For Sustainable Development

armstrongfoIn this first edition of “Face-off” on Glimpse From the Globe, I will respond to my colleague Luke Phillips’ argument against sustainable development. Please read his compelling piece before you continue.

Luke and I agree on several points. First, the term “sustainable development” is nebulous. Second, the growth of past prosperous civilizations was fueled, in part, by consumption of natural resources. And third, I question humans’ ability to stop global climate change, not because of global disinterest, but because of the damage already done. However, I disagree with Luke on two points: (1) his justification for the need for continued resource consumption, and (2) his notion of progress.

A historical justification for the continued degradation of the planet is counterproductive and false. Luke correctly asserts: “the prosperous periods of Chinese, Islamic, and European Civilization all mark their periods of intense and unsustainable resource use…” In the past, imperial expansion was fueled – and funded – by the consumption of silver, water, coal, etc. Therefore, according to Luke, human growth and prosperity depend on “unabated resource consumption” and that any contemporary attempt to deviate from this historical pattern will stall human development. This proposition has two issues. First, a historical justification disregards human ingenuity and/or invention. Past civilizations discovered new ways to turn resources into wealth. For instance, the growth of industrial England was fueled by the use of coal in electrical and transportation infrastructure. What is to say that a contemporary society could not discover a new method (e.g., solar, nuclear, geothermal) to fuel growth in an environmentally sustainable way?

Yes, growth depends on the consumption of natural resources, but history should not shackle future human growth to the harmful consumption of natural resources. Scientific advancements and an environmentalist spirit have the potential for societal development, a fact not acknowledged in Luke’s argument. Indeed, there are contemporary examples that prove economic growth is possible with sustainable resource use. One such example is in the “green growth” of the Southeast Asian cities of Da Nang, Vietnam, Surabaya, Indonesia, and Cebu City, Philippines. A World Bank study concluded that investment in sustainable solutions, such as gas-capture landfills and wastewater-treatment facilities, led to economic growth due to “productivity gains, reduced pollution, and more efficient use of resources.” And the results are not confined to Southeast Asia. The World Bank found a worldwide correlation between GDP per capita growth and increased energy use efficiency. Sustainable development is not just possible, it is happening.

Luke’s argument also rests on the oxymoronic nature of sustainable development. In his eyes, sustainability reflects a sense of permanency, whereas development underscores constant change. When combined, sustainability will stall development, and societal progress will stop. However, sustainability and development are – and must be –compatible for the future health of the planet and its people. I define sustainable development as human growth that consumes resources at or below environmental equilibrium (i.e., the amount of resources the natural environment is able to replenish). This is not an equation for zero growth—it is an equation for the use of renewable energies and limited use of non-renewables to further fuel economic growth. It is a notion of progress that does not depend on the continued destruction of the planet. Further, it is a notion that must be embraced and perfected in order to protect the planet and its people. Continuing “to accept that growth brings with it a heavy price to nature” is a recipe for causing a level of climate change that may irrevocably damage, or worse end, future human growth.

In sum, Luke’s argument against sustainable development is defeatist as its logic precludes any hope of environmentally responsible human growth or innovation in green development. Luke contends that the best humanity can hope for is “preservation where possible amidst economic growth.” However, this pessimistic and faux-realist attitude ignores evidence of sustainable growth in Southeast Asia and other parts of the world that lend credence to the prospect of future sustainable development. Thus, Luke’s argument is unduly destructive. Yes, a transition to sustainable development will be a tremendous challenge, but I believe – and evidence shows – that it is possible.

The Correspondents Weigh in: Crisis in Crimea

The Crimea Region is highlighted in Red on this map of the Ukraine (via Wikimedia Commons)

This piece will be the first of a special “Weigh In” series that is going to be started on Glimpse, which will focus on momentous current events.

Thomas D. Armstrong:

Recent op-eds have labeled Putin as a mastermind or a megalomaniac fool. I am of the opinion that Putin is a megalomaniac mastermind exploiting a disempowered US. However, debating Putin’s psychological profile is less constructive than analyzing the economic foundation of his regime. Putin and his Russia survive on energy revenues, and war is only making him richer. Unlike 2008, when Putin invaded Georgia, oil prices have held steady. In fact, the threat of sanctions on Russia have only driven oil prices marginally higher, up $2 dollars to $110.8/bbl as of writing. Putin is financing expansionist dreams (and his own savings account) thanks to his near-monopoly on Russia’s energy industry. Therefore, the best way to rein him in is to drive global energy prices down. The US can accomplish this quite easily with a reformed national energy policy. Currently, the US is sitting on an unused 727-million-barrel underground cache of crude oil, and is producing more and more natural gas by the day. If the US were to supplant Russia as Europe’s primary natural gas provider, and flood the global market with American oil exports, energy prices would plummet. A decrease from $110/bbl to $80/bbl would cost the Russian oil industry alone an estimated $120 billion, plus billions more in foreign exchange earnings. Putin is a deft leader, but even he could not survive such a sustained economic collapse.

Nick Kosturos:

Russia’s move to deploy soldiers in Ukraine is indicative of feelings of insecurity rather than confidence. Putin knows that such a large loss of influence in Ukraine, a critically important country in economic, cultural, and geopolitical terms, would be devastating to Russia’s ultimate goal of increasing its regional sphere of influence and international prestige. Putin’s domestic considerations and tensions can also shed light on these aggressive actions. If a small country like Ukraine can successfully stand up to the Kremlin by ousting its man from Kiev, what will Russians think of a leadership unable to control their “Small Russia?” Russia is acting out of desperation, not strength. Putin’s clownish justifications for Russia’s military actions do not hold up to scrutiny and are made under a façade by what I recently labeled an “imitation democracy.”

