The Mexican-American War

This week in 1846 saw the outbreak of one of the most obscure, consequential, and unjust wars in U.S. history: The Mexican American War, which in two years resulted in the U.S. becoming a continental power, at the expense of its weaker southern neighbor—something even American heroes like Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant regarded as a grave injustice.

The war began under the equally obscure but history-making presidency of James K. Polk, a one-term president with the rare distinction of having fulfilled all his campaign promises—one of which was expanding U.S. territory to the Pacific.

The problem was that Mexican (and to a lesser extent British) territory was in the way. Beginning with the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, which more than doubled the size of the fledging republic, there were several overtures to purchase what was then Spanish territory; in 1825, Andrew Jackson made a sustained effort to buy the northern lands of what was now newly independent Mexico, to no avail.

Meanwhile, Mexico was well aware of its precarious position: Not only was it wracked by political instability and social strife, but it lacked full authority over the rugged, sparsely inhabited lands of the now-American Southwest—especially against the various fiercely independent native tribes that were effectively sovereign. So, in the 1820s, the Mexican government invited Americans to settle and “civilize’ the vast, largely empty plains of present-day Texas; among them were men like Stephen F. Austin, the “Father of Texas“, who brought hundreds of “Anglo” families with him.

The rapid influx of Americans led to them outnumbering Mexicans in their own distant territory, which was already thousands of miles from Mexico’s political base in Mexico City. Aside from cultural and linguistic barriers, a major sticking point—surprise—was slavery: Mexico’s constitution had outlawed the practice decades before the U.S., but the vast majority of American settlers were slaveowners.

In a macabre foreshadowing of what was to come, disputes over slavery—along with the Mexican government’s effort to impose property taxes on the fiercely independent American immigrants—led Mexico to close the border with the U.S.—only for American slave owners to continue illegally crossing into Mexico (no need to harp on the irony here).

Escalating matters further, Mexico’s strongman president, Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, sought to roll back the country’s federal system in favor of centralized power; this upset the quasi-independent “Texans”, and when Santa Anna led an army to reign them in, the Texas Revolution broke out, and the Texans, with U.S. support, achieved de facto independence in 1836.

Mexico never recognized this claim—though the U.S. and other foreign powers did—and the border of this new “Republic of Texas” were subsequently unclear and disputed. So, when America made the controversial move of annexing Texas as a state in 1845—hotly debated in Congress and by the public—this brought the dispute to what was now our border.

After yet another failed attempt to buy Mexican territory and finding significant opposition to starting a war with its only independent neighbor, Polk essentially egged on Mexico to start hostilities first—by sending a military expedition deep into Mexican territory. Even Grant, who served in the war despite his opposition to it, claims in his Personal Memoirs (1885) that the main goal was to provoke the outbreak of war without attacking first, thereby hindering domestic opposition to the war.

“The presence of United States troops on the edge of the disputed territory farthest from the Mexican settlements, was not sufficient to provoke hostilities. We were sent to provoke a fight, but it was essential that Mexico should commence it. It was very doubtful whether Congress would declare war; but if Mexico should attack our troops, the Executive could announce, “Whereas, war exists by the acts of, etc.,” and prosecute the contest with vigor. Once initiated there were, but few public men who would have the courage to oppose it. … Mexico showing no willingness to come to the Nueces to drive the invaders from her soil, it became necessary for the “invaders” to approach to within a convenient distance to be struck. Accordingly, preparations were begun for moving the army to the Rio Grande, to a point near Matamoras. It was desirable to occupy a position near the largest centre of population possible to reach, without absolutely invading territory to which we set up no claim whatever.”

After Mexican forces engaged what it saw as American invaders, killing or capturing dozens, Polk made his case for war. Many pro-slavery Democrats supported a declaration of war, while many northern “Whigs” remained staunchly opposed—including a freshman Congressman from Illinois named Abraham Lincoln, who challenged Polk’s assertion that American blood had been shed on American soil as “a bold falsification of history.” Within hours, Congress voted to formally declare war against Mexico—one of the few times in history that the U.S. as officially been at war with another country.

