Tag Archives: U.S. politics

Oslo vs. cars

Oslo had a plan to go car-free, but “conservative” politicians are pushing back.

One big idea: ban cars from the city centre. If pulled off, the plan would see Oslo become the first major European city to have a permanent, complete no-car-zone, racing ahead of a long list of cities seeking to do the same…

“A Berlin Wall against motorists,” declared one conservative party politician. “Car owners feel ‘bullied’ in Oslo”, blared an English-language news site.

The biggest backlash, however, came from the city’s trade association, the Oslo Handelsstands Forening (OHF). It said it feared the plans would create a “dead town”, and a “poorer city [with] less life”.

That’s silly, of course. When pedestrian-only streets have failed in the United States, it is because nobody lived there to begin with. Pedestrian-only environments work just fine where people live, work, and shop all within easy walking distance.

What is it about the “conservative” impulse that loves cars so much? “Conservatives” come in many stripes, but what they seem to have in common is a belief in some kind of natural social order. Whether it is based on race, religion, nationality, business success, family wealth, or whatever, if it benefits you, a “conservative” mind set allows you to mentally justify the existing social order that benefits you, and to justify “conserving” and strengthening it, sometimes even by force. And you don’t have to be at the top of the ladder to have the “conservative” impulse, all you have to be is not on the bottom rung of the ladder, so you have someone to look down on and a vested interest in the existing social order. This mindset is complemented nicely by a lack of imagination – if you perceive that the social order as it exists benefits you, you can convince yourself that it exists for a reason, and you will find ways to rationalize any change to the existing order. You end up opposing anything new and different, whether it is immigrants, religions other than your own, bike lanes, renewable energy, a functioning health care system, or the idea that humans have wrecked Earth’s atmosphere to the point of no return. The people higher on the ladder than you are very good at manipulating and exploiting these impulses for their own benefit, of course, but although you do not lack raw intelligence you are now too closed-minded to give a new idea like that any consideration.

carbon emissions and other data

Even though Donald Trump has decided the U.S. will not help reduce the world’s carbon emissions, at least you can get data from the Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center, part of Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Get it now because it sounds like they are going out of business in September.

U.S. a “flawed democracy”

The Economist Intelligence Unit has downgraded the United States from a “full democracy” to a “flawed democracy”.

According to the 2016 Democracy Index almost one-half of the world’s countries can be considered to be democracies of some sort, but the number of “full democracies” has declined from 20 in 2015 to 19 in 2016. The US has been downgraded from a “full democracy” to a “flawed democracy” because of a further erosion of trust in government and elected officials there.

The “democratic recession” worsened in 2016, when no region experienced an improvement in its average score and almost twice as many countries (72) recorded a decline in their total score as recorded an improvement (38). Eastern Europe experienced the most severe regression. The 2016 Democracy Index report, Revenge of the “deplorables”, examines the deep roots of today’s crisis of democracy in the developed world, and looks at how democracy fared in every region.

Last time I thought about this I thought the U.S. was a republic. A flawed one, perhaps. Is this the end of the U.S. Republic, or just a hiatus? Who gets to decide? The Economist Intelligence Unit? Where was the Economist Intelligence Unit the day the Roman Republic ended? Did it end in a day, or was it a long slow slide that historians were only able to pinpoint later?

Counter-espionage in China

China killed or imprisoned 18-20 U.S. spies between 2010-2012, according to the New York Times.

The Chinese government systematically dismantled C.I.A. spying operations in the country starting in 2010, killing or imprisoning more than a dozen sources over two years and crippling intelligence gathering there for years afterward…

Still others were put in jail. All told, the Chinese killed or imprisoned 18 to 20 of the C.I.A.’s sources in China, according to two former senior American officials, effectively unraveling a network that had taken years to build.

Assessing the fallout from an exposed spy operation can be difficult, but the episode was considered particularly damaging. The number of American assets lost in China, officials said, rivaled those lost in the Soviet Union and Russia during the betrayals of both Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen, formerly of the C.I.A. and the F.B.I., who divulged intelligence operations to Moscow for years.

The loss of life is sad of course. Beyond that, this reminds me of the book Legacy of Ashes, in which Tim Weiner builds a convincing case that the CIA has never been any good at spying. This sort of thing happened all through the Korean War, Vietnam War, and Cold War. The U.S. just never had much of an idea what its enemies were doing. Sometimes that actually worked to the enemy’s detriment when the U.S. assumed their capabilities and intentions were far worse than they actually were.

It also makes me think of the recent story about Trump giving away top secret information provided by Israeli spies, and possibly putting those spies’ lives at risk, although we will never know. If the U.S. isn’t any good at spying, all it can do is build relationships and make cash payments to countries that are. Israel may be one of our only reliable sources of intelligence in the Middle East, which sheds a little more light on why the U.S. values the relationship so highly.

NATO expansion as a failure of empathy

This article in History News Network explains why allowing NATO to expand too much too fast after the fall of the Soviet Union may have been a crucial mistake.

By 2017 much of the former communist-ruled area of Europe—including Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia, and Albania—had joined the alliance, as had three former republics of the USSR itself (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania). In 2008 NATO’s Bucharest Declaration indicated that two more former Soviet republics could at some point in the future join the organization whose original purpose was to protect its members against Soviet threats. (“NATO welcomes Ukraine’s and Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations for membership in NATO.  We agreed today that these countries will become members of NATO.”)

To realize how colossally we have failed to empathize with Russian concerns about such expansion, we should imagine how we would feel if Canada and Mexico and say some states that successfully seceded (imagine Texas, Minnesota, and North Dakota) joined a Russian alliance system. Our empathy deficit has been recognized by many leading political thinkers, including some conservative statesmen.

