Germany’s Uniquely Moral Army

The German military, the Bundeswehr  (“Federal Defence”) is officially forbidden to do anything other than defend the country (although there is some limited participation in humanitarian and NATO coalition missions, wherein they usually operate under incredibly strict rules of engagement).

But beyond this constraint — which in theory are is shared by many counterparts across the world that otherwise circumvent them — Germany’s armed forces are exceptional in one incredible way: it prohibits “unconditional obedience” and requires soldiers of any rank to disobey an order if it violates human rights or “denies human dignity”. German troops are trained in the practice of Innere Führung (roughly translatable to “inner guidance” or “inner leadership”) in which the final decision-making process should be the “conscience of each individual” as informed by historical, political, and ethical education provided by the military. Continue reading

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How Global Inequality Undermines Global Democracy

Yet another massive leak of offshore banking documents has revealed the remarkable extent of the world’s “parallel economy”, in which a large and growing proportion of global wealth is secretly stashed away in a complex and opaque network of tax havens.

In addition to the obvious diversion of literally trillions of dollars of capital that could be better spent alleviating the needless suffering of billions (with plenty left over to spare), this development is arguably a threat to democratic governance the world over, as Matt Phillips at Vice argues. Continue reading

The War that Never Happened

Let’s take a moment to appreciate the relatively under-reported fact that over the summer, China and India — nuclear-armed states with nearly 3 billion people and 4 million troops between them — mutually disengaged from a military standoff along their contested border that was quickly escalating towards war (as happened once before, in 1967). Although the underlying border dispute remains unresolved, it is encouraging to see a cooler-headed precedent prevail (a similar incident in the 1980s was also descalated by both countries).

For all the awful conflicts that have transpired just in our lifetimes, let alone throughout history, it is worth acknowledging and celebrating the conflicts that never happened. Fortunately, this is becoming a trend:

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United Nations Day

On this day in 1945, the Charter of the United Nations came into effect, establishing the U.N. as the world’s premier international organization and setting forth, for the first time in history, an aspirational global standard for human rights, international cooperation, and global security — hence the observation of United Nations Day.

The United Nations emerged during the Second World War as the formal name for the Allies that opposed the Axis powers, although the idea of creating a new world organization — to replace the moribund League of Nations that was created after WWI — was conceptualized by the U.S. State Department in 1939.  Continue reading

Towards a Global Postal Union

On this day in 1874, the Treaty of Bern was signed establishing the General Postal Union (now the Universal Postal Union) to create a coherent global mailing system.

Prior to the founding of the UPU, a country would need a separate postal treaty for each country it wanted to exchange mail with; senders were burdened with having to calculate the postage for each country their mail would travel though, and would even need to obtain a given country’s stamps (something that would be difficult enough to do today, let alone in the 19th century). If you wanted to send mail directly to a nation that had no treaty, you would need to find dedicated mail forwarders in a third country that had a treaty with the recipient. In a rapidly globalizing world, this arrangement could not last.

At the urging of the United States, an “International Postal Congress” was held in 1863 to hash out a streamlined global postal system. The Germans, led Heinrich von Stephan, spearheaded the effort and created the UPU framework, which created a standard flat rate to mail a letter anywhere in the world; required government to give equal treatment to foreign and domestic mail; and provided that stamps of one nation are accepted anywhere along the route.

The UPU is still based in Switzerland as a U.N. agency. As one of the oldest international organizations in history, it helped usher in the era of globalization — and all its attending conveniences — that we now take for granted. Such global standards and forums not only saved time and money, but in the case of maritime and aviation law, have arguably saved lives. (Imagine what international travel would be like without a uniform safety or communication framework!)

Progress Across Boundaries

It is telling that all the Nobel Prizes this year — as in recent years — have thus far been awarded to multiple laureates, often of different nationalities and/or for research done in a country different from their birthplace. Like so much else nowadays, science is becoming an increasingly globalized endeavor, conducted across an international network of institutes, universities, labs, and other academic and scientific organizations.

