The Decline of War: What Obama's Nobel Peace Prize Speech Should Have Said

No, a telegram would not do. That was the means of communication chosen, one imagines in an off-hand way, by the previous two sitting presidents bestowed the Nobel Peace Prize. Theodore Roosevelt fired off a terse message, expressing his gratitude to the distinguished Norwegian committee, before making the bizarre announcement that the award monies would go to an organization entrusted with reducing trade union unrest. Woodrow Wilson's epistle was rather more vacuous, and expressed nothing except humility. The top-hatted apostle for the League of Nations was being publicly recognized for ending the war to end all wars, and all he could muster was a meek word of thanks.

But, Barack Obama? No, the great orator of Hyde Park was not about to send a Western Union to Scandinavia. Nor, indeed, was he was he about to do the modern equivalent and Twitter away such a golden opportunity. He was going to fly to Norway and deliver an address. Not just a Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, but an old-fashioned presidential address. In other words, he gave a rather too-long, formal speech outlining state policy. The meat of the speech, once he had finessed his way through the controversy surrounding his award, provided a theory of just war and what's already being ominously referred to as the "Obama Doctrine".

The foundations of this doctrine were laid bare in Oslo, and can be abbreviated as follows: even after the agony of the Iraq War and the debacle in Afghanistan, the United States will continue to employ war as an essential element of foreign policy, either in concert with other nations or unilaterally, and not only for reasons of self-defense, but whenever civil strife, ethnic violence, or state oppression in some far-off land beckons. To quote from his address:

The world may no longer shudder at the prospect of war between two nuclear superpowers, but proliferation may increase the risk of catastrophe. Terrorism has long been a tactic, but modern technology allows a few small men with outsized rage to murder innocents on a horrific scale.

Moreover, wars between nations have increasingly given way to wars within nations. The resurgence of ethnic or sectarian conflicts; the growth of secessionist movements, insurgencies, and failed states -- all these things have increasingly trapped civilians in unending chaos. In today's wars, many more civilians are killed than soldiers; the seeds of future conflict are sown, economies are wrecked, civil societies torn asunder, refugees amassed, children scarred.

These are common themes, repeated ad nauseam by ex-diplomats and former senators at Washington think-tanks and Sunday morning talk shows: that we live in an era of small wars and ethnic cleansing, a time when fanatical non-state actors can threaten entire nations with acts of terror. Of course, nobody expects the President of the United States to quote statistics in a major address to support these assertions, so it is left to us to sort out truth from half-truth, common sense from common delusion. So, what can we say about the validity of the President's claims regarding war in the modern age?

In fact, there's an entire genre of scholarly literature devoted to the question of whether war has declined in recent decades, and out of it a near consensus has emerged: armed conflict is less frequent than ever and in particular has undergone a precipitous descent since the end of the Cold War. One study from international researchers at the Human Security Center revealed that there's been a 40% drop in armed conflict since 1992. And this figure includes minor conflicts in which less than 1000 battle deaths occurred; when focusing only on major wars, the decline is an extraordinary 80% during the same time period.

The numbers continue to astonish and finally dumbfound: while ethnic cleansing in Darfur has rightfully awakened the world's conscience, the data indicates that the number of genocides, like that of all conflicts globally, has plummeted about 80% since the fall of the Berlin Wall. This "peace epidemic" has contributed to a fall in the population of refugees worldwide by about 45%, as formally displaced people have returned to their homes. Moreover, the wars that still transpire are less deadly than before. While the average death-toll per war in 1950 was a brutal 38,000, more than half a century later it's down to 600.

In fairness, it must be admitted that the most recent data as reported by the Center for International Development and Conflict Management (CIDCM), indicates that the diminution in conflict was arrested in 2005, when an uptick in civil violence occurred, and has only just been renewed since then. Nevertheless, there are strong reasons for believing that the secular downward trend will continue. Despite the recent setback, interstate wars, that is to say, wars between nations, have not made a comeback and there are none ongoing. Moreover, despite what the President suggested in Oslo, civil internal strife is also still less frequent than it was during the Cold War. And finally, the fall in the number of casualties per conflict has not been reversed in recent years.

