The US and International Law and Conventions

A lot of people are incensed with the Trump administration’s announcement of the formal withdrawal of the US from the Paris Accords (the latest agreement within the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change or UNFCCC).  These discussions are of course largely set within the internal domestic sound-bite wars that define modern US Politics. Republicans are applauding getting out of an agreement they contend would hobble the US economy and transfer wealth to foreign governments over the “fake” issue of climate change.  While some Democrats such Elizabeth Warren are noting the environmental and economic impacts, the response from other Democrats is emphasizing the disengagement from the treaty itself.  Bernie Sanders called  the President an “international embarrassment,”  and Biden tweeted “Trump continues to abandon science and our international leadership.”  Former Obama SECSTATE Kerry and SECDEF Hagel (technically Hagel is/was a Republican) have an op-ed in the Washington Post that emphasizes the disengagement from the international community as a central theme.

I won’t rant again about climate change and the UNFCCC, you can click here and read my views in another post.  In short, human impacts on the global climate system are increasingly serious and we’ve got to do something about it, but the present process and ideas on the table are utterly broken.  So while withdrawal is a bad idea, I don’t think the US pullout is going to make things worse because the Paris Accords and measures the Obama Administration committed to weren’t going to do much good anyway.  What concerns me here is how this is yet another example of the US undermining the entire framework of international law, norms, and conventions since the end of the Cold War.  This trend spans administrations and political parties.  At least the Trump Republicans are somewhat honest about it: they make their disdain for multilateral treaties clear, and have withdrawn from numerous agreements having much more direct consequences than the Paris Accords, such as the INF treaty, Iran Nuclear deal, TPP, NAFTA, and at least three other UN conventions/organizations (UNESCO, UNHRC, and UNRWA).  But Democratic Administrations (as well as prior Republican ones) have done tremendous damage to these organizations, and for individuals like Kerry and Hagel to whine about Trump’s actions is rank hypocrisy.

I have been involved with the technical operations of various international treaty organizations within the United Nations and Organization of American States for a bit over 25 years.  It’s a complex, frustrating, politically and technically complex world that at its worst is a monumental waste of time and money, but when it works (which is far more often than the critics would have you believe) it helps literally billions of people and makes the world a better place.  It requires a huge amount of patience and humility, and a willingness to compromise. Yes, you must keep America’s interests in mind, and there is nothing wrong with holding to reasonable lines that cannot be crossed, but one of those key interests is the long term stability of the complex system of international law, treaties, norms and conventions.  And that means sometimes you just can’t have everything your way, and you have to recognize that other countries also have legitimate concerns and interests.  But since the early 1990’s, the US has abandoned those concepts.  It views itself as “the Indispensable Nation. We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future …” (per Madeleine Albright, the Clinton Administration Secretary of State from 1997-2001).  It feels “Principle is okay up to a certain point, but principle doesn’t do any good if you lose.” (Dick Cheney, SECDEF in the 1990’s and VP under George W Bush). Time after time the US has not followed international law, intervening illegally in other countries, undermining treaty organizations, and acting as it likes simply because it has the military and economic power to get its way in matters great and small, pushing for its own position even in areas that are of little impact to vital US interests.  Compromise just isn’t in the US Diplomatic vocabulary any more.

After the GW Bush administration, many in the international community were hopeful that the US would re-engage the world on a more collaborative basis.  They were bitterly disappointed at subsequent Obama administration actions under Clinton and Kerry.  Given his pre-election rhetoric, there were no expectations of Trump.  He may be the last straw, but the loss of US prestige and influence in foreign affairs was a long time coming.  Eastern Europe and the Middle East are obvious failures, but in other areas less well known to the US public such as Central America, Africa, and Asia, the US has been playing a hypocritical game: flouting international law and treaties, all the while insisting other countries scrupulously comply with US interpretations.  You can’t have it both ways: to insist on rules, but violate it them when you don’t like having to follow them.

For the first 50 years after the Second World War, America was a leader in trying to create a stable framework of international relations. Over the last 25 years it has squandered that role. I hope the next Administration takes a long hard look at our Foreign Policy from first principles, and doesn’t just react to perceived flaws in the Trump administration’s term, because the problems run much deeper than that.

I close with a recent quote that sadly captures the current situation …

Washington’s daily display of contempt for other sovereign States has become the painstaking, mundane work of the U.S. state Department and the President. This policy has led to a virtual loss of competence in world decision-making, and the United States of America is perceived by fewer and fewer countries as a world leader, because the main feature of a leader is justice.

Washington has lost its bearings, who are friends and who are enemies … Washington is not able to reach a consensus, but uses blackmail and threats in its Arsenal of “diplomacy”.

