14 July 2017   Leave a comment

Iraq is close to pushing Daesh (Islamic State) forces out of Mosul and that event would constitute a significant victory for the government.  But regaining control over the city is going to be very difficult as there are a number of groups who were involved in the fighting who believe that they are entitled to some of the spoils of war.  In many respects, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard forces involved in the fighting represent the sectarian nature of the government in Baghdad.  But if those Shia groups use the success to further exclude the Sunni populations, the victory will be short-lived.  The Shia government in Baghdad and Iran need to work hard to make the Sunni Muslims believe that they have a stake in the future of a united Iraq.

Today is the 2nd anniversary of the nuclear deal signed with Iran.  The agreement, brokered by Germany, the US, France, Great Britain, China, and Russia, was designed to provide assurances that, at least for ten years, Iran would not be able to build a nuclear weapon.  It is a very complicated agreement with a number of very specific and technical details, but it also an agreement that narrowly focuses on weapons.  Many in the US, including now-President Trump, were very opposed to the agreement because it did not address Iran’s support for groups, such as Hezbollah, which are opposed to Israel and also because it did not address other aspects of the weapons program, such as building missiles.  To date, the Trump Administration has not tried to revise the agreement, a process that would be extremely difficult because the other signatories to the agreement would be very unlikely to support the US.  All evidence indicates that the agreement has worked as expected and we should hope that it continues to be supported.

Posted July 14, 2017 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

13 July 2017   Leave a comment

British researchers have found that Saudi Arabia is a key sponsor of radical interpretations of Islam and funds many groups that endorse the use of violence and terrorism to advance those interpretations of Islam. The findings are not that surprising to many who have studied extremist groups, but it is the first time that a research study has nailed down the extent of Saudi support for violence.  The findings stand in stark contrast to the rhetoric of states, like the US, who condemn terrorist violence but embrace (and support militarily) Saudi Arabia.  The contradiction in rhetoric and practice can only be explained in terms of Saudi economic power in the global petroleum market.

US President Trump in Saudi Arabia


Chinese Nobel Laureate, Liu Xiaobo, has died of liver cancer while still in the custody of Chinese prison authorities.   Liu was jailed in 2009 for helping to draft what is known as the Charter 08 manifesto, which called for, among other demands, an end to one-party rule in China.  Liu was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010 but was not allowed to receive the award in Norway.  The Nobel Committee gave him the award for “for his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China“.  Liu advanced the idea of human rights based upon liberal ideas, ones which are not consistent with the conception of human rights held by the Chinese Communist Party.

Liu Xiaobo

The Pew Research Center has issued a new report on how the world views China and the US in economic terms.  Overall, more people in the world regard the US as the world’s leading economic power rather than China (42% vs. 32%).  But views differ among nations.  Several European states who trade extensively with China regard China as the world’s leading economic power.  However, countries in east and southeast Asia, which also trade extensively with China, still regard the US as the economic power. Over time, Asian countries appear to have lost confidence in Chinese economic power.

The Countries Polled in the Pew Research Center Study

Posted July 13, 2017 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

12 July 2017   Leave a comment

One of the greatest pleasures of being a teacher is witnessing the success of one’s students.  I have been blessed to see many of them succeed in their endeavors, and today Foreign Affairs, one of the premier journals in the field of international relations, published an essay co-authored by a former student, Bassima Alghussein.  The essay is entitled “How Saudi Arabia Botched Its Campaign Against Qatar: The Costs of the Pressure on Doha”.  I never had any doubts about Bassima’s abilities as a gifted analyst in world affairs when she was a student and she has worked long and hard in the field.  Foreign Affairs has a paywall so I recommend that anyone who wishes to read the essay find a library with a subscription to the journal.  The essay has a clear argument and it is developed with precision and substance (and it is an argument that I find persuasive–I hope that people in DC and Riyadh read it carefully.

