International intrigue

I don’t particularly understand why people treat Bolivian president Evo Morales as a joke. Is it because he wears funny sweaters sometimes? Well, Nelson Mandela wears funny shirts and he’s about to be the first person instantly sainted in all the world’s religions when he dies. So why is Morales’ called for a World Conference of the People on Climate Change a “brilliant bit of climate grandstanding,” as this post on Foreign Policy magazine’s blog put it. I just don’t get it.

In principle, at least, that sounds like a great idea to me. One of the biggest problems that I have with the environmental movement is that it just does not reach the grassroots. And no, I don’t buy that a bunch of rich white kids from developed nations constitute the true grassroots. No matter how much they protest and get tear-gassed in Europe and the United States, they are not the victims of climate change. And there should be no doubt that there are real, human victims of climate change.

I will be interested to see how this pans out. As the FP post rightly points out, Cochabamba has a storied history on environmental issues, most notably in 2000’s “water wars.” So it is an intriguing location for the conference. Having traveled there and a couple of other cities in the nearby Bolivian altiplano, I have seen how environmental disaster, particularly when it comes to water, is already a reality.

In the wake of the Copenhagen disaster, I caught a few articles calling for more grassroots pressure on nation-states to come through with a real deal. Organizing the grassroots with a southern hemisphere, developing country, potentially people-centered emphasis is at the very least a step in the right direction. Provisional word to Evo about his haters: brush your shoulders off, hermano.

There is little both as hip and worrying to people interested in international affairs as China’s relationship to Africa. Beyond a fly-by-night visit by Barack Obama, it’s one of the only reasons the rest of the world will pay any attention to the continent.

Of course, the reasons for the African interest among Chinese businesses and government officials boils down to the same reasons most non-Africans have always cared about Africa: money and resources.

Foreign Policy‘s Elizabeth Dickinson notes that Africa’s resources are not only in vogue among the Chinese, but perhaps more broadly among the BRIC countries. Those BRIC countries that have managed to navigate the current economic crisis relatively well (of the four countries — Brazil, Russia, India, and China — Russia is almost definitely suffering the most) boast of decoupling from the developed world’s economies, and the opportunities their independence allows:

With aid and investment drying up from Europe and the West, it’s wise of the BRICs to fill the void. More than good business, it’s proof of the BRICs claim that they’re in Africa for the long haul. Guess who wins that game?

Still, most of the attention is coming from China — who else is going in deep enough to bail out Zimbabwe when no one else will? This has led to a lot of speculation in English-language press that there’s basically just a new colonial boss in town. Nothing encapsulated this view better than French president Nicholas Sarkozy’s chilly reception at a funeral for Gabon’s president Omar Bongo. Bongo was the quintessential French colonial stooge in the “post-colonial” African setting, the “epitome of françafrique,” writes The Economist. He even managed to arrange for the firing of one of Sarkozy’s ministers, overseas aid minister Jean-Marie Bockel, who had dared to call for the end of the excesses and patronage relationships of françafrique.

As France and other western states muddle along in trying to fashion a post-colonial world order that still affords enough of the practical benefits of colonialism, China the basically the only contender for the top of the heap of this world order. The attractiveness of China to Africans is partly a matter of the fact that the Chinese are just not the West, writes William Wallis in the Financial Times:

Europe still sees Africa as a burden. The Chinese, Brazilians, Indians and others see it as an opportunity.”We have a competitive advantage,” says Gu Xiaojie, China’s ambassador to Ethiopia, with a certain amount of glee.

“My own experience is that they [African governments] are uncomfortable dealing with developed countries. They think they [Europeans] want to impose their own ideas and they have a long [mutual] history that is violent and bitter.”

But China’s star shines brightly beyond the fact of who it is not. Quite plainly, it is often the only major economic power that seems to give a damn. Shortly before I left Philadelphia for Johannesburg, I had a discussion with my former professor in Chinese history during which I mentioned that the Chinese may be running roughshod over African workers and communities in the course of their projects in the continent. Her response was simple and, honestly, hard to refute: Who else is paying attention?

Howard French notes that both political and financial attention from China is in easy supply. Top political leaders visit the continent every year, including a visit by Hu Jintao concurrent to my discussion with my professor in late February / early March. Moreover,

from Angola and Congo and from Nigeria and Mozambique, the big news in Africa has recently been measured in big business deals, and this story could almost be summed up as all China, all the time.

A Shanghai-based housing developer argues that Africa is a key plank in China’s grander geopolitical strategy in China Safari, a new book on China’s role in the continent written by two French journalists, Serge Michel and Michel Beuret.

“I’m going to be honest with you, China is using Africa to get where the United States is now, and surpass it.”

This may be overstating the case. While the view from Africa may make this plausible, the view from China may look quite different.

Jeune Afrique recently had a large report on China in Africa, and took a much more skeptical view than most of the writing from English-language publications, perhaps reflecting a greater overall disillusionment with outside influence in Africa among those in the francophone world. In an interview with He Wenping, director of African Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, reporter Pascal Auaralt asks if there might be a lack of knowledge about Africa among many Chinese. He does not exactly defend her countrymen and women. She points out that there are only 20 students in her program, the largest African studies program in the country.

