Atlantic Monthly International
In January, Rand Paul was invited to give a foreign-policy address to a distinguished Washington crowd that included Henry Kissinger and Brent Scowcroft. Paul didn't embarrass himself, but for a fairly sophisticated audience expecting to hear the views of a possible Republican presidential contender, it was underwhelming stuff. The senator from Kentucky delivered what could only be described as a basic primer on his ideological journey from extreme libertarianism to balanced realism, an effort at playing to the largely traditionalist GOP audience at the Center for the National Interest (or what used to be known as the Nixon Center). "It was simplistic," said one former senior member of the Reagan administration who attended the event. "He didn't connect it up with anything actually happening in the world." Paul's speech was stocked with fairly obvious observations, such as "diplomacy only is successful when both parties feel that they have won." And in the end he appeared slightly apologetic, saying, "I hope I haven't insulted anyone—or too many of you—with a physician's thoughts on diplomacy."
For other senior GOP foreign-policy experts, Paul's speech was evidence of a more worrisome issue, one that no one is talking about now but that is brought into relief by the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, with its Cold War overtones. Whether you include embattled New Jersey Governor Chris Christie in the group or not, the leading Republican Party names in the presidential sweepstakes possess precious little foreign-policy experience. As in, virtually none. And they may be going up against a Democratic opponent whose last job was secretary of state and who has been traveling the world and giving speeches on foreign policy for the past 20 years, ever since, as first lady, she delivered a famous address on global women's rights in Beijing. Republicans may like to go on about Benghazi, but, according to a new Pew poll, 67 percent of Americans approve of Hillary Clinton's performance as secretary of state, and 69 percent view her as "tough." Another leading potential Democratic contender, Vice President Joe Biden, the longtime chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also has a reputation as a foreign-policy expert.
It's an odd state of affairs for the party that has traditionally seen foreign policy as its strength, and which once produced widely admired foreign-affairs giants such as Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan, who is often credited with winning the Cold War and who began developing fairly sophisticated views about the Soviet Union in the early '60s. Today, only Senator Marco Rubio of Florida appears to be making an effort to get well grounded, with frequent trips abroad. Most others are homebound, and even some of the more impressive potential presidential contenders—such as Representative Paul Ryan and Senator Ted Cruz, or governors such as Mike Pence of Indiana, Scott Walker of Wisconsin, and John Kasich of Ohio—have made their reputations largely on domestic issues. Even 2012 nominee Mitt Romney had somewhat more foreign-policy experience, as an international businessman, and he's begun to look fairly prescient with his harsh views of Russia as America's "No. 1 geopolitical foe."
GOP strategists, of course, are still hoping that if she runs, Clinton will be tarred by the 2012 attack in Benghazi, Libya that left Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans dead. Although her critics failed to prove any kind of cover-up of information about the terrorist groups responsible for Stevens's death, an official report concluded that State was remiss, and Clinton was the first secretary of state to lose an ambassador in the field since Jimmy Carter's secretary, Cyrus Vance. And the GOP is already mustering its rhetorical guns to make the case that Clinton was, at best, a fair secretary of state who left behind no great diplomatic triumphs.
Depending on how the ongoing Ukraine crisis plays out, Republicans can also be expected to paint Clinton as naive for her 2009 attempt to launch a "reset" of U.S.-Russia relations, and to replay again and again the video of the then-secretary of state handing a symbolic red "reset button" to her smiling but wily counterpart, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
Already the GOP is on the attack against President Obama and, by implication, his entire administration, including Clinton and Biden, claiming that Russian President Vladimir Putin's military seizure of Ukraine's Crimean peninsula was a direct response to what Senator John McCain called "a feckless foreign policy where nobody believes in America's strength any more." Senator Lindsey Graham, who, like McCain, is never at a loss for words when it comes to criticizing Obama's foreign policy, told CNN, "We have a weak and indecisive president that invites aggression."
But Clinton's supporters are even now rolling out her defense, noting that she successfully oversaw the START arms-reduction pact with Moscow and enlisted Putin's help in putting pressure on Iran. In recent days, Clinton has also positioned herself as tough on Russia, harshly criticizing Putin as someone who has illegitimately seized power in a way "quite reminiscent of the kind of authority exercised in the past by Russian leaders, by the czars and their successor Communist leaders." She also said it was imperative for the U.S. to back a "unified Ukraine."
If Clinton and Biden don't run, of course, the field will look far more equalized, since leading potential Democratic contenders such as New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley, as well as Senator Elizabeth Warren, are also lacking in foreign-policy experience. And it's fair to point out that Obama himself had little foreign-policy experience in 2008 after just two years in the Senate. But if Clinton and Biden do jump in, both are likely to be formidable indeed on a topic that is almost certain to play big in the 2016 campaign.
BEIJING—On a Saturday morning in late August, about a dozen university students, professors, and middle-aged Beijing locals stand by a row of apartments in northwestern Beijing. Once an outskirt of the city known for its natural springs and reed-filled ponds, the area now looks just like another part of the sprawling capital: wide roads lined with set-back buildings, crowded with pedestrians. It’s home to some of China’s best schools, Peking and Tsinghua universities. One member of the group—an environmental society called the Green Earth Volunteers, led by one of China’s most well-known environmentalists, Wang Yongchen—asks a local if he knows how to get to the Wanquan River.
“That’s a river?” the man asks, and offers directions to what he says is a nearby ditch that sometimes puddles. After a few minutes, the Green Earth Volunteers arrive at a narrow canal holding a few centimeters of water. The bed of the Wanquan, which means “ten thousand springs,” is now paved over with concrete, the result of attempts to keep water from soaking into the ground when the canal was full. A pipe, once used to carry water into the small river, lies exposed to the sun, as do patches of dry ground. Ivy creeps along the sides of the canal, as if trying to reach what’s left of the water.The Wanquan "river" in Beijing. (Lily Kuo/Quartz)
The Wanquan is one of thousands of rivers in China that have dried and disappeared after decades of declining rainfall, prolonged droughts, exploding population growth, industrial expansion, and a series of disastrous reservoirs built during the early days of the Communist Republic. The problem is most obvious in Beijing, which was chosen to be China’s capital in part because of its abundance of streams and freshwater springs. Beijing consumed 3.6 billion cubic meters (127 billion cubic feet or 950 billion gallons) of water in 2012, far more than the 2.1 billion cubic meters per year the city has at its disposal in nearby rivers and in the ground. The city’s water resources, about 120 cubic meters per person a year, are well below the 500 cubic meters the UN deems a situation of “absolute water scarcity.” Beijing has been supplementing the shortfall by diverting water from the nearby province of Hebei and trying to lower water usage in the city.
China has a severe water problem overall. Its resources of freshwater, around 2,000 cubic meters per capita, are one-third of the global average. Coal production, which supplies about three-quarters of China’s energy, already accounts for one-sixth of total water withdrawals. Between now and 2040, China’s total energy demand is expected to more than double, and be twice that of the U.S. The World Bank has put the annual cost of China’s water problems—specifically, water scarcity and the direct impacts of water pollution—at 2.3 percent of GDP but says it is likely much higher. About 45 percent of the country’s GDP comes from water-scarce provinces, according to a 2012 report by HSBC and China Water Risk, a consultancy. About 300 million people in China, almost a quarter of its population, drink contaminated water every day. Former Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao wasn’t being dramatic in 1999 when he called the country’s water problems a threat to the “survival of the Chinese nation.”
But these shortages are unevenly spread. The North Plain, a region home to a quarter of the population, and which includes Beijing, is especially dry. Here, water tables are falling by two to three meters a year, according to the UN, and posing serious risks to agriculture and food security. Of China’s 22 provinces, 11 were considered “water-stressed,” meaning they have less than 1,000 cubic meters of water per person a year, as of 2012. One of the north’s main water sources, the Yellow River, has been shrinking for the past three decades, drying up almost every year before reaching the sea. Hebei province, which neighbors Beijing, has seen 969 of its 1,052 lakes dry up; some of its farmers water their crops with sewage water. Wang Shucheng, a former minister of water resources, predicted that if groundwater extraction in the north continues at current rates, in 15 years there will be none left.Quartz
The solution, as Mao Zedong first said in 1952, is to “borrow a little water from the south.” Southern China is home to four-fifths of the country’s water sources, mostly around the Yangtze River Basin. It took another 50 years after Mao’s suggestion for China to start work on it. Finally, on December 10, the first phase of the South-to-North Water Diversion Project (SNWDP), or Nanshuibeidiao, began operating.
The project’s eventual goal is to move 44.8 billion cubic meters of water across the country every year, more than there is in the River Thames. The infrastructure includes some of the longest canals in the world; pipelines that weave underneath riverbeds; a giant aqueduct; and pumping stations powerful enough to fill Olympic-sized pools in minutes. It is the world’s largest water-transfer project, unprecedented both in the volume of water to be transferred and the distance to be traveled—a total of 4,350 kilometers (2,700 miles), about the distance between the two coasts of America. The U.S., Israel, and South Africa are home to long-distance water transfer systems, but none on this scale.Part of a canal for the central route of the SNWDP, near Beijing in Hebei province. (David Gray/Reuters)
It’s the kind of operation, observers of China say, that would never have a chance somewhere like America. The project requires the coordination of at least 15 provinces—several of them water-rich areas that will have to give up some of their own water. It involves building over hundreds of archeological sites and eventually through religious ones as well. Almost half a million people will have to be relocated. The cost is budgeted at some $60 billion and is likely to exceed that considerably. In the U.S., proposals for large-scale water transfers from the Great Lakes to the west or south of the country have been repeatedly put down. It would seem to be an example of the power of an autocratic central government to enact the kinds of far-reaching national transformations that, in a democracy, get bogged down.
But a closer look reveals that it’s far from certain whether the benefits will outweigh costs: Some describe the project as a “high-risk gamble.” And rather than showing off the power of China’s central government, in many ways the project merely highlights the limitations of the central government’s ability to manage China’s water needs.Quartz
The project creates a grid of water highways that criss-cross the country and can be adjusted to send water almost anywhere. That grid—the siheng sanzong, literally the “four horizontals, three verticals”—consists of the Yangtze, Yellow, Huai, and Hai Rivers running west to east, and three routes that run from south to north, each longer than 1,500 kilometers (600 miles) through both natural and man-made canals.
The first branch, the eastern route, has just started transferring water from the Yangtze River in Jiangsu province to the dry cities in Shandong province. A second route will start carrying water from central China to Beijing and other northern cities at some point in 2014. The third, western route may link the Yangtze River to the Yellow River by crossing through the mountainous terrain of Sichuan and Qinghai, at elevation of between 3,000 and 5,000 meters.
Borrowing water from the south isn’t as simple as Mao suggested. The government has so far relocated at least 345,000 people to make way for construction, the largest resettlement for an infrastructure project since at least 1.4 million people were moved for the Three Gorges Dam. Officials say their relocation is a sacrifice for the good of the country, but others argue that the government is overlooking the extent and impact of the forced relocations that are taking place. The diversion project also risks long-term damage to two of China’s most important rivers, along with the communities that depend on them.
About 1,400 kilometers south of Beijing and its dried-up Wanquan River is the ancient town of Xiangyang, best known as the setting for epic battles over control of southern China over 700 years ago. Today, stretches of newly paved highways dotted with half-built high-rise apartment buildings lead to the city of 5 million. Locals brag that their strip of the Han River has some of the best water in the country. Of China’s six levels of water quality, theirs is of the second highest level, crisp and clean enough for drinking—a rarity in a country where as many as 20 percent of rivers are so polluted they’re unsafe to even touch. Over the summer, traffic near the river shore jams around 6 p.m. as people stream to the water for a quick bathe before dinner.
That may change once the central route of the water transfer system opens next year. About 30 percent of the Danjiangkou Reservoir will then go north instead of flowing south toward Xiangyang and into the Yangtze River—the river that supplies water to the diversion project’s eastern route, and eventually the western one as well. Officials say any impact will be minimal, but local environmentalists and researchers dispute that. Worse, some say, is that diverting this much water may permanently hurt two of China’s most important rivers: the Han, the main source of water for about 30 million people, and the Yangtze, which runs through 11 provinces and supports up to 400 million people.
“We’ve resolved a lot of issues and done a lot of research. The negative impacts are so small they almost don’t exist,” says Shen Fengsheng, head engineer of the water project, sitting at a broad wooden table at the SNWDP’s project office in Beijing. When all three routes are completed, he says, the Yangtze will lose only about 5 percent of the 29,400 cubic meters of water it dumps into the ocean every second.
Local governments are building passageways for fish whose routes are disrupted by the canals, supplementary dams to ensure consistent water flow, and wastewater-treatment plants to reduce pollution in water transferred or affected by the central or eastern routes. Officials in charge of managing the diversion from Danjiangkou say they’re making sure a minimum amount of water still flows downstream to cities like Xiangyang. “The water volume overall will be lower, but it will be enough to meet the daily needs of the people,” Zhou Jinhua, general office director at Danjiangkou SNWDP Water Resources Company, which is in charge of the dam for the Danjiangkou Reservoir, told Quartz.
Locals in Xiangyang, however, say their water will become not only more sparse but also more polluted. Water quality there will fall at least one level when the route begins, according to Yun Jianli, head of Green Hanjiang, a nonprofit environmental group based in Xiangyang. That’s because decreasing water volume weakens a river’s “environmental capacity”—its ability to clear out pollution. Provincial researchers say the quality will go down another level, to the fourth of six, once the central route is at full capacity.A worker along the Danjiangkou Reservoir. (Stringer/Reuters)
A slower-flowing river is also slower at depositing the sediments along the riverbed needed to form wetlands, which help mitigate pollution and nurture the river’s ecosystem. According to estimates by the Xiangyang municipal government, average water levels in the city’s section of the Han River will fall between 0.51 meters and 0.82 meters once diversion begins. “That water quality level will be worse is a foregone conclusion. The situation for the water environment is grim,” says a provincial report on the impact of the project on the Han River near Xiangyang, which was seen by Quartz.
In part to prepare for the diversion, Xiangyang is transforming itself. Plots of land covered in brick and concrete rubble litter the city as officials tear down paper and chemical factories. These have long been a large part of Xiangyang’s economy; now local officials want to move the economy away from manufacturing to minimize pollution in the Han River, and build up a services sector based on things like tourism. But as part of doing so, they plan to expand the city to three or four times its current size. Given that city dwellers consume about three times as much water as rural residents, according to International Rivers, a U.S.-based environmental group, a bigger Xiangyang will probably guzzle much more water.
To make things worse, both the Han and the Yangtze will end up with less water than even the diversion plan allowed for. The amount of water to be diverted for the central route, for instance, is based on calculations of the Han River’s water flow between the 1950s and the early 1990s. But since then the Han has become less consistent as rising temperatures have made droughts in the south more common. The amount to be diverted, however, hasn’t been adjusted. “It begs the question of why the Chinese government is going to spend all this money to alleviate drinking water shortages in Beijing. Are they more important?” says Kristen McDonald, China program director for Pacific Environment, a California-based nonprofit.A woman washes cleaning supplies in the Yangtze river in Jiangdu, the beginning of the eastern route of the SNWDP. (Lily Kuo/Quartz)
Water levels in the Yangtze have been falling too. In 2012, Chinese researchers found that the amount of water entering the Yangtze from glaciers on the Tibetan plateau had fallen 15 percent over the last four decades. And in 2009, total freshwater reserves in the Yangtze River Basin had fallen 17 percent from 2005 levels, according to the China Statistical Yearbook. So cutting 5 percent from the river’s annual runoff is not trivial. Parts of the Yangtze will see much lower flow during the dry months of the year, affecting navigation and the health of the river. Officials say shipping along the Yangtze, which has become something of a “second coastline” for China, won’t be affected—but even now, local governments dig at least once a year to make the riverbed deeper to give ships more room.
