Saturday, January 7, 2006

January's Books of the Month

This month's general interest book is by my colleague Eric Oliver -- Fat Politics: the Real Story Behind America’s Obesity Epidemic. The real story, according to Oliver, is that there is no such thing as an obesity epidemic -- rather, this appears to be a whopping case of medical experts confusing correlation with causation.

This write-up in the U of C Chronicle does a fair job of providing a precis:

Oliver contends there is no scientific evidence to suggest that people who are currently classified as “overweight” and even most Americans who qualify as “obese” are under any direct threat from their body weight.

Oliver explains that this is partly because the current standards of what is “overweight” and “obese” are defined at very low levels—George Bush is technically “overweight,” while Arnold Schwarzenegger is “obese.” But it also is because most people confuse body weight with the real sources of health and well-being—diet and exercise, he says.

In most cases, the relationship between fat and disease is simply an association, says Oliver. People who are overweight may also have heart disease, for instance, but there is no proof that being overweight causes the heart disease.

“There are only a few medical conditions that have been shown convincingly to be caused by excess body fat, such as osteoarthritis of weight bearing joints and uterine cancer, which comes from higher estrogen levels in heavier women, although this can be treated medically without weight loss,” he says. “For most medical conditions, it is diet, exercise and genetics that are the real causes. Weight is merely an associated symptom.”

Yet Americans continue to be told that they need to lose weight, Oliver believes, partly because weight is so much easier to measure than diet and exercise. It also is because of American values that consider overweight a sign of sloth and thinness a mark of social status, he says. “But the most important factor,” Oliver argues, “behind America’s ‘obesity epidemic’ is the weight loss industry and public health establishment.”

Read the whole thing -- Oliver's deconstruction of the body mass index (BMI) as the basic metric for determining obesity is particularly useful. The one mystery that remains for me is why powerful economic sectors -- like processed food services and restaurant owners -- haven't fought harder against the obesity myth.

Oh, yes, in case you were wondering, Eric didn't write this as a massive justification for his own body tpe -- he's quite svelte.

The international relations book is Michael Mandelbaum's The Case for Goliath: How America Acts as the World’s Government in the Twenty-First Century. There's a book excerpt in the January/February 2006 issue of Foreign Policy in which Mandelbaum spells out his basic hypothesis:

The gap between what the world says about American power and what it fails to do about it is the single most striking feature of 21st-century international relations. The explanation for this gap is twofold. First, the charges most frequently leveled at America are false. The United States does not endanger other countries, nor does it invariably act without regard to the interests and wishes of others. Second, far from menacing the rest of the world, the United States plays a uniquely positive global role. The governments of most other countries understand that, although they have powerful reasons not to say so explicitly....

To be sure, the United States did not deliberately set out to become the world’s government. The services it provides originated during the Cold War as part of its struggle with the Soviet Union, and America has continued, adapted, and in some cases expanded them in the post-Cold War era. Nor do Americans think of their country as the world’s government. Rather, it conducts, in their view, a series of policies designed to further American interests. In this respect they are correct, but these policies serve the interests of others as well. The alternative to the role the United States plays in the world is not better global governance, but less of it—and that would make the world a far more dangerous and less prosperous place. Never in human history has one country done so much for so many others, and received so little appreciation for its efforts....

If a global plebiscite concerning America’s role in the world were held by secret ballot, most foreign-policy officials in other countries would vote in favor of continuing it. Though the Chinese object to the U.S. military role as Taiwan’s protector, they value the effect that American military deployments in East Asia have in preventing Japan from pursuing more robust military policies. But others will not declare their support for America’s global role. Acknowledging it would risk raising the question of why those who take advantage of the services America provides do not pay more for them. It would risk, that is, other countries’ capacities to continue as free riders, which is an arrangement no government will lightly abandon.

In the end, however, what other nations do or do not say about the United States will not be crucial to whether, or for how long, the United States continues to function as the world’s government. That will depend on the willingness of the American public, the ultimate arbiter of American foreign policy, to sustain the costs involved. In the near future, America’s role in the world will have to compete for public funds with the rising costs of domestic entitlement programs. It is Social Security and Medicare, not the rise of China or the kind of coalition that defeated powerful empires in the past, that pose the greatest threat to America’s role as the world’s government.

Mandelbaum's thesis is, in many ways, an updating an old warhorse in international relations scholarship, hegemonic stability theory (HST).

