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THE BIG QUESTION — July 23, 2009

THE BIG QUESTION is a new multimedia project on the World Policy Blog.

Charles Cogan: The End of "Solutions of Facility"?

One of the meanings of “facility” in English is now rare: “a tendency to be easygoing, yielding, etc.” But in French, "facilité" is very much a live word. “Solutions of facility,” which Charles de Gaulle inveterately decried, means taking the easy way out. This the United States has done with regard to the Palestinian-Israeli “peace process” for the last 40-plus years, indeed since the Six Day War of 1967. Bland statements to the effect that the international community does not recognize the annexation of Arab East Jerusalem, or flaccid pronouncements that the building of settlements in the Arab West Bank are “unhelpful” for the peace process, have essentially been all that Washington has been able to muster by way of reining in its Middle East ally. Is this now changing? Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who has remained—so far—very much on Barack Obama’s playbook, has described the president’s position in categorical terms: “He wants to see a stop to settlements—not some settlements, not outposts, not ‘natural growth’ exceptions. That is our position. That is what we have communicated very clearly.” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, though he has now accepted—grudgingly and with caveats—a two-state solution between Israel and Palestine, nevertheless cannot accept ruling out “natural growth” in settlements. After all, babies are babies! They keep coming!

THE INDEX — July 22, 2009

Venezuelan officials have rejected an expulsion order issued on Tuesday by Honduras’s interim government, which gives Venezuelan diplomats until Friday to  leave the country.

James D. Zirin: Global News on the Internet — Always a Free Lunch?

The contours of the global media market have undeniably changed. There is too much evidence to deny it. Print journalism is on its way out, taking its place alongside the one-horse shay. Online news and comment is in. In America, the venerable Christian Science Monitor now publishes its weekday editions online with a weekly print version claimed to have “unique” content. Seattle’s Post Intelligencer recently closed its printing presses in favor of an exclusively online edition. The two jointly operated Detroit dailies, the Free Press and the News, just ended home deliveries on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays and directed doorstep readers to their respective web sites. Globally, but for a few South American and Asian markets, newspapers continue to cut back or close. In England, just this month, owners slated nine local newspapers for closure, and South Africa’s oldest independent paper, Grocott’s Mail, has shuttered its press room. Web journalism has become the order of the day. Gone soon will be the tactile experience of the daily newspaper. Web-based editions of five daily newspapers, The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, USA Today and the Financial Times are offered on Amazon’s Kindle at heavy discounts off the newsstand price, and others will likely soon follow suit. The digital generation simply doesn't do "tactile." The reasons for all this, as everyone knows, are economic. Paid circulation for print is down; just as advertising revenues are down. This may be a result of the global downturn, which has caused many advertisers to slash budgets. But it is in large measure, as well, a tribute to the loss of readers to the Internet. Moreover, no one knows how effective print advertising  really is. A classified want ad in a small community newspaper may produce the desired responses, but the ad will cost more in print than a free posting on Craigslist. The undeniable reality is that national bread-and-butter advertising is better targeted on the Net. As John Wanamaker, father of the department store and of modern advertising famously said, “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.” Wanamaker’s statement may not apply to click-and-pay business models on the Internet where effectiveness of the advertising dollar is much more predictable, and ads  are much more sharply targeted to customers  according to geographic location, buying propensities or affluence.

Heidar Gudjonsson: What is the way out for Iceland?

With its currency down over 70 percent in two years, with 90 percent of its financial sector collapsed, and with its stock index down 95 percent over the same period, what can Iceland do? The political discussion has been confusing at best, and the chaos in the economy is not helping.  Iceland was hit with a triple crisis: first a currency crisis that started in 2006, then a financial/economic crisis that started in October 2008, and finally a political crisis as of this year. The public is angry and confused, but there is a clear lack of leadership and constructive debate within the country. Some people argue that joining the European Union would be the only way out. After Iceland joins the EU, some of the government would be effectively outsourced and a new currency could be introduced by joining the European Monetary Union (EMU).  What this argument overlooks is the time factor. Negotiations with the EU would never take less than one year. Then all the existing 27 members of the Union would need to approve Iceland as a new member. There is currently a waiting list, and Iceland could not be fast-tracked to the front of that list. In fact, given the many problems that the EU is having as it is, the process may take three to four years, at best. To join the EMU, Iceland would need to fulfill the Maastricht criteria of low and stable inflation. But here the track record of Iceland is anything but impressive, having consistently volatile and high inflation of at least twice the criteria, over the internationally low inflation period of past two decades. Iceland would also need to have a very low budget deficit, something the current leftist government is hardly going to meet (the target is below 3 percent but the current deficit is 10 percent). The last big obstacle is government debt.  With the current IceSave agreement, which the government is pushing the parliament to approve, the Maastricht target would be impossible to reach for the next decade or so.

