Commentary

The US Cannot Go It Alone On Iran

NEW YORK – US President Donald Trump has announced what was long anticipated: that he will not certify that Iran is complying with the July 2015 “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action” (JCPOA) signed by the United States, China, Russia, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and Iran. Nor will he certify that the suspension of sanctions undertaken by the US as part of the agreement is justified and in the vital national interest of the US.


To be clear, such certifications are not required by the JCPOA. Rather, they are required every 90 days by a law enacted by the US Congress soon after the accord was signed. It is also essential to underscore that Trump did not withdraw from the JCPOA itself. What he chose was a compromise: to make clear his disdain for the agreement without leaving it or reintroducing sanctions that were removed as part of it (a step that would be tantamount to US withdrawal).

What happens next is unclear. Congress has 60 days to reintroduce some or all of the suspended sanctions but is unlikely to do so. It might, however, introduce new sanctions tied to Iran’s behavior in Syria or elsewhere in the region. Consistent with this, Trump announced his intention to place extra sanctions on Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

If the US were to impose new sanctions for any purpose at any time, it would likely find itself alone. The Europeans, China, and Russia are highly unlikely to join, not only because of financial self-interest, but also because Iran is in compliance with the JCPOA. This is a point made by international inspectors operating under United Nations auspices, as well as by senior US officials, including Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis.

To argue, as some in America do, that Iran is not complying with the spirit of the JCPOA is meaningless: “spirit” is a phrase without legal standing. And while it is fair to argue that much of what Iran is doing in the region is a legitimate cause for concern, it is not grounds for reintroducing sanctions under the accord.

Renegotiating the JCPOA to extend the duration of several of its constraints, make inspections more intrusive, and expand its coverage to missiles is attractive in the abstract. But it is totally unworkable in practice, as Iran and most (or all) of the other signatories of the JCPOA would reject these demands. The threat to terminate US participation in the JCPOA if such changes are not made will thus prove either empty or self-defeating if carried out.

None of this is meant to argue that the JCPOA is a good agreement. Still, Trump’s decision not to certify was unwarranted and ill-advised. The agreement was the result of a collective effort. American unilateralism now could make forging a common front against Iran much more difficult in the future.

Trump’s move is also bad for US foreign policy. There must be a presumption of continuity if a great power is to be great. Unpredictability can provide a tactical advantage, but it is also a strategic liability.

Here there is an obvious link with North Korea. At some point, the US may determine that diplomacy has a role in managing the North Korean nuclear and missile challenges. But America’s ability to offer a credible diplomatic path will be seriously undermined if others judge that it cannot be trusted to stand by agreements.

There is also a more immediate problem: if the US sets in motion a dynamic that causes the JCPOA to unravel, and Iran resumes nuclear activities currently precluded by the accord, a crisis will erupt at a time when the US already has its hands full with North Korea.

Despite these considerations, it would also be a mistake to focus just on the US announcement and not also on Iranian behavior. In the short run, the world needs to contend with an Iran that is an imperial power, one that seeks to remake large swaths of the Middle East in its image. What is needed is a policy of containment of Iran across the region – including support for the Kurds in northern Iraq and Syria, as well as of other groups and countries that are pushing back against Iran.

In the longer run, the challenge is to deal with the JCPOA’s flaws, above all with its sunset provisions. The agreement “parked” the nuclear problem, rather than resolving it. Important provisions of the accord will expire in either eight or 13 years. At that time, inspections will not prevent Iran from putting in place many of the prerequisites of a nuclear weapons program that could be made operational with little warning.

It cannot be assumed, as some do, that Iran’s intentions and behavior will moderate over the next decade or 15 years. On the contrary, Iran is more likely to remain a hybrid regime in which a government coexists with a permanent religious authority and with powerful military forces and intelligence units that exercise considerable political influence and largely operate outside the government’s control.

Dealing with an ambitious and powerful Iran thus entails a broad range of other open-ended challenges that define the ever-turbulent Middle East. Without the JCPOA, however, those challenges would become even more daunting.

Richard N. Haass is president of the Council on Foreign Relations and author of A World in Disarray: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis of the Old Order.

By Richard N. Haass

A Roadmap to End Cholera

GENEVA – “Where is your toilet?” This is often the first question I ask when I visit the site of a cholera outbreak anywhere in the world. More often than not, the answer is: “We don’t have one. We go wherever we can.”


Cholera, an ancient disease, has become a disease of poverty. It does not discriminate geographically, but it preys mostly on vulnerable communities in areas with poor sanitation.

Carried by contaminated floodwaters to sources of drinking water, transported by unsuspecting travelers, or brought into homes on produce irrigated with untreated sewage, the Vibrio cholerae bacterium settles in the small intestine after it is ingested, causing severe diarrhea and dehydration.

Those who are fortunate enough never to have witnessed cholera’s effects firsthand might assume that it is just another stomach bug. But without swift medical attention, cholera can sap the life out of an adult or child in a matter of hours. Each year, cholera claims the lives of an estimated 95,000 people; many who die are children.

This year, images of listless, glassy-eyed cholera victims awaiting treatment have emerged in countries worldwide. The disease has spread at an unprecedented rate in Yemen, where more than 2,000 people have died since April. Cholera outbreaks are ongoing in Somalia, South Sudan, Haiti, and other countries across sub-Saharan Africa and Asia.

