A rose by any other name: Refugees, migrants, and why word choice matters

Posted in Conflict, Humanitarian issues, International relations, Security issues, Syria conflict with tags , , , , , , on September 7, 2015 by siberianadventures

Let me be absolutely clear: What the European Union – hell, the world – is facing right now with respect to the influx of people escaping violent conflict is NOT a migrant crisis. It is a refugee crisis. It is a humanitarian crisis. 

Those who are escaping violent conflict in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Burma/Myanmar, the DRC, and other parts of the world are REFUGEES. They are NOT migrants.

The media has been using “migrant” and “refugee” interchangeably (for one example, see here) in their reporting on the situation in the EU. I have a serious problem with this.

Why does it matter? What’s the difference?

A migrant makes the voluntary decision to move from one place to another, often for economic reasons. A refugee is someone who moves from one country to another under duress, usually due to political repression, genocide, and/or violent conflict. This is a VERY important distinction, particularly because refugees are granted certain protections under international law, but also because the rhetoric that we use shapes public discussion on issues. (Aside: That’s how propaganda works.)

Each word has socially constructed concepts and meanings associated with them. With “refugee”, we picture someone who has fled war with almost nothing but the clothes on their backs, which usually evokes a feeling of sympathy. With migrant”, at least in the U.S. and in many other countries in the West, many tend to think of illegal immigrants and poor migrant workers, which has a negative connotation in the light of prevailing xenophobic (and often racist) sentiments there.

(My sympathy lies with anyone who wants to better their situation but struggles against numerous obstacles to do so, be they refugees or migrants. But that’s a whole other topic.)

With this in mind, you can understand why word choice is significant. By using these terms interchangeably, the media is allowing those who are not familiar with the situation to develop a particular impression: That they are illegal immigrants, people who chose to flee. And they’re not completely wrong. People do make the choice to flee violent conflict, rather than stay and risk their lives and those of their families.

But really, that’s not much of a choice: They can either risk dying by trying to escape, or risk dying by staying.

Some of the fears associated with a large, unexpected influx of people from one geographical area to another are not completely unjustified. Not all countries have the economic strength to absorb such a sudden population increase, particularly because many countries hosting refugees are some of the poorest in the world. For the Syrian conflict alone, there are millions of refugees (nearly 4.1 million as of this writing). Changes in demographics can also bring on enormous social pressures and changes. But the United Nations High Commission on Refugees has determined that the social and economic impacts are not completely negative.

And, I would argue, the overall toll of crisis is far larger and far heavier than addressing it directly. This includes assisting refugees and working to end the conflict.

Of course, this is much easier said than done.

The United Nations was created to deal with conflict and its effects, and, as such, every member nation has a responsibility to do something to help end violence. (Oh, if only every country felt that way…) The onus cannot be completely on the UN in this day and age, however. There are just too many conflicts and too few resources to address them all effectively. Just a few days ago, the World Food Program, the food assistance branch of the UN, just cut food aid to refugees in Jordan.

So now what?

The countries of the world need to step up to the plate on their own, not just the European Union. The UK just offered to take in 20,000 Syrian refugees over the next five years. France has offered to take in 24,000. The first link in this post shows that Germany is taking steps to ease restrictions for refugees. And all around the world, people are offering to host refugees in their apartments and houses through programs like Refugees Welcome, though even those more informal avenues are not without criticism.

There is a will out there to help. And where there is a will, there’s a way, but it needs to be responsibly harnessed and it needs to be bolstered with formal lines of assistance.

One of my personal contributions to helping the situation, small as it may be, is to bring attention to how it is being presented. Ultimately, I hope, dear readers, that you will at least read the news on this issue with this in mind:

You can call a rose by any other name, and it will still be a rose. You can call a chair something else, but that doesn’t change the fact that it is an object made for sitting on. You can call them migrants, but that doesn’t change what they really are: refugees

Hear Ye, Hear Ye: A Lesson in Communicating

Posted in Conflict, Cultural issues, Diplomacy, International relations with tags , , , , , on June 18, 2015 by siberianadventures

It’s been a long time since I’ve made a post, but I want this first one to be about effectively communicating with one another. I find far too few people know how to do that — and even fewer try. Maybe this will seem like common sense, but so often I find that what’s intuitive is not always put into practice.

What the heck does this issue of communicating have to do with international affairs, you might ask?


My favorite tautology is “Nothing changes if nothing changes.” That is, the status quo never changes if no one MAKES the change.

How many misunderstandings in the international arena emerge because no one listens to each other? (Spoiler alert: Too many to name.)

I’ve observed that we shout our ideas at one another, but often we do it for the sake of arguing and trying to make the other person see our point of view. We resort to ad hominem attacks (attacking the other person’s character, rather than the argument), often out of sheer frustration that the other person doesn’t see our side. But those kinds of approaches make it less likely for the other person to WANT to see things your way.

Of course, some people (i.e. “trolls”) do it just to get a rise out of people. It’s often best not to engage them (i.e. “Don’t feed the troll!”) But for most people, I think, it has to do with deep-seated frustration.

This is not true dialogue. If you want things at any level — at home, in your town, in your region, in your country, or around the world — to change, the first step is to listen what other people are saying — AND CONSIDER WHY.

There’s a fantastic book called “Getting to Yes” that talks about negotiating by listening to the other side’s interest rather than position. What’s the difference? “Interest” is what that side wants. “Position” is how they feel they should get what they want. If you listen to what the other side is saying — and people often talk about their interests disguised within their positions — you’ll start to understand what they want. But sometimes, the how is incompatible with your own ideas of how, even if you have the same interest. That’s when you try to understand why they feel their “how” is the best way to get to the “what”.

When you’re talking to people who come from another way of life, whether they are a fellow compatriot or from another country, you need to go in with the understanding that their experience is going to be extremely different from your own. It takes practice learning how to read the “what” under the “how”, because so many people find that the ends justify the means — when they don’t. In fact, the means are often how conflicts arise. Here’s a hypothetical scenario:

Person 1 is in an open office working in a cube. Person 2 in the cube next to Person 1 is playing music very loudly. Person 1 is having difficulty concentrating. Person 1 thinks Person 2 should turn off the music. But Person 2 works better with music.

So, here, notice that what they want is the same: To be able to concentrate better. Unfortunately, the “how” seems to be a source of conflict. If Person 2 turns off their music completely, then Person 1 will be happy, but Person 2 might not be able to work as effectively. If Person 2 keeps the music on, Person 2 is happy, but then Person 1 won’t be able to work as effectively. So then what?

Person 1 should explain to Person 2 that the music is distracting for them. Person 2 then has the option of either turning off the music, lowering it to an acceptable level for both Persons 1 and 2, or putting on headphones. If Person 1 says that Person 2 should shut off the music, that might make Person 2 resentful. But if Person 2 refuses, Person 1 will be unhappy. This would contribute to workplace conflict — the last thing anyone in the workplace needs.

Notice that if Person 1 explains what they need — silence, or at least relative quiet — then Person 2 can figure out the best way to get what they need while accounting for and respecting what Person 1 needs.