A lower water volume could also mean more saltwater from the sea filters into the Yangtze’s estuary. That will impose higher costs on factories along the shore to treat and use salt water. Polluted water in the Yangtze—which officials have called “cancerous”—may also be transferred northward, bringing with it diseases like schistosomiasis (bilharzia), which can damage internal organs and harm children’s brain development. The solutions include installing costly wastewater management systems and, according to officials in Shandong, simply cutting off the flow of dozens of streams that carry factory wastewater into two lakes that function as transfer points for the diverted water. “The project will be useless if these problems aren’t solved,” Chinese environmentalist Yang Yong told Quartz. "You haven’t even solved the old problem and you’ve already created new problems."
Perhaps the most alarming example of how the SNWDP creates new problems is that it has triggered a cascade of unforeseen extra engineering projects. This is because provincial officials, worried that their towns will lose water, are pushing for supplementary dams and water-transfer systems to protect them.
The rivers can ill afford this extra engineering burden. There are already almost 1,000 dams on the Han and its tributaries and hundreds of dams and other hydro-projects on the Yangtze. With China’s goal of tripling hydropower generation, says Ma Jun, director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, many Chinese rivers simply won’t be flowing in 10 years.
But the real problem is that this creates a circular web of hydro-projects that take water from one river to replenish another—robbing Peter to pay Paul.
For instance, about 17 kilometers south of Xiangyang on the Han River is the Cuijiaying Dam. A metal security fence guards it, with a sign that warns trespassers of intruding on “an area important for the work of national development.” The dam will maintain water levels for the city but slow the river’s flow downstream. “Usually NGOs are against dams, but this one is good for the local community,” Yun says.Quartz
Another diversion route, separate from the SNWDP, is being built to transfer water from the Yangtze to the Han, to help cities downstream of the Danjiangkou Reservoir. In turn, Shaanxi province—a parched region from which the central route will also take water—is building a project to take water out of the Han, to supplement its Wei River and the 13 cities along it that have serious water shortages. Officials are considering another proposal to bring water from the Three Gorges Reservoir, on the Yangtze River, to the Danjiangkou Reservoir. The Yangtze already has 353 dams, making it the world’s second-most engineered water basin, according to data from International Rivers. There are already 14 dams on the Han River, and another 18 on a main tributary, according to the group.
Officials say they can resolve any unforeseen environmental impacts after the system begins operating, in much the same way that problems caused by the Three Gorges Dam project are being addressed now. That’s not very comforting, given that the Three Gorges project has caused, in the words of China’s State Council, “urgent problems” including thousands of earthquakes and landslides, and tens of thousands of extra people needing relocation. Earlier this month, China’s anti-graft body accused officials who helped run the dam project of corruption, including taking bribes and influencing the bidding process for projects.
Dong Wenhu, former head of the water-resource department in Taizhou in Jiangsu province, near the beginning of the eastern route, tells Quartz, “Yes there are risks. But no, I’m not worried. Why? Because we can just build more.”Ships sail on the Yangtze River near Badong, 100 kilometers (62 miles) from the Three Gorges Dam in Hubei province. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)
For all the social and environmental costs, not even the project’s leaders pretend that it solves China’s water problem. “For now, the transfer project is just compensating an amount. It can’t completely fix the problem,” says Shen, the head engineer of the project. There is dissent even among officials. In February, China’s vice minister of housing and urban rural development, Qiu Baoxing, in a rare public criticism, called the project “difficult to sustain” and unnecessary if cities would only conserve more.
The central route will supply 1.24 billion cubic meters of water a year to Beijing. That won’t cover the city’s annual shortfall of 1.5 billion cubic meters. As the city’s population expands, its water needs will also expand faster than the diversion project can keep up. Water demands in northern China overall—the river basins around the Hai, Yellow, and Huai rivers—will be beyond what the SNWDP can cover at full capacity. The Institute of Water and Hydroelectric Research estimates that total demand in northern China will reach 203 billion cubic meters by 2050, of which the SNWDP will only supply a little over a fourth.
This does bring an economic benefit. By alleviating water shortages, the SNWDP is supposed to add between 0.12 percent to 0.3 percent to annual GDP growth and create up to 600,000 jobs, according to government brochures and a state research center. “If you look at other countries in comparable stages of development and water scarcity, virtually all of them have employed some form or another of water transfer. At one level, I can’t blame China’s economic planners for thinking this is an essential thing to do,” says Scott Moore, a research fellow at the Harvard Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.
Still, the SNWDP’s project’s costs are rising quickly. Construction material, labor, and added expenses like installing dozens of wastewater-treatment plants are pushing the total bill past the previously earmarked amount of 500 billion yuan (about $60 billion, according to exchange rates in 2002 when construction began).Quartz
That figure, for all three routes, was already almost twice as expensive as the Three Gorges Dam. And, Shen tells Quartz, “that number is meaningless now.… In the future, it will be far more than 500 billion.” Costs for the now-completed first phase have almost doubled to 300 billion yuan from the earlier budget of 124 billion yuan, according to Zhang Jiyao, in an interview with Southern Weekend in October.
These spiraling costs mean there’s a risk that the SNWDP could turn into China’s largest white elephant—an unused network of canals and structures across the country. Beijing residents currently pay 4 yuan ($0.66) per cubic meter of water. The diverted water could cost around 10 yuan a cubic meter for residents in Beijing, according to estimates. So far, water from the eastern route costs up to 2.24 yuan per cubic meter for cities, but the final price that residents pay will be higher, government academics say. Residents, factories, and some cities may be unwilling to pay this price, says Jia Shaofeng, a government researcher in water-resource management at the Chinese Academy of Science (CAS).
If the SNWDP doesn’t pay back its own costs, that could be a catastrophe for government finances. About 45 percent of the project is financed by loans from banks. “There could be a great default,” says James Nickum, vice president of the International Water Resources Association, who visited areas slated to be the grounds for the eastern and central route in the 1980s, when officials were still debating the project. “I’m not convinced the project is a good deal economically.”A canal along the central route of the SNWDP in Henan province. (Lily Kuo/Quartz)
So why do it? The SNWDP seems to be another example of China’s penchant for massive projects that show off the power of the party. Large water projects are an especial favorite of China’s engineer-dominated leadership. (Eight of the nine members of the previous Politburo’s standing committee were engineers, including former President, Hu Jintao, who was a water engineer.) “It’s an approach that comes from both a Maoist impulse to subjugate nature in the pursuit of economic development, as well as what you’d expect from a government made up of engineers,” says Peter Martin, an analyst of Chinese politics at APCO Worldwide.
But this massive display of power—some might say hubris—is also a sign of weakness. One reason why China’s water crisis is so dire is that the central government hasn’t been able to coordinate national efforts to conserve water. Local environmental bureaus are often weak. Companies fined for breaking pollution rules often ignore the fines or renegotiate them with local officials. Local officials have been loath to raise water prices, despite Beijing’s requests, because of the backlash they might face from residents, or their relationships with local businesses. “Beijing can only get localities to do a certain number of things,” says Kenneth Pomeranz, an environmental historian at the University of Chicago. Water conservation hasn’t traditionally been one of them. “It shows both the strength of the center and its limitations.”
So, while China is pushing other forms of water conservation, from new provincial water usage quotas to initiatives to raise water prices as well as recycle rainwater, the SNWDP is China’s most ambitious effort perhaps because it is the most feasible. Formalized and promoted as a national initiative, the project requires officials to fall in line, at least to some extent. “We had other choices, but construction is easier. You pay. Companies build it,” says Jia, the researcher from CAS. By contrast, when it comes to things like conservation, “The upper leaders have their policy and the local officials have their countermeasures.”
You can see some of those countermeasures on display in Jining, a city in the coastal province of Shandong, where the eastern diversion route passes through. Pharmaceutical company Cathay Biotech is one of dozens of polluting factories that officials promised to move out of the city to clean up a local lake through which the diverted water will flow. A People’s Daily article on the factory in April said that it had closed and moved to a nearby development area in Jin Xiang.
Quartz visited Cathay’s original location in Jining in late August. The complex of buildings was along a row of car manufacturers and other factories. Plumes were wafting upwards from a smokestack. In a half-full parking lot, workers were unloading a truck and one of the workers said the factory was still operating. (The company declined to respond to emailed questions.)
Meanwhile, in Jin Xiang, the plot of land belonging to Cathay Biotech’s new factory was little more than a mound of dirt. Nearby plots of land were similarly empty. Near Cathay’s Jining factory is a small village where the residents say local industry has long polluted their water supply. They don’t expect the SNWDP to change that. One man says, “You can build, but it won’t solve the core problem.”
Additional reporting by Ning Hui. Graphics by David Yanofsky. This project was funded through a fellowship with the International Center for Journalists.
The Daily Mail was positively apoplectic. "Shocking pictures show people in Crimea taking SELFIES with Russian masked gunmen as Ukraine teeters on the brink of war," the British tabloid yelped over the weekend. Did you catch that? SELFIES!
Others were equally astonished. "Welcome to the 21st century, where you take Instagram selfies with the guys invading your country," a Twitter user marveled.
Putting aside one of the explanations for this stream of selfies—a substantial pro-Moscow, ethnic Russian population on the peninsula—it's actually quite fitting that amateur and professional photographers are experimenting with new technology this week to document Russia's occupation of the Ukrainian peninsula. A century and a half ago, Crimea served as the breeding ground for modern war photography.
The Crimean War left many legacies: Florence Nightingale, "The Charge of the Light Brigade," ski masks. But arguably its most consequential one was modern war journalism. The conflict, which pit Russia against Britain, France, Sardinia, and the Ottoman Empire over territorial and religious disputes in the Middle East, raged from 1853 to 1856, not long after the invention of photography and the electric telegraph. These technologies enabled William Howard Russell, an intrepid correspondent for The Times of London, to file on-the-ground dispatches about the British government's bumbling deployment of troops, and Roger Fenton, a young London lawyer with little photography experience, to snap the first images of war for a private publisher rather than a government (Fenton actually had two benefactors; British officials chipped in). "It was the first 'armchair war,' which a distant public could experience as a kind of spectacle," Smithsonian magazine once observed.
Now, photographers are once again mediating our experience of a conflict in Crimea. And they're choosing Instagram, which launched in 2010, for specific reasons.
"Sometimes it's a personal space just to show life as it is," Ed Ou, a Canadian photojournalist in Ukraine, told National Geographic on Thursday. "A photograph doesn't have to be front-page news.... What's cool about Instagram is that you can show things that you know won't be used otherwise and might never be seen."A man beside the grave of the British Brigadier General Thomas Leigh Goldie, who was killed in action in the Crimean War. (Roger Fenton/Library of Congress)
Ukrainians hold a cross in front of Russian troops occupying a Ukrainian military base near the Crimean capital. (Ed Ou/Instagram)
Granted, today's crisis in Crimea is not a war. For all the diplomatic and military activity of the last week, not a single shot has been fired (besides a few warning blasts over the heads of Ukrainian soldiers). Still, there are similarities between Fenton's Crimea and Ou's.
There are, for instance, the many images of conflict as a static rather than kinetic phenomenon. We know Fenton witnessed fighting; “It is not amusing at all hearing the whirr of cannon balls approaching.” he wrote in one letter home. But of the nearly 400 photos that Fenton produced in four months, none depict combat, and very few (a road littered with cannonballs; a cemetery) even hint at the horrors of a war that left hundreds of thousands dead. Instead we see military camps dotting hillsides, soldiers resting at their makeshift barracks, ships docked at harbors. This is in part because action shots were impossible given the time it took Fenton to expose film in his horse-drawn wagon-turned-darkroom. But it may have also been a result of Fenton's efforts to please the British government and sell his pictures to a gore-averse British public.
The Instagrammed photos currently coming out of Crimea capture similarly mundane scenes—a product of the surreal military intervention Vladimir Putin has launched. "From the outside world, it probably seems like what's happening in Crimea is absolutely insane," Ou explained. "But the truth is that life is still going on.... The story most of the world is hearing is a political one. Here it's easy to see life as normal. A lot of the tension is in people's minds."A group of Croat laborers. (Roger Fenton/Library of Congress)
Ukrainian soldiers at an Air Force base outside the Crimean capital. (Ed Ou/Instagram)
Then there's the controversy surrounding the genesis of the images themselves.
In 2007, for example, the filmmaker Errol Morris, over the course of three New York Times blog posts, 15 footnotes, and 24,000 words, entertained the theory that Fenton had staged his most famous photograph, "Valley of the Shadow of Death," perhaps by scattering cannonballs in said valley. Two versions of the picture exist: one with cannonballs on a road, and one with them on the side of the road.
Instagramming conflict is divisive as well. In 2012, the photographer Nick Stern argued that photojournalists using the service were sacrificing authenticity at the feet of Silicon Valley's algorithms and computer programmers. "Every time a news organization uses a Hipstamatic or Instagram-style picture in a news report, they are cheating us all," he wrote. "It's not the photographer who has communicated the emotion into the images. It's not the pain, the suffering or the horror that is showing through. It's the work of an app designer in Palo Alto who decided that a nice shallow focus and dark faded border would bring out the best in the image."Cannonballs in the "valley of the shadow of death." (Roger Fenton/Library of Congress)
Pro-Russia forces seize a Ukrainian Coast Guard base in Balaklava, Crimea. (Alexander Marquardt/Instagram)
Of course, what constitutes reality—and the extent to which photojournalists show or shape it—is and has always been an open question. Ever since Fenton's day, photographers have relied on technology to take and manipulate pictures. And, as Ou argues, photojournalists posting to Instagram are acting as their own editors—communicating what they've just seen all the more directly to their audience.
There's even an academic paper on this subject. Some maintain that “aestheticizing war leads to anesthetizing war,” Meryl Alper, a Ph.D. candidate in communication at the University of Southern California, noted last year. "Consider Nick Ut’s photograph of a naked young Vietnamese girl fleeing a napalmed village, the thousands of photos of atrocities committed at Abu Ghraib, or Ken Jarecke’s chilling photo of a charred Iraqi soldier during the first Gulf War—each simulated on digital Polaroid paper in between photos of cocktails and kittens on an Instagram feed."British Captain Thomas Longworth Dame. (Roger Fenton/Library of Congress)
A young Cossack in the Crimean capital. (Raul Gallego Abellan/Instagram)
Still, Alper adds, "[V]isual information, historically and at the present moment, continually blurs the lines between photograph and illustration, professional and amateur, and reporting and editorializing."
