August 16, 2010

This Weekend's News: Challenges and Opportunities for US Soft Power

Two articles this weekend especially caught my attention.  The first, an article in The New York Times, starts to draw the climate connections between the extreme weather events that have been happening all over the world throughout the summer with frightening intensity and regularity.  The article asks the question that many have probably been asking themselves: are these bizarre events mere coincidence or related to a broader pattern of global change?  According to the Times: "the collective answer of the scientific community can be boiled down to a single word: probably."  Extreme high temperatures are particularly indicative of a changing climate, when taken as part of a larger pattern.  Climate change models predict that warming will result in an overall pattern of more record high temperatures and fewer record lows, which is apparently exactly what is playing out.  Even higher amounts of snowfall fit into the predicted patterns (a fact that certain DC residents might be surprised to hear).

I know you've probably heard enough from me on climate change, but hear me out on this one.  Last week, I wrote that sometimes the best way to sway a climate skeptic is to let them see tangible changes from warming, like a melting Arctic, with their own eyes.  A friend who kindly reads my blog posts asked me whether that matters for most people in the world, saying "we can't very well ship everyone up to the Arctic." Fair point, but maybe we don't need to.  A quote from the article explains the general global patterns that we can expect to emerge from climate change: "theory suggests that a world warming up because of those gases will feature heavier rainstorms in summer, bigger snowstorms in winter, more intense droughts in at least some places and more record-breaking heat waves."  Sound familiar?  Yes, it's pretty frightening that we may be seeing the tangible impacts of climate change sooner than expected, and in our own backyard too.  But ever the optimist, this also offers me a little bit of hope for those pessimists and deniers out there, because the sooner that more people reach a consensus that climate change is real, immediate and will change our world for the worst, the sooner we'll be able to take concrete steps to potentially avert this crisis.

The second article (also from the Times) describes growing unrest in Latin America, and particularly in Peru, over China's natural resource investments.  The article describes a Chinese company's mining investments in a town in Peru's southern deserts.  Resistance to the Chinese presence in the form of labor strikes began as early as the 1990s', and clashes with private security guards and the police continue today.  Complaints range from low wages and ill treatment of laborers to environmental issues.  The article suggests that "the tension in Marcona, one of the most conflict-ridden towns in a country increasingly prone to conflict over mining and energy projects, suggests that China’s engagement in the region — like that of the United States, Britain and other powers that preceded it in Latin America — is not without pitfalls."

Taken along with stories about Chinese mineral and oil contracts in Afghanistan, Iraq and many countries in sub-Saharan Africa, all places where issues of corruption, labor unrest and environmental degradation have caused concerns, this points to major geo-strategic issues that the United States will have to wrestle with in the very near future.  The global nature of Chinese investments, and the combination of increasing global economic growth and resource scarcity, means that the competition for resources will probably receive more prominence as an issue of US national security.

Finally, there is one theme that ties these two stories together: US soft power.  Climate change and China's resource investments pose both a challenge to, and an opportunity for, US soft power.  In a time when economic and military options are less viable for various reasons, US soft power is an increasingly important strategic tool, and the ability to successfully negotiate these issues and others on a global level could provide the United States with much greater diplomatic leverage in the future.

The Week Ahead

On Wednesday, August 18th at 12:30pm, head over to the Center for Global Development for "On the Duration of Political Power in Africa: The Role of Oil Rent."  On Thursday the 19th at 9:00am, the Society for International Development is hosting "REDD 101:  An Introduction to Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD)."