World Cup Ratings a Sign of Patriotism, Not Soccer’s Rising Star

Team USA Fans Show Their Spirit

American fans before the US-Algeria match in the 2010 World Cup. June 23rd, 2010 (U.S. Department of State/Wikimedia Commons)

Every four years during the World Cup, the US press fixates collectively on the “will it/won’t it” question of soccer’s future. Each World Cup seems to bring higher TV ratings and more water cooler conversations than the last. Soccer optimists, imbued with fresh hope by scenes of fervent US supporters with painted faces and patriotic apparel, proclaim that soccer is here to stay in America.

Now that the US out of the 2014 World Cup after a 2-1 loss to Belgium, will this year be any different? Have the past few weeks been a sign that soccer will someday find a home as a mainstay of US sports, or are they just part of the same ebb-and-flow pattern that we see every four years?

First, a by-the-numbers look at this year’s World Cup viewership in the US.  According to Variety, the US-Portugal game drew 18.20 million viewers on ESPN; the US-Belgium game drew 16.49 million. Those two games were the two most watched US World Cup telecasts in American history. Through the Round of 16, ESPN and ABC averaged 4.08 million viewers – a record audience for the World Cup, up 44% from 2010 and 122% from 2006. According to the New York Post, WatchESPN (ESPN’s online viewing service) attracted an average audience of 1.1 million viewers per minute during this World Cup.

These numbers are to be expected. Aside from reasons related to the sport itself, this year’s record numbers likely have several major contributing factors.  According to the World Bank, the number of internet users in the US grew by 10.1 million from 2012 to 2013. According to comScore, the number of smartphone users in the US grew 7% from October 2013 to January 2014. Twitter’s userbase alone grew from 183 million at the end of 2013 to an estimated 227 million at the end of 2014 (estimated by CNET). The World Bank pegs the annual growth rate of the US population at 0.74% per year.

These greater numbers of internet users, smartphone users, and social media users mean that more people will hear about the World Cup and share news with their friends by roughly an order of magnitude more than they did during the previous World Cup. I am not making any statistical conclusions here, but I do think it’s fair to say that articles and opinions proclaiming soccer’s inevitable destiny as a major US sport need to be taken with a grain of salt if they tout World Cup viewing statistics as conclusive evidence.

Furthermore, the World Cup takes place during a dry period for other US sports. The NFL is at its least interesting (long past the conclusion of the postseason and about a month past the draft), the NBA has also put its postseason and draft in the rearview mirror, the drama of the NHL Stanley Cup has ended, and the Olympics is long over. The only major competing sport is MLB baseball, which is in the midst of its regular season. Additionally, summer brings a dearth of active TV shows, meaning that Americans have even less to watch.

What about factors related to soccer itself? Are Americans growing more accepting of a sport fundamentally different from the ones it already treasures? This question is tough to answer. Other than a few minor rule changes, soccer is the same as it was four years ago. All of the reasons provided by soccer critics as to why the sport will not catch on in the US (infrequent scoring, too many fake injuries, overly subjective officiating, and lack of sudden death overtime) are just as valid or invalid as they were four years ago. Shifting American sentiment toward soccer would be a result of externalities, and that discussion is best left for another time.

Perhaps one reason is a lack of initiative by the MLS. Recent years have seen the league take an aggressive approach to bolstering soccer’s popularity. According to The Economist, although average MLS attendance per game is down from 2013, it surpassed both the NBA and NHL with 18,600 spectators per match (although both of those leagues play considerably more games per season, making each game less appealing as an excursion). According to Forbes, the average MLS franchise is now worth $103 million, up more than 175% over the past five years. The league had 13 clubs in 2007 and will have 21 by next year. This year’s US World Cup team had ten players from the MLS compared to just four in 2010. Finally, the MLS signed a new eight-year deal worth an estimated $90 million per season that will result in more of its games being broadcast on more TV channels.

My theory is that Americans simply enjoy coming together to celebrate our national pride. Other than the Olympics, no major sporting events have the ability to unite entire countries in support of the same team. Take the support of the Iranian national team this year as an example. Following the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the Iranian government banned women from entering most sporting events because they deemed the enjoyment of sports by mixed crowds un-Islamic. This year, according to CNN, Tehran’s billboards advertising the World Cup featured only men, and state TV stations used a delay of several seconds to censor images of racy female fans so that viewers at home wouldn’t learn to accept mixed crowds. Nonetheless, some restaurants in Iran defied a national ban on broadcasting the World Cup this year, and men and women enjoyed the games together in public. Does this increased support from the female population indicate that soccer is growing in popularity in Iran? No – it shows that the Iranian people, this year more than ever, are eager to show their nationalism and support gender equality as a reaction to recent actions by the government.

