Friday, April 25, 2008

The Fourth Crusade, Vladimir Putin and George W. Bush

I've been reading Queller and Madden's masterful and scholarly work on the most important event in European history between the collapse of the Western Roman Empire and the present - the sack of Constantinople in April of 1204 by the noble knights of the infamous Fourth Crusade. This work traces the improbable series of events that led the Crusaders away from their original intention to reclaim the Holy Land from the Muslim infidels and instead, destroy the greatest city in Christendom and worthy successor to Rome. The orgy of rape, murder and plunder that took place in Constantinople from April 13th to 15th of 1204 resulted not only in the destruction of a millenium of priceless cultural treasures but very likely changed the course of history in a way that deeply affects the world we live in today. Although the Latin West and its cultural descendants are largely ignorant both of the event itself and of its long term historical impacts, this event remains a critical part of history and culture in the Orthodox East.

To understand the long term effects of the sack of Constantinople, one first needs to look at a map showing the extent of the Eastern Roman Empire around the time of the sack of Constantinople:

This is a map of southeastern Europe centered on the Eastern Roman Empire c. 1180 or about a quarter century before the sack of Constantinople. The above map is found in Freeman's Historical Geography, edited by J.B. Bury, Longmans Green and Co. Third Edition 1903. You may find it here on the web. I have color enhanced the areas occupied by the Eastern Roman Empire and by the Turks in the map for better readability. Note that the Eastern Empire occupied much of what is now western Turkey as well as a large territory in southeastern Europe. It was a major player on the global stage at this time.

After the sack of Constantinople, the Empire was divided into a number of pieces with the Latin's in control of the largest portion of the former Empire. Although the Latin's were driven out of Constantinople in 1261 and the Empire restored to Greek control, the city and the Empire never recovered from the sack and Latin control. The defenses of the weakened Empire began to give way to the onslaught of the Turks later in the 13th century and the Turkish advance gathered momentum in the 14th century. The Turks gained their first toehold in continential Europe in the mid-14th century and made their way deep into Europe during the second half of the 14th century. The famous Battle of Kosovo in 1389 was just one of many battles between various Orthodox forces and the Turks during this time. Support from the Latin West for their Orthodox Christian counterparts during the Turkish advance was halfhearted at best and predicated on Orthodox religious subjugation to the Roman Catholic pope in Rome. The 15th century saw the final defeat of the Eastern Empire; by 1500 the Ottoman Turks controlled virtually all of Orthodox southeastern Europe including the Greek peninsula, Bulgaria, Albania, Serbia, and Bosnia. Although the Ottoman's would advance as far as the gates of Vienna during the 17th century, Orthodox Christians felt the brunt of the Muslim advance. The Turks remained in control of the bulk of formerly Orthodox territory until the 19th century; during the nearly half millenium of Ottoman control a significant share of the population in many of these places became Muslim either through immigration from Muslim lands or through conversion to Islam. Thus were the seeds of modern conflict planted in the Balkans during this period.

It is difficult to imagine that the Turks would have advanced so far and with such lasting effect had the sack of Constantinople not taken place. It is also difficult to imagine that the Western and Eastern halves of Christianity would have been pulled so irrepairably apart had it not been for the sack.

But of course, the culture of the Eastern Empire did not disappear with the destruction of Constantinople by the Latin West and the subjugation of much of Orthodox Christianity by the Muslim Turks. Russia, converted to Christianity by the Greeks and from whom they received their written language, deeply absorbed the culture of the jeweled city of the Bosporus. Within decades of the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453 and as a result of Islam's advance to much of the Orthodox world, Russia took on the mantle of Orthodox civilization and the Orthodox world in turn looked to the Russia for its inspiration.

With this historical and cultural context in mind, one can understand, for example, Russia's support for the Serbs in the latter's determination to retain the province of Kosovo as part of Serbian territory. In fact, given this historical context, it is difficult to understand how the West can be so naive to believe that separating Kosovo from Serbia could in any way be accepted by Russia. This is not to condone the actions of nationalistic Serbs in what was an unmistakable campaign of genocide against the Albanian Muslim majority in Kosovo in the 1990's but ignoring the historical and cultural events that created the situation in Kosovo as it currently stands, as the West does, shows both an ignorance and insensitivity on the part of the West towards the East. Given Russia's resurgence during the past decade, such ignorance and insensitivity has a dangerous potential.

