Monthly Archives: March 2014

Putin’s Long Game

crimea-mapThe onset of sanctions between the West and Russia are like the opening moves of chess–and like any chess game the victor will be decided later in the game.  To predict who will be in checkmate we must examine the wants and desires of the players on either side of the board.  Simply put, what does Putin want 10 moves from Crimea?


Putin faces losing Ukraine to the European Union which threatened his long-term dream of the Eurasian Union.  Set to launch in 2015 the Eurasian Union was never hollow talk, it was meant to be a genuine alternative to the West for countries bordering Russia.   So far only Belarus and Kazakhstan have signed on for the Eurasian Union and this isn’t a strong base on which to build.  Belarus is largely subsidized by Russia and oil rich Kazakhstan needs larger markets to grow–enter Russia’s Gazprom.   However Ukraine is the second largest economy is the post-Soviet region. More than just an economic power house it is also the birth of the Russian state–in medieval “Kevian Rus” and is still apart of the “Russian world.”

Putin’s opening moves in Ukraine have exposed the ambiguity of his Eurasian Union and threatened it’s future before it began.  The Eurasian Union was meant  to be an equal partnership between member states where they could pursue political and economic goals and also act as a buffer against Western style liberalism.  However, Putin’s blitz in Ukraine has opened Russia to a premature check.  Putin has justified his Crimean gambit with a vast but vague “responsibility to protect” doctrine.  No one knows if this doctrine will be backed by military force or whom he he intends to protect: ethnic Russians, Russian speakers, anyone that Russian feels needs protecting?  This aggression calls into question the equality of the Eurasian partnership and has understandably spooked Russia’s neighbors.

Domestically Putin is playing a dangerous game.  Set to leave in 2018 he is attempting to ride on the military paradigm.  By stirring a strong sense of nationalism and “anti-westernism” Putin can ride on the approval of the Russian people. Leaders tend to gain favor in war time but this can fade as it did with George W. Bush after Iraq.

The West also has much lose.  If the Eurasian Union were to be a success…some thing that would require the joining of Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan to name a few, it would be a powerful buffer against Western ideals.  Spreading democracy, anti-corruption and advocating for LGTBQ rights would become much more difficult if these countries are backed by a larger oppressive union.


In the long game larger military action is unlikely.  By the numbers, Russia spends about 9% of the larger NATO budget on military and much of that goes to kickbacks.  The U.S. alone spends more than any other country on the planet, but Ukraine does expose some of the weaknesses of the western front, namely the lack of other options. Sanctions could work to place Putin in check but but they will take time to come into effect and in the meantime smaller Russian gas dependent countries like Bulgaria and Slovenia will suffer.





The Future of Conflict Part I: Background

Over the past twenty years the world has become more peaceful.  Yes, despite Syria, the DRC the violence in Kenya and many others our world been increasingly more peaceful.

The next few posts will look at where and how the next conflicts will take place and the issues that spark them namely: population, resources, inequality and climate change.

The coming wars will have similar aspects to the ones we’ve seen in that past such as:

  • Challenges to the social order whether in the name of Democracy or for economic reform.
  • Many will take on larger dimensions as international powers seeks to protect their investments
  • Most will be multi-dimensional and not always political

While each conflict is different, these will share three basic factors:

  • They will challenge who has power and why
  • Their escalation will depend on whether the community can manage conflict
  • Ordinary citizens, especially women, will suffer

Development In America’s Cities: NOLA and Gentrification

New Orleans is a romanticized city and it deserves to be one.  The clock ticks more slowly in the crescent city. People laugh more easily, people kiss, people love, there is joy all to the beat of city like no other in the world.  However, New Orleans has a grizzly side and it’s not for everyone.  Our sidewalks are twisted, our weather sticky and our romance comes with  a certain untamed mentality.


People romanticize New Orleans but rarely know much about it.  Yes, people know about jazz, blues, Creole food and Mardi Gras but rarely do they mention that NOLA was the place where the first literature magazine of Louisiana was printed–by black men and French poets in 1840. By that time the city had a prosperous class of free black artists, businessmen, sculptors, skilled laborers and property owners.  In more modern history New Orleans has become a great black city where African-Americans have come together time and time again to form the strongest African-American culture in the land.

This is not to diminish the horrors of slavery.  Louisiana had plantations that stretched from one side of the state to the other, and the slave trade was in the St Louis Hotel square in New Orleans but never in our history was it all “have and have not.”

