How It Works

Nov. 26 2014 9:15 AM

If It Happened There … America’s Annual Festival Pilgrimage Begins


This is the fourth installment of a continuing series in which American events are described using the tropes and tone normally employed by the American media to describe events in other countries.




WASHINGTON, D.C., United States—On Wednesday morning, this normally bustling capital city became a ghost town as most of its residents embarked on the long journey to their home villages for an annual festival of family, food, and questionable historical facts. Experts say the day is vital for understanding American society and economists are increasingly taking note of its impact on the world economy.



The annual holiday, known as Thanksgiving, celebrates a mythologized moment of peace between America’s early foreign settlers and its native groups—a day that by Americans' own admission preceded a near genocide of those groups. Despite its murky origins, the holiday remains a rare institution celebrated almost universally in this ethnically diverse society.


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Nov. 25 2014 4:57 PM

What Will the U.S. and Israel Do Once Every Other Country Recognizes Palestine?

The European Parliament today postponed a vote on whether to recognize a Palestinian state, but the vote will likely come in mid-December. The Jerusalem Post reports that Israeli officials say such a move would be purely symbolic and not reflective of public opinion, though Israeli diplomats also lobbied hard for the postponement.

The move comes after Sweden formally recognized Palestine in October, becoming just the second Western European country after Iceland to do so. All that official recognition means, really, is that it’s the official position of the Swedish government that Palestine is a country. But in a situation this politically fraught, that means a lot. “The purpose of Sweden's recognition is to contribute to a future in which Israel and Palestine can live side by side in peace and security,” Sweden’s minister for foreign affairs explained in a press release that also touts “a five-year aid strategy including substantially increased support to Palestinian state-building.” U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, for his part, said on Monday that these unilateral recognitions are a sign of “a collective [international] failure” to make progress in the peace talks.


Elsewhere in Europe, the parliaments of Britain, Ireland, and Spain have all passed resolutions urging their governments to recognize a Palestinian state, and France will vote on a similar resolution next week, though there’s a bit more opposition there. These are non-binding measures that urge recognition as part of a negotiated settlement, and unlike Sweden’s move, don’t actually change government policy. They are nonetheless seen as the first step toward full recognition, and were strongly opposed by the Israeli government.

Europe is behind the curve here. The bulk of U.N. member states—135 out of 192—already recognize Palestine, including the majority of countries in Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America. These things have a way of gathering momentum. Most of the countries in South America flipped positions to recognize Palestine in rapid succession in 2011. For now, the European votes, with the exception of Sweden, have all been non-binding parliamentary measures, but if a large European power decides to recognize, the others could follow suit quickly.

The Palestinian Authority has actively courted recognition from these governments, but how much does it really matter? As long as the U.S. has a veto on the Security Council, Palestine isn’t getting full U.N. membership, the gold standard of international statehood. The Palestinian Authority announced yesterday that it was delaying its planned U.N. bid due in part to U.S. pressure.

But recognition is still important. It matters with regards to legitimacy that, for instance, Kosovo—not likely to become a U.N. member thanks to Russia’s veto—boasts recognition from 110 countries while Abkhazia is bragging about its relations with Nauru. (Pacific Islands are the very buyable swing voters of international recognition disputes. See China and Taiwan’s completely ridiculous wooing of Vanuatu for just one example.)

The risk here, for the United States and Israel, is the Cuban-ization of Palestinian statehood. Every year for the past 23 years, the U.N. General Assembly has voted to condemn the U.S. embargo on Cuba, and every time the U.S. has looked increasingly isolated and ridiculous. This year, only Israel voted with the U.S. against the condemnation, with Palau, the Marshall Islands, and Micronesia abstaining. (Those islands again.)

The majority of countries worldwide might recognize Palestine, but non-recognition is still the mainstream position among rich Western countries. As the Cuba example shows, the U.S. is more than willing to stick to an unpopular position even if it’s opposed by virtually every other government on earth. But Israel doesn’t want to get to the point where it’s standing alongside the U.S., Micronesia, and no one else.

Nov. 25 2014 11:17 AM

China on Ferguson: Hey, Nobody’s Perfect

As they have since the beginning of the crisis, countries that frequently find themselves on the receiving end of criticism from the U.S. government over their treatment of protesters and ethnic minorities are taking the opportunity to put in their 2 cents on Ferguson.