Along the same lines, an ineffective Congress, an inconsistent Supreme Court, and an unpopular president have given US fans an increased longing to show their nationalism in 2014. Most notably, a volatile balance of power on the world stage has left Americans in uncertain territory. Both Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and ISIS’s first steps toward forging an Islamic state in the Middle East this year have spurred a growing national desire to display a uniquely American style of patriotism. Especially in the context of the World Cup, with competition unfolding at an international scale, patriotism is linked more to foreign policy than it is to domestic issues.

Perhaps the recent changes rolled out by the MLS are making a greater immediate impact on soccer than I’m giving them credit for, but I believe that the outpouring of US support for the Men’s National Team this year was more a result of our desire to be patriotic than it was a precursor to soccer’s rise to American prominence. Now more than ever, Americans are eager to come together and celebrate their national pride.

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the Glimpse from the Globe staff, editors, or governors.

Checklist: Has President Rouhani Lived Up to his Promises?

Hassan Rouhani

Elected in June, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani formally assumed office in August. He has since made remarkable advances, including a push to ease nuclear tensions with the West in order to rid the economy of encumbering sanctions. (photo via Wikimedia Commons)

In early June, newly-elected Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, a moderate in comparison to his hard-line predecessor Mouhmad Ahmadinejad,emerged as a symbol of hope for a citizenry burdened by a catastrophic financial crisis brought on by Western sanctions. Prior to beginning his term, Rouhani vowed to direct governmental efforts towards mending Iran’s shattered relations with the West, reviving the Iranian economy, and articulating a desire to restore basic human rights within the country.

While the new leader was warmly met by the eager masses ready to move past the repressive Ahmadinejad era, there was no telling whether his words would bear fruit. Rouhani’s potential to affect such change was eclipsed by a shadow of doubt stemming from the supposition that he would serve as merely yet another slave to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and his Islamic regime. So has Iran’s “angel” Rouhani upheld his rhetoric presented during his campaign since entering office? Now, more than 6 months into his presidency, the gulf between his words and actions can be qualitatively tracked.

Appeasing the Hardliners

How has Rouhani performed thus far in winning the favor of governmental hardliners while working towards his progressive reform plans? At the start of his presidency, Rouhani took initiative to begin thawing strained US-Iran relations with a visit to the United Nations. You may recall his fifteen-minute phone call with President Obama during the trip, a call that garnered both support and criticism. Regardless of the critics, this phone call was a huge first step in the right direction towards reconciling US-Iran relations considering that the two states have not shared this level of contact since the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Furthermore, Khamenei approved of Rouhani’s October trip to the United States. Although unable to appease hard-liners on the issue as they derided his approach, as long as the President is able to maintain the Supreme Leader’s support, he will be able to ward off hard-liner criticisms in his advances towards a relaxed relationship with the West.

Catering to Reformists

During his reign thus far, Rouhani has been performing a careful balancing act; he has struck a careful balance between the hardline and reformist camps while avoiding alienating Khamenei and other key government players. The new President has successfully garnered and maintained support from notable predecessors, including popular former reformist President Mohammad Khatami and former President Akbar Rafsanjani, one of the pillars of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, who remarked that “Rouhani’s success in New York is the mark of the divine victory.” Although not to the degree which former president Khatami was able to mobilize the “Iranian street,” Rouhani seems to have been met with considerable success in galvanizing the reformist camp, namely the youth who have warmly accepted his overtures to reduce Internet censorship.

Ending Sanctions

Perhaps his most significant achievement thus far has been unveiled at the negotiation table with Western powers. Back in November, Rouhani was able to successfully reach a temporary deal with the United States while entering into a year-long negotiation period to construct a permanent deal to ease sanctions. The $7-billion USD received by Iran in sanctions relief created room for a rise in the Iranian Rial and a minor stabilization of the national economy. Both the initial agreement and the overtures by both parties have been called nothing short of “historic” in the media.

