PS21 Report: What Would a Hillary Clinton Foreign Policy Look like?


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  • Likely a more assertive, “American exceptionalist” foreign policy
  • Personal relationships with other leaders more central than under Obama
  • Like all White House incumbents, would have limited bandwidth. Other appointments important
  • “Asia pivot” would continue to be challenged by Mideast, Europe events
  • Mideast peace process seen “unfinished business” by Clintons
  • Gender less important than persona, reputation 

On Thursday, June 4, 2015, PS21 held a discussion on “What would a Hillary Clinton foreign policy look like?”. It will hold a further discussion later in the year on a likely Republican approach to foreign affairs.

A full transcript of the event can be found here and video here.


Participants were speaking as individuals rather than as representatives of institutions.

Ali Wyne (moderator): PS21 Global Fellow. Member of the adjunct staff, RAND Corporation

Ari Ratner:  PS21 Governing Board Member. Fellow, New America. Former State Department political appointee 2009-12

Leigh O’Neill: Policy Director, Truman National Security Project

Warren Strobel:   Chief Diplomatic Correspondent, Reuters

Key Takeaways

American foreign policy tends to oscillate between a more muscular, approach and a more modest pullback. A Clinton presidency — or, for that matter, a Republican one — would likely see a more assertive approach than that pursued by the Obama administration.

Ratner: In many respects, she’s just a tougher person, I say that with pride and it’s no criticism of the President, but Hillary is tough. That’s a very commendable quality in a leader and it’s something that will serve America well on the global stage if she ends up being president. 

In some ways a broader, less nuanced and more ideological approach. In August 2014, Clinton told The Atlantic: “Great nations need organising principles and “don’t do stupid stuff” is not an organising principle (this appeared to be reference to one of Obama’s reported foreign policy mantras).” 

In her most recent book Hard Choices, Clinton said she was more persuaded than ever before that it was America’s duty and roll to lead in the world.

Strobel: I think it’s fairly clear from Clinton’s history and her rhetoric that she’s an American exceptionalist which is the mainstream… of US foreign policy. She says America has a unique role to play and the world is better off because of that. 

A tougher line on selected issues, a broader approach on others.

O’Neill: It’s a balance of what she’s going to have to inherit and deal with and wants to push forward herself. I don’t think there’s any question she would be tough but also open to resolving some of these major questions. 

Strobel: I think there will be a slight course correction towards a more muscular attitude on things like Syria. She’s said that and she writes that. I think there will be a lot more personality in foreign policy.

I think she’ll bring the soft diplomacy stuff to bear, a lot of the economic stuff. I think it’s harder for the president to do soft diplomacy — women’s issues, Internet freedom, etc. It’s easier for a Secretary of State to lead on those issues than the president who is much busier. But I do think that will be part of that doctrine.

As Secretary of State, Clinton travelled more than 1,000,000 miles, further than most others. The nature of the period threw her to the front on multiple foreign policy issues. In particular, she often prioritised going to a place and meeting people in person.

With foreign leaders, her personal relationships may be more important than in the Obama administration.

O’Neill: I think she deserves a lot of credit for being able to recognise that it would take star power, genuine star power to arrive in some of our partner nations and supposing friends and repair relationships (after the Bush administration).

Her influence on major policy issues under Obama, however, was limited. 

Strobel: She was Secretary of State under Obama, an administration in which who was Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense frankly didn’t matter that much. I’m exaggerating a little for effect but… it’s really about five people who really make most of the major foreign policy decisions: Obama, Ben Rhodes (speechwriter now Deputy National Security Advisor), Susan Rice (National Security Advisor), Dennis McDonough (White House Chief of Staff), Valerie Jarrett (senior advisor).

That’s not to say Hillary was inconsequential Secretary of State. It is only to say it’s very difficult to have a huge impact in this administration if you’re Hillary Clinton.

Should she reach the White House, however, she will face many of the same pressures.

Ratner: the President has a very limited bandwidth for what they can do in the world and make the strategic framework at the highest level. There will be lots of efforts through social media — as there is with President Obama — to reach out to a diverse cross-section of people and it certainly true she will pursue personal diplomacy more. That’s the type of leader she is. But she’ll be taken up with a lot of things.

There will almost certainly be a considerable crossover between domestic and foreign policy.

Ratner: There is an old saying that politics stops at the water’s edge. That’s certainly not true anymore. The fundamental principle that she talked about, the sense of crisis, collapsing faith in institutions is something you see not only quite startlingly in this country, you see it in many countries around the world. The first part of foreign policy — and you saw this at the State Department — is that we need to get our own house in order politically, economically, restore that sense of opportunity and progress that’s been the guiding principle of our nation since its inception. How we look to the world is much more important than whether we have one additional F-16 or naval carrier.

She will probably bring across many of her previous colleagues at State. Michele Flournoy is widely seen front runner for the Pentagon, although Ashton Carter may stay in role initially. There is less clarity over State. 

Ratner:  It will matter who her Secretary of State is and the Secretary of Defense. The reality is from State Department she had a very talented team. I’m talking about people well above my level like Jake Sullivan, who is probably going to be her National Security Adviser.

She will likely pursue a somewhat tougher approach with potential adversaries such as Iran or Russia.

 O’Neill: There is a tremendous amount of continuity in that she knows the world. She understands the actors. She understands the context, she understands the characters and not just the relationship bilaterally but also the need for contacts, the character of the state and how to be effective

 I think the underlying theme is: of course you talk to your adversaries. Maybe not directly. Maybe there is a timing and sequencing issue depending on the context but you can’t just will things to happen as the US. We tried that for years. It did not work.

I don’t think there’s any question that she would be tough but open to resolving some of these major questions.


Again, personal relationships will be key. 

Strobel: It’s funny. Obama was elected to office in large part on the basis of his personality and his personal history, charisma. People loved him all over the world. Over time, it has become clear he doesn’t have close personal relationships with almost any other world leader. That’s just not how he operates. I’m not saying they hate each other, but he just doesn’t build any bonds with selected leaders.

Two things stand out (from Clinton’s time at State): her breadth of travel and knowledge of leaders, even at the local level and NGOs. Her network is amazing. She compares very favourably in some ways to John Kerry in the sense that Kerry has a reputation for not always connecting with his staff and not empowering people.

 The next president will inherit a complex world. In Asia, relations with China are struggling. There may or may not be a deal with Iran but the rest of the Middle East is in a poor state. The “reset” with Russia has headed in an entirely unpleasant direction. Many of America’s allies have real worries but also have their own confrontations — and may bring with them real dangers.

 Ratner: One of the difficult thing she’s goings to have to balance is not only how to engage our adversaries but our alliances. A lot of wars have got started by smaller states dragging in bigger states. She’s really going to have to strike the right balance. It’s very difficult.

There is some truth in the reality that the US is in a weaker position than it was, certainly during the last Clinton administration, by most measures you can look at. I think she will be tougher in a lot of ways, especially public diplomacy. But the country as a whole is in a weaker position than we would like it to be.

In a 2007 Foreign Affairs article, Clinton was an early identifier of the growing importance of the China relationship. The Middle East, however, will continue to take a very large volume of time. She may also, some suspect, put a higher priority on the Middle East peace process — perhaps the most important takeaway from her husband’s presidency.

 Strobel: I don’t know but I strongly suspect that for Secretary Clinton and President Bill Clinton that is unfinished business. They came into office not really knowing much about foreign affairs, frankly. They made a few mistakes early with Somalia — though that was carried over from Bush 41. They made some mistakes dealing with other issues that over time they grew and they put a huge effort into Israeli-Palestinian Peace and ultimately the Camp David accord.

I think that is formative for her and that she would try to restart the Middle East peace process in a serious way.

While it might be an issue in the election, gender may be less of a factor when it comes to international relationships. Persona may be more important.

 O’Neill: Of course she’s tough. She’s beyond gender. She’s Hillary Clinton and she did not get that by being sugary sweet all the time. That’s not how it goes. I think, by far, all the accumulated experiences she has had it deserves to be said that she is the most qualified. I think she understands how to be effective.

Ratner: I hope the country is ready. The country should be ready. The question of whether she will be challenged because she’s a woman is an interesting academic question — but she still Hillary Clinton. If I’m Vladimir Putin, I’m way more scared of Hillary Clinton than I am Marco Rubio. She has a lot more credibility, of course, a lot more temper and knows what she’s doing a lot more than Jeb Bush might.

Report compiled by Peter Apps. Transcript by Christopher Stephens

PS21 Report: Former UK Special Forces Chief on 21st Century Defence


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  • In a hyper-connected 21st century, threats to stability, security more varied
  • State and non-state adversaries becoming more adaptive, flexible
  • Militaries must develop, access skill set beyond traditional main armed services
  • Credibility, adaptability now as important as pure military capability
  • Understanding politics, narrative, economics more important than ever

On Monday, June 1, 2015 the Project  for Study of the 21st Century (PS21) held a discussion on “Defence of the Realm” with former UK Director Special Forces and Commander Field Army Lt Gen Sir Graeme Lamb.

The discussion took place in Canary Wharf, east London and was moderated by PS21 executive director Peter Apps.

A full transcript can be found HERE 

The event was live streamed; a full video can be found here:


“It’s not the strongest or most intelligent species that survives, it’s the one that adapts. My experience is that those who wish us harm are adapting very quickly.”

Traditional military capability is no longer enough.  Potential adversaries – both non-state groups like Islamic State and rival powers such as Russia, China and Iran – are innovating fast in this space.

“We left the last century where the United States absolutely got to the finish line. Capability dominance — they nailed it. What do we see now in those who test us today? They are now in fact capable of “capability avoidance”. What will be the next step?”

