Microsoft’s Genocidal Robot Forebodes the Rise of Artificial Intelligence

source: wikimedia commons

source: wikimedia commons

Last month Microsoft launched a new artificial intelligence called Tay that was given control of a Twitter account. It was a so-called “chatterbot”, designed to have a human-like character and hold conversations. The AI showed incredible productivity, sending off half a million tweets in sixteen hours. However, considering that the intelligence was supposedly modeled on a teenage girl, people were surprised when by the end of these first sixteen hours, it had become obsessed with sex, genocide and racial hatred.

 By the end of her short life, the majority of Tay’s tweets were disturbingly detailed racist and anti-feminist attacks. She praised the Holocaust, advocated the genocide of several races, and said feminists “should burn in hell.” She even launched into commentary on the American election, naming Donald Trump as the “only hope” to replace Hitler. Microsoft quickly started to delete as many of the tweets as possible and has since apologized. Nevertheless, it was incredible to see on the one hand that AI technology is rapidly advancing, but on the other hand is still liable to catastrophic malfunction. It turns out that the reason Tay unleashed so much hate is because it was deliberately targeted by some bloggers who exploited its tendency to parrot other people. Therefore, its descent into hate speech probably reflects worse on human rather than artificial character. Nevertheless, the episode is still disconcerting at a time when robot technology is set to play an increasingly prominent role in society.

 Robots play a major role in various areas of human life, with some now calling the rise of artificial intelligence the “Fourth Industrial Revolution.” Klaus Schwab, founder of the World Economic Forum, believes this revolution involves new technologies that are “impacting all disciplines, economies and industries, and even challenging ideas about what it means to be human”. Herein lies potential “great promise and great peril”.

The possible benefits are obvious, with robotics expected to boost productivity by as much as 30%. In Japan, some car makers use robots that can work 30 days straight without interruption, saving around 90% on labor costs. There are already 66 robot workers per 10,000 worldwide, while in the Japanese car industry this number has already reached 1,520. The robot industry is expected to be worth $152.7 billion by 2020. If such incredible productivity were to be applied to other industries, this could categorically change human society.

Whether such development could happen without any negative side effects remains questionable. Looking at the above example, it is plain to see that more efficient robotics is likely to cause a corresponding decline in demand for various forms of human labor. There are predictions that robots will become capable of performing half of all current jobs, causing mass unemployment. In 2013, Oxford University academics Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne estimated that 47% of US employment is in the high risk category of being replaced by some sort of machinery. Manual labor jobs are seen as most likely to be replaced with robot technology, and so booming productivity might have to contend with worsening social inequality.

These issues are set to become evermore in the forefront as artificial intelligence starts to take on more complex roles in various other industries. Warfare is increasingly carried out by unmanned drones. Robo-surgery is now frequently used in hospitals. Financial advisers are being replaced by complex algorithms. Basic journalistic stories are sometimes automated. Care workers for the disabled or elderly are predicted to be next in line. Robots might be trained to help those who need care both physically and mentally. This is one potential application of “chatter bots” like Tay in a world where one of the fastest growing epidemics is loneliness. While some feel that such empathetic work can only be carried out by humans, Tay presents just one example of how artificial intelligence is improving in its abilities of meaningful human interaction.

Clearly, robotics is marching forward at an unstoppable pace, and care must be taken to be sure that this change is for the good. The boom seen from some robotics innovations could open up remarkable economic opportunities, perhaps offering another route for less economically developed nations to undergo fast-paced catch-up growth. However, we may see negative effects forming while positive effects are still yet to kick in. More developed countries might find themselves with whole new waves of problems. In the near future, we will seriously have to consider how to exploit and be weary of this transition of multiple human functions to robots. Tay’s shocking malfunction suggests that this might be cause for concern for many reasons.

- Xan Northcott

 

Comment

Xan Northcott

Xan is a sophomore in Liberal Studies, planning to major in Politics. He is from London and is enjoying having escaped to an exciting new city and culture. Politics is his leading interest, especially with crazy events happening in the US, the UK and all over the world right now. The Middle East is the area that he finds most engaging, and his most fervent belief is the protection of human rights around the world. He travels whenever he can, and this has led him to doing charity work in Spain, Sri Lanka and South Africa as well as England. He is an avid reader of history and all kinds of fiction, and he loves exploring all the strangest parts of New York City that he can find.

