Ordinary Cubans Deserve Better than a Failed Embargo

Pierre Atlas - December 19, 2014

We had been sitting in the dingy station for several hours, waiting to catch the bus that would take us on a nine-hour journey from our town in central Cuba to Havana. It was the spring of 2006, and Fidel Castro was still fully in charge of the island. Over the past few days we had grown used to seeing billboards and posters displaying anti-American propaganda around town and in the countryside. As much out of boredom as curiosity, a member of our American entourage snapped a picture of one of the propaganda posters in the bus station. Then all hell broke loose.

People whom I had assumed were fellow passengers waiting for the Havana bus suddenly charged at us and demanded to see our papers. They took us into a room, seized our passports and return tickets to Miami (which we were required to have in our passports at all times), and then disappeared. Although our time alone in that room lasted for maybe only 20 or 30 minutes, it felt like hours. What would happen to us? Were we about to be arrested for the "crime" of photographing a poster?

Then one of the security agents came back, handed us our papers, and told us to get on the bus. The incident was over. No apology. No explanation. We didn't say a word to each other until we were on the bus and driving down the road. Then, shaken and breathing collective sighs of relief, we discussed what had just happened. They were toying with us, showing us Americans who was in charge. I'm sure those security agents had a good laugh after we had left.

I've traveled to many countries, including some that are non-democracies. But that day in Cuba, for the first (and I hope only) time, I experienced the arbitrary power of a police state. Of course it was only for a few minutes. Alan Gross, just released after spending five years in a Cuban prison for the "crime" of trying to help the centuries-old Cuban Jewish community, experienced the real police state.

Go West, Young Han

Pepe Escobar - December 19, 2014

November 18, 2014: it's a day that should live forever in history. On that day, in the city of Yiwu in China's Zhejiang province, 300 kilometers south of Shanghai, the first train carrying 82 containers of export goods weighing more than 1,000 tons left a massive warehouse complex heading for Madrid. It arrived on December 9th.

Welcome to the new trans-Eurasia choo-choo train. At over 13,000 kilometers, it will regularly traverse the longest freight train route in the world, 40% farther than the legendary Trans-Siberian Railway. Its cargo will cross China from East to West, then Kazakhstan, Russia, Belarus, Poland, Germany, France, and finally Spain.

You may not have the faintest idea where Yiwu is, but businessmen plying their trades across Eurasia, especially from the Arab world, are already hooked on the city "where amazing happens!" We're talking about the largest wholesale center for small-sized consumer goods -- from clothes to toys -- possibly anywhere on Earth.

The Yiwu-Madrid route across Eurasia represents the beginning of a set of game-changing developments. It will be an efficient logistics channel of incredible length. It will represent geopolitics with a human touch, knitting together small traders and huge markets across a vast landmass. It's already a graphic example of Eurasian integration on the go. And most of all, it's the first building block on China's "New Silk Road," conceivably the project of the new century and undoubtedly the greatest trade story in the world for the next decade.

Putin and the Parable of the Angry Bear

Daniel McGroarty - December 19, 2014

In the United States, the currency of presidential press conferences is about as devalued as the Russian ruble. The sheer volume of presidential pronouncements has taught us not to hang too much meaning on any one of them.  

Not so in Russia, where President Vladimir Putin gave a set-piece press conference this week. Billed as his annual, end-of-the-year Moscow presser, Putin was asked by one reporter whether the troubles with the Russian economy were in any way "payback for the unification with Crimea." In Putin's Russia, the question was about as spontaneous as the dutifully noted punctuations of "spontaneous, sustained applause" in Stalin's published speeches. 

Putin had a ready answer.  It came in the form of a parable.

As translated in Russia Today: 

The Virtue of Amoral Foreign Policy

Robert Kaplan - December 18, 2014

When we think seriously about foreign policy we think amorally. For foreign policy involves the battle of geographical space and power, played out over the millennia by states and empires in a world where there is no referee or night watchman in charge. The state is governed by law, but the world is anarchic - a realization made famous by the late academic theorist Kenneth N. Waltz of Columbia University.

