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August 29, 2007

Minnesota State Fair through foreign eyes.

Why write an international web log on the Minnesota State Fair? Out there in the wider world beyond the United States there is a lot of information on this country but not always a lot of understanding. Even in the United States this part of the Mid-West is probably not well understood. I cannot claim to be knowledgeable either about Minnesota or of the State Fair but I know a good time when I have it. It is the fate of a super-power (the super-power) to be criticized for what it does as well as what is does not do. To that extent, it cannot win. Hollywood’s images of violence and the confused messages from television as well as the disaster of the war in Iraq all add up to create an entirely negative image of the United States on the part of many people. How about the Minnesota State Fair as antidote to at least some of that?

On Saturday, in the company of two (American) friends I spent seven very full hours at the State Fair. Many have been curious since as to my reaction and it was suggested to me that I put my views in writing. I suppose my first thoughts (as I order them in writing) concern the huge scale of the Fair. The showground is, as you may imagine, vast and, of course, very well-organized. The crowds poured in the whole day long. They were good-natured, well-ordered and happy. Even in the seven hours at the Fair, I was not able to see everything though I made sure that my ‘fantasy purchase’ ideas were checked out (like the Harley Davidson Stand and the SUV displays, particularly the new Toyota). My policy is to leave something for another visit, no matter where I go now. Too many trips when younger have been spoiled by trying to see and do everything. It is just not usually possible to see everything, especially at the Minnesota State Fair.

Another feature that is striking is the fried food, especially fried food on a stick. As I am clearly a fastidious foreigner, I am expected to look straight down my nose at the general and universal fry-up. It tends to be forgotten that I am from Glasgow in Scotland where the fry-up is, unfortunately, a way-of-life. I ate cheese curds (deep fried soft white cheese) with the best of them but did not in fact eat anything on a stick. The smell of a vat of oil in which ‘fried dough’ (reminiscent, I suppose, of ‘fat-cakes’ from Southern Africa) was being cooked put me off all other fried stuff. One of my friends assured me that the ‘walleye on a stick’ (a white fish from Lake Superior) was simply ‘delicious’. Deep-fried ‘Twinkies on a stick’ I am sorry to say were probably invented in Glasgow earlier and under another name! Demand was brisk for ‘food-on-a-stick’ throughout the day. Every year there is a competition of sorts over what else can be fried and impaled. Even the health conscious seemed to take a perverse pride in eating anything deep-fried. It is simply the thing to do.

Although the Fair is vast, it draws in urban and rural communities from all over Minnesota and so maintains its human dimension. To enter an exhibit at the Fair (a result of winning in lower-level competitions throughout Minnesota) is a huge mark of distinction and a matter of deep personal and community pride. It was wonderful to see, for example, the results of hundreds of hours of patch-work quilt-making. The skill and eye for pattern and colour in the prize-winning quilt exhibits is amazing. The same can be said for skills in cake-making, flower growing and arranging, prize vegetable growing and much more. The exhibits speak to a body of rural knowledge and purposeful activity (the winters are long) that is humbling to contemplate. Young people are also drawn in (through, for example 4H) and are provided with a platform from which to speak to the wider world beyond their remote farm or small town.

At the heart of the Fair is the State’s agricultural sector. I gazed happily on sheep (I doubt if I have been that close to a sheep since childhood), on chickens and on cows. The pampered and petted cows were being taken in and out of the show ring, handled skillfully by youngsters from the farms. I once researched cattle herding and cattle accumulation strategies in the Kalahari areas of Botswana and wondered what cattle owners from the Western Kweneng would have thought as one potential prize winner after another was led to judgment. Each beast would have sustained a long, animated and informed conversation. I regretted that I could only look and judge with ignorance. I resorted to aesthetics. One heifer with a coat of the deepest, darkest burgundy caught my eye. The judge giving the educational talk in the sheep pen was much more to the point. He talked about the meat potential of each animal that was being shown. Farming is, despite all of that pampering, an unsentimental business.