China has set up its first overseas military base in its modern history.  The base is in Djibouti, and the Chinese join the US, which maintains Camp Lemonnier in the African country along with France’s military base, a legacy of its former colonial rule.  The Chinese, however, have a long way to go before they catch up with the Americans–although no one knows the exact count, there are probably around 800 US military bases around the world.   The Chinese move, nonetheless, is a significant step and indicates China’s interest not only in Africa, but also in the Middle East.

The Larsen C Ice shelf has finally broken off.  Scientists have been watching a growing crack in the ice shelf for several months and it appears as if the shelf has finally completely broken off.  It thus creates an iceberg that “is more than 2,200 square miles in area and weighs a trillion tons.”  The iceberg contains enough water to fill Lake Erie in the US twice and scientists will watch to see if it breaks into smaller pieces or remains whole for a period of time.  They will also be watching carefully to see whether the entire ice shelf is destabilized by the loss of so much ice, a process that could lead to a more rapid movement of the glaciers sitting on the land.

Posted July 12, 2017 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

11 July 2017   Leave a comment

So far the strategy toward dealing with North Korea and its nuclear program seems to consist of two policies: put pressure on China to get North Korea to stop the program and threaten “severe” consequences (presumably a military attack) toward the same end.  The end objective of both policies is to get North Korea to “denuclearize” (a dreadful word).  The objective is a fool’s errand:  there is absolutely no reason to believe that any nuclear state would voluntarily destroy its arsenal without similar actions on the part of other nuclear states.  There is, however, a third policy which does not seem to be considered at all:  to sit down and talk with North Korea about what measures would offer security guarantees sufficient to persuade North Korea to stop its program to develop further its capabilities.  It seems as if that option should be explored more vigorously. 

Kim Jong-un

We know that the US is considering sending 4,000 more soldiers to Afghanistan to supplement the 9,800 soldiers already there in order to help the Afghan government defend territory against Taliban attacks.  It is not clear how these troops will accomplish more than the 110,000 who were there in 2015.  But there also seem to be serious considerations in using private contractors deploy mercenary forces to aid the US military effort.  Erik Prince is the former head of Blackwater, a private military corporation that was used extensively in Iraq after the US invasion in 2003.  The historical use of mercenaries is a story that is best described by Niccolò Macchiavelli:

“…if one holds his state on the basis of mercenary arms, he will never be firm or secure; because they are disunited, ambitious, without discipline, unfaithful; gallant among friends, vile among enemies; no fear of God, no faith with men; and one defers ruin insofar as one defers the attack; and in peace you are despoiled by them, in war by the enemy.”

Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince, Ed. Angelo M. Codevilla.  1997 Yale University Press, Chapter 12 (“How many are the kinds of militia, and mercenary of soldiers”), pp. 45-46.

The lesson on private soldiers is a warning to anyone who wishes to defend civil society.

It is likely that the Trump Administration will soon make a decision whether to place tariffs on imported steel.  Free trade is one of the most important rules of the liberal international system, but it is also a rule that is often violated.  The US has been the strongest champion of free trade since 1945 and its defection from the system might undermine confidence in the system as a whole.  The two largest beneficiaries of the free trade regime are Germany and China so we should expect the strongest opposition to come from them.  But the significance of trade has been declining in recent years as the graph below suggests.

Posted July 11, 2017 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

10 July 2017   Leave a comment

New York Magazine has published a grim article by David Wallace-Wells on the worst scenarios of climate change.   It is hard to assess which of these scenarios are most likely, but any one of them is terrifying. Rather than accepting any as inevitable, the right way to think about the essay is as a context for a discussion of what steps to avoid climate change need to be taken now.  It is similar to discussions about the horrors of nuclear war: none of the worst scenarios spun out in the the 1960s of a possible nuclear war were ever highly likely, but they stimulated better methods to assure that such a war never occur.  Denying the consequences without prudent steps to avoid them is an exercise in faith, not responsible policy.

