New tech creates terrorism financing risks

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Alex Zerden is an attorney who has worked on counter-terrorism financing and congressional oversight matters. You can follow him on Twitter @AlexZerden

Recent terror attacks in Paris and San Bernardino have renewed calls for governments to staunch the flow of financing to terrorists and their sympathizers.

The private sector, especially the financial industry, has an important role to play in this effort. In particular, the revelation that a terrorist involved in the San Bernardino attack obtained a $28,500 loan from the San Francisco-based online loan company, Prosper, has highlighted the vulnerabilities of emerging financial technology, or FinTech, companies. Fourteen years after the USA PATRIOT Act ushered in heightened standards for anti-money laundering (AML) and counter-terrorism financing (CFT) rules, more critical evaluation of this architecture is needed to adapt to evolving threats and assist industries impacted by AML and CFT rules.

The revelation about Prosper should serve as a wake-up call to the FinTech community about the real risks posed by the abuse of the financial system and the need for wider acknowledgment of these risks across the FinTech space from developers to founders and investors.

Most immediately, greater regulatory scrutiny is imminent.  Already, the U.S. House Financial Service Committee has initiated an inquiry and its Task Force to Investigate Terrorism Financing also made an informal request for information from the Treasury Department about the issue. The Treasury Department conducted a review of the online lending industry over the summer. However, more widespread and intrusive regulatory engagement from state and federal authorities is highly likely.  In a statement, Prosper reportedly said that it had abided by all applicable AML and CFT laws and regulations.  While preliminary, outside analysis appears to corroborate those findings, this dynamic highlights the damage caused by reputational risks even when there may not be legal or regulatory lapses. The June 2015 Treasury Department Terrorism Financing Risk Assessment listed emerging payment systems as a rising area of concern for the U.S. government to address, but the online loan industry was not mentioned.

Second, more generally, FinTech has reached a new stage of maturity.  It cannot afford to merely check the box on the bare minimum of regulatory and legal requirements.  FinTech companies are now on notice about the risks caused by people who use (and abuse) their products. The overwhelming majority of customers use these products and services for legal purposes. However, companies cannot ignore the vulnerabilities that their products may create.  The wider banking and financial industry has been grappling with expanding regulatory and compliance challenges since 9/11 and the financial crisis.  FinTechs will be expected to play by these same rules of the road if they are to become significant industry participants.

No company or individual wants to be in the place of Prosper. Hopefully, this tragedy can serve as a wake-up call to the wider industry to address outstanding vulnerabilities to make the financial system less susceptible to abuse. Greater industry engagement will go a long way to reduce vulnerabilities to the financial system from illicit financial activities.

Project for Study of the 21st Century is a non-national, non-ideological, non-partisan organization. All views expressed are the author’s own.

Syria, Yemen, Libya – one factor unites these failed states, and it isn’t religion


Jack Goldstone is an expert on revolutions at the Woodrow Wilson Center and George Mason University and a global fellow at PS21. This article was first published on

As world leaders gather in Paris this week to address climate change, they will labor under the shadow of recent attacks by Islamic State. Yet as they think about climate issues, they should remember that the connection between climate change and Islamic State – and more broadly, between climate change and political instability – is not just a coincidence. It may instead be the key reality of the 21st century.

The rise of IS was a direct result of the failure of the Syrian regime, as it was beset by urban uprisings in 2011. Yet those uprisings did not come out of nowhere, and were not merely inspired by protests in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. Syria was an increasingly prosperous country in the 1990s, with its various ethnic and religious groups working together in cities.

Yet between 2006 and 2009, Syria was crippled by its worst drought in modern history. A recent article in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showed that this drought was not natural. Rather, hotter temperatures and the weakening of winds that bring moisture from the Mediterranean were likely the region’s reflection of rising greenhouse gas emissions, according to computer simulations.

Combined with poor water management and government neglect of farm conditions, the drought caused a collapse of farming in northeastern Syria. Seventy-five percent of farmers suffered total crop failure, and 80 percent of livestock died. Around 1.5 million farming families migrated to cities to look for work and food, joining millions of refugees from Palestine and Iraq. The added burden these refugees placed on Syria’s cities, and the distress of the farmers who lost their lands due to the drought, helped fuel the spread of rebellion against the Assad regime.

To be sure, climate change is never the single most important cause of conflict; it is what academics call a “structural threat.” Governments that can respond to such threats – because they have popular and elite support, have resources to respond to challenges, are willing to deploy those resources to distribute food and aid to the needy, and have diversified economies that can produce jobs – are not going to be shaken because of global warming. If we lived in a world where all regions were led by such governments, then climate change might be an economic burden and force changes in our lifestyle, but it would not bring the threat of state breakdown and civil war.

Unfortunately, Central America, most of Africa, the Middle East, and much of South Asia are dominated by precisely the wrong kind of governments. These regions have too many fragile states where large segments of the elite or populace distrust the government because of ethnic, religious, or economic exclusion; where governments have limited economic resources to respond to humanitarian crises; where governments are disinclined to respond to problems among marginalized groups or regions of their country; and where the economies are too dependent on agriculture or mining, and so cannot provide work for people if they are forced to move.

In such countries – or worse, in clusters of such countries – a spike in food prices, a severe drought or a ravaging flood can provide a harsh test of government. And where one government fails, the ensuing conflicts can spread to other fragile states and inflame an entire region.

Today the world is seeing an epidemic of failed states: Libya, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan, Nigeria, the Central African Republic, Somalia and Mali have all lost control of parts of their territory. In every case, the weakening of state authority has created space for militants, and particularly for IS, to recruit followers and conduct operations. The conflicts have also sent massive waves of refugees to a Europe that is unprepared to handle them.

Think now of a world in which the population under age 24 in Africa has increased by 500 million people, and the populations of Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, and Yemen have increased by over 100 million people. That is the UN’s projection for 2050. Add to this mix a combination of severe droughts, devastating floods, crop failures, and massive migrations that create collisions and heightened competition among ethnic and religious groups struggling for land, resources and incomes. Then think of how the governments of these regions could and would respond to such crises, and whether Europe and other safe havens could absorb even a tiny fraction of the resulting refugees.

If such a world exists one day, the current crisis in Syria and the actions of IS terrorists may be multiplied many fold.

World leaders in Paris should therefore focus on their opportunity to remove one of the key drivers of potential state breakdowns and terrorism in the future, by adopting vigorous measures to halt global warming.

It is already too late for modest measures to address global warming. As the study of Syria’s drought shows, the weather pattern changes, depriving fragile regions of adequate rainfall, are already underway. Preventing further disasters will require more than just holding the line at today’s levels of carbon emissions in China, the United States and Europe. Africa’s current carbon footprint is tiny, as its population is so lacking in access to energy that each African produces less than one-seventh as much carbon dioxide as each Chinese. Yet by 2050, if Africa were to emit as much carbon per capita as China does today, Africa’s carbon emissions would be as much as China and the United States combined produce today.

In other words, if Africa advances just to Chinese levels of fossil fuel consumption by 2050, then even if today’s major emitters manage to stop all of their own emissions growth, total global emissions will still grow by 40 percent by mid-century, blowing past the carbon budget required to keep total temperature rise within the two-degree limit recommended by the International Panel on Climate Change to avoid severe climate deterioration.

To accommodate necessary growth in energy use in Africa – vital to making the countries of Africa more resilient and better able to provide jobs and security to their growing populations – the world must move quickly on two fronts. The major emitters must first find ways to quickly reduce their carbon output from today’s levels. And they must develop low-carbon pathways for economic growth so the rest of the world can develop without creating new structural threats for political crises.

These goals can be met. If the United States, Europe and China all reduced their carbon emissions by 20 percent, other developing countries could increase their carbon emissions by almost one-third without an increase in world carbon output. That should be the goal for the next 10 years.

Beyond that date, it is critical to find ways by which all countries can escape dependence on fossil fuels for their economies, and reduce global emissions while still promoting global economic growth.

Terrorism thrives among weak and failed states, and among displaced people. If we are to reduce both in the future, we need to make sure that our climate does not further deteriorate. If we fail to prevent continued global warming, the rise in political temperature may far outstrip the warming of the weather outside.

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Project for Study of the 21st Century is a non-national, nongovernmental, nonpartisan organization. All views expressed are the author’s own.

