Understanding Russia

As an almost life-long Russophile — despite not remotely having any roots or personal connections to the country or its people — I have always been fascinated by Russian culture, society, history, and politics. For better or worse, few nations have had so much presence and influence on the world stage, and while my love of all things Russia certainly does not include its government or foreign policy, I recognize the importance of better understanding this still relevant — some say resurgent — global power.

Over at Foreign Affairs (one of my favorite international relations journals),  explores Russia’s long history of trying to achieve greatness, defined “by soaring ambitions that have exceeded the country’s capabilities”. It is equal parts tragedy and glory, with every victory coming at great cost (the defeat of Napoleon and Nazi Germany), and every instance of power and global status being tenuous (the perennial political and economic stagnation of the Soviet period throughout the Cold War).

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Where Your Produce Comes From

In this wonderfully globalized world of ours, we take for granted just how varied and plentiful our food supply is (at least in the more developed and interconnected parts of the world). But so much of what we see on store shelves and restaurants would have literally been unheard of not long ago, let alone a significant and growing part of our staple diet.

NPR’s The Salt column reports on a study that has mapped out and traced where nearly all the world’s cultivated crops originated from. It found that more than two-thirds (69 percent) of the crops that form a key part of national diets — from Thai chilies to Italian tomatoes — in fact came from somewhere else. Continue reading

The Least Miserable Countries in the World

Nuclear Weapons in the World Today

There are five countries that are legally recognized as nuclear weapons states, according to the terms of the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which has been signed by 191 nations: the U.S., Russia, France, U.K., and China.

Additionally, three other countries that are not signatories of the NPT have acquired nuclear weapons — India, Pakistan, and North Korea — while one country, Israel, has not signed the NPT and is not positively known to have nuclear weapons, although it is believed by most analysts to possess them. (For its part, the Israeli government pursues an official policy of “deliberate ambiguity“, in which it refuses to either confirm or deny rumors that it posses nuclear weapons.) Continue reading

The Disparity in Terrorism Between the West and the Rest

It goes without saying that North America, Europe, and the wider developed world are much safer in all sorts of ways than anywhere else on Earth.  Terrorism in particular is especially rare nowadays, to the point that it captures a disproportionate amount of our attention despite being one of the least common forms of death or injury (e.g., you are three times more likely to die of rabies than of Islamic extremism).

However, to see this disparity visualized in data is a far more impactful reminder of the massive gap in fortune that exists between huge swathes of humanity. The following graph from a New York Times piece by Lazaro Gamio and Tim Meko looks at just the past year and a half.


Out of the rest the world, the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia — all with predominantly Muslim populations — account for the vast majority of terrorism targeting noncombatants. (Indeed, the primary victims of Islamic terrorism, the source of most of these deaths, have long been other Muslims.)

Terrorism IITerrorism III

According to the Global Terrorism Index, as of 2015, close to 80 percent of deaths from terrorism occur in just five countries: Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Syria. Given recent spate of terrorism in all these nations, that proportion has likely remained the same, if not increased.

The top ten terrorism-affiliated countries is rounded up by India, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, and Thailand. Israel is the only developed country to be anywhere near these figures, and even then it is in 24th place out of 50. The U.K. and Greece are the next runners up in the developed world, coming in at 28th and 29th place respectively — though their rankings are several points less than the worst hit countries, driving home the disparity in terrorist violence.

For its part, the United States comes in at 35, although the events of the last few weeks may bump up that figure. Even so, it will still be far and away from the almost weekly occurrence of terrorism in many other parts of the world. I cannot even begin to fathom what it is like trying to go about one’s life amid an almost normalized pace of random bombings and shootings.

Unfettered Internet Access Declared a Human Right

This past June, the United Nations Human Rights Council passed a nonbinding resolution in June that defines free and open access to the web is a human right and in strong terms “condemns unequivocally measures to intentionally prevent or disrupt access to our dissemination of information online”.

