Greenland melt could expose hazardous Cold War waste

Climate Central reports: When the U.S. military abandoned Camp Century, a complex of tunnels dug into the ice of northwest Greenland, in the mid-1960s, they left behind thousands of tons of waste, including hazardous radioactive and chemical materials. They expected the detritus would be safely entombed in the ice sheet for tens of thousands of years, buried ever deeper under accumulating layers of snow and ice.

But a new study suggests that because of warming temperatures that are driving substantial melting of the ice, that material could be exposed much, much sooner – possibly even by the end of this century – posing a threat to vulnerable local ecosystems.

These remnants of the Cold War are also an example of an unanticipated political issue that could arise because of the effects of climate change, particularly as countries seek to establish a presence in the Arctic as warming makes it increasingly accessible.

“We think it’s a nice case study for this kind of political tension stemming from climate change,” study author William Colgan, a glaciologist at York University in Toronto, said. [Continue reading…]


Ukraine isn’t worth another Cold War

Pankaj Mishra writes: The Cold War credentialed a kind of “thinker” who cannot think without the help of violently opposed abstractions: good versus evil, freedom versus slavery, liberal democracy versus totalitarianism, and that sort of thing. Forced into premature retirement by the unexpected collapse of Communism in 1989, this thinker re-emerged after Sept. 11, convinced there was another worthy enemy in the crosshairs: Islamic totalitarianism. Unchastened by a decade of expensive, counterproductive and widely despised wars, these laptop generals have been trying to reboot their dated software yet again as Russian President Vladimir Putin formalizes his annexation of Crimea.

As laments about Western weakness and spine-stiffening exhortations fill the air, it’s worth recalling the legacy of the central episode of the Cold War: the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979.

The invasion was promoted by the Soviets’ serious misjudgment of the U.S.’s intentions in the region. As the U.S., along with Saudi Arabia, helped consolidate history’s first global jihadist campaign, it came to be prolonged by actual American actions. Questioned in 1998 about the U.S. role in the making of Islamic extremists, Zbigniew Brzezinski could confidently retort, “What is most important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Muslims or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the cold war?”

Three years later, of course, a handful of stirred-up Muslims launched the most devastating attack ever on U.S. soil, provoking the George W. Bush administration into such hubristic projects as eliminating “terror” worldwide and bringing democracy at gunpoint to the Middle East.

Muslims stirred up and radicalized by these blunders have subsequently ravaged Pakistan and large parts of the Middle East and Africa. U.S. citizens, too, have had to pay a high price — the loss of civil and legal rights — to protect themselves from what was originally a small band of cave-dwelling criminals and fanatics. Meanwhile, as the events of the last month show, the Soviet empire that had allegedly collapsed has returned under a different guise.

It is very likely that Putin’s land grab in Crimea will fail disastrously. As the Russian economy slows down, capital flees the country and domestic unrest grows, Putin’s position will become less than secure. The one thing certain to keep him in power longer, as well as weaken his opponents, would be a Western overreaction like those of the Jimmy Carter and Bush administrations in 1979 and 2001. [Continue reading…]


As China looks on, Putin poses risky dilemma for the West

a13-iconDavid Rohde writes: One senior Obama administration official called Vladimir Putin’s actions in the 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 the Ukraine. Threatening military action or publicly baiting Putin would likely prompt him to seize more of Ukraine by force. [Continue reading…]


Spying scandal alters U.S. ties with allies and raises talk of policy shift

The New York Times reports: Just as European and American negotiators resumed work on a groundbreaking trade accord meant to tie their two continents closer together, René Obermann, the chief executive of Deutsche Telekom, the German telecommunications giant, told a cybersecurity conference in Germany on Monday that his company was working to keep electronic message traffic from “unnecessarily” crossing the Atlantic, where it could fall into the hands of the National Security Agency.

Other German executives, and some politicians, are beginning to talk of segmenting the Internet, so that they are not reliant on large American firms that by contract or court order allow United States intelligence agencies to delve into their data about phone and Internet usage. Europeans are demanding that any new trade accord include data-privacy protections that the United States is eager to avoid.

Almost never before has a spying scandal — in this case the revelation of the monitoring of the cellphone of Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany — resulted in such a concrete, commercial backlash. Now it is also driving a debate inside the American government about whether the United States, which has long spied on allies even while nurturing them as partners, may have to change its approach.