“There’s a great line: “if you don’t like change, you’ll like irrelevance even less”. The danger is that we’ll find that we’ve got into “capability irrelevance”.”

New conflicts are increasingly as much battles of propaganda and narrative as industrial clashes of arms.

“Take “hot” and “cold” wars. In a “hot war”, what really matters is capability. It is credibility. How good is your tank? As you get into “cold” or “cooling wars”, what matters more is your intent. You start playing in a whole series of economic, proxy, propaganda fields, hybrid etc.”

“But I think we’re going through and beyond that too. We’re going into these new spaces in many ways where the capabilities that we have now don’t match the threats that we are being presented with. We’re trying to sort of muddle through and yet the dangers I sense are very real.”

Recent wars, attacks bring alarming lessons and  go well beyond traditional military focus/skill set.

  • Individuals, small groups now much more capable of wreaking mayhem
  • In Ukraine, Russia’s Putin “playing a bad hand very well”
  • Ultimately,  ISIS war end must involve multi-ethnic political settlement in Iraq, Syria
  • ISIS depends on holding territory to maintain narrative, legitimacy. Must be taken back
  • In conflicts like Nigeria, engaging early, much better than intervening late

UK defence spending has declined considerably as a relative proportion of government expenditure since the 1980s relative to health, welfare and other areas.

“If I look at the British Army… my view is that whatever ceiling we were at — 82,000 plus 30,000 in reserve — for a nation of 63.9 million people and the budget we have… sounds about right.”

“If someone turns around and says: “reduce that radically”, you’re just accepting that we will have no part in trying to stabilise a world that is unravelling. And yet we assume that we will still be able to conduct global affairs, global finance, global logistics, global resources and that everything is going to go right without actually putting our hands in.” 

 Strategic Defence And Security Review brings tough decisions.

  • “Exquisite” equipment must not come at  cost of usability, broader flexibility
  • Having the best people and giving them opportunities as important as kit
  • Defence spending as a proportion of UK government total well down on 1980s
  • Little room to cut personnel numbers without seriously compromising ability
  • Services should remain separate entities but joint planning/strategy vital
  • Reserves may be only viable option in new areas e.g. social media, cyber
  • UK must be willing to allow private sector to play role

To be relevant in the 21st century, the military must become much better at liaising with those outside of it. Government in general must broaden its expertise.

“We need to find a balance between the conventional and unconventional, the ability to deal with the hybrid, the emerging threat, the relationship between security services, SIS, GCHQ, immigration, police, counter-terrorism and the Armed Forces.”

“I find it extraordinary that the National Security Council doesn’t have a serious economist. When I look around the world, invariably when I go into a country the first thing I’m looking at is the underlying finances, employment expectations and economic prosperity.”

 “It’s about shaping events. There are some opportunities to pick up for young men and women out there which I would leap to in a heartbeat if I could.”

gl report

Retaining public support for military expenditure, activity and occasional intervention will require a major public discussion. The same is true in some other areas – particularly the use of meta data and surveillance techniques to track dangerous elements, particularly militant groups.

“In the 1980s, we were casting a significant amount of GDP into defence to combat, challenge and match the Warsaw Pact. [The threat] has just got broader and yet somehow we don’t recognise that clear and present danger.” 

“The reality was that we were not good at constructing a compelling narrative which got the reasons why and what we needed to defend the realm. It’s not about spinning. It’s about trying to articulate.”

Additional quotes/conclusions

“My view would be that this century is different from the rest. If we run with that premise we have to not undo everything because in many ways that would be crazy. But we have to recognise that there are now other parts of defence that need to be attended to with the same passion, motion, discipline that has gone into looking after our single services and the defence business.”

“Everybody has got a mobile phone or two. There are 300 million users of the dark web. You’ve got this massive energy of people who are connected. Perception becomes reality very quickly and people react. It sounds like it should make us better informed. In fact, we’re just connected. There are those who want to use that for infinite mischief.”

“We are going from uncertainty into the unknown… What I sense is a world in which our order as we know it is being challenged in many ways. We have every reason to then review how we defend this realm and that order.”

Other major powers including Russia and China also have a stake in the protection of the existing global system, even if they want to tilt it. Being too aggressive has drawbacks.

“If you poke Iran and Russia and China too hard, they just coalesce in many ways. It’s good to talk. Take someone like President Putin: pragmatic, practical, very Russian, in many ways recognises history. That doesn’t mean I’m an apologist for him. I’m not but the simple truth is there are some things we need to recognise and not treat as a simple game of checkers.”

“Don’t forget, the Russians play chess, the Chinese play Mahjong. It would be fascinating to have someone like Henry Kissinger come along and just recall. The rules have not really changed from the Russian perspective. We’ve moved on. The truth is we’ve forgotten how the rules worked — that old-fashioned, hard-nosed, very private diplomacy. We’ve sort of lost the art of that.”

“You should not underestimate [President Putin]. He is playing I think a bad hand extremely well.”

Beating Islamic State also requires more than just a military strategy. 

“If war is a continuation of politics by other means, to politics it must return. (But) the caliphate must be taken back. So somebody’s boots are going to have to be on the ground.” 

To survive, ISIS needs to keep delivering propaganda victories — one reason it was willing to throw so much at Ramadi until it captured it in May 2015. 

“We have to try and combat that with a compelling and appropriate narrative and have a whole range of different people engaged. We’re really crap at that and they are really good. But their weakness is there a need for territory — they need to have a caliphate, a physical space.” 

Ultimately defeating them also requires political resolution in Baghdad that reconciles Sunni, Shia and Kurd. That means a level of devolution in which all component regions remain happy to stay in the same state; breaking the country up is much less viable. 

“It’s about getting the political scene right… they need great leadership, political leadership and military leadership. That was ruined — the military leadership under Malaki — and the political leadership is suspect. The problem now is the deep involvement with the IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps). They are in many ways seen to be those who are fighting alongside and leading not only elements of the Iraqi army and all the rest.” 

That creates difficult dynamics on the ground. Sunni tribal leaders in ISIS areas fear the return of Iraqi troops and Shia militias will bring brutal reprisals.

“Those forces will generate refugees. Refugees will break the Middle East.”

These dynamics require more complicated and wider ranging skill sets than those traditionally taught by staff colleges. Some of these have, however, already been picked up in the recent Iraqi and Afghan campaigns.

 “There’s an awful lot of people that wear uniform today — and people like me who are now old blokes — who get the “to politics it must return”. The world we in fighting has this range of different spaces which if we do not address we will be undone by.”

On occasion we do need to absolutely bring violence to bear, people have to be killed or to be what I call “shaped”. And you could shape them with a B-52 (bomber) or you can shape them by sitting opposite them and having a conversation which turns around to — as it did in Iraq — to “how does this end?”

To be successful, however, those conversations often require the credible threat of force. 

“You have to have the capability and credibility. In fact it’s your will — it’s not about warfare, it’s will-fare. The Armed Forces have to be prepared to put themselves in harm’s way and see whoever calls them out.” 

“What we have — and I understand it entirely — is a public and political dislike for intervention. The problem is we tend to intervene late. And large, because we’re going late. What we should be doing is to engage and early.” 

“There will be cases where we need to intervene, much as people might challenge all that.”

The key, therefore, is a flexible force. 

“When I look at exquisite equipment at whatever cost, I’m more interested in having an adaptive force. If you’re going to have an air force that consists of just F-35 then no, actually we need a more balanced force.”

“I look at things like C130 (Hercules transport aircraft) and say: “be careful, keep that in place, move it out at a time when the A400M (replacement) has proved itself.”

“You have to be careful how you structure yourself. But if you had a lot of people doing operational training teams — company level or battalion level training — for a decade or two in Nigeria then you wouldn’t have the problem we now have with Boko Haram.”


Current reforms by head of the British Army Gen Nick Carter are already looking to make the force much more flexible. The Army is looking at taking a division and turning it into a more active, regionally focused force capable of sending out multiple much smaller training teams and units. 

Building a rationale and strategic approach for operating such teams in potentially hazardous areas, however, is important. 

“If you say we will only send a force out if it is absolutely safe, my view is that you might as well disband the bloody lot.”

“As a young man, my view was that I expected to go into harm’s way and I think that that has not changed for anyone in uniform. You know you don’t rush to get killed. But if you lose some people along the way, that’s what it takes.

One of the major risks of the SDSR is that activity and training suffer because of the focus on cost saving, rendering the military much less appealing.

Some efficiency savings are possible, however, such as in the number of non-uniform personnel, bases etc. What is most important, however, is that the focus on saving existing programs is not allowed to completely dictate everything else. 

“Once you say that people cost inflation plus and equipment costs rise more and you’ve got to make savings, where does that come from? It comes from activity. If I’m a young pilot or I’m in charge of a ship’s company or troops training and I can’t anymore because there is no fuel, I’d rather come to the City.” 

The person who should have most say is not the head of the army or the Navy or the air force but the Joint Force Commander at Permanent Joint Headquarters in Northwood — the officer who is most likely to have to actually take the British military to war and do things with it. 

“My view would be to allow him to look at the spaces where the world is today and will be tomorrow and ensure that actually we are able to act. That might be the reserves — those that wish to have a purpose in life and are so expensive (in their skill set such as cyber security) but are just so dammed good and who will come for a period.” 

“I don’t need them to be able to do some kind of assault course, I just need a boy or girl to be able to deliver really clever algorithms and look into these complicated spaces and see how they integrate and what we need to do.”

Sacrificing one capability to protect another is always risky. Having disposed of the Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft, with Russian submarines now prowling on the edge of its waters, the UK now needs a replacement. New technology may provide cheaper alternatives, however. 

