NAIROBI, Kenya — Throughout his time in Kenya, U.S. Ambassador Michael Ranneberger has been known for his expansive and delighted presence at any number of cultural events and festivals, especially those that featured dancing, and his fondness for vanilla lattes from the local Starbucks equivalent, Java House, just a stone’s throw from his office. However, he has also been known for his blunt assessment of the country’s government and political elites, particularly in the aftermath of the country’s 2007 post-election violence. Ranneberger’s departure from Nairobi has been expected for months. Now, the very Kenyan politicians Ranneberger has long targeted are […]

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I’ve only had a chance to scan some news surveys of the WikiLeaks diplomatic cables dump. And my first reaction was similar to watching a “making of” clip at the end of a movie: Everyone knows that diplomacy is a staged event that often requires the willing suspension of disbelief. That’s why we balance the official version offered by government spokespeople with off-the-record comments and tick-tock accounts describing what goes on behind the scenes. And the WikiLeaks diplomatic cables are a motherlode of behind-the-scenes accounts. To say that one version of the events is more important than the other, or […]

Last week, China and Russia announced they will no longer use the dollar to conduct their bilateral trade, but instead will use their domestic currencies, the yuan and ruble, to do so. Some doomsayers have depicted this move as yet another sign of the dollar’s imminent decline and claim it threatens the greenback’s status as the pre-eminent reserve currency. But a closer examination suggests the deal will have more of a symbolic impact than any tangible economic or geopolitical effects. Since 1992, self-imposed restrictions have been in place requiring that trade between China and Russia be conducted in dollars, a […]

On Oct. 17, Iranian border guards clashed with drug traffickers on the wild Iran-Afghan frontier and subsequently seized 331 lbs of narcotics contraband. The incident would be just one of many such skirmishes that take place every week, were it not for one difference: The seized drugs were not the usual suspects of Afghan opium and hashish, but rather synthetic drugs, highlighting alarming changes to the Southwest Asian narcotics industry. Synthetic drugs, such as potent crystal meth (called “shisheh,” or “glass” in Farsi), LSD and various forms of refined heroin (including a smokable, condensed-rock form referred to locally as “crack”) […]

The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, or CEDAW, is getting its third shot at ratification after lying dormant in U.S. Senate subcommittees for the past 30 years. With the Obama administration’s support and a Democratic majority in the Senate, the timing for what’s known as the Women’s Treaty could be right. But even in the best of circumstances, CEDAW will still be up against tough odds. “It’s well known world-wide there’s a tremendous amount of obstructionism going on in the U.S., and today, regrettably, this convention is not at the top of the list […]

On Nov. 18, for the first time since their October 2007 summit in Tehran, the leaders of the five Caspian Sea littoral states — Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia and Turkmenistan — gathered in Baku to discuss issues including maritime-border delimitation, security and environmental protection. Despite a dramatically changed regional situation since the last summit, the Baku meeting nevertheless produced little in terms of substantive outcomes. But recent trends point to future breakthroughs. What has changed since the Tehran summit? Washington and Moscow have achieved a warming in relations, with burgeoning bilateral cooperation on Iran and Afghanistan in particular. To avoid […]

NATO approved a new Strategic Concept in Lisbon on Nov. 19, the first reworking of the alliance’s mission statement since 1999. Although the document offers plenty of promises, the alliance seems to have overlooked a number of problems it faces in making good on them. First, the promises. The new Strategic Concept: – calls on the allies to develop their capacity to “prevent, detect, defend against and recover from cyber-attacks,” to protect “critical energy infrastructure” and to “maintain robust, mobile and deployable conventional forces to carry out . . . Article 5 responsibilities and the alliance’s expeditionary operations.”– reaffirms the […]

U.S. President Barack Obama made a splash in India by announcing that Washington will back New Delhi’s bid for a permanent seat on an expanded United Nations Security Council. It was a major policy shift that India has long clamored for and that the U.S. has long been reluctant to offer. As such, it warmed the hearts of Indian policymakers who have often viewed American support for the Security Council bid as a litmus test of the burgeoning U.S.-India partnership. But in backing India’s claim, Obama also raised some uncomfortable issues for Indian policymakers, making clear that Washington expects a […]