THE INDEX — July 20, 2009

Somalia's al-Shabaab Islamic militants released a statement on Monday direct

Clinton Speaks, The World Reacts

Today our editorial team looks at responses from global media to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's speech yesterday at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Belinda Cooper: Letter from Berlin — Just the Usual Economic Woes, Plus Culture

At the train station near where I stay in Berlin, there’s a snack vending machine, one that I can only imagine here in Germany. In among the colorfully-packaged chocolates and chips waiting in neat lines, there’s a row of thin, yellow booklets, each one different, that you can buy for one euro. Press the button, and out comes literature—stories and poems, mainly by little-known authors, published by SuKultur, a small Berlin publishing house. Some of them are quite good. That's commuting in Berlin: You can buy a snack, or literature. Reading material was pretty important on the train this past week, because the S-Bahn (Berlin’s overground city train, a part of the German national railway system that also receives subsidies from the city government) was unusually crowded and uncomfortable—a result of an inspection that found many of the cars’ wheels in urgent need of repair and immediately took hundreds of them out of commission. They had been neglected, it seems, due to cost-cutting measures: a reduction in personnel and equipment aimed primarily at increasing the railway’s profitability. This time it wasn’t Berlin’s fault, but the city is chronically short of money and is also saving where it can. Before the fall of the Berlin Wall, West Berlin was a paradox—a heavily subsidized showcase for capitalism—and it’s never quite seemed to get the hang of frugality since the subsidies ended. As the S-Bahn’s top managers were being fired, the papers were reporting that Berlin was about to increase its outlays for culture by 16 million euros (certainly a lovely commentary on priorities). I can’t speak for Frankfurt, where the stock market is, or for the industrial centers of western Germany, where plants are closing or going to government-subsidized, part-time work, but in the capital of Berlin, which has little industry to speak of and has been claiming bankruptcy for years, no one’s really talking about the economy. (A friend who has recently traveled in western Germany assures me that the situation is no different in cities like Hamburg and Munich.) There are various theories about this, but to me, it’s not too hard to explain. As we’ve all heard by now, Germany actually has a social safety net. Despite reductions in recent years, it’s still the case that no German has to go without health insurance after losing a job, people’s pensions are not privatized, and since Germans tend to rent rather than own—a result of tenant-friendly laws and good public housing—there isn’t much danger of losing your home. People are not suffering personally any more than usual, unlike Americans. The social welfare system works, so far.

THE INDEX — July 15, 2009

Former president of Peru, Alberto Fujimori, confessed to giving over $15 million to his one-time spy chief, Vladimiro Montesinos, as a gesture of appreciation for his work during the last days

THE BIG QUESTION — July 14, 2009

THE BIG QUESTION is a new multimedia project on the World Policy Blog.

Azubuike Ishiekwene: A Letter from Nigeria to Barack Obama

Mr. President, long after you have returned to the White House and forgotten your visit to Ghana, we Nigerians will still be asking ourselves, why Ghana?

You attempted to answer the question before your trip in an interview, noting that Ghana had become the continent’s role model—committed to the rule of law, stability, and accountability. You repeated this point during your visit on Saturday and drew upon the historic role and heritage of Ghana during the era of slave trade and the colonial period.

There was indeed a time when most black migrants were thought to be from Ghana. Thanks to the abundant gold in what was then known as the Gold Coast and the formidable roles of Kwame Nkrumah, W. E. B. Du Bois, and other leading lights of the struggle against colonial rule and racism, Ghana was what your predecessor, George W. Bush, might have called the “nation of Africa.”

But Ghana had its dark periods too, of course. For many years, Ghana was a specter of the sort of tyranny that you described in your address to the country’s parliament. But it’s a different story today; no one can deny that.