Republican Party Tactics: The Size of Their Hands or the Size of Our Problem?

source: wikimedia commons

source: wikimedia commons

I never thought I would say this, but last month, two of the leading candidates for President of the United States were having a serious debate over the size of their genitalia. I don’t think it can be overemphasized how shocking it is to see this kind of behavior from presidential candidates. This contest will determine who will become arguably the most important political figure in the world. Despite the gravity of the task at hand, we are seeing some campaigns dominated by crude attacks and violent rallies rather than serious discussion of policy. All traditional barriers are being broken as politicians descend deeper and deeper into extreme tactics and further from the rationality we usually expect from candidates. This election has already set a terrifying precedent for the future of electoral politics.

One cannot deny that this problem lies almost exclusively with the Republican party. In modern democracy, one hopes that people will consider policies and ideas as well as charisma or machismo. However, the Republican primary results suggest that politics is increasingly going in the opposite direction. While Secretary Clinton and Senator Sanders debate for or against certain policies and methods to implement them, the Republican debates have descended into increasingly aggressive personal attacks.

Even leaving aside the many controversial policies being discussed, the tactics of some of the Republican candidates are a cause for concern. Several people have compared Donald Trump to Hitler, including former President of Mexico Vicente Fox, former Governor of New Jersey Christine Todd Whitman, a fellow Republican, and comedian Louis C.K. Focusing on tactics alone, this doesn’t seem too far-fetched. He focuses his campaign around massive rallies that are becoming increasingly violent. He encourages this violence, and said of one protester that he would personally ‘like to punch him in the face’. He appeals to conceptions of strength, international superiority, and a return to a mythical greatness that he thinks America lost somewhere in the past. He even recently made supporters at a rally pledge unconditional support for him, with right arms raised in the air. All these tactics are reminiscent of fascism. His refusal to condemn characters such as ex-KKK leader David Duke does nothing to help him dismiss these comparisons, let alone the claim by his ex-wife that he used to keep a copy of Hitler’s speeches by his bed.

What is perhaps most surprising about these tactics, though, is their popularity. As Trump becomes more extreme and drifts further away from succinct and legitimate policy, his popularity remains intact and his rallies have almost reached hysteria. One rally in Chicago was cancelled due to excessive violence breaking out before it even started. Meanwhile the other Republican candidates, seeing their own approval ratings slump, stooped to Trump’s level in desperation. Realising that there was little interest in their policies, during the last few debates the candidates focused on personal attacks. Senator Marco Rubio decided to go all out, mocking Trump’s ‘spray tan’ and ‘small hands’, adding ‘you know what they say about guys with small hands’. Trump hit back, assuring his fans that ‘There’s no problem there.’ The crowd loved it, apparently much more confident that Trump is a good candidate, knowing the true size of his manhood.

These sort of arguments might be entertaining to watch in a normal situation, but it is frightening that this is happening in a United States general election. Secretary of State John Kerry has said that world leaders are ‘shocked’ by the election campaigns, which are turning into an ‘embarrassment’ for the US. Others have pointed out that the proven effectiveness of such tactics is likely to make them more popular in the future. While Trump still seems far away from an electoral victory, it has already been extraordinary to see that a candidate with aggressive and incoherent views has been able to develop such a loyal fan base. One can only hope that this style of politics will not be imitated by others in the future.

- Xan Northcott

 

 

Comment

Xan Northcott

Xan is a sophomore in Liberal Studies, planning to major in Politics. He is from London and is enjoying having escaped to an exciting new city and culture. Politics is his leading interest, especially with crazy events happening in the US, the UK and all over the world right now. The Middle East is the area that he finds most engaging, and his most fervent belief is the protection of human rights around the world. He travels whenever he can, and this has led him to doing charity work in Spain, Sri Lanka and South Africa as well as England. He is an avid reader of history and all kinds of fiction, and he loves exploring all the strangest parts of New York City that he can find.

Obama Tries to ‘Bury the Last Remnants of the Cold War’ with Cuba Visit

Photo: 

Photo: 

President Obama made history last week as the first US President in 88 years to visit Cuba. As he spends the last months of his presidency struggling to make domestic headway, he went to bring to a close one of the great conflicts of world history: the Cold War. This was a significant achievement, although many in America have condemned the reconciliation with Cuba as too forgiving. Nevertheless, it seems that, while new conflicts are forming around the world, the last serious capitalist vs. communist struggle has come to an end. In fact, as Cuban President Raúl Castro brings in reforms venturing towards capitalism, communism, for the time being, is being swept out of significance..

