Albania: People and Ruins

During my long traveling over Europe this summer, among other areas, I ventured to Albania, a country where houses frequently do not have numbers and where I located the building where a friend of my youth now lives by a drawing on a gate. This is a country where the so-called oriental bazaar is buzzing everywhere, where towns literally hang on cliffs, and where one easily runs across the ruins of the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman legacy of the country and the “archaeology” of the recent communist past (small concrete family bunkers, tunnels for the former communist nomenklatura, monumental sculptures and mosaics in the socialist realism style).

It was interesting to see how this country, which lived much of the 20th century under the most vicious communist dictatorship (1944-1990), is now trying to live a normal life.  To some extent, Albania is very similar to present-day Russia: decades of the negative natural selection under communism killed much of self-reliance, individual initiative, and produced the populace that looks up to the government for the solutions of their problems. For the past thirty years, a new generation emerged, and things did dramatically change. Yet, very much like in Russia, much of the populace feels nostalgia for the “good” old days, which is natural.

According to opinion polls, 46% of the people are nostalgic for the developed communism of dictator Enver Hoxha (1944-1985), an Albanian Stalin, and 43% are against communism; the later number should be higher, given the fact that many enterprising Albanians (1/4 of the population) live and work abroad.  During the last decades of its existence, Albanian communism slipped into a wild isolationism of the North Korean style. Except for Northern Korea and Romania, all countries, from the United States, Germany, UK (capitalist hyenas) to the USSR, China, and Yugoslavia (traitors to socialism), were considered enemies.  Incidentally, Albanian communism was much darker and tougher than the Brezhnev-era USSR. Nevertheless, as it naturally happened in Russia and some other countries, in thirty years, the memory of a part of the population laundered and cleansed the communist past, and this memory now paints this past as a paradise, where everyone was happy and looked confidently into the future, where secret police and labor concentration camps existed for a good reason, and where the vengeful dictator appears as a caring father.

In the hectic transition to market economy and with the lack of established judicial system, there naturally emerged a widespread corruption, nepotism. But, at the same time, small business somehow flourishes. The masses and elites of the country aspire to be united with neighboring Kosovo since both countries are populated by Albanian majorities. On top of this, Kosovo is the birthplace of Albanian nationalism.  However, unlike current Russia, which is spoiled with abundant oil and gas resources (the notorious resource curse factor), corrupt Albanian bureaucrats that rule over a small country exercise caution. Although that small country is too blessed with oil, natural gas, chromium, copper, and iron-nickel, they do not waste their resources on sponsoring geopolitical ventures and harassing their neighbors. For themselves, the Albanians resolved the Kosovo issue as follows: we will be administratively two different states, but de facto economically and socially we will be tied to each other, and all this makes life easier for people, preventing any conflicts. Not a small factor is that, unlike, for example, Russia or Turkey, Albanian nationalism is devoid of any imperial syndromes, and therefore there is no nostalgia for any glorious lost empire. The fact that Albania is a member of NATO also plays a significant role, which forces the Albanian elites behave. Acting smartly, instead of geopolitical games, they decided to fully invest in the development of the tourism business, believing that, in addition to mining their resources, this is the best development option.

Two Bald Eagles: Symbols of Divided Attitudes?

I spotted two Bald Eagles today in Cincinnati, which is really fitting for the Fourth of July. The two Bald Eagles—one indolent and one vigilant—capture not only the attitudes of two influential figures in American politics about this national symbol that was hotly debated till 1789, but they also reflect the fractured character of these United States.

You probably already know that Benjamin Franklin was an outspoken detractor of the bald eagle. He stated his disinterest in the national symbol in a letter to a friend:
“I wish the bald eagle had not been chosen as the representative of our country; he is a bird of bad moral character; like those among men who live by sharping and robbing, he is generally poor, and often very lousy. The turkey is a much more respectable bird and withal a true, original native of America.”

In contrast, President John F. Kennedy wrote to the Audubon Society:
“The Founding Fathers made an appropriate choice when they selected the bald eagle as the emblem of the nation. The fierce beauty and proud independence of this great bird aptly symbolizes the strength and freedom of America. But as latter-day citizens we shall fail our trust if we permit the eagle to disappear.”

The two Bald Eagles, which symbolize, in my estimation, two divergent historical viewpoints, show us that American history is splintered into sharp conceptions of the past as it has been politicizedly revised to forge a more perfect union. There is little question that the tendency toward seeking out varied intellectual interpretations of US history is unabating and maybe essential to the growth of a mature republic. On holidays like the Fourth of July, however, a modicum of romanticism of the past is also required if revisionist histories make it harder and harder for the average person to develop a classicist vision of the Republic as a good—if not perfect—union and make it seem like a simple-minded theory. 

The two Bald Eagles aren’t just symbolic of the past; they also stand for partisanship and apathy in the present toward issues like inflation, NATO strategy, Roe v. Wade, and a variety of other divisive concerns. In addition, I learned there is an unfortunate debate on whether to have a 4th of July concert without hearing the 1812 Overture. For those who are not familiar, it is a musical composition by the Russian composer Tchaikovsky that has become a staple for July 4th events since 1976. 