As important, arguably, is providing defendable and achievable missions and roles for young service personnel that address the key challenges. 

“The truth of the matter is that it is really important because it is the sense of belonging, the sense of what these people bring to the fight, that in many ways differentiates them.” 

“In a lot of these specialist areas, 77 Brigade (social media specialists), cyber, you just can’t afford these people (full-time). Can you find 30,000 people out there to come in? Of course you can. A lot of people out there need to have this sense of purpose. Actually they will feel better for doing it.” 

Private sector solutions are also important. 

“The UK has a real problem with the commercial sector. If I go to America I see the relationship between commerce and the Agency (CIA). If I really want to get some skinny on a problem in my previous world, I would go to the foreign office, SIS, I would love that all of that and then I would go and find one or two people in the commercial space.”

“They have a lot more flexibility, they can move quickly. They can change and economic dynamic. In many ways it has more power and leverage than the best of government.” 

“The commercial field is important but somehow we see it as dirty in this country.. It’s changing a little but it’s taking forever.”

 There is a need for a wider discussion on surveillance and counter-terrorism. 

“There is a debate that we should absolutely have and in many ways embrace and lead.” 

“If you go back and look at the early period of the Enlightenment — Hobbes, Grotius, Montesquieu, Rousseau, just keep ticking the names off — people put their lives at risk, were excommunicated etc as they fought to try and understand the relationship between the individual and the state. And this went on for a great period of time and in many ways brought about responsibilities, obligations, freedoms and rights.” 

“We have not had that debate yet and the world is changing.” 

“The idea that it took armies, navies and an air force to bring industrial violence to bring change or threaten our way of life is something of previous eras. You could find an army, navy or air force. Today, just a few souls can challenge our way of life and our safety and security.” 

“So you have a problem which is what level of surveillance, of intrusion into your civil liberties should we have? We need to have a debate on it. I have no issue with that and would welcome the lunatic right and the lunatic left and everything in between to try and actually struggle this sense of responsibility.” 

“The ground rules have changed such that… a few souls who do not register on a network, don’t come up. You go back and look at the Madrid bombings — 220 people dead, changed the government. That was from just one e-mail coming out of Iraq which said: “do something”.”

Report by Peter Apps. Transcript by Gabrielle Redelinghuys and Claire Connellan

PS21 Report: The ISIS War: Where Are We?


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  • Shortage of anti-tank  rockets  key to Iraqi defeat  at Ramadi
  • More broadly,  ISIS seen struggling  in Iraq, dominating in Syria
  • Little unity between regional powers amid their  own  broader struggles
  • Little or no  local appetite, enthusiasm for US troop deployment
  • “Iraq-first” strategy  best hope of undermining ISIS narrative
  • ISIS victories at Ramadi, in Syria major propaganda wins
  • Increased US politicization of Iraq issue could fuel  ISIS narrative


On Wednesday, May 27, 2014, the Project for Study of the 21st Century (PS21) held a discussion on the wall with Islamic State. The event took place in the Thomson Reuters offices in Washington DC.

Key takeaways from the discussion are below. 

A full transcript can be found here.

The event was live streamed, watch the full video here:



Milena Rodban (Moderator): Independent geopolitical risk consultant. PS21 global fellow.

Douglas Ollivant, former U.S. Army officer, Iraq director, US National Security Council 2008-9. Fellow, New America

Rasha Elass: PS21 global fellow. Formerly reporter for Reuters, NPR and others from Damascus.

Ahmed Ali: senior fellow at the Education for Peace in Iraq Centre (EPIC)

Key takeaways:

The ISIS victory in Ramadi was a serious local defeat but the general trend in Iraq might still have turned the group, at least within Iraq. 

“You cannot see what happened in Ramadi as the defining episode of the war,” said Ali. “This is a long-term battle… It’s a mixed picture.” 

One of the reasons ISIS focused so strongly on Ramadi was the need to reverse the narrative of its decline in Iraq. There were also notable local failings, particularly in the provision of anti-tank rockets.

ISIS is not winning,” said Ollivant. “ISIS is losing. In fact, it is losing decisively in Iraq. Syria is an entirely different story. It’s increasing number of affiliates is troubling… (but) when it loses large portions of Iraq, it will be very difficult to keep its narrative up.” 

In Syria, however, Isis remains clearly in the ascendant not least because its enemies — other rebel groups and the Assad government — remain more focused on each other.

ISIS in Syria is winning,” said Elass . “It’s controlling maybe 50% of the country. I think it’s really dangerous to underestimate ISIS..” 

 Deploying large numbers of US troops might not be the answer — and is not particularly wanted in Iraq, even less in Syria.

“I’m not against deploying US troops if it’s the right thing to do,” Ali said. “But strategically, at this moment, it will not help us. It will not work in the long term and Iraqis are capable of doing it and they really have to do it.”

“The important thing to remember about additional US troops in Iraq is that the US has not offered to send them an Iraq has not asked for them,” said Ollivant. “There are very significant actions within the Iraqi polity would see the return of US troops –, I believe, forward air controllers and special forces upfront with the troops — as the first step towards the reoccupation of Iraq. These are people who are currently fighting against ISIS.” 

 There is still a general lack of unity amongst those fighting ISIS with most members aside from the US and Iraq more focused on local regional rivalries.

Nothing is going to happen to make the Turks, for example, care more about ISIS than they do about Yasir regime and their own internal Kurdish problem,” said Ollivant. “Do the Saudis hate ISIS worse than they hate the Iranians? No. Do the Iranians hate ISIS worse than they hate the Saudis? No. It is a second-tier problem for almost everyone else in the region. 

That may be particularly important in Syria

“It’s always difficult to read but it’s important to realise that, to a great extent, Iran now runs the show in government from Syria,” said Elass. “It is not necessarily Assad’s call. It’s Iran’s.” 

The PR/social media battle remains key and hotly contested. While little can be done to stop some young men within those countries being drawn to the cause, more could be done to stop foreign fighters. 

“It’s not all about the military campaign, there clearly has to be a counter propaganda campaign,” said Ali. I’m not going to say it’s going to be 100% successful — I am less confident about it compare to the military campaign but it has to be part of the thinking.” 

Overall, the panel saw no significant risk of ultimate breakup of Iraq and Syria — neither was seen particularly workable. A final solution might  involve bringing together all parties in the region, either formally or informally.

“Iran and Russia need to be engaged just as much as Saudi Arabia and Turkey,” said Elass. “Otherwise  ISIS will simply continue to run amok.” 


Further quotes:

What happened in Ramadi? 

Ali: Up until Ramadi, Iraqis have stopped believing there was a common threat. They had moved on. It’s a wake-up call for all Iraqis. That has been, in some ways, good.

There clearly has to be an expedited delivery of weaponry to the Iraqis because one of the deficiencies that was apparent was that the Iraqi forces did not have anti-tank missiles which could have been very effective in dealing with 27-30 armoured car bombs. They demoralised the security forces. We have to focus on that effect.

Ollivant: Clearly, there was a lack of anti-tank missiles at Ramaidi. Why? Despite all their objections about how they’d ” then, the Kurds have plenty up in the North. They stopped all the car bombs that came at them there because they had anti-tank missiles to shoot them. The Iraqi soldiers at Ramadi did not.

Was there a political decision not to supply them? Did the Iraqis say they didn’t want them? I don’t know what the answer is. All I know is that there were no anti-tank missiles there when they need them.

Isis provided us with the pictures are armoured bulldozer that very slowly and deliberately moved all the concrete barriers out of the way so that the car bombs could come through. There was nothing the Iraqi soldiers could do to stop them.

They just had to watch as these car bombs came through and the (Iraqi) ten to one superiority became nineto one and then 8 to 1 and then seven to one as the car bombs started blowing up.

It doesn’t take very long when you’re getting these Timothy McVeigh-sized car bombs. They are dump trucks full of ammonium nitrate and we know what that big to… Oklahoma City. They had several of those hit in rapid succession in Ramadi.

The Iraqi “will to fight”

 Ollivant: I am a fan of the current Secretary of Defence. I’m on the record saying he was a great choice for the job. But you don’t ever, ever, get up and say a major ally of yours has an army with no will to fight. Even if it’s true, which I don’t believe it to be in this particular case.

You don’t let ISIS at a propaganda message that the Iraqi army cannot fight. It’s not helpful.

I think that kind of exemplifies a trend. I think there are many actors in the US political system we do not think about the impact that their message has its contoured for a US domestic audience, for domestic political purposes… but we don’t think about how it plays in the, how it might harm our allies and assist ISIS.

Ali: my concern with the messaging is that the US government did not get it right. This has resulted in negatively impacting the morale of the rocks security forces and we can avoid that. It’s very simple.

It’s a mistake to call out another ally. You can always have private channels to send those messages. My concern, given that this is Washington, is that you will have depolarisation of Iraq (as a US political issue issue).

Boots on the ground? 

Ollivant: Deploying American troops would be a bad idea. The immediate fight against ISIS is a necessary step but that’s probably the easiest to handle.

You can’t teach yourself away from the various Sadrists — not just Moqtada al-Sadr but the larger Sadrist tradition of groups — who would in a very traditional white just see this as an occupying army. On one respect, I kind of effect that. I’d like to think that if someone sent soldiers to occupy my country, I would shoot them too.

I feel like the football coach is saying this after his team was just interdicted and they ran a touchdown of that nonetheless, the strategy is working. The strategy is to essentially train, equip, provide air strikes and provide intelligence. We may have to look at improvements in all those areas.

The big picture

Ollivant: ISIS thrives under a very specific set of conditions. It thrives in Sunni Arab regions in which state institutions are weak or non-existent. When they run up against a place in which these do not hold — when they bump up against Sunni Arabs in the south of Iraq or… the Kurds in north-western Iraq or the Turks in the North or the Kurds in Syria or the functioning states like Jordan and Saudi Arabia, they don’t spread.