Fenton recognized these blurred lines as well, arguing that the Crimean War was best captured by newfangled photography rather than conventional illustration (of course, he had a professional interest in saying so). "Simpson who is working for Colnaghi makes only pencil outlines on the ground & puts in the colour from memory," he wrote to his publisher. "Goodall who is here for the Illustrated News has been ill & not doing much[.] His sketches which appear in the paper seem to astonish every one from there [sic] total want of likeness & the nullity & it is not suprising [sic] that it should be so, since you will see from the prints sent herewith that the scenes we have here are not bits of Artistic effort which can be effectually rendered by a rough sketch but wide stretches of open country covered with an infinity of detail."Fenton's assistant, Marcus Sparling, on their photographic van. (Roger Fenton/Library of Congress)
Journalists covering the Crimean crisis rest at a Ukrainian Air Force base. (Ed Ou/Instagram)
What we're seeing today is another attempt by photographers to capture Crimea in innovative ways—and, as Fenton might put it, "with an infinity of detail."
Saturday is International Women's Day, which arose from an early-20th-century socialist suffrage movement and has since become a national holiday in about two dozen countries—in some of them, a holiday "for women only." Take that, HR guidelines!
The day is not a big deal in the U.S. (the whole socialism thing probably wasn't great for its American branding), but it does present an opportunity to evaluate how various countries are doing by their female workers.Poster for Women's Day on March 8, 1914 (Karl Maria Stadler)
What quickly becomes clear is that there are countless ways to succeed on gender equality—whether it's implementing policies that encourage women to choose higher-paying professions, allowing employees more workplace flexibility, or developing a culture that encourages equity in housework. And when the data is broken down by each metric, some surprising leaders emerge, like Mexico and Poland.
So here's a wide-ranging look at gender parity in the workplace, according to recently updated data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. (The OECD collects data on a diverse group of high-income countries, meaning Northern Europe doesn't go up against, say, the Central African Republic).
You can click the caption of each chart to get to a larger, interactive version.Math skills
Math-oriented professions tend to be higher-paying, so occasionally economists look at students' early subject-matter proclivities to see if there's something deterring women from pursuing careers as, say, engineers and actuaries. To evaluate students, the OECD uses the Program for International Student Assessment, a test that measures 15-year-olds' math, reading, and science abilities.
When it comes to math, the picture is grim: Jordan, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates are the only three countries in which boys are significantly less likely to feel comfortable working on math problems than girls are. In all of the other countries, the girls are more likely to say they feel "helpless while performing a math problem."Students responding that they feel helpless when doing math problems. (OECD)
On the actual PISA math test, though, girls only scored about 2 percent, on average, less than boys did:PISA math test score (OECD)
So it's clear that around the world, girls are better at math than they think they are.Computer-science degrees
Mexico has the highest ratio of women awarded computer-science tertiary degrees—roughly the equivalent of a B.A. or higher—followed by South Africa.Percent of tertiary computer-science degrees awarded to women. (OECD)
Here, there seems to be no pattern to the rankings. In more conservative countries like Mexico and Turkey, substantial numbers of female coders are entering the workforce. Meanwhile, in countries that we usually think of as more progressive, like Belgium and Switzerland, women are far more likely to go into fields like education, health, and the humanities.
Of course, those traditionally female subjects are also more popular than computing is among Mexican women. But it could be that in fast-changing economies (such as Mexico and South Africa), women are entering computer science at higher rates in an attempt to maximize their earning potential. Or it could be that in some cultures, computer science is simply not viewed as a masculine field—a factor that researchers have observed in countries with more equitable STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) balances.
Meanwhile, women in every country but Japan are far more likely than men to get advanced degrees in any field:Graduation rates in tertiary education. (OECD)Paid work and unpaid work
Women spend less time on paid work than men do in every country:OECD
But it's important to note that "working less" is not necessarily a bad thing. In places like the Netherlands, for example, women working part-time has become an ingrained cultural practice.
"They work half days, meet their friends for coffee at 2 p.m., and pity their male colleagues who are stuck in the office all day," wrote Jessica Olien, an American who lived in the Netherlands, in Slate.
But something that is a problem is that in nearly every country, women do more unpaid work than men, such as childcare and chores:OECD
Applause to the Norwegian men for coming closest to doing their fair share at home. Apparently what the fox really does say is "Yes, honey, I'll be happy to Swiffer the living room." But in countries like Turkey, India, and Japan, "the second shift" is real—and it's a long one.
The gender wage gap in the U.S., when you control for things like hours worked and type of job, is about 9 cents. The OECD doesn't get down to that level—it simply compares the wages of all male workers with those of all female workers. From the looks of it, women make the least compared with men in South Korea, Estonia, Japan, and Israel. The Netherlands also has a big gap, showcasing the major downside of all those women working part-time. Ireland and Belgium look most equitable on this front.Size of the gender wage gap, by country and latest year with available data. (OECD)
Norway also leads the OECD in the percentage of female board members. That's because the country enacted a law in 2003 requiring public companies' boards to be at least 40 percent female.The share of women on the boards of listed companies by country, 2009. (OECD)
The Norwegian law is fairly draconian: Companies must either comply or be shut down. As a result, though, the boards have also become more professional —no more old boys' networks—and more diverse, since companies often have to look outside Norway's borders to find enough women to meet the minimum.
In every country, though, women are much less likely to be senior managers than men are:OECD
Wherever you go, it seems, corner offices are still dominated by les hommes, mehed, hombres, and muži.
To close some of these gaps, the OECD recommends addressing "stereotyping" in order to engage more girls in math and science, expanding affordable child care, and ensuring greater access to finance for female entrepreneurs.
That's a start, but since countries' gender successes vary so much, it's clear that no single solution is going to fit every case.
SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine—Outside the Perevalne military base in Crimea, about 20 miles outside Simferopol, a few hundred Russian troops are stationed in units and backed up by an array of hardware. The dark fur hats of a few Ukrainian soldiers peep up over the ramparts.
Perevalne is one of several strategic Crimean sites that Russian troops have encircled, effectively taking control of the Black Sea peninsula. At the base, the two sides are locked in a standoff, with Russia demanding the Ukrainian troops give up their weapons. The Ukrainians are refusing.
“We’re not playing checkers here. There's been no suggestion of giving up,” says a Ukrainian lieutenant colonel. “There was a proposal that we give up our weapons, but we have a military chain of command and there has been no command or instruction to give up our weapons.” The fragile peace could be torn apart by a single gunshot. And yet on the ground, the situation also has the feel of theater—and more than a touch of the absurd.
Moscow is keeping up the pretense that the soldiers—deployed in Crimea without Russian military insignia—are not in fact Russian troops. And outside the base, dozens of locals waving Russian flags are reading from this script. “We don’t know who these soldiers are, but we approve of them being here because they are peaceful,” one local said. Russian soldiers share jokes among themselves. Their green fatigues are swollen with state-of-the-art equipment and armor. But the masked soldiers are also visibly short—suggesting they are conscripts in their teens.
A pair of young Ukrainian soldiers wave at four supporters outside. Two Tatars and two Ukrainian women were bringing food and supplies to the base. They briefly brandish signs saying “You’re heroes!” and “Hang in there—we’re with you!” before being heckled by a pro-Russia local. The offerings of food are spurned by the Ukrainian lieutenant colonel who says it was wrong to assume his soldiers are “demoralized” or hungry.
And yet the gravity of the situation is undeniable. Father Ivan Katkalo, a priest of the local church near the base, knows the soldiers. "They are going to stay until the end," he says. "They say that they took an oath and are going to keep it.”
Nazli, a Tatar woman who came out to show support for the surrounded base, says as tensions escalate she increasingly fears for her safety. "I am afraid to go out into the street with a little Ukrainian flag. I've taken my Ukrainian flag out of the window because it scares me having it there,” she says.An unmarked soldier near a Ukrainian military base in the village of Perevalnoye, outside Simferopol. (Vasily Fedosenko/Reuters)
* * *
Khadije, an ethnic Tatar from Simferopol, was just four when she was loaded onto a train and deported by Joseph Stalin from Crimea to Uzbekistan. Now she's 73 and long settled back in Crimea, and is quick to recall how friends and relatives starved to death during the deportation.
And there is a reason these memories are flooding back. With Russian troops deployed across Crimean territory and with the peninsula effectively under Moscow's control, Crimea’s Tatars—many of whom supported the 'Euromaidan' protests in Kiev—fear they could easily end up caught in the middle of conflict.
Khadije's voice wavers and she tears up. “Let there be peace between Ukraine and Russia—and between us. Let them take their forces out of here. They are armed with machine guns. Who are they against? Is it against me? I don’t have a weapon.”
Khadije was one of approximately 300 women, most of them Tatars, who gathered on March 3 for an anti-war demonstration on the outskirts of Simferopol. A few Ukrainians and ethnic-Russians stood with them on the side of the highway to Yalta. They held up signs saying “Mothers for peace” and "Tatars, Ukrainians, and Russians are brothers—No to war."
Few Crimean Tatars ever supported Ukraine's ousted pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovych and came out in strong support of the Euromaidan protests that overthrew him. Khadije is now fearful that the last years of relative comfort are over should the peninsula slip under Russian control. Tens of thousands of Tatars returned to Crimea after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Over the following years, a new configuration and balance between different ethnicities took shape, but it has been shaken up by recent turmoil.A pro-Russian demonstrator holds a Russian flag at a meeting in Simferopol. (Vasily Fedosenko/Reuters)
* * *
On Pushkin Street in central Simferopol, commotion erupts near Crimea's regional parliament, where pro-Russia supporters have demonstrated for the past week. Oksana Martinovich, a middle-aged Ukrainian woman from Kiev, is standing silently as a dozen local residents denounce her aggressively as a “provocateur” and shout in her face.
Martinovich traveled to Simferopol from the capital to sing songs. "I didn't think it would be like this," Martinovich said later. "I deliberately chose songs that aren't political." As an ardent supporter of Maidan, she hoped it might go a small way toward easing tensions. It didn’t.
One bulky, mustached man cursed aggressively and shouted at her as she stood still: “Why are you looking at me stupidly like that? What songs are you talking about? Why are you standing here? Is there something wrong in your head?” One woman threw small change at her feet and told her to head for the train station. Others shouted “fascist!” and “Glory to Berkut!”
Seeing the rising aggression of the group, a couple of men sprung to protect Martinovich. Several other bystanders were appalled: “What aggression! It's horrible,” muttered one elderly Russian woman. The group then dissipated. In front of a smaller crowd, she performed the song—which briefly took the sting out of the confrontation—before tempers ran high again. Eventually Martinovich walked off.
Leonid, an ethnic Russian pensioner in his mid-60s, laughed at the idea that “Kiev sent a woman on her own as a provocateur.” But he disagrees strongly with her views and supports Russia’s actions. Leonid says that “this is all happening because of language,” referring to the lawmakers in Ukraine's parliament, the Verhovna Rada, who briefly annulled a law that gave official status to minority languages in the regions. The move, which touched a nerve with Russian populations, was reversed. But the damage was already done.
* * *
In Simferopol, there is a street vendor. He's a resident of Crimea, an ethnic Russian, and considers himself a loyal Ukrainian citizen. He says he was dismayed this week when pro-Russia residents came to his stand and asked: “Why don’t you display a St. George's ribbon and the Russian flag on your stand?”
“What, do I have to?” he replied. A customer pays in Ukrainian hryvnia and adds, “Soon we’ll be paying in rubles.”
This post appears courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
It may come as no surprise to Indian women, but their menfolk do some of the least housework in the world. At least, that’s what the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found when they looked at gender disparities in various nations.Quartz
India consistently ranks quite low on various measures of gender equality. (The United Nations placed India at 132 out of 148 countries in its recent gender inequality index.) The housework issue is a decidedly less dire example than the country’s increasingly high-profile problem with sexual violence.
But it is another indication of the fact that weak female economic participation is still a drag on India’s economic development. Perhaps that will change, as the country looks for new drives to counter its declining rates of GDP growth. But don’t hold your breath.
This post originally appeared on Quartz, an Atlantic sister site.
We know why education is good for individuals. The promises of college graduation range from the poetic (intellectual stimulation and love of learning) to utilitarian (increased earning and power potential), but everyone seems to know that educated individuals stand to gain something.
What we don’t really know is why education is so good for societies. Sure, politicians regularly wax poetic about the collective benefits of education—most often the economic ones—but the complex connections are left out. The strongest relationship remains obscure: More educated countries consistently have better governments, on any number of ratings. Here is education compared to the World Bank’s Governance Indicators, the World Justice Project’s Rule of Law Index, and Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index.
Botero, Ponce, Shleifer 2014
Compared to the clear outcomes that schooling endows on pupils—like literacy or basic arithmetic—how governments and countries benefit from an educated populous is less transparent. One popular idea is that educated citizens are better voters (e.g. Dee, 2004)—and a more engaged voting population would make government more accountable. Be that as it may, there is a crucial issue: The relationship between education and government persists outside of democracies. For example, countries like Qatar (monarchy) and Slovakia (democracy) have similar levels of education and government ratings, but very different systems. There must be another reason more educated societies make more accountable government.
A new paper, “Education, Complaints, and Accountability,” published last week in the Journal of Law and Economics suggests one possible mechanism: the power of complaining. The authors, Juan Botero and Alejandro Ponce of the World Justice Project (where I work as a research assistant) and Andrei Shleifer of Harvard University, conclude that “educated citizens complain more.” And complaining gets results: “These complaints lead to better conduct by officials fearful of being punished, which in turn leads to greater accountability and a higher quality government.” The study finds that individuals with higher educational attainment are significantly more likely to lodge complaints against their government, about general services, police abuse, and corruption.
The theory, in short:One reason why government improves is that citizens complain about public officials who mistreat them: policemen who beat them up, officials who demand bribes, teachers who do not show up…A public official choosing to break rules must trade off the risk of being disciplined, no matter how small for each individual complaint, against the benefits of misconduct. As citizens’ complaints proliferate, the risk of an investigation and disciplinary action rises…As education levels in a country rise, so does the number of complaints when officials misbehave, which raises the expected costs of misconduct and thus encourages better behavior—asking for fewer bribes, avoiding abusing people, showing up to work.
To test that logic in a comprehensive way, the authors consulted a huge international data set covering more than 80 countries, made up of three sources: data from the Rule of Law Index, the International Crime Victim Survey, and the Global Corruption Barometer. Questions from these surveys, based mainly in the Rule of Law Index surveys, asked representative samples from the largest cities in each country about their experience with complaint, in addition to recording their education history. Particularly, the participants were asked if they had submitted “any complaint about the services provided by the different government agencies in your country (including registration office; customs office; public health services; tax office; land allocation office, etc.)” during the last year, and “whether respondents experienced police abuse and, if so, whether they reported it.” Information from the crime victim survey and corruption barometer supplemented information for crime and corruption complaints, respectively.
The results varied widely for both complaints and education: The percentage of individuals who had submitted a complaint ranged from 2 percent in Georgia to 38 percent in Ethiopia; the percentage of college graduates in a city went from 4 percent in Sri Lanka to 71 percent in a Russian city. Overall, though, the authors conclude, education had a significant effect on complaints. The worldwide mean for complaining was 15.6 percent, and college graduates are 5.1 percentage points more likely, and high school graduates 2.8 percentage points more likely, to have submitted a complaint. On reporting police and military abuse the authors “find a sharply higher and statistically significant probability of reporting,” where college graduates are 8 percentage points more likely to complain than non-high school graduates compared to a 47 percent mean. On break-ins, the gap is 10.2 percentage points between college graduates and those without a high school degree (high school grads gained 5.2 points); on armed robberies, college graduates reported the crime 8.8 percentage points more. This is all to say, the authors assert, that, “the effect of education, particularly college education, on reporting crime is huge.” Taken together, they write, the results show that “education encourages complaints about misconduct.” The results also indicate a number of related phenomena: The relationship between education level and complaining is particularly strong in autocracies and developing countries; “police violating the law will be punished is a strong predictor of the probability of complaining about misconduct and reporting crime”; and “educated countries have a lower incidence of public and private misconduct.”