The four page document, which you can read here (PDF), takes a broad view of the Internet’s importance, from its empowerment of “all women and girls by enhancing their access to information and communications technology” to “[facilitating] vast opportunities for affordable and inclusive education globally”. It even affirms how the expansion of telecommunications technology has the “great potential to accelerate human progress”, an observation most denizens of the Internet Age can attest to. Continue reading

Brief Reflections On Why So Many People Care About Brexit

It is fascinating to see how many people are taking an interest in Brexit and the European Union as a whole. Up until then, one rarely heard the media, let alone the average American, give much attention to the E.U. or its various issues and dynamics. Generally speaking, we Americans tend to be an insular lot, and our interest in the world is usually limited to conflicts, the actions of rivals or enemies, or the saga of U.S. citizens abroad.

I suspect much of what is driving our interest in the event is the fact that 1) it involves a culturally similar country for which most Americans have an affinity and familiarity with, and 2) that Brexit and the E.U. as a whole represent debates and issues of universal relevance: sovereignty, integration, xenophobia, nationalism, globalization, popular will vs. representative politic, and so on.

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The 2016 Soft Power 30

Last summer, I shared and discussed the first results of the newly launched Soft Power 30, an annual index of the world’s most successful nations in terms of “soft power” — the culture, values, international image, and other factors that allow a country to influence the rest of the world. Portland Communications, which conducts the survey, explains what exactly soft power is and why it is so important to understand.

Soft power shuns the traditional foreign policy tools of carrot and stick, seeking instead to achieve influence by building networks, communicating compelling narratives, establishing international rules, and drawing on the resources that make a country naturally attractive to the world.

In short, “hard power is push; soft power is pull”.

Joseph Nye, the originator of the concept, initially set out three primary sources of soft power as he developed the concept. Nye’s three pillars of soft power are: political values, culture, and foreign policy. But within these three categories, the individual sources of soft power are manifold and varied.

Our index builds on those three pillars, using over 75 metrics across six sub-indices of objective data and seven categories of new international polling data.

In an increasingly interconnected and globalized world, where warfare and conquest are no longer acceptable means of fulfilling national interests (albeit not fully extinguished either), the ability to win over hearts and minds is as integral to power and prosperity as any military. This is especially true in an era where hundreds of millions of people regularly visit, study, work, and settle down in nations across the world, offering the most attractive destinations valuable labor, skills, knowledge, and other human resources.

So which countries have been excelling in this key dimension of power? Unsurprisingly, the top performers include the United States, the United Kingdom, and France, all of which cultural outputs, from film to music to art, are known worldwide. Of course, it helps that they are wealthy and populous, since these resources make cultivating and projecting culture much easier — hence why few poor nations made the cut. Many of the highest ranking nations also have a long history of being great powers, giving them a legacy of connections — through colonization, language, and settlement — that allow their cultural and diplomatic influence to disseminate.

But there were some new and surprising contenders in this exclusive club as well, such as Hungary, Russia, and Argentina, none of which may strike the average American as prominent cultural powerhouses, but each of which are influential in some particular way — Hungary in its rich mathematical and musical achievements, Russia in its renewed leadership role in global affairs, and Argentina in its benign international image, to name but a couple of examples for each.

Here are the full results:

Soft Power 30 (2016)

The original chart allows you to click on each country to see its score in each of the seven sub-indices — such as digital presence, economic enterprise, and global public opinion — as well as a summary of the strengths, weaknesses, and overall trajectory of the their soft power status. If you are so inclined, you can download the 120-page report here (PDF).

What are your thoughts on the results?


Required Reading For International Relations Buffs

If you share my background or passion for geopolitics, foreign policy, and international relations, then consider including the following books to your reading list, recommended by leading international relations thinker and professor Stephen M. Walt. Feel free to add your own must-reads, which I will do myself in a future post.