Jodi Liss: Peruvian People Power

This past month, two resource-rich countries saw political protests turn deadly as the people tried to reign in the autocratic dictates of an incumbent government. One country was, of course, Iran—where every day it seems the government strangles a little more life out of the people’s protests. With 24/7 news coverage of that disastrous election, you might be forgiven for not having heard about what happened in Peru, where for a change, the people won. Beginning in 2008, Peru’s president, Alan Garcia, issued a series of executive decrees to open up 210,000 square miles of the Amazon region, including some land legally protected, to foreign oil, gas, logging, and agribusiness investment. Garcia aimed to develop a multi-billion dollar industry to aid Peru’s growth (not in itself a bad thing) and saw the fertile and resource-rich Amazon as a golden opportunity, simply too good to waste. The president oversaw the signings of dozens of contracts with a wide variety of foreign officials and companies. In retrospect, it's easy to see why Garcia underestimated the vociferousness of his opposition. The Amazonian region is home to only 330,000 indigenous people (roughly 1 percent of Peru’s population) arrayed in some 60 tribes. In general, these Amazonians live in remote areas, speak different dialects, are much poorer than the national average, and lack political or social cohesion. But this time around, the indigenous people were organized and determined. They had spent years getting ready for Garcia's assault on their native land. Decades of negative experiences with oil extraction companies had forced them to come together, and to plan ahead. Past protests had not been taken seriously by Peruvian elites and legislative leaders, who merely ignored their claims or temporarily suspended action until the furor died down. Then, as always, they returned to business as usual.

Eva-Maria Hanfstaengl: The UN's Bid for Financial Regulation

On June 26, in New York, the high-level United Nations Conference on the World Financial and Economic Crisis and its Impact on Development adopted unanimously an "outcome document" that opens a door—even if only a small one—to a possible UN role in the reform of global financial governance. The preparations for the UN conference, however, were not without severe difficulties. The run-up to the conference highlighted sharp differences between Southern nations, which want to give the United Nations more say in tackling the financial crisis, and Western governments, who prefer to conduct their business within the Group of 20 (G-20) nations. Until now, global financial and monetary issues have been the responsibility of the International Monetary Fund and the Group of 8 (G-8), relying on the expertise of the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision (BCBS) and the Financial Stability Board, both of which include central banks and treasuries hailing largely from developed nations. However, with the present financial crisis having originated in the North and posing untold negative consequences for the South, political pressure has ramped up on the developed world to include other voices in mitigating this disaster. Impacts of the crisis, such as slowing growth rates, rising unemployment, and declining budgets are beginning to affect developing countries. Developing countries, including the poorest countries, therefore claim that everybody should have a stake in financial regulation. It is in this context that the demand for this global conference on reform of the financial and monetary system emerged.

Henry "Chip" Carey: In Honduras, No Easy Solutions

The ongoing crisis in Honduras, stemming from the June 28 coup that ousted President Manuel Zelaya, does not lend itself to many obvious solutions acceptable to both sides. A second-best solution may be all that the new mediator, former Nobel Peace Prize winner and Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, might be able to achieve. Thursday’s separate meetings of Arias with Zelaya and then the de facto president, Roberto Micheletti, indicated possible common ground, but also no immediate solutions. Neither met his interlocutor, though the talks will continue. Thus far, the United States has backed the Arias mediation, which has bought Washington time before it may have to cut its military assistance to Honduras, which U.S. law mandates once a democratic government has been removed extra-constitutionally. The history of U.S. military cooperation with the government and military of Honduras has remained extensive, since the 1980s, when Honduras hosted the U.S.-backed Contra rebels, who were attempting to undermine the Sandinista government in neighboring Nicaragua. Not surprisingly, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appears to have persuaded Zelaya, after their Tuesday meeting in Washington, to negotiate, rather than rush right back to Honduras to attempt to take power. On Sunday, July 5, Zelaya had unsuccessfully attempted to land his airplane in the capital, Tegulcigalpa. The Honduran army, though, blocked the air strip, while also killing at least one protestor that had gathered in solidarity to receive Zelaya at the airport. With elections scheduled for later this year, the simplest procedure might simply be to let the voters decide between the two presidential claimants. The problem here, though, is that the Honduran Supreme Court has already ruled that Zelaya is ineligible to compete under the existing, single term-limit system. Indeed, his desire to run again for office was exactly what spurred the apparent coup in the first place.

