Sunday, August 31, 2008

Russia announces 'spheres of interest'

Crossposted at FP Passport.

FT: Russia announces 'spheres of interest'.

In his announcement, Medvedev outlined five points (Russian version) upon which Russian foreign policy would be based:

  • the superiority of the fundamental principles of international law
  • world must be multipolar
  • Russia does not seek confrontation with any other country.
  • Russia will protect the lives of its citizens, "wherever they are."
  • Moscow would seek to develop ties in friendly regions.

In Afghanistan, Karzai accepted Medvedev's offer of 225 Russian police officers, to help train Afghan police.

UK: Op-eds from Gordon Brown and David Miliband.

Economist editorial: Put out even more flags

Russian police shoot a Russian opposition journalist, following his arrest.

Update: More news of Russia coming down the wires...

Dmitry Rogozin, the Russian ambassador to NATO, ratchets up the heat by tossing out the "w-bomb":

"If NATO takes military actions against Abkhazia and South Ossetia, acting solely in support of Tbilisi, this will mean a declaration of war on Russia."

Meantime, an AP story quotes Russian FM Lavrov, suggesting imposition of an arms embargo until the Saakashvili regime is removed,

"If the United States and its allies in the end choose not their own national interests, not the interests of the Georgian people, but rather choose the Saakashvili regime, it will be a mistake of historic proportions,"

"For a start it would be right to impose an embargo on weapons to this regime, until different authorities turn Georgia a normal state,

The AP story also notes that tensions are increasing in the Black Sea, where long-planned NATO exercises are taking place. This article from a Turkish news site elaborates.

On the subject of Turkey, Russia, and Georgia: Turkey proposes a Caucasus alliance, in an attempt to decrease tensions. Turkey does not wish to be caught in the middle, pulled between the West and Russia. Also, recall this post on "post-imperial stress syndrome" from a few days ago, highlighting this WSJ article: Will Turkey abandon NATO?

Where news websites get it wrong

Pardon the interruption of usual foreign policy chatter.

Major news organizations, including several thought generally to be Internet savvy, continue to miss basic lessons about news inherent to good Internet-based news reporting. In no particular order:

  • Link to unfiltered, raw data sources. News articles are synthesis, summary and analysis of raw data sources. It is rare to see a news article that actually links to a reporter's notes, a transcript, or organization press release. In the Information Age, there is no reason not to publish all available data on a subject, even if it is a mess of jumbled notes on paper napkins, covered with mustard and mayo from a sloppy reporter's lunch (scan it in). Transparency is impossible without giving the public direct, unfiltered access to raw information.
  • Link to third party websites. Fearing the loss of revenue, news publishers avoid linking to third party websites for fear of driving traffic away from their site. This fear is sometimes justified, but generally not: The "hit and run" pattern, where Web surfers open many links to many different websites, is highly common, probably the dominant usage pattern for news websites.

    The smart web publisher will choose the best link for the given text, regardless of whether or not you control the link destination. Web surfers will come to trust a publisher who supplies high quality links, and return to that publisher again and again.

  • Add links for context, key words and background. Readers should always be able to click on a link in a news article, to obtain more information about what they just read.
  • Your site is not better than the Internet. The Washington Post is an example of this awful practice. Major personages and themes are made hyperlinks in each Washington Post article. But instead of each link going to a useful page providing additional information, each link simply performs a site-local search. For example, a hyperlink "Joe Lieberman" will produce a list of Lieberman-related WaPo articles. It is far more useful to the reader to click on a link labelled "Joe Lieberman" and receive wikipedia-like background information on Joe Lieberman.
  • Maintain a factbase. As events unfold, readers should be able to click on a single link to receive a "backgrounder" that includes events listed in chronological order. Generally, this is wikipedia, but larger organizations may wish to maintain their own "strategic briefings" on various subjects.
  • Link directly to a website, even if partisan or controversial. However, clearly warn readers of bias or offensiveness first. It is inexcuseable to write a story about Internet-related news, and not link directly to the subjects at hand. Example: This CNN story which discusses a Youtube video, but fails to link to it. You still have the standard journalism ethics questions to deal with, of course: does linking to a website potentially encourage bad behavior? One must avoid balance the public's right to know with giving terrorists and extremists a platform.
  • Multi-page articles are incredibly annoying. The web is not a platform limited by physical page size limits. Web browsers and modern computers are easily capable of opening novels in a single web page. Web users know that you are forcing us to click for advertising and statistics gathering reasons, and we don't like it one bit. Add more advertisements to long web pages ("multiple ad units" in Google AdSense parlance).
  • Build a community by enabling comments. However, this unfortunately requires either a digg-like crowd moderation system, or moderators (paid or unpaid), once comment traffic reaches the level necessary to build a community. As a bonus, consider how to highlight comments that you and the community find to be interesting, informative, or simply noteworthy due to the author (i.e. a celebrity comments).
  • Inferior search. If your website search feature performs less capably than Google's search feature for publishers, you have a problem. Another major problem with news website search engines is the lack of indexing fresh content. A reader reads a story on Obama, then does a search for Obama, and the returned results are stale (hours or days old).