While the West has multilaterally condemned this act of aggression, which is a positive first step, it should now increase pressure on Russia to relent. In order to force Russia to withdraw and accept Ukraine’s sovereignty and a chance at a peaceful political transition, the West must maintain a multilateral and wide-ranging coalition of rejection, isolating Putin via sanctions on both his allies and competing oligarchs (including their overseas funds and visas), and by supporting Ukraine’s new government through assistance and advisement. At this point, conventional military power projection against Russia is not a viable option – no matter how tempting – as it could spark an unintended military provocation leading to conflict. The current situation is very difficult to manage, although the international community should know that the West ultimately has the upper hand. Russia’s desperate authoritarian strategy based on oppression is doomed to fail in the long-run.

Luke Phillips:

The situation in Crimea is nothing more than the Russians managing their own geopolitical periphery, and so far as it has to do anything at all with expansion, it is only due to the fact that Russian power is presently contracted to levels far below what Moscow would like. America would do and has done the same thing in the event of revolutionary unrest in our neighbor states, as is evidenced by our interventions in Mexico a century ago and in Cuba a half-century ago.

The question here, I think, is what the United States is going to do about it. Part of our grand strategy since the end of the Cold War has been to keep the Russians from establishing formal or informal dominion over the former U.S.S.R. Another part has been supporting the thin veil of liberal international order that girds the power politics flowing subtly underneath in an effort to at least grant a semblance of order and harmony in international affairs. These imperatives have come under increasing pressure in recent years, but in 2013 and 2014 more than ever before. I don’t know what the proper policy response should be, but I hope it isn’t more of the lectures, gestures, and silences with which President Obama responded to the Russians in the Snowden and Syria affairs.

Jacob W. Roberts:

America is in no position to intervene nor should it.  To the western world, Putin’s actions appear nefarious, but from the perspective of many Russians he is acting well within the parameters of international law.  Professor Tatiana Akishina of USC argues that, since the prime minister of Ukraine’s semi-autonomous Crimea region has called upon Putin for military support, his intervention is in accordance with international law.  Moreover, America has intervened with greater frequency and intensity over the past century, thus it is highly hypocritical of US authorities to castigate Russia for meddling within its region.  That being said, it is somewhat disturbing to witness Russia fail to respect the sovereign rights of an independent nation.  One can only hope that Putin’s intervention into the region will be short lived.

Alessandro M. Sassoon:

There is a risk of ethnic cleansing. It starts with classification. Weeks before this conflict made the front pages of the New York Times, reports emerged that Russian-Ukrainians in Crimea were being given Russian Passports. Russians have lived in Crimea for some 200 years, and Ukraine has held the territory for half a century. Then there are the Tatars, the people for whom Crimea is an ancestral home dating back to the Mongol Khan Empire. The Tatar population, which accounts for 13% of Crimea’s inhabitants, is predominantly Sunni Muslim. Under Stalin’s Russia, the Tatars were accused of collaborating with Nazi Germany and deported en masse to other parts of Russia (read: Siberia). It should come as no surprise then that they are more keen on being governed by Ukraine than by Russia. As things stand, there are three populations with strong ethno-nationalist tendencies who inhabit a geographic area they all feel they have a historical, political, or legal claim to. Of the eight stages of Genocide, we’ve passed #5: polarization. That means preparation, extermination, and denial are next.

Sabrina Mateen:

Before this conflict, my knowledge of Ukraine consisted solely of “ex-USSR”. I assumed the region consisted of Russian natives, and that they were considered to be allies with their ex-country. However, with the news of an outbreak of civil war, it has become apparent that there are opposing nationalities, languages, and mindsets that are all helping to tear Ukraine into pieces. The conflict seems to be reaching increasingly dangerous heights as Russia begins to put pressure on Ukraine in the form of planned military drills and in one case, an unspecified military presence that looked to be Russians supporting Crimeans. Although the conflict is being called a civil war, it is beginning to seem like one of the many moves Putin has been making to restore Russia to its USSR-era square footage. It is important to see what the United States plans to do, as the Obama Administration is already under scrutiny after the ill-advised response to the crisis in Syria.  Any move from the newly war-shy United States will be seen as an escalation in a conflict that has all the makings of a new Cold War.

Kerry Collins:

Recent developments in the volatile Ukraine situation show the autonomous Crimea region voting to join the Russian Federation. Crimea has a Russian ethnic majority and is predominantly Russian speaking, so it might not come as a surprise that the region is in support of the secession. If it is what the people want, then perhaps the region should have never been a part of Ukraine to begin with. These recent moves that Crimea has made are violations of international law, which puts the United States in a tough response position. The President has been making frantic calls to Putin urging a diplomatic end to this crisis, but to no avail. Meanwhile, Putin doesn’t seem particularly concerned with US warnings. What the EU and the US bring to the table are economic sanctions, and it will be interesting to see if those “sticks” are enough to make Putin falter.

How the Internet Works and Why the Answer is Alarming

A map of the global oceanic telecommunications network. Potential vulnerabilities of the Internet’s physical infrastructure are extensive and largely unknown. (Wikimedia Commons/Rarelibra)

Where does the Internet come from?

Think about this question for a moment. While the answer may seem obvious, the John Q. Public will likely stumble through an explanation of satellite technology and “Wi-Fi clouds” as though the Internet were some fantastical intangibility. In a way it is; the Internet is a remarkable human invention – used by 81% of Americans on a daily basis – yet our understanding is remarkably limited. This je ne sais pas quoi that makes the world go round is in fact a physical architecture; 500,000 miles of undersea fiber-optic cables connect the US and Singapore, Egypt and Brazil, Japan and India. These cables, which carry 90% of Internet data around the world, are vulnerable.

