Fifty States and Ninety-Five Theses

Many on the American Right often point to the ‘Christian’ roots of American political culture, usually arguing that the present decadent state of American society requires nothing less than a recommitment to the Ten Commandments and a national re-reading of the Holy Bible – interpreted, of course, through the lens of Evangelical Protestantism. A look at the actualities of American ideology reveals that the claim ‘America is a Christian nation’ is not wrong, but rather is correct in ways that would surprise and offend most social conservatives who would make that claim, and their liberal opponents who deny it.

Flag of Jesusland

The Protestant culture subliminally influences American political culture far more than most Americans would readily admit. January 19, 2008 (Oren Neu Dag/Wikimedia Commons)

First off, a look at American political ideology as it informs foreign policy is in order. Beyond the classic calls for liberty, equality, and republicanism (more on those later) three important historical concepts stand out. These are Manifest Destiny, the ‘City on a Hill,’ and American Exceptionalism. In one sense, these three ideas represent three separate iterations of the same idea, balanced for different historical epochs. But in another sense, they are three unique concepts that have combined to formulate America’s instinctual handbook for ordering its relations with the world.

Manifest Destiny, so often taught as little more than white patriotism justifying expansionism, is less about racial superiority (though historically that held significant appeal) and more about the superior ‘civilizing’ morality of the American nation justifying its preeminence among nations and thereby justifying its vigorous expansion. It held American hearts and minds from the turn of the 19th Century to the dawn of the 20th.

Westward

“Westward Ho!” Emanuel Leutze’s painting is one of the most famous depictions of America’s ideal of Manifest Destiny. 1860 (Photograph by Ed Maskens/Wikimedia Commons)

The ‘City on a Hill’ – a term coined by John Winthrop, but native to Colonial American political culture – is the notion that the United States holds the keys to the truth about human political happiness, and need only exist in order to be a model for the world to observe and emulate. During isolationist periods, or contrarily, when America has engaged in global ideological struggles, this has been an appealing mode of thought.

Finally, American Exceptionalism has been something of a synthesis between the previous two ideas. It teaches that, because America is the golden nation depicted by the City on a Hill, it uniquely reserves the right to spread its ideals to the oppressed peoples of the world.

Taken together, these ideas start to resemble the attitudes of crusading nations throughout history. That is because in its insistence on the justness of its own ways of thought, the United States has constructed for itself a civil religion. When looking at various case studies throughout recent American history – from the widely maligned arguments for the democratization of Iraq and Afghanistan, to the humanitarian rationales for intervention in Bosnia and Libya, to federal support for democratic regimes and movements across the Post-Soviet arc – the sheer irrational faith American policymakers have had in the rightness of their own ways is literally almost religious. Belief in the infallibility of democracy and zeal for its global dissemination quite simply depicts one of Christianity’s most important influences on American politics: the missionary tradition. Bear in mind that the United States has always been a majority Protestant nation, and thus Protestantism energizes its worldview.

But the correlation extends into the very substance of American ideals. As James Kurth brilliantly depicts in his article, “The Protestant Deformation,” Americans have shaped their political ideals with their religious ones. The 16th Century Protestant rejections of hierarchy, tradition and preeminent community, replaced with egalitarianism, reason and individualism, define the American creed about as well as any secular understanding. Protestantism, in particular, emphasizes the dignity and equality of all individuals, which are concepts enshrined in the US Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. Oftentimes, these ideas are attributed to Enlightenment ideology and secular rationality. While this is directly the case, it is rarely mentioned that the Enlightenment and the faithful ‘secularism’ it engendered were the intellectual heirs of the Protestant Reformation. Had most early Americans practiced a religion other than Protestantism, it is extremely dubious whether the ideals that took root would ever have been developed, much less embraced, on American soil.

Yet, in the 20th and 21st Centuries, some might argue, the ideology has changed so much that it can hardly be called inspired by Protestantism.

However, I believe it still can. No matter how different one species is from its ancient ancestor, the linkage is still there, and in the case of American ideals the temporal space is really not that wide. The high regard for individual rights and privileges ubiquitous throughout American political rhetoric today – so deep-seated, in fact, that those who speak out against specific individual rights of any kind, be they rights of expression, property, political participation, or cultural issues such as abortion or marriage, are often derided as bigots and, in some extreme cases, even as fascists – is held not only due to a natural love of freedom or power, but also to a religious conviction that individuals are autonomous and should be treated by the state as such.

The implication of this is that those of all political stripes in the United States – if they subscribe to American ideals as justification for their ideologies – are living the classic American civil religion of faith in republican ideals, with a rooting in Protestant Christianity. And more often than not, these ideals translate into foreign policy attitudes and decisions.

It is important to note that every American who subscribes to the general American ideology, therefore, takes part in the Protestant tradition regardless of his or her own faith. I suspect the individuals most likely to object to this characterization are rational atheists who consider themselves secular. For my part, as a (poorly) devout Catholic and a proud American, I was originally somewhat disconcerted to discover the Protestant, and, at times, anti-Catholic roots of the political tradition to which I subscribe. But a realization of the fallibility and historical contingency of American political ideology, as well as of its general benevolence and, indeed, its tolerance and accepting attitude towards those of all religious traditions, have allayed my fears and allowed me to practice my political faith in a more nuanced light. I only hope that other thinkers bothered – or overjoyed, for that matter – at America’s fundamentally Christian nature can allow themselves to be sobered by that acceptance.

