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June 8, 2009
Just when you hoped North Korea would be reasonable…

Just when you (and a South Korean/North Korean expert) hoped North Korea would do something reasonable, it sentenced the two American journalists allegedly caught sneaking into North Korea to 12 years in prison. If this sentence stands, it is a clear a sign as the latest nuclear test that Pyongyang has no interest in coming back to the negotiating table. The Obama administration seems to have come to the same conclusion, and is attempting to find ways to interdict North Korean shipments of weapons — both to ensure that the DPRK doesn’t export its nuclear technology and to squeeze the most important source of dollars the regime has. This confrontation is going to get worse before it gets better.

– Nina Hachigian

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June 5, 2009
A promising sign for Iraq

It has to be a clear sign of progress in Iraq that Stephen Colbert is planning to broadcast from Baghdad next week.

The indicator chart looks like this:

Year           Broadcasts of late night American comedy from Iraq for a USO tour

2003          0
2004          0
2005          0
2006          0
2007          0
2008          0
2009          1

Progress!

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June 4, 2009
Post-Tiananmen, it’s no easier seeking human rights abroad

A historic day in Tiananmen Square.

Today is shaping up to be a big and strange day on the human rights front. Between the 20th anniversary of the June 4 massacre at Tiananmen Square in China, President Obama’s speech in Cairo and the trial of the two Americans detained in North Korea, we have a showcase of the complexity of promoting human rights, democracy and the rule of law.

The pursuit of American values in foreign policy has always been half-assed compromised, at best. Other national interests, like security or financial gain, have pushed our better angels aside on a regular basis.

We want cheap oil and assistance with regional crises, so we look past the fact that Saudi Arabia, where President Obama was yesterday, offers no guarantee for freedom of religion, greatly restricts the media, tolerates widespread violence against women and doesn’t allow them to drive cars or go out in public without being completely covered. Egypt, a staunch U.S. ally that President Obama visits today, is a democracy in name only, and houses thousands of political prisoners.

I could go on. America does act on principle, but generally when other interests are not skewered by our doing so (though, in my book, that is better than never acting on principle).

The globalization of threats exacerbates this dynamic. Some of the same countries that brutalize their citizens and reject pluralism are our necessary partners on global challenges that daily affect our security
and prosperity.

China is the poster child for this quandry, as I recently wrote about with Bill Schulz, who headed Amnesty International for 12 years.  Figuring out how to improve human rights there from the outside, while never easy or effective, has only gotten more vexing since the pro-democracy protesters were quashed in Tiananmen Square.

China holds keys to many of the foreign policy challenges facing the Obama administration and, indeed, the world. For evidence, look at the recent travel schedules of high-level U.S. officials. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner was in China this week, because the size of China’s stimulus package and the pace of its evolution to a domestic-led growth model are critical factors in getting the global economy back on its feet. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi traveled to China last week to discuss climate — China is now the largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world; together, the U.S. and China account for 40 percent of emissions.   We can’t lick global warming without China’s serious engagement.  Yesterday, Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg discussed North Korea’s nuclear program with leaders in Beijing. China is North Korea’s major trading partner, controlling some 70 to 90 percent of North Korea’s fuel supply; if anyone can drag Pyongyang back to the negotiating table, it is China. 

In the last twenty years, while standards of living in China have risen dramatically, political reform has stalled out and dissidents continue to live in terror. This is kind of like knowing your fellow firefighter, a generally competent professional, goes home and beats his wife.  That is gut-wrenching, but are you going to turn down his help holding the hose when a fire threatens your town?

It is not that we have less leverage now because of our interdependency — interdependency works both ways, after all.  The fact is that we have never have had much traction to influence the internal political workings of a large, proud and complex country. And now, we have many more areas in which our fates are intertwined. As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pointed out early on, we cannot let our dialogue on human rights prevent progress on other fronts.

There are steps we can take to continue to support incremental progress on rights and pluralism in China, as Bill and I discuss in our article and that he explores in a recent report. In addition to those, which include making common cause with other nations who share our concerns, it is also important to continue to articulate our values. It gives succor to those brave souls on the ground who are trying to fight oppression and, more importantly, it reminds us that if we want our words to be taken seriously, we need to keep our own record on human rights and democracy as clean as they can be.