But the saddest fact about cholera’s recent toll on human lives is that every single death was preventable. The world already has the knowledge and tools to control cholera effectively, but existing resources are not being aligned with the necessary global commitments.

That is why the new global strategy developed by the Global Task Force on Cholera Control, a diverse network of technical partners, is so vital. Ending Cholera – A Global Roadmap to 2030 emphasizes a shift to proactive approaches, and aims to reduce cholera deaths by 90% over the next decade. With full implementation, the plan could also help as many as 20 countries eliminate disease transmission in the same timeframe. Based on three pillars – early detection, integrated prevention tactics, and coordination between countries and partners – the roadmap provides a concrete path for ending cholera as a public health threat.

Once cholera grips a community, it becomes increasingly difficult to control. It is important, therefore, that the disease is not forgotten even when it is not claiming victims. A multi-sector approach that includes investments in water, sanitation, and hygiene – so-called WASH services – can keep cholera at bay. So can the proactive use of oral cholera vaccines and quick access to treatments, such as oral rehydration solution and intravenous fluids.

Improving WASH infrastructure is the most effective path to prevention, though implementing these services will take time in countries with fewer resources. For this reason, the roadmap also encourages the preemptive and large-scale deployment of oral vaccines in cholera hotspots. The vaccines work immediately, and can prevent cholera for up to three years, serving as a bridge to the implementation of longer-term solutions.

Oral cholera vaccines are available via a global stockpile maintained by the World Health Organization, with support from Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. More than 15 million doses have been distributed to 18 countries since the program’s creation in 2013. Next year, the stockpile is set to increase to more than 25 million doses, up from two million when it began.

Ending cholera as a health threat by 2030, as global partners and the WHO recently pledged, will require sustained collaboration and commitment from cholera-affected countries, technical partners, and international donors. The goal may seem daunting, given that millions of people around the world are at risk of contracting the disease each year. But with urbanization, climate change, and other factors likely to increase the threat of infection, it is a goal that must be met. The roadmap makes this possible.

Implementing the plan will prove to be a cost-effective solution for countries saddled with responding to frequent cholera outbreaks. That is one reason why action is urgently needed. But embracing the strategy is also the right thing to do for the international community. Governments have a moral obligation to ensure that no one succumbs to a preventable death. It is an obligation the WHO shares, and it is why we will work hard to help the world meet the ambitious targets we have set.

We have the tools needed to beat cholera. Now, with a plan in place, there can no longer be any excuse not to put them to use.

Dominique Legros, a medical doctor, is currently the Cholera Team lead at the World Health Organization.

By Dominique Legros

The Geoengineering Fallacy

BERLIN – As the world struggles to rein in emissions of climate-changing gases and limit planetary warming, a new technological silver bullet is gaining supporters. Geoengineering –the large-scale manipulation of the Earth’s natural systems – has been popularized as a means of counteracting the negative effects of climate change.


Proponents of this science feed the illusion that there is a way to engineer an exit from the climate crisis, meet the goals of the 2015 Paris climate agreement, and maintain a consumption-heavy lifestyle.

But this solution is not as simple as proponents would have us believe. Betting on climate engineering – either as a planetary insurance policy or as a last-ditch measure to combat rising temperatures – is not only risky; it also directs attention away from the only solution we know will work: reducing carbon emissions.

Each of the engineered technologies being discussed carries dangers and uncertainties. For example, the only way to test the effectiveness of solar radiation management (SRM) on a global scale would be to carry out experiments in the environment – either by spraying particles into the stratosphere, or by artificially modifying clouds. While such tests would be designed to determine whether SRM could reflect enough sunlight to cool the planet, experimentation itself could cause irreversible damage. Current models predict that SRM deployment would alter global precipitation patterns, damage the ozone layer, and undermine the livelihoods of millions of people.

Beyond the ecological risks, critics warn that, once deployed globally, SRM could spawn powerful weapons, giving states, corporations, or individuals the ability to manipulate climate for strategic gain (an idea that not even Hollywood can resist). But perhaps the most important criticism is a political one: in a world of challenged multilateralism, how would global ecological interventions be governed?

Similar questions surround the other major group of climate engineering technologies under debate – so-called carbon dioxide removal (CDR). Proponents of these technologies propose removing CO2 from the atmosphere and storing it underground or in the oceans. Some CDR approaches are already prohibited, owing to concerns about possible environmental consequences. For example, fertilization of oceans with carbon-sequestering plankton was banned by the London Protocol on marine pollution in 2008. Parties to that decision worried about the potential damage to marine life.

But other CDR approaches are gaining support. One of the most discussed ideas aims to integrate biomass with carbon capture and storage (CCS) techniques. Called “bioenergy with CCS,” or BECCS, this method seeks to pair the CO2-absorption capabilities of fast-growing plants with underground CO2 storage methods. Proponents argue that BECCS would actually yield “negative” emissions.

Yet, as with other engineered solutions, the promises are simply too good to be true. For example, huge amounts of energy, water, and fertilizer would be required to operate BECCS systems successfully. The effects on land use would likely lead to terrestrial species losses, and increase land competition and displacement of local populations. Some forecasts even suggest that the land clearing and construction activities associated with these projects could lead to a net increase in greenhouse gas emissions, at least in the short term.

Then there is the issue of scale. In order for BECCS to achieve emissions limits set by the Paris agreement, between 430 million and 580 million hectares (1.1 billion to 1.4 billion acres) of land would be needed to grow the required vegetation. That is a staggering one third of the world’s arable land.

