The Forgotten Games During the “Forgotten War”: The 1952 Pyuktong Inter Camp Olympics

We all know the North Koreans have a thing for the theatrics.  Heated rhetoric comes from them all the time.  In fact, just the other day, North Korean state media referred to Obama as a “monkey” and the South Korean President as an “old prostitute.”  This rhetoric, coupled with the long history of escapades, like the satellite launch in 2012, firing rockets into the sea and thereby restarting Caligula’s ancient war with Poseidon, and constant threats of nuclear testing, has long been used by the North Korean leaders to bolster their regime internally. Defying the great enemy that is the West, despite decades of international isolation and hardship is a North Korean pastime.  But this is nothing new; North Korea and even their northern neighbors, the People’s Republic of China (China/PRC) have a long history of capitalizing on issues and events to use as propaganda to bolster their governments.

The camp teams battled it out in track-and-field events, soccer, boxing, and wrestling, as well as American football, and softball.

During the Cold War, both North Korea and China made great efforts to convey that they were great countries to live in, perhaps even a paradise.  During the Korean War in particular, they tried to deflect accusations from the international community that their U.N. prisoners were being mistreated.  Most people remember that the first Olympic Games held on the Korean peninsula were in Seoul, in the summer of 1988, but they are mistaken. After the official 1952 Summer Olympics were held in Helsinki, Finland in July, North Korea and the PRC created an alternative Olympic Games at a North Korean POW camp in Pyuktong.  Prison camps near the Yalu River in North Korea competed in teams made up of men from the United States, Britain, South Korea, Turkey, France, the Philippines, and the Netherlands. The camp teams battled it out in track-and-field events, soccer, boxing, and wrestling, as well as American football, and softball, all during the harsh North Korean winter. It would have many names, but it would be known as the Inter Camp Olympics. The Korean War has been dubbed the “Forgotten War,” but even those that remember it are not aware of this bizarre event.  This is an obscure, yet fascinating event during the Korean War with which there is so little information.

Many studies of POWs during the Korean War include the infamous Clarence Adams, an African American POW from Memphis, Tennessee.  He was one of the twenty-one Americans who decided to start a new life and live in the PRC, refusing repatriation after the armistice (yes, we’re still technically at war with North Korea).(1)  His motives and experiences in China are often the most cited, but no one to my knowledge has ever cited his participation in the POW Olympics.  He was in Camp 5, one of the several camps that participated in the games.  We are aware of the death marches, the torture, and the poor treatment of POWs committed by the North Koreans in the early years of the war; Adams recalled how he weighed roughly 100 pounds.  However, he observed that treatment improved after the Chinese took over their camp:

The Chinese took over Camp 5 in the spring of 1951 and introduced what they called their “lenient policy.” They lined us all up and told us that although they were not bound by the Geneva Convention, they had their own policy of leniency that would greatly improve our lives in the camp…and gradually it did. (2)

Adams cited the racial discrimination he and fellow African Americans faced as a major reason for staying on in a new socialist country. He ended up returning to the U.S., fleeing China during the Cultural Revolution.

The treatment of POWs in the North somewhat improved when the peace talks at Panmunjom started, when the Chinese adopted their “lenient policy.” From his account we learn that the Chinese were fairly reasonable in providing POWs with some level of comfort and normalcy, but it is unclear as to whether this is genuine, given that their new policy started right around the peace talks. Adams records that the Chinese:

…agreed to everything I asked for.  After a couple of months, they brought in bats and baseballs, footballs, books, boxing gloves, parallel bars…We set up cooking and sanitation committees. We exercised every day. And the guys began to get stronger.  We even got some medicine that we gave to the prisoners who were medics to administer… (3)

Along with beginning to see conditions improving in the camp, Adams is the only American POW that I found that definitively recorded the Inter Camp Olympics in a printed memoir:

A welcome interlude occurred in our daily lives with the Inter Camp P.O.W. Olympics, held in November 15-27, 1952, in Pyuktong, just outside of Camp 5. This was a time of heated negotiations, and the Chinese obviously hoped to gain positive worldwide publicity for hosting these games.  Some prisoners refused to participate, but others…welcomed this diversion from the tedium of their daily lives, as well as the chance to talk to their buddies from other camps. (4)

Adams observed that several hundred POWs participated and competed in many sports, including “football, baseball, softball, basketball, volleyball, track and field, soccer, gymnastics, and of course boxing, where I fought as a lightweight.”  We learn earlier in his memoir that he was an avid boxer. He must have been thrilled to be able to box competitively again, perhaps a reason why he never viewed the event in a negative light.  From his recollection we learn that the Chinese put on quite a show, and tried to make it as grandiose and organized as possible: “We had our own photographers, announcers, and even reporters who put out a newspaper called the “Olympic Roundup” after each day’s events…It was great fun and made us forget about where we were for at least a few days.” (5)

Adams mentioned a newspaper called “Olympic Roundup” that was printed at the camp during the games, which brought me to a treasure of a website that I intend to continue analyzing in the future.   Its contents include a brochure/pamphlet that was produced, courtesy of the People’s Republic of China, shortly after the Inter Camp Olympics; the extent to which it was distributed is unknown, but its contents were scanned and copied onto this website, courtesy of a group of British Korean War veterans.(6) The pamphlet includes a wealth of information, ranging from pictures of the sporting events and ceremonies, and every piece of information is straight from “Olympic Roundup,” which was written by the POWs covering the games.  In the records of participants it lists Clarence Adams as one of the 22 competitors (with their serial numbers) in the boxing tournament. Pictures from the newspaper are also shown, and some the clippings described the significance of the event:

…I can say that in all the history of prisoner-of-war life, this sort of thing never happened before…it was the most colorful and gala event to come about during our stay here in Korea under the guidance of our captors…I am certain that no one in his sane mind will ever say that prisoners of war here are not the best cared for in the whole world today.  May the peoples all the world over be informed of that First Inter-Camp Olympics Meet, 1952…

Another one goes further: “…It’s a pity, that the same atmosphere doesn’t prevail over all the world, because if so then how pleasant and peaceful life would be for us all.”  The purpose of this pamphlet, like any pamphlet, was for distribution.  However, discerning the audience is difficult; Since this is one of the only surviving records of such a piece, it is possible that it was distributed as a souvenir for POWs to take back home. It is also not clear if it was distributed in China, or if they were flown and dropped over U.N. territory to convince Western troops how much fun their POW friends were having while they were freezing in a foxhole.