Jonathan Power: Food Security That Works

At the summit meeting that opens in Italy on Wednesday, the leaders of the G8 are expected to announce a food security initiative—an effort to reverse “the tendency of decreasing official development aid to agriculture” and, instead, to increase investment in food production in the developing world. According to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Washington spends 20 times more on short-term food aid in Africa than it does on long-term agricultural programs to develop local food production. A similar bias exists in the policies of the European Union, which uses the guise of food aid to dump production surpluses in developing nations. Nothing may come of the new promises, as nothing came of the big hoo-ha at the G8 summit four years ago when a massive increase in aid, especially to Africa, was agreed upon. But long-term investment in food production is just what poorer countries need. Most of the world’s poor live in the rural backwaters of Africa, Asia, and Latin America; most are small farmers or landless farm workers. Despite the cries in 2007-08 when world food prices suddenly shot up to historic highs, there was actual benefit, albeit long term, for the global poor. Last summer's price spike was a long-overdue correction in the terms of trade. For too long, the world's urban minority (whether they be shanty-town dwellers in Lagos or the inhabitants of middle-class suburb in Mumbai) has been subsidized by the cheap food produced by the poorest of the poor—those left behind in the remote reaches of the countryside. For the majority of the world's rural poor, there exist far too few schools, agricultural advisers, or health clinics; a lack of investment has not even fixed the rutted roads and battered trucks that bring their produce to market. I was in the Nigerian countryside in 2007, as prices were beginning to skyrocket. The peasants I talked to, who were largely growing the local staple crop, cassava, were happy about the turn in events. It meant they could sell their produce at a substantially higher price than before. They planned to expand their seeding the following year, and have done so, though prices have now fallen. Fortunately for the farmers, the prices have not yet hit bottom.

THE BIG QUESTION — July 7, 2009

THE BIG QUESTION is a new multimedia project on the World Policy Blog.

Jonathan Power: A True"Restart" at the U.S.-Russia Summit

The first summit between President Barack Obama and Dmitri Medvedev is only days away and, so far, there has only been perfunctory mention of this potentially momentous occasion in the media. The silence on this meeting is odd, if not irresponsible. If played right, this could be the most important U.S.-Russia summit since Presidents Mikhail Gorbachev and George H. W. Bush, having torn down the Iron Curtain, decided that they had enough confidence in each other to introduce unilateral nuclear arms cuts, a valuable ancillary to the formal deal. In the opinion of Georgi Arbatov, Gorbachev’s foreign affairs advisor (and before that Brezhnev’s), the time is overdue for more unilateral cuts. He said to me, some two summers ago, that “we in Russia are not right in our approach. We have so many weapons we could decrease the numbers unilaterally and set an example. We could dismantle our rockets, take others off alert, and the Americans would be obliged to follow us.” When I recently asked Igor Yurgens, one of Medvedev’s advisors, about what the “reset” button statement by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton meant, he replied that “the tone is different.” He then added, somewhat amusingly, “We have a new generation—Obama and Medvedev. Since they are both Internet lovers, then the promise of change could be substantiated.” Joking aside, Yurgens notes that “the line up on the U.S. side seems more broad minded than before.” Between Rose Gottemoeller, who spent four years in Moscow and is the head of the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks, and Gen. James Jones, a national security advisor to Obama who worked constructively on Iran, Yurgens said the Russians “see very good signs.” “The United States and Russia have identical views on Afghanistan,” says Yurgens. “We are on the same page as the United States with [regard to] North Korea. We have some nuances in policy towards Iran, but I think they are surmountable. So, on those three issues (plus Pakistan, plus broader Middle East) there is more that unites us than divides us.” At the July 7 summit, the new Obama administration must begin by giving a little.

THE BIG QUESTION — July 2, 2009

THE BIG QUESTION is a new multimedia project on the World Policy Blog.

Charles Cogan: Iran — They're Gaming Us?

Artistically and architecturally, the city of Isfahan is one of the urban jewels of Iranian civilization. It is a symbol of the beauty that Iranians have been able to render through their country’s history. But is Iran really ready to sacrifice all this glory (not to mention the lives of its citizens) in an attempt to annihilate Israel? Surely, Iranians know what would be coming at them in retaliation for such a rash attack, were it to take place. The recent turmoil following the disputed elections has somewhat changed the way we look at (and what we hope for) Iran, but realists must confront the reality that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will likely remain in office, and will almost certainly continue his bellicose attacks on Israel and the West. (Though with the credibility of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and President Ahmadinejad having been somewhat damaged by the election campaign and its aftermath, we may see a temporary toning down of the rhetoric.) Nonetheless, it is never too soon to begin reassessing the Iranian nuclear question. Since the Iranian leadership would obviously prefer to avoid military annihilation, why are Ahmadinejad's Hitler-like rants tolerated by Khamenei? To curry favor with the Arab street, which is not, by nature, disposed to like Persians? To brandish the threat of a weapon of mass destruction attack in the region in order to intimidate the leaderships of moderate Arab states?