So, with qualification, it's possible to declare that what at first appeared to be a remarkable downward trend in conflicts worldwide, appears upon closer inspection to be nothing less than the virtual disappearance of war over the last couple decades. And this is why President Obama's performance while accepting the Nobel Peace Prize seemed so inappropriately bellicose and dour. The arguably premature award could have been refashioned into an opportunity to call the world's attention to the remarkable progress being made in eradicating militarized conflict and in developing an international order where differences are settled in the mundane confines of the United Nations or the World Trade Organization, rather than on the more gallant terrain of the battlefield. For, despite the unwarranted pessimism and stern moralistic posturing that characterized the president's speech, the scarcely believable truth is, that for the first time in recorded history, the end of war appears to be more than just an unrealizable dream.

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How Peter Orszag Can Save the Economy and Why Americans Don't Care

Enter Peter Orszag. At first appraisal, he appears perhaps a little bland, an unassuming fellow really, with a bookish air. Upon closer inspection, the intellectual aspect is only strengthened, though by no means are we dealing here with the absent minded professor - quite the opposite. Indeed, he's all sharp wit and bustle of energy, like one of those high school track star valedictorians, Orszag (a marathoner, who runs 35 minutes every morning) combines gymnast-like athleticism with scholastic vigor. And this rather unremarkable, yet exceptional man is the current director of the Office of Management and Budget, and holder of one of the most important cabinet positions in the Obama administration. It's his job to crunch the numbers, to make sure they make sense, and to conjure up the genie of fiscal responsibility while formulating a budget that meets all of the many ambitious goals his boss has set for the country.

And he does it with style. Look here how he adds a pinch of irreverence to the stultifying hum drum of statistics:

We often hear about people who are unlucky in love, but what of those who are unlucky in the business cycle? What is the impact of being born two decades before a significant economic downturn, such that you graduate from college and enter the labor force in the middle of a period of high unemployment?

The cliche about numbers speaking for themselves is almost always a half truth, conveniently disguising the unglamorous work of statisticians, the unsung heroes of the modern age. Even so, the figures Orszag provides are all too plain. The immediate after-effect of entering the labor market is to experience a 6 to 7 percent decline in wages for each 1 percent increase in the unemployment rate. And of course, the maelstrom provoked by the confluence of banking collapse and real estate fizzle hasn't caused a mere 1 percent rise in unemployment, but more like five times that since the start of the troubles. So, as any precocious grade school student could calculate, we're dealing with something more like a decline in wages of 30 to 35%. What's worse, the differential in wages received is cloyingly persistent even after national employment levels resume their average trend, and only gradually declines over the subsequent 15 years after graduation. Which is to say, that well into middle age, today's Facebook generation of college graduates will make less money each year than they otherwise would have enjoyed, all because of the recession.

Yet, somehow, amid the gloomy figures and murky forecasts, we hear voices emanating not only from Washington or Wall Street, but from Main Street and public opinion pollsters, that the Federal Government's efforts towards an economic stimulus have gone too far. From near and far, from heartland Senators to irate talk radio callers, a new awareness of deficits, dormant over the previous eight years, has been reawakened at just the least appropriate moment. Alas, in the public consciousness, the Troubled Asset Relief Program (initiated, remember, in the waning days of the Bush administration) and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the first major initiative of the Obama presidency, are conflated into one big bugaboo. It's the terror underneath all our beds, that we might easily call either "socialism" or "bank bailout", depending on one's darkest fears. This is revealed all too well, in a recent Rasmussen poll revealing that 51% of Americans hold the fanciful belief that halting the stimulus would produce more jobs than continuing with the program. In other words, a majority of the public subscribes to the view that just at the moment when the private sector is at it's most anemic and while one-tenth of consumers are unemployed, the public sector should also be contracted, just for the sake of decency.

