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Scott Martin

Religious conflict: The dark side of the Arab Spring

Every year religious divides and persecutions cost thousands of lives, and hold too many societies back from meaningful progress. Despite our common belief that enlightened tolerance is the inevitable direction of societies around the world, the trend often points disturbingly in the opposite direction. This year, the pro-democracy uprisings of the Arab Spring were rightly praised for their renewing potential. However, their effect on regional religious tensions has been less promising than their other hopeful achievements.  A flashpoint for the Arab Spring’s most religiously charged manifestation was in the tiny island nation of Bahrain. There, members of the majority Shia population demonstrated for greater enfranchisement within a country ruled by a minority Sunni royal family. This awkward configuration has always made Bahrain a regional powder keg for Islam’s most divisive chasm, however few expected what would transpire over the course of the year. The regime’s bloody crackdown on demonstrators and activists, along with the images of the Saudi military pouring across the Bahrain causeway, effectively destroyed that small country’s hard-earned reputation.It is important to recall that Bahrain was nothing like Syria before the uprisings. With almost no oil revenues available, the island kingdom instead focused on its image as a gleaming beacon of liberal values and commercial openness in the Persian Gulf. And they were succeeding; Bahrain’s development made it a regional meeting point and helped to build Manama, a bustling capital with a vibrant financial sector. Sadly, Bahrain’s inability to contend with its sectarian constitution has sacrificed decades of progress, and has caused irreparable harm.This divide goes far beyond Bahrain, however. Across the Persian Gulf, Saudi Arabia and Iran are waging a much larger political conflicts by playing chess with often unwitting Sunni and Shia constituencies. Iran, the Islamic world’s leading Shia power, possesses a long history of co-opting Shia… Read More

2011 Nobel laureates in economics counsel fiscal responsibility

On Monday morning, Christopher Sims and Thomas Sargent of Princeton University and NYU were jointly awarded the world’s most prestigious prize in economics. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences cited the work of the two American economists in studying the processes of cause and effect in empirical macroeconomics.Normally, the award of the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economics Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel is a time when academic economists congratulate each other for a worthy, if esoteric, theoretical achievement, while almost everyone else looks on in quiet stupefaction wondering what exactly the PhDs are talking about. While it was pleasing to see last year’s prize go to a faculty member from my own alma mater, Christopher Pissarides’s work on search functions in employment equilibrium theory hardly prompted the least bit of excitement and debate among my fellow students at LSE.This year’s prize is not quite the same thing. Considering today’s series of economic crises, Sims’s and Sargent’s work is of profound significance to policymakers, and here’s why:This year’s laureates have spent their careers studying how private-sector expectations influence public policy choices and impact the effectiveness of finance ministries and central banks. Simply put, economic measures taken by governments do not always have the foreseen effect if businesses and investors act based on what they believe the authorities will be doing in the future.Sims and Sargent first touted the role of expectations to take on standard Keynesian theory during the era of stagflation in the 1970s. Then, central banks and politicians believed that inflationary policies would produce employment, while monetary tightening would reign in price inflation. What became painfully evident, however, was that neither of these assumptions seemed to play out in reality. Sargent’s analyses of the economic turbulence of stagflation showed how private sector actors would not always react with perfect… Read More

Recession and the mirage of peace

Policymakers in Washington, D.C., and other Western capitals are gradually inching towards repeating a dangerous historical precedent. Economic stagnation and looming budgetary crises have led many to question the value of defence spending or continued foreign involvement in such volatile areas as Afghanistan and Pakistan. Whatever the cost-savings of giving up our capability to police the world, withdrawal from key regions can carry even greater costs of destabilizing the balances of power found there. The evidence of this cost is manifest in the unnervingly similar situation of Europe in the 1930s.On this day in 1938, after a futile attempt to save Europe from war, PM Neville Chamberlain landed at the Heston Aerodrome and triumphantly declared that his meeting with Hitler had secured “peace for our time.” This he had achieved by appeasing German territorial demands at the Munich Conference, but Britain and France were ultimately faced with an inevitable conflict for which they initially were miserably unprepared.Despite an eventual and hurried rearmament, decades of disarmament and years of economic depression had left the world’s two greatest imperial powers powerless to defend the sovereignty of a continental neighbour. This was compounded by the false promise of the League of Nations that a new era of peace was achievable through arms limitations and by a series of bemusing pronouncements (like the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928, outlawing the use of war as a tool of national policy).Britain and France could have hardly proceeded differently at Munich – they had dug themselves a hole much too deep – but their concessions did anything but appease Germany. Instead, any illusion of a balance of power in continental Europe was shattered, and Berlin’s sphere of influence quickly spread east and south, emboldening Hitler’s ambitions to breach whatever fragile peace remained – a task he swiftly carried… Read More

Henry Kissinger: the last statesman

A very seasoned public servant once told me that the measure of a diplomat is not so much how well or loudly he speaks but rather in how quiet he remains in the pursuit of his goals. The political dramatization of contemporary diplomacy is the product of this measure’s waning, and the strategic value of the diplomatic craft itself has long suffered as its chief victim.It was on this day in 1973 that Dr Henry Kissinger began as US Secretary of State after a very successful tenure as the National Security Advisor. Respecting this tradition of subtle strategic diplomacy, he had already built for President Nixon better foreign policy credentials than most presidents could pray for (but that no president has ever so singlehandedly squandered).Most notably, his stop to twenty-three years of Chinese isolation and hostility, inviting tacit Sino-American cooperation, cannot be easily matched in terms of its strategic significance to Cold War dynamics or its impact on contemporary global economics.Kissinger’s approach to world affairs was marked by a style as pragmatic and non-ideological as his entry to public life. He shared a steely and cautiously calculating method reminiscent of Otto von Bismarck, and a long-range foresight of international currents that would have made Winston Churchill proud. His place in diplomatic history beside these two statesmen, among others, is well deserved, but it also highlights that diplomats and leaders have been sorely lacking in such stature since.Obstacles imposed by the demands of public diplomacy or the 24-hour news cycle erode today’s diplomats’ Kissingerian qualities. To be sure, greater accountability for public officials has its values, but marginalizing the complex interests of a country so as to be more concerned with a 10-second sound bite, or else how many people read your latest tweet, is a decidedly detrimental direction. Short-sighted galvanizations… Read More