Saturday, December 15, 2007

International: Pyrric success in Bali

You have to hand it to the Bush administration: the US is getting world-wide acclaim for the "success" of the Bali global climate change talks, and it cost them nothing.

In one deft move, the US snapped up the label of the magnanimous "compromiser" at Bali. Initially opposed to the proposed agreement, the US delegation did a U-turn and gave its support to the proposed agreement.

But what is this agreement, exactly? It's not a Kyoto-style set of emissions targets, of course. There's no way Bush's core constituency could accept that. It's not even a promise to negotiate binding targets. Its an agreement to talk about undefined targets, and maybe make even make those targets binding. Moreover, the deadline for those talks isn't until the end of 2009 -- well after Bush leaves office.

Instead, it was the greens (mostly the EU) that did all the compromising. There is no agreement to make the emissions targets for industrialized countries binding, and there's no agreement for the developing countries like China and India to do much of anything.

Still, perhaps the Bali conference was not a total failure. It contributes to the long, slow struggle to get the world's attention and build the political will to take real actions to reduce climate change. For now, the best the international community can do is talk about voluntary targets, but that doesn't mean we have to settle for this at home. We can, and should, urge our national and local governments to accept binding targets, even in the absence of a real international agreement.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Canada: Hypocrisy in Bali

Canada's "principled stand" at this week's global climate change talks in Bali is, not to put too find a point on it, a farcical display of hypocrisy.

PM Stephen Harper argues that until all major emitters -- including developing countries like China and India -- have signed up to emissions reductions targets, Canada refuses to accept any limits on its own activity.

But Yvo de Boer, the normally diplomatic UN climate chief, exposed the absurdity of this position this week. “I personally find it interesting to hear Canada just a little while ago indicating it would not meet its commitments under the Kyoto protocol and now calling on developing countries to take binding reduction targets,” he told a press conference Monday.
“So I wonder how that's going to be received,” he added.

One wonders if Harper ever thought about how galling it would sound to developing countries that, after admitting that Canada won't meet the Kyoto targets, we are insisting that they take action. Either he didn't think about, which makes him mildly incompetent, or he did, which suggests his argument is really much more about avoiding binding commitments than it is about any "principled stand." Indeed, Harper's principles look an awful lot like a cynical masquerade.

Not exactly what Canadians expect of their Prime Minister in terms of leadership on the global stage.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

International: When Syria comes to dinner

Syria announced this week that, contrary to expectations, it would attend the meeting on Arab-Israeli conflict hosted by the US in Annapolis at the end of November. This could be a chance for a step forward in the peace process, if it were seized correctly.

It is not clear that Syria has ever actually been interested in peace with Israel. Having a foreign enemy serves a useful purpose for the Ba'athist regime: it gives them a scapegoat on which to blame any and all troubles faced by the Syrian people.

But one crucial thing has changed in Syria: its oil is running out. In 2007, for the first time in recent history, Syria became a net oil importer. This has significant consequences: income from oil exports have long been a crucial source of revenue for the Syrian government, and rather suddenly they have lost it -- just as oil prices are skyrocketing.

So why is this an opportunity? The loss of oil revenues means that the Syrian government is desparately looking for a way to balance its books. The first time the US was able to create peace between Israel and one of its neighbors, Egypt, it did so by offering massive side payments to an Arab state in need of revenues. Now Syria falls in the same camp: maybe, just maybe, it could be tempted to offer a lasting peace in exchange for a new source of funding for its cash-strapped government.

This is not to argue that the Syrian regime is either pleasant or trustworthy. Granted, there is a certain stench associated with American payments to a Ba'athist dictatorship. Maybe the best thing to do is to hope that the Ba'athist regime runs into so much trouble that it gets overthrown by its own people, and replaced by a regime more interested in peace. But opportunities to create peace in the Middle East do not come everyday, and the US should think twice before throwing it away.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

US: Democrats at the Temple of Cowardice

It's hard to grasp how the US Senate, especially the Democrats, can be so weak, so cowardly, and so stupid.

Recently they approved Michael Mukasey as the new Attorney General, despite his unwillingness to answer a simple question about the legality of torture. Asked whether "waterboarding" is illegal, he refused to answer.As the International Herald Tribune put it so well: "It was not a difficult question. Waterboarding is specifically banned by the Army Field Manual, and it is plainly illegal under the federal Anti-Torture Act, federal assault statutes, the Detainee Treatment Act, the Convention Against Torture and the Geneva Conventions. It is hard to see how any nominee worthy of the position of attorney general could fail to answer 'yes.'" (IHT, Nov 11, 2007)

There really is a right and wrong answer on this one. America prides itself on its claims to freedom and liberty. It is also plainly failing to live up to its values on this issue.