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

The Tragedy of Media Sensationalism in America

It has been over two months since Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 lost contact with air traffic control and disappeared, triggering the most expansive search and rescue attempt in history. The hunt for Flight 370 continues to this day with a multinational coalition conducting a targeted underwater search in the Southern Indian Ocean.

The tragedy enshrouding the presumed loss of 227 passengers and 12 crewmembers has elicited extensive media coverage, with CNN providing non-stop coverage for weeks at a time. Typical of American media, the vast majority of this coverage has been rich in speculation and lacking in substance.

India's search areas for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 (2)

India’s search areas for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. March 19, 2014 (Indian Navy/Wikimedia Commons)

News outlets’ traditional responsibility was to report on facts and provide pertinent analysis. This traditional model of reporting, however, has been increasingly threatened by the media’s dependency on advertising revenue. In his book Manufacturing Consent, Noam Chomsky discusses this funding constraint as a serious impediment to unbiased, factual reporting. As a result, news channels – vying for increased viewership and advertisers – are more inclined to cater to sensationalism over substantiated and relevant news stories.

From extensive discussions of the Bermuda triangle and theories of black holes, to calling on psychics as expert contributors, American reporting has deviated from this traditional model of reporting to instead propagate misinformation and speculation. Discussion of conspiracy theories piques human curiosity and galvanizes viewership, but there is no place for such unsubstantiated reporting on stations claiming to provide corroborated news and relevant analysis.

To the chagrin of traditional journalists, such sensationalist reporting has proven highly popular. In the case of CNN, their round-the-clock reporting effectively doubled their prime-time ratings, resulting in their viewership temporarily outpacing Fox News’ audience for a short duration.

Satterfield cartoon on sensationalism and media stereotypes of the Apache

Satterfield cartoon on sensationalism and media stereotypes of the Apache. November 3, 1905 (Bob Satterfield/Wikimedia Commons)

This style of news reporting may satiate American consumers’ demand for overdramatized entertainment, but comes with its share of negative externalities. Over the course of CNN’s coverage of Flight 370, there were scores of more relevant and pressing global and domestic issues warranting coverage that were passed over. From Russia and China’s plans to discuss trading oil in foreign currencies to threaten America’s petrodollars to the geopolitical crisis in Ukraine, there were (and are) numerous news stories of greater consequence that a more informed populous should be aware of.

It is a tragedy in and of itself that America’s major news sources are incentivized to pass over stories of global significance in exchange for outlandish stories that garner viewership and advertising revenue. That American consumers of news are more intrigued by conspiracy theories than by reporting with the potential to impact their lives is a sad truth to confront in a world on the edge of conflict and crisis. The mainstream media’s coverage of this event proves that we have lost more than 239 innocent civilians – we have lost our commitment to responsible reporting as well.

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

A New Grand Strategy for a Changing World

American political thinkers en masse have not engaged in meaningful debates on American grand strategy since George H. W. Bush’s proclamation of the ‘New World Order’ in the early 1990s. There have been sincere yet misinformed attempts to change America’s role, including the globalization prophets of the Clinton years, the Terror Warriors of the Bush years, and the liberal re-setters of the Obama years. However, no major faction of thinkers has articulated a practical and influential foreign policy capable of protecting America and the liberal international order in our changing world.

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The reverse side of The Great Seal of the United States. ‘Novus Ordo Seclorum’ is Latin for ‘New World Order,’ the main theme of George H. W. Bush’s successful foreign policy. This order has been called into question in recent years. September 20, 2009 (U.S. Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons)

Remodeling America’s grand strategy will be difficult. In the near future the necessary lights will return to the foreground and shape the debate towards the best possible ends. At the moment, though, it would be beneficial to examine what coming paradigm shifts may look like to prepare us for the shock.

First, the supposedly transcendent norms of democratization and liberalization that swept the globe and led to a new world order over the last two decades are, in fact, not false illusions, but rather social and political constructions whose dissemination has been made possible only by the geopolitical situation of the Post-Cold War world. American hegemony, an interconnected international economic order focused on the United States, Europe, and China, the political bankruptcy of Communism, and the lack of dominant powers in any of the non-North American regions of the world created an environment wherein general interstate peace, the deepening of trade flows between the world’s major economic hubs, the spread of Western-encouraged democratization and liberalization, and multilateralism as standard diplomacy seemed to be basic forces of history rather than historically-contingent phenomena. The success of internationalism and American ideals blinded American political players to some of the unfortunate realities of international political life.

The global geopolitical situation has certainly changed over the last two decades, particularly with the assertiveness of China and the adventurism of Russia over the last six years. The resurgence of other political and economic centers of power, particularly in Russia, China, and Iran, and to a lesser extent India and Japan, has threatened American hegemony. Economic troubles in the US, Europe, and Japan, coupled with resurgent economic nationalism, have stalled the progress of the global commercial and financial order, proving globalization to be a double-edged sword. The ugly offspring of ‘democracy’ in Egypt, Libya, Myanmar, Pakistan, and other developing nations, as well as the local mutation of American-style liberalism in East Asia, Latin America, and even Western Europe of all places, have threatened formerly ‘universalist’ liberal values. Russia’s forays into Georgia and Crimea, China’s posturing with Vietnam, the Philippines, and Japan, and Iran’s manipulation of the situations in Syria and Iraq have brought the phantasmal ideals of perpetual peace, the triumph of multilateralism, and the end of interstate war to an ironic stalemate.