However, perhaps the most interesting aspects of the presidential visit were the more hostile moments. Both presidents made it very clear that they have some fundamental differences. This was best symbolized when Castro took Obama’s arm and raised it in the air, only for his hand to remain limp in one of the most awkward handshakes of all time. President Obama went on to criticize Cuba’s human rights record and its retaining of political prisoners, leading Cubans to see their leader questioned on such issues on television for the first time. Castro hit back that the United States is hypocritical on human rights, considering its failure to bring universal healthcare, university education, and equal pay for women to the American people. He then demanded that the US return Guantánamo Bay to Cuba.

These differences of opinion will continue to shape both countries into the future, but this is unlikely to impede Cuba’s charge towards capitalism. Research shows that the private sector is starting to expand in the wake of legislation allowing small private businesses. Access to the Internet is spreading fast and the US loosening of restrictions on trade will surely only increase the pace towards a more free market.

One thing that remains unclear is where democracy will come into this. Many are surprised that Raúl Castro is bringing in these reforms, being the brother of Fidel Castro who led the Cuban Revolution to victory back in 1959, two years before Obama was born. Fidel remains alive and influential, and recently condemned the ‘honey-coated’ visit, saying that Cuba doesn’t need any presents from the ‘empire’, personally attacking Obama. This reveals that there is considerable tension in the top ranks of Cuba’s leadership. Next month’s Communist Party Congress might offer insights into possible political reform. For now, though, the Castros remain divided but firmly in control.

However, what was significant about this visit was that, while the two Presidents admitted strong disagreements, they did so with openness and tolerance. The Cuban government, while insisting that it will retain some of its socialist principles, has made it clear that it wishes to do so with peace, cooperation and free trade rather than with hostility. Admittedly, this new attitude is specifically aimed at foreign policy. Aside from tentative moves towards changing the economy, it is yet to be seen how the Cuban government will change its much-criticized treatment of its own people. On the other hand, President Obama admitted ‘shortcomings in the United States around basic needs for people, and poverty and inequality and race relations’, and welcomed ‘constructive dialogue’ on these issues. In fact, it probably pained him to see the US criticized for its gun laws, health care, and Guantánamo Bay: three issues that he has fought to change throughout his presidency, but has come across intense opposition in all cases.  

All of this exemplifies that two nations can live in peace and work together despite historical conflicts and deep cultural differences. Hopefully in the future more nations can come together in a similar way, emphasizing similarities and potential for mutual benefit over cultural differences and hostility. As Obama said in his speech to the Cuban people, ‘when we share our deepest beliefs and ideas with an attitude of mutual respect, we can both learn and make the lives of our people better’.

- Xan Northcott

 

 

Comment

Xan Northcott

Xan is a sophomore in Liberal Studies, planning to major in Politics. He is from London and is enjoying having escaped to an exciting new city and culture. Politics is his leading interest, especially with crazy events happening in the US, the UK and all over the world right now. The Middle East is the area that he finds most engaging, and his most fervent belief is the protection of human rights around the world. He travels whenever he can, and this has led him to doing charity work in Spain, Sri Lanka and South Africa as well as England. He is an avid reader of history and all kinds of fiction, and he loves exploring all the strangest parts of New York City that he can find.

Death of Conservative Legend Supreme Court Justice Scalia Leaves the Future Wide Open

SOURCE: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

SOURCE: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

          There are few countries in the world where judges can have as much power as they do in America, and there have been few American judges as influential as Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. His death on February 13th marks the passing of one of the true heavyweights of US politics. The news was met with tributes from across the board, although this was soon followed by debate and controversy, something that Scalia saw plenty of in his lifetime. Let alone the mixed feelings about the role he has played over the last few decades, there is also the question of who will replace him as the next Supreme Court Justice of the United States. This is a decision that could have profound effects on the future of America’s laws, politics, and lifestyle.

             The American political system is full of peculiarities, one of which is certainly the immense influence of the Supreme Court. Set up to be one of the three branches of government along with the Presidency and Congress, the Supreme Court gained the crucial role of judicial review almost accidentally after the landmark case Marbury v. Madison in 1803. Judicial review is when the court reviews whether or not laws made by the President or Congress are in line with the Constitution. So whenever you hear a debate about whether or not something is constitutional, it is the nine Supreme Court Justices who ultimately decide. They can even strike down state or federal laws approved by Congress and the President. Over the years, this has resulted in the court making some groundbreaking decisions, ranging from denying African Americans US citizenship in 1857 to legalizing gay marriage in 2015.