How do these cables work? On a micro scale, the email you send from a coffee shop in San Francisco to your colleague in Beijing travels overland to an Internet exchange facility operated by a telecommunications company, then through their facility, across the Pacific Ocean in two-inch fiber-optic cable laid along the ocean floor, out through another exchange facility in Shanghai, and overland to your colleague’s computer. And by the way, minute strands of glass carrying data via light at different wavelengths transmit that very email. For the technologically naïve, the process of sending an email certainly is magical, but it is also tangible.

What are probable threats to the cable system?

(1) Natural disasters. One would think that telecommunication cables are secure; however, the vast majority of cables lie on the ocean floor, exposed to everything from shark bites to cyclones. In 2006, an underwater landslide between Taiwan and the Philippines inflicted damage on 19 of 20 nearby cables. 90% of the region’s Internet capacity was cut for a period ranging from one to thirty days.

(2) Accidents. The most common cause of cable damage is an accident. For instance, fishing vessels often rip lines when removing cages and nets. Larger vessels slice cables with their anchors, accounting for 70% of all incidents. However, even the most innocent damaging of a cable can have major ramifications. For instance, a 75-year-old woman in Georgia (the country) severed an underground Internet cable while digging for copper in her backyard. The result? The entire state of Armenia was without Internet for five hours.

(3) Attack on the underwater cables. The image of an Al-Qaeda operative in scuba gear cutting wires off the shores of New York City is as fantastical as it is frightening. The cables transmit such high voltage that an attempt to snip the cable with wire cutters would be suicidal. However, the threat of a terrorist attack on cables is still very real. Terrorists could drag a ship’s anchor, deploy a bomb, or use some other means to impair the cables. The location of every cable is publicly available information (because ships and fishermen need to know where not to drop anchor), and thus targeting the cables becomes a matter of creativity and execution.

(4) Attack on the exchange facility. Cables typically emerge from the ocean at private telecommunication exchange facilities, which, despite being heavily guarded, are vulnerable to attacks. For instance, Verizon Terremark’s headquarters in Miami contain 90% of the telecommunication cables between North and Latin America, servers for Facebook and the US Department of Defense, and vital infrastructure for global financial transactions. Were Terremark’s facilities to be compromised, everything from your bank account to US national security would be threatened. In short, global operations on a micro and macro scale would be compromised.

Left: The New York Stock Exchange. (Kevin Hutchinson/Wikimedia Commons) Right: A Google server facility (Sivaserver/Creative Commons). An attack on the Internet’s physical infrastructure affecting either system would have disastrous global consequences.

Left: The New York Stock Exchange. (Kevin Hutchinson/Wikimedia Commons) Right: A Google server facility (Sivaserver/Creative Commons). An attack on the Internet’s physical infrastructure affecting either system would have disastrous global consequences.

How can American Internet security be bolstered?

Shortly after his first inauguration, President Obama highlighted the potential risks of a web-operated world: “America’s economic prosperity in the 21st century will depend on cybersecurity. And this is also a matter of public safety and national security. We count on computer networks to deliver our oil and gas, our power and our water. We rely on them for public transportation and air traffic control. Yet we know that cyber intruders have probed our electrical grid and that in other countries cyber attacks have plunged entire cities into darkness.”

An attack on oceanic cables could cripple infrastructure and threaten national security plunging the nation into darkness. So how can the US limit attacks? For one, the US must increase cyber security funding in both the physical and network dimensions of the Internet system. The US government is aware of threats of cyber attacks, such as malware infiltrating nuclear facilities or worms penetrating electrical infrastructure. However, physical attacks, though less likely, could be far more damaging. Thus, the protection of cables must be a priority, and at least the partial responsibility, of the US security community rather than private telecommunication companies. Second, redundancy of the cable system will limit the potency of any terrorist attack. Currently, when one cable is severed, telecommunications are routed around the crippled zone. Though Internet service may be delayed, the global system remains fully operational. At certain “choke points” throughout the world, such as near the Suez Canal where only three cables connect the Mediterranean to East Africa and South Asia, a series of cable breaks would be catastrophic. Thus, greater cable redundancy across a variety of geographic zones is imperative in an effort to eliminate the “choke point” threat.

In sum, the US government must pay greater attention to physical Internet security. As it stands now, an enemy with a boat may be the greatest single threat facing domestic – and global – operations.

Book Review: Ambiguous Dispersion

Diasporas. By Stéphane Dufoix. Translated by William Rodarmor. University of California Press; 136 pages; $27

Two chefs take a smoke break in San Francisco’s renowned Chinatown on February 29th, 2009. Immigrant communities often form ethnic enclaves within a host country for a multitude of reasons, including economic opportunities and the preservation of the home identity. (Creative Commons/Manalah Madkhan)

What does the word “diaspora” mean? Mr. Dufoix opens his investigation into the nature of diasporas with a humorous and revealing quote from a Nigerian emigrant:

I have been away from Nigeria for 30 years…In all these thirty years I have been convinced that I was living abroad and, and at a push, overseas. It now turns out, however, that I have actually been living in the diaspora. This sounds like a very lovely place, with fauna and flora, nubile virgins, blue skies and a certain je ne sais quoi…

The emigrant’s sarcasm is well placed. The word “diaspora” is, like the terms “transnational” and “globalization,” troublesome in that the kaleidoscopic range of its uses has rendered the word hollow. “Diaspora” may refer to communities including religious exiles, economic migrants, gays and lesbians, cyber criminals, and countless others. What purpose does the label “diaspora” serve? Mr. Dufoix argues: “the usefulness of the word mainly rests in its existence as a rallying cry.” The nature of this “usefulness,” the history of the word “diaspora,” and abroad-home community relations are the focus of Mr. Dufoix’s book.

