Make Sense of the World: Weekly Roundup

Fair Observer's roundup of the week's events. [Note: Click here for the full report.]

There are times when the ground beneath our feet shakes. Events occur and, even as they are unfolding, we realize their historic significance. As the news of the nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1 breaks, it is clear that this is a seismic shift that will define history.

North America

In the US, headlines are all about the deal with Iran and this is a staggering development. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have taken a bold gamble in pushing forth the Iran deal. (The best summary of the deal can be found on the White House website.) If this deal works, it will define Obama’s second term but it has opponents both at home and abroad. Allies like Israel, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait and Canada are opposed to the deal. More importantly, Obama and Kerry face opponents at home.

This week was one when Americans remembered Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. It is ironic that this week Democrats felt compelled to exercise the “nuclear option” and change filibuster rules in the Senate. All executive branch and judicial nominees, except to the Supreme Court, can now be confirmed with a simple majority vote instead of the 60-vote supermajority that has so far been the norm.

The US remembered President John F. Kennedy with much nostalgia on the 50th anniversary of his assassination in Dallas. For Americans, his youthful optimism trumped his flaws. Today, the furthering of civil rights is taking the form of legalizing of same-sex marriage. Illinois became the 16th state to do so following hot on the heels of Hawaii.

The Department of Justice has fined JPMorgan Chase a record $13 billion, roughly half its annual profit, for failing to fully disclose the risks of buying mortgage-backed securities from 2005 to 2008. Bad behavior was endemic on Wall Street in the boom years. Now, the government seems to be signaling that it will hold banks responsible for what went on.

Latin America

The big development in Latin America is that Brazil is making strides towards better governance. On November 15, its Supreme Court issued arrest warrants for José Dirceu and 11 others who were among the 25 convicted for corruption last year. The culture of impunity for politicians is changing and Brazil might be pointing the way forward for the rest of Latin America.

Brazil is privatizing a large chunk of its infrastructure. President Dilma Rousseff’s government raised $9.1 billion by privatizing two major airports. More auctions are to follow. Brazil has suffered from years of underinvestment in infrastructure. Now with the FIFA World Cup and the Olympics looming, Rousseff is courting infrastructure investment.

Venezuela continues to suffer from the caudillo curse. Lawmakers have granted President Nicolas Maduro the power to rule by decree. He claims that he will lead an “economic offensive” against spiraling inflation and food shortages. Sadly, Venezuela faces economic ruin under his leadership.

In Honduras, both presidential candidates are claiming victory. Already beset with gang violence and drug trafficking, this country faces further turmoil in the coming days.

Europe

Two months ago, national elections took place. Chancellor Angela Merkel won and her conservative bloc secured 41.5 percent of the vote and came within five seats of an absolute majority. Yet, Germany has been governed by a caretaker government because Merkel needs to form a coalition with one of the other three left leaning parties: the Social Democrats (SPD), the Greens, or Die Linke – the descendent of East Germany’s Communist Party.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych has put on hold a historic deal with the European Union (EU). Ukraine was supposed to sign association and free trade agreements with the EU. Protests reminiscent of the Orange Revolution in 2004 have broken out in Kiev. Ukraine is seeing a struggle between those who look west and those who look east. Yanukovych is the leader of the latter and it is unlikely that he will be cowed down by protests to embrace the EU.

Middle East & North Africa

The Middle East is still reeling from the news of the nuclear deal between Iran and the major powers. The most interesting development is in Israel. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has condemned the deal, calling it a “historic mistake.” Saudi Arabia is seething with fury and its silence is deafening. Kuwait and Qatar are not pleased either. At heart are old rivalries playing out. The Sunni Arab states have long seen Shi'a Iran as a rival. Differences and ethnicity and faith are deep-rooted, as are more practical fears of a downward pressure on the price of oil with Iran adding to global oil supply. In this instance, religion, economics and geopolitics combine to make a perfect storm.