No use writing here if I can’t occasionally plug a family member. My father, Daniel Bradlow, has a great (if I may say so) letter in today’s Financial Times bringing some sense to the heated debate about development aid raging between Dambisa Moyo, William Easterly, Jeffrey Sachs, etc. A good summary of the debate by the FT‘s William Wallis can be found here.

The main gist of his point is that aid is too often treated

as fundamentally different from the other sources of development finance that African countries utilise. It is not. Like these other sources – for example international capital markets, foreign direct investors, remittances etc – it entails both costs and benefits.

This means that, like them, there will be some occasions when aid, despite its costs, will be the best source of finance for the particular purpose, and some situations in which it will be an inappropriate source. Identifying the most desirable times for utilising aid requires governments to dispassionately assess both the explicit and implicit costs and benefits associated with the offers of aid that they have received, and of the alternatives to those offers. It also requires negotiating the best possible deal with the chosen source of funds.

Before everybody gets back to the full-on grind of 2009, it’s worth looking to some of the great feature reportage that comes out in abundance as newspapers pull back on late-breaking news. As a quick aside, is it really true that less news happens during “the holidays” (hello, War on Christmas) or is it just that reporters have to get a day off sometime? Anyway, two of the most interesting year-end/beginning features that I came across both concern international men of mystery. No, this isn’t me trying to go on some half-baked Austin Powers kick, but there’s really just no other way to describe these people.

First up, James Harkin, in this weekend’s Financial Times, profiles Alastair Crooke, a former British MI6 spy who lives in Beirut and serves as an intermediary between middle eastern Islamic groups on the terrorist watch lists of Western governments and people in Western governments. After being outed by the Israeli newspaper Ma’ariv for being an MI6 agent, he eventually quit the intelligence service and went rogue (or so he wants us to believe), and founded the Conflicts Forum,

a think-tank whose aim is to help western governments understand Islamist groups and their military resistance to Israel.

A backer of the Conflicts Forum, Tom Clarke, complained that a recent conference sponsored by the group featured

too much talk of theology and “the other,” and not enough about the politics of who should meet whom and what could be done.

Many criticize Parker for being too much in the hands of groups like Hizbollah and Hamas — according to the article he expresses strong support for the 1979 Iranian Revolution — but it seems like he’s someone worth listening to at a time when middle eastern conflicts are almost always reduced to “talk of theology and ‘the other'” and almost never about “what could be done” to make things better. See: “Israeli military, strategy of ‘the only thing they understand is force,'” for more information (maybe I should italicize “they” to make that one clear).

The Economist’s big Christmas double issue included an article on the recently captured Viktor Bout, an independent arms dealer who has basically made it his life’s goal to make as much money as possible by providing arms or other supplies to almost every side of every major war in recent history. The magazine’s typically unnamed author notes that Bout’s rise is particular to his time:

Mr Bout chose a useful time to come of age. As the Berlin Wall tumbled, supplies of surplus weaponry and fleets of military transport aircraft were up for grabs. Soldiers and air-force men, even senior ones, were poor and easily bribed; stocks of weapons, especially in remote corners such as Moldova, were barely monitored.

He seemed to operate on irony to keep up the high of being a world-traveling, war-fueling high roller:

Americans did not object when he supplied an Antonov An-24 to deliver goods for their soldiers in post-invasion Iraq. So what if he is also rumoured to have ferried gun-toting and bearded men to and fro in the Middle East?

He also helped supply both sides of Angola’s civil war, one of the longest and deadliest wars of post-colonial Africa — if there was ever a record about which to not be proud this may be it. Still he hoped to save Congo’s rain forests and wanted to help the pygmies in Central Africa. Give the guy a break! He loved the Discovery Channel for god’s sake.

Anyway, in March, he was apprehended in Bangkok by U.S. agents posing as Colombian FARC representatives, and now he will probably go to jail. Perhaps his greatest accomplishment will be the endless books and movies his life story will spawn. In fact, it has already begun.

Seems like this post would not be complete without a shout-out to another hoity toity publication rolling large on Christmas. The New Yorker’s holiday issue included an unpublished essay by Mark Twain (available online only to subscribers). It’s called “The Privilege of the Grave,” which Twain argues is the only place where one is afforded true free speech. For the living it is only “an empty formality.” Try this one on for size, blogosphere denizens:

Sometimes we suppress an opinion for reasons that are a credit to us, not a discredit, but oftenest we suppress an unpopular opinion because we cannot afford the bitter cost of putting it forth. None of us likes to be hated, non of us likes to be shunned.

A natural result of these conditions is, that we consciously or unconsciously pay more attention to tuning our opinions to our neighbor’s pitch and preserving his approval than we do to examining the opinions searchingly and seeing to it that they are right and sound. This custom naturally produces another result: public opinion being born and reared on this plan, it is not opinion at all, it is merely policy; there is no reflection back of it, no principle, and it is entitled to no respect.