Often I find we do not say directly what we want or need (i.e. we do not explicitly state our interests). We often talk about the how instead. An important part of communication is not just listening, but saying what we actually mean. If Person 1 says sharply to Person 2, “Turn off the music!” then they are asserting their position, without considering why Person 2 is listening to music in the first place.

Are you following me here? Do you see what I’m talking about?

I firmly feel that this issue of communication is exactly why the U.S. is having many of the political problems it does today. We have demonized each other without realizing that we want many of the same things — a prosperous country, for one — but don’t agree on how to get to those things we want. And that’s the trouble with ideological conflicts. People are stuck on the “how”. But so few people try to understand why they feel their version of “how” is the best way.

I do want to acknowledge, however, that this is NOT easy. I know it’s not. Not all interests are good for everyone. The lines between the “what” and the “how” are not always clearly drawn. Hitler wanted a pure race, for example, but there are not too many ways to get there other than getting rid of those who aren’t considered “pure”. It took millions of people dying in concentration camps and in combat before he was stopped, because people failed to stop him early enough.

This leads me to an important question: How do we decide what’s harmful for a society? Pretty sure most people would agree that mass violence and genocide are harmful, but what about other things? I’ve heard many people claim that Obamacare is going to ruin the U.S. (Not a sentiment I share, but that’s beside the point.) Others feel that Obamacare is a necessary policy because the healthcare system is broken and something needs to change. Now what?

The fact is that not everyone is always going to be happy with every policy. Activism plays an important role in raising awareness about problems and issues within a system, but ultimately, society has to come to an understanding and a decision on how to approach a given problem.

This is where communication comes in. With effective dialogue, we can get there. But ONLY if we make the effort to make it clear WHAT we want, not just HOW to get there.

Try to keep this in mind when you’re arguing with strangers on the internet about immigration or healthcare or international crises or whatever it may be. If you can get to why they feel the way they do, then who knows, you might see things in a way you never did before.

EDSM: Education, Diversity, and Social Mobility

Posted in Education, U.S. politics on November 4, 2013 by siberianadventures

[Author’s note: Sorry-not-sorry for the joke made in the title of this post. –Danya]

As of late I have been adjusting to living again in Washington, D.C. and being a student again. I now attend graduate school as an MA candidate in international development studies. Dealing with going to school again has gotten me thinking on this topic, so I am going to devote a post to it.

Not too terribly long ago, I overheard a conversation between two strangers when I was out and about. One guy was talking to his friend about student debt in the U.S.

“If you can’t afford to go to school, then you shouldn’t go at all,” he said.

I felt so sick when I heard that. So incredibly sick.

With the interest rates doubling on student loans on July 1st of this year — and keep in mind that student loans wouldn’t be necessary in the first place if the cost of living wasn’t being far surpassed by the rise of college tuition — students taking out loans for college are going to have it extremely rough in the coming years. For a good overview of U.S. student debt facts and figures, check out the organization American Student Assistance website.

Let’s consider the validity this stranger’s statement for a moment using a bit of basic logic. As with any logical exercise, you must first lay out the basic assumptions upon which your argument is built. If something doesn’t make sense, then something is clearly wrong with one or more of your basic assumptions.

1) Everyone needs money to attain the necessities to survive in this day and age. (Though, of course, it depends on the society in which you live. For the moment, let’s limit this to the situation of the U.S., since that is the focus here.)

2) Everyone’s supply of money is determined by their economic actions and possessions that add to and take away from their supply. Their financial assets (such as investments and savings, among other instruments) and income (through employment, inheritance, or the lottery) both add to individual money supply. Spending (also called “consumption”) depletes this supply.

3) The value of everyone’s supply of money is (mostly) determined by inflation/price levels, health of the economy, status of employment, and the size of the supply. (Yes, there are other factors, but these are the most important.) The basic assumption underlying this last part (size of supply) is that the more money you have, the more you can afford to purchase.

4) Education gives you the intellectual, social, and professional skills that allow you to attain employment to earn income.

5) Your skills are used to provide goods and services to others. Others’ skills are used to provide goods and services for you. That is, your skills and others’ skills are interrelated and interdependent.

Let’s work on this based on these four assumptions:

If everyone in a society needs money to earn an income to survive in this day and age (assumption 1) and education can give you the skills you need to attain employment which allows you to earn income (assumption 2), then clearly you must attain an education to survive.  If you go through and attain an education, you attain a skill set. You are then qualified to attain employment. This does not mean that there is employment available for you, depending on the health of the economy. If you are unable to attain employment, the best option is usually to attain a new and/or more advanced skill set in order to expand the number of employment opportunities that are available to you. However, this costs money. If you do not have the money to attain more education, you have only a certain amount of time based on your individual money supply and value (assumptions 3 and 4) before you can no longer attain the basic necessities for survival.  You are then limited on how much you can benefit from the skills of others (assumption 5); in turn, others cannot benefit from any skills you could provide. (This is where entrepreneurship kicks in, but again, you need skills and money for that!)

So where then does the money come from? You have to get a loan. That, or win the lottery.

The bottom line is that social mobility takes opportunity. When those opportunities are limited, it puts people in a tough position in many ways. They have difficulty finding a better job. They find themselves struggling to feed, clothe, and house themselves and possibly their children. They can become depressed. They often become stressed. They often can’t get proper health insurance—and if they can, it’s usually bare-minimum coverage. (The Affordable Care Act is supposed to help with that, but we’ll have to wait and see how it turns out.)

Why should people have to make sacrifices like this in a world where resources exist?

Let’s not forget the fact that certain groups have been pushed down to the degree that they have historically struggled for generations. Can you imagine trying to break out from that kind of historical pressure? It prevents people from all walks of life from contributing fully to society, a loss in and of itself.

Let’s look at another example. I’ll take one from today’s economic development class: famines. I don’t know how many of you are aware of what famines actually are. It is a widespread scarcity of food, usually caused by crop failure, failed government policy, population imbalance, and/or disparity between food price and wages such that wages are not sufficient to purchase food. The usual culprit is failed government policy. In the Irish famine of 1848-1849, the government was still exporting food, even as people starved to death or fled the country. It was a similar situation for the 1942-1944 famine in Bangladesh, where nearly 7 million people starved — the government didn’t start importing food until late 1943. There was food out there—the issue is that circumstances prevented people from being able to access it (lay claim to their “entitlement” of food by paying for it, as economist Amartya Sen says).

So if people can’t afford food, does that mean they should starve? Because I don’t think it’s a terribly large stretch to make that analogy to the comment made by our stranger here.

An education is not a luxury good, like a sailboat or a mansion or a diamond watch. It’s a necessity. And to even imply, let alone outright say, that those who do not have the money for furthering their education shouldn’t try…well, I find it reprehensible. It shows a disregard for others as human beings.

And besides, isn’t that what (theoretically) the American Dream is about?

