Apr 15

Japan and the U.S. are Preparing to Majorly Revamp Trans-Pacific Trade

This Monday in a statement made during an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced that Japan and the U.S. were very close to coming to one their biggest trade agreements yet. The agreement, which will apply to the twelve countries in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), has been in the works for over five years, and Japan and the U.S. are its two most powerful advocates (Parks). However, several obstacles still remain, both domestically and abroad within the two countries.

You’ve probably noticed that I still haven’t told you what the components of this agreement are. The reason for this is because nobody quite knows with the exception of the actual negotiators what those components truly are. The committee has been quite secretive throughout the drafting of the agreement. Most American politicians are barely familiar with it, having gleaning all of their knowledge from document leaks, and this makes them, especially democrats, nervous. In some cases, even angry. Bernie Sanders recently called the TPP agreement “disastrous” and “written behind closed doors by the corporate world”. He condemned its purpose “to protect the interests of the largest multinational corporations at the expense of workers, consumers, the environment and the foundations of American democracy” (Srinivas). And Sanders isn’t the only one who’s so openly against the plan. According to Lori Wallach, the director of Global Trade Watch, “The opposition to the trade agreement comprises unions, environmental, consumer groups – in other words, the entire Democratic base.” The main source of contention stems from the agreement’s perceived similarities with the North American Fair Trade Agreement (NAFTA), both of which lowered tariffs for American exports. After NAFTA was signed in 1994, the U.S. experienced a mass exodus of jobs, with about 700,000 offshored, most of them in manufacturing (Srinivas). This time, Wallach says, the additional incentives of the TPP’s agreement will cause millions of additional jobs to be lost.

It only makes sense that the American democratic party, which is known for representing minorities and members of the lower class (i.e. the people who would most likely be losing their jobs due to outsourcing), would object to this agreement (Sargent). What’s strange is that Obama himself wholeheartedly supports it, and has even expressed that he will go against the opinions of his fellow democrats in order to get it done. This, oddly enough, has gained him support from many members of the Republican party, which support corporate growth. The Obama administration has promised that, by lowering tariffs for American exports, the agreement will help increase international trade competition, particularly with China. With 98% of American exporters are small businesses, the president expressed in last year’s State of the Union address, new trade partnerships will in fact increase the number of jobs in America: “Listen, China and Europe are not standing on the sidelines. Neither should we” (Srinivas).

Meanwhile, Japan is dealing with its own domestic problems. The country has been struggling with deflation for nearly two decades, and remains mired in weak economic growth. The new approach, which hinges on this deal with the U.S., has been dubbed “Abenomics,” after Prime Minister Abe who created the model. It’s immediate goals include boosting Japan’s domestic demand and gross domestic product, which will ultimately increase inflation and help the country become more competitive in the international market (McBride, Xu). The agreement helps Japan do all of these things by working in tangent with the U.S. to lower the costs of its imports, as well as it’s exports. Lowering the costs of Japanese exports will ultimately make it easier for other countries to buy them, placing Japanese products in higher demand. The same can be said about the U.S. lowering the tariffs on its own exports. Doing so will help both countries compete with China, whose products will remain the same price as the others lower.

Currently the only thing keeping this agreement from happening are some negotiations over rice and auto parts. The U.S. would like to be able to sell about four times as much rice to Japan as its current quota permits, although this would force several Japanese jobs in rice agriculture to fold. Japan, in turn, wants an immediate dissolution of the 2.5% tariff on U.S. imports of auto parts, but with the auto industry having so much influence on American government, negotiators are trying to avoid cutting tariffs for as long as possible (Kajimoto). Ultimately, some compromises will have to be made. “Negotiations can’t work if one side makes no concessions, but there are various domestic restrictions,” Japan Economy Minister Akira Amari summarized in an interview with Japan’s public broadcaster NHK. Prime Minister Abe hopes that he and President Obama can come to a final understanding when he visits Washington at the end of the month (Baker, Hayashi).