Notwithstanding some success on the battlefield, Mexico simply lacked the resources, military experience, and political unity to defend itself against superior American forces. Once its capital was occupied—along with most other major cities—it was clear that the U.S. was victorious and could dictate terms—which unsurprisingly included annexing the northern territories the U.S. had long sought.

U.S. forces occupying Mexico City

(There was actually an “All of Mexico Movement” that sought to take the entirety of Mexico, but it fell apart due in large part to concerns about incorporating millions of inferior Indian and mixed races that comprised the majority of the country’s population.)

In the peace treaty that followed, Mexico ceded to the United States the present-day states of California, Nevada, and Utah, most of New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado, and parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Wyoming.

In return, Mexico received $15 million—$470 million today—which was less than half the amount the U.S. offered before the war; the U.S. further agreed to assume $3.25 million in debts that the Mexican government owed to U.S. citizens ($102 million today).

Aside from its obvious enrichment of the U.S., the war had a huge impact on American domestic politics: A bloody expansion led to a bitter and polarizing debate about whether America was fulfilling its “Manifest Destiny” as an enlightened republic or was instead no different than the imperialist Europeans it claimed to have broken from. Once again, Grant captured the mood in his memoirs:

“For myself, I was bitterly opposed to the measure, and to this day regard the war, which resulted, as one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation. It was an instance of a republic following the bad example of European monarchies, in not considering justice in their desire to acquire additional territory.”

The already-violent debate over slavery came to a head as both sides debated which of these vast territories should be “free” or “slave”; it was a cruel irony considering that the war had begun partly because illegal American immigrants insisted on having slaves in an “uncivilized” nation that had long since banned the despicable practice.

In some sense, America’s actions came to haunt it barely a generation later when these disputes over the fate of former Mexican territory furthered the boiling point to the American Civil War—which was led and fought by many veterans of the Mexican American War with tactics and strategies learned from that conflict.

Grant also expressed the view that the war against Mexico had brought punishment on the United States in the form of the American Civil War. “The Southern rebellion was largely the outgrowth of the Mexican war. Nations, like individuals, are punished for their transgressions. We got our punishment in the most sanguinary and expensive war of modern times”.

An illustrative example of the war is in the Great Seal of the State of New Mexico, which was the center of population in northern Mexico. The peace treaty made assurances that the Mexican population would become U.S. citizens and treated accordingly. To drive home the point, the state’s seal shows the Mexican eagle — with serpent and cactus, as in the coat of arms of Mexico —literally under the wing of an American eagle, which reinforces the state’s historic, centuries-long roots in Spanish, Mexican, and indigenous civilization. 

World AIDS Day

Belated World AIDS Day post: Although HIV/AIDS remains a scourge of humanity—particularly in it’s likely place of origin, Africa—we have made tremendous progress in reducing both infections and rates of death. Being HIV positive is no longer the death sentence it once was—ironically the large number of people living with the disease is in part a testament to the success of treatments and of policies to make them widely affordable and accessible (aided in large part by the much-maligned WHO).

As usual, German data-crunching company Statista lays it all out beautifully in their Instagram (which I highly recommend following).

Even though #worldaidsday has been used to promote awareness of the disease and mourn those who have died from it since 1988, the global epidemic is far from over.

According to data by @unaidsglobal, more than ten million people with HIV/AIDS don’t currently have access to antiretroviral treatment and the number of new infections with #HIV has remained the same compared to 2019 at roughly 1.5 million. When taking a closer look at the numbers, there are enormous regional differences in terms of battling the epidemic. Eastern and southern Africa, for example, combine for 55 percent of all known HIV/AIDS cases, while reducing new infections by 43 percent between 2010 and 2020. Western and central Africa also saw a decline of 37 percent when comparing 2010 and 2020, although it falls short of the benchmark of 75 percent set by the United Nations General Assembly.