On hatred in the world: The dangers of categorization

Posted in Cultural issues with tags , , , on May 15, 2013 by siberianadventures

Trigger words: rape, hatred, racism, prejudice, discrimination, violence, bullying

This is not going to be an ordinary blog post for me. The topic is not as specific as those of my other posts, but this is an important theme that I feel should be covered. Hatred is an extremely relevant factor in international and intercultural relations.

You might feel that I am stating the obvious at times, but you know, what might be obvious to you isn’t necessarily obvious to others.

What got me really started on the subject was a commercial for Mountain Dew that was recently getting passed around on Facebook. It was an extremely racist commercial that has gotten a lot of backlash. Pepsi, which makes Mountain Dew, has since pulled it off the air. It sparked controversial conversations, including one I read in which one guy claimed that “white guy” is a racial slur and that ebonics and welfare oppress black people. And he claimed he wasn’t racist.

It got me thinking on the hatred that lies behind racism. It also reminded me of everything else that frustrates me in the world. Most of it has to do with hatred—things like perpetuation of rape culture and simultaneous denial of its existance, discrimination based on gender and sexual orientation, genocide, oppression.

I really want to lay out this concept. It will be heavily weighed down with my views, because this is an emotional topic and it will be hard for me to separate my views from the facts. I will try to point out where my views are. Even so, I hope that my views will at least make you think about your own approach to and thoughts on the subject. If I can do that much, then I have succeeded in carrying out my intent in writing this.

Hatred rears its many ugly heads 

Looking at what hatred is

Humans are passionate beings; love and hate are two sides of the same coin, the coin of passion.

Many of the issues in this world are because of hate and its many manifestations. It comes in many, many forms. Common forms are racism, discrimination/abuse, prejudice, systematic violence, and neglect. It can be applied to anything: gender, sexual orientation, race, religious affilition/lack thereof, ethnicity, nationality, political affiliation/beliefs, social stance, socioeconomic status, occupation—just to name a few. In reading the list I just gave, consider this: Everyone in this world is hated by someone—sometimes by people they don’t even know, other times by people who know them intimately. Because let’s face it—there is something about everyone that someone out there hates.

Of course, there is dislike and then there is hate. Where is the line?

Both dislike and hatred are forms of opposition to something. In my opinion, hatred is only reserved for people. We can dislike people, too—I know there are people in this world I dislike—but I don’t think you can truly hate things or concepts. Things and concepts are inanimate, unfeeling entities. Maybe I’m wrong, but I believe that due to their nature as things and concepts, it is not possible to hate them.

The concept built into language and upbringing

When I was growing up, my grandfather used to correct me when I used the word “hate” for anything. “Dislike,” he’d say. “You severely dislike it.” He also used to correct me to say “So long” instead of “Goodbye,” because he believes that nothing lasts forever. Not even goodbyes. These are beliefs he still holds to, even at 80 years old.

I used to get annoyed at being corrected, but eventually I realized why he was doing so. I am really grateful to my grandpa for instilling those two ideas in me. They are relevant to this topic: 1) The way hatred is built into the language we use and 2) Hatred is often characterized by an inability to let go of a perceived wrong—or fear.

In the English language, we often use the verb “to hate” to mean “to severely/strongly dislike”. Unfortunately, that kind of usage only serves to minimize the meaning, significance, and impact of hatred.

The way we speak and use words is reinforced by our upbringing, our education, and our educational and social environments. You first start speaking in the home. You pick up on the ways that your parents or caretakers speak and often mimic them. Then you start going to school, where you start picking up on habits from teachers and other students. (Unless you are homeschooled, but that’s a different story.) Throw the internet and other social settings in the mix. These are places we all learn how to speak and interact.

And then when you consider that language reflects cultural concepts and ideals, you get a better understanding of how people learn to accept certain things as facts of life. It is literally built into our society’s method of communication, so that it is reinforced in our minds over and over again. When you hear something enough times, you begin to believe it.

So when you casually use “to hate” in contexts that really require saying “to severely dislike”, you are unwittingly downplaying the meaning of hatred in your mind. Many parents use it casually and their kids pick up on it. Which means other kids use it that way, and it becomes a general trend. I’m not saying everyone uses it this way, but many do because they don’t perceive it as a big deal.

Dealing with hatred

Hate and categories

As I mentioned before, hate is a strong opposition to something. That means that there is a line between you and what you oppose (let’s dub this the “other”). This means that you consider yourself and the “other” two distinct entities—categories. This is what I mean by “categorization”.

Categorizing is a daily, subconscious, continuous task for us. We are constantly taking the things we encounter and put them into categories to make everything easier for us to process and understand, so we can go back and reference it when needed. Of course, categories largely depend on judgment calls.

As an example, let’s look at why martial artists break objects such as wood boards, ice, and brick. I have studied Tae Kwon Do for a long time and this phenomenon of breaking is important to me. My first teacher (sabunim) was a master who taught the traditional art, rather than the sport. He taught me many of the important philosophical and spiritual lessons that I have accepted and embraced, including the idea behind breaking.

The first time I had to break a piece of wood (at age 11), I found it surprisingly simple. I was instructed to hit in the middle and pretend that the board wasn’t even there. I was pleased when the two halves clattered on the floor.

“You see,” my sabunim said, “the board is only hard to break if you THINK it is hard to break.” When I held the two pieces, it occurred to me how hard it felt after the fact. It was made of wood. Wood is hard. Hard things are difficult to break. Therefore the wood is hard to break. But if you remove that category of “hard”, the difficulty gets removed from it as well. Then it’s no longer hard to break.

I’ve heard a lot of ridicule from practitioners of other martial arts about board breaking. Even in the movie “Enter the Dragon”, Bruce Lee says derisively, “Boards don’t hit back.” (Well, according to physics they do, but that’s not what he meant.) But what they don’t seem to understand is that the real point of board breaking isn’t to show off or demonstrate power, as much as it is used in exhibitions. It is to break down the categories you created based on your judgment—that is, your preconceptions—and open yourself to new possibilities. So every time you advance to a new level, you are given an increasingly more “difficult” task to break—start with one wood board, the next time two, then three or four, six, then one cement block or a brick, and so on. Each time, you are breaking down the barriers that categories impose on your psyche. Talk about developing an open mind!

Now let’s tie this in with the original point—hate is the opposition to a category you created based on your own (though often influenced by society) judgments. Categories are self-imposed and can only be broken down by those who adopt them. Breaking down is a process that can only begin with awareness of the need to break it down. But that’s the problem with hate—you won’t see that need, because you often don’t want to see it. Hate is often accompanied by self-righteousness, because your opposition is based on your judgment and you hold that judgment because you believe it to be true. You can try to convince a hater that they are wrong, but that requires a willingness to listen and consider your words—something they likely lack.

Impacts of hate

Do you see the issues here? Do you see why hate is difficult to overcome?

And it’s one thing to hate. It’s another to ACT on that hate.

We hear stories of hateful actions every single day in the media all over the world. But few ever recognize it as hateful, which I think serves as a major problem. I’ll reiterate: You can’t fix a problem until you recognize it as a problem.

