Posted on 22-10-2009
Filed Under (Accident of History, History) by Rashtrakut

It is a debate academics often engage in. Do individuals shape history or do they flow with the tide of events. As a true middle of the road moderate, I vote for both. Individuals often shape the contours of history and the pace at which things happen. Russia without Peter the Great was already slowly westernizing.  But he significantly accelerated the process and the nature of the transformation.

But every once in a while an isolated event can set off a chain reaction that alters the ebbs and flows of history.  One of the most famous such events was triggered by the death of a middle aged woman in St. Petersburg – the so called “Miracle of the House of Brandenburg.”  In 1762 towards the end of the Seven Years War, Prussia was on the verge of collapse.  Having lost his last Baltic port and with his army almost annihilated, Frederick the Great seriously contemplated suicide.  The consequences for Prussia were dire.  Starting with the Great Elector, over the previous 100 years the Electors of Brandenburg had established one of the finest armies in Europe, acquired the royal crown in Prussia and seized the rich province of Silesia from the Hapsburgs.  Now the Ferederick’s implacable foe the Tsarina Elizabeth (daughter of Peter the Great) was on the verge of humbling the Prussian upstart.  In addition to the loss of Silesia, Frederick also faced the prospect of the loss of his royal title and the prestige his house had accumulated.  And then the miracle occurred.   The Tsarina died unexpectedly.  Her notoriously pro-Prussian successor Peter III promptly removed Russia from the war giving a gasping Prussia time to catch its breath and drive the Austrians from Silesia.  Even though Peter III was deposed by his wife Catherine II a few months later and Russia reentered the war, the interval had changed the strategic position on the ground.

In the resulting peace treaty Prussia retained Silesia and gained the prestige of having fought off the far larger states of France, Austria and Russia.  Prussia had forced itself into the ranks of the major powers of Europe and would expand further during the partitions of Poland.  The Congress of Vienna would lead to further expansion by giving it a slice of Saxony, the Rhineland and Westphalia.  This enhanced Prussian state would be the focus of nationalistic German aspirations.  The unification of Germany under the militaristic Prussian state would have additional consequences in the 20th century. Read the rest of this entry »

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Posted on 22-10-2009
Filed Under (Current Affairs, Environment) by Rashtrakut

With global warming melting the Himalayan glaciers an interesting read on a local attempt to limit the fallout.   Water will be a major flash point in South Asia in the coming decades as the perennial rivers like the Ganga, Yamuna and the Indus could become seasonal rivers and the rain patterns that feed agriculture and aquifers across the subcontinent change.  The Economist discussed this issue a month back.  A friend has often joked about India’s constant position as an emerging power – that it is full of “potential energy” rather than “kinetic energy.”  In addition to the other domestic, structural and regional issues India needs to solve, this looming water crisis adds to its development burden.

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Posted on 22-10-2009
Filed Under (Foreign Policy) by Rashtrakut

Since World War II the British and American governments have harped on the special relationship between the “mother country” and the first of its children to leave. An interesting read from last week’s Christian Science Monitor on how special public opinion in the United Kingdom finds the relationship.  It is not surprising that the British could resent the country that replaced it as the global behemoth.  The loss of empire after World War II, the economic malaise and then the jarring realization during the Suez Crisis that it could not operate a foreign policy in opposition to the United States are bound to hurt the self esteem of a country that thought the sun would never set on it empire (notwithstanding the prestige of an undeserved permanent spot on the Security Council with fellow second tier power France).

Even though it is still about the 7th largest economy in the world the United Kingdom still tries to punch above its weight with the 4th largest defense expenditures in the world  (just below China almost twice as much as India without anywhere near the same security threats).  The history of colonial rule and the aggressive attempts to remain relevant still keep the United Kingdom as a possible bogeyman for tyrants from Iran to Zimbabwe.  At other times it can cause embarrassments, like the spats with India in the past decade from clumsy attempts to interfere in the Kashmir dispute.  See here and here.

It is difficult for a major power to adjust to a diminished status through slow decline.   The declines of previous major powers whether abrupt like Sweden, Germany and Imperial Japan or over a longer period like Spain, Austria-Hungary. Ottoman Turkey and Manchu China received a major assist from military defeats.  The British case is unusual in that it fought and won two world wars only to find itself exhausted and surpassed by its erstwhile allies and then its former foes.  The absence of that defining defeat probably made it harder to accept a diminished world standing.  Not that defeat can always bring such objectivity.  France is still overcompensating for the triple  debacles of World War II, Algeria and the Indo-China war culminating in the decisive defeat at Dien Bien Phu.  But however annoying the Gallic Rooster can be to Americans, French self esteem has not suffered from a policy of supine abasement that the “special relationship” entails.  When was the last time a French leader was called the poodle of any foreign power (even if the string of French military debacles since 1870 have prompted other phrases)?

So Britain frets that the torture and arrest of Barack Obama’s grandfather and father when Kenya was a British colony may cause him to resent it.  A purported snub of the Prime Minister causes national hyperventilation. Why is the United Kingdom so keen for marks of favor from the occupant of the White House?  Who cares?  Its time British politicians publicly discussed whether the “special relationship” is worth the cost in national self esteem and human life.  With its wealth, the United Kingdom will not be entirely unimportant.  But by cutting loose some of its ties to the memories of past grandeur and operating within its means, it may be a happier one.

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Posted on 22-10-2009
Filed Under (Environment) by Rashtrakut

Or rather the radioactive rabbit poop…I kid not.

Visit msnbc.com for Breaking News, World News, and News about the Economy

On a serious note, the United States still has to figure out what to do with its nuclear waste now that the Yucca repository fell prey to NIMBYism.  Reprocessing the fuel like the French do could be an option, or at least worth further review.

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Posted on 22-10-2009
Filed Under (Foreign Policy) by Rashtrakut

Few people shed tears for Velupillai Prabhakaran when the LTTE chief was killed this past May as Sri Lanka brought its 25 year civil war to a victorious close.  However, in the flush of victory the Sri Lankan government used security concerns to put over 200,000 Tamil civilians in internment camps.  Five months later the humanitarian catastrophe shows no signs of drawing to a close.

It was discrimination against the Tamil minority culminating in the notorious Black July pogrom in 1983 triggered the civil war.  With the Tamil minority able to draw the support from their ethnic kin in the neighboring Indian state of Tamil Nadu (it was these political pressures that prompted India to arm the Tamil groups after Black July) and the vocal Tamil diaspora, Sri Lanka cannot just wish away the problem.  Lingering Indian resentment against the LTTE (particularly in the ruling Congress party for the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991) muted India’s response to the final push by the Sri Lankan army this summer.  But the misery of the Tamils in their internment camps will eventually force India to join the vociferous protests currently being spearheaded by the European Union.  Sri Lanka will be then forced into reliance on support from China and the company of dubious partners like Pakistan, Iran and Venezuela.  While jingoism may dictate such a course, in the long run governing a state with an embittered minority able to draw on foreign support is not a workable strategy.  Sri Lanka should not squander the opportunity to reset its relations with its Tamil minority that the destruction of the LTTE provided.

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Posted on 22-10-2009
Filed Under (Current Affairs) by Rashtrakut

A truly horrendous fact pattern in the attached link.  Woman gets raped.  Takes anti-HIV drugs as a precaution.  Because of exercising common sense in protecting herself she is now uninsurable.  This on the heels of examples that could constitute uninsurable preexisting conditions in some states like spousal abuse, being a firefighter or having acne, getting pregnant. getting pregnant again after a previous caesarian birth, etc.

Health insurers do have a point in that without a strong mandate to buy insurance, people with pre-existing conditions will only obtain insurance when they need medical care.  But they do not address two issues. What do the people in some of the cases who were not engaging in moral hazard do?  And if private insurance companies are not willing to accept people with pre-existing conditions how do such people afford health care?  If you are 65 the answer is simple.  Get on Medicare.  What happens to the rest of America?

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