A key technical problem is that third party linking often falls into the realm of editorial policy. The news wires such as AP and Reuters are probably reluctant to provide links embedded in their wire stories for this reason.

Evacuation incentive

A mandatory evacuation of New Orleans has been ordered by the mayor. The predicted path of Hurricane Gustav has it coming ashore in the New Orleans vicinity.

Even assuming minimal storm damage, a mandatory evacuation following so closely on the heels of Katrina surely wears thin on residents still struggling to rebuild. This hurricane drives home the point that living "in the path of nature" carries additional costs.

Living in North Carolina, the threat of a hurricane and evacuation is everpresent. But you notice that our state is well prepared. North Carolina understands that a major storm may hit, and carefully plans evacuations. Our outer banks are popular beaches, but are almost instantly cut off in the event of a storm surge or bridge washout. Developing storm plans was a necessity. As a result, our storm costs have long been factored in at the state and local levels: insurance rates, development codes, and state infrastructure projects. Florida shines as a stellar example of hurricane preparedness, outshining us. Florida learned lessons with Andrew, if not before.

In contrast, New Orleans relies heavily on federal funds simply for its continued existence. Federally-funded engineering works (levees, canals) and constant pumping are the only reasons why New Orleans is not underwater right now. Further, the city is sinking. (Note: the article is from 2001, pre-Katrina, and begins with this line: "The surge of a Category 5 storm could put New Orleans under 18 ft. of water.")

At some point, I hope the rest of the country (via our Congressmen) will push back, and force those who want to stay in New Orleans to bear the costs themselves. There is nothing wrong with living in extreme locations — as long as you don't expect others to pick up the above-average costs that are inevitably incurred.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

On the carbon tax

Greg Mankiw, a Harvard professor of economics, notes that VP pick Sarah Palin is not a member of the "Pigou Club."

What is that, I wondered? As it turns out, it is my old friend, the carbon tax. Mankiw makes an excellent argument in his 2006 post, The Pigou Club Manifesto.

In general, Americans are taxed too much, directly and indirectly. As an exception, however, this blog strongly endorses the carbon tax, with the proviso that indirect and inefficient carbon taxes such as CAFE standards are rolled back.

Here are some of my own reasons why a carbon tax would be good policy [assuming existing stealth carbon taxes are eliminated]:

  • Simple, direct, and honest. Consumers bear the costs of increased fuel efficiency standards (CAFE) and exotic "clean fuel" blends, but this is not readily apparent to them when they make a purchase.
  • Entirely market-based. The market will choose what technology is the most efficient, and least expensive. At present, we have politicians embarrassing themselves by choosing specific technologies to subsidize. This backfired wildly with corn ethanol. Given the right incentives, the market will choose the technology — as it did with fossil fuels for the past 100 or more years.
  • Helps account for pollution, permitting deregulation in other areas. You don't have to swallow the Sierra Club talking points on global warming to dislike pollution. The absence of a carbon tax in pollution-free forms of energy creates market incentives that combat pollution in whatever way the market decides is best.
  • Exposes the sham of pseudo-market-based systems such as proposed cap-and-trade systems for trading carbon credits, or carbon offsets. Carbon credits, just like fiat currency, are a resources whose supply is infinite, and the size of the market is controlled entirely by politicians. Thus cap-and-trade is a system easily susceptible to convert abuse, because the size of the market has no technical basis in reality.
  • Replaces other stealth taxes. As noted above in other points, a carbon tax permits elimination of highly specific regulations and subsidies, designed with the goal of reducing fossil fuel use and pollution. These government interventions in the markets often have negative side-effects such as an increase in beef prices due to scarcity and price of corn feedstock, due in turn to corn ethanol subsidies.
  • Allows consumers to choose for themselves what to drive, what to burn, what to use. Politicians should take a lesson from the recent spike in oil prices, and the follow-on effects from consumers: those that needed or wanted SUVs continued driving them. Others reduces their driving, bought smaller cars. Politicians did not need to legislate this behavior, the public made their own decisions.
  • Helps stem the flow of US dollars going to autocratic, oil-rich regimes.
  • Avoids outright bans of carbon burning vehicles and machinery. Owners of vintage muscle cars and race cars would rightly be outraged if politicians simply banned heavy-polluting vehicles, for example. The American economy would utterly collapse if burning coal for electricity were banned, as another example.