PS21 Survey: Experts see increased risk of nuclear war


  • Poll of 50 experts predict 6.8 percent risk of catastrophic nuclear war in next 20 years.
  • India-Pakistan seen most likely conflict. Iran, North Korea also eyed.
  • “Asymmetric”, “ambiguous” confrontation between great powers rising. Conventional wars between major states also more likely.
  • Up to 21 percent chance of NATO fighting Russia, 4 percent chance of nuclear war.
  • Experts see 14 percent chance US and China will fight, 19 percent Japan and China.
Leading national security experts see a rising risk of a nuclear conflict, a survey conducted by the Project for Study of the 21st Century shows. A poll of 50 national security experts from around the world showed 60 percent concluding the risk had grown over the last decade. Overall, they predicted a 6.8 percent probability of a major nuclear conflict in the next 25 years killing more people than the Second World War (roughly 80,000,000 at upper estimates).
The survey featured 50 individuals including leading international relations academics, former senior military officials and private sector political risk specialists. Participants came from the UK, US, India, Pakistan, South Africa, the Middle East, Russia, France and elsewhere.
The poll showed 52 percent saying the risk of great power nuclear conflict would grow further over the coming 10 years. In addition, 80 percent said they expected proxy confrontations and other forms of “ambiguous warfare” to also increase.
“This is the first survey we know of like this,” said Peter Apps, executive director at the Project for Study of the 21st Century (PS21). “There has been plenty of talk of rising tensions with Russia and China in particular but it’s very rare to try and put numbers on that. The responses we received were, frankly, very varied. The aggregate figures show that most major potential nuclear or conventional wars seem broadly unlikely — but the numbers are still high enough to be worrying. Clearly this is a risk that cannot be entirely discounted.”
Participants were also asked to rate the likelihood of a variety of different potential conflicts. They saw a 21 percent chance of conflict between Russia and NATO over the next 20 years with a 4 percent chance of Russia-NATO nuclear war. The risk of war between the US and China was seen at 14 percent with a 2 percent chance of nuclear conflict.
India and Pakistan were seen as the major states most likely to fight with a 40 percent chance of conflict and a 9 percent chance of nuclear exchangeDespite this year’s nuclear deal between Iran and the major powers, the poll predicted a 27 percent chance of conflict between Iran and its enemies (either the US, Israel or Gulf states) with a 6 percent chance of nuclear release. They saw a 17 percent chance North Korea and the US would fight with again a 6 percent chance of nuclear release.
Great power conflict might not necessarily involve the United States. The survey showed a 19 percent chance of conflict between Japan and China with a 2 percent chance of nuclear exchange. It also showed a 7 percent chance of Russia and China fighting with a 1 percent chance of nuclear war. Respondents saw a 17 percent chance of a non-state actor detonating a nuclear device over the next 20 years. They also saw a 38 percent chance of a state and a 48 percent chance of a non-state actor carrying out a cyber attack that killed more than 100 people over the same period.
Mark Fitzpatrick,, former Deputy Assistant Secretary for Nonproliferation at the US State Department, now Director of the Nonproliferation and Disarmament Programme at the International Institute for Strategic Studies
“The survey accurately captures the Zeitgeist of renewed concern about the potential for great power conflict.While the prospect for major war is considered to be less than 50-50 over the next two decades, there is a significant chance of it happening.”
Nikolas Gvosdev, Professor of National Security Studies, US Naval War College
“These results mark a shift from the prevailing mood a decade ago, when the emphasis was on the threat posed by non-state actors inside failed or failing states to the fabric of the global order. Now, we see a return to a focus on state-on-state conflict, and a corresponding erosion of confidence that globalization and the prosperity it has engendered has dis-incentivized clashes among the leading global and regional powers.
Bernie de Haldevang, founder of the Cross Border Risk Agency and former head of financial and political risk lines at a major global insurance firm
“This is a credible study and the methodology used to arrive at its conclusions makes logical sense. It is important to remember what it is; the product of individuals’ assessments of geopolitical reality as they see it from where they are. The world has not yet found a new equilibrium nor the inherent stability that existed when the then two superpowers were locked together in a mutual armlock.”
For more information, e-mail or call Peter Apps on +44 7990 560586. Methodology and list of participants available on request.
The Project for Study of the 21st Century (PS21) is a new global think tank for a new global century.

Roundup: Our Top 5 Posts on Social Media

Even POTUS is on Twitter now.
Even POTUS is on Twitter now.

Social media networks have been around for a while, but it’s only in the last decade that they’ve evolved into a tool used by activists and extremist groups alike. Here are our best blog posts on the topic thus far.

Social Media in the Era of ISIS: In one of our first and most-read articles, Sultan al-Qassemi looks at ISIS’ alarmingly-effective social media strategies, and how the social media sphere has changed to include these extremist militant groups along with left-wing activists. If that’s not enough, check out the key takeaways from our event on Social Media in the Mideast, where Sultan elaborates on some of these ideas.

What initially was a space for liberal minded technology geeks and activists is now a darker, gloomier world in which threats are made and videos of brutal beheadings and government flogging of liberal activists are shared and cheered. Today the social media landscape in the Middle East resembles the squares and streets of the Arab Spring cities of yore: it is a new battleground for hearts and minds between regimes, Islamists and activists; between young and old; between freedom and constraint.

It’s more than just a click! Why we should stop referring to online activism as “slacktivism”: Sandy Schumann argues that we should stop using the word “slacktivism” to refer to online activism. Just because it’s easier doesn’t mean it’s lazy, and in fact, online activism can entice those who would otherwise not engage because it carries less risk and less opportunity cost.

The slacktivism critique has been endorsed by drawing on anecdotes of campaigns that resulted—apparently—only in digital attention but not in meaningful, instrumental support.[2]  Importantly though, the postulations have not been confirmed in systematic, empirical analyses.  On the contrary, contesting the idea of an uncommitted citizen who would only sign an online petition, so-called slacktivist actions seem to be an expression of citizens’ dedication to a cause and a stepping-stone for future civic participation.

A hashtag’s unintended consequences in Nigeria: Emmanuel Akinwotu explores the effects of the conflict with Boko Haram and subsequent #BringBackOurGirls campaign on Nigerian politics and society.

A year after the Twitter campaign “#bringbackourgirls” put Nigeria on front pages around the world, the whereabouts of 219 schoolgirls abducted by Boko Haram on April 14, 2014 remains unknown.

The global clamor for their release, ferocious in the months after the kidnappings, is now modest, by comparison. But the campaign — and even more, the brutal conflict that sparked it — has had major consequences. Over the past year, Nigeria has changed.

Digital Rights are Human Rights: Tim Hardy examines the relationship between the digital and material worlds. As the distance between them shrinks, he argues, we must defend our rights to both freedom of speech and privacy on the Internet.

There is an opportunity here. We can continue to participate in a global trend towards greater repression in the name of security and freedom. We can continue to give succour to regimes that monitor their citizens for the overt goal of silencing all dissenting voices. We can continue to build a machinery of totalitarianism that we hope but cannot guarantee will not be put to malevolent ends. Or we can take back the moral lead.

PS21 Report: Social Media and Politics: Born of a discussion held by PS21 in late May, our report on social media and politics explores how these networks have allowed activists to connect, start or further political movements, and take action. With comments from Tim Hardy, Jonn Elledge, and Sandy Schumann, the report is an interesting and illuminating read.

Sandy: I know computer scientists who are basically working on… putting together [the formula for the perfect tweet] and I don’t think they are too far off…

Jonn: I wonder… If you ever work out what the perfect tweet is, does the perfect tweet change?

PS21 Report: Kidnap & Ransom

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  • Recent high profile kidnaps have focused greater attention on the largely London-based ‘kidnap and ransom’ industry.
  • Kidnapping varies according to location, and in many ways, the crime is evolving with the introduction of new technologies.
  • Different governments handle kidnaps in different ways, some paying ransoms and others refusing to negotiate.
  • The legality of paying ransoms is often ambiguous, especially where a government prefers to withhold such payments as a means of deterrence.
  • For those with insurance or money to pay, the kidnap and ransom consultancies say they are the best and most reliable way to bring a loved one home.