As the Wall Street Journal’s Charles Hutzler notes, China’s ministry of foreign affairs almost never comments on the internal politics of other countries, but spokeswoman Hua Chunying made and exception when asked about Ferguson by an American reporter:

“The case you mention is a U.S. internal affair. As the spokesperson of the Foreign Ministry I will make no comment on that,” she told reporters. Then, she went further.
“But I would like to say that there’s no such thing as perfection when it comes to human rights regardless of whatever country you’re in,” said Ms. Hua. “We have to improve the record of human rights and promote the cause of human rights. We can learn from each other in this area.”

BuzzFeed’s Max Seddon rounds up some reactions from Russian state media to the latest events from the “Afromaidan,” a reference to the “Euromaidan” protests that led to the overthrow Ukraine’s pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, earlier this year. Seddon notes that coverage of Ferguson led every news broadcast on Tuesday, and that RT, the Kremlin’s English-language propaganda network, reported live from the scene. Sergei Naryshkin, chairman of the State Duma, said the United States had brought the events on itself by “plunging the world into the chaos of its one-sided diktat.” The pro-Kremlin website Lenta.Ru, with the Russian media’s characteristic racial sensitivity, describes the unrest in Missouri as a “colored” revolution, a reference to the “color” revolutions that broke out in several post-communist countries in the early 2000s and have been a consistent object of derision from the Russian government.

Iran’s Press TV has been devoting heavy coverage to Ferguson as well. So far, though, the country’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamanei—who has used the Ferguson Twitter hashtag to blast the U.S. for its hypocrisy on human rights—hasn’t weighed in yet. 

Nov. 24 2014 3:13 PM

The Chinese Government’s Salt Monopoly Has Lasted for 2,600 Years. It’s About to End.

The Chinese government’s complete control over the sale of table salt, a policy that predates Confucius and the Great Wall, will soon be coming to an end. The salt monopoly began during in the Qi state on the Shandong peninsula around the seventh century BC and may have been the first ever state-controlled monopoly. During the third century BC, the Chinese imperial state sold salt at a markup, effectively levying a tax used to pay troops and, perhaps, the early stages of the Great Wall of China.

Several centuries, dynasties, and revolutions later, the world’s oldest monopoly is still in place. Under the policy’s current incarnation, the China National Salt Industry Corp. designates who is authorized to produce salt and is the only entity allowed to sell it to consumers. These consumers often pay three to four times more than what the CNSIC does. The new plan will liberalize the industry and scrap price controls starting in 2016.


Despite the steep markup, Chinese consumers have generally opposed breaking up the monopoly, fearing it could lead to more food scandals, a problem that has plagued the country repeatedly in recent years. The worst of these, an incident in 2008 involving tainted milk powder, led to hundreds of thousands of babies being sickened. On the other hand, the salt monopoly has also contributed to a vast black-market trade, so it may be a bit of a wash as far as food safety goes.

China is the world’s largest salt consumer, accounting for about of a quarter of global demand thanks both to its population of 1.4 billion and its growing chemical industry.

Thanks to growing demand and the ongoing liberalization of the Chinese economy, it seemed inevitable that the salt monopoly would bite the dust sooner or later. But old habits die hard, and this habit was older than most.

Nov. 24 2014 2:40 PM

How Long Will the Iran Window Stay Open?

With Monday’s news that negotiators have agreed to extend talks over Iran’s nuclear program for seven more months, expect everyone to feel that their positions have been vindicated. Yes, there was no deal in place by Monday’s deadline, but supporters of an agreement will say that progress is progress, jaw-jaw is always better than war-war, and continued negotiations, however frustrating, are worth it if there’s even a sliver of a chance of a deal. Or there’s the reaction of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who said he approved of the extension since “the deal that Iran was pushing for was terrible.”

Meanwhile, conservative critics in both Washington and Tehran will see this as a sign that the other side was never serious about compromising, and will decry the negotiators for failing to reach an agreement that they would probably have opposed anyway.


The sides still seem far apart on the number of centrifuges Iran will be allowed to maintain, when sanctions will end, and how long and intrusive international inspections will be. Even so, it counts as progress that all parties, including Israel, find the current status quo better than the state of affairs before last November, when an interim accord was reached and this negotiating process began. It hasn’t been that long since airstrikes on Iran seemed like a real and imminent possibility.

In the meantime, the economic pressure on Iran will continue to grow, while the country’s nuclear program—at least, as far as we know—remains frozen. (An IAEA report issued Monday found that Iran is in compliance with the interim agreement reached last year.)