UCLA sociologist Roger Waldinger opens the book with an excellent forward. He highlights three theories of note in later chapters. First, diasporas are inorganic body-less entities. Diasporas are not a natural phenomenon of human social interaction, and do not possess an inherent territory, but rather are created and utilized by a “broad range of actors” for political, economic and social means. Second, communities are not static. The literal interpretation is obvious: people move and have moved since nomadic beginnings. Less obvious, but no less profound, is the nature in which communities and their relationships with home states/businesses/cultures evolve. Diaspora populations evolve from pro-state to anti-state, and  “true” to their home culture (conceptions of cultural purity is a subject for another book) to assimilationist. And third, the quest for a proper all-encompassing definition of “diaspora” is “fundamentally fruitless” because the word holds various meanings to various peoples.

Mr. Dufoix’s framework, Mr. Waldinger argues, is a far better contribution. Mr. Dufoix identifies four modes of diasporas: (1) Centroperipheral mode: the expatriate community is closely linked with official home country institutions (e.g., Greeks in America); (2) Enclaved mode: an isolated community within a host country of people with a shared identity (e.g., Koreatown in Los Angeles); (3) Atopic mode: a trans-state community which seeks no territorial claims (e.g., Italians in New York City); (4) Antagonistic mode: a people “who refuse to recognize the legitimacy of the current regime in their country of origin, or consider the country to be under foreign occupation” (e.g., Kurds).

In addition to theoretical frameworks, Mr. Dufoix provides thoughtful histories on the diaspora populations of the Greeks, Indians (subcontinent), Chinese, and Armenians. Each case study provides the migration history of each people, as well as their relationship with their home state. For instance, Mr. Dufoix highlights the People’s Republic of China’s incentive to preserving economic, if not social, ties with their overseas population, given that they are responsible for 70% of China’s foreign direct investment. In India, Mr. Dufoix articulates that the post-independence government’s efforts to organize migrants and their descendents at the federal level proved unsuccessful due to allegiances along other determinants of identity, such as religion, caste, language, and province of origin. Mr. Dufoix refrains from the extrapolation that identity is a local phenomenon, and that the skin of imagined communities—to use Benedict Anderson’s language—can only be stretched so far. Thus, targeted mobilizations of diaspora populations may prove more successful than sweeping ones under nationalistic umbrellas.

For those interested in an introduction on migration phenomena, or those with prior knowledge looking for greater historical and theoretical depth, Mr. Dufoix’s book is an apt read. Despite stumbling through an analysis of post-modernist migration theory, the book is highly readable. Further, it serves to remind readers to reject a blind acceptance of lifeless terms, like “diaspora” or “globalization,” in favor of more thoughtful review.

Xiaomi’s Expansion and the Test of Chinese Soft Power

Xiaomi is outselling Apple in the Chinese smartphone market, and recently announced its plans to expand globally. You may be asking: “Xiao-who?” Well, here is an introduction to the hottest tech company in China, their blueprint for expansion, and what this means for China’s growing “soft power” – a construct that emphasizes a state’s economic and cultural influence.

Xiaomi Founder at the Fortune Global Forum 2013. (via flickr: Fortune Live Media/ Creative Commons some rights reserved)

Xiaomi Founder at the Fortune Global Forum 2013. (via flickr: Fortune Live Media/ Creative Commons some rights reserved)

Ascent to Stardom

Xiaomi Inc. is an Internet service and consumer electronics company founded in April 2010 by Steve Job’s Asian twin, Lei Jun (see photo). Selling high-end smartphones at near production costs, Xiaomi has challenged Asia’s top smartphone providers in the Chinese, Taiwanese, and Hong Kong markets. In the second quarter of 2013, Xiaomi became the fifth-largest supplier of handsets in Mainland China. In August, Lei poached top Google executive Hugo Barra to orchestrate Xiaomi’s global expansion. And shortly thereafter, a “flash sale” of 100,000 Hongmi-model smartphones ($135 compared to the $750+ iPhone) sold out in 90 seconds. In October, Xiaomi sold 100,000 of the luxury Mi3-model smartphones ($327 for 16GB or $410 for 32GB) in 83 seconds. Less than four years after incorporation, Xiaomi has gained Apple-like popularity and a market valuation at $10 billion (equal to Lenovo or double that of Blackberry). Xiaomi executives project smartphone sales in the neighborhood of 20 million units by year’s end.

International Expansion

But they aren’t satisfied. At a recent media event in Taiwan, Lei and Barra announced their expansion into the Southeast Asian market, specifically Singapore and Malaysia. Why? Singapore and Malaysia have the necessary technological (network coverage) and regulatory (welcoming governmental and legal institutions) infrastructure for Xiaomi’s entry. Further, the people of Singapore and Malaysia are smartphone fanatics. Smartphone penetration in Singapore and Malaysia is at 87% and 80% respectively. Comparatively, the United States is at 60%.