On July 6, 2015, Project for the Study of the 21st Century hosted a discussion in London on Kidnap and Ransom. Watch the video here.

The panel was as follows:

Chair: Peter Apps: executive director, PS21

Nigel Inkster: former deputy-chief, Secret Intelligence Service (MI6)

Brittany Damora: senior operations manager, Kidnap & Ransom, Aegis Response

Nigel Brennan: photojournalist and author who was kidnapped in Somalia in 2008 and held hostage for 15 months

Kidnap for ransom has been a staple part of human criminality for centuries. In recent decades, however, the existence of kidnap and ransom insurance has created a small but sometimes lucrative industry for managing such incidents.

For those whose employers or others have taken out the right form of insurance, kidnap and ransom consultants will negotiate a hostage’s release and the payment of a ransom. This, however, can sometimes be at odds with governments, some of which—such as the US, UK and Australia—generally oppose ransom payments.

In particular, the Somali piracy crisis in the Indian Ocean as well as more recent kidnappings by Islamic State and others in Syria has raised the profile of both crime and the industry.

Brennan: I think it is higher profile. All over the globe, we become more knowledgeable about the kidnap/ransom industry [particularly] because of journalists being taken in Syria, Libya and places like that.

People can say you are creating an industry by paying out ransoms, which is one way to look at it. The way I would look at it is obviously from a family perspective of paying a ransom—you want a loved family member back.

The shape and focus of kidnappings varies widely around the world. Not all get the level of international media attention given to those of Westerners.

Damora: It is very different wherever you are. In Mozambique, you have South Asians who are being targeted. Express kidnapping in Latin America is huge [in these cases, individuals are kidnapped for 2 to 3 days and often taken to cashpoints to extract as much money as possible].

Brennan: What you don’t hear about is kidnappings in places like Mexico or that an actor because it doesn’t involve white Westerners spending large sums of money.

Kidnappers may be motivated by a myriad of factors beyond monetary gain, and many groups are largely driven by the “propaganda of the deed.”

Inkster: It is very much about propaganda in the case of IS, you know, demonstrating their power to do things, and highlighting the impotence of the governments of the individuals concerned to do anything about it. I have to say in the scheme of things, kidnapping for IS has been quite a substantial revenue earner, but I think that percentage of their earnings is diminishing.

IS derives revenue from a wide range of rent-seeking activities: extortion, the oil industry still to a significant degree but probably in unusual perspectives. So kidnapping is simply one of the rent-seeking lines of revenue that IS has got.

The advent of new technologies has enabled non-traditional forms of kidnap to develop, rendering the crime ever more difficult to tackle.

Damora: With online currency, bitcoins and things like that, and the development and spread of technology, the crimes have gotten more opportunistic and cyber extortion is a huge threat.

Inkster: This new approach, whereby you basically take somebody’s data and freeze it, encrypt it make it unavailable and demand a large sum of money to release it, is starting to become a more attractive option. I mean, the days when you went to rob the bank because the bank is where the money was, is gone. And it is a challenge because police forces, law enforcement, do not have anything like the requisite skills and resources to deal with this sort of problem, you know if it gathers momentum and reaches critical mass.

Different governments tend to approach ransom payments in very different ways.

Inkster: If you look particularly at some of the European countries it is pretty clear that the governments and the intelligence services do actively engage in the process of kidnap negotiations [to pay ransoms and get their national hostages back]. France, Germany, Spain and Italy have all been involved. Intelligence services in those countries are engaged in brokering ransoms with a variety of different people.

It’s not just the European countries. The Turks have had a significant contingent of diplomats kidnapped in Syria by IS and it’s pretty clear that the Turkish intelligence service was the primary vehicle for negotiating the release of those people.

The US, UK and Australia take a very different approach—although they will not usually block a ransom payment or prosecute families who pay.

Brennan: I knew that my government, the Australian government, wouldn’t pay ransom. Their policy is obviously not to negotiate, facilitate or pay ransom. So I was very aware from the day we were abducted that it was going to end with my family, and with quite a substantial amount of money.

Inkster: If you like the extreme Anglo-Saxon position as espoused by the United States and the United Kingdom, you don’t pay an exchange bill because that evidently encourages the thing. Once you have paid the Danegeld, you’ll never get rid of the Dane, to quote Rudyard Kipling.

Considerable ambiguity often shrouds the legality of paying ransom because governments may prioritize national security on the whole before defending the lives of a select few.

Inkster: The United Kingdom government is one of those that doesn’t pay ransom, but it also doesn’t prosecute if ransoms are paid. So it’s somewhat of an ambiguous situation. I think the United States plays significantly in that direction, and there was a recent case where they made it clear they were not going to treat this as a criminal issue.

Brennan: From what I’ve learned after my kidnapping, [my family] was basically led down the yellow brick road by the government. There were a lot of conflicting reports from different government departments, like the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Australian Federal Police. So you have [DFAT] saying it’s illegal to pay ransom, and then you have the Australian Federal Police on the exact same day saying to my family, how quickly can you put out assets to pay ransom?

Just as strategies to manage kidnap vary, so do their outcomes.

Inkster: I would simply make the point that you can’t negotiate with fanatics. You might be able to engage in something that you call negotiations in order to buy yourself time, but… Negotiations imply concessions; fanatics don’t do concessions.

I remember one particular example in Iraq not long after the 2003 invasion where a particular group did kidnap a British national. We didn’t negotiate. We sent in the Special Forces to deliver a visiting card to these people because we were able to find them pretty quickly. And we saw the word going around very quickly after that raid: stop kidnapping the Brits, it’s not worth it. Stick to the Italians and the French because they pay.

Damora: That said though, the last fourteen people that were released from Islamic State were paid for by a ransom… Only one American out of Syria has come out alive. Whereas the rest, from the countries that do pay, are all alive now.

Due to differences in priorities, a global consensus on whether or not ransoms should be paid is not likely.

Inkster: I think the reality is in the broader picture, we’re never going to get consensus at a global level on an issue like this. It’s just never going to happen. Different governments are going to be driven by different motives, you know, they have concerns for their electorate, their own legitimacy, sustainability, et cetera, et cetera, and these considerations are going to drive what they do. So I think the idea that we can get a kind of global consensus that you don’t pay ransoms to kidnapers is pretty unrealistic.

The kidnap and ransom industry may intervene not only to facilitate the negotiating process, but also to mitigate the ambiguities of existing policy.

Damora: No one has ever been prosecuted—no individual or company—has been prosecuted for paying ransom to anyone. There’ve been threats of that, but as far as I know, it’s never happened. So when it comes to whether or not we’re going to get involved in a case, there’s nowhere in the world, we’ve done Syria, we’ve done Pakistan, we do extortion cases in first world countries. There’s nowhere that we wouldn’t operate.

Whether or not [the kidnap and ransom] industry has changed because of Obama’s new transparency in the policy, I would have to say I don’t think it’s changed. I think it is still status quo. American citizens are still going to be targeted for being American. I don’t think that there will be any more targeting, because there is now a clearer shepherding by the U.S. government on behalf of the FBI to help out victim’s families. I think, if anything, that’s a good thing.

Report by Amanda Blair. Transcript by Amanda Blair and Vanessa Pooudomsak.

PS21 Report: Social Media and Politics


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  • Social media can generate the momentum to change minds, policy and even governments.
  • It is, however, no longer the “Wild West” it was five years ago.
  • Successful (sometimes) for single issue campaigns, less clarity on its use for swaying elections.
  • Can lead users and media to an “echo chamber” that reinforces views rather than informs.
  • Campaigns can produce a wide range of unintended consequences.
  • Can prove a useful tool to boost voter turnout.
  • Little clarity on how space will evolve. Some platforms — including Twitter — might simply vanish.

On Monday, 18 May 2015, the Project for Study of the 21st Century (PS21) held a discussion on ‘Social Media and Politics’.

A full transcript can be found here.

The panelists were as follows:

Peter Apps (Chair): PS21 Executive Director.

Tim Hardy: technical writer, commentator and activist: beyondclicktivism.

Sandy Schumann: Wiener-Anspach Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Social Psychology at the University of Oxford.

Jonn Elledge: Journalist at the New Statesman and Editor of City Metric.