In view of this divisiveness here is my unsophisticated theory of American unity for the present moment: Although the rhetoric of entrenched divisiveness and the rage of political factions—against internal conflicts and international relations—are not silenced by the Fourth of July fireworks, the accompanying music, festivities, and the promise of harmony, they do present a forceful antidote to both. So why have a double mind on a national ritual that serves as a unifying force and one of the few restraints on partisanship? Despite the fact that I am a resident alien, I propose preserving Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, arousing the inner dozing Bald Eagle, and making an effort to reunite the divided attitude toward all challenges. The aim, in my opinion, should be to manifest what Publius calls in Federalist 63 the “cool and deliberate sense of community.”

Have a happy Fourth!

Fighting for Every Inch of Ukrainian Soil

I ask myself: How much would I be willing to sacrifice to protect the Ukrainians from Russian slavery. The answer is clear: I would take 50% cut in my living standard. That would be maybe not forever but for a long time.

Then, I ask, how much of a cut would I take to protect Ukraine’s territorial integrity and my level of support drops like a stone. Let me explain. Defending a territory is often the best way to defend the life and liberty of its inhabitants so that the one and the other are almost identical. I believe this is not the case in Ukraine. As I explained in detail more than a month ago it’s likely that the territories Russia seized by proxy in 2014, including Crimea, today shelter few people who want to be protected from Russia. In fact, militias of Russian-speaking Ukrainians from those territories appear to constitute a large part of Russia’s front troops in its attacks against the rest of Ukraine.

President Zelenskyy insists that he wants to recover every inch of Ukrainian territory lost to Russia and to pseudo-independentists. While I find Kerensky’ courage and firmness of purpose admirable, this particular goal leaves me cool. Perhaps, both his resolve and his political thinking belong in the 20 th century. Perhaps, that’s why he reminds many of us of Churchill.

When I ask myself, what I would sacrifice to help Ukraine regain its whole territory my mind turns resolutely to forgoing a few beers. I don’t like the thought of helping brave Ukrainians lose their lives for land. In general, some Ukrainians’ – and their president’s – apparently quasi religious attachment to their land rings the wrong historical bells in my head. Let me explain.

I think that very few well educated people today could explain why the vast carnage of the First World War took place at all. After all, there was no obviously evil side (as there was in WWII, for example). The same Great Powers that massacred one another’s men for four years had been conducted brisk and abundant trade among one another, practically until the minute before the war exploded. In my reading* one specific cause stands out in the initiation of the conflict. Let me say quickly that I don’t know that it’s a very important cause of the war, but I think it was a cause, for sure.

There was a willingness and a capacity effectively to mobilize in France, one of the main military powers at the time (first or second). It’s difficult to assume causation but there are abundant proofs in the daily French press that many in the French political class never accepted the loss to Germany of rich Alsace and of the northern half of Lorraine in 1870 (a consequence of the “Franco-Prussian War”). Schoolbooks, incredibly, kept the sense of loss alive for forty- four years. In 1914, millions of ordinary French men joyfully marched to war against Germans who had not done anything to them for the same forty-four years. World War One killed about 10 million soldiers and sailors in Europe alone. The figure includes my grandfather, First Lieutenant Maurice Adolph, pulverized somewhere near Verdun.

Germany lost. Communism arose in Russia and elsewhere and France recovered Alsace and the half of Lorraine that it had lost. Sure, there were celebrations in Strasbourg, the beautiful capital of Alsace. Frankly, I don’t know who organized them. I do know that there was enough reluctance in the Alsatian populace that the French Republic had to make special rules for that province. (They are fairly mild and mostly about the place of organized religion.)

Today, the language of instruction is, of course, French in all Alsatian and Lorraine schools. It corresponds only moderately well to linguistic reality because for many of the inhabitants the language spoken at home is a German dialect. Of course, there has been an influx of others from outside the region who are French speakers (some of them, by default, instead of Arabic, Tamazight, or Wolof). The European Union has made the French-German border largely irrelevant. It’s odd and pleasant little facts that remind you of it. Thus, on Sunday morning, there is heavy traffic on the main bridge from Germany to Alsace because of the many Germans who are coming to enjoy the superior Strasbourg sauerkraut. So why did so many Europeans have to grow up without a grandfather, one wonders?

In total contradiction to what I just wrote, yes, if I could be convinced that taking every square inch of Ukraine back from Russian aggression would be instrumental to keeping the Russian monster at bay for a long time, I would change my position. Different topic.


* Disclosure: My maternal grandfather’s own grandparents had left prosperous Alsace for raggedy central France in order to avoid living under German rule, according to family tradition. My mother’s maiden name was “Adolph.”

Meanwhile, back in Iran: The demise of JCPOA

The prospects for the revival of the Iran Nuclear Deal 2015/Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) seem to be dim after International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Rafael Grossi’s announcement during a recent news conference that Iran has started removing 27 surveillance cameras from nuclear sites all over the country. Iran, on the other hand, has emphatically stated that it is cooperating with IAEA.