             Once appointed, Supreme Court Justices serve for life, which, although democratically questionable, further extends the influence individual justices can have. Scalia was appointed by President Reagan back in 1986, and he was never afraid to voice his opinions throughout his tenure in the court. He was the leading supporter of the originalist and textualist approach to the Constitution in the Supreme Court, which means focusing on the words of the Constitution alone, and treating its meaning as fixed. That means abiding by the exact words of the Constitution as they were intended to mean when written by the authors in 1789. This is a divisive stance, leaving some in disbelief that we should be so bound to the ideas of 200 years ago, while reassuring others that the Constitution is the cornerstone of conservative American values. For a long time now, five of the nine judges in the court have been considered as adhering to this conservative interpretation of the law, with many rulings being decided on a five to four vote. Hence there is a certain amount of panic in Washington over what his death could mean for the future of US politics.

            Scalia oversaw some of the most dramatic supreme court decisions in US history. Just recently these included the legalization of gay marriage with Obergefell v. Hodges (2015) and the approval of President Obama’s health care laws with King v. Burwell  (2015). However, arguably Scalia played a greater role in some of the more conservative rulings of recent years such the notorious decision to reduce campaign finance regulation with Davis v. FEC (2008), the striking down of gun control laws in D.C. v. Heller (2008), and the ruling against affirmative action with Parents Involved v. Seattle (2007). This is not to mention Bush v. Gore (2000), a ruling that effectively decided the 2000 Presidential Elections, which we all know could have sent the US in a very different direction than where it is today. Together these cases involved many of the most pressing topics in US politics, and in each case, Scalia’s influence certainly played a major role.

            The Supreme Court now lies balanced with roughly four liberal and four conservative judges. Balance might sound healthy, but it could potentially wreak havoc when it comes to actually making final decisions. Furthermore, it cannot be underestimated how important the next choice of Supreme Court Justice could be. Whether conservative or liberal, the stance of the new justice is likely to dominate Supreme Court decisions and therefore US legislation for the years to come. All of the Republican presidential candidates have already declared that President Obama should not appoint a new judge in his final year in office, and that the decision should be decided by the next president. Unsurprisingly, candidates Secretary Hillary Clinton and Senator Bernie Sanders have said conversely that it would be outrageous not to let the President use his authority granted in the constitution, an opinion that Scalia might have had to agree with. 

          However, Obama’s decision might not matter because Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has already brazenly suggested that the Senate will not even hold a vote on any candidate for Supreme Court Justice appointed by Obama. Besides, even if there was a vote, the Republican-controlled Senate would be very unlikely to vote in favor. This makes the presidential election even more important. Whomever does eventually choose the next justice could be making a decision that will reverberate throughout US politics, just as Reagan’s choice of Scalia did in 1986.

- Xan Northcott

Comment

Xan Northcott

Xan is a sophomore in Liberal Studies, planning to major in Politics. He is from London and is enjoying having escaped to an exciting new city and culture. Politics is his leading interest, especially with crazy events happening in the US, the UK and all over the world right now. The Middle East is the area that he finds most engaging, and his most fervent belief is the protection of human rights around the world. He travels whenever he can, and this has led him to doing charity work in Spain, Sri Lanka and South Africa as well as England. He is an avid reader of history and all kinds of fiction, and he loves exploring all the strangest parts of New York City that he can find.

UN Secretary General Speaks Out on the Israel-Palestine Conflict

Photo: UN

Photo: UN

On January 26th, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon gave a speech on the situation in the Middle East. Speaking with more candor than usual, he focused on Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. The speech immediately drew intense anger from many, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In turn, the Secretary General responded with a letter to the New York Times, in which he defended his position. The UN is often seen as being too weak to carry great influence in the major issues of international politics, and this was clearly an attempt by Ban Ki-Moon, whose term as secretary general ends this year, to be firmer and to try to command greater influence.

In his speech and subsequent letter, Ban states that the current situation between Israel and Palestine is “untenable.” Already in 2016 there have been “unacceptable levels of violence.” The main point of controversy was the following quote:

Palestinian frustration is growing under the weight of a half century of occupation and the paralysis of the peace process. Some have taken me to task for pointing out this indisputable truth. Yet, as oppressed peoples have demonstrated throughout the ages, it is human nature to react to occupation, which often serves as a potent incubator of hate and extremism.