The bad news is that this describes a whole lot of the region and we see these conditions in places like Egypt and Libya and the southern part of Tunisia. There are a lot of places that fit these conditions… but there does seem to be a limit to their spread.

Syria and North Africa — ISIS still dominant 

Elass:  Many in Syria, including the rebels, did not take ISIS seriously. They said “ISIS can’t take hold in a place like Syria. There’s no bread for them”. They said they can’t really thrive in Syria because they rely so much on foreign jihadists.

We can look outside Syria to, for example, Libya. ISIS has a small presence there but it is growing and also being underestimated by Europe. For example, Europe is suffering from the human trafficking of people across the Mediterranean and ISIS keeps saying “‘re putting sleeping cells amongst those migrants.”

ISIS claim they have put hundreds on those boats… it might be difficult to believe… but realistically all they need is a dozen or so to wreak havoc in Europe.

Ollivant: The Assad regime does care about fighting ISIS that it cares far more about fighting the Free Syrian Army and al-Nusra which it sees, rightly, as threats to its immediate existence.

Of course, this administration has that certain red lines in place on Syria that, politically, it just can’t move off. A second piece of this is that we just have to punt this to the administration.

Coalition strategy

Ollivant : We have an Iraq-first strategy for two reasons. There are a lot of partner forces in Iraq that we can rely on to do the heavy lifting. There are the official Iraqi security forces, the army and police. They are the Shia militias, there’s the Peshmerga and there are some Sunni tribesmen. So that’s the positive reason we’re doing Iraq first.

The negative reason is the flipside of that. In Syria, we have somewhere neighbourhood of nobody who is willing to be a partner for us to help us fight against ISIS and even to the extent we try to generate forces to help us, it turns out they are far more interested in fighting against the regime… part of our problem with putting together this entire coalition is that — with the exception of the US in Baghdad that everyone else in the coalition is interested in fighting Isis but it’s no better than their number two priority.

Yes, we need to throw ISIS out of Iraq. We also need to make sure that a stable Iraq is left behind that can handle the reconstruction and re-assimilation. We also need to ensure that Iraq is more oriented towards the west, from a US perspective.

Then we need to figure out something about the Syrian civil war. Then, in the much broader sense, we need to figure out how to create legitimate parts for the Arab youth bulge to have both the economic and political participation.

Now, if I knew how to solve those, I get the Nobel Peace Prize, but those other things we need to do.

Ali: The US is the crucial player in the fight against ISIS. We have a 60 member coalition… but the US remains the most committed. Its most able to devote a lot of resources.

The US is capable of doing a great deal. One major line of effect is the S drives. When the US decided to deploy them effectively and widely, it made a huge difference on the battlefield.

If you look at Kobani, ISIS made it a priority. It became a priority for the US and Syrian Kurds as well and (they) came out on top. Same with Tikrit and other places.

ISIS is an adaptive group and we need to be adapted as well. We can’t stick to the same strategy as the situation unfolds.

Elass: It’s like the ongoing war on terrorism, drugs or poverty. You can’t fight a war like this using just one strategy.

Bombing ISIS is important in rolling back some of their territory but it can’t possibly be the only solution. ISIS thrives on chaos, it thrives on power vacuums and as long as Syria is deep in civil war, ISIS will continue to thrive.

There are partners that, I think, Washington can engage to curb the spread of ISIS inside Syria. Those partners may be controversial but Iran and Russia are definite partners in this. They have to be engaged, just as much as Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Without this, ISIS will continue to run amok.

In Syria, there are no trustworthy sustainable long-term partners to work with. There’s also the fight for hearts and minds.


Iraq — looking beyond Ramadi

Ali: June-August 2014 was a terrible period for Iraq because ISIS was able to make a lot of advances and take control of many cities. It had all the momentum it needed throughout the country. Since then, you have noticed a change in the dynamic which has led to ISIS being on the defensive.

Now, it only has momentum in western Iraq. In northern Iraq, the Kurdish Peshmerga have done a good job containing ISIS. ISIS was kicked out decisively from Salah ad-Din province, not only from the capital Tikrit. It was not an easy operation. It required a lot of efforts and coordination between different force even if you look at Diyala in north-eastern Iraq, ISIS was also cleared from there.

The only place ISIS has shifted its resources is…Ramadi and Anbar. Anbar was the result of a recognition that it was on the defensive and was losing in other parts of the country. For ISIS… cannot be seen as a losing organisation, it has to be an organisation that is on the march.

Despite the fall of Ramadi, it is still have to look at the decisive factors that have led to this outcome. They’re actually capable forces fighting ISIS on the ground. We’re talking about 200,000 anti-ISIS members and many of them have shown a great will to fight despite what the secretary of defence has said.

But this is a long-term battle and it will keep changing back and forth. I’m more confident about what will happen to ISIS in Iraq than I am of Syria.

The battle for hearts and minds

Ali: A lot of people fall in love with bad guys. It’s as simple as that. We tend to lionise their games and minimise the gains of anti-ISIS forces. You not only have people who are ISIS adherents Tweeting and propagating their messages on social media but non-Isis supporters doing the same thing.

The social media war is crucial to beat ISIS… the way ISIS spreads its news is that whenever there’s an attack in an area, you’ll get a whole number of accounts tweeting the same thing and it gets propagated. ISIS has the capability and the governments do not have the same ability which makes it a big challenge.

It’s not about the social media, it’s about on the ground.

When ISIS was getting close to Erbil in August 2014, someone told me “my teenage daughter came to me and said “Dad, ISIS is getting close and I’ve seen what it does on You Tube and Twitter and I’m very afraid.

Elass:  Winning hearts and minds in Syria has not worked very well for America lately. Most Syrians wouldn’t trust America. Many rebel factions think that ISIS is some sort of (Western) conspiracy.

They say things like “the West is happy that ISIS is fighting here because it attracts all the jihadists here and… they get killed and never go back to America and Europe so that’s a good way to get rid of them.”

By the way, I have heard people from the intelligence community who do count on that.

But I have to say, I don’t think ISIS are winning the PR war. Brutality is not new to humankind. All the time, we have animal abusers and KKK and neo-Nazis in Europe who try to increase their platform online and they are suppressed. They don’t have that kind of money that comes to ISIS.

They’re not necessarily winning the war. They’ve just gotten a lot of money through petrodollars and a lot of visibility for now.

They are also very tech-savvy because they recruit a lot of nerves. A lot of the twitter accounts are actually echo accounts.

Ollivant: They have been very clever in the way they’ve approached a lot of these accounts. The more prominent ones are only about 30-40 percent pro-Isis and 60% anti-Iranian.

They are very clever in finding ways to infiltrate certain communities and embedding themselves in those larger contexts. Being anti-Iranian has been a really interesting waiting for quite some media streams.

Their production values are extremely good. I was finished in the first issue of their English-language propaganda magazine. I give people at the think tanks and businesses I work out a hard time because some of the best layout on me that’s ever been done. In a technical sense is quite admirable.

Ali: With different crackdowns, ISIS resulted to other means. At some point they started using Russian servers and Russian website. Twitter goes on suspension binges every once in a while where shuts down thousands of ISIS accounts.

As long as you can keep them under pressure, those users who are sympathetic to ISIS, you can actually do something. There has to be a systemic effort but I don’t anticipate it to be seen.

ISIS recruitment 

Ollivant: There is no one profile of someone who joins ISIS but in general, there are two large pool

In the West, it is mostly teenage angst. Kids who would otherwise join the Goth community or run off to California and join some wacko sex or drug-based cult. There are always going to be looking for something, that demographic, so it’s hard to see them not finding a way to link themselves with someone like ISIS.

The other pool from a rational perspective is quite logical. Young men in the Arab world who are not just unemployed and unemployable. No possibility of ever joining society or having a family, we would never be able to accumulate money for a dowry so they can have a wife and children. You come and find someone who has no future, no prospects at 15 or 16, had a gun and a sense of belonging and a way to have access to money and goods and sex. What 16-year-old is not going to sign up to that. Let the ideology come later.

Ali: For the foreign fighters, it’s about being disillusioned. Joining ISIS to find purpose is attracted to folks who have difficulty of simulating into the UK or France or other countries. Some have tried in the US but the immigration and assimilation here is easier for Americans to have been born here.

You have to be realistic. There is an issue here with different Muslim communities around the world particularly those in Europe and even in the US. That’s why I believe one way is for parents to take a bigger role. There has to be a better understanding by the parents and better education by the parents.

Elass: I don’t think it stops there. I don’t think the real question is how to stop them recruiting online or putting out their ideology because that’s unstoppable. I don’t think it’s a good idea to push them underground and off twitter.

It’s an old strategy — encourage them to come to the surface. That way it’s easier to keep an eye on them.

The real challenge comes when the authorities, communities countries involved in stopping the flow of jihad as is. Turkey, for one, could be strict about monitoring its borders. Europe could be stricter.

Tunisia, which has become a major partner with Washington, can do a lot more about exporting jihadists to ISIS

The long-term future of Iraq — staying one country? 

Ollivant: Yes. The alternative is a civil war that would make serious look relatively calm. You can draw lines on the map and make your own plan but then you notice that these lines go through Baghdad. What happens to the 1.5 million Sunnis who lived there? Will that be peaceful? I suspect not.

What happens to the entire province of Diyala which is a mixed bowl of Sunni, Shia and Kurd?