Simply put, there are safer – and proven – ways to withdraw CO2 from the atmosphere. Rather than creating artificial CO2-binding “farms,” governments should focus on protecting already-existing natural ecosystems and allowing degraded ones to recover. Rainforests, oceans, and peatlands (such as bogs) have immense CO2 storage capacities and do not require untested technological manipulation.

By pushing unproven technologies as a cure for all climate-changing ills, proponents are suggesting that the world faces an unavoidable choice: geoengineering or disaster. But this is disingenuous. Political preferences, not scientific or ecological necessity, explain the appeal of geoengineering.

Unfortunately, current debates about climate engineering are undemocratic and dominated by technocratic worldviews, natural science and engineering perspectives, and vested interests in the fossil-fuel industries. Developing countries, indigenous peoples, and local communities must be given a prominent voice, so that all risks can be fully considered before any geoengineering technology is tested or implemented.

So what conversation should we be having about geoengineering?

For starters, we need to rethink the existing governance landscape. In 2010, parties to the United Nations’ Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) agreed to a de facto international moratorium on climate-related geoengineering. But today, with powerful advocates generating so much pressure to bring geoengineering technologies out of the lab, informal bans are no longer sufficient. The world urgently needs an honest debate on the research, deployment, and governance of these technologies; the CBD and the London Protocol are essential starting points for these governance discussions.

Among the technologies that require the most scrutiny are CDR projects that threaten indigenous lands, food security, and water availability. Such large-scale technological schemes must be regulated diligently, to ensure that climate-change solutions do not adversely affect sustainable development or human rights.

In addition, the outdoor testing and deployment of SRM technologies, because of their potential to weaken human rights, democracy, and international peace, should be banned outright. This ban should be overseen by a robust and accountable multilateral global governance mechanism.

No silver bullet for climate change has yet been found. And while geoengineering technologies remain mostly aspirational, there are proven mitigation options that can and should be implemented vigorously. These include scaling up renewable energy, phasing out fossil fuels (including an early retirement of existing fossil infrastructure), wider diffusion of sustainable agroecological agriculture, and increased energy and resource input into our economy.

We cannot afford to gamble with the future of our planet. If we engage in a serious discussion about ecologically sustainable and socially just measures to protect the Earth’s climate, there will be no need to roll the dice on geoengineering.

Barbara Unmüßig is President of the Heinrich Böll Foundation.

By Barbara Unmüßig

Africa’s Schooling Without Learning

ACCRA – As the school year began this September, there was welcome news for Ghana’s nearly half-million students entering high school: President Nana Akufo-Addo had fulfilled his campaign promise of free secondary education for children nationwide. He swore not only to do away with admissions fees, but also to provide free textbooks and meals, the cost of which had often remained a barrier for the poorest students.


Ghana had introduced free compulsory education at the primary and junior high school levels in 1995, but implementation had been painfully slow – and students’ educational dreams were often cut off before high school. Even in 2014, only 37% of the nation’s students were enrolled in secondary school, owing to high fees. The president’s move is thus an inspiring example that Ghana’s neighbors should follow.

Unfortunately, despite progressive reforms like these, students across Africa still face other steep barriers to a truly comprehensive education. In Ghana, for example, poor and rural children are unlikely to reap the full benefits of their new access to secondary education.

The situation is arguably worse elsewhere on the continent. The issue is not only lack of access to schools, but also lack of good schools. The results of a staggering new report from the UNESCO Institute of Statistics shows that six out of ten children and adolescents around the world – 600 million in total – are not achieving basic skills in mathematics and reading. In Sub-Saharan Africa, it is estimated that 88% of children and teenagers will enter adulthood without basic literacy.

This constitutes a moral and development crisis that demands immediate action. Having served as head of the department of Ga-Dangme education at the University of Education in Winneba, I know from first-hand experience that one of the main problems is lack of education and absenteeism among teachers themselves. The World Bank, which similarly raised the issue of “schooling without learning” in a new report, has corroborated my view.

Addressing this issue requires investing more in teachers’ colleges, promoting teaching as the career of nation-builders, and encouraging the best and brightest students to aspire to a teaching career. We cannot expect students to learn from poorly educated, poorly paid teachers. We must also invest more in resources for schools and learning across the board, from scholarships for poor students to new libraries and classroom equipment.

With so many African governments already failing to provide equal, high-quality access to education for their citizens, this is not a challenge that they can take on alone. As the continent’s population booms – half of the world’s population growth between 2017 and 2050 is expected to occur here – African heads of state will have to work closely with key allies and multilateral organizations to bring in funding and share know-how.

Fortunately, with the launch of the UNESCO report, several partners have already stepped up. French President Emmanuel Macron is perhaps the most prominent of those who have promised to make investment in education in Africa a high priority.

As the UN’s main educational and cultural organization, UNESCO itself will play a key role in promoting initiatives to bring free, high-quality schooling to students across the continent. And whoever takes over UNESCO, following the election of a new director-general next month, will have a make-or-break opportunity to craft the right agenda to meet this challenge. Currently, the organization is mired in a financial crisis and internecine disputes, and it will need a leader who has the vision to solve both internal and external problems.

Notably, France’s candidate, former Minister of Culture and Communication Audrey Azoulay, has put both UNESCO’s internal crisis and education at the top of her agenda. She has singled out the financial crisis as the biggest threat facing UNESCO and has stressed the need for greater dialogue with members in arrears, like the United States.