– Nina Hachigian

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May 29, 2009
The game of chicken with China over global warming ends

Climate change was on the agenda this week when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi met with Chinese President Hu Jintao.

The Obama administration’s foreign policy marks a break with the Bush approach on many counts, but none more visible than energy and climate change. These issues now animate our relationship with China, and not a moment too soon.

Climate is now central to U.S. diplomacy for three reasons:

  • The administration rightly views global warming as a serious threat to national security;
  • A treaty to succeed Kyoto is to be negotiated at the end of this year in Copenhagen under the auspices of the U.N.;
  • Science tells us that time is running out to contain the increase of average global temperatures, avoiding the potentially castastrophic limit of 2°C.

The big enchilada on climate and energy diplomacy is China. China is now the largest yearly emitter of greenhouse gases, having just surpassed the U.S. Together, the U.S. and China account for 40 percent of worldwide emissions. China is the largest coal producer in the world, and coal accounts for 70 percent of China’s energy use. Energy demand in China is growing wildly. From 2001 to 2007, energy demand in China alone grew by the same amount used in all of Latin America put together.

Thus, last August, when the Center for American Progress released a report (which I co-authored) making recommendations about the future of U.S.-China relations, we called for the new president to make climate and energy a central focus of the bilateral relationship. We argued that the urgency of global warming demanded that step, but that elevating an issue on which China and the U.S. had much in common could have other positive spill-over effects. At the time, this was not a run-of-the-mill recommendation. There had been very little positive interaction between the U.S. and China on climate and energy, with both countries in a “suicide pact,” refusing to act until the other got serious.

The administration is now putting a new approach to the test. On her first trip as secretary of state, Hillary Clinton went to Asia and highlighted energy and climate change in Beijing. President Obama brought up global warming with President Hu in their first meeting on the sidelines of the G20 summit in April. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi was in China earlier this week, having made climate change — and not human rights, as many expected — the focus of her trip.

As a result of this diplomatic focus, and the fact that the Obama administration is clearly serious about cleaning up America’s act on energy and climate, the U.S.-China game of chicken over global warming is giving way to a more positive dynamic. Both sides, while still demanding unrealistic progress from the other, are doing a lot themselves, realizing that the more steps they can say they have taken domestically, the more leverage they will have in Copenhagen.

Last week, the American Clean Energy and Security Act, or ACES, sponsored by Congressmen Henry Waxman (D-CA) and Edward Markey (D-MA), passed through committee in the House. This legislation would, for the first time, create a cap and trade system in the U.S. Some environmentalists have assailed the legislation because its stated targets — 17 percent under 2005 levels by 2020 — come lower than many would like. But, as my colleagues and I have pointed out, if you measure the full effects of the legislation, the numbers actually look a lot better. In fact, in contrast to what The New York Times reported (and then retracted) about our piece, we think the ACES, if it passes before December — in combination with other environmental measures the administration is taking, like imposing strict mileage standards on cars — will give President Obama the leverage he needs with China, and with others, to make the Copenhagen treaty the best it can be.

– Nina Hachigian

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Speaker Pelosi under a Creative Commons license.

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May 25, 2009
Good China coverage at the Guardian

This past week, The Guardian ran a rich series of China articles. I particularly liked this short interview with a Chinese farmer that says a lot about the country’s promise and problems.  He holds the view that most Chinese do, according to polls — that his country can be the greatest in the world. He is grateful that starvation is no longer a major problem. However, he laments that his childhood ponds have all dried up and that he has to pay his wife’s medical bills with their paltry earnings.

In the category of “you’ve got to start somewhere,” it appears that China’s outright ban on plastic shopping bags, though routinely violated, is saving a lot of oil and money.

– Nina Hachigian

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May 22, 2009
Under Obama, Dems earn more trust on national security

A new survey shows that after 100 days in office, President Barack Obama’s approval ratings on foreign policy in particular are even higher than on his overall job performance. Nearly two-thirds of likely voters — 64 percent — approve of the job Obama is doing on national security.

More significant, Obama has — at least for now — closed the “trust gap” that has long existed between Democrats and Republicans on national security. Democrats are now at full parity on perceptions of which party would best manage national security, and they have moved far ahead of the GOP on specific challenges such as Afghanistan, Iraq, working with our allies and improving America’s image abroad.

I think former Vice President Cheney’s rants are divisive, and had any Democrat been so bold as to speak in similar tones under his tenure, Cheney would surely have labeled them traitorous — but the people don’t seem to be buying it.