In such a world, needs rather than wishes rule, and even a liberal power such as the United States is not exempt from the struggle for survival. Such a struggle means looking unsentimentally at the human condition, which, in turn, requires a good deal of unpleasantness. Boiled down to its essentials, here is the situation of the United States:

The United States dominates the Western Hemisphere and therefore has power to spare to affect the balance of power in the Eastern Hemisphere. It uses this power to secure the sea lines of communication and free access to hydrocarbons. In a word, the United States engages in the amoral struggle for power to defend a liberal international order. The end result is in a large sense moral, but the means, if not immoral, are often amoral - that is, they belong in a category separate from the one involving lofty principles.

For example, there is the Middle East, where the United States for decades during the Cold War and after supported dictatorial regimes. This was not necessarily moral, even though the passing of these regimes has in most cases led not to an improved quality of life for the inhabitants but to a worse one. Yet support for such regimes did indeed provide for regional stability, access to energy for the West and reliable sea lines of communication to and from the Middle East for both America and its allies. And this is not to mention the various peace treaties and disengagement accords that could only have been reached with strong Arab dictators.

China Is all Talk on Innovation

Li Wenbo - December 18, 2014

Originally published in The Economic Observer

BEIJING - "Innovation" has become a favorite word for Chinese headline writers. From individuals to private firms and even public institutions, everybody and everything aims to be an innovator.

Though the OECD Economic Outlook 2014 predicted that China will probably become the country in the world which invests most in Research and Development (R&D) within five years time, the "Innovative Country" that former President Hu Jintao set as a goal for China in 2006 still seems to be far away.

Sure, it's true that the Chinese lunar orbiter Chang'e successfully soft-landed on the moon and the manned submersible Jiaolong achieved considerable advances in deep-sea research. But both had seemingly limitless effort and money pouring in from the government. The significance of these accomplishments is more political than economic.

French Republicanism on the Wane

Robert Zaretsky - December 17, 2014

Last week in a southern suburb of Paris, three young thugs made international headlines with the sort of crime usually relegated to local police blotters. The threesome broke into a young couple's apartment, and after tying them up, ransacked the rooms and raped the woman. These acts, so vile in themselves, were nevertheless given a dismal twist by the hoodlums. They had not, they announced, chosen this apartment at random - they targeted the home because the couple was Jewish. As one of them explained: "You Jews, you have money."

Two of the alleged perpetrators were quickly caught. To its credit, the government was equally swift to condemn the crime. President Francois Hollande denounced this act of "intolerable violence," while Prime Minister Manuel Valls declared that the "horror of Creteil is proof that the struggle against anti-Semitism is an everyday struggle." At a weekend rally in Creteil organized by the local Jewish community, Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve joined the government chorus: "The French Republic will defend you with all its force, because without you, it would no longer be the Republic."

The crime revived memories of the appalling murder of Ilan Halimi, a French Jewish youth who was tortured and killed in 2006 by a group calling themselves "The Barbarians." The band, led by a Muslim immigrant from the Ivory Coast, had kidnapped Halimi because he was Jewish, believing that his family could pay a vast ransom. For this reason, Cazeneuve's declaration left his audience somewhat disappointed. From the historian's perspective, the statement also suggests the French Republic is already no longer what it once was. Not because such crimes are committed, nor because louts harbor such beliefs, nor even because this year has marked a sharp rise in anti-Semitic acts in France.

Instead, it is because the Republic's reasoning, captured in Cazeneuve's words, betrays the very same logic that led that those brutal youths to the apartment in Creteil.

Mediterranean Gas Won't Fix Europe's Energy Woes

Michael Leigh - December 17, 2014

WASHINGTON - The energy ministers of Israel, Cyprus, and Greece are talking up possible natural gas exports from their countries as a way of diversifying Europe's energy supplies away from Russia. They have lobbied the European Commission to conduct a feasibility study for an undersea gas pipeline to bring Israeli and Cypriot gas to Europe via Greece. Silvan Shalom, energy minister in Israel's outgoing government, said that such a pipeline would ensure that European consumers obtain the cheapest possible gas.

Such advocacy catches the mood of anxiety in Europe about possible blackouts caused by continuing hostilities between Ukraine and Russia. However, studies for the German Marshall Fund show that the technical and commercial viability of a sub-sea Mediterranean pipeline is doubtful. The water between the offshore fields and Greece is very deep, some 2,000 meters in places, and the distance involved is 1,200 kilometers, a major challenge.