Through the Civil War, the labor riots of the 1920’s and segregation New Orleans became a home for blacks in a way few American cities ever have been. Dillard University and Xavier became two of the most outstanding  black universities in the U.S. and once the battles of segregation were won the black middle class rose and entered all levels of society in a way that is absent in many Western and Northern cities today.

And then nature did what the Civil War could not.  It did what racism and fights over segregation could not.  It laid a city to waste. Furthermore our government failed us.   Why did the U.S. ask a city cherished by millions, criticized by some and ignored by none to fight for it’s own life for so long?


But when the waters cleared, we did the only thing that New Orleanians could do…we rebuilt. New Orleans became one of the fastest growing cities in the U.S. We became the Hollywood of the South and the Silicon Valley of the South in a few short years.  Our politics changed under the guise of new government.  Yes poverty still exists and yes corruption is still prevalent but the Big Easy has grown.


As we rebuilt we were joined by other Americans who took up the call to rebuild the city that care forgot. They came as volunteers and they came as students and some stayed. We could not have rebuilt without them. Rebuilding New Orleans was the moral challenge of a generation and it has been and continues to be met.

That rebuilding has come at a cost. Now they have begun to buy homes in previously run down neighborhoods.  Low income areas where families once thrived are now home to recent grads from New York and San Francisco. This has  driven up property values and driven out families and musicians where they have lived for generations.  They pass laws that seek to tame and regulate the wild nature of NOLA. Places where blacks musicians have gathered for 200 years to play African drums are being banned because of noise. These movements do more than threaten the untamed nature of the city they can threaten a history.  A population with money will always have ripple effects that can negatively impact a society. Click here for Spike Lee’s take on gentrification.

I am forever grateful for those who came to rebuild New Orleans. I was right there with you. However we must be aware of our impact and intent when we seek to develop a place. We should be aware of the history and respect local culture.  If we tame New Orleans, if we replace our Collards with Kale what will be left of our culture that our American brothers and sisters were drawn to in the beginning?

No End In Sight: Syria

SyriaThe one consistent thing about the Syrian civil war is that there never seems to be an attractive way to end it.  If Assad “wins” his rule will be weakened and he will likely be a proxy of Iran and will rule over a large Sunni population that hates him and is better armed than before.  That’s an untenable position to be in at best.  If the opposition forces win then the Sunni majority will likely exact revenge on the Alawites and any supporters they had in the country.  Furthermore, these factions will most likely turn on each other once the single threat of Assad is removed.

Recently Secretary of State Kerry stated that he hopes that a diplomatic solution based on power sharing can be reached. Power sharing between the Alawite minority and the Sunni majority is not likely to succeed for two reasons. First, the power sharing agreement would be overtime and that would be very difficult to enforce.  Could Assad be trusted to not jail to attack the opposition once they demobilized? Could the Sunni leaders commit not to consolidate power once Assad opens the government to reform? Second, the battlefield as it stands now will not allow either side to come to an agreement. They both still think they can win and to make matters worse they have funders that are willing to support them.  Until the power relations outside Syria can come to an agreement and cease funneling money and guns across the border this war will continue. But as that seems unlikely, perhaps a some tactics of governance can point towards a solution.

Decentralization may point to a path around this however–some studies have shown that civil war combatants are more likely to sign a treaty if they are given some level of territorial autonomy.  This would allow combatants to maintain political control over their own territory as well as control the security aspects.  This path to decentralization and regional autonomy may result in a defensible peace.

However there exist problems in this strategy as well as Rothchild and Roeder point out.  While decentralization may help to end ethnic conflict, it can also hinder the democratic process over time.  There’s no guarantee that the Sunni camps would remain at peace while keeping Assad in power.

There are no good options in Syria just bad, worse and impossible. That said a plan that could incentivize actors to move towards peace at least in the short-term might be the best I’ve heard so far.

What Superman and Lex Luthor Can Teach Us About Foreign Aid

Denzel-Washington-as-Lex-Luthor-Justice-League-United-NationsLex Luthor first appeared in DC comics in the 1940’s as a comical bad guy twirling his mustache as he plotted against the pride of Metropolis–Superman. Since then he has gone through many changes including going bald, to donning a giant suit of armor but more importantly his motives have changed.  Anyone would be hard pressed to call Lex a hero but like any good villain he has a point.  What if Lex believes that Superman’s existence on Earth is breeding a level of dependence?