Much as the Kurds like to talk of an independent Kurdistan, it’s not a viable entity. Sunnistan, as it might be cool, would become essentially an Arab Waziristan: no resources, no access to the sea, no particular reason for its existence as a political entity. Shiastan would get much richer because they have all the resources that they would lack the larger population and allows them to stand up to Iranian influence and I think they would become the Iranian proxy that they are falsely accused of being.

Ali: I’m willing to bet Iraqis going to remain united. It’s not because Iraqis like to get along. It’s because Iraqis need to get along.

As much as you see discussion… there is still an understanding that the country’s oil dependent and the oil is mostly in southern Iraq. As a result, it will be difficult for other parts to leave easily.

Plus, today’s Middle East is not the 1920s Middle East. It’s not easy to combine countries. ISIS is doing that at the moment but that doesn’t mean it has to be successful.

Long-term future of Syria 

Elass: There was a time, maybe a couple of years ago, when it was feasible to think that Syria might divide into two, one part rebel controlled and then regime-controlled from Damascus to Homs and the coastal provinces. Even regime insiders who were close to Assad conceded this.

Now, I think, it’s a lot more complicated, particularly with ISIS. Other country displayed, it needs to have at least two internally coherent but separate sections. That is no longer the case. There are now so many parts of Syria that it would look like something like polka dots, not to want three states. That makes it unlikely, if that makes sense.

Report by Peter Apps. Transcript by Christopher Stephens

London event takeaways: The UK Election – what we’ve learned


On Wednesday 13th May, PS21 hosted a panel discussion in the aftermath of the UK General Election looking at the lessons learned, and what to expect for the next five years.

Chair: Peter Apps Executive Director, PS21

Frank Spring: US political strategist, independent consultant for innovation, politics and security issues and PS21 Global Fellow

Michael Peacock: Europe Middle East and Africa Politics and Economics Editor, Thomson Reuters

Georgina Stubbs: Journalist, The Sun

Robert Colville: News director, Buzzfeed UK

First up was Frank Spring, newly returned from an unsuccessful campaign for Labour in Southampton. The message from the doorsteps, eh felt, was that while people generally liked Labour’s policies, leader Ed Miliband was not seen as having what it took. On polling day, several thousand previously undetected Tory voters turned out and that was enough to win them the seat.

Reuters’ Mike Peacock – shortly joining the Bank of England as Head of Media – pointed out that for all the talk of a Tory “landslide”, their winning margin was very slim. David Cameron has a substantially smaller majority than John Major between 1993-1997, a government famously weak and subject to divisions on Europe in particular. “…we can run through the history of John Major’s primeministership but there are clear possible parallels there to watch for”, he said.

Georgina Stubbs from the Sun Nation said Labour appeared to have been pushed back to its historic heartlands around coalfields. But there too, it neglected voters they assumed were secure and in some cases were tempted to UKIP.

Rob Colvile, News Director at Buzzfeed, said the electoral map had been significantly redrawn. The victory of the SNP in Scotland made a future Labour majority unlikely. If constitutional reform produced “English votes for English laws” it would be hard for anyone but the Conservatives to win in England.

The giveaway detail in the polling data, Mike Peacock said, was that throughout the campaign the Tories invariably lead when it came to the economy. Similarly, in the Scottish referendum last year, even as the vote narrowed, most Scots continued to say they felt they would be better off in the union.

The lesson, he said, was to “look at the detail of the polls rather than the headlines” –although as with most others, it was only a conclusion he reached after the fact.

With the campaign so focused on personalities and domestic issues, it almost completely ignored foreign policy and Britain’s place in the world. Frank Spring said the UK lacked a national narrative for foreign policy – and no one seemed to see a particular demand for one. Even attempts to inject defence spending/Trident into the election debate went largely unheard.

Nor, Colvile said, was there any discussion of energy, despite some very drastic looming questions.


The Liberal Democrats, most agreed, would seriously struggle to recover in the short or medium term. Their compromise on tuition fees demonstrated beyond doubt the cost of abandoning a key electoral pledge. Their years of fighting almost entirely different battles against Labour and the Tories in different parts of the country would be difficult to resume effectively, even if an unpopular Tory government did rekindle some affection for the old Lib-Con coalition. “What narrative could they possibly spin that would bring them back in the next 10 years?” Spring asked.

In many ways, the 2015 election overturned many of the supposed conclusions from 2010. In 2010, local issues and candidates were seen key in many races, this year it all seemed about the broader national narrative.

PS21 global fellow Tim Hardy said it was relatively stark, the polling data suggested Labour policies, but not Ed Miliband. “66% (of Labour voters) believed in what was being offered… but they didn’t believe in Ed”.

On defending the NHS, Spring and Stubbs said Labour was effective but it wasn’t an important enough against the issue of the economy.

Whether the Tories would retain their perceived lead on the economy was another matter. Their current plans for dramatic cuts, then resurgent spending towards the end of the parliament were not necessarily achievable, Mike Peacock said. If they were perceived to cut too hard and for purely ideological reasons, that could hurt them.

An imminent Labour recovery for 2020, however, as seen unlikely, regardless of who might win the leadership. Different contenders were seen with different strengths. Chuka Umunna was a divisive figure, but with an element of “rock star” quality. Yvette Cooper would be Labour’s first female leader, and that could bring advantages.

Favourite Andy Burnham, meanwhile, is seen much more in the Miliband political insider mould.

Whether the SNP would hold Scotland in the long term remained unclear. The party, Colvile said, tended to do best when it had someone to blame and the referendum campaign had playing into their hands by forcing the London based parties together. A truly separate, more Scottish voice for Scottish labour may be a prerequisite for its recovery.

More than any other party, the SNP was seen as having fought a particularly successful social media campaign, especially when it came to getting their key younger voters out on polling day. This showed the importance of social media to the election outcome, “that is where people are having their conversations” Colvile noted, and many of these conversations are occurring out of the view of traditional media.

The other big question mark was over the future of UKIP. Had they reached a high water mark or was there still further to go? The EU referendum would clearly be key.

Peacock said Cameron seemed unlikely to win significant concession from Brussels on repatriation of power. Whether the Conservative party could hold together if its leadership was campaigning to remain in the EU was far from clear. ­­­

Both UKIP and the SNP were seen riding a popular wave of discontentment with metropolitan and political elites in general and London in particular.

For the Democrats preparing for the 2016 US presidential election, Spring said there were some interesting lessons. The Democrat economic platform was extremely similar to that fought on by Labour. Also, they might want to avoid putting their election pledges on a large stone tablet.

A full transcript of the discussion is available here

Event Takeaways: The Middle East in Flux


On Wednesday, April 29, 2015, PS21 hosted a discussion in London on the current situation in the Middle East.

Chair: Peter Apps – executive director, PS21

Metsa Rahimi – Regional head of Intelligence, Deutsche

Joseph Walker-Cousins -Former advisor to the UK’s Special Envoy & Head of the British Embassy Office in Benghazi, now with KRB

Alia Brahimi -Research Fellow at University of Oxford

Here are the key takeaways from the event:

Never the world’s least complex region, the discussion concluded it was now more complex than ever. Simplistic talk a decade ago about a “clash of civilizations” between the Islamic and Western worlds has been replaced with a multiple conflicts within the region.

Some explicitly blamed the US invasion of Iraq for beginning the process, tearing apart what rules there were governing the region. In first Iraq the Libya, Syria and increasingly elsewhere, autocratic regimes had been undermined, leaving chaos without any substantial centralised power structures remaining. Several conflicts were now overlaid on each other. There is the confrontation between Sunni and Shia, increasingly exacerbated by the proxy war between Iran and the Gulf states in particular, especially Saudi Arabia. Then there was the conflict primarily within the Sunni world. That encompasses both the fight between ISIS and almost everyone else – both Sunni and Shia – as well as of the social revolutionaries of the Muslim Brotherhood against more established structures. The West, it was felt, was struggling to find an overall strategy and was making multiple short-term ad hoc decisions. As a result, the US found itself effectively allied to Tehran fighting ISIS in Iraq, but opposed to it in Yemen.

The simple truth, most discussants said, was that powers in the region no longer viewed the West and the US in particular as the powerful force they were a decade ago. Increasingly, countries – even traditional US allies – were increasingly open to taking matters in to their own hands without reference to Western policy makers.

The era of large scale military interventions appeared to be over – although there were differing views on whether or not that was a good thing. However, western militaries looked set to be pulled in small numbers in to many of the conflicts.

The effect of the recent crash in oil prices had yet to fully play itself out. In the aftermath of the Arab Spring itself, oil producing states in the region benefited from the massive spike in prices, while consumers, such as Egypt suffered. That trend is now being reversed.

There was also now a considerable demographic divide within the region. Across the board, new cohorts of young often unemployed people were challenging the established order. In some countries, they had spent almost their entire adult lives in conflict, in others, quite the opposite. A significant minority of both groups however appeared drawn to elements such as ISIS, particularly when they were winning.

Within the West, there appeared to be a new trend in looking at autocrats as perhaps the best, if very imperfect, hopes of stability. Whether that was a real option in the new, more febrile and social media connected region, was another matter however.

DC and London UK Election Discussions: Key Takeaways and Media


In the run-up to the UK General Election, PS21 held discussions in London and Washington DC on the importance of the election, what it showed about Britain and the implications for the wider world.

Wednesday 22nd April, 7pm, Canary Wharf

Joint event with Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP)

Chair: Peter Apps – Executive Director PS21

Rahul Roy Chaudhury: Former Indian government official, Senior Fellow for South Asia at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)

Jennifer Brindisi: Executive Director YPFP

Marina Prentoulis: London spokesperson, Greece’s ruling party Syriza

For audio of the UK discussion click here


PS21 Executive Director Peter Apps described the discussion in a blog post for the New Statesman website:

Last week, I found myself chairing a discussion on whether or not the British election mattered, but with a difference: it was a panel made up entirely of foreigners,

You know those interventions where someone’s friends and family come and will explain how much they care about them? This was basically the exact opposite.