Eastern Mediterranean gas would not be cheap for European consumers, given the high costs of exploration, extraction, and transport. In any event, future gas prices in different markets are uncertain, new sources of supply are coming on stream constantly, and demand for additional gas in Europe will remain subdued in the absence of significant economic growth.

The quantity of gas so far discovered offshore Israel and Cyprus limits their capacity to become major exporters. Proven reserves are sufficient to be a game-changer for their own economies but not to attract the kind of investment needed to transport gas to Europe by pipeline or by ship as liquefied natural gas (LNG). Moreover there has still been no final investment decision to develop Leviathan, the largest Israeli offshore field. Discoveries offshore Cyprus are modest and contested by Turkey, which has sent a warship to the zone.

Russia Seen from Within

George Friedman - December 17, 2014

Last week I flew into Moscow, arriving at 4:30 p.m. on Dec. 8. It gets dark in Moscow around that time, and the sun doesn't rise until about 10 a.m. at this time of the year - the so-called Black Days versus White Nights. For anyone used to life closer to the equator, this is unsettling. It is the first sign that you are not only in a foreign country, which I am used to, but also in a foreign environment. Yet as we drove toward downtown Moscow, well over an hour away, the traffic, the road work, were all commonplace. Moscow has three airports, and we flew into the farthest one from downtown, Domodedovo - the primary international airport. There is endless renovation going on in Moscow, and while it holds up traffic, it indicates that prosperity continues, at least in the capital.

Our host met us and we quickly went to work getting a sense of each other and talking about the events of the day. He had spent a great deal of time in the United States and was far more familiar with the nuances of American life than I was with Russian. In that he was the perfect host, translating his country to me, always with the spin of a Russian patriot, which he surely was. We talked as we drove into Moscow, managing to dive deep into the subject.

From him, and from conversations with Russian experts on most of the regions of the world - students at the Institute of International Relations - and with a handful of what I took to be ordinary citizens (not employed by government agencies engaged in managing Russia's foreign and economic affairs), I gained a sense of Russia's concerns. The concerns are what you might expect. The emphasis and order of those concerns were not.

Russians' Economic Expectations

Europe, the CIA, and Torture

Judy Dempsey - December 16, 2014

U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein has done Democrats around the world a great service, despite being vilified by her opponents. The feisty eighty-one-year-old confronted members of her party and opposition Republicans on December 9 when she took to the floor of the Senate.

Feinstein, who is the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, spoke to lawmakers after publishing a devastating report on the CIA's torture methods used on terror suspects. The suspects were locked away, without any recourse to the courts, in Guantánamo Bay after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.

Now that the 525-page report is out in public (there is still a 6,700-page classified document), European governments have no excuse to keep up their years of denial over their role in this ignominious episode.

If the European countries involved in so-called extraordinary renditions refuse to break their wall of silence, the credibility of the European Union as the upholder of human rights will be completely undermined.

The Abolition of Nuclear Abolition

James Carroll - December 16, 2014

Mark these days. A long-dreaded transformation from hope to doom is taking place as the United States of America ushers the world onto the no-turning-back road of nuclear perdition. Once, we could believe there was another way to go. Indeed, we were invited to take that path by the man who is, even today, overseeing the blocking of it, probably forever.

It was one of the most stirring speeches an American president had ever given. The place was Prague; the year was 2009; the president was the recently sworn in Barack Obama. The promise made that day is worth recalling at length, especially since, by now, it is largely forgotten:

"As the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the United States has a moral responsibility to act... So today, I state clearly and with conviction America's commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons. I'm not naive. This goal will not be reached quickly -- perhaps not in my lifetime. It will take patience and persistence. But now, we, too, must ignore the voices who tell us that the world cannot change. We have to insist, ‘Yes, we can...'"

President Obama had been in office only three months when, boldly claiming his place on the world stage, he unequivocally committed himself and his country to a nuclear abolition movement that, until then, had at best existed somewhere on the distant fringes of power politics. "I know," he added, "that there are some who will question whether we can act on such a broad agenda. There are those who doubt whether true international cooperation is possible... and there are those who hear talk of a world without nuclear weapons and doubt whether it's worth setting a goal that seems impossible to achieve. But make no mistake. We know where that road leads."