In her previous governmental roles, Azoulay helped launch a global plan for cultural diversity through books and introduced plans to protect cultural heritage in conflict zones. Azoulay also has called for UNESCO to treat education as a catalyst for development and gender equality, and as the best way to help combat the “radicalization of the mind.” If elected, she has promised to put Sustainable Development Goal 4 – universal quality education – at the heart of UNESCO’s mission, with a special focus on Africa.

The preamble to the Constitution of UNESCO declares, “Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed.” Unfortunately, in Africa, we know all too well what happens when efforts to construct the defenses of peace ultimately fail.

Islamist insurgents continue to pose a threat to Mali, where in 2013, they set fire to a library holding thousands of priceless historical manuscripts in the ancient cultural center of Timbuktu. The incident was not only a devastating blow to world heritage; it was also a reminder of Africa’s history as a center for cultural exchange, literacy, and learning, and a call to action.

The stakes for Africa are high. Our children are threatened not only by lack of access to schools, but also by lack of opportunities to learn, and by the loss of irreplaceable fragments of their rich history. We must hope that more governments follow Ghana’s example, that more allies like France increase their support, and that the new director general will place a high priority on UNESCO’s missions in Africa, which are more critical than ever.

Atukwei Okai, an award-winning poet, is Secretary-General of the Pan African Writers' Association.

By Atukwei Okai

The Disunited States of American Gun Control

LONDON – The Las Vegas massacre and its aftermath are pure Americana. A deranged person lugs nearly two dozen high-tech assault weapons to a 32nd-floor hotel room to spray death upon concertgoers in a mass murder and suicide. In response, the culture wars flare anew, with gun-control advocates in pitched battle against gun enthusiasts. Yet there is consensus on one deep truth: nothing much will change. After a week of televised, heart-wrenching funerals, American life will go on until the next massacre.


Mass violence is deeply rooted in American culture. America’s European settlers committed a two-century-long genocide against the native inhabitants, and established a slave economy so deeply entrenched that only a devastating civil war ended it. In almost all other countries, even Czarist Russia, slavery and serfdom were ended by decree or legislation, without a four-year bloodletting. When it was over, America established and enforced a century-long system of apartheid.

To this day, America’s homicide and imprisonment rates are several times higher than Europe’s. Several large mass shootings occur each year – in a country that is also waging several seemingly endless wars overseas. America is, in short, a country with a past history and current stark reality of racism, ethnic chauvinism, and resort to mass violence.

The Las Vegas shootings make clear once more the need to ban assault weapons. When America had such a ban, from September 1994-September 2004, it helped to limit mass shootings; yet Congress failed to renew the ban, owing to intense lobbying from gun enthusiasts. Nor is the ban about to be reinstated any time soon at the federal level. A prohibition against “bump stocks,” the device used by the Las Vegas killer to enable his semi-automatic rifles to fire like fully automatic weapons, appears possible; but there will be little more federal action than that.

When Australia banned assault weapons in 1996, mass shootings stopped abruptly. America’s gun lovers reject such evidence, and mass shootings like the one in Las Vegas serve only to reinforce their belief that firearms are their only true protection in a dangerous world. According to compelling recent survey data, the attachment to guns is especially intense among less-educated white Republican men residing mainly in rural and suburban areas in the South and Midwest – the same demographic that forms the core of support for President Donald Trump.

Despite the deep ideological divisions in the country, there is a glimmer of hope. Under the US Constitution, states have the authority to ban assault weapons and regulate firearms (though not to ban handguns and rifles outright, given the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Second Amendment’s “right to bear arms”). My own state, New York, already bans assault weapons, as do a handful of other states. Rather than fighting another ill-fated battle in Washington, it is more promising to encourage many more states to exercise their prerogatives.

States that do will have lower rates of mass shootings, more secure citizens, and more vibrant economies. Las Vegas will suffer not only from the trauma of the recent massacre, but also from a diversion of tourism and conferences, at least until Nevada cracks down on assault weapons and can guarantee visitors’ safety.

America today doesn’t just have red (conservative) states and blue (progressive) states, but de facto red countries and blue countries, that is, distinct regions with distinct cultures, heroes, politics, dialects, economies, and ideas of freedom. In New York City, freedom means not having to fear that the thousands of strangers sharing the city’s sidewalks and parks with you on any given day are carrying deadly weapons. In Texas or Las Vegas, freedom is the comfort of carrying your trusty firearms anywhere you like.

It’s time to let red states and blue states go their own way. We don’t need to fight another civil war to agree on an amicable and limited move to much looser linkages across the states. In this, the conservatives have it right: Let’s reduce the power of the federal government and turn more revenues and regulations back to the states, subject to the constitutional limits on the division of powers and fundamental rights. That way, each side of the culture wars can move closer to its preferred outcomes without impeding the other side from doing the same.

My own state would thrive in such a looser federation, using its increased margin of maneuver to tighten its own regulations and to scale up its social services with the savings in taxes now paid to the federal government. And the weaker federal government would mean fewer US “wars of choice” in the Middle East.

At some point, the US will end up with federal gun control legislation. When more Congressmen come to realize that their own lives are on the line – which, sadly, they are – we will finally see national action. Two members of Congress have already been shot this decade (Gabrielle Giffords in 2011 and Steve Scalise earlier this year). For now, however, members of Congress will remain caught in the political crossfire of mad gunmen and pro-gun lobbyists. This is terrifying, but sadly the case.