So what did I see in the Minnesota State Fair? I saw an honest pride in community and in individual human effort whether down of the farm or in the work room or in the effective organization of feeding vast numbers of people quickly and tastily and without rancor. I saw a celebration of Minnesotan living and the Minnesotan environment in all seasons and an affirmation of the (on-the-whole) quiet ways that Minnesotans have fun. I saw people taking pride in Minnesotan ways of doing things. Even the police trying to keep the space clear for the colorful parade managed to keep order, in contrast to the Hollywood images, with little more than robust good humor. I recommend to those outsiders who harbor only negative thoughts of the United States (or of the Mid-West), go and spend a good-natured day at the Minnesota State Fair. Go early and stay long!

August 24, 2007

The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)

NAFTA is a political puzzle. It has increased international trade between the partners and changed the balance of regional trade in ways that would appear to be beneficial. It has helped transform the underlying conditions (productivity, perhaps stability and even growth) of the Mexican economy but it has not led (partly, but not solely, because of a lack of inflow of investment funds) to a reduction in the gap between incomes in the United States and incomes in Mexico. The agreement is unpopular across the political spectrum, particularly in the United States, and not just with the left in Mexico and yet leaders and corporate America on the whole seem to support plans to extend its scope. It is the foundation of an even more ambitious plan to work towards a ‘Security and Prosperity Partnership’ and yet there have been objections to a regional transportation strategy. How are we to make sense of all that is involved? How is NAFTA to be evaluated?

There is a problem about where to start. What NAFTA signifies will be partly determined by the point-of-view. If we take a global perspective (top-down), it could be argued that the world of the future will be one of larger and more integrated trading blocks. The prime example is that of the EU but efforts at economic integration, using various models, are being made in Latin America, Asian and in the Africa. Those, such as the private group responsible for ‘Building a North American Community’ (Council on Foreign Relations 2005), that take this scenario seriously argue that the NAFTA should develop into a more comprehensive economic community with a jointly-agreed agenda to tackle ‘shared challenges to our economic growth’ and the ‘challenge of uneven economic development’. The Independent Task Force that constructed the report was very much drawn from the commercial and business elite with an eye on the issues of global competitiveness and international resource constraints. An integrated North America market would outstrip in sheer volume that of the expanded EU. The task force pointed towards regional cooperation on a tripartite basis rather than European Union style integration.

Those in America who fear ‘loss of sovereignty’ appear to be missing the point. Robert Pastor, who helped draft the report, argues that the NAFTA and associated initiatives such as the ‘Security and Prosperity Partnership’ (established in 2005 and whose established but limited agenda was discussed recently by the leaders of Canada, Mexico and the United States) could be a means of reviewing a range of North American issues ‘that have been neglected or mishandled for a decade’ including security, uneven development, migration, and business regulatory systems. He sees a failure of national leadership with respect all of these areas of potential cooperation in all three countries. If the ‘Unipolar Power’ of the United States is ebbing away as new economic powers emerge and if multilateralism is declining, and complete world-wide free trade is not an option, then getting it right in North America as a whole, will be a significant issue.

There is no single view from Mexico. The Mexican Government continues to be interested in furthering economic cooperation whilst Trade Unionists and farmers’ organizations object strongly to the conditions under which the NAFTA operates. What you see or experience depends on where you sit. At the same time it is clear from the recent World Bank Assessment that the NAFTA has not lived up to the expectations generated by its corporate supporters. The income gaps have not narrowed and more Mexicans than ever before are migrating illegally to the United States. The fact of the emigration is itself muddying the waters with respect to political discussion in the United States of the cost and benefits of NAFTA. If NAFTA were delivering the expected benefits to the Mexican economy, incomes gaps would narrow though the effects of the narrowing would be felt in incomes both in the United States and in Mexico. The benefits can not be expected to impact quickly—they are long-term in nature— but given the World Bank’s assessment of the Mexican economy, there are significant causes for concern. A major problem is in the agricultural sector (maize in the United States is highly subsidized) and the Mexican government does not appear to have a coherent agricultural policy. This is a Mexican problem. It is also a problem for the definition of ‘fair’ with respect to trade that is also intended to be ‘free’. There could be a link from economic decline in maize farming areas in Mexico to migration. NAFTA has neither compensation methods nor any direct transfer policies such as apply within the EU to help areas experiencing uneven development.