The irony in all of this of course is that everyone who participated in this event, from those you see smiling and competing with each other in sports uniforms (see pictures at the end), to those that wrote and recorded the event in the newspaper, were captives. The writing in the newspapers that were meant for distribution is full of praise, to convince participants that maybe the Communist governments were not so bad after all.(7)  The general consensus is that the event was used as a propaganda ploy, and participants had to have been well aware of this.  In a paper written to describe life in POW camps for Marines during the War, Colonel James Angus MacDonald mentions the Games in a few pages (out of several hundred). In it he quotes an Air Force pilot who described a Major Thomas D. Harrison, who I was able to cross-reference with the pamphlet website and confirm that he played basketball as a participant in the Olympics:

…he attended  an athletic meet in Pyoktong. While there, his skill as an athlete helped restore the prestige of the officers torn down by the enemy’s propaganda.  In addition he defied the guards by circulating among the enlisted men and pointing out lies contained in the enemy propaganda designed to slander this country…at the same time he collected the names of many prisoners held in isolated places whom it was suspected that the enemy might attempt to hold after the end of the war. (8)

It’s no surprise that we learned about the considerable efforts made by the Chinese to indoctrinate younger enlisted men.(9)  After fielding several interviews with which he provides no transcript, Colonel MacDonald also described the discernment process that other POW Camps went through before finally deciding to participate in these Olympics.  He concluded that normally they would have withdrew their participation, due to the potential the event had for being used as propaganda, but “…in the end, the possibility for making contact with other camps and exchanging vital information proved the deciding factor.”(10)  This corroborates with Clarence Adam’s testimony earlier when he mentioned that it was a way for prisoners at other camps to see their buddies.

In November 1952, in the region of Pyoktong in North Korea, hundreds of United Nations prisoners captured during two years of fighting were brought together to compete in the “Inter Camp Olympics.”  But who could blame prisoners for participating in such an event? Regardless if the whole thing was used for propaganda, in a way, everyone got what they wanted.  Furthermore, it wouldn’t exactly be untrue if a majority of the captives enjoyed it. The fact that they were able to compete in physically strenuous events suggests that they were indeed treated at least with some level of nourishment.  The extent to which the Communists were able to convert prisoners to their cause was only limited to the likes of Clarence Adams, who were halfway there since they had their grievances about their home country prior to serving as an Allied combatant.  The Chinese and North Koreans could say that they were treating the captives well, and the POWs got a chance to see their comrades and live in better conditions for 2 weeks. For the POWs, this was a valuable diversion to the morale-draining prisoner life.  In short, it was a fantasy for both parties involved.

Two years ago was not only the year of the 2012 Summer Olympics at London; that November also marked the 60th anniversary of these Inter Camp Olympics. And although the Korean War is a dim memory in much of the world today, perhaps a detailed account of  a Communist propaganda exercise, their answer to the real Olympics Games and indeed, one of the strangest events ever to have occurred during wartime, will spark a renewed interest in the conflict whose consequences reverberate on the Peninsula and beyond to this day.

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Pictures obtained from various pages of <http://www.kmike.com/POW_Olympics/pow/index.htm&gt;

(1)  Clarence Adams. An American Dream: The Life of an African American Soldier and POW Who Spent Twelve Years in Communist China. Ed. Della Adams and Lewis H. Carlson. Amherst: University of Massachusetts, 2007. Print.

Their defection was regarded as a major public relations victory for the Communists, but Adams never considered himself a turncoat. We can sympathize with him in the sense that he knew that there would be no life for him back in the States; he was a poor black man who would inevitably return to the 1950s South. Eventually he abandoned his life in China and returned to the U.S.

(2)  Ibid., 51.

(3) Ibid., 56. We must take Adams words here with some level of suspicion.  We learn in his memoir that the found Chinese re-education classes given at his camp compelling, and he was a regular contributor to their propaganda newspaper. As a representative of the camp, perhaps the Chinese thought that if they worked with Adams and gave him some authority he would be swayed to come to their side.  Although he never says this outright, his defection points to this being a possibility.

(4)  Ibid., 62.

(5) Ibid.

(6) Michael White. “Index to 1952 POW Olympics.” Index to 1952 POW Olympics. Web. 19 Nov. 2012. <http://www.kmike.com/POW_Olympics/pow/index.htm&gt;

(7) Culturally, although they abandoned some of their old ways in favor of Communism, the Confucian ideology stresses to never express your true intentions and emotions outright, and if you must, to do it ever so subtly.

(8) James A.MacDonald, Jr. The Problems of U.S. Marine Corps Prisoners of War in Korea. Thesis. History And Museum Division Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps Washington, D.C., 1962, 195. <http://www.koreanwar2.org/kwp2/usmckorea/reference/usmcpowkorea.pdf&gt;

(9) Historical records show that these subversive activities were not only done by the Chinese themselves, but by Western prisoners like Clarence Adams who were labeled as “Progressives” and were sympathetic to the criticisms of their own country.

(10) MacDonald, 195.

 

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Don’t Fughettabout Foreign Policy: Risks and Trends for 2014

David Kessler and Peter Kouretsos – Happy New Year, everybody! Big things happened in 2013: Dave and I graduated in May and we’re all still here, which means that the world didn’t blow itself up. And to us here at the Brooklyn Diplomat, that’s a reassuring sign that we’re doing ok and that it could always be worse. Not great, but ok. It helps us put things into perspective.  But we digress. We’ve been reading lots of articles lately about what to expect in 2014, and while we’ve found some of the trends, forecasts and “predictions” out there to be agreeable and insightful, the overall impression we got can only be described by one of our favorite movies (because Brooklyn, that’s why)

Ok, maybe not exactly BS, but lots of this stuff seemed pretty obvious. It’s not very Brooklyn at all. And as the official trendsetter of the modern world, the gentlemen and scholars of Brooklyn ought to have a say in what to expect in a post 2013 world.  Main takeaway from all of what you’re about to read right now: Foreign policy. Start caring about it. While last year’s headlines were dominated by economics, just one look at any of the headlines this past month shows that 2014 will be a “Foreign Policy” year.  This is what Dave and I are thinking about now as we begin 2014.  At the end, we’ll also share with you our New Year’s resolutions.

