Three Stories In The Key Of: Political Definitions

The summertime lull is an opportunity to slow down and contemplate the big questions: What is a terrorist? Is the Caspian Sea a lake? And is a trout a salmon? The first question is deadly serious. The second determines which countries have a legal claim to vast natural resources. The third is absurd. But they all have one thing in common: they show how definitions affect politics in ways both big and small.


Uighurs in China: In 2009, violence broke out in Xinjiang province in western China, where millions of Uighurs, a Muslim minority, have long bridled under Communist rule. Nearly 200 people, most of them ethnic majority Han Chinese, were killed as a result. A crackdown ensued. Car bombs followed. The crackdown intensified. Most recently, China has been accused of turning Xinjiang into a surveillance state and engaging in systematic repression of Uighurs. On Monday, Chinese officials appeared before a UN panel to rebut allegations that more than a million people had been forced into “re-education centers.” No such thing, they argued: Sure, there are “Vocational Technical Education Training Centers,” where minor offenders receive instruction. But the authorities in Xinjiang are operating within the law, doing what any government would do: providing security in a region prone to terrorist violence. Needless to say, there are big assumptions built into any government's decision to identify enemies of the state.

The Caspian Sea: Over the weekend, the leaders of Russia, Iran, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan signed a pact designed to resolve a long-simmering debate about whether the Caspian Sea is, in fact, a lake. The distinction matters: the Caspian is home to enormous deposits of oil and gas, the fish that produce 90 percent of the world’s caviar, and a tangle of sometimes-conflicting territorial claims. If the world’s biggest inland body of water is in fact a sea, as its name implies, then the five countries that border it would have claims to some parts of it, while others would be considered international waters under maritime law. Either designation creates winners and losers. Russia, for example, wants its navy to be able to freely navigate much of the Caspian while opposing other countries’ efforts to build energy pipelines across it that would undermine its grip on the region’s energy flows. The solution? An epic fudge that divides up the surface according to the law of the sea while divvying up the lakebed between the five countries. The lesson: don’t let strict definitions stand in the way of a deal.

Trout vs salmon: Back in May, Chinese state television broke the story of an epic bait-and-switch: it turned out that up to a third of “salmon” sold in China was actually trout, the salmon’s freshwater cousin. In a controversial move, an industry organization attached to China’s Ministry of Agriculture this week officially blessed the practice, saying that trout could be labelled as salmon since they were both part of the Salmonidae fish family (apparently, the group has requested that restaurants and fishmongers also identify the precise species being sold under the new catch-all salmon label, presumably in the fine print). This is patently absurd. “There’s no way a trout is a salmon, and that's a hill I’m ready to die on,” was Alex Kliment’s response on hearing about this story on Tuesday. But how governments define food is a serious issue in global politics: The French guard their appellations like some countries guard their nuclear codes, and the European Union has long been at odds with the US over genetically modified foods. In China, the fundamental tension involves a government and industry trying to define away the difference between what people are getting (trout dressed up as salmon) and what people actually want (the real thing). It’s a good bet that Chinese consumers can taste the difference between trout and salmon, and the market will sort this out. Even in China, top-down control has limits.

In 2012, the United States created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program to protect these young people from being deported. Yet just five years later, the program was rescinded, putting close to 700,000 DACA recipients at risk of being banished from the only home they've ever known. More than five dozen of these DACA recipients at risk are Microsoft employees. These young people contribute to the company and serve its customers. They help create products, secure services, and manage finances. And like so many young people across our nation, they dream of making an honest living and a real difference in the communities in which they reside. Yet they now live in uncertainty.

Microsoft has told its Dreamers that it will stand up for them along with all the nation's DACA recipients. It will represent them in court and litigate on their behalf. That's why Microsoft joined Princeton University and Princeton student Maria De La Cruz Perales Sanchez to file one of the three cases challenging the DACA rescission that was heard on Nov. 12 by the United States Supreme Court.

Read more on Microsoft On The Issues.

Last week, French President Emmanuel Macron said that NATO was experiencing "brain death," citing a lack of coordination and America's fickleness under Donald Trump as reasons to doubt the alliance's commitment to mutual defense. NATO – the North Atlantic Treaty Organization – was formed in the wake of World War II as a counterweight against Soviet dominance in Europe and beyond. Its cornerstone is that an attack on one member is considered an attack on all. But disagreement about burden sharing has gained increasing salience in recent years. In 2014, the bloc agreed that each member state would increase their own defense spending to 2% of their respective GDP over the next decade. But so far, only seven of 29 members have forked out the money. Here's a look at who pays what.

In the predawn hours of Tuesday morning, Israel launched a precision attack in the Gaza Strip, targeting and killing a Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) commander. In response, the terror group fired more than 200 rockets at southern Israel. Exchanges of fire have brought cities on both sides of the Gaza border to a standstill and at least eight Palestinians are dead and dozens of Israelis wounded. With this latest escalation, Israel now faces national security crises on multiple fronts. Here's what's going on:

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More Brexit shenanigans: Britons this week saw Prime Minister and Conservative Party leader Boris Johnson endorse Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn in upcoming elections. As a special bonus, they got to see Corbyn return the favo(u)r with a formal endorsement of Johnson. Most viewers in the UK will have understood immediately that these are the latest example of "deep fakes," digitally manipulated video images. The more important Brexit story this week is a pledge by Nigel Farage that his Brexit Party will not run candidates in areas held by the Conservatives in upcoming national elections. That's a boost for Johnson, because it frees his party from having to compete for support from pro-Brexit voters in those constituencies.

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80: More than 80 percent of the electronic voting systems currently used in the US are made by just three companies, according to a new report which warns that they are regulated less effectively than "colored pencils."

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