The Shanghai Cooperation Organization

It is not a a household name like NATO and the European Union, but the milquetoast-sounding Shanghai Cooperation Organization may become one of the most important geopolitical blocs in the world. Iran’s recent entry into the Eurasian alliance has given it a rare spotlight in mainstream Western news media.

Founded two decades ago, the SCO is the world’s largest regional organisation, covering three-fifths of the Eurasian continent, nearly half the human population, and one-fifth of global GDP. It originated from a mutual security agreement in the 1990s between Russia, China, and several Central Asian countries (all former Soviet republics), which committed to maintaining “military trust” along their border regions.

But since being announced by member governments in Shanghai in 2001, the SCO has become more integrated along political, economic, and even cultural lines, in addition to beefing up military cooperation beyond simply maintaining border security. The fact that the alliance is led by two of America’s chief rivals, and comprised mostly of authoritarian countries, certainly adds to its image as the principal antinode to the Western-led world order.

No doubt Iran’s membership will add to that perception, though it also joins the likes of India and Pakistan, which became members in 2017, both of which are close (if tenuous) partners with the United States and other Western countries.

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In fact, many analysts warn that the perception of the SCO as an anti-American or anti-Western bloc is vastly overstated. While it is certainly predicated on the idea of a “multipolar” world—coded language for an international order not dominated by the U.S. specifically—the group is far from presenting itself as anything akin to an “Eastern” NATO:

Rather than major political or economic gains, Iran’s main takeaway from this success in the short term may be limited to a boost in prestige and diplomacy.

The main issue with Iran’s approach towards the SCO is that it looks at it as a “concert of non-Western great powers” rather than a modern international organisation, and views it in an anti-Western or anti-US setting, says Hamidreza Azizi, visiting fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP).

“This is despite the fact that countries such as Pakistan and India are US’s close partners, and even Russia and China have never been willing to openly challenge the US on the global scene,” Azizi told Al Jazeera.

“The combination of these two misunderstandings, and also Iran’s self-perception as a natural hegemon in West Asia, would make the whole thing appear to the Iranian leaders as Iran joining other anti-Western great powers to form a strong coalition that is going to challenge the US hegemony.”

Azizi added that SCO members are reluctant to entangle themselves in Iran’s rivalries, which may be why, on Friday, they also admitted Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Egypt as “dialogue partners” in a balancing effort.

From a diplomatic perspective, the approval is significant.

Indeed, for a country as diplomatically and economically isolated as Iran, joining such a large and imposing regional body, whatever its limitations, is at least good optics.

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A slightly dated map showing SCO partners (dark green), observers (light green) and “dialogue partners” (yellow). Source: Wikimedia Commons

The SCO is far from being a full-fledged alliance with formal and binding commitments among its members; there is nothing like NATO’s Article 5, which obligates all members to come to the defense of another member in an attack, nor does it have the level of economic integration of the European Union. As one analyst describes it, the SCO is more of a “venue” for discussion among “high-level dignitaries”—which is perfectly suited for mostly autocratic countries that jealously guard their sovereignty.

Still, many powerful regional blocs like the EU did start from humble beginnings, growing from diplomatic talk shops to fully institutionalized arrangements over the span of decades. A wide array of countries have expressed interest in joining the group or are currently engaged with it in some way, including NATO members like Turkey and strategic partners like Saudi Arabia. It remains to be seen if the SCO will ever become as tightly integrated as its Western counterparts, though this is unlikely given its explicit commitment to nonintervention in members’ affairs—which ironically makes it all the more appealing for certain countries to join.

A Short and Hasty Guide on the Suez Canal Saga

I know I’m quite a bit late to the party (though I definitely indulged in all the glorious memes), but I think any time is a good time to learn about the otherwise overlooked bit of our global infrastructure that suddenly became a global phenomenon.

The World Food Programme

To many observers, especially in the United States, this year’s winner of the Nobel Peace Prize may seem uninspired, if not unfamiliar. It is an organization, rather than a person, and its work is probably not as widely known and appreciated as it should be.