First Up: PETER KOURETSOS

#5) MENA unrest expands:

2014 is going to be a record year for violence in Iraq (a great primer can be found here). Runner ups in terms of unrest and instability are going to be obvious, Egypt and Libya, where the money is running out and the governments being propped up at the moment simply are not working. There are also serious concerns of a security vacuum in Afghanistan with talks of a U.S. 2014 pullout if a Bilateral Security Agreement doesn’t get hammered out; failure here would mean Afghanistan spirals back to the way it was before the 2001 invasion and we’re back to square one.

Adding fuel to the fire in Egypt, the interim government backed by Sisi (who may very well run for President soon) and the SCAF recently declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization. Both the Brotherhood and the government have reached a point of no return. By labeling the Brotherhood a terrorist organization and denying them any political voice, they’ve committed themselves to stamping them out for good; or risk them returning to power and destroying them. The Brotherhood, now backed into a corner, doesn’t have much to lose. And when one group has everything to lose while another has nothing to lose, it rarely ends well. It’s a very desperate situation. It’s a very…Syria(ous) situation…

Al-Qaeda is certainly not what it used to be after bin Laden’s death, but that does not necessarily make it weaker or stronger; it just makes it different. And if we don’t adapt to that, “different” will become “dangerous.”

2014 will be a “good” year for al Qaeda.  We will see a proliferation of small, local al Qaeda “units” that will take the jihad locally. This is not to say that some groups won’t target the U.S. directly anymore, but the emphasis will be local, where they can take advantage of economic hardship, weak, ineffective and unresponsive governance, and social unrest.  They have, for example, used Western Syria as a haven to launch operations into Iraq’s Anbar province, most notably in Fallujah.

Violence will grow and al Qaeda and its affiliates will grow.  The willingness of the U.S. and the Allies to devote significant resources to deal with these threats is not what it used to be (as opposed to right after 9/11).  To make matters more troublesome, the capacity for local governments and “partners” to pick up the slack simply isn’t there.  Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan are bursting at the seams and risk becoming more unstable as they take in more refugees from the Syrian war, which is not ending any time soon.  If you want to know whether this new decentralized and fragmented al Qaeda is weaker or stronger than it was before Osama bin Laden’s death, you’re asking the wrong question.  It is certainly not what it used to be, but that does not necessarily make it weaker or stronger; it just makes it different.  In the environment described above, the so-called “al Qaeda 2.0” after 2011 becomes “al Qaeda 3.0” in 2014.

 #4) Consequences of an Iran deal:

As per the accord hammered out last November, Iran has halted its 20% enrichment and just began blending down its stockpile of 20% enriched uranium this January. The West has made good on their end of the bargain by lifting some sanctions.

Hassan Rouhani was elected for this very reason. Sanctions were biting and he has been tasked to stop the bleeding. He does not have the go-ahead from the Ayatollahs to completely eliminate enrichment, but the momentum is there in 2014 for a deal with limited enrichment in exchange for a seat as a member of the international community.

We will find very soon whether a nuclear deal with Iran is going to happen, maybe even by the end of the first quarter.  If it does, oil prices could take a hit when Iranian crude enters the market and the Saudis, Venezuelans and Russians will find themselves in a very difficult position. Petroleum exports account for a disproportionate amount of their national revenues because they have chosen not to diversify, mainly because they just never saw the need to.  Will they decrease production (and lower exports) to keep prices where they’re at now, or do they continue at current production levels and watch prices fall?

Either way, if a deal with Iran happens this year, the funds used to grease the wheels of these petro-states could begin to dry up. But if a deal does not occur, oil prices could spike, the potential for an Israeli strike will go up, the risk of other MENA states going nuclear goes up and the Iranians move much more quickly to a nuclear “breakout” capability.

3) Elections happening just about everywhere:

I know people are talking about U.S. Midterm Elections and are also on the lookout for anyone announcing a 2016 Presidential run, but I’ll let Dave take that one.  Pretty much any emerging market most investors have been talking about that can have elections this year is having elections. China is the exception here since they don’t have elections. I am also not counting Russia in this either.

A little under half of the world’s population will vote some time in 2014. The Economist breaks it down for you.

When I’m talking emerging markets I’m talking Brazil, Nigeria, Indonesia, India, South Africa, Columbia, Turkey (a full list here).  Many of these large economies have one thing in common: most of the parties in power now have been in power for more than a decade.  And for at least the past 10 years, the effectiveness of their governance has been questionable.  These countries are at a crossroads; a case in point is Turkey.  PM Erdogan must step down due to term limits but he can still win and hold the ceremonial office of President this year; we could see a Prime Minister-President seat-holding scenario similar to Putin’s Russia with Dmitry Medvedev.  But Erdogan’s AKP will still need to win local elections, and though they are still generally popular, recent discontent with the AKP’s strongarm tactics and a political crisis sparked by the Gezi Park protests could lose them some seats.

Brazil is another notable country with major elections to watch, and the World Cup (plus with the Olympics two years away) will add more to its complexity.  President Dilma Rousseff’s party will likely stay in 2014, but only because Latin American politics as a whole is uniquely more populist and often lacks strong opposition parties. Economic growth has also plummeted while public funds have been used to prepare the country for the World Cup and the Olympics. Extravagant stadiums next to run-down favelas will present the world with a Latin American version of Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities.”

And as for the most populous Muslim country in the world in the ever-growing and important Southeast Asian region, Indonesia undergoes both Presidential and Parliamentary elections; it would do the United States some good if they re-engaged and reaffirmed their commitment to an Asia-Pacific “pivot.”  And although the popular topic right now is Ukraine, all eyes will be on Thailand as it navigates a political crisis between rival factions; it’s unlikely that an election will solve anything without an agreement between the clashing parties, and the risk of a military coup is always there.

