Thursday, February 19, 2009

For The Record

Some people are celebrating the news that Hugo Chavez is free to run for another term as president of Venezuela. Not me. This is not to say I think everything Chavez has done is bad. Far from it. My understanding is he has reduced poverty dramatically at home, and some of his foreign interventions have been positive as well.

But I don't trust the guy. He shows every sign of being a demagogue. Power corrupts, and Chavez strikes me as more than usually corruptible. I expect a steady decline in the quality of his governing. At some point he may just cancel elections altogether

A lot of Chavez's opponents are much nastier than he is, but there are plenty of good people who are against him as well. We shouldn't assume that the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

I'm putting this here so I can point to it in a few years time when the Right are using Chavez's failings as a stick to beat the left. But I also hope that any starry-eyed lefties reading it pay attention. We've been down this road far too many times before.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Limis of Consensus

One area where I am not fully in tune with the party I belong to is the issue of consensus (I'm referring to the decision making process here, so maybe it should be capitalised). I think it has its place, and the world would be better if it was used more often, but I don't hold with the view (common in the Greens) that it should be used in all cases.

Consensus only works with fundamentally reasonable people, who have a commitment to working together in future for common goals, and are therefore willing to make compromises to maintain the relationships. Some people seem to think this is really always the case, its just that some people don't realise it and behave badly. But if they could just be brought to see...

We now have a consensus advocate in the most powerful position in the world, and we've seen just how limited its use can be. Even from a position of very little power, the Republican leadership were willing to block and frustrate, even though they knew that it would only take 2-3 defections for their strategy to come undone. Eventually it did, but they were so committed to opposition they prefered to take this risk than negotiate reasonable compromises.

Of course, within the Greens you seldom encounter people as nasty as Senate Republicans. Nevertheless, I think this is a demonstration that consensus is limited in its application. I'm glad Obama tried it, and I'd still like to see it used more widely, but also with caution.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Do Nuclear Weapons Reductions Matter?

Inspired as I was by Obama's campaign, and his inauguration speech, I've had my heart broken by politicians too many times before, so I've felt plenty of caution as well. His appointments have been mixed. Some great, some terrible.

In terms of the moves he has made so far, they've mostly been good, but not surprising. Removing the global gag rule was wonderful, but we all knew he'd do it. Clinton did the same thing. But there are two things he's done that have given me hope that here we have someone more FDR than WJC.

The first is the more even-handed rhetoric on the Middle East, and the appointment of George Mitchell. I'm pessimistic this will work, but its great to see him trying. Even more exciting is the proposal to slash nuclear weapons by 80%, with the sweetner to the Russians of an abandonment of the missile defense shield on their borders.

Pretty much anyone who values peace will think this is a good thing, but I suspect most people will see it as a fairly small move. Cutting nuclear weapons on each side from 5000 to 1000 still gives us the capacity to wipe out civilization and cause suffering on an unprecedented scale. If the other 4000 bombs were (literally) overkill, does it really help if we get rid of them?

I'd argue yes, for several reasons. Combined these make the proposal a huge step forward.

1. Every weapon is a danger. It can be stolen, misfired or the vehicle carrying it could be in a crash. The US has had several near-misses. I'd imagine the Russians have had more so. Getting rid of 80% cuts this risk by 4/5ths. Probably more, since the remainder will be better guarded.

2. The message it sends to the world is very potent. Bush's pause on weapons reductions has legitimated the quest for nukes by Iran and North Korea and the expansion of India and Pakistan's programs. Demonstrating that grown-ups get rid of weapons, not add to them, is an invaluable message. Particularly to those nations that are at least partially democratic.

3. Should the worst happen and we really do have an all out nuclear war 1000 bombs on each side is enough to destroy the world. But there's a lot of evidence that in this circumstance quite a large proportion of the bombs won't go off. The technology will fail, or the human operators will resist. A few hundred bombs from each side would still add up to more deaths than from all the wars in history combined, but there might be something left to rebuild. Five times as many - no way.

4. The missile defense shield Obama is offering to give up in the deal is a destabilizing influence. Getting rid of it bolsters the chance of peace.

5. Keeping nukes is expensive. Building the defense shield much more so. The money saved will be very, very useful elsewhere.

6. Nuclear weapons contain highly enriched uranium, or plutonium. When they are decommissioned this is burnt in nuclear reactors. In the process there is less need to dig up new uranium. Since uranium from the ground has only 0.7% U235, while bombs are mostly 235 one bomb will power a lot of power stations for a long time. Avoiding digging up all that uranium is good for the environment, and for the indigenous people on whose land many of the mines sit. It also means there is a lot less depleted uranium sitting around waiting to be used. And the uses DU is put to are generally pretty nasty.

7. If you want to get to zero nuclear weapons, you have to go through the stage of having 1000 first. Obama may not be able to take us down entirely, but this move can pave the way for his successors, if they wish to follow through.

Of course the plan may fail. If Putin won't come to the party then Obama isn't likely to get rid of the bombs unilaterally. But even if that happens we still get something good out of the whole thing. Putin's ethical bankruptcy is exposed to the world, and the global population still sees Obama showing real leadership, which may encourage them to demand the same thing from their leaders.

All in all, I think its really good news.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Ethiopia At Risk

I got an email today about a crisis in Ethiopia. Again. The rains failed. Again. Millions are at risk. Again.

But this isn't just another gloom and doom story. Apparently UNICEF programs for treating malnourished children have been working, and infant mortality has fallen significantly (not sure if that is in the statistical sense or in common parlance).

Rather than asking for money, the email asked everyone to raise awareness, both of the dangers but also of the successes. To tell people that foreign aid can work, and if we move fast we can prevent another tragedy. One of the ways they ask us to do this is postings on our blogs.

Given that my webtracker is still telling me no one reads this site at all, which clearly is not entirely true, I've no idea whether I'm achieving much at all with a post on the topic, but I think its a worthy idea. Info here.