Archive for October, 2009

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Secretary Clinton Takes Pakistan to Task

October 30, 2009
Secretary of State Hilary Clinton visits Iqbal's Mausoleum in Lahore with Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi.

(REUTERS/Stringer)

Say what you will about Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s inaugural visit to Pakistan this week, but it has not been short on fireworks. Clinton made it clear she has some bones to pick with the Pakistani government, bluntly asserting that it has not been aggressive enough in its pursuit of al Qaeda’s top leaders, who the U.S. government believes are located in the country’s lawless northwest. “I find it hard to believe that nobody in your government knows where they are and couldn’t get them if they really wanted to,” she charged.

Such heated words come at a very delicate moment for the U.S.-Pakistan alliance, with tensions between the two countries running high. In the U.S., the Obama administration has been plotting a new Afghanistan strategy that will undoubtedly have huge implications for Pakistan, while Congress has been trying to craft an acceptable economic aid package for Pakistan to stabilize the country. Meanwhile, the Pakistani military finds itself in the second week of a controversial U.S.-backed campaign to root out Taliban militants in South Waziristan, near the Afghan border.

But Clinton hasn’t been the only one hurling accusations or asking pointed questions during her visit. At a heated question-and-answer session with Pakistani university students, Clinton was asked why Pakistan should trust the U.S. to remain a long-term partner in maintaining the stability of Afghanistan. After all, the questioner pointed out, the U.S. largely abandoned both Afghanistan and Pakistan in the late 1980s after helping drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan. Clinton called that a “fair criticism,” but added the U.S. and Pakistan needed to look to the future, not the past—essentially implying that ‘this time around’ would be different.

That sort of attitude may fly from an American point of view, but from a Pakistani perspective—where memories of betrayal remain fresh even after 20 years—it will not be so easy to turn the page.

-Russell Sticklor

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The Internet…Goes International

October 26, 2009
(REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro)

(REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro)

With English considered the language of international business, it may come as little surprise that all Internet domain names are written using Latin-based letters. It has been done this way since the Internet first came into being during the late 1960s, and many overseas web users these days have come to accept English as the common language of the online world. That, however, might be about to change.

This week, the nonprofit Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) will meet in Seoul, South Korea, to vote on whether to approve the creation and use of web domain names written in languages besides English. The ICANN board is widely expected to pass the measure, which would mean that web addresses may soon be written in scripts like Hindi, Cyrillic, Japanese and Arabic, to name a few. To pave the way for such sweeping changes in the Internet landscape, a translation system has been developed and tested over the past several years to coordinate the scripts. If the ICANN measure is approved, officials say the first non-English web site addresses should start popping up online around 2010.

This would be good news all around. A multilingual Internet domain-name system will more accurately reflect the world’s linguistic diversity, as more than half of world’s 1.6 billion web users already use non-Latin-based scripts in their everyday lives. The ICANN reform may also make the online world more inclusive, opening the Internet up to potential users who may have previously kept the web at arm’s length due to language barriers.

-Russell Sticklor

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Americans Ask, ‘What Global Warming?’

October 22, 2009
(REUTERS/Phil Noble)

(REUTERS/Phil Noble)

Just in time for December’s U.N. climate change summit in Copenhagen, a new survey out today shows that fewer and fewer Americans think global warming is linked to human pollution. The poll, released by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, reveals that just 36% of Americans believe there is convincing scientific proof that climate change has manmade causes. (By comparison, that figure stood at 47% only 18 months ago.)

Every year, the average American pumps about 20 tons of carbon into the atmosphere, making the U.S. the world’s second largest per capita emitter of carbon dioxide. (Australia is first.) Those soaring pollution levels make today’s poll results especially disheartening, considering the U.S. is expected to take a lead on creating new international standards for emissions reductions this December.

While self-awareness has never been one of the American public’s strong suits, it is still surprising that many poll respondents seem to think we are out of the woods as far as global warming is concerned. For example, only 57% of respondents say there is concrete evidence that the planet is even getting hotter, down from 71% in April 2008. Only one-third of Americans now consider global warming to be a “very serious” problem.

But thankfully, there remains cause for a small degree of optimism. More than 50% of respondents contend that caps on greenhouse gas emissions are still needed, while 56% of those polled say the U.S. should work with other countries to set those standards. So maybe there is some hope for Copenhagen, after all.

-Russell Sticklor

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Russia Seeks Inroads in Serbia

October 22, 2009
(REUTERS/Marko Djurica)

(REUTERS/Marko Djurica)

Earlier this week, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev traveled to Serbia to observe the 65th anniversary of Belgrade’s liberation from German occupation during World War II. It was a visit heavy on symbolism, since the Soviet Red Army had played a significant role in driving the Germans from the city. Medvedev’s trip also served to reaffirm the long-standing cultural ties that Serbia and Russia share.