Xiaomi may succeed in its initial expansion—despite entering a saturated market—for four reasons:

  1. Fandom: “Flash sales,” and the social media blitzkrieg surrounding these events, have generated frenzy among middle-class shoppers eager for the newest smartphone. Further, Xiaomi allows its customers to actively shape its software platform. Miui, a spinoff of Google Android software, is updated nearly every week based on the suggestions of its 5.1 million members. Client-customer collaboration has boosted Xiaomi’s popularity in China and promises to do the same in Southeast Asia.
  2. Increased competition: Samsung has run a near monopoly in the Southeast Asian smartphone market. But three Asian companies, Huawei, Lenovo and LG, are challenging its dominance and eating away at its market share each successive quarter. Xiaomi could benefit from an increasingly diverse market.
  3. Subsidies: Singaporean and Malaysian telecom operators offer smartphone subsidies. Thus, Xiaomi phones could be free with the purchase of a contract—an enticing offer for those who disheartened by the larger sticker price of a Samsung or Apple handset.
  4.  Apps: Singaporeans and Malaysians love apps. In fact, they score highly (Singapore at number one) in the World Mobile Readiness Index, a metric that calculates a population’s willingness to pay for mobile apps. Singaporeans’ and Malaysians’ willingness to pay for apps perfectly accommodates Xiaomi’s business model. Xiaomi has razor-thin profits on smartphones (compared to a company like Apple that has a 55% profit margin on the iPhone) and therefore relies on apps and accessories to generate profit.

Litmus Test

Xiaomi’s success in Singapore and Malaysia will be indicative of its potential success outside the Chinese mainland. Xiaomi has thrived in the Chinese market where Apple holds less than 5% market share and Google Play (Google’s “App Store”) is not officially available. How Xiaomi competes in areas where Apple and Google have a stronger grip will be telling. If unsuccessful, Xiaomi will likely retreat to China. If successful, look for Lei and Barra to deepen expansion in Southeast Asia, particularly in the Philippines—a country with a higher Mobile Readiness score than Malaysia and Hong Kong yet with only 15% smartphone penetration. The Filipino market would be wide open to an injection of Xiaomi products.

China’s difficulty in accumulating soft power has been well documented. However, much to the chagrin of some Americans, China’s soft power, particularly its global economic influence, is on the rise. A burgeoning tech market has begun to stimulate international growth for a number of Chinese companies (think Lenovo, Baidu, and Haier). Xiaomi’s success in Southeast Asia could demonstrate or precipitate greater success of Chinese companies in foreign markets. As a result, Chinese communication technology may attain the “cool factor” of Apple or Samsung products—which are widely regarded as fashionable and reliable. In short, Xiaomi may trigger consumers of Chinese tech products around the world to begin prizing the “Made in China” tag rather than associating it with mediocrity. And such a rise in economic influence is a necessary characteristic of any great power.

Brandian Revolution: Productive or Irresponsible?

Recently, unpredictable comedian Russell Brand sat down with BBC icon Jeremy Paxman to discuss Brand’s stint as editor-in-chief of the liberal British magazine The New Statesman and his 4,500-word editorial/manifesto on revolution. Brand, known for his lewd and disarming sense of humor, was eloquent and passionate speaking about the failures of democracy. Paxman, keen on trivializing Brand’s political opinion, was stunned as Brand called for a revolution to end a broken British-American political system that serves only the privileged and destroys the natural environment. Brand voiced a growing feeling among British-American youth, who—especially after the US government shutdown—“feel disenfranchised, disenchanted, disengaged, and, most important, disinterested in the idea that politics can change the world.” Brand argued that voting is a futile exercise, and only perpetuates a political paradigm that sacrifices the planet and the ‘99%’ in order to shelter the economic prosperity of the ‘1%’.

Brand’s political commentary was startling, and I often found myself nodding in agreement—perhaps due to Brand’s verbal magnetism rather than the merit of his arguments. So were Brand’s statements accurate? And is voting “tacit complicity” in the current system? Below, I will run through a fact check of a few of Brand’s points before debating whether Brand’s advice and vision for the future is productive or irresponsible.

Fact check:

…[the poor] don’t feel like they want to engage with the current political system because they see that it doesn’t work for them, they see that it makes no difference, they see that they’re not served…(2:45)

Brand’s message is correct: the poor are, due to personal and societal factors, disenfranchised. According to the US Census Bureau, in the 2008 presidential election, under 42% of adults with incomes less than $15,000 voted. Voter turnout steadily increased in proportion to income to more than 78% of adults earning more than $150,000. What causes this phenomenon among America’s poor? A multitude of factors: decreased civic engagement, workday voting, felony disenfranchisement, voter identification rules and the belief that voting will not bring instant change to the system. Unfortunately, low voter participation in protest of a broken democratic system only leads to greater marginalization. The poor don’t vote and, in turn, politicians make little effort to appeal to the underprivileged majority. While the privileged minority thrives, the poor only grow more pessimistic. As the old adage goes, ‘the rich get richer and the poor get poorer’.

…300 Americans have the same amount of wealth as their 85 million poorest Americans… (4:05)

This figure goes uncited in Brand’s article and video interview and is difficult to verify when compared alongside federal census data. However, Brand’s observation of a massive income gap in America is accurate. In fact, it is worse than Brand states. The richest 400 Americans have the same amount of wealth as the poorest 157 million Americans (50% of total population). And America is not alone. Almost universally, the gap between the ‘have’ and the ‘have-nots’ is widening. Some may argue that modest income inequality is a healthy symptom of capitalism, but a system that celebrates billionaires as 46.5 million Americans live below the poverty line is clearly broken.

