In the Jan/Feb issue of Foreign Policy, I have a broad-ranging piece on quasi-states — countries that haven’t yet achieved recognition (and in most cases never will).
UPDATE: French speakers can read the same piece at Slate.fr.
1 January 2010 • 10:57 am 0
20 January 2009 • 11:59 pm 0
Originally appeared at TheAtlantic.com.
The Washington Monument stood wreathed in dust kicked up by the masses, as if the Mall were the nation’s largest feedlot. Everyone there for today’s inauguration wanted a piece of history, and the more ambitious of us imagined taking home something tangible. Of the 2 million present, no more than a quarter million had tickets. The rest of us dreamed of squeezing to the front of the crowd, and perhaps picking up a stray program. Or maybe, like football fans storming the field and pulling down the uprights, we’d rush the podium at the end and each take home a fragment of a presidential seal. Read the rest of this entry »
3 August 2008 • 4:37 pm 0
Originally appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle.
Physics for Future Presidents: The Science Behind the Headlines
By Richard A. Muller
W.W. Norton; 380 pages; $26.95
The late William F. Buckley famously said he’d rather be governed by the first 2,000 people in the Boston phone book than by the faculty of Harvard University. No one, to my knowledge, ever asked him to choose between the Berkeley phone book and the UC Berkeley faculty. I suspect the conservative Buckley would have held his nose and opted for the faculty – if only in hopes that a few right-wing economists might compensate for the liberal yahoos that he imagined made up the rest of the professoriat, to say nothing of the population at large. Read the rest of this entry »
25 June 2008 • 7:36 pm 0
The opening scene of the newest Indiana Jones film is set in Nevada in 1957, possibly during Operation Plumbbob, an actual nuclear-test series in which the U.S. measured the response of humans and physical structures to nuclear blasts. Satellite images give a hint of what’s left: a pockmarked brown landscape of craters and broken buildings. There are smashed reinforced-concrete domes, shattered windows, as well as iron rails and bridges that the heat and explosion have twisted. It looks, I am told, like a place where Superman (or perhaps Uri Geller) had given himself over to a fit of rage. Read the rest of this entry »
30 May 2008 • 7:23 pm 0
The word “mountain” has lovely connotations: icy streams, conifer forests, unblemished views of a snowy sierra, yodeling competitions. (OK, so not they’re not all lovely.) Alas for Yucca Mountain, these images of alpine sweetness do not apply to it at all. If Yucca Mountain had a name that conveyed just how baking-hot, barren, forlorn, and lifeless it is — perhaps “Yucca Death Vault” would do it justice — more people might see the logic in the government’s plan, now nearly thirty years old, to use it to store the nation’s radioactive garbage. The mountain is dry, geologically appropriate, and far enough from human settlements to keep it secure in case of accident or attack. Nevadans and anti-nuke activists object and say that the risk of leaks, of terrorist attacks, and of unforeseen catastrophes is too great to allow Yucca Mountain to accept the waste. But the waste has to go somewhere, and Yucca Mountain is the right spot.
The alternative, first of all, is to keep the waste at the nuclear plants that produce it. Yucca Mountain is equipped to accept 77,000 tons of radioactive waste, which are currently distributed all over the country, often in areas near population centers. Few if any of the current nuclear plants could provide the security of a mountain in the middle of the country’s most inhospitable and militarized desert.
Scientists, engineers, politicians, and lawyers have bickered for decades about whether Yucca is seismically inert enough to ensure millennia of safe storage. I don’t blame skeptics for doubting. Storage beyond the scale of individual human lives, to say nothing of human history, is tricky and bound to pose risks, such as slow bleeds of radioactive waste into the ground or water. The good news is that the worst of the waste will have decayed significantly within centuries, and the scariest parts of what’s left — plutonium, which takes 24,000 years to decay by half — can be kept out of deep storage and instead reprocessed to power more reactors (or build bombs, about which more below). Now that storage and fossil-fuel costs are skyrocketing, this sort of reprocessing will make increasing economic sense, thereby reducing the period during which Yucca Mountain would have to be certified secure.
Finally, the subject of bombs: The most ridiculous fears surround the possibility that someone would seize any stored plutonium and use it build a bomb. Let’s assume a dramatic raid of Yucca Mountain actually did occur, and somehow the folks next door at Nellis Air Force Base were powerless to stop it. The terrorists would then have loads of fission fragments, plus a large quantity of the same material used to incinerate Nagasaki. That improbable outcome would not be good, but it wouldn’t be terrible, because contrary to its reputation, plutonium is neither all that dangerous nor all that difficult to get. It’s not available, as Dr. Emmett Brown predicted over half a century ago, “in every corner drugstore,” but nuclear power plants routinely produce the stuff as a waste product, and at last count there were nuclear plants all over the world, mostly not in the U.S. The trick isn’t getting the plutonium, but turning it into a bomb. (Enriched uranium is the opposite — hard to find, easy to blow up.)
Yucca Mountain won’t avert all catastrophes — whether of the bang or the whimper variety. But it will be better than the status quo.