On the other hand, the window for a real agreement won’t stay open forever and the longer the talks last, the more opportunities their opponents will have to derail them. Obama’s ability to promise Iran sanctions relief without the support of Congress was slightly dubious even before Republicans retook the Senate. Earlier this month, Sens. Lindsey Graham and Bob Corker tried unsuccessfully to force a vote on a bill that would impose new sanctions on Iran if an agreement wasn’t reached by today. More such measures from Congress can be expected next year, and it’s going to be tough for the White House to continue deflecting them without demonstrable progress from the talks.

Over in Iran, President Hassan Rouhani and his foreign minister, Javad Zarif, have already been under pressure from hard-liners who charge them with trying to sell out the country’s interests for sanctions relief. It’s also still an open question whether Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei would approve a final deal.

Rouhani came into office promising to bolster the country’s economy by improving relations with the West. Despite last year’s agreement, he has little to show for that promise. In 2016, elections will be held for both the country’s parliament and the assembly of experts that will choose the 78-year-old Supreme Leader’s successor. It seems likely that both contests will bring more conservative hard-liners into power, which could limit Rouhani’s room to maneuver even before they take place. 

It’s a good thing, then, that the clock continues to tick on negotiations, but it’s not going to continue forever. And things could get very scary very quickly when time finally does run out.

Nov. 21 2014 4:55 PM

Can Obama Get a Climate Commitment Out of India?

The White House announced Friday that President Obama will visit India in January to serve as “chief guest” at the country’s Republic Day celebrations. A foreign head of state is typically invited to the celebration, and as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi pointed out in a chummy tweet, he’ll be the first U.S. president ever to receive the honor. The visit will also make Obama the first U.S. president ever to visit India twice while in office. Remarkably, there have been only six U.S. presidential visits to the country ever.

Relations between the two countries were at a nadir at the end of last year, when India was vowing retaliation for the arrest of an Indian diplomat in New York. Things have improved since Modi took office in May, which is pretty ironic given that he was barred from even entering the United States until this year. Earlier this month, the two countries reached a deal a major deal on trade and food subsidies.


That news was understandably overshadowed by the U.S.-China climate pact but capped off Obama’s surprisingly productive Asia trip. This India visit is also worth watching on the climate front, coming at the beginning of a year when a new U.N. climate treaty is due to be negotiated. The U.S.-China deal has now put the spotlight on India, the world’s third-largest carbon emitter.

Obama and Modi agreed to “consult and cooperate closely” on climate change during the Indian premier’s visit to Washington last month, which is pretty vague but still an improvement after years of clashes between the two governments on the issue.

It’s extremely unlikely that India will agree to the kind of emissions cap China signed on to during Obama’s visit. It lags well behind China on both emissions per capita and level of economic development. As just one example, 99.8 percent of Chinese people have access to electricity, versus just 70 percent for India, and the government has made electrification a major priority. Indian officials have said flat out that they expect the country’s emissions to continue increasing.

But there’s still room for cooperation, perhaps on renewable energy investment, where Modi’s government has been making some major commitments. India, along with China, has also signaled that it will drop its opposition to expanding an exiting treaty to cut the use of hydrofluorocarbons, chemicals used in refrigeration that are even more potent in their greenhouse impact than carbon dioxide.

It would be a shock to see anything as major as the U.S.-China deal announced, but it will still be interesting to see if these two leaders can take advantage of the current era of good feelings to make some progress.

Nov. 21 2014 3:40 PM

Can Putin Turn the ISIS Mess to Russia’s Advantage?

Sputnik News, the slick new-media rebranding of the venerable Russian news wire RIA-Novosti, reports that Russia has called on the U.N. Security Council to ban purchases of oil from terrorist-controlled regions, including the territory held by ISIS. This isn’t a surprising position, but it does draw some attention to Russia’s interesting outsider role in the international anti-ISIS effort.

While the U.S. and Russia have pledged to share intelligence on the group, Russia—one of the main international backers of Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian government—is not a member of the U.S.-led “broad coalition” against ISIS announced last month. As one Russian foreign ministry official recently put it, “We do not expect any invitations and we are not going to buy entry tickets.”


Russia has taken the position that airstrikes against ISIS in Syria ought to have been debated in the U.N. Security Council, where Moscow enjoys veto power. Russia has also relished the opportunity to say I told you so, with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov arguing that ISIS is made up of the same rebels that the U.S. and other Western countries were supporting against Assad. Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev also made much of his umbrage at President Obama’s speech to the U.N. General Assembly in September, which listed Russian aggression in Ukraine (along with ISIS and the Ebola virus) as major international threats. Discussing the diplomatic puzzle presented by Syria, a senior U.S. administration official recently told CNN, “The Russians are not our friend here.” 