“What’s more important?” Gen. Keith B. Alexander, the director of the N.S.A., asked during an interview last month, before the Merkel revelations. “Partnering with countries may be more important than collecting on them,” he said, especially when it comes to protecting against cyberthreats to the computer networks of the world’s largest economies. [Continue reading…]


The NSA has harmed transatlantic relations more than any al Qaeda operative could

Josef Joffe writes: “Every good spy story,” my friendly (former) CIA operative told me, “has a beginning, a middle and an end. And so, the snooping on the German chancellor and her European colleagues will surely stop.” He didn’t say: “It won’t resume.” Because it always does in a new guise, perhaps more elegantly and subtly.

For states need to know what other states are up to – friends or foes. Even so-called friends are commercial and diplomatic rivals. Some of our friends deal with our enemies, selling them dual-use technology good for insecticides, but also for nerve gas. Or metallurgical machinery that can churns out tools as well as plutonium spheres.

Let’s take an earlier story. Recall Echelon, the spy scandal that roiled Atlantic waters in the 90s. It was set up by the Five Eyes – the Anglo powers of the United States, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand – to monitor signal traffic in the Warsaw Pact. After the cold war – spies always look for gainful employment – it was turned inward, on the Europeans, to scan satellite-transmitted communications, allegedly for industrial espionage, too.

Was it stopped? Yes, the US handed over its listening station in the town of Bad Aibling to the Germans, but the game never ends. [Continue reading…]


Interdependence is not a slogan but an increasingly insistent reality

Zbigniew Brzezinski writes: If we wish to reflect on the common challenge inherent in the ongoing transformation of global politics, we would be wise to start by recognizing what I believe to be the three fundamental facts of the present era. First, global peace is threatened not by utopian fanaticism, as was the case during the 20th century, but by the turbulent complexity inherent in the phenomenon of global political awakening. Second, comprehensive social progress is more enduringly attained by democratic participation than by authoritarian mobilization. Third, in our time global stability can be promoted only by larger-scale cooperation, not through the imperial domination prevalent in earlier historical epochs.

The 20th century was dominated by fanatical ideological efforts to recreate societies by brutal totalitarian methods on the basis of utopian blueprints. Europe knows best the human costs of such simplistic and arrogant ideological fanaticism. Fortunately, with the exception of some highly isolated cases such as North Korea, it is unlikely that new attempts at large-scale utopian social engineering will arise. That is largely so because in the 21st century, for the first time in human history, the entire world is now politically awakened. The peoples of the world are restless, they are interconnected, they are resentful of their relative social deprivations, and they increasingly reject authoritarian political mobilization.

It follows that democratic participation is in the longer-run the best guarantee both of social progress and political stability. In the global arena, however, rising populist aspirations and the difficulties inherent in shaping common global responses to political and economic crises combine to threaten international disorder to which no single country, no matter how powerful, wealthy or strategically located, can effectively respond. Indeed, potential global turmoil—coincidental with the appearance of novel threats to universal well-being and even to human survival—can be effectively addressed only within a larger cooperative framework based on more widely shared democratic values.

The basic fact, therefore, is that interdependence is not a slogan but a description of an increasingly insistent reality. America realizes that it needs Europe as a global ally; that its cooperation with Russia is of mutual and expanding benefit; that its economic and financial interdependence with a rapidly rising China has a special political sensitivity; and that its ties with Japan are important not only mutually but to the well-being of the Pacific region. Germany is committed to a more united Europe within the European Union and to close links across the Atlantic with America, and in that context it can more safely nurture mutually beneficial economic and political cooperation with Russia. Turkey, which almost a century ago launched its social and national modernization with Europe largely as its model, is assuming a greater regional role as an economically dynamic and politically democratic state, as well as a member of the Atlantic alliance and Russia’s good neighbor. And Russia, recognizing that its modernization and democratization are mutually reinforcing and vital to its important world role, also aspires to a broader collaboration with Europe, with America and, quite naturally, with its dynamic neighbor to the east, China.


Careful what you wish for: an unstable world as U.S. declines

Tony Karon writes: Alarmed by the unchecked global dominance of Washington in the late 1990s, France’s then-foreign minister Hubert Vedrine described the US as a “hyperpower” whose influence needed to be checked for the greater good. This would be achieved, he suggested, by the construction of a “multipolar” world order, in which US influence would be balanced by the emergence of a number of different power centres.