Moreover, innumerable trends in areas beyond the economy and politics are demanding a fundamental rethinking of how we manage foreign policy. Exponential technological advancement in fields as diverse as information technology, biotechnology, communications, energy, transportation, and manufacturing are restructuring societies, militaries, and economies. The ‘New Medievalism’ – a localization of many political units and the transition of duties formerly embraced by the state to various non-state actors such as corporations, non-governmental organizations, stateless nations, cartels, and insurgent groups – has resulted in a new anarchic political dynamic that cannot be managed by traditional statecraft alone. Environmental change, demographic shifts, and other unpredictable historical forces will continue to shape international and domestic politics in the coming decades.

How can the principles of liberal world order, American pre-eminence, and the balance of power be maintained in a world where increasingly assertive regional powers bolster their presence along their frontiers while developing societies crumble in the face of insurmountable domestic odds?

To start, the United States should determine whether or not maintaining the balance of power in every critical region of the world is feasible. Preventing the Russians from dominating Eastern Europe, the Iranians from intervening in the Greater Middle East, and the Chinese from bullying East Asia has certainly kept America the predominant power in those regions. At the same time, it has cost America blood and treasure, alienated three potential partners, and prevented those states from crafting local political orders that might be far more effective at stymying anarchy than the internationalist pretensions of the Western elite, who are proving to be far too incompetent at handling their own problems to be trusted with the affairs of others.

Balancing the Indians and Pakistanis, the Iranians and Israelis, the Japanese and the Chinese, and the Russians and the Europeans has perpetuated regional rivalries and conflicts and prevented the emergence of other hegemons. These rivalries serve America’s strategic interests in preventing the rise of challengers, but in light of present shifts in the balance of power, it is not clear whether the United States has the resources or will to perpetuate such situations and serve as the global lever. While allowing the emergence of regional hegemons is nowhere near ideal, it may be worthwhile to have go-to strongmen in the world’s critical regions who would be, if not dependable, at least predictable. Such a global concert system, populated by regional leaders as Germany, Russia, China, Iran, Turkey, Japan, and Brazil, and maintained by the United States, would certainly provide a more orderly international system than the vaguely law-based equality of all states existing on paper today.

Geopolitics South Russia

This geopolitical map of the South Russian frontier depicts some of strategic movements the Russians have been making in recent years. March 6, 2014 (Spiridon Ion Cepleanu/Wikimedia Commons)

Now, it may be worthwhile to stymie potential challengers. But if current political, economic, and demographic trends are to be trusted, it appears that this will ultimately be a futile endeavor, as developing nations transition into middle-class economies, their subsequent power may be too much for us to keep in check, and our attempts at policing will certainly invite contempt.

America would benefit from maintaining a liberal world order through control of the seas and dominance in military and economic might wherein fellow developed nations would come to the table, manage their own affairs, solve mutual problems, and generally strive to keep order around the world. American values could be promoted, but it would not be wise to export them and seek to impose them on our fellow states. And if the world trended towards war, it would be far easier to manage such a crisis in a world of developed states with mutual understandings, rather than a polarized world of the decadent West and the resurgent rest.

The international system is presently enmeshed in a period of great stress and tension, and a new method of thinking about politics will have to conquer the decadent contemporary orthodoxy. The statesmen of the future must engage in these discussions and seek dynamic and creative solutions – the fate of our nation demands nothing less.

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

Over the Top: the Emergence of Arctic Ocean Trade

The view of the world from the North Pole is not a common perspective. Most of us may only recognize it from the white-on-blue flag of the United Nations. However, this view of the world may become increasingly common as climate change opens new opportunities for Arctic trade routes. Scientists predict ice-free summers in the Arctic Ocean by the end of the decade and navigable winters by the mid-21st century. Regardless of how one may feel about environmental politics, the question of the polar caps melting is not one of “if” but “when.” The opening of these trade routes is of particular interest to certain actors and nations and has the potential to change the face of global trade.

Polar Routes

The Polar Paths for Shipping (via The Globe and Mail)

A dream of the 17th century explorer Henry Hudson, the fabled Northwest Passage over Canada was first navigated in 1906 by the Norwegian Roald Engelbregt Gravning Amundsen. The other Arctic Sea route, the Northeast Passage over Russia’s northern coast, more commonly called the Northern Sea Route (NSR), is a Russian-legislated shipping lane. The Russian Federation has already started developing infrastructure to service the NSR. Between 2009-2013 maritime traffic has improved from a handful of vessels to several hundred per year. While most are vessels conducting research, several trade voyages have been made. Thus far, Norway and Russia have been the primary navigators. However, in the past few years, Chinese shipping giant COSCO has turned its eyes northward. This past fall, COSCO’s Yong Sheng became the first container-transporting vessel to make a journey from Dailan to Rotterdam via the NSR. Huigen Yang, Director General of the Polar Research Institute of China, announced in 2013 that as much as fifteen percent of China’s maritime trade may travel via the NSR by 2020.

Most data estimates suggest that roughly 90% of mercantile trade is maritime. For China, the potential of Arctic routes could represent savings in the magnitude of hundreds of billions of dollars. According to Qi Shaobin, a professor at Dalian Maritime University: “Once the new passage is opened, it will change the market pattern of the global shipping industry because it will shorten the maritime distance significantly among the Chinese, European and North American markets.” Moreover, China’s traditional route to European ports passes through pirate-infested waters that the Arctic Route would bypass.

There is an undeniable economic advantage to Arctic Trade Routes that connect China to both Europe and the East Coast of the United States. Currently, the typical shipping time from Shanghai to Rotterdam is 25 days, Shanghai to Los Angeles is 13 days, and Los Angeles to New York is seven days by rail. Rotterdam to New York is another nine-day sail. However, a Northern Sea Route to Rotterdam from Shanghai would shorten the journey to 10 days, making a sail from Shanghai to New York via Rotterdam last only 19 days. Without any time lost with stopovers and putting cargo on rails, the current route to New York from Shanghai is twenty days, an Arctic route would be nineteen days at most.

