Opinion

The Great Debate

Forging ahead with free trade

The recent focus on what divides world leaders, from Syria to the euro zone, has obscured the significant agreements reached at the Group of 20 meeting in St. Petersburg earlier this month. One of the most important was support for free trade and opposition to protectionism.

We can now build on this momentum, as well as other trade liberalization efforts, to achieve meaningful progress at the World Trade Organization ministerial meeting in Bali in December.

Though critics describe the G20 as ineffective, it has been key in fostering economic cooperation among the world’s largest countries and helping to stave off the worst economic catastrophe since the Great Depression. With the economic stresses of the past five years potentially triggering protectionism, it’s noteworthy that G20 members have steadfastly supported free trade.

In St. Petersburg, for example, G20 members agreed to freeze the introduction of trade protectionist measures until 2016. This was a major achievement that lays the groundwork for much-needed progress on the trade agenda.

A top priority of the WTO ministerial, which will bring together ministers from the group’s 159 members, should be moving forward with the WTO’s trade facilitation agreement. This would harmonize hundreds of administrative procedures and standards that dictate how goods cross borders or are handled in customs. It would reduce the red tape that can divert precious resources, slow supply chains and increase the cost of goods by an estimated 5 percent to 15 percent.

from David Rohde:

The key stumbling blocks U.S. and Iran face

A historic phone call Friday between the presidents of the United States and Iran could mark the end of 34 years of enmity.

Or it could be another missed opportunity.

In the weeks ahead, clear signs will emerge whether a diplomatic breakthrough is possible. Here are several key areas that could determine success or failure:

Enrichment in Iran?

Throughout his New York “charm offensive,” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani made one demand clear: Tehran will rebuff any agreement that does not allow it to enrich some uranium.

Ted Cruz: Blackmailer

On October 28, Senator Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and his supporters may wish to commemorate the feast day of Saint Jude. Jude is the patron saint of hopeless causes. Because if ever there was a hopeless cause, it is killing the Affordable Care Act.

Fighting for hopeless causes is not uncommon in politics. Think of the nearly two centuries it took to abolish slavery and segregation in the United States. Fighting for a hopeless cause can raise public consciousness about an issue and advance the career of the advocate.

But it has to be seen as a noble effort. Cruz’s effort is anything but noble.

For U.S.-Iran, it’s all in the timing

Four years after President Barack Obama famously extended his hand of friendship to Iran, Tehran finally seems willing to unclench its fist. The most decisive geopolitical handshake of this decade may take place today at the United Nations.

Iran’s new president Hassan Rouhani and Obama may have this encounter at the luncheon of U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon Tuesday or in the U.N building’s corridors.

This new opening has taken the world by surprise. Washington’s dual track policy over the past three years — a combination of a little bit of diplomacy and a whole lot of strangulating sanctions — has produced a hardening of the Iranian position. Tehran’s nuclear activities have continued unabated, while its regional policies, particularly its support for the Assad regime in Syria, have intensified.

On U.S.-Iran deal, devil is in the details

The feel-good mood engendered by promising overtures from Iran’s new president Hassan Rouhani and President Barack Obama has raised hopes for a settlement in the Iranian nuclear crisis. But the devil — especially in this case — is in the details.

The nuts-and-bolts of Iran’s nuclear program, and whether Tehran can give guarantees that it is not designed to make nuclear weapons will determine whether a deal with the United States is possible.

Here is a look at what Iran has achieved in a decade of intense nuclear work; what the main areas of concern are, and how the Iranian program can be reined in to give adequate guarantees that Iran does not seek the bomb.

from David Rohde:

Iran’s offer is genuine — and fleeting

President Barack Obama’s speech to the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Tuesday is not expected to generate much excitement. Battered by his uneven handling of Syria, no bold foreign policy initiatives are likely.

Instead, the undisputed diplomatic rock star of the gathering will be Iran’s new President Hassan Rouhani. In his first six weeks in office, the cleric has carried out one of the most aggressive charm offensives in the 34-year history of the Islamic Republic. And the Obama administration responded Thursday, saying the president would be open to having a meeting in New York.

If Obama and Rouhani, who will both address the assembly on Tuesday, simply shake hands in public, it will be the seminal event of the gathering’s first day.

Yellen: An economic tonic for the sluggish recovery

The money markets rejoiced when Larry Summers pulled out of the race to be Federal Reserve chairman. The reason was simple, self-serving and not necessarily wholesome: A different chairwoman — most likely Janet Yellen — would be more inclined to continue the Fed’s program of large-scale bond purchases and low interest rates.

Stock and bond markets, of course, love low interest rates. Cheap rates on bonds push stock values up as investors seek higher returns. Interest rates and bond prices move inversely — so cheap money keeps bond prices high. And low interest rates are good for mortgage demand and housing prices.

But low interest rates, in the absence of offsetting regulatory policies, can also create financial bubbles — as we all learned the hard way in the run-up to the financial collapse of 2008. For some critics, the Fed’s current low interest rates are now creating bubble conditions in foreign exchange and other speculative markets.

A potential turning point for Syria

In the dizzying debate over U.S. military intervention in Syria, one key point of consensus stands out: Both the Obama administration and Congress recognize that the resolution to Syria’s conflict must come through a negotiated settlement. Key international actors share the same conclusion.

But how do we get there? Russia’s recent proposal to put Syrian chemical weapons under international control could open a viable path to a long-sought diplomatic solution.

This initiative is a long shot. Yet, its potential payoff as a diplomatic breakthrough demands it be taken seriously. Not only would Syrian civilians be spared any unintended consequences of U.S. military intervention, but the Russian proposal’s successful implementation could be a real turning point.

Is this why Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize?

In December 2009 the world was treated to the unexpected news that President Barack Obama had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Among those most surprised was Obama himself. Not many sitting American presidents have won the award. In fact, Obama was only the third.

Now, as Obama stumbles his way through a proposed military strike on the Syrian government, it seems the president has not paid nearly enough attention to the history of world leaders who have won this international honor. The list of Peace Prize winners impresses: Henry Dunant, the founder of the International Red Cross; American social reformer Jane Addams; George Marshall, the architect of peaceful post-World War Two Europe; Martin Luther King Jr.; Burmese freedom fighter Aung San Suu Kyi, and Nelson Mandela.

Theodore Roosevelt was the first U.S. president to win a Nobel Peace Prize. The 26th president earned it the old fashioned way – with effort. Roosevelt’s journey to winning the 1906 prize began with his decision to put some teeth into the Court of Arbitration at The Hague, so that it would begin to serve its purpose of peacefully settling international disputes. The United States and Mexico submitted a dispute to the Court of Arbitration as an example to the world.

Making frenemies with Putin

Anyone who ever worried that Barack Obama might not be Made in the USA should take comfort from his quintessentially American response to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to give temporary asylum to Edward Snowden: pouting.

Democratic and Republican presidents alike tend to believe that if other countries don’t act like our “friends,” then they must be our enemies. This attitude creates unrealistic expectations that slow the healing of old injuries, and subverts the potential for a meeting of minds on critical issues — such as Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal.

It’s a truism that nations have interests, not friends or enemies. This may sound cynical, but interests act as lighthouses on the rocky shores of foreign policy. In a storm, they help governments distinguish between what they must do to survive, and what they might wish to do if seas were calm.

  •