On Ukraine-Russia Relations- Guest Submitted by Andrew Lama


One year ago, I represented Ukraine at the North American Invitational Model United Nations (NAIMUN) Conference at Georgetown University. At the time of the Conference, the eastern European state was engaging in a Cheese War—that’s right, a Cheese War—with Russia. Although it sounds quirky, the war was sadly an all-too-common occurrence between these two nations. Ukraine produces hundreds of millions of dollars worth of cheese each year, and 80% of it goes to Russia. When the Kremlin threatened to ban Ukrainian cheese, Ukrainians feared for their livelihoods.

 

Russian President Vladimir Putin likes to remind his former Soviets about their economic reliance on Russia by engaging in what some would call a breed of ‘economic terrorism.’ Moscow enjoys shocking the commodity market by threatening to restrict resources from Ukraine, and it often follows through on these threats. This is why Ukrainians are revolting against President Viktor Yanukovych, a neutered nationalist who often caves to the Kremlin. The people have had enough. Ukraine has two choices. It can either a) become further bounded to the Russian alliance, essentially putting all its eggs in one basket and betting against the West, or b) leave Russia to join the European Community and become a Westernized state. The protesters in Kiev are urging the government to choose the latter, simultaneously calling for Yanukovych’s removal.

 

Protesters hope for a resurgence of Westernized politics in Ukraine, a country that has expressed interest in joining NATO and the European Union only to about-face later due to Russian threats. It is necessary for Ukraine to understand that unofficial President for life Putin will not ally with them out of goodwill, but rather because of nostalgia. Putin declared years ago that “those who do not regret the collapse of the Soviet Union have no heart, and those that do regret it have no brain”; hypocritically, his actions seem to be reflecting his heart. He has been making great strides toward amassing his influence among former Soviet Republics in the region, creating a modern, Russian-centric bloc. Examples of this include the 2008 Russia-Georgia War or the aforementioned Cheese Wars.

 

When Yanukovych accepted an economic bond with the Kremlin, he kowtowed to Putin’s authority, permitting and encouraging future Russian power grabs. That being said, the Ukrainian people have something greater to fear than economic instability. Yanukovych has already surrendered their economic independence and now Putin will deprive Ukrainians of their political independence. Ukraine has subjected itself to the Russian sphere and Putin’s superiority; he will intervene against pro-Western forces if they threaten his expansion. In a few years, Putin’s Kiev might as well be Brezhnev’s Prague.   The West and anti-Yanukovych forces must prevent a Ukraine-Russia alliance if they wish to continue to sing “Ukraine Has Not Yet Perished,” because it may soon become untrue.

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Decrying Diplomacy: End the Geneva Peace Talks


The current negotiations between the Syrian regime and rebels in Geneva are severely misunderstood. Most observers laud the talks as major achievements, pointing to the fact that the regime and the rebels could meet face to face for the since the conflict began.

 

If anything, though, I would call the Geneva conference a failure.

 

 After all, the talks present no chance of any peaceful resolution to the conflict. Both the rebels and members of the regime are so adamantly opposed to one another and have so much vested in the conflict that it will be impossible to end the war through dialogue. Further complicating the situation, there are no bargaining chips in the conflict since both sides are committed to winning the war at any costs- they cannot be persuaded by incentives or deterrents.

 

Aside from the mere futility of the dialogue, it actually presents some major detriments.  First, the talks give legitimacy to the al-Assad regime. Any talks with the regime ought to be illegitimate since al-Assad has continuously violated international law during the conflict.

 

Why should the rebels be forced to compromise with al-Assad? Doing so would only legitimize the claim that he has a right to maintain power. Instead, the international community should recognize the fact that al-Assad has lost all legitimacy. Similarly to how the Libyan transitional government was recognized as the sole authority over Libya in the final months of the Libyan Arab Spring, talks should be conducted between a body representative of the Syrian rebels and international powers to discuss how best to remove al-Assad from power rather than making negotiations which may only boost his credibility to keep authority.  

 

Also, the talks stifle more concrete action. As with all diplomatic discussions, there is an inevitable urge for the international community to stall more pertinent action (such as funding rebels) to let diplomacy work. As stated before, though, there is little chance of any meaningful diplomatic solution. Therefore, the talks will merely stall progress and give al-Assad time to strengthen his regime with support from Iran and Russia to the detriment of the rebels.

