Tag Archives: United States

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. 

SYRIA
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.

THE NSA & EDWARD SNOWDEN
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.

THE GLOBAL ECONOMY
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.

U.S. – IRAN RELATIONSHIP
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?”
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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.

CHINA
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!

THE UNITED NATIONS’ RELEVANCE
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.

CUTTING U.S. FOREIGN AID TO FIX THE BUDGET
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.

DOMESTIC POLITICS

Ron-Swanson-Re-Think-That-Move-Son-Parks-and-Recreation

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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If a coalition strikes Syria without UN approval, is it the end of the Security Council?

UN Photo/JC McIlwane

Ambassador Susan Rice of the United States (right), with Hervé Ladsous, Under-Secretary for Peacekeeping Operations, prior to a 2012 vote on Syria. At left is Vitaly I. Churkin, Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation to the UN. UN Photo/JC McIlwane

BRIAN ERNST

The United States looks increasingly set to carry out an attack against Syria. BritainFrance and Germany appear to endorse it. At the sidelines, the United Nations looks on, hands tied by Security Council paralysis. If a majority of the Permanent 5 decide to act, absent a Security Council mandate, it would be a devastating indictment of the UN’s mission to address the world’s gravest crises.

Of course, action without UN approval is nothing new, and criticism of the intergovernmental body is frequent – many were sounding the death knell 11 years ago during the Bush administration. In an address to the General Assembly, President Bush forcefully argued that the UN faced irrelevance if it was unable to take action against Iraq, asking, “will the United Nations serve its purpose of its founding, or will it be irrelevant?” The remarks started a debate over the United Nations as a whole, with the Bush administration arguing that the Security Council proved its obsolescence when it did not authorize the Iraq war.

Despite that disregard for the UN, the Bush administration’s ineptitude in acquiring widespread support for Iraq meant that the ‘irrelevance’ argument failed to gain traction outside of the United States. In fact, the Bush Administration’s snub of the international body damaged the image of the United States far more than the UN. International opinion of the U.S. soured quickly over the course of the next decade. The UN’s caution was ultimately vindicated by the failure to find weapons of mass destruction, even as the Bush administration was increasingly seen as bad for global peace and security. Continue reading

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