Saturday, March 18, 2017

European Officials at the G20 Grapple with a New American Trading Position: Beyond the Joint Communiqué

It is perhaps only natural---only human—for us to take ourselves and our produced artifacts too seriously. Diplomats and other government officials, for example, fret arduously over mere words. When those words are etched in governmental or treaty parchment, the effort is understandable. The flaw of excess is evident in all the time and effort that go into the joint communiques of international conferences and meetings. I submit that the real politic at such occasions is much more significant even if nothing shows from it for some time.
At the March 18, 2017 meeting of the Group of 20, which includes the E.U. and U.S., the joint statement “became an unlikely focus of controversy” issuing in “a tortured compromise stating, in effect, that trade is a good thing.”[1] I submit that the use of such language is spurious—certainly much less than the attendees and even their principals back home supposed. The real politic was instead that the U.S. was “overturning long-held assumptions about international commerce,” and such transformational change takes time even just to register in minds ensconced in the status quo. That is to say, the real shift in power would need to play out in actual negotiations on trade, rather than in how to word a meeting’s joint statement.

A European official, Wolfgang Schauble, perhaps straining at the meeting to understand the new American position. (source: NYT)

“We thought that it was very important for the communiqué to reflect what we discussed here,” Steven Mnuchin, U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, said at the time.[2] He added that the historical language was not relevant. I submit that neither was it important that the joint statement reflect what was actually discussed, for such discussions—laying out the initial bargaining positions for upcoming negotiations—had legitimate importance. Yet even such importance was only as “the first shots,” for the true importance lie in the arduous negotiations to come, for the tyranny of the status quo never gives up without a struggle. At that G20 meeting, the American government’s “lack of reverence for existing norms and treaties” was “particularly unsettling to the change-averse Europeans.”[3] It is precisely such a struggle that is so important—for real shifts in power must somehow be accommodated or defeated. In relative terms, the importance of what to hand to the press after an initial meeting is but a napkin dwarfed by the real politics underneath.
Therefore, we need not be distraught that the best the Group of 20 could come up with on that Saturday was this: “We are working to strengthen the contribution of trade to our economies.”[4] Such an obvious statement is worth only scant time. Much more important were efforts of the Europeans to understand—in the sense of comprehending—just what the new American perspective was, for something new that does not fit within the existing modus operendi takes effort to be understood, and only from this basis can real negotiations begin.

1. Jack Ewing, “U.S. Breaks With Allies Over Trade Issues Amid Trump’s ‘America First’ Vows,” The New York Times, March 18, 2017.
2.  Ibid.
3.  Ibid.
4.  Ibid.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

China and Russia Protect Syria’s Assad on Chemical Weapons: A Matter of Priorities

All bets are off when it comes to regulating war. Such a condition is virtually by definition beyond the confines of law. Even international law is but an impotent dwarf next to the raw force of a governmental regime at war—whether with its own citizens or another country. To be sure, the International Criminal Court had by 2017 made a dent in holding some perpetrators of atrocities such as genocide accountable for their deeds. Such efforts were still the exception, unfortunately, when Russia, China, and Bolivia vetoes a resolution in the U.N. Security Council that would have penalize Syria’s Issad regime for having used chemical weapons on Syrians. The reasons for the vetoes—and the fact that Egypt, Ethiopia, and Kazakhstan all obstained—implies that holding perpetrators accountable by international means had not yet become a priority at the international level.

Russia’s envoy, Vladimir Safronkov, defended the veto by calling the resolution “politically biased.” He asserted, “This is railroading the draft by the Western troika.”[1] In other words, the Russian government put its rivalry with the West above holding a friend accountable. Only months earlier, the U.S. Government had refused to veto a resolution condemning its friend, Israel, for retroactively legalizing illegal Jewish settlements on private Palestinian land. So it was with some clout that the American ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley, accused Russia and China of putting “their friends in the Assad regime ahead of our global security. . . . It is a sad day for the Security Council when members make excuses for other [members] killing their own people.”[2] What may not be noticed prime facie is the implication that a regime killing its own people is deprioritized when government officials prioritize friendly governments who commit such acts.