1). Kenneth Waltz, Man, the State, and War.

According to Walt, the book provides “an enduring typology of different theories of war (i.e., locating them either in the nature of man, the characteristics of states, or the anarchic international system)” coupled with a powerful critique of each approach.

2). Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel.

This classic examines how “small differences in climate, population, agronomy, and the like turned out to have far-reaching effects on the evolution of human societies and the long-term balance of power.”

3). Thomas Schelling, Arms and Influence.

The author has since won a Nobel Prize in economics for his pioneering theories on international conflict and cooperation through game-theory analysis — topics that are explored in this still relevant 1966 book.

4). James Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed.

This book examines the long and depressing history of authoritarians trying their hand at progress, with disastrous results (think the collectivization policy of the Soviet Union, or Mao’s Great Leap Forward). It serves as a cautionary tale on utopian ventures, especially when undertaken by centralized political authorities and well intentioned by narrow minded idealists. Definitely an important work to keep in mind in this era of big projects.

5). David Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest.

Like the previous selection, this book explores the follies and foibles of policymakers, specifically with regards to the Vietnam War.

6). Robert Jervis, Perception and Misperception in International Politics.

This intriguing book looks at world politics and foreign policy through the prism of psychology. How do the perspectives and mental states of policymakers impact international relations? It is a question that is not asked enough, let alone explored.

7). John J. Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics.

This book is about the vagaries and misfortunes of nations. As Walt sums up: “Why do bad things happen to good peoples? Why do “good states” do lots of bad things? Mearsheimer tells you. Clearly written, controversial, and depressingly persuasive”.

8). Ernst Gellner, Nations and Nationalism.

“The state is the dominant political form in the world today, and nationalism remains a powerful political force. This book will help you understand where it came from and why it endures”. Given the rise of nationalism among both emerging powers and smaller nations fearful of globalization, this is a very necessary read.

9). Henry A. Kissinger, White House Years & Years of Upheaval.

Kissinger’s questionable legacy makes his memoir all the more important to read, if only because it helps us understand firsthand the brutal logic of realpolitik. The book also offers insights of various other major political players in both the U.S. and abroad, though as Waltz warns, none of it should be taken at face value.

10). Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation.

Polanyi ambitious tries to trace the origins of industrialization, and the subsequent modern world, and what impact it has had on society, culture, and politics. The book takes a critical stance on capitalism and the idea of a self regulating market, concerns that are increasingly relevant in our globalized planet.

Waltz also offers several honorable mentions worth considering.

Geoffrey Blainey The Causes of War; Douglas North, Structure and Change in Economic History; Valerie Hudson and Andrea den Boer, Bare Branches: The Security Implications of Asia’s Surplus Male Population; Robert Gilpin,The Political Economy of International Relations; Steve Coll, Ghost Wars; T.C.W. Blanning, The Origins of the French Revolutionary Wars; R. R. Palmer,The Age of the Democratic Revolution; Avi Shlaim, The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World; Stephen Van Evera, Causes of War; Samuel Huntington, Political Order in Changing Societies; Tony Smith, The Problem of Imperlalism; and Philip Knightley’s The First Casualty: The War Correspondent as Hero, Propagandist, and Myth-Maker.

Needless to say, these books are just a drop in the bucket compared to the vast world of political and international relations literature. But they are definitely great places to start. I will put together my own list of recommendations when time permits, but feel free to share your own! (No worries, you do not need to be an expert or anything — just share whatever book had influenced or otherwise appealed to you.)

How Much Teachers Make And Work Around The World

On this National Teacher’s Appreciation DayThe Economist has put together a graph
showing the salaries and working hours of high school teachers among the 34 mostly developed OECD countries, and comparing this to each nation’s PISA rankings, which measures scholastic performance on math, science, and reading. The idea is to show what impact, if any, low pay and long working hours may have on teacher’s effectiveness. The results are as follows:

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