When I hear stories about victims of rape and stalking in schools and universities who try to seek help from the administration but find no reprieve, I feel for them, because I know what it’s like to feel abandoned and invalidated. For eight long months during my senior year of high school, I was violently harrassed and stalked by an ex, with the school administration blatantly taking no action until it was so late that punishment was effectively useless.

Worse is the fact that we often do not realize we are perpetuating the standards that allow hatred. Making excuses such as “Oh, he didn’t know better”, “She couldn’t help herself”, or “They have to right to believe what they want, we have no right to try to change their beliefs”. These are all flimsy excuses for behavior that is unacceptable. On top of that, hate is frequently passed down from parent to child as part of the lessons learned growing up. Sometimes it is passive rather than active; the children pick it up from the things they hear their parents say in passing or in conversations to others, rather than having their parents actively tell them why the “other” is bad or evil.

To complicate this further, oftentimes hate is not a one-way street, but rather is reciprocated by opposing groups. They vilify each other, which just feeds into the feeling of self-righteousness and more firmly grounds their belief in the validity of their judgments (“He hates me, so I’m justified in hating him back”). So then the behaviors that are considered “unacceptable” are now subjected to various perspectives. Sometimes every action that the “other” takes is unacceptable. Hell, sometimes the fact that the “other” exists is unacceptable. (Ironic, considering that no matter what, at least in part, YOU are the one who created and adopted the concept of the “other”.)

We see this all the time in civil conflicts. Let’s take a hypothetical situation. Country W’s government is corrupt, stealing money from the people and taking control of the country’s numerous natural resources. They are indifferent to the people and their needs. The people are discontented with this state of affairs and threaten to overthrow them. This causes the government to become afraid, to fear the people, and consequently deems them the enemy (here, the “other”). The people are no longer considered people, but something to be conquered—they are dehumanized. The government retaliates with military force and seeks to exterminate the opposition through violence, fear, and oppression. Now the people organize themselves and stand to fight back. They make the government their enemy in turn. And the cycle of violence begins.

Moral of the story

I’ll lay out the moral for you right here: Hate breeds hate, folks. That’s the bottom line.

We will not agree with the beliefs and actions of every person on the planet. We all have the right to our opinions and beliefs. But with those rights also come responsibilities to keep ourselves in check. Are my actions based on my beliefs harmful to those I don’t agree with? Have I learned as much as I possibly could about the other side and verified the information is valid and true? This kind of self-reflection is the key to an open mind and a preventative measure to hate. But people are often change-averse and that is the biggest obstacle of all.

So maybe you can’t change others. But you can change yourself. As cliche as it sounds, it DOES start with you. You can influence others by approaching life and the world with an open mind. An open mind is not necessarily one that doesn’t categorize, but rather recognizes the fact that categories are not set hard and fast, is willing to consider and embrace other perspectives with respect to changing their categorical outlay, and understands that, in the end, everything we categorize is part of life and the universe.

What about the rest of us? Gun control, lessons from abroad, and the endless tirade of a minority

Posted in Cultural issues, U.S. politics with tags , , , , , on April 28, 2013 by siberianadventures

Gun control.

This is an issue I have been wanting to cover for a while. It has a lot of personal meaning to me.

Even if you do not live in the U.S., I’m fairly certain you’re aware of the gun control debate that is raging in the country right now. I want to cover this, so that you can understand a little better what exactly is going on and go into why it is such a huge issue.

Let me begin by stating my bias on this issue: I do not like guns. I think gun control is a necessity — if done properly, of course.

I do not like guns for a lot of reasons. First and foremost, someone very close to me, my closest friend in the world, took her life with a gun nearly three and a half years ago. Studies have shown that suicides are more likely to occur if there is a firearm in the home. (While someone might argue that’s correlation, not causation, I will point out that such studies show that suicides, with a gun in the home, are more likely going to be carried through using that gun.) On top of that, I became aware of the impact of the danger guns pose as a young girl. When I was in the third grade, a girl at my school was accidentally shot and killed by her older sister while they were playing alone at home. Second, guns are used to harm and kill. They are long range weapons. Once you pull the trigger, you have no control over where the bullet goes. (Yes, I know, there’s a thing called aiming. There’s also a thing called ricochet. And bad aim. And an attitude of “I don’t care who I hurt” and even “I want to kill everyone”.) Third, in the wrong hands, it ruins lives. Guns are easily passed from person to person—as many weapons are—but they are easily mastered, even by children. Ever heard of child soldiers? In many conflicts, children are forced into war, inducted violently into one side or another (many wars have more than two parties involved)—and given guns and cutting weapons like knives and machetes to continue the process. (That’s a topic for another post.)

Despite my biases, I won’t advocate trying to take away people’s right to own a gun. Several reasons: 1) It’s in the U.S. Constitution for a reason, though I feel the NRA and their ilk’s absolutist interpretation is extremely outdated. 2) Not everyone who has a gun is violent with it. Some use them for sport or hunting or even just decoration. This is okay with me. 3) Guns can be used to protect. However, this issue is a little more murky, which we’ll discuss later. 4) Guns are weapons, just like knives, swords, and bows and arrows. I myself own several swords (2 katanas, 2 tai chi swords, a wakazashi, a wooden sword, and a bamboo bokken), a bo staff, and a pair of sai. I use them for practice as a long-time martial artist. I wouldn’t want someone taking those from me.

Now having put that out there, let’s look at the gun control debate and what is happening now.

The Great Gun Debate: The American Version

What triggered this whole thing?

In order to understand the U.S. version of the debate, you need to know about its origin relative to the U.S. We need to dig a little bit into U.S. history to see this properly.

Before the American Revolution, during the colonial period in the 16th through 18th centuries, guns were an absolute necessity for anyone and everyone who settled here. They were the main instrument for protecting oneself and one’s family. They were also necessary for hunting. Settlement involved venturing into territory with unknown dangers—hostile Native Americans (in my opinion, they were rightfully hostile, as people took over their land with no thought of how it affected them, the original inhabitants), wild animals, outlaws, thieves, bandits.

On the eve of the Revolution, guns took on a greater political importance. They were the main weapon of choice for the revolutionaries/rebels defending against the oppression of the British monarchy. American lore relating to the Revolution frequently refers to “the shot heard ’round the world”, a phrase taken from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1837 poem “Concord Hymn” about the Battle of Concord, the first battle of the American Revolution. At the time, towns in the North American British Colonies had their own militias made up of armed “minutemen” who lived in the locality; there was no true centralized military made of Americans until the organization of the Revolution.

In 1789, six years after winning the Revolutionary War and two years after the writing of the U.S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights was drafted. The Bill of Rights consists of the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution. It states mainly what the federal government may not do in governing the people as a way to protect various rights: freedom of speech and religion, the right to fair and speedy trial, and—relevant to our discussion—the right to bear arms.

The Second Amendment states:

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

For those of you whose first language isn’t English, this is slightly archaic and very formal language, so let me simplify it: “A well regulated Militia [a small, non-central army with a set of rules to govern them], being necessary to the security of a free State [militias are needed to protect the country], the right of the people to keep and bear Arms [the people of the U.S. have a right to own guns], shall not be infringed [the right cannot be taken away by the government]”. In one sentence: “Militias are necessary to keep our country safe, so the government cannot take away the people’s right to own and possess guns.”