No one is doing anything about tax havens… (9:04)

Here Brand is mistaken, as politicians around the world are clamping down on tax evasion in the wake of the ‘Great Recession’. British politicians have launched a campaign against tax havens in the Commonwealth, such as Bermuda and the Isle of Man. American and German politicians have publicly criticized Irish banks for allowing companies like Facebook and Google to escape millions in taxes, and the US Justice Department has filed lawsuits against Swiss banks that knowingly shelter the money of US citizens and corporations. Whether a moral awakening or domestic financial and political pressure inspired this recent initiative is immaterial, as politicians are taking a stand against tax havens.

…stop voting, stop pretending. Wake up. Be in reality now—time to be in reality now. Why vote? We know it’s not going to make any difference. We know that already…” (5:50)

The question of whether “my vote counts” appears every election season; journalists write articles about the statistical value of each vote. For instance, statements like “your vote has a 1:10,000,000 chance of determining who is elected president” deter the average American from casting a ballot. One may be left thinking that their vote will be inconsequential in choosing elected officials or changing the current political paradigm. Yes, the political system might be broken, but not participating in the electoral system is an ineffective and irresponsible method of protest. This fact impels me to criticize Brand’s argument below.

Debate:

I have three rebuttals to the idea that “voting is tacit complicity” and “voting makes no difference.” First, if Brand’s vision were to become reality, then the electoral system would come to a standstill. However, a more likely scenario is one in which those moved by Brand’s manifesto abstain from voting and those content with the status quo continue to vote. Thus, the influence of those who Brand despises is inflated. As David Foster Wallace wrote: “In reality, there is no such thing as not voting: you either vote by voting, or you vote by staying home and tacitly doubling the value of some Diehard’s vote.” How can those hoping for change endorse an emboldening of the diehards’ policies? Second, voting can have dramatic effects on policy at the local level. State propositions and local laws can determine whether contentious policies, such as the status of undocumented California residents or Colorado’s policy on marijuana, can come to pass. Third, a democracy, by definition, operates via civic participation. One could argue that a democracy that privileges certain socioeconomic groups over others is not a true democracy, but one should argue that a democracy absent of voting is no democracy at all. Rather, such a state becomes an autonomous government that has fully robbed the people of their sovereignty.

Brand argues for revolution—a cultural awakening acknowledging the ill effects of capitalist democracies and favoring a socialist utopia that will equality redistribute national wealth and eliminate profit. The issue with Brand’s vision, as Paxman notes, is that a governmental body is required to redistribute national wealth. And a government of unelected officials in complete command of national wealth – without accountability – is a terrifying prospect. One only needs to look at the Soviet, Chinese, Cuban, Laotian models, to name a few, to see that a government’s adoption of socialism is easier said than done.

Brand cites Scottish comedian Billy Connolly as inspiration: “the desire to be a politician should bar you for life from ever being one.” I disagree. The desire to change, and hopefully better, the community through civil service is honorable, not incriminating. Closing the political door to a future generation of leaders who may have undergone Brand’s “cultural awakening” because of the failures of current leaders is downright irresponsible. The current British-American political paradigm is wrought with problems, but socio-political activism is not one of them. Of all people, Brand should recognize this reality.

America’s Reign of Terror?

Victims of drone attacks readied for burial in Miranshah, North Waziristan.

Victims of the January 23, 2009 American drone strike in Miranshah, Pakistan readied for burial. A recent Amnesty International/Human Rights Watch report criticizes President Obama’s drone policy for killing innocent civilians and under-reporting collateral damage. (Creative Commons/Mohammad Mujitaba)

Between September 1793 and July 1794, the National Convention of France operated a “Reign of Terror” defined by the mass execution of potential counterrevolutionaries in the name of national peace. One of the proponents of governing through terror, Maximilien Robespierre, argued: “terror is nothing else than justice, prompt, severe, inflexible [and that] the government in a revolution is the despotism of liberty against tyranny.” In other words, the government may suspend the inalienable rights of its citizens in times of crisis. The ends (peace) justify the means (terror).

On September 14, 2001, the United States Congress expanded the constitutional powers of the executive branch to include the legal authority “to retaliate against any person, organization, or State suspected of involvement in terrorist attacks on the United States, but also against foreign States suspected of harboring or supporting such organizations. Finally, the President may deploy military force preemptively against terrorist organizations or the States that harbor or support them, whether or not they can be linked to the specific terrorist incidents of September 11.” Post-9/11 national security laws have allowed for a permanent retaliatory war with unclear operational and legal boundaries.

The “Global War on Terror” certainly requires an extraordinary military response; the list of “legal” military responses has grown to include drone strikes and Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) missions on potential terrorists in foreign states, states which Congress has not declared war on. The president may suspend the constitutional rights of citizens (by Amendments V and VI of the US Constitution ) and non-citizens (by Articles 3 and 10 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights), in the name of peace. Once again, the ends justify the means.

Criticism of this “paramilitary arm of the administration” is well publicized. However, a new report released last week by Amnesty International in conjunction with Human Rights Watch has brought the Obama administration’s policy on global terrorism into the spotlight. The organizations claim that several drone strikes have been a “clear violation of international humanitarian law,” citing the failure to apply due process before applying the “capital punishment” administered by a Hellfire missile. Further, “Amnesty International has serious concerns that this attack violated the prohibition of the arbitrary deprivation of life and may constitute war crimes or extrajudicial executions,” and that those responsible for ordering the aforementioned attacks (presumably President Obama and his military-intelligence team) should stand trial. (Note: The White House has challenged Amnesty International’s latest report, reiterating that all counterterrorism operations are “precise, lawful, and effective.”)

Drone strikes and JSOC missions are both morally and legally questionable as evidenced by the intentional killing of American citizen Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, a 16-year old civilian living in Yemen, who was killed as punishment for his father’s (Anwar al-Awlaki) crimes and for who he might become—a terrorist made in his father’s image. Furthermore, these missions have a negative impact on America’s ability to effectively engage in diplomacy because of the anti-American distrust and resentment that grows in targeted regions.

