A book review of Robert Kaplan’s Asia’s Cauldron

Robert D. Kaplan is a well-known journalist who has authored popular works on international issues, such as Balkan

South China Sea from Wikipedia Commons.
South China Sea by NASA from Wikipedia Commons.

Ghosts and the Coming Anarchy. Kaplan has a knack for writing books on topics about to rise to international prominence; in his most recent work, he has sought to understand the international competition in the South China Sea, which is in the global news this week because of a naval confrontation between Vietnam and China.

Kaplan’s works typically try to show the legacies of history for contemporary issues, and this book is no exception. He begins by describing the historical influence of India upon Vietnam, which he depicts as a kind of cultural shatter zone between two great Asian powers. One of the strengths of his work is that he has traveled widely in Asia while writing it, so he can draw on conversations that he has had from Vietnam to Singapore. He also has read widely in history, so the work is interspersed with allusions to Walter Benjamin, Livy, Machiavelli and Thucydides, which are are generally well-chosen and insightful. It is this ability to put contemporary issues into a broad historical and geographical context that is Kaplan’s strength. …

Falling Demand for Mexican Marijuana

"Seeding Poppy Heads" by Simon Howden at
“Seeding Poppy Heads” by Simon Howden at

In an earlier post, I talked about the move to decriminalizing marijuana in the Americas. What struck me last August how quickly this idea has gained political momentum, both within the United States and internationally. In the United States, medical marijuana is legal in 40% of states, while the next state to fully legalize the drug for recreational use may be Alaska. A recent article in the Washington Post examines the impact that this trend is having both in the United States and in Mexico. On the positive side, in Sinaloa the demand for marijuana has collapsed, with current prices just a quarter of what they were five years ago. Nick Miroff quotes one Mexican farmer about this economic transformation: ““It’s not worth it anymore,” said Rodrigo Silla, 50, a lifelong cannabis farmer who said he couldn’t remember the last time his family and others in their tiny hamlet gave up growing mota. “I wish the Americans would stop with this legalization.’” While this economic change should weaken the power of the major drug cartels, it has also had an unintended consequence: Mexican farmers are transitioning to opium, which is used to produce heroin. According to the article, Mexican cartels have adopted heroin as their key product, and they are pushing near treatment centers in the United States. …

Brazil’s “Nobody deserves to be raped” campaign

When I did my doctoral research in Brazil during the 1990s there was a pervasive fear of the police. I remember once watching as the police hunted someone who had gone into hiding, while I sat safely in a tram in central Rio de Janeiro. As the police poked into alleys and boxes, the other passengers had a look of disgust on their face, while the people on the street looked terrified. I escaped any serious crime while living in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 and 1993. But I knew many people who had stories about carjackings, muggings and worse. When I did fieldwork in Sao Paulo in 2005 for my book in HIV in Latin America, I interviewed drug traffickers and users, most of whom were using crack, although injecting drugs were also common amongst an older generation of drug users. I went into the favelas, many of which were totally under the control of the drug lords at that time. One day I was at an NGO that did harm mitigation work around drugs. We were supposed to work in a favela that afternoon, but then a phone call came. The drug lords had closed the favela to protest some action that the government had taken, and nobody could enter it that day. …

Cicada 3301

"Cicada" by thawats at
“Cicada” by thawats at

I have covered many international mysteries on this blog, such as the strange story of the Arctic Sea, the puzzle of the Vela Incident,and the peculiar case of the ghost ship the Baltimore.  I’ve noticed that these posts usually are among the blog’s most popular. I don’t think, however, that any of these mysteries perhaps is as strange as the new puzzle of Cicada 3301. If you are curious, you will want to read Chris Bell’s account in today’s National Post. Bell describes how amateur cryptographers and hackers were enticed by a message in an internet forum called 4chan in January 2012, which appeared to contain hidden information encoded in the form of steganography. Those who tried to solve the problem soon walked through a door into an Alice of Wonderland world, with multiple cryptographic challenges. This puzzle was posed by an organization (almost certainly not an individual) with eclectic interests, which ranged from Mayan numbers to a British occult figure. How many groups would include references to medieval Welsh literature and King Arthur in the midst of an advanced cryptographic mystery? What was most staggering about this project was not the skills of the individuals involved -although they were prodigious- but rather the fact that their motive and identity both remained unknown. They appeared to be recruiting for some secret organization. Guesses about its identity have ranged from the NSA to the hackers group Anonymous. It could be a government agency, organized crime or a private firm. Some people even argued that this was an alternative reality game. But if so, it would have taken a group with immense resources (or that was very skilled at mass collaboration) to pull it off. …