In Trump’s America, gun violence and instability are being stoked daily. A rapidly implemented, national-scale solution would be ideal. But until that happens, more US states should be encouraged to choose gun sanity for themselves.

Jeffrey D. Sachs, Professor of Sustainable Development and Professor of Health Policy and Management at Columbia University, is Director of Columbia’s Center for Sustainable Development and the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network.

By Jeffrey D Sachs

Six Features of the Disinformation Age

MENLO PARK, CALIFORNIA – Concern about the proliferation of disinformation, misinformation, and propaganda has reached the point where many governments are proposing new legislation. But the solutions on offer reflect an inadequate understanding of the problem – and could have negative unintended consequences.


This past June, Germany’s parliament adopted a law that includes a provision for fines of up to €50 million ($59 million) on popular sites like Facebook and YouTube, if they fail to remove “obviously illegal” content, such as hate speech and incitements to violence, within 24 hours. Singapore has announced plans to introduce similar legislation next year to tackle “fake news.”

In July, the US Congress approved sweeping sanctions against Russia, partly in response to its alleged sponsorship of disinformation campaigns aiming to influence US elections. Dialogue between the US Congress and Facebook, Twitter, and Google has intensified in the last few weeks, as clear evidence of campaign-ad purchases by Russian entities has emerged.

Such action is vital if we are to break the vicious circle of disinformation and political polarization that undermines democracies’ ability to function. But while these legislative interventions all target digital platforms, they often fail to account for at least six ways in which today’s disinformation and propaganda differ from yesterday’s.

First, there is the democratization of information creation and distribution. As Rand Waltzman, formerly of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, recently noted, any individual or group can now communicate with – and thereby influence – large numbers of others online. This has its benefits, but it also carries serious risks – beginning with the loss of journalistic standards of excellence, like those typically enforced within established media organizations. Without traditional institutional media gatekeepers, political discourse is no longer based on a common set of facts.

The second feature of the digital information age – a direct byproduct of democratization – is information socialization. Rather than receiving our information directly from institutional gatekeepers, who, despite often-flawed execution, were fundamentally committed to meeting editorial standards, today we acquire it via peer-to-peer sharing.

Such peer networks may elevate content based on factors like clicks or engagement among friends, rather than accuracy or importance. Moreover, information that is filtered through networks of friends can result in an echo chamber of news that reinforces one’s own biases (though there is considerable uncertainty about how serious a problem this represents). It also means that people who otherwise might consume news in moderation are being inundated with political polemic and debate, including extreme positions and falsehoods, which heighten the risk of misinforming or polarizing wider swaths of the public.

The third element of today’s information landscape is atomization – the divorce of individual news stories from brand or source. Previously, readers could easily distinguish between non-credible sources, like the colorful and sensational tabloids in the checkout line at the supermarket, and credible ones, such as longstanding local or national newspapers. Now, by contrast, an article shared by a friend or family member from The New York Times may not look all that different than one from a conspiracy theorist’s blog. And, as a recent study from the American Press Institute found, the original source of an article matters less to readers than who in their network shares the link.

The fourth element that must inform the fight against disinformation is anonymity in information creation and distribution. Online news often lacks not only a brand, but also a byline. This obscures potential conflicts of interest, creates plausible deniability for state actors intervening in foreign information environments, and creates fertile ground for bots to thrive.

One 2015 study found that bots generate around 50% of all web traffic, with as many as 50 million Twitter users and 137 million Facebook users exhibiting non-human behaviors. Of course there are “good” bots, say, providing customer service or real-time weather updates. But there are also plenty of bad actors “gaming” online information systems to promote extreme views and inaccurate information, lending them the appearance of mainstream popularity and acceptance.

Fifth, today’s information environment is characterized by personalization. Unlike their print, radio, or even television counterparts, Internet content creators can A/B test and adapt micro-targeted messages in real-time.

“By leveraging automated emotional manipulation alongside swarms of bots, Facebook dark posts, A/B testing, and fake news networks,” according to a recent exposé, groups like Cambridge Analytica can create personalized, adaptive, and ultimately addictive propaganda. Donald Trump’s campaign was measuring responses to 40-50,000 variants of ads every day, then tailoring and targeting their messaging accordingly.

The final element separating today’s information ecosystem from that of the past, as Stanford law professor Nate Persily has observed, is sovereignty. Unlike television, print, and radio, social-media platforms like Facebook or Twitter are self-regulating – and are not very good at it. Despite the US campaign-ad controversies of the last few weeks, neither platform has yet consulted leading experts, instead seeking to solve problems in-house. It was not until mid-September that Facebook even agreed to disclose information about political campaign ads; it still refuses to offer data on other forms of disinformation.

It is this lack of data that is undermining responses to the proliferation of disinformation and propaganda, not to mention the political polarization and tribalism that they fuel. Facebook is the chief culprit: with an average of 1.32 billion daily active users, its impact is massive, yet the company refuses to give outside researchers access to the information needed to understand the most fundamental questions at the intersection of the Internet and politics. (Twitter does share data with researchers, but it remains an exception.)

We are living in a brave new world of disinformation. As long as only its purveyors have the data we need to understand it, the responses we craft will remain inadequate. And, to the extent that they are poorly targeted, they may even end up doing more harm than good.