#2 )Reforming China:

The Peoples Republic of China’s (PRC) Third Plenum launched significant and unprecedented political reforms that will fundamentally alter how China is governed.  In 2014 we will see the beginning of those, and consequently, the beginning of a new China. I’m still optimistic about China in 2014; the PRC’s resilience amid the decades of challenges it’s faced has been far too consistent to bet against.

By a show of hands, who’s betting against China in 2014? Nobody? Ok, cool, just making sure.

In Xi Jinping’s first year of governance, he’s engaged in more reform than in the PRC’s past 20 years.  This means real economic reform, a free-trade zone in Shanghai, anti-corruption moves, things that will get China on track for a serious restructuring.  But reform in China will make lots of people who have an interest in the status quo very unhappy. The Plenum was meant for Xi to consolidate as much power for himself to strong-arm these things through. The core issues and problems have never been external for China.  They have always been about, well…China. China’s core interests have always been domestic security and national unity. In fact, the new National Security body that was established after the Plenum, unlike ours, is focused on cracking down on internal matters like corruption, protests and unrest in the countryside.

China has greatly benefited from globalization, but they also have a long history of getting hurt when they expose themselves too much to the whims of other nations and foreign-based corporations that want to do business there.  The Opium Wars and the Unequal Treaty system during the 19th and early 20th centuries are the most popular examples of this.  This is why China has and will always be wary of any “comprehensive” and “binding” trade agreements and other multilateral treaties. China would much rather negotiate bilaterally, with one nation at a time, and on its own terms. So although the Bali talks and Doha give me hope for comprehensive international trade agreements, I’m not expecting China to commit to anything like it in 2014.

And if things get uneasy internally for China, with discontent and nationalism coming to a head, count on Xi and the Party to release some steam from the tea kettle and deflect those energies towards Japan and its neighbors who are suspicious of a more aggressive China. And in this kind of pressure-cooker environment, with all of their history and provoking the risk for a showdown with the Japanese as the Chinese reform process beings is real.

#1) The U.S. walks alone

The U.S. walks alone at the start of 2014, but it’s never time for it to throw in the towel. 2014 is a pivotal foreign policy year, and if they play their cards right, the United States can mitigate 2014’s risks and repair the damages of 2013.

Ok, Geopolitics 101 stipulates that there are exceptions to this: the British, the Canadians, the Mexicans and the Israelis. These relationships are maintained because of strategic choice and necessity, although there have been discussions about Israel’s discomfort with their U.S. relationship as of late.

Those exceptions aside, I am seeing signs that we’re beginning to live in a world where U.S. Foreign Policy has become less clear and less certain and decisive.  Our cuts in Defense and foreign aid make the rest of the world uneasy, and question our commitments. We’re also beginning to taper, and the money that used to float around and find its way to other nations’ markets isn’t going to be there anymore.  All other countries tied to the U.S. are concerned and are questioning the traditional terms of their relationship: South Korea, Indonesia, the Philippines, Brazil, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Germany and France come to mind.  This includes trying to move away from U.S. standards in the global economy and changing the way they think about security, especially in light of the NSA revelations.  There is a level of uncertainty in the world that we have not seen in decades from the world’s only superpower, and I will be closely watching to see how this plays out in 2014.

Am I saying that the U.S. is in decline? No. I won’t go that far and jump on the bandwagon that started picking up steam during the 2008 financial crisis. The dollar is still strong.  The Chinese still want their kids to come to American universities. Any internationals who want to move their money out of the country brings it here.  We are still a safe bet. The legal system works and we are politically stable. In terms of U.S. innovation in energy, agriculture, biotechnology, nanotechnology, etc; the U.S. still dominates. The “dysfunctional Congress” even passed a $1.1 trillion bill that funds the government through 2014.  So no, America is not in decline. Its foreign policy is in decline. It is losing its ability to get what it wants abroad.

The same applies with Obama and Congress.  2014 will be the President’s last best chance to push an agenda for the rest of his term; after 2014 everyone gets so caught up in the election season that it’ll be difficult for his Administration to get any attention or support after this year.

As President Obama goes live in his State of the Union Address on Tuesday, his focus will likely be on the economy, the issues of growing inequality, a partisan Congress and a stagnant middle class, all important concerns.  But after all that’s happened in the last 6 months on the international front, pay close attention to which issues the President will emphasize besides the domestic ones.   I can’t say what he will choose as foreign policy priorities, but a comprehensive agreement with Iran on curbing their nuclear program, wrapping up Afghanistan and repairing the strained friendships with our allies would be a good start.  President Obama still has 3 more years in office, and second-term Presidents in their last couple of years in office often try and leave their mark on foreign policy.  And with the Obamacare rollout leaving a black mark on the President’s legacy, foreign policy can help save what’s left of it.  And I think he knows this.  And with all the talk about “national interests” in foreign policy discussions on the news, most Americans see the only “national interest” as nation building here at home. The polls speak for themselves: A majority of Americans are more disillusioned with the U.S.’s role abroad than ever before.  They just don’t see the point anymore.  And after Iraq and Afghanistan, “fughettaboutit” isn’t just a Brooklyn word anymore.  Let’s just hope that Obama doesn’t fughettabout foreign policy in 2014.

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Last but not least: DAVID KESSLER

#5) Pope Francis and the Catholic Church:

If I had to point to any one trend that I was most excited about or which I thought would be the most profound in 2014, it would be the current direction of the Catholic Church.  After emerging from the College of Cardinals as Pontifex Maximus only a year ago, Pope Francis (Formerly Bishop of Argentina Jorge Bergoglio) has already rocked the boat with his humble demeanor, his progressive tone when making remarks on various “hot topics,” and his focus on social justice for the World’s poor.  Furthermore, Francis was the first Pope to be elected from the Americas and is the first Jesuit Pope. As of late, Pope Francis has even been named Person of the Year by Time for 2013.  And as two young, Jesuit-educated, Christian gentlemen (Pete’s Orthodox and he’s excited for more Ecumenical dialogue between East and West now), we’re pleased with Pope Frank.