The board of governors of IAEA, consisting of 35 members, had passed a resolution last week seeking greater transparency with regard to Iran’s nuclear program. The censure accused Tehran of failing to provide correct information with regard to the development of ‘man made material’ at three undeclared sites in the country. While 30 countries voted in favor of the resolution, three countries abstained, and two countries – China and Russia — voted against the resolution.

The US has also once again underscored the point that a return to the Iran nuclear deal will not be possible if Tehran does not cooperate with IAEA. Said US Secretary of State Antony Blinken while referring to Iran’s decision to remove the above-mentioned 27 surveillance cameras :  

The only outcome of such a path will be a deepening nuclear crisis and further economic and political isolation for Iran.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi seemed unfazed by the IAEA resolution, and criticism from the West. Said Raisi

In the name of God and in the name of the nation, Iran will not withdraw from its stance a single step.

Given its numerous economic challenges, Iran has been looking towards a revival of the nuclear deal, since it could open up new economic vistas. In recent weeks there have been protests against rising inflation, and even Iranian retirees have been joining the fray (the government had announced earlier this month that it would raise pensions by 55%, but retirees say that this is not enough, given the level of inflation). Inflation is estimated at well over 45%, and 2 million Iranians have been left jobless as a result of US sanctions and the Covid pandemic.

Iran has been reiterating that if the 2015 Iran deal is not revived, it has other economic options and would adopt a ‘Look to the East policy’ where it would focus on improving ties with China and Russia.  

After the imposition of US sanctions in 2021, Iran and China had signed a 25-year agreement, referred to as strategic-cooperation agreement, to strengthen both economic and security links between the two countries. China has also been purchasing oil from Iran in spite of sanctions. For the first three months of 2022, Iran’s oil exports were estimated at 8,70,000, and a significant percentage of these were China bound. Iran has also been looking at a 20-year agreement with Russia. In 2021, bilateral trade between Russia and Iran was estimated at over $4 billion, and both countries have been seeking to strengthen ties in other areas like connectivity under the International North–South Transport Corridor (INSTC). 

Tehran, however, can not afford to be solely dependent on China or Russia, and needs to have economic relations with other countries — many which share close ties with the US. A great example of these limitations is China’s decision to reduce its import of oil from Iran after it was able to import the same at much cheaper prices from Russia.  

Even if Iran and the other signatories to the JCPOA are unable to revive the 2015 agreement, Iran may have some limited openings with regard to economic linkages with the outside world. The US could allow Iran to import oil in order to keep global oil prices down. It could provide waivers to certain countries to not just purchase oil, but also have limited economic linkages with Iran. After the withdrawal of the US from the JCPOA in 2018, the Trump administration had provided waivers to eight countries for a period of six months to purchase oil from Iran. Significantly, Iran itself had confessed that it had managed to evade sanctions. While addressing the Doha Forum in December 2018, then-Foreign Minister for Iran, Mohammad Zarif, said that

if there is an art that we have perfected in Iran [that] we can teach to others for a price, it is the art of evading sanctions.

In conclusion, Iran cannot afford to be solely dependent upon a handful of countries for putting its economy back on track. Given the current geopolitical turmoil globally, it is important for the US and other Western countries to be pragmatic and not push Iran to a corner.

Two visions of multilateralism are competing in the Indo-Pacific

The Indo Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), signed by a total of 13 countries on May 23, 2022, in Tokyo, is being dubbed by many as a means of checking China’s economic clout in Asia and sending out a message that the US is keen to bolster economic ties with its allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific.

Many Chinese analysts themselves have referred to the IPEF as an “Economic NATO.” China has also been uncomfortable with the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), which consists of the US, Australia, Japan, and India, and has even referred to Quad as an “Asian NATO” – though members of the grouping have categorically denied this assertion.  

The countries which joined the US-led IPEF are: Australia, Brunei, India, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.

IPEF

These countries together account for 40% of global GDP. The four key pillars of the IPEF framework are:

  1. supply-chain resilience;
  2. clean energy, decarbonisation and infrastructure;
  3. taxation and anti-corruption;
  4. and fair and resilient trade.

While launching the plan, US President Joe Biden said

We’re here today for one simple purpose: the future of the 21st Century economy is going to be largely written in the Indo-Pacific. Our region.

US Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, while commenting on the IPEF, said that it was important because it provided Asian countries an alternative to China’s economic model.

A few points need to be borne in mind. First, many of the countries — Australia, Brunei, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam – which have signed the IPEF are also part of the 15-nation Region Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) trade agreement of which China is a key driver (Indonesia, the Philippines and Myanmar have not ratified RCEP). RCEP accounts for 30% of the world’s GDP. Trade between China and other member countries has witnessed a significant rise, year on year in Q1 of 2022.

RCEP

Second, many of the countries which are part of the IPEF have repeatedly said that they don’t want to choose between China and the US. Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who was amongst the first to hail the IPEF, has emphatically stated this point on a number of occasions. In an interview to Nikkei Asian Review on May 20, 2022, Mr Lee reiterated this point. In fact, he even pitched for making China a part of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). (The precursor to the CPTPP, the TPP, was a brain child of the US).

