Rising Food Prices Have Global Political Implications

The issue of rising food prices globally has come under increasing scrutiny lately and has political leaders concerned. The annual meetings of the World Bank and IMF gave prominence to the problem and newspapers and magazines are weighing in with their opinion on the potential short- and long-term implications of the dramatic spike in world food prices. Will this last? Are we finally facing a neo-Malthusian future or will we be able to find a feasible and politically palatable solution to this crisis?

The Economist has a new article on the potentially devastating impact that the rise in food prices. In an article called “The silent tsunami” the editors (who generally espouse a free-market oriented, classically liberal view of the relation between markets and the state) argue that what is needed to avert disaster are “radical solutions.”

PICTURES of hunger usually show passive eyes and swollen bellies. The harvest fails because of war or strife; the onset of crisis is sudden and localised. Its burden falls on those already at the margin.

Today’s pictures are different. “This is a silent tsunami,” says Josette Sheeran of the World Food Programme, a United Nations agency. A wave of food-price inflation is moving through the world, leaving riots and shaken governments in its wake. For the first time in 30 years, food protests are erupting in many places at once. Bangladesh is in turmoil (see article); even China is worried (see article). Elsewhere, the food crisis of 2008 will test the assertion of Amartya Sen, an Indian economist, that famines do not happen in democracies.

Famine traditionally means mass starvation. The measures of today’s crisis are misery and malnutrition. The middle classes in poor countries are giving up health care and cutting out meat so they can eat three meals a day. The middling poor, those on $2 a day, are pulling children from school and cutting back on vegetables so they can still afford rice. Those on $1 a day are cutting back on meat, vegetables and one or two meals, so they can afford one bowl. The desperate—those on 50 cents a day—face disaster.

Roughly a billion people live on $1 a day. If, on a conservative estimate, the cost of their food rises 20% (and in some places, it has risen a lot more), 100m people could be forced back to this level, the common measure of absolute poverty. In some countries, that would undo all the gains in poverty reduction they have made during the past decade of growth. Because food markets are in turmoil, civil strife is growing; and because trade and openness itself could be undermined, the food crisis of 2008 may become a challenge to globalisation.
After arguing that the first step in any proposed solution is for states to adequately fund the World Food Program, the editorial argues for a free-market solution to the underlying problems:

In general, governments ought to liberalise markets, not intervene in them further. Food is riddled with state intervention at every turn, from subsidies to millers for cheap bread to bribes for farmers to leave land fallow. The upshot of such quotas, subsidies and controls is to dump all the imbalances that in another business might be smoothed out through small adjustments onto the one unregulated part of the food chain: the international market.

For decades, this produced low world prices and disincentives to poor farmers. Now, the opposite is happening. As a result of yet another government distortion—this time subsidies to biofuels in the rich world—prices have gone through the roof. Governments have further exaggerated the problem by imposing export quotas and trade restrictions, raising prices again. In the past, the main argument for liberalising farming was that it would raise food prices and boost returns to farmers. Now that prices have massively overshot, the argument stands for the opposite reason: liberalisation would reduce prices, while leaving farmers with a decent living.

Here is a world hunger map from the UN Food Program. What do you think the various colors represent?

Pope Benedict XVI a Foreign Policy Radical

The Pope delivered a speech last week to the United Nations in which he argued–as have many radicals over the last few decades–that the will of the international community to act in order to solve important global problems is being undermined because a few states have accrued too much power.  The Associated Press has more:

NEW YORK – Pope Benedict XVI warned diplomats at the United Nations on Friday that international cooperation needed to solve urgent problems is “in crisis” because decisions rest in the hands of a few powerful nations.

In a major speech on his U.S. trip, Benedict also said that respect for human rights, not violence, was the key to solving many of the world’s problems.

While he didn’t identify the countries that have a stranglehold on global power, the German pope — just the third pontiff to address the U.N. General Assembly — addressed long-standing Vatican concerns about the struggle to achieve world peace and the development of the poorest regions.

On the one hand, he said, collective action by the international community is needed to solve the planet’s greatest challenges.

On the other, “we experience the obvious paradox of a multilateral consensus that continues to be in crisis because it is still subordinated to the decisions of a few.”

The pope made no mention of the United States in his speech, though the Vatican did not support the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, which occurred despite the Bush administration’s failure to gain Security Council approval for it. At other moments on his trip, Benedict has been overtly critical of the U.S., noting how opportunity and hope have not always been available to minorities.

