Category Archives: Rule of Law

The International Relations of Blockchain

The soaring earnings and dramatic fall of Bitcoin late last to early this year has catapulted the very nascent technology of blockchain to the forefront of news media. It has been met with polarizing speculation from the public and various news outlets, but John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight — a comedy news show, articulated the topic quite well:

While the show touched lightly on Blockchain – the backbone technology of Bitcoin, a digital currency – as a technology, the show’s main example of blockchain was its use as a cryptocurrency. The reality is that blockchain technology has far reaching implications and is the key reason why companies across an array of industries are pouring into its research and development.

To dive a little deeper into blockchain, IBM’s Think Academy put together a three and a half minute video succinctly describing the technology’s main advantages:

  1. Transparent transactions
  2. Decentralized ledger
  3. Increased security

These three components, from a telecommunications/information technology standpoint, fundamentally harden the security of information systems in the following ways:

  1. Decentralized Ledger
    As the IBM video points out, blockchain relies on a network of computers across the globe that contribute (or mine) “blocks” of information and attach it together in a sequential chain. Think of it kind of like the game of “snake” on an old-school Nokia phone (I really hope that doesn’t date me…) and the snake itself is comprised of the very same blocks of information linked together. Each block has an “index number”, which puts the blocks in order and when a new block is produced, it is added to the front of the chain. This is why the technology is called what it is – “block-chain”  – or blockchain.What does this have to do with a ledger?

    Along with an index number, each block has other pieces of information in it. It can have information that includes, for example, the timestamp, sales amount, and item of a transaction that took place when a block was created. Such a block becomes the equivalent to a digital receipt or invoice that, chained together, evolves into a digital ledger.

    Why decentralize a ledger?

    Each computer on the blockchain network keeps a local copy of the blockchain. As each block gets added to the chain, the same block gets added to every single chain across all computers in the blockchain network. With each computer on the blockchain network updated in real time, the blockchain network effectively becomes a super redundant chain of information that is nearly impossible to manipulate.

    How so?

     

  2. Increased Security
    Blockchain has a series of quality control mechanisms that keep it from becoming manipulated. One feature is that every block has a full history of every block that came before it. If, for example, transaction information were included in previous blocks, that history is also written in the latest block that’s added to the chain. If someone were to try to game the system by trying to produce a block that has different or conflicting historical data (or a different historical blockchain), that block is rejected as the majority of devices with matching blockchains would override that fallacious block. This feature, in conjunction with a handful of other security mechanisms and designs, makes the ledger, in a sense, immutable: “unchanging over time or unable to be changed.” This immutability ensures accuracy and trust of data that’s included in the blockchain.What makes this significant?
  3. Transparent Transactions
    With an immutable and decentralized blockchain ledger, transactions, currency serial numbers, or any type of record the ledger contains can be considered trusted and accurate. Since anyone can confirm a blockchain history, the blockchain (if public, which most are) can be considered transparent. This transparency of the blockchain helps prevent censure, corruption, or fraud.

With these three features of blockchain, the IBM video concludes, “blockchain will do for business as the internet did for communication.” As catchy as the conclusion is, it falls considerably short on the potential of blockchain technology improving other industries and the public sector. A slew of use cases for blockchain technology have been proposed for the medical industry, census, and a whole slew of other sectors, but of interest is its potential for international relations and governance.

New Voting Systems
For the last decade and a half, attempts at introducing technology in the electoral process has been historically marred with skepticism and failure. With the magnum opus that is the Russia probe investigation, it is a tough sell to introduce new technology in the electoral process.

Blockchain’s capability as a decentralized ledger is not just limited to a sales or currency capacity. Ledgers can be kept for all kinds of things, including votes. For example, a block that is generated can include the unique index number of the block, the timestamp of its generation, the vote recording of a specific candidate, and an encrypted unique identifier of an eligible voter. With the immutability and decentralization of a blockchain voting ledger, the final result can be considered accurate and trusted with verification being able to occur in milliseconds.

A number of proposals and pilots have already been rolled out. In Sierra Leone, populous districts and cities have used a blockchain voting system to audit election results. The efficacy of blockchain’s use for transparent and fair elections is still pending study, but certainly the use case, application, and execution of a blockchain voting system is well under way.

