Archive for June, 2011

EADS' vision for Zero Emission High Supersonic Transport, but at a Paris Air Show in 2040 at the earliest (via AFP)

Two stories from the Paris Air Show caught my attention last week. The first, EADS’ Zero Emission High Supersonic Transport (ZEHST) concept.

Design plans detail a “hypersonic” commercial jet that can carry up to 100 passengers while cruising at 4,200 kilometers per hour (2,600 miles per hour) at an altitude of 32 kilometers (20 miles). The ambitious project is meant to fill the void in air travel left when the legendary Concorde was retired from service in late 2003. But its developers have another goal in mind as well — combining three different types of propulsion systems to make it considerably more eco-friendly than its predecessor.

Unfortunately, a good number of ZEHSTs passengers haven’t been born yet, it isn’t imagined to be on the market for a good 40 years, give or take a decade.

Boeing 747-8 landing at at Le Bourget airport (Reuters/Pascal Rossignol)

The second story, Boeing unveiling its passenger, stretch 747, the 747-8. The world’s longest passenger plane, 747-8 seats over 400 passengers. The 747-8 represents Boeing’s competitor against Airbus’ A380 in the jumbo jumbo market.

The stories left me with visions of mass high-speed air travel, a project where ZEHST disappoints as it is imagined to seat only 100 passengers. Reportedly, the Japanese Space Agency is working on the supersonic mass travel with its Next Generation Supersonic Transport (NEXST) seating 300. NEXST is planned to be ready by 2015, but cruising at mach 2 it would be slower than the ZEHST’s imagined mach 3.4 – that’s 1,500 mph compared to 2,600 mph.

What would, hopefully eco-friendly, high(er) speed mass air travel mean? I’m thinking nothing short of the rail and telegraph revolutions, shrinking the globe yet further and making the oceans less relevant to many more people. The Concorde was an important first step in the process, but in terms of mass availability it failed. So here’s hoping NEXST and eventually ZEHST will arrive at a Paris Air Show in the near future.


Read Full Post »

Meeting on Afghanistan in the Situation Room, June 6, 2011
(Official White House Photo/Pete Souza)

In her testimony this morning before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s reply to Senator Durbin stood out to me.

Well Senator [Durbin] your comments took me back to that very difficult time that we did share together as members of the Senate. And, I certainly agree with you that we committed to going after al-Qaeda, but we also, in my view, did not follow through the way we should have early on. And that’s not, you know, meant as criticism it’s just a statement of fact. And I think that President Obama, whom you know very well, faced an incredibly difficult choice. It was difficult politically. It was difficult substantively. It was difficult personally. But upon very careful reflection and review he made the decisions that I thought were the right decisions given what he inherited. And I think he is now on the right path toward resolving our involvement in Afghanistan in the best way possible out of a lot of very difficult choices.

So I would answer the question in this way. I don’t think it’s a matter of winning or losing. I think it’s a matter of how we measure the success we are seeking in Afghanistan. And I do believe it is possible to construct a political and diplomatic resolution. I will know more about that at the end of this year than I know now because we were not in a position, frankly, to pursue that until recently. Why? Because the Taliban were not interested in talking to us because they thought they were going to make a big comeback. And I remember when President George W. Bush basically said to Mullah Omar and the Taliban, “Look, turn over bin Laden and al-Qaeda and we’re done, we’re not going to come after you”, and they would not do it. And they never have agreed to do it. And only now are we beginning to see the kind of outreach that evidences a willingness to discuss the future. I don’t think we would have gotten there absent President Obama’s very difficult, tough assessment that led to his decisions.

So good people, and very smart people can disagree about the way forward and that’s what this hearing has demonstrated. I have the highest regard for every member of this committee and I know that every single man and woman wants to do what’s best for America, wants to do what’s best for our troops, wants to do what’s best for our future. And it is our very reasoned assessment, taking into account everything that we have all discussed today, that we now have a chance to bring this to a political and diplomatic end. But the president has started us on a path that will lead to the bringing home of our troops over the next years. So, it’s a tough call senator and there’s no easy formula that any of us can follow at this point. I wish it were six years, seven years, eight years ago and we had made different choices then. But you know we don’t get that luxury. And it’s deeply regrettable but Presidents have to make the tough calls and this president has made it.