Views in the United States are equally mixed. The administration and corporate America continue to support NAFTA as well as the idea of its extension to other areas of cooperation. Democratic Party opinion is confused. One problem is that if the transfer of unskilled manufacturing jobs out of the United States (something that the United Kingdom economy faced decades ago) is more or less inevitable (though there are many places the United States that could benefit from internal ‘outsourcing’) then the issues are not well-understood in opportunity-cost terms. Mexico is in competition with China as a potential host to ‘outsourcing’ and if the NAFTA works to keep work in North America whilst providing the advantages of cheaper production, this could be seen as a plus rather than as a minus. In the North American market, China and Mexico are in competition and this needs to be factored into any analysis of NAFTA. It also means that Mexican competitiveness within the NAFTA or in relation to other export markets cannot be taken for granted.

There is no economic change that does bring with it a series of costs and benefits. The ‘no change’ option has hidden costs that in the end become apparent and real. Economies need to adjust or risk profound stagnation. A free trade area between two developed countries and a country such as Mexico that has developed and significantly less-developed regions and sectors and significant inequalities of income distribution is likely to be problematic when it comes to the pattern of losses and gains. If NAFTA has decreased the variability of Mexican economic performance, this is a gain but not one that is transparent to voters. Mexico needs to have an internally thought through agricultural policy and policies towards income-equality and reform in the patterns of government expenditure and (probably) labor-market reforms. Mexican competitiveness, given the relative significance of China to the United States and the rest of the world, cannot be taken for granted. But if the NAFTA is to succeed there needs to be clear evidence that there are relative income benefits to Mexico as well as to the United States and Canada. There needs to be a clearer policy-context within each country and in the context of the three countries working together for agreed regional ends.

Clearer and more reflective public discussion would also help, keeping in mind that any new policies also have costs and benefits. Such polices would need to work towards securing benefits for all parties to the idea of a ‘Security and Prosperity Partnership’. Some of the issues facing the United States, and where gains could be considerable, are regional and cannot be worked out in isolation or through the construction of higher border fences.

August 20, 2007

The significance of the Turkish Presidency

With the AK Party (known in the west as the Justice and Development Party) re-elected, Abdullah Gul has been brought forward once again as the AK party’s candidate for the Turkish Presidency. Contention, particularly from the secular army, over Gul’s candidacy had precipitated the elections that saw the AK party return to power with a smaller but still significant majority. While the EU and the financial markets welcomed the election result, Gul, again supported in his candidacy by the majority party, is still causing some internal concerns. What are the issues and why do they matter?

Turkey is constitutionally a secular country with a huge Islamic population. The basic constitutional framework for the Turkish state was established in the years after the First World War by Atatürk. The principles for state development were clearly articulated: keep religion out of the governmental process. The reforms included: the Romanization of the alphabet; the abolition of the Sultanate and of the Caliphate; the establishment of equal rights for men and women; and the establishment of a structure of secular law based on the Turkish civil code. Modernization was the political order of the day. The state was constructed as a strong centralized state and the army has taken the role as preservers of the secular order. Turkey has minorities as well as secular Turks and at risk is the idea of a Turkish state that is inclusive.