Unfortunately for John Q. Public, this is not an opinion widely shared amongst economists. No, frustrating though it may be, in the search for classic villains in black hats, the federal government doesn't hold the smoking gun in this recession. How could it, when the downturn preceded any response by the Federal Reserve or the major two responsible branches in Washington? Indeed, when three major financial forecasting companies were surveyed by the New York Times, there was a firm consensus: the stimulus has helped turn a great depression into a bad recession. It's worth looking at these figures in full:

What's immediately apparent, is that absent the federal stimulus, the national economy would still have been in negative growth through most of 2009, and possibly well into 2010. Moreover, unemployment would have been anywhere from 1 to 2 percent higher than it is today: which is to say that we could have been looking now at a 12.2% jobless rate. And to be clear, this is only taking into account the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, not the many other measures the government has taken, including TARP, since the Soviet-like collapse of Lehman Brothers back in the frenzied campaign days of September, 2008.

But, we seem to have forgotten poor Peter Orszag. Increasingly, as the bulk of the stimulus funds are dispersed, his purview has been shifting towards health care reform. And as the deficit hawks in Congress have begun to circle overhead, he's found it necessary to justify and explain the expansion of insurance coverage in terms of it being fiscally neutral. This is in keeping with the tenor of the times. The talk, just a year ago, of an Obama New Deal is now a historical curiosity. Indeed, it will fall to historians of a future age, pouring through the electronic archives and speaking at colloquia on the Great Recession, to determine how it was that precisely at the moment when great, concerted national action was most required, the American people shrugged their shoulders, and redoubled their efforts to suffer through the crisis in private.

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After 9/11 and Fort Hood: The Anti-Muslim Backlash That Almost Never Happened

A strange rhythm reverberates through American society. Every few years or months, another mass shooting punctuates the national consciousness. Each massacre is like an aftershock of the last, a seismic tremor that immediately seems to foreshadow the next inevitable tragedy. Of course, the Fort Hood shooting stands apart. Here, the assailant's religion and motives, the non-civilian nature of the targets and it's connection to the Afghan War, mark off the shooting as belonging to that murky sub-genre of mass violence called terrorism.

After having been both victimized and turned into helpless spectators during 9/11, and since then, in a massive case of overcompensation, having borne the brunt of the military casualties in two wars, it would seem plausible that the United States would have fallen prey at home to a wave of anti-Muslim prejudice. Has this, in fact, occurred? The answers are complicated, as the real world has an annoying tendency of being. To begin with, Americans are far less biased against Muslims than almost any other Western nation. The Pew Global Attitudes Project, found in 2008 that the English speaking countries, the U.S. and Great Britain, at 23% of those polled, had lower levels of unfavorability towards Muslims than the nations of Continental Europe. By contrast, in Germany and Spain about 50% the population had a negative perception of their Muslim minorities.

Notably, the U.S. was the only country polled where public sentiment towards Muslims significantly improved since 2004. In other words, there was a backlash against Islam after the Al Qaeda attacks, but it fairly quickly died down. This is confirmed by evidence provided by Human Rights Watch, in a report ironically intended to prove the precise opposite. In the year following the September 11th hijackings, there was an unmistakable surge in hate crimes against Muslims and Arabs in America, from 28 the previous year to 481 in 2001. During that period, four murders, two by the same individual, can be attributed to the anti-Muslim backlash. Yet, the bulk of the violence took place in a window of just a few weeks after the theatrical demolition of the World Trade Center. Again, the same pattern emerged following the London bombings of July, 2005: a disturbing, but brief spate of racially motivated violence, followed by a return to the average trend.

In other words, the data from both international public polling, and from the number of hate crimes committed simply do not provide consistent support for the proposition that levels of terrorism correlate well with bigotry towards Muslims. Rather, the stronger correlation is with levels of racism towards minorities in general. Intriguingly, the same Pew survey indicated that, in broad terms, those nations with higher levels of anti-Muslim animus, are those where anti-Semitism still has prevalence. The lesson here is the moral of the 20th century, the one redeeming value that emerged from the ruins of the last global war: that an injury to one is an injury to all.

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Building the Smart Grid: The Burden of Following Through on Campaign Promises

The expiration of the newspaper is not an entirely salutary event. Any time three centuries of tradition reach their terminus, thoughtful observers have to take notice. Even so, it's apparent that the violent displacement of the newspaper for the online journal has it's virtues: for one thing, the printed word was an all to static medium. It used to be that members of the cognoscenti would whisper about particular events caught on film, without ever necessarily having witnessed them. Have you seen Eisenhower's farewell address, his "military-industrial complex" speech? How about Lyndon Johnson's notorious Daisy ad? Today, thankfully, such audio-visual artifacts are as accessible as any speech transcript these venerable figures have left us.