Two positions had been reported within the Obama administration, Gates, Clinton, and Petraeus advocating a slower drawdown of troops and Biden advocating a faster drawdown, using the demise of Osama bin Laden to pivot to a different strategy in Afghanistan. On the whole, I think the case for leaving more troops in Afghanistan for a longer period of time is stronger. That is to say the suite of US interests in the region would be more secure given a smaller drawdown now.

This is not an argument in favor of being tough for toughness sake, it is an argument about building leverage vis-à-vis the relevant actors in the region whether the Taliban or Pakistan. I’d also add that I tend to agree with a more Kennedyesque approach of announcing more determination than may actually be present. “Pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship” as a signaling device to opponents as to press home advantages in negotiations. It seems to me that timetables cut against one’s own negotiating position saying, “We’re committed now, but you can wait us out.”

As a matter of fact this observation is true. The US does not have limitless resources and it would be unwise to devote decades more and trillions of dollars to turn Afghanistan into Switzerland. But there’s reason to withhold from your opponent how much time you’re willing to devote and how much money you’re willing to spend. As a matter of positioning the US for the exit, there’s advantage to be had from giving the appearance of unwavering resolve.

All that said, I hope Obama’s plan for Afghanistan works. As Clinton said in her testimony, “Presidents have to make the tough calls and this president has made it.”

Read Full Post »

At the Republican presidential candidates debate last week the shift away from current US military commitments was notable. US engagements in both Afghanistan and Libya received skeptical responses. This is a party that practically banged Democrats over the head with flagpoles. Republicans decried lack of patriotism, the taking of dangerous Democratic peacenik positions, and bludgeoned opponents with accusations: un-American, unpatriotic, opportunistic grandstanding against valiant American forces upholding our national interest. And now there is a field of Republican presidential candidates advocating cut and run – the very words used against Iraq war opponents.

Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham were having none of it on Sunday morning. The senators went so far as to violate Ronald Reagan’s Eleventh Commandment, “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican”. Far from Margaret Thatcher’s gentle, “Don’t go wobbly on me, George”, both Senators broke out the I-word for the positions the Republicans candidates took. The senators mentioned isolationism repeatedly and warned against that impulse in foreign policy thinking. The senators didn’t denounce the Republican field in the strong language that’d been wielded against the Democrats over Iraq, but in their own way they made their displeasure known. Graham mentioned the Carter administration, for Republicans not meant to be a favorable comparison.

Given the forceful way Republicans made their case during the Bush presidency, it is only fitting that these Republican candidates confront pushback for their positions on Libya and Afghanistan. In a particularly stinging quote, Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute told the Politico,

Romney has proven himself a little bit of a weathervane and I guess he senses that positioning himself in this place is good for his campaign — attempting to appease Ron Paul’s constituents without actually being Ron Paul.

Excluding those voicing concerns about the cut and run strategy, several of the candidates appear to be wobbly weathervanes indeed.

Read Full Post »

Sir Terry Pratchett, 2010 Dimbleby Lecturer
(via the Telegraph, Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire)

CNN reports on the controversy in the UK over the BBC airing a documentary on assisted suicide, Terry Pratchett: Choosing to Die. The discussion over assisted suicide is one aspect of the debate, another is the documentary’s portrayal of Peter Smedley’s death on camera. I haven’t seen the documentary, so I can’t comment intelligently on whether it was, as CNN offers up the alternatives, harrowing or disgraceful.

I can say that I did watch Terry Pratchett’s 2010 Richard Dimbleby Lecture, Shaking Hands with Death. The Dimbleby Lecture is an annual address broadcast by the BBC. Previous lecturers have included the great and the good from a variety of fields, Bill Clinton, the Archbishop of Canterbury, eminent scientists and scholars, and so forth. Pratchett was the first novelist to deliver the lecture. Pratchett discusses the Martin Amis quote,

Very recently an impassioned outburst by Martin Amis in an interview he gave to the Sunday Times called for euthanasia booths on every street corner. I firmly believe it was there to trap the hard of irony, and I note that it has done so – he was, after all, a novelist talking about a new book. Did it get publicity? It surely did. Apart from being tasteless, the idea is impractical, especially if there happens to be a photo booth next door.