Of course, as with any study, there are some complications. First, the effect of education on complaining doesn’t hold up well in countries with a highly educated populous. This is likely because “the knowledge of how to address government misconduct is more widespread and there is less fear of reprisal” in these societies: Those with less education might benefit and learn from their complaining neighbors. Second, technology can matter: “Having a cell phone sharply raises the probability of reporting police abuse and burglary, although not of complaining about government generally” (computers don’t). Ultimately, though, the authors find that education is not likely a proxy for something else: Complaining does not substantially depend on income, trust, or social status.
There are unique effects, the authors find, about how education changes an individual’s relationship with the state: “Educated people might merely know better how to complain effectively,” they suggest. “They are more literate, more articulate, and more knowledgeable about where to go and how to complain.” Moreover, those with high levels of education tend to have less fear of the police, perhaps because “they know the law and the rules and hence can stand up to officials.” Though the authors are careful to note that their evidence can’t necessarily prove causation, the logic does make sense. More limited studies, on a local level, have found the same effects of education, from ethics complaints in Florida counties to complaints in provincial capitals in China.
Assuming the links between education, complaints, and accountability have at least some strength, there’s a lot at stake. For developing countries, and for international funders of those countries, prioritizing education might make sense in order to combat issues of corruption or government misconduct. These countries might simultaneously reap the benefits individuals receive from education (work readiness, etc), in addition to adding citizen oversight to government institutions, all through one investment. For developed countries, this finding might go some way to explaining structural inequalities, particularly around cities. What if complaints partially explain why Chicago’s educated and wealthier white suburbs, for example, have better infrastructure than its predominantly black, less-educated, and low-income South Side? Is education and complaints why gentrifying areas physically improve? It’s at least something to investigate.
For all countries, the possibility of actually teaching complaints should come to the fore. The effect of education on complaining is, at best, a side effect of curriculum itself. Societies that seek better government might do well to invest in civics classes that teach youth how to advocate for themselves and their community. In the US, civics requirements and courses are often wanting, and most often suggest that voting—not an American best—is the sum of participation. The impact of teaching civic participation—including but not limited to filing complaints—could help ensure that government services focus where they need to, or at the least create a record of ignored requests that would be useful later for public pressure. It’s almost surprising, in fact, that this sort of non-partisan civic education hasn’t become part of public education systems: Wouldn’t everyone agree that government should be held accountable to the people? Teaching middle school students that they can file a service request for a pothole (for example), or having high school classrooms submit FOIA requests (particularly given forthcoming simplifications) shouldn’t sound so far-fetched. It’s no more complicated, and perhaps more important, than many topics already in public curricula.
When countries invest in education, their government improves. If complaints help drive accountability, then teaching complaining—like has never been done before—could lead to enormous collective benefits. If “dissent is the highest form of patriotism,” as is often said, complaint might be the height of public service.
In a thoughtful post on Ukraine and Vladimir Putin's decision to invade it, Ross Douthat suggests that the incursion was plausibly connected to White House fumbling in Syria.
He begins with a nod to those who disagree.
"Many writers I read and respect are dismissive of the idea that concepts like 'toughness' and 'credibility' and 'resolve' meaningfully shape the behavior of foreign actors," he writes. "But I think this dismissal can go too far: The history of warfare and diplomacy is replete with cases where regimes have decided to gamble on a particular course—sometimes wisely, sometimes disastrously—because of their reading of a rival’s leader’s psychology, priorities, skills and sense of purpose. Is it really so ridiculous to believe that the Syria crisis confirmed certain impressions that Putin had already cultivated about America’s willingness to back up its threats and see a given strategy through, and that this influenced his decision to push harder in Ukraine than this White House ... expected?"
Could that be true, as far as it goes? "This push isn’t 'about us' in the sense that, say, Russia’s decision-making in the Cuban Missile Crisis was," Douthat adds, "but Putin surely took account of the steps that the U.S. and its allies were likely to undertake in response, and decided that they would be less effective, and less painful to his interests, than our own foreign policy team clearly expected him to think." Well, I don't think this logic takes us very far at all toward hawkish positions.
Say that Putin learned, as a result of non-intervention in Syria, that the Obama administration won't start risky wars that don't serve U.S. interests merely to save face. That plausibly increased Putin's certainty that the U.S. wouldn't respond to aggression against Ukraine by declaring war on Russia–that would constitute an even more costly use of force on behalf of a decidedly peripheral interest.
See where I'm going?
In theory, some past Obama administration action could've persuaded Putin that we might respond militarily, causing him to refrain from his invasion of Crimea.
But if so, that action would've damaged us, because only a risky intervention with costs that far outweighed benefits would've made the necessary point: that we may well do something that's reckless and irrational. And even that attempt to establish what we're calling "credibility" wouldn't necessarily be successful. After all, striking Syria and warring with Russia, to stick with our example, are still different. It's no coincidence that the Syria hawks who think U.S. non-intervention emboldened Putin don't themselves favor a military response in Crimea.
They just believe if we had acted in Syria, Putin would be fooled into thinking that we'd act if he invaded Crimea. Why they think that is beyond my comprehension. If an intervention is so foolhardy that even Bill Kristol opposes it, it's hard to imagine a scenario in which a foreign leader would bet on us jumping in.
Now, perhaps there is a theoretical instance in which the threshold for taking action in one country is crossed, just barely, because it will help us to bluff in a different circumstance. But that gambit seems like an awfully questionable rationale for starting a war. Hawks nevertheless encourage such an approach so frequently that it's as if they regard it as a mainstay of sound geopolitical strategy.
If you need a refresher on the time they got to try things their way, Ted Galen can help:
Richard Perle insisted that having already destroyed the Taliban in Afghanistan, moving against Saddam’s regime would send the message to Iran (and other supporters of terrorism such as Syria and Libya) that “‘You’re next.’ Two words. Very efficient diplomacy.”
Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer contended that the United States could best accelerate an anti-clerical revolution in Iran by conducting successful military campaigns in nearby states, especially Iraq. “Overthrowing neighboring radical regimes shows the fragility of dictatorship, challenges the mullahs’ mandate from heaven and thus encourages disaffected Iranians to rise,” Krauthammer argued. “First, Afghanistan to the east. Next, Iraq to the west.”The ubiquitous Bill Kristol insisted that the potential “political, strategic and moral rewards” of invading Iraq would be great. Among other benefits, a “friendly, free, and oil-producing Iraq would leave Iran isolated.” American Enterprise Institute writers Gary Schmitt and Tom Donnelly predicted: “Defeating the Saddam/Bin Laden axis will send a broader message as well. It will deter Iran, Syria, and the other part-time members of the anti-American coalition in the Middle East.”
If America was, in fact, willing to go to war for a particular cause–the territorial integrity of Canada, say–it would certainly be worthwhile to make sure we've clearly signaled as much. But signaling with actual war to make a bluff more credible? The most likely outcome is that you fight dumb wars and send a signal of incompetence.
Meet Diosdado Cabello: Venezuela’s National Assembly chief, vice president of the ruling United Socialist Party, and ruthless pragmatist par excellence. If the makers of House of Cards are looking to expand the franchise south, they should get to know Venezuela’s Frank Underwood.
In recent weeks, Venezuela’s political crisis—mass protests in response to a flailing economy, rampant scarcities, soaring crime, and ideological polarization—has been portrayed in international media primarily as a struggle between a monolithic government and the embattled remnants of the nation’s traditional middle class. But this narrative is superficial; several storylines, both personal and social, are playing out below the surface. And these include a bitter clash between Hugo Chávez’s successor and almost-successor for the soul of his party and the future of the country.
For one party in this clash, President Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela’s unrest has been deeply damaging. He is under fire for his ready reliance on state violence in dealing with unarmed demonstrators, which has left 18 people dead. In public appearances, he seems increasingly exhausted and more than a little unhinged.
For the other party, Cabello, the turmoil has been galvanizing. Suddenly he’s everywhere. When the popular opposition figure Leopoldo López was declared a wanted man, it was Cabello who negotiated his surrender with his family. Later, during the arrest itself—a preposterous affair in which López gave himself up during a mass demonstration—it was again Cabello who showed up to escort him to jail (despite having no judicial or police authority), ostensibly to “assure his safety.” Soon after, when security forces squared off with Ángel Vivas, a renegade former general who barricaded himself in his home in defiance of an arrest order, it was Cabello—not Maduro—who played the most visible official role in the dramatic showdown.
What’s more, mere days after López first called for anti-government protests, state media announced that Cabello would be starring in his own weekly television show. The first episode featured a ‘surprise’ visit from Maduro and a music video by Cabello’s daughter, Daniella, in which she sang a ballad to the recently departed Chávez. The video went viral among government supporters, and Daniella has remained in the headlines by publicly “forgiving” a young regime opponent who had sent her a threatening tweet.
In other words, as Venezuela marks the first anniversary since Chávez’s death, the struggle between Cabello and Maduro is becoming more pronounced. And Cabello appears to be winning.
Diosdado Cabello began his political career as one of Chávez’s junior comrades-in-arms from the military, during a failed putsch against the government of Carlos Andrés Pérez in 1992. The plot miscarried, and Cabello was briefly jailed for his participation. After his release, he assisted Chávez during his first successful presidential bid in 1998, and was singled out early on for his toughness and efficacy.Diosdado Cabello walks with Hugo Chávez in 2008. (Reuters/Miraflores Palace)
His political trajectory since has been remarkable both for its duration (Chávez was quick to sideline potential rivals) and its variety. His posts have included stints as the minister of planning, justice, the interior, public works, and housing, along with stretches as a state governor, the head of the National Telecommunications Commission, and Chávez’s chief of staff and presidential campaign manager. Following the collapse of a bloodless coup in 2002 that briefly ousted Chávez, Cabello, then vice president, even assumed the presidency—an ephemeral tenure that lasted mere hours until Chávez himself could be located and constitutional order (or at least what passes for it in Venezuela) restored. Ten years later, with Chávez ailing, many suspected Cabello might be anointed his heir, but he was instead passed over for the country’s current president, Nicolás Maduro.
Today, as head of Venezuela’s Socialist-dominated unicameral legislature, the 50-year-old Cabello rules over his fief with brutal efficiency. For all the incarnadine gusto of Kevin Spacey’s character, Cabello often does Frank Underwood one better. On his watch, the National Assembly has made a habit of ignoring constitutional hurdles entirely—at various times preventing opposition members from speaking in session, suspending their salaries, stripping particularly problematic legislators of parliamentary immunity, and, on one occasion, even presiding over the physical beating of unfriendly lawmakers while the assembly was meeting.
In a region of the world where charisma is king, Cabello—whose first name, Diosdado, translates to “God-given”—is something of an oddity. He amasses his influence not as a mesmerizer of crowds, but as a master manipulator of those around him. Artfully leveraging his position and alliances, he mercilessly crushes enemies, lavishly rewards friends, and even helps fill government offices with members of his own family. His wife is a member of the National Assembly, his brother is in charge of the nation’s taxation authority, and his sister is a Venezuelan legate to the United Nations.
In these ways, Cabello has accumulated clout among crucial constituencies such as wealthy businessmen and the armed forces, where 36 generals are from Cabello’s graduating class at Venezuela’s military academy. Cabello’s tendrils are even rumored to extend to shadier realms, including alleged ties to narco-trafficking syndicates and criminal organizations. A Wikileaked U.S. Embassy cable from 2009 characterized Cabello as a “major pole” of corruption within the regime, describing him as “amassing great power and control over the regime’s apparatus as well as a private fortune, often through intimidation behind the scenes.” The communiqué likewise entertained speculation that “Chavez himself might be concerned about Cabello's growing influence but unable to diminish it.”
This strategy is not without its drawbacks. Cabello is personally despised by regime opponents, who see him as a bullying mafioso, and also deeply distrusted by many of the government’s own supporters, who view him as corrupt, opportunistic, overly ambitious, and not sufficiently dedicated to the revolutionary principles of the United Socialist Party.
And true to Frank Underwood form, Cabello is excellent at getting himself appointed to lofty posts but less skilled at the ballot box. In 2008—despite enjoying the government’s vast financial and logistical support, and the tacit assistance of Venezuela’s famously preferential electoral authorities—he lost his reelection bid for the governorship of Miranda, Venezuela’s second-most-populous state, to Henrique Capriles: a foil who would eventually rise to challenge Chávez himself for the presidency in 2012.Nicolás Maduro and Diosdado Cabello beside Hugo Chávez's coffin. (Reuters/Miraflores Palace)
Cabello’s influence is shaped by the two divergent political groups within Venezuela’s ruling party: one pragmatic, the other ideological. The first, typified by Cabello, is the more classically populist Latin American movement: nationalistic, corrupt, and platitudinous. The second seeks international revolution and a wholesale transformation of Latin American society. Through oil diplomacy, this latter camp has sought to turn socialist Venezuela into a force in regional and global affairs, pumping state funds into maintaining friendly client regimes in Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador, and Nicaragua. Its members have allegedly also worked to influence elections as far afield as Mexico while strengthening ties with countries such as Iran and Russia.
At the peak of his power, Chávez was able to harness both these factions through the sheer force of his personality. Prior to his death, however, he staked his legacy on the ideological camp. As his health failed, Cuban influence within the Venezuelan government grew, and the regime in Havana—highly dependent economically on Venezuelan largesse in the form of subsidized oil and other assistance—pushed hard for Maduro, an idealist with strong ties to the Castros, to be made successor. Chávez’s cancer diagnosis likewise came at a time when Cabello’s clout seemed to be waning. Old corruption allegations resurfaced, and some of his allies were purged. This estrangement appeared to peak in 2012 when Chávez, during a live televised broadcast, unexpectedly recommended that Cabello run for the governorship of remote Monagas state. The region may have been Cabello's birthplace, but the proposal smacked of political exile. Cabello demurred.
Following Chávez’s death, and Maduro’s enshrinement as his heir, the Venezuelan constitution arguably left Cabello, as head of the legislature, acting president until elections could be held. Yet Maduro’s cadre managed to convince the relevant authorities to simply ignore the provision, allowing the position to pass to him and depriving Cabello of another shot at a truncated presidency.
While the two men have been publicly supportive of each other since then, the relationship may be far tenser than they let on. In April 2013, after Maduro eked out a contested electoral victory over Capriles, Cabello tweeted to his nearly 1 million followers that the government should engage in “profound self reflection” about why it had performed so poorly relative to Chávez’s last election. As the latter race had taken place mere months before, against the same opponent and with the same regime advantages, the implication of Cabello’s message was clear: ‘Maduro is a liability.’
A number of leaks have offered further evidence of an enduring rivalry. In May 2013, the opposition mysteriously obtained a recording of Mario Silva, a popular, pro-government ideologue and television host, discussing internal regime matters with a high-ranking member of Cuba’s secret police. In the audio, Cabello, whom Silva described as a “very great son of a whore,” was depicted as a power-hungry, kleptomaniacal thug, and a constant but irremovable thorn in the side of Maduro.