Here it would be pertinent to point out that China had submitted an application for joining the CPTPP in September 2021. In the interview, Lee stated that countries in Asia needed to have good relations with the US, Japan, and Europe.

Indonesia’s Trade Minister, Muhammad Lutfi, who attended the signing of the IPEF on behalf of the archipelagic country’s president, stated that he did not want to see IPEF used as a tool to contain other countries.

One of the reasons why many countries are skeptical about the IPEF is the fact that it does not have any trade components. A number of ASEAN member states have pointed out that the IPEF makes no mention of tariffs and market access, a major drawback. At the US-ASEAN Summit held earlier this month, Malaysian Foreign Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob had explicitly referred to this point. Like many other countries, Malaysia has welcomed the IPEF, but in the immediate future sees RCEP as a far greater opportunity.

US President Joe Biden has not deviated significantly from the policies of his predecessor, Donald Trump, with regard to trade and the US is unlikely to return to the CPTPP, at least in the immediate future. Biden and senior officials in his administration have spoken about the need to check China’s growing economic influence, specifically in Asia, and to provide an alternative model. The US, though, along with some of its Indo-Pacific partners, has only recently begun taking some steps in this direction. Leaders of the Quad countries, for example, during their meeting at Tokyo, announced that they would spend $50 billion in infrastructural aid and investment in the Indo Pacific.

Given Biden’s low approval ratings and diminishing political capital, it is unlikely that he is likely to change his approach towards trade significantly. US Trade Representative Katherine Tai said the TPP was “fragile,” and that there was no domestic support for the same. 

In conclusion, while the IPEF does have symbolic importance, bear in mind that many signatories themselves have close economic relations with China and would not like to get trapped in competition between the US and China. Unless the US re-examines its approach towards trade, which is highly unlikely, and unless countries which are part of the Indo-Pacific vision are able to strengthen economic cooperation, China is likely to dominate Asia’s economic landscape – even though there is growing skepticism with regard to the same.

Stimuli For Your Moral Taste Buds

Based on anthropologist Richard Shweder’s ideas, Jonathan Haidt and Craig Joseph developed the theory that humans have six basic moral modules that are elaborated in varying degrees over culture and time. The six modules characterized by Haidt as a “tongue with six taste receptors” are Care/harm, Fairness/cheating, Loyalty/betrayal, Authority/subversion, Sanctity/degradation, and Liberty/oppression. I thought it would be interesting to organize articles I read into these six moral taste buds and post them here as a blog of varied reading suggestions to stimulate conversation not just on various themes but also on how they may affect our moral taste buds in different ways. To some of you, an article that appeals to my Fairness taste bud may appeal to your taste bud on Authority.

I had planned to post this blog yesterday, but it got delayed. Today, I can’t write a blog without mentioning guns. Given that gun violence is a preventable public health tragedy, which moral taste bud do you favor when considering gun violence? Care and Fairness taste buds are important to me.

I’ve only ever been a parent in the United States, where gun violence is a feature rather than a bug, and my childhood in India has provided no context for this feature. But, I can say that India has not provided me with reference points for several other cultural features that I can embrace, with the exception of this country’s gun culture. It is one aspect of American culture that most foreign nationals, including resident aliens like myself, find difficult to grasp, regardless of how long you have lived here. I’d like to see a cultural shift that views gun ownership as unsettling and undesirable. I know it is wishful thinking, but aren’t irrational ideas salvation by imagination?

Though I’m not an expert on guns and conflict, I can think broadly using two general arguments on deterrence, namely:

A) The general argument in favor of expanding civilian gun ownership is that it deters violence at the local level.

B) The general case for countries acquiring nuclear weapons is that it deters the escalation of international conflict.

I sense an instinctual contradiction when A) and B) are linked to the United States. The US favors a martial culture based on deterrence by expanding civilian gun ownership within its borders while actively preventing the same concept of deterrence from taking hold on a global scale with nuclear weapons. Why? The US understands that rogue states lacking credible checks and balances can harm the international community by abusing nuclear power. Surprisingly, this concept of controlling nuclear ammunition is not effectively translated when it comes to domestic firearms control. I get that trying to maintain a global monopoly on nuclear weapons appeals to the Authority taste bud, but does expanding firearms domestically in the face of an endless spiral of tragedies appeal just to the Liberty taste bud? Where are your Care and Fairness taste buds languishing?

Care: The Compassionate Invisibilization Of Homelessness: Where Revanchist And Supportive City Policies Meet/ Liberal US Cities Including Portland Change Course, Now Clearing Homeless Camps

[I’m sharing these two articles because my recent trip to Portland, Oregon, revealed some truly disturbing civic tragedies hidden within a sphere of natural wonders. I hadn’t expected such a high rate of homelessness. It’s a shame. “Rent control does not control the rent,” Thomas Sowell accurately asserts.]