Kelly Born is a program officer for the Madison Initiative at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

By Kelly Born

Politics in the Way of Progress

BERKELEY – There are 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which aim to tackle problems including poverty, hunger, disease, inequality, climate change, ecological degradation, and many others in between. Clearly, 17 is too many. As Frederick the Great supposedly said, “He who defends everything defends nothing.” Similarly, those who emphasize everything emphasize nothing.


This points to the problem of forging goals through consensus: they can end up being a wish list for everything short of heaven on Earth. But, to be effective, goals should operate like turnpikes, which allow you to make progress toward a specific destination much faster than if you had taken the scenic route. The purpose of consensus building, then, should be to get us to the on-ramp, after which it becomes harder to make a wrong turn or reverse course.

Still, there could be obstacles on the road ahead. For Tsinghua University’s Andrew Sheng and Xiao Geng of the University of Hong Kong, these include “technological disruption, geopolitical rivalry, and widening social inequality,” but, above all, “populist calls for nationalist policies, including trade protectionism.”

Sheng and Geng see a world in which “the sovereign state still reigns supreme, with national interests overshadowing shared objectives.” They point out that, for advanced and developing economies alike, “paying for global public goods has become all the more unappealing,” given that “both democratic and authoritarian governance” have struggled to deliver “equitable development.” Their conclusion is that “achieving the SDGs will probably be impossible” in a world beholden to “the antiquated Westphalian model of nation-states.” After all, there is “no global tax mechanism to ensure the provision of global public goods,” and “no global monetary or welfare policies to maintain price stability and social peace.”

Another obstacle, argues Mark Suzman of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is that “without a more deliberate, data-driven focus on the needs of women and girls in particular, progress toward a wide range of [SDG] objectives will suffer.” Over the past two centuries, the world has made significant strides in reducing infant mortality, such that the typical woman no longer has to spend five years of her life pregnant and another ten years nursing. Yet traditional patriarchal systems are still blocking women from contributing as much as they otherwise could, and without more data, we cannot see where those blockages are occurring.

Nobel laureate economist Michael Spence, for his part, warns that as long as there are “non-inclusive growth patterns” in both developing and advanced economies, there is little hope of “reducing poverty and fulfilling basic human aspirations for health, security, and the chance to contribute productively and creatively to society.” And, complicating matters further, inequitable growth risks fueling “political or social turmoil, often marked by ideological or ethnic polarization, which then leads either to wide policy swings or to policy paralysis.”

And Kaushik Basu of Cornell University laments that a “growth slowdown” in India, once “a poster child for political stability and economic growth among emerging economies,” has become a “source of serious concern not just domestically, but around the world.” To right the Indian ship, Basu calls on the government to focus its development efforts on specific sectors such as health, education, and medical tourism, and to do more to attract capital investment.

To me, a common underlying concern in all of these commentaries is not so much economics as politics and people – and a politics of people. We live in a world that is far richer than that of any previous generation. In theory, it should be easy to ensure that all people have the nutrition and health care they need to live full lives. Educating all people so that they can make the best use of modern technologies and the other resources at their disposal should be rather straightforward. And it should be obvious to everyone – even the richest among us – that providing comfort in old age, and prosperity for the next generation, requires that the wealthiest pay enough in taxes to ensure that growth is truly and equitably shared.

The problem is that while many people work toward the SDGs, political confidence men (and some women) are throwing up new barriers, by stoking the resentments of those who have benefited the most from inequitable growth, as well as those who have missed out. In the United States, one can see this every hour on Fox News, where Mexican auto-parts workers, Salvadoran refugees, Muslims, “ungrateful” non-white Americans, and “globalists” of all stripes are routinely vilified. And, of course, one can see the same thing in other countries around the world.

But many of those sitting at home watching cable news (or reading commentaries about the SDGs) hail from the top 50% of the income distribution in the Global North, or from the top 20% in the Global South. We are the ones who need to be sufficiently grateful for our circumstances. Some of us have much more than others; but we all have far more than we deserve.

Then again, perhaps we should stop thinking in terms of what is “deserved” at all. “For we each of us deserve everything,” a character in Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1974 novel The Dispossessed reminds us, “and we each of us deserve nothing.”

In other words, achieving the SDGs may require a radically different approach. “Free your mind of the idea of deserving, the idea of earning,” Le Guin’s character continues, “and you will begin to be able to think.”

J. Bradford DeLong, a former deputy assistant US Treasury secretary, is Professor of Economics at the University of California at Berkeley and a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research.

By J. Bradford DeLong

Breaking the Middle East’s Cycle of Terror

FEZ – In July, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced that the Islamic State (ISIS) had been driven out of Mosul, the country’s second-largest city, which it captured three years ago. Sooner or later, it will also lose Raqqa, the capital of its self-styled caliphate – and the last true city under its control. But these defeats do not mean the downfall of ISIS, much less Islamist terrorism, or that the Middle East’s most acute conflicts will be resolved anytime soon.


To be sure, the fading dream of an Islamic caliphate will weaken the ability of ISIS and kindred groups to recruit disaffected youth. Already, the flow of foreign would-be jihadists crossing from Turkey into Syria to join ISIS has plunged, from 2,000 per month to about 50.