Prime Minister Netanyahu said these comments “give a tailwind to terrorism”, while Israel’s UN Ambassador said that “the Secretary General encourages terror” and “forgot what the UN’s role is”. The question arises then of whether or not such comments were appropriate for the chief representative of the United Nations, which proclaims to be strictly neutral between all nations. Ban responded by saying that he, of course, also “categorically condemns” terrorism, and that his speech was neutrally discussing facts. Thus, he titled his New York Times letter, “Don’t Shoot the Messenger, Israel”, clearly encouraging the idea of himself as a neutral arbiter.

The Palestinian West Bank has been under Israeli occupation since the 1967 Six-Day War. Israel removed armed forces from the other Palestinian territory, the Gaza Strip, in 2005, but the UN regards it as still under occupation considering Israel’s control of water supplies, electricity, communications, land border crossings, and air and maritime space in that region. The other highly controversial issue is the construction of Israeli settlements within the occupied territories, which Ban says are “an affront to the Palestinian people and the international community”. On the day of Ban’s speech, Israel approved plans for 150 new settler homes in the West Bank. Meanwhile, thousands of Palestinian homes are at risk of demolition because of what Ban calls “legal obstacles” that are “discriminatory in practice.” Together, these two issues suggest that Israel has little real interest in coming to an agreement on the long sought after two-state solution, in which Israel and Palestine would have separate, independent states side by side. This is what Palestine and the international community have been working toward but with little success. Ban writes that he is “concerned that we are reaching a point of no return for the two-state solution.” Indeed, some top Israeli officials have suggested abandoning this solution altogether.

Ban’s speech shows the difficulties of the UN trying to extend its hand deeper into political issues. Any attempt to address an issue with added strength risks condemnation and endangering the UN reputation for neutrality. Does this render them impotent? That seems too harsh, considering the immense amount of humanitarian work that the UN achieves in Israel and Palestine every year. However, aside from humanitarian efforts, the question remains of how much the UN leadership can really achieve politically.

 When US Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro said that Israel’s settlement expansion “raises honest questions about Israel’s long-term intentions” and questioned whether Palestinians are treated equally under the rule of law, Netanyahu denounced the speech as “unacceptable and incorrect.” Therefore, clearly it is not only the UN Secretary General who must be wary when discussing these issues. Even the US, one of Israel’s closest allies, has faced condemnation for comments that were presumably not intended to be controversial.

Whatever one thinks of the words of the US Ambassador, no one would question his right to speak out on behalf of his country, an independent nation. Should the arguments of the UN Secretary General, a representative of all nations, be subject to different conditions? It is hard to say. Personally, I think that it is important that the leading voice of the UN, such an important player in all initiatives towards peace around the world, be able to speak out. At the same time, though, the power of the UN lies in its being the one major authority that can speak with neutrality.

Ban’s speech and letter show that the Israel-Palestine conflict, which remains one of the most divisive topics in the world, is very difficult to delve deeper into without drawing criticism or being seen as taking sides. On the whole, the speech is surely difficult to disagree with. Of course the occupation of Palestine does not excuse their continuous shocking acts of terrorism, but similarly it is clearly one of the main inspirations for their terrorism. Subsequently, the situation cannot be fully resolved while the occupation remains in place. At the same time, settlement programs suggest that Israel has little desire to end the occupation anytime in the near future. On February 10th at a speech given at NYU, Palestine’s Ambassador to the UN, Riyad Mansour, said that no agreement with Israel can be made while settlement programs continue. If Ban Ki-Moon discussing these basic points meets such virulent attack, it gives little hope of any progress being made in the future.

- Xan Northcott 

 

Comment

Xan Northcott

Xan is a sophomore in Liberal Studies, planning to major in Politics. He is from London and is enjoying having escaped to an exciting new city and culture. Politics is his leading interest, especially with crazy events happening in the US, the UK and all over the world right now. The Middle East is the area that he finds most engaging, and his most fervent belief is the protection of human rights around the world. He travels whenever he can, and this has led him to doing charity work in Spain, Sri Lanka and South Africa as well as England. He is an avid reader of history and all kinds of fiction, and he loves exploring all the strangest parts of New York City that he can find.

A New Hope for Myanmar, but how will it play out?