Fairness: America Has Never Really Understood India

[I’d like to highlight one example of how “rules-based order” affected India: In the 1960s, India faced a severe food shortage and became heavily reliant on US food aid. Nehru had just died, and his successor, Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri, called upon the nation to skip at least one meal per week! Soon after, Shastri died, and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi took over, only to be humiliated by US President Lyndon B. Johnson for becoming dependent on food aid from his country. The progressive US President was irked by India’s lack of support for his Vietnam policy. So he vowed to keep India on a “ship-to-mouth” policy, whereby he would release ships carrying food grain only after food shortages reached a point of desperation. Never to face this kind of humiliation, India shifted from its previous institutional approach to agricultural policy to one based on technology and remunerative prices for farmers. The Green Revolution began, and India achieved self-sufficiency. The harsh lesson, however, remains: in international relations, India is better off being skeptical of self-congratulatory labels like “leader of the free world,” “do-gooders,” “progressives,” and so on.]

Liberty: Can Islam Be Liberal? / Where Islam And Reason Meet

[I would like to add that, in the name of advocating liberalism for all, personal liberty is often emphasized over collectivist rights in the majority, while collectivist rights are allowed to take precedence over personal liberty in minority groups, and all religious communities suffer as a result.]

Loyalty: Black-Robed Reactionaries: Has The Supreme Court Been Bad For The American Republic?

[Is it all about Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Supreme Court Majority?]

Authority: How Curing Aging Could Help Progress

[In my opinion, the indefinite future that awaits us compels us to contextualize our current activities and lives. What do you think will happen if anti-aging technology advances beyond the limits of our evolutionary environment? Furthermore, according to demographer James Vaupel, medical science has already unintentionally delayed the average person’s aging process by ten years [Vaupel, James W. “Biodemography of human ageing.” Nature 464.7288 (2010): 536-542]. We have 10 extra years of mobility compared to people living in the nineteenth century; 10 extra years without heart disease, stroke, or dementia; and 10 years of subjectively feeling healthy.]

Sanctity: India and the Indian: Hinduism, Caste Act As Unifying Forces In The Country

[Here is my gaze-reversal on caste as a moderate Hindu looking at a complacent American society: If caste is a social division or sorting based on wealth, inherited rank or privilege, or profession, then it exists in almost every nation or culture. Regardless of religious affiliation, there is an undeniable sorting of American society based on the intense matching of people based on wealth, political ideology, and education. These “American castes,” not without racial or ethnic animus, organize people according to education, income, and social class, resulting in more intense sorting along political lines. As a result, Democrats and Republicans are more likely to live in different neighborhoods and marry among themselves, which is reflected in increased polarization in Congress and perpetual governmental gridlock. The intensification of “American castes,” in my opinion, is to blame for much of the political polarization. What is the United States doing about these castes? Don’t tell me that developing more identity-centered political movements will solve it.]

I intend to regularly blog under this heading. To be clear, I refer to regularly using the Liberty taste bud rather than Fairness.

Why developing countries need to reduce their economic reliance on China

After the resignation of Mahinda Rajapaksa, Ranil Wickremesinghe was sworn in as Sri Lankan Prime Minister on Thursday, May 12, 2022. Wickremesinghe, who is the sole member of the United National Party (UNP), will be holding the position of Sri Lankan PM for the sixth time. While the new Sri Lankan PM is a seasoned administrator, the task of restoring even a modicum of normalcy to the island nation’s economy, which is currently facing its worst economic crisis since its independence in 1948, seems to be a Herculean task. Wickremesinghe has clearly indicated that his first task will be ensuring the supply of electricity, diesel, and petrol to the people.

The grave economic crisis, which has resulted in acute shortage of food and essential commodities, has brought ordinary people on to the roads and demonstrations have resulted in violence and loss of lives. The Sri Lankan President had to declare a state of emergency twice: first last month and then earlier this month (in Sri Lanka, the President and the Prime Minister are two different positions, with the President wielding more power). There had been a growing clamor for the resignation of President Gottabaya Rajapaksa, but Wickremesinghe was sworn in after the exit of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa (protests have been carrying on even after the swearing in of Wickremesinghe).

During his previous tenure, Wickremesinghe had tried to reduce Sri Lanka’s dependence upon China, and in his current tenure he will be compelled to do the same. He had also been critical of the previous government for not approaching the IMF for assistance (Wickremesinghe has been repeatedly accused of being pro-West and having neoliberal leanings by many of his political opponents).

It would be pertinent to point out that the Prime Minister had also batted for a coordinated regional response, by SAARC, vis-à-vis the covid19 pandemic. The new Sri Lankan PM has also been an ardent advocate of improving ties with India.

While it is true that Sri Lanka finds itself in the current situation due to economic mismanagement and excessive dependence upon the tourism sector (which faced a severe setback as a result of covid 19), it is tough to overlook the level of debts piled vis-à-vis China, and the fact that the island nation was following China’s model of economic growth with a focus on big ticket infrastructure projects.