Though not quite of the same historical caliber, then Senator Obama's interview with Rachel Maddow, just days before his election, is a case in point. After being prodded with a particularly provocative question: whether the U.S. should institute an FDR style public works program, Obama surprisingly answered in the affirmative:

One of the most frustrating things over the last eight years has been the ability of George Bush to pile up debt and huge deficits and not have anything to show for it, right? So, if you're going to run deficit spending, then it better be in rebuilding our roads, our bridges, our sewer lines, our water system, laying broadband lines.

One of, I think, the most important infrastructure projects that we need is a whole new electricity grid. Because if we're going to be serious about renewable energy, I want to be able to get wind power from North Dakota to population centers, like Chicago. And we're going to have to have a smart grid if we want to use plug-in hybrids then we want to be able to have ordinary consumers sell back the electricity that's generated from those car batteries, back into the grid. That can create 5 million new jobs, just in new energy.

This was the soon-to-be President at his most ambitious, seemingly standing astride history, all but declaring the era of small government over, and announcing the arrival of a new New Deal. But, as we've seen in the case of expanding the broadband network, grandiloquent rhetoric is no substitute for the dry business of budgeting enough federal dollars to make an appreciable impact. Well, then, how about the case Obama seems to highlight here, the need to develop a new smart electricity grid? Is the administration providing the fiscal capacity to tackle this particular element of our national infrastructure? For that matter, what is a smart grid?

Essentially, a smart grid is the result of information technology being integrated into the power system, that is to say, the creation of something like an energy internet. A combination of digital meters and sensors would allow for the more efficient allocation of energy. For example, instead of paying fixed rates for electricity, "dynamic pricing" would allow consumers to pay less during periods of low demand, such as at night. Real-time information about power consumption would allow individuals to modify their usage, also depending upon overall demand. The reverse is true as well: utilities would gain the ability to signal households to reduce consumption during periods of high energy usage. With this type of two-way communication, blackouts like the massive 2003 outage that shutdown the Northeast would be much less likely to occur in the future.

This same ability to modify electricity demand makes a smart grid amenable to renewable sources of energy. One of the characteristics that have made solar and wind energy problematic is the fact that they're inherently unpredictable. A series of cloudy or windless days would necessarily put a damper on any power system dependent upon these sources. Again, however, a smart grid would be capable of adjusting demand in response to these sorts of vagaries of God and nature, and thus would make it more economical to expand the use of renewable energy. Moreover, a new system of long-distance high voltage lines would be able to transport electricity from states with extensive wind farms, to larger population centers. This isn't the only aspect of modernizing the energy grid that's environmentally friendly. In the future, individuals would be able to sell energy back onto the market, for example from residential solar panels or from energy stored in hybrid electric cars. In other words, by the most optimistic forecasts, the smart grid offers up a green vision of a society rationally allocating electricity where it's needed, shedding it where it's not, and developing an ever-greater reliance upon renewable sources of energy.

That's the promise, anyway. What can we say about our government's dedication to shaping it into reality? Almost exactly a year after the Maddow interview (and since the election), the President provided an answer: $3.4 billion in federal stimulus grants to 100 different projects across the country. The funds award a veritable grab-bag of recipients including cities, utilities, private firms, and manufacturers and will cover the installation of 18 million smart meters, 700 automated substations, and 200,000 new transformers. It all sounds impressive, emblematic of a shift to a can-do spirit in America, of public-private partnerships, of synergy between corporations and government to rebuild the country and make it competitive into the 21st century. There's just one small problem: Uncle Sam isn't providing enough money to make it happen.

To put matters in perspective, it's useful to look abroad. The first major smart grid initiative, the Telegestore project, was installed by the Italian utility Enel over a five year period ending in 2006. Today the system covers 30 million Italians at a cost of 2.1 billion euros (or about $2.5 billion at the time). Now, this is a not insignificant investment in a country like Italy, with a little less than 60 million people. It becomes rather less impressive in a superpower of over 300 million. And of course, the Telegestore system is not even a fully comprehensive national grid to begin with. How much would such a unified national smart grid cost in America? Former Vice President Al Gore's group Repower America put the price tag for such a network at $400 billion. Meanwhile, the industry consultancy the Brattle Group estimated that rebuilding the grid would require an investment of $900 billion over twenty years. In other words, what the administration is undertaking amounts to a very significant symbolic gesture, or a modest, though encouraging beginning, but not much more.