The current ‘problem’ is that Gul has an Islamist political past and the very carefully balanced relationship between the state and religion is seen by some to be under threat. The office of the President is also that of Commander-in–chief and the military (a formidable force) feel uneasy. Gul’s wife is a traditionalist and wears the headscarf, banned from government buildings. The symbolic significance of the headscarf is not to be underestimated. It has been reported that she is thinking of ‘modernizing’ the type of headscarf that she wears. With all the fuss, it is little wonder that Gul has been at pains to insist that the country will ‘stay secular’. Given the election results the army appears to have accepted the implications of the popular decision to re-elect the government but Gul has been given notice both by the army and opposition parties that he will be closely watched should he be elected.

Gul is seen by many Turkish insiders and by outsiders as an effective politician. Gul has stressed his sustained interest in seeing through the reforms necessary for Turkish membership of the EU. His effectiveness, as Foreign Minister, in encouraging economic reform and the increases that this has brought in employment and income has made Gul popular with voters though of course the main push for reform comes from the Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Erdogan clearly believes that Gul has the wisdom and stamina equal to the demands of the office. Gul’s candidacy is again subject to a Parliamentary vote. Today he failed to win the 2/3rd majority necessary to win in the first round. Given the government’s majority, Gul is likely to be elected by the third round of voting.

Balanced between west and east, Turkey is strategically significant. However, Turkey’s significance goes beyond this. It is a big country with a big population. It is also of huge economic significance. With a GDP of around $400 billion US dollars it outstrips any country in the Middle-East. It is roughly four times the size of the Israeli economy and about four times the size of the Egyptian economy. The Syrian economy is tiny by comparison. Not only that but Turkey is growing (roughly 7% or more annually though this may be declining somewhat) and has been growing for some time. The EU market-oriented reforms have enhanced the growth prospects and the AK government has been good at driving the reforms through. The political significance of Turkey’s secular-religious compromise and its democratic politics are also not be to under-estimated. The Turkish electorate seems to want honest and effective government, economic reform and stability. The tension between secular and religious interests will not go away but the modernization agenda seems, for the time being at least, to be uppermost. It is hard to see why Gul and the AK party would be prepared to put this modernizing agenda at risk by pushing the constitutional boundaries too much.

August 15, 2007

Alex Salmond and the future governance of Scotland

Alex Salmond is officially First Minister of Scotland and head of the Scottish Executive. According to the distinguished writer and journalist Magnus Linklater, writing in the Times, Salmond no longer refers to ‘the Executive’ and simply talks of the ‘Scottish government’. In the year of the 300th Anniversary of the Act of Union (a union entered into the by Scots to better protect and defend the Scottish nation), Salmond published on the 14th August, a draft white paper on further constitutional reform. What is going on?

Salmond is an interesting politician with ‘the gift of the gab’. He is head of a minority government that has been in office only a few months. During the elections he also campaigned for an English Parliament, trying to sow discontent amongst English MPs at Westminster where Scots are now over-represented given the devolved powers of the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh. He has now turned the tables on the opposition (full independence and an independence referendum is opposed by the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Parties in Scotland and their joint announcement was made in advance of full knowledge of the draft proposals) by launching what he calls a ‘national conversation’. Salmond has done so in a manner that appeals directly and convincingly to Scottish cultural values:

‘Divergent views are the very essence of democracy; robust debate is part of what makes us Scottish. The exchanges, the premises and the debate must be passionate — how else could it be in Scotland? But let these contributions be based on fact, reason, logic, rather than smears, allegations or misinformation. Scotland deserves no less’.

This is the sort of self-image that Scots like and the notion of a debate founded on passion and balanced out by reason has wide appeal. The present Parliament is itself the long-term outcome of a National Convention. The other parties cannot refuse a debate least they look complacent, content with the status quo. Salmond is for independence but the debate will be about a range of options for extending the powers of the Parliament. Salmond’s strategy has already upset the political balance and has precipitated the resignation of the Labour Leader, Jack McConnell. Faced with Salmond’s ‘no change is not an option’ the Labour leadership looked out-of-touch. Given that the Scot Nats seem to be worrying the Labour Party in Scotland so successfully (Labour had been the predominant party in Scotland for nearly fifty years, till the Scot Nats secured their marginal lead in the Parliament in Edinburgh), debate in Scotland is likely to be lively.