It is impossible to build world politics and the future of our planet on the interests of only one state. I hope this will soon be understood by all the countries of our beautiful Earth.

— N. V. Poklonskaya

 

The Problem With Expats (and their Children) in Policy and Media

Note: This post was written before the firestorm over LTC Vindman’s testimony in Congress.  I don’t know Vindman, or how much of this discussion may or may not apply to him.  What I do know is that the Trump Administration and its supporters have a  peculiar talent for taking a perfectly valid and important issue like this (biased perspectives in foreign policy) and turning it into a poo flinging contest, just as his opponents have a talent for ignoring their own corrupt and biased practices.

In watching the media coverage of foreign policy issues, particularly of the Former Soviet Union, I am struck by the number of expatriots (refugees? immigrants? Is that term itself biased?) and their children who  are either in policy positions or are media “analysts”. This applies to many other countries, but it seems more prevalent in that area of the world.  I have to say it’s a two edged sword, and on the whole I think it is a problem and introduces some dangerous biases if not viewed with some skepticism, or balanced in some way, such as with current citizens of those countries or (better yet) vetted neutral analysts.

On the plus side, there is little better than someone who was born and raised in a culture.  Understanding the language, history, and so forth is invaluable, as are connections to the “old country”.  It’s hard to over estimate that value. But there is also a darker side and risk to solely relying on those who chose to leave their native land for perspective, and not appreciating and discussing the biases that might color their views.

Think about how traumatic it must have been for those who fled the Soviet Union in the late cold war, only to see communism collapse a few years later, and in some cases (like Ukraine) their native land “liberated” (ignoring, of course, that Russia was just as much occupied and victimized by Communism as the other Soviet Republics, and many communists from the Republics were among the most tyrannical of the bunch).  I think many may have intended to go home after communism fell – but were surprised it happened in their lifetime and once settled in here, with children who are native US citizens, that would be a hard thing to do. On some level to they must have regrets, and I think sometimes look for the worst in order to validate their decision to stay.  Some rise above it, have maintained contacts with friends and family, and have a good perspective.  But others have a biased view because their contacts are, naturally enough, largely with dissident communities who may be well meaning but are focused on “making things better” and therefore may be looking at what remains to be done rather than appreciating how much things have improved.  This applies to many special interest groups here at home, but that’s another story …

The children of these expats also can carry baggage.  While having perhaps learned the language and culture from their parents, which is certainly a positive thing, it must be kept in mind they also grew up hearing stories of how bad things were, and why their family had to leave.  Many enter the military or other service for their new American homeland, and have likely faced subtle pressure to prove their loyalty.  And some have, despite their heritage, lost touch with the land of their parents; I checked the biography of one analyst who frequently comments on Russia as a “security analyst” with the implication of native knowledge.  This person left a former Soviet Republic (not Russia) when three years old, has never actually been to Russia, and has apparently only briefly been back to the FSU for a few weeks to visit a grandparent.  Again, could be a great analyst, but in that case I’m rather skeptical because the views expressed are rather biased and simplistic in my view.

Government building in Russia, with old Soviet crest still in place below Russian flag.

Listen carefully to how often various analysts (both expats and former Cold War era vets) say “Soviet Union” when they mean “Russia”, or use old cold war metaphors and language.  I have to wonder if they haven’t caught up with the times, and the new opportunities (as well as threats) that time has brought. I’m not saying this is the case with every analyst, but as someone who spent his formative years being trained to fight the Soviets, it was a very hard transition to make to realize that Russia is not the Soviet Union.  Likewise, the landscape in the Middle East has changed remarkably since the 1980’s and 90’s. It’s hard to keep up, and I know many of my colleagues still think in terms of Cold War memes that no longer apply. The media has an obligation to make sure the views they present to the public are unbiased – or make sure those biases are apparent to the viewer.  Having independent, unbiased, skeptical analysts is vital to a democracy, especially when it applies to foreign policy matters of war and peace.  I suggest those views are increasingly absent in our infotainment driven world.

With respect to perspective, I’d also like to point out how rare it is to hear a spokesperson from foreign countries in the US media, especially those in which the US is in conflict.  All we seem to hear are US politicians, US Government PR people, or “analysts” who are often “former” US government employees (and let’s be honest here, senior military officers, especially retired flag officers, are almost never “former” in any real sense of the word).  I recall that during the late Soviet era various Soviet spokesman and analysts would appear on US TV.  Why don’t US cable “news” networks interview someone like Maria Zakharova, the articulate spokeswoman for the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, or the omnipresent (on Russian TV) journalist Vladimir Solovyov, who practically lives in the studio (FYI, Moscow Times isn’t exactly neutral, but it’s in English :O here is a story in Russian that is more “pro Solovyov”)?  We may not agree with what they say, but we should certainly hear it.  To argue their statements are significantly more biased or manipulative than those of our own government is probably a bit naive.

