May 11th, 2010

[LINK] "Harper's puzzling overture"

Back on Friday, at the Globe and Mail's special G20 blog, Kevin Carmichael asked the question of why Prime Minister Harper is trying to get the Netherlands invited to the G20 summit when there are already too many Europeans present.

[T]he G20 as currently structured is an imperfect collection of countries. Argentina is in the group in large part because it was the locus of much of the financial panic that led to the G20’s creation as a forum for finance ministers and central bank governors in the late 1990’s. That, and the fact that regional rivalries keep Portuguese-speaking Brazil from being a true spokesperson for Latin America. If the G20 was being created today, Chile, which recently gained entry to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, might stand a better chance of making the cut.

Regional rivalries also undermine South Africa as a voice for all of Africa. Yet the country is the only African nation in the G20, highlighting the most glaring flaw in the group’s current makeup.

But as just about every international-governance thinker would tell you, the last thing the G20 process needs is more Europeans around the table. This isn’t because European officials don’t have anything to offer. It’s because of the symbolism. Europe is already over-represented at international institutions. Adding more countries to the mix when you the option not to only sends a signal to emerging markets that the old order is unwilling to share the reigns.

The Netherlands happens to a perfect example of the problem. The country's economy represents barely 1 per cent of the world's gross domestic product based on purchasing power parity. Yet because of its relative economic clout when the International Monetary Fund was founded after the Second World War, the Netherlands has more voting shares than India, Brazil and South Korea.

By the way, if I'd add a European country to the G20 summit it would be Poland, the largest of the post-Communist economies after Russia, easily one of the most dynamic, and the motor behind a country of increasing heft in Europe.

[LINK] "Grants and drag queens don't mix"

Xtra! and the Star and the Globe and Mail have all covered the hostile reaction to the Conservative government's decision not to fund Toronto's annual Pride festival. The government says its decision wasn't motivated by homophobia, rather by a desire to spread funding of community festivals more evenly across Canada. But when the conservative National Post dissents, you know that to be a transparent excuse.

According to some senior Conservatives, the decision to deny Toronto's Pride Week funding from the government's Marquee Tourism Events Program was cast in stone last summer. This week's confirmation that the gay-themed celebration would be frozen out this year only made it public.

So intense was the caucus backlash last July against a publicity photo of then-tourism minister Diane Ablonczy awarding $400,000 to a Pride committee group, including busty transvestites, the story goes, that the order to Industry Canada was to design a new process that would ensure the event would not qualify again.

"They've been on top of this since way back then to make sure this doesn't happen again," says one Tory close to the Industry Minister. "They had a year to restructure the program in a way that would exclude Toronto Pride."

But that's just one version. Other senior Tories have others. One posited that Prime Minister Stephen Harper enjoys stoking social issues that divide the Liberal caucus.

[. . .]

Still others interviewed sense the invisible hands of Mr. Harper's chief of staff, Guy Giorno, a passionate Catholic, and Darrel Reid, a senior policy advisor and former president of the evangelical group Focus on the Family Canada.

And so it appears even senior Tories aren't quite sure what the Tories were thinking by helping to reanimate old fears of a theologically driven "hidden agenda" by appearing to single out the gay community for selective neglect.

[BRIEF NOTE] On a class of Earth-like moons

Centauri Dreams takes a look at the gas giant planet HIP 57050 b, located some 40 light years from Earth in the constellation Ursa Major, that orbits its dim star squarely in the middle of its habitable zone. Could b host a living Earth-like world? It's possible.

Recent work from the Lick-Carnegie team has found that the M-dwarf HIP 57050 is orbited by a Saturn-mass world with an orbital period of 41.4 days. What catches the eye about this exoplanet is its temperature, some 230 kelvin or -43 degrees Celsius, warm enough to place it in the habitable zone of the star. Based on our knowledge of the gas giants in our own Solar System, it’s a natural supposition that this is a world with moons, and if so, their location in the habitable zone draws inevitable comparisons with fictional worlds like Pandora.

[. . .]

Could a habitable moon exist here? Theoretically so, but the paper goes on to note that in our Solar System, on the order of 0.02% of the mass of the gas giants is found in their moons. Run the numbers and you wind up with a moon that is about 2 percent of Earth’s mass, or 1/5th the mass of Mars. That doesn’t sound particularly promising, but in an article in Scientific American, Darren Williams (Penn State) points out that larger moons could form on their own and be captured by a massive planet’s gravity.

We may be looking at that situation in our own system in Neptune’s moon Triton, which possibly arrived where it is today by being captured by Neptune, with a binary object pairing with Triton being ejected in the process. Williams, who has simulated the situation on objects as massive as the Earth, says that an Earth-size moon could form around a gas giant this way, with a secondary object the size of Mars being lost along the way. So while we’re a long way from discovering a moon around HIP 57050 b, we do at least have a world in the habitable zone of its star and the possibility of objects around it that are astrobiologically interesting.