Publicly, the government tried to discredit the recordings as CIA/Mossad counterfeits, but Silva was promptly taken off the air. Cabello emerged from the scandal relatively unscathed and soon appeared beside Maduro on state television, looking untouchable and leaving some Venezuelans to wonder if he had orchestrated the leak himself.
As Venezuela’s protests enter their fourth week, the ultimate goal of Cabello’s latest charm offensive remains unclear. Opposition leaders have expressed concerns that, in facing off against Maduro, they risk enabling a Cabello takeover. Yet even in the unlikely event that the crisis results in Maduro resigning or being pushed out, a Cabello presidency would still require a national election, barring the outright suspension of the country’s constitution. And elections have never been Cabello’s forte.
But it’s best to not give such inconveniences much thought. Unlike Frank Underwood, his Netflixolano counterpart, Cabello’s endgame may not be the presidency itself. It is, instead, power with impunity that he seeks. If Maduro falls, it is difficult to imagine a scenario in which Cabello does not play an integral role in deciding who and what succeeds him. With the deck sufficiently stacked, it may not matter much to Diosdado Cabello who the king is—so long as he remains the ace.
Long after the Empire's collapse, the Union Jack remains an internationally recognized symbol of Britain. But all that could change soon. Scotland, one of the four countries that make up the United Kingdom (along with England, Northern Ireland, and Wales), will hold a referendum on independence this September. If it succeeds, Britain's iconic flag may need a makeover.
The Flag Institute, the U.K.'s national flag charity and the largest membership-based vexillological organization in the world, recently polled its members and found that nearly 65 percent of respondents felt the Union Jack should be changed if Scotland becomes independent. And after the poll, the organization found itself flooded with suggested replacements for the flag.Union flags in London during the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton. (Toby Melville/Reuters)
"We are not advocating changing the flag. We are not advising changing the flag. We are not encouraging a change to the flag. We are not discouraging a change to the flag," Charles Ashburner, the Flag Institute's chief executive and trustee, told me. "We are simply simply here to facilitate and inform the debate if there is an appetite for such a thing."
"As this subject has generated the largest post bag of any single subject in our history, however," Ashburner noted, "there is clearly such an appetite."
The Union Jack's history is closely intertwined with the U.K.'s history. After Elizabeth I died in 1603, her cousin, King James VI of Scotland, ascended to the English throne as James I of England. With Britain united under one king for the first time, James sought to symbolize his joint rule of the two countries with a new flag in 1606. The design placed the traditional English flag, known as the cross of Saint George, over the traditional Scottish flag, known as the cross of Saint Andrew.The history and evolution of the British flag (Wikimedia Commons/The Atlantic)
England and Scotland remained independent countries with separate parliaments, royal courts, and flags until they fully merged under the Act of Union in 1707. Queen Anne then adopted James I's symbolic flag as the national banner of Great Britain. When Ireland merged with Britain in 1801 to form the modern United Kingdom, the British flag incorporated Ireland's cross of Saint Patrick to create the modern Union Jack. The flag's design did not change after Irish independence in the mid-20th century because Saint Patrick's cross still represents Northern Ireland, which remained part of the U.K.
The Union Jack doesn't represent everyone, though. England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland are included, but Wales, the fourth U.K. country, isn't. Because Wales was considered part of the English crown in 1606 (with the title "Prince of Wales" reserved for that crown's heir) after its annexation by England centuries earlier, neither James I's original design nor any subsequent design based on it bears any influence of the culturally distinct, Celtic-influenced territory.The official flag of Wales, left, and the flag of Saint David, right. (Wikimedia Commons/The Atlantic)
British authorities granted Wales' red-dragon flag, or Y Ddraig Goch in Welsh, official status in 1959. But attempts to add Welsh symbolism to the Union Jack haven't succeeded; in 2007, a member of Parliament from Wales proposed adding the Welsh dragon to the flag, to no avail. Iconography could involve more than just the dragon: Like the U.K.'s other three countries, Wales has a patron saint, Saint David, and a black-and-gold flag to represent him.
If Scotland stays in the U.K., incorporating Wales into the British flag could be as simple as adding yellow borders.Flag Institute
Without Scotland in the U.K., the proposals become more diverse. One of the most popular post-Scotland designs that the Flag Institute received takes the path of least resistance by swapping out Scotland's colors in the Union Jack with one of the colors from Saint David's cross.Flag Institute
Adding both colors from Saint David's cross, as the design below did, really makes the flag pop.Flag Institute
Integrating elements of the official Welsh flag seems like a tamer choice than adopting the vivid color scheme of Saint David's flag.Flag Institute
Another proposed design would divide the flag into four quadrants, with Saint George's cross in two quadrants for England, Saint Patrick's cross in another quadrant for Northern Ireland, and the Welsh dragon in the final one.Flag Institute
The quadrant-based design bears a resemblance to the Queen's royal standard, which also divides the heraldic symbols of each country into different quadrants. Some designers scrapped the country-based designs and instead drew upon royal influences. The one below superimposes the crown on the current royal standard.Flag Institute
Another design inspired by the monarchy superimposes the royal coat of arms on a modified Union Jack. The floral wreath surrounding the coat of arms represents the monarch's various realms: white roses for England, thistles for Scotland, shamrocks for Ireland, maple leaves for Canada, and so forth.Flag Institute
But perhaps the boldest design of all is John Yates's "United Britain," a unique take on the Union Jack's cross-based design that Ashburner calls "unlike any other flag currently in existence."Flag Institute
The Union Jack occupies a special place in British society. In the U.K., the flag is only flown on certain government-designated days—a stark contrast with the United States, where flag-flying is ubiquitous. Protestant unionists in Northern Ireland controlled the Belfast City Council for years and flew the flag from city hall year-round. When Roman Catholic republicans gained control of the city council in early 2013, they reduced the number of days when the flag would be flown from 365 to the standard 18. The move triggered 40 days of violence and sectarian clashes between unionists and nationalists, reflecting the broader tensions that endured even after the Northern Irish peace process in the 1990s.The logos of the United Kingdom's national Olympic team, left, and national space agency, right. (Wikimedia Commons/The Atlantic)
The flag's importance isn't just political, either. The Union Jack is emblematic of modern British culture and society worldwide. These days, it's emblazoned on corporate logos, foreign aid, rock guitars, and even sex symbols. Perhaps no flag other than America's is as instantly recognizable around the world as the Union Jack is. Will a new flag retain that power?
1) Banana Man. Based on everything I have heard and observed, Gary Locke has done an excellent job as U.S. ambassador to China these past two and a half years. He managed the Chen Guangcheng episode with aplomb; he streamlined the visa-application process for Chinese visitors, which had been a chronic source of unnecessary friction; he was a tough advocate for U.S. commercial and technical interests; especially in his early days he was lionized by the Chinese public for his non-big-shot style of life, in sharp contrast to that of many Chinese grandees.Banana Man character from Adventure Time
And of course as the first Chinese-American to head the embassy in Beijing, he personified something valuable about the United States and about U.S.-Chinese ties.
It was this last point that occasioned an unbelievably ugly parting shot at Locke last week in the state-controlled media. As you've read in the press, and as you can see discussed in enlightening detail through a series of exchanges on ChinaFile, the government-run China State News called Locke "banana man." It helpfully explained that this meant someone who was yellow on the outside but white on the inside. (黄皮白心”的香蕉人", or "a yellow-skin, white-heart 'banana man'"). Of course this was a fair term for Locke because he served white masters in Washington rather than being loyal to "his" people, fellow Chinese.
Lots of good reading at the ChinaFile site, including this in the kickoff post by Kaiser Kuo:
In the context of this regrettable editorial, which was as subtle as a barking doberman, “banana man” was meant with unmistakable malice—that Locke is a “race traitor” who lacks the political loyalty to the Chinese nation that his blood should somehow confer. This is of course naive nonsense, and the patent ridiculousness of that phrase should have been obvious even to a writer totally unfamiliar with the complexities of the American discourse on race.
But while there will be many Chinese—indeed, already have been many—who will object to the editorial’s broadsides against Ambassador Locke, I suspect they’ll focus much more on the irony that state media would call out Gary Locke for living well but projecting everyman simplicity rather than on the “banana” comment, as many American commentators have. The expectation that anyone with a Chinese phenotype will have a “Chinese heart” to match, even at multiple generations of remove, is widespread in Chinese society. The plasticity of identity in multiethnic societies—that what you “owe” the race or the old country as, say, an American is entirely up to you—is still a fairly alien concept for most Chinese. We see this at work in the way Chinese law enforcement treats naturalized Chinese with U.S., Canadian, or Australian citizenship. It reminds us of the truth in what the late Lucian Pye said about China’s fundamentally civilizational notion of itself.
I mention this partly to point you to the interesting back-and-forth about "race treason" etc. at ChinaFile but mainly to seize the occasion to note the good use that Gary Locke has made of his time in Beijing. We are used to public figures falling short of potential, and the Obama-era ambassadorial corps in general has come in for its share of ridicule. On the principle that you should miss no opportunity to give a deserved compliment, I wanted to say that Gary Locke has represented his country very well and will be missed.
2) What can this mean? Let's hope it means something good. In politics, we will long remember the spectacle of Karl Rove marching with Megyn Kelly to see the "real" results from Ohio in 2012. Everything Rove had heard told him that Romney was going to win. So why wasn't reality conforming to the selective version of it he'd cocooned himself in?
This is the problem generally known as "epistemic closure"—walling yourself off from facts that don't fit your world view—and for a while after 2012 the GOP debated what to do about it. We can all think of other domestic illustrations. An international one is the role of the Chinese state media, who have viewed part of their mission as squelching complaints about whatever the government has decided to do.
Thus it is intriguing to see this item by writer Shan Renping in the state-controlled, tough-toned Global Times arguing that China was putting itself at a disadvantage by declaring certain topics undiscussable. Whoa! Here is the headline...
... and a specimen quote. (It refers to the "two sessions," an annual big legislative fandango now underway in Beijing that gets extensive coverage.) Emphasis added:
There will be public press conferences every day during the two sessions. Mainland reporters [from China itself] may restrain themselves, but their overseas counterparts will ask taboo questions. The wonderful nature of the two sessions' press conferences lies in the bold questioning by non-mainland reporters, which exposes the disadvantage of mainland media and demonstrates the aggressiveness of their outside counterparts.This is a predicament for China's soft power. There is a reason for the country to keep its current practices when dealing with sensitive issues. However, at the same time it damages the credibility of the mainstream media.
When Megyn Kelly goes to China, I hope she meets Shan Renping.
Vladimir Putin put the Russian invasion of Ukraine on “pause” at a press conference on Tuesday, and markets stepped back from the ledge. The rout in Russian assets was partly reversed; the ruble regained some ground, as did stocks and bonds. As long as there isn’t any shooting—aside from the odd warning shot—the mood seems to be one of cautious relief.
But don’t expect any meaningful money to pour back into Russia until the ultimate outcome of Ukraine’s crisis becomes clearer. Was Putin’s conciliatory tone a result of the market’s rebuke? Perhaps, but that is probably a simplistic reading of the intrigue over the past few days, as purportedly stateless soldiers flooded into Crimea and issued mysterious ultimatums to local military units. Equally, Putin could be testing the markets and gauging whether it is worth his while to fight in the open instead of in the shadows.
On this point, it is useful to assess Russia’s economic options in case its military ones are activated in Ukraine. The mere threat of Western sanctions could be enough to defuse the situation, with the turmoil at the start of the week a preview of the pain that the markets can inflict. At the same time, Russia may calculate that it can withstand the turbulence longer than the West—more specifically that its energy users, banks, and others entities reliant on Russia’s physical and financial resources can hold their nerve.
As it happens, the last time Russia invaded one of its neighbors, it faced a severe financial crisis. But the Russian tanks rolling into Georgia was only one of the factors that battered markets in 2008, as the global financial crisis also hit the country hard. Is it better prepared this time around? Judge for yourself, as the charts below compare the Russian economy around the time of the invasion of Georgia with the situation today, starting from when protests kicked off in Kiev in November.
Foreign currency reserves
As the ruble tanked on Monday, Russia’s central bank hiked interest rates and spent more than $11 billion propping up the currency in the open market. It has quadrupled the amount it is authorized to spend to keep the ruble trading within its target range. If the currency comes under renewed pressure, future interventions will drain Russia’s foreign exchange reserves (which include some of the assets held in its two sovereign wealth funds, the Reserve Fund and theNational Wealth Fund). Compared with 2008, Russia is starting from a somewhat smaller base of reserves to draw on, meaning it has less firepower with which to defend the ruble. In the tumultuous 12 months from June 2008, Russia’s reserves fell by $165 billion, which would be worth nearly 40% of today’s reserves.
Even before the latest bout of ruble turmoil, the Russian currency had been drifting downward for months, losing 10% of its value against the dollar since November. Thus far, it is following a similar path to mid-2008, although to see a depreciation on the same scale it would need to shed another 20% of its value in the coming months, which will depend on how aggressively the central bank deploys its reserves in defense the currency.
Compared with 2008, investors have been much kinder to Russian stocks, even considering the double-digit percentage plunge at the start of the week. Unlike the ruble, the benchmark RTS equity index has not regained as much ground as it lost on that day, but stocks aren’t yet under nearly as much pressure as they were during late 2008 and early 2009. Some think the declines are overdone and now is the time to buy.
Another factor working in Russia’s favor is energy prices. The price of oil has been much more stable in recent months than it was during the turmoil of 2008; few expect it to plunge like it did back then, thanks to firmer demand from a global economy on the mend instead of one in the throes of the worst downturn since the Great Depression. Russia links its gas prices to oil, so this should support the energy exports on which its budget depends.Much has been written about Europe’s reliance on the gas Russia pipes through Ukraine, not least how a mild winter has bolstered the continent’s gas inventories, making the threat of a disruption in supply less immediately daunting—and thus a less attractive weapon for Russia to deploy. European gas prices remain above last week’s levels, but for the most part countries that rely on Russian gas aren’t as exposed as they were when Putin last turned off the taps, in January 2009.
For Russia, its economic experience around that time is also something it would probably not want to repeat—in 2009 GDP sank by nearly 8%, unemployment spiked, and inflation ran in the double digits. And even as its economy has recovered, Russia is having trouble attracting investment and convincing its citizens to keep their money within the country. Provoking a return to recession—spurred by a currency collapse, sanctions, or some other Crimea-related shock—seems an unwise move.
Your move, Moscow
Of course, all wisdom is relative when geopolitics are involved. Some saw Putin’s press conference not as the performance of a cagey chess player but as a dangerous, out-of-touch rogue who was “nervous, angry, cornered, and paranoid, periodically illuminated by flashes of his own righteousness,” as one Russia watcher put it.
As the above shows, Russia is in some ways in better shape than it was in the run-up to its last financial crisis, but in others it looks like it may have already started retracing its previous path down into the doldrums. To the extent that things like foreign currency reserves and stock valuations play into the decision to invade a neighboring country, there is plenty for Putin to consider.
In December 1979, Moscow launched Operation Storm-333, or the invasion of Afghanistan. Elite Soviet soldiers disguised in Afghan uniforms seized key targets in Kabul, as 100,000 Soviet troops rumbled into Afghanistan from the north.