What would it take for the world as a whole to attach more importance in terms of other priorities to stopping and preventing crimes against humanity? Even intent to protect the precedent of national sovereignty—something China’s government has made a priority at the U.N.—is a deprioritizing of the crimes that a government commits against its own people and other peoples. The message is that such acts are normal, or at least tolerable. Perhaps it would take only a massive occurrence for the world as a whole to stop and admit that the usual international relations are themselves no longer viable because they are insufficient, given the priority suddenly put on the crimes themselves.  

[1] Somini Sengupta, “Russia and China Veto Penalties on Syria Over Use of Chemical Arms,” The New York Times, February 28, 2017.
[2] Ibid.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Israel Legalizes Illegal Settlements on Palestinian Land: On the Toll on the Rule of Law

Israel’s legislature passed a law on February 6, 2017 retroactively legalizing Jewish settlements on privately owned Palestinian land. Incredibly, the state’s own attorney general said he would not defend the new law in court because he had determined the law to unconstitutional and in violation of international law. Anat Ben Nun of an anti-settlement group said the law was “deteriorating Israel’s democracy, making stealing an official policy.”[1] Specifically, the Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, including those offered financial compensation for the “long term use of their land” but without being able to reclaim their property under the new law, “are not Israeli citizens and cannot vote for candidates for Israel’s Parliament, or Kenesset.”[2] I submit nevertheless that the underlying casualty in this case is the rule of law itself.

Every government enjoys the power of eminent domain, which effectively means that the right of private property is limited in nature rather than absolute. This fact goes to the amount of power that a government potentially has. In the case of the Israeli pro-settlement law on the private property of Palestinians, the rule of law was undercut by the law’s retroactive aspect. To retroactively legalize something illegal weakens law itself in its capacity as prohibition because confidence in the illegality is lessened and thus weakened.

Such a weakening can be invisible when the retroactivity is in popular demand. In the early 1960s, Israel’s highest court declared a 1950 Israeli law to retroactively apply not only temporally, when the state of Israel did not even yet exist, but also as applicable in another sovereign country! Lest this decision seem sordid and utterly devoid of justifiable jurisprudence, even such a dark underbelly can be easily whitewashed or at least overlooked on learning that the decision was against Adolf Eichmann, whom Israel had illegally kidnapped and tried for his significant role in transporting gays, communists, and Jews to the concentration camps in the horrendous systemic atrocity known as the Holocaust. The desire for justice against him easily hid from view the toll on law itself from what probably boiled down to garden-variety vengeance—the notion of law being distorted in the process. Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord, but not when the sweet scent of revenge at the expense of law itself is too alluring. Perhaps the retroactive law in 2017 may also have been fueled by vengeance, given all the hatred between the Palestinians and the Israelis, though in this case the retroactive vengeance was against the oppressed rather than a former oppressor. In both cases, however, the same basic pattern can be observed with respect to the subtle and gradual corruption of the rule of law itself. The power within the reach of a government—any government—is indeed something to beware.

[1] Ian Fisher, “Israel Passes Provocative Legislation to Retroactively Legalize Settlements,” The New York Times, February 7, 2017.
[2] Ibid.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Aleppo, Syria: A Complete Meltdown of Humanity

War is hell; everybody knows that. A ruling power of a government intent on depriving civilians of life during a civil-war battle in a major city can go beyond the typical battle casualties to cause what the U.N. has called a “complete meltdown of humanity.”[1] One question on the minds of civilians in rebel-controlled areas of Aleppo in Syria in December, 2016 was whether even eventual charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity were enough. From this standpoint, the world was shirking a basic human responsibility in not intervening to stop the intentional killing of civilians. Had the facts on the ground made going after war criminals after the fact a meager excuse for not having acted in real time? Does the world, in other words, have a duty to step in when a government has turned on its own people—not counting soldiers and their suppliers, or does internal affairs encompass even such governmental conduct?

“The crushing of Aleppo, the immeasurably terrifying toll on its people, the bloodshed, the wanton slaughter of men, women and children, the destruction—and we are nowhere near the end of this cruel conflict,” U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein said as the rebels agreed to withdraw from the city on December 13, 2016.[2] Civilians, having been trapped in the rebel-held areas of the city, faced summary-execution; at least 82 had recently been intentionally killed simply for having lived in an area controlled by the rebels. “The reports we had are of people being shot in the street trying to flee and shot in their homes,” U.N. spokesman Rupert Colville said at the time.[3] Additionally, precision-bombing targeted hospitals in the rebel-held areas—leaving no doubt, according to U.S. Senator John McCain, of Assad’s intent.[4]