After more than 26 years of autocratic rule, a tumultuous and at times brutally violent post-coup era, and a fraught electoral period, the people of Guinea were entitled to some time to celebrate the fact that a civilian had finally been elected president. But in an indication of the deep-seated animosity, fears and mistrust that have led the bauxite-rich West African nation to the brink of disaster time and time again, the Nov. 15 announcement that veteran opposition leader Alpha Condé had won the second-round run-off election was accompanied by ethnic riots, mass arrests and killings at the hand of […]

BEIJING — The 16th Asian Games, now underway in Guangzhou, China, are the latest in a long line of massive, intensively promoted “mega-events” organized by the Chinese state to showcase national development and achievement. These mega-events have few proven grassroots benefits, however, and are no replacement for the substantive, fundamental reforms the Chinese government itself admits are necessary to modernize the country. Moreover, this obsession with mega-events may be damaging to long-term development, and ultimately risks widening the gulf between the experiences of ordinary Chinese and the flag-waving, mixed-market utopia portrayed in state propaganda. Since May 2008, eight distinct events […]

Human rights were glaringly absent from U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s agenda when she recently met with Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit ahead of Egypt’s Nov. 28 parliamentary elections. The silence is noteworthy, given Cairo’s suppression of the political opposition in advance of the elections as well as its overall dismal human rights record. The Obama administration fears that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak will respond to criticism by withdrawing both political support for the stumbling Israeli-Palestinian peace process and logistical support for U.S. military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. The administration is also concerned that criticism would boost […]

Many observers expected late-2010 to be the moment of truth for what the European Union calls its “Southern Corridor”: a gas-transit route to Southern and Southeastern Europe regarded as a political priority by the EU and some Central and Eastern European countries, eager to reduce their dependence on Russian gas in their energy-supply mix. Since at least 2007, there has been fierce competition between two rival pipeline projects seeking to transport gas supplies from the Caspian basin and grab market shares in these profitable downstream outlets: Nabucco, backed by the EU and the United States; and South Stream, a joint […]

President Barack Obama’s itinerary this month — first to Asia, then to Europe — will follow a path that recalls the setting of the sun. For some people, that image is a metaphor for American power, itself seen as waning. The theme of American decline is a familiar one, of course. It resurfaces more or less with every election, and with every poll that asks whether the country is “headed in the right direction.” However, the evocation of direction suggests a more apt image for Obama’s journey: the two-headed eagle. It was once a common feature of imperial heraldry — […]

JUBA, Sudan — Almost a month ago, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), Southern Sudan’s ruling party, convened all of the South’s registered political parties for a conference designed to promote Southern unity ahead of the region’s looming self-determination vote, scheduled for Jan. 9. The vast majority of Southern Sudanese favor secession, and politicians as well as everyday citizens seem to agree on the need for consensus during the South’s “Final Walk to Freedom,” as a billboard in the Southern capital of Juba calls the countdown to the referendum. However, despite the conference’s goal, persistent rifts among the South’s political […]

President Barack Obama won fans in New Delhi last week with his call for India to take a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council. But while the president explicitly endorsed India as an “emerged” power, his declaration contained an implicit challenge as well. Obama said that he wanted the U.S. to work with India on an “efficient, effective, credible and legitimate” U.N. Though phrased as diplomatic rhetoric, these words raised important questions that India’s leaders must answer. Can India capture a permanent seat on the Security Council simply because of its growing economic leverage and military clout? Or should […]

Heading into the G-20 summit in Seoul last week, tensions were visibly high between the U.S. and China, the world’s top-two economies. Washington’s demands that China allow its currency, the yuan, to appreciate were met with criticisms from Beijing about the Fed’s inflationary monetary policy. At the heart of the argument lay global current account imbalances, largely a consequence of the sizeable U.S. trade deficit with China. By the close of the summit, the U.S. delegation succeeded in getting the Chinese to acknowledge that these imbalances were problematic for the global economy, but failed in getting them to do anything […]

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There are no dramatic developments here, but it is another data point — similar to something I flagged earlier — in the EU’s ability to toughen up its soft power approach in order to more strategically defend its interests: Europe’s top trade official has signaled his intention to create a new retaliatory trade tool, amid ongoing complaints from European businesses that they are being excluded from Chinese public contracts. I think of the EU’s strategic potential in the same terms as YouTube and Twitter’s revenue potential: tons of upside if they only figure out how to “monetize” the connectivity they […]

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