But such groups still have powerful lures at their disposal. Most fundamentally, they are able to offer disillusioned young people a sense of purpose and belonging. The fact that this purpose entails murder, terror, and mayhem may make it all the more appealing among frustrated and resentful youth.

Despite recent setbacks, writing off the threat posed by ISIS is as unwarranted as it is premature. Consider the history of al-Qaeda, which proves that even if a state that nourishes a terrorist group fails, a radical ideology can continue to fuel violence near and far. The group’s leaders must simply adjust their methods, in order to continue attracting recruits and planning attacks from outside the borders of a friendly sovereign state.

To that end, in Iraq, terrorist groups will continue to exploit sectarianism, which had divided the country long before the United States invaded it in 2003. More broadly, they can capitalize on escalating tensions between Sunni and Shia Muslims to attract alienated young Sunnis.

This increasingly dangerous dynamic is apparent in the decision of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates to cut diplomatic ties with Qatar, owing to its alleged ties with regional terrorist groups and Iran, Saudi Arabia’s main rival for regional influence. It is also visible in the devastating proxy war in Yemen, which has become a key battleground in the Saudi-Iranian power struggle.

Against this background, it seems likely that ISIS, from its scattered bases in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen, will be able to continue planning and executing terrorist attacks in the Middle East and beyond. But there are ways to avoid such an outcome – or at least minimize the damage.

For starters, governments and non-governmental actors in the Arab world must sever all financial ties to terrorist groups. Beyond official transfers, this means halting private efforts by individual citizens to fund terror. States in the region already have harsh legal codes; governments should enforce them more effectively against those who finance terror.

At the same time, religious and political leaders must loudly condemn the violent Islamist ideology that nurtures jihadist movements, spurning them with the same vigor that they reserve for challengers to their own authority. Qui tacet consentire videtur (silence means consent). In this case, tacit consent emboldens terrorist actors, with deadly results.

The countries of the Middle East have become associated with extremist ideologies and terror the world over. If they are to recover their reputations, and restore the health of their societies and economies, they must act decisively to weaken the allure of terrorist recruiters. Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia have all made some moves in this direction, but they cannot do it alone.

Like these countries, others in the Middle East must not allow themselves to be lulled into complacency by the ostensible fall of ISIS as a territorial entity. Ultimately, the only way to break the cycle of terror and violence in the Arab world is to resolve the conflicts within Islam. To reach that point, however, the region’s governments must urgently pursue a two-prong strategy of interdiction and condemnation.

Moha Ennaji is President of the South North Center for Intercultural Dialogue and Migration Studies in Morocco. His most recent books include New Horizons of Muslim Diaspora in North America and Europe and Muslim Moroccan Migrants in Europe.

By Moha Ennaji

What Puerto Rico Needs

WASHINGTON, DC – President Donald Trump and the US Congress are coming under mounting pressure to increase assistance to Puerto Rico. The devastation caused there last week by Hurricane Maria has only exacerbated severe longer-term problems resulting from deferred maintenance on the island’s critical infrastructure. Puerto Rico needs more than short-term assistance (although this is also urgent); it needs bipartisan support to rebuild, with an initial and essential focus on a more robust and cheaper supply of electricity.


The existing electricity grid has substantially collapsed, with the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) estimating that up to 90% of the transmission system may have been destroyed by the hurricane. A major dam is at risk. Damage to the air traffic control infrastructure has severely limited flights to and from the island. As Governor Ricardo Rosselló has stated publicly, there is now a real risk of a major humanitarian disaster. Donations are flowing in, but the total will be small relative to what is needed.

The Trump administration says that FEMA is working hard and effectively. Let’s hope they are right. There will be a lot of questions about whether Puerto Rico’s roughly 3.4 million US citizens receive the same support as Texas and Florida (and other parts of the 50 states) when natural disaster strikes. But the bigger question is this: What will be done – and by whom – to help Puerto Rico really recover?

Puerto Rico – a dependent territory of the US – needs major investment in its essential infrastructure to bring it at least to the level of the 50 states. After the humanitarian situation is stabilized, policymakers should focus on providing Puerto Rico with stable, reliable, and cost-effective electric power, generated primarily by renewables and distributed over a smart, resilient grid. Ensuring energy availability will be indispensable for stability and sustained economic growth.

Merely propping up aging infrastructure will not be effective. Cheaper and more resilient electricity benefits everyone – from the sidewalk vendor to the most sophisticated pharmaceutical operation. And all the technology needed to provide it is available in the US today.

Ironically, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), the bankrupt incumbent energy provider, has been effective primarily in building its own competition. Electricity prices on the island are higher than anywhere else in the US (except Hawaii), and service is unreliable. As a result, an ever-growing number of customers have shunned PREPA’s offerings, relying instead on their own diesel-powered generators.

Noel Zamot, who serves as Revitalization Coordinator under the Financial Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico, has suggested that a smart, resilient grid would be designed from the ground up, and would rely on distributed generation to mitigate the impact of future natural disasters or human attacks. Smaller, more agile power-generation units would be linked to a sophisticated monitoring and control system to ensure immediate startup and generation following outages.

Moreover, at least 50% of all energy could come from renewables (solar, wind, tidal, and more), including through the use of advanced storage technologies, some of which are currently under development. The bulk of long-haul transmission lines would be shielded or buried, and an information strategy that deploys sensors appropriately would detect losses, whatever their source.