I see this pivot in the Church marking a major shift in how it will conduct itself in the 21st century.  While recent Popes have made significant strides toward modernizing the Church, namely Pope John XXIII and Pope John-Paul II, Pope Francis seems to be someone who can strike a balance of fully mobilizing the global youth who have been unable to identify with the Church as of late, while still maintaining the more “traditional” Catholic following.  From what I gather from Pope Francis’ various remarks, the Church will certainly be much more aggressive in the fight to combat poverty in the so-called, “developing,” world.  Furthermore, to conclude endless discourses on questions such as homosexuality, abortion, and other social flashpoints for the Church, the Pope will likely brush those questions aside in favor of addressing what he feels are the most pressing issues: poverty, faith, and community.  These are issues that he can unite the most people around and bring them closer to the Church, regardless of their views on the contentious topics.

#4) Syria:

Assad has taken some hard hits, but he has also been able to exploit and leverage the diverse conglomerate of rebel groups to survive. I don’t think he’s going anywhere in 2014.

The prolonged civil war in Syria seems to encapsulate many different global struggles, both direct and proxy.  There seems to be no immediate end to the fighting, and one can only hope that 2014 is the year that the bloodshed is concluded.  More broadly the Assad regime in Syria, assisted by both Hezbollah and Iran, is struggling to remain in power as an Alawite-led regime in the predominately Sunni state of Syria.  Meanwhile, the Sunni Arab States and al-Qaeda continue to push back against the regime and support the revolution.

Though I foresee a prolonged conflict in the Levant for a while longer, any victor in Syria (if there ever is one) would probably be Assad.  Although the international community has called for him to step down and/or negotiate a settlement, Assad and his regime have shown resilience and an incredible tolerance for pain; thus far this is evidence that he still commands substantial legitimacy among his supporters, and the state is robust enough to survive in 2014 and beyond.  In particular, the military seems to be generally supportive of his leadership, in contrast to what we saw in Egyptian in 2011, where the Egyptian SCAF refused to continue backing then-President Hosni Mubarak.  There have been some defections, but as long as the military remains with Assad, I do not believe he will be defeated unless a greater outside force (al-Qaeda or a foreign power) is able to bolster the rebels to overpower the Syrian military or dissuade them from supporting Assad.

#3) A Strained US – Russia Relationship:

Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney memorably stated in 2012 that Russia is, “without question our [the United States’] number-one geopolitical foe.” For the record, the jury is still out on whether this remark is true.  But as of late there have been many events to suggest that this Cold War mentality may be relevant.  Perhaps the most talked about man involving a deteriorating U.S. –Russian relationship, Edward Snowden, will continue to test US-Russia relations into the coming year.  The slight against the U.S. when Russia agreed to give him asylum against cries for “justice” in the U.S. is ever present. Furthermore, we still don’t know the true extent of the damage he’s done or what it is he took with him. Granting him amnesty is probably off the table at this point, since he’s been to two countries that are two of the U.S.’s greatest cyber-security threats (China and Russia). Continuing points from the previous stated trend, the Syrian Civil War is also an indirect struggle between Russia and the United States.  The United States has traditionally backed the most powerful Sunni nation in the region, Saudi Arabia, while Russia has traditionally backed the most powerful Shia nation, Iran, and consequently, Syria.  Thus, the war in Syria looks ever more like the Cold War-era proxy conflicts. As a positive, the recent deal for Syria to voluntarily give up its chemical weapons for destruction was jointly agreed upon between Secretary of State John Kerry and Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has shown that we can find some common ground on some issues.

C’mon guys. It’s only awkward if you make it awkward.

During the upcoming 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia may also display the status of relations between the two nations.  To prepare for Russia’s gig on the global stage, President Putin has granted amnesty to thousands of prisoners, including his biggest rival, oil-tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky.  This is an attempt to show that Russia has not receded to its harsh Soviet ways.  It should be noted, however, that these acts of “good will” may only temporarily improve Russia’s image rather than act as precedent for real reform within Putin’s Russia.  The US-Russian relationship will certainly make headlines over the upcoming year, but if the past is a judge for things to come, it looks like only headlines we’ll be reading will be about a stagnant or deteriorating relationship. Let’s hope at least for the former.

#2) A key year for the U.S. in 2014:

On the U.S. domestic front, another exciting year of political gridlock and debacle is on the horizon.  As President Obama enters the New Year with his lowest approval ratings since his inauguration, he will be quarterbacking the salvation effort for his signature legislation, the Affordable Healthcare Act (ACA, aka “Obamacare.”)   The website setbacks we’ve been reading about will be corrected in the coming weeks and Obamacare will receive its real test: whether the nation is willing to choose to enter healthcare exchanges or pay the penalty of not acquiring healthcare.  From my point of view, the ACA is here to stay and Americans will likely warm up to it if, and only if, enough people choose to enroll in Health Insurance rather than pay the penalty.  Whether the new system will work as efficiently or as cost effectively as legislators suggested is to be seen in the coming years.  However, the Democrats have been running on the ACA (or at least the idea of it) for nearly 50 years. They cannot afford for this to fall through. And it’s unlikely that Republicans will repeal it; it’s much easier to give out a social good than to take it away.  Thus, I would say that Obamacare is here to stay at least for the next 8-10 years.

Democrats, Republicans, and pretty much everybody else may be pointing fingers at each other, but one thing’s for sure: U.S. leaders have their work cut out for them in 2014.

On the flip side of American politics, the Republican Party will look to maximize the Obamacare confusion and win support to its cause while overcoming internal discord.  Within the party, two very distinct groups have emerged that are going to butt heads: the traditional “establishment” Republicans and the Tea Party Republicans.  Outspoken members of the Tea Party faction include Senators Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Congresswoman Michele Bachmann.  Notable establishment GOP members include Senator John McCain and Governor Chris Christie.  While the traditional Republicans hold the majority of high ranking Republican positions, the Tea Partiers have secured some significant grassroots support.  The Tea Party’s most notable contribution (or lack thereof) to politics was their integral part in triggering the Federal Government Shutdown of 2013.  During this episode, the Tea Party legislators did exactly what they said they would do when running for their seats in government: attack the ACA by any means.  Unfortunately for both the nation and the Republican Party, this “noble stand” was a decisive defeat that cost the country weeks of Federal Government impotence.