The pope said questions of security, development and protection of the environment require international leaders to work together in good faith, particularly when dealing with Africa and other underdeveloped areas vulnerable to “the negative effects of globalization.”

Iraq is a Minefield

Have any of you ever realized that you just may be in a minefield? It’s a difficult conundrum because you don’t want to just stay there, but you also don’t want to move. It seems as though there is no good choice to make. That, according to an analyst at the National Defense University, is the US fate in Iraq currently.

During our relatively short discourse into international ethics, we discussed Table 2.1 from Amstutz’s book, which demonstrates the Three Dimensions of Moral Judgment.

Here it is:

We notice that in order to evaluate the morality of a foreign policy decision, we must judge the motives behind the decision, the means used, and the final result of the decision. A new paper by Joseph J. Collins, of the Institute for National Strategic Studies of the National Defense University analyzes the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003. According to the author,

To date, the war in Iraq is a classic case of failure to adopt and adapt prudent courses of action that balance ends, ways, and means.

The paper is an interesting and nuanced read and I encourage you to take a look. Here is the first page:

Measured in blood and treasure, the war in Iraq has achieved the status of a major war and a major debacle. As of fall 2007, this conflict has cost the United States over 3,800 dead and over 28,000 wounded. Allied casualties accounted for another 300 dead. Iraqi civilian deaths—mostly at the hands of other Iraqis—may number as high as 82,000. Over 7,500 Iraqi soldiers and police officers have also been killed. Fifteen percent of the Iraqi population has become refugees or displaced persons. The Congressional Research Service estimates that the United States now spends over $10 billion per month on the war, and that the total, direct U.S. costs from March 2003 to July 2007 have exceeded $450 billion, all of which has been covered by deficit spending. No one as yet has calculated the costs of long-term veterans’ benefits or the total impact on Service personnel and materiel.


The war’s political impact also has been great. Globally, U.S. standing among friends and allies has fallen. Our status as a moral leader has been damaged by the war, the subsequent occupation of a Muslim nation, and various issues concerning the treatment of detainees. At the same time, operations in Iraq have had a negative impact on all other efforts in the war on terror, which must bow to the priority of Iraq when it comes to manpower, materiel, and the attention of decisionmakers. Our Armed Forces—especially the Army and Marine Corps—have been severely strained by the war in Iraq. Compounding all of these problems, our efforts there were designed to enhance U.S. national security, but they have become, at least temporarily, an incubator for terrorism and have emboldened Iran to expand its influence throughout the Middle East.

As this case study is being written, despite impressive progress in security during the surge, the outcome of the war is in doubt. Strong majorities of both Iraqis and Americans favor some sort of U.S. withdrawal. Intelligence analysts, however, remind us that the only thing worse than an Iraq with an American army may be an Iraq after the rapid withdrawal of that army. The 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iraq’s future stability said that a rapid withdrawal “almost certainly would lead to a significant increase in the scale and scope of sectarian conflict in Iraq, intensify Sunni resistance to the Iraqi government, and have adverse consequences for national reconciliation.” The NIE goes on to say that neighboring countries might intervene, resulting in massive casualties and refugee flows. No one has calculated the psychopolitical impact of a perceived defeat on the U.S. reputation for power or the future of the overall war on terror. For many analysts (including this one), Iraq remains a “must win,” but for many others, despite the obvious progress under General David Petraeus and the surge, it now looks like a “can’t win.” To date, the war in Iraq is a classic case of failure to adopt and adapt prudent courses of action that balance ends, ways, and means.

Newsweek Editor Fareed Zakaria Says “No” to Olympic Boycott

In a recent column, Newsweek’s Fareed Zakaria argues that the US should not boycott the Olympic Games in Beijing this summer.  He argues that it would have the opposite of the intended effect.  Here are some snippets:

Public humiliation does not work nearly as well on the regime in Beijing as private pressure. At first glance, China’s recent crackdown in Tibet looks like a familiar storyline: a dictatorship represses its people. And of course that’s part of the reality — as it often is in China. But on this issue, the communist regime is not in opposition to its people. The vast majority of Chinese have little sympathy for the Tibetan cause. To the extent that we can gauge public opinion in China and among its diaspora, ordinary Chinese are, if anything, critical of the Beijing government for being too easy on the Tibetans. The real struggle here is between a nationalist majority and an ethnic and religious minority looking to secure its rights.