I anticipate three defenses of President Obama’s drone policy and subsequent internal law and human right’s violations: (1) drone and JSOC strikes are effective in eliminating terrorist threats; (2) “terror” implies a murderous policy; and (3) war is ugly and why should the US government be indicted for trying to suppress terrorism? I would respond as follows:

(1) Yes, US drones possess deadly accuracy on selected targets and spare the endangerment of US troops in volatile regions such as the Afghani-Pakistani border. However, despite their precision, drone strikes, night raids, constant aerial surveillance—and most dramatically, the killing of innocent civilians—only fuel greater anti-American sentiment. Terrorism is as rampant and threatening as ever. Al-Qaeda and its global affiliates are expanding in spite of successful US operations to kill top commanders. America needs to “win hearts and minds”—drone strikes do not accomplish this goal.

(2) True, President Obama has never advocated the killing of civilians. In fact, he has publicly expressed regret about civilian causalities in war zones. But as in every conflict, civilians have died and the constant threat of a bellicose America is terrorizing people around the world. Exploded missile fragments can be found near kill sites in Somalia, Yemen, and Pakistan; to those finding these ordinances, the “Made in America” message is clear. Children in Pakistan have grown accustom to drone flyovers and are left wondering “am I next?” The CIA’s East African kill list has been contracted to Somali warlords. Perhaps the mother of all surprises has stemmed from Obama’s willingness to detain foreign journalists who speak out about errant American strikes. This is not a covert “Global War on Terror.” Citizens of Mali, Thailand, Panama, Yemen, and more than 70 other countries know all too well that they may become the next in a long line of unsuspecting victims, and from their perspective, America is to blame.

(3) Yes, war is ugly. Soldiers and civilians die at the hands of Allied and insurgent forces. Millions have been displaced. However, murdering—via drone strikes—over 400 innocent civilians in Pakistan is unacceptable, as is the murdering of American citizens abroad. And committing murder in the name of ending murder is nonsensical. But killing without oversight is undermining the very moral and legal fiber of the United States (not to mention bilateral relations with countries in which drone strikes have occurred) and international institutions such as the United Nations—the very institution established to end unchecked killing.

Civilians in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border refer to American JSOC forces as the “American Taliban.” In their eyes, America has become the very monster they promised to destroy. America has scarred and radicalized an entire generation, and as a result the number of “terrorists” will only grow. America’s “despotism of liberty against tyranny” must end, but how does a war like this end? Perhaps Yemeni political activist Abdul-Ghani Al Iryani’s advice is best: “In the fight against al-Qaeda and the extremism it represents, we can do it the easy way, by killing, and thus have to do it again and again, or the hard way and really solve the problem. To truly fight al-Qaeda and similar groups, we must deal with the root causes of its growth—poverty, injustice, lack of rule of law…and drone strikes.”

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the Glimpse from the Globe staff and editorial board.

Update 11/4/13: correction made to the caption for accompanying photograph.

China’s “Floating Population”

China is faced with an internal migration crisis, the scale of which cannot be ignored. In 2012, China’s internal migratory population (both inter- and intra-provincial) exceeded 250 million people. Within that population, those without household registration—effectively illegal aliens within their own nation—known as China’s “floating population” (流动人口), exceed 160 million. Predominantly rural-to-urban migrants moving to the industrial centers of China’s eastern seaboard, this “floating population” is the disadvantaged lifeblood of the Chinese economy.

Since the explosion of internal migration in the 1980s, China’s economy has triumphed (albeit at the expense of the environment), enjoying GDP growth in excess of 10% a year. The government too has implemented sweeping economic reforms to allow for greater growth of both state and private industries. The rich have gotten richer (China is second only to the US in the number of billionaires), and a substantial middle class has emerged (roughly 300 millions citizens). , Yet little has been done for a migratory population larger than the populations of Germany, UK, France, and Italy – combined! They suffer the highest rates of HIV, illiteracy, and crime in China. Their estimated 37 million children are severely undereducated.

Migrant workers assemble computer hard drives at the Seagate factory in Wuxi, China, November 6, 2008. In the last thirty years, tens of millions of rural citizens have immigrated to manufacturing centers in eastern China in the hope of earning higher salaries. (Wikimedia Commons/Robert Scoble)

The government’s current system is clearly broken, but why? And why isn’t the government helping?

The migration crisis is exacerbated by an outdated household registration policy, known in Mandarin as hukou (户口). Promulgated in 1958 by Chairman Mao, hukou operated as a method of controlling the labor force of China. Further, like the Soviet propiska system, hukou served as an internal passport, categorizing citizens as ‘rural’ or ‘urban’, ‘farmer’ or ‘intelligentsia’. Mao was keen on tracking potential dissidents, but moreover preventing mass migration of the peasantry to the industrializing cities. Rural citizens who moved and worked in urban neighborhoods were deemed illegal aliens and denied any welfare privileges associated with citizenship.

A household registration identification card, August 2, 2006. The hukou system is effective in establishing a social apartheid between the 90 million migrants who have proper paperwork, and the 160 million who do not. (Creative Commons/Micah Sittig)

Since the era of Deng Xiaoping, the pace of economic liberalization has been brisk, yet liberalization of labor policy has lagged behind. The Politburo rightly feared that if the poor migrated to the cities in droves, civic institutions would be placed under tremendous financial stress—stress to provide adequate health care, education, water, etc. to an increasingly congested urban environment. Several reforms notwithstanding, (such as allowing inheritance of hukou to pass from father and/or mother, as opposed to solely the father, and temporary urban residency permits for migrants), migration policy is remarkably similar to what it was in 1958. The results are catastrophic for the more than 160 million “floating” workers in the urban areas of China. They live without any civil protection from the state, while employers and the state profit from their “illegal” labor.