In her The Limits of Partnership: U.S.-Russian Relations in the Twenty-first Century, Georgetown’s Angela Stent approvingly quotes a German official, who accused the United States of “an empathy deficit disorder” toward Russia. In addition, Henry Kissinger (former secretary of state), Jack Matlock (Reagan appointed ambassador to Russia), and Robert Gates (secretary of defense under both George W. Bush and Obama) all have criticized a lack of U. S. empathy toward Russian concerns about NATO expansion. Typical is Gates’s comment: “Moving so quickly after the collapse of the Soviet Union to incorporate so many of its formerly subjugated states into NATO was a mistake. . . . Trying to bring Georgia and Ukraine into NATO was truly overreaching.” (See here for sources of quotes.)

I think there are some important claims here as we see echos of the same lack of empathy in U.S. statements and positions toward China. We can try to understand their motives, interests, and understanding of their role in the history of the region as we engage with them. This doesn’t mean being weak, it means being smart and strategic and giving peace a chance.

 

Wikileaks and the NSA

Wikileaks has released a set of documents about NSA activities, which is covered by the Intercept. Here’s one tidbit:

The NSA, it turns out, likes to stay on top of the latest scientific developments. Writing at the end of 2004, an NSA cryptanalyst described her experience working as an intern, and using her cryptography skills, on looking for information about genetic sequencing in the signals intelligence collected by the NSA. “The ultimate goals of this project are to gain general knowledge about genetic engineering research activity by foreign entities,” she wrote, “and to identify laboratories and/or individuals who may be involved in nefarious use of genetic research.”

sovereignty

Here is a long, long post from Lawfare covering three books about the state of national sovereignty.

In these polarized times, it came as a surprise to me that the authors of three of the most interesting books on international relations of the past year agree on at least one thing. Each argues that the global order is entering a crisis that calls into question the concept of state sovereignty, a foundational principle of the international system as it has existed for nearly four centuries. In the past half-century—as globalization has interwoven the international community more densely and closely than ever, multilateral institutions have proliferated, new doctrines on human rights and counterterrorism have gained credence, and transnational threats have emerged—the definition of sovereignty has come unmoored from its traditions. These diverse authors agree that this will have consequential effects on the world, but diverge over how we reached this point and what should happen next.

The books—Rosa Brooks’ How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything, Richard Haass’ A World in Disarray, and David Kennedy’s A World of Struggle—could be shelved in the subgenre of international relations literature dedicated to predictions of imminent crisis.

Like I said, it’s long and it covers each of the three books. I’m going to skip to a paragraph on climate change at the end.

Even with stable but rights-abusing regimes in power, undergoverned spaces are likely to grow. This will be exacerbated by increased competition for scarce resources as climate change and demographic shifts strain water and food sources; there is a compelling argument that this already contributed to the conditions for the outbreak of the Syrian civil war. Even where conflict does not occur, people will be displaced by climate change. Rising sea levels are already creating “climate refugees” emigrating from the Marshall Islands. Indeed, the flows of refugees and migrants pushed out of their homes by climate change and conflict could pose as great a challenge to sovereignty as Responsibility to Protect and U.S. counterterrorism policy. For all its merits, saving sovereignty as it has been classically understood will not turn back the clock on the diffusion of power that has weakened central governments over the past half-century, it will not end the civil wars that have expanded political vacuums, and it will not halt the creeping effects of climate change.

I probably have a somewhat naive and simplistic view of the world, but a worled baded on simple and easy-to-understand principles might be a more stable world than the one we find ourselves in now. Between the fall of the Berlin wall (1989) and at least the U.S./NATO attack on Yugoslavia (1999), it seemed like we had an international consensus that borders were going to be important and enforced by the international community, led by the UN security council. US- but not UN-led wars in Yugoslavia, Iraq, Libya, and the various drone strikes around the world seem to have seriously eroded that. Now Russia has crossed the borders of Georgia and Ukraine, and China is challenging Japan and other Asian nations in ares they have clearly claimed for awhile. The U.S. can act outraged but it is kind of hard to take the moral high ground.

So in my simple world, the UN Security Council would be reformed so that it represents a true consensus among the great powers, and military action violating borders would be undertaken only to punish an aggressor who has already violated a border, and only when all the great powers (minus any that is the aggressor in question). In my simplistic world, this solves the problem of balance of power because there are no alliances between great powers, only an alliance of all the great powers against whatever one has chosen to be out of line. And even the U.S. with our current economic and military might (which could arguably be at a peak or even on the wane) should think twice before standing up to the entire rest of the world.

Yes, this does leave the question of how to deal with severe human rights violations within borders. I don’t claim to have all the answers on that, but I just think it has been far too easy for great powers to claim they are attacking their neighbors for so-called “humanitarian” reasons. I would question whether military violence has ever caused less human suffering than it avoided. Certainly not in the short term.

April 2017 in Review

Most frightening stories:

Most hopeful stories:

Most interesting stories, that were not particularly frightening or hopeful, or perhaps were a mixture of both:

  • I first heard of David Fleming, who wrote a “dictionary” that provides “deft and original analysis of how our present market-based economy is destroying the very foundations―ecological, economic, and cultural― on which it depends, and his core focus: a compelling, grounded vision for a cohesive society that might weather the consequences.”
  • Judges are relying on algorithms to inform probation, parole, and sentencing decisions.
  • I finished reading Rainbow’s End, a fantastic Vernor Vinge novel about augmented reality in the near future, among other things.