As 2011 draws to a close, there can be no doubt that “multipolarity” is upon us, and then some: Washington has found its abilities limited to influence the dramatic political events unfolding across the wider Middle East and beyond. The US in 2012 faces a wave of crises that could have profound consequences for America’s well-being, yet with dramatically weakened levers of influence to shape the outcomes to those crises.

Today, decisions made in Ankara, Beijing, Paris, Berlin, Tehran, Riyadh and even Doha are having an effect on international affairs that might have been unthinkable just a few years ago. A quick glance at a few of the crises currently on the boil suggests the “multipolar” world may be a more unpredictable place than Mr Vedrine imagined.

President Barack Obama pulled the last US troops out of Iraq saying that it could become a “model for the entire region”, but the bloodbath visited on Baghdad by car bombers in the final weeks of 2011 was a grim reminder that Iraq may still be headed down the abyss of sectarian bloodshed. The attacks come against a backdrop of sharply rising sectarian tensions as the Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki appears to be systematically removing leading Sunnis from the political scene, raising fears of a renewed insurgency.


The decline of American client states

Max Fisher writes:

America’s love affair with client states began not long after it and the Soviet Union — another master in the art of client-building — pressured the UK and France to leave Egypt, which they had invaded in 1956 to reclaim control of the Suez canal. European colonialism, the U.S. and USSR argued at the United Nations that year, was outdated, destabilizing, and had to end. British and French forces withdrew from Egypt, and within about a decade most of the British and French empires collapsed. Meanwhile, the U.S. and Soviet Union had begun a different great geopolitical game — the search for client states — one that Washington is still playing today.

The ’56 Suez Crisis was a final act of the imperial age and one of the first in a new era, where the major powers don’t have colonies — they have clients. American and Soviet diplomats, spies, and generals spent the next four decades racing from one capital to another, trying to buy, cajole, or enforce the allegiance of smaller nations. Often, that meant tin-pot dictators that would do the master state’s bidding, either accelerating or stopping the spread of communism, depending on who was paying better that year. Egypt was one of dozens of countries that, not long after ending its centuries under colonial rule, became an often willing pawn in the Cold War’s client game, first aligning itself with the Soviet Union and then with the U.S., which offered it lots of money and military equipment as part of the 1979 Camp David Peace accords. The U.S. found less use for client states after the Soviet Union fell, but still maintains the practice today, developing (mostly) subservient allies in hot spots across the world.

If Egypt’s 1956 liberation from colonialism helped end the colonial era, the country may now once again be signalling a change in the global system. When protesters toppled Egyptian president and reliable U.S. client Hosni Mubarak this February, they changed the terms of the U.S.-Egypt relationship. Washington can send all the money and tanks it wants — it won’t be able to dictate to a democratic Cairo any more than it can to, say, Ankara or Paris. The fall of easily controlled dictators across the region (the U.S. has already given up on its man in Yemen) comes at the same time as U.S.-allied democracies and autocracies alike seem increasingly willing to buck Washington’s wishes. Last week alone, the U.S. clashed with some of its most important client states. Maybe that’s because of America’s habit of picking the most troubled states in the most troubled regions as clients (where they’re perceived as the most needed), maybe it’s because democratic movements are pressuring client states to follow popular domestic will rather than foreign guidance, and maybe it’s because the idea of clientalism was doomed from the start. Democracy is on the march, and democratic governments make bad clients: they’re fickle; prone to change foreign policy as their domestic policy shifts; and subject to the needs, desires, and whims of their voters.


Shaping a new world order

Andrew Bacevich writes:

Chief among the problems facing the United States today is this: too many obligations piled high without the wherewithal to meet them. Among those obligations are the varied and sundry commitments implied by the phrase “American global leadership.” If ever there were an opportune moment for reassessing the assumptions embedded in that phrase, it’s now.

With too few Americans taking notice, history has entered a new era. The “unipolar moment” created by the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 has passed. To refer to the United States today as the world’s “sole superpower” makes about as much sense as General Motors bragging that it’s the world’s No.1 car company: Nostalgia ill-befits an enterprise beset with competitors breathing down its neck. Similarly, to call Barack Obama the “most powerful man in the world” is akin to curtsying before Elizabeth II as “Queen of Great Britain, Ireland and British Dominions beyond the Seas”: Although a nice title, it confers little by way of actual authority.