The above historical and cultural context also makes clear the monumential stupidity and ignorance of history demonstrated by U.S. President George W. Bush in his recent attempt to bring two Eastern Orthodox nations, Ukraine and Romania, under the umbrella of NATO. That the European members of NATO were at least intelligent enough to table such a ridiculous proposal suggests at least a modicum of historical understanding and cultural sensitivity by the West in this regard. The world became the slightest bit safer as a result of their refusal to consider Romania and Ukraine's membership into NATO.

Post Script - A recent article in the New York Times discussing discrimination by the Russian Government against the efforts of Protestant churches to expand their numbers in Russia, highlights the Western ignorance of Orthodox history. The article focuses on the difficulties Protestants face in attempting to operate in post-Soviet Russia. While the concerns and feelings of Protestants facing such discrimination should not be ignored, this lengthy article touched on the historical and cultural importance of the Orthodox religion to Russia in only the briefest and superficial terms. Such is how cultural misunderstanding is perpetuated.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Tamino's Bet Month Three

As I have noted previously, Tamino has made a "bet" that global temperatures would continue to increase between now and 2015 in line with the 1975 to 2007 trend. The conditions of the bet for the year 2008 are as follows:

1. If the average global temperature anomaly, as measured by NASA GISS, equals or exceeds .7350 degrees Celsius, the "still-warming" side will receive one point.
2. If the average global temperature anomaly, as measured by NASA GISS, is less than or equal to .4035 degrees Celsius, the "not-warming" side will receive one point.
3. If the average global temperature anomaly, as measured by NASA GISS, falls between these two figures, both sides will receive zero points in 2008.

The March figures reveal a dramatic increase in the global temperature anomaly from the previous month. The NASA GISS figures for March showed a global anomaly of .67 degrees for March, an increase of .41 degrees Celsius between February and March. The figure for March raises the average NASA GISS global temperature anomaly thus far for 2008 to .35 degrees Celsius. In order for the "not-warming" side to win a point in 2008, the average anomaly for the reminder of the year would need to be below .4213 degrees. As I noted last month, since the average anomaly for a 9-month period has exceeded this figure for every month since September 2001, it would still seem unlikely that the "not-warming" side will win the point in 2008.

I also want to note that the month-to-month increase in the NASA GISS anomaly represented the 3rd greatest month-to-month increase in the 128-year time series. Since I have noted that the recent declines in temperature were unprecedented, it is only fair to note that the February to March increase was nearly equally dramatic. While some unreferenced but readily available off-the-wall commentary among some climate "skeptics" has suggested that this increase represents some kind of conspiracy, I personally think this increase does reflect that some level of human-induced warming is in fact present. However, I also believe that a significant proportion of the increase in global temperatures between 1975 and 2006 was due to natural causes and that we are likely to see short to mid-term reductions in global temperatures regardless of the background effect of human-induced warming as a result of a reversal in this trend.

I believe we are therefore at a turning point of some kind in the debate between the "still warming" and "not warming" camps. Should global tempertures return to levels seen before the recent "La Nina" episode and resume their upward climb, it would not be unreasonable to suppose that the "still warming" camp may be correct. However, should global temperatures stabilize at some lower level than what was seen before the recent "La Nina" episode, then the issue may very well be in the balance. The results from the upcoming 12 to 24 months may well represent some kind of turning point in this debate.

Biofuels, Food Prices and the Cost of "Fighting" Global Warming

The Stern Report argued that the cost of "fighting" global warming is low compared with the long term effect of rising temperatures while the most recent IPCC report argued that the cost of "inaction" on global warming was high. It is also suggested that tens, if not hundreds of millions of people may in time be negatively affected by inaction on the threat of global warming and that the world's poor are likely to be the one's most affected. Unfortunately, the immediate impact of converting food for fuel on global food prices, supposively to "fight" global warming, is in the short run threatening the well being of likely hundreds of millions of people, particularly the poor. As the Economist noted in a recent article, a dramatic increase in the use of corn for ethanol in the United States is likely responsible for the dramatic increase in the price of food across a number of food staples in the past year.

The increase in food prices has a disproportionate effect on the world's poor since the poor spend a higher percentage of their income on food. The steady decline in global food prices (more than 50% in real terms between 1960 and 2005) meant that the well-being of the world's poor increased significantly over that period. Unfortunately, the increase in global food prices since 2005 as a direct effect of the American biofuels program has wiped out more than half of the real decrease in global food prices since 1960. The effect of rapidly rising food prices has caused food riots in a number of poor countries around the world. Unfortunately, governments in a number of countries have responded by restricting food exports. While restricting food exports may have a modest effect on lowering food prices in such countries in the short term, the mid-term effect will perversely be to reduce incentives for farmers to increase food production thus resulting in higher prices for food than what otherwise would have been the case. The case of Ukranian farmers destroying $100 million worth of food earlier this year because they were prohibited from exporting their production is a very visible case in point of such policies.