Northern Sea Route vs Southern Sea Route

A visual comparison of the NSR (Blue) to the Suez Route (Red). The Northern Sea Route is 40%, or 12-15 days shorter than the traditional Suez route (Wikimedia Commons)

Commercial traffic over the Arctic would most profoundly affect the maritime route through the Suez Canal. Ports along the Suez route would see reduced cargo traffic from China to Europe. Singapore, one of the busiest ports along the route, has already signaled its awareness of this threat by applying for permanent observer status in the Arctic Council, a regional governance institution. Singapore isn’t the only observer nation that seems out of place in Arctic Council. China, France, Germany, India, South Korea, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, Poland, and the United Kingdom – many of the world’s largest economies – are also permanent observers.

As the Arctic’s pristine environment becomes accessible, commercial shipping is not the only encroaching human activity. Reduced sea ice is making an estimated 30% of the world’s natural gas and 15% of the world’s oil accessible. The combined potentials of Arctic shipping and resource extraction may tilt the scale in favor of developing economic infrastructure over environmental preservation in the Arctic. Professor Lassi Heininen, an expert in Arctic issues at the University of Lapland, describes this problem as a paradox by which less sea ice means better access and thus more human activities, which leads to less ice. Professor Heininen stressed the question: “Are we willing to lose the Arctic’s beauty, or do we try to keep it for our grandchildren?”

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“Are we willing to lose the Arctic’s beauty, or do we try to keep it for our grandchildren?” A baby Polar Bear at Ranua wildlife park in Finland. June 2012 (Photo by the author)

The Arctic region is governed by a combination of international agreements including the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS) and multilateral governance institutions such as the International Maritime Organization (IMO), a UN agency, and The Arctic Council (AC). The AC is comprised of the eight nations that intersect the Arctic Circle: the United States, Canada, Russia, Norway, Finland, Iceland, Sweden, and the Kingdom of Denmark (by virtue of Greenland). In recent years, the AC has passed agreements on search and rescue protocols and the IMO is finalizing a shipping ‘Polar Code‘ that is expected to be codified by 2016.

Infrastructure is still the key obstacle to the expansion of trans-Arctic trade. There are few ports in the Arctic and they are critically underdeveloped. Missing too are extensive maritime charts as well as search and rescue capabilities. While the AC has passed a search and rescue agreement for cooperation between Arctic States, investment in these capabilities remains minimal. Icebreakers are expensive and the largest fleets number in the tens. Additionally, maritime laws and insurance standards in the draft of the IMO’s Polar Code need to be finalized before any substantial shipping would occur.

Thus far, Russia has been the only player to make significant commitments to development by reopening dormant research stations and Arctic ports. Canada has done little aside from accepting a legal framework for multilateral cooperation on paper. Notwithstanding, there has been an increase in maritime activity through Canada’s Arctic waters:

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Recorded Northwest Passage Transits 1903-2013 (via Globe and Mail)

Gustaf Lind, the Swedish ambassador to the AC, accepted the possibility of Arctic Ocean trade. But, he noted: “I don’t think we will see much shipping for quite some time.” Mike Keenan, an economist at the Port of Los Angeles, explained: “You need long stretches that are regularly free of sea-ice and right now you don’t have that.” With regard to how a port can respond to the dramatic effects of climate change, Keenan continued: “there’s a limit to what [the port] can do if you have a serious time advantage…the priority should be to focus on climate change and sea level rise.”

Perhaps it is too early to quantify the effect of Arctic Sea Routes on global shipping trade. Polar Codes and Arctic governance institutions can provide limited solutions to the challenges facing the Arctic, a region on the front line of climate change. What is clear is that climate change will affect more than global weather patterns. It will have an impact on all human activities. Understanding these changes and ensuring that governments address the fundamental problem of a changing environment is ultimately the best way forward.

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

Cold Turkey: The Gradual Freezing of Turkey’s EU Prospects

Protests again Turkey primeminister Ergonan on Trafalgar Square in London, spring 2013 (2)

Solidarity rally in London against Prime Minister Erdogan and in support of the Taksim Gezi Park protests. June 8, 2013 (Chmee2/Wikimedia Commons).

Gaining membership to the European Union (EU) has been a frustrating process for Turkey. The Near East nation began its campaign for EU membership nearly 30 years ago under the EU’s predecessor, the European Economic Community. In 2005, 18 years after beginning the application process, Turkey was finally invited to enter accession negotiations. The protracted delay was a result of unfavorable economic conditions in Turkey as well as Turkey’s tumultuous relationships with EU members Greece and Cyprus. Yet, the question remains: why hasn’t Turkey been granted membership to the EU?