From where I stand, the division and subsequent struggle for the Republican Party, ought to happen as soon as possible.  Political infighting followed by consolidation is nothing new, even internationally: Remember how Tony Blair led an internal movement within his Labour Party, moving it from the far-left/left to the center-left. And in 1997 the Labour Party achieved its first election victory since 1979.  Likewise, a strong leader from the center-right in the U.S. can assume a similar Tony Blair-like role over the party before the Presidential election of 2016 and move it in a more moderate direction.  The sooner and more decisive the struggle, the better.  A good barometer of this internal struggle will certainly be the upcoming 2014 congressional elections.

#1) Have No Fear, the Global Economy is Here!:

Finally, in regards to the global economy, I predict a very fruitful year.  [The majority of] Europe will return to greater prosperity and competitiveness than before the European debt crisis began.  The U.S will continue to grow its economy but it too must find solutions to reducing its public deficit so as to achieve sustainable economic growth.   The Chinese will continue to power forward with after a year of robust growth in 2013, although we’re beginning to see signs that they’re beginning to pump the brakes .  Japan will continue to be mired in its incredible public debt (which it will attempt to solve by printing more money) and oncoming demographic collapse (which can be mended by immigration reform, but probably little will be done to address that).  Russia and Brazil will get their time in the sun during the 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia and the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.  Both events will be great opportunities to show off the economic advantages for foreign investment in their respective countries.  Russia ought to seek continued growth, which has been strong since President Putin came to power. Brazil, on the other hand, has seen rather sluggish economic growth as of late and will certainly try to reverse that trend. As for the smaller economies of the world, they ought to perform positively if history is any judge of future trends.  Overall, the coming year will continue to see a dramatic reduction in Global Poverty and the world economy will grow substantially.

Nobody can account for all the bumps in the roads, and I’m sure 2014 will see its fair share of black swans. But the world will keep spinning.

IMAG1123

Two New Year’s Resolutions from two new graduates:
Pete: “Apply to Grad School in the Fall so I can defer my student loans next year!”
Dave: “See more friends and keep thinking scholarly and happy thoughts! We’ll get through 2014 everybody, let’s also try to enjoy it a little too!”

How to Argue with your family about Foreign Policy tomorrow: Thanksgivukkah Special

There are three things people always talk about: Sports, Politics and the Weather. This Thanksgivukkah you’ll be hearing about all three, so here’s a handy guide on how to hold your own against misinformed family and friends at the dinner table.

Guaranteed your first course is going to start off something like: “We don’t make stuff here anymore”

One of the most popular claims that I have wishbone to pick with is when people claim our country’s going to hell in a hand basket because everything’s made in China and all we have to show for it is a “service economy” that just gets us into financial crises. They’ll point out that there are fewer manufacturing jobs in the US today than there were when they were growing up. If you have your smartphone out, pull up this graph and tell them to give it a look:

Industrial Production...Manufacturing

Exports

However, like a good debater, you’ll concede that fewer people are employed in manufacturing today than “back in the day.” And you’ll even show ‘em the numbers to prove it:

All Employees...Manufacturing

The takeaway here is American manufacturing output is enormously higher today than it was 40 years ago [actually, ever…]. However, that growth is at the expense of fewer employees, which in economic jargon means increased productivity; doing more with less. This is because of all sorts of things, like improved business processes and technology to increase efficiency. So we DO make things, lots of things actually. It’s just that we make more things with less people.

Second course: “Jeez, you see Putin lately? Russia’s shoving our face in the dirt and looking better every day. Cold War all over again!”

International Badass? Absolutely. Geopolitical rival? Not quite.

I’m really not sure why Forbes called Putin the most powerful man in the world this year, maybe it has something to do with him being a real-life Bond villain or his Judo black-belt.  In all fairness, in terms of awesomeness and manliness, Vladimir Putin is the Russian Teddy Roosevelt. But back to the point. Snowden’s bound to come up in the discussion, but that’s small potatoes when you’re talking a geopolitical rivalry. The Russians also like to troll us every now and then, especially at the U.N. but that’s to be expected. But put this into some perspective: Russia’s latest achievement was persuading Obama to not bomb a country he didn’t really want to bomb anyway to preserve a norm that not really vital to the U.S. national interest. To call the Russian Federation a rival you’d have to prove that wherever we go, the Russians counter us. Latin America? No. Africa? Nothing. South Asia? Don’t see them. The only exception here is Central Asia, where all of the countries ending in “-stan” are. That’s it. Showing some graphs and numbers for this point is pointless. There’s not much to compare.

By far, the most heated topic is probably going to be: “Blehblehbleh [something about China]”

China may very well surpass the U.S. as the world’s largest economy, but let’s not eat all the stuffing before you get to the turkey here.

China is rising and taking over the world and the U.S. and the West is in decline. This is the debate of the century, something that’s been the topic of heated discussion by scholars, policymakers, academics, journalists, just about everybody. There’s no way you’re going to “win” this one.

But if you wanted to have an educated conversation about it, here goes nothing. In a Pew survey, 23 of the 39 countries surveyed said China is or will soon become the “world’s leading superpower.” By 2030 (or sooner for some) the People’s Republic will take over the U.S.’s role as the world’s largest economy. So it may actually become the world’s largest economy. But it will not become a superpower. Although it has seen impressive levels of growth over the years, China has its constraints too. China’s leaders know they must slowly reduce the role of the state in the economy; in other words a transition away from model that is too dependent on corporate and government investment. But that’s what the Communist Party has been running on since its inception, so there’s also an identity crisis surfacing. It’s also pretty clear that it’s fudging its growth data. It also doesn’t help that the proportion of the Chinese population of working age peaked in 2011 and has started decreasing in 2012. By 2025, 14.3% of the population will be 65 and over. An aging population will increase labor costs, reduce savings and investments, and strain healthcare and social welfare systems. Then there’s also the daily challenge of feeding 1 billion people and keeping them unrebellious. And you can’t really fudge your way out of that.