The problem is that times have changed. Since the Second Amendment was written, the country has evolved and altered socially, economically, geographically, in infrastructure, and technologically. There is a large, centralized military for national security (“the security of a free State”); for this reason, militias have essentially disappeared.

Constitutions are documents that are supposed to be somewhat vague so that they can be flexibly interpreted and applied over time, but even the Founding Fathers could not foresee some of the changes that have occurred. They predicted and warned against many of them—these predictions can mostly be found in a series of essays called The Federalist Papers. (A warning to my readers who are not native English speakers: If your English is not advanced, The Federalist Papers will be very difficult to read. The language is formal 18th century American English, which is not the same as 21st century English—some of the use of punctuation and capitalization is different. Even many native speakers have a hard time understanding them. There are also a lot of them, so it would take a long time to read. On the other hand, if you like a challenge, by all means try! They are fascinating documents.)

I bring up the issue of interpretation because this is the crux of the issue. There are many Americans who interpret the Second Amendment very literally word for word and believe it should be carried out as it is written (a style of interpretation called “absolutist”). Others are much more loose with interpretation, which means that they take into account the ambiguity of the words. I tend to follow this second method of interpreting, because law is supposed to have some vagueness in order to account for changes over time. The Founding Fathers were aware of this.

To summarize, many Americans feel that gun control is a way to take away their Second Amendment right to bear arms, while others believe that it is mandated by the Second Amendment to have gun control.

Against gun control 

Those against gun control most often use the absolutist interpretation of the Second Amendment to defend their position. Due to this, they believe that any restrictions regarding gun ownership is unconstitutional, ranging from the type of gun (i.e. assault rifles should not be regulated) to the size of the magazine (the number of bullets the gun can hold) to the size of the bullets used. The National Rifle Association (NRA), before the 2012 presidential election, released this fact sheet about on Obama’s gun policies. If you read carefully, the general focus is on protecting the Second Amendment.

They assert that guns are effective in protecting oneself and others: “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” This point has some validity. Generally, trying to use diplomacy to talk down an armed person hellbent on violence for some motive or another is difficult, often impossible. It doesn’t imply that the good guy has to kill the bad guy, per se, simply incapacitate.

Another frequent argument of the gun control opposition is that “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people”. Why regulate something inanimate?

Some experts argue that by creating restrictions, it opens the way to a black market, the same way that making abortions and drugs illegal just drive people to take extreme measures to get them, making them all the more dangerous. On top of that, criminals don’t follow the law—that’s what makes them criminals.

For gun control 

I have already explained my biases, which should give you some idea of why I am for gun control. But I want to go into a bit more depth. Even if I can’t persuade those who are against it, I hope they can at least understand why I take this position. My reasons aren’t uncommon.

I absolutely think that gun control is necessary due to the nature of guns. Gun control is NOT the same as taking away guns from the general populace. Guns are weapons, but they are not like other weapons. Take a look at how they developed. As I pointed out before, they are long range and often easily concealed. And I do not think that assault rifles are necessary for anyone to own. Their sole purpose is to kill. They are not used for sport and, frankly, they are rather impractical for protecting your family at home. And how many times have you heard about someone robbing a bank with a sword or taser? There’s a good chance you haven’t. Most of all, many of our gun laws are outdated. The Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, if interpreted in an absolutist fashion, renders it into an outdated mandate, as I pointed out earlier. This commercial illustrates that point nicely.

I find that many Americans only pay attention to one part of the Second Amendment, the second half: “…the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” This is somewhat understandable, seeing as militias aren’t exactly around anymore. But this is where I have yet another problem with absolutist interpreters of the Second Amendment: I find it hypocritical to ignore the first half. If you claim to interpret literally or even based on what the Founding Fathers had intended in writing it, then you will agree that there should still be militias and that it should be WELL REGULATED, meaning that there are RULES and RESTRICTIONS governing the ownership and possession of guns.

It’s in the Constitution, isn’t it?

(Of course, I will grant that it is possible to be interpret the Second Amendment loosely by ignoring the first half and attaching all meaning to the second half. But most of those against gun control don’t see themselves as interpreting loosely. They see themselves interpreting it absolutely and literally.)

And I recently overheard someone make a good point: No one complains about regulating driving and driver’s licenses—this is something regulated by government. What makes guns so different?

Let me go back to the NRA fact sheet that I provided a link to earlier in this discussion. There are a ton of flaws and biases in it. (It is not unusual for the NRA to spread misinformation.) For example, look at the claim that Obama would use the UN’s arms treaty (which was passed on April 2nd of this year by the UN General Assembly) to circumvent the Second Amendment. This is not true, nor could it ever be true, for two reasons: 1) This is only for ILLEGAL arms trade and 2) this is not, I repeat, NOT how international law works. International law does not work the same way as federal or state law. In a (very simplified) nutshell, when a state agrees to abide by an international treaty, it is up to the state to internalize the mandate of that treaty by creating its own laws based on the treaty’s terms and/or mechanisms for enforcement. Even if a state signs on to a treaty, the legislative body of that state may choose not to ratify it (look at what happened to the Treaty of Versailles after World War I—the U.S. signed on to it, but Congress failed to ratify it, which nullified U.S. participation). Or the legislative body might even ratify it but do nothing legislatively to put it into action. In the case of the arms treaty, the UN has not put in provision for an enforcement agency. So there is essentially no real oversight to see if participating states are in compliance and no external incentive for states to comply. Period.

As for the claim that there would be an arms registry in which all gun owners would have to register their guns, that is also not true.  The background check amendment, for example, EXPLICITLY prohibits the establishment of a gun registry. But that’s not enacted yet, thanks to the threat of a Senate filibuster.

There is evidence that in a country such as ours, gun control can be extremely effective. The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, on the episode that aired April 25th (3 days ago), had a fantastic clip on Australian gun control laws and what the U.S. could learn from it, highlighting the historical and current similarities of the two countries. Australia implemented strict gun control in 1996. There hasn’t been a single gun massacre since. An editorial written for USA Today by an Australian columnist gives a good personal viewpoint on the subject, also linking to an opposing viewpoint that argues the gun violence rate was on the decline anyway.

I recognize that there is no way to keep guns out of the hands of criminals completely, but to prevent at least some of them from attaining and possessing them is far better than nothing. Who knows how many lives that could save?

What’s happening now?

In light of the various incidents of gun violence, the issue of gun control has been brought into the national limelight. To name a few examples:

—U.S. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, an Arizona Democrat, was shot in the head by a man who was attempting to assassinate her, wounding 13 and killing 6 others, in January 2011. She survived, but has since retired from Congress. She even wrote a letter for the New York Times (April 18th, 2013) in the wake of the failed vote in the Senate.

—Aurora, Colorado: In July 2012, a masked gunman, James Holmes, shot nearly 70 people in a movie theater, killing 12.