So there’s little reason to think Russia will formally join the U.S.-led coalition. But there are some ways that this all could work to Moscow’s advantage.

For one thing, the fight against ISIS could provide a pretext for why countries in Russia’s backyard need its “protection.” Edward Lemon writes at EurasiaNet that Russian officials seem to be playing up the potential threat that Central Asian ISIS fighters could pose to their home countries. Estimates vary wildly, but there are almost certainly dozens to hundreds of fighters from Central Asian countries as well as Russia fighting with ISIS in Syria. Russia has military assets in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, but would like to expand that presence. As Lemon writes, “Russian officials have often stressed that the threat to Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, which do not host Russian troops, is particularly acute.” These governments have, for years, been fighting the al-Qaida-linked militant group Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.

(Ironically, some of the Central Asians fighting in Syria appear to have been radicalized in Russia rather than on the battlefield. Olim Yusuf, a Tajik ISIS member captured in September, says he was recruited while working on a building site in Russia. Many Central Asians travel to Russia for low-wage work, and often face discrimination and xenophobia.)

It also seems conceivable that Syria could once again provide the venue for a Russian diplomatic victory. (Remember when a John Kerry gaffe and a last-minute intervention from Russia led to a deal to remove Assad’s chemical weapons and forestall U.S. airstrikes? I know, that seems like four wars ago.) It seems sadly inevitable that the U.S. will eventually come to terms with Assad remaining in power and go back to trying to push for a peace deal in Syria among the various anti-ISIS forces in the country. If that happens, U.S. diplomats may, much to their chagrin, need to call on Russia to help get Assad on board.

And generally speaking, a leader like Putin who tends to see great-power competition in zero-sum terms, presumably appreciates the fact that U.S. attention and resources continue to be tied down in the Middle East.

Nov. 20 2014 4:57 PM

Are We on the Verge of a Polio-Free Africa?

With all of the news about Ebola’s rapid, dispiriting spread through West Africa, you may have missed an encouraging public health development: The continent appears tantalizingly close to fully eradicating polio, once one of the world’s most feared and destructive diseases.

A U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention progress report on Nigeria released Thursday notes that just six cases of wild poliovirus have been diagnosed in the country this year, compared with 49 during the same period last year. Nigeria is considered particularly critical since, as the report notes, the country’s northern region has served as “a reservoir for WPV reintroduction into 26 previously polio-free countries.” Nigeria now hasn’t seen a case of polio since July and the African region as a whole hasn’t seen one since a case in Somalia in August.


The good news follows some other positive developments, including reports that two of the three strains of wild poliovirus have likely been eradicated and India being declared officially polio-free by the WHO. This is all welcome news given the concerns earlier this year that the disease was making a global comeback, including in several countries in Africa. Cameroon, for instance, saw a re-emergence of polio due in part to fears of vaccines and the disruption to the country’s health infrastructure caused by refugees fleeing conflict in the Central African Republic.

The most dramatic progress has come in Somalia, which saw 183 cases of polio last year and just six so far this year. This is likely due to a ramped-up vaccination effort in the country in 2014, and the weakening of the militant group al-Shabab, which was violently opposed to vaccination campaigns.

We’re not quite out of the woods yet. It takes three years without a new case for the WHO to declare a country or region polio-free, and armed conflict in places like northern Nigeria and Somalia could continue to disrupt vaccination efforts. Nigeria’s Boko Haram has gunned down polio workers in the past.

The Ebola virus has also strained health resources and made vaccination against other diseases, including polio, far more complicated in the countries where it’s raging. On the bright side, the CDC report notes that the staff and infrastructure set up to address polio in Nigeria were critical in helping the country organize its successful Ebola response.

Now, with only the African and eastern Mediterranean regions (the latter of which includes the Middle East and Western Asia) waiting to be declared polio-free, we do seem to be inching closer to wiping the disease off the planet. That would make it only the second human disease, after smallpox, to be eliminated through vaccination.*

If the trends in Africa continue, it seems likely that polio will make its last stand in either Pakistan and Afghanistan, where the Taliban have waged a campaign of terror against health workers, or in Syria and Iraq, where the civil war is helping the disease make a comeback.

*Correction, Nov. 20, 2014: This post originally misstated that polio could be the second disease eradicated through vaccination. It could be the second human disease. Rinderpest, a viral infection affecting cattle, was formally declared eradicated in 2011. 