International Agreements with Teeth
There is plenty of debate in the world of international relations on the efficacy of international agreements and/or sanctions, but one of its biggest criticisms is the lack of “teeth”. Whether it’s related to a climate accord or sanctions, there is a dearth in mechanisms that can actually impose the terms of an international agreement without the explicit and active participation of all governments in uniform agreement. However, an international banking (wire) mechanism that sits on a blockchain network might solve that problem.

Ethereum is a blockchain technology that is programmable. Unlike it’s cousin Bitcoin, Ethereum doesn’t keep a record of serial numbers, inventory information, or casual data. Ethereum’s blocks contain code known as “smart contracts” that execute a process if certain conditions are met. A bank wiring system on an Ethereum blockchain platform can provide the necessary components of a trusted international platform: decentralized, programmable to automate governance and enforcement, and transparent to prevent fraud at the digital layer.

For example, in the wake of the Russian ex-pat assassinations in London, the UK is flirting with a range of economic sanctions to leverage, but it is already agreed this is difficult to enforce. However, if Europe’s WMD agreements were to be codified into a hypothetical “Euro-zone blockchain banking network”, it could be possible that sanction conditions be programmed into the network and enforce its governance when requirements are met. In this case, the discovery of a nerve agent would automate the enforcement of economic sanctions on those determined to be involved in the assassination.

However, there should be no confusion that the blockchain is just a potential tool of enforcement. Its “teeth” are only as strong as what is coded into it.  That is determined at the treaty or bill negotiation table.

Bridge the Digital Gap of the Developing World
Rural areas in the developing world are notoriously “underbanked” where there are too few or no banking facilities. This missing basic necessity effectively shuts out these communities from participating in the world economy. Underbanking exacerbates poverty by time lost due to travel for trade/transactions or the high cost of urban-to-rural middlemen. 

Blockchain as a cryptocurrency, like Bitcoin, can provide direct-to-consumer interaction on the world stage. Mobile wallets – think of bank accounts attached to your smart phone – can provide a direct avenue of exchange to the most rural of communities with the use of a smart phone and a USB. Through cryptocurrency, rural communities can become more competitive in the world marketplace.

Cryptocurrencies have also been proven to be in high demand in developing countries with volatile market places and currency. Countries like Venezuela, Greece, and Turkey have all seen a dramatic rise in the demand of cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin. The reason for the demand is that it is used to mitigate risk if a currency is experiencing hyperinflation. While cryptocurrencies are also known for their volatile value, it can often be less volatile than the currency of a local country experiencing financial crisis and more readily available than more stable currencies — especially for those in the rural communities.

…Cool Your Jets…
There are numerous other possibilities that blockchain technology can help improve or revolutionize international relations, but it is important to remember that the technology is very, very new. It is safe to say that the technology is here to stay, but how to use it is a completely different matter. There are too few experts, proven use cases, and general products for the technology to be whole sale adopted just yet. It is also an open debate which version or maturation of the technology will become wildly adopted.

All that being said, the serious considerations being brought by industries and the public sectors alike should give the international relations/affairs enthusiasts to take serious notice.

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Travel Ban Aftermath: A Challenge to the Foreign Policy Monopoly?

In case you lived under a rock for the few weeks, the media was dominated by President Trump’s executive order banning citizens from 7 predominantly Muslim countries (Libya, Iran, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen) from entering into the United States regardless of status. This was followed by an overruling by a Federal district judge in Seattle and the confirmation by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. While opponents of the travel ban celebrated the courts’ decision and move on to other battle lines against the administration, an interesting aberration in government precedent has creaked open that can disrupt the Executive Branch’s long enjoyment of dominating foreign and national security policy.

American foreign policy and national security against foreign threats falls, by and large, under the purview of the executive branch. While Congress certainly has influence on major decision making (i.e. declaring war, finalizing trade agreements, and/or approving funding for major executive decision making), they for the most part act as an oversight committee on foreign policy and leave the direction and day-to-day decision making of American foreign policy and national security to the president. However, even then, that oversight is, by and large, not controlled by major mechanisms of the U.S. Constitution.