Another South Asian nation — Pakistan, which witnessed a change last month when Shahbaz Sharif took over as Prime Minister, replacing Imran Khan – also faces daunting economic challenges. Pakistan’s foreign exchange reserves were estimated to be a little over $10 billion on May 6, 2022, and the Pakistani Rupee fell to its all time low versus the US Dollar on Thursday, May 12, 2022. Sharif, ever since taking over as PM, has repeatedly reiterated the importance of Pakistan’s ties with China, and the Foreign Minister, Bilawal Bhutto, in a conversation with his Chinese counterpart, alluded to the same:

[Bhutto] underscored his determination to inject fresh momentum in the bilateral strategic cooperative partnership and add new avenues to practical cooperation

Yet China has categorically said that it will not provide any financial assistance until Pakistan resumes the IMF aid program. Pakistan has been compelled to look at other alternatives, such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which have also said that without the revival of the IMF program aid will not be possible. Only recently, Chinese power companies functioning under the umbrella of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) have threatened to shut down their operations if their dues (to the tune of $1.59 billion) are not cleared. China had also reacted very strongly to the terror attack on Karachi University in which three Chinese teachers lost their lives (this is the second such attack after 2021). China has also indicated to Pakistan that it is not happy with the progress of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project. The current government in Pakistan has repeatedly pointed to this fact.

One point which is abundantly clear from the economic crisis in Sri Lanka, as well as Pakistan’s challenges, is that excessive dependence upon China has disastrous consequences in the long run. If one were to look at the case of South Asia, Bangladesh has been astute by not being excessively dependent upon China – it has maintained robust economic relations with India and Japan. Given the changing economic situation it is becoming increasingly important for developing countries, especially in South Asia, to join hands to confront the mounting challenges posed by excessive dependency upon China. The US, Japan, and Western multilateral bodies and financial institutions need to find common ground and provide developing countries with an alternative economic narrative. It is also time for India along with other countries in the South Asian region to find common ground and focus on robust economic cooperation.

A short reflection on the unintended political consequences of the right of due process

Some days ago, The Economist published an article about the spread of the morality councils in the villages of China, whose members meet to praise the ones who they regard as well-behaved and humiliate the others who don’t. The publication used its characteristic sense of irony by pointing out that, finally, the highest ranks of the villagers found a way to exercise their “right to speak”.

Nevertheless, the said irony might lead us to a different kind of reflection on the political right to speak and the rights of due process, such as public hearings, an impartial tribunal, and an opportunity to be heard. Public hearings and impartiality are interrelated since it would be much harder for a tribunal to deliver an arbitrary adjudication if it is overseen by the society. But the public watch of the trials and the right to be heard are even more interrelated. Through these devices, the whole civil society wields the power to take notice of both the claims of the prosecution and of the ones of the prosecuted individuals, and, thus, form its judgment about the impartiality of the tribunal.

Moreover, public hearings endow the prosecuted individuals with the opportunity to exert their political right to speak without any restraint. In a political context of heavy or increasing authoritarianism, any procedures -even the one of a morality council- could resound with the voice of the contrarian. Thus, the right of due process could have -although unintended- political consequences.

Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson relate a poor justice system with the causes of why nations fail, exemplified by government exerting their interference over the judiciary power. Thus, extractive political institutions encroach upon the economic institutions, turning them extractive as well. Nevertheless, defending the procedural rights of the due process could work as a way to contribute to restore both inclusive political and economic institutions.

Of course, a tight authoritarian regime, such as China’s, is aware of the political consequences of free speech, even in the realm of a judiciary process. However, this insight could be profited by the countries where democracies are feeble but still exist. Promoting oral and public judiciary procedures, even for the most insignificant matters, and the right of the prosecuted individual to be heard is not just an issue of lawyers, but acquire a political dimension. The rights of due process endow the civil society with powerful tools to get familiar with main strands of the Rule of Law and the dissidents with the opportunity to exercise their own right to speak.

The immunities of the due process have a long history of discovery and extension to all human beings, beginning with the Magna Carta Libertarum of 1215, that is not fulfilled to this day. It should be something to be pondered that they are historically previous to Modern democracy. Surely, they are a logical condition as well.

I Don’t Want to Fight to the Last Ukrainian

I hope the brave Ukrainians will soon decide to stop dying. I seems to me they have to. The Russians have demonstrated that their armed forces are too incompetent to conquer Ukraine and to reduce it to a satellite. Their capacity to bomb and pound whole cites into a fields of rubble, however, is not in doubt. Even if the Ukrainians managed to expel all Russian troops from all of their country, the Russians could still destroy most Ukrainian cities from their own territory. It does not take much talent if you don’t mind the expense of throwing the same missiles over and over against the same large targets. And the expense may not matter so much while several NATO countries are still paying their fossil fuel bills to the Kremlin. And, if the Ukrainians succeeded in bringing the war to Russia itself to make the attacks cease, they would immediately face a measure of abandonment by world public opinion, including by NATO countries. In addition, even a slight invasion of Russia would probably trigger a wave of self-righteous Russian patriotism. The reluctant Russian soldiers and sailors we have seen in largely pathetic action thus far might soon be replaced by enthusiasts eager to sacrifice themselves for the motherland.

