Archive for December, 2009


The Dominion of Cute

December 10, 2009

By Sahil Mahtani & Kenneth Weisbrode

The images of Manmohan Singh’s visit to Washington last month connoted numerous things, but many people, it seems, were struck by the man’s inherent cuteness.

It is not necessarily demeaning to say so. The more we think about it, the more that cuteness appears to be a shrewd, perhaps even deliberate, aspect of image making. Why is it that certain countries at certain times choose such cute leaders? Singh is not the only one. Both President Pratibha Patil and finance minister Pranab Mukherjee are extremely cute.

Cuteness generally connotes passivity, harmlessness, likeability. But in these cases, it would seem to mean something different, namely that India’s leaders are keen to give the impression of presiding over a reliable, status quo power. The same might be said of Deng Xiaoping, a revolutionary leader in his heyday.

The United States doesn’t have many cute leaders. It’s part of the American revolutionary tradition to look bold and visionary—like Charlton Heston, not Mickey Rooney. George W. Bush was an exception. Caricatures tended to make him look cute but nearly always in a perverse, childish, demonic way, almost like Kim Jong Il. Cuteness is too often seen in the American context as suffering from a deficit of gravitas. Just ask Tim Geithner and Ben Bernanke.

Which is why Singh, Deng and even Andrei Gromyko, in his famous photograph where Ronald Reagan pushes him off the stage, are so interesting. They manage to combine cuteness with a gentle power. By contrast, we have the examples of de Gaulle, Castro, Khrushchev, Nasser. The usual “great leader” is the opposite of cute. He (or she, as in the cases of Margaret Thatcher, Indira Gandhi and, to a slightly lesser extent, Golda Meir) look determined, tough. They stand in contrast to their insecure, even weak or indifferent, nations.

For India, the contrast is especially striking. Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the rotund prime minister who detonated the 1998 nuclear weapons, was a lisping poet, while Indira Gandhi, who grandly saw the rupee’s devaluation and an involuntary sterilization program, was perhaps post-war India’s meanest representative on the world stage. The picture of her standing upright by Richard Nixon—each thinking horrible thoughts about the other—is a reminder of the kind of posturing she could lead India into. Manmohan Singh, by temperament, is all politeness.

Just as the pre-invasion aura of Saddam Hussain’s Iraq was more overbearing than the reality, the cuteness of a nation’s image may conceal more durable strengths. No country demonstrates this more palpably than “pacifist” Japan. Even its weapons systems and “defense” doctrines are illustrated by adorable little cartoon characters. We are given to wonder whether the discomfort caused by Barack Obama’s recent bow there came as much from the “respectful” angle to which he bent as from the almost childlike cuteness of the emperor and his smiling empress. It would have been even more offensive, but more understandable, if he had patted them on their heads.

Cuteness as an intentional part of image-making can be confirmed from mascots for international tournaments. The five fu-wa that heralded the Beijing Olympics were petite and furry, and India’s mascot for the 2010 Commonwealth games is a cuddly tiger-maharajah called sera. The obvious counterpoint is Misha, the Soviet Union’s bloated bear mascot for the 1980 Moscow Olympics. A mascot is part of a nation’s soft-power, and inevitably, an entire subdivision of marketing now flourishes under the name, “nation branding,” complete with annual rankings.

Given these associations, perhaps we may understand the reason the European Union recently chose such innocuous leaders. Neither Herman Van Rompuy nor Catherine Ashton is particularly cute. Or at least, not as cute as Nicolas Sarkozy and—on her better days—Angela Merkel. But this is today’s post-heroic aesthetic of leadership: innocuous, well meaning if not entirely reassuring. How well it succeeds is an open question.

Sahil Mahtani is a reporter with Dow Jones based in Mumbai. Kenneth Weisbrode is a historian based in Italy and author of “The Atlantic Century” (Da Capo)


Iran’s Secret Weapon—Not What You Think

December 10, 2009


In recent years, the global community has rightly expressed concern about Iran’s apparent efforts to acquire a nuclear bomb. If Tehran eventually becomes a member of the world’s elite nuclear club, it would change the geopolitical scene across the broader Middle East, especially given ongoing tensions between Iran and nuclear-armed Israel. That’s one of the reasons both Israeli and U.S. military planners have not eliminated the idea of launching preventive strikes against Iranian uranium-enrichment facilities.

But according to a report released by the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence, such an operation could be enormously costly. And not for the usual reasons, such as diplomatic fallout, operational expenses, or the potential for civilian casualties. Instead, it has to do with a heavily-trafficked body of water off Iran’s southern coast, the Strait of Hormuz.

The strait—one of the most strategically important waterways in the world—is only about 30 miles wide at its narrowest point. And it’s through here, between the shores of Iran and Oman, that about 40 percent of the globe’s oil passes, en route from the Persian Gulf to the world at large. ONI officials are now warning that thanks to upgraded naval power and improved weaponry, Iran could essentially shut the Strait of Hormuz down in the event of an Israeli- or American-led war.

With the world still experiencing severe economic troubles, the sudden and massive drop-off in oil supplies caused by the strait’s closure would be devastating. Tehran has long known this, but now has the capability to make good on its threat. So while Iran will likely keep the world guessing about the nature of its nuclear program, one thing seems certain—the potential risks of waging preventive war just got a lot higher.