Decriminalizing drugs in the Americas

Map of America by Stuart Miles at
Map of America by Stuart Miles at

I’ve talked before in this blog about the idea of decriminalizing drugs as some European countries, such as Portugal, have already done. What is surprising is the rapidity and momentum behind this idea throughout the Americas. In November 2012 both Colorado and Washington decriminalized marijuana possession. Indeed, in Washington State the police recently handed out Doritos (along with a new marijuana legal fact sheet) at a public pot smoking event. But events in these states represent only the vanguard of a much larger movement. …

Water and War in the Middle East

Canal by Evgeni Dinev courtesy of
Canal by Evgeni Dinev courtesy of

Kim Brown and I have started to work on a second edition of our Introduction to International and Global Studies textbook, which will be published in 2015. We are trying to not only make conceptual changes to the work, but also to reflect the many global events that have taken place since the first edition: in North America, fracking has changed the energy picture, in Europe, the financial crisis is changing perceptions of economic and political globalization, and around the world people are struck by the fact that the level of CO2 in the atmosphere has passed 400 parts per million. Although there is a great deal of material to address in the next edition, one key issue has to be water, as drought is leading to crises and conflict in many regions, but particularly in the Middle East. …

The Graphic Vault at Canada’s National Post

Edward Tufte’s work, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, is a beautiful book, which enables the reader to interpret statistics in a new light. The chart displaying the size of Napoleon’s army as he first invaded then retreated from Russia is awe-inspiring. No chart of the same information could have conveyed as effectively the extent to which French forces evaporated away. I thought of this recently when I looked at a graphic series in the National Post, one of the two major Canadian newspapers. The vault contains a rich array of images, which could be powerful tools in the classroom. For example, Rubab Abid and Richard Johnson produced a striking series of maps (in a graphic work titled “Out of Africa’) that showed the level of investment by former colonial powers in Africa, as well as the natural resources that might have attracted them to these countries. This one chart could spark a powerful class discussion about the nature of neocolonialism in Africa. As with all items in the vault, it is possible to download a high-resolution copy from the site. …

Video Resources on Security theory.

This week I’ve been exploring security in my “Theoretical Foundations of Global Studies” class. In my lecture I compared and contrasted Realism and Human Security, then tried to apply these theories to the Mexican Drug War, to see the strengths and weaknesses of both approaches. I then divided my students into groups of three to five at random, and assigned them to speak briefly on behalf of one or the other paradigm in this context. I can say that the students assigned to the Realism group were not happy about that choice, although they did a good job. …

Pigeons and Nuclear Weapons

Image “Wood Pigeon” courtesy of James Barker at

After the last serious post on lost nuclear weapons, you might wish to see a less serious take on warfare and espionage.  Check out Lucas Martell’s brief video, “Pigeon Impossible,” to see how one determined bird helps prevent catastrophe. You’ve got to love the scene with the Washington Monument.

Shawn Smallman, Portland State University

Broken Arrow: Lost Nuclear Weapons in Canada

Image of Boeing B-52H by Tim Beach courtesy of

Within the U.S. military, the code term for a lost nuclear weapon is “Broken Arrow.” There have been many such incidents, from the dangerous accident in Savannah, Georgia, to the four nuclear weapons lost near Palomares, Spain. But what many people may not know was that the first nuclear weapons were lost in Canada. On February 13, 1950 a U.S. B-36 bomber, Flight 075, traveling from Alaska to Fort Worth Texas, had three engines catch fire, from what was later discovered to be a design flaw. The plane carried a Mark Four nuclear weapon, which was made with uranium but had a core of lead. The captain made the decision to jettison the bomb off the Canadian coast, after setting the weapon to airburst at 3000 feet. The bomb vanished in a conventional explosion, which rained uranium down onto the coast. The pilot then changed course back over land, where 16 crew members bailed out around midnight near Princess Royale Island. The plane itself flew on into the dark using auto-pilot. The bomber ultimately crashed into a mountainside in Northern BC. By this point, Strategic Command knew that they had lost a plane and a nuclear weapon, and the search was on. Twelve of the bomber’s crew were found alive. The bomber itself was only found in 1953 on the slopes of Mount Kologet. To this day, how the plane was found 200 miles from where the crew jumped, at a higher elevation, and in the opposite direction to that set on autopilot, remains a mystery.

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