Israel and Syria once again Negotiating over Golan Heights

In intro to IR on Wednesday we addressed global environmental issues and we went over this chart outlining Thomas Homer-Dixon’s overview regarding the link between environmental scarcity and security. According to Homer-Dixon, environmental degradation is not only an important economic, social, and health issue, it is crucially an issue of importance for global security.

We see the important link between increased environmental scarcity and social effects (like ethnic conflicts, deprivation conflicts and coups d’etat), facilitated indirectly at times by the conditions of weakened states.

Homer-Dixon argues that these environmentally-driven conflicts will increase the more the environment degrades. Moreover, it is just those places in the world that have the least capacity to deal with the potentially negative effects of environmental degradation whose environments will be most likely to suffer.

In the far left column is “unequal resource access”. One of the most important resources to humankind is water. The conflict between Syria and Israel over the Golan Heights is crucially linked to water. As we learn from the New York Times:

JERUSALEM — Peace overtures between Israel and Syria moved up a gear on Wednesday when a Syrian cabinet minister said that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel had sent a message to President Bashar al-Assad to the effect that Israel would be willing to withdraw from all the Golan Heights in return for peace with Syria.

The Syrian expatriate affairs minister, Buthaina Shaaban, told Al Jazeera television, “Olmert is ready for peace with Syria on the grounds of international conditions; on the grounds of the return of the Golan Heights in full to Syria.” She said that Turkey had conveyed the message.

Israeli officials did not deny the statement from Damascus but would not confirm it either, offering a more general, positive reaction. “Israel wants peace with Syria; we are interested in a negotiated process,” said Mark Regev, a spokesman for Mr. Olmert. “The Syrians know well our expectations, and we know well their expectations…”

“…Withdrawal from the Golan Heights is a contentious issue in Israel. The territory is a strategic plateau that overlooks a large swath of northern Israel. Israel has objected to past Syrian demands for access to the shore of the Sea of Galilee, a main water source for Israel.

Yehuda Raizner/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

An Indian member of the United Nations force in the Golan Heights, a strategic

plateau that overlooks a swath of northern Israel.

The Onion on UN Report Declaring China Air Pollution Champion

In their inimitable way, the fine people at the Onion have used a new UN report on air pollution as the source for this satirical report. China is now the world’s worst (or best–I suppose it depends on one’s perspective) air polluter. Some memorable quotes from the Chinese “Ambassador” interviewed in the report:

“The labor of my people have [sic] made the sky black with the smoke of progress. We are overjoyed!”

“The sky over China is now a rainbow of grays reflecting all the shades of our prosperity.”

“Close to one million people will die of cancer in China this year. Cancer is a very modern disease!”

Happy Earth Day

Today is Earth Day, a celebration of our planet and a day to reflect on all that it gives us and all that we do to make it less likely to continue to provide for us into the future. While we are unlikely to be entering a neo-Malthusian period, we are putting an ever increasing strain on the fragile ecosystem. Here, from the Vancouver Sun, are ten things that you can do to make a difference. How many of these are you currently doing? I hereby publicly commit that I will ride my bicycle to work until the end of the semester (that’s only about two weeks from now, but still two weeks is two weeks.)

1. Leave your car at home for a day (or a week or a month) and try walking or biking. If work is too far away to walk, take public transit or carpool. One city bus eliminates the emissions of 40 cars.

2. Turn off the lights, the computer and the television when they are not in use. Using only highly efficient and money-saving appliances can reduce the electricity consumption of an average household to one-10th of the national average.

3. Try eating meat-free at least one day a week. A meat-based diet requires seven times more land than a plant-based diet. Livestock production is responsible for more climate change gasses than all the motor vehicles in the world.

4. Choose foods produced organically, locally and in season. Support your regional farmers and farming industry: buying locally and in season is better for the environment than buying foods that have been shipped hundreds of kilometres to your local market.

5. Put a composter in your backyard or use your green bin to reduce household waste. Composting organics has two key benefits: it reduces the amount of waste going to landfills and when added to your garden, helps nourish soil and plants.

6. Turn off your car’s engine if stopped for more than 10 seconds. If every driver of a light-duty vehicle avoided idling by five minutes a day, collectively, we would save 1.8 million litres of fuel per day, almost 4500 tonnes of GHG emissions.

7. Set your thermostat above room temperature in the summer and below room temperature in the winter. For each degree you adjust, you can save 5% on your utility bill and 1% on your energy use.

8. Replace incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescent bulbs (CFLs). A CFL uses only 25% as much energy as an incandescent bulb and lasts 10 times longer.

9. The simple act of recycling has more impact on the environment than the average Canadian thinks. The amount of wood and paper North Americans throw away each year is enough to heat five million homes for 200 years.

10. This is a great opportunity to brag. Tell someone what you’re doing to make the world a better place. Support the cause. Encourage them to get involved too.

Source: Earth Day Canada

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.”

Flu Viruses’ Global Pathways Largely Predictable

We’ll be addressing globalizing issues in intro to IR on Monday and this interesting story in the Washington Post from a couple of days ago illustrates some of the important concepts raised in Chapter 10 of Mingst.

New strains of seasonal influenza virus all arise in East or Southeast Asia and take a largely predictable route around the world before dying out for good in South America, the global glue-trap for the pathogen.

That is the conclusion reported yesterday by a large team of researchers who analyzed the genetic ancestry of about 13,000 virus samples collected from six continents over a five-year period to answer long-standing questions about the flu’s life cycle.