Yet the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) is no less deserving of the honor (especially since over two dozens entities have won the Peace Prize before, including the United Nations itself). It is the largest humanitarian organization in the world, and the largest one focused on hunger, malnutrition, and food insecurity, providing critical food assistance to nearly 100 million people across 88 countries. Tens of millions would starve without its fleet of 5,600 trucks, 30 ships, and nearly 100 planes delivering more than 15 billion rations, at just 61 cents each. Remarkably, WFP does all its work based entirely on voluntary donations, mostly from governments.

Laudable as all that might be, it’s fair to ask what this work has to do with peace? Two-thirds of WFP’s work is done in conflict zones, where access to food is threatened by instability, violence, and even deliberate war tactics. Amid war and societal collapse, people are likelier to die from starvation, or from opportunistic diseases that strike their malnourished immune systems. Since its experimental launch in 1961, WFP has delivered aid to some of the most devastating and horrific natural disasters in history, including the Rwandan genocide, the Yugoslav War and the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004. (It became a permanent UN agency in 1965, having proven its worth by mustering substantial aid to earthquake-stricken Iran in 1962, initiating a development mission in Sudan, and launching its first school meals project in Togo.)

As The Economist points out, the focus on hunger is a sensible one: Not only have famine and malnutrition destroyed millions of lives across history, but they remaining pressing concerns in the face of the pandemic, climate change, and renewed conflict.

Governments everywhere are desperate to bring an end to the pandemic. But hunger has been growing quietly for years, and 2019 was the hungriest year recorded by the Food Security Information Network, a project of the WFP, the Food and Agriculture Organisation and other NGOs, which since 2015 has been gathering data on how many people worldwide are close to starvation. The rise was largely a consequence of wars in places like South Sudan, Yemen and the Central African Republic. This year, thanks to the covid-19 pandemic, things are likely to be far worse. Rather than war, this year it is the dramatic falls in the incomes of the poorest people that is causing hunger. There is as much food to go around, but the poor can no longer afford to buy it. The number of hungry people might double, reckons the WFP, from 135m in 2019 to 265m at the end of this year.

Unfortunately, despite the increased (and likely to increase) need for its services—more people face hunger than at anytime since 2012—the agency’s precarious budget, ever-dependent on the whims of donors, is declining. Again, from the Economist:

Last year the organisation received $8.05bn from its donors, by far the biggest of which is the United States. This year so far it has received only $6.35bn. Many countries, such as Britain, link their aid budgets to GDP figures which have fallen sharply. Britain provided roughly $700m of the WFP’s funding in 2019. This year its aid budget will fall by £2.9bn ($3.8bn). Under Mr Trump America had turned away from funding big multilateral organisations even before the pandemic hit, though the WFP has escaped the fate of the WHO, to which Mr Trump gave notice of America’s withdrawal in July. In Uganda food rations for South Sudanese and Congolese refugees have been cut. In Yemen the WFP has had to reduce rations by half.

WFP estimates that seven million people have already died from hunger this year, and will need almost seven billion dollars over the next six months to avert looming famines worldwide. WFP’s head, a former U.S. Republican governor, is using the agency’s higher profile from the Nobel Prize to urge more funding from governments and especially billionaires (whose collective health increased by over ten trillion this past year).

International Day of Clear Blue Skies

Aside from Labor Day in the U.S., today is the first International Day of Clear Blue Skies, which was established by the United Nations General Assembly to bring awareness to the largest environmental risk to public health globally: air pollution.

Over 90% of our world is exposed to polluted air, which causes an estimated seven million premature deaths every year (more than cigarette smoking) and leaves millions more with chronic health problems like asthma and cognitive decline.