Economic Viability

As mentioned, some of the easing of sanctions has seen a rise in the purchasing power of the Rial thereby providing Iranian citizens with some relief. Analyst groups claim that “last year, with economic pressure at its peak, Iran suffered from severe hyperinflation, and the Rial became the least valued currency in the world. This is no longer the case, as the Rial has gained significant value in 2013’. However, further economic steps must be made; the nuclear deal with the West has yet to come into full form, and whether Obama will be able to convince Congress to further repeal sanctions will prove to be a major determinant of whether Rouhani’s reform efforts retain momentum.

Relations With Israel

Thanks to his reputation as the new face of Iran, Rouhani has garnered a considerable amount of positive press and, for the most part, positive attention from the West – which has acted as a negative force against Israel. Within a month of Rouhani’s holding office, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dubbed him a “wolf in sheep’s clothing,” immediately dismissing him as nothing more than another mere slave to the Islamic regime. However, it seems that Israel emerged as the real loser in this love triangle between the United States, Iran and itself, failing to turn the West against its enemy as it had hoped. Within weeks after the Prime Minister’s fiery comment, Iran successfully brokered the temporary deal with the United States. Since then, public Israeli threats and comments against the country have subsided as the country now seems more preoccupied with the Palestinian question than the Iranian-nuclear issue at the moment.­­­

Human Rights

The human rights issue is arguably the weakest front of Rouhani’s presidency thus far. The leader’s promises on this subject seem to be little more than empty rhetoric, as notable action has yet to be taken to restore basic human rights and create equality among members of the citizenry. Premature optimism for Rouhani to improve civil rights issues has all but withered as the only observable change has been a steep rise in executions since he took office.

Another warning sign in his term stems from the detainment of prisoners within the country. The government’s minor gesture of releasing a few political prisoners in December did little to placate the mounting concerns of relatives and families of those still imprisoned, including activists of the “Iranian Street.” Additionally, despite early promises to address the house arrests of Green Revolution leaders Kharibi and Mousavi’s house arrests, not even a mention of the issue has been made. The president has remained silent even amidst mounting claims from close family and friends that their health is deteriorating significantly as a result of being confined within their households for several years now.

Whether Rouhani’s strategy to maintain popular support follows that of his predecessor Khatami’s path remains to be seen. In the middle of Khatami’s second term, his base fell apart due to youth and women disenfranchisement. Rouhani’s track record on human rights and freedoms may very well be what determines his support from his base.

Implications for U.S.-Iran Relations

Despite his shortcomings on the human rights dilemma, Rouhani’s successes have provided the Iranian regime with some degree of legitimacy it had been lacking for years, both in the eyes of the international community and the Iranian electorate. The real question for the Obama administration, however, is whether the Rouhani government’s newfound political capital and prestige is enough to placate conservative Hawks in Congress on both sides of the aisle who have been itching to introduce further sanctions. Any new congressional sanctions against Iran would not only spell the end of the current deal but would most likely set back nuclear negotiations by a number of years. Yet Rouhani, a veteran statesman and diplomat, is keenly aware that the halls of Congress are just as significant an arena for statecraft and diplomacy as the negotiating table. Rouhani’s foreign minister Javad Zarif has recently made a concerted effort to promote lobbying of their position to Congress via the small-but-growing Iranian-American lobby already present in the country.We will know soon enough how far Rouhani is willing to go to make good on his campaign promises in seeking to uplift the Iranian state.

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

Stepping out of Russia’s Shadow? Ukraine’s Next Moves.

A protester at Euromaidan. (Ivan Bandura via flickr)

This past week, Ukraine experienced the worst period of violence in its post-Soviet history and a stunning political development as President Yanukovych was forced out of power by the Ukrainian parliament. The cost of this political victory for the opposition has been great; aggressive clashes between government security forces and protesters resulted in at least 77 deaths and 577 injuries. Although a potential breakthrough peace deal emerged Friday calling for early elections this December, a lessening of the powers of President Yanukovych, and the establishment of a “national unity government,” the Ukrainian parliament voted Saturday to remove President Yanukovych from office and to hold elections on May 25th in a stunning rebuke of his regime. This political whirlwind places Ukraine in a vulnerable position. Although the opposition movement achieved a great victory in eliminating Yanukovych from power, its efforts may prove futile if a fair political transition is not undertaken in the coming months, especially if Russia continues to bully Ukraine into submission. If Ukraine is to move towards a freer and more just society, then the West must work with Ukraine to ensure fair and free elections while offering strong guidance and support during the upcoming political transition.

