Thursday, December 18, 2014

The E.U. Shifts the Debate: Re-labeling Hamas and Palestine

Framing the contours of a debate goes a long way toward winning it. Part of such framing involves efforts to make derogatory labels stick to the opposing side. Through a number of decades in the twentieth century, communist was the weapon of choice. Actors who refused to name names found themselves blacklisted as pro-communist, or having communist sympathies. A decade after the fall of the U.S.S.R., labeling an organization or person as a terrorist came into its own as the all-too-easy means of depriving an opposing side of credibility. By 2015, some people believed that anytime a person of a particular Middle-Eastern religion kills someone, that person is a terrorist. The word’s very definition was somehow pliable enough to accommodate prejudice and simple dislike. This is not to say that real terrorists are squalid creatures; rather, my point is that people had realized that they could score political points by applying the label to their opponents and making it stick. Israel, for instance, had successfully gotten the E.U. to label the Palestinian political party Hamas as a terrorist organization. Yet as 2014 was coming to an end, the label was becoming unstuck, with broader implications for the wider debate on Israel and Palestine.

On December 18, 2014, the General Court of the European Union ruled that Hamas’s status as a terrorist organization had been determined by news and Internet reports rather than by “acts examined and confirmed in decisions of competent authorities.”[1] Although the decision is procedural rather than substantive in nature, the finding points to how very pliable labels can be. The frivolous nature of going by news and internet reports is borne out by how different outlets can be in characterizing the two sides of a given dispute. For example, are Hamas members freedom-fighters or terrorists? The choice here goes a long way in determining how the debate is framed, and therefore how it plays out, so the decision is political rather than even technical.

Highlighting the political nature of labels in the Palestinian question, the court’s decision coincided with a resolution passed by the E.U.’s parliament supporting “in principle the recognition of Palestinian statehood” along with new negotiations.[2] Recognizing a state even as it is occupied by another functions mainly in a debate-framing capacity, as no actual statehood can exist as long as the West Bank and Gaza Strip are occupied by another state. “Recognizing” statehood, along with the Hamas political party no longer labeled as a terrorist organization, can shift debate in the direction of the Palestinians. Hence, it is not for nothing that Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel reacted publicly to the vote, saying, “These declarations merely point to a spirit of appeasement in Europe of the very forces that threaten Europe itself.”[3] Simply in using the word, declarations, however, he was inadvertently helping the “statehood” label to stick in the debate. To get the other side of a dispute to adopt a label even as that side is arguing against your side goes a long way toward getting the label to stick for neutral observers. In effect, they tacitly take sides in the language they apply.

In short, framing a debate is a political venture unto itself, with huge implications as to which side has to run up hill and which has the advantage of gravity. Restoring Hamas to political party and Palestine to a state may prefigure an eventual shift in the debate in the Palestinians’ favor.

1. Alan Cowell, “European Court Reverses Designation of Hamas as a Terrorist Organization,” The New York Times, December 18, 2014.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Backing a Bear into a Corner: Falling Oil Prices Hit Russia Hard

Falling oil prices and economic sanctions in 2014 put the pressure on the Russian economy and its currency. The overall question may have been geo-political, however. Namely, would the twenty-first century see economic tools replace military response as the dominant means to “walk back” international aggressor states and restrict their further exploits? Such a question may be too broad, as even a newly-discovered devise that suddenly works is not likely to be applicable in every case. Even so, obviating war in the nuclear age would be no small feat.

On December 15, 2014, crude oil for February delivery fell $1.82, or 3.2 percent, to settle at $56.26 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange; oil had been as high as $107 the previous June.[1] The increase in American consumers’ disposable income was expected to boost the economy. Additionally, manufacturing output in the previous month “surpassed its prerecession peak as auto production rose.”[2] This proffered an “encouraging sign that America's factories are somewhat insulated from the global economic slowdown.”[3] The U.S. Government could afford to lead its informal coalition, including Saudi Arabia, against the Russian government’s incursions into Ukraine.

The Russian economy was not least among the contributors to the downturn. “Given Russia's huge dependence on oil revenues, the . . . sharp falls in the price of oil has hit the Russian economy hard. That's exacerbated by the fact that the Russian economy [was not at the time] diversified enough to withstand the shock.”[4] In other words, “the drop in crude prices . . . hurt Russia since the country [was at the time] a major oil exporter and [thus depended] heavily on oil for tax revenue.”[5] In refusing to reduce its supply of oil, OPEC was squeezing Russian competitors particularly hard, as well as the Russian government (and that of Iran).

