Bringing together the best longer Interpreter articles you were too busy to read this week.
Our three-part interview series with Peter Singer on cyber-security was one Interpreter highlight on this week. We also featured two excellent pieces of analysis on Syria from Rodger Shanahan. First, on the outcomes of the Geneva II 'peace' conference, Rodger wrote:
So toxic was the atmosphere in Geneva that even the hope of a confidence-building measure such as allowing humanitarian access into the city of Homs proved a bridge too far. The Syrian government wanted to focus the talks on solving the issue of 'the terrorists' (the name by which it refers to its opponents), while the opposition was just as quick to steer the talks towards the transitional government called for by the original Geneva Communique, an issue the Assad representatives refuse to discuss.
Brahimi's statement at the end of the talks was an excellent example of a professional diplomat's ability to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. Having set 10 February as the date for the next round of talks, further attendance by both sides could be seen as a diplomatic victory of sorts, although the initial indications from the parties aren't exactly enthusiastic. After nearly three years of fighting, however, having groups yell at each other has to be better than shooting. The next step will be to agree to something.
Rodger's second post looked at the Syrian opposition's predilection for 'splitting':
One of many great scenes from The Life of Brian was the depiction of the schism among anti-Roman groups that resulted in the standoff between the Judean People's Front, the Judean Popular People's Front (splitters!), and the People's Front of Judea (splitters!).
It was a not-so subtle reminder that Middle Eastern resistance movements have a well-deserved reputation for splintering. The Israelis and countless Arab autocrats have relied on the principle of 'divide and conquer', knowing that the dividing part is quite easy. It is also one of the reasons why Hizbullah stands out from the crowd — it has exhibited a degree of internal discipline over an extended period of time rarely if ever seen among such groups.
One of the reasons Bashar al-Assad has been able to survive for so long in Syria is because he and his supporters understand the nature of Arab resistance movements, particularly those of an Islamist bent.
Opposition groups have been divided from the beginning by practical issues such as competition for resources. Islamist groups have the added problem of interpretive disagreements. Who is following the true Islamic path in their resistance? Whose leader exhibits the most piety and bravery in battle? Only God knows the real truth and His will must be followed. Unfortunately God's will is a difficult thing to pin down, so it is little wonder schisms are commonplace among the Islamists.
Moving to climate change, Climate Institute CEO John Connor argued that 2014's diplomatic agenda will test the Australian Government's climate choices, and highlight them internationally:
Since the Coalition turned against carbon pricing back in 2009, things have changed. Most notably, and particularly in the last 12 months, the world's biggest emitters have moved from obstructionism to action. China is investing furiously in renewable energy, clamping down on air pollution and rolling out regional carbon trading schemes (five so far with more expected). With domestic and cross-border concern about the country's toxic environment growing, the government remains under pressure to produce results.
In the US, the Obama Administration has regulated emissions from vehicles and new power plants, and will this year tackle existing power plants. Secretary of State John Kerry has made climate change a foreign policy priority, reportedly requiring it to be discussed in every meeting between senior American and foreign officials. President Obama highlighted the economic and moral importance of such action in his State of the Union Address on Wednesday.
Even Europe, despite showing signs of leadership fatigue, has proposed to cut its domestic emissions by 40% by 2030. This is a reminder that deeper cuts are required post-2020 from all nations, even if this target will need to be supplemented by international reductions to be a credible contribution to the global goal of avoiding two degrees of warming.
Stephen Grenville gave us a thoughtful piece on income inequality:
The income-inequality debate is an old one, but it’s getting renewed interest, most recently from President Obama in his State of the Union address, where he advocated raising the minimum hourly wage from $7.25 to just over $10. He also spoke of the closely related issue of social mobility (a 'ladder of opportunity').
This is just one element of a wider inequality debate. At the other end of the income spectrum is the debate about the 'one percent', the rich apex of the income pyramid. This is starkest in the US. In the past three decades, the top 1% have increased their real after-tax income by close to 300%, doubling their share of total income to 16%. The very top (0.1%) have done even better: this tiny cohort gets 7% of total income. The rest of the top quintile (the richest 20%) have done OK, but the bottom 80% have lost income share, with median real wage unchanged for three decades.
