Thursday 12 Dec 2019 | 03:56 | SYDNEY
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About the project

The Global Issues program examines themes that lie at the intersection of global political trends and Australia’s interests, specifically US foreign policy, global migration & multilateral institutions.

The program has published ground-breaking papers on diasporas, the provision of consular assistance to Australians overseas, and Australia’s asylum-seeker policy.

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Development links: Hans Rosling, mobile money, Malala Day and more

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    (R)evolution in Brazil?

    Patrick Carvalho is the former Head of the Economic Studies Division at the Federation of Industries of Rio de Janeiro and co-author of Great Southern Lands: Building Ties Between Australia and Brazil.

    Is Brazil next? Following the Arab uprisings, and most recently the Turkish one, protests in Brazil are in the international media spotlight. Will they jeopardise Brazil's hosting of the 2014 FIFA World Cup? Should the upheaval impact the inflow of foreign direct investment and commercial confidence in Brazil?

    For better or for worse, the answer is 'no': Brazil's recent protests will not likely have any significant impact in the medium and long term.

    Ceci n'est pas une Arab uprising!

    Unlike the counterpart movements in the Arab world and Turkey, Brazil's protests cannot (yet) be labelled as 'anti-government' riots. There is no concrete consensus for toppling the incumbent regime or serious risk to the stability of national institutions. 

    Crisis? What crisis?

    After ten years in power, the national government led by Brazil's Workers' Party (PT) is doing its best to dissociate itself from being part of the problem. President Dilma Roussef, who during her youth participated in armed guerrilla action against the dictatorship, knows that the best way to tackle protests in a democracy is to pretend to embrace them.

    With time, and with a few isolated incidents of vandalism perpetrated by extremists, the legitimacy of the protest movement evaporates while public opinion turns against the protesters. No wonder in the first days of riots, no police force (or politicians) were to be seen, while the masses easily and poetically invaded the National Congress environs. A few days later, after the sense of anarchy had spooked the middle class, a brutish and unprepared police force came into play, trying to dissipate even the peaceful protests, which were the vast majority.

    If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favourable.

    If the riots are not explicitly designed to topple the incumbent government, what are they for?

    Briefly, the protests are a long overdue outcry against the widespread sentiment of corruption and inefficient public services. According to Transparency International, Brazil ranked 69th in the Corruption Perception Index in 2012, behind Ghana and Cuba. In 2003, the year the PT came to power, Brazil ranked better at 54th.

    Many political incidents help explain public outrage at perceived corruption, the key one being the legislative vote-buying scandal during the reign of former President Lula (Dilma Roussef's mentor and political godfather).

    Furthermore, Brazil taxes like a Scandinavian country while providing public services like a sub-Saharan one. With a tax burden reaching over a third of the national income (Australia's tax-to-GDP ratio is currently around a quarter) and a paltry 130th position in the World Bank's Doing Business index, Brazilians are fed up with paying so much for so little.

    The problem with the current upheaval is that too many divided voices and conflicting demands hinder any real positive outcome. The risk here is that, like the 2011 Occupy protests in several Western cities, vague leadership and a lack of clear demands will compromise the effectiveness of the protests. In short, the winds of change are present and strong, but the sails are not properly unfurled.

    Facebook, Twitter, YouTube… and all that jazz

    The anarchy in the Brazilian protests is linked, as The Economist points out, to new technologies such as smartphones and social media. According to SocialBakers, a social media consultancy, the number of Facebook users in Brazil has doubled in the past eighteen months, achieving almost 70 million users — second only to the US. Not surprisingly, Facebook groups linked to protests in Brazil went viral, accumulating members by the thousands. But although Generation Y is more connected and (hyper) active than ever, it has a chronic deficit in attention to detail and procedure. 

    The problem in any revolution is the letter r.

    As described in our recent Lowy Institute report Great Southern Lands, Brazil has established itself on a new and improved development course. The yesteryears of high inflation, uncontrolled public finances and external debt defaults are buried. Nonetheless, in order to move forward and fulfil the 'country of the future' prophecy, Brazilian society has to move beyond demanding better services and less corruption.

    Instead, the focus should be on how to achieve these goals in the long term. It needs to be understood that social media has its own limits. Facebook likes and Twitter hashtags are a great way to mobilise collective wants, but are not sufficient to deliver the desired changes.

    In a democracy, there are better and more effective ways of achieving social and political improvements. A mature and evolved debate is imperative if any lasting outcome is to be expected from the current wave of protests. Brazil does not need a revolution; an incremental evolution would do for now.

    Photo by Flickr user Semilla Luz.

    World War Z a colossal disappointment

    For those who enjoyed Max Brooks' novel and saw the recently released Brad Pitt feature, the above Venn diagram (courtesy of The Oatmeal) surely says it all.

    What a colossal disappointment the film was. I had my doubts from the beginning, and wondered whether the cinema was really the right place for this sprawling geo-political thriller. Given the novelistic quality of so much contemporary TV drama, it seemed to me that television might have been a better home for this story – the West Wing with zombies. Or there was an opportunity to do something like what Stephen Soderbergh did with Contagion, which offers a dramatic yet realistic telling of how people and governments cope with a pandemic.

    Instead we got a meek and only occasionally suspenseful popcorn movie that has all the political subtext stripped out and is really an extended chase sequence, with Pitt trying to outrun the zombies in various locations.

    Pitt himself has quietly lamented the lobotomising (or maybe zombification?) of Brooks' novel. It tells you something about the economics of contemporary Hollywood that even Brad Pitt's star power is not enough to get a relatively sophisticated political thriller made. Clearly a more faithful retelling of Brooks' story would have turned off younger audiences and angered the all-important foreign markets. And hey, it seems to have worked. There's already talk of a sequel.