That E.U. and U.S. officials were “contemplating tougher economic sanctions against Moscow” for geo-political reasons centering on Russia’s incursion into Ukraine suggests that the Russian economy might have more to worry about than lower oil prices and a weakening currency.[6] The situation in Ukraine was not getting any better, suggesting that further sanctions could come to pass. The United Nations human rights office had just announced its findings of a "very close link" between the inflow of fighters and sophisticated weaponry, "including from the Russian Federation," and a total breakdown of law and order in eastern Ukraine.[7] According to Gianni Magazzeni, head of the division of the United Nations human rights office that deals with Europe and Central Asia, “the situation around the self-proclaimed People's Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, under the control of pro-Russian armed groups,” could be characterized in terms of "killings, abductions, torture, ill treatment, sexual violence, rape, forced labor, ransom, extortion,".[8] Considering that even all of this does not take into account the fate of Crimea, which Russia had invaded and absorbed, the prospect of any sort of overall geopolitical resolution with a let-up on the economic vice-grips on Russia seemed dismal at the time.

The toll on Russia’s currency, the ruble, could not be missed. In its steepest drop in 16 years, the currency sank more than 10 percent to about 64 to the dollar on December 15, 2014.[9] The rise of inflation pressures from more expensive imports had already prompted Russia’s central bank to gradually increase its main interest rate from 5.5 percent early in 2014 to 9.5 percent. On December 11th, the central bank “tried unsuccessfully to stem the ruble's slide by boosting its key rate by 1 percentage point to 10.5 percent. The decision to raise the rate to 17 percent from 10.5 percent on December 15th “represented a desperate attempt to prop up the troubled currency,” according to the Associated Press.[10] Of course, the currency itself was not the real problem. Accordingly, the attempt fell on its face, at least initially. “In the first hours after the increase, the ruble staged a rebound, recovering almost all of its [previous day] losses. But the optimism soon dissipated and the ruble was down another 20 percent to 77 to the dollar by 3.30 p.m. in Moscow (1230GMT).”[11] The next day, FXMC, an online trading company, halted ruble trades—anticipating capital controls on the enervated currency.

Moreover, although the higher interest rate could eventually have a positive impact on the ruble, especially as long as the rates on the E.U. euro and U.S. dollar stay near zero, the higher rate was also “likely to cause much hardship in an economy [that was] already heading for recession.”[12] Americans need only remember Paul Volcker’s rate hikes in 1981 and the subsequent harsh recession to get this point. Indeed, Russian stocks were “moderately declining” on the morning after the rate hike to 17 percent, “with the MICEX benchmark 1.5 percent lower, reflecting the rate hike's pressure on businesses.” [13] Neil Shearing, chief economist for emerging markets at London-based Capital Economics, predicted "a further tightening of credit conditions for households and businesses and a deeper downturn in the real economy in 2015."[14] Such tightening—and Americans need only look back to September 2008 to grasp the seriousness of this move—could easily outweigh any increase in exports from the lower currency.

In conclusion, this case study presents us with an interesting intersection of international relations and international political economy. One major lesson may be that the coordinated economic policies of a coalition of states can effectively replace war as a means of going after governments that are militarily aggressive internationally. Of course, the geo-political and economic strategy is not full-proof, as a hegemon may still be able to get away with such behavior (e.g., the U.S. invading Iraq with impunity). Also, pushing a bear into a corner may have unanticipated consequences both within Russia and in its foreign policy. That is to say, applying such strident pressure, whether financial or militarily, is risky in a nuclear world.

[1] The Associated Press, “Oil Still Falling, and So Are the Markets,” The New York Times, December 16, 2014.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] The Associated Press, “Russia’s Ruble Slides to Historic Lows,” The Huffington Post, December 16, 2014.
[5] The Associated Press, “Oil Still Falling.”
[6] Nick Cumming-Bruce, “Hardships Grow in Ukraine, U.N. Says,” The New York Times, December 16, 2014.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.
[9] The Associated Press, “Oil Still Falling.”
[10] The Associated Press, “Russia’s Ruble Slides.”
[11] Ibid.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Ibid.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Beyond the Reach of Any Greenhouse-Gas Agreement: Nature’s Contribution

With China and the U.S. coming to an agreement in 2014 on limiting their respective greenhouse-gas emissions, the Peru talks suddenly gained new momentum toward a deal on a global scale. To be sure, even the U.S.-China agreement would not kick in for years, if not decades, and a global agreement would not even take effect until 2020 at the earliest. This drawback may pale in comparison to one of nature’s own contributions to greenhouse-gas emissions, and nature itself cannot agree to voluntarily restrict its own output. Accordingly, we should not assume that a global agreement will save the day, rendering the planet still inhabitable for humans in the next century.

All across the Arctic, scientists have detected abnormally high concentrations of methane seeping out of the thawing permafrost. Along Siberia’s Yamal Peninsula in 2014, concentrations of the greenhouse gas 50,000 times higher than the atmospheric average were found to be rising from a 200 feet deep hole created when a large sheet of permafrost thawed and collapsed. In Canada’s western Arctic, three of many seeps found in the area have been found to be emitting as much greenhouse gases in a year as are emitted by 9,000 average-sized cars.[1]

Methane has ten times the greenhouse-effect as carbon. Nature’s contribution to global warming may thus turn out to dwarf the impact of any conceivable global agreement. The continuing thawing of the permafrost in the Northern hemisphere past 2014 is a certainty given the carbon and methane already in the atmosphere then and the fact that carbon emission targets in the U.S.-China agreement are merely to get back to earlier levels, such as that of 2005 in the case of the U.S.  In other words, we may have set in motion a chain-reaction beyond our reach that could result in atmospheric warming beyond 2 degrees Celsius—the tipping point, scientists tell us, beyond which life would become very unpleasant and even impossible for our species on Earth.