The unprecedented violence in Ukraine was appalling and indicative of a deteriorating security situation on the ground, suggesting significant gains in the opposition movement and feelings of insecurity on part of the Yanukovych regime. To combat demonstrators, Ukrainian security forces were issued combat-grade weapons and fired upon protesters . Opposition members attacked security forces with Molotov cocktails and possibly firearms . Although both sides have committed acts of violence, there should be no doubt that the preponderance of force came from government-sponsored security forces; reports indicate that government-sponsored snipers killed at least 20 protesters this past week. This suppression is unacceptable and revealed the true authoritarian nature of the Yanukovych government. Although the main perpetrator of the violence has been effectively removed from power, the West must continue to isolate those responsible and should take an active role in shaping the next phase of the political transition.

Even though the U.S. and EU are becoming more active in Ukraine’s political crisis, the most influential external actor in Ukraine is undoubtedly Russia. President Putin and his allies are taking bold steps to keep their Ukrainian puppets in power thereby preserving the status quo. Indeed, Russia’s provocative moves instigated the political unrest when it bullied Ukraine into rejecting a trade deal with the EU in favor of $15 billion dollars in aid and a tantalizing 33 percent discount on Russian natural gas. Naturally, Russia has many reasons to prevent Ukraine from developing relations with the EU. In his quest to restore the idea of a “Great Russia” and a sphere of influence similar to the former Soviet Bloc, Putin knows that Ukraine is the most important country in pursuit of this goal.

Historically, Ukraine has been known as “Small Russia.” The concept of a “Modern Russia” is said to have started in Ukraine, and Ukraine is seen as the birthplace of the region’s Orthodox Christianity. Linguistically, the two countries are also very similar as many Ukrainians speak both Ukrainian and Russian. The economic ties between Ukraine and Russia are also vital in gauging Russia’s interest. If Ukraine does not join Russia’s Eurasian customs union (which recently recruited Armenia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan), then the whole concept could disintegrate. Russian companies have a large investment presence in Ukraine accounting for about 7 percent of Ukraine’s total foreign investment in 2013. In addition, many Ukrainians have migrated to Russia providing a substantial labor force for Russian companies. Ukraine also has geostrategic importance for Russia hosting Russia’s Black Sea Fleet naval headquarters. If the naval base’s lease were threatened by a more independent Ukraine, Russia would suffer a significant loss in a critical region. Clearly, Russia has a substantial interest in keeping a pro-Kremlin government in Kiev. Although Russia has indicated perhaps a softer stance by sending in a more reasonable diplomat to conduct negotiations during this tipping point, this gesture should not be considered a serious change of intention or attitude. Russia knows that losing Ukraine to the West will be a momentous blow to its aspirations of restoring the idea of a “Great Russia.”

When evaluating the West’s efforts to support the Ukrainian opposition and influence the Ukrainian regime, it is important to understand that the U.S. and its Western allies are at an inherent disadvantage. Unlike the Russian state which has few reservations in actively supporting authoritarian regimes that suppress their own people, such as the Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria, the West generally does not support corrupt autocrats in such a brash manner. It also is difficult to provide assistance to an opposition that is not well defined. Nevertheless, the EU’s decision to place individual sanctions on Ukrainian officials , and the U.S.’s move to revoke 20 Ukrainian visas were positive efforts to punish President Yanukovych’s regime. These individuals must be held responsible for their actions, especially if they continue to receive guidance from Russia urging the state to resist tectonic reforms in the coming months. However, more must be done beyond sanctions to ensure a meaningful political transition and reform process.

More often than not, the West views elections as the end game of democratic reform, even when the elections in question are severely flawed. The West must actively monitor and offer guidance to the Ukrainian political transition team via diplomatic channels and civil society groups to ensure free and fair elections. Yanukovych and/or his allies may attempt to retain power in the upcoming months resulting in a Russian-backed political machine winning the elections. According to international observers, Ukraine’s 2012 election cycle was plagued with fraud, so it is likely that history could repeat itself if the election process is not regulated and monitored. Western countries should also keep an eye on rising leaders within the opposition movement that could be potential puppets for President Putin. Wealthy oligarchs such as Henadiy Boholyubov and Ihor Kolomoyskyy, who both have billion dollar plus holdings in the financial, media, and energy industries, have recently switched allegiances to the opposition movement even though they have traditionally supported the Yanukovych regime. These powerful actors could potentially hijack the opposition movement and resist any meaningful change that threatens their interests, which could include greater independence from Russia. Ukraine’s proposed political transition and reform could easily become a sham if the U.S. and the EU lose focus and decrease pressure.