A new global order is rapidly emerging. In that order, the United States will no doubt remain a very important player. Yet alongside the U.S. will be several others: China preeminently among them, but with Russia, India, Turkey, Japan, South Korea and Brazil also demanding to be reckoned with. (Whether Europe, currently wallowing in disarray, can muster the will and wallet to play in this company qualifies as an unknown.)

Nothing Washington can do will prevent this geopolitical transformation. Politicians may insist that the United States still stands apart — always and forever a “triple-A nation” — but their declarations will have as much effect as King Canute ordering the waves to stop. Indeed, to indulge further in the fiction of American omnipotence — persisting in our penchant for fighting distant wars of dubious purpose, for example — will accelerate the process, with relative decline becoming absolute decline. For Americans, husbanding power rather than squandering it is the order of the day.


Anarchism without anarchism: searching for progressive politics

Richard Falk, professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University and now 80, demonstrates it’s never too late in life to start a blog. In his latest post, he says “I wanted to introduce a perspective about progressive politics, and citizen engagement, at a time of fallen hopes.”

Recent explorations of the anarchist heritage are to be welcomed, bringing to a contemporary intellectual audience the politically and morally inspiring thought of such major thinkers as Bakunin, Kropotkin, Proudhon, and more recently, Harold Laski and Paul Goodman. This rich tradition reminds us strongly of the relevance of anti-state traditions of reflection and advocacy, as well as the indispensable role of cooperation, non-violence, community, small-scale social organization, and local solutions for human material needs if the aspiration for a just and sustainable society is ever to be rescued from its utopian greenhouse. There is every reason to celebrate this anarchist perspective for its own sake, although in a critical and discriminating manner. Non-violent philosophical anarchism has a surprising resonance in relation to the ongoing difficult search for a coherent and mobilizing progressive politics in the aftermath of the virtual demise of Marxist/Gramsci theorizing, as well as even socialist thought and practice.

At the same time, it should be acknowledged that this anarchist tradition has accumulated a heavy public burden of discrediting baggage, which adds to the difficulty of relying upon it to engender a new progressive mobilization within the current global setting. An immediate barrier to the wider acceptance of philosophical anarchism as a tradition of thought is its strong identification with exclusively Western societal experience, despite the existence of some affinities with strains of late Maoist praxis, especially the distrust of bureaucracies and political parties. In contrast, Gandhi’s inspiration and influence is often explicitly or implicitly evident in some recent attempts to espouse nonviolent anarchist perspectives as, for instance, in the Green Revolution that has been ongoing in Iran since their contested presidential elections of June 2009. Even within the Western framework of political thought and action there are two formidable obstacles to reliance on anarchism as political posture resulting from widespread public confusion and media manipulation.

First, is the widely endorsed stereotype of the anarchist as a sociopathetic bomb thrower, an understanding given credible cultural currency by way of Dostoyevski’s great anti-terrorist novel, The Devils. In our post-9/11 world it is unrealistic for public opinion to separate this dominant image of the anarchist from its preoccupation with terrorists and terrorism. To refer to someone as an anarchist invokes a discrediting term that is generally accepted as such without any qualifications. At best, ‘anarchists’ are popularly depicted as those seeking to turn peaceful demonstrations into violent carnivals of anti-state behavior, radical activists with no serious policy agenda. The mainstream media blamed anarchist elements for the violent disruptions that took place during the infamous ‘battle of Seattle’ at the end of 1999, which was the first massive populist expression of radical resistance to neoliberal globalization. In certain respects, by playing the anarchist card, the media and pro-globalizing forces were able to divert attention from the expanding populist resistance to non-accountable, non-transparent, anti-democratic, and hegemonic institutional actors (World Bank, IMF, and WTO). Most of those participating in Seattle neither regarded themselves as anarchists nor wanted to be portrayed as marching in step behind the black banners of anarchist militancy. The self-proclaimed anarchists at Seattle were also sharply criticized as ignorant about and indifferent toward the substantive anti-globalization concerns that motivated most of the demonstrators.

Secondly, our ideas about international relations often associated with Hobbes to the effect that relations among states are characterized by the absence of government, and in realist thinking that emanates from this source, the irrelevance of law and ethics to the pursuit of order and security on a global level.