U.S. officials saw the intervention in Afghanistan as part of a carefully orchestrated program of Soviet expansion. But in truth there was no master plan. The aging Politburo improvised the whole adventure. Moscow hoped that a quick and decisive show of force would create a friendly regime on the border, as it had in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. But the makeshift invasion of Afghanistan soon spun out of control as a nationwide mujahideen insurgency emerged.
Today, many policymakers and analysts are convinced that Russia’s intervention in Ukraine is part of Vladimir Putin’s master strategy. As Mike Rogers, the House Intelligence Committee chairman, sees it, “Putin is playing chess and I think we are playing marbles, and I don’t think it’s even close.” According to Rogers, the Russian president wants to strengthen his country’s “buffer zones,” with Moldova as the probable next target. Stephen Hadley and Damon Wilson have concluded that Putin’s invasion is part of a larger strategy “to reconstruct what he could of the former empire but on a Russian model rather than Soviet.”
But what if there is no grand scheme? What if, like the Soviets in 1979, Putin is basically winging it? The Russian leader is certainly aware of the broader environment: the encroachment of NATO and the European Union into Russia’s traditional sphere of influence, the shifting balance of power between pro-Western and pro-Russian groups in Ukraine, and America’s non-interventionist mood in the wake of Iraq and Afghanistan.
But Russia’s military incursion in the Crimean peninsula may well be an improvised operation sparked by the sudden ousting of Ukraine’s pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych. Facing a new and unexpected environment, Putin could have cobbled together a plan on the fly. After all, if an aggressive move into Crimea had long been in the works, why would Putin bother spending $50 billion to boost Russia’s global image at the Winter Olympics in Sochi? Any public relations gains just went up in smoke.
Throughout history, countries have often used force without a clear strategy or endgame. When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, Tokyo had little idea how it was ultimately going to defeat the United States. “We may hope that we will be able to influence the trend of affairs and bring the war to an end,” Japanese military leaders wrote just months before the assault. That was enough apparently for Japan to send its carriers toward Hawaii and a date with infamy. Similarly, the United States invaded Iraq in 2003 with minimal planning for the post-Saddam era. Washington was barely thinking two moves ahead.
If the Japanese in 1941 and the Americans in 2003 were willing to start major, high-risk wars with little regard for the finale, isn’t it conceivable that Putin began a more limited intervention in Crimea without a careful plan?
This begs another question: Why are we so drawn to the image of Putin as a master strategist? Perhaps we’ve bought into Moscow’s mythos about the president who hang-glides with Siberian cranes, rides with the Night Wolves motorcycle gang, and dives for ancient Greek vases in the Black Sea. Like the Dos Equis character, Putin is the most interesting man in the world.
Or, more likely, we’ve fallen victim to a very human bias. One of the core ideas in psychology is the fundamental attribution error. We often explain our own behavior as being “situational” or driven by external forces we can’t control. But we explain other people’s behavior as being “dispositional” or propelled by their deep-rooted character. When the United States acts, we’re responding to events. When Putin acts, he’s following his twisted nature and a clear agenda.
If the Russian president is essentially improvising, is that good or bad? Obviously, we would prefer Putin to be ad-libbing rather than following a systematic program of aggression. But if he’s making it up as he goes along, there’s more room for uncertainty and unpredictability, and a heightened chance for misperception and miscalculation. If Putin’s not thinking many moves ahead, he could end up trapped in a position he didn’t expect.
For Washington, the solution will require caution, resolve, and creativity. We should stop Ukraine from provoking a wider conflict with Russia that it can’t win. We should alter Putin’s cost-benefit calculus by clearly signaling that further aggression will lead to international isolation and sanctions. And we must recognize that great powers like Russia can’t easily retreat once they’ve planted the flag. So we need to create a face-saving path of retreat for Putin—for example, by avoiding unnecessary bluster.
Russia could be enacting the first stages in Putin’s blueprint. Alternatively, the whole scheme might have been contrived in the last few weeks. But this is little consolation. In 1979, the Soviets envisaged a speedy triumph in Afghanistan. But they were still there a decade later, as a cobbled-together adventure turned into an improv tragedy.
Maybe this is how the “war on terror” ends.
Since entering his second term, President Obama has signaled his desire to close out a foreign-policy era that he believes has drained America’s economic resources and undermined its democratic ideals. But it hasn’t been easy. Partly, Obama remains wedded to some of the war on terror’s legally dubious tools—especially drone strikes and mass surveillance. And just as importantly, Obama hasn’t had anything to replace the war on terror with. It’s hard to end one foreign-policy era without defining a new one. The post-Cold War age, for instance, dragged on and on until 9/11 suddenly rearranged Americans’ mental map of the world.
Now Russia may have solved Obama’s problem. Vladimir Putin’s military intervention in Ukraine doesn’t represent as sharp a historical break as 9/11 did, but it does offer the clearest glimpse yet of what the post-war on terror era may look like. To quote Secretary of State John Kerry, what comes after the war on terror is the “19th century.”
Explaining what that means requires some history. For a century after the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, five great powers—Britain, Russia, France, Austria, and Prussia (later Germany)—jockeyed for influence in Europe. Then World War I smashed three of them: Russia, Germany, and Austria-Hungary. And then World War II smashed Germany again, while bankrupting Britain and France. Suddenly, the world found itself dominated by two superpowers, the U.S. and U.S.S.R. Each was more ideologically driven and more capable of projecting power across the entire globe than the great powers that had preceded the world wars.
So it went for almost half a century, until the Soviet empire collapsed. Immediately, some international-relations scholars predicted a return to old-fashioned great-power rivalry. In 1990, the University of Chicago’s John Mearsheimer published an essay entitled “Back to the Future,” in which he predicted a new “multipolar” competition resembling the one that held sway in the 19th century. This competition, Mearsheimer predicted, would be less ideological than the Cold War, but more unstable, and might plunge Europe into war.
It didn’t happen. To the contrary, NATO—having won the Cold War—expanded, and no adversary rose to challenge it. This absence of great-power strife enabled the massive exchange of money, people, culture, and ideas dubbed “globalization.” Even after 9/11, the era of relative great-power harmony endured as the world’s strongest countries largely cooperated against terrorism. “We have an historic opportunity to break the destructive pattern of great power rivalry that has bedeviled the world since [the] rise of the nation state in the 17th century,” declared Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in 2002. “Today, the world’s great centers of power are united by common interests, common dangers, and—increasingly—common values.”
Although Americans didn’t think much about it at the time, this absence of great-power tension enabled much of what the United States did in the war on terror. Had the Soviet Union not withdrawn its troops from Afghanistan and orphaned its former client, Iraq, the U.S. could never have invaded and occupied those countries. Had China seriously challenged American power in the Pacific, the U.S. would never have enjoyed the luxury of focusing its attention and resources so overwhelmingly on the greater Middle East. Terror networks like al-Qaeda and small “rogue” states like Iraq dominated American consciousness because big powers like Russia and China stood largely offstage.
That’s what’s now changed. The risk of jihadi terror remains; Iran is still seeking the capacity to build a nuclear bomb. But these threats appear comparatively smaller when Russia occupies Ukraine or, as happened last November, China erects an air-defense zone over most of the East China Sea. Just look at how Putin’s actions have pushed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Iran-focused visit to Washington this week off the front page.
When there’s serious tension between America and other major powers, that tension becomes the dominant reality in U.S. foreign policy. And it’s likely that tension will endure. Vladimir Putin has now twice invaded his neighbors in an effort to halt, if not reverse, the West’s encroachment into the former U.S.S.R. Yet the more bullying he becomes, the more desperately many in Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, and perhaps other ex-Soviet republics will seek economic and military bonds with Europe and the U.S. Large chunks of the former Soviet Union now constitute a gray zone where competition between Russia and the West can breed diplomatic feuds, economic sanctions, and even proxy war.
Similarly, as China continues to rise economically, it will keep asserting control over islands, airspace, and sea lanes claimed by its smaller neighbors. And that will cause those smaller neighbors to turn to the U.S. for help, which will strain the U.S.-China relationship diplomatically, or worse. China is geopolitically ascendant and Russia is not, but both are led by intensely nationalistic regimes willing to risk conflict with the West to define a sphere of influence over their neighbors. Given the political pressure on Barack Obama—and probably any future American president—to avoid the appearance of the U.S. being in global retreat, that’s a recipe for discord. And it is this great-power tension that will increasingly define a new, post-war on terror era in America’s relations with the world.
It won’t be another Cold War. The Cold War was a contest between two superpowers (although things got more complicated after the Sino-Soviet split); this new era of great-power tension features at least three. The Cold War was intensely ideological, with the U.S. and U.S.S.R. each promoting their political and economic systems as models for the world. Today, neither Russia nor China is espousing a revolutionary creed.
There are obvious differences between the 21st and 19th centuries, too. Democracy, nationalism, economic interdependence, and human rights are stronger forces in today’s world. That makes naked aggression harder; it makes quiet diplomacy harder, too.
But this new era will be more like the 19th century than either the bipolar, ideological Cold War, the relatively placid post-Cold War era of the globalized 1990s, or the post-9/11 war on terror, in which U.S. policymakers focused overwhelmingly on terror networks and small, rogue states.
The best thing one can say about Obama’s foreign policy is that by moving to end the financially draining wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and, so far, avoiding a new one in Iran, he has left the U.S. better positioned for this new era than it was when he took office. Which is good, since this new era is likely to be more dangerous, both for America and the world, than the last.
In dismissing the Ukrainian revolution as a “fascist” coup, officials in Moscow have conjured up memories of the turbulent period following the breakup of the Soviet Union, when Russian leaders used similar slurs to justify separatism in Eastern Europe. On March 2, 1992, 22 years ago this week, civil war broke out in Moldova between government and secessionist forces over a narrow strip of land along the Ukrainian border.
Alexander Lebed—the Russian general whose 14th Army unit intervened in the conflict, ensuring the future of the breakaway state known today as Transnistria—boasted of his role in stopping Moldova’s “fascists" leaders. Several years later, Lebed entered Russian politics, declaring, without much irony, that his country needed its own version of Chile’s right-wing dictator Augusto Pinochet.
A decade later, the Kremlin has the strongman Lebed pined for, Moldova’s conflict with its separatist region persists, and Russian troops still occupy Moldovan territory in violation of Russia’s international commitments. And now the Russian military has occupied Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, another territory with a large ethnic Russian population and a pro-Moscow secessionist movement, in violation of international law. Moscow's intentions there remain unclear.
“Separation movements in Moldova and the Caucasus in the early 1990s had clear local roots that reflected local aspirations. In Crimea today, it’s clear that the aspirations are coming from outside in,” said William Hill, a professor at the National War College who worked for many years on Transnistrian conflict negotiations as head of the OSCE mission to Moldova. “Russia has the capabilities to create a de facto separation between Crimea and the [Ukrainian] government in Kiev. But it’s hard to see what they will gain from it.”
In fact, Russia may actually lose from it—and lose big. Putin’s primary objective appears to be preventing Ukraine’s new government from making good on its pledge to sign an association agreement with the European Union. And Russia has had some past success in supporting breakaway regions as a means of keeping former Soviet states like Georgia and Moldova from establishing closer relations with the West.
But supporting Crimean separatism is an expensive gamble for Putin—and not just because the West is weighing economic sanctions against Russia in response to its military incursion in Ukraine. On Monday, Russia’s MICEX stock index shed nearly $60 billion and the Russian ruble plummeted to a record low on fears over the crisis in Ukraine, forcing Russia’s panicked Central Bank to raise interest rates (the ruble and Russian stocks bounced back a bit on Tuesday as tensions in the region appeared to ease). What’s more, across the post-Soviet space, the Kremlin's attempts to destabilize its neighbors are destabilizing its own budget.
Before the Crimean crisis, Russia was already footing the bill for three breakaway states: Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, and Transnistria in Moldova. As these states are unrecognized by the international community—Russia doesn’t even recognize Transnistria—they exist to a large extent outside the international economic system. While they may have bilateral agreements with certain countries that generate a modicum of trade, the economic benefits associated with globalization and foreign investment are negligible in these territories. This leaves them highly dependent on Moscow’s largesse, which often comes in the form of subsidized pensions, infrastructure projects, and cheap gas.
Georgia's breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which won de facto independence with the aid of Russian troops after a brief 2008 war, are black holes for Russian tax dollars. In April, the International Crisis Group (ICG) reported that Moscow had earmarked $350 million for infrastructure projects in Abkhazia between 2010 and 2012, with that number expected to triple to $1 billion between 2013 and 2015, but that only half of the $350 million had been spent because of mismanagement and corruption. The group noted that Abkhazia—which is located just miles from Sochi, the site of this year’s Winter Olympics—effectively depended on Moscow for a staggering 70 percent of its budget and also received roughly $70 million in pension payments for Abkhaz residents, many of whom have Russian passports. “Abkhazia’s economy is like a drug addict on Russian help,” the report quoted an opposition figure in the region as saying. “We want real help to support our economic development, not ‘facade’ assistance.”Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with South Ossetian leader Leonid Tibilov in Sochi, in May 2013. (Misha Japaridze/Reuters)
In South Ossetia, a territory with a population comparable to Altoona, Pennsylvania, Russia is spending nearly $1 billion, or roughly $28,000 per resident, according to a 2010 ICG study (South Ossetia’s population is difficult to verify, and estimates range from 20,000 to 70,000). In August, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported that South Ossetia “remains totally dependent on Russian subsidies to rebuild infrastructure and industrial capacity” after its 2008 war with Georgia, and that most of the 27 billion rubles Russia allocated for the province have “vanished without trace,” prompting the territory’s prosecutor-general to open more than 70 criminal investigations into the mysterious disappearance of the funds (Russia scaled back its funding for South Ossetia in response to this embezzlement).
Transnistria’s economy, meanwhile, is heavily dependent on Russian energy and financial subsidies as well, in addition to exports from several industrial plants. Last year, Kamil Calus at the Warsaw-based Center for Eastern Studies estimated that the province had run up roughly $3.7 billion in debt to Gazprom, Russia’s state-owned natural gas giant. “The economic model operating in Transnistria is inefficient and can survive only thanks to support from Russia,” Calus wrote. And this is by design, he added. Russia “is not interested in the region’s economy becoming self-sufficient,” Calus explained. “Since Moscow subsidises the inefficient Transnistrian system, it is able to control this breakaway republic and to deepen the divide between Transnistria and Moldova.”
These figures may seem like drops in the bucket for a Russian government that just poured $51 billion into the Olympics and plans to spend $440 billion in 2014, but the geopolitical philanthropy Moscow offers to these breakaway regions is a serious drain on Russia’s struggling, oil-and-gas-dependent economy.
If Crimea becomes another territory under de facto Russian control, Moscow would likely be forced to pick up the tab yet again. And keep in mind: The peninsula has 2 million inhabitants, which makes it 40 times the size of South Ossetia, eight times the size of Abkhazia, and four times the size of Transnistria. That adds up to a lot of pension payment for Crimea’s residents, 20 percent of whom are over the age of 60.