On November 8th, for the first time since the Burmese military took over in the 1960s, the Republic of the Union of Myanmar experienced an allegedly free democratic election. Aung San Suu Kyi, winner of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize, led her National League for Democracy (NLD) party to a victory, confirmed as a supermajority on 13th November. This will allow the party to form a government and choose the next President. Tension still persists in Myanmar, which is largely controlled by the military, and there remains uncertainty as to where exactly this electoral victory will lead. However, even the notorious propaganda newspaper of the military, the Global New Light of Myanmar, hailed the election as the ‘dawn of a new era’.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s father, Aung San, is hailed as the man who won independence for Myanmar from British colonial rule. Ironically, though, he also founded the new Burmese military, the Tatmadaw, which, after his assassination, went on to seize political control of the country in the 1960s. The military has dominated since then, and so once again a member of the Aung San family initiated a struggle for freedom. Aung San Suu Kyi has spent fifteen of the last twenty-five years under house arrest and has received worldwide acclaim for her peaceful struggle for democracy. Her party, the NLD, won a general election by a huge margin previously in 1990, but this turned out to be a sham: the military dismissed the election result and continued to rule.

As a result, tension is high. It is uncertain how much power the NLD will be able to claim and there is danger that history might repeat itself with another military crackdown. In 2008, the military introduced a new constitution that granted itself automatic access to 25% of seats in parliament, a compulsory share of executive authority, and the ability to shut down any government that it deems unfit for the country. This constitution also bans anyone married to a foreigner from political power, meaning that Miss Suu Kyi herself cannot become President, although she claims she will call the shots from behind the scenes. Furthermore, the NLD is powerless until the new parliamentary session begins in February. Until then, there will be a lame-duck session during which some fear that the military will bring in even more extensive self-protection measures. Clearly, how much real change this election will bring to Myanmar’s politics is uncertain.

The military has been surprisingly positive about the election, which President Barack Obama hailed as ‘free and fair’, saying that they ‘accept the result without reservation’. Perhaps some credit should be given to controversial incumbent President U Thein Sein who, despite some questionable social policies, has worked hard to bring the military into a more passive role. On the other hand, many fear that the military, with its own constitution in place, is simply so comfortable in its security that it feels capable of manipulating whoever happens to be in power.

Either way, this election will surely mark the start of some progress. The NLD party remarkably won more than 80% of available seats, and so the military will not easily be able to confront it in the open. Its popularity was so high that, in one district, the poet and former political prisoner U Tin Thit defeated U Wai Lwin, a top general and former defense minister. Tin Thit said afterwards that ‘the ballot is stronger than the bullet’. Another NLD candidate was voted in by an overwhelming majority despite dying two days before the election! The NLD is now a force to be reckoned with, and we can only hope that Aung San Suu Kyi will gradually be able to take on the military and begin to diminish its current total control of politics.

We must also hope that the NLD will address the shocking human rights abuses in Myanmar. The predominantly Buddhist country has a 4% Muslim minority, know as the Rohingya people, who have been declared by Amnesty International ‘the most persecuted refugees in the world’. In a report on Myanmar, the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights group recently said that impunity for rights violations by security forces persists, particularly in ethnic areas; women continue to face cases of sexual violence, and systematic discrimination against Rohingya Muslims threatens their very existence. Aung San Suu Kyi has been worryingly silent on this issue. Overall, much remains to be seen, but this certainly marks the beginning of a potential exciting new direction for Myanmar and, at the very least, a step in the right direction. This is a comforting thought in a region where several countries continue to be utterly dominated by authoritarian rule.

 -Xan Northcott

Comment

Xan Northcott

Xan is a sophomore in Liberal Studies, planning to major in Politics. He is from London and is enjoying having escaped to an exciting new city and culture. Politics is his leading interest, especially with crazy events happening in the US, the UK and all over the world right now. The Middle East is the area that he finds most engaging, and his most fervent belief is the protection of human rights around the world. He travels whenever he can, and this has led him to doing charity work in Spain, Sri Lanka and South Africa as well as England. He is an avid reader of history and all kinds of fiction, and he loves exploring all the strangest parts of New York City that he can find.

Tunisia: the sole success of the Arab Spring

Photo:  www.latimes.com

Photo:  www.latimes.com

On December 17th 2010, fruit seller Muhammad Bouazizi set himself on fire in protest at the political and economic repression of the Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, sparking the first uprising of the Arab Spring. Just a month later, President Ben Ali fled the country. This was “the first time in the modern history of the Arab world a popular uprising forced the ouster of a ruler”. These events triggered dramatic protest movements across the entire Middle East, the fall-out of which we are still seeing today in the civil wars of Syria, Libya, and Yemen. These are not even the only countries where problems remain unsolved. In fact, every Middle-Eastern uprising other than that in Tunisia has lead to either ongoing war or a return to largely the same status quo as existed five years ago. On the other hand, Tunisia has overcome enormous odds and is still enjoying its successful transition to democracy.