While the number of new infections has dropped from 2.9 million in 2000 to 1.5 million last year, the number of people living with HIV increased from 25.5 million to approximately 37.7 million over the past two decades. According to UNAIDS, the increase is not only caused by new infections, but also a testament to the progress that has been made in treating HIV with antiretroviral therapy, which has vastly improved the outlook of those infected with HIV.

The even more astute data-lovers at Our World in Data vividly convey both the scale of the problem and just how much we have progressed, even in the most hard-hit places:

While in law school, I and some colleagues had the incredible opportunity to meet the hard working and earnest people at UNAIDS headquarters in Geneva. This unique entity is the first and only one of its kind in the world, combining the personnel and resources of nearly a dozen U.N. agencies to offer a comprehensive response to this pandemic. UNAID is also the only initiative to include civil society organizations in its governing structure.

Since it was launched in 1994, UNAIDS has helped millions of people worldwide get antiretroviral treatment for HIV/AIDS, provided millions more with preventative methods. Thanks to their efforts, and those of their partners across the world, the rate of infection and death by HIV/AIDS has stagnated or even declined in many areas, while the rate of treatment has increased.

As with so many other things, the COVID-19 pandemic has weakened the fight against HIV/AIDS, disrupting preventative measures and sapping away at an already-taxed healthcare system. With reports of individuals who seem to have naturally cured themselves of the virus, I have hope that we can regain momentum and maybe even develop an outright cure. Fortunately, the progress of the past several years proves we do not have to wait until then to make a difference to tens of millions of lives.

The Duty and Devotion of Albanian Hospitality

Albania, one of the poorest countries in Europe, has committed to taking in up to 4,000 Afghan refugees, which is among the most in the world and the most in proportion to its population (which is roughly 2.8 million)Hundreds of Afghans, including roughly 250 children, are being housed in coastal resorts, under a clever emergency plan developed by the government in response to a devastating 2019 earthquake; when thousands of people were rendered homeless, officials opted to shelter them in the mostly unused space of beach hotels.

Afghan refugees in Albania are being housed in resorts along the Adriatic coast.
Credit: New York Times

Such hospitality is deeply rooted in Albanian culture. The Muslim-majority country is known for its stringent code of generosity and hospitality to anyone and everyone who needs it. Known as besa, which roughly translates to “trust”, “faith”, or “oath”, it commits all Albanians to help people in need regardless of their background or circumstances. As locals explain, the tradition is simple: “If someone needs a place to stay, you give it to them, period”.

While the practice may go back to ancient times, it was first codified in the Kanun, a set of customary laws written in the 15th century to govern the many independent tribes of the region. Within this book is a proverb that sums it up nicely: “Before the house belongs to the owner, it first belongs to God and the guest.” You could knock on the door of any house and ask for help and the owner would have to take you in. The Kanun even advises households to always have a spare bed ready at any time, just in case.

Credit: BBC

While besa is a duty that binds all Albanians, there is evidence that they genuinely find hosting guests as a point of pride. There is one anecdote about a town that rebelled against a hotel that was going to be built there; everyone went to town hall and complained, saying people who needed a place to stay could just come knock on their doors.

Perhaps the greatest proof of this tradition is the Second World War, after which Albania was perhaps the only country to have more Jews than before the Holocaust. Not only did they save nearly their entire Jewish community, but they saved another two thousand or so who had fled to the country. Albanians largely resisted all the pressure and threats by Axis forces to turn over people in hiding. Had anyone given up their guest, they would bear a great shame that could only be solved by “cleaning the blood”—meaning taking vengeance against whoever took and harmed their guest (which is one hell of a story idea…).

This is also why Albania is relied upon by the U.S. and Europe to take in folks neither wants, from Iranian and Syrian refugees, to Guantanamo detainees deemed innocent but nonetheless untrusted.

The Only Woman Executed in the French Revolution for Her Politics

Olympe de Gouges.png

On this day in 1793, French playwright, journalist, and outspoken feminist Olympe de Gouges (born Marie Gouze) published the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Female Citizen, hoping to expose the failures of the French Revolution to recognize gender equality.