The funny thing about HST is that almost no one in the discipline would claim to buy the whole argument. Realists don't buy it because the theory posits that a hegemonic actor provides global public goods even though it knows that other states, by free riding off those goods, will catch up in terms of relative power. Liberals don't buy it because the evidence that international regimes collapse when a hegemon is in decline turns out to be pretty meager. Constructivists don't buy it because the root of the theory is a state's material power and not its power over norms is what drives the model. Rationalists don't buy the hegemon's motivations -- why provide public goods and tolerate free riding when an actor can coerce others into chipping in?

That said, the model is still around when academics talk about policy, because at some level there's a ring of truth to it. It's the difference between pure theory and policy-relevant scholarship -- which is a topic too big for this blog post.

posted by Dan at 10:32 AM | Comments (11) | Trackbacks (0)

Friday, January 6, 2006

There is no engineering gap

Last year there was a lot of hysteria among the business press over the fact that China and India were allegedly graduating hundreds of thousands of engineers a year, while the U.S. could only muster around 70,000 or so.

I blogged last October about how even outsourcing critics were skeptical of these numbers. Now, courtesy of Duke University's Engineering Management Program, there are some harder numbers on this subject -- and it turns out there's not much reason to panic (link via the Wall Street Journal's Carl Bialik). Here's the report abstract:

The effect of the dynamics of engineering outsourcing on the global economy is a discussion of keen interest in both business and public circles. Varying, inconsistent reporting of problematic engineering graduation data has been used to fuel fears that America is losing its technological edge. Typical articles have stated that in 2004 the United States graduated roughly 70,000 undergraduate engineers, while China graduated 600,000 and India 350,000. Our study has determined that these are inappropriate comparisons. These massive numbers of Indian and Chinese engineering graduates include not only four-year degrees, but also three-year training programs and diploma holders. These numbers have been compared against the annual production of accredited four-year engineering degrees in the United States. In addition to the lack of nuanced analysis around the type of graduates (transactional or dynamic) and quality of degrees being awarded, these articles also tend not to ground the numbers in the larger demographics of each country. A comparison of like-to-like data suggests that the U.S. produces a highly significant number of engineers, computer scientists and information technology specialists, and remains competitive in global markets.
And this is from the text of the report itself:
The outsourcing debate has been complicated due to conflicting definitions of the engineering profession....

Through our research, we have identified two main groups of engineering graduates: dynamic engineers and transactional engineers. Dynamic engineers are individuals capable of abstract thinking and high-level problem solving using scientific knowledge. These engineers thrive in teams, work well across international borders, have strong interpersonal skills, and are capable of translating technical engineering jargon into common diction. Dynamic engineers lead innovation. The majority of dynamic engineers have a minimum of a four year engineering degree from nationally accredited or highly regarded institutions.

Transactional engineers may possess engineering fundamentals, but not the experience or expertise to apply this knowledge to larger problems. These individuals are typically responsible for rote and repetitive tasks in the workforce. Transactional engineers often receive associate, technician or diploma awards rather than a bachelor’s degree....

Graph 2 depicts the annual production of bachelor’s and subbaccalaureate degrees in Engineering, CS and IT awarded per million citizens. These data imply that per every one million citizens, the United States is producing roughly 750 technology specialists, compared with 500 in China and 200 in India....

Outsourcing creates a clear threat to certain professions and it is likely that this trend will continue. It seems that the jobs of transactional engineers are easily outsourced and are routinely being taken by relatively low paid engineers in countries like India and China. However, the outsourcing of high-level engineering and IT professions is another story. These jobs often require specialized dynamic engineers: individuals with strong interpersonal skills, technical knowledge and the ability to communicate across borders....

The great majority of engineers involved in outsourced professions hold a minimum of a four-year degree. As a result, one could argue that approximately half of China’s and India’s annual engineering and IT graduates are capable of competing in the global outsourcing environment. However, a recent McKinsey global labor market study
argues that this estimate is far too generous. McKinsey concluded that only 10% of Chinese engineers and 25% of Indian engineers can compete in the global outsourcing arena.

So, to conclude, offshore outsourcing will take place when the tasks can be segmented into discrete, simple and rote tasks, and does not pose a threat to engineers at the B.S. level or above.