Baker, Gerard and Hayashi, Yuka. “Abe: U.S., Japan Close to TPP Trade Deal.” The Wall Street Journal. The Wall Street Journal, 20 April, 2015. Web. 21 April, 2015.

Kajimoto, Tetsushi. “Japan, U.S. Report Progress on Trade Talks, Though Tokyo Stands Tough on Rice.” Reuters. Thomson Reuters, 19 April, 2015. Web. 21 April, 2015.

McBride, James and Xu, Beina. “Abenomics and the Japanese Economy.” CFR Backrounders. Council on Foreign Relations, 10 March, 2015. Web. 21 April, 2015.

Parks, Miles. “Japan, U.S. ‘Close’ to Major Deal.” NPR. NPR, 20 April, 2015. Web. 21 April, 2015.

Sargent, Greg. “Will Massive Trans Pacific Trade Deal Hurt American Workers? Labor Secretary Thomas Perez Pushes Back.” The Washington Post. The Washington Post, 20 April, 2015. Web. 21 April 2015.

Srinivas, Siri. “Trans Pacific Partnership: Obama Ready to Defy Democrats to Push Secretive Trade Deal.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media Limited, 20 Jan., 2015. Web. 21 April 2015.

Mar 15

Yemen Descends Into Chaos

This Monday, Great Britain withdrew its remaining special forces from Yemen, just days after the U.S. made a similar move. Both did so because of the country’s worsening security conditions, which Jamal Benomar, the U.N. special envoy for Yemen describes as, “the edge of civil war.”

Anti-Houthi protesters demonstrating in Taiz on Monday

The conflict began earlier this year when a group of Shiite rebels calling themselves the Houthi Fighters stormed Sanaa, the capital, and seized control of Yemen’s parliament. The Houthis’ main campaign is for greater autonomy for Northern Yemen. However, the group is also embroiled in several religious disputes, seeing as they are a Shiite Muslim organization within a chiefly Sunni country. Yemeni Foreign Minister Riyadh Yaseen has already begun to encourage Yemen’s neighboring Gulf States–the overwhelming majority of which are also Sunni–to intervene militarily against the Houthis’ advances.

“We have addressed both the [Gulf Cooperation Council] and the U.N. for the need of [imposing] a no-fly zone and banning the use of warplanes at the airports controlled by the Houthis,” Yaseen told al-Sharq al-Awsat, the pan-Arab newspaper. This statement came at the same time as regional unrest was stirring about Iran, which is also a Shiite state, and is seen as backing the Houthis (Bayoumy, Ghobari). This supposed alliance is particularly worrisome to Saudi Arabia, which is already uneasy about Iran’s increasing influence in Iraq and Tehran’s negotiations with West over its nuclear program (Calamur). And this is where the U.S. comes in.

Despite Saudi Arabia’s repulsive human rights record, their inefficient regional security, and America’s advances in shale oil productivity, the U.S. needs Saudi Arabia more than ever. The primary reason, of course, is oil, with Saudi Arabia being the most dominant of all the members of OPEC. While the shale oil boom now has America pumping nine billion barrels of oil a day, we have nowhere near the amount of reserves Saudi Arabia still has laid away as a result of OPEC’s raising of petroleum prices in 1973 ($10 billion in comparison to Saudi Arabia’s $750 billion) (Schiavenza). According to the U.S. Energy Information Agency, American shale oil production will plateau by 2020, and we’ll be back to drinking OPEC’s kool-aid once again.