Continue reading.


Hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue

Must-read commentary from Pankaj Mishra:

There were chuckles and sniggers in Qatar last month when Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, warned that a military dictatorship was imminent in Iran. Threatening America’s most intransigent adversary, Clinton seems to have been oblivious to her audience: educated Arabs in the Middle East where America’s military presence has long propped up several dictators, including such stalwart allies in rendition and torture as Hosni Mubarak.

Of course, by her own standards, Clinton was being remarkably nuanced and sober: during the presidential campaign in 2008 she promised to “obliterate” Iran. An over-eager cheerleader of the Bush administration’s serial bellicosity, Clinton exemplifies Barack Obama’s essential continuity with previous US foreign policymakers – despite the president’s many emollient words to the contrary. Clinton has also “warned” China with an officiousness redolent of the 1990s when her husband, with some encouragement from Tony Blair, tried to sort out the New World Order.

But the illusions of western power that proliferated in the 90s now lie shattered. No longer as introverted as before, China contemptuously dismissed Clinton’s warnings. The Iranians did not fail to highlight American skulduggery in their oil-rich neighbourhood. But then Clinton is not alone among Anglo-American leaders in failing to recognise how absurdly hollow their quasi-imperial rhetoric sounds in the post-9/11 political climate.

Visiting India last year David Miliband decided to hector Indian politicians on the causes of terrorism, and was roundly rebuffed. Summing up the general outrage among Indian elites, a leading English language daily editorialised that the British foreign secretary had “yet to be house-trained”. The US treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner, provoked howls of laughter in his Chinese audience when he assured them that China’s assets tied up in US dollars were safe.

As foreign secretary of a nation complicit in two recent terrorist-recruiting wars, Miliband could have been a bit more modest. Resigned to financing America’s massive deficits with Chinese-held dollars, Geithner could have been a bit less strident.

But no: old reflexes, born of the victories of 1945 and 1989, linger among Britain and America’s political elites, which seem almost incapable of shaking off habits bred of the long Anglo-American imperium – what the American diplomat and writer George Kennan in his last years denounced as an “unthought-through, vainglorious and undesirable” tendency “to see ourselves as the centre of political enlightenment and as teachers to a great part of the rest of the world”.

Read the whole article.


Reconsidering America’s place in the world

In Nader Mousavizadeh‘s interesting analysis on America’s failure to deal effectively with so-called “rogue states”, he begins by pointing out that the world that created such states is gone:

Obama came into office thinking that a more responsive diplomacy could rally global support for the old Western agenda, but that’s not enough. What’s needed, more than a change in tone or a U.S. policy review, is a new set of baseline global interests—neither purely Western nor Eastern—defined in concert with rising powers who have real influence in capitals like Rangoon, Pyongyang, and Tehran. This requires a painful reconsideration of America’s place in the world. But it promises real help from rising powers in shouldering the financial and military burden of addressing global threats.

Today countries large and small, well behaved and not, are looking for partners, not patrons. Where Washington looks to punish rogues, seeking immediate changes in behavior, rival powers are stepping in with investment and defense contracts, and offering a relationship based on dignity and respect. This is the story of China in Burma, Russia in Iran, Brazil in Cuba, and so on down the line. And given that the core institutions of global governance—the U.N. Security Council, the World Bank, and the IMF—are unwilling to grant the new powers a seat at the decision-making table, it’s not surprising that they feel no obligation to back sanctions they’ve had no say in formulating.

Far from being coy about their newfound independence, the rising powers are asserting their status with increasing strength. During a recent state visit, Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva stood beside President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran and declared bluntly: “We don’t have the right to think other people should think like us.” These words resonate more deeply outside the Western world than new calls for unity against the rogues. Days earlier, Ahmadinejad had been hosted by Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who had embraced his neighbor at a summit of Islamic nations and insisted that Iran’s nuclear program was “peaceful.” Predictably, the Western press attacked both Lula and Erdogan for betraying democratic values and solidarity, missing the point entirely. Established democrats like Lula and Erdogan are not siding with Ahmadinejad, supporting his government’s violent crackdown on protesters or its covert nuclear programs. Rather, they are demonstrating their intention—and, more important, their ability—to have a say in who the rogues are and how they should be dealt with.