Fortunately, the world has a precedent for successful action: Over 30 years ago this month, the UN-sponsored Montreal Protocol saw literally every country commit to working together to eliminate CFCs, which were causing severe depletion of the ozone layer; it remains one of the few treaties with universal agreement. It took only 14 years between the discovery of the problem and the world committing to resolve it—and we’ve already seen the results.

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A few years ago, it was confirmed that the ozone layer is slowly recovering, and most projections show it fully healing within the next four decades. In an era of rising conflict and poor global leadership, this unlikely and little known success story of international cooperation is a glimmer of hope.

When Cities are as Powerful as Nations

Before the emergence of the political units we now call countries, humans organized themselves in a variety of other ways, ranging from bands and tribes, to chiefdoms, kingdoms, and empires. Most of these entities were not proper countries as we think of them today, lacking a cohesive political or national identity, a firm boundary, or much in the way of an organized government.

The ancient societies of Egypt, Greece, China, Mesoamerica, the Indus River Valley, and Mesopotamia were among the exceptions, which is why they are recognized as “cradles of civilization”, places where the first features of what we consider modern society emerged: agriculture, urban development, social stratification, complex communication systems, infrastructure, and so on.

The urban character of civilization is what I find most interesting, because cities were where power, both political and economic, was concentrated. Urban centers were the places from which rulers asserted their authorities. Cities are where democracy and republicanism took root, and where civic engagement survived through the Middle Ages in places like Florence, Venice, Krakow,and Hamburg.

This dynamic has changed little in the 21st century; in fact, it is arguably stronger and more pronounced than ever, as globalization, population growth, and advanced technology come together to create metropolises as populous, wealthy, and powerful as entire countries.

The following map, courtesy of CityLab, draws on data from 2015 to prove the incredible growth and prestige of modern cities (the data for cities comes from the Brookings Institution’s Redefining Global Cities report, while the data for nations is from the World Bank’s World Development Indicators; the map was compiled by Taylor Blake of the Martin Prosperity Institute).

A few highlights noted by the article:

  • Tokyo, the world’s largest metro economy with $1.6 trillion in GDP-PPP, is just slightly smaller than all of South Korea. Were it a nation, Tokyo would rank as the 15th largest economy in the world.
  • New York City’s $1.5 trillion GDP places it among the world’s twenty largest economies, just a tick under those of Spain and Canada.
  • Los Angeles’ $928 billion GDP is bit smaller than Australia’s, with $1.1 trillion.
  • Seoul ($903 billion) has a bigger economy than Malaysia ($817 billion).
  • London’s $831 billion GDP makes its economic activity on par with the Netherlands ($840 billion).
  • Paris, with $819 billion in GDP, has a bigger economy than South Africa, $726 billion.
  • The $810 billion economy of Shanghai outranks that of the Philippines, with $744 billion.

To put things in further perspective: if you added up the ten largest metropolitan areas, you’d get an economy of over $9.5 trillion, bigger than the Japanese and German economies combined. Add the next ten largest metros, and you get the second largest economy in the world, at $14.6 trillion, less than four trillion shy of the U.S.

In other words: Cities really are the new power centers of the global economy—the platforms for innovation, entrepreneurship, and economic growth. But when it comes to fiscal and political power, they remain beholden to increasingly anachronistic and backward-looking nation-states, which has become distressingly obvious with the rise of Trumpism in the United States and populism around the world.

The greatest challenge facing us today is how to ensure that global cities have the economic, fiscal, and political power to govern themselves and to continue to be a force for innovation and human progress.


Very relevant question as the balance of power both within and between countries shifts to certain global cities, especially in the developing world.

What are your thoughts?

Facebook Isn’t Popular in Only a Handful of Countries

Russia and China are the only countries to have their own social media platforms be more popular than an American one: V Kontakte and Odnoklassniki (part of “Russia’s Google”, Mail.ru) and QZone (owned by China’s tech giant, Tencent, the world’s largest gaming and social media company). However, China bans most U.S. platforms, and only Russia’s are popular abroad (albeit in the Russian-speaking former Soviet bloc).