The United Kingdom is and has always been a bit of a compromise: it is neither quite a unitary state nor is it a federal state. Gordon Brown is aware of the political as well as the constitutional issues. What could be uppermost in his mind politically is the extent to which his UK government is based on the support of Labour MPs returned from Scottish constituencies. If the Scottish Labour Party is seen to be out-of-touch or in disarray, then Gordon Brown is constrained with respect to the timing of any general election. Constitutionally, neither independence nor reform of the Scottish system of government is a devolved issue. The UK Parliament is the constitutional authority. In calling for a ‘national debate’ in Scotland, Salmond is well within his rights but there needs to be a UK discussion too. Brown, who is also a Scot, talked publically about ‘Britishness’ prior to becoming Prime Minister. He has promised action on constitutional issues but Salmond has stolen a significant march on him. On devolution alone there is a lot to sort out. Prior to the elections to the Scottish Parliament, Brown said that he would not work with Salmond and his party. Of course he must and Salmond has just made it clear why.

August 10, 2007

Flag-wars and Arctic hot-spots

Russia has planted a flag on the sea bed to further its case to sovereignty over the underwater Lomonosov Ridge. Shortly after the Russian flag-planting, the Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper, made a trip to the Canadian part of the northern region to strengthen Canada’s rights in the High Arctic. The Canadians are not much pleased by Russia’s ‘15th century’ tactics. The United States objects to Canada’s claim that the North-West Passage is an internal Canadian waterway. Denmark does not accept that Hans Island is part of Canada, claiming it rather to be part of Greenland. Norway also has an interest in the Polar region. Things are heating up in the Arctic and the Russian incident is only the latest in the so-called ‘flag wars’. Why is there so much interest? Who is interested in what?

Global warming is changing the northern world. With rising temperatures the area is becoming more accessible for human economic exploitation. In the future there will be frozen water (icebergs) to sell to a world increasingly short of fresh water. As the ice retreats, exploitation of oil and natural gas reserves becomes significantly easier. The North Pole and adjacent areas are the responsibility of the International Seabed Authority as the area is not part of any single country. There are international conventions with respect to developments on the continental shelf and geological composition of the shelf and of any adjacent national territory is significant. The technical evidence required is clearly established by the conventions. Russia has made a formal claim through the United Nations which it has been asked to resubmit. In this respect Russia will need to conform to international conventions. Its expedition was primarily designed to gather more evidence in order to resubmit its formal claim (estimated to be planned for sometime in 2009).

The flag incident is seen as ‘symbolic’ rather than anything else but it has created a reaction with respect to other parts of the northern region. Denmark, responsible for the external affairs of Greenland, has already invested huge sums in geological surveys of the Arctic floor and is willing to challenge others, Russian in particular, with respect to rights over the Lomonosov Ridge. Canada too is anxious to protect its interests in the Ridge. The Ridge is adjacent to both Greenland and Ellesmere Island (part of Canada). There has been cooperation between the two governments over evidence-gathering geological exploration of the Ridge. When Russia makes the formal claim, counter-claims will be made.

Denmark is in conflict with Canada over an island in the Nares Strait. The Danish flag has been planted several times on Hans Island and this has lead to Canadian counter-measures. Denmark has military capacity in the region and has sustained its interests with respect to Hans Island but this issue is still unresolved in legal terms.

Hans Island gives command over the waters of the Nares Strait. The prospect of a new shipping route through the North-West Passage capable for a few weeks a year of reducing the cost of shipping from the eastern seaboard to Asia is intensifying interest. The North-West Passage could lop off a couple of thousand kilometers from the alternative Panama Canal route. The United States has interests because of Alaska. It has challenged Canada’s claims with respect to the Passage. US nuclear submarines have been reported in the past as having passed through waters that the Canadian government considers to be Canadian. The United States Geological Survey is also aware of the huge economic potential of the High Arctic: it holds that a quarter of the undiscovered energy resources are located in the region.