Russia is bold to accuse the West of “puppeteering” in Ukraine via diplomatic support since the Kremlin has actively supported a bloody regime that has massacred civilians. While the current situation is not a proxy war, it is hard to ignore the emerging political divide and international political implications of Ukraine’s transformation. Western Ukraine supports further integration with the EU, and Eastern Ukraine is supportive of a strong Russian presence. Moving forward, it will be very difficult to reconcile these two viewpoints in a political transition that seeks a “national unity government.” However, the West and EU can continue to punish Ukrainian officials guilty of oppression and help support and shape meaningful political reform that keeps President Yanukovych and his cronies out of power. The ouster of Yanukovych by parliament, while a positive development, should be watched closely. The inevitable scramble and disorganization that follows such a momentous event could lead to the rise of another corrupt regime that seeks to ally itself to the highest bidder. Regardless of this possibility, those Ukrainians who desire a freer and more just society have won a substantial victory. Let us hope this victory is the first of many to come culminating in a Ukraine that aspires to be more than just a “Small Russia.”

Where the Military Goes, the Government Follows

West Point (7238241484)

United States Military Academy at West Point, by Peretz Partensky [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

I recently had the pleasure of reading the transcript of General McRaven’s address to the cadets at the United States Military Academy at West Point. A copy can be found here.

Early in his speech, while reciting a Plutarchian litany of the great generals of our age, McRaven said of General Martin Dempsey, “…he presides over the greatest change in our military since World War Two and he does so… with a song in his heart.” I immediately found myself confused. Hadn’t the biggest change since World War Two been the transition from a draft army to a post-Vietnam all-volunteer force? Or the technological revolution that took place during the Global War on Terror? What was happening in the second decade of the Twenty First Century that could dwarf these other critical shifts?

I called my personal military expert, my Dad (who is a Captain in the United States Navy) and he explained to me the shifts presently underway. I will summarize as succinctly as possible. Before the First and Second World Wars, the US military was essentially a homeland defense force with slight capability to conduct foreign expeditions (as the Spanish-American War and following decades of imperialism illustrate.) But the great pressures of the World Wars, and accompanying geopolitical shifts, forced the United States to project immensely more power in Eurasia, and the infrastructure of the military was forced to change and expand to accompany this new mission. Indeed, the early Cold War saw an institutionalization of the various commands and programs which had been borne out of World War Two. The United States military was now a global, balancing, interventionist force, and its organization supported it in its mission.

It should come as no surprise that the federal government expanded dramatically in this time as well, the so-called golden age of the Progressive Era. A large part of this growth was due to domestic politics, internal pressures,  and chains of thought endemic to the United States stateside. But part of it, too, came as a corollary to the expansion and growing complexity of the military. More troops require more services; more bases require more oversight, and so on. More importantly, some of the basic social trends and methods of bureaucratic organization, at the widest level, seem to have had their historic roots in military organization before they entered the political mainstream of debate.

For example, the desegregation of the US Military preceded meaningful desegregation of American society by a decade. Similarly, the formal recognition of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” a policy which discouraged active discrimination against homosexuals in the military, preceded by several years the massive national debates on gay marriage and other sexuality issues. On the bureaucratic side, the transition to an all-volunteer force in the 1970s and 1980s came alongside the conservative movement and its massive pushback against stagnating government services, and the reinvigoration of both institutions seems to spring from a similar root. Likewise, the American military expanded more during the Civil War than it ever had before, and after the war, the first components of the modern American welfare state were established. It seems that as a state’s war fighting ability is required to increase, so grows its military and government.

What we are seeing today, then, is simply shocking and almost completely unexpected. Encumbered by sequestration, and overextended after two long counterinsurgencies that drained the energies of the American people, the US military is entering a period of dramatic downsizing and reform. The world has changed, as has the domestic situation. Going forward, the United States must continue to play its pre-eminent role in protecting the global system, but as new powers arise, it must increasingly work with and against them, managing a tenuous balance of power through conventional and unconventional means while pursuing agents of disorder in this increasingly fragmented world. In the meantime, the old blue model of the welfare state is decaying and needs a rethinking and rejuvenation.