As you might predict, Yemen’s neighboring countries have a similar incentive as the U.S. to make Saudi Arabia happy, aside from their shared religious ideology. So as long as Saudi Arabia is against the Houthis, the rebel group could end up having a bad time, despite support from Iran. However, something interesting to note about these rebels is that, while they are avowedly anti-U.S., they have also spent a lot of time battling al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, where the most powerful branches of the nefarious organization are hiding. And now with the Islamic State coming out last Friday as responsible for two bombing attacks on Mosques frequented by Houthi supporters, it looks like the rebels could have it out for ISIS as well. At the same time, Al-Qaida and ISIS, which are both Sunni organizations, regard the Shiites Houthis as heretics, and appear to be against them too. (Calamur). So aside from the dawning civil war in Yemen, what we essentially have brewing is a war between three different Islamic terrorist groups.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon has recently announced that it’s lost track of $500 million worth of equipment given to Yemen. With the country in turmoil and its government splintering, the United States has lost its ability to monitor things like small arms, ammunition, patrol boats, and vehicles–the situation having growing particularly worse after the U.S. closed its embassy in Sanaa (Whitlock). “We have to assume [the U.S.’s donations to Yemen are] completely compromised and gone,” an anonymous legislative aid reported last week.

Last September, President Obama offered Yemen as a successful example of America’s counter-terrorism strategy (Peralta). Six months later, it no longer seems like that is the case. And having to pull out of Yemen actually loses the U.S. a lot of ground for the U.S. As The New York Times reported Monday, “The loss of Yemen as a base for American counterterrorism training, advising and intelligence-gathering carries major implications not just there, but throughout a region that officials say poses the most grievous threat to United States global interests and to the country itself.” It goes on to explain how one of Al-Qaida’s deadliest bombmaker resides in Yemen, the plots of which the U.S. has already had to thwart three times since 2009. And while covert CIA agents will still remain on scene, the loss of American special forces on the ground makes any counter-terrorism effort far more difficult (Schmitt).

BBC News. “Yemen Crisis: Who is Fighting Whom?” BBC. March 23, 2015.

Calamur, Krishnadev. “Yemen Descends into Chaos as Foreign Minister Seeks Help from Neighbors.” NPR. March 23, 2015.

Peralta, Eyrder. “Obama Says U.S. Will ‘Take Out’ Islamic State ‘Wherever They Exist.’” NPR. Sept. 10, 2014.

Schiavenza, Matt. “Why the U.S. is Stuck With Saudi Arabia.” The Atlantic. Jan. 24, 2015.

Schmitt, Eric. “Out of Yemen, U.S. is Hobbled in Terror Fight.” The New York Times. March 22, 2015.

Whitlock, Craig. “Pentagon Loses Track of $500 in Weapons, Equipment Given to Yemen.” The Washington Post. March 17, 2015.

Feb 15

Mental Health Deliberation Reflection

I attended a deliberation on Mental Health at PSU this week. I guess I’ll just start from the beginning.

The group was set up so that everyone was in a circle, which was actually pretty conducive to discussion since everyone could see each other at the same time. The atmosphere was pretty low key, and everyone appeared relaxed.

The introduction seemed pretty sparse to me, and only lasted about a minute. The team also never cited any sources, even though it sounded as if they were referring to other people’s research. When it was time for personal stakes, the group actually had everyone, including those attending the event, go around and introduce themselves. While this was useful in the fact it got everyone talking right off the bat, it was time that could have been used for the introduction, which I still feel should have been more substantive.

The approach teams addressed three methods of improving mental health at Penn State: Intervention (actually inserting oneself into the situation and forcing someone to get help), Right to Privacy (the opposite of intervention, where you respect the boundaries of a person going through a tough time), and Resources and Funding (in which the amount of resources going toward Penn State’s mental health program was assessed). Some things the approach teams did well was that they encouraged discussion, rather than debate. Moderators were very eager to hear from everyone, and nobody was ever pushing for a solution. They also kept time well and asked questions which prompted critical thinking and conversation.