Damn, that sounds familiar.

posted by Dan at 03:44 PM | Comments (19) | Trackbacks (0)

"Unassisted human intuition is a bomb"

I blogged last month about Philip Tetlock's book Expert Political Judgment. Reviews of the book suggested that Tetlock's two main conclusions were:

1) Experts are really bad at making predictions; and

2) Experts who typified Isaiah Berlin's "hedgehogs" did far worse than those who were "foxes." (and no, that doesn't mean Salma Hayek or Scarlet Johansson -- we're talking about indifferent kinds of foxes here).

Today, Carl Bialik -- the Wall Street Journal's Numbers Guy -- has a follow-up story that corrects one potential misperception about the utility of experts: they might not be great predictors, but they are still better informed than you are -- which means they are still better predictors.
The New Yorker's review of [Tetlock's] book surveyed the grim state of expert political predictions and concluded by advising readers, "Think for yourself." Prof. Tetlock isn't sure he agrees with that advice. He pointed out an exercise he conducted in the course of his research, in which he gave Berkeley undergraduates brief reports from Facts on File about political hot spots, then asked them to make forecasts. Their predictions -- based on far less background knowledge than his pundits called upon -- were the worst he encountered, even less accurate than the worst hedgehogs. "Unassisted human intuition is a bomb here," Prof. Tetlock told me.
And that's your quote of the day.

posted by Dan at 01:12 PM | Comments (3) | Trackbacks (0)

And the dollar watch starts for 2006

The Financial Times has two reports that provide contradictory signals on what the Pacific Rim economies will be doing about the dollar.

On the one hand, Geoff Dyer and Andrew Balls report that China is planning on diversifying its foreign reserve holdings away from the dollar -- really:

China indicated on Thursday it could begin to diversify its rapidly growing foreign exchange reserves away from the US dollar and government bonds – a potential shift with significant implications for global financial and commodity markets.

Economists estimate that more that 70 per cent of the reserves are invested in US dollar assets, which has helped to sustain the recent large US deficits. If China were to stop acquiring such a large proportion of dollars with its reserves – currently accumulating at about $15bn (€12.4bn) a month – it could put heavy downward pressure on the greenback.

In a brief statement on its website, the government's foreign exchange regulator said one of its targets for 2006 was to “improve the operation and management of foreign exchange reserves and to actively explore more effective ways to utilise reserve assets”.

It went on: “[The objective is] to improve the currency structure and asset structure of our foreign exchange reserves, and to continue to expand the investment area of reserves.

“We want to ensure that the use of foreign exchange reserves supports a national strategy, an open economy and the macro-economic adjustment."

Here's a link to China's State Administration of Foreign Exchange, but damn if I can find the announcement in question.

On the other hand, Song Jung-a reports that South Korea is moving in exactly the opposite direction:

South Korea’s finance ministry said on Friday it would mobilise all possible means to curb the won’s recent sharp appreciation against the US dollar.

The statement came a day after the currency hit an eight-year high against the greenback, intensifying concern among government officials that the stronger won could hurt exports, which account for more than a third of Asia’s fourth-largest economy.

“We’re deeply worried about moves in the foreign exchange market that can’t be seen as normal,” said Kwon Tae-shin, a vice finance minister, after chairing an emergency meeting with central bank and trade ministry officials and other regulators. “The market has seen an excessive herd mentality because of speculative forces.”

Mr Kwon said the government would look into speculative trading forces and further ease regulations on overseas investment as part of efforts to spur dollar outflows from the country.

The government will immediately raise the ceiling on individual overseas investment from US$3m to US$10m and double the amount that individuals can spend to buy overseas property to US$1m, with an aim to completely abolish the ceilings within this year.

“In case the market fails to return to normal on its own, we will seek stability through cooperation with relevant government agencies,” the finance ministry said in a statement.

China's dollar position is more significant than South Korea's, but my bet is that Beijing will move as slowly as possible in its diversification -- which means that South Korea's move in the opposite direction could leave the dollar pretty much where it is now.

This, by the way, is the dream scenario for China -- it can comply with U.S. requests, diversify away from an asset that will fall in the future, and still have the dollar be relatively strong against the yuan in the short term.

Click over to Brad Setser for more dollar analysis -- but be sure to read his list of what he got wrong (and right) about the dollar last year.

posted by Dan at 09:50 AM | Comments (8) | Trackbacks (0)

Thursday, January 5, 2006

Find the fool in the IAEA!!

Elaine Sciolino reports in the New York Times that those wachy Iranians are up to their old tricks on nuclear nonproliferation:

Iran threw negotiations over its nuclear program into disarray today, abruptly canceling a high-level meeting with the United Nations' nuclear monitoring agency in Vienna as the head of Iran's negotiating team was said to have returned home to Tehran.