As an alien, Superman protects the Earth not only from other extraterrestrial threats but also everyday crime.  Not being from this planet he may be interfering with the evolution of the human race.  With our great protector will we need to develop our own systems and inventions to cope with the challenges of everyday crime and invasions from outer-space? Superman removes responsibility from the human race as we no longer need to develop on our own–we simply rely on our off world guardian. Our savior from beyond.


Aid has a similar track record of breeding dependence.  As Western nations funnel money into aid projects aimed at helping the world’s poorest they should be asking themselves if they are lifting people out of poverty or propping up institutions that are incapable of functioning on their own.

Haiti has become the poster child for this kind of development.  Essentially Haiti has become a nation run by NGO’s that no longer build capacity and good governance but instead detract from the government.  This results in a weak coalition of non-profits and aid workers who measure their success by intent instead of impact.

Lex could easily make a similar argument for Superman and his hero complex.  What does it mean for the human race that we rely solely on the powers of an alien to solve social ills like crime? In the case of defending us from larger threats such as Braniac or Darkseid…would these threats come to Earth if Superman were not present? Aid too has a dark side that comes with the footprint of aid workers and organizations.

This is not to say that we should end aid or that Lex Luthor is the unsung hero. We should however examine closely our intents and our impacts in the field.  Building capacity and building institutions that can better serve our stakeholders and pull them put of poverty would be a much better use of aid as opposed to simply giving benefits away.

Econ 101: Gas Tax

500px-Supply-and-demand.svgFor those of us who have not taken a survey econ course never fear…I’ll get you up to speed.  The graph above shows supply and demand curves.

The horizontal line (Q) is Quantity of a product or service and Q2 is a larger quantity (more supply) than Q1.  The vertical line “P” is Price to purchase the good or service.  P2 is a larger price than P1.

The blue line S is a supply curve for the product or service.  As with most supply curves is increases and tells us that as price (P) rises, the quantity (Q) of the product supplied also rises. Simply put if people are willing to pay more for pizza then more people will go into business selling pizza.  Common sense made difficult as a professor of mine used to say.

The line D1 is a demand curve for the product and tells us that as the price falls, the quantity Q of the product demanded rises. So, if the price of pizza drops more people will buy it.

The point where S crosses D1 is a market equilibrium, where the supply and demand for the product are equal. Easy to graph, hard to achieve.  If the price is below equilibrium, less of the product will be supplied resulting in a shortage and the price will rise.

Now, John McCain has proposed a Gas Tax holiday which would suspend federal gas taxes for three months.  The gas tax is 18.4 cents and 24.4 cents on diesel.  Some estimates have the government losing 10 billion in revenues.  McCain argues that the savings would trickle down to the consumer (you & I) and “help spread relief across the American economy.”

Being the dismal science that econ is, it’s impossible to say what the results of this gas tax holiday would be in reality.   However here are some more believable scenarios:

  • Assuming we are currently at a market equilibrium (debatable given how much gas prices change) reducing the cost of gas will increase demand which could increase supply but since summertime gas supply is mostly fixed…supply cannot increase. So price will rise but not supply and the benefits will go to the oil companies.
  • The tax reduction will be split between the producers and the consumers (you & I). In a real reduction of price, demand will rise raising the price slightly but not as much as in the first scenario.  This will increase consumption and therefore increase U.S. carbon footprint.

Either scenario seems like a losing proposition to me but it does make for a good speech.

Ukraine and Putin: Redrawing the Map


A piece in the Telegraph stated that it may be better for Ukraine to agree to a partition on diplomatic terms rather than face a Russian lead military occupation.  While I disagree with this stance the article does make  the crititical argument that post-soviet Ukraine politics have been marked by the failure of East and West Ukraine to unite the country in  a meaningful way.

Russia’s show of force however has a larger implication–one that speaks to the central issue which is not what pieces of land belong to Ukraine or Russia but that borders shouldn’t be changed by a show of force.  Crimea’s current status is the result of a Russian invasion a quarter of millennium ago and a arbitrary reassignment of the region from the Russia SSR to the Ukraine SSR in 1954.

Unless these borders  are re-drawn via mutual consent of the parties involved as was the case with Czechoslovakia, the larger parties should stay out.

There is the possibility that this is something that Putin has in mind, but this is unlikely.  Putin is the anti-Yelstin and the anti-Gorbachev and amicable divorces rarely being with a show of force.