The main issue I had with the approach teams is that, again, they never cited a single source, despite the fact that they were obviously using the work of others to supplement their knowledge base. I thought this was somewhat unethical, considering the moderators are supposed to be the authority figures in these deliberations which are open to the public, and by not citing sources, they were essentially allowing people to assume the credit to all the research they used was theirs. Another thing I couldn’t really condone was how only one person on each approach team ever talked and the other person just took notes. Notes, I might add, which were never used until the conclusion of the debate. Wouldn’t it have made more sense for the conclusion team to take notes, while the people on the approach team worked together to present the things they’d all researched? Finally, I noticed that the moderators would often jump into discussions, inserting their own opinions. One in particular actually began passing off his assumptions as fact, which I feel may have swayed the group’s opinion unnecessarily. The moderators’ only job is to moderate the discussion and provide facts–anything else could add bias to the deliberation.

The conclusion team was generally pretty solid: they recapped everything using the notes the approach teams had taken. However, they never asked questions or touched back on any unsettled topics that came up during the deliberation, despite the fact that they had had more than enough time to do so (the deliberation ending about 30min early). I feel like it would have given more closure to the discussion if they had taken the time to at least ask the audience for any final thoughts.


Feb 15

Syria is in the International Time-Out Corner Again

I think at this point we’re all aware of some of the problems the U.S. and several other countries have with Syria. After the country’s Civil War began, President Bashar al-Assad’s military was repeatedly accused of indiscriminately killing civilians. For those who haven’t been following the story, Syrian rebel groups have been fighting against Assad’s authoritarian regime, and Assad has responded by firing on, using chemical weapons, and even dropping bombs on it’s own citizens. These “barrel bombs” are the most recent thing that’s got everyone riled up. The United Nations has even held a conference to specifically address the developing humanitarian crisis, which in January alone has resulted in 271 civilian casualties and over 1000 injuries.

Assad, however, continues to deny any government involvement in these bombings, despite the fact that these events are well-documented: there are literally videos of the Syrian military pushing these bombs out of helicopters and onto civilian populations. In a rare interview with BBC news on Tuesday morning, President Assad reiterated, “We have bombs, missiles and bullets… There is [are] no barrel bombs, we don’t have barrels.” British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond was quick to condemn these remarks, saying, “Assad is deluded or lying when he says his military are not murdering hundreds of innocent civilians with the use of barrel bombs.”

To be fair, Syria isn’t intentionally targeting civilians. As Syrian activist and journalist Ibrahim as-Assil explained at the a UN conference this past May, the problem is more that these bombs are inaccurate, not that the regime has malicious intent. However, the moral conflict arises when the government refuses to acknowledge that they need to find another way to combat the rebels, which doesn’t involve endangering civilians. To make a long story short, the U.S. and several other countries have cut Syria off, so long as its government’s disregard for human life continues.

Recently though, things have been shaken up again in the Middle East. And it stems from the rise of ISIS.

To clear up any preconceptions you might have about Syria’s connection with ISIS, ISIS is not a Syrian rebel group. It is a transnational organization which was around for years before the start of the Syrian civil war. While ISIS does not support Syria’s secular government, they have managed to benefit from the conflict within the country. It allowed ISIS to get battlefield experience, and attracted a ton of financial support from Gulf states and private donors looking to oust Assad. Throughout the turmoil they have also attained a crucial safe haven in eastern Syria. ISIS also absorbed a lot of recruits from Syrian rebel groups, which means that arming Syrian rebels, as some have suggested, probably would not have helped dismantle ISIS (although according to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, it may have been essential to taking out Assad. Either way, arming them now would be too little, too late at this point.).

While countries like Jordan and the U.S. previously refused to work with Assad, the emergence of ISIS has reshuffled the deck, and many governments are reconsidering. However, the Syrian government has so far refused to cooperate, and as a result many of said countries are taking military action without Assad’s permission. The U.S., in particular, has become very active in the region; as of December 2014, it has carried 1371 airstrikes in Syria and Iraq where ISIS has been hiding out. While communication is still open with Iraq, Syrians apparently have very little to go off of. In fact, the Syrian regime is getting most of it’s information now from “Iraq and other countries.” When questioned about how there could be no communication between Syria and the U.S. about air strikes, and still be no aircraft collisions, Assad explained, “Sometimes, they [the Americans] convey a message, a general message, but there’s nothing tactical,” he added vaguely: “There is no dialogue. There’s, let’s say, information, but not dialogue.”