Not only that, but Crimea’s economy is particularly vulnerable to isolation. The regional government is currently struggling with a $1-billion budget deficit, and trade and export-based industries like mining and chemical production together comprise almost a third of the Crimean economy. While 40 percent of Crimea’s exports head to the “Customs Union” countries of Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Russia, 60 percent head elsewhere (roughly a quarter of exports go to EU countries). Crimea has long promoted its beaches as tourist destinations—and tourism is central to its service economy, with more than 6 million tourists, up 8 percent from 2011, visiting the peninsula in 2012—but this industry is also likely to suffer from a protracted conflict (the effect that becoming a pseudostate has on tourism is a contentious subject; Georgian and Abkhaz officials, for example, can’t seem to agree on whether tourism has increased or decreased in the province in recent years).
Faced with these dim economic prospects, Crimea could turn to illicit activities to generate state income. Breakaway regions have a reputation for cultivating smuggling and black markets—whether because they have few revenue streams, because local authorities are busy enriching themselves, or because they are not integrated into the international legal system. In a 2011 investigation of smuggling in Transnistria, for instance, the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations reported that between 2005 and 2011, authorities along the Moldovan-Ukrainian border carried out 10 interdictions of radioactive materials and interrupted 587 illicit weapons shipments.
On top of it all, according to Hill, the seizure of Crimea may ultimately cost Russia more influence in Ukraine than it gains.
“Having worked with Russian officials, I can tell you they don’t understand social movements,” he told me. “They perceive everything as orchestrated from the top. They don’t understand that they’re risking long-term hostility from across Ukraine.”
Funding separatism is costly enough as it is, without factoring in the incalculable price of losing more of the Ukrainian street.
How much does credibility matter in foreign affairs? Grappling with that question at Marginal Revolution, Tyler Cowen puts forth two competing theories.
Under theory number one, "observers are using the behavior of the American government to draw inferences about its true underlying type. A single act of breaking a promise or failing to honor a commitment would show we really cannot be trusted, or that we are weak and craven, and so that characterization of our true type would be applied more generally to all or most of our commitments."
Under the second theory, "we don’t have that much credibility in the first place. To be sure, we can be trusted to do what is in our self-interest. But there is not much underlying uncertainty about our true type. So we can promise Ruritania the moon, and fail to deliver it, and still the world thinks we would defend Canada if we had to, simply because such a course of action makes sense for us.... Our violation of a single promise changes estimates of our true scope of concern, but it does not much change anyone’s estimate of the true type of the American government."
On the whole, Cowen embraces the latter theory. "We’ve broken promises and commitments for centuries, and yet still we have some underlying credibility," he observes. "Still, when it comes to Taiwan, or those Japanese islands, or other Pacific islands, I think the first view plays a role," he continues. "That is, I think the world does not know our true type. How much are we willing to risk conflict to limit Chinese influence in the Pacific? Whatever you think should be the case, what is the case is not clear, perhaps not clear even to our policymakers themselves."
He may be right.
* * *
The long-running debate about American credibility has heated up this week because of Russia's actions in Ukraine. Foreign-policy hawks, many with neoconservative sympathies, believe America must act there to maintain its credibility.The Wall Street Journal editorial board asserts that "Ukraine is in particular a casualty of Mr. Obama's failure to enforce his 'red line' on Syria. When the leader of the world's only superpower issues a military ultimatum and then blinks, others notice. Adversaries and allies in Asia and the Middle East will be watching President Obama's response now. China has its eyes on Japanese islands." Reuters The newspaper's editorial states that Obama "must act, rather than merely threaten," and recommends that the United States restrict Russia's access to world financial markets, "deploy ships from the Europe-based Sixth Fleet into the Black Sea, and send the newly commissioned George H.W. Bush aircraft carrier to the eastern Mediterranean." It concludes with the vague but seemingly absolutist statement that "the Kremlin's annexation of Crimea can't be allowed to stand. Ukraine must remain an independent state with its current borders intact." Alex Berezow calls on the U.S. to take 5 steps, some of which he acknowledges to be extremely provocative:
(1) Economic sanctions and asset freezes. The U.S. and EU should immediately hit Russia with painful trade sanctions. Russian kleptocrats, who enjoy spending their millions of dollars abroad, should be slapped with asset freezes and travel bans. Russia should also be ejected from the G8 and G20 and uninvited from any international meetings. (The G8 is for democracies, so it's unclear why Russia is a member, anyway.)
(2) Diplomatic isolation. All democratic embassies in Russia should be closed. The UN should remove Russia as a permanent member of the Security Council.
(3) Fast-track Ukraine to NATO and EU membership. A Ukraine fully integrated into the West is what Mr. Putin fears the most. The West should make it clear that its goal is to accomplish that sooner rather than later.
(4) Deploy NATO troops to western Ukraine. If Ukraine allows it, NATO should deploy troops into western Ukraine. If Mr. Putin finds this objectionable, NATO can claim to be protecting the interests of ethnic Ukrainians and other Europeans. Two can play at that game.
(5) Surround Kaliningrad with NATO troops. Kaliningrad is a Russian exclave on the Baltic Sea. It is surrounded by NATO members Poland (to the south) and Lithuania (to the north and east). Positioning troops along its border would be, by far, the most provocative action -- and one which might lead to an escalation in the conflict. However, it would also be a display of American-European strength and solidarity, something Mr. Putin would have to acknowledge.Says Jonathan Tobin, "The lessons of the tragedy unfolding in the Crimea are many, but surely the first of them must be that when dictators don’t fear the warnings of the leader of the free world and when America demonstrates that it is war weary and won’t, on almost any account, take firm action, to defend its interests and to restrain aggression, mayhem is almost certainly always going to follow." Temuri Yakobashvili has similar recommendations, including deployment of the 6th Fleet.
* * *
I am largely agnostic about how President Obama should respond to Russia's latest thuggery. It is plausible to me that imposing economic sanctions and multilateral punishments would be in our interest. At the same time, it seems obvious to me that the United States should not go to war with Russia, a nuclear power with a formidable military, in order to maintain the pre-invasion borders of Ukraine.
And I notice that even the most hawkish commentators don't go so far as to argue that war with Russia would be in our interests, if it came down to that choice. Perhaps they see the folly in that course, or maybe they just know the public would reject their counsel if we thought that it might prompt a war against Russia. Either way, it's telling that these hawks pronounce upon what "must" happen in Ukraine while staying conspicuously vague about the limits of their support.
What does the Wall Street Journal op-ed page suggest, if what "must" happen doesn't?
They aren't telling.
The hawks want the 6th Fleet sent to nearby waters ... and then? If they want it there to possibly wage war, they won't say. It's as if they want Vladimir Putin to think America is willing to use force on Ukraine's behalf without actually risking U.S. force.
What if that bluff were called?
The U.S. could start a war that would leave us much worse off.
Or we could not, which really would suggest that if we sent a bunch of naval assets to Taiwan or Japan, China shouldn't assume that we're necessarily willing to use them.
I'm no more a foreign-policy expert than the hawks who urged the ongoing Cuba embargo, the invasion of Iraq, or the failed surge in Afghanistan, so perhaps I'm missing wisdom they've never demonstrated before. But it seems to me that there's a strangeness to what these people urge. They're the first to tout the importance of American credibility, which they view as at risk of substantial collapse in every world crisis. Yet they're eager for us to engage in geopolitical bluffing.
Or if they're not bluffing—if they want to mobilize the 6th Fleet, admit Ukraine to NATO, and fight a war with Russia if those gambits fail—they should have the intellectual honesty to say so, rather than writing as if mere shows of strength always work.
“Running is in my blood,” says Tolo Debele, feeding his 3-month-old boy Dawit in his gated compound in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa. “It’s changed everything in my life.”
The long-legged 32-year-old is wearing a pair of bright blue running shoes with shock absorbers on the heels, provided by his sponsor, Nike. A competitive marathon runner, he’s raced in Asia, Europe, and America. But his wife Askale Tafa has him beat: Their massive cabinet in the living room is packed with sparkling trophies, mostly hers. Fifth place, Boston; third place, Dubai; second place, Berlin.
Not long ago, Tolo and Askale were living a very different life: herding cattle and farming in Bekoji, the pastoral, grain-producing town in central Ethiopia, several hours south of Addis, where they grew up. They moved to the capital to join a large urban running club, but they’ve maintained their ties to Bekoji, capitalizing on their athletic success by opening a hotel back home.
Bekoji at daybreak (Francesco Alesi/Parallelozero)
And they’re not the only champions from their town of 17,000. Bekoji has produced seven Olympic medal-winning runners: Kenenisa Bekele and his younger brother Tariku Bekele, Derartu Tulu and her cousins Ejegayehu Dibaba and Tirunesh Dibaba, Fatuma Roba, and Tiki Gelana. Among them, Bekoji’s runners have won 16 total Olympic medals—10 of them gold—and more than 30 world championships. For some perspective: The runners from this tiny town have hauled in more gold medals than India (population: 1.2 billion) has won in all Summer Olympic categories put together, and nearly twice as many as Indonesia (population: 247 million) has. The Dibaba sisters alone have won as many medals as Syria (population: 22 million) and Saudi Arabia (population: 28 million) combined, and Tirunesh Dibaba has racked up as many golds as Pakistan (population: 179 million). Between 1995 and 2004, the legendary Haile Gebrselassie, who grew up in the nearby town of Asella, held the world record for the 10,000 meters for all but two years. Kenenisa Bekele broke Gebrselassie’s record 10 years ago, and he’s held it ever since.
This single-minded devotion is easy to see on the streets of Bekoji. Almost everyone in town—whatever his or her profession—wears running shoes, and people regularly gather in shops with TVs to watch major running events, especially when Ethiopians are competing. Tolo has a brother and sister who are runners, and his wife’s brother is one, too.
After I arrived in town, an arduous three-bus journey from the capital, I explored the track-and-field mecca at the crack of dawn, the time when Bekoji’s forests pulse with hundreds of casual and serious runners. The town is fantastically beautiful, surrounded by lush fields and green, cloud-tipped mountains. There is one main thoroughfare and market, and simple mud huts mingle with small, modern buildings that have electricity and running water. Everywhere you go, you’re flanked by animals—horses, donkeys, goats, cows, sheep, and stray dogs. On rare occasions, tourists and foreign journalists visit as well, seeking answers about the runners’ town.
If Bekoji were simply home to a good runner or two, it wouldn’t be such an anomaly. Ethiopia as a whole has been renowned for its runners since Abebe Bikila—who came from a village in the Shewa region, northeast of Addis—won the marathon at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome. Not only did he break the world record for the event and become the first sub-Saharan African to win an Olympic gold, but he did it running barefoot. Bikila stunned the world again at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics when he won another gold only six weeks after undergoing surgery for acute appendicitis. Since 1960, Ethiopia has won 44 Summer Olympic medals—all in races 3,000 meters or longer, and mostly over the past 15 years.Francesco Alesi/Parallelozero
The phenomenon extends southward to neighboring Kenya as well. Middle- and long-distance runners from these two countries now hold more than 90 percent of the all-time world records and current top-10 world rankings for their events. Ethiopia’s most accomplished runners tend to hail from the Shewa and Arsi zones (Bekoji is in Arsi), while Kenya’s best are usually from Nandi county. All these regions run along the steep edges of the Great Rift Valley, at elevations of 6,500 feet or more.
In his book The Sports Gene, the Sports Illustrated writer David Epstein offered an evolutionary explanation for East Africa’s disproportionate success in distance racing. Citing the work of researchers such as the University of Glasgow biologist Yannis Pitsiladis, Epstein wrote that the ethnic groups producing the region’s top distance runners are descended from tribes who lived in the Nile Valley, and, over generations, adapted to the hot, dry climate, which tends to produce people with long, thin limbs that cool down easily. He noted that runners with slender calves and ankles expend less energy when racing, and that runners training at just the right high elevation—around 6,000 to 9,000 feet—use oxygen more efficiently by producing additional red blood cells. Other theories credit these runners’ diets, or, as one study by Pitsiladis and another scholar put it, their “favorable skeletal-muscle-fiber composition and oxidative enzyme profile.”
But Bekoji’s runners are exceptional even by the standards of this extraordinary region. Tolo explained that rural life cultivates strong, disciplined people—crucial characteristics for long-distance runners. Running, often barefoot, is simply a part of life in Bekoji. (In town, most people wear shoes, but farmers and shepherds frequently forgo them.) “We are running everywhere,” Tolo said, whether it’s shepherding farm animals or simply getting from point A to B in a town with virtually no cars.
And if altitude helps build endurance, Bekoji has that going for it as well: It’s higher than many other towns in the Great Rift Valley, at more than 9,000 feet above sea level. Runners train in thin highland air (what some residents call “healing air”), which makes racing at lower altitudes relatively easy. The forest also serves as a natural training ground; runners zigzag between the trees and use their roots as an obstacle course.
Of course, just under half the world’s population lives in rural areas, and many people live at high altitudes. Yet the planet has few Bekojis. What is unique about the town is its coach Sentayehu Eshetu, who trained most of Bekoji’s most successful runners. Sentayehu grew up far from Bekoji, in the eastern Ethiopian city of Harar. He was a gym teacher there, but had to flee his hometown after Ethiopia’s war with Somalia in the late 1970s. The 57-year-old coach has a knack for picking champions, though he was never a professional runner himself. “I can tell a great athlete just by looking at them,” he says.
Top: Coach Sentayehu Eshetu lectures his athletes. Bottom: A young runner takes a break in his bedroom. (Francesco Alesi/Parallelozero)
I meet Sentayehu at an outdoor table at Hotel Wabe, the establishment Askale and Tolo opened two years ago. The coach—looking the part in his baseball cap, light windbreaker, and white running shoes—ticks off the qualities he looks for in a champion: running technique, posture, body type, discipline, and general health. “The first thing is the desire of the athlete,” he adds. As he speaks, passersby pay their respects, curious onlookers peer through the fence surrounding the hotel, and shepherds crack their whips in the distance.
Sentayehu discovered Derartu Tulu, the first of Bekoji’s most successful runners, almost 30 years ago, when she was only 14. At the time, Sentayehu was working as a gym teacher at a school in Bekoji. Derartu—who went on to compete in the 1992 Barcelona games, where she became the first black African woman to win an Olympic gold medal—was a fierce competitor even as a young teenager. “There was nothing she wouldn’t do to win,” Sentayehu recalls. He began to personally train Derartu according to his own specially designed program, and he’s been training other athletes that way ever since.
Derartu’s success inspired runners like Kenenisa Bekele, who started training seriously at age 18 when Derartu was already famous. By that time, Ethiopian runners had other role models to motivate them: Sentayehu explains that running became popular in Ethiopia after Abebe Bikila won the Olympic marathon in 1960. Abebe “made Ethiopia’s flag known to the world,” he explains.
But when Bekoji’s own runners began winning international competitions, it had a galvanizing effect on the whole town. Beyecha Bekele, the father of Olympic medalists Kenenisa and Tariku, is grateful for the success his older son enjoys as the world’s reigning master of the 5,000- and 10,000-meter races. “I was just an ordinary farmer, but when Kenenisa won and made our name famous, I was so proud,” he says, sitting in a separate hotel Kenenisa built in Bekoji. (Few tourists visit the town but, thanks to the largesse of Bekoji’s famous sons and daughters, they now have several places to stay.) Beyecha, who cuts a charming figure in his flat cap, scarf, and cane, takes no credit for his son’s fame. “It’s God and Coach Sentayehu that have helped him get this far,” he says. “Sentayehu is his father. He changed Kenenisa’s life.”