– Nina Hachigian

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May 22, 2009
Obama gets it right on balancing values and security

President Obama spoke about values and foreign policy on Thursday. Photo: White House

President Obama gave a powerful speech yesterday about the value of values in foreign policy, and if you didn’t catch it, I recommend you do. Ideology-based national security got a bad name over the past eight years, and indeed, the problem is that one person’s freedom march is another’s delusional misadventure.

Nevertheless, values have always informed American foreign policy, and progressive voices have often been the loudest ones calling for justice, fairness, equality and respect for human dignity to inform U.S. actions abroad.

A critical question to me has always been one of methodology. How do we choose to spread our values of human rights and democracy? And second, how do we balance our values against our security?

In terms of the first question, one of the most powerful ways we spread our values is to act as a good example.  As the most powerful country in the world, whose people enjoy fairly high living standards, others have naturally looked to us to guide their own behavior.  

That is one of the many reasons President Obama gave yesterday for why the decision to use torture to interrogate suspects was so misguided. I noticed a clear example of this dynamic a few years back. China had been for years refusing to allow the U.N. rapporteur on torture into their country. The leadership finally relented, and in November 2005, the rapporteur was there, conducting an investigation into Chinese prisons.

President Bush happened to be in Beijing then, and what a great moment it would have been to celebrate this small step and push the Chinese to do more — but Abu Ghraib made it impossible for President Bush to exercise any moral leadership.

Anyway, yesterday President Obama listed many other reasons why torture is a bad idea and let me, for the record, summarize them and add some of my own:

1. According to seasoned interrogators, it doesn’t work, either in general, or in the specific case of Abu Zubaydah that Dick Cheney keeps talking about;

2. It puts our troops in harm’s way by making it less likely that enemies will surrender and more likely that Americans will be harmed if they are caught;

3. It gives our terrorist enemies compelling fodder for their recruiting pitches; 

4. It helps despotic regimes justify their own, far more brutal, tactics.

But the real meat of the speech was about the difficult balance of security and values when it comes to closing Guantanamo and the releasing the photos of detainees. What’s amazing is that the Bush administration got it wrong both ways — they went to war in Iraq for ideological reasons (among others), sacrificing our security for our values. And then when it came to prosecuting that war, like using torture on prisoners, they did the opposite, sacrificing our values in the name of security.

As President Obama explained yesterday, we need to avoid both those extremes and do the hard, “surgical” work of finding a constitutional path in between. That will mean that some of these Guantanamo prisoners will end up in U.S. prisons.  Why they cant be housed in maximum security prisons along with the worst serial killers and child sex-offenders, I don’t understand.  Ask Congress

– Nina Hachigian

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May 19, 2009
The good, the bad and the interesting

Zalmay Khalilzad, the former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, may take a major post in the Afghan government.

The Good

Tough new fuel economy standards for U.S. vehicles. In terms of international diplomacy, this is more palpable evidence that the U.S. is finally getting serious about global warming. The more the U.S. shows it is willing to take tough steps, the more leverage we will have to get others, particularly China, to commit to limits on their global greenhouse gasses.

The Indian elections. Voters in India handed a victory to the current ruling Congress party, paving the way for economic reforms that are likely to boost the Indian economy in the long term. India has roughly as many people living below the poverty level as the entire population of the United States.

The Bad

The swine flu vaccine is proving difficult to produce.  

The Interesting

The New York Times reports that Zalmay Khalilzad, the former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, may take a major post in the Afghan government.  He’s a powerful operator, by all accounts, so maybe he’ll be able to make the trains in Kabul run on time — or at least get the trains on the tracks.  But I wonder about situations where the interests of the Afghan government and U.S. government diverge…

– Nina Hachigian

Photo courtesy of Flickr user US Army Korea – IMCOM under a Creative Commons license.

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May 18, 2009
World powers must shift mindset to tackle flu, global threats

Delegates convene at the World Health Assembly in 2008. Photo: WHO

We live in interesting times, that’s for sure — so I am thrilled to be launching a blog with Worldfocus, an exceptional source for information about what is happening in the world beyond our shores.

A little background on me — I am a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank that John Podesta founded about five years ago. Last year, I co-authored a book called The Next American Century: How the U.S. Can Thrive as Other Powers Rise. The changing nature of security and great power relationships continue to fascinate me.