The answers are many and complex. First, geographically, Turkey is located between the East and the West, yet only 3% of Turkish territory actually lies within Europe. The rest of the nation borders hostile neighbors such as Iran, Iraq and Syria. Second, Turkey is culturally aligned more with the East than with the West. The majority of the Turkish population is Muslim, whereas most EU nations are home to a Judeo-Christian cultural tradition. Third, EU leaders are wary that Turkey’s fragile economy could place a heavy financial strain on the EU. In recent months, Turkey’s inflation has reached 7%, the value of the lira is slipping, and foreign investors are fleeing. However, the most glaring explanation for Turkey’s delayed entry seems to be its increasingly autocratic government.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s regime has committed countless human rights violations, and thus jeopardized Turkey’s chances of joining the EU. Last summer, peaceful demonstrators staged a sit-in to show their disgust with the government’s encroachment on civil liberties. The government responded with violence, using water canons and tear gas to forcibly remove the protestors. The police killed four and injured thousands. Since a major criterion for admission to the EU is high human rights standards, the government’s brutality elicited a negative response from EU officials and prompted German leaders to question Turkey’s eligibility. Further, EU leaders voted to delay accession talks that had been months in progress. Presently, corruption is corroding the government and Prime Minister Erdogan’s reputation. Last month, the Turkish government blocked websites such as YouTube and Twitter. Yet, censorship of social media platforms is but a fraction of the abuses in Turkey – a nation where journalists are routinely arrested and incarcerated for criticizing the party.

While the EU is not ready to accept Turkey, the Turkish public is hesitant to join the EU. Recent polls have shown public frustration toward the accession movement. Additionally, Turkey has experienced spurts of economic growth in the last decade thanks to a customs agreement with the EU that has facilitated, among other things, the development of a sophisticated export trade. Turks might feel that the country doesn’t need the EU to be successful. Prime Minister Erdogan and other top Turkish officials have recently expressed disdain toward the EU, with one minister even being quoted as saying: “Turkey doesn’t need the EU, the EU needs Turkey. If we have to, we could tell them ‘Get lost, kid!’” Although Turkey has seen considerable economic growth in recent decades, the economy is still underdeveloped and could benefit greatly from EU accession. However, the rhetoric of Turkish leaders indicates a turn away from Europe. 

It is clear that Turkey’s gradual abandonment of democratic principles is likely to hinder the progress of their EU membership bid. Regardless of posturing by Turkish leaders, the economic benefits of EU membership are undeniable. Yet, it is clear that the Turks have a long way to go before they will be able to join the EU, if ever.

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

Improving Economic Prospects in the Land of Silver

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The Thinker in El Plaza Congreso, adjacent to official government buildings in Buenos Aires, Argentina. December 9, 2010 (David Berkowitz/Wikimedia Commons)

Argentina was a gold mine of economic opportunity in the early 20th century. Blessed with trade surpluses in commodities, an influx of foreign technological innovation and development, and a growth rate of 6% (the fastest in the world at the time), Argentina attracted hundreds of thousands of European immigrants.

With the exception of commodity exportation, Argentina’s recent economic condition has soured. The last half-century has been marked by economic decline, political instability, and diminishing geopolitical influence. Consider that when President Obama visited the Southern Cone in 2011, he flew from Chile to Brazil deliberately passing over Argentina. While significant capital inflows from China largely insulated Argentina from the global economic crisis, economic and political turmoil persist to this day. Inflation estimates are above 30%, its expropriation of Spanish petroleum giant Repsol have made those in the international business community wary of FDI, and its export and import quotas have proven disastrous to farmers, businessmen, and consumers alike.

If President Kirchner’s successor seeks to guide Argentina towards a path of economic and political stability, he/she must assuage concerns of an impending crisis, and work swiftly to ignite a stagnant economy. Reviving the economy will be easier said than done in a country whose Ease of Doing Business ranking is 127 out of 189, trailing, among others, Nigeria and Pakistan. A more challenging hurdle will be reducing Argentinean dependence on natural resource exports. As tempting as it may be to ride the commodity wave to economic solvency, diversification of the nation’s income will prove imperative to Argentina’s future growth and stability. Developments in added-value manufacturing and the service industries will better isolate Argentina’s economy from fluctuations in global commodity prices. Diversification will also require improvements in education and infrastructure, areas in which Argentina is particularly deficient.

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Map of Argentina circa 1929 depicting recent territorial acquisitions (Ufficio cartografico del Touring Club Italiano/Wikimedia Commons)

One thing Argentina is not deficient in is unfounded optimism. An Argentinean economist once lamented that his nation is destined for lackluster development, positing, “Argentina has always been a country with mediocre growth, believing that spectacular growth and riches are right around the corner, and when a good year comes, Argentines say, ‘Ah, here comes the life we’ve been waiting for and so deserve.’” Such misguided expectations must be replaced by shrewdness and sacrifice. Recovering from the current economic turmoil and moving towards a trajectory of sustainable growth will require drastic fiscal and monetary reforms.

Attempts to curtail government spending will likely aggravate an already sluggish growth rate, particularly after several years of costly welfare programs and President Kirchner’s wasteful spending. Also unpopular will be the inevitable currency devaluation once Argentina’s currency exchange is liberalized. Such unpopular policies have been postponed for far too long. Argentina must follow in Chile’s footsteps by increasing economic competitiveness in the global arena. For a country blessed with bountiful resources, its political malfeasance and bureaucracy remains the only thing slowing down what would otherwise be impressive growth. By fostering more competitive industries and implementing basic economic reforms, Argentina may become the gold mine it once was.

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

Dictators and Daughters: The Succession Crisis in Central Asia

Guest Contributor: James V. Mersol

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President Putin of Russia and President Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan at the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) meeting in the Kremlin, Moscow. December 19, 2012 (Kremlin.ru/Wikimedia Commons)

Uzbek President Islam Karimov and his Kazakh counterpart Nursultan Nazarbayev are arguably the two most successful dictators of the 21st century. Consider that both leaders have weathered the collapse of the Soviet Union and the democratizing ripples of the Arab Spring. Although there have been numerous calls from Western countries for these leaders to embrace democracy – or at the very least, improve their shoddy human rights records – Russia and China continue to provide Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan with political and financial support. Despite occasional brutal crackdowns on protestors, neither dictatorship has become an international pariah on the scale of, say, North Korea or the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Presidents Karimov and Nazarbayev may have insulated themselves against almost every threat to their governments, but there is one factor that they would be remiss to ignore: time. Karimov and Nazarbayev are 76 and 73 years old respectively. After a rumor surfaced last year that President Karimov suffered a heart attack, observers in the region have begun to wonder who will succeed these seemingly invincible dictators, and, more importantly, if they will be able to preserve authoritarianism.