Please feel free to quote from this report, referencing PS21. If you wish to get in touch with any of the panelists, please email

Over the last decade, social media platforms have redrawn both politics and business on the Internet. How exactly they have done so — and how sustainable that might be — still remain extremely poorly understood, however. Question marks remain over the sustainability of some of the most popular social media channels, particularly Twitter. In some cases, the political effect of social media campaigns can be transitory at best.

What is clear is that it has represented a major challenge to more conventional “top-down” media, information and political structures. It has also proved relatively difficult to control.

Sandy: Institutions, formal leadership, and hierarchical structures have become less important. People just act on personal interpretations and rationales, find each other, and can co-ordinate… actions.

There’s evidence from Spain (the Indignados) and from the Arab world (Tahrir Square)… [We] know that Facebook played a role — in addition to word of mouth — in getting people out on the street.  #kony2012 [raised] millions and millions of dollars and… awareness for Africans and [a] conflict in Africa that probably no-one had ever heard of.

Tim: … It makes me think of that description of the revolutionary mob: that you try and ride the tiger. You can’t really control it because it is, on some levels, a genuinely spontaneous outpouring of individuals and, as such, there is no way that you can guarantee that you can steer the outcome of anything…

If you decide it’s not going the way you want there’s no way of saying: “Let’s drop this campaign and try something different.” You can try a second campaign but you never go viral twice.

The space is now much more crowded by governments and corporations that it was only a handful of years ago. That may have a somewhat stifling effect on debate, innovation and political activity, particularly on the fringes.

Tim: Social media, particularly five years ago when it was still relatively new, felt very much like everything was up for grabs. There was very little commercial engagement with platforms like Twitter. Businesses didn’t really know how to manage it. Media companies didn’t really know how to engage. Obviously, they’ve moved in and filled that vacuum.

Media coverage of the UK election shows some of the risks in being too focused on social media. For all users, it risks becoming an “echo chamber” in which they simply receive the views of those with whom they already have a great deal in common.

As users become increasingly aware they are in the public eye, they may also become less honest about the views and image they present. Social media can encourage ‘groupthink’.

Jonn: There is a great tendency within the media… for [a] kind of echo chamber effect… Until the exit poll came out, basically the entire country had convinced itself that a hung parliament was inevitable… And we were all massively wrong. And I think one reason for that is that we’d been repeatedly reinforcing that impression, not just through newspapers but minute-by-minute on Twitter and Facebook… It’s very easy for something to harden into a received wisdom.

Sandy: On Facebook people are usually quite aware of who their audience is. So if your friends believe that most of their friends are leftwing they will perform an identity that their friends appreciate and may not be expressing their political views.

Tim: At the moment social media has this extraordinary role… in many people’s lives, in that it is a performance space… We are creating a public persona which is something historically very few people ever had to do, whereas now an ordinary person… [has] one eye on… future employment prospects… They are curating their relationships with one another, they are self-censoring and they are saying things they don’t necessarily believe…

Social media is at its most effective in one-off, quick-burning campaigns. For all the talk of “slacktivsm”, those who joined such campaigns are often highly motivated and willing to do more to make a difference.

Sandy: I’d like not to use [the term “slacktivism”] anymore… because it refers to a notion of being unmotivated to act, and my own research showed that people who do engage in those quick and easy actions like signing a petition or liking a Facebook page are actually motivated to make a difference.

In 2010-11, UK protest group UKuncut successfully grabbed attention with multiple flash mob occupations of stores run by companies they accused of evading British tax. While the protests themselves eventually died out — in part due to more aggressive policing and a series of arrests — they had successfully influenced the overall political climate

Tim: From nothing, people would self-organize, and find one another, and could then go and close down Boots, or TopShop, by demonstrating in a very non-aggressive, playful kind of way that always played well with the media… In the run-up to the election, in particular, we saw both Labour and the Conservatives accepting that there was money to be found from the [tax-evasion] schemes and that the public was against them.

It is difficult to repress information, whether through censorship or legal means such as libel threats or court-based “superinjunctions” designed to criminalise certain information on privacy grounds.

Jonn: One of the best uses of Twitter… was three to four years ago when the Guardian ran a story that basically said: “There is something we are not allowed to tell you. It is in the parliamentary records but there are reporting restrictions…”.  Twitter managed to take this piece of information and find out the exact details of who had taken an injunction out and why in the space of about 45 minutes.

The evidence of social media’s effect on elections themselves is equivocal at best. Not everybody wants a colossal onslaught of political comment and information.

Tim: … If the last elections show anything, it’s that the ability of social media to win an election is very much up for question. Twitter is for whatever reason left-leaning and Labour-supporting, while Facebook is far more conservative, and the Conservative party invested very heavily in ad campaigns on Facebook, which obviously had some influence as well, but we don’t know what that influence was.

Sandy: … We know from the US at least that people in general don’t appreciate political commentary on Facebook, and they don’t want to be convinced or persuaded on Facebook.

Still, it can have an effect — not least in encouraging larger numbers to vote and highlighting any perceived or actual attempts to rig the process.

Sandy: We… know that particular cost-benefit analyses are involved in voting or any other form of political behaviour… so definitely having access to information is much easier and quicker and has changed those calculations. [An experiment on Facebook showed] that in 2010, during the congressional elections in the US, there were about 40,000 additional votes being raised just by adding an “I Voted” icon on Facebook.

Jonn: … In the US presidential election in 2012 there were reports in social media about much longer queues outside polling stations in predominantly African-American areas than there were in white areas. I have no idea whether anything sinister was going on, but just the suspicion that something might have been meant that the people sort of pushed back really hard and were wiling to stand in that queue for a very long time just to make sure that their vote was not taken from them…

Some campaigns have had second-order effects which no university student in the Midwest tweeting #bringbackourgirls or #kony2012 could imagine.

Emmanuel Akinwotu (audience): In Nigeria [the #bringbackourgirls campaign] played out as a political agent… An insecure government was really spooked by it… To the wider world it was a huge thing… Protests took place in London and Washington and all over the world…

There were a number of things [the former Nigerian government] failed on but [the security situation] played the biggest role in discrediting its legitimacy and I think a lot of that was down to the way the #bringbackourgirls campaign galvanised public opinion.

Peter: #kony2012 had almost the opposite effect: it increased international support for the anti-LRA campaign, which meant that it secured Museveni’s position and strengthened his hand in domestic politics.

There is such a thing as too much information.

Sandy: Having a lot of information about how your government is doing and comparing that to governments around the world can actually discourage people from getting engaged in politics and voting because they feel like they can’t change much…

Tim:  One thing that a lot of people complain about is this kind of information fatigue… Which is why… Facebook has algorithms that have an inherent bias… they want you to be entertained and amused to keep you there, so anything nasty, like a riot, they just won’t talk about…

Users only get part of the story.

Jonn: If you are… responsive to stories that are more liberal or left-wing, then Facebook will give you those stories and it will give you the comments, and it will promote material that matches your beliefs.

It’s easy to look at something like Twitter and think it’s democracy, but it’s not… There will be campaigns that kind of got lucky, where… [a person with clout] spotted it at an early stage and put rocket boosters on it… There will be dozens of equally worthy… causes that just never manage to get that far, that we therefore don’t have the faintest idea [about].

Tim: … It’s very hard to keep up with all of it… It’s stories that are quick and easy… [that] will spread… Anything that requires a greater degree of engagement, that will challenge your ideas and is more complicated, is less likely to get a hearing…

Whilst also leaving individuals exposed.

Sandy: It is possible to reverse engineer people’s behaviour on Facebook.

Jonn: I think a significant birth… is Snapchat… Where there’s no record of anything. So a lot of teenagers… [who] don’t really want anyone to be able to look at the kind of things they are sending each other… prefer that to something like Facebook or Twitter, where there is a paper trail.

Tim: Maybe we could see a massive kind of Balkanization, whereby people move into very strong filter bubbles, where they only want to hang out with people that they know… I can imagine a social media platform that’s completely encrypted: that BuzzFeed can’t look at to see what’s trending but neither can GCHQ or NSA…

There is no single established definition of what “social media” actually means. Different elements work in very different ways. Twitter is heavily used by journalists but its user base is highly unrepresentative and its business model unproven. Facebook has by far the deepest penetration, used by left and right wing and young and old alike albeit in very different ways.