Pollution-free personal transportation is a worthy goal and logical endpoint, but absent a crisis it will take decades to achieve that goal. A carbon tax is a direct and honest method of aiding that transition.

The negatives of the carbon tax can be easily enumerated, as the negatives of any oil or gas price increase. In particular, as I noted in this post, higher prices hurt the poor the most.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Turkey and NATO

The Director of the Center For Eurasian Policy at the Hudson Institute asks in the WSJ, Will Turkey abandon NATO? The piece examines how Turkey must choose between Russia and NATO with regards to the Black Sea, noting Turkey's dependence on Russian gas.

In additional to being an informative read, it introduces to me a new and strikingly apt phrase:

[Russia and Turkey] share what some call the post-imperial stress syndrome: that is, an inability to see former provinces as fellow independent states, and ultimately a wish to recreate old agreements on spheres of influence.

Give-and-take between satellite democracies and their larger neighbors will inevitably occur. Everyone is talking about how the larger autocratic states must adjust, but so also must the satellite democracies find a happy medium with their autocratic neighbor.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

The perils of recognizing South Ossetia

FP's current Seven Questions post is about Russia's war with Georgia, interviewing ex-CIA regional expert Paul Goble. The interview is a good one, in particular answering a question that I had:

FP: But if the South Ossetians and the Abkhazians don’t want to be part of Georgia, why should the West support President Saakashvili’s position? Why is it a good idea to support Georgia’s “territorial integrity”?

Since 1932 — since the Stimson Doctrine was articulated when the Japanese seized Manchuria and transformed it into “Manchukuo” as a client state — it has been (largely) consistent American policy that the United States does not recognize territorial change achieved by an act of aggression. So, the issue is not, as the Russians have put it, between simple territory integrity or the right of nations to self-determination. It is whether the United States and Western governments will accept border changes brought about by the use of force.

Western and US officials produced many soundbites on upholding Georgian territorial integrity, but little or nothing on why this principle must be upheld. It seemed to run counter to "facts on the ground" demonstrating that Abkhazia and South Ossetia had little interest in being part of Georgia.

Abkhazia is largely independent anyway. South Ossetia is really a shell; independent yes, but mainly a smuggling route into Russia, and under implicit Russian control anyway. Neither wanted to be part of Georgia before the war, and now, really do not wish to be part of Georgia.

Thus, self-determination (freedom) runs up against another sound, logical principle: do not encourage aggressive states to redraw boundaries by force of arms. In any case, unlimited self-determination is a bad idea anyway. Fragmenting an existing nation-state has the potential to destabilize entire regions.

Redrawing nation-state boundaries as the West did with Kosovo did indeed open a new can of worms. As the Seven Questions post indicates, redrawing boundaries for breakaway regions is a double-edged sword. That is true for Kosovo and the West as it is for Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Russia.

This wikipedia article provides a surprising amount of depth on worldwide reaction to Kosovo recognition, and various regions striving for independence. (WARNING: read the wikipedia article with two grains of salt, rather than the usual one)

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Fukuyama responds, and other links

Fukuyama's End of History has been mentioned quite a bit recently, with regards to recent Russian expansionism in Georgia. In a Washington Post op-ed, Fukuyama responds to recent events. Many recent critics of Fukuyama's thesis appear to misinterpret his argument somewhat; he never argued that liberal democracy had triumphed to such a degree that no other form of government would arise in modern times.

Bacevich @ LA Times throws cold water on the notion that Big Change and Big Improvements will occur in America's foreign policy, if [insert Presidential candidate] is elected. Stating the obvious, but it needs to be said.

Japan Times on Bush's legacy in Asia.

Ambassador Charles Ries on improvements in Iraq's electricity infrastructure.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Investors avoid Russia

Financial Times examines the state of Russian investing following the start of the war. Not surprisingly, investors feel greater risk exists post-August 8th.