In these circumstances, a boycott of the Olympics would have precisely the opposite effect that is intended. The regime in Beijing would become only more defensive and stubborn. The Chinese people would rally around the flag and see the West as trying to humiliate China in its first international moment of glory. (There are many suspicions that the United States cannot abide the prospect of a rising China.) For most Chinese, the Games are about the world’s giving China respect, rather than bolstering the Communist Party’s legitimacy…

…Some want to punish China for its association with the Sudanese government, which is perpetrating atrocities in Darfur. But to boycott Beijing’s Games because it buys oil from Sudan carries the notion of responsibility too far. After all, the United States has much closer ties to Saudi Arabia, a medieval monarchy that has funded Islamic terror. Should the world boycott America for this relationship?

Poor Countries, Agriculture, and IMF Policies

There has been a rapid increase in food prices over the last couple of years, seen most dramatically in the recent 30% one-day rise in the price of rice worldwide.  This is putting tremendous pressure on the poor and is leading to instability in countries around the world.  There have been violent demonstrations–and equally violent government responses–to food rioting in Egypt and Haiti in the last couple of weeks.  They may be but a harbinger of the economic and political instability to come.  Here is a report from the BBC, in which an expert argues that IMF policies have contributed to the rise in food prices:

“Poor countries need to invest heavily in agriculture to feed their people.  There’s been a dearth of investment in agriculture in poor countries, mainly because of IMF and World Bank policies…”

60 Minutes Report on Torture in Guantanamo Bay

Via the CBS news program 60 Minutes, we learn about a German resident of Turkish origin who was tortured by his captors in Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay.  From the description:

An innocent man held as a terror detainee for years tells Scott Pelley, in his first U.S. television interview, how Americans tortured him in Afghanistan and then at Guantanamo Bay.

You can find the video report here.

Catholic Church’s View of Torture–Another Post in Support of My Anti-Torture Jeremiad

Tomorrow, we will address the morality of torture from both deontological and consequentialists viewpoints. Here I’d like to refer you to what a prominent relatively orthodox Catholic believes about the Catholic Church’s teachings regarding the morality of torture. The Catholic Church knows what of it speaks as it attempted to water-board” Jews into accepting the tenets of the Catholic faith in Spain centuries ago. Mark Shea writes this about the Catholic Church’s views on torture (I encourage you to read his whole post):

The Church’s basic teaching on torture is laid out in Veritatis Splendor 80 (followed by a discussion of what the Holy Father means by “intrinsically immoral” acts). VS cites, I believe, Lumen Gentium and Gaudium et Spes (though I could be wrong and my memory is groggy this early). The Church does not define what torture is (leaving that matter to common sense and to the specialized knowledge of those whose job it has historically been to know such as police, judges, interrogators, philosphers, and other people of good will who operate in the field where interrogation and police work must be done).

The basic guidelines the Church proposes are pretty simple

1. Don’t do evil that good may come of it. [This is about as strong an injunction against consequentialism as is possible.]
2. Some things are intrinsically evil, meaning you *can’t* do them under any circumstance.
3. Torture is one of these things.
4. If you are confused about what “torture” is, then bear in mind the Church’s *other* command, which is that we must treat prisoners humanely, not merely “not torture them”. Aim for that, and you won’t accidently torture them.
5. Seek the intelligence you need while bearing in mind the above.

Some of the basic attempts to justify the use of torture are:

Alan Dershowitz Defends Torture…”in Extraordinary Circumstances”

In a previous post, I linked to a series of articles published by the Washington Monthly, the contributors to which all were firm in their belief that torture is never justified. I mentioned in class the other day that one of the tenets of my teaching philosophy is to create a strict wall of separation between my own political beliefs and the substance and content of my teaching. Torture is the one area where I make an exception as I believe that this is not a partisan issue (a claim that is supported by the partisan views of the contributors to the Washington Monthly special report on torture–Republican, Democrats, and Independents all contributed to the report) and that torture is morally wrong and the United States government should never use it as official public policy.