Initially hopeful that the French Revolution would usher equality between men and women, Gouges became disenchanted upon discovering that the key revolutionary tenant of egalite would not be extended to women. In 1791, in response to the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizenan otherwise seminal work in human rights— she wrote a counter-declaration that proposed full legal, social, and political equality between men and women. She also published her treatise, Social Contract, named after the famous work of Enlightenment thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau, calling for marriage based upon gender equality.

Even before the revolution, Gouges was well ahead of her time both ideologically and professionally. She dared write plays and publish political pamphlets at a time when women were denied full participation in the public and political space. After releasing a play critical of slavery, she was widely denounced and even threatened for both her anti-slavery stance and being involved in the male profession of theatre in the first place. Gouges remained defiant: “I’m determined to be a success, and I’ll do it in spite of my enemies”. Unfortunately, threats and outright sabotage from the slavery lobby forced the theatre to abandon her play after just three days.

Heck, even her name was an act of defiance against prevailing social norms, as explained by Columbia College:

…Gouges took on her mother’s middle name, changed the spelling of her father’s and added the aristocratic “de.”  Adding to this already audacious gesture, the name “Gouges” may also have been a sly and provocative joke.  The word “gouge” in Occitan was an offensive slang term used to refer to lowly, bawdy women.  

Unsurprisingly, once the French Revolution came into full swing, Gouges wasted no time in seizing the moment. Aside from her already-bold feminist views, she rigorously supported a wage of policies and rights that proved radical even for the revolution:

She produced numerous broadsides and pamphlets between 1789 and 1792 that called for, among other things, houses of refuge for women and children at risk;  a tax to fund workshops for the unemployed;  the legitimation of children born out of wedlock;  inheritance equality;  the legalization and regulation of prostitution;  the legalization of divorce;  clean streets;  a national theater and the opening of professions to everyone regardless of race, class or gender.  She also began to sign her letters “citoyenne,” the feminine version of the conventional revolutionary honorific “citoyen.”  

Gouges’ opposition to the revolution’s growing and bloody radicalism, and support for a constitutional monarchy, put a target on her back. Above all she openly disliked, Maximillian Robespierre, in effect the most powerful man in the country, going so far as to use the informal tu when referring to him in an open letter. This proved the last straw; she was tried, convicted, and executed for treason as one of only three women to be executed during the Reign of Terror, and the only one executed for her politics.

Nonetheless, Gouges’ legacy lived on for decades, influencing women’s rights movements across Europe and North America: the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention in New York—the first convention dedicated to women’s rights—based its “Declaration of Sentiments” on her “Declaration of the Rights of Woman”. 

Space Nationalism or Multilateralism?

Both Russia and China, among the world’s premier space powers, are now aiming for their own space stations, with the latter having already launched the first of several modules.

After the U.S., Russia is the biggest contributor to the International Space Station, which by some measures the most successful and fruitful space project, and among the most expensive scientific endeavors ever.

See the source image

Half the ISS—which involves five space agencies and fifteen countries—is Russian-built and operated, and to this day Russia does most of the legwork in launching both crew and cargo. It was a rare and enduring example of cooperation between two erstwhile rivals, an interesting if fragile antidote to the petty politics on the ground. (Scientists and astronauts from both countries get along pretty well and have consistently collaborated even through the worst flareups of tensions and hostility.)

China was never part of the ISS—a notable absence given its hefty financial resources and technical knowledge—due to a controversial NASA policy implemented by Congress in 2011 that excludes any form of cooperation with any Chinese institution or organization. So I imagine its ambitious attempt at a national space station, like so many of its actions abroad, clearly has a triumphalist “We’ll show you!” aspect to it.

But China’s Tiangong, or “Heavenly Palace”, which is set for completion in just a year, will have only one-sixth the mass of the ISS, and roughly a quarter of its habitable space. This isn’t to say it won’t be an impressive feat—especially for a developing country that remains a byword for cheap consumer goods—but its full potential is likely limited given the sheer costs and complexity of building (and regularly maintaining) a human habitat in space.