Yields on debt rose, reflecting risk repricing. Equity markets fell. Foreign currency reserves declined by $16.4bn, one of the largest drops in a decade.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Next gen drone warfare

Popular Mechanics posted the results from the UK Ministry of Defense's Grand Challenge.

It is my longstanding prediction that UAVs will become ever more prevalent on the battlefield, to the point where they fulfill the majority of air attack and ground support roles.

This, in turn, will have profound influence on the worldwide balance-of-power, becoming one of the most important force multipliers available to US forces. This will also make electronic warfare, in particular signals disruption, satellite (GPS) interference and network penetration, key avenues for the enemy to pursue.

In particular, a single soldier far from the front lines might control a swarm of UAVs, directing the swarm to overwhelm its target. Or, the soldier might sit at a console, making a stream of yes/no kill decisions, and assisting with automated targeting systems. The Popular Mechanics article describes swarming behavior with several of the drones participating in the Grand Challenge.

Finally, while I'm on the subject, StrategyPage published a UAV update (for US forces) recently, Rise of the Droids.

Update: Just after posting the initial draft, SP published another UAV update. In short, they are highly effective and everybody wants more. The MQ-9 Reaper, a combat UAV with recon capability, will eventually supercede the MQ-1 Predator (primarily a recon UAV).

US troops are developing new tactics based on the UAV's ability to keep an area under surveillance for an extended period of time. Presumably the same will occur as combat UAVs like the Reaper become more prevalent.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Western oil giants lose influence

The NYT describes the current state of Western oil production: falling.

I created a handy graph using the NYT's numbers. Stark, simple graphs really drive home the reality of the situation. "Western oil companies" below includes not only US companies but also European energy giants such as BP and Total. The graph represents the percentage of world assets under Western control.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

British deal with Shia in Iraq?

This is the first I've heard of this. Rumor, or something more?

The Times Online hints in the middle of an op-ed,

Only recently has it become clear that in the battle for Basra earlier this year British troops remained aloof while Iraqi and American forces overwhelmed the Mahdi Army, followers of the cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Apparently Britain had done a deal with the Shi’ite group. According to some reports, senior US officers and the Iraqi government have now lost faith in British forces.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Losing Abkhazia and S. Ossetia

People are reacting to the Russian president stating, in no uncertain terms, and Georgia will lose South Ossetia.

Even with my reliably pro-American bias, I could see that both Abkhazia and South Ossetia were very unlikely to return to the status quo (Georgian territory, de facto independences).

The Georgian attacks on Ossetia pushed those citizens farther into the Russian camp. Months of Russian provocations are irrelevant [to S. Ossetians]. I think there is little question that the people in the disputed territories would vote against being a part of Georgia.

Thus, the problem:

  • One should defend the principle of territorial integrity, especially when that principle is violated by armed aggression.
  • However, in this case, defending that principle implies forcing a people somewhere they do not wish to be.

The Russians did not and do not care a whit about the Ossetians. But defense of Georgian territorial integrity implies the US does not, either.

Catch 22.

Monday, August 11, 2008

A "technical" war?

Russia advances from South Ossetia and Abkhazia to bombing targets in core, undisputed Georgia. Putin has been widely quoted as saying the conflict will be taken to its "logical conclusion."

That leaves us to speculate about what that means. Let me offer one guess, something I have thought about in the context of a US attack of Iran: a military assault by one country upon another, with the main goal of eliminating the entire military capability of another country. Although some key civilian infrastructure may be destroyed — particularly items such as bridges with dual civilian and military roles — the civilian apparatus in general is largely left untouched. (something smarter bombs enable, in modern warfare) Occupation of the country is never considered even as a possibility.

Given the relative military strengths, Russia is clearly pursuing a war of punishment at this point. The biggest open question, I think, is not occupation but whether Russia will actively seek to depose Saakashvili and other Georgian politicians.

Diplomats hard at work

Quoting today's NYT update on the Georgian conflict,

Secretary Rice worked through the night Saturday [...] on a Security Council resolution. American diplomats said that they did not want an actual Security Council vote on the resolution until Tuesday or so, the better to draw out the debate and publicly shame the Russian government. While the resolution will carry no punitive weight, and is almost sure to be vetoed by Russia, a permanent Council member, the hope is that it could create more pressure for a cease-fire, officials said.

I cannot help but recall the 1939 image of Britain and France ruminating over their treaty obligations to Poland, as the German blitzkreig rained down for hours, then days. Diplomats scrambled and negotiated "through the night" to produce a result that would not shape the conflict in any way.