In order to provide some balance to the debate, however, please find below an interview of Alan Dershowitz, who–by his own admission–supports torture only in “exceptional circumstances”, by veteran British journalist David Frost. Dershowitz, a professor at Harvard Law School, is the most erudite of those who support torture. Most of the comments of those who support the use of torture by the US government aren’t nearly as thoughtful as Dershowitz. Here are some examples from Michael Goldfarb of the Weekly Standard:

Andrew Sullivan is yet again calling the president a “war criminal.” This time in response to today’s New York Times article revealing that the Bush administration has subjected terror suspects captured abroad to ‘severe’ and ‘brutal’ interrogations.

Sullivan has a history of trotting out the charge of “war criminal,” sticking the label on George Tenet, Donald Rumsfeld, Pentagon counsel Jim Haynes, and Berkeley law prof John Yoo.

And for what? The Times indicts the Bush administration for exposing terrorists captured abroad to “head-slapping, simulated drowning and frigid temperatures.” Boo hoo. And why does the Times consider this such a dangerous policy? The reporters end the story with this quote, from former Navy lawyer John Hutson, which they must believe to be compelling:

“The problem is, once you’ve got a legal opinion that says such a technique is O.K., what happens when one of our people is captured and they do it to him? How do we protest then?” he asked.

As Jules Crittenden notes in response:

[The] article neglects to mention we are fighting an enemy that considers powerdrills into kneecaps and videotaped beheading of captives business as usual. That in fact, we have yet to face an enemy in the modern era that observes anything approaching the standards we do. Germany, Japan, North Korea, North Vietnam, Iran, Iraq. Disorientation, isolation, beatings, starvation, summary executions, torture … of the bone-breaking, organ-smashing, electrocuting, bloody-drawing variety.

That is, real torture. And it trivializes the seriousness of it to apply the word to “head-slapping, simulated drowning and frigid temperatures.” It also trivializes the seriousness of real war crimes for someone to throw around the charge so promiscuously. A quick search of Sullivan’s blog for “war criminal” turns up 34 hits, all of them referring to members of the Bush administration. No doubt hit number 35 will be Andrew’s attack on the war criminals of the Worldwide Standard.

Here is another example from Goldfarb:

I haven’t really been following this issue, mostly because I’m pretty sure that whatever the government is doing to these terrorists wouldn’t “shock my conscience.” Like my man Scalia says, sometimes you’re going to have to take these terrorists and “smack them in the face.” But, some folks are more easily shocked than I am, and they are in full moral outrage mode this morning with the release of a 2003 memo by John Yoo (now a professor at Berkeley!) approving “harsh interrogation techniques.” Oh, the humanity!

Unfortunately, in a sad twist of fate, Andrew Sullivan has taken the week off, and so there will be no calls for a new Nuremberg trial featuring the prosecution of George Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and everyone else Andrew doesn’t agree with. But if you need your fix of self-righteous lefty demagoguery, Glenn Greenwald is a pretty good substitute with his post on “John Yoo’s War Crimes.”

Ken Roth Lecture on Human Rights and the Environment

We watched a video of a lecture given by Ken Roth (the Executive Director of the human rights NGO, Human Rights Watch) on the link between human rights and environmental degradation.  You can watch the entire lecture on youtube.  It is also embedded below.  Here is the description of the lecture:

Human Rights Watch Executive Director Ken Roth explains how environmental abuse has led to human rights violations in Darfur, Nigeria, Indonesia and Angola in the first of this season’s Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace & Justice Distinguished Lecture Series at the University of San Diego. Series: “Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace & Justice Distinguished Lecture Series” [10/2007]

John McCain Argues for Continued US Military Presence in Iraq on Moral Grounds

Ross Douthat, from the Atlantic.com, has a comment on the first major policy speech by presumptive Republican Presidential candidate John McCain since he mathematically wrapped up the nomination.  The speech is appropriate for our purposes, given that McCain makes a fundamentally moral case for continued US military involvement in Iraq and we have just begin to address the role of morality and ethics in foreign policy in Intro to IR.

“To walk away from the Iraqi people and consign them to … horrendous violence, ethnic cleansing and possibly genocide,” he argued, would represent “an unconscionable act of betrayal, a stain on our character as a great nation.” 

Douthat then compres McCain’s speech on Iraq to that of Barack Obama’s major foreign policy address last week:

If Obama wants to claim the moral as well as the political high ground, he can’t just make the case that Americans will be better off if the United States withdraws from Iraq; he needs to mount a persuasive argument that Iraqis will be better off as well.

Here is an excerpt of McCain’s speech: