Birds in Hand vs in the Bush

March 7, 2012

Both Russia and Chima held important elections this past week. Russia’s presidential balloting returned Putin to the presidency–a Back to the Future style machination the USSR may not have been capable of.

Meanwhile, the Chinese village of Wukan has elected the leaders of serious anti-land grab protests as its mayor and deputy mayor. The local CCP authorities apparently didn’t wish to reignite discontent by interfering. And preliminary reports are that the villagers are satisfied with the democratic process. They seem to strongly feel that democratic reform will be positive for their economic development, in an interesting potential portend for the CCP.

Russian voters, on the other hand, were on the whole much less inclined to rock the boat. Stability, preserving what they still had economically, was the theme from voters and Putin both. The young protestors in Moscow chamting “Russia without Putin!” are obviously a minority in this country which still vividly recalls the economic and political upheaval of the early 1990s. Putin’s siren song of stability was overwhelmingly attractive in the face of that memory.

In that dichotomy the youthful protesters of Russia have something in common with the U.S. Occupy movement: inability to fully engage what we Americans have called “the 99 percent”.

The contrasting example of the PRC, with its 20+ years of explosive growth, may allow us to tease out from local context the hypothesis that economic growth coupled with repression that threatens it is a more potent recipe for productive protest than repression in a land of fitful, resource-driven growth and/or growth insufficiently grounded to orient people towards future prospects.

These elections offered lessons to the United States’ policymakers, both foreign and domestic.


The Democratic Republic of the Congo is the Capri Sun of Governments

March 3, 2012

“Juice and governments use adjectives to conceal the truth.” So says my friend, a Russophile who studied in Mubarak’s Egypt with me. Yet what is the truth? Zaire and ascorbic acid spiked sugar water? The perceptions constructed by careful language use are their own truth, their own set of facts, and they in turn have their own sets of consequences, whether in geopolitics or advertising.

On Studying Abroad Outside the West

March 3, 2012

The stereotype most Americans hold of studying abroad revolves around Parisian cafes, the Louvre, really authentic Irish pub crawls, and the Amanda Knox case notwithstanding, the learning of “romantic” French or Italian, the better to woo or be wooed on the Riviera.

Riding a camel around the pyramids of Giza, walking on the Great Wall of China, learning Zapotec in an indigenous village in central Mexico, or climbing Mt. Kilamanjaro tend not to even register on most Americans’ radars as “studying abroad”.

But those are the areas where the world is changing most dynamically and consequentially, where the most relevant global learning for the 21st century is going to take place.  We need a cultural shift in the U.S. toward seeing the year plus that one of my college classmates did in China as the norm, not a year in France or Italy.

Those EU countries are great — one day I’d like to go to Italy myself.  But studying abroad isn’t the same as a dream vacation.  It’s about gaining knowledge and experiences which will prepare students for their future and the future of the world.  And in most cases, that knowledge and experience is best gained outside the West.

Study abroad needs an extreme makeover, cultural perception edition.

Role Shifts and New Realities OR the Rise of the Belly-Dancing Prof

March 2, 2012

A professor in the School of International Service at American University once explained the Middle East by telling his students: “You must stick to your role.  It is Iraq’s role to balance Iran, Turkey’s role to be a secular bridge to the West, Syria’s role to be Iran’s Arab ally.  You must stick to your roles! Just as you would not expect me to get up on this table and start belly-dancing, for that is not my role!”

I never had this professor, unfortunately, but the story was well known because it sets out the long prevalent received wisdom on the latter 20th century Middle East:  these were cohesive nation states in the realist tradition who performed the function, the role, expected of them.  They did so to meet the expectations of the West and/or the Soviet Union, but more fundamentally these undemocratic regimes did it to preserve themselves in power.

Fast forward to 2003 and beyond.  What was the expected regional role of the new Shia-dominated Iraq?  The US had its expectation, but the Iranians had another, a critical difference from the old days when everyone agreed that a professor was a professor and not a belly dancer.  Saddam’s plans for Kuwait, or really the U.S. view of Lebanon’s civil war didn’t rise to the level of mirror version expectations seen for post-Saddam Iraq.

The Arab Spring has further complicated the picture.  Syria, as a whole solid billard ball in the regional game had its role, as did Iraq.  But both countries have been split open by unrest, and different subnational groups want what they want.  Iraqi Shias want to support Syrian Sunnis as fellow majorities long oppressed by Baathist sectarian minorities.  Nevermind that Iraq was the counterweight to Iran and Syria is for the moment still Iran’s Arab Levantine proxy.   That was Saddam’s reality, the reality that gave rise to Bin Laden, and Saddam and Bin Laden are dead.

The West’s established expectations for this region may in most cases be just as dead.  The U.S. and Ayman a-Zawahiri are now both supporting the Syrian opposition, in word if not fully in deed.   We may have to start expecting belly-dancing professors.   Stranger things have happened.

How to Solve a Problem Like N. Korea

March 1, 2012

We’ve been here before — the “no nuke progress in exchange for food” quid pro quo that we’ve been trying to hold the N. Koreans to for at least 20 years.

At least it seems the old song and dance works pretty much the same
under the young Un as it did under his father.  If the pattern holds, we just got the forces of globalization ~6-8 brinkmanship-free months to keep working on the DPRK like a nutcracker.

Do-re-mi it ain’t, but hope is in order, because this status quo can’t last.

Better Border-Leaping Through Technology

February 29, 2012

On his blog, Borderlines , Frank Jacobs wondered yesterday about the impact of Google Maps on the kinds of pre-conflict stressors — resource coveting, in particular — which have existed throughout human history without an external digital Atlas of Omnipotence to invoke.

As Jacobs notes, “[t]he lines that Google draws on maps have no government’s imprimatur”, yet it is still the popular first recourse on the topic of boundaries.  What Google and those perhaps causal users of the Maps can trip into, though, may be an intractable dispute-cum-simmering-conflict with no less potential for turning lethal than a well-known conflict.

The world only has one Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and that is enough.   But even more reason for Google to tread lightly on disputes like Costa Rica/Nicaragua — the proportion of Internet users who know about the historical context of the latter is obviously lower.

Google’s unofficial motto “Don’t Be Evil” has gotten a lot of flak lately for reasons related to user privacy and security.  Doing everything in its power to keep the Maps current, accurate, impartial, informative and full of clarity?   Could reduce some amount of the potential for armed conflict in the world.

Sounds like the non-evil thing to do.

Xi and the Sea (Lanes)

February 20, 2012

The presumptive next leader of the PRC just paid the U.S. a visit, and apparently the media here are quite taken with his more approachable, Chinese and American pop culture infused manner of communicating.

I think it is important to keep the substantive differences in the Sino-American relationship in mind, however.  The CCP isn’t going to let the yuan float or allow greater local political autonomy in Tibet just because the next head of the PRC references “Mission: Impossible” or other American cultural fare.

After all, this is a regime that has raised ‘pop culture as an opiate for the masses’ into an ironic art form


In other reviews of scenes from the world stage, Iran has both cut off oil shipments to the UK and France and threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz.   Clearly the IRI is angling for a nomination in the yearly Shooting Self in Foot Awards, but as I’m looking back at Operation Ajax via the excellent All the Shah’s Men, I can’t help but think that the more things change the more they stay the same.  Particularly in the Middle East.  Sixty years ago Britain was furious that Iranian nationalism dare stand in the way of its oil.

Now Britain imports no Iranian oil, letting it coolly and consistently push for greater sanctions.   If only the US could say fifty years from now that the Iraq war moved us on a similar path away from oil period.