Translation Gone Bad—and Good


In the previous post, we discussed what exactly translation and interpreting are, and showed how today almost everyone relies on these services to some extent. This is especially true of anyone involved in business, finance, security, international relations, and any other field in which people speaking two different languages might need to meet or interact. Even if you are not a language worker yourself, your use of language services will improve if you understand what professional translators and interpreters need to do their work. The first part of this post will explore some ways to take the best advantages of any language services you do use. In the second part of the post, we’ll bring it all together by exploring a few real-world examples of language work.

Working with Translators

If you’ve engaged the services of a translator, it probably means you have a document in one language that you want to have in another. Alternatively, you might have a video for which you want subtitles, or some other text that needs to be conveyed in another language. Regardless of your exact goals, you should keep the following tips in mind. (Note: throughout these two sections I have used the term “company” for convenience. The same goes for whatever agency, group, or other body you may be associated with.)

1. Vocabulary and Language Matters

Obviously, most of the work in the target language will be handled by your professional. However, if your company already has established terms for certain proprietary expressions relating to the project, they should be provided to the translator. Product names, slogans, personal titles, or other language relating to your company may have already been established by a previous translator working on another project, and consistency should be maintained. That said, when terms are being translated for the first time, it’s usually best not to pull out a dictionary and try to make them up in the target language yourself. Leave it to the translator to coin something appropriate. (Translators working on cutting-edge medical literature, for example, sometimes find themselves inventing new terminology as part of their work.)

In the same vein, if your company favors a certain style guide or has in-house guidelines, this should be indicated to the translator. These steps will help maintain consistency of style and terminology among documents (which may be handled over the course of years and/or by many different translators).

2. Context

In many cases, the context of a document is reasonably obvious: a juicer manual is aimed at people who will use the juicer. A patent is meant to describe what is being patented. Some documents (such as some contracts) will be mainly boilerplate, and their tone will be set by their nature. Once in a while, though, you may be requesting a translation whose context is either not immediately obvious or is especially important. This is particularly true of personal correspondence: perhaps you are writing to the president of another company, or you are sending your thanks to a host. Is this the first time you’ve written to them? Or have you known them for years? Details like this should be communicated to the translator to ensure the correct tone and usage in the target language.

3. Questions

Sometimes the source text is ambiguous, unclear, or just poorly written. When possible, allow the translator to ask questions, either directly or through a third party, of the original author(s) of the text, or someone who understands the intent and meaning of the document. On a related note, you may wish to discuss with the translator how to handle cases of unclear or badly-written source text: should she translate it just as ambiguously, or clean it up based on her consultation with author?

4. Proofreading

Ideally, of course, your translator will be a consummate professional who almost never makes an error in either her understanding of the source text or her writing in the target language. But since no one’s perfect, it’s best to have work checked whenever possible. Get a proofreader to go over the final translation—in a perfect world, the proofreader would also know the source language, though this is not always possible—and make sure there are no errors in spelling, grammar, or style, and that any guidelines as to house usage and terminology have been followed. (It is also preferable that the proofreader be capable in the target language; once in a while translators find their work being checked over by people with a less than fluent command of the language, who end up introducing more errors than they fix.)

5. Reading a Translation

The above tips have been mainly for someone commissioning a translation, but many more of us will be consumers of translations. As I said in the previous post, we may wish to read a novel, use a manual to a foreign product, watch a movie in another language, or even read a holy text first written in some other tongue. Covering the full range of potential issues when using a translation would be beyond the scope of this post, but a certain mindfulness is called for when using a text that has been translated from another language. Although it’s usually reasonable to assume professional work, there’s always the chance the translator has misconstrued a source-language construction or misused a target-language one, making the target text say something different from the original. Alternatively, there may be cultural background to the original text with which the reader is unfamiliar, and such issues are often too far-reaching for a translator to address within the translated text. In this case, readers should be aware that even passages that appear linguistically clear may not “mean” what they appear to mean; ideally, readers would seek out additional information on the source culture to better understand the translated text.

Working with Interpreters

Hiring an interpreter? You’re most likely going to give a speech to a foreign audience, speak to a foreign counterpart, or participate in a conference or meeting where more than one language will be used. Whatever the specific situation, here are some ways to help things go smoothly for both you and your language worker.

1. Vocabulary Again

Your interpreter will most likely do preparatory research based on the description of the job, but as with a translator, the more materials you can provide ahead of time, the easier things will be. If you have settled in-house terminology or if you expect certain topics to come up, let the interpreter know in advance.

2. Figure Things Out Ahead of Time

If possible, talk to your interpreter ahead of the actual job. In addition to providing any useful materials you have on hand, work out the interpreting situation: what mode of interpreting will be used? If some form of consecutive interpreting is involved, how often should you pause to allow the interpreter to speak? Even more than translating, interpreting is a collaboration between two people, almost a dance, and the more factors you can work out beforehand, the fewer surprises there will be on the day.

3. Pause for the Interpreter

Again, if some form of consecutive interpreting is involved, be aware of how long you have been speaking and how complex the ideas you’ve been expressing are, so that you can pause in time to allow your interpreter to work most effectively. Although it is probably more common for people to go too long without pausing, it is also possible to go too short, breaking up thoughts or sentences so the relationship between the pieces is not clear. This is especially true for languages that have opposing sentence structures, such as English and Japanese. A Japanese might say, for example, “Kare wa kono jiken dewa yougisha to sarete inai.” A fair translation of this sentence would be “He is not being considered as a suspect in this case.” But the Subject-Object-Verb structure of Japanese means the sentence literally reads “He, in this incident, a suspect is being considered not.” You can see how an interpreter, hearing only half of such a sentence, might have trouble rendering it into English: at the halfway point, we don’t know whether “he” is under suspicion or not.

4. Interpreters Use the First Person

People often think interpreters primarily use the third person (“He says he’s glad to see you.” “She wants to take the train to Michigan”). This does happen in very casual situations or when a person is rendering one language into another but is not professionally engaged to do so (a meeting of friends, an after-work party with teams from two countries). However, in professional situations, interpreters typically speak in the first person, assuming the “voice” of the person they are interpreting for. Therefore, Mr. Tanaka may say something in Japanese, and his interpreter may then say to you, “Hello, I am Mr. Tanaka of Jagaimo Corporation. I’ve been looking forward to meeting you for a long time.” An interpreter in a professional situation effaces himself or herself so that your own words and ideas can be communicated clearly and accurately to the listeners.

5. Speak to the Other Party

Following from the above, you should not speak “to” your interpreter. Instead, speak to the audience or person(s) you are addressing. The meeting, etc., is between you and them, not you and the interpreter, who will be trying to make herself invisible precisely so that you can talk to the other party unimpeded. (This goes for interpreters working into sign language as well as spoken language.)

Translation Gone Bad—and Good

At some point we’ve probably all encountered a menu at a Chinese restaurant where the awkward expressions made us giggle (or wonder just what was in those dishes!), so we’re all aware that translations can simply wind up incomprehensible. To wrap up our overview of language work, I would like to examine a few cases which are not as egregious, and which show the more subtle gradations in communication in which translators must often deal.

1. Movies

The movie X-Men: First Class (2011) includes a scene in which two characters are about to embark on a task they have been long preparing for. Character A asks Character B, “Ready for this?”, to which character B replies, “Let’s find out.” When the movie was released in Japan (where Hollywood films are routinely released in English with Japanese subtitles) the response of Character B was “Mochiron!” or “Of course!” This is not precisely a wrong translation; it is, after all, an answer to Character A’s question. But it is a more facile line than the somewhat reluctant original, the go-to quip for this kind of situation, a bit as if Character B had said “I was born ready!” It can’t be said that Japanese lacks the capacity to express Character B’s hesitation—a line such as “Yatte miru shika nai” (“Nothing to do but try it”) suggests itself. This is a case where the translation communicates something slightly, though not catastrophically, different from the original.

2. Burger Chains

When McDonald’s adopted the slogan “I’m lovin’ it” in 2003, they decided to make it part of their marketing globally. This included translating the expression into a variety of languages; in the Philippines, for example, it became “Love ko ‘to” (literally, “I love this”). In contrast, competitor Burger King chose not to translate their slogan, “Have it your way,” when they entered the Philippine market, where English is widely spoken as a second language. This is not to say one choice is better than the other (I have no statistics on how well the chains are doing in the Philippines), but they represent two alternatives in the entrance to a foreign market.

3. Coke


In the mid-2000s, Coca-Cola was using the slogan “The Coke side of life,” which they chose to translate for the Japanese market. This was perhaps not as straightforward as the McDonald’s catch phrase, since it draws on the expression “the bright side of life,” which would be known to English speakers but not necessarily to a Japanese audience. The company went with Coke no kiita jinsei wo (Cokeのきいた人生を). Back-translated, this means roughly “for a life in which Coke is active” or “a life influenced by Coke” (kiku means to have an effect, as with a medicine). Perhaps one could argue that this is not a “faithful” translation, but we are not yet in the realm of localization, either. This translation is somewhere in the middle of the scale, not preserving the English vocabulary exactly, yet conveying a very similar idea.

I hope this overview has helped readers become more aware of when, how, and why they use language services, and will help them use such services more effectively in the future. Something will always be “lost” in translation, but if we’re careful and thoughtful about how we use these resources, we might just be able to find it again.


A note about the author: Kevin Steinbach received his BA in Japanese from Hope College, and has received high honors in translation competitions around the globe.  He has spent hundreds of hours studying linguistics and language, including Mandarin, Japanese, and Tagalog.  He currently lives with his wife in Manila, where he continues to explore translation opportunities.

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Beautiful, but not faithful: The invaluable role of translation and interpreting


There is an apocryphal story about a young interpreter (when I first heard it, he was Korean) who is assigned to interpret during a speech by the president of an American company. The president opens with a joke with which he is clearly pleased, but the novice interpreter cannot fathom how to render it in his native language. Looking distraught, he says to the audience, “The president has just made a joke which he thinks is quite funny, but I am new at this job and cannot possibly tell it for you. For my sake, please, laugh anyway.” The audience, of course, bursts into laughter.

This particular episode may not have happened as such, but countless similar situations certainly have. Our increasingly globalized world demands the routine use of translators and interpreters, yet many people do not fully understand what these activities entail. In this and the following article, we will explore what translating and interpreting are, why we need them, and how they can best be put to use.

What are Translation and Interpreting?

It is fairly common for non-practitioners to use the words “translator” and “interpreter” more or less interchangeably, which can cause confusion as to who does what. To begin with, let’s take a look at what each of these roles involves.

Both activities involve taking discourse in one language (the “source language”) and representing it as discourse in another language (the “target language”). In general, translation refers to doing this in writing, sometimes using a printed source text, while interpreting means transforming one oral discourse into another (such as the young man in our opening paragraph). Thus, a company that wants an instruction manual rendered into another language will hire a translator, while one that wants their CEO to be understood on an overseas visit will get an interpreter. (Many professionals handle both tasks to one extent or another.)

A note on usage: commonly, the act of a translator is referred to as “translation” (sometimes “translating”), and the act of an interpreter is referred to as “interpreting.” The parallel construction “interpretation” is not often used, probably to avoid confusion with the word meaning “an explanation” (as in “Let me give my interpretation of this passage”).

Degrees of Translation

An old saw has it that “translations are like either a wife or a mistress: faithful, but not beautiful, or beautiful, but not faithful.” Of course, this is an oversimplification, but it is true that in translation, a choice must be made about the kind of representation desired in the end product. Translation occurs along a spectrum that runs from “literal” (sometimes called “word-for-word”) on one end to “dynamic” (or “meaning-driven”) on the other. (In principle, the same choice is open to an interpreter, but interpreting by its nature tends to favor certain kinds of rendering.)

Theoretically, a “literal” translation reflects the usage and vocabulary of the original (source language) text precisely, while a “dynamic” translation takes the ideas of the source text and expresses them in a way that sounds natural in the target language. This can be a useful distinction on some level, but it can also create the impression that there is a black and white distinction between these two modes, when in fact translation is always a delicate balance between fidelity and clarity.

For example, the French word bonjour is used as a greeting, usually during the day. It literally means “good day” (bon = good, jour = day), which happens to be an accepted expression in English as well. There are times when “good day” might be a reasonable translation of bonjour, but there are others when it may sound too stilted as compared with the more common “hello.”

A more pointed case is the Japanese expression o-kage-sama de. The “literal” translation of this expression is “by [your] most honorable shadow,” but the English equivalent is “Thanks to you” (as in “Thanks to you, we were able to raise the money we needed”). In this case, the meaning of the “literal” translation is almost completely incomprehensible. And though I refer to it as “literal,” it is only approximately so, since, though kage does mean “shadow,” the honorifics o- and –sama simply don’t have precise counterparts in English. This points up one of the pitfalls of so-called “word-for-word” translation, which is that it implies that for most or even many words there exists an exact equivalent in another language, which often is simply not true.

Nonetheless, it is possible to remain more or less close to the range of vocabulary used in the source text. In addition, there are considerations such as whether a given word in the source text should always be rendered with the same word in the target language, or if the rendering should vary depending on the context. This is a particular concern in, among other situations, translating sacred texts. For example, should the Greek word sarx, which appears throughout the New Testament, be rendered in each case with its basic meaning of “the flesh”? Or should the translation change according to the rhetorical usage—“the flesh,” “the body,” “the sinful nature,” and so on?

Lying at the far “dynamic” end of the translation spectrum is paraphrase, in which the main ideas of the source text are communicated, but in which the translator may also add some embellishment or rephrase the source text in a way he believes makes it more meaningful or communicative in the target language. In the United States, a popular paraphrase translation is Eugene Peterson’s The Message Bible. Here is Genesis 1:1-2 in the New International Version, a translation which sits comfortably in the middle of the literal/dynamic scale:

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.”

Here is the same passage in The Message:

“First this: God created the Heavens and Earth—all you see, all you don’t see. Earth was a soup of nothingness, a bottomless emptiness, an inky blackness. God’s Spirit brooded like a bird above the watery abyss.”

We can see how details (“like a bird”) and commentary (“all you see, all you don’t see”) might be added into a paraphrase. This is different from the shaping of a non-paraphrase translation, which might require the inclusion of asides or notes in the target language to clarify, e.g., cultural facets of the original text. For example, a translator working on a Japanese novel might translate “kare wa shouji wo hiraita” as “He opened the sliding shoji door.” Neither “sliding” nor “door” are technically in the original, as these are understood within the term “shoji,” but they are added for the convenience of English-speaking readers.

There is a third practice which is similar to but distinct from translation, called localization. In localization, a product description, ad campaign, or other text is completely reconfigured to meet the expectations and needs of a foreign audience. This sometimes looks like translation, but often goes beyond even paraphrase in reimagining the text in the target language. So when Nintendo launched its Pokémon franchise in the US, the Japanese tagline “Pokémon getto da ze!” (literally, “I got a Pokémon!”) became the English “Gotta catch ’em all!” Similarly, the names of the characters, which were all puns in Japanese, were recreated as puns in English. For example, a dinosaur-like creature with a large plant bulb on its back was called Fushigidane (sounds like “mysterious seed”) in Japanese, and Bulbasaur in English.

While localization may involve translation, it is ultimately separate, and we will not deal further with it here. Still, anyone embarking on a foreign venture would do well to consider whether translation alone will suffice, or if a broader project is called for.

Kinds of Interpreting

Those who work between languages with spoken texts may do so in a variety of situations and with any of several methods. Below is a brief overview of the forms interpreting may take.

There are two broad types of interpreting, consecutive and simultaneous. In consecutive interpreting, the speaker speaks, then pauses while the interpreter interprets. The amount of speaking done at a stretch will vary; it can be as brief as one thought or sentence or as long as an entire speech. In simultaneous interpreting, the interpreter speaks at the same time as the main speaker.

Simultaneous interpreting can be further broken down based on how the simultaneous speaking is performed. At the United Nations, for example, interpreters work from a booth in which they listen to the speaker through an ear piece, and interpret into a microphone; their words are broadcast to the ear pieces of listeners in the audience. In other situations, an interpreter may stand next to the person who wishes to understand the source language and whisper the interpretation into his or her ear; this is called whispered interpreting.

The simplest form of interpreting is a sort of hybrid of interpreting and translating. In this form, the interpreter is given the text (of a speech, say) ahead of time, and has time to do an initial translation into the target language. During the event proper, the interpreter will mainly read the prepared text, still paying attention to the speaker to allow for any impromptu changes in content. In many cases, however, the content of the source-language discourse is not fixed, such as at a conference or a court trial. In these cases the interpreter will listen to the source-language speaker and immediately render his or her words into the target language (whether consecutively or simultaneously).

Furthermore, the number of languages the interpreter handles may vary. Ideally an interpreter works into just one language (often her native or “A” language); so for example, at a discussion between a Japanese CEO and his American head of US operations, there will be one interpreter rendering the CEO’s remarks into English and another rendering the American’s into Japanese. Sometimes, however, a single interpreter will have to work in both directions. (Let me be clear that I am not casting aspersions on this position; it often happens and many interpreters are perfectly capable of it. It’s simply that much more work for them!)

Translation and Interpreting in a Global Era

All this talk about the “how” of translating and interpreting might leave us asking: why? Why should we know any of this, why should non-practitioners bother to understand what these specialized roles are?

The short answer is that we all need translation and interpreting. Our world is inescapably globalized, and growing more so every day. We read novels originally written in foreign languages, watch movies made in other countries, use products that were conceived in the US and manufactured in China from parts fabricated in half a dozen other places.

That means these practices are relevant to all of us, but especially so for people involved in business, finance, global security or international relations. In any case in which you yourself do not speak or read the other language capably, you will need to rely on a translator or interpreter to help you understand a foreign source text or get your meaning across to an overseas audience.

Anything that used to be in one language and is now in another—from movies to motorcycle manuals—has been translated. We will be better users and consumers of translation and interpreting services if we understand what is involved in the process. We are less likely to make embarrassing language-based mistakes and more likely to succeed in communicating with the other party.

And taking the time to learn something about these practices makes us not just better workers but better global citizens. Any time we reach out in a genuine attempt to communicate with another person, we are showing them our kindness and love—and translators and interpreters can be invaluable partners in reaching out with understanding.

A note about the author: Kevin Steinbach received his BA in Japanese from Hope College, and has received high honors in translation competitions around the globe.  He has spent hundreds of hours studying linguistics and language, including Mandarin, Japanese, and Tagalog.  He currently lives with his wife in Manila, where he continues to explore translation opportunities.

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Culture, Freedom, and Development

Citizens have shaped policy and cultural norms in unprecedented ways in developing countries due to the boom in media and increase in freedom of expression. These members of society can connect with each other to represent their opinions to their governments, represent their nation to the international community, and bring attention to development issues. As one example, the Portuguese-speaking Southern African country of Mozambique has a richness of cultural traditions and a relatively high level of freedom of speech compared to regional countries. In this country, dancing is a part of daily life, and people are seen regularly protesting in the street.

Mozambique is a country with a rich history, multifaceted culture, and steadily growing economy, yet it is one of the least developed countries in the world in terms of health, education, and income. As a country located in Southern Africa on the Indian Ocean, Mozambique experienced an influx of migrating peoples and cultures throughout the centuries including Bantu tribes, Arab and Asian traders, and Portuguese colonizers. Gaining its independence from Portugal in 1975, the country had nearly two decades of civil war ending in 1992 with about a million deaths. While the country has gradually moved towards democracy and a robust economy, on the Human Development Index (HDI) the United Nations ranks Mozambique as 185 out of 187 countries (1  = very high level of human development; 187 = very low level of human development).  The HDI indicates that Mozambicans on average have a life expectancy of 50.7 years at birth, 1.2 years of schooling, and a Gross National Income of $906 (international $) per year. Despite the Government of Mozambique’s agenda to reach the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals by 2015, the country and its leadership fall short. After a grueling civil war, the transformations in Mozambique’s political and economic systems have not added up to the general well being of its citizens in terms of human development.

While Mozambique has shocking indications of very low human development, its society has great strengths in media freedom and cultural expression. Citizens regularly express their discontent against the president and the ruling party through private media outlets including printed press, social media, and TV and radio stations. In fact, compared to the Sub-Saharan Africa region and countries worldwide, Mozambique’s press freedom ranks high – 73 out of 179 countries according to international media whistle-blower Reporter without Borders. Furthermore, citizens often exhibit their resistance to policies and bring attention to national development issues via cultural expression through media outlets. Singers lament about corruption on the privately owned TV station Miramar, and the National Song and Dance Company of Mozambique (Companhia Nacional de Canto e Dança or CNCD) has partnered with the United Nations to bring awareness about development issues such as the fight against HIV and AIDS. Cultural institutions that promote such expression receive little support from the government; nonetheless, they could be instrumental in promoting citizen-led development initiatives in the coming years.

In order to shift Mozambique’s development status from the third least-developed country in the world, Mozambicans could greatly benefit from harnessing strength in their freedom of speech and cultural expression. The efforts of the CNCD and UN are a good start. In Mozambique, where culture and freedoms of expression are such great parts of daily life, the intersection of cultural expression and development could be great platforms for a stronger nation.

On Studying America From a Chinese Perspective

Having just finished my first semester at Tsinghua University, one of China’s leading schools, I thought that now would be a good time to write a summary of my impressions of the program so far as it relates to the US. One of the most interesting courses I took this semester was American Politics and Policy Toward China, which was taught by a prominent Chinese scholar on the subject of the US. I am something of a US policy wonk and like to believe that I already have a fairly strong grasp of how things work (or don’t work, as the case may be) in Washington, so I took this class to learn about the Chinese perception of American politics. This class ended up being an experience that was sometimes shocking but always fascinating. The preoccupation with the US here permeates many different aspects of student life, from the bizarre (to me) fascination with American high school-style leather and wool letter jackets to the academic obsession with analyzing every factor of US power so as to figure out how China can and should emulate it in the near future. This class essentially functioned as the tip of the iceberg: it was a forum for students in the Chinese-language IR program to voice their thoughts on the US’s internal affairs rather than focusing on its international relations, the aspect of its conduct which is much more heavily and frequently scrutinized.

The very first class wasted no time in making me wonder just exactly what kind of rabbit hole I’d elected to jump down. We were shown part of a documentary on the pilgrims and then jumped straight into Mel Gibson’s The Patriot. Not just a few pertinent excerpts, as would be the norm for this kind of thing in a school in the US, but the whole thing. It dawned on me as I watched the Swamp Fox try – and comically fail – to build a rocking chair that the Chinese government was effectively paying me to watch a Mel Gibson movie. Gibson’s films, regardless of the man’s personal failings, are generally entertaining, so I had no complaints. What I found fascinating, however, was the fact that this film was apparently being presented as a documentary, not as entertainment. It was evident from my classmates’ reactions that most, if not all, of them had never seen it before: they gasped in all the right places, evidently seeing the sometimes shockingly violent material for the first time.  This film is notorious for its whitewashing of Francis Marion, who in real life is known to have raped his slaves and tortured native Americans, among other crimes; however, none of this was mentioned, critically or otherwise, in the discussion after the film. This viewing served to unironically introduce the class to the American conception of the hero, which was discussed extensively, bringing in the likes of Captain America (no mention of the fact that Steve Rogers was an art school dropout and a pipsqueak who attained his physical prowess from an advanced serum). For many of the students, this ideal seemed to be rather uncritically taken at face value. It would, naturally, be too much to expect a course like this to delve into the nuances of comic book characters, but one of the most piquant moments in Cap’s development was the realization that what he stood for was no longer as relevant as he’d always thought; America had become more cynical than what he had left behind in the 1940s.

"American Heroic Characters' Characteristics": depiction of Captain America

“American Heroic Characters’ Characteristics”: depiction of Captain America

This rose-tinted, Disneyfied view of America and her principles would in many ways set the overall tone for how the US would be described in subsequent classes. In the student presentations and lectures by the professor, many of the nuances of how our traditional cultural values are viewed today were understandably lost, leaving it to the one other American student in the class and me to do our best to fill in the gaps. The fun part, however, was that the other American leans toward the conservative side of the political spectrum, whereas I lean toward the liberal side. As a result, I can only imagine that our sometimes wildly divergent explanations of the same issues often served to further confuse our Chinese classmates, such as our takes on the issues of welfare, gerrymandering, and the NSA’s phone-tapping programs.

The sheer capacity for American political principles to be interpreted so differently, which is one of the mainstays of our political system, in and of itself is no doubt highly alien to students who have grown up under the Chinese model. One whole class was spent just on the subject of America’s political parties, including why we even have them. The basic functioning of democracy is not unknown to the majority of students here, of course, but its particularities, like political parties, are perhaps less understood (the electoral college system can be difficult enough for some to explain in English if it’s not totally comfortable territory, but imagine attempting to explain it in Chinese!). Students understand that there are Democrats and there are Republicans, but seem less aware of the more detailed political cleavings within those two groups. Democracy must seem awfully inefficient at times to external observers, but efficiency is not necessarily the most important trait in a government. As I argued in defense of  what the multi-party system that springs from a a community containing  groups with competing interests ought to embody, once civilization has taken the step of conceding that individuals in a society have a fundamental right to participate in their own government, there is effectively no turning back from that point even if the process itself can be quite messy and is far from perfect. This is what can make democracy, as others have argued, “the only game in town.” Exploring the intricacies of how these competing groups fight for their interests and principles based on differing interpretations of the same historical documents was one of the most interesting parts of the course.

"The 'Other' in American Foreign Policy'"

“The ‘Other’ in American Foreign Policy'”

For example, early on in the course, the subject of America’s Christian heritage was an important theme. As I carefully explained, while much of America shares a cultural and ideological lexicon drawn from Judaeo-Christian ideas, this is not the same thing as a legal basis and was never intended to be interpreted as such; as we all well know, disagreement on this point is one of the main sources of friction between various groups in the US. When the class wrestled with the idea of having “separation of church and state,” one student described his experience teaching minority students in China’s western regions. Many of these students had their own religion, he said – an oblique reference to their adherence to Tibetan Buddhism, I believe – and explained that they were able to view political and religious leaders as filling distinctly separate roles that did not contradict each other. The Chinese Communist Party tends to take the kind of stance regarding religious fealty that was famously shared, for example, by those who feared that John F. Kennedy would be an unfit President because he might secretly owe his primary allegiance to the Pope rather than to the American people. That is, the CCP generally believes that minority nationalism and religion are incompatible with greater China nationalism or the religion of the state. The stance taken at least by this student, however, and a few others in the class was that political and religious leaders do not necessarily have to clash. When the professor asked this student what he believed, after hesitating for a moment, he replied that he believed in Communism. The class tittered at this and, flustered, he explained that Communism doesn’t really mean anything anymore so it’s not exactly an ideological commitment to say one is a Communist. In the end, he finally just shrugged and said that he was an atheist. This view on Communism seems to be quite common here; many Western observers have remarked on how little the Chinese political system as it is today is still influenced by Marxist principles, but this view is also shared by many Chinese, from my experience here. Marxism-Leninism here at Tsinghua seems to be reduced to mostly a token role. Contemporary Marxism and Social Practice are ostensibly required courses in my Chinese-language political science program, but when a post-doc TA shyly asked me how I felt about Marxism during course registration in September, I said something that would be roughly translated as “I can’t stand it.” She giggled in response and told me that I didn’t have to take it. Deference to Marxism is still a political necessity since Marxism-Leninism and Mao Thought (regardless of how they are actually interpreted) are still the crucial elements of the Party’s authorizing political myth and cannot be discarded without causing irreparable harm to the Party’s legitimacy, as I argued in my Master’s thesis; it would be a political scandal of the highest order if China’s preeminent university were to openly abandon it. People pay lip service to it but for most young academics, loyalty seems to stop there. Everyone knows that China is not as red as it once was. There are, of course, a few radical individuals here and there who take Mao Thought without a grain of salt, but this mostly seems, in my opinion, to be because they believe that doing so will help advance their careers.

In addition to the sometimes sensitive discussions on how American politics function, some of the most riveting discussions centered on American culture. Predictably, our gun culture was no disappointment here. I watched in horror one day as the professor explained that all Americans own guns and that it is legal to kill anyone who invades one’s home (I explained that so-called “castle laws” do not exist in all states and that even within castle laws there is a wide variation between the circumstances that call for justifiable lethal response), that police carry guns in order to shoot fleeing criminals in the leg so as to stop them from running (cops are trained to aim for the center mass because in a stressful situation chances of hitting anything else plummet to almost zero, and, when police use their firearms, they tend to shoot first and ask questions later without regard for the well-being of the suspect), that police don’t want to hurt innocent people (without getting too into the political arguments on either side, I think we can all agree that police in the US could stand to be a bit more judicious in escalating use of force), and that only Americans are allowed to privately own guns (flatly untrue). Like many non-Americans, the Chinese students found America’s attachment to guns perplexing. Civilians are forbidden to own guns in China. It seemed clear to many of my classmates that more guns result in more crime; they did not understand why Americans cannot realize this. The other American in the class, who is an Air Force service member, argued that the right to bear arms is enshrined in the Constitution and is not going away, something that is not untrue and with which I do not disagree. I explained to the class that my view on the gun debate is that there is simply a huge cultural divide on the issue. People from urban areas, like me, tend to only be exposed to firearms as instruments of crime and violence, whereas people from rural areas do not have such negative associations with them because they are simply tools that are a part of life; each group tries to push for national policies based solely on its own cohort’s understanding of the issue, which creates conflict. Misunderstandings abound in this realm, such as some conservatives lashing out at what they imagine liberals want to do to their Constitutional rights even if that may not actually be the case, and some liberals trying to legislate based on things they don’t fully comprehend, such as the infamous meaningless “assault weapon” classification based as much on which guns look the scariest as on anything else. In order to make meaningful progress on the issue of gun safety, I argued, both sides need to be more literate both on the subject matter and on what the other side of the debate actually wants, not what they think the other side wants. As long as prominent Democratic politicians make it easy to mock them for not knowing the difference between a clip and a magazine and as long as the mainstream right regards anyone who says “I’m a supporter of the Second Amendment, but…” as an apostate, progress will be difficult or impossible to achieve. I think that this helped clarify some things a bit for my classmates, but I am afraid that our high number of gun crimes still speaks for itself. For the record, I am in favor of expanded background checks and measures that primarily focus on scrutinizing people who attempt to purchase firearms in order to increase success rates of weeding out the potentially dangerous rather than attempting to control the types of magazines that are widely available, since the latter type of measure has proven not to be the, ah, magic bullet it was once hoped to be, particularly in regard to mass shootings.

All in all, the class was pretty fascinating, including the misunderstandings, because it was a great opportunity to clear things up and, hopefully, make America seem less strange. Although I had intended to merely listen to my Chinese classmates’ thoughts, I found myself explaining more and more. This ease with which I explained my points of view, however, was not transferable to the courses on foreign policy. Like some Chinese students studying in America have observed, it can seem more prudent to stay quiet in these classes so as not to become alienated from the rest of the students. Whereas America’s domestic politics seemed to be more of a point of curiosity to my classmates, America’s international conduct is no joking matter. In Chinese Foreign Policy and other similar courses, students’ views tended to fall more or less where one  might expect on lines of nationality. This is where students’ (and professors’) preoccupation with America’s comparative decline and China’s comparative rise – to use the Chinese terminology – reliably came out in full force. As an American, I have found that my experiences studying  diplomacy have tended to emphasize the give-and-take, back-and-forth nature of it, the attempt to sincerely understand one’s counterpart’s position so as to work out a compromise that is as mutually beneficial as possible. This understanding of diplomacy, apparently, differs starkly from how most of my Chinese colleagues view it, which can be best summed up with a statement made by someone in class: “The only way for China and [a certain country with whom China is currently experiencing diplomatic difficulties] to move forward is for [this country] to accept reality and historical fact (emphasis added),” i.e., for the other party to simply give all and take none in the ongoing dialogue. Clearly, such a result would constitute surrender, not compromise, but much of China’s actions in the Southeast and East Asian sphere have appeared to be driven by this mentality. As it was put quite succinctly in The Diplomat recently, “Professor Zod seems to have been teaching Negotiations 101 when Xi Jinping & Co. took the class. Neither empathy nor tact are hallmarks of Chinese foreign relations.” Zod, for those who aren’t up on their comic lore or who have been stuck in the Fortress of Solitude and therefore managed to miss both Superman II and the much more recent Man of Steel, is a formidable Kryptonian general famous for commanding his enemies to “kneel before Zod.” As one might imagine, this approach to foreign policy does not make it easy to ameliorate diplomatic strain between nations. However, rather than voice my opinion on this matter, it has seemed far more painless to simply listen and try to understand my Chinese colleagues’ stances. I would not go so far as to compare this voluntary silence on my part to self-censoring by journalists in Nazi Germany, as the head of Bloomberg did, but neither would I say that I am entirely happy with it. When I do attempt to discuss various aspects of China’s conduct with classmates, rather than being willing to discuss the matter, with few exceptions most students tend to opt for a polite smile followed by “That is an internal Chinese matter.” Rather than cause tension by trying to force a discussion even outside of class, it seems easier to let sleeping dogs lie.

A great deal of the academic discussion here seems to be influenced by economic determinism, which essentially dictates that higher GDP means greater comprehensive power. There are many formulae that students can and do trot out in support of this view; it seems to be taken for granted that if China can keep up its economic growth, it is sure to overtake the US not only as the world’s biggest economy but also as the world’s preeminent superpower. Students seem to focus not so much on whether or not China will overtake the US as they do on what China can and should do once it does. Some academics, like Yan Xuetong, the dean of the Contemporary International Relations Department here at Tsinghua (and also my academic advisor), take a more nuanced stance and argue that mere economic strength is not enough of a basis for hegemony. To be more precise, power derived from economic strength results in hegemony only, and not in more desirable types of superpower status such as “humane authority,” or junwang dao, the only type of superpower that is able to maintain its status through global assent rather than by force. According to Yan’s moral realism, which draws heavily from the pre-Qin dynasty masters of political thought, a hegemonic country’s status will wax and wane as its hard power does, whereas a humane authoritarian power’s status will be tied more to its moral strength than its hard power (although hard power is, of course, not unimportant). This political model is roughly reminiscent of the traditional Chinese cultural model that views China as the “middle kingdom” to which surrounding civilizations are drawn and whose global dominance is passively approved by what are in effect satellite civilizations. Such reforms that would allow this kind of moral realist force to take hold in China have yet to be adopted by the government, but if and when they are, I suspect that understanding between the US and China will be far easier to advance. As one student was asked by the professor during his presentation on US-China relations on the last day of the American Politics course, “Who are America’s friends?” The answer, of course, is those countries that actively uphold global norms. If China wants to be America’s friend, it will have to do that, as well.

Alexander Bowe has an MA in International Studies from the Korbel School and is currently a doctoral candidate in Political Science at Tsinghua University.

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All Quiet on the Non-Communicable Disease Front


In Uganda, a mother of five has been waiting all day to see a doctor, with no success. The story normally ends here. In delay. Frustration. But bolder than her peers, she takes matters into her own hands, and confronts a doctor in the hallway by ripping open her blouse. Exposed is a breast mostly ulcerated, eaten by cancer. Sadly, what shocks the doctor is her directness, not the late stage of the disease, which is common among the disadvantaged in the country. She received chemotherapy that same day.

Infectious diseases such as malaria and TB will continue to remain highly relevant for many years to come in countries such as Uganda, but there are already international organizations dedicated to combating these ailments. Less attention has been paid to non-communicable diseases (NCDs), which have been rising at an unprecedented rate, and are by far the leading causes of death in the world. For the first time in human history, more people live in countries where obesity kills more than starvation. 63% of us will die of one of the “big four”: cardiovascular disease, cancer, respiratory disease, and diabetes. These are not simply unavoidable deaths due to over-consumption and old age: 80% of people who die of NCD-caused deaths live in low- and middle-income countries (LMCs), and a large proportion strikes those under 60. We can even put a mortality rate on inequality: 20 million, or a third of all global deaths, are preventable. That’s the difference between death rates in high-income countries and all other regions of the world.

A cancer diagnosis does not necessitate a death sentence, but in an LMC, it can when the illness is exacerbated by the environment. The Ugandan case above helps us unpack the multitude of issues that contribute to the problem – inefficient health systems, replete with endless waits, shortages of everything, hidden fees and lost lab tests – that compound the stigma and poverty that prevent the sick from going to the clinic. The inequalities of access that have plagued efforts to address infections are only going to be more apparent when applied to the longer-term NCDs. And according to a report by the World Economic Forum and the Harvard School of Public Health, “the cumulative costs of NCDs will be at least $47 trillion from 2010 through 2030, with mental illnesses accounting for more than one-third of the cost. This is a low-end estimate.”

This is all fundamentally important because it necessitates a shift in global health governance, whose architecture has been designed to combat urgent and communicable disease. The annals of public health have a storied history in lepers, and smallpox, and the great killers – the Spanish flu and bubonic plague. Some of these continue to evade our efforts. However, NCDs will be a growing problem because the international response to address them will be more difficult, time-consuming, and costly than many of the other public health campaigns undertaken in the past. NCDs have longer timeframes, less direct causation, are less visible and will need to engage not only public, but private actors, as well as societal change.

Their cause goes beyond individual choices, with larger, structural forces at work, shaping our longevity. A poor national health care system is one such example. But on top of that, we must consider the impact that multinational systems of economics and trade have had upon the rise of NCDs. John Norris writes about an example in a recent Foreign Policy article: the saga of Samoa and the American turkey tail. These tidbits, at 40% fat, are a byproduct Americans do not want. After WWII, marketers for the poultry industry began dumping them in Samoa, where they became a local delicacy. By 2007, Samoans were eating more than 44 pounds of turkey tails every year, and obesity rates reached 56% by 2008, as the tails and other imported foods edged out the local diet. Many Samoans believe that foreign goods are superior to locally-produced items. Samoan officials tried to ban turkey butt imports in 2007, pleading with the WHO for help in combatting American poultry companies. Meanwhile, the WTO blocked Samoa’s application for membership. The debacle bogged down Samoa’s WTO application for years, until it agreed to open itself back up to the fatty imports in 2011. The president of the USA Poultry & Egg Export Council stated “we feel it’s the consumers’ right to determine what foods they wish to consume, not the government’s.” NCDs do not always have direct correlation with one specific food or product, but that does not discount that our international trade and corporate practices are having a definite impact on waistlines around the world.

Hope lies in the fact that there are spaces in which communicable and non-communicable diseases overlap, and best practices from one field can be applied to the other. There are direct correlations found between the two (see: the HPV virus and cervical cancer.) Regardless of whether we’re facing a case of river blindness or pre-diabetes, we will always need a robust health system, that is fully-staffed and sustainably financed, that individuals can access without barriers or stigma. Public health initiatives will need to target issues of prevention more than ever before, and we’ll need to better highlight the linkages between corporate, government, and personal entities that contribute towards our declining health, to find opportunities where programming such as support groups and other platforms can counter them.

P. S. If you fall on the same side as the USA Poultry & Egg Export Council, and paternalism holds you back from supporting more government initiatives against NCDs, I would insist that there is already paternalism in the choices that have been determined for us before we were born. Our work schedules. The costs of seeing a doctor. The costs of educating a doctor. Profit margins. Did you know that companies such as Kraft and Nestle have entire research wings dedicated to engineering a food’s “bliss point,” which is achieved when a consumer’s brain receptors will continue to crave that food without ever triggering the mechanism of feeling satiated? These are just examples of some larger barriers that limit our options in making healthy decisions. It wasn’t until my freshman year of college that I learned there were so many more varieties of apples than I’d seen in grocery stores, after we looked at an heirloom seed catalog in an honors class. For 17 years, those alternatives had been hidden behind a corporate curtain that limited my choices down to those types that are easiest to grow and ship. The Granny Smith. Fuji. Pink Lady. Those were all choices pre-determined for you. And because just a few corporations produce almost all personal consumer products we buy, this pre-selection matters because these goods go directly in or on your person. Public governance is in a unique position to counter corporate influence in a way that individuals alone cannot.

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Ways the World Became Better on Christmas


Some of the stated goals of Christmas seem absurd when applied to the international relations forum. Peace on Earth and goodwill towards men, unless you’re locked in a zero-sum struggle for finite resources, have historical antipathies dating back millennia, or simply have worldviews that are irreconcilable. You’ll have to forgive me for today, however. Today we sit with family and friends recounting times long gone while Christmas music reminds us explicitly to do just that. It’s a strange syrup for the soul, and I simply can’t help myself.

Of course, even when you’re wearing glasses rosier than Santa’s cheeks, one must still acknowledge that there are Christmases that were less than merry. Englishmen probably do not remember the coronation of William-who-conquered-them fondly, and Koreans would probably prefer that their old relations with Emperor Hirohito, who ascended the throne on Christmas, be forgot and never brought to mind. I think we all would like to imagine what the world would have been like if the The Little (War) Drummer Boy wasn’t pa rum pum pum pum-ing in Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion. Like seemingly any other calendar day, one can find events that reshaped the world, for better or for worse. Today, though, we look at the brighter side.

Christmas Truce

Although it is difficult to imagine that any event during the ramp-up of the First World War could be considered positive, today we celebrate the 99th anniversary of the unofficial Christmas Truce between French and German soldiers. No man’s land became spontaneously populated with soldiers exchanging gifts and harmonizing carols. For a time, at least, “O Tannenbaum” (“O Christmas Tree”) mingled with “Minuit, Chrétiens” (“O Holy Night”) and soccer was the only pitched battle taking place. It’s maybe the most famous of the events that happened on Christmas, and likely only could have occurred in 1914. At this point, the only poison gas that had been used was tear gas, Verdun had yet to become a killing field, and “shell shock” was not yet a phrase with any meaning in English. One could argue that the August Madness had not yet dissipated and both sides still were overly optimistic about the realities of war. This would belittle the true power of the event though. It takes a sort of monomaniacal madness to propel towards war, and that Christmas offered a context that reminded the soldiers of their duty to common humanity. It did not stop the war, but it did offer a very powerful reminder that, with deference to Hobbes, man’s natural state is not one of war, but rather community and association.

Mikhail Gorbachev’s Resignation as President of USSR

I admit that I may have more enthusiasm about this one as somebody with an American perspective, but there is no doubt that the globe has benefited immensely from the peaceful disintegration of the Soviet Union. While sitting around the dinner table this past week, the geopolitical jokes that I heard often involved communists and East German spies. Apart from dating some individuals in my family, it truly made me appreciate what a different world we live in. The US no longer has to seriously worry about entering state-on-state total war and developing nations are no longer subjected to open conflict induced by “Great Game” machinations of a bi-polar world. US foreign policy is free to focus on trumpeting human rights and holding allies and aid recipients accountable (alas, not perfectly, of course). Central Asia, Eastern Europe, and, indeed, Russia itself still have a long way to go to fulfill the promise of the road that Gorbachev laid before them, but if the current situation in Ukraine can be read the way I think it should, then they are much closer today than they were in 1991.

First Successful Trial Run of the World Wide Web

I was actually alive for this event. Given how much the interconnectivity has taken over our lives, it’s difficult to imagine how the world operated prior to the Internet’s inception. I admit, this one is a little more light-hearted geopolitically than the previous two, but it has no doubt made the world a better place to exist. Apart from allowing us to order our gadgets, boost work productivity immensely, and, most importantly, read this article, it has also brought us closer and made us more aware of the world and each other. Mohamed Bouazizi would have been a tragic story known by few, rather than a symbol of oppression that ignited a region and defined an era; MOOC would be a silly acronym understood by nobody rather than a revolution in education that have the potential to eliminate barriers to access for a real education; and we never would have known the biting social critique that is Gangnam Style or had space to wonder what the fox says.

Who knows whether this Christmas will live up to the others? Probably not, but it’s tough to argue with hot apple cider flowing freely. We here at The Korbel Report hope you’ve had time to step away from the Foreign Affairs, spend time with friends and family over the past month, and recharge for 2014. We’re sure there will be plenty to discuss.

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The Road to “United States of Europe” Is Rather Bumpy


For the past one month Ukraine has found itself at a crossroad and based on the plentiful accounts in the media, the country has only two choices in terms of direction—Europe or Russia—one of which should lead to prosperity and the other to further degradation. Since November 21, Independence Square in Kiev has been overtaken by protests against the current President, Viktor Yanukovich, and demands for his resignation abound. The protests are a consequence of the president’s failure to follow through with the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement. The deal could mark an important step toward European integration for Ukraine and the suspension of talks between Yanukovich and the EU under the alleged insistence of Russia highlights the biggest obstacle to a smooth process.

Image: BGNES

Image: BGNES

The protests have largely been peaceful, but on several occasions the situation escalated. On November 30, for example, witness reports confirmed beatings by riot police and prompted various human rights organizations, such as Human Rights Watch (HRW), to voice outrage at the police brutality against civilians and journalists. HRW has subsequently demanded a thorough investigation, but while the ruling party acknowledged the complaints, it also dismissed them as unnecessary and as the means to cause panic and chaos. On December 8, the statue of Vladimir Lenin was toppled as protesters voiced their intention to eliminate Soviet influence from their country. Russian officials have reportedly expressed surprise over the attention the situation in Ukraine has attracted both domestically and internationally.

Most analysts appear to agree on two important characteristics of the recent events in Ukraine:

  • First, the increased tensions reflect the polarization between European and Russian economic pressures. Claims abound that President Yanukovich’s decision became a reality after significant push from the Russian President Vladimir Putin. Indeed, while Western leaders have threatened Ukraine with possible economic sanctions, a BBC report indicates that Yanukovich and Putin have reached an agreement that would lead to significant economic assistance from Russia. The bailout package is expected to pull the Ukrainian economy out of the gutters and “keep the country from bankruptcy next year”. Putin’s desire to alleviate the struggles of the Ukrainian economy is seen as a clear sign of his intention to keep Ukraine close and the European Union at a distance.
  • Second, the protests in Kiev are a perfect example of a generational rift: the younger generation tends to support the idea of a united Europe and a common European identity while the older generation insists on strong connections with Russia. Older generations, having lived though the impact of another union, the Soviet that is, seem a bit more skeptical as to the impact the EU could have and voice concerns that the independence of their nations is still in jeopardy. Conversely, the younger generation is fed up with the difficult economic situation in their native countries and see accession to the EU as an opportunity to move West and find better jobs.

Interestingly, the two most prominent characteristics of the developments in Ukraine correspond to the two ideals behind a united Europe—economic interdependence and a common identity. Economic integration was the major focus of the European Coal and Steel Community and the European Economic Community (EEC), precursors of the EU, with the idea that those bound by economic interests will not be concerned with waging a massive and murderous war against each other. For a while, Europe seemed to be on the way to a bright future marked by peace and economic interdependence.

Another, and a bit more problematic, theme accompanying the establishment and enlargement of the EU is the search for the so-called common European identity. A shared cluster of characteristics, distinct to Europeans, is expected to smooth and ease the ultimate integration of all European countries into a community living harmoniously. As Delanty points out, however, this concept of a common regional identity sprouted out of and has been sustained by separation rather than by integration and peace. It is also important to acknowledge Peter van Ham’s observation about the enigma of what exact values, beliefs, and shared hopes would constitute the roots of this budding European identity and the likelihood of such an identity to allow Europeans to feel socially connected on a larger than the commercial level. The intention is for a diverse group of nations to come together under the umbrella of Europeanness and exist and prosper as one body. Moreover, a certain ‘European Gemeinschaft’ is viewed as a necessary prerequisite for the successful enlargement of the EU. It is not clear, however, whether the European identity already exists and the path toward integration is meant to solidify that identity or if the integration itself is supposed to create and reinforce the so-called European identity. The ultimate hope is that an emphasis on a common identity, along with economic interdependence, would reinforce the unification of European states and turn Europe into a powerful actor on the global stage.

In the last two decades it has become painfully clear that with former communist republics seeking admission, the two EU pillars of economic stability and common European identity are threatened and a truce is unavoidable. The idea of a united and strong Europe might still just be that: an idea. In Ukraine, some emphasize, what stands out is “the imaginary Europe that has captured Ukrainians’ minds”. A common market and identity that can keep nations together can only work if a basic level of economic and social development already exists. The original member states relied on and acted out of a shared political and economic template that was not what the new members are familiar with. The economic disparities between the long-time Western members and the new Eastern members place a strain on the union and jeopardize the hopes for economic stability across Europe. Indeed, a discussion about European disintegration has become prominent, especially in the first decade of the 21st century. Support for the EU and its mission has fallen in several of the more powerful European states such as Britain and France.

No doubt the region referred to as Europe is comprised of significant cultural, political, economic, and religious diversity. To have these distinct areas join into a united supra-national organization will take effort, time, and most of all compromise. The economic differences are so enormous that the integration under a common market seems unlikely. Former communist nations have standards of living that are at least 40 percent lower than the standard of life in older members of the EU. Political differences are also significant and while the early accepted Baltic nations are working hard at developing stable democracies, many nations in the Central and Eastern region have found themselves in more repressing regimes than at the end of the Soviet era. Different economic standards ultimately result in distinct ways of life, diverse beliefs, and a color palette of worldviews that in turn create issues with the concept of a united Europe. While language diversity is respected in the union, the cultural and social history it is accompanied by has so far not faced a warm welcoming. In terms of geography, all EU countries technically belong under the umbrella of Europe, but in terms of culture and way of life, not all within the confines of the old continent feel European or are treated as such. While demanding respect for all members within a specific state, the older members of the EU have yet to show a similar practice toward EU citizens across the EU regardless of their country of origin.

Recent reports indicate that President Yanukovich and his government have agreed to resume talks about the deal with the EU, but considering the information provided above, it is clear that a smooth integration would likely not be a reality. Indeed, while an agreement with the EU would in the long run benefit the country, the protesters on the streets of Kiev should not expect an immediate improvement in terms of economic development. This has certainly been the case in Bulgaria, which joined the EU in 2007. It seems that the leaders and governments of developing nations seeking admission into the union know that aid is coming with the membership, and they also know that to a degree, they have to help themselves. And as Framer shrewdly observes, these leaders help themselves the same way political elites everywhere do it: by helping themselves “to whatever they can get their hands on”. While corruption prevails and EU aid disappears down mysterious alleyways and bank accounts, those who suffer the consequences are the common people who really do not care who is in control as long as they have a decent life and are able to provide for their families without having to leave the country and be underpaid, and hated and abused for being there and allowing themselves to be underpaid. So while an entry into the EU is viewed as the way out of economic depression and into prosperity and development, one cannot help but be haunted by the questions asked by Eduardo Galeano, “How many people prosper in prosperity?/How many people find their lives developed by development?”

Ultimately, what is crystal clear is that former communist nations in Europe will not be left alone—either by the EU or Russia. Both powers claim to advocate for the small sovereign nations to be allowed to exert their independence, but no one really lets them make the decision on their own. A country is left to choose between the influence of one big entity over another and who is to say what choice comes with more negative consequences. Considering the continued economic hardships, the high corruption levels, and the escalating mistreatment of immigrants in the West, it is no surprise that some in the newest EU members believe that one repressive and discriminatory regime has simply been replaced by another. Former communist nations are treated like immature younglings who need the guidance of an adult to mature and civilize. Whether that adult is the European Union or the former Soviet Union is truly irrelevant. Churchill may have believed that building “a kind of United States of Europe” is the future of a prosperous Europe, but after over sixty years of hard work and construction, the road to a united Europe still resembles more the Soviet era remnants dissecting Eastern Europe than a German autobahn. As a person who has been on both, I must admit, I am not a fan of either.

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Focus on Haiti: Hypocrisy and Reparations


Clinging to a sinking ship in the middle of the Atlantic, competing mercilessly with each other for mere survival, waiting for a helping hand that came too late, that upturned sloop that over 100 Haitians were found hanging on to could have been Haiti itself.

Haiti has been in the spotlight again. This time not at the bidding of a natural disaster, a tragedy on an epic scale that demands our attention and suggests an equally immediate and grand response, but in light of a series of events, each of which point to the ongoing desperation of those who live on this island just 680 miles from the Miami, and in even closer proximity to its Caribbean neighbours.

First it was protests, which received relatively little press coverage, but were not altogether ignored; the people rose up and demanded more from their government in the face of increases in the cost of living, and high levels of corruption. Then it was the ruling by the supreme court of the Dominican Republic in September, stripping all of those born to migrants since 1929 of their citizenship. The ruling primarily impacts Haitians – potentially as many as 200,000, some claim. And in the last two weeks, Haitians were again in the spotlight as they found themselves upturned and holding on for dear life in the waters of The Bahamas. Just another Haitian sloop disaster, but this one on a grander scale than most – 30 died, while over 100 clung on for their lives.

Cumulatively, this recent spate of Haitian tragedy represents yet another reason to stop and consider the Haitian situation – that of an economic and social leper in its region, and the world, many of its people so unwilling to continue to live in their own country that they risk life and limb to go abroad, only to be shunned wherever they go.

These tragic incidents should cause a sharpening of the debate that has arisen on reparations, in which Caribbean nations are now suing their former colonial masters for compensation for slavery. If indeed there is any country in the world more eligible for such reparations it is Haiti, given that they not only suffered slavery during the time it existed, but its economic slavery extended until when they were forced to compensate their own former slave masters to the tune of an estimated $17 billion in today’s money. If there is one glaring cause of Haiti’s under-development, it would be the draining of resources from the island into the pockets of France for over 120 years while others were able to use their resources to invest in institutions and develop their people. A chorus of voices called for repayment after the 2010 earthquake, but the calls have since subsided.

The tragedy of Haiti today requires a complex and nuanced response, both from those within and without the country itself. I do not pretend to have the answers in this regard. But if the past several weeks events should serve to highlight anything it is that the plea for reparations from the Caribbean cannot be so easily dismissed, as those who are being called upon have sought to ensure.

While Haiti may have officially rid itself of colonial masters in 1804, it remained in economic slavery – handing over the fruits of its own labour – until 1947. What would some of the world’s most developed countries look like today if they had been forced to surrender billions of dollars to another country over such an extended period of time?

To illustrate the difference on a more local level, there is a distance of just 500 or so miles between the capital of The Bahamas and Haiti, and even less between the closest islands, and yet the disparity in indicators is like a chasm. The average yearly salary in Haiti is $250 while in The Bahamas official figures peg it at $21,000. This is not coincidental, and while many factors would have contributed, the French indemnity is surely of enormous significance. The earthquake of 2010 brought focus to the matter of repayment, but just like the aid that was promised then, the voices spoke louder than the actions that followed.

Meanwhile, although their Caribbean brothers and sisters, not to mention the rest of the world, expressed disgust at a ruling that stripped Black Dominicans of Haitian descent of citizenship in the Dominican Republic, their actions ooze hypocrisy. While they may unite in protest, The Caribbean has not come together in any meaningful shape or form to discuss the Haitian situation, despite proclamations of solidarity within the region, and the fact that a developing Haiti should not only be an ethical call to action for the region but also represents a hugely untapped economic opportunity for all within it, given Haiti’s population of almost 11 million and the strain unchecked migration places on the resources of other countries.

Of course, the region is in a quagmire, and each country alone is struggling not to slip back, but this does not excuse the decades long turning of the region’s back towards Haiti, and should not entirely preclude action today.

Hypocrisy highlighted by recent events around Haiti does not stop with its neighbours. Most notably, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights condemns the Dominican Republic on the one hand for its callous treatment of Black Dominicans of Haitian-descent, yet has sought to absolve itself of responsibility for a major cholera outbreak in Haiti, one which has infected over 650,000 and left 8,000 dead since October 2010, reintroducing a long forgotten disease to that country and contributing to the conditions which surely drive people abroad.  The UN has pledged to help Haiti overcome the epidemic, but maintains it has immunity from prosecution and has officially rejected legal claims made on behalf of affected Haitians.

The very vulnerabilities that drew these nations and institutions to intervene in Haiti have made it all too easy for them to quietly – or even flagrantly – fail to live up to their responsibilities to do no harm.

While many Caribbean nations struggle, Haiti’s reality suggests the need for soul searching both on the part of its Caribbean neighbours and its former colonial rulers. Haiti clearly has the strongest case for reparations, given its extended enforced financial servitude post-slavery, and perhaps it is for this quite unassailable cause that Caribbean nations should lobby. It would be in the self interest of all to build up their neighbour.

Meanwhile, Caricom itself must come together to look at how it can help its neighbour, rather than engaging in acts of outright hostility, indifference, or posturing. While statements have emanated from the political leadership in the wake of the Dominican ruling, condemning the treatment of Haitians, this is the easy part.

The migrants who survived the Haitian sloop disaster in the Bahamian islands may have been repatriated to Haiti now, but in reality they remain as they always have: clinging to an upturned and unstable reality, fighting for life in desperation and indignity, promised salvation but instead waiting for assistance that always seems to come too late. Recent events are yet another unfortunate reminder for the Caribbean, the UN, and to all of us to re-examine their responsibilities to Haiti.

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Happy Thanksgiving from The Korbel Report

As many of our readers from the United States prepare to tuck into a turkey dinner with family and friends, the editors of The Korbel Report would like to express our immense thanks to our wonderful staff and readers. The Korbel Report began as a series of e-mails among friends, wondering what we could do to continue pursuing the type of in-depth research we did while students at the Korbel School of International Studies. When we created the blog, we assumed that a handful of our colleagues (and maybe our mothers) would read what we wrote here. Since we launched The Korbel Report in July 2013, we’ve shared over 65 posts, have over 300 followers on our Facebook page, and have readers from over 100 different countries. We couldn’t have done that without the support of our dedicated readers, and for that, we thank you.

The second group we must thank is our excellent staff of writers and contributors. Without you, The Korbel Report wouldn’t have the informative, timely content that has garnered a faithful group of readers. We have learned so much from your posts, and look forward to your future contributions. Often it is the best reading we do all week. It is simultaneously intimidating, humbling, and reassuring to call people who possess this dangerous combination of passion and intelligence our colleagues.

Lastly, we must give thanks to the institution that provided the foundation for this blog. Without an environment to foster our skills and develop into practical optimists, none of this could exist. And for all the foreign policy-obssessed, remember that if somebody mentions turkey or curds this Thanksgiving, they’re likely referencing foods.


Derek, Morgan, and Xian

China’s Air Defense Identification Zone: Stand Your Ground



The “I’m not touching you, I’m not touching you!” school of foreign policy (Image courtesy of the Chinese Ministry of Defense).

In January 2012, a Florida man shot and killed his perceived aggressor and ignited a nationwide debate on self-defense. George Zimmerman’s shooting of Trayvon Martin quickly became one of the most hotly contested and publicly scrutinized cases in the US since OJ Simpson’s alleged murder of his wife in 1994. At the heart of the controversy was a legal principle known as “Stand Your Ground,” which states that in cases of self-defense, even in public areas, those who feel threatened are not obligated to first attempt to deescalate the situation or seek safety before resorting to force. Even though he knew of the law’s existence, Zimmerman did not, in fact, actually make his case based on this principle – nor did the prosecution seek to show that he had even had an opportunity to retreat – but nonetheless the public debate surrounding the case primarily focused on the law in part because the judge specifically ordered the jury to consider its implications in their deliberations. Florida’s law received a great deal of attention throughout the case, but this law is not unique to Florida: more than thirty states in the US have some type of Stand Your Ground law, either explicitly or through case law precedent, while nearly all fifty US states have some variant of the similar but more moderate “castle law,” which applies only to one’s home instead of any area. Critics of Stand Your Ground laws worry that the assurance of legal protection for reacting to any perceived threat legitimizes and enables aggression since the law (in Florida’s case) disregards completely the circumstances which led up to the confrontation; all that matters is that responding to a perceived threat is legitimate. According to Attorney General Eric Holder, Stand Your Ground laws negatively impact public safety and security “by allowing – and perhaps encouraging – violent situations to escalate in public.” Holder’s (and others’) concern is that under the protection of this law, Americans might, by escalating situations in ways that are nor overtly illegal or openly aggressive, deliberately allow confrontations to develop to the point where they will have a justifiable excuse to respond with force simply because they provoked their opponents into drawing first blood.

The text of Florida’s Stand Your Ground law reads, “A person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked in any other place where he or she has a right to be has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.” In the Zimmerman case, many observers reluctantly concluded that although Zimmerman’s actions were arguably not truly in the spirit of self-defense due to the larger context of the confrontation, according to the wording of the law no legal outcome other than acquittal was ever likely. Juror B29 stated after the trial that Zimmerman “got away with murder… but the law couldn’t prove it… You can’t put the man in jail even though in our hearts we felt he was guilty. But we had to grab our hearts and put it aside and look at the evidence.” Even though evidence in the developing case indicated that it was highly likely that Martin was the first to actually use force by grabbing Zimmerman, striking him, and bashing his head against the ground, supporters of Martin stressed repeatedly that the confrontation would never have occurred in the first place if Zimmerman had not made the decision to leave his car and investigate a figure whom he subjectively deemed to be a suspicious person, which he had no authority to do and was told by 911 responders not to do. In sum, Zimmerman independently sought out and created a situation in which he then had a legal opportunity to respond with lethal force; the crux of the issue is that none of it would ever have occurred if Zimmerman had simply minded his own business rather than going out of his way to create a threatening situation to which he then felt obliged to respond. This principle is arguably the essence of China’s regional foreign policy as exhibited by its newly expanded Air Defense Identification Zone.

Since at least the 1990s, Beijing has been gradually escalating tensions resulting from contradictory territorial claims, but always in ways that are neither overtly aggressive nor blatantly illegal in order to maintain the carefully constructed appearance of non-aggression and “peaceful rise.” China and its neighbors have routinely patrolled contested waters in the South China and East China Seas in order to reinforce their control over the regions, but China has when possible taken the opportunity to subvert these attempts without being openly aggressive. In 1995, after a severe storm that forced Philippine naval vessels to withdraw from the contested Mischief Reef in order to seek safety, Chinese vessels quickly took over the area before the Philippine ships could return and – over the loud but ultimately ignored protests of Manila – constructed platforms to secure its ownership and control. More recently, Beijing employed a similar tactic when it double-crossed Manila after a mutual agreement to withdraw from Scarborough Shoal in the spring of 2012, claiming never to have signed the agreement, sending vessels to reclaim the area after both fleets had withdrawn. Beijing has also made use of this “salami-slicing” strategy on its western borders in disputes that are less widely reported in mainstream media but no less hotly contested: in areas whose ownership India also claims, China has sent troops to first secure control and then later construct camps and roads as a means of demonstrating ownership, a practice that has been utilized in the region since at least the 1950s. To date, Chinese salami-slicing has mostly consisted of moving into disputed but vacant territory and essentially planting a flag and maintaining a presence in order to be the new king of the mountain; since these areas have all had unclear legal ownership and no direct pushing out of foreign forces, China has been able to avoid actively initiating conflict and thus maintain its claim of “peaceful rise” with the exceptions of small border wars in the mid-late twentieth century.

More recently, however, Beijing has begun to display the kind of behavior that could arguably be characterized by the concerns reflected in Attorney General Holder’s comments above. As China has more aggressively begun to realize what it believes is its destiny of  East Asian dominance, its tactics have shifted from claiming disputed territories that are closer to its sphere of control through minimally confrontational means to now beginning to stake claims in regions where their arguments are much weaker or even totally baseless. When Japan mused on the possibility of shooting down Chinese drones that illegally entered its airspace, Beijing was quick to declare that it would consider such a response an act of war and would respond with force – even though Beijing’s illegal activity would have pushed Japan to protect its own sovereignty in the first place. In China’s eyes, its retaliation in this case would be an act of self-defense because it would not view itself as the aggressor in spite of its trespassing. Beijing has recently raised even more eyebrows with its newly expanded Air Defense Identification Zone in the East China Sea, which now explicitly includes the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands even though Japan arguably has the stronger historical claim and also conflicts with Japan’s previously established zone (there is no internationally agreed-upon basis for establishing such zones). China also was upset by Japan’s installation of anti-ship missiles in Okinawa this month, islands whose control is completely in Japanese hands. The missiles were installed to send a message regarding China’s aggressive encroaching on Japanese territory, which Japan intends to defend. China’s behavior has strayed toward the risk of creating conflicts in which it would then be obliged to defend itself, squarely placing the blame on the other country for initiating. This is the essence of the Stand Your Ground principle as it is reflected in Florida’s statute: considering a retaliatory use of force a legitimate instance of self-defense regardless of the events that lead up to violence, even if the party that claims self-defense deliberately escalates and creates its own confrontation throughout the encounter. As China acts increasingly aggressively in its claims on territory that is decreasingly in dispute and increasingly in control of its rivals, it seems likely that it will eventually force their hands in pushing back, which may be just what Beijing wants: the excuse to claim aggrieved status and retaliate even though the conflict was completely avoidable. In order to show firm support for freedom of navigation in open areas, which is a core policy driver for Washington (and to show support for its ally, Japan), the United States deliberately sent two bombers on a flight through China’s new air defense identification zone on Tuesday, demonstrating that the type of aggression demonstrated in the zone’s recent expansion – which threatens to dangerously upset the status quo – will not be tolerated.

Beijing’s rhetoric has consistently claimed that China’s is a “peaceful” rise, but such behavior is not in the spirit of peace or cooperation. If a person aggressively invades another’s space in an intimidating manner and dares him or her to “make his day” so that he has an excuse to hit back, we would not say that this person is acting peacefully. If a person breaks into another’s home and kills the inhabitant in response to the latter’s use of force under a castle doctrine, we would not say that this intruder is acting in self-defense. Protecting sovereignty is as much a fundamental right of countries as protecting life and limb is a fundamental right of individuals, but deliberately blurring the lines  of what counts as self-defense is dangerous in either case. In international relations, just as on the level of individuals, the right to stand one’s ground even after being the one responsible for creating the confrontation in the first place should not come at the expense of others’ rights to true self-defense, which should emphasize deescalation and appropriate, justifiable use of force.  When aggressive people learn that they can get away with initiating and escalating violent confrontations simply by claiming self-defense, what incentive do they have to act differently in the future?

Alexander Bowe has an MA in International Studies from the Korbel School and is currently a doctoral candidate in Political Science at Tsinghua University.

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