Chris Uhlmann writes for the Australian Broadcasting Company and he has written an essay on the G-20 meeting and the American role in world affairs under the Trump Administration.  Like others, Uhlmann believes that the US will seek a diminished role and he wonders what countries might fill the vacuum.  It is a nettlesome question, not just for Americans, but for the world as a whole.  The Obama Administration similarly sought a lesser role in the world, as Obama believed that the Iraq and Afghanistan wars sapped American willingness and capability to maintain a vigorous role.  But Trump’s withdrawal is based on a different set of considerations and Uhlmann worries that under those circumstances, the world might regret the American decision.

Metrocosm has published a fascinating video on immigration into the US over time. The visual presentation is stunning.

Posted July 10, 2017 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

9 July 2017   Leave a comment

The dispute over Russian interference in the US presidential election in 2016 is a fascinating spotlight on the realist definition of the “national interest”.  The bedrocks of the realist definition are the ability to defend national territory and the ability of the state to govern exclusively in terms of the interests of its citizens.  In ways that the realists of the 19th century (Metternich and Bismarck, for example) could never have imagined, it appears as if the national interest of the US was seriously compromised by Russia.  But perhaps more importantly, in a globalized world in which electronic transmissions are difficult to contain and monitor, it may be the case that the old idea of the national interest is no longer tenable.

After three years of occupation by Daesh (the Islamic State), the city of Mosul in Iraq seems close to liberation.  Iraqi troops are closing in on the last holdouts who seem to be fight to the death.  It will be some time before the city is safe and the civilians who have suffered brutal occupation feel safe enough to return.  But, while the government seems close to control, there will be fighting over the future of the city among the forces who were allied against Daesh: Iranian militias, Kurds, and different Sunni and Shia groups.  It will be very interesting to see how the US and Iran jockey for influence in Iraq once the threat of Daesh recedes.

Iraqi Troops Outside Mosul

One of the largest protests in recent Turkish history–the protesters were numbered in the hundreds of thousands–took place in opposition to the increasingly authoritarian politics of President Erdogan.  The protest occurred about a year after an abortive coup against Erdogan led to the imposition of harsh policies against the military, the press, and the judiciary.  The response by Turkish authorities will undoubtedly be harsh–the world should try to assure that the protests do not elicit a complete breakdown of the civil order in Turkey.

Posted July 9, 2017 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

8 July 2017   Leave a comment

One of the highly touted “positive” outcomes of the Trump-Putin discussions was a cease-fire in southwest Syria.  Significantly, both Jordan and Israel are “partners” to the cease-fire.  There have been four previously declared “cease-fires” in Syria, and all of them were failures.  It is testimony to the relative impotence of both Russia and the US in the tangled politics of Syria.  There are far too many well-armed actors in the country, all of which have their own agendas.  These actors pay little attention to “great” powers and the great powers actually have too little at stake in peace in Syria.


North Korea has accelerated its missile testing program since the election of US President Trump and Mr. Trump regards the missile program as a serious threat to the US and has threatened severe consequences for North Korea if it continues.  The reasons for Mr. Trump’s concerns are clear: a North Korean ICBM can threaten the US homeland.  The argument sounds plausible, but it ignores the fact that many states can threaten the US homeland with a nuclear attack and the US has learned how to live with those threats.  The question is whether North Korea should be plausibly regarded as different from these other states. Gregory Elich has written a fairly detailed article for Counterpunch that places the North Korean nuclear threat in context and suggests that Mr. Trump’s fears are not justified.

The G-20 has issued its Final Communique and it is consistent with other such communiques: aspirational language with few specific details.  But there is one interesting difference from previous summaries and the difference shows the unmistakable hand of Chancellor Merkel:

“We take note of the decision of the United States of America to withdraw from the Paris Agreement. The United States of America announced it will immediately cease the implementation of its current nationally-determined contribution and affirms its strong commitment to an approach that lowers emissions while supporting economic growth and improving energy security needs….

“The Leaders of the other G20 members state that the Paris Agreement is irreversible.”

It is rare for an individual state to be singled out for a smackdown.  It is clear that the leaders of the other 19 countries were not pleased with the US position.

Posted July 8, 2017 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

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