 

Clearly, any benefits that the talks may present are overblown and the detriments understated by the majority of outside observers. Rather than serving as a stepping stone towards resolution of the conflict, the talks are merely hindering further progress towards the end of Syria’s Civil War. The talks should be abandoned immediately, and more meaningful action regarding Syria ought to be pursued. 

The Return of the British Two Party System


Most British sources have labeled the Labour Party’s shift to the left under Miliband, seen most clearly through his proposal to raise the marginal tax rate to 50%, as a major source of concern. They tend to decry the policies themselves rather than examining the benefits such proposals have on Britain’s political system.

 

In fact, the Labour Party’s socialist swing has two major benefits for Britain’s political system.

 

Firstly, it expands the scope of choice for voters. The British system has recently suffered in large part due to the similarity between both major parties- Conservative and Labour. Though Labour has always been slightly more left wing economically in terms of ideology, both parties supported very similar policies. This will surely change with Miliband’s shift to the left and the Conservative Party shift to the right that it will likely trigger.

 

This is important because the functioning of democracy depends on real choice. When voters are confronted by two choices that are remarkably similar, the sense of democracy erodes and voter efficacy reduces. This is particularly important given Britain’s two party system. Were Britain to adopt a multi-member district plurality system, choice would not be a problem as multiple parties with multiple ideologies can compete. However, given Britain’s single member voting system, the Conservative and Labour Parties are the only legitimate choices voters have. The greater the gap in ideology between these two parties, the greater the choice in democracy.

 

A wider gap between the two major parties will also reduce the power of fringe parties. Recently, as the parties have converged ideologically, fringe nationalist groups such as the UK Independence Party (UKIP), and Scottish and Welsh nationalist parties have come on the rise. This is largely because the Conservatives aren’t right wing enough and the Labour Party  isn’t left wing enough. Therefore, to get any real choice beyond the centrist choices these two parties provide, voters have had to resort to radical groups.

 

With a more balanced right and left wing  represented by the major parties, such fringe parties will lose ground. This is especially important considering that of late, many nationalist parties are winning seats in Parliament and the Labour Party’s shift to the left appears one of the few ways to curtail this trend.  

 

Ending the power of such parties is fundamentally a force for good since such fringe nationalist parties divide rather than unify the nation. With ideologically sound and divergent Conservative and Labour Parties, Britain can not only regain unity (as paradoxical as it may seem) but also expand the scope of democracy to the benefit of all British citizens. 

Thailand Needs Stability, not Elections


 

The Thai protests that have engulfed the nation, particularly Bangkok, in violence over the past few weeks will likely be at full force tomorrow as Thai citizens head to the polls.

 

The Thai Electoral Commission has announced that the elections are set for tomorrow, February 2nd, a huge mistake on the part of the government. Elections held tomorrow will have no legitimacy and, as a result, should be delayed until the conflict with protesters can be resolved.

 

It is impossible to hold legitimate questions when there is a risk of violence. Roughly 10% of polling booths are closed and many people are unable to access the remaining 90% due to fear of violence on the streets. It is better to forgo voter choice and postpone or cancel this election rather than risk disputed results.

 

Why is an illegitimate election worse than none at all? Firstly, illegitimate elections create the illusion of choice. When people are deceived into thinking they had a legitimate choice (which was curtailed due to external factors such as election accountability in this case), the essence of democracy is lost.

 

Additionally, many people will realize that the elections were not truly legitimate given the inability of most citizens to vote. This will only create more unrest as citizens dispute the election results and call for re-elections. In this context, the current riots could only be the beginning of a much larger movement.

 

In contrast, keeping the current government in place and postponing or cancelling elections holds far more legitimacy. This is because the current government was elected in a relatively fair way. Even if the election results may be dated, the current government still retains this case of legitimacy given that electoral preferences likely did not substantially change within the last few years.

 

While some people may take to the streets if the elections are postponed or cancelled, the majority will likely understand the rationale of the decision and support it. At this time, peace and stability are most important to Thailand and these can only come if elections are delayed.

 

Therefore, let Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and the current MPs remain in power. If the Thai government is unable to control the protests that threaten elections and, by consequence, Thailand’s future of democracy, the government ought at least to negotiate a deal with the protesting groups to agree upon methods for a free, fair, and peaceful election for the near future. 