Here’s what Assad said, more specifically, about the U.S.: “They don’t talk to anyone, unless it is puppet. And they easily trample over international law, which is about our sovereignty now. So they don’t talk to us, we don’t talk to them.”

So perhaps the U.S. isn’t the only party refusing to communicate. But maybe we’re right right to be cautious around Syria when in comes to ISIS. Because in a bizarre way, the rise of the terrorist organization has really benefitted Assad. By the “virtue” of the misconception that ISIS is a Syrian rebel group, Assad’s supporters have become increasingly more convinced that the rebels need to be stopped at all costs. Assad has also been focussing most of his military on moderate groups of rebels, the ones most against ISIS, which leaves ISIS temporarily unscathed. These same moderate rebels have also been fighting against ISIS, dividing the opposition even further.

So while ISIS and Syria really do hate each other, they seem to have made an implicit deal: ISIS gets a temporary free ride in some parts of Syria, and Assad gets to weaken his other opponents. They both benefit from the current status quo.

With all this information coming to light, I don’t believe anyone can trust the Syrian government, and I don’t have any qualms about our military not being totally upfront about its plans with them. What do you readers think? Do we owe it to Syria to let them in on the airstrikes landing in their country, or should we keep them in the international time-out corner?

BBC News. Assad Says Syria is Informed on Anti-IS Air Campaign. BBC World News. Feb. 10, 2015.

Beauchamp, Zach. The 9 Biggest Myths About ISIS. Vox. Oct. 1, 2014.

Chappel, Bill. Syria Has Learned About Airstrikes On ISIS Via ‘Iraq And Other Countries.’ NPR. Feb. 10, 2015.

Dearden, Lizzie. Syrian Government Forces Killing Hundreds of Civilians in Air Strikes as World Watches ISIS. The Independent. Feb. 4, 2015.

United Nations. Barrel Bombs: Syria’s Indiscriminate Killers. UN Web TV. May 14, 2014.

US News. Should Obama Have Armed Syrian Rebels Sooner? US News Debate Club.

Winsor, Morgan. US Airstrikes Targeting ISIS Cost Over $1 Billion, Pentagon Says. International Business Times. Dec. 20, 2014.

Zirulnick, Ariel. Syrian 101: 4 Attributes of Assad’s Authoritarian Regime. The Christian Science Monitor. Apr. 29, 2011.

Jan 15

Russia is Giving Europe the Willies. America’s Response?

In the U.S., there’s a longstanding debate about whether or not to cut back or expand our military. After all, we invest more money in the armed forces than any other country; hundreds of billions more than China, Great Britain, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and France combined. We’ve developed a status quo, and though many Americans believe we should be putting more of that “gratuitous” amount of money into things like education or welfare, having a military at the top of the food chain is something to be admired. And it’s something we’ve taken for granted.

Over in Europe, countries have been pouring continually less money into their militaries. But there’s never been much debate about these cuts. Ever since the Cold War ended, Western Europe has enjoyed a time of peace. With less international threats to worry about, they started funneling their military budget into education reform, universal healthcare, and clean transportation. Some of them were still working on rebuilding after World War II. In any case, if something seemed threatening, they could always rely on America, the undeclared policeman of the globe. Recently though, things have started to change for Europeans. And Russia is at the head of it.