Tim: The two big beasts [are] Twitter and Facebook… but obviously there’s a whole world of different platforms out there… The way that the media has adapted to the environment means even things like comments on websites have aspects of social media these days…

We’ve been here before. We’ve had dominant platforms and they vanish: such is the nature of the Internet…

Jonn: Facebook… [is] profitable… I think we have to consider the possibility that [Twitter] is just not going to be there in five years’ time because it couldn’t make any money.

What remains to be seen is whether the social media trend will last — or in what form. In such a fluid environment, further rapid change is inevitable.

Tim: Anything that is self-organising like this… can run out of momentum very quickly…

Sandy: I know computer scientists who are basically working on… putting together [the formula for the perfect tweet] and I don’t think they are too far off…

Jonn: I wonder… If you ever work out what the perfect tweet is, does the perfect tweet change?

Report by Crisa Cox. Transcript by Carrie Cuno, Rhea Menon and Vanessa Pooudomsak.

Narendra Modi’s Foreign Policy – The View from the West

Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits Korea, May 18 2015.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits Korea, May 18 2015.

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Amitha Rajan is a former Reuters journalist who recently completed an MA at the School of Oriental and African Studies. She is a contributor and volunteer at PS21.

The year 2014 was a decisive one for Indian politics. With the biggest mandate for the post of prime minister, Narendra Modi became the symbol of a new chapter in India’s growth story. While the focus of Modi’s campaign was revitalising India’s economy, he has surprised political pundits with by emphasising foreign policy. From inviting the leaders of the South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation (SAARC) countries for his swearing-in ceremony to making bilateral visits to 18 countries by the end of his first year in office last month, Modi has been unafraid to raise his profile internationally. After a decade of indeterminate foreign policy under the previous Congress-led government, Modi is keen to show the world that India finally has a strong leader at the helm and that it is an easier place to do business in.

Domestically, opinion on Modi’s approach to foreign and economic policy is polarised: while some view his overseas engagement through the lens of pride and nationalism, his critics chide him for spending far too little time at home and getting his domestic affairs in order. Western observers are less caught up with the ideological debate that makes Modi such a divisive figure in India, but remain uncertain over whether his engagement abroad has been more about style than substance. Part of this scepticism comes from the extremely low bar set by the previous government. India is certainly more visible on the global stage under Modi, but does this imply that the prime minister has made progress in substantive policy issues?

Western views on economic policy, in particular, appear less favourable than is perceived domestically. In an interview, Gareth Price, Senior Research Fellow in Chatham House’s Asia Programme, said that although Modi ran on the platform of economic reform, there is no consensus within the BJP on liberalisation policies, and that attitudes towards reforms were therefore likely to be determined on a case-by-case basis. Indeed, the government has struggled to push through key reforms such as the goods and services tax bill and the land acquisition bill, both of which are critical for Modi’s signature ‘Make in India’ campaign and for luring foreign investment. Although the BJP has a majority in the Lok Sabha – the lower house of the parliament – the absence of one in Rajya Sabha (the upper house) allows opposition parties to stall policy reforms.

Stratfor, the US geopolitical intelligence firm, observes that the BJP has already lost some momentum from the highpoint of 2014. This is demonstrated by the party’s poor performance in the Delhi state elections where the Aam Aadmi Party, a newcomer to politics, had a sweeping victory – and will likely continue to face an uphill battle in the upper house beyond 2016. Growing fissures within the BJP over key political reforms are likely to further hamper progress. An added complication is the curious case of the government adjusting the base year to calculate economic growth, which led to a revision in the 2014 growth rate to 6.9% from 4.7%. Even the country’s chief economic advisor, Arvind Subramaniam, appeared stumped by the new GDP numbers, which CNN called a ‘total mystery. Of course, it does not hurt that the revised numbers are closer to China’s growth rates, an important symbol for a prime minister seeking to attract foreign investment.

Overall, the general view appears to be that for a prime minister elected primarily on the promise of economic revival, Modi’s first year in office has been lacklustre. A Bloomberg editorial concluded that “In his first year, Modi has spent too much political capital to no coherent purpose.” Part of this verdict reflects the unrealistic expectations and the euphoria attached to Modi’s ascension to power. In his first year in office, the prime minister has eschewed bold reforms in favour of what his officials call ‘creative incrementalism’, characterised by steps to tackle issues such as easing bureaucracy, clearing backlogs of projects, cutting fuel subsidies, and re-auctioning telecom and coal-mining licenses. And while the past year has seen pledges for billion-dollar long-term deals from countries such as Japan, the US, China and Russia, restoring the Indian economy to the glory days seen a few years ago will require much more willingness from the government to make tough decisions, pick a fight with political opponents when necessary, and make concessions and build consensus when the stakes are high.

The Western scorecard on Modi’s security policy is more forgiving. Because foreign policy was not expected to be in such sharp focus, Modi’s charm offensive has captured the attention of the international community. Modi’s multi-alignment strategy in foreign policy has helped build bridges and sustain relationships, an essential factor for attracting investment. Moreover, Modi’s clear electoral mandate has given him the flexibility to stabilise relations in the neighbourhood – particularly with Bangladesh and Sri Lanka – that were previously held hostage by domestic politics. Crucially, Modi’s strategy is notable for the absence of the ideology-driven bombast that some observers had foreseen, given the Bhartiya Janata Party’s strong right-wing and Hindutva worldview.

The prime minister has chosen pragmatism and tangible outcomes – such as treaties and investment – over dogma in international relations. This approach has helped placate neighbours in South Asia and paved the way for a reset of Indo-US ties. President Barack Obama’s visit to India as the chief guest of the Republic Day celebrations in January – the first time an American presided over the ceremony – had the dual effect of boosting Modi’s legitimacy at home and demonstrating that India and the US are on an equal footing. Western experts credit Modi’s savvy in turning around the relationship, which had hit a trough following the arrest of the deputy Indian consul general, Devyani Khobragade, in late 2013 on charges of visa fraud.

Alyssa Ayres, a former US State Department official under the Obama administration and Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, argues that because Modi has successfully set a new tempo, tone, and trajectory for the bilateral relations – instead of focussing on the Khobragade affair and the earlier rejection of his US visa – the bitterness of those disputes has been replaced by a sense of optimism. During Obama’s visit to India, both countries made progress on the 2008 civil nuclear deal and, importantly, issued a Joint Strategic Vision for the Indian Ocean and the Asia Pacific Region, which affirmed the significance of maritime security and called for the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.

The statement garnered a lot of interest because it was a thinly veiled reference to China’s increasingly rigid stance on its territorial claims in the South China Sea, and because it was the first time that India and the US spoke together on the issue. At a time when India is trying to reassert itself as a traditional security partner of countries in the Indian Ocean region, the joint statement had the symbolic value of showcasing the US’s acknowledgement of India’s key role in the region. This, along with Obama’s tilt towards India and strained relations with Pakistan and the progress in breaking the logjam on the civil nuclear deal, has led to optimism among some analysts that a new strategic partnership between New Delhi and Washington is underway.

Modi walking with Afghan President Dr. Ashraf Ghani, April 29, 2015.
Modi walking with Afghan President Dr. Ashraf Ghani, April 29, 2015.

Such expectations, however, may be exaggerated. Rather than an overhaul of existing foreign policy, Modi’s strategy has essentially been a continuation of the previous government’s policies, albeit in a more articulate and confident manner. As Frederic Grare – Director of the South Asia programme at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace – notes, the main difference between the Manmohan Singh administration and the current one is Modi’s ability to communicate effectively, and the most substantial results of Modi’s diplomacy owe their success to policies begun by the previous administration.

There is no doubt that Modi has made visible headway in improving Indo-US relations. But, this is unlikely to translate into New Delhi becoming a strategic ally of Washington. India will work with the US only in cases where it is in its interest to do so. For instance, closer ties with the US have not resulted in the erosion of the friendly relations between Russia and India, even at a time when the Western world is suspicious of Moscow’s intentions following its annexation of Crimea. Modi hosted Vladimir Putin in New Delhi late last year and the visit yielded long-term contracts worth USD100 billion, including crude oil deals and an agreement for Russian construction of nuclear reactors in India.