Amidst all this, the military’s new mission lies in agility and flexibility. It must have the capacity to project force as powerfully as it has in the past seven decades. But now, it must project this force as an agile ninja, rather than a cumbersome knight. It cannot afford to have merely the most firepower in the room; the US must be able to direct that firepower in the smartest manner. So with its own budgetary downsizing, the military is making the best of its resources to accomplish its mission. Rather than shutting down any of its regional commands, it is reducing their staffs. Instead of downsizing its plethora of bases, it is combining redundant ones and expanding the capabilities of each. It is protesting vigorously against technology deals that it does not need, and that only serve the interests of the constituents of certain politicians (as the case of the F-22 so vociferously demonstrates.) The military is taking seriously the notion that it has to get leaner.

A couple weeks ago I had the dubious pleasure of sitting in on a talk, on the horrors of sequestration, by an outgoing Republican congressman. When he finished, I raised my hand and remarked: “I have heard that of all the departments, agencies, and programs in the federal government, none will be able to conduct its mission after sequestration as well as the United States military. None will adapt to new fiscal constraints better.” “I’ve never heard that,” came his gruff reply. He seemed to be more a security hawk and nationalist than a prudent thinker on military and foreign affairs.

But as other government agencies react poorly to diminished budgets, as the wages of fiscal irresponsibility plague our government, as the affairs of the world march on without caring, it is increasingly apparent that the most certain victories our government is winning at present are those emerging from the Defense Department and the military chain of command. Perhaps the model the military now exhibits will become the general model the government will emulate, as was the case in 1865 and 1945, only now it sees a contraction rather than an expansion. Perhaps in light of fiscal constraints, bureaucratic malaise, and general governmental stagnation, the US government will look to the military model of efficiency and consolidate redundant programs, decentralize regional command, and encourage efficiency and innovation so far as is possible. Perhaps a new era of smart government is upon us, as the era of smart military certainly is.

America and Iran to Bury the Hatchet?

Barack Obama on the telephone with Hassan Rouhani

President of the United States, Barack Obama, talks with the President of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, during a telephone call in the Oval Office on 27 September 2013.
(Pete Souza [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Last week, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani announced that Iran has no interest in building nuclear weapons, either for national prestige or for security reasons. He went on to remark that he is willing to sit down with President Obama and discuss a rapprochement between the United States and Iran. President Obama cautiously agreed, and the agreement has led to both criticism and applause within their respective governments. Few details have emerged, but the foreign policy community has already started chiming in on this surprising development.

In a year where the Russians have agreed to mediate negotiations for a Syrian truce and disarmament, perhaps nothing should come as surprising. Yet on the Iranian question, no greater shock could have come, save perhaps a preemptive strike by the Americans and/or Israelis. The United States and Iran have been diplomatically disengaged from each other since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, and for the last 10 years relations have only worsened as the two states have played a sort of game of thrones over the ashes of Iraq and influence in the Gulf region. The Iranian nuclear program, funded for decades before the fall of the Shah by the very Western governments which now so viciously condemn it has for the last decade been the most visible point of contention between Iran and the United States. Additionally, Iran’s aspirations for regional leadership and dominance ensured that there has been no shortage of American efforts to contain the Shia nation and prevent it from upsetting the regional balance of power. The seeming radicalism of Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, most callously expressed in his denial of the Holocaust, did not help the diplomatic situation in any way.

When Rouhani succeeded Ahmedinejad, there was buzz among the Western media suggesting that this man might be “our man;” he seemed progressive and democratic enough and his words sounded good. Add on to that the events of the Green Revolution in 2010 and the subsequent Arab Spring and there seemed to be an inkling that liberal populism might provide Rouhani the legitimacy necessary to fundamentally change Iranian policies – both foreign and domestic. But after a brief media honeymoon, his fame died a slow and quiet death, as Iranian policy did not appear to differ significantly from that of Ahmedinejad.

Fast forward to today, when we see Rouhani apparently making baby steps in a progressive direction. He has renounced over a decade of Iranian security policy, while making overtures to integrate Iran with the international community. As many commentators have noted, this should not be seen as a sudden change of heart; the Iranian President is undoubtedly still confined by certain limits and boundaries. Nevertheless, this change in tone marks a critical shift, one which will certainly have profound effects on the region. Already the Saudis and Israelis have voiced their disapproval of impending US negotiations with Iran. I recall becoming disillusioned after years of catching the oft-used “Israeli strike on Iran closer than ever before!” headline and resigning myself to the conclusion that the United States and Iran would remain enduring enemies, periodically exchanging harsh words but never anything more. It appears that this state of affairs may soon change.