The unexpected turn of events stunned and frustrated both International Atomic Energy Agency officials and foreign diplomats. They scrambled to make sense of the Iranian's failure to attend the meeting, which was scheduled so that Iran could explain in detail its formal decision to restart sensitive nuclear research and development activities next Monday.

"There was no explanation," an agency spokeswoman, Melissa Fleming, said in a telephone interview from Vienna. "We're still seeking clarification."

One explanation is that Iran has decided to defy the rest of the world and plunge ahead with nuclear activities that risk international censure or sanctions. That decision could shatter a 14-month agreement with France, Britain and Germany under which Iran agreed to suspend most of its nuclear work in return for promised rewards.

Another explanation is that in the face of strong international criticism, Iran's negotiating strategy is in disarray. Since President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to power last year, Iran's national security apparatus, including its nuclear negotiating team and dozens of its ambassadors, has been largely replaced with people who are driven by rigid, hard-line views and lack extensive diplomatic experience.

Those last two paragraphs nicely encapsulate the underlying question before us: is this a case of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad burning through what remains of his diplomatic capital, or is this an example of Iran calling the bluff of the IAEA, the EU, and the UN Security Council, confident that the rest of the world has no endgame strategy?

Of course, one possible answer is "all of the above."

posted by Dan at 07:04 PM | Comments (5) | Trackbacks (0)

What a difference a decade makes

Blogging over at Andrew Sullivan's web site, Julian Sanchez has a young riff about Doug Bandow's bravura final column in the wake of his admission that he took Abramoff money in exchange for writing op-eds favoring Abramoff's causes.

Why do I say young? In a counterintuitive analysis for a libertarian, Sanchez concludes that money is not his greatest corrupting fear as a rising policy wonk in DC:

[T]here is, as Bandow observes, a big gray area involving indirect support by way of institutions, or more tenuous links where a writer has previously done unrelated work from some party with an interest in a topic she later writes about.

I don't worry a great deal about these things. I do occasionally worry, in my own case, about the self-reinforcing nature of Beltway opinion work....

[T]he market value of my opinion is low enough that nobody's ever bothered to try buying it—but if they did, I expect it would be an easy enough lure to resist precisely because it would be so obvious and clear-cut, the devil approaching with horns protruding and eyes glowing red. It's the background pressure of an ideological community that I find more worrying, because the way it operates is far more subtle. At the end of the day, you can't really be sure you wouldn't have changed your mind on this or that issue in a different context, because there's no big flashy crisis point—instead you're looking for the dog that didn't bark, the internal dialogue you didn't bother having because (as you and all your friends know) such-and-such counterargument isn't worth taking all that seriously anyway.

That kind of pressure, I hasten to add, is pretty clearly not "improper" in the sense of running counter to canons of journalistic ethics. It's probably an inevitable upshot of having a commmunity or a social network. But from the point of view of personal, more than professional, integrity, it's the kind of "contamination" I find most troubling.

A few thoughts:
1) My all-too-brief interactions with Sanchez, combined with the very fact that he is worried about social conformity at all, suggests to me that he is unlikely to alter his views because of social pressure.

2) It's just a matter of time before someone wants to pay Sanchez good money for the use of his pen.

3) As someone with a decade on Sanchez in terms of life experience, I'd strongly recommend the book and movie Thank You For Smoking to him in order to understand the ways in which getting married and having children affects one's world view (side note: the trailer looks pretty good, and Aaron Eckhardt seems perfectly cast). The protagonist's mantra, when asked why he'd be a lobbyist for Big Tobacco, is simple -- "I have a mortgage." As previously noted, the financial rewards of a successful policy wonk are not exactly meager, but they are not commensurate with the money people with similar education levels earn in the private sector. And this would be fine.... until you start looking at your children and calculating just how much it costs to pay their way through an elite four-year institution for higher learning.

Sometimes children aren't even necessary -- as David Brooks pointed out in Bobos in Paradise, intellectuals who climb to the top of their professional pyramid develop Status-Income Disequilibrium, craving the material rewards that other successful people appear to reap.

I'm not saying that all policy wonks are destined to take money the way Bandow did -- merely that the temptation is a bit more imposing once there are dependents in the equation.