5 People Escape Sydney Hostage Crisis

Kristen Gelineau - December 15, 2014

SYDNEY (AP) -- Five people escaped from a Sydney cafe where a gunman took an unknown number of hostages during Monday morning rush hour. Two people inside the cafe earlier held up a flag with an Islamic declaration of faith that has often been used by extremists, raising fears that a terrorist incident was playing out in the heart of Australia's biggest city.

The first three people ran out of the Lindt Chocolat Cafe in downtown Sydney six hours into the hostage crisis, and two women sprinted from a fire exit into the arms of waiting police shortly afterward. Both women were wearing aprons with the Lindt chocolate logo, indicating they were cafe employees.

As the siege entered its 12th hour Monday night, basic questions remained unanswered. Police refused to say how many hostages were inside the cafe, what they believed the gunman's motives might be, whether he had made any demands or whether the hostages who fled the cafe escaped or were released.

"I would like to give you as much as I can but right now that is as much as I can," New South Wales state police Commissioner Andrew Scipione said. "First and foremost, we have to make sure we do nothing that could in any way jeopardize those still in the building."

Castlereagh: A Geopolitical Hero

Robert Kaplan - December 11, 2014

For centuries statesmen who have had to make difficult choices have been attacked by well-meaning intellectuals who never wielded real-world bureaucratic power and who therefore treat morality as an inflexible absolute. Such intellectuals often confuse eloquence with substance, not comprehending that the true measure of a diplomat is not style but common sense, as well as the efficiency by which he or she pursues the country's national interest. For liberal democracies operate in a world where there is no ultimate arbiter, and thus their geopolitical advantage - in addition to their survival - constitutes the highest morality.

Perhaps no statesman in early modern and modern history has been so necessary for the prosperity and survival of a liberal democracy and yet so despised and humiliated by the literary elite of the day as Robert Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh, who was the pivotal figure for Britain's victory in the Napoleonic Wars and the advantageous peace settlement that followed. Castlereagh was to early 19th century Britain what Winston Churchill was to mid-20th century Britain. But unlike Churchill, who was generally lionized, Castlereagh was regularly savaged in poems and essays by contemporary literary greats such as Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley and William Hazlitt. It was such unrelenting psychological punishment that was likely a contributor to his suicide in 1822 at age 53.

At last, in 2012, there was a vast, meticulous and comprehensive biography published that turns the tables on Castlereagh's critics and rescues his name from calumny. Castlereagh: A Life, by John Bew of Cambridge and King's College London, is a fat, heavy book that should sit on the table of every diplomat who has ever had to make difficult choices and has suffered media abuse for it. For diplomats are the true heroes of geopolitics, not strategists or generals. Strategists and generals are supposed to think amorally and are, therefore, less abused for doing so. But diplomats operate in a climate of compromise, politesse and idealism, whereas Castlereagh's brand of realism has always been less well regarded. Bew sets the tone by stating that while "maligned" as a "tyrant" and "reactionary," there was probably no man in England who better understood European politics than Castlereagh - as well as Britain's own interest in restoring the continental balance of power.

Castlereagh's formative and determining political experience was his visit to France during the French Revolution at the impressionable age of 22. As Bew explains it, despite the idealistic and utopian claims of the Jacobins and to an extent the more moderate Girondists, the young man saw how "[r]egional dynamics, religion, class and self-interest would play a much more important part than philosophical speculation." Castlereagh rightly foresaw that once the novelty of liberty wore off, the real test of the revolution would only begin. For a 22-year-old of privileged background to be able to think so critically, abstractly and unsentimentally about a shockingly violent political spectacle is relatively rare, and is indicative of Castlereagh's early emotional maturity. Such maturity, combined with the vivid, firsthand experience of anarchy, would mark Castlereagh from the beginning as both seasoned and cold blooded, the attributes of the greatest of diplomats. Castlereagh would forever be in search of grossly imperfect solutions and half-measures that, nevertheless, admitted no horrors. For horrors were not abstractions to him, due to his youthful sojourn in France.