Originally appeared at TheAtlantic.com
29 April 2008 • 6:37 pm 0
It was a college crowd: young women with Kool Aid-dyed hair, mop-topped men in novelty bow-ties, kids wearing t-shirts that advertised ironic slogans (“Super Jew!”) and summer holidays to Angkor Wat — all grooving to “Big Yellow Taxi.” But it was also more. A scan of the seats revealed lots of normal people as well, including a robust and enthusiastic contingent of African-Americans, thrilled to be in an Obama coalition, and by all evidence grooving to the Joni Mitchell just as to the Motown.
The coalition looked broad and deep. It did not, however, look like America, or even North Carolina.
Obama boasts of bringing together a diverse group, an alliance from demographics that had never previously united. But in a state with few areas that have the vibrant diversity of an Obama rally, it felt like the campaign’s possible undoing, probably not by next week’s vote, but someday. The Chapel Hill senior who introduced Obama spoke of his having inspired her friend Hans, a Swedish exchange student, to volunteer. If all North Carolina voters were Swedish exchange students, or even people who have Swedish exchange students as friends, I’m sure the candidate will do fine. The Dean Dome was not a scene that I imagine would have comforted an electorate looking for a better version of something cherished and familiar.
In any case, between the strains of Stevie Wonder and the live band, Liquid Pleasure, there was an unfamiliar weariness in the air. Was it that Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” no longer seemed like an Obama song, but rather like one adopted by his opponent? Was it that all this music, while good, still felt like the stuff of entertainment, not of politics, and the groove of a liberal college town, not of the heartland? I felt a twinge of dread for the Obama campaign: no candidate ever got far with an iTunes playlist that resembled my own.
Originally appeared at TheAtlantic.com
25 April 2008 • 6:51 pm 0
What could be more stirring than the sight of a few thousand Durban longshoremen standing up against one of Africa’s great despots? Consider me duly stirred. But this triumph of organized labor in South Africa has a worrisome side as well.
The dockworkers’ refusal to unload the weapons earned them the solidarity of South Africa’s truckers, then its Anglican archbishop, and finally its High Court, which sent the An Yue Jiang back to China. What’s alarming is that the High Court would likely never have been asked to rule on the issue had it not attracted so much international attention. The reason: the shipment was probably legal. Its bill of lading, “leaked” last week to South African media, concealed neither its cargo nor its destination. One can’t be sure what the Zimbabwean Ministry of Defense intended to do with the three million rounds of AK-47 ammo and thousands of rockets and mortars, but it can’t have been good. However, the Chinese and Zimbabweans were open about their cargo, and it appears that they followed all necessary protocols to send it along.
Shipping agents load and unload the machinery of death all the time — think not only of arms shipments, but also, if you want to be green about it, mining equipment that will almost certainly help poison streams and destroy villages. With few exceptions, the shipping agents send them along and allow countries’ own customs departments decide what should or shouldn’t be allowed in. The Durban longshoremen are essentially policing their customers in lieu of a morally adequate customs force in China, South Africa, or Zimbabwe. The unions’ diligence is admirable in this case, but it sets a dubious precedent.
The job of spotting wicked shipments should belong to customs agents, not to the moral whims of private individuals or unions (who, by the way, always have a stake in the deal). Viktor Bout, the arms-dealing sociopath alleged to have supplied weapons to almost every conflict in Africa, has a point when he says that he is just a taxi driver: no one expects a taxi driver to scrutinize his fare and decide whether he’s on a morally righteous outing. Likewise, we’d be enraged if postmen expressed their political preference by refusing to carry letters with RNC return addresses. True, there are strict laws that criminalize mail fraud. But it’s not the postman’s job to find the mail fraud: he’s there to deliver the mail, without prejudice.
In extreme cases — this is one — we do want shipping agents to exercise their judgment. We’d be even more enraged if the taxi driver unquestioningly drove a man with a ski mask and assault rifle to the local pre-school. But these extreme cases are exceptions, not models. One can imagine a (very fickle and inefficient) system in which private logistics companies are expected to scrutinize their cargo, and to eat the costs of carrying shipments that a transiting country’s dockworkers collectively decide to reject. Perhaps that would cause the price of odious shipments to rise — not an unwelcome development, and maybe a bit like “odious debt.” But for now, as long as I’m unsure whether those private moral policemen would be a courageous South African union or Viktor Bout, it’s still safer to put the authority, as well as the moral burden, with the countries of the shippers, consignees, and their ports of transit. Longshoremen bear enough burdens already.
Originally appeared at TheAtlantic.com
21 April 2008 • 5:11 am 0
The Weekly Standard, 04/21/2008, Volume 013, Issue 30
Something’s strange about Sunday-morning service at Raíces, the biggest Mennonite church in Paraguay’s capital city. The pastor leads worship in Spanish, not the traditional German. A girl in the congregation wears spaghetti straps and has a dragon tattoo on her shoulder. Those electric guitars don’t seem very traditional, either. Why are two guys in the back pew packing heat? Read the rest of this entry »