Commenters note that such a world would likely be volcanically very active, between its tight orbit around b and tides from its star. This would be quite unlike our Mars, which is much more queiscent. Like Mars, this world would lose its dense atmosphere fairly quickly thanks to its low mass, and so wouldn't be very Earth-like for long. Still, there would be a time, perhaps as long as a couple of a billion years, where the world would be fertile.

[BRIEF NOTE] Geocurrents on Iran and the Azerbaijans

Geocurrents has had a series of interesting posts on the Azeris, a Turkic people closely linked to the Turks of Turkey proper but predominantly Shi'ite. There are twice as many Azeris in Iran as in the independent post-Soviet republcis of Azerbaijab, byut despite Azerbaijani independence pan-Azeri remains weak. Iran's Azeris identify themselves as Iranian; the Islamic Republic has helped this.

The Persio-centric policies of the two Pahlavi shahs antagonized Iran’s ethnic minorities, including not just Turkic-speakers but millions of Arabs, Kurds, and others. They also failed to resonate deeply with many Persian, who formed a bare majority of the country’s population. Under Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Iran’s head of state from 1941 to 1979, Iranian nationalism was officially based not merely on contemporary Persian culture but on 2,500 years of imperial history. By glorifying his country’s pre-Islamic past, the Shah deeply antagonized Iran’s religious leadership, contributing to the collapse of his regime in 1979.

The new Islamic Republic of Iran fixed its national foundations firmly on the religious ties of Shiite Islam. Although Persian remained the favored language, especially in education, many of the restrictive linguistic policies of the previous government were dropped. As Shiites, the Azeris could easily share in the country’s reformulated scheme of national identity. (The same cannot be said for Iran’s Sunni groups, most notably the Baluch and the Kurds.)

Developments in northern Azerbaijan, under Russian and then Soviet control from the early 1800s to 1991, also militated against the formation of a pan-Azeri national consciousness. Russian imperial rule was harsh, and did not encourage the emergence of Azeri political identity. Under Soviet rule, such identity was nurtured insofar as it remained subsumed within communist ideology. Soviet agents promoted communist ideas in Iran as well. In the 1920s, ‘30s, and ‘40s, the Iranian Communist Party gained strength in the north, and especially in the Azeri-speaking northwest. But the Soviets overplayed their hand. After having occupied much of northern Iran during World War II, the Soviet Union set up a quasi-independent communist state in Iranian Azerbaijan in 1945, appealing to Azeri ethnic identity. Most Iranian Azeris, however, rejected the Marxist ideology of the “Azerbaijan People’s Government,” which collapsed in 1946. As much as they may have distrusted the Pahlavi dynasty, most southern Azeris preferred it to the Soviet Union.

At the same time, Iran's relationship with independent Azerbaijan has been improving of late.

Until recently, the relationship had been frosty. Iran has long railed against Azerbaijan’s ties with the United States and Israel, while Azerbaijan has denounced Iran’s friendship with Armenia. Iran took umbrage at a 2006 World Congress of Azerbaijanis in Baku, where participants mooted the idea of a “united Azerbaijan” and charged the Iranian government with human rights abuses against Azeris in northwestern Iran. Iran’s clerical establishment still fumes at the burgeoning tourist trade. The Atlantic recently showcased Astara, Azerbaijan as the “Tijuana of the Caspian” where “everything’s for sale,” ranging from sex, to liquor, to body piercings, to astrological forecasts – even during Ramadan. “It’s common knowledge,” reported an Azerbaijani Ministry of Foreign Affairs official, “that the Iranians want the border shut down.” Yet in early May 2010, Baku and Tehran agreed to build a $220 million trans-border bridge in Astara to encourage the transit of goods and people.

The turnabout in Iranian-Azerbaijani relations stems in part from the increasing stress between Washington and Baku. Over the past year, the United States has pushed hard for rapprochement between Turkey and Armenia, with a small measure of success. By seeming to favor Armenia, the U.S. has irked Azerbaijan; as long as Armenia and its client quasi-state of Nagorno-Karabakh occupy a large swath of Azerbaijan’s official territory, Azerbaijan will remain Armenia’s foe. According to Alexander Jackson, Azerbaijan’s government also feels slighted by the United States. Washington has reportedly failed for eight months to send an ambassador to Baku. More egregiously, Azerbaijan was not invited to the Nuclear Security Summit in April 2010. Armenia and Turkey were; their leaders came, and they spoke with President Obama about the region and its problems. In late April, Azerbaijan cancelled a joint military training exercise with the U.S.

The author goes on to note that the United States leans in many ways towards Armenia, which has the longer friendly relationship with Iran and a history of emnity with Turkey and (of course) Azerbaijan, but an American-Armenian entente is more popular in the Untied States thanks to the Armenian lobby while retaining the prospect of improving relations with Armenia's patron Russia.