Of course, this is nothing new: almost every human achievement, regardless of time or place, can trace its origins to gradual, supplementary, or parallel developments elsewhere. Mathematical principles, political concepts, artistic expressions — all of the contributors to these and other fields built (and continue to build) upon the work of predecessors or contemporaries, adding to or refining the growing pool of ideas along the way. Thanks to advances in technology, expanding access to education of all levels (especially in the developing world), and a growing sense of global consciousness, this historical development is accelerating.

Knowledge and talent know no boundaries, whether political, linguistic, or ethnic, and the more we facilitate the exchange of ideas and the collaboration, the closer we will come to greater human progress. This is not easy, due to both practical and cultural challenges, but neither is it utopian; there is thousands of years worth of cross-cultural progress persisting to this very day proving it can be done, and the world has a lot to show for it. Given how much more needs to be done — socially, scientifically, ideologically, etc. — we have all the more reasons to keep it up.

China, Russia, and the U.S. Compete for the World’s Hearts and Minds

Nations, not unlike individuals, have much to gain from being in good standing with their peers. A country with a positive image, compelling ideology, or attractive culture is likelier to enjoy more influence on the global stage, whether its visa-free travel for its citizens, trade deals, or international support for its goals.

Thus, it is not surprising that the world’s leading powers — namely China, Russia, and the U.S. — care very much about how favorably they are viewed by the international community. (Indeed, even smaller and less globally ambitious nations like Denmark, Sweden, and Singapore benefit considerably from their image and status as a role model for things like political governance and economic development.)

According to the most recent global polling data from Pew, the United States — technically the world’s sole superpower (or hyperpower) — has maintained is long-standing lead in the international popularity contest.

Nevertheless, China in recent years has risen not only economically but in terms of global standing, even managing to unseat the U.S. in some traditionally pro-American places.

Meanwhile, Russia, a rising force in the globe once more, is also making gains in soft power, although it still lags far behind its larger peers. Continue reading

The Little-Known Russian Soldier Who Saved the World

stanislaw-jewgrafowitsch-petrow-2016Despite helping the world avert a nuclear holocaust over forty years ago, Stanislav Petrov is still little known even in his native Russia, let alone in the United States, which he saved from mistaken nuclear retaliation.

In fact, he died this past May at age 77 in his home near Moscow with little fanfare or media attention; only through the efforts of an intrepid German activist, who sought to contact him this month to wish him a happy birthday, did this fact make it to major media outlets.

USA Today recounts the fateful night that the fate of the world rested on the shoulders of a Soviet lieutenant colonel:

Stanislav Petrov was the duty officer monitoring an early warning system from a bunker outside Moscow on Sept. 26, 1983, when the radar screen suddenly appeared to depict a missile inbound from the United States.

“All my subordinates were confused, so I started shouting orders at them to avoid panic,” Petrov told the Russian news agency RT in 2010. “I knew my decision would have a lot of consequences.”

The alert siren wailed. A message on the bunker’s main screen reported that four more missiles had been launched, he said. Petrov had 15 minutes to determine whether the threat was real and report to his commanders.

“My cozy armchair felt like a red-hot frying pan and my legs went limp,” he told RT. “I felt like I couldn’t even stand up. That’s how nervous I was.”

Even on a good day in U.S.-Soviet relations, such an incident would have been believable. But to top it off, this was a period of increased tensions, as less than a month before, the Russians had shot down a Korean civilian airline that had accidentally drifted into Soviet airspace, killing all 269 passengers, including a U.S. congressman. Both sides had subsequently exchanged warnings and threats, so what Petrov and his troops saw on the radar was perfectly believable.

It would also need to be addressed quickly, as the presumed missiles would strike the country in just twenty minutes. NPR recounts how Petrov somehow managed to keep a cool head and get a handle on the situation:

“There was no rule about how long we were allowed to think before we reported a strike,” Petrov told the BBC. “But we knew that every second of procrastination took away valuable time, that the Soviet Union’s military and political leadership needed to be informed without delay. All I had to do was to reach for the phone; to raise the direct line to our top commanders — but I couldn’t move. I felt like I was sitting on a hot frying pan.”

Petrov sensed something wasn’t adding up.

He had been trained to expect an all-out nuclear assault from the U.S., so it seemed strange that the satellite system was detecting only a few missiles being launched. And the system itself was fairly new. He didn’t completely trust it.