Fundamentally, the Chinese military has been, at its core, an internal peacekeeping force for the provinces. Though there are signs of China seeking to project power outward in the form of developing a blue-water navy, there are rivals in Japan, India, South Korea and a bunch of Southeast Asian nations. Territorial disputes are just part of the trouble. It’s uncertain how this will all play out, and then there’s always the North Koreans a wild card in itself. There are some choices that China has to make down the road if it wants to avoid a war.

Bottom line: Agree to disagree on this one. It’s kind of 50:50 here. Strong economy? Yes, but in many ways it’s still a developing country. Superpower? Maybe in the future, but not yet.

Pivot to Asia: As Syria Burns, Chuck Hagel’s Visit Reminds Us That The Pivot Is Underway

U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, center, chains his hands with his counterparts from Vietnam, right, and Thailand before the ASEAN meeting in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei, on Thursday. The trip’s message: The U.S. is committed to its “rebalance” toward the Asia-Pacific region.

I’m probably not the first one to notice these things, but did anyone notice where Chuck Hagel, the Secretary of Defense, was while the U.S. deliberated a military strike on Syria? He’s home now, but Secretary Hagel had been on a tour of the Asia Pacific, building ties with his regional counterparts and other senior defense leaders. His tour of the region is part of a larger strategy that the Obama Administration has dubbed the “pivot” to Asia in 2011. To get an idea of what that word means, Foreign Policy ran an article by Hillary Clinton a few years ago that spells out the Administration’s rationale. It is becoming more clear as to what this pivot actually is, and what it means for the largest country in the region, China.

Although the U.S. has withdrawn combat forces from Iraq and is beginning to wind down our military involvement in Afghanistan, recent turmoil in the MENA region (Syria, Egypt, take your pick there are lots) are only buzzword examples that prove that we are not leaving the Middle East. Pakistan, a nuclear power, has a complicated relationship with us (highlighted by the raid on bin Laden’s Abbotabad hideout), and the fear of greater political instability and a conflict with their rival India is always just over the horizon. Iran also inches closer to a nuclear weapon. So let’s dissolve the illusion that we’re leaving the Middle East. Do I have to reference Michael Corleone here?

So to be clear, we’re not leaving the Middle East and moving everything we have into Asia (because even if we try, it will pull us back in anyway). But it is important to realize that there is more to the world than the Middle East, and that U.S. interests in Asia are grounded in a geographical reality. A popular image surfaced on the internet recently, with a circle over a section of Asia that reads “There are more people living inside this circle than outside of it.”

A little over 50% (51.4% based off what I pulled together from the U.S. Census Bureau’s numbers) of the entire world’s population live inside that circle. This reality itself is enough to argue that a rising Asia would be foolish to ignore. Another reality that is shouldn’t be ignored is the fact that more than half of this circle is water. And it just so happens that this circled water is very important.

Let’s look at the map again, this time with country borders and names of bodies of water for reference.

Look at India. The Indian Ocean serves as a major energy highway; oil and natural gas from the Arabian Sea via the Persian Gulf to the rising middle-class in East Asia and beyond. The Indian Ocean also connects trade routes that utilize the Suez Canal in Egypt, allowing ships to pass into the Red Sea, then the Gulf of Aden passing the Horn of Africa (Somalia) the Arabian Sea, into the Indian Ocean, and onward to the archipelagos of Southeast Asia and the South China Sea.

Let’s look at the map again. Find the South China Sea. The South China Sea itself is allegedly rich in offshore hydrocarbon reserves. Moreover it is the major international sphere of commerce. And you can argue whatever you wish, but a key underpinning of the majority of Post Cold-War global growth has been the U.S. Navy and Air Force. 90% of all goods in global commerce utilize the world’s sea lanes. The U.S. has kept these vital sea lanes open and secure for the global commons for half a century. When you take into account the fact that roughly half of that 90% figure runs through the South China Sea, the region’s importance to the global economy is difficult to push aside.

All over South and Southeast Asia their coasts are blessed with many deep water ports, and like most countries, a great deal of their populations hug the coastlines. It’s simple mathematics: safer sealanes = safer economy = safer society (notice my language, I didn’t say “safe,” I just said “safer”. It’s not always good, but it could always be worse.)

But the elephant in the room on this pivot (or should I say, dragon?) is China. Let’s take a quick look at the People’s Republic of China (PRC) through the lens of this “pivot to Asia”.

Chinese Strategy, Priorities: The Art of War
Chinese defense planners face a complicated situation, where geography plays a major role in their calculus (the map from before helps a lot here). Geographical challenges include but are not limited to:

1) land borders with more than a dozen countries (including proximity to nuclear powers in Russia, Pakistan and India), 2) island nations surrounding its eastern seaboard (thereby naturally challenging its access to the sea), 3) and ongoing island and maritime disputes with its neighbors (notably with Japan and the Philippines).

Coupled with China’s last ~100 years of economic and military inferiority which they attribute to Western imperialism and the Unequal Treaties , we can assess that although currently limited in particular military capabilities, their goals and strategy consists of consistently-defined objectives since their slow and deliberate rise to power starting in 1978.

It is for reasons outlined above that China’s primary concern about the pivot is encirclement. The U.S. presently maintains troops and/or security commitments with South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Thailand and Australia; it sells armaments to Taiwan and is bolstering relations with Myanmar and Vietnam, all of which (with the exception of Australia) were historically tributary states and were seen as an extension of mainland China. China was the regional hegemon in their glory days, as we are in the Western Hemisphere.