The precedent for this lies in a 1936 Supreme Court decision United States v. Curtis-Wright Export Corp. (1936), which largely stands unchallenged since. In a 7-1 ruling, the court explicitly defined which branch of government would by and large dictate foreign policy where it was once vague in the Constitution. Howard Zinn, in his book Disobedience and Democracy: Nine Fallacies on Law and Order (p. 62-63), expands on the decision and analyzes it as doing two major things:

It declares that in foreign policy the government is not as limited by the Constitution as in domestic policy; it assigns enormous power to the President in the making of foreign policy…

Zinn then quotes the court’s majority opinion:

‘…The broad statement that the federal government can exercise no powers except those specifically enumerated in the Constitution, and such implied powers as are necessary and proper to carry into effect the enumerated powers, is categorically true only in respect of our internal affairs…’

And Zinn concludes:

The court spoke of ‘the very delicate, plenary and exclusive power of the President as the sole organ of the federal government in the field of international relations–a power which does not require as a basis for its exercise an act of Congress.’ And when it adds that this power ‘of course, like every other governmental power, must be exercised in subordination to the application provisions of the Constitution[,]’ we must remember that the Court had just declared that in foreign affairs the government was not subject to the restrictions of the Constitution as in domestic affairs!

Since then, that decision has become a defining moment in legal precedent for allowing egregious violations of constitutional rights such as the internment of Japanese-Americans and the seizure of private property and businesses during “times of crisis” and/or war.  Therefore, the drumming up of fear and imminent threat has become the modus operendi of any and all president’s that have desired to push their policy and agenda with minimum legal opposition. In other words, it is like a first step in a Guide to Legally Establish Draconian/Dictatorial Laws in your Democracy flowchart.

As such, it should come to no surprise that the campaign rhetoric and policies coming out of the Trump administration fits the tried and true pattern. They were audacious enough to make such a broad and sweeping executive order. In fact, I would even speculate that they had their bases covered on being allowed to do so legally.

However, this time, with both Washington State and Minnesota suing the federal government on the grounds of economic damage and injury caused by the order in conjunction with an constitutionality argument, Judge Robart broke away from precedent. Judge Robart asked for evidence to support the executive order, which the Federal government could not supply. Instead, the Federal government challenged the authority of the Judicial Branch of the United States in reviewing decisions made by the Executive branch. Judge Robart quickly rebuffed such an argument.

The judge then concluded:

The work of the court is not to create policy or judge the wisdom of any particular policy promoted by the other two branches.That’s the work of the legislative and executive branches, while it’s the work of the judiciary to ensure laws and executive orders comport with the Constitution. The court concludes that the circumstances brought before it today are such that it must intervene to fulfill its constitutional role in our tripart government.

While the legal battle over the travel ban specifically is not close to over and will continue to work its way through the legal process up to the Supreme Court, there is a different subtext that can possibly play out where a possible avenue for challenging the Executive Branch’s near monopoly on determining foreign policy and national security can be formed. For the first time in a while, a case is being presented to the court that individual states are able to challenge a near century long precedent in American governance and legal ruling that gives the President sole power to dictate foreign policy. (The irony being that such a challenge started with the Republicans challenging Obama’s executive authority in a previous court case.)
It would be hyperbolic to claim that even the most favorable decision would reign in the President’s ability to dictate foreign policy, but it would creak open the door that was once shackled shut. That small creak could grow wider if individual states leverage the argument of economic damage and injury with evidence of US foreign policy causing direct economic damage that is amplified by globalization. It might be a bit of a long shot and likely would require juxtaposing an unconstitutionality argument, but the fact that a U.S. state is able to successfully sue the Executive Branch on a foreign policy and security decision (though it’s blurred as being also a domestic issue since it deals with immigration) might be able to pave the way of reigning in the monopoly on foreign affairs.
Another interesting detail is the close relationships that businesses and universities from these states (that make up the economic back bone of the state) worked closely with their local government to establish a strong legal case. The companies that overwhelmingly opposed the ban were from industrial sectors that rely on highly skilled and educated individuals, which have an over-represented Asian workforce that are directly affected by the ban (e.g. tech). While issues of diversity in the workforce (even in high-tech) is a problem and should be addressed, it should be noted that this may be an emerging area of influence in dictating policy, especially in booming sectors like tech and engineering that are starting to become more affluent in politics.
These increasing diversity factors (using a high-skill labor lens only, for now) can further solidify that bridge of foreign decision making to domestic repercussion streamline. As such, this may further embolden individual municipalities and states to keep challenging the President’s foreign policy that disrupts constitutional guarantees and could continue to chip away at his ability to roll out his policy.
If he continues to be disruptive, he could not only lose his own ability to establish his foreign policy agenda without aberration, but also for other presidents to come.
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