Meanwhile, at the U.N., the focus of a Security Council meeting was on possible war crimes and crimes against humanity to be levied against the Syrian government. Hamstrung by a well-anticipated veto from Russia, an ally of Assad’s Syrian government, the U.N. was impotent to act on the duty of the international community to act. According to the Office of the Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, the “duty to prevent and halt genocide and mass atrocities lies first and foremost with the State, but the international community has a rule that cannot be blocked by the invocation of sovereignty. Sovereignty no longer exclusively protects States from foreign interference; [sovereignty] is a charge of responsibility where States are accountable for the welfare of their people.”[5] National sovereignty is not absolute, and the international community, institutionalized as the United Nations, has a responsibility to intervene not merely to see that war criminals are prosecuted, but also and more importantly to stop the atrocities in real time. Just as national sovereignty cannot protect the offending State, so too should sovereignty in a country’s veto in the U.N. be valid in obstructing this duty. The U.N.’s own procedure was thus out of step with the responsibility. Hence, the duty fell to the countries of the world not allied with Syria, yet political considerations of self-interest, and perhaps even the faulty assumption that any international action must or should be under U.N. auspices were formidable obstacles. The promotion of the duty falling on mankind to protect its most vulnerable from their own government was left to Syrian civilians in Aleppo using cell-phone videos to chastise the governments of the world for standing by.

It was within the competence of an international “coalition of the willing”—one not subject to a veto at the U.N.—to go in and target the protection of civilians, leaving the rebel and government troops to fight. Obviously, such a clear demarcation is impractical during a major battle, but the force exerted on the ground and air by an overwhelming coalition could have been enough to group and protect the remaining civilians in demarcated areas. No help would be given to the rebel fighters; the mission would have been carefully targeted to meet the call of responsibility by those in need who were not party to the conflict. Relative to such a response, calls for eventual war crimes and even crimes against humanity to be prosecuted—assuming the culprits could be removed from Syria and tried—could seem like a lame rationale for inaction in real time.

Such a change in perspective, such that human-rights jurisprudence is ironically viewed as weakness, would represent an advance for the species. We have demonstrated a capability for such amazing technological development since the late nineteenth century that the lack of progress in the domain of international relations, even only in protecting people from their own government, is perplexing. Put another way, the innocent Syrians in Aleppo sorely needed a revised answer, practically speaking, to absolute national-sovereignty, whose default-status has strangely been allowed to go unchallenged as if it were a natural law. The right to the unqualified version of the doctrine by governments can be challenged, if done prudently with regard to intent and ensuing action.
Lest it be feared that arriving at a newly revised answer in a practical manner could unleash a torrent of war, the modifications could be modest. In other words, governments such as that of Syria could get the message on the ground that limits do exist in terms of what a government can legitimately do to its own people. The key, I submit, is to limit the intervention to this point. Hence, the military strategy of the international protectors—humanity coming in to protect vestiges of humanity—would rightly and prudently have been limited to protecting civilians rather than taking sides in the conflict. Any contact with the military of either side would be limited to the protection of civilians, as if drumming home the point that the very legitimacy of the intervention is limited, just as is the legitimacy of any government. Contrarywise, taking on a “bad” government would turn the intervention itself into a partisan in the conflict; more retaliation could be expected than were a coalition limited in its coverage to protecting civilians—even if just providing safe passage. Whereas such a response is a step in the direction of changing a seemingly intractable default in international relations, going after war-criminals years after a war takes absolute sovereignty as a given and punishes people for having acted badly in it.  

[1] Reuters, “Battle For Aleppo Ends as Rebels Agree to Ceasefire,” The World Post, December 13, 2016.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] “Morning Edition,” NPR, December 13, 2016.
[5] U.N. Office of the Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide (accessed December 14, 2016)

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Wallonia Threatens to Veto the E.U.-Canada Trade Treaty: Complicating State Sovereignty in the E.U.

"The European Union and Canada signed a far-reaching trade agreement on [October 30, 2016] that commits them to opening their markets to greater competition, after overcoming a last-minute political obstacle that reflected the growing skepticism toward globalization in much of the developed world."[1] The obstacle may indeed have reflected increasing resistance at the time to globalization, but this veil can be pulled back to reveal the underlying political obstacle--that of states' rights in the E.U., taken to a crippling extreme.