—Sanford, Florida: In February 2012, Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old African American, walked out of a convenience store and was shot and killed by George Zimmerman. Zimmerman claimed self-defense under Florida’s “stand your ground” law, which effectively allows you to shoot someone if you feel you are in imminent danger. By all evidence, Martin was holding a bag of Skittles and a soft drink and posed no threat to Zimmerman.

—Newtown, Connecticut: In December 2012, 20-year-old Adam Lanza shot and killed 26 students and staff at Sandy Hook Elementary School before killing himself.

This is only a small sample of gun violence that has occurred in recent years: school shootings, public massacres, suicides, homicides. The level of gun violence has not escaped the notice of lawmakers.

A poll shown that 90% of Americans support expanded background checks. Despite this, the threat of a filibuster by Republicans in the U.S. Senate last week prevented a vote on an amendment for a gun control bill that would expand background checks. The bill was introduced by Senator Manchin (a Democrat from West Virginia) and Senator Toomey (a Republican from Pennsylvania)—it was a bipartisan bill (rare in Congress these days). Senator Manchin, on his website, encourages all Americans interested in this issue to read the bill.

Why, then, if 90% of Americans support expanded background checks, did the filibuster succeed? For each amendment related to the gun control bill, including the background check expansion amendment (there were eight others along with it that also fell short), 60 votes were required to pass it. Before voting on a bill, the Senate must agree on how many votes will be necessary to pass the bill. 60 votes is a high threshold—it is a tall order, especially in a Congress that is heavily divided along party lines. A good explanation for this can be found here.

If 60 votes had been reached, a filibuster would have ensued. The voting numbers in favor for each amendment hovered close to 60 but never reached it—the background check amendment failed with 54 in favor, 46 against. (Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid voted against it, despite the fact that he supports it, but that was solely a strategic move—it will allow him to bring up the amendment again.) There are now louder calls for filibuster reform in the Senate.

The NRA and others involved in lobbying for guns and against gun control have a lot of money, which has been used to influence members of Congress. As Gabby Giffords pointed out in her New York Times article, many of the Senators fear the NRA and gun lobby and gave in to cowardice. (This did not sit well with many right-wingers, who don’t give a damn that she has been personally affected by gun violence.)

It is amazing that a minority—let’s face it, the gun lobby IS a minority—should have so much power.

Where does that leave the rest of us?

I feel for Senator Reid, who was faced with a difficult decision in bringing up these votes to the floor. He had to choose between asking for a threshold of 60 votes for each amendment, which is difficult to reach at best, or 51 votes (simple majority) and risk making it easy for pro-gun amendments to the gun control bill. In this political landscape, this is essentially a no-win situation.

The fight for reasonable gun control is not over yet. I don’t think it will happen until a new generation of Congressional members comes into office.

We’ve got a long way to go.

(Author’s aside: On a semi-relevant note, you should read this article listing the reasons why last week was a horrible week. Warning: Foul language afoot. But it’s more than justified.)

Remembering the Iron Lady: Thatcherism, the non-existent society, and perspective

Posted in Politicians with tags , , , , , on April 15, 2013 by siberianadventures

(Author’s note: I am not British, but I have nothing but love and respect for the British, which only increased when I visited London in January 2012. This post is not intended to criticize the British—in fact, I’m more interested in highlighting the issues I had with Margaret Thatcher, not all of the UK. –Danya)

On April 8th, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher passed away after having a stroke in her hotel room at the Ritz in London.

Since the confirmation of her death, I have read and heard many reflections (particularly criticisms such as this) on her life and contributions, including some provided by those who worked closely with her. Much of what I have read and heard reflects my general feelings — here I confess that I was and am not a fan of her politics. I never knew her as a person, to be sure, but her approach rubbed/rubs me the wrong way.

Something I wish to put out there for consideration, however: While a person is not necessarily comprised of their politics, their politics reflects how they believe the world works as well as how it should work. There is often a disconnect between how they believe the world works and how it works in reality. That being said, I don’t believe that a person’s death should necessarily be celebrated, even if I do not agree with what they did in life. Do I feel relief when I hear of a tyrant’s passing, for example? Yes, because it means they cannot commit more atrocities. Do I celebrate? No. I’d rather spend my energy undoing the harm they did in life.

Let’s look at Baroness Thatcher’s background and explain why there are such conflicting views on her legacy.

Looking back: History and policies


For a quick timeline of her life and career, the BBC has compiled a very good summary. The left sidebar links will take you to other sections of the article, that are also very informative, but we’ll discuss some of those shortly.


In reading about her, you will see references to the doctrine of Thatcherism. But what exactly is it? The link I just provided gives a very succinct description. It is likened to the U.S.’s controversial doctrine of Reaganomics; though they are not quite the same, they have some similarities. Both have their roots in Milton Friedman’s concepts of the free market and encouraged enterprise.

Thatcherism describes the conservative set of policies that overturned and often heavily reversed the domestic policies that were part of the consensus that existed in the UK’s coalition government post-WWII. PM Thatcher implemented policies meant to encourage people to look after themselves by attempting to nuture an enterprise culture, rather than promote equality and social welfare (which she considered a culture of dependency). But as you’ll see later, her political philosophy held that society does not exist.

Foreign policy

Margaret Thatcher played a very large role in the Cold War. Her nickname “The Iron Lady” came from Soviet journalist, but she liked it so much she adopted it.

A story of contradictions and chaos


Now I’m going to go into the reasons I had/have problems with her policies.

A famous interview with Ms. Thatcher for Women’s Own highlights the entrepreneurial aspect of her philosophy:

For example, when I went to Middlesbrough, one of the young people there said to me: “Look! You have your advertisements for enterprise allowance on the television!”

The enterprise allowance is for young people who want to start up on their own, have been on the unemployment register, and we recognise—I must tell you this as the background—that having got the income from unemployment benefit and social security, you cannot expect them to take the leap into self-employment with all its uncertainties unless you help them across that gap, and so three or four years ago, we devised a method: “If you want to start up on your own, we will guarantee you for a year an income of £40 a week, so that you know that you have got that coming in, but in order to get the enterprise allowance, to show that you have something to start off with, because you usually need a little bit of capital, you do have to raise somehow £1000!” A lot of people do it. It is astonishing how many find that their families, from their savings, will give them £1000.

My first thought in reading this was, “A thousand pounds, just like that? And what about those who don’t have it?”

In the same interview, a very famous quote came out, one that shocked me the first time I read it:

I think we have gone through a period when too many children and people have been given to understand “I have a problem, it is the Government’s job to cope with it!” or “I have a problem, I will go and get a grant to cope with it!” “I am homeless, the Government must house me!” and so they are casting their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then also to help look after our neighbour and life is a reciprocal business and people have got the entitlements too much in mind without the obligations, because there is no such thing as an entitlement unless someone has first met an obligation and it is, I think, one of the tragedies in which many of the benefits we give, which were meant to reassure people that if they were sick or ill there was a safety net and there was help, that many of the benefits which were meant to help people who were unfortunate—“It is all right. We joined together and we have these insurance schemes to look after it”. That was the objective, but somehow there are some people who have been manipulating the system and so some of those help and benefits that were meant to say to people: “All right, if you cannot get a job, you shall have a basic standard of living!” but when people come and say: “But what is the point of working? I can get as much on the dole!” You say: “Look” It is not from the dole. It is your neighbour who is supplying it and if you can earn your own living then really you have a duty to do it and you will feel very much better!”