This saga illustrates an interesting principle of politics best articulated by former Secretary of State George Kennan: “No other people… is entirely our enemy. No people at all… is entirely our friend.” Shifting power paradigms tend to manifest themselves in surprising ways; to the futurist or to the contemporary observer, this development may appear seemingly irrational, yet to the historian looking back it seems perfectly sensible. And thus great shifts in the balance of power are common occurrences in world politics, with many of them marking new political eras.

In 1992 the Europeans signed the Maastricht Treaty and established the European Union. Between 1989 and 1991 the Soviet Union crumbled and the world map was redrawn. In 1973 the People’s Republic of China turned on their former Communist friends in the Soviet Union and instead began working with the United States. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the former colonies of the old European empires claimed their independence. And in each case, observers were shocked; only two or three years earlier there would have been no indication that radical change was on the horizon. This is how the present cooling of relations between the United States and Iran should be viewed: a political anomaly that does not make sense now but one day will be heralded as a major breakthrough in international relations.

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.

On America’s “Culture of Leaks”

 

Those individuals who believe Edward Snowden is a hero who exposed Big Brother should think twice. It may be easy to support an increasingly popular culture of Internet leaks and freedom of information for all things sensitive, but it is more difficult to examine the long-term consequences and implications of Snowden and other leakers’ actions for U.S. national security. While leaking has occurred long before Snowden and Manning, a new culture of internet freedom in which every tech-savvy person can be a world hero by disclosing government secrets seems to be growing in the U.S. I am very wary of this misguided “culture of leaks.” The leaking of sensitive information, even if well-intentioned, exposes some of our nation’s most sensitive sources and methods to terrorist organizations and foreign intelligence services, which makes us all less secure.

Let’s start with Snowden. This man did not merely blow the whistle, he trumpeted a storm. Snowden could have chosen to carefully release only the documents that succinctly showed violations of NSA surveillance policy and a potential overstepping of government surveillance, but instead he opted to flee to Russia and Hong Kong with multiple computers filled with highly-classified NSA security programs and other sensitive data. I am still dumbfounded that a man who preaches privacy and freedom would scurry away to Russia, one of the most oppressive great powers in the world today. In addition to this highly questionable circumstance, Snowden’s seemingly indiscriminate release of sensitive information cost the U.S. government dearly in research and development, resulted in a loss of international prestige, turned attention away from regimes that actually oppress their people, and damaged U.S. national security capabilities. Responsible whistleblowing takes restraint, thoughtful planning, and thorough exhaustion of internal channels, standards that are seemingly absent from Snowden’s actions.

Now that we understand Edward Snowden is no Deep Throat, I want to touch on Wikileaks, one of the biggest players on the receiving end of our leak culture. I am astonished that an organization dedicated to the mass transmission of our state secrets to all peoples and governments commands respect among so many fellow citizens. If these were the days of the Cold War when America faced the more discernable threat of a nuclear-armed “Evil Empire,” I doubt as many Americans would be supportive of a global databank of U.S. sources and methods ripe for the picking. My generation seems to forget that it is not just terrorists in the Middle East that threaten our national security, but also foreign governments. Just about every competent nation is constantly seeking to penetrate our private industry and government to steal sensitive trade information and government secrets. Indeed, there is no such thing as a “friendly” intelligence service. These foreign intelligence services and hostile transnational groups have already scoured Snowden’s leaked data and have adjusted their methods accordingly. I would not be surprised if Snowden was already debriefed by Russian intelligence officers. U.S. citizens should be more wary of global institutions that eagerly await more leakers to approach them for “assistance.” Organizations like Wikileaks, unlike the Intelligence Community, do not have a loyalty to our country and are working to further their own interests, which can vary from world fame to fulfilling certain ideological goals.

As Snowden relaxes and drinks Russian vodka at a dacha (cottage) near Moscow, U.S. national security professionals are in damage control mode. Now more than ever, our adversaries have a better understanding of how our national security apparatus operates and have adapted their operations accordingly. These groups include both terrorist cells that are constantly planning to attack U.S. and Allied targets, as well as foreign intelligence services that seek to steal our industry trade secrets and sensitive government information to gain an economic, political, and military edge. Indeed, I would be very hesitant to readily praise Snowden, Manning, Anonymous, and other distressing groups or individuals. As a concerned citizen, it’s up to you to counter this malice with two easy actions. First, read a few books and/or articles about our security services and the threats facing our country to gain a more complete understanding of current global challenges and the proper function of our Intelligence Community. To start, I would personally recommend Intelligence: From Secrets to Policy by Mark Lowenthal and a student subscription to The Economist. Second, and most importantly, consider finding ways to become involved in our government in order to responsibly facilitate the improvements you may wish to enact. This involvement could range from grassroots advocacy activities such as writing letters to your Congressman to interning for an Executive branch agency, an NGO/think tank, or Congress. We should not have to wait for unlawful and misguided security leaks for calls to activism and civic involvement. Our generation needs to make a more robust effort to become involved in the governmental process, and perhaps even work directly for the institutions that run our government in order to face these challenges. Our country deserves no less from our generation, and mere armchair activism via social media will not suffice.