The deal has much wider implications for the region. Iran has considerable influence in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Both American and Iranian interests intersect on many points of the world map and pouring resources into more strife will not help either country, especially as both face massive economic challenges at home. More importantly, Obama and Kerry are aiming to create a détente in the region. The last thing the US wants is a wider regional conflagration, one with Saudi Arabia starting its own nuclear program or Israel dragging the US into another war it cannot afford at a time when it is trying to unwind a draining decade in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Two years after bloody clashes broke out in Egypt on Mohammed Mahmoud Street that led to the end of military rule, the events that shake the country are not popular protests but a diplomatic row. Egypt expelled the Turkish ambassador and Turkey did the same. Both countries downgraded ties and tension between them have risen.

Africa

As described last week, the situation in Central African Republic is deteriorating. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has long been describing the situation in the country as “a tinderbox,” because Muslims and Christians are pitted against each other in a brutal civil war that has led to a complete breakdown of law and order. The Guardian reports that the country is on the verge of genocide and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is planning to send 9,000 troops, if the Security Council approves. This could take months and there is a possibility that the UN might draw from its peacekeeping missions in Africa to launch an emergency response. France is sending 800 troops to the country but this is unlikely to be enough. This crisis demonstrates that the African Union has to become more robust in dealing with humanitarian crises.

The most heartening development in Africa is the open defiance by South African newspapers of their government. They have published images of President Jacob Zuma’s private residence in Nkandla that the government has spent $20 million to refurbish. The government had asked them not to publish the photos on the grounds that it would be a violation of security laws, but the newspapers rebelled and went ahead. Times LIVE had the best headline: “So, Arrest Us.” This challenge to political authority is a shot in the arm for the young South African democracy, which might inch its way towards greater transparency and lesser corruption under the watchful gaze of a feisty fourth estate.

Central & South Asia

Afghanistan has been all over the news this week. The Loya Jirga, the Afghan tribal assembly of more than 2,000 elders, approved the Bilateral Security Arrangement (BSA). President Hamid Karzai is refusing to sign it, causing headaches to the US that wants a speedy conclusion to the issue. The BSA will allow the US to station 15,000 troops after 2014. If the famously unreliable and unpredictable Karzai does not sign the BSA, then the US will pull its troops out of Afghanistan, the same way as it did in Iraq.

Nepal held elections to its constituent assembly. Two of Nepal’s oldest parties are in a race for the top spot. The Maoists will be a distant third. They are already calling foul and are likely to plunge the country into political turmoil.

The most shocking news in India is a sensational molestation case involving a senior media figure named Tarun Tejpal, the founder of an investigative magazine called Tehelka. It is a sad example of the corruption that pervades Indian media.

The World Health Organization and United Nations Children’s Fund have found that 638 million Indians defecate in the open. This lack of sanitation is having a disastrous effect on children, in particular. It causes microbial contamination that leads to diarrhea which results in malnutrition that, in turn, leads to poor cognition. Apparently, 48 percent of Indian children suffer from some form of malnutrition. India can never be taken seriously as a major power unless it solves basic issues of governance and learns to take care of its poor.

Asia Pacific

Tensions soared between China and Japan yet again, as China declared an air defense zone over much of the East China Sea. At the heart of the dispute are islands that the Japanese refer to as Senkakus, and the Chinese as Diaoyus. The US is supporting Japan and does not recognize China’s declaration. The Americans have more than 70,000 troops in Japan and South Korea. Their Pentagon spokesman has declared: “When we fly into this aerial zone, we will not register a flight plan, we will not identify our transponder, our radio frequency and our logo.” These are the four Chinese demands and it remains to be seen how it reacts.

Chinese saber rattling is unwise. Already, its neighbors, including India, Vietnam, Philippines, South Korea, Japan and even Taiwan, are nervous about its rise to power. It has to realize that it is increasingly the 800 pound gorilla in the room and restraint might further its interests much more than rhetoric.

Protests have broken out again in Thailand. Its turbulent democracy has learnt how to conduct elections, but not to accept results or to register protests using the constitutional machinery. Street protests have their value when they occur infrequently. The Thai premier has a point when she appeals for an end to “mob rule.”

A volcano has erupted in Indonesia, but it is dwarfed by the volcanic row that has broken out between Indonesia and Australia. Now, revelations that Australian intelligence agencies tried to tap the phones of top Indonesian leaders have caused great offense in the Southeast Asian nation.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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