1. James Kanter, "Canada and E.U. Sign Trade Deal, Bucking Resistance to Globalization," The New York Times, October 30, 2016.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

CO2 Record-Level in Atmosphere: Implications for Human Population

In 2015, average global CO2 levels for the year surpassed 400 parts per million for the first time, the WMO revealed in its 2016 annual Greenhouse Gas Bulletin. At the time, any scientists regarded that ratio of carbon dioxide to other gases in the atmosphere as a “climate change touchstone.”[1] Curiously, however, 400 ppm was not considered a tipping point. It was still possible to reverse the progression of the ratio—yet no one seems to ask how long that would take. In this regard, the ratio’s accelerating rate is particularly telling. Practically speaking, 400 ppm may in fact be a tipping point.

CO2 concentrations in 2015 “were about 144 percent higher than pre-industrial levels. Other emissions measured in the report, methane and nitrous oxide, were up 256 percent and 121 percent from pre-industrial levels, respectively. Among those, however, CO2 contributes the most to warming and [was] responsible for about 81 percent of the increase in radiative forcing from 2005 to 2015.”[2] Ralph Keeling, who runs the Scripps Institution of Oceanography’s carbon dioxide monitoring program, pointed to the irreversibility of the ratio of CO2 in the atmosphere. “[I]t already seems safe to conclude that we won’t be seeing a monthly value below 400 ppm this year ― or ever again for the indefinite future.”[3] Practically speaking, 400 ppm may be a tipping point in that the likelihood of getting below it again in the foreseeable future is nil.
Lest it be thought that the Paris treaty could turn things around, that the vows are voluntary and without repercussions for failing to adhere to the promised cuts. Moreover, “even if all Paris pledges are fully implemented, predicted emissions in 2030 will still place the world on track for a temperature rise of 2.9 to 3.4 degrees this century,” according to UNEP in 2016.[4] CO2 emissions would have to be cut an additional 25 percent by 2030 to avoid the worst effects of climate change.[5] I assume even that would not be enough to get CO2 levels down below 400.

Sadly, we weren’t even going in the right direction at the time of the U.N. Environment Program’s report. In other words, the CO2 ratio’s rate was accelerating. “The increase of CO2 from 2014 to 2015 was larger than that observed from 2013 to 2014 and that averaged over the past 10 years,” the report noted.[6] Predictably—though not in terms of the acceleration—studies at NASA and the University of California at Irvine showed in 2016 that Smith and Pope Glaciers in Antarctica were “growing thinner” and “retreating at the fastest rate ever observed.”[7] Since 1996, “Smith Glacier’s grounding line retreated at an annual rate of 1.24 miles per year and Pope’s at an annual rate of 0.31 mile per year,” according to NASA.[8] Smith Glacier “lost between 984 and 1,607 feet of ice thickness between 2002 and 2009.”[9] That this pace “is nearly six times faster than a previous estimate” is in line with the accelerating ratio of Carbon parts per million in the atmosphere. I contend that the estimates of the impact of the ratio were low because the ratio’s accelerating rate of increase had not been detected. By implication, estimates of how much carbon-emissions should be reduced by have also been too low.
In fact, even the focus on reducing carbon-emissions may be insufficient. The accelerating rate of the ratio as well as the likelihood that we won’t see anything less than 400 ppm may indicate that we have not yet gotten to the underlying causes. According to the WMO’s report, the bulk of the increase in the ratio was due to unbridled human activities ranging from “growing population, intensified agricultural practices, increase in land use and deforestation, industrialization and associated energy use from fossil sources.”[10] Even among these causes, that of growing population is most fundamental. The human being necessarily takes energy from the environment and expends waste, including pollution. Simply put, our species has been too successful genetically; we have multiplied. Yet the climatic data suggests that we have over-multiplied.