Nov. 20 2014 12:36 PM

Listen to the Ebola Charity Single That Isn’t Condescending Schlock

My colleague Aisha Harris does a great job explaining why Band Aid 30’s star-studded, Ebola-themed update of the 30-year-old charity single “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” is as cringe-inducing as its predecessors. Its lyrics are both condescending—perpetuating an image of Africa as an undifferentiated mass of suffering where there is “no peace and joy”—and borderline nonsensical: Liberia is predominantly Christian, as is Ethiopia, the subject of the original 1984 version of the song, so people there are presumably aware that it is Christmas. Guinea and Sierra Leone are predominantly Muslim, so the majority of people there probably don’t care.

This year’s video, which features footage of a dying woman before transitioning to pop stars like Bono, Ed Sheeran, and One Direction dodging paparazzi on their way to the studio, has also been criticized as exploitative.


On the other hand, it’s hard to argue with success. Band Aid 30 is currently sitting at No. 10 on iTunes and has already raised millions of dollars for Ebola-related charities. As organizer Bob Geldof put it, “I don’t care if you like it, just buy it.”

Of course, there’s a way to support the fight against Ebola without endorsing Geldof’s schlock. Just give money directly to one of any number of organizations doing difficult work on the ground in West Africa. But if you absolutely must have a musical accompaniment for your charitable donation, let me suggest the single “Africa Stop Ebola,” released last month by an organization of the same name.

Aside from being more pleasing to the ear, it’s a very different beast from “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” The artists are all West African, including the superstar Malian duo Amadou & Mariam, Malian chanteuse Oumou Sangare, and Ivorian reggae star Tiken Jah Fakoly. Only one African artist, Benin’s Angelique Kidjo, participated in Band Aid 30. The British-Ghanaian Afrobeat star Fuse ODG explained in the Guardian Wednesday why he turned down Geldof’s invitation to participate after being “shocked and appalled” by the lyrics.

Unlike Band Aid’s platitudes, the lyrics, in French and several West African languages, are practical and aimed at people in the countries affected. Fakoly’s verse, for instance, tells listeners to trust doctors to help them if they feel sick. It’s one of a number of pop songs by local artists giving advice about the disease in recent months.

“Africa Stop Ebola” is available on iTunes, and all proceeds go to Medecins Sans Frontieres. No Bono involved. 

Nov. 19 2014 4:25 PM

Kuwait’s Novel Solution for Undocumented Residents: Buy Them Citizenship in Some Other Country

Later this week, President Obama will announce an executive action meant to provide legal protections for up to 5 million undocumented migrants now living in the United States. Of course, the United States isn’t the only country with a large population of undocumented immigrants. Kuwait also announced a major new initiative this week, one that deals with the problem very differently.

More than 100,000 people in Kuwait belong to a group known as the “Bidun.” The Bidun are mainly descended from nomadic Bedouin tribes who, for various reasons, failed to complete the application procedures for citizenship after Kuwait became an independent nation in 1961. Today, they are formally stateless.


Though many have lived in the country their entire lives, they are considered illegal migrants by the Kuwaiti government and have been repeatedly rebuffed in their subsequent requests for citizenship. As noncitizens, they are barred from holding most jobs in Kuwait and are denied access to health care and education, as well as many legal protections.

This month, however, the Kuwaiti interior ministry announced that the Bidun would soon be eligible for citizenship … but not in Kuwait. Rather, the government plans to bulk purchase “economic citizenship” for the Bidun from the East African island nation of Comoros, hundreds of miles away. Comoros, a member of the Arab League, has already provided passports to some stateless residents of the United Arab Emirates under a similar scheme. Before the program gets up and running, Comoros has to establish an embassy in Kuwait.

The Bidun wouldn’t actually live on the tiny islands, which have a population of just 800,000. Comoros is one of a growing number of countries that sell citizenship to foreigners in legally precarious situations, though this would be on an unprecedented scale. Kuwait argues that Comoran citizenship would formalize the status of the Bidun, allowing them access to jobs and social services.

This is probably legal under international law, but, as Al Jazeera reports, human rights groups are not impressed. The scheme stops short of the full Kuwaiti citizenship that the Bidun have been demanding and, they argue, would effectively formalize their status as second-class citizens.

In reality, citizenship could indeed make the Bidun less secure. Countries are prohibited by U.N. convention from expelling stateless people, of whom there are an estimated 10 million around the world. But the treaty doesn’t cover citizens of other countries.

Legal niceties inside, the Bidun aren’t thrilled with the notion that their country is trying to make them citizens of someplace else. As one Bidun activist put it on Twitter, “I went to bed West Asian, & woke up east african. These are the miracles of arab regimes.”