World update: January 10 2019

WORLD BANK

When it comes to the two main international institutions responsible for immiserating the developing world, the US and Western Europe have always shared responsibility. Though both positions are technically open to anyone from anywhere, the head of the International Monetary Fund historically has come from Europe, and the head of the World Bank has been selected by the United States. Or at least that’s the way it used to be, before Donald Trump came along. Now, with Bank president Jim Yong Kim announcing his retirement at the end of the month, the possibility of a non-US World Bank boss has probably never been greater. That doesn’t mean, of course, that it’s going to happen. Trump or not, the United States is still the United States, and still has tremendous influence over these sorts of things.

ASIA

AFGHANISTAN

The Taliban killed at least 32 members of Afghan security forces in a series of attacks across four provinces (Badghis, Baghlan, Kunduz, and Takhar) on Thursday. The Taliban attackers reportedly took heavy casualties but those are more difficult to confirm. Aside from Baghdis, the attacks were concentrated in northern Afghanistan, where fighting between the government and Taliban has been heaviest in recent weeks. Despite the heavy fighting, neither side has apparently been able to make any headway. The Afghans’ saving grace appears to be air power–US air power, mostly, since after 17 years and $8 billion in aid US commanders are still talking about hopefully getting the Afghan air force up to 60 percent self-sufficiency. Afghan air power remains both less effective and more hazardous to civilians than the US version.

INDIA

Several of India’s largest trade unions completed a two-day national strike on Wednesday against the country’s right-wing government, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party. Leaders accused the government of being anti-worker and criticized both its economic performance and its apparent disinterest in even listening to union grievances. They called the strike a “success,” but it’s hard to know exactly how they’re defining that since it doesn’t seem to have led (at least not yet) to any tangible positive outcome.

CHINA

Chinese and US representatives finished their trade talks in Beijing on Wednesday without having made much progress. They made some minor headway on issues like China opening up its economy to more foreign competition, but the core issues at the heart of the trade dispute–intellectual property and China’s subsidies to its domestic companies–remain unsettled.

TAIWAN

Taiwan is about to get a new prime minister, former Democratic Progressive Party chair Su Tseng-chang. The old PM, William Lai, resigned after the DPP suffered major losses in local elections in November.

SOUTH KOREA

The South Korean government plans to ask Washington for sanctions waivers in order to allow it to pursue joint economic development projects with North Korea. There’s a pretty strong possibility that the Trump administration will reject this request, which would be a big mistake. Korean integration is maybe the best way to help reduce tensions on the peninsula, and more importantly this is a Korean issue and the US should let the Koreans lead on it.

AFRICA

SUDAN

Protests against Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir continued on Thursday in the city of Omdurman, where a day earlier Sudanese security forces reportedly killed three protesters. At least 22 people have been killed by Sudanese forces since the demonstrations began in mid-December.

NIGERIA

The long-running and ongoing conflict between farmers and herders across Nigeria’s middle belt, exacerbated now by the pressures of climate change, has become deadlier than the Boko Haram/ISIS-West Africa conflict in the country’s northeast. But a long-term solution is being kicked around–namely, encouraging nomadic Fulani herders to become settled ranchers instead. That plan is fighting a massive headwind of tradition and if it works it’s going to take years to fully implement. In the meantime, aid groups are turning to a simpler temporary fix–getting the two communities to talk to one another:

“It’s more about managing the conflict than solving it,” said Tog Gang, of Mercy Corps, a humanitarian organisation working to create peace in central Nigeria by organising meetings like the one Dangyang was persuaded to attend, to meet the men he held responsible for trying to kill him.

At their meeting place, a hotel on neutral ground in Plateau state, the men and women began to take off their dark glasses, put down their mobiles, and talk.

They discussed the theft of huge herds, sometimes with the involvement of outside criminals, the slaughter of women, children and older people, the recent abundance of guns, the problems of unemployment and drug abuse among the young and the lack of intermarriage between communities.