See the source image
Source: South China Morning Post

Meanwhile, Russia’s plans are less clear: Though it holds many records in space stations—including launching the first one, having the most in total, and having the most experience with space walks and the like—it no longer has the financial resources to back this knowhow. (That’s what made the ISS so successful: What Russia lacked in America’s vast resources it made up for with its proven expertise, and visa versa.)

Even the otherwise prideful U.S.—albeit namely its pragmatic scientists at NASA—has now seemingly realized that space is too big, costly, and complex an endeavor for even superpowers to handle.

Aside from being a key founder of the ISS, which was created to replace a planned U.S. station that would have been too costly, NASA plans to return to humans to the moon for the first time in fifty years through the Artemis Program—a decidedly international effort.

While it will be led primarily by NASA and its mostly American commercial contractors, it will include personnel, tech, and resources from Europe, Japan, Canada, Italy, Australia, the United Kingdom, United Arab Emirates, Ukraine, and Brazil. (Believe it or not, those last three do carry a lot of technological heft in space; the UAE has a probe orbiting Mars as we speak, and India is notable for accomplishing many difficult space ventures at fairly low cost.) More countries have been invited and are are expected to join.

The Artemis Program not only aims to put humans (including the first woman) on the Moon by 2024, but has the long-term goal of establishing a lunar base that will be a launchpad for crewed missions to Mars.

See the source image

Surprisingly, all this was promulgated during the tenure of a Trump-appointed, former Oklahoma congressman as NASA Administrator, who explicitly modeled the “Artemis Accords”, which broaden international participation in the program, on the United Nations Outer Space Treaty of 1967 (on which most space law is grounded).

To be sure, neither the Artemis Program, nor the Accords that essentially “internationalize” it, are without their criticisms. Many international legal scholars see them as a way for America to apply its own self-interested interpretation of space law that permits commercial exploitation of celestial bodies; as The Verge reports:

[The] Outer Space Treaty is pretty vague — purposefully so — which means there is a lot of room for interpretation on various clauses. The goal of the Artemis Accords is to provide a little more clarity on how the US wants to explore the Moon without going through the slow treaty-making process. “We are doing this in keeping with the Outer Space Treaty,” said Bridenstine, adding that NASA is trying to “create a dynamic where the Outer Space Treaty can actually be enforced.”

One big thing NASA wanted to make clear in the accords is that countries can own and use resources that are derived from the Moon. As part of the Artemis program, NASA hopes to extract lunar materials, such as the Moon’s dirt or water ice that’s thought to be lurking in the shadows of lunar craters. The Outer Space Treaty forbids nations from staking claim to another planetary body, but the policy of the US is that countries and companies can own the materials they extract from other worlds. “Article II of the Outer Space Treaty says that you cannot appropriate the Moon for national sovereignty,” Bridenstine said. “We fully agree with that and embrace it. We also believe that, just like in the ocean, you can extract resources from the ocean. But that doesn’t mean you own the ocean. You should be able to extract resources from the Moon. Own the resources but not own the Moon.”

It’s an interpretation of the Outer Space Treaty that not everyone may agree on. A pair of researchers writing in the journal Science last week have called on countries to speak up about their objections to this interpretation, and that the United States should go through the United Nations treaty process in order to negotiate on space mining. “NASA’s actions must be seen for what they are—a concerted, strategic effort to redirect international space cooperation in favor of short-term U.S. commercial interests, with little regard for the risks involved,” the researchers wrote in Science.

Still, the overall substance and spirit of the Accords — which at just seven pages, makes for an easy read) — seems like the sensible way forward. I know, I know count on the internationalist to reach that conclusion! But really, if we want to maximize humanity’s potential in space, we must do so as, well, humans: unified in our resources, knowhow, innovation, and vision. Given how much has been accomplished by just a handful of nations on their ow — and the number of countries joining the space club grows annually — imagine what a united front can offer?

Given that China and Russia have lunar aspirations of their own—including a joint lunar base that sort of speaks to my point—it will be interesting to see which vision will play out successfully: The Star Trek-style pan-humanist approach, or the more familiar competitiveness and nationalism that characterized the Cold War or even the colonial era.