The findings help explain the biological mechanisms that underlie two long-held observations about flu: New strains tend to appear first somewhere near China, and Australia’s flu season is a preview of what will happen in North America six months later. They also help explain why one winter’s flu is always at least a little bit different from the previous winter’s, even though the virus disappears over the summer…

But why is East-Southeast Asia always the starting point? The researchers believe it’s because of the unusual concentration of different climates there. The region has both tropical environments, where flu flourishes during the rainy season, and temperate zones. There are places that are relatively close — Russell cited Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 700 miles apart — that have totally different flu seasons.

This effectively allows new strains to be passed around the region like a baton in a relay race, even though in each climate zone the virus completely dies out once a year.

The reason new variants don’t cause epidemics if they are carried back to East Asia from elsewhere is because people already have immunity to them. They’re old news. At least that’s the theory.

Here, from Science magaizine (subscription only) is a chart demonstrating the global spread of flu viruses.

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.

So What does the Price of Soybeans have to do with Smog in Buenos Aires?

When I was younger, my friend’s father would often respond to our childhood rantings with the question, “but what’s that got to do with the price of tea in China?”  I still don’t really understand what it means, but in this increasingly globalized world, there is a direct causal link bewtween the price of soybeans and smog in the Argentinian capital city of Buenos Aires.  The causal mechanism is outlined in this Bloomberg news report:

April 17 (Bloomberg) — Smoke from fires set by farmers to clear fields for grazing covered the city of Buenos Aires and shut down some highways leading into the Argentine capital.

Interior Minister Florencio Randazzo called the smoke a “disaster” and said 292 separate fires covering 70,000 hectares (173,000 acres) had been detected in the provinces of Buenos Aires and neighboring Entre Rios.

Farmers are burning more land as they create pastures for cattle that previously grazed fields now dedicated to soybeans, said Randazzo.  An 89 percent increase in soybean futures prices in the past year, part of a global explosion in food costs, has prompted Argentine farmers to increase the area sown to the oilseed by 10 percent, according to the Agriculture Secretariat.

“Those responsible are farmers who are burning their meadows to cut costs and maximize profits without considering the consequences,” said Randazzo in a news conference at the Presidential Palace. “We are conducting investigations to find those responsible.”

Notice this chart of soybean prices below and the fact that many farmers are moving into the soybean growing business and I think we could have the potential for an intermediate-term top in the soybean market.  As in many speculative markets, many would-be speculators rush in just at (or even just after) the top has been set for that particularly stock or commodity.  It’s not a surprise the the record number of sales transactions for US real estate occurred in the month (around Summer 2005) as a top was setting in.  If I had to bet, I’d wager that many of those new soybean farmers will wish they had remained cattle farmers.

Thomas Friedman’s First Law of Petropolitics

New York Times columnist wrote a fairly interesting article in Foreign Policy magazine a couple of years entitled “The First Law of Politics.” Here are some excerpts:

When I heard the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, declare that the Holocaust was a “myth,” I couldn’t help asking myself: “I wonder if the president of Iran would be talking this way if the price of oil were $20 a barrel today rather than $60 a barrel.” When I heard Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez telling British Prime Minister Tony Blair to “go right to hell” and telling his supporters that the U.S.-sponsored Free Trade Area of the Americas “can go to hell,” too, I couldn’t help saying to myself, “I wonder if the president of Venezuela would be saying all these things if the price of oil today were $20 a barrel rather than $60 a barrel, and his country had to make a living by empowering its own entrepreneurs, not just drilling wells.”

As I followed events in the Persian Gulf during the past few years, I noticed that the first Arab Gulf state to hold a free and fair election, in which women could run and vote, and the first Arab Gulf state to undertake a total overhaul of its labor laws to make its own people more employable and less dependent on imported labor, was Bahrain. Bahrain happened to be the first Arab Gulf state expected to run out of oil. It was also the first in the region to sign a free trade agreement with the United States. I couldn’t help asking myself: “Could that all just be a coincidence? Finally, when I looked across the Arab world, and watched the popular democracy activists in Lebanon pushing Syrian troops out of their country, I couldn’t help saying to myself: “Is it an accident that the Arab world’s first and only real democracy happens not to have a drop of oil?”

The more I pondered these questions, the more it seemed obvious to me that there must be a correlation—a literal correlation that could be measured and graphed—between the price of oil and the pace, scope, and sustainability of political freedoms and economic reforms in certain countries.

India’s Finance Minister Calls Biofeuls a “Crime Against Humanity”

In the WSJ article reference below, it is noted that one of the reasons for the dramatic rise in food prices over the last few years has been the decision by rich countries–particularly the United States–to use agricultural products not for food, but for fuel for motor vehicles. In fact, according to this NPR report:

“The grain required to fill a 25-gallon SUV tank with ethanol will feed one person for a year,” [Lester] Brown [author of the book Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization] says. “And what we are seeing now is the emergence of direct competition between the 860 million people in the world who own automobiles and who want to maintain their mobility while the 2 billion poorest people in the world simply want to survive.”

For audio of the NPR report, click the link above.

Indeed, the issue of biofeuls is more than simply a matter of geopolitics. It has come to be viewed as a moral dilemma. Once again, from the WSJ article:

“When millions of people are going hungry, it’s a crime against humanity that food should be diverted to biofuels,” said India’s finance minister, Palaniappan Chidambaram, in an interview. Turkey’s finance minister, Mehmet Simsek, said the use of food for biofuels is “appalling.”

James Connaughton, chairman of the White House’s council on environmental quality, said biofuels are only one contributor to rising food prices. Rising prices for energy and electricity also contribute, as does strong demand for food from big developing countries like China.

But beyond taking shots at the U.S., there was little agreement this weekend on what should be done.