Sure, on the face of it, this seems (at least somewhat) logical. There are people who take advantage of the system—that’s not fair or right, and it is a problem that needs to be addressed. But people do it anyway. That part I definitely can understand, because it is true. Working in government at the state level—the level at which unemployment benefits, food stamps, housing issues and Medicaid are administered and handled—I see it a lot.

But we must remember that not everyone who uses it also abuses it—which is one of many problems I have with many ultra-conservative politicians like Mitt Romney and Michele Bachmann, who believe that Americans feel “entitled” to government help. But here is the issue: The policies of those in government and those who influence those in power, combined with the free market ups and downs and the corruption of big business, has made the lives of average Americans difficult at best. If the government doesn’t address a problem of the people it governs, it is not doing its job. No government is perfect, but to look on the American people as leeches only serves to make the problem worse. If you feel that too many people are dependent on the government, then those in the position to do so need to establish mechanisms to make sure that more people can sustain themselves. But I digress.

Another thing is that I have a VERY serious problem with the assertion that “there is no such thing as society”. Even in nature one sees societies all the time: schools of fish, packs of wolves, murders of ravens. The way I see it, humans are no different. I cannot fathom how she believed—as the head of government!—that there is no such thing as society. She mentioned individuals and family units, but what the hell is the government governing if not a society—that is to say, that collective group of individuals and family units? Why would you encourage people to engage in enterprises if not to better themselves and serve a need of society? A state is not made up of disconnected, isolated individuals and family units. People are social, they interact with one another, and they ultimately come together as a group—that, Baroness Thatcher, is what a society is.

Let me dig a little further. A couple days ago, I had a very good conversation with my father, who has been a practicing CPA for over 30 years and considered one of the best in South Florida. He and I were talking about entrepreneurship and he stated that all successful businesses must have four things: capital, information, knowledgeable/skilled people, and, most relevant to this discussion, an idea that fills a need. No enterprise is going to succeed without filling a need—that’s just basic economics of supply and demand. And in order to make a living, you need to be able to reach a sizable customer base to which you can market your product or service. For that, you need to be living in a society. This brings together the issues that former PM Thatcher was discussing—and illuminates the blatant contradiction present there: You want to encourage entrepreneurship, but you don’t believe in society?

Do you see the problem here?

And I’ll take it one step further. In a democratic state, the people (theoretically) govern themselves. For anyone who has studied constitutional theory, you will understand that a people governing themselves is creating themselves—that is, designating themselves as a people. When you have a group of people living together with a common purpose, you have a people. You have a—drum roll, please—SOCIETY.

Though Ms. Thatcher conceded that people need to look after themselves and then their neighbor, that just deepens her self-contradiction. These interactions reverberate throughout society and contribute to its characteristics.

I do understand the premise of what she was trying to do. Encourage those who need help to help themselves. In itself, that is a fantastic idea. But here is a perennial issue that faces all governments, particularly democracies: How do you determine who is eligible for government aid? And how do you stop people from taking advantage of the system? I believe Ms. Thatcher’s premise was sound, but her methods highly questionable.


The one quality that I most admired in Ms. Thatcher was her determination, her refusal to give ground. That made her a fantastic politician. However, such an attribute becomes problematic when their policies are not necessarily to the benefit of the people she represents. It is even more problematic when it makes one close-minded to alternative courses of action.

Mainly what I have in mind is her role in the Falklands War. When the Argentinians attempted to take over the Falkland Islands—British territory—in 1982, PM Thatcher took military action to reclaim the islands, citing that the Falklanders were British by “stock” and “tradition”. Over 800 people perished—British, Argentinian, and Falklander alike.

In addition to bloodshed, this war highlights one of the things I despise most about the current world order: Neocolonialism. You find that the countries that partook in colonialism in the colonial era through the mid-20th century are the ones that have neocolonial tendencies. Neocolonialism isn’t simply colonialism that is taking place today; it is control of one country over another country or territory by economic ties and imposition of culture, rather than by the military and/or political rule that characterized good old-fashioned colonialism. But neocolonialism does not preclude the use of military force to maintain control.

And now it has been announced that Ms. Thatcher’s funeral will have a Falklands War theme.

Excuse me, but…ARE YOU KIDDING ME?

Now, I don’t know if Ms. Thatcher requested or otherwise would have approved of such a theme for her funeral, but either way, I am absolutely disgusted. Glorifying a war that led to so many deaths and represents one of the most negative characteristics of the modern world order…I do not understand how this is acceptable.

My understanding is that for many UK citizens, it really isn’t acceptable.

Ultimately, looking at her policies in general, I feel that she did not adequately take into account the effects that her course of political action took. My sense, from what I have read and heard from people who know more about her than I do, is that she was a politician who was out of touch with the people she governed. Of course, today MOST politicians in governments around the world ARE out of touch.

And I will remind you that this is my opinion, based on what I have known and researched about her. Are there aspects that I did not cover? Absolutely, because that would take a book. Or two. I encourage you to do your own research—and this goes with any issue I write about—even as I try my best to be balanced.

The Wicked President of the North [Korea] and the art of threats

Posted in Chinese foreign policy, Conflict, Diplomacy, International relations, Military affairs, The Korean Peninsula with tags , , , , , , , , on April 3, 2013 by siberianadventures

If you have been watching or reading the news lately, you will certainly have heard about North Korea’s increasing aggressiveness. It has recently declared war on South Korea — in official terms, it is redundant, because the state of war between the two never technically ended, even if there hasn’t been much violent conflict between the two in the past sixty years. The violent part of the conflict ended with a ceasefire, but a peace treaty was never signed to officially finish it.

Normally, South Korea, along with many of its allies, the United States included, has dismissed the North’s threats. But of late, it seems that these are being taken more seriously. Why? What’s changed?

In this post, we’ll talk about the art of threats and how threats work. This is an application of our discussion on power in the September 24th, 2012 post of this blog. We’ll start by briefly looking at why international relations players make threats, discuss the circumstances under which they are effective, and then look at the present situation with North Korea as an example.

Why make threats?

In international relations parlance, threats can be used for the purposes of coercion or deterrence.  Coercion usually refers to inducing someone to do what you want them to do; deterrence is inducing someone to not do something. Threats can be generally defined as spoken or written warnings given by a party or parties of the execution of military, political, or economic action (in other words, a show of hard power) on a second party or parties if the latter does not meet certain conditions; these conditions may be either implicit or explicit.

Threats convey more than what the threatening party is asserting they will do. It is a very aggressive action in itself.  It is supposed to signal a couple of things. One, that the threatening party (the aggressor) is serious about carrying out their threatened action(s) in order to attain a particular set of desired circumstances. Two, that the aggressor actually has the capability of carrying out the threat; “capability” here means different things, depending on the nature of the threat.