Why has the government failed to act on the cries of their main labor force? The answer can be divided into two parts.

The first, and most blunt point, is that the People’s Republic of China is an oppressive state. The government frequently incurs human rights violations, including denying migrants health insurance, jailing dissidents, censoring the Internet, and preventing religious freedom. Although the economy has liberalized significantly, much of China’s rule of law remains backward.

The second reason is that the government still shares Mao’s fears from 1958: the abolishment of the hukou system could lead to mass migration from rural areas and strain on urban areas. The sheer cost of providing social services to an additional 160 million people frightens the government from attempting any serious reform. Urban centers like Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen are already suffering from the side effects of overpopulation. From where would the money and space to educate, treat, and train 160 million people come?

So why doesn’t China’s “floating population” protest and demand an end to internationally recognized human rights abuses? In part, because in many cities, migrants have indeed succeeded in acquiring wage increases and safer working conditions. The government continues to provide sufficient improvements to the workers just to prevent a nationwide revolt (e.g., Chengdu has eliminated urban welfare barriers as of 2012). In addition, the workers are terrified that challenging the state could result in physical or financial harm for them and their loved ones.

In an age where an increasing number of Chinese are connected to social media (and able to bypass government controls), will China experience an “Arab Spring”-esque event? Or will the state continue to restrict the benefits to migrants, leaving INGOs (international non-governmental organizations) to provide essential social services to China’s labor force? Unfortunately for those suffering from this crisis, and the estimated 100 million additional rural-to-urban migrants expected by 2020, there is no clear answer.

Is NATO Still Relevant?

 

For the last two decades, NATO has been conflicted about how and where to act. This identity crisis has led to inter-alliance strife, messy operations, and inaction. Currently, NATO is paralyzed in responding to the Syrian Crisis due to—among other reasons—an uncharacteristic rift between the American and British governments. In light of such shortcomings, along with a perceived United States pivot away from Europe, increased European Union security engagement after the Lisbon Treaty of 2010, and shifting methods of warfare (i.e., drones and computers in place of land forces), pundits and politicians have disputed the continued relevance of NATO.

Yet NATO is unquestionably relevant today. First, NATO provides a forum for world leaders to discuss matters of global defense and security. Second, NATO is currently engaged in operations around the world from anti-piracy missions in the Horn of Africa to nation building in Afghanistan, the alliance is directly connected to today’s issues. Third, NATO actively shapes transatlantic—and consequently global—foreign policy. For instance, Article V of the NATO treaty (‘an attack on one is an attack on all’) serves as a deterrent to those considering harming a member of the alliance. Most recently, the intervention in Libya exemplified how NATO’s military involvement has real ramifications, serving as a partial catalyst for the subsequent full-scale revolution seen in the state.

NATO’s relevance is incontrovertible. However, proving relevance seems unsatisfactory to pundits and politicians. Perhaps, the crux of the dispute is NATO’s continued value.

NATO’s value lies in the absence of an alternative. NATO is the most formidable and sophisticated military organization in the world, thanks in large part, but not exclusively, to the US. As Ambassador Ivo Daalder and former Supreme Allied Commander Europe James Stavridis explained: “Some countries have significant military reach. But when a group of countries wants to launch a joint intervention as a coalition—which confers political legitimacy—only NATO can provide the common command structure and capabilities necessary to plan and execute complex operations.” Moreover, the EU has shown an inability to pool the security and defense resources of its member states. If the alliance were to disband, no member state besides the US would be able to assume full responsibility for their national defense.

The future for NATO will certainly be challenging. NATO faces various threats, from shrinking budgets to intra-alliance friction and changing political environments. Further, the coverage of Article V is unclear. Consider a hypothetical Russian cyber attack on the British banking sector. Would this constitute an act of war? NATO has this and other critical questions to answer. Can and should NATO act without unanimity? Should the Europeans establish military autonomy or continue to rely on the equipment and chaperoning of the US? And most fundamentally, is NATO an alliance that truly wants to act outside of its borders? NATO must answer these questions in order to stay relevant in the 21st century.

To address modern security challenges, NATO must embrace non-military capabilities. As Afghanistan revealed, terrorism cannot be eradicated with missiles. Errant drone strikes only further incentivize people to join terrorist organizations, and brigades of troops cannot dismantle global wireless organizations. Piracy too requires a more comprehensive approach. The best way to fight crises such as terrorism and piracy is to deal with the root causes, such as food insecurity, lack of access to education, and corrupt state leadership. This holistic theory for crisis management is not revolutionary, yet NATO (especially the US) has forgotten that war is a long-term humanitarian and security project. To NATO’s credit, reforms are in place to fuse civilian and military crisis management capabilities. These reforms must continue, as well as continued cooperation with the UN and EU.

A retreat of NATO to its historical role of defending European territory is outdated and ignores the global and diverse nature of 21st century conflict. Non-state global issues such as cyber and energy security, piracy, and climate change require a response for which NATO is uniquely prepared. Armed with demonstrated military capabilities and global transnational partnerships, NATO is already well positioned for carrying out integrated “hard security” and “soft security” operations. If NATO can unite under a new strategic framework, and stand determined to tackle the “hard” and “soft” security challenges presented in today’s environment with more than military force and surveillance, the alliance will remain both relevant and valuable.