Moreover, while some in Washington envisage a strategic partnership between the US and India that could help contain China, calculations in New Delhi are different. There is no doubt that the Indian security establishment is cautious about China. Frequent incursions along a massive border on which there is no consensus, China’s development of the Gwadar port in Pakistan and its growing influence in the Indian Ocean region, and Beijing’s ambitions of regional hegemony are viewed with suspicion in India. However, New Delhi is far behind China in military investment, upgrade, and expansion, and it will be a while before the military upgrade that is currently underway in India bears fruit. In the meantime, engaging with all stakeholders in the Asia-Pacific region and actively participating in multilateral forums appears to be the best strategy for India. Furthermore, China is an essential investment component of Modi’s economic policy, which is his top priority. Modi will be careful not to upset this relationship. The policy of multi-alignment is therefore likely to continue in the near term.

Although economic concerns will continue to dictate India’s conduct on the world stage, under Modi there is an acknowledgment of the need – and even a desire – for India to be more visible in international affairs. It remains to be seen if a definitive doctrine emerges at the end of Modi’s term in 2019. What is encouraging is the certainty that the prime minister has a mandate for five years that will give him the leverage he needs to develop a deliberate foreign policy strategy. It may well be that all Modi can offer is delivering on existing plans rather than overhauling New Delhi’s doctrine on foreign policy. Nevertheless, even this accomplishment will go some ways to making India an active stakeholder in world affairs.

PS21 is a non-governmental, non-ideological and non-partisan organization. All views expressed are the author’s own.

Assessing the New US National Security Strategy


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Ali Wyne is a contributing analyst at Wikistrat and a global fellow with PS21. Follow him on Twitter: @Ali_Wyne

There is much to recommend the Obama administration’s new national-security strategy, which National Security Advisor Susan Rice launched at the Brookings Institution early last month. Released a little over four years after its predecessor, it identifies five “historic transitions underway that will unfold over decades”: the transition of power between states, the diffusion of power from states to non-state actors, a tightening nexus of global economic interdependence and technological change, the development of a new regional order in the Middle East and dramatic shifts in global energy production. Every subsequent national-security strategy should take a page from this latest document and open with a brief overview of the major trends driving world order: a strategic U.S. foreign policy will, after all, continuously discern, respond to and, where possible, mold those trends.

An undercurrent, if not a theme, of the administration’s new strategy is the growing importance of economic strength as both a pillar and an instrument of U.S. foreign policy. The document states that “America’s growing economic strength is the foundation of our national security,” advocates “a model of American leadership rooted in the foundation of America’s economic and technological strength,” and stresses that America’s “first line of action is principled and clear-eyed diplomacy, combined with the central role of development in the forward defense and promotion of America’s interests.” The document also reaffirms the administration’s determination to finalize negotiations on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which, if successful, would place “the United States at the center of a free trade zone covering two-thirds of the global economy.” The United States should continue to make geoeconomics a more central pillar of its foreign policy: with its economic recovery, trade initiatives, push for greater North American integration and opening to Cuba (and, by extension, the Americas), it is well-positioned to do so.

The new strategy also frames the Americas and Africa — with a combined population of roughly 1.8 billion and combined output of some $8 trillion — as centers of growing economic promise instead of chronic political dysfunction and humanitarian risk. America’s postwar foreign policy has often neglected them, tending alternatively to seek out strategic opportunities within the trilateral framework of North America, Western Europe, and East Asia. The opening to Cuba and plummeting oil prices give the United States to boost its trade and investment linkages to a region where it has underinvested since 9/11, at least relative to its Asian competitors. Meanwhile, Trade Africa, the Power Africa Initiative, and the African Growth and Opportunity Act will help the United States boost its economic engagement with a continent that boasts six of the world’s ten fastest-growing economies.

Still, the new strategy does not offer the clearest sense of the administration’s priorities. While it is neither realistic nor sensible to orient America’s “entire foreign policy around a single threat or region,” it is possible and prudent to establish hierarchies, especially given the multiplicity of America’s economic challenges, the frailty of its recovery from the global downturn that began in late 2008 and the well-documented wariness of the American public to pursue a proactive foreign policy. President Obama notes in the preface that because “our resources and influence are not infinite,” “we have to make hard choices among many competing priorities.” Beyond reaffirming the administration’s view — one that is widely shared within the nation’s foreign policy establishment — that nuclear terrorism remains the greatest threat to U.S. national security, the document identifies eight “top strategic risks” to U.S. national interests and five pillars of an agenda for “reinforcing, shaping, and where appropriate, creating the rules, norms, and institutions” of a new world order. In neither category, however, does it appear to rank them; nor does it comment much on the relationship or interaction between the eight risks, which are largely functional, and the five pillars, which are regional.


Because it does not order the administration’s priorities more sharply, the new strategy perhaps unwittingly what may well be its signature foreign-policy initiative, the rebalance to the Asia-Pacific. While the document does call it one of America’s “historic opportunities” and includes its advancement as one of the aforementioned five pillars, it does not describe the rebalance with as much force as its architects did. In an influential November 2011 essay, former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton argued that “[i]n a time of scarce resources…we need to invest them wisely where they will yield the biggest returns, which is why the Asia-Pacific represents such a real 21st-century opportunity for us.” The subtitle of her piece asserts “[t]he future of politics will be decided in Asia.” To give one other illustration, former U.S. National Security Advisor Tom Donilon called the United States “a Pacific power whose interests are inextricably linked with Asia’s economic, security, and political order in a November 2012 speech. America’s success in the 21st century is tied to the success of Asia.”

When the Obama administration officially unveiled the rebalance in January 2012 via the Pentagon’s Defense Strategic Guidance, some observers argued it was trying to wash its hands of the Middle East; with the one-year anniversary of Crimea’s absorption into Russia approaching, they have extended their critique by arguing that the administration insists on discussing 21st-century geoeconomics while Vladimir Putin is far more interested in 20th-century geopolitics. Amid growing world disorder, an increasingly vocal segment of the commentariat supports a U.S. strategic posture that accords equal or at least comparable priority to the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and the Asia-Pacific. While intuitive, this proposition is misguided.

In the Middle East, the optimism that accompanied the “Arab Spring” a little over four years ago has largely morphed into despondence. The depredations of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Iraq and Syria have understandably captured the most attention, but Libya and Yemen’s security situations continue to deteriorate. As NATO brings its military campaign in Afghanistan to an end, moreover, observers fear a revival of the Taliban.

While it makes sense for the United States to participate in a targeted counterterrorism campaign to keep ISIL and other terrorist outfits at bay, ideally with Arab countries assuming an ever-growing share of the burden, the region’s chaos precludes a broad, coherent U.S. approach. Government repression, terrorist activity, popular unrest, and resurgent tensions—between Saudi Arabia and Iran, for example—are among the factors that make the Middle East’s evolution nearly impossible to understand, let alone shape. The United States would do well to observe a variant of the Hippocratic Oath administered to every aspiring doctor—first, do no harm. America’s experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq over the past decade a half caution against the presumption that heavy U.S. involvement in a given theater will advance America’s national interests.

In Eastern Europe, Russia’s long game in Ukraine poses a vexing challenge to U.S. foreign policy. Russia dials up the pressure when it discerns a window of opportunity to encroach further upon its neighbor’s sovereignty, but below the threshold that would trigger a sustained military response by the United States and its European partners. So long as Russia can manage these cycles of escalation and détente, it reasons it can continue to notch small territorial gains that may, over time, allow it to alter fundamentally the strategic balance between Russia and NATO in Russia’s western periphery. There is little doubt that Russia’s behavior over the past year has proven inimical to its national interests. At home, the precipitous fall of the ruble, massive outflows of capital and collapsing growth reinforce its demographic decline; abroad, its relations with much of the West continue to deteriorate and its dependence on Chinese largesse seems poised to increase indefinitely. Meanwhile, the prospect of a Eurasian Union, which Putin has repeatedly cited as a principal aspiration of his foreign policy, continues to recede. Paradoxically, though, Russia’s extant and emerging weaknesses shield it from external pressure. Beyond enjoying over 80% popular approval at home, Putin has likely concluded he is in a protracted struggle with the West — the United States, in particular — to defend Russia’s honor and national interests. Russia’s woes seem more likely to encourage his defensiveness than induce a course correction.