These issues are playing out today as the World Health Organization (WHO) convenes public health officials from 192 countries, including U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, for its annual assembly in Geneva. The possible pandemic of swine flu makes this week’s gathering particularly timely.

The H1N1 virus is the third truly global crisis to hit Americans this year. 2009 opened with us in the throws of the largest global financial meltdown in our lifetimes. Global warming is nothing new, but its effects are becoming ever more apparent. Now the swine flu, still spreading rapidly, has taken the lives of six Americans.

This is perhaps the first time the United States faces three global disasters at once. While this trifecta is obviously brutal for Americans, it may accelerate a long-overdue shift in the American debate about how to think about national security.

Many policymakers, particularly of an older generation, are stuck on the view that the primary threat to America will come in the form of strong, rising powers bent on domination. Our historic battles with Germany and Japan in World War II and the Soviet Union during the long Cold War crystallized this premise and our whole national security infrastructure is built around it.

Technology, though, has changed national security, as it has everything else. Now, our national security policies need to focus on transnational forces like terrorists, proliferators, global warming, financial crises, poverty and viruses. These are the forces that are directly harming our population and sewing chaos around the world. Other strong powers could well pose a dire threat to America or its interests on a distant day, and we must be prepared. But at this moment, China, Russia and India — not to mention Europe and Japan — are caught along with us, and every other country, in these global tornadoes. The best way out is through collaboration and coordination with them. In this new era, strong nations will hang together or fail apart.

This paradigm shift impacts the way in which we conduct foreign policy, and we have a lot of catching up to do. Until very recently, simply the idea of treating climate change and viruses as national security threats was unusual, though they have the potential to affect the physical well-being of individual Americans today far more directly than, say, NATO expansion.

President Obama, who did not live the bulk of his professional life during the Cold War, is inclined toward this new approach, but his administration faces an uphill battle as it tries to implement it. Senator Susan Collins stripped funding for pandemic response that was in his original stimulus proposal. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’s defense budget, which eliminates several Cold War weapons systems and increases support for counterinsurgency, is meeting resistance in Congress.

Moreover, inside the beltway, there is a decided lack of appreciation for, if not hostility and suspicion towards, what is a critical element for American security today — international rules and institutions like the WHO. While nations are the ultimate actors, the nodes of networks that connect them have to be smarter and faster than ever before in the face of these globe-circling threats.

While in need of reform and resources, multilateral organizations are today playing central roles in addressing each of the three crises. The WHO has distributed information about path of the virus, dolled out anti-viral drugs to countries in need and outlined appropriate steps for countries to take (not that they all listened, and pigs paid the price). Earlier in the year, the Group of 20 leaders pledged over a billion dollars to the International Monetary Fund, to continue bailing out countries hit by the global recession. The U.N. is sponsoring negotiations over a new climate treaty, without which the world will not be able to avoid the worst effects of global warming.

These organizations and others ensure that many nations pay their fair share to tackle global threats. Further, they help to set parameters for emerging powers. Their existence creates pressure on new pivotal powers like China to contribute to the global good. (Politics was the main factor in Beijing’s decision to allow Taiwan to join the World Health Assembly for the first time this year, but international scrutiny contributed).They develop deep expertise and help nations find areas where their interests overlap.

Americans, as a people, have long been more willing to cooperate with other nations, and through global institutions, than their leaders give them credit for. A 2004 poll found that 66 percent of Americans surveyed said the U.S. should address more problems through the United Nations, even if it means not getting our way as often. Yet in that same survey, only 9 percent of congressional staffers guessed correctly that a majority of Americans would hold that view. Those representatives assume, with some justification, that Americans don’t vote based on funding for pandemic disease or U.N. dues.

Perhaps, with the relentless barrage of global threats bearing down on them and the clear need for a global response, Americans will create the political room President Obama needs to make a long-needed transformation. If 2009 marks a decisive break point with outmoded foreign policy paradigms, then at least one blessing will have come of all the pain and anxiety.

– Nina Hachigian

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Nina Hachigian is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the co-author of "The Next American Century: How the U.S. Can Thrive as Other Powers Rise." She has worked on the staff of the National Security Council in the White House and been a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation. She specializes in U.S.-China relations and great power relationships, multilateral institutions and U.S. foreign policy.

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