But diplomatic niceties aside, the visit demonstrated Russia’s intent to lure Serbia into its sphere of influence. In recent years, both Russia and the West have wrestling for influence in the country, which occupies a strategic economic and political position in the West Balkans. To gain favor with the Serbians, Russia is now planning on investing in the country’s transit and energy infrastructure, and it will also provide a $1.5 billion loan to the country’s government. Those commitments have proven to Serbians that when Russia shows up these days, it means business.

Not to be outdone, the European Commission quickly offered up a $300 million loan to Serbia upon hearing about Russia’s economic aid. But going forward, the West may face some difficulty wooing Serbia—in part because its embrace of the country has been half-hearted. While Serbia has long sought European Union membership, the country has been consistently denied, even though Belgrade has increasingly democratized over the past decade. The reasons for the E.U.’s continued block on Serbia may be many, but they remain highly contentious in Belgrade. Until the West opens its arms a bit wider to Serbia, the E.U. should understand that the country will likely continue to drift in Russia’s direction.

-Russell Sticklor

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Russia and China Seeking Limits on U.S. Influence

October 19, 2009
(REUTERS/Kyodo/Kota Kyogoku)

(REUTERS/Kyodo/Kota Kyogoku)

During the past six months, Russia and China have been looking to curb U.S. influence in world affairs on a number of fronts. During the spring, for example, Russian and Chinese financial leaders publicly challenged the primacy of the U.S. dollar in the international monetary system. Both countries pinned at least part of the blame for the current global economic downturn on the weakening U.S. dollar. Their solution? The world should supplant the dollar with a more stable reserve currency to help spur a new era of trade growth and investment.

Just last week, Russia and China took yet another shot at the U.S., this time in the realm of energy security. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin flew to Beijing to discuss the details of a major gas-for-loans deal with China. Afterward, he remarked that closer economic and energy ties between the two countries would be crucial to placing a check on other world powers during the coming years. Few in Washington were left wondering whom Putin was talking about.

If a joint Russian-Chinese front develops further, it will have implications for the U.S. both in the short-term and long-term. Most pressingly at the moment, both Russia and China are doing business with Iran—a potentially nuclear-armed nation that the U.S. has been busy trying to confront. Russia and China are both permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. That means a lack of support from them on potential sanctions could leave the U.S. with precious few options in the months ahead about how to proceed on the Iranian question.

-Russell Sticklor

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New Kids on the Block at the U.N. Security Council

October 19, 2009
(EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images)

(EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images)

Come January, there will be some new faces on the U.N. Security Council. In elections that concluded late last week, five new members were chosen to serve two-year terms that begin at the start of the new year: Bosnia-Herzegovina, Brazil, Gabon, Lebanon and Nigeria. (They will be replacing Burkina Faso, Costa Rica, Croatia, Libya and Vietnam.)

It makes intuitive sense for Brazil and Nigeria to serve on the Council. Both are, after all, rising economic powers, and already wield a great deal of influence in Latin America and Africa, respectively. The other three picks have raised eyebrows, however. Bosnia-Herzegovina, Gabon and Lebanon seem to be somewhat surprising choices for the Council because each of those nations has struggled to maintain their own security amid internal turmoil over the years. Now they are expected to authoritatively cast votes on matters of international security?

It will be interesting to see how this new dynamic plays out in the year ahead. Might the newfound visibility of these three smaller countries on the Council bring a fresh round of international attention to their internal political problems?

-Russell Sticklor

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The Next Arms Race?

October 15, 2009
(VYACHESLAV OSELEDKO/AFP/Getty Images)

(VYACHESLAV OSELEDKO/AFP/Getty Images)

An arms race may be fermenting in Central Asia. The region’s ethnic diversity coupled with its fierce nationalism is providing fertile ground for competitive militarization. Weapon purchases are on the rise and standing armies are being bolstered.

Take for example Kyrgyzstan. Last December the Kyrgyz government passed a singularly aggressive draft bill. According to First Lieutenant Ivan Mikhailov the measure is expected to bolster the current 12,500 troops with an additional 6,000 in the mobile reserve and 20,000 in the alternative service this year alone. The active call up began October 1st and is obligatory for all Kyrgyz men 18 and over.

The current forced conscription is clearly intended to increase Kyrgyzstan’s clout in Central Asia, a region where there is an unspoken—but unequivocal—struggle for dominance. While Uzbekistan controls much of the area, it lacks the electricity and water supply of its neighbors, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Conflict may be imminent as it is said that whoever controls the water controls Central Asia.

Admittedly, Central Asia’s participation in the CSTO and Shanghai Cooperation Organization do bespeak improved relations. But the area is still rift with separatism. Indeed, Kyrgyzstan has yet to ratify border delimitations with Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan—negotiations, which have been on the table for nearly a decade.

The region’s border tensions are also being strained by Russia’s lingering attempts at hegemony in the poverty-ridden yet resource-rich area. Moscow is Central Asia’s main supplier of weapons—and not impartially. In 2008, Kyrgyzstan received Russian military assistance totaling 2.4 million dollars. Russia has also stationed both troops and a military base within the Kyrgyz Republic. Kyrgyzstan’s neighbors are weary of its being empowered by the former Soviet nexus.

-Samantha Brletich