The uncomfortable reality, though, is that for reasons of both geography and history, Ukraine’s fate is far more essential to Russia’s place in the world than America’s.  It is NATO’s European members, moreover, that should be the principal bulwark against Russian revanchism, not the United States.  However much of a challenge Russia’s current behavior poses to U.S. foreign policy, neither an open military confrontation between the two countries nor a decision by Russia to abandon further areas of bilateral conception would advance U.S. interests.

The new strategy should have stressed that none of the developments in either region — the Middle East or Eastern Europe — alter the growing strategic centrality of the Asia-Pacific to world order: on current trend lines, it will account for an ever-growing share of the world’s people, output, and military spending. The rebalance, moreover, is rooted not only in the region’s opportunities but also in its dangers: while the security threats in the Middle East and Eastern Europe may be more vivid, the Asia-Pacific is far from idyllic. Consider North Korea’s nuclear exports, the potential for a nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan, the variety of great-power tensions (China-India, China-Japan, and Japan-South Korea, for example) and the potential for territorial disputes in the South China Sea and East China Sea to escalate. Moreover, as Kurt Campbell and Ely Ratner explained last May, the region also confronts “nontraditional security threats such as natural disasters, human trafficking, and the drug trade.”

Beyond reaffirming the centrality of the rebalance in U.S. foreign policy, the new strategy should have elaborated more on its plans for rejuvenating liberal world order. While it expresses “confidence that the international system whose creation we led in the aftermath of World War II will continue to serve America and the world well,” it concedes that that system confronts “undeniable strains.” From time to time observers sound alarms about an emerging illiberalism, an authoritarian axis, or a Beijing Consensus. The systemic challenge to liberal world order, however, is not so much the existence of a compelling alternative as it is the prospect of internal erosion. It took horrific convulsions — among them two world wars, which collectively killed 80 million people, and the worst macroeconomic downturn in the history of the modern industrial world — to produce today’s environment. Who would want to risk comparable or even worse catastrophes to make it more inclusive and equitable?

Second, given how significantly the prospect of great-power war has diminished, today’s leaders lack an existential impetus for advancing liberal world order. Third, growing disorder has not undermined human progress; allowing that that progress varies considerably from region to region, most trends suggest the world is becoming safer, healthier and wealthier in the aggregate.  Today’s leaders may well find this duality — between growing disorder and growing progress — tolerable. As such, the United States should consider how it would adjust its foreign policy should liberal world order erode indefinitely. Part of strategy involves leveraging current trends; another part, however, involves hedging against possible futures. To that end, the National Intelligence Council should play a larger role in shaping future national-security strategies.

The United States is likely to remain indefinitely the world’s preeminent power, even though its margin of preeminence may continue to diminish. If, moreover, as much of the West would likely agree, a rejuvenated liberal world order is the likeliest vehicle for expanding the gains in peace and prosperity that have occurred in the postwar era, it is hard to imagine a country other than the United States with the capacity to organize such an undertaking. Paradoxically, though, the frequency and certainty with which the new strategy avows the centrality of U.S. leadership betrays a growing insecurity among Americans — citizens and policymakers alike — about their country’s prospects for exercising influence in the world. Some observers interpret President Obama’s call for “strategic patience” as a euphemism for his desire to withdraw the United States from world affairs and evade difficult policy choices. The intensity of the reaction is both another expression of that insecurity and a demonstration of misguided nostalgia: the United States has never been able to “dictate the trajectory of all unfolding events,” even when, in the immediate postwar era, it is widely believed to have exercised hegemony.

Few would deny that the emerging landscape is daunting. The United States must prepare its foreign policy for a world where its economy will no longer be the largest in absolute terms; where disorder may well be an enduring feature of the strategic environment, not a passing aberration; where a dizzying, growing array of nonstate actors exercises ever-growing influence; and where its signature postwar achievement, liberal world order, erodes indefinitely. These novelties do not, though, and need not, support the oft-painted picture of a United States in terminal decline; instead, they reinforce the imperative of strategic adjustment.

As Paul Kennedy concluded a quarter century ago, “the only serious threat to the real interests of the United States can come from a failure to adjust sensibly to the newer world order.”

Project for Study of the 21st Century is a non-national, non-ideological, non-partisan organization. All views expressed are the author’s own.

The New ‘Long War’ with Russia

Russian navy destroyer firing at a distant target during a gunnery exercise, June 29, 2011
Russian navy destroyer firing at a distant target during a gunnery exercise, June 29, 2011

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Commodore Philip Thicknesse is a Falklands War veteran and career warfare officer and aviator, Philip Thicknesse is an international adviser at the Project for Study of the 21st Century (PS21). He previously directed the UK Defence Crisis Management Centre, Maritime Warfare Centre and commanded British Forces South Atlantic Islands. 

While it is immensely difficult to place oneself in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s position and to see the world as he and Russia undoubtedly see it, there are things that we do know.

The first is that Russia has always seen itself as encircled and threatened, a condition exacerbated by the West since the collapse of the Soviet Union and subsequent expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. A simple exercise with a globe can help to demonstrate this. Rotate it until Moscow is in the center and then scan the points of the compass. To the north, over the pole, is the United States; to the east, China; to the south, Islam, and to the west, Europe, the European Union and NATO.

Second, over the past 20 years, Russia has shrunk, physically and conceptually. The Soviet Union was, in all but one way, a force to be reckoned with. It was able to hold the world hostage and force it to focus, above all, on the maintenance of an uneasy but mostly stable peace. The Soviet Union’s Achilles’ heel was its economy; NATO’s Cold War victory was essentially an economic one. The West defeated the Soviet Union by fielding more, and better, military technology with fewer, but infinitely better-trained personnel, funded by economies that worked.

As the Soviet Union collapsed, it shed a number of its republics, which functioned, in part, as buffers between mother Russia and the encircling threat. They also provided vital access to the sea. A sympathetic observer might note that Russia’s only guaranteed ports are on its north coast, all of which have, in recent human history, been accessible only in the Arctic summer months. Even now with the ice receding, the Northern Sea Route is a far from reliable route into either the Pacific or Atlantic and therefore strategically unsatisfactory. In the Baltic, St. Petersburg and Kaliningrad serve well, though Russia must be concerned for the long-term stability of Kaliningrad because the city has a long German history as Koenigsberg. This stability should also concern Europe: arguably, as long as Kaliningrad is secure, the threat to the other Baltic ports and countries is reduced. To the east, Vladivostok serves the Pacific but, in extended living memory, has been directly threatened (and occupied) multiple times, by the Japanese in the early 20th century and throughout the Cold War by the United States.

This brings us to the south and the Black Sea and the Russian ports on the Crimean peninsula. The southern access to the Mediterranean has always been problematic because of the Dardanelles, which has forced Russia to find staging posts in the Mediterranean from which to sortie. Throughout the Cold War, the Russian fleet could be found in anchorages all around the eastern Mediterranean, which helps to explain Russia’s interest in the Syrian port of Tartus. The port is now unavailable as a result of a civil war made infinitely more complicated by a West that had not taken the time to weigh the true factors and factions, which always included Russia (the leadership of which may, actually, have been right all along in siding with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad).

When Ukraine became independent of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Crimean peninsula became a significant strategic problem and, almost certainly, the subject of contingency planning: The naval ports and other military bases had to be accessible. The matter of which way Ukraine faces is not simply, for Russia, a matter of either lost trade or a lost buffer state, both of which are important, but also of lost oceanic access.

Vladimir Putin (then Russian Prime Minister, now President) talks to the participants of the 'Private Meeting of the Members of the International Business Council with Vladimir Putin' at the Annual Meeting 2009 of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, January 29, 2009
Vladimir Putin (then Russian Prime Minister, now President) talks to the participants of the ‘Private Meeting of the Members of the International Business Council with Vladimir Putin’ at the Annual Meeting 2009 of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, January 29, 2009

If this is the case, the West needs to think, with great clarity and caution, about what is actually happening in Ukraine to understand the nature of Putin’s problem. The need for assured oceanic access at each point of the compass may be so deeply engrained in the Russian psyche as to significantly affect his decision-making and risk appetite.