What are your thoughts?

International Day of Human Space Flight

Gagarin’s Breakfast (2011), a whimsical take on the first man in space by Alexey Akindinov.

I was so busy reeling from the results of my cursed Bar Exam that I forgot April 12 was also a much happier occasion: International Day of Human Space Flight, which commemorates the 1961 flight of Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin—the first man to enter outer space and the first to orbit the Earth. He spent 108 minutes aboard the Vostok 1, which was basically one big cannonball with rudimentary, if resourceful, technology.

Gagarin subsequently became the most visible and iconic Russian in the world, a far cry from dour and disreputable figures that were more familiar to outsiders. His natural charm and friendliness—both personally and in every media spotlight—earned him the moniker “the Smiling Soviet“, as it contradicted the popular image of Russians as gruff and sullen.

Gagarin’s childhood home in the tiny town of Klushino.

How does one become the first human in space, especially as the son of peasants in a country as seemingly blighted as Soviet Russia? After personally enduring the grief and hardship of the Second World War—including having his home occupied by a German officer, and serving in the resistance—Gagarin returned to normal life; he loved math and science in school, and was fascinated with planes, building model aircraft and eventually a local flying club. Unsurprisingly, he joined the Soviet Air Force, where his confidence and knack for flying were matched only by his astute technical knowledge; as a youth, he worked in a steel factory and later went to vocational school, learning about industrial work and tractors.

As the Soviet space program went into high gear in the 1960s, Gagarin and other talented pilots were being screened for their fitness and aptitude as “cosmonauts”—something no one had ever been before. (There was only so much we could know about the effect of space travel on a human.)

When it came down to him and 19 other candidates, an Air Force doctor made the following evaluation of him:

Modest; embarrasses when his humor gets a little too racy; high degree of intellectual development evident in Yuri; fantastic memory; distinguishes himself from his colleagues by his sharp and far-ranging sense of attention to his surroundings; a well-developed imagination; quick reactions; persevering, prepares himself painstakingly for his activities and training exercises, handles celestial mechanics and mathematical formulae with ease as well as excels in higher mathematics; does not feel constrained when he has to defend his point of view if he considers himself right; appears that he understands life better than a lot of his friends.

Gagarin was also heavily favored by his peers—even those otherwise competing with him for the glory of first man in space.  When the 20 candidates were asked to anonymously vote for which other candidate they would like to see as the first to fly, all but three chose him

Another favorable factor was, of all things, his short stature (at least partly a product of his rough and impoverished childhood). At just 5’2″, Gagarin could easily fit in the small, rudimentary cockpit of the Vostok 1. (Being the first into space is scary enough—imagine in something that cramped.)

As Valentina Malmy wrote beautifully in the book Star Peace:

He was like a sound amplified by a mountain echo. The traveler is small, but the mountains are great, and suddenly they merge into a single whole. Such was Yuri Gagarin. To accomplish a heroic exploit means to step beyond one’s own sense of self-preservation, to have the courage to dare what today seems unthinkable for the majority. And to be ready to pay for it. For the hero himself, his feat is the limit of all possibilities. If he leaves something “in reserve”, then the most courageous deed thereby moves into the category of work: hard, worthy of all glorification, but — work. An act of heroism is always a breakthrough into the Great Unknown. Even given most accurate preliminary calculations, man enters into that enterprise as if blindfold, full of inner tension.

I can’t wrap my head around being the first person to venture into something as unknown and terrifying as space—to be able put your thumb up in front of you and our big planet as small as your fingernail.

Little wonder why Gagarin became such a worldwide celebrity, touring dozens of countries in the years following his fateful flight. The geopolitical implications melted away in the face of this impressive feat, and the man’s genuine charm and affability—this was something all humankind could celebrate.