Otherwise, Facebook is very clearly the leading social network by a wide margin, dominating 152 out of 167 countries analyzed (91% of the planet).

Source: www.vincos.it/world-map-of-social-networks/

The World Map By Population Size

A country’s geographic often has little bearing on its population, as shown by this world map adjusted for population size.

See a larger version here.

Some of the results may be surprising: Bangladesh, which is about the size of Iowa, has more people than Russia, which is nearly twice as big as the U.S. That little green blip above China is Mongolia, which is bigger than Western Europe but has fewer people than South Florida.

Countries like Nigeria, Ethiopia, Vietnam, and Indonesia are far larger than most people realize. This is part of the reason the economic power and wealth is accruing to the developing world: their young and growing populations, if properly governed and invested in, offers considerable economic potential.

The Murder Capitals of the World

The waves of migrants fleeing many Latin American countries is in no small part due to the horrifically high rate of homicide that collectively claims hundreds of thousands of lives annually.

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Source: The Wall Street Journal

With just 8% of the world’s population, Latin America accounts for roughly a third of global murders. It is also the only region where lethal violence has grown steadily since 2000, according to United Nations figures.

Nearly one in every four murders around the world takes place in just four countries: Brazil, Venezuela, Mexico and Colombia. Last year, a record 63,808 people were murdered in Brazil. Mexico also set a record at 31,174, with murders so far this year up another 20%.

By comparison, the U.S.–which has one of the highest murder rates in the developed world–lost 17,250 citizens to homicide in 2016. The same year, the European Union, with 28 countries totaling 513 million people, had 5,351 homicides, while China, with over 1.5 billion inhabitants, had a little over 8,600 murders. Given the amount of shock, fear, and sensationalism such comparative rare murders can elicit, imagine the amount of terror and trauma experienced by people in Central and South America.

In recent years, growing numbers of families from Central America, including women and children, have fled to the U.S. because of horrific violence. Gangs such as MS-13 and Barrio 18 enforce a reign of terror, dictating even where people can go to school or get medical care. El Salvador’s murder rate of 83 per 100,000 people in 2016—the world’s highest—was nearly 17 times that of the U.S.

A new study by Vanderbilt University shows that the strongest factor in predicting whether someone emigrates from Honduras and El Salvador isn’t age, gender or economic situation, but whether they had been victimized by crime multiple times in the past year. A World Bank study found that nearly a quarter of children in one Honduran municipality suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder due to violence.

To make matters worse, pervasive corruption has enabled much if this violence, if not colluded in it: law enforcement are known to be as abusive and exploitative as gang members, and often work in concert with organized crime; politicians or police officers who are not bought are cowed into fear, pushed out, or killed.

With little to no recourse for the violence they face, plus a lack of economic activity to boot, it is little wonder thousands are fleeing for their dear lives in droves.

Source: Wall Street Journal

The Azerbaijan Democratic Republic

The Azerbaijan Democratic Republic (ADR) is barely a footnote in human history: it lasted only two years, from 1918 to 1920, as one of many short-lived states to emerge during the tumultuous Russian Civil War.

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Yet for its brief existence, it was a trailblazer: it was the first Muslim country to establish a democratic republic, with representation of all ethnic and religious minorities; power was vested in a universally elected parliament, and its founding document guaranteed “all its citizens within its borders full civil and political rights, regardless of ethnic origin, religion, class, profession, or sex.” The ADR was also among the first countries in the world, and the very first majority-Muslim nation, to grant women equal political rights with men—before even the U.S. and much of Western Europe.

There is no telling whether this ground-breaking effort would have lasted, as the country was invaded and annexed by the Soviets around its second anniversary of independence. (Around the same time, two other Muslim democratic republics emerged from the fallen Russian Empire: the Crimean People’s Republic and the Idel-Ural Republic, but these lasted only a few weeks.)

Source: Russian Azerbaijan, 1905-1920: The Shaping of a National Identity in a Muslim Community