So what? A Russia that prefers to believe that it is surrounded by enemies is one thing. A Russia denied what it believes to be its birthright – unfettered oceanic access and secure land borders – is another. The West has learned to live, uncomfortably, with the first, just as one learns to accommodate a paranoid neighbour. But it has also learned the consequence of unnecessary needling, which invariably ends in tears. Sometimes it is necessary, for the greater good, to do the wrong thing for the right reasons. The wrong thing, in this case, is to persuade Ukraine to cede the peninsula, and a land corridor, to Russia. Access to EU markets is a possible compensation but not, at any price, membership in NATO. Buffer states are a tragic necessity in an uncertain world – and as important for NATO as for Russia.

Why would the West, and especially Ukraine, do this? Because Russia is on its knees, for three reasons. The first, and most immediate, is the price of oil, which is far below what Putin requires to make the country function. Second is that Russia’s political system looks unlikely to survive in the long term. Only a North Korean or a young Saudi would see Russia as a political paradise. One suspects that many Russians, if they had the economic wherewithal, would choose to live in a liberal democracy, for all its faults. The third, and most telling, reason is that the population is in long-term, possibly accelerating decline, with a birthrate way below replacement levels and falling life expectancy in the ethnic Russian population. Current predictions put Russia’s population, in 2050, at 118 million, a loss of 16 percent to 19 percent in 50 years.

At the moment, it would appear that Putin has the upper hand because he is able to take a longer view than any of his fellow leaders, almost all of whom are time-limited, or time expired, and most of whom are, at best, tacticians, not strategists. The evidence seems to indicate that the West could regain the upper hand by opting to play a very long game: Russia, as currently constituted, is itself time-limited. Yet the personalization of politics and leadership in the West has increasingly led to tactical behavior driven by short personal horizons — as short as 60 days in the case of the British Prime Minister David Cameron, who is facing a serious reelection challenge. Maybe proper statesmanship requires strong and enduring institutions, rather than individuals, capable of thinking beyond an opponent’s horizon?

The alternative approach is to learn to deal with the nuisance and uncertainty of continued ambiguity. Airspace incursions make for good photographs and alarmist tabloid headlines but are mostly an expensive inconvenience. Submarine incursions, such as those off Scotland’s coast, designed to test Britain’s resolve to protect the submarines carrying Britain’s nuclear deterrent may be of a different order. During the Cold War, there were well- established protocols for close encounters, which by and large worked well. But they required well-practiced and well-equipped military services that, through their actions, acquired a familiarity with their opponents and an understanding not just of their capabilities and limitations but also their methods.

What does this mean for the NATO Baltic States, which are seen as being as vulnerable as Ukraine? First, St. Petersburg and Kaliningrad provide access to the Baltic Sea, so there is no pressure on Russia to find another port. Why would Putin test NATO’s resolve through an action against one of the Baltic States? Protecting the Russian minorities was a convenient lie used in Ukraine to cover the real reason for intervening — to secure the naval and military bases in Crimea.

Yevtaporia, Crimea: a strategically-important Russian port on the Black Sea
Yevtaporia, Crimea: a strategically-important Russian port on the Black Sea

And what of the barely veiled threats of lowered thresholds before involving nuclear weapons? Most Cold War veterans were at least passingly familiar with Herman Kahn and his ladder of escalation. He described advancement on the ladder toward war as a series of deliberate choices, the results of which determined the direction of travel. We practiced at every level, from decision-making in Whitehall to the delivery of the weapons and then the whole grim business of operating in an environment partly demolished by biological, chemical or nuclear weapons. I think we came to appreciate that the conduct of nuclear deterrence was a deeply skilled and intelligent business; it demanded very high levels of familiarity. The current risk seems obvious: an oversupply of unpractised tacticians in power in Western capitals, and an absence of strategists.

Finally, then, what should the West do in Ukraine? To fuel a proxy war by supplying materiel and trainers would be foolish, naïve and wilfully escalatory. Surely the better approach is to use proper, powerful economic sticks and carrots to bring Ukraine and Russia to the negotiating table, with the United Nations in place to keep the peace.

At the beginning of the year, the United Kingdom commemorated the 50th anniversary of the death of Winston Churchill, a man widely seen as the greatest Englishman in all history. He would have seen the strategic need to treat with the new tsar, whether we like him or not.

It is much better to have Putin if not actually inside the Western tent then at least not outside it pulling out the guy ropes and causing chaos. Russia ultimately has a far greater problem with militant Islam than the West, it understands Iran and Syria better than the West and has to deal with China in quite a different way. For all concerned, better a messy peace than a nasty descent into a wider and wholly avoidable conflict, be it long and ambiguous or short and horrific.

This piece was originally published on on March 10, 2015. 

PS21 is a non-ideological, non-national, nonpartisan institution. Any opinions are the author’s own.

Introducing PS21 WORLD

The view from PS21 HQ.
The view from PS21 HQ, February 2015

Peter Apps, PS21 executive director

Two months ago on Monday, I was still largely bedbound in my cabin on the liner Queen Mary 2 as we slogged our way through north Atlantic gales to Southampton.

PS21 might only have been a couple of weeks away from launch but to be honest it consisted of little more than some considerable ambition, several confidential Word documents, a place holding website, a little preprepared content and rather more pledges of support. Also, encouragement from global fellows and others.

As I related in late February, we’ve come a long way since the first event in London on January 26.

A few weeks later, we launched our first blog channel PS21 MIDEAST. It’s been–I feel–a great success, showcasing excellent commentary and material from both within the region and the wider world.

Our third posting, Sultan al-Qassemi’s masterful study of social media in the region from the Arab Spring to ISIS, helped push us above 1000 page views a day for the first time.

It was quite rightly showcased by Foreign Policy that day as one to read.

This week, I’m delighted to say TIME chose to publish a somewhat shorter version of Ari Ratner’s equally impressive piece looking at the limits of American Mideast power.

The other contributions have also proved spectacular in both depth and scope. I highly recommend the last two we have published on Syria, from Rasha Elass on how the war has paradoxically increased freedom for many young people and from Miriam Cook on the outpouring of theatre, art and culture that has also followed.

Today, we are launching PS21 WORLD, our new landmark blog on globalisation, conflict, geopolitics and anything else we think casts light on a rapidly changing, fascinating planet.

The first piece we are running, Philip Thicknesse’s look at the new “long war” with Russia and the risks it brings with it, first ran Tuesday on

Commodore Philip Thicknesse's article taking pride of place on
Commodore Philip Thicknesse’s article taking pride of place on, March 10, 2015

Sharing some pieces with editorial partners is central to our strategy of producing content people read as well as discussions they remember, helping drive traffic to the broader Project, and getting ideas to a much wider audience.

Next, we’ll be looking at the largely unnoticed war between hacker group Anonymous and Islamic State on the sidelines of the wider conflict. Future pieces will look at how the Internet is undermining — perhaps destroying — publishing and other business models. We’ll be looking at the dark Internet, tensions in Southeast Asia and the wider spike in recent conflict.

We are also building out regional blogs for Asia and Africa are again focusing on getting bright regional talent as well as international experts. Other topics and regions will follow.

As with PS21 MIDEAST — still being excellently curated by Carrie Cuno — we’ll be using these to help build a new generation of talent amongst our volunteer and almost invariably youthful editors. In particular, PS21 WORLD will rely on Claire Connellan in London and Anske Venter and Jinwoo Chong in Washington DC, already as close to the veterans of PS21 as anyone gets.

Which means, of course, that two of them joined us in January.

As we also push forward with an exciting series of new events, I think something of the character of the Project is becoming clear.

We are holding true to our founding principles of being non-national, non-ideological and non-partisan. Many of the discussions we’ve had to come down to the power of competing narratives and the difficulty in reconciling them, from the battles of the Middle East to the struggles of the Eurozone.

I don’t think that’s something we can particularly solve. What we are doing is providing a space whereby different narratives can be explored and discussed in a permissive and open-minded manner. As we spend our membership and operations further — soon to include Russia, China and elsewhere — I think that opens some powerful opportunities. And it might also achieve something.

This week, I discovered that Democratic Republic of Congo have become the first country in the world to start using giant solar powered robots to direct traffic. I also discovered — although I definitely should have known this — that Iran has the second-largest Jewish population in the Middle East.

Neither of those details, of course, is enough to overturn everything I think I know about either country. But nor do they entirely fit within it.