Between the massive country’s increased military budget and it’s governments lack of transparency, Russia has the U.S. on its toes. But we are no where near as close in proximity to them as our European friends, who are becoming more and more anxious. One such country is Sweden, who led an “international cat-mouse game” when a foreign submarine poked it’s head into the waters of Stockholm a few months ago. The primary suspect for whom this “mouse” belonged to, was Russia (Shapiro). In April, Russia had simulated a bombing raid on the same city, complete with fighter jets zooming over the civilian population. And just last month, a Russian military aircraft flying in stealth almost collided with a commercial passenger plane taking off from Copenhagen.

Admiral Jan Thornquist, the chief of staff for the Swedish navy, is worried that Russia’s antics could lead to an international crisis. And with tensions this high, especially after their intervention in the Ukraine, all it would take from Russia is a small slip up.

“If you’re doing an exercise close to a border of another country, you could easily pass that border by mistake,”he told NPR on Tuesday morning, “You point out another ship with a radar system, that could easily be interpreted as a threat.”

The worst part is that nobody seems able to do anything about it.

“I’ve been in the armed forces since the early ’70s, and I’ve only experienced reductions,” says Jan Solesund, the secretary of state for Sweden’s Ministry of Defense, “Europe as a whole, of course, downsized their forces… We tend to forget that things can change quicker than we thought.”

Indeed, with Russia’s recent expenditures, there isn’t a country in Europe who can hope to compete with the post-Soviet military. In fact, the only country whose military remains superior… is the United States.

So what are we going to do about it? Ariel Cohen, a PhD in political science at the Heritage Foundation, has a few ideas. Throughout the research he published this May, Cohen outlines the strategic motivations behind Russia’s newly expanded military, some of which Vladimir Putin has openly addressed, including the pursuit of multilateral international relations, and increased defense against emerging threats. Other motives were not mentioned publicly, such as redemption after the Cold War, and the ability to become the leader of a number of anti-West forces in the East.

With Russians motivated by both logic and pride, it doesn’t seem as though they’ll be backing down from getting the military back in gear anytime soon. According to a Levada Center poll, 46% of Russians were in favor of increasing military spending even if it led to an economic slowdown (versus 41% opposed if defense increases caused economic hardship). These opinions have no doubt shifted now that the value of the Ruble has dropped off by half due to sanctions and military spending (Ormiston). However, expansion is already underway, and it’s causing problems with many of our allies. Not to mention that Putin has already invested way too much money to turn back now. And if all goes according to plan, by 2020 Russia is projected to have a million active-duty personnel in place, backed up by 2300 new tanks, and 1200 new helicopters and planes. They’ll have a navy sporting fifty new surface ships and twenty-eight submarines, with one hundred new satellites designed to augment Russia’s communications, command and control capabilities (Gvosdev). These advances will bring them closer to America’s military might anyone country in the 21st century ever has. A little too close for comfort?

In his abstract, Cohen notes that it is vital that the U.S. increase intelligence gathering on Russian military growth, as well as their tactical goals, programs, and plans. He also strongly encourages U.S. military modernization to continue, with defense spending remaining 4% of the GDP. Normally I’m one of the people advocating for cuts in our military spending, but looking at the facts here, I think I could get on board with some of the conservatives in our country. I’m not trying to rouse fear or anything, but I think it’s obvious the U.S. needs to start taking Russia more seriously. Do you think Cohen’s suggestions are a step in the right direction for the American government? Is it too much, not enough? Do you have any other ideas? Leave your answers in the comments.

Bender, Jeremy and Macias, Amanda. The 35 Most Powerful Militaries in the World. Business Insider, July 2014.

Cohen, Ariel. A U.S. Response to Russia’s Military Modernization. The Heritage Foundation, May 2014.

Gvosdev, Nikolas K. The Bear Awakens: Russia’s Military Is Back. The National Interest, Nov. 2014.

Ormiston, Susan. Ruble’s Dramatic Drop Inflicts Economic Pain in Russia. CBC News, Jan. 2015.

Shapiro, Ari. Russian Threats Expose Europe’s Military Cutbacks. NPR, Jan. 2015.

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