My recent visit to three Arab countries reminded me that charges of hypocrisy are central to the low regard of America in the Arab world. No one admires it when Saudi Arabia locks up political dissidents, but the Saudi regime makes no pretensions to civil rights or democracy. When the US adopts similar practices, it is not just its actions but also its hypocrisy that tears into the American image.

It would be bad enough if this was just a matter of bad policy; it also seems like bad politics. The Financial Times reports that Dianne Feinstein, a Democratic senator whose support for Mr Mukasey was crucial, made clear that she had voted for him in part because "Mr Bush had threatened that if Mr Mukasey were rejected, he would not provide another nominee." (FT, Nov. 6) The fact that the Senate Democrats can be bullied around by Bush so easily -- still, after 7 years -- is appalling.

Democrats hope that if and when they seize the White House in 2008, all will be well in the world. Think again. Unless they learn to wield power responsibly, America's reputation will continue to suffer.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

US: Monday morning quaterbacks

Better late than never, the saying goes. But as Alan Greenspan is proving this week, when it comes to the words of influential commentators, the difference between late and never seems awful small.

In Greenspan's new biography he finally airs some criticism of the Bush Administration. The New York Times reports it this way: "Though Mr. Greenspan does not admit he made a mistake, he shows remorse about how Republicans jumped on his endorsement of the 2001 tax cuts to push through unconditional cuts without any safeguards against surprises. He recounts how Mr. Rubin and Senator Kent Conrad, Democrat of North Dakota, begged him to hold off on an endorsement because of how it would be perceived. 'It turned out that Conrad and Rubin were right,' he acknowledges glumly. He says Republican leaders in Congress made a grievous error in spending whatever it took to ensure a permanent Republican majority." (, 9/15/09)

I'm glad to see Greenspan is finally showing regret about that. The trouble is that it is precious too little, too late. Greenspan is a canny political operator, and couldn't possibly have been so naive as to fail to realize how his endorsement of Bush's tax plan was going to be taken. Greenspan had his chance to stand for fiscal discipline, and he blew it.

Greenspan seems to be following in the footsteps of Bob Woodward, another influential writer who could have shaped Washington opinion on the early Bush policies, but lacked the backbone. Pity.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

International: Pakistan, ripe for revolution

It is always dangerous to make political predictions, and never more so than when one considers rare events like revolutions. Nonetheless, there is good reason to believe that revolution is coming to Pakistan, and it may be coming soon.

Pakistan today bears an uncanny resemblence to Iran in the 1970s. In those days, Iran was ruled by an unpopular autocrat, the Shah Pahlavi, who so alienated his people that he was replaced by an Islamic leader, the Ayatollah Khomeini. Today, Pakistan is ruled by an unpopular autocrat, General Musharraf, and is powerfully resisted by local Islamists.

The United States gave significant military and econmoic aid to the Shah of Iran because it wanted Iran's help in facing down its greatest military threat of the time, the Soviet Union. Iranians felt like they were being used as a pawn of the US, and Islamist leaders used this resentment to unite the Iranian opposition. Today, the US gives enormous aid to Pakistan because it wants Musharraf's help in facing down its current military bete noire, Al Qaeda. Predictably, this US support to Musharraf's regime is resented by Pakistanis, and Islamist leaders are using this resentment to give common goals to the opposition.

The Shah's Iran was an infamously corrupt and wasteful regime. Musharraf's regime is so corrupt that it ranks 142 out of 163 on the Transparency International's corruption index, tied with such countries as Angola, Nigeria, and just a fraction ahead of Iraq. This endemic corruption and regime failure created, in Iran, such widespread frustration that eventually the Iranian military withdrew its support for the Shah. For the moment, Musharraf remains in uniform as the head of the military -- and no wonder he is so reluctant to step down from the post.

The parallel between the Shah's Iran and Musharraf's Pakistan is deep but not universal; it should not be taken too far. There are big differences between the two, not least the importance of oil in Iran's economy and its absence in Pakistan's. Moreover, even a perfect analogy would leave room for individual choice and actions; perhaps there is no Pakistani equivalent to the Ayatollah. Still, the parallels are sufficiently striking that we ought to pay attention to at least one key factor in the coming months.