Of course, this was still the Cold War: As a living symbol of Soviet triumph, Gagarin could not be risked on another spaceflight, given their inherent danger even today, let alone fifty years ago. Ironically, he died unexpectedly just a few years later during a routine training flight, an event subject to much secrecy and rumor (one conspiracy theory is that newly installed Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev ordered his death due to being overshadowed by the gregarious cosmonaut at public events).

For his part, the “Smiling Soviet” seemed above such politics, notwithstanding his (likely symbolic) stint as a member of the Soviet legislature. As to be expected, being the first man in space really changes you and puts things in perspective; you’re literally looking down on everything you, and all your fellow humans, have ever known. I wonder if it was surreal or even lonely being the only person with that sort of view.

Despite being banned from the U.S. by the Kennedy Administration—perhaps because his popularity among average Americans undermined the competitive spirit of the Space Race—Gagarin was honored by the Apollo 11 crew (ironically the same mission that ended the race in America’s favor). Astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin left a memorial on the surface of the moon commemorating him and fellow cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov, the first human to venture into Outer Space, and the first to die there. (Another memorial was left by Apollo 15 in 1971 to commemorate the Americans and Russians who died in space.)

Though untimely and cruelly ironic—an expert pilot dying from a routine flight rather than the first space mission—Gagarin is survived by one hell of a legacy: The almost banal regularity of human spaceflight in the 21st century is a testament to his courageous and spirited embrace of the ultimate unknown.

The Swedes Who Saved Millions of Lives

Meet the Nils Bohlin and Gunnar Engellau, whose work at Swedish carmaker Volvo has helped save millions of lives worldwide.

Engellau, Volvo’s president and an engineer himself, helped push for a more effective seatbelt, after a relative died in a traffic accident due partly to the flaws of the two-point belt design—which was not even standard feature in cars at the time. This personal tragedy drove Engellau to find a better solution, hiring Bohlin to find a solution quickly.

There were two major problems with the historic two-point belt design, which crosses the lap only. First, because the human pelvis is hinged, a single strap fails to restrain the torso, leaving passengers vulnerable to severe head, chest and spinal injuries; positioned poorly, the belt can even crush internal organs on impact. Second, they were notoriously uncomfortable, so many people chose not to wear them. Bohlin’s innovation was to find a design that resolved both problems at once.

After millions of dollars and thousands of tests through the 1950s and 1960s, Volvo became the first carmaker in the world to standardize the three-point safety belt we now take for granted. More than that, Volvo pushed hard for the seatbelt to be adopted in its native Sweden, which like most places was initially resistant to having to wear seatbelts.

But Volvo didn’t stop there. While it patented the designs to protect their investment from copy-cats, the company did not charge significant license fees to rivals or keep the design to itself to give their cars an edge. Knowing that lives were at stake worldwide, Engellau made Bohlin’s patent immediately available to all. Having sponsored the costly R&D, they gifted their designs to competitors to encourage mass adoption. It is estimated that Volvo may have lost out on $400 million in additional profits, if not more.

Instead, literally millions of people have been spared injury and death by this now-ubiquitous seatbelt we take for granted. All because a couple of Swedes decided to put people over profits (which isn’t to say they didn’t reap any financial incentive, but proved you can do both).

Happy UN Day

Today is UN Day, which commemorates the 75th birthday of the United Nations, a deeply flawed and troubled organization that is nonetheless more indispensable than ever—and has accomplished a lot more than most people think.

It was on this day 75 years ago, just months after the end of humanity’s bloodiest war, that the UN Charter came into force after being ratified by fifty countries. The Charter established the organization along with the framework of the international system. An audacious and idealistic document, it articulated a commitment to uphold the human rights and wellbeing of all citizens, addressing “economic, social, health, and related problems,” and “universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion”. The organization now counts nearly four times as many members, at 193.

Signing of the United Nations Charter
The signing of a document like no other in human history.

Dwight D. Eisenhower, far from a bleeding-heart globalist, once said that the UN “represents man’s best organized hope to substitute the conference table for the battlefield”.