[This means you've leased your pen out, doesn't it?--ed. No, I haven't, unless shilling for Pamela Anderson counts. But I am receiving more substantial offers, and it's something I'm going to need to guard against for the future.]

UPDATE: This Laura McKenna post does point out one small counter-trend to what I blogged about -- the guilt that comes with ever-increasing consumption. But I suspect that most wonks are not as angst-ridden about it as the ever-charming Ms. McKenna.

posted by Dan at 11:07 AM | Comments (6) | Trackbacks (0)

Wednesday, January 4, 2006

Kadima is doomed -- the sequel

It appears that Ariel Sharon has suffered from a massive, debilitating stroke -- Omri Ceren has the tick-tock on the latest medical news.

The AP reports that a full recovery is highly unlikely.

Looking a few steps ahead, this will leave Shimon Peres as the leader of Kadima -- which compels me to repeat what I blogged a few weeks ago:

I have only one thing to say about Shimon Peres' decision to leave the Labor party and join Ariel Sharon's brand-spanking new Kadima Party -- it can only mean Kadima is doomed to implode.

Why do I say this? Because the one constant in Israeli politics is that Shimon Peres might be the single-worst politician in the brief history of the Israeli state. By this I don't mean Peres is a bad policymaker or leader -- I mean the man couldn't win an election to save his life....

[U]nless the focus is completely on Ariel Sharon, Kadima will have a very short half-life.

posted by Dan at 07:23 PM | Comments (10) | Trackbacks (0)

Will Rasmussen is 50% correct

Over at TNR Online, former Beirut Daily Star correspondent Will Rasmussen argues that Hezbollah's performance in the Lebanese government confounds predictions by democracy activists that Islamist movements will moderate once they get involved in governing:

Should radical groups in nascent democracies be allowed to participate in politics? This has long been a central dilemma in the Middle East; and as Islamist parties have demonstrated their electoral power in Egypt and Iraq, the question has only grown in importance. One common response to this quandary has been to argue that bringing radical groups into politics can serve to moderate them. In TNR, the Carnegie Endowment's Marina Ottaway has argued that "there is ample evidence that participation in an electoral process forces any party, regardless of ideology, to moderate its position if it wants to attract voters in large numbers and avoid a backlash." In a recent editorial, the Financial Times echoed this sentiment: "The Islamists are part of the future of the region and their participation in the political process remains the best hope of moderating their often radical views." The Middle East Intelligence Bulletin, published by the Middle East Forum and the United States Committee for a Free Lebanon, has asserted that there is "reason to believe that Islamist movements become more moderate when they are allowed opportunities to participate in a democratic political system."

Recent events in Lebanon suggest that this analysis is mistaken. In July 2005, the Shia terrorist group Hezbollah claimed a cabinet position in Beirut for the first time, taking over the energy ministry. Far from moderating, Hezbollah has only grown more strident and disruptive during the last five months. But the party's failure to moderate has also yielded an unexpected benefit: Lebanese are increasingly fed up with Hezbollah's behavior. In other words, bringing Islamist parties into government can sometimes pay dividends not because they will moderate once offered a share of power--but rather because they won't.

I'm pretty sure most democracy activists would dispute Rasmussen's characterization of their position. The argument isn't that democratic participation will cause radical Islamic movements to moderate - it's that radical Islamic movements will either moderate or lose their base of support.

Something that got pruned out of this piece is worth stating: no radical Islamic movement, upon taking office, has succeeded at the mundane tasks of governing. Iran's Ahmadinejad, the Taliban in Afghanistan, and the Sudanese under Turabi -- they have all sucked at governing.

I suspect democracy activists are perfectly comfortable with the outcome in Rasmussen's piece.

posted by Dan at 03:17 PM | Comments (13) | Trackbacks (0)

There's money and then there's Abramoff money

Last month I prophesized some nausea inside the Beltway if Jack Abramoff cut a deal. And now it appears that has come to pass.

Howard Fineman provides a pithy but accurate explanation in MSNBC on why Abramoff will be so damaging:

[T]he thing that jumps out at me is the figure $20,194,000. If I read the fed’s plea-agreement papers correctly, that’s the amount of cold cash that the Republican lobbyist siphoned from Indian tribes and stashed in his secret accounts.

You may not believe this, but in this city, that is an unheard of amount of money for a lobbyist to haul in — and the number itself signifies a troubling change in the nature of life in the capital of our country.