Revolutions are often violent affairs, but they are not decided on the battlefield. They are decided politically, which is why the army is so crucial; if Musharraf loses moral and political legitimacy, the military may withdraw its support, and the regime will fall. When considering the future of Musharraf's regime -- and, by extention, the future of the fight against Al Qaeda -- all eyes should be on Pakistan's military.

Friday, August 17, 2007

International: Al Gore, the failed prophet?

The science of global climate change first came to be discussed seriously in 1987. First it was met with skepticism, then real debate, and now widespread acceptance. Alas, 20 years on, it is breathtaking that we have made almost no tangible progress towards stopping the damage to our planet.

Perhaps I'm being too harsh. After all, a scientific consensus has been forged; the Kyoto treaty was ratified by some and put it into force; a few regional cap-and-trade markets have been launched; and there has been a lot of technical learning. This all adds up, yes. But when it comes to actually reducing our global emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG), or even slowing the rate of growth, our accomplishments are painfully modest.

We're just not getting it done.

With due respect to the engineers and economists, I don't believe the really tricky part about reducing emissions is going to be in the technical details. The hardest challenge is going to be in building the political will to pay the price of reducing emissions. Even with the best technological advances one can realistically hope for, it seems clear that we face real tradeoffs between economic growth and environmental sustainability. We have to make those choices wisely.

Al Gore was the first major US politician to recognize the importance of this issue, and in the last few years he is finally reaping some of the rewards for that far-sightedness. He deserves the credit, and I applaud him for his efforts. But Gore proved in 2000 that while brilliant, he is not the most gifted of communicators. I can't help feeling that there is an eerie similarity between him and another great political mind, Sir Edward Grey.

Sir Edward Grey was the British Foreign Secretary at the start of World War I. He held the position for 11 years, the longest continuous holder of the office ever. As the War approached, he was one of the few men who could see clearly the unfolding tragedy, and one of the most dedicated to peace. Yet that vision, even in a Foreign Secretary, did not translate into the ability to stop the war. Here's what Wikipedia says about him:

"His attempts to mediate the dispute between Austria-Hungary and Serbia by a "Stop in Belgrade" came to nothing due to the tepid German response. He also failed to clearly communicate to Germany that a breach of the treaty not merely to respect but to protect the neutrality of Belgium - of which both Britain and Germany were signatories - would cause Britain to declare war against Germany. When he finally did make such communication German forces were already massed at the Belgian border and the German High Command convinced Kaiser Wilhelm II it was too late to change the plan of attack."

When Grey finally got his message through, it was too late to stop the threat. Sound familiar?

I hope Al Gore is not the modern incarnation Grey. I hope that leaders will listen to his message. I hope that more gifted political entrepreneurs, especially in the US, will take up his mission and create an opening for real change. I hope that leaders in China and India start to see sustainability as a common goal to which they must contribute. I hope the public in the West gives support to politicians who propose meaningful environmental action.

Maybe Gore can get black and white results. But I fear Gore is just too much Grey.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Canada: Dodging corruption in Alberta

Anyone who watched the fiasco of the Gomery Commission unfold in Quebec should know that Canadian politics are not immune to bribery and corruption. In its wake, federal politicans tightened electoral laws -- better late than never. Now it's time to use foresight, not hindsight.

No political system in Canada is as ripe for corruption as Alberta's. Oil companies face enormous financial incentives to bribe politicians in order to shape policy, yet Alberta's political transparency laws are from the Dark Ages. It's time to do something about it.

I am not casting personal accusations. The reason I think Alberta is ripe for corruption is based on economics and a realistic view of human nature. But the economics tell a compelling story.

Alberta is a booming province, and this is basically wonderful. But a boom economy comes with various dangers that have to be managed carefully. One of the hidden dangers is the financial incentive for what political scientists call "capture": when politicians and senior bureaucrats fall into the pockets of private interests. In Alberta, there's every reason to think that it is more cost-effective for oil companies to pay politicians to avoid unfavorable tax treatment than it is to actually pay the taxes.

Consider the money involved. Currently, oil companies pay Alberta a royalty of either 1% of gross revenues or a quarter of net profits for oil sands operations, whichever is more. By global standards, this is a low rate. Moreover, it has stayed low even as oil prices have risen in the last 5 years, and other jurisdictions from Venezuela to Norway are raising their rates. Canadian companies justify the royalty rate based on the risk they took by investing in the oil sands in the 1990s, when oil prices were low.