Utah: A Case Study for Democratization of the Courts


 Constitutional challenges have abounded in the wake of a federal court decision to reverse Utah’s ban on same sex marriage. The challenges mainly rest on the case that the courts have no right to rule on family value issues.

 

In fact, I can agree with many of those challenging the ban reversal (those opposed to same sex marriage legalization in Utah), but for a very different reason. While I do believe that courts should have legal power to rule on such issues, they should not have exerted that power in this case.

 

Same sex marriage should not be legalized in Utah in particular because 2/3 of Utah’s residents are against it. Therefore, even if such a decision is morally sound, it is strongly anti-democratic.

 

Today, courts tend to dismiss principles of democracy, choosing instead to focus on legality and constitutionality. However, all of the constitutional questions that involved direct interpretation of the Constitution have already been settled. The questions that the courts must address today are ones applying the Constitution- ones where multiple interpretations can be justified.

 

In light of this, the most important question is not “is it constitutional?” but rather “is it justified and proper for this district to follow?” What qualifies as justified and proper must be, as with all questions in American politics, based upon popular legitimacy. The will of the people is in itself a form of legitimization in the American political culture.

 

I support gay marriage in places where the majority of people support it- but it seems anti-democratic to force it upon localities that are opposed to it. There is no constitutional precedent for same-sex marriage; there is no precedent against it. Therefore, as with any majoritarian legislative program, the people should have the final say.

 

Granted, some may claim that certain moral stances are objective. Just as slavery and segregation were objectively bad, so is marriage equality they would say. Although I agree with this stance to a large extent, the courts are surely not the place to be deciding moral questions.

 

The courts were created with the limited task of interpreting laws- not morals. Morality ought only to be judged either through popular sentiment or local or state government legislatures. True, this may prevent the courts from making decisions that adhere by certain objective universal principles, but it keeps the legislative branch within the realm of democracy. The only way to grant the courts more power to deal with such questions is, as I have described earlier, integrating court decisions with democracy through polls or other measures of measuring popular support. 

A Common Sense Solution to Syria’s Refugee Crisis


 It is not surprising that, under the status quo, Syria’s neighbors are overburdened with the scale of the refugee crisis resulting from the nation’s civil war. What is surprising, though, is the fact that nation’s removed from the conflict have not stepped in to mitigate this burden.

 

After all, it is arbitrary that proximity should determine a nation’s responsibility for another country’s refugee crisis. Jordan and Lebanon, nations with four digit GDP per capita, are struggling. Each nation has taken in roughly 1 million refugees. Meanwhile, the rest of the world looks on, detached because of their distance from the crisis.

 

Under the status quo, nations geographically removed from a source of conflict provide little more than financial assistance. Even this financial assistance is quite limited as neighboring nations provide the vast majority of the money themselves. Money, however, is not the biggest constraint in terms of refugee acceptance. Rather, it is space and resource availability, two ways that countries not accepting the refugees cannot help.

 

Developing nations such as the United States should take a far greater role in the Syrian refugee problem; they have adequate funding, space, and resources to accommodate the refugees.

 

It seems quite obvious that wealthier, more able nations should do more for refugee crises around the world- and yet they don’t. It is important to understand why they don’t and how to motivate them to do so in the future. The reason countries don’t take in refugees is not because of the funding itself that it would require. Compared to most developed nation’s budgets, taking on tens or even hundreds of thousands of refugees would make a negligible effect. However, the political effect would be disastrous. Much like the issue with immigration, citizens of a nation tend to be xenophobic and, consequently, tend to exaggerate the costs of dealing with such causes as refugee crises. $19 million may be less than 0.01% of the federal budget of the United States, but xenophobes can make a persuasive case by taking that figure out of context.  

 

The United Nations (simply due to the fact that it is the largest multinational organization) ought to organize an international program for refugee placement. Such an organization would, on a case by case basis, evaluate the scope of the refugee crisis, feasibility of transport, and each nation’s ability to accommodate refugees to spread refugees from conflicts around the world, thereby reducing the burden on the nation’s neighbors.

 

After all, the status quo is dysfunctional and change is necessary. Under the status quo, it is mainly poorer nations bearing the brunt of refugee crises globally mainly because poorer and more unstable nations (those most likely to have conflicts that produce refugees) tend to be surrounded by poor and unstable nations. This lead to refugee situations being inadequately addressed because nations do not have the funds to accommodate refugees.