Henry "Chip" Carey: A Constitutional Crisis in Honduras

If it succeeds, the universally condemned Honduran military coup could send a disastrous signal to Latin America and beyond that the long slog of democratization can be interrupted on a moment's impatience. Deposed President Manuel Zelaya’s past performance leaves much to be desired, but so do the nation's institutions, which need democratic reform, not military mentorship. Honduras represents an archetypal "Tier-II" category of democracy. As a nation, it has underperformed in forming a broad democratic alliance, and often bent the rules to build the rule of law. It needs time, patience, and nurturing—even when democratically elected leaders govern undemocratically. The unpopular, populist President Zelaya built a narrow coalition, alienating the business community while attempting to overturn single-term limits on the executive office. Zelaya had damaged his democratic credentials by failing to respect judicial independence in disagreeing with the Supreme Court decision to strike down his planned plebiscite that sought to allow him to run for president again. The vote (which would have amended the constitution) was planned for this past Sunday—though it is not clear he intended it to be binding. Things heated up even further when the chief of the army, Gen. Romeo Vasquez, refused to allow the army to provide logistical support for the referendum. Zelaya promptly fired him, and the Supreme Court jumped back into the fray, demanding he be reinstated. In the end, the military, legislative leaders, and the president failed to work out compromises, even with some mediation from the U.S. ambassador, to prevent the breakdown of democracy. The new ruling authoritarian coalition claims to be using a constitutional solution to the crisis by protecting the new president, Roberto Micheletti, who was previously head of the legislature. Indeed, many Hondurans have argued that a coup did not actually occur, since the legislature and Supreme Court had declared Zelaya's referendum and various other acts to have been unconstitutional. In response, the court played its own constitutional card, by ordering the armed forces to reestablish a "democracy." Thus, Micheletti's constant public refrain: “democracia, democracia, democracia." Barring the chorus of claims from both sides over what is "constitutional" and what is not, it is important to note that, most likely, this was a classic middle-class coup—a Brumarian moment of relief for the privileged, bolstered by constitutional distortions to correct constitutional distortions. Zelaya had won office on a conservative, law-and-order ticket but increasingly had adopted the populist tendencies of many of his fellow Latin American leaders, alienating broad swathes of the legislature and the business community. Perhaps the new regime (if it remains in power) may actually keep its word and reconfigure itself democratically, as it claims. Occasionally, when democratic leaders govern undemocratically, a new authoritarian alliance can put things right. But, in practice, it is usually the exception to the rule and a pretext for other aims—all too often, it is might that makes right. Worse, coups signal that the military is to be the arbiter. But in Honduras, the “man on horseback,” as the military is depicted, often governs in nineteenth-century, caudillo ("strongman") fashion, making order by giving orders.
FALL FUNDRAISER

 

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Nauru: A Cautionary Tale 

 

Vlad Sokhin documents life in Nauru, a tiny, once-wealthy Pacific island where land has been stripped bare and the hulking shells of the phosphate mining industry have been left to rust.


Those the Jasmine Revolution Forgot 

 

Photographer Nicholas Linn and writer Sam Kimball capture the struggles of the Tunisian underclass following the 2011 Revolution. 

Tough Love: Las Amorasas Más Bravas 

 

Bénédicte Desrus and Celia Gómez Ramos explore Casa Xochiquetzal, a shelter in Mexico City that allows sex workers to age with dignity.

Iran's House of Strength 

 

Jeremy Suyker penetrates the tight-knit community of zurkhanehs, traditional rooms for training warriors dating back to the Persian Empire, and the modern efforts to preserve this Iranian cultural heritage. 

        

Bolshoi Babylon 

 

Director Nick Read examines the dysfunction that led to an attack on Sergei Filin, artistic director of Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater, before Russian President Putin stepped in to restructure the Bolshoi’s leadership.

 

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