Chinese culture values actions and gestures over words. How can they not see the U.S.“rebalance”/“pivot” to Asia nothing other than military encirclement? They fear encirclement much that the objective of the world’s oldest and most sophisticated board game, Weiqi, is precisely that: encirclement. Weiqi is also based on the central tenents of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. Sun Tzu’s maxims – deception, flexibility, sudden, unexpected moves and gradually creating situations that best achieve political objectives–is a more holistic approach to warfare that differs from the American paradigm of warfare. For the Chinese, the art of war should not be limited to the battlefield.

Evidence from Chinese history and current events suggests that the PRC is adjusting accordingly, and have strategically placed their Weiqi pieces in various parts of the globe to counter and circumvent ours. Chinese expansion of investment abroad plays a vital role in its grand strategy. In total GNP, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has hurdled ahead of Germany and Japan, and now ranks second in the world. The recent assessment according to the National Intelligence Council’s (NIC) Global Trends: 2030 (if you have time, read the whole thing) predicts the PRC eventually overtaking the U.S. as the world’s largest economy. Massive foreign investment in Africa, Latin America, and Eastern Europe have paid significant dividends in access to raw materials, economic development and enhancing Beijing’s status as a world power. It’s also becoming pretty clear that China aims to operate its Navy further afield. China has and continues tofund
the building of ports
all along the Indian Ocean, in Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Kenya and the Horn. These projects, like the one in Gwadar all have their unique business underpinnings by Chinese companies, and they are certainly tailored to the individual area. But taken together they also make what the Chinese call a “string of pearls,” commercial ventures whereby political influence can eventually be exerted. Don’t believe me? Google “East India Company”.

However, China’s rise has not been without consequences. Every day it is becoming clearer that the Chinese economic miracle is coming to a halt; it’s not really surprising though. I’d love for 10% annual growth for every country, but that kind of growth for any country is simply unsustainable. Other proliferating domestic challenges are also expected to test the PRC’s national spending priorities with which the military may have difficulty competing for. The demand for social spending because of China’s slowing birthrate, aging society and pollution, coupled with the widely-predicted slowdown in economic growth, will force PRC leaders to face the large opportunity costs and trade-offs concerning defense spending. The situation is likely to exacerbate with rising income inequality, ethno-religious tensions in the borderlands, and the political system’s uncertain future; expenditures with a focus on domestic security are more likely. China’s domestic instability has been primary concern of China’s leaders for centuries, and it may worsen in the future–particularly if there is less economic growth that has so far legitimized the CCP’s grip on power. Their numbers are pretty opaque and PRC leadership will have to come up with some kind of comprehensive reforms to keep China unified. Either way, if China destabilizes or if it grows stronger and continues to grow militarily, it pays for us to be there; in the case of the former to help respond to potential regional crises and in the case of the latter to balance the dragon with the eagle.

The U.S. has been rejecting the charge that we seek to “contain” China. The pivot may not be containment, but the rise of any great power must be managed and must be balanced against issues like an increasingly nationalistic Japan and the rise of Indian sea power. Ideally the U.S. would like to see an Asian power web, whereby more Asian states (China included) have greater economic, military and diplomatic cooperation with each other, as well as with the U.S. These interrelationships will probably balance each other out, and balance against a rising China and miscalculations that can bode ill for regional stability. So it’s not all about China…But it just so happens that all of the arguments for a pivot start and end with China…

North Koreans appeal for direct talks with U.S.

North Korea’s back in the news again for the gazillionth time when recent dialogue between Asian powers and the United States suggested a revitilization of the 6-Party talks which fell through in 2008.

Ok, so the North Koreans are willing to hold direct talks with the United States, that’s great news! But not so fast.

In an article from the Guardian:

“North Korea’s top diplomat has said the US must unconditionally accept its offer of dialogue if it wants to ease tensions on the divided Korean peninsula, adding that hostile policies by Washington against his country make war a possibility.”

Translation:

“We need another order or potatoes.”

High Hopes, Low Expectations: Xi and Obama

When people don’t know what else to say, they typically throw words around like “comprehensive,” “cooperation” and “mutual” to make their hollow comments look more appealing. My thoughts on the weekend meeting in California between Chinese President Xi Jingping and President Barack Obama will contain none of these words.

The Chinese are coming to California. But although I agree with former National Security Advisor Zbignew Brezkinski when he referred to the American-Chinese relationship in an interview with Xinhua  as  “the most important bilateral relationship of the world,”  my expectations for this meeting between two of the most important administrations in the world are quite low. However, I still think the summit’s significance cannot be understated.

For one, there will only be about 6 hours of formal meetings over the course of the two day visit in California. There are big expectations for this summit, and I don’t doubt that some of the major issues at stake like cyber-security, the economy, and the U.S. “pivot to Asia” will be on the schedule. However, do decades of mistrust and skepticism go away after a 6 hour-long talk?

As far as we know there is little else planned for the weekend; this means plenty of free time and less scripted talking points that have plagued previous meetings between the leaders in larger summits. In short, this is an opportunity for Obama and Xi to talk to each other, instead of talking at each other. Perhaps the intention of the meeting is just that: to get to know one another over a couple of days of informal R&R; heavens knows they both probably need it! We all know the theory that nation-states and institutions make policy based on their respective national interests. This is true, but it’s more complicated than that. Policy is a constant tug of war, and although the end result is often a combination of national interests, economics, and institutions, in the end it is people that make decisions. Both sets of leaders are investing a great deal in this personal diplomacy that may help clear up misconceptions about the other.

Over the course of my education I can’t say that I have learned a great deal about China, but what I did learn was that the Chinese people favor actions and subtle gestures over words. To them “official” meetings mean nothing, as policy is typically kneaded out informally over a long period of time. I find it so interesting that with all the advances of technology and globalization, this meeting proves that nothing can replace personal contacts between leaders of different countries. Whatever the results of the meeting, we can foresee a better understanding of each other and the countries they represent emerge. Understanding is the first step of better trust. And trust is what is sorely needed in Sino-US relations . 

But regardless of anything “substantial” coming out of the summit, no one can ignore that the symbolic importance of this meeting is akin to Nixon’s visit to China, which eventually led to the establishment of formal diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China. Like Nixon and Mao before them, Obama and Xi both know that China is here to stay, and they know that in tackling the world’s most pressing issues, two heads are better than one.