If nothing else, the organization has served as an outlet for frustrations and rivalries that would otherwise manifest on the battlefield. The constant grandstanding between the U.S. and Russia may be frustrating—and has often led to devastating deadlock during crises—but imagine the alternative course of action without an international platform? Many countries on the verge of open conflict have opted instead to take diplomatic shots at each other at the UN—an often sordid display, to be sure, but obviously better than the alternative.

Of course, we Americans know full well how hard it is to get even our one country to work together—imagine close to 200 countries spanning eight billion people and a multitude of languages, religions, cultures, types of governments, and levels of development. The UN is only as effective as its members allow it to be, and its failures and limitations are a reflection of our own as a species.

Moreover, it is worth considering the context of its emergence: A war that had killed over 60 million people (three percent of all humans at the time), following a millennia of endless conflict where violence was the norm and enslavement, rape, looting, and other things we now call war crimes (courtesy of the UN) were just the way of things. For most of our quarter of a million years of existence, we rarely knew about, much less cared, for anyone outside our immediate tribe or band. Human rights and civil liberties were alien concepts that would not have made sense to anyone. The vast majority of people lived in grinding poverty, oppression, fear, and ignorance.

From the ashes of the worst conflict in history emerges an organization trying to cultivate peace, progress, and unity among our species—not just out of idealism, but also based on the sober realism that some problems are too big for any one nation to handle. Needless to say, it has failed in its lofty aspirations time and again, as most of us know all too well—but that’s to be expected given just how bold of an undertaking it is. And for all the failures, there are plenty of successes we take for granted.

Given that most Americans do not even know how their own government works, it stands to reason that few know the workings and complexities of the international system, either.

Few people know that it was the UN Secretary-General, U Thant of Burma, who played a key role in the Cuban Missile Crisis; JFK admitted that the entire world was in the UN leader’s debt, though Thant is scarcely known today.

Many of us take for granted the modern amenities and benefits, let alone realize their origin in the UN. The ability to mail and ship things globally; to access goods and products from around the world; and to travel anywhere with relative ease are all due to UN organizations, treaties, or conferences that established uniform standards and rules for airlines, companies, and governments. Even seatbelts became widespread through deliberate UN policy.

Few know the work of UNICEF, one of the oldest UN organization, which in 2018 alone helped care for 27 million babies born in places with high infant and maternal mortality; treated four million children in 73 countries for severe acute malnutrition; and provided over 65 million children with vaccines against common killers like diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis (half the world’s children get their vaccine through UNICEF). Over the last thirty years, it has saved over 90 million children.

The much maligned WHO helped eradicate smallpox, which once killed millions annually throughout history, and is on the verge of eradicating polio as well. It has helped most people with HIV/AIDS get access to treatment, and is currently working on making insulin more available, too. With respect to the recent pandemic, it also used its diplomacy to get China to finally open itself to an international team of scientists—which included two Americans. It recently helped stem the second largest Ebola outbreak in Congo, to little fanfare.

A 1987 conference convened by the UN Environment Programme helped lead to an international treaty that has successfully repaired the ozone layer.

The World Food Programme, along with the Food and Agriculture Organization, provides food and assistance to 90 million people in 88 countries, keeping them from the brink of starvation (and getting a well deserved Nobel Peace Prize for it). FAO also eradicated rinderpest, a deadly livestock disease that is only the second infectious disease in history (besides smallpox) to be eradicated. It also maintains the world’s largest and most comprehensive statistical database on food and agriculture.

The UN Population Fund helps an average of two million women a month with their pregnancies, which could be deadly in most countries.

The UN regularly monitors elections in about fifty countries, which not only ensures a free and fair political process but has prevented numerous civil wars and conflicts.

All these achievements do not undo the very real and tragic failings of the organization, from the genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia, to the Syrian and Yemeni civil wars. But 75 years is not a long time to undo over 200,000 years of tribalism and disunity. As one UN chief put it, “the United Nations was not created to bring us to heaven, but in order to save us from hell”.

Considering that the average American pays less than two dollars a year to cover the U.S.’ regular dues to the UN, I think it is a bargain worth supporting and improving upon.

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.