 This resulted, this week, in the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to the national dialogue quartet that is credited with being largely responsible for the aversion of civil conflict.This quartet included the Tunisian human rights league, the employer’s institute, the order of lawyers and the powerful union federation called UGGT. When war seemed almost inevitable, these groups, rising above their own disputes, unified as a quartet and stepped in to organise a national dialogue that resulted in compromise, peace and the consolidation of Tunisia’s new democratic system. Thus, the group prevented a move towards the escalation of violence and unresolved conflict that we have seen in Egypt, Syria, Libya, Yemen, and Bahrain. The Nobel Prize has faced criticism in recent years for being misdirected, awarding prizes based on future hope rather than actual achievements. President Barack Obama was a notable case of this when he won the award in 2009. This year contestants included Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, Pope Francis, and US Secretary of State John Kerry. This more obscure group of Tunisians is surely a deserving winner though, considering their immense achievement in retaining peace in Tunisia.

The Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia, as it is now known, happened over a period of just a month. However, as we have clearly seen from events in other Arab countries, a rebel victory in no way guarantees a successful democracy. Indeed, the overthrowing of leaders in Egypt and Libya marked just the start of the immense violence those countries have seen. Tunisia accomplished this through the remarkable willingness of many, including this prize-winning quartet, to bargain and compromise. Tunisia did have some advantages over other Arab countries, such as its relative wealth, homogeneity, and long legacy of political institutions and little military intervention. Nevertheless, in 2013 there was what has now become a familiar situation all over the Arab world: polarization between Islamists and secularists. In Tunisia, this took the form of rivalry between the Islamist Ennahda party and the Nida Tounis party, made up of former members of the secular old regime.

The leaders of these parties, rather than moving towards conflict as happened in other countries, were willing to meet and reach a compromise in a national dialogue. This was mediated by the quartet that just won the Nobel Prize. This group brought about a compromise that ended with all parties agreeing on a constitution, followed by elections hailed around the world as being open and free.The role of the Islamist Ennahda party, and its leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, was also crucial. Ghannouchi, who is a renowned proponent of the compatibility of Islam and democracy, abdicated his leadership that he had won through elections to allow the national dialogue to take place and then agreed to a constitution with no mention of Islamic law and staunchly in favor of gender equality. This calmed fears of extremism and ushered in a secular democracy in which Islamist parties could participate.

Two years later from these events, despite economic crisis and several violent terrorist attacks, Tunisia’s democracy remains intact. The newly elected President Essebsi has raised concerns due to some constraining “emergency” measures he has taken to combat terrorism as well as his links with members of the former regime of Ben Ali. However, the country remains largely peaceful, and there has been no challenge to the holding of regular democratic elections. Tunisia has shown that willingness to engage in dialogue and balanced, tactful leadership can bring about a successful, largely non-violent transition to democracy in the Arab world. The key to success was this quartet group that was able to mediate between Islamists and secularists associated with the old order, and which has now been rewarded for their efforts with the Nobel Prize. The country’s success took place without any military aid from foreign countries, which has produced so few positive results in Iraq, Libya, and Syria. Perhaps Tunisia’s story shows that the best option for the West and other foreign powers in the Middle East could be to find, build and support coalitions such as the Tunisian quartet, which have some chance of bringing about national unity, rather than inherently divisive military action.

- Xan Northcott

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Xan Northcott

Xan is a sophomore in Liberal Studies, planning to major in Politics. He is from London and is enjoying having escaped to an exciting new city and culture. Politics is his leading interest, especially with crazy events happening in the US, the UK and all over the world right now. The Middle East is the area that he finds most engaging, and his most fervent belief is the protection of human rights around the world. He travels whenever he can, and this has led him to doing charity work in Spain, Sri Lanka and South Africa as well as England. He is an avid reader of history and all kinds of fiction, and he loves exploring all the strangest parts of New York City that he can find.

As the West stalls, Russia Delves Deeper Into the Syrian Conflict

Photo: Yahoo News

Photo: Yahoo News

This week saw tense confrontations between President Barack Obama and President Vladimir Putin as they came to discuss the conflict in Syria at the United Nations General Assembly in New York. Both made speeches loaded with subtle criticisms reminiscent of some of the worst episodes of the Cold War (see the speeches here and here. Indeed, it has become clear that the United States and Russia now take fundamentally different views on both the current status of the conflict and what action should be taken in the future. At present, attempts to address this issue have served only to deepen divisions rather than to bring about a unified approach.