After several nerve-jangling minutes, Petrov didn’t send the computer warning to his superiors. He checked to see if there had been a computer malfunction.

He had guessed correctly.

“Twenty-three minutes later I realized that nothing had happened,” he said in 2013. “If there had been a real strike, then I would already know about it. It was such a relief.”

Imagine being tasked with defending your country and having only a split second to make the call. Strategically, he would have been within his right to alert his superiors so they could retaliate accordingly, as per both Soviet and U.S. protocols. Instead, he relied on his cool reasoning and training to make the right call, despite the obvious risks.

It was later revealed that the false positive was due to Russian satellites mistaking sunlight reflecting off of clouds for nuclear missiles; the simplicity of such an error makes one wonder how more such near-misses haven’t happened — provided they do not remained classified or went unreported.

Indeed, the incident remained under wraps for fifteen years, until a Russian official mentioned the incident well after the fall of the USSR, and a German magazine picked up the story, making Petrov a minor celebrity.

In all the time before the story emerged, Petrov’s heroism was officially neither rewarded nor even acknowledged; in fact, he was formally reprimanded for “failing to provide property paperwork”, which was no doubt due to his superior’s embarrassment of such a potentially catastrophic error.

In 2013, Petrov was awarded the Dresden International Peace Prize, and 2014 saw the release of The Man Who Saved the World, a Danish documentary about the incident. Otherwise, Petrov remained little known until his belatedly-reported death attracted some attention from Western and Russian media — a seemingly surprising fate for a man who saved the world, but perhaps an indication of how much we take nuclear security for granted, given how many other potentially-disastrous incidents, errors, and accidents have occurred or been narrowly averted (and those are just the ones we know about).

While it is sad that a man who saved the world should die largely-forgotten, perhaps it is a fitting death for someone as evidently humble and magnanimous as Petrov was. He once told RT in 2010:

At first when people started telling me that these TV reports had started calling me a hero, I was surprised. I never thought of myself as one. After all, I was literally just doing my job.

Something tells me he was more than happy to have simply saved the world and live into old age, with or without any credit or fanfare. It is a good thing there was someone like Petrov around that night, and hopefully there are more people like him in these delicate and potentially earth-shattering positions.

(As it happens, Stanislav Petrov is not the only Russian soldier to have helped the world avert nuclear disaster during a tense time — look up the story of Vasili Arkhipov, another soft-spoken and humble officer who made the correct call not to launch a nuclear strike that could very well have initiated all-out war.)

The Countries With the Highest Well-Being

It is safe to say that most people want greater well-being in their lives, but as with concepts like happiness or success, it is often loaded and subjective — albeit up to a point. Wealth is certainly a big factor, if not the biggest, but so are — generally speaking — civil rights, a healthy environment, personal safety, and social support.

Predicating well-being on these and other inputs, the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) conducted the “Sustainable Economic Development Assessment” (SEDA), which measures which countries in the world provide the most well-being to their inhabitants. The results were based on over 50,000 data points spanning three broad metrics and ten “dimensions of well-being”: economics (which includes income, economic stability, and employment); investment (health, education, and infrastructure) and sustainability (socioeconomic inequality, civil society, governance, and environment). Continue reading

Africa’s Art Deco Capital

Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, has just been designated as a World Heritage Site for its unique collection of Art Deco buildings, which UNESCO calls “an exceptional example of early modernist urbanism at the beginning of the 20th century and its application in an African context”. (And for which the city is sometimes called “Africa’s Miami”.)

Asmara’s architecture is a legacy of Italian rule, which stretched from 1889 until the end of the Second World War. Italy’s determination to be a colonial power, like its stronger European rivals, drove it to pioneer new and radical styles far from the constraints of European sensibilities (indeed, many of these structures were heavily criticized at the time). It became known as a paradise for bold Italian architects, and by the 1930s the capital had the nickname of “Little Rome” because half of its residents were Italian.

Unfortunately, Eritrea’s government is among the most repressive and totalitarian in the world, and there is much concern about its capacity to preserve these structures, to say nothing of the treatment of its citizens.

Info and photos courtesy of the New York Times and UNESCO