In conclusion, we need to bring a wide variety of reasonable, unbiased perspectives in foreign policy debates.  We also need to understand other countries from *their* perspective, not just through the prism of our domestic politics and “national interests”. I would love to see more young people of all backgrounds study foreign languages and cultures, including longer trips and immersion to get to see other countries and, equally importantly, how they see us, to be able to provide perspectives that come without the baggage that comes from being part of an expat community. That’s not to say that those from that background should be minimized or discounted – they have and continue to produce some vital insights – but their baggage has to be considered and understood as part of a nuanced whole.

California Fires (28 October 2019); over $25Billion in property within one mile

It’s another bad fire season in California.  Wait, you may ask, isn’t it fire season year round in Cali?  It turns out no!  There are two distinct fire seasons, with two different forcing factors.  The Santa Anna wind driven fire season runs from October through April (winter/spring).  The high winds can drive fires into a frenzy – such as is happening this weekend, where winds in California have been gusting into tropical storm levels.  The second fire season, during the driest and hottest months of the summer, runs from June to September.  So … May is nice sometimes.

Here is a satellite view of the Kincade fire as the sun comes up this morning (from GOES 17) … click to animate if you dare (it is big):

Labeled view … click to embiggen:

In all seriousness this is a bad situation.  The Kincade fire, north of San Francisco, has over $10 Billion in property within a mile of the fires.  The Getty fire near LA has another $15 Billion at risk; statewide the total is over $25 Billion of property at immediate risk, being within one mile of an active fire.

 

TTITG to become Storm?

It’s starting to look like NHC will begin advisories on The Thing In The Gulf (TTITG, known officially as AL97 at the moment) at 11am, as tropical depression 17 (AL172019).  If it gets a name it will be Olga.  Here’s the current (9:40am Friday) satellite view,  Infrared on the left, visual (sun is just coming up so a bit dark) on the right.  On the IR note the dark red/black, indicating cold cloud tops, stronger and better organized than yesterday …


As usual, click to embiggen.  For more on Satellite IR, try this brief lesson.

Chances are the front sweeping down through the middle of the country will absorb it, and it won’t last long, but the moisture will be drawn up across Louisiana, Mississippi, and East Mississippi/Sharpiebama this weekend.  The latest QPF shows a peak of 5″ of total rain up near the Mississippi/Arkansas border.

The Thing In The Gulf Redux

There is a system lurking in the Bay of Campeche that has some potential to very briefly become a tropical system just before it merges with a cold front pushing across the US.  Here is the view from space, both IR (left) and Visual (right) … click to embiggen.

You can see TTITG as the blob of red in the lower left off of Mexico.  The red (and small blocks of black) indicate cold cloud tops, which are signs of convective (thunderstorm) activity.  Compare that with the cold front across the middle of the US.  More than likely this thing will just go away overnight, but NHC gives it a 60% chance of becoming a storm.  Either way, the moisture will give a boost to the front while heading across the Gulf to Louisiana or possibly that controversial state between Mississippi and Florida that cannot be named without starting a debate.  So expect a bunch of rain across the SE again this weekend (although maybe not so much for Coastal GA/Lowcountry SC).  If you just have to have a spaghetti map, here it is … but it’s hard to take any of these very seriously given the situation (except maybe the blue GFS line).

not really very Tropical Storm Nestor (AL162019) SaturdayUpdate

As NHC notes in their forecast discussion this morning, Nestor really isn’t very tropical.  As I’ve been saying all along, structurally it’s more like a nor’easter.  While it is raining heavily across Florida this morning, there is very little convection or thunderstorm activity, mostly off the Atlantic shore over the Gulf Stream.  There do seem to be a lot of storm tracks with rotation in them.  Here is the 7:22am composite radar, long with a neat product from the “Multi-Radar Multi-Sensor” or MRMS system, low level rotation tracks …  those “streaks” in the map or the right are storm tracks where there is rotation, or potential tornadic activity.  That is probably the biggest threat from not-really-tropical Storm Nestor.Same map with the watch boundaries … as always, click to embiggen and see detail!

Expect tornado watches to expand north into Georgia and probably South Carolina later today, so keep your weather radio handy.  Finally, here is the forecast rain and surface pressure from the High Resolution Rapid Refresh model for 5pm this afternoon …

So again, bottom line, rain, gusty (but not dangerously high) winds, potential for tornadoes.  Try not to travel if you don’t have to, but if you are going to a football game or something take extra time, and bring a raincoat (the umbrella will just blow away 😛 ).