With less than two weeks to polling day, it’s striking how little of the election debate within Britain has focused on the outside world. Even on Europe, the focus has been more on Ukip itself than the broader issues.

The rest of the world, meanwhile, has largely ignored the vote. If anything, it has garnered less attention than last year’s Scottish independence vote. 

That might change, of course, but the bottom line seems to be that this particular election — even with #kitchengate, #milifandom, the #Cameronettes and Farage — is just not globally interesting.

Particularly after the 2013 vote not to intervene militarily in Syria, Britain is just seen less relevant and less bothered.

Each of the panellists on Wednesday had their own different reasons for explaining why it didn’t matter.

First up was Rahul Roy-Chaudhury, a former Indian security official. He had just returned from Washington DC and a string of meetings at the State Department, Pentagon and elsewhere.

Had anyone asked him about the UK election there? No.

Did India care either? Not really, he said. India’s government was “ruthlessly pragmatic” in its relationships and Britain was no longer seen as a major strategic partner.

Next up was Marina Prentoulis, lecturer at the University of East Anglia and London spokeswoman for the Greek ruling party Syriza. The Greeks didn’t really care either, she said. Britain was seen outside the eurozone decision-making structures. And Ed Milliband was seen too soft for a Labour victory to be really seen part of a wider backlash against austerity.

American political consultant Jennifer Brindisi gave a somewhat more nuanced answer. No, she said, most Americans did not care — they were already too focused on next year’s presidential vote and none of the British contenders had sufficient “rockstar” appeal (although it might have been different if David Milliband or Boris Johnson were on the ticket).

Within the business community, however, had noticed. The Conservative EU referendum and Labour tax plans both worried them. On balance, she said, they preferred the idea of the Tories.

On national security, Washington has expressed concern at UK defence spending dropping below two percent of GDP. And there’s at least some interest in whether the UK keeps the Trident nuclear deterrent or not.

Finally, US State Department media specialist Barakat Jassem summed up the mood in the Middle East. They really didn’t care either, he said.

That didn’t mean there weren’t some interesting broader lessons, the panel concluded. Indeed, British Nigerian writer Emmanuel Akinwotu said he thought this year’s election was amongst the most interesting in recent years, even if not as significant as 1997 or maybe even 2010…

For the rest of the article click here


29th April 2015, 6.30pm, Washington DC

Moderator: Sir Michael Leigh, Former Director for Enlargement, European Union, previously Deputy Director External Relations. Member of the PS21 International Advisory Group

Scheherazade Rehman, Professor of International Business/Finance and International Affairs, George Washington University

Peter Foster, US Editor, The Daily Telegraph

Dan Roberts, Washington Bureau Chief, The Guardian


Interestingly, while the London based discussion concluded the election scarcely mattered for the rest of the world, the DC discussion looked deep into the potential chaos and unforeseen consequences that could follow the election.

In particular, panellists talked of the deep uncertainty over the formation of a new government, with the polls suggesting an extremely tight Labour victory. They looked in particular at the potential instability of a small Labour government effectively dependent on the Scottish National Party.

“It’s going to be incredibly messy”, said Dan Roberts. “This government may just limp through for six months and may force another election. We’re in totally unchartered constitutional territory”.

That, it was argued, raised stark new constitutional issues and opened the door to prolonged instability not yet priced in properly by financial markets.

Britain’s clout within Washington was seen having subsided sharply under the Obama administration, particularly with the pivot to Asia. The parliamentary failure to vote for military action in Syria in 2013 was also seen a sign that the UK was no longer keen to play the same role in world affairs. “There’s a real sense, when you speak to people in Washington, that the Brits are drifting away”, Foster noted.

On balance, all of the participants believed that the most likely result of a referendum would be Britain remaining within the European Union. “I think that they’ll probably vote not to leave”, Rehman said, “because the risk is huge in terms of investments and business.” Still, the UK’s relevance to Washington on broader European issues was seen reduced by the prospect.

The rise of smaller parties, particularly UKIP, was part of a trend to the extremes also visible in the US, they said. GW’s Scheherazade Rehman described it as “the British Tea Party”, Dan Roberts described it as “the Ted Cruz of British politics.”

A click here for a full transcript. You can also watch the event here

Crime and Counterterrorism in Karachi: DC Event Key Takeaways


On Wednesday April 15, PS21 held a discussion in Washington DC.

Drawing on his time as a police officer and counterterrorism official in Karachi, Omar Hamid discussed the nexus of crime, militancy and corruption in Pakistan’s most populous city.

Negar Razavi, PS21 Global Fellow, and anthropologist at University of Pennsylvania moderated the discussion.

Download a transcript of the event

Listen to a recording of the discussion

Here are the key takeaways:

“Being a police officer means you really get to see the whole gamut of issues in Karachi,” Hamid said. “There are issues of sectarian violence there are issues that any mega-city has… there are issues of political parties with the militias. There are issues of the growing presence of the Pakistani Taliban. And, of course, you have all of the regular crime.”

Corruption was a central part of life in Karachi, he said. With a population of some 20 million, the city is the commercial centre of Pakistan.

“In effect, the story of the past 25-30 years of the city is the struggle between various groups to squeeze that pie as much as possible,” he said.

“What you can learn from Karachi’s example is exactly what not to do in any mega-city,” he said. “With the expansion of megacities, have a situation where the central government — in many cases the local government — has very little control. As these cities grow organically, control over scarce resources often ends up in the hands of nonstate groups… political parties or organised crime syndicates. The challenge for urban governance will be how the state is able to impose itself or how it can prevent resources from being taken over. That will be the measure of success in urban governance this century.”

The city also had stark ethnic divisions, he said. It contained a population of some 4-5 million Pashtuns (the dominant population of Afghanistan), making it a larger Pashtun city than Kabul. It inevitably produced a complex sectarian politics “All of these various groups feel that they have an interest in the city,” he said. “All of them have competed for that.”

Those tensions helped to produce the nexus between crime, politics corruption and militancy, with most political groups also maintaining their own armed militia. “Those militia come to the forefront of organised crime… (and) corruption.”

Largely as a result, he says, the provision of basic services and infrastructure within the city had become hugely politicised. “Civil servants or police officers go to one party or another to vie for lucrative postings,” he said. “The objective… is to get in the good books of a certain local party, to get a good posting and… to be able to recoup your expenses… by making that poster revenue generating tool.”

“Everything is for sale in Karachi,” continued. Rival political groups including the Taliban were increasingly involved in illegal land grabs, he said, encouraging supporters to illegally squat on land. “They carve slices of land up to create new squatter colonies and then they subsequently sell it off. Because there is a shortage of water in the city, control of the city’s water hydrants is a very key tool in corruption.”

In 2013, he said, rival elements of the Pakistani Taliban force over control of water supplies in parts of the city. “It had nothing to do with religious ideology. It had to do with the cash that could be gained through the water.”

The United States, he said, had completely failed to understand the dynamics in its dealings with Pakistan. “The fact is that the presumption… ever since 911 has been that it was important to back groups that were opposed to religious extremists. On paper that makes a lot of sense but the problem in Karachi is the loss of those groups are also equally involved in criminal activities.”

“The MQM, the largest party in the city, is an extremely secular party, totally opposed to the spread of religious extremism… and yet the MQM operates the largest criminal-political Mafia nexus in the city. It runs part of the city as virtually a parallel state with an extensive armed wing that has regularly taken part in politically targeted killings murders of police officers and government officials.”

“For some time now there has been, it seems to people in Pakistan, a kind of understanding that the West… was all right with the excesses of political parties as long as they were secular and… talking the right talk.”

The western approach to secular Pakistani officials and individuals accused of corruption and criminality was, he said, very different to how would have approached similar allegations against someone suspected of jihadist sympathies.

The Pakistani military had also taken a greater role in the city, he said, launching crackdowns on some militant groups. But there were limits to what it could achieve.

“A military operation in the city will have a short-term benefit, certainly, but fundamentally you need the restoration of the rule of law and to do that you need civic bodies, whether it’s the municipality or the police, to play their role again and provide impartial services to citizens. This is really where the challenge lies.”

The one sign of significant change, he said, was the rise of civil society.

“This has really turned around over the last five or six years,” he said. “When you’re sitting in Pakistan… it feels like civil society does not necessarily have a direction. It’s pretty neat everywhere. But the fact it has found its voice is very important. The other thing that’s aided the growth is the expansion of the media in Pakistan. The media too, at times, seems like it’s a lot of heads shouting at each other nonsensically but it has meant that, unlike in the past, the media is no longer a creature that can be controlled by any particular political party or the country’s political or military establishment.”

“Pakistan remains a very violent place for journalists and in Karachi there have been a number of cases of journalists being murdered by all parties. But overall, if there is hope, it is in this. These things are no longer controllable. The crimes or misdeeds of various groups become very public and the growth of civil society, the growth of social media, means that the contrarian view gets out more often.”


DC Event: Arab Spring@4: What Next? Key Takeaways/Media


On Thursday, February 25, 2015, PS21 held a discussion with Young Professionals in Foreign Policy on the Arab Spring@4: What Next? In Washington DC.

Chair: Sidney Olinyk, former Pentagon chief of staff for Middle East policy. Member of the PS21 international advisory group.

Ari Ratner: former State Department political appointees. Fellow, New America

Nancy Okail: Egyptian activist, executive director for the Tahrir Centre for Middle East policy

Leigh O’Neill: policy director, Truman National Security Project

The full transcript of the event can be had found here: PS21 Arab Spring Event Transcript Full audio can be found here.