Yet now there is a huge financial incentive to avoid an increase in the royalty rate in the oil sands. At present, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers says the industry pays Alberta about $1 billion (2005), up from $0.2 billion in 2003. Still, it could go a lot higher. If total output from the oil sands is about 1 million barrels per day and oil prices average about US$60 per barrel, then increasing the royalty rate from 1% to 10% is worth at least $2 billion dollars each year to the Alberta government.

Compare that sum of money to the kind of money raised by Canadian politicans in elections and leadership campaigns. When Stephen Dion won the 2006 Liberal Party leadership, he raised $1.8 million. In other words, the annual cost of a potential increase in the oil sands royalty rate for oil companies is 1000 times bigger than the entire campaign fund for the leadership winner of the biggest party in Canada.

We know this because there are laws regulating federal party leadership contests. Alas, there are no such rules in Alberta. At the federal level, Parliament also passed a law in 2003 that banned parties from accepting campaign contributions from corporations. Some provinces, like Ontario, have a cap on corporate contributions. Again, no such law in Alberta.

Now put yourself in the shoes of an oil company executive. If you knew that an increase in the tax and royalty system in Alberta would cost your company billions of dollars over time, what would you do to avoid such a change? It just makes sense that you would want to befriend the politicans in power. And when they asked you for a contribution to their political campaign, of course you'd be willing to help out.

The trouble is that once you walk down this road, you wouldn't have to be a monster to consider ways to get around any of those pesky rules that limit political contributions. Of course, in Alberta, you wouldn't have to. Why? Because they're aren't any.

I'm not saying oil companies have actually bribed anyone. I'm saying that bribery probably isn't necessary. That's because in Alberta, undisclosed contributions to party leadership campaigns are all perfectly legal. So when Ed Stelmach ran for the Conservative leadership in 2006, no one outside of his campaign team knew who his funders were. We still don't know.

Maybe nothing shady is going on. But it just makes good sense to make sure it doesn't.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Launching the Blog: Fears and Aspirations

All right, I admit it: I am nervous about launching a blog.

My profession is politics and international relations. As an academic, blogs are a risky business. It's not quite the thing to do in the academy, as scholars are supposed to be removed from all that. Scholars focus on the timeless relationships in social science, such as there are; they do not, typically, focus on policy issues of the day.

Yet as a citizen of Canada, a resident of America, and a student of global affairs, I am not quite satisfied by that. I find it difficult to subscribe to the philosophy that says that academics ought to think about politics intensely, yet never do anything about the world around them. In fact, some of the best academics I know behave in just the opposite manner: they are not afraid to engage in public debates and contribute their expertise where they think it can be helpful. The Dean of the Woodrow Wilson School here at Princeton, Dr. Anne-Marie Slaughter, keeps a blog; so does Dr. Paul Krugman, who also writes enormously popular columns for the New York Times; and my own advisor, Dr. Robert Keohane, is an avid environmentalist when he is not working on international relations theory. If great academics can engage in the issues they care about in the world around them, then maybe I can follow humbly in their footsteps.

So I am launching this blog as my voice on policy issues. I'll focus my writing on three topics: Canadian politics, US politics, and international politics. Each entry will be labeled so that readers can focus on what interests them. If you're a Canadian and feel you already get an earful on US politics, fine. If you're an American and aren't sure what the capital of Canada is, well, shoot, you're like most Americans. But the "polls" on the side of the blog are for everyone; just promise me not to take them too seriously.

The name of the blog, Policy from Principle, is the brainchild of an old friend, Susan London. (Thanks.) It has a special meaning for me, because I think that my education and research in the social sciences give me some expertise with which to contribute to policy debates. And it is in this spirt that the blog will move from principle to policy.

The name represents the hope that policy doesn't have to be merely the product of self-interested politicking that makes so many of us frequently cynical and jaded. The name represents a hope that policy can be informed by something other than pork-barreling, log-rolling, and horse-trading for votes. It is a hope that policy can be informed by solid facts, by principles, and by thoughtful reflection. It is a hope that policy might contribute to a better democracy and a better world.

So let the blogging begin.

Blog Under Construction

This Blog is under construction. Soon there will be posts by Jeff Colgan about politics in the US, Canada, and abroad.