Nazarbayev seems content to pass on his title of “President for life” to his daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva. Nazarbayeva is currently the head of the Asar party, the only opposition to her father’s Nur Otan party. However, Asar is not a true opposition party since it is actually funded by the government to give the illusion of choice. Her current position indicates that she is being trained for political leadership. But if she does become the president of Kazakhstan, then the nature of the transition and the government’s reaction to an “opposition” leader assuming power is unclear.

Islam Karimov (2009)

President Karimov of Uzbekistan during a visit to Brazil. May 28, 2009 (José Cruz/ABr/Wikimedia Commons)

In contrast, Uzbekistan’s succession is ambiguous. At the time of Karimov’s heart attack, most believed he was grooming his eldest daughter, Gulnara Karimova, as his successor. Karimova, a self-styled pop star who goes by the title “Googoosha,” was never a sensible choice to lead Uzbekistan. In the year since her father’s heart attack, she has fallen from grace. Most Uzbeks respect President Karimov, but dislike “Googoosha’s” hubris and lavish lifestyle. In response, President Karimov has shut down her companies and removed her from the public eye. Her Twitter account has laid dormant since last November when she posted statements that criticized her father’s government. President Karimov has now gone so far as to imprison some of her closest associates, and Karimova herself is reportedly under house arrest. Even if she is still free, her wealth is gone along with any political aspirations. Yet, if not his daughter, it is unclear whom Karimov will approve for succession.

Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan may want to look to their southern neighbor, Turkmenistan, for an example of a smooth succession. In 2006, the Turkmen dictator Saparmurat Niyazov died of a sudden heart attack, igniting similar speculation about who would be the next Turkmen leader. Turkmenistan was an especially complex case, as Niyazov had spent the previous 15 years building a formidable cult of personality. During his reign, he renamed himself “Turkmenbashi” (father of all Turkmen), wrote his own holy book to be taught in schools and professional academies, and created a self-themed amusement park. Shortly after his death, Gurbanguly Berdimukhamedov, the Minister of Health, emerged as the new president of Turkmenistan. In the eight years since Niyazov’s death, Berdimukhamedov has continued Turkmenistan’s stable authoritarianism. Although Berdymukhamedov has dismantled some of Niyazov’s more ostentatious symbolism – such as re-branding the amusement park after Turkmen traditions and folklore and shifting several important political offices to citizens from his native region of Western Ahal – he has worked with Niyazov’s inner circle to maintain his predecessor’s policies [1].

Since Karimov has evidently ruled out backing his daughter, he should follow Turkmenistan’s example and look to his closest political allies for a potential successor. If he chooses this option, it will almost certainly take place behind closed doors, and no one outside of that inner circle will know the successor’s identity until Karimov’s death. That successor will likely downplay Karimov’s legacy to cement his or her political rule, but in doing so, he or she will ensure that Uzbekistan remains stable for many years to come. When the alternative in Central Asia has historically been political turmoil and armed conflict, the desire for a smooth transition is all the more strong.

James V. Mersol is a senior at Davidson College majoring in political science.

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

[1] Horak, Slavomir. “Changes in the Political Elite in Post-Soviet Turkmenistan.” China and Eurasia Forum Quarterly, Vol.8, No. 3. p. 27-46.

The Italian Job: Operation GLADIO

In the final years of World War Two, Partigiani – the Italian resistance fighters who were largely left leaning, openly socialist, or communist – liberated Northern Italy. This struggle, known as the Italian Civil War (8 September 1943 – 25 April 1945), ensured that the once vilified Marxist political ideologies would become central to post-war republican Italy.

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An Italian partisan in Florence three days after the Liberation of Florence orchestrated by the Italian Resistance, 14 August 1944. (Captain Tanner, British War Office official photographer/Wikimedia Commons)

In the context of the Cold War and the Truman Doctrine, the popularity of communism and socialism in Italy represented an expansion of Soviet influence, and thus an existential threat to the United States. One of the first covert actions approved by President Harry Truman was ordered out of fear of a communist victory in the April 1948 Italian elections. In addition to overt diplomatic support for Italy’s government, the National Security Council recommended that a covert program be implemented to “actively combat Communist propaganda in Italy by an effective U.S. information program and by all other practicable means, including the use of unvouchered funds” (NSC 1/1). This covert action was the precursor to NATO’s formal clandestine operation in Italy known as Operation GLADIO (1948-1990).

Operation GLADIO included a combination of propaganda, political action, and paramilitary action. Starting with the 1948 general elections, the CIA funneled money to political parties that opposed the Italian Communist Party (PCI) and Italian Socialist Party (PSI) in every election for 24 years. This aid was largely to help cover the costs of campaigning, posters, and pamphlets. The CIA also forged letters discrediting party leaders on the left. The paramilitary aspect of Operation GLADIO was to train anti-communist clandestine networks, which often recruited former fascist hardliners. The most direct political action took place in 1964 when Operation GLADIO supported a silent coup in which the socialist ministers were forced out of government.