It seems to me the Ukrainians have established they are able to preserve their independence and their recently earned democracy. Yet, it appears that Pres. Zelenskyy has announced his government’s determination to boot every armed Russian from every square inch of Ukrainian soil. Such a project involves going on the offensive against an entrenched enemy because the Russians have been present in the Dombas eastern region, in some guise or other, since 2014. Attacking an entrenched enemy is always very costly in lives as the Russian military’s own failed attempt to take the Ukrainian capital showed anew. I hear in the mass media military experts of diverse nationalities assert that it takes many tanks, among other equipment, and mastery of the skies. The Ukrainians have few of the first and little hold over the other. So, the Ukrainian president’s inflexibility is a signal that many more Ukrainians will die. I can’t help but wonder why it should be so, or what for, except that Zelenskyy may be making the bet that the Russian invaders will soon fold and retreat from every area that was Ukrainian in 2013. Zelenskyy may know things I don’t know, of course but from where I sit, in the calm, his attitude seems unnecessarily dangerous. Let me explain.

After eight years of war – even if most was low intensity war – a good half of the Donbas region, most of its cities, including the puppet “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk, is probably inhabited almost entirely by Russian speakers who are pro-Russians. The others must have left long ago or been driven out. Making the existing pro-Russia population of Donbas submit would place the current elected Ukrainian government in the same situation as the Russians now are in some other parts of Ukraine: occupiers, hated, unable to reduce the local population’s resistance, liable to commit atrocities out of sheer frustration. The currently virtuous Ukraine Republic could quickly be transformed into the kind of vicious monster it is now facing on the rest of its territory.

The prized Crimean peninsula was annexed outright by Russia in 2014, soon after it was seized, and following a questionable referendum. However, since its annexation there have been few protests there against Russia. I don’t think there is a pro-Ukrainian popular movement in the Crimea. (I believe that if there were, I would have heard of it. Correct me if I have been inattentive.) It’s also good to remember that the ties between Crimea and Ukraine may well be historically shallow. Khrushchev gave it to the Ukraine Soviet Republic in 1954 (yes, 1954) pretty much as a gift. In the 2001 count, the last conducted under Ukrainian rule, only 24% of Crimeans were identified as Ukrainians. It’s notable that in the several years between the Russian annexation and the current invasion of Ukraine, it seems there have been few serious statements by any country, including Ukraine, to the effect that the latter had to be reversed. (Correct me if I am wrong.)

As I write (4/26/22) Ukraine’s military position appears strong but it’s facing an offensive where Russia’s military inferiority may not compensate for Ukraine’s smaller numbers and lack of heavy materiel and airplanes. This is the right time to make peace proposals. It appears that Putin is not the kind of person who will admit defeat or even that his project was ill-thought out and ill-planned. Even if he is not actually insane – which have has been suggested by several credible sources – an oblique approach seems well advised here This might be done, perhaps by asking various Russian oligarchs – who stand to lose even more by continued hostilities – to contact Russian general officers who are probably not eager to be dragged further in a reputational mud hole, or who might want to save what’s left of their army.

I think a peace agreement would grant Russia control of all of the Donbas which again – it had already mostly under its control – and an extension south through devastated Mariupol to form a land bridge between Russia proper and Crimea. Some of the arguments against such a resolution smack of the 19th century. First, President Zelenskyy speaks of the territorial integrity of his country as if it were a sacred concept. Yet, we know of a number of countries that lost territory and subsequently did well in every way. At the end of WWII, for example, Germany was amputated of about ¼ of its territory. Yet, it emerged in insolent health ten years later.

A main objection to Ukraine relinquishing the Donbas is that it’s its most industrialized section. This sounds like more 19th century thinking. The Donbas has a considerable steel industry and a heavy metallurgical industry because it also possesses coal mines (with coal difficult and expensive to mine). This raise the question of whether the country should exchange the lives of many of its young men again an energy source that seems to be on its way out anyway and the kind of associated heavy manufacturing favored by Stalin. The examples of Singapore and of geographically nearer Switzerland come to mind. Both countries maintain a superior standard of living without the benefit of either rich energy sources or of conventional metal-based manufacturing. These examples make it easy to argue that the real riches of a country may be its people rather than so many million tons of coals. One more reason to be stingy with Ukrainians’ lives.

If the Ukrainian government made what it probably now thinks of as the sacrifice to sue for peace immediately or soon, it would gain a big prize. I mean that it would be able to keep the big port city of Odesa which is now almost intact. With Odesa, the Ukraine would retain a single access to the sea which is probably more important economically than any coal mines. Odesa was about 2/3 Ukrainian in the last count with Russians making up less than one third. It does not pose the same kind of retention problems as Donbas.

One last but major consideration. The Ukrainian government is fond of affirming that its country is fighting for all of us, not just for itself, against Russian totalitarianism and aggression. This is an almost necessary argument to prime the military and economic pump from the West. It may even be partially true. Yet, right now, – and paradoxically not a little thanks to Putin’s wake-up call- it’s pretty clear NATO can take care of its own. I mean this, even given the lightly brandished nuclear threat. I am pretty sure the Russian General Staff has in its possession a list of its military installations that would be wiped out in the first round of riposte to a nuclear event, a second list of fossil fuel extraction and transformation sites that would be gone on the second round, and a list of Russian cities that would suffer the fate of Mariupol on the third.