EUROPE

RUSSIA

The Russian Foreign Ministry summoned the Japanese ambassador on Thursday to lodge a protest over Tokyo’s handling of the dispute between the two nations over several islands in the north Pacific. Japanese officials have talked publicly about negotiations between the two countries focusing on how to bring Russian citizens living on the islands under Japanese control, and whether the Russians are going to pay compensation for having taken the islands after World War II. But Moscow says that kind of talk distorts what’s been happening in the negotiations. Russia says it refuses to hand over the islands at all, so any discussion of these kinds of terms surrounding a hand over is bogus.

REPUBLIC OF NORTH (?) MACEDONIA

Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, who has so far remained confident that he had the votes to narrowly pass the constitutional amendments required to change the country’s name to the “Republic of North Macedonia” and thereby fulfill his end of the deal he cut last year with Greece, now looks like he may not actually have the votes. Zaev postponed parliament’s planned Friday session in order to give himself more time to wrangle undecided lawmakers.

AMERICAS

VENEZUELA

Nicolás Maduro was sworn in for his second term in office on Thursday, and it didn’t take long for his neighbors to make their displeasure felt. Both Paraguay and Peru recalled their ambassadors to Caracas and severed diplomatic ties with Venezuela following the inauguration. Maduro accused the United States of leading a “world war” against Venezuela in his inaugural address. Make of that what you will.

NICARAGUA

Nicaraguan Supreme Court justice Rafael Solis Cerda resigned abruptly on Thursday, penning a letter that accused President Daniel Ortega of becoming a dictator and fomenting a potential civil war. Ortega’s security forces killed an estimated 325 people last year in putting down protests that began in April, a fact Solis cited in his letter.

MEXICO

New Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s term isn’t getting off to the greatest start, unless he had “gas crisis” on his to-do list. Mexican oil company Petróleos Mexicanos (PEMEX) closed off many of the country’s main gasoline pipelines over the weekend, switching to trucks for delivery ostensibly in an effort to prevent product being siphoned off by criminal organizations. But trucks are less efficient than pipelines, so by Wednesday long lines began forming at gas stations in major cities across the country. López Obrador is urging people not to fill their tanks, but there seems to be some concern that Pemex is covering for a gasoline shortage. PEMEX officials are trying to reassure people that there’s no shortage and that distribution will improve once the tanker delivery system has been completely implemented.

Another possibility here is that the gasoline shortages are related to López Obrador’s anti-corruption campaign, which has focused in part on allegations that PEMEX personnel are themselves pilfering gasoline from the company’s facilities. Mexican authorities sent security forces to the company’s refinery in Salamanca late last month, and it could be that the investigation is slowing PEMEX’s production–or, if you wanted to be cynical about it, that PEMEX is throttling back production to embarrass López Obrador.

UNITED STATES

Finally, Susanna Blume of the Center for a New American Security argues that the current debate over precisely how massive the Pentagon’s budget should be is missing the point, because there can’t be a rational discussion of the proper size of the military budget without first grappling with the question of what exactly we want that military to do:

Over the past two months, unusually public negotiations between the White House and the U.S. Department of Defense on the 2020 defense budget request have bounced from $733 billion down to $700 billion, and then back up again to $750 billion. All of this swamps the Obama administration’s last national defense budget request for FY 2017—$608 billion. And if you think these shifts have been dynamic, just wait until the now-divided Congress takes up the question this spring, “in light of the fact that the current legal cap on defense spending for 2020 is $576 billion (not including Overseas Contingency Operations funding for current military operations). Political and military leaders are throwing around a lot of really big numbers in their public remarks, raising the question: How much does the United States really need to spend on defense? And how will we know when we get there?

The question isn’t being asked correctly. Defense spending should always be a function of foreign policy. The only way to determine how much is enough is to decide what the military needs to be able to do, and how much risk political and military leaders are willing to accept in doing it—or not doing it. Popular measures often cited as necessary to determine the sufficiency or insufficiency of the defense budget (such as the percentage of GDP relative to other countries’ defense budgets) are irrelevant at best and misleading at worst. To get the defense budget right, we need to stop arguing about numbers in the abstract and start having a serious conversation about what the United States wants its military to be able to do. Both defense hawks and defense spending skeptics use these kinds of metrics to support predetermined conclusions for either larger or smaller defense budgets.

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