We thus have a clear and early acid test of the eventual cost of "fighting" global warming. The "low" cost of "fighting" global warming has upfront been revealed to have a very high cost indeed, with this cost disproportionately being borne by the world's poorest people. Of course, environmentalists argue that the "right" policies can ease the transfer from fossil-based fuels to more green sources of energy. While it is impossible to argue against the good intentions of such people, in reality policy initiatives produce winners and losers and the winners are the ones better organized to shape the policy in the first place. As more policy is developed to "fight" global warming, the benefits of this policy will accrue to the well off and the costs will be apportioned to the world's poor.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Mugabe's Quiet Exit . . .

. . . does not appear to be in the cards. Robert Mugabe clearly miscalculated the extent to which his own people have had enough of his misrule but he nonetheless looks determined to stay on at any and all costs. As of this writing Mugabe's Zanu-PF party have announced their willingness to have Mugabe participate in a presidential election runoff and the ruling party have decided to challenge the results from 16 constituencies. Since the Zanu-PF party would retain a majority in the Zimbabwean parliament should the results from seven constituencies be overturned, even intellectuals will be able to clearly understand that Mugabe's plan is to remain in power through fraud, fear and intimidation.

As this writer clearly recalls, Mugabe came to power 28 years ago as the "liberator" of black Zimbabweans from the brutal repression of the illegal, white, racist and brutal colonialist regime. That Ian Smith's regime was white, racist as well as brutal (to an extent) is undeniable. It is also a fact that the Zimbabwean economy flourished between 1980 and 1997 after the lifting of western economic sanctions. However, the past decade have seen an economic decline that has been astonishing in its rapidity and completeness. Two statistics stand out most clearly. In 1997 about 10 Zimbabwean dollars were needed to buy a single U.S. dollar. It was reported last Friday that 50,000,000 Zimbabwe dollars are now needed to buy one U.S. dollar, a relative decline of 99.99998%. Life expectancy in 1997 was about 60 years; it is now only about 35 years (and may even be less). While the ravages of AIDS have taken its toll, the lion's share of this human tragedy can be laid at the feet of Robert Mugabe's economic mismangement. No modern neocolonialist oppressor could ever be so incompetent.

Since volumes have been written about this mismanagement elsewhere, I have little to add on this subject. Rather, I would like to focus my remarks on what the disaster of Robert Mugabe means for Africa and the world in the 21st century. It is now clear, even to intellectuals, that Robert Mugabe never intended for average citizens of his country to benefit from the "liberation" of Zimbabwe. Instead, Mugabe's purpose was to expropriate the wealth of his country for the benefit of he and his cronies in order to maintain himself in power for as long as possible. In a world of limitless, inexpensive resources, such actions in limited, isolated locations can be overlooked and ignored by most of the rest of humanity. However, the growth of the world's economy in the early 21st century has caused demand for commodities to grow faster than their global supply. In such an environment, a resource-rich but economically and socially mismanaged Africa will not be ignored by the rest of the world.

Under the current management style of depressingly too many African countries, a ruling elite expropriate as much of their country's wealth as possible and distribute as little as they have to in order to remain in power. Not only does this result in brutal, repressive regimes, it also produces economically and militarily weak "nations". The day that such weak "nations" stand in the way of a growing, dynamic global economy, the strong will come to dominate and control the weak. This is not a statement of what should happen, it is a statement of what will happen. The strong will either make deals with the rulers of such "nations" in order to have access to their commodities or they take them over and directly expropriate their resources. Either way, the average member of such societies remain poor and exploited.

The middle way is to recognize that the current organization of Africa into "nations" is not working either for the world or for the vast majority of Africans. The current "national" boundaries in Africa are largely a legacy of colonial divide and rule. The map of Africa needs to be redrawn to reflect the most fundamental social unit throughout most of that continent - namely tribes. The benefits to the world at large from a better organized, more prosperous Africa would be immense and would justify the expense and committment needed by the world's advanced nations to order to achieve this objective. The alternative would be the continued dyfunctionality of one-seventh of humanity and their continued exploitation by the greedy both inside and outside Africa.