If Pratchett’s Dimbleby lecture is anything to go by, the criticism of the documentary may be overblown. In addition, the documentary was accompanied by a Newsnight discussion of the issue of assisted death, hardly tabloid sensationalizing – think NewsHour with Jim Lehrer levels of seriousness and sophistication.

Just to get the disagreements out of the way at the outset, I don’t agree with the particulars of Pratchett’s public policy proposals on assisted suicide. (My posts on assisted suicide here and here.) Pratchett envisions a state appointed tribunal of over 40-somethings who assess a patient’s request for an assisted death. Pratchett’s assertion “My life, my death, my choice” is leavened with explicit consideration of the vulnerable, it was a bit unnecessarily libertarian for my taste though (in all the wrong ways, less consideration of the community, atomistic individuals, etc.).

That said, it is an excellent lecture that deals sensitively, and sometimes humorously, with a really difficult topic. I’m glad I watched it in 2010 and I’m glad I found it on the internet. The transcript here (via Paulkidby.com). And a (hopefully stable) video of the lecture below. Well worth the 50 minutes if you’re interested in the topic.

Read Full Post »

Lil Buck dancing and Yo-Yo Ma playing Camille Saint-Saëns’ Swan from the Carnival of the Animals (via Opera Chic)

the Met Opera's Swarovski crystal, Sputnik chandeliers

Yo-Yo Ma could easily stay in the Swarovski encrusted world of classical music, floating from venue to venue on the praise of the already awed classical music world. Instead, he makes efforts to go beyond the regular symphony-going world to work with artists like Bobby McFerrin and Lil Buck. Nothing against the melanin challenged, septuagenarian concert-goers to be found in the jewel box auditoriums of the world. But if classical music is to prevent itself from being shut away as an art form that used to be relevant, it will require new audiences, new listeners, younger people who find it connects with them and their life experiences. Thanks are due those artists like Ma, McFerrin, and Lil Buck who make those connections.

Read Full Post »

Britannia once reigned
(via Wikipedia)


David Brooks says the upcoming US presidential election is about “how to avert national decline”, adding that “All other issues flow from this anxiety.” I agree with the point that the decline of US power has resulted in anxieties over America’s place in the world. What’s more, these anxieties can be expressed in particularly unconstructive ways. The US has seen its share of xenophobia mixed with political grandstanding. A (sometimes) more benign version of this mix is manifested in merely bombastic American exceptionalism.

Of course, acceptance of relative decline does not mean advocating acceleration of America’s inevitable fall from hegemony. Many avenues are open to US leaders to hasten the relative decline of US power, these blind alleys ought to be avoided. Inartful diplomacy, needlessly straining core alliances for instance, presents one surefire course to lower America’s stature. Chastising “Old Europe” on Iraq could never have yielded anything constructive. Setting up an antagonistic relationship with a faith of over a billion adherents, also not the wisest course (Tom Tancredo’s threaten-to-bomb-Mecca advice demonstrates he should never have been elected to anything by anyone, ever). But even applying American’s skills as diplomats and innovators, scholars and scientists, even with all the king’s horses and all the king’s men, decline may only be delayed. Not prevented.

The best approach for American leaders would be to accept the fact of relative decline of American power in the 21st century with grace and equanimity. The sooner Americans realize there will not be another American century the better. The combination of vast military, economic, and cultural power is a heady mix, particularly for America’s 5% of world population. The unipolar American moment can not go on forever, no matter how eagerly politicians promise 5%, 10%, or 15% economic growth (the candidates for the Republican nomination were feeling particularly generous with US economic growth prospects last night).

Hyperpower is fleeting.

As for US standing as the world’s largest economy, the end is already in sight, 2016 by the IMF’s reckoning and 2019 by the Economist’s estimation (FT). The Economist provides an interactive calculator where you can plug in real GDP growth, inflation, and yuan appreciation to generate your own date as to when the China-America sorpasso takes place, Save the date.

The Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805
J.M.W. Turner, 1823-4 (via MetMuseum)

In the military sphere, America’s alliances and global basing makes prospects for global US power projection more secure. But there too, military might is not what it used to be. The defense jargon is “asymmetric threats”, individuals or small groups of malevolent actors, even unaffiliated with states, can do a great deal of harm without investing in aircraft carriers and nuclear arms programs. When adding links to states, the potential for harm to the US and US interests grows a great deal. Among the many caveats to American power, possessing military might in an era when militaries mean less than they did when Britain ruled the waves.

It will take statecraft to navigate through Turbulence in World Politics (to borrow the title of James Rosenau’s excellent book for the IR theory minded). Self-aggrandizing dreams of exceptionalism will be of little use in an age requiring thoroughgoing multilateralism. Whether through the Law of the Sea, the International Criminal Court, or a clutch of signed but not ratified human rights conventions, the US has a lot to do on that score. A stronger, rule-based international order is the best legacy this generation of American leaders could leave their successors.

They had better hurry up though. The American century is nearly over.

Read Full Post »

ICTY Tribunal Building in the Hague (via Wikipedia)

Are we defining genocide down? That amounts to the substance of concerns raised since the arrest of former Serbian general Ratko Mladic in late May. Various commentators have been discussing the precise definition of genocide and whether Mladic’s treatment of Muslims can sustain the charge of genocide. Accusations of war crimes and crimes against humanity are a given, but should Mladic’s be accused of genocide?

Elias Isquith discusses an Ian Buruma piece which argues that the charge of genocide against Mladic defines genocide down with the negative consequence of creating an overbroad category of conflict where we can intervene – given genocide justifies intervention, a broad definition of genocide justifies a broad sweep of interventions. The Economist highlights the perspective of law professor William Schabas who argues we should be more circumspect in defining the legal category of genocide. The thrust of the Economist’s piece is favorable to Schabas’ perspective, the title and tag-line of the piece: The uses and abuses of the G-word. Genocide is the ultimate crime. All the more reason to use the word carefully.

M.S. at Democracy in America highlights the work of another scholar who agrees with Schabas’ perspective, Katherine G. Southwick. But in contrast, M.S. disagrees with those seeking a narrower definition of genocide. M.S. argues the “common sense” application of the term genocide need encompass the efforts of Slobodan Milosevic to establish a “Greater Serbia”, concluding with a definition of genocide as

mass slaughter intended to wipe out or drive out some population in the service of the political hegemony of a charismatic populist party with an ethnic, religious, racial or class-based identity.

I approach the question from two angles, a strict social scientist stroke analyst angle and a political-legal angle. As a scholarly matter I tend towards Schabas and Southwick, but as a subject of advocacy I tend towards M.S. Overall, the broader perspective on defining genocide M.S. articulates wins out and I end up in agreement with charging Mladic with genocide.

From the perspective of a social scientist, there is a legitimate discussion to be had about casing, that is categorizing what precisely constitutes genocide. Scholars can, quite legitimately, go on and on discussing definitions, taxonomies, and appropriate methodologies. For some analysis accusing Mladic of genocide is a stretching of the term to encompass a broader range of misconduct. Schabas and Southwick have a point when they try to separate out the Balkans war crimes from genocide.

But from the political-legal angle, there is reason to leave the precise contours of our definition of genocide vague.* Unclear boundaries may deter future leaders contemplating grave misconduct or soldiers receiving orders to carry out such misconduct. Call it a species of strategic ambiguity, imprecision in an effort to prevent even more brutality. I disagree with Buruma that this ambiguity takes away from the horror of a more restrictive definition of genocide. Witness events in the Balkans,

In the vicinity of the town of Nova Kasaba, the Dutch drove by a soccer field and spotted thousands of Muslim men on their knees with their hands on their heads. A table had been set up to register them, and their small knapsacks and bags lay on the grass. When these same Dutch later heard single gunshots from the field, some began to suspect, in the words of one sergeant, “They’re all going down.”
(A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, p. 402-3, footnotes omitted)

* The definition of genocide from the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide:

In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

Read Full Post »