Operation GLADIO is inextricably tied to Italy’s “Years of Lead” (1960s-1980s), the period of Italian history in which extremist groups on the left and right committed domestic terrorism and targeted killings. Among these were the neo-fascist groups Ordine Nuovo and Rosa dei Venti, which carried out multiple bombings. Both of these groups allegedly had GLADIO-trained operatives among them carrying out bombing operations. GLADIO-trained operatives have also allegedly carried out “false flag” operations. Consider the case of the 1972 Paetano terrorist attack. The communist group Red Brigades was originally blamed until, in 1984, Vincenzo Vinciguerra – a fascist terrorist who claimed to have been supported by the GLADIO network – confessed. It is suspected that the Red Brigades’ assassination of Christian Democrat Prime Minister Aldo Moro in 1978 was also a “false flag” – the evidence being an alleged threat to Moro from Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and the involvement of the Banda della Magliana, an Italian criminal organization tied to GLADIO and the 1980 Bologna Massacre.

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The ruins of the Central Railway Station of Bologna after the Bologna Massacre, 2 August 1980 (Beppe Briguglio, Patrizia Pulga, Medardo Pedrini, Marco Vaccari/Wikimedia Commons)

Ultimately GLADIO was successful in ensuring that a socialist or communist government never held power in Italy until 1996. The strategy of tension employed by GLADIO’s intervention was effective in allowing the US to influence Italian politics by creating instability through polarization. However, the operation caused the deaths of many innocent Italians and arguably denied the country its right to national self-determination. Additionally, Italy’s politics remain highly unstable and volatile to this day. In terms of upholding the principles on which the United States was founded and preserving the long-term stability of a democratic Italy, this operation was a failure.

Il 25 aprile a Milano

Italian Liberation Day Celebration in Milan 25 April 2007 (Paolo Bellesia/Wikimedia Commons)

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

Venetian Independence Explained

Guest Contributor: Yuri Serafini

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The Winged Lion of St. Mark watches over all cities once ruled by the Republic of Venice. (Wikimedia Commons/Nino Barbieri)

In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Crimea, a frenzy over secessions has swept the media. Journalists have turned their attention to, among other regions, northeast Italy where a farcical event is taking place: the supposed Venetian secession. Unfortunately, media coverage in Italy – where the event is polarizing – and abroad has been both inaccurate and incomplete.

Recently, the xenophobic Lega Nord Party held an informal online poll on the independence of the Venetia Region of Italy. The results were trumpeted as a landslide “referendum” proclaiming the local population’s desire for independence. The question of Venetian autonomy has returned attention to the prevailing cultural and economic divisions between northern and southern Italy. These divisions are most pronounced in the northeast, where the economic landscape is characterized by small family-run enterprises. Furthermore, Venice boasts a millennial history as an independent republic that, at its height, controlled all of northern Italy east of Milan, the Dalmatian coast, and the Islands of Crete and Cyprus. Until the Great Recession, Venice and its surrounding area was one of the wealthiest regions in Italy. The city of Treviso still holds the highest rate of millionaires per capita in Italy.

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The sun sets behind an oil refinery in the Venetian lagoon. (Wikimedia Commons/Jorge Royan)

While large industrial groups based in Turin, Genoa, and Milan were historically built with unskilled labor imported from south of Italy, the family-run businesses of the northeast only began hiring unskilled labor recently, most of it coming from the Balkans. Further, those in the northeast are aggravated that the inefficient and self-serving political class in Rome is squandering their hard-earned taxes. As a result, northeastern Italians accept a united Europe, but not necessarily a united Italy.

The accusation of political irresponsibility is understandable, and in many respects, true. These beliefs have made Venetia, along with the neighboring regions of Lombardy and Friuli-Venezia Giulia, a stronghold of the Lega Nord. Since 1991, when the Lega Nord was formed as a union of several regional independence movements, it has been a small but significant player in national politics. Its parliamentary presence – though minimal – was instrumental in the survival of Silvio Berlusconi’s center-right coalitions despite poor election results.

Although allies on paper, Berlusconi never conceded to the Lega Nord’s requests for greater autonomy in the north. Even after the Lega Nord toned down its rhetoric, its proposal for “fiscal federalism” (i.e., granting regional governments the power to keep a greater portion of their tax revenues) did not pass parliament.

How did Berlusconi keep the support of the Lega Nord for close to 20 years without caving in to its legislative demands? The answer is simple: bribery. Berlusconi encouraged the Lega Nord to misallocate campaign funding, which in Italy is provided entirely by the state. Party leaders made several investments ranging from the stupid to the absurd, including the purchase of real estate, investments in a hedge fund in Tanzania, and a safe full of diamonds.

After years of denying that the global recession affected Italy, Berlucsoni conceded to domestic pressure and resigned from office in 2011. After consultation with parliamentary leaders, the President of the Republic, Giorgio Napolitano, summoned Mario Monti, a well-regarded university professor and one-time president of the European Council, to serve as prime minister of a “technocratic” government. Technocratic regimes are a bizarre occurrence in Italian politics, whereby in times of crisis, parliament summons various apolitical experts to run the country until the next election.

During Monti’s tenure, the parliament passed several austerity measures to save the country’s finances, including cutting social services and increasing taxes. However, they refused to curb the wasteful spending that had doomed Italy in the first place. Over the next two years, every political party took the opportunity to bash Mario Monti over the consequences of his failed policy. Additionally, legislation proposed by Monti to stimulate the economy at the cost of politically influential special-interest groups was continuously shot down in both chambers of parliament. In all this, the Lega Nord made the unwise move of vocally criticizing Berlusconi as his party voted in favor of the austerity measures.