-Russell Sticklor


Global (Affairs) Warming

December 9, 2009

(AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus)

The elusive common ground in climate talks is in jeopardy at the UN climate conference in Copenhagen after developing countries responded angrily to leaked documents that show world leaders will be asked to sign an agreement that further empowers rich countries and undermines the UN’s role in future climate change negotiations.

The leaked documents—according to the Guardian—allegedly drafted by the Danish government, outlined the plans to force developing countries to agree to specific emission cuts that were not part of the original UN agreement. The documents categorize certain developing countries as “the most vulnerable”.

The documents are being interpreted as setting unequal limits on per capita carbon emissions for developed and developing countries in 2050; meaning that people in rich countries would be permitted to emit nearly twice as much under the proposals.

Negotiations for climate change have unexpectedly been shifted to an imbalance in sovereignty exasperating the disparity between wealthy and developing nations. The text was intended by Denmark and other wealthy nations to be a working framework, which would be adapted by countries over the next week. It is especially inflammatory because it sidelines the role of the UN in the negotiating process and implies that rich countries are desperate for world leaders to have a text to work from when they arrive next week.

Despite difficulties, optimism is at an all-time high with the expectation that President Obama, who plans to attend closing days of the conference next week, will formally commit the United States to making cuts in greenhouse gases. President Obama is expected to tell delegates in Copenhagen that the United States is working vigorously to confront the problem.

These include far-reaching cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, particularly from big polluters like the United States and China, and a commitment from wealthy nations to contribute hundreds of billions of dollars in financing to poor countries, which are incapable of dealing with a problem they did little to create.

When all is said and done, coercing rich countries to lay money on the table for poor countries may prove to be the most significant obstacle to reaching a consensus.

While there are discrepancies about the adopted measures there is one issue that continues to haunt global affairs: parity.

-Mark Ericson


Isolationism Returns to U.S. Shores

December 8, 2009

(AP Photo/Kevin Frayer)

On the heels of President Obama’s announcement last week that 30,000 more troops will be heading to Afghanistan over the next six months, isolationist sentiment among the American public has soared to the highest levels seen since the late 1960s.

According to a poll released by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press (, 49% of Americans think the U.S. should “mind its own business” overseas. By comparison, fewer than one in three Americans had the same feelings in late 2002, just months before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. (In terms of the Obama administration’s decision to increase the American troop presence in Afghanistan, about one-third of respondents said they were in favor, while 40% said the number of soldiers currently deployed should be drawn down.)

It’s no surprise that both Americans stationed abroad and living in the States are war-weary after 8 years of continuous conflict—especially considering how open-ended the campaign in Afghanistan looms at the moment. But there is a growing perception among Americans that the down economy, coupled with the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, has already done much to erode U.S. power on the world stage. More than 40% of respondents to the Pew survey said the U.S. now plays a less critical role as a leader of the global community than it did 10 years ago.

Still, the biggest question may be what the pulse of American public opinion will be six months to a year from now—once the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of Obama administration’s troop increase in Afghanistan starts to become apparent.

-Russell Sticklor


Remembering Bhopal: 25 Years Later

December 3, 2009

(AP Photo/Altaf Qadri)

On December 3, 1984, the city of Bhopal, India, became the site of the world’s worst industrial accident. Shortly after midnight, 45 tons of toxic methyl isocyanate gas started to leak from a pesticide factory operated by a local subsidiary of Union Carbide, a U.S. company. The fumes quickly suffocated the city. Over the next few hours, some 3,000 local residents died, while tens of thousands more were injured—either by the gas or in the rush to escape the city.

In the ensuing years, an estimated 15,000 more Bhopal residents died from health conditions linked to the disaster, while another 500,000 were left with chronic medical problems, ranging from breathlessness and immune system disorders to blindness. Making matters worse, birth defect rates in children born to Bhopal survivors have been abnormally high, making this tragedy one that has spanned generations.

So what ever came of the company responsible? In 1989, five years after the disaster, Union Carbide agreed to a settlement of nearly $500 million. But it refused to assume any additional liability, a move that outraged India and much of the world. Then Union Carbide officials—showing the type of class one might expect from a major petrochemical company—announced they had no intention of cleaning up the site. Today, the hulking shell of the plant remains, rusted over and abandoned, and the city continues to suffer from environmental contamination.

The legacy of the Bhopal disaster is a tricky one. On one hand, there have been no industrial accidents on such a scale in the quarter-century since, suggesting that perhaps safety standards worldwide have improved. On the other hand, it is a known fact that Western-owned corporations continue to open factories across the developing world precisely because they know they don’t have to abide by the tight safety regulations they would have to adhere to in developed nations.

If it is only a matter of time before the next Bhopal, one can only hope that the company responsible be held more accountable than Union Carbide ever was. In the meantime, the memory of Bhopal remains ingrained in the world’s collective consciousness, its name mentioned in the same breath as places like Three Mile Island, Seveso and Chernobyl. Here’s to hoping more names don’t get added to that list.

-Russell Sticklor