Of course — and I am semi-joking here — a country might also make threats because the country’s leaders are batshit crazy and want to stir up trouble…

When are threats effective?

Defining effectiveness

First of all, let’s attempt to define “effectiveness”, because without a definition, the discussion that follows will not hold much meaning. One could say that it is how successful the threat is in helping the aggressor reach its goal(s), with success being the actual reaching of the goals. This is somewhat vague, although it allows for a kind of spectrum of measurement — for example, a threat can be only partially effective if the desired circumstances are only partially attained. Gradations are necessary in considering effectiveness of an action, because rarely is anything ever fully effective.

What should be kept in mind with this definition, however, is that it implies that the threat must be the cause of reaching the desired set of circumstances. It is in fact possible for those circumstances to be reached in spite of the threat, rather than because of it. In that case, the threat itself wasn’t the cause of attaining those circumstances. Furthermore, it is also possible to attain the desired circumstances along with other circumstances that are undesirable for the aggressor. To demonstrate this latter point, let’s use an example of a medication. Say you are taking a medication to get rid of a migraine. The medicine works and gets rid of your migraine. You could say that the medicine was fully effective in reaching your goal of not having a migraine. However, the medicine has a side effect of making you dizzy, which makes it impossible for you to do what you need to do. Could you still then say that the medicine is effective? In order to answer this, you must think about why you wanted to get rid of the migraine. They’re painful. They interfere with your life and make you feel miserable. The bottom line is that you want to get on with your life — which the dizziness prevents. In that case, the medicine got rid of one problem only to give you another that gives you the same results as before — you still can’t do what you need to do.

For me, I think a better way to phrase this definition effectiveness for the purposes of this discussion is the degree to which the threat in question can be attributed as a cause in attaining the aggressor’s goals. This still allows someone studying the causal effects of the instance of a threat to measure based on evidence provided, requires study of the side effects, and allows for the inclusion of the threat’s interactions with other factors in reaching the ultimate result. It also removes the issue of bias that measuring “success” often involves.

What makes a threat effective?

If a threat must induce someone to do what you do what you want or not do what you don’t want (or a combination thereof), then effectiveness will be measured by the degree to which the threatened party acts in accordance with the threat to produce the aggressor’s desired set of circumstances. I say this because although one party will threaten another to coerce them into or deter them from a specific action, the real intent is often to prevent the consequences that would result in undesirable circumstances for the aggressor.

Let me give an example. If Country X threatens Country Y with military action if Country Y uses a nuclear missile on Country X’s Military Base 1, but Country Y uses non-nuclear missiles to destroy Military Base 1 instead, the result is the same — the ultimate goal of Country X was to prevent Country Y from destroying Military Base 1, not necessarily to prevent them from using nuclear weapons. Country Y knows this and is just playing a game of semantics. In other words, the threat from Country X was not effective.

So why was the threat ineffective? There are several possible reasons, which could be a singular or a combination of following: 1) Country Y does not believe that Country X has sufficient capability and/or the will to carry out the threat; 2) Country Y believes that they could easily overcome Country X’s military forces — either alone or with allies to back them up; 3)  Country Y knows that Country X can and will carry out the threat but gains more from destroying the base than being deterred. 4) Country X had incomplete information on Country Y’s motives.

Oops, I almost forgot this one: 5) The leaders of Country Y are batshit crazy and want to stir up trouble. I’ll label this as “The Irrational Human Factor”.

This illustration highlights a few things:

—Effectiveness of the same threat depends heavily on who is threatening who. A country like Vanuatu threatening a country like Kiribati is probably more effective than Vanuatu threatening China. (Not that this would ever happen, this is just a hypothetical…many of these South Pacific countries do not have military forces; those that do have a tiny military compared to many other countries and are generally peaceful anyway. On an unrelated side note, I really want to go see the South Pacific countries like Vanuatu and Kiribati.) Not only that, but Vanuatu is closer to Kiribati than it is to China; geography often makes a difference in many military action-based threats. Many times effectiveness depends on one country’s perception of another, usually either based on current information or prior interactions. Sometimes the aggressor purposefully hides their true motives, making it harder for the threatened party to judge how serious the threat is.

—Incomplete information on either side can make the difference in the choices being made. Country X might not have known the full motive behind why Country Y wanted to destroy Military Base 1 before making the threat (which includes The Irrational Human Factor). If this was the case, then they might have chosen the wrong tack to take before resorting to threats; a more diplomatic method might have proved more effective. Conversely, Country Y might not be fully aware of Country X’s capabilities and so might have believed they were incapable or unwilling based on incomplete intelligence, thereby allowing them to believe that they would easily win in any violent conflict.

Like the boy who cried wolf: North Korea and its arsenal [of nuclear threats]

(Author’s note: I apologize for my humor, which seems to be rapidly worsening as this post continues.)

North Korea has engaged in what is frequently referred to as “saber-rattling”. It refers to making an empty threat. Long story short, the worst that has happened with them is that other countries have kept a wary eye on them.

North Korea is a very poor country and although they talk a big game, there was little evidence they had the resources to follow through.

But now there is increasing international attention on North Korea’s threats. Why? Because they are now starting to back their threats with actions. There have been opinions such as this one which assert that a lot of the threat has been embellished by the media and/or by the U.S. government’s muscle-flexing by increasing the number of warships and B52s in the Pacific region.

But I’m not convinced that’s entirely the case. Let’s recap what has happened over the past few weeks:

North Korea has cut off the emergency line of contact between the North and the South and declared the 1953 armistice with South Korea invalid

—Allowing South Koreans to leave the Kaesong complex, an industrial complex jointly run by the North and South, but not to re-enter

Successful testing of a nuclear weapon this past February, despite China’s advice against it and UN admonitions

Approval of a nuclear attack on the U.S.

These are not exactly small steps here. Does this mean that war is imminent? Maybe, maybe not.

Kurt Campbell, head of the Asia Group and former assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, doesn’t think it is, stating that the North Koreans know how to walk up to the wire without tripping it. Even amid all the nuclear rhetoric, Kim Jong-un has shown signs that he is starting to focus on economic reform as a priority.

But there is still a lot that we do not know. The nature of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program largely remains a mystery, although the NY Times has compiled a comprehensive timeline on what is known. It is said they have weapons that are fueled by both plutonium and enriched-uranium. Although it is highly doubtful that the nuclear weapons that North Korea has in stock are capable of reaching the U.S. mainland or even Guam (a U.S. territory), there are those who caution that one wrong step could lead to war.

Furthermore, I worry that the situation with North Korea is like the story of the boy who cried wolf. They’ve made a ton of false alarms in the past, but what happens if one day it turns out to be not-so-false? Rogue nations are called rogue for a reason: They do not follow the rules. At least with countries like China, which frequently duck out from under international expectations, they are seeking to change the status quo through relatively more peaceful means (i.e. economic, cultural).

Let’s just hope it doesn’t come to that.