The denizens of D.C. deal in trillions of dollars. But they are YOUR dollars: tax receipts and federal spending. Lawyers and lobbyists here do well. Still, they haven’t generally been in the same league as money-power types in, say, New York or Los Angeles. This was a city in which official position meant more than a plush vacation home; in which a Ph.D. or J.D. meant more than a BMW. Traditionally, the locals have been more like Vegas blackjack dealers than the greedy people sitting on the other side of the table.

Well, Abramoff jumped the table — and the result will be the biggest influence-peddling scandal to hit Washington in recent times.

I don't buy Fineman's thesis that a third party movement will be born, but he's right about the money and the social mores of DC.

UPDATE: Brendan Nyhan really doesn't like Fineman's third party suggestion. He's probably right, but I think the term "insipd" is a touch overblown. To play devil's advocate, the current set of conditions -- massive deficits, disenchantment with Congress, official scandals, a Bush in the White House -- do evoke the environment that allowed Ross Perot to make a splash in 1992. That's a long way from a real third party, but it's not nothing either.

posted by Dan at 02:43 PM | Comments (9) | Trackbacks (0)

Time keeps on slipping, slipping, slipping....

In Newsweek, Mark Hosenball has obtained copies of the sildeshow senior White House officials saw connecting Al Qaeda with Saddam Hussein:

The White House slide, dated September 2002, cites publicized allegations from a post-9/11 Czech intel report that Atta met the April before 9/11 with Iraqi spy Ahmed al-Ani, and asserts the United States had "no other" intel contradicting the report. The slide offers purported details about Atta's activities in Prague (including two earlier, confirmed visits). It says that during one visit al-Ani ordered an Iraqi intelligence officer to "issue funds to Atta." The slide also includes previous unpublished allegations that Atta met the Iraqi Embassy charge d'affaires and that "several workers at Prague airport identified Atta following 9/11 and remember him traveling with his brother Farhan Atta."

Four former senior intel officials who monitored investigations into Atta's alleged Iraqi contacts say they never heard the airport anecdote. One official (all asked not to be named while discussing intel issues) says intel analysts had "rejected" the anecdote about al-Ani's giving Atta money. Former Pentagon policy chief Douglas Feith says he was told (and other officials confirmed) that the slide was prepared from reports obtained through normal intel channels.

Here's a link to the actual slides.

After reading the report, Mickey Kaus is puzzled:

It's always hard to believe top government officials actually make big war/no war decisions based on these simplified slide show briefings, as opposed to drilling down and assessing the veracity of the underlying raw intelligence. Did Cheney (who stuck with the Atta-in-Prague story) really not want to learn of any possibly-inconvenient doubts about what the briefings told him? Or are briefings less important than reporters tend to think they are?
My hunch is that there were two things going on. The first thing is that Kaus is partially correct: Cheney really, really wanted to believe that there was a connection, and the slide provided it.

The second thing is more mundane but nevertheless true -- the higher you go up the policy food chain, the less detail in the memos. The reason is that the most precious commodity of cabinet-level officials is time. They're scheduled to within an inch of their lives -- the last thing they have time for is "assessing the veracity of the underlying raw intelligence."

This is why stovepiping is so dangerous. Even with a decision as momentous as going to war, a president is rarely going to devote the time to assessing the accuracy rate of intelligence briefings. More likely, they'll assume that if it gets to their desk there must be something there there.

I'm not saying that there wasn't a willful blindness in parts of the White House about this intelligence. But never underestimate the cognitive limitations of policy principals that time crunches create.

posted by Dan at 10:55 AM | Comments (8) | Trackbacks (0)

Tuesday, January 3, 2006

Psst.... anybody interested in a dissertation topic?

Every once in a while a natural disaster has a significant impact on international relations. We've seen in the past year how U.S. humanitarian assistance can improve America's public image in the affected countries. The 1999 earthquake that affected Greece and Turkey -- and the outpouring of cross-border assistance -- led to a thaw between those two enduring rivals.

Of course, not every natural disaster has such an effect. The Bam earthquake in Iran, for example, led to no diplomatic thaw -- neither did the French heat wave of 2003 nor hurricane Katrina in 2005.

This leads to an interesting question for a dissertation -- under what circumstances will a truly exogenous shock lead to a lessening of international or internal conflicts?

The December 2004 tsunami presents an interesting comparative case study. In Indonesia, Nick Meo reports for the Australian on the budding peace in Aceh:

The head of the feared Indonesian military in Aceh was doing what was almost unthinkable only a year ago: telling its people that the war - one of Asia's longest and, until last year's tsunami, most intractable - was over.