Crucially, the rate of increase in the global population has been increasing. It took 123 years for the total to go from 1 to 2 billion, then only 33 years to reach 3 billion in 1960.[11] The population reached 4 billion in 1974, 5 billion in 1987, 6 billion in 1999, and 7 billion in 2011.[12] How could there not be an astounding impact on the planet’s climate? As a maximizing variable, human population may be out of control, with the ecosystems bearing the brunt. An analysis in 2014 claims there is a 70% chance that the human population “will rise continuously” from 7 billion in 2014 to 11 billion in 2011.[13] This poses “grave challenges for food supplies, healthcare and social cohesion”—not to mention climate change.[14] The head of the research team stressed that population should return to the top of the international agenda.
Unfortunately, population decrease is typically viewed as a problem in many countries, while those with the largest populations—China and India—have not set population decline as a policy goal. To be sure, decreasing population too fast presents social problems, such as not having enough wage-earners to support retired people. Even so, the accelerating feature of the CO2 ratio and its effects on the climate—most notably, on glaciers and oceans more generally—suggests that serious attempts to reduce reproduction-rates globally—and especially where the rates are highest—are warranted. In addition to international agreements to decrease CO2 emissions, declining population targets should also be negotiated. Both individually and as a group, governments can no longer afford to skirt the underlying cause of the problem, which looks increasingly likely to result in the extinction of our species.

Genetically speaking, our species has been very successful in terms of multiplying our DNA in many, many individual members, yet this very success may be short-lived; it may be breeding extinction, which is failure in genetic terms. Put another way, our short-term thinking that reigns on Wall Street may apply even genetically. It may be up to the people serving in governments around the world to make hard choices in order to extend our species’ perspective enough that we can self-regulate our species back to a reasonable number rather than continue to spiral out of control and be at the mercy of nature’s constraints rather than those of our own choosing. Considering the population growth during the twentieth century alone, we can no longer afford as a species to skip over the underlying cause of climate change, for the acceleration is not limited to the ratio of CO2 and glacier-melt. Add in the lifespan-extending advances in medical science, and it becomes clear just how severe we need to be as a species in limiting our reproduction.

[1] Lydia O’Connor, “The Planet Just Crossed Another Major Carbon Milestone,” The Huffington Post, October 25, 2016.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid, italics added.
[4] Nick Visser and Dominique Mosbergen, “UN: Paris Deal Won’t Be ‘Enough’ To Stave Off Worst Effects Of Climate Change,” The Huffington Post, November 3, 2016.
[5] Ibid.
[6] O’Connor, “The Planet.”
[7] David Freeman, “Glaciers’ Rapic Retreat Should Be ‘Alarm Bell to Everyone’s Ears,’” The Huffington Post, October 26, 2016.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid.
[10] O’Connor, “The Planet.”
[11]The World at Six Billion: Introduction,” United Nations (1999).
[12] Jasmin Coleman, “World’s ‘Seventh Billionth Baby’ Is Born,” The Guardian, October 31, 2011.
[13] Damian Carrington, “World Population to Hit 11bn in 2100—with 70% Chance of Continuous Rise,” The Guardian, September 18, 2014.
[14] Ibid.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Saudi Arabia Beheads a Member of the Royal Family: Justice for All, Atrociously

On October 18, 2016, Saudi Arabia executed a member of the royal family for committing murder during a brawl. Prince Turki bin Saud bin Turki bin Saud al-Kabeer was put to death most likely by beheading in a public square—as this was the usual method at the time. As horrific as such an execution is, the point that law applies to everyone is laudable—especially “on point” for countries in which the rich can “get away with murder” by hiring the best (and most expensive) lawyers.  The atrocious means of execution coupled with the dictum that the law really does apply to everyone renders this case particularly difficult to analyze from an ethical perspective.

“The greatest thing is that the citizen sees the law applied to everyone, and that there are not big people and other small people,” Abdul-Rahman al-Lahim, a prominent Saudi lawyer wrote.[1] In other words, the verdict and sentence sent the message that no one is above the law. To be sure, thousands of people are in the Saudi royal family enjoying perks not available to the rest of Saudi Arabia’s 20 million people; yet that the member executed was from a prestigious arm of the family sufficiently makes the point that no one is above the law.

This lesson is a valuable one for the United States, as financiers got away with fraudulently mislabeling the risk of sub-prime mortgage-based bonds before the financial crisis of 2008. Yet, interestingly, the Saudis could look to the United States for a lesson on how to execute people humanely. I submit that this combination of lessons demonstrates that a country can be very ethical in one sense yet abysmal in another. This point in turn impedes claims that some countries are more humane, or advanced ethically, than others. Within a culture, insistence on justice in one sense can coexist with toleration for injustice in another sense. Put another way, the human mind seems able to compartmentalize justice, without realizing the cognitive dissidence involved.

1. Ben Hubbard, “Saudi Prince Is Executed for Murder,” The New York Times, October 19, 2016.