Should Food Fill Stomachs or Gas Tanks?

Under a new U.S. Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS) program, created by the Energy Policy Act in 2005, the US became the world’s largest producer of ethanol fuel. By 2007, a second government mandate, the Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA), was passed which expanded the RFS program requiring 36 billion gallons of renewable fuel be used by 2022.While corn ethanol is not directly outlined under these policies, 98% of the biofuels produced and blended into gasoline in the US originate from corn. This de facto directive for corn ethanol has had negative impacts on global food market prices. In 2012, we experienced the worst global drought of the last half-century. With the US being the world’s largest exporter of corn, and their mandated 40% allocation of its corn for ethanol use, the already pressured corn prices skyrocketed.

In the past decade, prices of oil and food have significantly risen to historic levels. Because of the inextricable link between food and energy markets, the grain market has experienced volatility over the past six years. As a commodity susceptible to weather, it is apparent how much recent climatic events have distorted global grain inventories. This consumption mandate has turned out to be the most significant driver of ethanol demand, corn demand and corn prices as we can see the global food crisis correspond with the US expansion of corn ethanol in 2007. Agricultural commodity prices broke record highs in ’07-’08, in ’10-’11, and again with the US drought in 2012.

The most ethically heated issue with the RFS mandate is that corn is diverted away from the global food supply and towards the US’ domestic energy chain. This policy has had harsh repercussions on developing countries, which spend a much greater portion of their income on food and energy than the developed world. While the world’s wealthy states can substitute higher priced foods from elsewhere, the world’s poor cannot. As a country that sends almost a billion dollars annually in food aid to help the developing world feed itself, why does the US divert food into their energy chain and consequently increase the global price of food? Is putting food in gas tanks an ethical energy policy, food policy, and foreign policy? Pitting food policies against energy policies is illogical and proving to be destructive, thereby increasing vulnerability to weather risks suggesting the EISA/RFS is an unpredictable law.

The RFS/EISA has become a source of debate amongst Americans: some want it repealed; others want it left untouched. There is, however, little discussion on what a repeal would look like apart from a complete shutting down of the policy. Phasing out the RFS year by year – effectually reversing the policy over time – could provide a concrete policy solution.

Powerful industries and advocates have been created under US ethanol production, and with the current rise in vocal opponents of the RFS, these industries and advocates sense a direct threat. Removing newly engrained policies is politically difficult. However, if the US were to phase out the EISA year by year, it would help mitigate the economic and political shock currently felt by corn farmers and ethanol reliant industries. Reducing US ethanol commitments over time, thus reducing the amount of corn in gasoline, would also help alleviate pressures on global food prices.

An emerging development in America’s energy landscape, that poses a legitimate challenge to the use of food in gas tanks, has been the discovery of significant new natural gas reserves. This immense supply has been identified and tapped, subsequently forcing US natural gas prices down to attractive levels relative to both oil prices and international natural gas spot rates. The security, predictability and location of this supply are by far superior to that of global oil.

Already there are industry efforts to convert engines to burn natural gas and establish infrastructure to distribute it. This will take time and investment but represent a kind of phase-in calendar that could offset the phase-out use of ethanol. Moreover, converting vehicles to natural gas would create jobs: drilling, distribution, infrastructure and conversion. It would not encroach on food supply, or on American foreign policy, other than to reduce a reliance on foreign oil.

While there are some environmental concerns, natural gas is the cleanest burning and most efficient of all hydrocarbons and offers an environmentally preferred alternative to higher carbon emitting gasoline. While understanding the recent moratoriums on fracking in certain US states, US shale oil expansion has OPEC members and Gazprom taking notice.

In an energy hungry world, America has the opportunity to phase out ethanol and phase in an abundant, available, cleaner and less expensive fuel that is more secure. It might alleviate pressure on energy for others worldwide, as a gallon of gas not consumed in the US becomes available to others. Moreover, it would return the use of corn to the food chain where it belongs.