Friedrich Nietzsche, a European philosopher and classicist who wrote in the late nineteenth-century, uses the analogy of light coming from a star light-years away, showing an event that has already happened yet the knowledge of which has not yet reached Earth. In the analogy, we have caused the event ourselves and yet we do not know it yet.  Similarly, we may already have put in motion a chain reaction that will result in our own extinction as a species and yet the light carrying this news has not yet reached us. So we go on as if our governments’ paltry negotiations are somehow newsworthy, even potentially a game-changer. More generally, we put so much stock in the power of our own wills that we don’t stop to ask whether the true game-changer might just be dealt by Nature independent of our efforts at international relations. As a species, we may already have blood on our hands, and yet we, the culprits, do not see it.

[1] Edward Struzik, “The End and Beginning of the Arctic,” The Huffington Post, December 5, 2014.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Cheaper Driving on an Uninhabitable Planet

By the end of November 2014, the price of oil had declined about 40 percent since its peak back in the previous June.[1] Expanding American fracking, a steady supply of oil from OPEC, and a weak global economy are the major factors behind the trend. Saving $630 million on gas as compared with what they had been paying in June, American drivers found themselves with more disposable income.[2]  Besides uses such as Christmas presents, groceries, and clothing, more consumers were buying SUVs and Hummers in spite of their low gas mileages. William Dudley, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, pointed to the benefits, saying “falling energy prices are beneficial for our economy and should be a strong spur to consumer spending.”[3] With OPEC countries and Russia hit disproportionately, the U.S. Government had a geo-strategic interest in a further drop in the price of oil. It is no wonder that a major disconnect existed between these benefits and a startling, albeit largely hidden downside.

As American drivers were finding they had more money available to buy Christmas presents, United Nations negotiators gathering in South America were expressing a new optimism that they may finally achieve a deal to stop the increasing rate of greenhouse gas emissions. Meanwhile, scientists were warning that even with an international deal that includes China and the U.S., the Earth would still become increasingly unpleasant; without a deal, and here’s the stunner, “the world could eventually become uninhabitable for humans.”[4] Even with a deal taking effect only in 2020 and relying on governments to hold themselves to their own targets and timeframes, a large body of scientific research in 2014 pointed to “into a near-term future of drought, food and water shortages, melting ice sheets, shrinking glaciers, rising sea levels and widespread flooding — events that could harm the world’s population and economy.”[5] Such a drag on the global economy would likely exceed expansion of between 0.5 percent and 1 percent from the decline in oil prices.[6]

Dwarfing calculations of the net impact on the global economy is the word itself, uninhabitable. The prospect of our species taking itself out of existence even as we cheer cheaper (and thus more) gas and buy larger cars again—as if no learning curve could have been applied—presents our species with the unhappy enigma that is so much a part of human nature. That we could have been so easily distracted by instant gratification is not news; the realistic possibility that our descendants might die off before the turn of the next century is—at least to those people willing and able to notice. In other words, 2014 brought the dark news that the planet being uninhabitable for humans may come sooner than anyone distracted by the oil would believe.

To be sure, the astounding technological advances that took place in the twentieth century, such as putting human beings on the Moon, could mean that further advances in the twenty-first century could remove enough carbon from the atmosphere to pull us back from the brink. Moreover, the future is not simply a projection of a given trend into a trajectory; unforeseen factors are almost certain to kick in between 2014 and the end of that century.

Even so, the risk taken on by humanity in the 2010s is considerable—even astonishing—given what we knew even in 2014. Drivers pleased to death with lower gas prices dismissed the risk—missing the connection between the rising carbon emissions from their increased driving (and flying) from the lower cost of fuel, and the increasing likelihood that their children or grandchildren might realistically find the Earth to be uninhabitable in their lifetimes. Young children riding in the SUVs could live to see the Titanic sink unexpectedly quickly. The loop could be that tight, and yet it got scarcely any air-time as gas prices lowered during the last half of 2014. Crucially, drivers and the media alike were glued like addicts to a constricted perspective centered on the daily downward ticks in the price of gas as if pennies dwarf uninhabitability. Is it to be said shortly before the final curtain that our species died off for pennies?

[1] Steven Mufson, “As Oil Prices Plunge, Wide-Ranging Effects for Consumers and the Global Economy,” The Washington Post,  December 1. 2014.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Coral Davenport, “Optimism Faces Grave Realities at Climate Talks,” The New York Times, November 30, 2014.
[5] Ibid.
[6] The statistics are from Steven Mufson, “As Oil Prices Plunge, Wide-Ranging Effects for Consumers and the Global Economy,” The Washington Post,  December 1. 2014.