I think NATO has the means to return Russia to the Third World status it ever only barely escaped. I also think the Russian military knows this. So, I am very much against the possibility of the West fighting for its freedom and for its prosperity to the last Ukrainian. That’s so, even if the Ukrainians insist they would like too. I am filled with horror at the thought of being even a smidgen responsible for making even more Ukrainian orphans and widows.

And yes, the peace I envision would be another form of rewarding aggression. However, in this case, there is a good trade-off. Russia would acquire some industrial territory in the old mold at the cost of having demonstrated to the world a surprising degree of military incompetence. We, in the US, should keep supporting the Ukrainian war effort just to say “Thanks” for this demonstration.

Debt Traps from China, Western Stringency, and the Future of South Asian Democracy

Introduction

If one were to look at two events in South Asia – the economic crisis in Sri Lanka and the downfall of the Imran Khan-led Pakistan Tehreek-E-Insaaf (PTI) government in Pakistan, one of the points which clearly emerges is that both the South Asian nations have moved closer to China, and there are pitfalls to being excessively dependent upon Beijing. Both countries have often been accused of becoming excessively reliant upon China and falling into what has been dubbed as a “debt trap,” which leads not only to rising economic dependency — as a result of piling debts — but also to Beijing dictating political choices. 

External debts of Pakistan and Sri Lanka

The International Monetary Fund (IMF), according to estimates in February 2022, had said that Pakistan owe $18.4 billion (or 1/5th) of its external debt to China, while Sri Lanka’s total debt to China is estimated at $8 billion, its total external debt is $45 billion.

In the case of Pakistan, a lot of attention has been focused on Imran Khan’s independent stance on the Ukraine issue, and a possible external hand in his ouster. Yet the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) coalition, led by PML-N Supremo Shahbaz Sharif — which is now in power – has repeatedly pointed to Khan’s mismanagement of the economy and the growing disillusionment of the public as well as erstwhile allies (one of the final blows to Khan’s hopes of staying in power was when the Muttahida Qaumi Movement Pakistan (MQM) pulled out of the PTI alliance) as some of the key reasons for the ouster of the PTI government. While no political party can afford to say it, Pakistan’s dependence upon China has begun to cause concern, especially amongst sections of the business community who are keen to diversify the country’s economic relations.

The dire economic crisis which has hit Sri Lanka has been attributed to multiple factors; economic mismanagement by the government, dip in remittances as well as a fall in tourism as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic and over reliance on China. 

Interestingly, while earlier Sri Lanka had refused to seek assistance from the IMF, it has been compelled to, as it is left with limited options. A Sri Lankan team headed by newly-appointed Finance Minister Ali Sabry is headed to Washington DC for negotiations with the Americans. In an interview to Bloomberg television, the Sri Lankan Finance Minister said “‘We need immediate emergency funding to get Sri Lanka back on track.”

If one were to look at the instance of Pakistan, while Islamabad has become increasingly dependent upon China in recent years — especially as a result of its deterioration of ties with the US, and the $64 billion China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project – it has realized that it can not allow its ties with the West to slide further even though close relations with China are imperative. It is not only Western analysts and US policy makers but even ministers in the previous Imran Khan-led PTI government who had actually raised question marks with regard to the economic sustainability of certain CPEC projects. China had expressed its displeasure to Pakistan over the same.

One of the reasons cited for Imran Khan’s differences with the Pakistan army have been his anti-West stance – the former PM accused the US of plotting his downfall and for following an independent foreign policy, pointing to a memo which said that “…if the no-confidence motion passes, Pakistan will be forgiven, if not, there will be consequences.” The US has repeatedly dismissed these charges levelled by Imran Khan.

Khan’s successor, Shahbaz Sharif, has given clear indicators that he will focus on relations with China and Saudi Arabia. He has also hinted at mending ties with the West. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in a congratulatory message to the Pakistan PM, said:

The United States congratulates newly elected Pakistani Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif and we look forward to continuing our long-standing cooperation.

Pakistan is dependent upon the US and EU, since they are important export markets. During his address at the Islamabad Security Dialogue, Pakistan Army Chief Qamar Javed Bajwa, while commenting on Pakistan-US ties, had said: “we share a long and excellent strategic relationship with the US which remains our largest export market.”

Pakistan’s grey list status at Financial Action Task Force (FATF) will also be in review in June 2022. Islamabad would need to mend ties with Western countries if it wants its grey list status to be removed. Pakistan is also likely to resume negotiations with the IMF for the 7th review of the $6 billion loan agreement which was signed with the IMF in 2019. For smooth negotiations with the IMF, a working relationship with Washington DC is essential.

In conclusion, while it is true that Western institutions impose stringent conditions on developing countries and they are compelled to look for different options, excessive dependence upon China has its own pitfalls. It is time for South Asia to look inwards and focus on strengthening regional cooperation and realise that no external player can come up with sustainable solutions for dealing with the region’s economic challenges.