If the United Nations takes charge, this issue will easily be resolved by apportioning refugees to nations based on their resource capacity. 

Tunisia’s Constitution: Lessons for Post-Arab Springs Nations


Tunisia’s draft constitution is one that will almost certainly assure stability for the nation. After a full year of hard work in preparing this new legal framework for the nation, Tunisia’s cabinet can now rejoice in the success of the Constitution and the stability it will bring to Tunisia.

 

Tunisia marks the first post-Arab Spring nation that has truly made a stable transition to democracy. Many other post-Arab Spring nations retain vestiges of prior regimes while others include policies that make their level of democracy questionable.

 

What was it that made Tunisia’s transition “work”? Three main factors came into play: the influence of religion in the new constitution, the time taken to deliberate over a new constitution, and its religious laws.

 

Religion is inherently polarizing. Egypt and Libya made the mistake of imposing strict Islamist law upon their countries. Their constitutions impose differing variations of Sharia law and impose penalties on non-Muslims. In contrast, Tunisia remains secular. The secular proposals for its Constitution prevented hardline religious groups or minority religion members who otherwise may have been persecuted from rebelling.

 

Moreover, Tunisia’s military has failed to disrupt constitutional progress. Egypt’s military can be held accountable for virtually every Egyptian political failure. The military’s failure to relinquish power has constantly threatened Egypt’s nascent democracy. In contrast, Tunisia’s military has not intervened excessively in politics. This has allowed Tunisia’s politicians the chance to experiment with different proposals. Unlike in Egypt, the military did not try to regain power whenever unfavorable policies were proposed by the government. Stability, the main ingredient for a strong constitution, was present in Tunisia to a far greater extent than in other post-Arab Springs nations.

 

Most importantly, though, Tunisia gave it time. Their constitution has been in the works for over a year now and has been debated by a functional and strong legislative body. Compare this with Libya or Egypt who passed new constitutions in a matter of weeks. Their constitutions were not deliberated upon by legislative bodies or shown to the masses to gauge popular support. Instead, they were rammed through on the whims of transitional governments who did not match the people’s interests. 

 

Clearly, other post-Arab Spring nations must learn from Tunisia. Though obviously certain factors are beyond their control (such as the influence of the old regime on the current one), they can certainly allow more time for Constitutional drafting and secularism. They must remember that radicalism and speed have no place in a process as consequential as setting forth the legal framework for a country’s foreseeable future. 

First-Past-the-Post, Last in Democracy


The first-past-the-post system is something of an anomaly. The election system, which entails candidates running in single-member districts with the candidate with the plurality winning the district, is present in the U.S., the U.K., and but a few other advanced democracies.

 

Many recognize the issues with the U.S. model, but the U.K. suffers the blunt of the issue with the first-past-the-post system (though it receives less attention for it). After all, the Independent Party is able to gain 13% of the national vote and Liberal-Democrats typically amass roughly 20% of the national popular vote, a far larger share than the 2-3% that any third party in the United States could ever hope for.

 

In fact, the Independent Party likely has more than 13% of national support. As with all winner take all election systems, citizens are deterred from voting for a minority party simply because its members will almost never be elected to parliament. After all, a candidate would need a plurality to win any given district and the Conservative and Labor Parties would be far more likely to win such elections than minority parties.

 

Undoubtedly, the biggest benefit of such a system would be to better represent voters in this regard. Giving the Liberal-Democrats and Independents not the miniscule share of seats they will have under the status quo, not just the 13% or 20% of seats we would assume based on voting, but far more than that. By telling the people that their votes will proportionally result in seats in Parliament, they will be open to support the ideology that best matches their interests, not the status quo practicality of having to vote for the least of two evils (Conservative or Labor) based on the fear no other party could come close.

 

The first past the post system is often heralded for better representing geographic diversity. By creating geographic single-member districts, it gives specific districts their individual candidates. These candidates supposedly represent the geographic flavor of their district and can advocate on behalf of the said constituents. The Scottish National Party can gain more seats through the first past the post system, for example, than they could through a national election with proportional representation. True, geographic diversity and representation is a benefit of the plurality voting systems, but it comes at a cost to the greater principles of democracy. After all, democracy is not about representing the nation by geographic and regional interests but rather national interests as through national polls and elections.

 

It is largely for this reason, the threat to democratic values, that first-past-the-post systems ought to be reformed to proportional representative system. While there are competing benefits to both systems, the benefit to democracy in first-past-the-post systems is the overriding factor because democratic elections should first and foremost seek to enshrine democratic values. 