Time to End the EU-NATO Standoff

Judy Dempsey - December 11, 2014

The standoff between NATO and the European Union is one of the most debilitating and shortsighted disputes between the two organizations, whose headquarters are but a twenty-minute bus ride from each other in Brussels.

The uneasy situation has been going on ever since Cyprus joined the EU on May 1, 2004. It is absurd, dangerous, and costly for both the EU and NATO.

The two organizations cannot openly discuss security and intelligence issues. Nor can they cooperate by pooling their hard- and soft-power attributes, as the standoff means that the EU and NATO cannot exploit the Berlin Plus arrangements for sharing assets. That hinders both organizations' thinking about any long-term strategic cooperation. It is time for the standoff to end.

The EU and NATO agreed to Berlin Plus in 2003. The deal envisaged the alliance providing the EU with command-and-control resources for EU-led military operations - provided that the union needed the NATO assets and that NATO did not want to lead the mission.

How War Can Come to Europe

Stephen Szabo - December 11, 2014

WASHINGTON - Russia's annexation of Crimea and support for the continuing insurgency in Eastern Ukraine mean that peace in Europe can no longer be taken for granted. For several reasons, the West's current confrontation with Russia is arguably more serious and dangerous than the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.

First, Russia is led by a more unpredictable and adventurous leader. During the Cold War, the Communist Party could control its leader, and Nikita Khrushchev was removed soon after the Cuban crisis. Today, there are no such institutional controls over Vladimir Putin, with the result that the misjudgments and idiosyncrasies of one individual can have an outsized impact on policy.

Second, there are now a large number of grey zones in Europe, increasing the opportunities for miscalculation. During the Cold War, both sides were clear about alignments and red lines. Only Yugoslavia and Romania were potential grey areas, while the main neutral states, Finland and Sweden, were considered to be inviolable. Today the grey zones have proliferated. Where, for example, do Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia fit in any future security framework?

Third, the United States appears uncertain and disinterested in Europe and is led by a president whom Putin considers vacillating and weak. The Cuban Missile Crisis was the result of Khrushchev's estimation of John Kennedy as a weak leader based on their meeting in Vienna in June 1961. The cautious Leonid Brezhnev similarly authorized the invasion of Afghanistan during the post-Vietnam period. For its part, Western Europe shows no signs of increasing its middling defense spending, while Washington focuses on the Islamic State and other threats in the Middle East and Asia.

Celebrating the Peacemakers

Adam Hochschild - December 11, 2014

Go to war and every politician will thank you, and they'll continue to do so -- with monuments and statues, war museums and military cemeteries -- long after you're dead. But who thanks those who refused to fight, even in wars that most people later realized were tragic mistakes? Consider the 2003 invasion of Iraq, now widely recognized as igniting an ongoing disaster. America's politicians still praise Iraq War veterans to the skies, but what senator has a kind word to say about the hundreds of thousands of protesters who marched and demonstrated before the invasion was even launched to try to stop our soldiers from risking their lives in the first place?

What brings all this to mind is an apparently heartening exception to the rule of celebrating war-makers and ignoring peacemakers. A European rather than an American example, it turns out to be not quite as simple as it first appears. Let me explain.

December 25th will be the 100th anniversary of the famous Christmas Truce of the First World War. You probably know the story: after five months of unparalleled industrial-scale slaughter, fighting on the Western Front came to a spontaneous halt. British and German soldiers stopped shooting at each other and emerged into the no-man's-land between their muddy trenches in France and Belgium to exchange food and gifts.

That story -- burnished in recent years by books, songs, music videos, a feature film, and an opera -- is largely true. On Christmas Day, troops did indeed trade cigarettes, helmets, canned food, coat buttons, and souvenirs. They sang carols, barbecued a pig, posed for photographs together, and exchanged German beer for British rum. In several spots, men from the rival armies played soccer together. The ground was pocked with shell craters and proper balls were scarce, so the teams made use of tin cans or sandbags stuffed with straw instead. Officers up to the rank of colonel emerged from the trenches to greet their counterparts on the other side, and they, too, were photographed together. (Refusing to join the party, however, was 25-year-old Adolf Hitler, at the front with his German army unit. He thought the truce shocking and dishonorable.)