    Wonkish footnote:  the continuity department gets an F for its work on World War Z. The cargo plane Pitt travels on in the first half of the movie changes randomly from a C-130 to a Russian-built An-12, depending on the shot. Oh, and it also takes off from an aircraft carrier, which is highly improbable, and flies from Korea to Israel without refuelling.

    The bipartisan route to St Petersburg

    Mike Callaghan is Director of the Lowy Institute's G20 Studies Centre.

    Prime Minister Rudd has confirmed that he will attend the G20 St Petersburg Summit on 5-6 September.

    This is welcome. Continuing doubt over whether an election on 14 September would preclude the prime minister attending the St Petersburg summit a week earlier was not helping Australia's reputation as it prepares to chair the G20 in 2014. 

    Our commitment to the forum would have been even more damaged if the Australian leader was not at the 2013 summit. Prime Minister Rudd remarked last week that 'the G20 is important in its own right but we are hosting it next year and they expect someone to be there.' He is correct.

    Mr Rudd also stated: 'I don't think it is right, if we can possibly avoid it, for Australia to be represented at the St Petersburg G20 summit by a prime minister six or seven days out from an election'. This might be seen as just presenting a reason why the election should be later in the year, with 21 September being cited as a possibility. Certainly pushing the date of the election back a week has the advantage that the Prime Minister could attend the summit and not miss the vital last week of the campaign. 

    But Mr Rudd raises a substantive point beyond just putting some space between the date of the summit and the election. It would clearly be preferable if the Australian prime minister attending the St Petersburg summit is the same prime minister who chairs the G20 in 2014. Leaders meeting in St Petersburg will be expecting the prime minister to give some broad indication in of Australia's priorities in its host year along with its approach to chairing the meetings in 2014. With an election one or two weeks later, any comment by the prime minister in St Petersburg will be discounted.

    More importantly, a successful summit depends on the personal relationship the chair has with other leaders. If some intractable international issues are to be advanced, it will be tough going and the direct involvement of leaders will be needed. As part of the preparation for chairing the G20 in 2014, the Australian prime minister should be making the most of attendance at the St Petersburg summit to build relations with other leaders. These relationships will be called on over the course of 2014.

    So as far as Australia's G20 commitments are concerned, an election prior to the St Petersburg summit would be preferable.

    But if the election is held later in September, the option I raised previously involving both the prime minister and leader of the opposition attending the summit on 5-6 September continues to have merit. The importance Australia places on successfully chairing the G20 in 2014 should be bipartisan. This would be demonstrated by the attendance of both the prime minister and the leader of the opposition. It would give some comfort to other countries that comments on Australia's approach to chairing the G20 in 2014 will be carried out, regardless of who is prime minister.

    And who knows, with observers throughout the world often scratching their heads over political developments in Australia, perhaps the joint attendance of Mr Rudd and Mr Abbott in St Petersburg would demonstrate that there can also be a reassuring degree of political sophistication.

    Clive James: Politics and The Sopranos

    With the death of actor James Gandolfini, Clive James has written a short new introduction to a brilliant essay he wrote ten years ago celebrating The Sopranos, which starred Gandolfini and which was the show that arguably began the modern renaissance of TV drama. 

    In fact, 'renaissance' might not be a strong enough word; TV has never been as good as it is now. Even Spielberg and Lucas agree that it's better than modern cinema, and James argues in his essay that The Sopranos is better than the Godfather trilogy.

    Which is where the political angle comes in. Back in 2009, John Hulsman and A Wess Mitchell produced The Godfather Doctrine: A Foreign Policy Parable, arguing that modern American foreign policy dilemmas could be understood through the lens of the movie trilogy. Clive James, without making it explicit, seems to draw similar lessons from The Sopranos. Foreign policy realists would embrace this as a description of the role of violence in world politics. My emphasis:

    When the soldiers toe the line and the civilians keep up their payments, life can go on peacefully from episode to episode.

    But if, God forbid, one of the subordinate wise guys should get ambitious, or some innocent citizen should get the idea that there is a real law beyond the one that the wise guys impose, hell briefly but effectively breaks loose. It hardly ever does, because every member of the crew, whether a made man or not, has proved in his youth that he will go on kicking and hitting until the victim expires.

    Murder is the nuke. It spends most of its time not needing to be used.

    And yet:

    Outside the house, his powers are unlimited. Inside it, he can affect the behaviour of others only to a certain extent, because they know he won't kill them. Vivid as it is, this is a real conflict, genuinely subtle and complicated, continually surprising.

    Tony's wife, Carmela, and his children A. J. and Meadow, are for ever cutting down to size the very man who would take a long knife to them if they were not his property.

    The Sopranos reveals life in the state of nature: solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short. As James concludes: 'If you want to know just how exciting life would be if there were no law, here it is.'

    Development links: Climate change, Jeffrey Sachs, corruption and more

    Reader riposte: Cholera in Haiti

    Alasdair Stuart responds to last Friday's piece about the cholera outbreak in Haiti:

    Uh this may seem trivial, but cholera is BACTERIAL. Antibiotics work really well — you can actually see the critters (with a microscope). It's not a VIRUS (really tiny, laughs at antibiotics). Nice article otherwise.

    Sara Dehm, who wrote the piece, responds:

    It is indeed my factual mistake in the piece. Thanks to Alasdair for bring this to my attention — I won't make the error again!

    There was one reference to cholera as a virus in the post, in the second paragraph. This has now been corrected.

    Monday links: Lowy poll, Africa's boom, big data, drone journalism and more

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