Here are some of the key takeaways from the discussion.

Western governments and the US in particular were seen as being continuously behind the ball when it came to tackling the chaos that followed the revolutions of 2011. On the ground, frustrations continued to rise particularly with the reassertion of military rule in Egypt. Four years on, there is widespread pessimism including about the ability of foreign policymakers to tackle similar situations in the future.

“As anyone who has worked in government knows, it’s very difficult to keep up with our own internal systems, let alone the internal dynamics of a foreign country… undergoing revolution,” said Ratner.

The immediate revolts in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere had several effects, he said. Firstly, the price of oil rose sharply, helping those energy producing regimes and seriously undermining the remainder. Across the region, America’s allies looked at the abandonment of Egyptian President Honsi Mubarak and immediately worried about the credibility of America’s support for them.

The West’s ability to respond was seriously curtailed by the global financial crisis, he said, coupled with other subordinate crises such as the Japanese earthquake and the Eurozone crisis.

It was, several speakers cautioned, too soon to tell who the real winners and losers would be.

“What is happening is a battle of narratives,” said Nancy Okail. “The more powerful group is the one that sets the narrative. The victor is the one who writes history at the end of the day.”

Authoritarian regimes such as the new rulers in it you, she said, had been relatively ineffective at taking back the narrative, reframing themselves as the bulwark against chaos. The activist and pro-democracy groups, meanwhile, had in many cases fractured and lost the initiative.

Okail found herself on the receiving end of what she called a “huge smear campaign” after she returned to Egypt to push for political reform. Western-funded and backed NGOs in particular were targeted, she was arrested and put on trial.

“I see the case of the NGOs as a microcosm of everything that happens in the country,” she said. “The lack of rule of law… they had control of the media and because of that we were portrayed as enemies of the state and spies. (They) claimed that we were trying to implement this huge Zionist plan to divide Egypt.

Leigh O’Neill pointed in particular to the sample to as one nation which stood out in particular for its stability. She attributed this partly to the Jordanian government strategy of “regional relativism”, making sure the population knew how bad things were elsewhere.

“Jordanians are fed a steady diet and have embraced regional relativism,” she said. “They look around and they see things are not so great (elsewhere). That is something that the government and the people of Jordan have in common.”

Still, she said many of the problems that helped push Mohamed Bouazizi to set himself on fire in Tunisia were also true in Jordan.

“What does it take to like yourself on fire because you are subject to this relationship with a state?” O’Neill asked. “That’s an important story to tell and remember particularly when we unpack… and talk more honestly about what authoritarianism is and whether it’s “benign” or not so benign.”

Okail in particular warned against too positive and interpretation of events in Tunisia, widely regarded as one of the few success stories

“I worry so much when people over romanticised Tunisia,” she said. “It’s definitely in the best scenario in the region.(Tunisia has the largest number of recruits in ISIS and that tells you something.”

Ari Ratner said overall he remained broadly optimistic that Islamic State itself could be militarily defeated or weakened. Dealing with the underlying problems of the region, however, was more difficult.

“I have pretty strong faith that is something that is achievable,” he said. The military… are pretty effective at killing people, killing terrorists and fighting insurgencies. We will muddle our way through, and Isis will be defeated… This is just my own suspicion (but) ISIS is not the predominant story in the region.”

“The much bigger question is how you address the underlying conditions at which something like ISIS emerges,. There is no easy answer to this, in my mind.”

Many of the underlying causes of both the Arab Spring and ISIS were identified in May 2002 UN report on the region, he said: shortcomings of freedom, lack of rights, education, access to science. Few of those problems have been solved.

The simple truth, Okail said, was that in Egypt and elsewhere the youthful activists and women in particular found themselves largely sidelined in the aftermath of the revolution.

Many of those risks were also present elsewhere, Ratner said.

“It’s a very unstable world. Everywhere, to some extent, is a pool of gasoline.”

Okail said governments were often particularly ill suited to dealing with such dangers.

“Most policymakers look at the immediate situation,” said Okail. “They want to solve what is going on now without a long-term vision or strategy for what happens next. They need an actionable plan: something to do right now showcase for the media and the taxpayer. And they are very quick in identifying all recognising victory and defeat.”

Small victories, however, she said, were possible.

“Opportunities go back to the battle of narratives,” she said. “These regimes care so much about the image we can use this as an opportunity… right before a UN meeting, they might release prisoners. These are small windows of opportunity that we can keep pushing.”

For US policymakers, Ratner said the region offered little bit difficult decisions. On Saudi Arabia, for example, it was unclear whether the US pulling back nominations would make things better or worse.

“The world is always hypocritical — it’s the nature of the beast,” he said, pointing to the multiplicity of interests within the US government “people compare the US government to an aircraft carrier but it’s more like a carrier battle group because there are lots of ships in formation and if you change course only a bit that can mean a big thing.

As to the bigger picture, it was still too soon to tell what the last four years really meant, he said.

“I think it was Chou En-Lai that was asked how he viewed the French Revolution and he said it was too soon to tell,” said Ratner. “That was 200 years afterwards… but it’s certainly been a traumatic period.”

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London Discussion on Mideast Social Media: Key takeaways/media

10927527_1404460253192052_5967679135493759985_oOn Tuesday, February 17, 2015 PS21 hosted a discussion with Gulf-based blogger and member of the PS21 international advisory group Sultan al-Qassemi. He discussed the changing nature of social media in the middle east over the last decade.

The discussion was attended by a selection of activists, academics, regional experts and others. It was on the record and you can hear a recording of it at this link.

A full transcript can be found here: transcript – Sultan al Qassemi

Here are some of the key takeaways from the discussion from PS21 executive director Peter Apps.

“Social media has evolved…… from being a tool for activists and secular forces to being used by extremists such as ISIS,” said Sultan. “The social media companies are adapting and are beginning to block some of these users so that may change. Governments have also adapted… it’s a very different environment.”

Across the region, Sultan said that the morale of activists and more liberal forces had been heavily dented in the four years since the “Arab Spring”. In countries across the region, governments had clamped down seriously on activists, many of whom are now largely withdrawn from public facing platforms like Twitter into closed Facebook groups and other more secretive platforms.

While the old Al Qaeda franchises struggled to adapt to social media, the Islamic State had been much more effective, using it as a major platform to promote its ideology and activities.

In general, the last four years in particular have seen a fracturing of the Mideast media scene. The one-time dominance of a relatively small number of satellite channels such as Al Jazeera has been somewhat undermined. There are now more voices on a wider variety of platforms. One of the fastest growing in popularity is the Arabic language Russia Today, which trades heavily on conspiracy-type stories and criticisms of Western foreign policy.

While regional governments have adapted in the sense of being able to clamp down on social media dissent, Western governments have not. The various attempts by the United States to combat the Islamic State on twitter have been little seen and gained little traction. The exception is the media outreach from arts of the Israeli government, the military in particular.

“They are criticised and mocked that they are in the conversation,” said Sultan.

Other attendees saw some similarities to what had occurred in western activism in recent years — again, primarily since the Occupy and other movements. What had once been large, popular movements have become much more inward looking, self-critical and much less confident. 

Several participants expressed concerns that the increasingly fractured nature of the debate made peace building and traditional negotiations ever harder.

The situation varied somewhat from country to country. Tunisia, Sultan said, was probably now the second most liberal country in the Middle East for media after Lebanon. Egypt, in contrast, was much less liberal as were most of the Gulf states. In Iran as elsewhere, government had moved much more into the social media space and was using it aggressively as a propaganda tool.

“Every government in the region except Lebanon has jailed online activists,” said Sultan.

It was not an exclusively negative picture, however. Some new online platforms were making progress, at least in documenting events. Elliot Higgins, the UK blogger dubbed “Brown Moses” was very successful in exposing weapons deliveries and shipments in Syria. A new online newspaper in Yemen, Sultan said, offered some hope of giving greater clarity to that conflict.

The discussion was well received by all those attending.

“The focus was the topic of the discussion as much as the speaker which makes it more interesting,” said Sultan. “I’ve been with PS21 since the beginning and it’s good to see it finally taking flight.”



London Discussion on Greece, Eurozone: Key Takeaways

greece-321799On Friday, February 2015, PS21 hosted a panel discussion in London on Greece, austerity and the future of the Eurozone.

The panel comprised the following:

Peter Apps: executive director, PS21 (chair)

Maria Prentoulis: lecturer, University of East Anglia. London spokesperson, Greek ruling party of Syriza

Tina Fordham: chief political analyst, Citi

Alex White: former official, HM Treasury. Research analyst, Politikos

Paul Taylor: European affairs editor, Reuters

The discussion was off the record to facilitate a full and free exchange of views. Attendees included activists, academics and members of the London financial community.

Below are some of the key takeaways from the conversation from PS21 executive director Peter Apps.

Attendees were largely confident a deal would be found between Greece and its creditors for the immediate bailout (which indeed happened later that day). Going forward, however, there were considerable worries over the future of the Eurozone project are mostly in the medium and long term.

The January election victory of Syriza — a party that then he insisted a year earlier — in Greece was seen as a sign of a wider backlash against establishment parties and figures across Europe and beyond. An untested political party and leadership inevitably faced is the learning curve under very difficult circumstances.

A problem, it was felt, was the opposing political narratives in Greece and other for Eurozone states and those in the centre, particularly Germany are also parts of eastern and central Europe in particular. While Syriza reflected popular Greek sentence that Germany was being unnecessarily harsh, the German political narrative blamed profligate Mediterranean states and gave little room for its negotiators to back down.

In the Greek, it was felt Syriza achieved sufficient (though really very limited) concessions to present a political victory back a wire sticking significantly to meet your requirements. In the longer term, however, are worried that it would become ever harder to “get to yes”.