There was a bigger surprise for the departing 3500 soldiers on Thursday. Irwandi Yusuf, leader of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM), who 12 months ago was one of their deadliest enemies, was there to shake hands with the hard men in fatigues before their ships slipped away from the jungle-covered hills of Aceh, probably forever.

The event was stage-managed but nobody could doubt the sincerity, part of an extraordinarily successful peace process that has confounded the pessimists and inspired a people who suffered more than any other in the tsunami.

Thinks have not worked out quite as well in Sri Lanka, as the Economist observes:
One year on from the tsunami that devastated large parts of Sri Lanka, killing more than 30,000 there, the South Asian island’s people are facing another looming disaster: the revival of a brutal civil war that has killed around 65,000 since it began 22 years ago. A fragile ceasefire, brokered by the government of Norway three years ago, is close to breaking-point after a string of recent attacks by the Tamil Tiger rebels, who are fighting for an independent homeland in the north and east of the island.

On Thursday December 29th the head of the ceasefire-monitoring team, Hagrup Haukland, gave a warning that, if the spate of violence were not halted, “war may not be far away.” In the most serious of the recent attacks, 12 Sri Lankan soldiers were killed in a landmine attack in the Jaffna peninsula on Tuesday and, four days before that, 13 sailors were killed with mines and rocket-propelled grenades in a rebel attack in the north-west of the island. On Sunday, a parliamentarian linked to the Tigers was assassinated at a Christmas mass in Batticaloa.

I have absolutely zero knowledge about either conflict, but I do find it interesting that the tsunami clearly pushed one case towards a more peaceful equilibrium while having no appreciable effect on the other case.

Looking at both cases, John Quiggin proposes a different dissertation topic:

It would be a salutory effort to look over the wars, revolutions and civil strife of the last sixty years and see how many of the participants got an outcome (taking account of war casualties and so on) better than the worst they could conceivably have obtained through negotiation and peaceful agitation. Given the massively negative-sum nature of war, I suspect the answer is “Few, if any”.

posted by Dan at 10:24 AM | Comments (13) | Trackbacks (0)

Monday, January 2, 2006

Talk about frozen in time

When I was living in Ukraine in the early nineties, Russia was trying to exploit Ukraine's dependence on Russian energy to extract economic and political concessions from that country -- minor things like control over key industrial groupings and the Black Sea Fleet. Russia and the government gas provider, Gazprom, would periodically threaten to shut off supplies.

While it sounds like Russia had all the leverage, there was one problem -- Russia exported much of its gas to Southern and Eastern Europe through the gas pipeline that ran through Ukraine -- and Russia could do very little to prevent Ukraine from siphoning off these supplies... except bluster a bit.

A decade later, of course, all of this seems like ancient history. Oh, wait....

Now, back then, all of the involved parties would muddle through -- Ukraine would proffer some token concessions without making its economy more energy-efficient, Gazprom would punt on raising prices in the near abroad, and the crisis would be deferred for a year.

Let's see what develops this year.

UPDATE: Well, that was fast:

A heavily-criticised Russia on Monday promised to restore full gas supplies to Europe after Germany warned that its dispute with Ukraine over deliveries could hurt its long-term credibility as an energy supplier.

With winter demand already high, gas supplies through Ukrainian pipelines to Europe started to fall off dramatically as a result of the Russian blockade, prompting Western fears about insecurity in the energy sector.

Russia, which took over the G8 chairmanship for the first time this month and has sought to promote itself as a reliable energy source, cut its neighbor's gas supplies on Sunday after Ukraine rejected Moscow's demand for a fourfold price rise.

As criticism mounted, the state-controlled gas monopoly Gazprom said it would restore full gas supplies through the pipeline to Europe by Tuesday evening, and that it had piped across an extra 95 million cubic meters of gas.

But it made clear it held Ukraine responsible for the problem.

"With the aim of preventing a possible energy crisis caused by Ukraine illegally taking gas, Gazprom has taken the decision to deliver additional gas into the gas transport system of Ukraine," the company said in a statement.

"We stress that the additional delivery of gas is not designed for Ukrainian consumers but is meant for transit through the territory of Ukraine for delivery to consumers outside the borders of Ukraine."

posted by Dan at 10:27 AM | Comments (2) | Trackbacks (0)