When Economics clashes with (Geo)politics

First published in The New York Times on Wednesday, Thomas Friedman writes about the low likelihood of a “benign 2010” given the economic and geopolitical conditions currently brewing. I read the reprinted article on mypaper on Thursday and was rather amused by his arguments.

He started off by saying that 2009 was a pleasant surprise for being a rather peaceful year for “the world’s biggest economies” to heal without any major wars or political / geopolitical disruptions, and then asserts that 2010 would probably not be as peaceful. I do not really agree with him about the “three major struggles” we face (the banks vs President Obama, China vs Google & Iran vs the world), but he has managed to make rather substantial arguments.

Struggle 1: The banks vs President Obama
I did not quite think that this was a significant issue, but that is probably because Singapore is / was pretty sheltered from the full force of the economic breakdown in the West. At least in Singapore, the banks appear to be in rather good shape. But Singapore still bore some brunt from the crisis, thanks to our open economy. I will not go into an argument about how globalized our economy should be (suffice to say that I am for globalization, but not the “free-for-all” some Republicans seem to want) but I must agree that banking regulations need to be stiffened. President Obama has a very tough job balancing giving free rein to the banks to operate and continually grow their wealth (and hence America’s economy too) and managing expectations that as president he should be concerned more about his people who are suffering as a result of the folly of these bankers (and hence should punish the bankers). Either way, this tough balancing act is going to take much more than just “change we can believe in” or “yes we can” as President Obama promised before becoming president. His actions will have direct or indirect impact on the WHOLE world.

Struggle 2: China vs Google
Again, I never thought of this as a huge issue too, but it must certainly be one of much concern to quite a few if columnists keep writing every day about the relations between China and America and whether the trough in relations they are going through marks a change in tact or just posturing. The G2 (Group of 2 – China & America) notion aside, the assault on Google was certainly daring and bellicose. I am more inclined to side with Google and America, but you must also take into consideration the views of millions (of Chinese netizens) that the Chinese government have to assuage and calm. Many of them see the China-bashing as unwarranted and colonial bullying that is behind the times given the ascendant status of China, so I do not foresee that China and America’s retaliatory actions are going to end at just sanctions. I sure hope they do things calmly though… recall the saying “when elephants fight, the grass gets trampled”.

Struggle 3: Iran vs the World
Now this is an issue that I think people do not believe is a sufficiently major problem. Iran’s nuclear proliferation will be very dangerous to America as well as the world, and it will derail all the economic efforts put in by the world’s major economies given the potential changes it will cause to the geopolitical arena. This I think would be the most difficult struggle to resolve, given the ramifications that could spillover into the economic and social spheres (e.g. war). Unfortunately, given all the other problems that America and the world is facing now, it is inevitable for the Iran issue to be placed on the back-burner. But there must be understanding that neglecting the Iran issue and letting it fester will not make it any easier to solve.

I echo Friedman’s wishes that “cooler heads prevail” this year. Or else, as he says, “fasten your seat belts”.

Sanction no more?

Rolled Bills
No more trading!

In January 27’s The Straits Times, Susan Long writes in the Review column about why sanctions will not work in curbing Iran’s nuclear tendencies. Whether sanctions work or not has been a long debated issue, and simply googling the title of Long’s article “Why sanctions dont work now” will yield many articles that have been written on this subject, mostly arguing for the end of sanctions against “evil” countries like Iran and Cuba.

First, regarding Long’s write-up. She asserts that sanctions may not be as messy as outright fighting or war, but they harm the innocent civilians most and not the leaders and perpetrators. The poor suffer the most as they have limited access to food, medicine and daily necessities amongst other things, whereas the rich are not affected very much by economic sanctions since they already have the monetary ability to purchase high-end goods like “Swiss chocolate”. The elite will “thrive on the black market” while the poor suffer unnecessarily.

Sanctions can also backfire, such as when it unites a country against the perpetrators of the sanctions (often the United States of America together with the United Nations). Take the sanctions against Iran. Instead of isolating the Islamic regime led by Ayatollah Khamenei & President Ahmadinejad and causing displeasure towards the leaders by the populace, it could end up bringing together the forces that wanted to overthrow Khamenei & Ahmadinejad, led by the Green movement whose leader is Mir-Hossein Mousavi. This would make it even more difficult to “overthrow” the current Islamic regime should the incumbents unite with the opposition against the United States and the outside world.

Of course, sanctions are only sanctioned when the country that imposes the sanctions does not stand to lose much. And often countries that impose sanctions or threaten to do so end up revoking them out of other motivations, such as the United States’ threat to impose sanctions on Myanmar which in the end were not realised because such sanctions would have benefitted China and other rogue regimes that would increase their sphere of influence in the country.

Some other articles that disbelieve in sanctions can be found online as well. Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times has similar views to Long, published in the Global Policy Forum. David Henderson of Hoover Institution in Hoover Digest even goes as far as to propose that free trade with “rogue” nations would help to engineer collapses in these regimes when the people open their eyes to the world out there and what is on offer. Dursun Peksen in Foreign Policy names other plausible alternatives such as “engagement / dialogue” and even economic incentives like foreign aid.

In essence, the idea seems to be that should the stick fail, the carrot might be the only way out. In a globalized world such as ours, penalties like sanctions have a high chance of backfiring.