(to clarify, I am not drawing an analogy between the two situations, merely noting a stark image that flashed through my mind)

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Are you part of the Pipeline War?

Wired Magazine notes that Georgia is under online attack, with most official government websites unavailable for days.

Due to the nature of distributed computing, the sheer numbers of compromised PCs and the cloaked nature of modern botnets, it is difficult to determine how much of the online attack is by a government, by outside groups whom the government tacitly encourages, or by those wholly outside the realm of government involvement and knowledge.

This reveals an unsettling facet of this war: you might be an unknowing participant.

If a virus (or trojan etc.) infects your computer, then your computer may be among the many thousands of other computers around the world sending Internet traffic to Georgia websites. This is called a distributed denial-of-service attack, or DDoS.

As always, make sure your computer has up-to-date software. Update Windows, update your anti-virus software, and manually run a scan if you so inclined. It can't hurt. Pay attention and notice if your Internet connection or computer seems unusually slow.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Russia/Georgia reactions

CNN reports on international reaction to Russia's escalation of the fighting (attacking targets outside South Ossetia).

The official said European allies have told the United States that Russia has "crossed a line of unacceptable behavior" and should "expect international condemnation." "I do sense an emerging unified view among our key allies," he said.

The return of history, indeed. What sort of diplomacy will we see, I wonder? Will we see Europe and America unified, guaranteeing Georgian territory (excluding Ossetia)? Or will we tell Georgia "I told you so" and stay out of it?

Inevitably Western diplomats will be going to sleep tonight, having nightmares about the return of the cold war. This is energy "politics" at its worst, and the forseeable result of Russia's recent willingness to wield resource control as an economic weapon, a method of control.

Updates roll in at Foreign Policy and elsewhere, as well as on major news wires.

New York Times has a good background piece, Taunting the Bear.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

China blogging

Two excellent links from Danwei:

  • China's first blogger, Isaac Mao, talks about the beginning of China blogging, censorship, and Google.
  • FT: China needs proof of democracy’s advantage. A must-read analysis piece from Arthur Kroeber, who gives an overview of the current ruling elite. I am pondering an extended blog post, going into detail on this.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Better fuel standards?

A New York Times editorial calls for tougher fuel economy (mpg) standards. They further claim that consumers and the auto industry would be in much better shape, had Congress done so 5, 10 or 20 years ago.

That seems unlikely, given how CAFE is applied in practice. Automakers continue to sell whatever quantity of popular vehicle is being sold, regardless of its fuel efficiency (example: SUVs). Other cars in the fleet are sold to balance out the CAFE standards, occasionally at slim-to-no-profit. Thus, raising federally required fuel efficiency does little to address pollution, carbon, or oil supply/demand problems. If gasoline is always cheap, fuel efficiency only slightly reduces demand. Fuel efficiency combined with cheap gasoline can even increase demand, if the nation collectively feels it can drive more due to owning efficient cars.

If we wish to benefit from hindsight, the best solution is a carbon tax (or price floor), as noted in a fantastic piece by conservative George Will. (Here in America, a conservative calling for a tax is highly unusual)

If a carbon tax had been in place 5, 10, 20 years ago, the oil prices would be the same as today, yet all that additional money would have stayed inside the United States rather than going to Nigeria, Russia, and the Middle East. High oil and gas prices accomplish what decades of environmentalism and government regulation failed to do: raise efficiency, sink SUV sales, and encourage investors to take a serious look at alternative energy.

Calling for tougher CAFE standards will do little. An oil price floor or gasoline price floor will directly accomplish the NYT's desired goals (reducing auto emissions, reducing fossil fuel use, etc.) while also being far more open, honest, transparent, and simple.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Obstacles to China's growth

Today, Chinese president Hu Jintao emphasized growth as a higher priority than inflation. Seeking Alpha noted this in their PBoC relaxes lending caps article, which also noted potential shifts in RMB policymaking apparatus.

Those articles led me to an excellent blog post from March 2008, summarizing challenges to China's growth: ROI, energy efficiency, pollution, desertification, demographics, high sustained outside investment levels and slumping business competitiveness.

And while ringing alarm bells regarding copper, this article paints a useful picture about the slowing state of Chinese exports, and commodities in general.

Finally, the current issue of Foreign Affairs examines the US-China partnership and speculates about future policy improvements, suggesting in particular a "G-2".