 

TTITG is now Tropical Storm Nestor (AL162019)

At the 2pm intermediate advisory NHC declared that The Thing In The Gulf (TTITG, aka Potential Tropical Cyclone 16) was tropical enough to be named Tropical Storm Nestor.  This doesn’t change anything about the potential impacts other than now that it is a named storm, your insurance deductible might have tripled or worse, depending on the details of your policy.  This is a perfect example of how unfair the present homeowners insurance system has become.  But that’s a rant for another day …

 

The Not-A-Tropical-Storm in the Gulf (AL162019), Friday mid-day update

Structurally TTITG isn’t a tropical storm yet, although with 50 knot winds (60mph) if it had a closed circulation it would be a healthy one.  Sort of looks like one too …

… and it will cause tropical-storm like damage across the Big Bend area of Florida and south Georgia.  Potential economic impacts jumped a bit with the higher winds speeds, up to nearly a Billion dollars, most of it indirect like canceled travel plans (grumble).

Here is the estimated impact swath based on the new (11am) forecast by NHC:

Bottom line hasn’t changed much: heavy rains, gusty winds, scattered power outages, just a wet messy day tonight and Saturday across North and Central Florida, extending in to Georgia and South Carolina Saturday.  For GA/SC, a bit more drift to the right (east) will keep the worst of it offshore, so those worried about Football in Athens and Columbia might get off a bit easier.  In short, inconvenient, hazardous to travel or be outside in the darker red areas, or south or east of the pink line on the above map, but not really dangerous except right on the Florida shoreline from maybe Clearwater around to the Pensacola area.

The Inconvenient Thing In The Gulf (AL162019): weekend mess for the Southeast US

The system in the Gulf is complex from a meteorological standpoint.  There are formal definitions for what is a tropical cyclone (basically, a low pressure system with closed circulation, warm core) or various kinds of extratropical cyclones like a nor’easter.  The primary difference between a tropical storm and a nor’easter is that nor’easters have a cold core, but there are structural differences resulting from the different environments they form and travel in.  Nature being nature, it doesn’t like our nice neat categories.  The Thing In The Gulf (TTITG) is one of these transitional forms.  It is warm core, but will likely have a broad, elongated wind field with the main impacts extending hundreds of miles to the east of the “center”.

Here is the current impact map from my Stribog model, based on the official forecast track:

It is likely that sometime today the circulation of TTITG will close (there are currently several “centers”), and NHC will classify it as a tropical storm as the winds are high enough to support that.  But behavior and structure wise, this thing is more like a warm rainy nor’easter.  It will likely have impacts in the hundreds of millions of dollars, but as insurance costs are likely to be minimal, you probably won’t hear much about that.

The bottom line is aside from very vulnerable locations that flood fairly often (you should know who you are by now; right on the coast, in areas that flash flood, and so forth), this isn’t a dangerous storm.  That said, there is some concern for tornadoes across North Florida/Georgia/SC Saturday, so keep your weather radio handy for alerts. Otherwise, as you can see from the map, most of FL, AL, GA, SC, and eastern NC will have winds and likely rain over the weekend.

I rarely get angry at storms, but this one has really annoyed me, as readers of this blog have probably figured out by now.  From an inconvenience standpoint this one has messed up my long established plans to go to a concert  in Tampa by some of my favorite musicians, Anneke van Giersbergen, Amorphis, and Delain.

Yeah, first world problems.  Lots of folks in The Bahamas don’t have houses right now …

Potential Tropical Cyclone 16 (AL162019): implications for Amorphis/Delain Concert

The National Hurricane Center has started advisories on Potential Tropical Cyclone 16, and issued Tropical Storm Warnings and Watches for parts of the Gulf Coast from just north of Tampa west to south of New Orleans.  It is expected to become a tropical storm overnight as it moves rapidly towards the Big Bend area of Florida.  Here is the 11am satellite view of the Gulf …

Normally this wouldn’t be a big deal, but Delain and Amorphis are on tour and will be in Tampa this Saturday.  The storm is projected to have a rather large wind field, with stormy conditions extending across much of north Florida and south Georgia as it makes landfall early Saturday morning. The watches and warnings are all north of Tampa itself. although the storm surge watch does extend to Clearwater (just north of St. Petersburg – the hot and sticky one, not the formal imperial capital).  The biggest concern is travel to Tampa and power outages from gusty winds that might disrupt the concert.  Here’s my Stribog model impact estimate based on the official NHC forecast …

Hopefully the storm will clear out by Saturday afternoon (of Florida that is; Georgia will probably still be getting lashed by winds and rain but who cares 😛 ).