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

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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

Gun Ownership Around the World

Americans are considered exceptionally fond of guns; the United States has the highest rate of gun ownership — both generally and per capita — by a huge margin, and is one of only three countries in the world, along with Guatemala and Mexico, to enshrine a right to guns in its founding document (the latter two were directly inspired by the American example).

But just how unusual is the U.S. in this regard? Here are some interesting and illuminating visual data courtesy of indy100which draws on research from he Washington Post:

screenshot-www.indy100.com 2017-06-13 22-44-07.png Continue reading

Turkish Charity fit for Ramadan

Given all of the bad news coming out of the Middle East lately, it is nice to see a flicker of light in the darkness in the form of Turkey’s desperately needed aid to the beleaguered peoples of Somalia, Yemen, and South Sudan.

As The New Arab reported:

“This aid will be sent to all the regions in Somalia. There is 1,000 trucks-loaded humanitarian aid in this ship,” Turkish Red Crescent President Kerem Kinik told Anadolu state news agency.

The ship carrying the cargo is due to arrive on Saturday, the first day of Ramadan when Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset.

Among the cargo is flour, sugar, medicine and baby food, which will help 3 million Somalis during the holy month.

Eleven ships have been sent from Turkey to Somalia in total, while two more are being prepared to be sent to Yemen.

“There is a cholera outbreak in Somalia, Yemen and South Sudan right now. After Yemen, we will try to reach to Cuba and northern regions in South Sudan. This is a big mobilisation,” Kinik said, adding that the aid should reach around 9 million people in total.

Turkey has also set up mobile bakeries in Somalia, including one in the capital Mogadishu which provides 4,000 loafs of bread a day, while a mobile kitchen distributes 7,000 hot meals to hospitals, orphanages and centres for the disabled.

As these nations reel from civil strife and potential famine, it is nice to see one of their neighbors step up and be a responsible member of the international community (notwithstanding some troubling political developments).

Where Half the World Lives

With the world’s population now around 7.5 billion, and projected to grow by another 4 billion or so within a century, one could be forgiven for imagining the world as already swelling to the brim with people.

Yet as the following map designed by Max Galka shows, much of the world is fairly empty, and will likely remain so given the pace of urbanization (wherein more people live and work in less land). 

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That means roughly 3.75 billion people live in an area constituting just one percent of the world’s total landmass. Continue reading

Iran Tests Most Generous Basic Income Plan Yet

Iran hardly comes to mind when it comes to testing bold new ideas (never mind its various scientific and technological achievements in the face of sanctions and a reactionary theocracy). But since 2011, it has been testing and monitoring one of the most generous basic income schemes in the world, joining the likes of Canada, Finland, and the Netherlands (among others) in exploring the merits of an idea that has been gaining traction amid concerns about mass unemployment from advancing automation.

The program, which is ongoing, was launched during the tenure of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, himself hardly a progressive (to put it mildly). But it was ideal timing, as it followed cuts to subsidies for bread and fuel, which disproportionately impacted the poor. Participants received a monthly cash transfer equivalent to 29 percent of the country’s median household income — which would amount to over $16,300 a month in the U.S.! This is far more generous than the $1,000 or so monthly stipend that is typical in most basic income schemes. Even advocates of the idea might think it is far too much to sustain a productive population.

Yet, as BusinessInsider reported, not only did researchers find that most recipients remained employed, but many of them worked more hours.

Despite reports in local press that the poor were forgoing their jobs to spend the extra money, the investigators found no such evidence.

“Our results do not indicate a negative labor supply effect for either hours worked or the probability of participation in market work, either for all workers or those in the bottom 40% of the income distribution,” they wrote.

They did find people in their twenties tended to work a bit less. But “this is not surprising since the attachment of Iranian youth to the labor market is weak,” they wrote, and many young people may have used the money to enroll in higher education they otherwise couldn’t afford.

In other cases, the extra money appeared to increase how much time people spent working. Service workers, such as housekeepers, teachers, and deliverymen, upped their weekly hours by roughly 36 minutes, “perhaps because some used transfers to expand their business.”

In other words, people were empowered to invest the money they received in ways that created greater values for themselves and, by extension, their loved ones and community. This comports with the results of the basic income experiments conducted in Canada and Namibia, as well as Brazil’s Bolsa Familia program, which is one of the few examples of a full-fledged cash-transfer scheme (although not quite a basic income, since it is conditional on children attending school and being vaccinated).

Unfortunately, Iran’s experiment also proved another common feature of the basic income idea: widespread negative attention and cynicism, in this case by both politicians and the general public. Across different societies and cultures, the idea of handing people money with no string attached strikes a visceral chord.

But given where automation and economic innovation are heading, it seems inevitable that mass unemployment — and the massive wealth imbalance that would follow — will need to be corrected. Not only would a guaranteed income provide for people’s basic needs, but as these pilot programs are thus far proving, they would empower individuals with the resources they need to unlock their own potential, whether it is freeing up time for socially valuable work (caregiving, volunteering, etc.) or investing in their own creative or commercial ventures.

What are your thoughts?

 

America’s Novice Approach to World Affairs

Although the United States remains the world’s sole superpower, this preeminent status is beginning to count for a lot less than it used to, as other nations — rivals and allies alike — begin to quickly catch up.

Our recent (though far from unprecedented) embrace of nationalism and populism is only hastening this relative decline, as Mark R. Kennedy argues in Foreign Policy. In a globalized world, even the greatest powers still need friends and allies, and our increasingly blustering attitude towards the rest of the world risks weakening the foreign ties on which we depend for economic and national security. Continue reading

My Thoughts on Bucking the Paris Agreement

For what it is worth, it seems to me that most opposition to the Paris Agreement is predicated on mere ignorance to its contents and a visceral, categorical rejection of anything multilateral or international in nature, regardless of the details and benefits. (And given the considerable support for it by a broad range of stakeholders – from national security figures to big corporations, including major energy companies – the usual argument that such policies are inherently anti-business, or favor only idealistic environmentalists, simply do not wash.) It is anti-globalism for anti-globalism’s sake.

If folks actually read the Agreement – which most people had never heard of or had forgotten about until recently – they would find that it is explicitly nonbinding and hands-off with regards to how nations can go about mitigating climate change. In fact, it stipulates “nationally determined contributions” whereby every nation individually sets their own goals and how to reach them, whether through the free market, government programs, etc. Unlike its predecessors, the Paris Agreement furthermore places emphasis on “bottom up” solutions that favor working with private sector and civil society groups, something that opponents ostensibly favor. Ironically, these provisions were included in part to win over skeptics like the U.S. who criticized the binding nature of prior agreements such as the Kyoto Protocols.

Continue reading