And those 5 million jobs that Obama promised from building a smart grid a year ago? In his speech detailing the federal grants, that figure shrunk to "tens of thousands" of jobs created or saved.

So, with regards to the smart grid, as with investments in broadband, or in high-speed rail, or for that matter when dealing with health care reform, the problem facing America isn't so much that of misplaced priorities in Washington anymore, as of insufficient commitment. A green New Deal could, in theory, rebuild our infrastructure, employ millions, and emerge as the basis for a new wave of industrialization in this country. But, this will only happen if the dollars appropriated for these ends begin to match the soaring scope of the rhetoric that we've become so addicted to.

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How America Can Improve Broadband Access and Speed: Lessons from Australia

Sometime in the twilight decades of the twentieth century, as our avowed allies caught up with and sometimes outpaced us economically, a new cottage industry arose in America. It went something like this: you would first name a particular field of achievement, like science and math education, health care, public transportation, or state infrastructure. Next, you'd roll out a profusion of statistics, all demonstrating with startling unanimity that the United States was fast falling behind it's peers in the industrialized world.

The latest episode in this ongoing drama concerns America's lackluster position in worldwide rankings for broadband connections. In the most recent OECD statistics, the U.S. has stagnated at 15th place in terms of overall broadband penetration. Moreover, our internet connection speeds are relatively sluggish, with an average download rate of 5.1 Mbps: the populations of South Korea, Japan, Sweden, Denmark and Norway all have much wider access to fast fiber-based connections.

The Great Recession offered an opportunity for expanding broadband access in this country. Unfortunately however, The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (otherwise known as the stimulus bill) includes only $7.2 billion dollars spread out over several years for this purpose, with a focus on serving rural hinterlands and Indian reservations. This isn't nearly enough.

Australia provides a striking alternative model of how a geographically large and relatively sparsely populated country, can make a long-term investment in broadband. Over the next eight years, Kevin Rudd's Labor government is going to spend an extraordinary $31 billion dollars (or $43 billion AUS) on providing a nationwide fiber optic broadband network. Fully 90% of Australian homes, including those in remote outback settlements will be linked into the network, with the remainder being offered wireless connections. Most importantly, because the main network will be fiber optics based, it will provide extremely fast 100 Mbs download speeds.

To put this in perspective, the United States is about 15 times larger, by population, than Australia. So, by at least this crude measurement, a comparable broadband development program here would require an unbelievable $465 billion dollars, or almost half a trillion dollars. Of course, this is misleading because we would benefit from economies of scale, and from the fact that the continental U.S. is about the same size as Australia. Nevertheless, this provides some perspective on at least this one small portion of the stimulus bill, and how in reality the U.S. is spending much less per capita on infrastructure than even relatively conservative countries like Australia.

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Why the Chinese Will Win in Afghanistan

The debate in Washington over Afghanistan is sustained by the familiar dichotomy of troop increases versus withdrawals, targeted counterinsurgency tactics versus nation building. Underlying it all is the remarkably durable ideological framework according to which all American wars are either World War II redux or Vietnam all over again. But, what if the question of whether the U.S. wins or loses is almost besides the point? Robert Kaplan raises the question: is China the inevitable winner from the war in Afghanistan?

IN Afghanistan’s Logar Province, just south of Kabul, the geopolitical future of Asia is becoming apparent: American troops are providing security for a Chinese state-owned company to exploit the Aynak copper reserves, which are worth tens of billions of dollars. While some of America’s NATO allies want to do as little as possible in the effort to stabilize Afghanistan, China has its eyes on some of world’s last untapped deposits of copper, iron, gold, uranium and precious gems, and is willing to take big risks in one of the most violent countries to secure them.

In fact, this is a growing trend in those countries lucky enough to have been recently subject to U.S. cruise missiles. The pattern is clear: country X is bombed into submission, which subsequently leads to a regime change, and finally, the new government proceeds to signs massive deals with our major geopolitical rivals China and Russia.