Berlusconi’s reaction to the Lega Nord’s dissent was swift and merciless. He exposed the Lega Nord’s financial irregularities just as an exhausted and peeved Monti called for elections. Berlusconi’s media holdings were particularly thorough in their coverage of the scandal around election time. Umberto Bossi, the Lega Nord’s historic leader, was finally forced from power just before the elections. Additionally, key members of the party withdrew from national elections to stand locally, as key cities such as Treviso, Turin, and Milan fell into the hands of the center-left, along with the regional council of the Friuli region, northeast of Venetia. In the primary elections held a few months ago, Matteo Salvini, a young member of the European Parliament and an outspoken member of the party’s socialist fringe, was elected to the Lega Nord’s leadership.

However, if the upcoming European elections mirror recent national ones, Salvini might find himself out of elected office. The aforementioned online “referendum” has given him ammunition for national television. Unsurprisingly, the rally celebrating the success of the “referendum” was held in the recently lost city of Treviso, previously a stronghold of the Lega Nord run by party stalwart Giancarlo Gentilini for 12 years. Gentilini removed the benches from Treviso’s railway station when he wasn’t allowed to segregate them, and proposed dressing up all immigrants as rabbits to use them for target practice in preparation for the local hunting season. Gentilini, and now Salvini, are representative of a large component of the Lega Nord’s electoral base. Although this contingent has always been vocal during party rallies, it had never held elected office beyond the provincial level until now.

This has since changed. Salvini is a homophobe and racist who has advocated racial segregation, is openly demeaning towards southerners, and has criticized the archbishop of Milan for giving charity to gypsies. His success in any endeavor should be a cause for worry. The “referendum” is Salvini’s message to his radical base that he is one of them, as Umberto Bossi was one of them. And, as Umberto Bossi toned down and eventually abandoned his rhetoric, so will Salvini once he gets a taste of real power. If he has not already planned to do so, he will compromise with the center-right – his natural allies – whose political elites hail from the south, and require northern tax money to finance its corruption. After the next election, Venetian Independence will surely be off the table.

Yuri Serafini is a guest contributor from Milan, Italy. He currently studies Economics and Finance at Bocconi University.

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

The “Crocodile in the Yangtze”

Alibaba group Headquarters

Alibaba Group Headquarters in Yu Hang District, China. April 14, 2012. Thomas Lombard (Wikimedia Commons)

China’s largest e-commerce company, Alibaba, is set to make history in the coming months. Founded in 1999, Alibaba has the potential to set the largest initial public offering (IPO) in the US for a Chinese company and even exceed Facebook’s initial valuation in 2012.

While Alibaba has declined to comment on why it moved its IPO from Hong Kong to New York City, its decision is largely based on a disagreement between company executives and the Hong Kong Securities and Futures Commission. Unlike Hong Kong’s stock exchanges, the NYSE and the NASDAQ do not maintain a one-share per one-vote standard, allowing Alibaba’s key partners to maintain control over its board of directors.

Holding its IPO in the United States could also facilitate future acquisitions of American companies. Its recent investments in the Silicon Valley start-ups Tango and AutoNavi indicate that Alibaba is seeking market expansion at the international level. More than just a middleman between sellers and buyers, Alibaba allows its customers to pay bills, buy insurance, and even take out loans. Its wide range of services and competitive pricing structure are enticing to both consumers and venders. Moreover, Alibaba’s capital is substantial. In the past fiscal year, its estimated sales exceed $420 billion, which dwarfs the combined revenue of Amazon and eBay. Further, it boasts 300 million customers across China – a number that will surely grow in accordance with increased Internet penetration.

Flickr - World Economic Forum - Jack Ma Yun - Annual Meeting of the New Champions Tianjin 2008 (1)

Jack Ma Yun, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Alibaba Group, speaks during The Future of the Global Economy: The View from China plenary session at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting of the New Champions in Tianjin. China 28 September 2008. Copyright World Economic Forum (www.weforum.org)/Photo by Natalie Behring (Wikimedia Commons)

The big question that remains is whether Alibaba is capable of competing with established Western brands in the global e-commerce marketplace. Jack Ma, Alibaba’s founder and former CEO, responded to doubts of Alibaba’s competitiveness: “Ebay is a shark in the ocean. We are a crocodile in the Yangtze River. If we fight in the ocean, we will lose. But if we fight in the river, we will win.” Ma’s tempered confidence is justified. Although Alibaba has enjoyed tremendous success in the People’s Republic of China, it may not enjoy viability in the global marketplace. Alibaba’s prospects of successful market penetration are poor, particularly in the United States where the market is already saturated with established firms, such as Amazon and Zappos. Alibaba’s micro-lending, insurance market, and investment services, however, could prove highly successful in several Latin American and African economies where such service industries are severely underdeveloped.

Yet, Alibaba’s main obstacle to success may be the Chinese Communist Party. Consider yuebao, Alibaba’s financial investment service that provides a 5% return on risk-free investments. Yuebao offers a fantastic yield in China where millions of laymen deposit their hard-earned yuan into bank accounts only to see its real value depreciate from an inflationary tax. As Yuebao continues to threaten Chinese banks’ monopoly on savings, its days may be numbered before the Communist Party intervenes. Only time will tell if Alibaba can fend for itself in the vast ocean of e-commerce. Continued expansion within China and throughout the developed and developing world may prove impossible. One thing is for certain: Alibaba’s biggest threat to global development no longer lies in America, but in Beijing’s Politburo.

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