A New Year, a New North Korea


In spite of all of the United States’ foreign policy successes over the past year, one calamity remains unsolved: North Korea.

 

In the new year, North Korea must be the United States’ top foreign policy priority. The nation holds nuclear weapons, constantly threatens regional peace, and is openly hostile to the United States and the Western world.

 

The United States, the nation that has time and time again condemned negotiating with terrorists, continues to coddle North Korea and the Kim Jong-un regime. Deals and compromises only enable Kim. The United States should, instead, aim to get Kim and the North Korea out of its shell and integrate North Korea into South Korea.

 

The United States should push for a one-state solution in the Koreas- a solution whereby South Korea, with its government and society intact, takes in North Korea’s population, thereby spreading South Korean democracy up north.

 

South Korea’s willingness towards such a solution makes it all the easier. In fact, South Korea is very willing to integrate North Korea. Just years ago, South Korea was implementing a Sunshine Policy designed to improve relations with North Korea with the end goal of assimilating North Korea into South Korea.

 

Today, Park Geun-hye is very open to dialogue with North Korea and seems open to the possibility of a one-state solution.

 

The one-state solution would benefit the United States in a number of ways. Firstly, it would ensure a solution to North Korea’s never-ending humanitarian crisis.

 

More importantly, though, it would mean an end to Kim Jong-un’s regime. It would mean the union of the Korea’s under the South Korean democratic model. Such a government change would both give North Koreans access to the right to representative rule and ensure the end of the North Korean regime that for too long has threatened regional security and stability.

 

There is no excuse for why Kim Jong-un’s regime should be allowed to stay afloat. It may have nuclear weapons, but it lacks the strategy or capability to use them effectively. It also lacks enough allies to mount any reasonable defense against the Western world.

 

The United States should use North Korea’s allies- mainly China- and neighbors- Japan and South Korea- as leverage to orchestrate such a one-state solution between North and South Korea.

 

The United States can no longer, as it has in the past, simply wait for the Kim regime to collapse. The Kim dynasty has withstood the test of time and, what with the cult-like support it has from its people, is unlikely to fall in the near future. Moreover, a destabilizing sudden collapse is nothing to wish for. Instead, the United States should apply pressure in the region to push for a one-state solution between North and South Korea. 

The United States’ Creationist Dilemma


According to a Pew Research Center Poll released just before the New Year, 1/3 of Americans reject evolution and believe in creationism.

 

This statistic places the United States amongst the top of the world in terms of creationism adherents.

 

This is not an issue of the United States being more ‘religious’ than the rest of the world. Indeed, there are many nations across the world with a higher percentage of citizens who identify themselves as religious but who are far less likely to accept ideologies such as creationism.  

 

Rather, this is a case of the religious in the United States being far more extreme than their counterparts in the rest of the world and integrating their religious ideologies into their political preferences.

 

Pope Francis rightly pointed out that the Vatican Church has been overly focused on hot button issues such as contraception, gay marriage, and abortion; likewise, due either to the religious adherents themselves or to the churches to whom they belong, religious zeal in the United States has often been intertwined with political conservatism, especially in the three aforementioned areas.

 

The issue, in this regard, is quite clear. The religious fervor of Americans and the bend of evangelical churches towards relatively unimportant political issues shifts attention away from more pressing issues. Instead of focusing on gun control, unemployment, and other economic issues, issues that are easy to address and that impact average American citizens on a daily basis, Americans choose to focus on gay marriage, abortion, and contraception, topics that call in intense religious debate and which do not impact Americans in the same way as the more tangible issues listed above.

 

Essentially, such issues create a counterintuitive problem for democracy: citizens supporting candidates and positions that do not benefit them on the basis of an abstract religious belief. This system will necessarily lead to disappointment with the political process given that candidates seeking to reform major problems in American society are bested by inferior candidates who appeal more to Americans’ positions on such controversial yet insignificant issues.

 

This is a problem without any definite solution. It is impractical to try to change people’s religious and political beliefs. More than that, it is counter to the interests of democracy to try to limit a certain ideology from flourishing, no matter how detrimental that ideology might be to society.

 

One can only hope that, in the new year, Americans try to better separate political from religious life, taking more from their religion than inflexible positions on hot button political issues. 

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