In 1999 the Clinton Administration waged a war against Milosevic's Serbia, ostensibly in defense of the Kosovar Albanians. Over a year later, following claims of fraud in federal elections, Milosevic was peacefully overthrown, and the new regime announced it's intentions to join the European Union. The stage was set for a new era of pro-Western good feelings, and American-led corporate domination. Instead, Russia's state-owned behemoth Gazprom proceeded to buy up Serbia's gas and oil interests: essentially the country's energy sector has been annexed by Moscow. And with the current economic crisis having hit the Balkans hard, the Serbian government has most recently negotiated two separate billion dollar loans with both Russia and China. Somehow, against all the odds China, whose embassy was notoriously bombed during the Kosovo War, is reaping the benefits from America's role in that conflict.

The same story has repeated itself in Iraq. After more than a decade of obsessing over the country, the U.S. invaded and toppled Saddam's Baathist regime in 2003. Famously, while an anarchy of looting descended upon Baghdad after the initial U.S. victory, American troops were tasked with defending one particular government building: the oil ministry. The move quickly became a symbol for the mercenary motives that drove the war, and seemed to lend credence to the slogans of protesters the world over. So, today, with the apparent triumph of the Surge and the quelling of the Sunni insurgency, have American companies come to monopolize Iraq's oilfields? Well, not quite. Once again, the Chinese have made a vigorous play for a market newly opened by the American military: their largest state owned oil company CNPC just signed an initial agreement along with the British BP to develop the oil fields of Rumaila. In other words, the largest oil field in Iraq is now part owned by the Chinese. Another major Chinese company, Sinopec, is currently involved in a dispute with the Iraqi government over the Taq oil field in Kurdistan, but at the moment they too stand to profit indirectly from the American invasion.

So, the fact that this pattern is reemerging in Afghanistan should hardly qualify as a shocking development. On the contrary, what's surprising is that both parties in Washington still seem so committed to a militaristic foreign policy that seems, on a strict cost-benefit analysis, only to significantly benefit a small number of U.S. corporations - most notably, our military contractors. As a general rule then, whenever the U.S. topples a Third World dictator, while red and blue state patriots alike stand united in support of their commander-in-chief, we can assume that American troops will unwittingly end up defending the interests of state owned companies from Russia and China.

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Do Europeans Support Gay Marriage?

Josh Marshall discusses how capital punishment, though banned throughout Europe, is actually consistently supported by percentages comparable to that seen in U.S. polling on the issue. This leads Andrew Sullivan to argue that this is an instance of "civilized" parliamentary independence from public opinion. In other words, certain human rights shouldn't be put to a popular vote:

The difference in Britain is that parliament routinely defies the popular will, as Burke urged them to at times. And because they treat this question - and others, like abortion and gay rights - as matters of personal conscience which political parties should not interfere with. You can call this anti-democratic, but you can also call it civilized.

All this is well and good, and of course Americans have a long historical experience with certain enumerated rights in our constitution (the Bill of Rights comes to mind). However, he slips when he makes the comparison to gay rights. Is it the case, for instance, that in those European nations where same-sex marriage is enshrined in law that a progressive elite has simply acted against majority opinion?

This simply isn't so. The first country to legalize same-sex marriages was the Netherlands, a country known for tolerance and religious liberty going back to the 16th century. Where did the Dutch masses stand on the issue? Well, 62% were in favor of expanding the definition of marriage. In Spain, where gay marriage was legalized in 2005, in the face of Vatican opposition, polling found that a day before the bill passed, 61% of the population supported the measure. Nine months later... support remained the same, and was 62%. Norweigans passed a bill in January 2009 which transitioned the country from having legal gay civil partnerships to full marriage rights. Where did the public stand? 58% supported it, and only 31% stood against this expansion of human liberty. In Sweden, same-sex marriage was just legalized last April. But, not only did a whopping 71% of Swedes support the right before parliament passed it, but even 68% of Lutheran pastors were alright with it!

So, sure, Europeans may agree with us to an extent on capital punishment. But in those countries where gay marriage is legal, strong majorities stand in support of that right.

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