Such a grid would stabilize costs for existing businesses, likely reducing the single biggest cost for most small and medium-size enterprises. And it would create conditions for truly innovative future scenarios. Imagine Puerto Rico becoming the electric vehicle capital of the world, with well-apportioned recharging stations, near-zero emissions, and car sharing for the tourism sector. Puerto Rico could even become an energy exporter, supplying excess capacity to nearby neighbors in the US and British Virgin Islands.

All of this (with the exception of large-scale storage for renewables) is achievable with existing technology. The key issues are strategic, organizational, and regulatory. With government support, and an understanding of the proper governance structure and processes for effective regulation, this vision could be executed within the coming decade. And building this grid would generate plenty of good jobs.

The federal government’s role should be to make Puerto Rico a hub for investing in clean, renewable energy that is resilient to weather shocks. New technology that results from this investment could be commercialized and sold to a world that is struggling to adapt to climate change and extreme weather.

The Trump administration would have trouble passing such a package of long-run investment through Congress with only Republican support; various ideological objections would no doubt be raised. But this is a perfect opportunity for Trump to reach out to the Democrats, and to demonstrate that both sides can cooperate on rebuilding and updating essential national infrastructure.

Simon Johnson is a professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management and the co-author of White House Burning: The Founding Fathers, Our National Debt, and Why It Matters to You.

By Simon Johnson

Is South Asia the New Middle East?

PARIS – The Middle East is often viewed as a region waylaid by feelings of collective humiliation and violent rivalries, both between and within countries. But South Asia is beset by some of the same forces, reflected in a surge of Buddhist nationalism in Myanmar, where the Muslim Rohingya are being driven from the country, and Hindu nationalism in India, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party.


The good news for South Asia is that a “Middle Eastern” future is not inevitable. But the mere possibility indicates the febrile state of affairs that rising nationalism, often couched in religious terms, is producing across the region. It is as if growing fundamentalism within Islam has now encouraged fundamentalism in other religions.

The situation is particularly dire for the Rohingya. Since August, the military has been engaged in a brutal campaign that, despite being nominally focused on stopping Rohingya militants, has targeted civilians and burned entire villages, forcing hundreds of thousands to flee to neighboring Bangladesh.

But while this latest crackdown is particularly devastating – “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing,” according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees – persecution of the Rohingya is nothing new. Since independence in 1948, successive governments have denied even the most basic rights to the Rohingya, refusing to grant them so much as citizenship.

As the international community has condemned the crackdown, Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi has stood largely silent, a choice that has done untold damage to her once impeccable image as a courageous champion of democracy and human rights. Even when she finally did address the issue – at a press conference, delivered in English, after weeks of violence – she refused to mention the Rohingya by name.

Suu Kyi’s problematic response has often been attributed to her political calculations regarding how to deal with Myanmar’s military, which ruled the country until just last year and remains beyond civilian control. But, as unbefitting as it is for a Nobel Peace Prize winner, the truth is that her response probably also reflects her indifference to the fate of a small minority. Muslims comprise just 4% of Myanmar’s population. To her Burman aristocratic sensibility, their interests barely register.

What began as a localized tragedy has now become an international crisis – and not just because of the refugee flows into Bangladesh and elsewhere. As in the Middle East, national and religious identities tend to be inextricably linked. Like Myanmar, neighboring Thailand is a majority-Buddhist country; Malaysia and Indonesia are mostly Muslim; and India is majority Hindu. Pakistan, for its part, was created as the homeland for the Muslim minority in Britain’s former Indian empire after independence.

For religious minorities in the region, security can be hard to come by, not least because of the British and Dutch imperial legacies. The British Raj used minorities to help enforce colonial rule, by promising to provide a better life for those enduring discrimination. But when the British went home, discrimination resurfaced – sometimes with added zeal, given resentment of minorities’ collaboration with colonial rule.

It is that discrimination that has led a small minority of young Rohingya to choose violence, such as the attacks in August on security outposts and police stations. The militants may have been egged on by fundamentalist Muslim preachers from the Middle East, or even by homegrown fanatics. In any case, they are typically seeking to strike back at the system and people responsible for oppressing them.

And radicalization within Myanmar’s Muslim community has proceeded alongside the growth of religious extremism among the Buddhist majority. Buddha preached peace and tolerance. Yet some Buddhist priests today are inciting hatred and violence.

In fact, even before the latest eruption, a succession of massacres garnered only indifference from the international community. Like the horrors inflicted on Bosnia’s Muslims during the Balkan wars in the 1990s, the assault on the Rohingya seems to reveal the Western world’s selective empathy.

The result is a vicious circle of radicalization and violence. Terrorist organizations like the Islamic State, now defeated on the ground in Syria and Iraq, undoubtedly hope to use the Rohingya’s plight to mobilize Muslims, particularly in Asia, for their own ends.

As religious tensions escalate, regional cooperation is in jeopardy. How can an organization like ASEAN, which has promoted gradual progress on security and economic collaboration, weather the killing and displacement of religious minorities in its member states?

If a geostrategic catastrophe is to be avoided, the unholy alliance of religion and nationalism must be broken. The United Nations should take the lead in this regard, by committing to bringing an end to the Rohingya crisis. Beyond the moral imperative of doing so, a successful intervention could help to restore multilateral institutions’ tarnished image. The last thing the world needs is another politically fragmented region mired in violent conflict.

Dominique Moisi is Senior Counselor at the Institut Montaigne in Paris.

By Dominique Moisi

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