Scenes from Bekoji (Francesco Alesi/Parallelozero)
Two years ago, the government-run Ethiopian Athletics Federation spent more than $67,000 to open a live-in training center for young runners. Each year, Sentayehu selects 20 male and 20 female runners between the ages of 12 and 20 into his two-year training program, and many of them go on to join one of the professional running clubs in bigger towns and cities. (The training is so time-consuming that many end up dropping out of school.) Almost all come from farming families, and they don’t have to pay for the training. “We just need them to be ready mentally,” Sentayehu says. The coach isn’t entirely dependent on the Ethiopian government for financial assistance; the Girls Gotta Run Foundation, a D.C.-based nonprofit, now works with local organizations to help fund the training of young runners and the salaries of assistant coaches, including Bekoji’s first female coach.
After 30 years, Sentayehu has his regimen down to a science. “I don’t want to toot my own horn, but I think I know how to take care of my kids,” he says. The runners wake up at dawn every day to a light, carbohydrate-heavy breakfast of besso, a local drink made from barley. After a brisk workout beginning around 6 a.m. in a forest near the training center, the coach leads a discussion in which he points out mistakes runners have made and gives them advice. Throughout the week, the young athletes cycle through grueling workouts using the track in the town’s stadium and Bekoji’s undulating terrain, which includes rolling hills and flat stretches. Sentayehu tells his trainees to maintain good hygiene, eat high-carb foods like wheat and potatoes, rest when they’re not training, and stay out of trouble. Alcohol and dating are strictly forbidden.
Biruk Fikadu, 20, is one of Sentayehu’s protégés. He’s been running the 800 meters for three years, and his best time is an impressive 1:49. Tall and razor-thin, with a prominent brow, Fikadu is serious and polite. Though the weather is chilly at the outdoor table at Hotel Wabe, he isn’t shivering. He’s used to early-morning running in the crisp forest air.
Top: Marathon runner Askale Tafa shows off her medals. Bottom: Residents gather to watch Bejoki runners in a televised competition. (Francesco Alesi/Parallelozero)
In Ethiopia, where the gross national income per capita is $400 and nearly 40 percent of the population lives below the international poverty line of $1.25 per day, running offers a means of escape. A very successful marathoner can earn hundreds of thousands of dollars from sponsorships, prize money, and fees for appearing in races (these can be as high as $250,000 per event), and many athletes start businesses back home with their earnings. Haile Gebrselassie, for instance, has amassed a small real-estate empire since his running days. And as of 2007, Tirunesh Dibaba was earning about $500,000 a year—and that was before she won three Olympic gold medals.
But while Biruk grew up on a small farm in Bekoji, he says money isn’t his primary motivation for winning. “I want to defeat David Rudisha,” he says with a smile, referring to the Kenyan Olympic champion and world-record holder for the 800 meters.
“The first thing in their mind is winning. There’s no thought of material gain,” insists Sentayehu. “We train them to win, not to make money.”Francesco Alesi/Parallelozero
Despite Sentayehu’s tremendous influence, to visit Bekoji is to recognize that there’s no one answer to the question of why the town has improbably emerged as the world’s top producer of champion distance runners. It’s a fortunate confluence of genetics, geography, thin air, varied terrain, a temperate climate, and the rigors of rural life—bolstered in the past few decades by the talent-spotting of a singularly gifted coach and his strict, government-funded training regimen. In Bekoji, an entire culture has formed around running as a competitive sport and a professional path.
When the World Championships in Athletics took place this August in Moscow, Sentayehu joined sports fans in Bekoji as they flooded restaurants, hotels, and videobets—shops with a television and chairs where tea is served—to watch the events. About 20 Ethiopians competed, including Bekoji’s own Tirunesh Dibaba, who took the gold in the 10,000 meters. The country finished sixth overall, winning 10 medals, including three golds.
Sentayehu insists his life hasn’t changed since he became something of a local celebrity. He still gets the same modest government salary—roughly $115 a month before taxes—and still runs for his own exercise on Bekoji’s dusty streets. And he still swells with pride as he watches people from his little town win races around the world.
“There’s no question about it,” he says. “I’m very happy in my heart.”
n">One senior Obama administration official called Vladimir Putin's actions in Ukraine "outrageous." A second described them as an "outlaw act." A third said his brazen use of military force harked back to a past century.
"What we see here are distinctly 19th- and 20th-century decisions made by President Putin," said the official who spoke on condition of anonymity to a group of reporters. "But what he needs to understand is that in terms of his economy, he lives in the 21st-century world, an interdependent world."
James Jeffrey, a retired career U.S. diplomat, said that view of Putin's mindset cripples the United States' response to the Russian leader. The issue is not that Putin fails to grasp the promise of Western-style democratic capitalism. It is that he and other American rivals flatly reject it.
"All of us that have been in the last four administrations have drunk the Kool-Aid," Jeffrey said, referring to the belief that they could talk Putin into seeing the Western system as beneficial. "'If they would just understand that it can be a win-win, if we can only convince them'—Putin doesn't see it," Jeffrey said. "The Chinese don't see it. And I think the Iranians don't see it."
Jeffrey and other experts called for short-term caution in Ukraine. Threatening military action or publicly baiting Putin would likely prompt him to seize more of Ukraine by force. But they said the seizure of Crimea represents the most significant challenge to the system of international relations in place since the end of the Cold War. Flouting multiple treaties, the United Nations system, and long-established international law, Russia has set a dangerously low standard for military intervention.
"There have not been attacks on ethnic Russians," said Kathryn Stoner, a Stanford University professor and leading expert on Russia. "That's just a lie. There was no threat to the [Russian naval] base in Crimea. That is just absurd." She also argued that the scores of people who died in clashes in the Ukrainian capital before the Russian intervention were Ukrainians, not Russians.President Barack Obama during a phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin from the Oval Office on March 1.
But an unresolved international debate over a series of post-Cold War interventions is threatening to cause sweeping instability. From Europe to the Middle East to Asia, regional powers that might act militarily are watching events in Ukraine.
In Putin's eyes, the United States may struggle to claim any moral high ground. Some Russian and European commentators point out that the United States intervened in Kosovo in 1999 and invaded Iraq in 2003 without United Nations approval. And Russian officials have repeatedly said they regret supporting the UN-backed 2011 NATO intervention in Libya. Russian officials and some Western commentators have portrayed all of those interventions as Western plots to weaken Russia or destabilize countries in the Balkans and the Middle East.
American officials flatly reject those interpretations. They argue that Russia and other authoritarian rulers are cynically manipulating facts and spreading false conspiracy theories to justify the use of military force to enhance their own power. They point out that sweeping violence had erupted in Kosovo and Libya, threatening large number of civilians. Both interventions also came after months of diplomatic efforts and international public debate. And even the much-criticized invasion of Iraq came after a decade-long cat-and-mouse game between Saddam Hussein and United Nations weapons inspectors, and a year-long effort by the Bush administration to win UN support.
Whatever Russia's intervention represents, the immediate economic leverage the United States has over Russia is limited, according to experts. The most potent weapon Washington could use would be sanctioning Russian banks, companies, or individuals—measures similar to the sanctions that have proven so damaging to Iran's economy.
When asked by reporters on Sunday whether such sanctions were under consideration, senior Obama administration officials declined to comment. "We're not going to get into any more detail about what's being considered," said one senior official who asked not to be named. "You are absolutely right about the vulnerability of Russian banks. We're looking at all of the options."EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton holds a news conference on the Ukraine crisis in Brussels, on March 3. (Yves Herman/Reuters)
A difficulty with effective sanctions lies in Western Europe, where many nations now depend on cheap Russian natural gas to fuel their economies. Germany leads the group, with 60 percent of its natural gas coming from Russia.
Fiona Hill, a former national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia at the National Intelligence Council, credited Putin with strengthening Russia economically since gaining power in 2000. Though Russia still has economic challenges, Europe's dependence on Russian gas supplies gives Russia a trump card that did not exist during the post-Soviet chaos of the 1990s, she said. "In the years since Putin has come to power," she said, "he has removed our leverage."
Putin has also increased the capabilities of the Russian military; crushed or co-opted dissent; and gained iron control of Russia's media. Throughout the crisis in Ukraine, Russian media have portrayed the protests that overthrew the country's pro-Russian president as an American-backed coup. Hill said recent public opinion polls show that 60 percent of Russians approve of Putin's actions in the Ukraine.
Secure at home, Putin also fears little backlash from abroad. He believes the United States and Europe will publicly condemn Russia but implement few economic sanctions because Europe remains dependent on Russian natural gas.
"The biggest blow would be the largest companies in Germany not doing business" with Russia, Hill said. "That is what Putin banks on: Russia is too big and important."
Stoner, the Stanford professor, said that Putin had outmaneuvered the United States and Europe. Officials in Washington and Brussels had failed to anticipate—or counter—Putin's methodical reassertion of Russian power. "NATO and the U.S., in particular, but also Germany—we've all been caught off-guard here in terms of anticipating this sort of behavior," she said. "It's beyond what people would have expected."
Jeffrey, the former American diplomat, called for a renewed long-term Western effort to increase leverage over Putin. He argued that the economies of the United States and Europe—which are roughly $30 trillion combined—dwarf Russia's $2.5 trillion economy. He said long-term steps would be accelerating the negotiation of a trans-Atlantic free trade partnership and measures that would increase American natural gas supplies to Europe. A short-term step would be offering major economic aid to Ukraine's desperately cash-strapped new government.
"We are tremendously more powerful than him," Jeffrey said. "We ought to be able to bail out Ukraine. We ought to be able to make Europe less energy dependent on Russia."
Jeffrey said the days and months ahead will be vital. If Putin faces few long-term consequences for seizing Crimea, it will set a precedent for China and other regional powers who may be considering establishing 19th century-style spheres of influence of their own.
"The Chinese," Jeffrey said, "are in the same position."
This post originally appeared on Reuters.com, an Atlantic partner site.
A group of black-clad men and women armed with long knives killed dozens and injured more than 130 in a train station in Kunming over the weekend, in the latest in a series of violent attacks in China in recent years.
Officials blamed western China’s Xinjiang Muslim separatists for the attack, and displayed a banner found at the scene that included the Islamic declaration of faith. But in a stark departure from earlier incidents attributed to the group, the attack took place far from Xinjiang, a sign that insurgents are branching out throughout the country in search of soft targets.
Kunming, more than 2,500 miles from Xinjiang, is the capital of the mountainous, ethnically diverse Yunnan province, which does not have a significant population of Uighurs, the Muslim ethnic minority group in Xinjiang. “It shows that Uighurs are, like Chechens in Russia, expressing their discontent throughout the country, not just where they are based,” Dru Gladney, a professor at Pomona College and author of Muslim Chinese: Ethnic Nationalism in the People’s Republic, told The Los Angeles Times.
A car attack last year in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square was also blamed on the group, but caused much less damage. If the Uighurs are actually responsible for this weekend’s attacks, “it is without question an escalation,” Magnus Ranstorp, a counterterrorism expert at the Swedish National Defense College, told The Guardian. “There hasn’t been anything on this scale, as far as I have seen.”
Tensions in resource-rich western China have been escalating for years, as Han Chinese emigrate to the region, in many cases taking the best jobs while locals, especially those who don’t speak Mandarin, face widespread poverty and growing unemployment. The Chinese government has clashed with Xinjiang citizens many times in recent months, resulting in dozens of deaths, and six weeks ago authorities detained the group’s best-known moderate voice, economics professor Ilham Tohti. He was recently charged with “inciting separatism,” a charge his lawyer and wife deny.
But international terrorism experts and influential Chinese commentators believe China’s policies in the Western region are just one factor contributing to rising terrorist activity like this weekend’s attack. China’s economic rise, and particularly its growing reach in the Middle East and North Africa, areas contested by extremist Islamic jihadi organizations, could also be fueling terrorism inside the country itself. Philip B. K. Potter, an assistant professor of public policy and political science at the University of Michigan, explains why:
Where China was once viewed as a patron of liberation movements (including those active in Palestine) and a counterbalance to the United States and the Soviet Union, current jihadist propaganda characterizes it as inheriting the designation of “head of the snake” from the United States…China’s ongoing security crackdown in Xinjiang has forced the most militant Uyghur separatists into volatile neighboring countries, such as Pakistan, where they are forging strategic alliances with, and even leading, jihadist factions affiliated with al-Qaeda and the Taliban.
Not surprisingly, the attacks provoked nationwide alarm. State news agencies dubbed them “China’s 9/11″ and said the country needs to establish anti-terrorism plans in cities around the country, perhaps molded on American “neighborhood watches.”
College was boring, so, in the 18th century, young British nobles skipped it altogether. They went instead on The Grand Tour, a glitzy sojourn through Europe, the gap year to beat all gap years. On their tour, the juvenile gentleman might pass through Paris, dote on Dusseldorf, or reside in Rome. All that was nice. But they absolutely had to venture to Venice.
Because, Venice! It was the home of art, fashion, culture—and, crucially, other young men on their own Grand Tour.
“The greater part of them keep an inviolable fidelity to the language their nurses taught them,” Lady Mary Wortley Montagu wrote of the bros in her diary. “Their whole business (as far as I can perceive) being to buy new clothes, in which they shine in some coffee-house where they are sure of only meeting one another.”
Travel to Venice and flaunt your Venice-ness, in other words. One way to parade Venice around long after the trip was to buy paintings by Giovanni Antonio Canal, who worked under the name Canaletto. A British agent named Joseph Smith hawked his work to British nobles passing through, and they bought them in the hundreds.
Canaletto’s paintings were more than the I ♥ [City] posters of their day, though. They’re now considered some of the great urban paintings, ever, and they distill our sense of early 18th-century Venice and London.Canaletto’s Return of the Bucintoro to the Molo on Ascension Day, completed 1732 (Wikimedia)
In 2013, we picture cities a little differently, with demography and photography. Cities live in Instagram, in patterns of light from space, in blueprints and visualizations and—most like Canaletto’s civic landscapes—on Google Street View. We can see where we’re going because the Street View car has gone there first, and we can see where the frontier is because the car has demarcated it.
Now, an artist in London has done some creative, comparative history, pairing Canaletto’s Venice and London with contemporary depictions, as glimpsed by the Google van. In two, now apparently removed Imgur galleries, she placed a Canaletto image in the middle of a Google Street View image.
So here’s Return of the Bucintoro to the Molo on Ascension Day, from above, within Google Street View:shystone
And Canaletto’s Grand Canal and the Church of the Salute in its location:
Or, in London, Canaletto’s 1752 Northumberland House :shystone
The artist Shystone (whose work is still available via Google Cache) writes:
On the South end of Trafalgar Square this huge townhouse stood from 1605 right up to 1874 when it was demolished after compulsorily purchase by Government to make way for a new road. There's a Waterstones on the corner now under an old hotel building. Although it was completely demolished, one of the original building's arches still stand, 7 miles away in East London as an entrance to a local community centre.
She juxtaposed other artist’s work, too. Here’s John Atkinson Grimshaw’s 1885 Blackman Street London, across time and light:shystone
The church is St. George The Martyr. Again for any literary fans, this is the Church next to the notorious Marshalsea prison where Dickens' Little Dorrit is born. The only remains of the actual prison are tucked down an alleyway North of the church with a plaque in a small public garden. Today The Shard is the biggest spire you'll see looking North East up Borough Highstreet.