There is no single, simple explanation. Economies have become more complex, with more capital and high returns to technological innovation and intellectual property. Technology has certainly not favoured unskilled labour.
Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop made her first trip to PNG this week. The Lowy Institute's Jenny Hayward-Jones praised the Foreign Minister's focus on empowering PNG women, noting that Bishop herself is Australia's chief political asset in PNG:
Despite the Minister's familiarity with Papua New Guinea, she may not have fully appreciated until yesterday the important role she plays as a role model for Papua New Guinea women. In response to a question seeking Bishop's advice on how she herself advanced in politics to become the Foreign Minister, Bishop joked that an answer would take three days, but then added that mentors were very valuable.
It is obviously not lost on PNG women that Julie Bishop is the only woman in the federal cabinet and that her rise to foreign minister and deputy leader of the Liberal Party is an achievement from which PNG women can draw lessons.
Julie Bishop has a significant agenda as foreign minister. If she can keep PNG near the top of this agenda and ensure there is real substance to the new economic and strategic status of the bilateral partnership, this will be a major achievement. But her biggest achievement could be the influence she exerts to change the future for women in PNG. Bishop has an obvious love for the country that endears her to Papua New Guineans used to Australian ministers who have tended to prioritise the relationship with Papua New Guinea only when there was a problem.
Finally, Vaughan Winterbottom provided a couple of first-rate posts on Chinese foreign policy. One looked at nuclear cooperation between China and Pakistan, arguing that China's actions are in violation of Nuclear Suppliers Group rules:
China has a long history of cooperation with Pakistan on nuclear technology. Beijing sees the country as a useful counterweight to a nuclear India, and it was instrumental in the development of Pakistan's first two reactors, at Chashma in Punjab province.
China joined the NSG in 2004. Member states are subject to stringent rules on the export of nuclear technology and materials, which are intended to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
In 2010 a subsidiary of the China National Nuclear Corporation announced it would export technology to develop two additional reactors at Chashma. A number of countries, including the US, questioned China about the plans at subsequent NGS meetings. In 2011 the NSG turned a blind eye to the deal; China argued it was 'grandfathered' by previous contractual obligations at Chashma. Analysts saw the NSG move as a tacit recognition of China's acquiescence to an NSG guideline waiver proposed by the US for India two years earlier. Neither Pakistan nor India is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
And here's Vaughan's take on China-Russia relations in the context of President Xi Jinping's decision to attend the 2014 Winter Olympics in the Russian city of Sochi:
Since the turn of the millennium, China and Russia have grown closer together as they have moved further away from the West.
The two dominate the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a Central Asian security and economic bloc seen as a counterweight to American interests in the region. China supported Russia's push for a political solution to the Syrian civil war in September. The countries held joint military exercises in the Sea of Japan last year, the largest naval drills China has ever conducted with another nation.
Xi and Putin are said to enjoy a strong personal relationship. Xi's first foreign trip as president was to Russia; Sochi will be his first foreign trip this year. Xi was even present at Putin's 61st birthday celebrations at October's APEC Summit in Bali, and clapped along to an awkward rendition of 'Happy Birthday'.
So on the surface, Sino-Russian relations appear friendly. The countries have a shared interest in redesigning the post-Cold War global political architecture to reflect a multipolar distribution of power. Both regimes find other countries' 'meddling' in their internal affairs reprehensible, and derive prestige from touting their partnership to the world. Complementarities in industry drive bilateral trade.
But look a little closer and the friendship isn't so clear-cut. 'Pragmatic alignment' is a more apt phrase to describe the relationship than 'friendship'.
For instance, China has a long history of pilfering Russian defence technology, a fact in which Russia's military press periodically indulges. Far East Russians also worry that increasing economic integration with China will turn their prime piece of Pacific real estate into a de facto Chinese province. Much of the Far East's fresh produce is already grown on Chinese-run farms, both in China and Russia.
Last year saw the consummation of a slew of deals to transfer the Siberian resources south. One deal saw Rosneft agree to supply China National Petroleum Corporation with 365 million tons of oil over 25 years, worth US$270 billion. Yet China is frustrated by Russian demands that the Siberian deals reflect European prices. At the end of January Gazprom again failed to seal a 30-year natural gas supply accord with China. Negotiations have been dragging on for 15 years.
Photo by Flickr user Joe in DC.