Stephen Harper indicated during the election campaign that led to his Primiership, that he would take a more aggressive attitude in the High Arctic including the possibility of a greater military presence, a presence that has been comparatively lacking. Flag planting, according to Harper at the time, does not count (the Canadians put a flag on Hans Island in 2005) ‘ships and surveillance’ did. Harper is making good his election promises with respect to its High Arctic waterways and the Canadian government has already announced plans to build patrol vessels suitable for operation in Arctic conditions, giving substance to Harper’s policy of an ‘aggressive Arctic agenda’. Harper is also aware that diplomacy is also a significant issue as it is not just the United States that disputes Canada’s control over the North-West Passage.

August 8, 2007

The UK and Russian diplomatic stand off.

There seems to be some heat in the relationship between Russia and the UK. The basis for the disagreement is the consequences that flow from the murder in London of Alexander Litvinenko. The British have concluded that Andrei Lugovoi was responsible and wish to see him extradited in order to stand trial on the charge of murder. Russia has refused to allow his extradition and offered a trial in Moscow instead. In July the expulsion of Russian and then British diplomats seems to have increased the conflict. What is going on? What sort of crisis is this?

The UK was one of the first major countries to welcome Putin into the international arena. The Russian-UK relationship was put on a good footing with the UK emerging as an important trading partner and potential ally. Blair welcomed Putin and cooperated with him politically by supporting the efforts made to restore stability and prosperity to Russia. Gordon Brown, under pressure to show how his government differs from that of Tony Blair, has decided to take a tougher line: Russia ought to be encouraged to behave in more acceptable ways internationally and especially when it comes to the issue of murder and extradition.

According to the political and economic analyst, Roland Nash, the issue is not really about Lugovoi. Given that the British Courts have not agreed to the extradition to Russia of Berezovsky (the Russian tycoon who fell out of favor with Putin and who was given political asylum in the UK) ), a political decision in Moscow (where extradition is essentially a political rather than a legal decision) to extradite Lugovoi was always unlikely. The issue is really about the way in which Russia is asserting its presence in Europe and the rest of the world. Nash, who has worked as a consultant to the Russian government and who knows the economic scene very well, argues that Russian methods with respect to its interests in eastern Europe and central Asia may be harsh but from the Russian point of view, they work. Russia is now using energy (oil and natural gas) as the basis for protecting its interests. It is essentially a question of the kind on international rules that apply. The energy-deficient European Union is struggling to develop an effective energy policy to deal with its potential vulnerability. It is also not in Britain’s self-interest to let the situation with Russia deteriorate. The UK is the second largest foreign investor in the country.

Is this, then, a ‘crisis’? The UK Ambassador to Russia, the highly-experienced Tony Brenton, refuses to call the tit-for-tat expulsions a ‘crisis’, pointing to the many areas in which Russia and the UK are in cooperation, including the desire to cooperate over the threat of international terrorism. He insists on the seriousness of what happened to Litvinenko and the risk to which others were put by the possibility of radiation contamination. The expulsions have taken place and there seems to be no further public action for the time being. Some European countries support Britain’s stand but opinion on how to deal with the specific issues involved are divided. Putin has called the series of events a ‘temporary crisis’ but his anti-western and anti-democratic rhetoric is undoubtedly fraught with dangers both for the west and for Russia.

The clash is clearly one of ideology, even if not of the old cold-war variety. The UK values democracy and the rule of law and considers the murder and it surrounding circumstances to be a serious matter. Russia cannot understand why a country would threaten relations over a single individual (Lugovoi). At the same time, both sides will wish to maintain their economic interests. The current diplomatic situation could be described as one of ‘stalemate’. Perhaps the last word on this should be left to the People’s Daily (China). It referred to the crisis as a ‘controlled’ crisis. Both countries have, in its judgment, left themselves room to maneuver on the particular issues, and on how they are played out.