Friday, May 23, 2014

Colonialism and Presidential Sovereignty

I have just finished reading, for the second time, Paul Collier's 2009 book, Wars, Guns, and Votes: Democracy in Dangerous Places. It is the kind of book that is useful to read and think about when embarking on a research project because it addresses important questions with creative methods of enquiry. In this case, the important questions are ones related to political and economic development that were introduced in Collier’s 2007 book, The Bottom Billion.

In any re-reading, different points from those encountered in previous readings are likely to stand out. This time, one of the points that struck me was an observation Collier makes about the relationship between the colonial experience of most states in the developing world and their governments' attitudes toward sovereignty. It is not an especially original observation, but it is important nonetheless. Collier writes (on page 200):
The most enduring legacy of the colonial experience is the excessive respect given both within the societies of the bottom billion, and by those who are concerned about their fate, to the notion of national sovereignty. The sentiment “never again” impedes serious thought. In reality, the typical society of the bottom billion does not have national sovereignty. It has yet to become a nation as opposed to a state: so it lacks the cohesion needed to produce effective restraints upon either the conduct of elections or the subsequent power of the winner. As a result, it has presidential sovereignty. No wonder presidents are jealous of national sovereignty: they are jealous of their own power.
When the world's dictators address the United Nations, as many do during the General Assembly's period for opening statements each September, they generally speak about the importance of respect for state sovereignty and the principle of non-intervention in the internal affairs of states, not human rights and the emerging responsibility to protect norm. In September 2012, Equatorial Guinea's president, Teodoro Obiang, told the assembled delegates in the UNGA, "We understand that international peace and security depend critically on compliance with the principles of international law: respect for the independence, territorial integrity, and national sovereignty of each state; the sovereign equality of nations and non-interference in the internal affairs of other states; the respect for and fulfillment of international commitments, and the promotion of friendly relations and reciprocal cooperation and equitable benefits among states." In his 2013 speech before the UNGA, one that prompted the U.S. delegation to walk out, Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe's president since 1980, condemned western sanctions against his regime as a violation of "fundamental principles of the United Nations Charter on state sovereignty and non-interference in the domestic affairs of a sovereign state." He concluded by declaring, "Zimbabwe will never be a colony again."

In a similar vein, Uganda's Yoweri Museveni used his speech before the UNGA last year to condemn the International Criminal Court for its indictment of several high-ranking Kenyan officials in connection with post-election violence in 2007-2008. Museveni called the ICC's involvement in Kenya a form of arrogance akin to the arrogance of former colonial powers, whom he called "the old mistake makers." Rwanda's Paul Kagame also condemned the ICC's Kenyan case in his 2013 UNGA address. He stated, "Instead of promoting justice and peace, [the ICC] has undermined efforts at reconciliation and served only to humiliate Africans and their leaders, as well as served the political interests of the powerful."

These few quickly assembled examples of African leaders--dictators, mostly--using their brief moments in the global spotlight to demand respect for sovereignty seem to me to illustrate Collier's point about presidential sovereignty. What Collier would call Mugabe's "sell-by date" passed long ago. The elections he has held have been shams and Zimbabweans struggle to feed themselves while Mugabe amasses a vast, illicit, and personal fortune that he is far too old to enjoy. The same is true of Obiang, who came to power (in a military coup) a year earlier than Mugabe and has repeatedly tried to legitimize his corrupt regime with sham elections.

The sovereignty that dictators defend so vigorously has nothing to do with the rights of their peoples; they have none. This is why sovereignty is conditional and the right to non-intervention must be understood in light of human rights.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Gas for China

The New York Times reports today that Russia and China have signed a thirty-year agreement for the sale of natural gas to China. The deal, which had been in the works for over a decade, was signed while Russian president Vladimir Putin and Chinese president Xi Jinping were in Shanghai for a regional security conference.

While the New York Times story correctly notes the political impetus for the conclusion of this agreement in a setting in which Russia's relationship with Europe has been imperiled by events in Ukraine, it is also worth pointing out the significance of the agreement for China's efforts to address its environmental problems. According to the EPA, the use of natural gas for electricity production generates 1.22 pounds of carbon dioxide CO2 per kilowatt-hour (kWh) of electricity. In comparison, bituminous coal generates 2.08 pounds of CO2 per kWh, sub-bituminous coal generates 2.16 pounds of CO2 per kWh, and lignite generates 2.18 pounds of CO2 per kWh. The natural gas advantage is partially offset by the leakage of methane--the principal component of natural gas and a potent greenhouse gas--into the atmosphere during gas production and transportation, but, at least in the United States, studies suggest that the offsetting effects of leakage are not great enough to overcome the benefits of the ongoing transition from coal to natural gas.

Natural gas is no panacea for air pollution and climate change; energy from wind, water, and the sun remain far better options than any fossil fuel. Nevertheless, changes that can reduce China's dependence on coal--the increase in CO2 emissions from coal in China between 2002 and 2012 was roughly equal to Europe's total CO2 emissions from coal in 2011--should be welcomed even if the alternative (natural gas, in this case) is sub-optimal.

Thursday, May 08, 2014

National Climate Assessment 2014

On Tuesday, the latest National Climate Assessment (NCA) was released. Its findings are sobering and leave no room for doubt regarding anthropogenic climate change and its impact on the United States. The report documents a pattern of drought in California and the Southwest, an increase in flooding in the Northeast, increases in extreme weather across the country, and the melting of sea ice, glaciers, and permafrost (with attendant releases of methane, a potent greenhouse gas) in Alaska.

The National Climate Assessment is an intergovernmental effort to collect and synthesize studies of climate change from government, academic, and private-sector sources. It was established by the Global Change Research Act of 1990. Previous reports were issued in 2000 and 2009. Reports are peer-reviewed in a process that includes the participation of a panel of the National Academy of Sciences.

The report is detailed and thoroughly documented. It includes both thematic and regional assessments. Here are just a few of the findings:
  • "Temperatures at Earth’s surface, in the troposphere (the active weather layer extending up to about 5 to 10 miles above the ground), and in the oceans have all increased over recent decades." (Read more here.)
  • "Heavy downpours are increasing nationally, especially over the last three to five decades. The heaviest rainfall events have become heavier and more frequent, and the amount of rain falling on the heaviest rain days has also increased. Since 1991, the amount of rain falling in very heavy precipitation events has been significantly above average." (Read more here.)
  • "Warmer and drier conditions have already contributed to increasing wildfire extent across the western United States, and future increases are projected in some regions. Long periods of record high temperatures are associated with droughts that contribute to dry conditions and drive wildfires in some areas." (Read more here.)
Also this week, former Utah governor and Republican presidential candidate Jon M. Huntsman, Jr., in a New York Times op-ed, urged fellow Republicans to stop "denying the science" and "get back to [their] foundational roots as catalysts for innovation and problem solving." Huntsman wrote, "If Republicans can get to a place where science drives our thinking and actions, then we will be able to make progress." It is good that Huntsman is defending science as a driver of policy--but sad that it should be necessary to do so in addressing the entire Republican Party.

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Glen Stassen (1936-2014)

Glen Stassen--theologian, ethicist, social critic, disarmament advocate--passed away in Pasadena, California on April 25, 2014. Stassen was a leader in the Nuclear Freeze movement in the United States during the 1980s and the founder of the Just Peacemaking Initiative in the 1990s. At the time of his death, Stassen was a professor at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena.