Category Archives: Diplomacy

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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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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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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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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TKR’s Holiday Guide to Talking International Politics

If you stuff your mouth full of food at all times, you won’t have to talk to anyone!

The upcoming holiday season means family time, and thus plenty of opportunities for giant fights to break out around the dinner table.  Or perhaps your family is more civilized than ours (and by some happy coincidence, share the same opinion on everything) and can discuss the world’s on-going events without someone leaving the dinner table and storming out the door.  Or maybe you’re sharing the holidays this year with your spouse/best friend/partner/college roommate’s family and they are brave enough to discuss global politics.

In the event that you’re not quite up to speed on why the NSA is pissing off the world, the U.S.’ current relationship with Iran, what’s going on in Syria, or other goings on in the international community, The Korbel Report is here to help you successfully navigate your way through the holidays.

 To start, let’s determine if you need this article. You don’t need this article if:

  • Your Dad can name more than 5 heads of state;
  • Your uncles can explain the intricacies if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict accurately;
  • Your grandma understands that less than 1% of the U.S. budget is allocated to foreign assistance;
  • Your sister dismantled chemical weapons factories in Syria; or
  • Those at the table who have studied abroad outnumber those who haven’t.

You do need this article if:

  • Your aunts think Africa is a country, not a continent;
  • Your cousins mistook Chechnya for the Czech Republic;
  • Anyone at the table thinks that the Fukushima disaster had anything to do with Pearl Harbor;
  • You have a cousin who just finished his/her first semester of college and took one political science class and is suddenly an expert on Israel and Palestine;
  • Your brother in law thinks Benghazi is still worth impeaching Obama; or
  • You’ve fallen down a job-specific rabbit hole, and aren’t sure what’s going on in all parts of the world.

We’ve broken down some of the most pressing, headline-catching international stories that might come up around the holiday punch bowl in the hopes that you can drop some knowledge on your relatives, impress your in-laws, or at minimum, give you a little ammo against the ill-informed. 

What’s going on there:
It hasn’t grabbed U.S. headlines since President Obama’s threat to intervene, but the conflict in Syria continues to rage on.  On August 21, Government forces in Syria used the nerve agent sarin to attack the town of Ghouta near Damascus.  A UN team of chemical weapons investigators later confirmed the attack.  In the wake of the chemical weapons attack, President Obama warned Syrian President Asad that it would face American military intervention if there were signs that its chemical weapons arsenal was used.  After President Obama’s threat, Russian President Vladimir Putin urged Syria to allow weapons inspectors into the country and take control of their stockpile, resulting in a deal in Geneva in September.  Since then, Syria has handed over control of their chemical weapons (prompting the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize to go to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons), and the Syrian Army and its allies have launched offensives near Damascus and Aleppo.  As winter approaches the nearly 2.2 million Syrian refugees in neighboring countries, food, water, shelter, medicine are still scarce, coupled with freezing temperatures.  Many (especially children, who comprise of half of Syrian refugees) lack food, fuel, shoes, blankets, for decent shelters that are necessary to live in what is expected to be one of the harshest winters in years.  According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, approximately $4.4 billion is needed to support refugees for the upcoming winter, and only half of that amount has been raised.  Finally, in the most recent news regarding Syria, a report was released this weekend that concluded that over 11,000 children in Syria have been killed during the conflict, and are being targeted intentionally, by snipers, as well as being summarily executed and tortured.  

What you may hear at the dinner table:
“Mark my words, the Syrians will have nuclear weapons next.”
“Those people are barbarians.  We should just stay out, because they just all want to kill each other.”
“You know who’s the real winner in all of this?  RUSSIA.”
“Why don’t we just bomb them?”

How to respond:
Option A) You can get into a debate over intervention vs. non-intervention, even though the possibility of military intervention by the U.S. seems non-existent at this point in time.  Of course, this could lead to a real dark place in which you and your relatives get into a deep discussion about previous U.S. military and humanitarian operations (Somalia, Vietnam, Iraq, Bosnia, Kosovo), which then in turn, may lead to a discussion about American exceptionalism and the U.S.’ place in the world.  However, this could also lead to accusations about one’s level of patriotism and result in someone leaving the table.  Proceed with caution.
Option B)  Casually mention with a hint of snark that you play Call of Duty and you think you can figure out how to end the conflict based off of your video game experiences.
Option C) Make an impassioned plea to your family to donate to organizations like Oxfam, the Red Cross, the UNHCR, and other credible organizations to help Syrian refugees this winter.

What’s up with that?
In early June the world found out something shocking: all this information we are transmitting to each other via email, phone, Skype, and snapchat (ok, maybe not snapchat…that’s secure) is being recorded—and guess what? The government wants to look at it! And they do look at it. Edward Snowden, a private contractor with Booz Allen Hamilton worked for the National Security Agency, broke ranks and leaked massive amounts of information to the London newspaper, The Guardian, about the NSA and the extent of its spying on everyone from US citizens to world leaders, all in the name of keeping ‘Murica secure. Snowden reveals his identity days after the first leaks, and then pisses off his girlfriend by running away to Moscow from Hong Kong, where he had gone to escape U.S. law enforcement. In a turn of events that anyone who has had to travel via Miami International can empathize with, he then realizes the transit area of Moscow area is far more punishing than any U.S. jail and starts to seek asylum elsewhere.

What you may hear at the dinner table:
“Snowden is a hero/Benedict Arnold.”
“I’m with France/Germany/Britain/Canada on this one. Spying on your own people is just wrong!”
“This whole thing is just made up. There’s no way the wizard in the computer box could do all that. I can’t even set up my own email.”
“What’s that? Well, of course it snowed in Russia.”
“I don’t want Obama listening to my conversations with grandpa!”
“Why don’t we just bomb him?”

How to respond:
Option A) Point out that as Snowden remains in Russia with temporary asylum, his revelations have sparked a much needed debate about how we balance information privacy against national security in an age where all of us so willingly hand over the most intimate details about our lives via the Internet. Whether you consider Snowden a patriot, a dissident, a traitor or a vain-glorious celebrity-seeker, what is undeniable is that his actions have sparked a contentious but necessary discussion about what governments do in the name of our own protection, about the reach of corporations, and the relationship between the two.
Option B) Go more direct, and suggest that it is utterly contrary to any notion of democracy for a government that we elect to steal our personal information without our consent, whether in the name of our own good, or not. Just ask me first, okay?
Option C) Deflect: Because at the end of the day, why was Auntie Sheila Googling “octopus porn”?
Option D) Write an exasperated Facebook status update about how backward “the other side” of your family is. When your cousin reads it out over dessert, self-righteously accuse him/her of spying on you NSA-style, once you’ve had a few more seasonal libations.

What’s going on with that:
This Labor Day, Business Insider gave a great overview of the global marketplace, touching on a few key themes. The United States has experienced better than expected growth. The EU is making a steady comeback, putting the Euro back on stable footing. Amid concerns that the Chinese government was going to crash–hard–the Chinese economy is still growing at a pretty steady rate. But even amid positive growth, many are still concerned about the number of jobs at home, and how an increasingly globalized world impacts the national economy.

What you may hear at the dinner table:
“Why don’t we just sell more bombs? That’d make up some room in the budget!”
“This is all Obama’s/Bush’s/Wall Street’s/ high taxes’/China’s/Europe’s/the foreign aid budget’s/the military budget’s/etc. fault.”They took our jobs!

How to respond:
Option A) Ugh, getting into the technicalities of the global economy and its impact at the local level (say, on your poor uncle who just got laid off) is truly challenging. Heck, most economists don’t even agree on exactly what’s going on in the economy most of the time! If you’re reading this because most members of your family don’t know the difference between a fixed and floating exchange rate, this might be a good time to give ’em one of these:

Option B) The economy, by-and-large is getting better in the United States, the EU, and China. The real concern is that many developing economies (Brazil, India, etc.) that were on the rise before the 2008 recession were hit hard, and haven’t recovered well. This not only hurts those countries and the people in them, but it weakens the overall global economy.

What’s going on there:
The US and Iran have been at odds with one another for over three decades, and many believe now is the time to act. Iran’s new president Hassan Rouhani assumed office in August and many believe a rapprochement is now possible. Serious talks have been taking place between Iran and the P5+1 countries (comprised of the US, Russia, China, the UK, France, plus Germany) on reaching a compromise on Iran’s nuclear program. Major improvements were made during the Geneva talks at the beginning of November, but a deal was not formally made due to hesitations by France (not by Iran or the US). While President Obama has stated many times that military action is not off the table, many see a diplomatic resolution as the only viable solution. Given the American public’s wariness of another war in the Middle East, Iran’s threats of an all-out regional war and the blockage of the Strait of Hormuz if Israel or the US were to strike, and the innumerable logistical issues with striking a country as vast as Iran, military action would be both naive and dangerous. As for Prime Minister Netanyahu, over twenty years ago, he solemnly swore that if action were not taken, Iran would have nuclear weapons within five years. And this same rhetoric has been used nearly every year since. It is becoming very clear that Israel’s uncompromising stance is becoming more and more unpopular as both Iran and the US seek common ground.

What you may hear at the dinner table:
“Israel is going to attack Iran if the US doesn’t take a more firm stance. They seem really serious this time.” (Try not to spit mashed potatoes on great-aunt Janet when you try to stifle your scoff after hearing this one.)
“Why don’t we just bomb them?”

How to respond:
Option A) Discuss how great it is that last weekend, the U.S., Iran, and 5 other non-important world powers signed an agreement that would temporarily halt Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for an easing of economic sanctions on the country.  Because, hey, global compromises on nuclear programs are something to be thankful for!
Option B) Sit back and roll your eyes while your family calls Obama weak and powerless while discussing how much this hurts Israel.
Option C) Mention to your family you can look up on the internet how to build a nuclear weapon.  However, proceed with caution on this one, since the NSA is probably watching.

What’s going on there:
China is at a crucial point in its planned development. The model that has caused its economy to grow at stupendous rates for the last couple of decades appears to be starting to falter, and the Communist Party is currently deliberating on which reforms to introduce in order to increase the sustainability of its growth and eventually overtake the US as the world’s leading economy, which has been a goal since the Mao era. The Chinese military is also rapidly modernizing and expanding its power projection capabilities, particularly in the South China Sea and Yellow Sea. This past weekend, China demarcated an “air-defense identification zone” over an area in the East China Sea, which covers the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands.” Japan has protested this escalation in setting up such an airspace.

What you may hear at the dinner table:
“The Chinese are going to try to compete with us militarily! I’m telling you, it’s going to be another Cold War if we’re lucky or another hot war if we’re not.”
“We owe so much money to the Chinese that it’s inevitable that at some point they’re going to come calling, looking to repossess – Sarah Palin said so.”
“Just look at what Communism does: hundreds of millions of people suffering from human rights abuses, toxic air and water, and a completely corrupt government that values money over human life.”
“We should all just start speaking Chinese now.” “We should stop them now, when they’re still weak.”
“You know, we have the Chinese to thank for Pacific Rim’s making enough money to warrant a sequel. I say, let them keep developing.”

How to respond:
Option A) Explain that China has mostly been an aggravation to its neighbors, and its economic ties to the US make future conflict between the two very unlikely. In discussing US-China relations, it is important to note that diplomacy is not a zero sum game, and in the future, there will be more that the US and China can accomplish together, rather than apart. For your McCarthy family members, it can be appeasing to note that the US still remains in a very integral and relevant role in the international community. Our soft power – encompassing our values, culture, and convening abilities – continues to outpace China. The US capacity for foreign aid is still the largest in the world, and it continues to be the largest donor to international, multilateral efforts.
Option B) Stare are your family as they eat Chinese food and complain about immigrants and just. say. nothing. 
Option C) Pick this to be the perfect moment to announce that you’ve recently acquired a Chinese girlfriend/boyfriend. If you want, say that things are getting really serious, so your parents should get ready to not only accept your new partner, but potentially half-Asian grandbabies!

What’s going on:
Despite a recent bi-partiasan Gallup poll demonstrating that most Americans have a positive view of the UN, it’s certainly not uncommon to hear people screaming about how the UN is undermining U.S. sovereignty.  In 2012, Texas voters and voter fraud groups criticized the deployment of UN-backed election monitors for the 2012 Presidential Election.  There are a million and a half examples of how citizens, Members of Congress, and conspiracy theorists think the UN is destroying America and the rest of the world, but we don’t have time to get into all of them.

What you may hear at the dinner table:
“Why don’t they just use bombs?”
“The UN is destroying America!  All that good for nothing organization does is support terrorists trying to destroy this country/take our money/undermine our ability to do what we want!”

How to respond:
Option A) Acknowledge that yes, we all know the UN has a less than perfect record (ok, a downright awful record) when it comes to peacekeeping, addressing climate change, Syria, and a whole host of other issues.  However, the UN isn’t a crazy, independent organization run by aliens, it’s run by Member States (plot twist: The UN is the U.S. brain-child, created after the failure of the League of Nations), and if the world wanted the UN to work, it would.  If Members wanted to address climate change, they would.  If they wanted peacekeeping operations to work, they would.  You’ll recall the UN said no to George W. Bush when he wanted to invade Iraq; it didn’t seem to stop him when the UN said no.
Option B) Ignore the comment and pour more wine.

What’s going on with this:
American opinion towards foreign assistance has been polled since 1995. And the result? Americans have consistently overestimated the percentage of federal funding allocated to international aid. The overall median estimate is that the government spends 20% of its budget on assistance. Some more recent polls, perhaps reflecting our engagements in the Middle East, show that figure rising to 25%.

The same individuals were also asked to state what they believe a more appropriate level of funding is. Their response? 10% of our budget, which is 10 times greater than actual spending. Secretary Kerry would leap for joy if his funding could reach the levels that Americans believe to be appropriate (and for the sake of job security, we’d love it too). Though public estimates grow in accuracy with education level, those who have completed a college education or higher still estimate spending to be around 15%. It is extraordinary that these levels of overestimation are so persistent, though perhaps it is because there are no strong domestic constituencies calling for their Congressmen to send money abroad. But in this increasingly globalized world, what happens elsewhere impacts the factories and farmlands of America. And the Department of State and USAID contribute to the health and security of individual Americans, and their local economies, all while having less staff than all the members of military bands combined. So this holiday season, do your part to educate your loved ones, and spread some foreign policy cheer for the growth of American soft power abroad.

What you may hear at the dinner table:
“These morons in Washington, all they do is spend, spend, spend!  We’ve got $17 trillion in debt, and we’re still giving money to countries that hate us?  I know how to solve the debt crisis – just stop giving terrorists like Pakistan money!”

How to respond:
This one is rather simple.  Politely point out that, give or take, 1% of the total U.S. budget is spent on Official Development Assistance (ODA), and wouldn’t have much of an effect on the U.S. budget.  If you’re feeling bold, you can always point out that in 2011, the U.S. spent 20% of its federal budget on the military and steer the conversation towards reducing military spending (which is currently happening).  However, if you’ve got a few Hawks in your family, this could be problematic.

Also, on a related note, please feel free to spread this graph, which shows that Obama has been keeping his pursestrings tighter than any of his recent predecessors, including both Bushes and Reagan.



On the whole, Americans know more about domestic affairs than foreign affairs (or they at least think they do). Most people are more likely to care or know about the things that are impacting themselves and their family: education, the economy—things like that. It’s much more personal than talking about what’s going on “over there.” There’s a lot that could come up here, but regardless of the partisan stripes found at your family’s table, misinformation is bound to rear its head.

What could potentially come up:
Immigration reform, the recent government shutdown, the debt ceiling, filibuster reform, the Tea Party, the American Care Act (ACA) aka “Obamacare,” the miserable ACA website rollout, new Common Core curriculum, weird conspiracy theories involving the Kenyan government, Ted Cruz, America is “morally corrupt” (please, someone, tell me what that even means!), Sarah Palin, gun control, abortion, the JFK assassination, Area 51…the list is almost endless.

How to respond:

Option A) Don’t walk—RUN. Remember that part where these issues are really personal to all the people sitting at your table? Remember how no one can even agree on how to roast the turkey? Yeah. Unless you have one of those families who miraculously agrees on all political issues, or who can—perhaps more miraculously—calmly and rationally discuss their differences, stay far, far away from discussing things like healthcare, the Government Shutdown, abortion, gun control, or comparisons of Obama or Ted Cruz to Hitler.  It will only end in head-banging frustration as one or more of your relatives angrily flips over a table full of poultry and stuffing.
Option B) Go for it. Either you’re from one of those miracle families, you’re very brave and on a “but I can teach them” kick, or you’ve got some metaphorical kerosene and match ready to burn up those familial bridges. We’ll leave it up to you to represent the point of view you find most pertinent on the issues of the day. Just try to remember that you’re probably going to have to see all of these people again.
Option C) Enjoy yourself, and devil’s advocate the heck out of everyone. “Troll” your family, as the kids say. If you make everyone’s politics into a big laugh fest, maybe you’ll steer the conversation back to something more tame and make it through dessert with everyone still on good terms.

You are now ready for a battle royale with your family.  We hope that we were able to help prepare you for your upcoming holiday obligations.  Eat, drink, passionately argue, and be merry!

Taylor Gibson worked as lead author on this post, with input from several TKR staff: Alexander Bowe, Morgan Day, Maryam Kar, Alison Lowe, and Xian Zhang, with input from guest writer Michael Briggs.

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Last Call for a Resolution


Last Thursday, a new round of talks began in Geneva between Iran and the P5+1 countries. The P5+1 countries are comprised of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, namely the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, China and France, plus Germany. Observers of the talks seemed quite optimistic given the understanding stance of both the United States and Iran in recent talks.

There is certainly reason for this optimism as a rapprochement between the United States and Iran is seen as more viable now than ever before. During the UN General Assembly in September, there was a historic phone call between President Obama and the newly-elected moderate, President Rouhani. Moreover, Secretary of State John Kerry and Iran’s Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, are spearheading the current negotiations. This is the highest-level face-to-face interaction between American and Iranian government officials in decades. The involvement of such high-level officials clearly indicates seriousness on the part of both countries in trying to resolve this issue diplomatically.

The Geneva talks were expected to bring a resolution to Iran’s controversial nuclear program, which it claims is solely for nuclear energy, medical treatments and research. Other countries, specifically Israel, the US and some Western European allies, are of the opinion that Iran is attempting to build nuclear weapons and is deceiving the IAEA and the world. And some countries were not shy to express their honest opinions about a resolution. Secretary of State Kerry arrived at the talks after meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv. Netanyahu was very open about his dissatisfaction of a possible resolution. “This is a very bad deal and Israel utterly rejects it. Israel is not obliged by this agreement and Israel will do everything it needs to do to defend itself and defend the security of its people”.

Israel seems to have attempted to do everything it needs to stop an agreement, as the talks took an unexpected turn for the worse, when many believed a resolution was near. As Western and Iranian negotiations were putting the finishing touches on a resolution, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius joined in the talks last minute and the negotiations unraveled. Shortly thereafter, the talks ended with plans to resume again on November 20th. France has become one of the most important allies to Israel after the US, and it seems this triggered the unraveling of the negotiations. Prime Minister Netanyahu was not ready to accept a resolution that would allow Iran to maintain its nuclear capabilities and possibly reduce certain sanctions in return for transparency.  Netanyahu, along with neo-conservatives on Capitol Hill, are very much of the belief that the sanctions are working, and should be increased to mount pressure on Iran. Prime Minister Fabius was in agreement with Netanyahu on this point and refused to accept the resolution in its current format.

While the Obama Administration is pushing for a diplomatic solution as a means to protect the US, Israel and its interests in the Middle East, a rift is quickly growing between the US and Israel on its strategy towards Iran. After Netanyahu’s disapproval of a deal before the Geneva talks began, Secretary of State Kerry publically asked certain countries to not jump to conclusions before knowing details of the proposed deal. White House spokesperson Josh Earnest also dismissed criticism from Israel over a deal as “premature”.  Israel’s uncompromising stance, while praised by certain neo-conservative lawmakers back in Washington DC, is becoming more and more unpopular. This window of opportunity to resolve the Iranian nuclear issue will not be open forever, and Iran and the US are aware of this.

If a better compromise is reached in the coming weeks, then France and Israel are not judged as harshly. However, if talks do fail, “France may have effectively scuttled any option of ending Iran’s nuclear program without using military force, something no country — including Israel — wants to do.”

This delay in the talks till November 20th could be detrimental if proponents of war and additional sanctions build momentum in Congress. This has put the White House on defense in vocally calling for Congress to approve of a diplomatic solution and an alleviation of sanctions. As Congress debates increasing sanctions, Secretary of State Kerry has stated that he believes it would be a “mistake” and suggested a temporary pause. He was also expected to brief members of the Senate Banking Committee at a closed-door session later in the week on this issue.

Trita Parsi of the National Iranian American Council says that it is clear that the US Administration and others want a deal signed before a debate on sanctions heats up in Congress again. “Part of the reason why the talks continued until 2 a.m. in the morning on what was in reality the fourth day when they were supposed to be two days is precisely because of the awareness on all sides, except for the French, that if they don’t get something now, it’s going to be more difficult.” Momentum is currently very high to reach an agreement. On November 20th, Iran and the P5+1 countries need to remember that the security of an entire region is at stake. If all parties do not make compromises, everyone will come out a loser in the end.

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Refuge from Climate Change




In 1988, two United Nations organizations, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), established the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The scientific intergovernmental organization was later endorsed by the United Nations General Assembly through Resolution 43/53. The role of the IPCC is to “assess on a comprehensive, objective, open and transparent basis the scientific, technical and socio-economic information relevant to understanding the scientific basis of risk of human-induced climate change, its potential impacts and options for adaptation and mitigation.”

Reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in recent years demonstrate a near consensus on climate change and the role that human activity plays in its development. Climate change is one of the most important issues of our time, given its worldwide scope and capacity to change the face of the planet forever. From Hurricane Katrina, dubbed the most destructive hurricane to strike the US, to the 2011 Japan earthquake and tsunami that resulted in more than 18,000 deaths, it is clear that erratic weather patterns and major shifts in our climate can have immense effects on our everyday lives.

Last week, a New Zealand court heard the appeal of a very novel type of asylum seeker: a climate change refugee. The individual, who cannot be named due to New Zealand immigration law, is seeking refuge in the country for himself and his family, due to rising sea levels in his home country of Kiribati. “Kiribati, an impoverished string of 33 coral atolls about halfway between Hawaii and Australia, has about 103,000 people and has been identified by scientists as one of the nations that is most vulnerable to climate change. The country’s atolls have an average height above sea level of just 6.5 feet.” According to this individual, his family had to seek higher ground as so-called king tides have become a norm in Kiribati, killing crops, flooding homes and sickening people.

The world’s oceans have been rising at an annual rate of 0.1 inches since 1970, and this poses a great risk for low-lying island countries, such as those in the South Pacific. Countries such as Tuvalu, Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, Papua New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands are at great risk due to rising ocean levels. Earlier this month, an international panel of climate scientists issued a report saying that it was “extremely likely” that human activity was causing global warming, and predicted that oceans could rise by as much as 3.3 feet by the end of the century. If that were to happen, much of Kiribati would simply disappear.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees defines a refugee as “someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence. A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. Most likely, they cannot return home or are afraid to do so. War and ethnic, tribal and religious violence are leading causes of refugees fleeing their countries.” While this definition is very thorough and constructive – given the causes of migration in the past – it does not fully encompass all acceptable causes of migration. In today’s world, people are not only harmed and persecuted by war or violence, but also suffer greatly due to drastic weather patterns in places they call home. While estimates vary on the rate and speed at which our oceans are rising and our climate is changing, there is much concern about vulnerable populations in certain countries. If climate change does continue its course with no fundamental obstacles placed in its place, entire populations of South Pacific island countries should be considered possible future climate change refugees. And this is not taking into consideration other consequences of climate change that include droughts, deforestation and flooding.

According to Renaud et al, there are three types of environmentally driven refugees or migrants. Environmental emergency migrants are people that are displaced due to sudden events, especially disasters. These migrants flee to save their lives due to events such as floods, hurricanes, tsunami waves, and volcanic eruptions. There is also a high chance that these migrants will eventually return to their homes once they no longer in immediate danger. Environmentally forced migrants are people who have to abandon their homes in connection with worsening environmental condition. These migrants are forced to leave because of gradual and often irreversible degradation of the environment, with limited opportunity to return to their homes. The causes of such displacements include: droughts, coastal deterioration, and deforestation. Finally, there are environmentally motivated migrants, who decide to migrate from a deteriorating area anticipating negative environmental changes in the future. This migration is a response to environmental degradation, but it is not an emergency action. Environmental emergency migrants are quite common, given the frequency with which certain countries are hit with earthquakes, floods, hurricanes and tsunamis. The theory for the future, however, is that we will be seeing a higher number of environmentally forced migrants, as certain regions will become entirely uninhabitable.

Norman Myers, a British environmentalist, has written extensively on the subject of environmental migrants. In his paper, Environmental Exodus, Myers put the number of climate change refugees at 200 million by 2050. Various NGOs and both the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change and the president of the UN General Assembly in 2008 have mentioned this number. While Myers does point out that this number is in the upper limit, many have questioned the methodology and accuracy of his estimate. Irrespective of whether this estimate is entirely accurate, it is a fact that ocean levels are rising, and many low-lying countries are at risk. It is a fact that droughts, deforestation, tsunamis and massive earthquakes are making certain areas of the world highly volatile places to live. And it is a fact that we need to start paying attention to the consequences of climate change, one being mass migrations around the globe.

Legal experts believe that the appeal of the individual from Kiribati seeking asylum in New Zealand will be denied, given an earlier tribunal decision, which rejected his claim on the grounds that his life wasn’t in jeopardy and many others on Kiribati faced similar problems. The legal principle at the moment, according to Bill Hodge, a constitutional law expert at the University of Auckland, only recognizes the individual risk and not the collective risk. If the man’s appeal is rejected, he will be deported with his wife and three New Zealand-born children, the youngest less than a year old. While this individual is likely to be deported along with his family, he has raised a very important issue which governments must sooner than later make a priority. Climate change is a social problem, and its consequences can be dire for millions in vulnerable locations.

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Austria Votes


Vienna, Austria


While the world had been attentively watching the UN General Assembly taking place in New York, politicians in Austria have been busy campaigning for months. The Austrian legislative elections will be held this Sunday, on the 29th, across the country to determine representation in the National Council. On the federal level, Austria has two main elections, one for the head of state (Federal President) every six years, and one for the 183 seats on the National Council (Nationalrat) every five years. The National Council elections are determined by party-list proportional representation, and with 92 seats needed for a majority, a grand coalition of major political parties has been the norm in the last few years.

During the last elections in 2008, a grand coalition was formed between Austria’s two largest parties, the Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPÖ) and the conservative Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP). SPÖ’s Werner Faymann, who became Chancellor, has governed the coalition. However, since 2008, support for both major parties has fallen noticeably. This in turn has increased support for two other parties, the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) known for its right-wing national conservatism, and the Alliance for the Future of Austria (BZÖ), also a right-wing party. Both parties made significant gains in the 2008 elections, and FPÖ’s popularity has been increasing ever since. The BZÖ lost some of its support after the death of its founder, Jörg Haider, shortly after the elections. Moreover, the BZÖ has seen nine of its twenty-one members in the National Council change their party affiliation in the last five years: five members have joined Team Stronach, a party running for the first time this year, and four others joined forces with the FPÖ.

Team Stronach has also been able to hurt the FPÖ’s current popularity in the polls. Team Stronach, is headed and funded by Austrian-Canadian businessman and billionaire, Frank Stronach. His party calls for a return to the Schilling or an anti-euro alternative, a 25% flat-rate income tax, and an end to conscription. While many see Frank Stronach as an outsider, the party polls between 10 to 12% in Gallup polls, while only existing since September of last year.

The Green party (Die Grünen) currently holds twenty seats in the National Council and has solidified their position as the fourth-largest party in opinion polls. Their charter states that their vision is that of a “caring society of free people in a healthy environment”. Die Grünen campaign diligently for immigrants and minorities, and are therefore highly scrutinized by the FPÖ.

And the FPÖ has not been immune to immense scrutiny itself. Headed by Heinz Christian Strache, the FPÖ is known for its nationalistic right-wing ideologies that border on white supremacy. Previous campaign slogans include “Love for the homeland, over Moroccan thieves” (Heimatliebe statt Marokkaner Diebe), “Go back home over Islam” (Daham statt Islam), and “Vienna cannot turn into Istanbul” (Wien darf nicht Istanbul werden). For many liberals, it is very disconcerting how popular Strache and the FPÖ have become with the youth. Strache’s Facebook page has over 160,000 followers, he frequents clubs and bars to socialize with young voters, and ironically, he recently came out with a rap song to support his nationalistic campaign.

While it is highly unlikely that the FPÖ will get a majority win in the upcoming elections this Sunday, there is still concern for how many seats they will gain, and whether a coalition will have to be formed with them. It seems that Strache’s social media presence and youthful attitude has won him a lot of popularity, and maybe it’s time for the other parties to also take cue. Otherwise, Austria will become yet another European country moving to the extreme right – a position that has proven disastrous in the past.

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