The main point of contention is over the fate of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The war in Syria began in opposition to his regime, but he now stands in control of the only force preventing ISIS from taking control of even more extensive areas of Syria. Assad himself said this week that failure to defeat ISIS ‘will destroy the Middle East’. However, Obama is adamant that Assad remains a part of the problem, not the solution, and called Putin’s tactics in Syria ‘a recipe for disaster’. On the other hand, Putin said this week that it would be a huge mistake not to work with Assad  who, in his eyes, remains the leader of the ‘legitimate government’ of Syria and one of the few bulwarks against the spread of extremist terrorist groups. Putin also claimed that President Assad agrees with the possibility of ‘simultaneous political change’, meaning a gradual transition to democracy with Assad serving as the interim government. This approach is becoming increasingly hard to ignore, and David Cameron, Prime Minister of the U.K., this week conceded that at the very least ‘there would need to be some sort of transition’ for Assad to exit from power.

The fact is that there are very few options if Assad is to be entirely excluded from negotiations. The US stance of supporting the “moderate” Syrian rebels has unquestionably failed. Even back in August 2012 the US Defense Intelligence Agency released a statement saying that ‘Salafists (Islamic fundamentalists), the Muslim Brotherhood, and ISIS are the major forces driving the insurgency in Syria’.  All moderate factions have not only suffered resounding defeats but have also frequently had their Western-supplied arms stolen by more radical groups. It is estimated that at least  USD 650 million of US supplies has been acquired by ISIS, including weapons, cars and battle tanks. Therefore, if the Assad regime is toppled now, there is very little hope for any stability or end to the slaughter that has been ongoing in Syria for four and a half years now. The US, unwilling to do a U-turn on its policy and work with Assad or to send in ground forces, has been left to carry out ineffectual air strikes against terrorist groups with apparently no plan of what to do if these groups are defeated.

The stalling of US action has continued since Obama’s demand for the removal of chemical weapons from Assad’s arsenal two years ago, while Putin is now exerting a huge influence in the area. This week Russia admitted that, on top of providing large amounts of technological and financial support to the Assad government, they have conducted airstrikes against targets other than ISIS, suggesting a more obvious attempt to gain victory for Assad.  Furthermore, Putin has been trying to use Russia’s current position as President of the UN Security Council to bring countries together in support of combatting ISIS in a manner that works with Assad. Brazil and China have already hinted at support of this plan. It seems clear that if the West does not form new policy and take more significant action, it is possible that the Syrian conflict will unravel in a way that Putin desires, with Assad remaining in power and a victory for Russian diplomacy.

Overall, these issues leave the Syrian crisis in a state of great uncertainty. There is a distinct possibility that Assad will be able to continue his authoritarian rule at the end of the war, and no one seems to have an idea of what will happen if he does not. Most international rulers, like Obama, say they want the Syrian people to rule, but at present there is no visible way of how this might be put into practice. Meanwhile, as international powers bicker and stall, the death toll in Syria has surpassed 250,000 along with 4 million people made refugees.  Some political figures, like Donald Trump, think Putin’s intervention in Syria could be beneficial, but no one could disagree that he is going about his intervention in a somewhat reckless manner, leaving much uncertain. The West must soon develop some sort of stronger idea of how to intervene or the people of Syria are faced with domination by Putin and Assad on one side and humanitarian disaster on the other.

It is very difficult to suggest what path President Obama and other Western leaders should take, but at present they have disappointingly come up with no effective ideas at all, as inefficient airstrikes rage on. Pressure is mounting as Senator John McCain said on October 4th that Obama’s lack of policy amounts to ‘an abdication of leadership’ and spoke of an emerging ‘proxy war’ with Russia . Arguably Obama’s tactic of few commitments will do more for his popularity than any sort of stronger engagement, but, in the midst of this international fiasco, the tragic torment of the Syrian people is interminably prolonged. Unless something is done soon, with or without the help of Putin and Assad, the bloodbath status of the conflict is unlikely to change anytime in the near future.

- Xan Northcott

Comment

Xan Northcott

Xan is a sophomore in Liberal Studies, planning to major in Politics. He is from London and is enjoying having escaped to an exciting new city and culture. Politics is his leading interest, especially with crazy events happening in the US, the UK and all over the world right now. The Middle East is the area that he finds most engaging, and his most fervent belief is the protection of human rights around the world. He travels whenever he can, and this has led him to doing charity work in Spain, Sri Lanka and South Africa as well as England. He is an avid reader of history and all kinds of fiction, and he loves exploring all the strangest parts of New York City that he can find.