel Drezner’s recent blog post on ForeignPolicy.com.

Conventional Ops vs. Counterinsurgency

November 16, 2009

Today, the New York Times published a piece by Army Capt. Tim Hsia on its At War blog (http://atwar.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/11/16/chinas-growing-military-might/).  Capt. Hsia notes that the Army has shifted its training focus from conventional operations to counterinsurgency since the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq began, and he wonders if the military will  reorient itself towards preparing for conventional wars after the current conflicts end.  He specifically mentions China as a potential threat for which the Army and the rest of the Armed Forces might need to prepare.

While it is true that ground troops are now being trained to deal with conditions in Iraq and Afghanistan and “counterinsurgency” is the hot topic among many strategists and analysts, it is misleading to suggest that the military is myopically focused on fighting so-called “small wars.”  The Navy and Air Force are naturally still geared for conventional warfare, and a large contingent of Army officers continue to argue that the US should be preparing for conventional fights similar to Gulf War One (fighting “small wars” has long been a task that the Marines have engaged in, and they will undoubtedly continue to prepare for them after the missions in Iraq and Afghanistan are over).

In terms of defense spending, conventional weapons platforms still take up the vast majority of non-personnel funds.  Capt. Hsia cites Predator drones as an example of counterinsurgency weapons siphoning money from other projects, but the Predator is actually the first generation of unmanned planes that the Air Force and Navy will use for both conventional and special warfare.  In a few decades, most bombers and strike fighters used in traditional battles will probably be pilotless. 

If history is any guide, conventional warfare will have primacy in Army doctrine after the current “small wars” end, and counterinsurgency will be a secondary consideration.  As China’s military power continues grow, the US military will seek to counter it, although it is highly unlikely that the Army would ever engage in ground combat with the People’s Liberation Army in the foreseeable future; the Navy and Air Force would almost certainly be the only participants in a future conflict over Taiwan or another point of contention between the US and China.