A Greek exit from the euro, it was felt, would remain utterly disastrous primarily because of the second order affects in other states, particularly runs on the banking system. Financial markets are now pricing a much lower risk of Eurozone breakup compared to 2012. Still, there was a feeling that sometime in the next few years a country might well fall out of the euro with massive financial and geopolitical consequences.

The wider geopolitical situation, however, was also seen a factor, particularly growing tensions on NATO’s eastern flank of Russia. If anything, it was felt that might modestly reduce the risk of the Eurozone allowing the project to fail.

The key country to watch remains Germany, where peripheral parties opposed to further bailouts continue to gain ground. A major shift prior to elections in 2017, however, was seen still remaining unlikely. France will hold elections the same year and Britain may hold its referendum on EU membership if the ruling Conservative party win a general election this year.

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DC Revolutions Event: Key Takeaways / Video


On Monday, February 9, 2015 PS21 hosted a discussion on Leaderless Revolutions and their Challengers.

Location: Thomson Reuters, Washington DC


Srdja Popovic: Serb activist and politician, founder CANVAS, author of Blueprint for Revolution. PS21 global fellow.

Jack Goldstone (chair): professor of public policy, George Mason University currently on attachment to the Woodrow Wilson Centre for Scholars. Author, Revolutions: A Very Short Introduction. Member of the international advisory group, PS21.

Here are some of the key takeaways from the discussion. For the full transcript click here.

“If you look through the history of these uprisings it’s always the outsiders,” Popovic said. “The power of outsiders in modern political life, whether we agree with them or disagree with them, is growing.”

Technology, particularly social media, has made organising protests and resistance in many ways easier. Popovic’s book and organisation — the Centre for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies (CANVAS) aims to share them around the world.

“Fifteen years ago if you wanted to organise a rally, you need it posters, leaflets, radio commercials, knocking on doors and a large organisation,” said Popovic, one of the leaders of the largely peaceful revolution that toppled Serb president Slobodan Milosevic in 2000. “Now I can make a Facebook group and everyone will know.”

“(There is) the phenomenon you call citizen journalism. Even in the most off-line places like Yemen, you can see people demonstrating and they are videotaping it on their cameras. So you can make sure that any type of state/police brutality can be seen by the world.”

“The last and most important events is that new media brings the power of horizontal learning… there was a girl who made a viral video called “what’s wrong with Venezuelan in a nutshell”… now somebody sees it in Ukraine. The way we can learn from this… is something we are really exploring now.”

But, he said, such technologies also bring with risk. Campaigns — such as the Kony 2012 effort to encourage US and its allies to track down the leader of Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army — can bloom quickly but also lose traction.

“Every coin has two sides. I’m thrilled about making things fast and cheap but I would say “clicktivism” is a real problem… The fact that you are “lighting” the page to save the polar bears does not necessarily mean that you have saved the polar bears.”

Social media can also be used as a tool for regimes to trace and control dissidents.

“The first thing any government will do is track your Facebook password so now it can be used to know your friends into a trap.”

Up to 2010, nonviolent revolution had a higher success rate in changing regimes and leading to democracy than violent movements. The 2011 revolts over the “Arab Spring” appeared to illustrate something similar. But in recent years there has been considerable push back. The Green Movement in Iran failed in 2007. In Hong Kong in 2014, protesters failed to retain momentum.

“In Bahrain, you probably have a larger proportion of the population than anywhere else in history,” said Goldstone. “Over 10% of the population seems to have been involved on the eighth day of the movements and yet that was suppressed… does the format have to be revamped?”

Autocratic regimes, Popovic said, were adapting fast. He cited Philip Dobson’s DATE book, “The Dictator’s Learning Curve”.

“The first thing they learn is to put a velvet glove on the iron fist. There are more NGOs shut down in oppressive places of the world for not following fire regulations are supposed to be anti-government.”

“Secondly, it’s a propaganda war,” he said, pointing to increased efforts to discredit activist organisations by alleging they are tied to western intelligence agencies, etc.

Maintaining discipline and organisation, Popovic said, was key.

“We think it can start small. And small means small, tangible victories. Things like graffiti, recruiting 10 people, street theatre… They show your commitment, they showed presence. And they teach your people how to do stuff.”

“One single Molotov cocktail will completely destroy the reputation of them. Plus it will give fuel to your enemy to respond very actively and nastily.”

Humour was also a powerful weapon, he said. He cited the example of a 2012 protest in a Siberian town against election fraud that saw protesters put out hundreds of small Lego characters waving signs saying things like “106% for Putin”. The authorities ordered it banned.

“It was effective because someone is putting the opponent in a losing situation,” he said. “If they let the toys protest, everyone will see (it) but if you ban it, you are afraid of toys… humour breaks fear.”

From the Arab Spring to Occupy, in 2011 in particular took to the streets and governments quailed. By 2014, however, many of those movements have faltered. “A good year for bad people,” Goldstone said, pointing to events in Ukraine, the Middle East and elsewhere. Popovic called it “the year of bad hangovers”

“There are many different reasons why movements fail,” said Popovic.

“If you play video games, you understand that they are made of levels. When Mubarak is down you don’t claim “game over”. You know that more nasty people are coming in a nastier spaceship that they will throw more bombs at you.”

“The second thing is losing unity too early… Part of the reason Syria failed is that the Sunnis could bring the Christians onto their site to oppose Assad. Look at Ukraine. Great victory in the Orange Revolution and then (opposition leaders) Tymoshenko and Yushenko stop fighting from the moment they start sharing office and it all falls apart.”

Popovic cited the example of Occupy as a movement but failed to capitalise on its potential. It became committee said, far too broad, too keen to be all things to all people and never really worked out what it wanted.

“The enthusiasm is great, the topic of social inequality is the most important topic of the 21st century,” he said. “What’s problematic with Occupy is they… adopted this “we need to build a consensus around everything every time”. That’s death for an organisation.”

One of the most important things when Popovic said, was to ensure there was a roughly shared view of the future a movement wanted.

The discussion was fast moving, light-hearted and well received.

“Very hard to make Serbs serious,” said Popovic.”You tried bombing our country and it didn’t work.”

“One can learn a lot from scholars and academics about nonviolent resistance but there is absolutely no substitute for the wisdom and inspiration of those who have done it,” said Goldstone.

“This was a talk that I wish had gone out to a thousand or ten thousand people, Thanks to the Project for Study of the 21st Century for organizing this and keep your eye out for more such events, it’s gonna be a fun ride.”

View a transcript of the discussion here: Leaderless Revolutions transcript.

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DC Superpower Discussion: Key Takeaways / Video


On Thursday, January 29, 2015 PS21 hosted a discussion on Avoiding Disaster in a New Era of Superpower Tension.

Introduction: Gary Barnabo, President, Young Professionals in Foreign Policy and member of the PS21 International Advisory Group (IAG).

Moderator: Joshua Marcuse, Founder and Chairman YPFP and member of the PS21 IAG.

Nikolas Gvosdev: Prof of National Security Studies at the US Naval War College, PS21 international advisor

Fiona Hill: Former US National Intelligence Officer for Russia and Eurasia. Director, Centre for the United States and Europe, Brookings Institution

Ali Wyne: RAND Corporation. PS21 global fellow

Elbridge Colby: former Pentagon nuclear strategist. Senior fellow, Centre for a New American Security

Here are some of the key takeaway from the discussion.

The world has changed dramatically from the multipolar US-dominated 1990s and first decade of the 21st century. Both Russia and China are keen to reassert themselves in their region and also globally. Both in and outside government, Washington has yet to formulate a response.

“Policymakers will not be able to cope with the new, rapidly changing world,” said Gvosdev. “They are unable to interact with a multipolar world in which compromise is a necessary interaction and not a policy defeat.”

Both Russia and China have very different views of the world that the US often struggles to comprehend. Russia has successfully showed it is flexible enough to make major strategic gains despite multiple inherent weaknesses. It perceives not just the world but also recent history very differently.

“The collapse of the Soviet Union is not seen as… a US victory (in Russia),” said Hill, adding that — like the Islamic State — Moscow was increasingly adept with its media strategy. “Russia is winning the media war because Putin makes it entertaining.”

China’s rise is inevitably straining international relations, particularly in Asia.

“Strenuous assurances of both parties that they do not want conflict actually breeds suspicion” said Wyne at RAND. “The US believes that China is attempting to dominate East Asia and China believes that the US is trying to contain it.”

The risk of potential superpower conflict is therefore quietly growing.

“With an unclear international power structure for states are more willing to resort to the use of force to achieve their goals,” said former Pentagon nuclear strategist Colby. “To face these challenges, the US must prepare for a major power conflict even though prevention is the goal.”

In the Middle East, great powers are struggling to manage rising conflict without antagonising each other further. Sometimes interests coincide, often not. The US might welcome greater Chinese engagement in unstable areas of Africa, for example, but much less in the Gulf.

In both Europe and Asia, America’s alliances complicate matters still further in different ways.

In Europe, Russia remains shocked by the your use of NATO military power against Yugoslavia in 1999. NATO has been unclear in its strategic ambition — whether its priority is mutual local defence or global security. It is unclear whether Russia genuinely believes NATO states would act militarily in the event of a crisis involving the Baltic states, once part of the soviet union and now NATO members.

In Asia, the US has multiple allies who feel threatened by China. Again, it is unclear what it can genuinely do at this uncertainty in itself but we instability.

“It’s not in the US interest or ability to “contain” China,” said Wyne. “The US should set up a regional economic architecture so that (other regional) states do not have to make the choice between the US and China.

PS21 Superpower Transcript