London Event 16 April – In Conversation with Sir John Holmes

Tuesday, 16 April, from 06:00 p.m., London School of Economics, Alumni Theater, New Academic Building, 54 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, Holborn WC2A 3LA

Held in collaboration with the London School of Economics United Nations Society.

Join PS21 and the LSE UN Society for a discussion with renowned former British diplomat Sir John Holmes. Sir John Holmes joined the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 1973. Over his 46-year career he has been posted to every corner of the world and held many senior government positions, including Head of the European Union Department, Ambassador to Portugal and Ambassador to France. Between 2007 to 2010 he served as Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator. Sir John Holmes currently sits as Chair of the Electoral Commission.

In our conversation, we aim to explore Sir John Holmes’ career, his perception on how international affairs has changed, and his analysis of contemporary international issues informed by unmatched experienced.

Doors will open at 06.00 p.m. with the event beginning at 06:30. Upon arrival, check in at reception, they will then direct you to the room.

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London Event 10 April – The Domestic Crisis in Britain and the United States

Wednesday, 10 April, from 06:00 p.m., King’s College London, Room S0.13, Strand Campus, London, WC2R 2LS

Held in collaboration with the King’s College London War Studies Society.

The west is in a time of social division not seen for decades. With the divisive Trump presidency in the US, Brexit In the UK and the ‘Yellow Vest’ protests in France, the symptoms of western domestic instability are clear to see., however, the cause of the West’s ‘domestic crisis’ is complex and multi-faceted. In the next PS21 discussion event, we’ll be examining the pressures on western society from multiple approaches including political, economic and social  angles.


Peter Apps (Moderator) – Reuters Global Affairs Columnist, Founder and Executive          Director of PS21.

John Raines – Head of Political Risk, IHS Markit.

Emma Burnell – campaigns and public policy professional.

Upon arrival, reception will sign you in, they will then direct you the room. Doors will open at 06:00 p.m., the event will begin at 06:30 p.m.

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Sales end at 11:00 a.m. on the 9th of April

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PS21 Event Writeup: ‘New year, new thinking? Ideas to define 2019’

By Janosch Siepen

Photo Credit: Tristan Turner

The event on the 15th of January – New Year, new thinking? Ideas to define 2019 – took place at Juju’s Bar and Stage. It was  moderated by Peter Apps, Reuters Global Affairs Columnist, Founder and Executive Director of PS21.

Gwenn Lainé, Director of Production at ARK Group, former Naval Officer, said that there needed to be a extensive revision of social and political concepts for 2019 and beyond. That included reassessing the role of the state, as well as dealing with enormous challenges of demographics and migration. The centre of gravity in the world was shifting to Asia, he said, while the West was seeing an increasing mood of isolationism and non-interventionalism. This was visible in the military, humanitarian, and diplomatic spheres, he said, pointing to the U.S. withdrawal from Syria, forgotten war in Yemen, and broader U.S. government shutdown all as signs of this.

Very different norms were appearing in emerging economies in Africa and Asia, he said, while China had ist own very different world view and ambitions. Reconciling these would be key to surviving the coming decades.

Frances Hudson,  described a general aversion among people to complexity, while a need to believe that society exists in an ordered world. Hudson said people tended to see trends but are very bad at prediction and and probability assessment.

She expected a further rise in the importance of technology, data and Artificial Intelligence – trends that will become ever more important for industries like healthcare. Hudson said that the UK was ahead in this field, citing robotic advances in surgery. Hudson also predicted a change in social attitudes. Hudson said we need take responsibility for our own health and stop blaming what is perceived to be a flawed health system.

Other health advances might provide further reasons to be optimistic. Potential further breakthroughs included using bacterial „phages“ to use friendly bacteria to promote bodily health. Overall, she predicted a future in which humans could generally find themselves happier and healthier.

Nigel Inkster, former Deputy Chief of  the Secret Intelligence Service and Senior Advisor at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, spoke about China in 2019. Beijing was increasingly keen to reorganise the world in its own image and interests, he said, particularly in its own immediate neighborhood- but was also facing increasing international resistance to doing so.

Inkster compared the rise of nationalism within China now to that in Japan in the early 20th century. Japan’s fear of inferiority and shock of being open to the West ultimately fueled aggressive expansionism, and some regional powers worry the same may happen for China. Within China, for example, the widespread theft of intellectual property from the West was seen as largely justified due to the previous excesses of imperialism, such as the Opium Wars.

China was particularly keen to embrace technological change, he said, fearing it could not afford to miss the twenty-first century technological revolution in the way it missed the nineteenth.  Beijing had real worries about the impact of slowing growth, he added, with the trade war with the United States therefore a real and growing worry.

Jessica Toale, former chair of the Fabian Society International Group, said new thinking was needed to tackle a range of problems in 2019 and beyond, with a particular focus on boosting sustainability. She cited particular examples from her recent experience travelling the world, arguing tourists and business travelers alike would increasingly need to make much more educated choices to prevent environmental damage, particularly as globalisation massively increases numbers able to travel. As an example, she pointed to a beach in Thailand, featured in the Leonardo DiCaprio film “The Beach” ,which was now closed due to excessive numbers visiting.

Douglas Ollivant, former U.S. Army officer and Managing Partner at Mantid International, said Donald Trump would continue to disrupt the status quo in 2019 for good and ill. That would include continuing to question NATO, he predicted, as well as withdrawing from Syria and further increasing tensions with Iran. Some of these moved would be more justifiable than others, he said, with the long-term presence of U.S. troops in Syria particularly hard to justify legally or politically. While Trump would likely continue to be softer on Russia than his predecessors, he would continue to be harder on China, Ollivant said – an approach that might well have a legacy beyond his presidency.

While East and West coasts had largely recovered from the 2008 financial crash, other areas have not, he said. Political attention on migrants arriving from Central American and boyond would likely linger, he said, particularly as migration continued to be as broadly threatening. it was not clear if this would lead to greater U.S. attention on the problems migrants were often fleeing, particularly conflicts in Central and Latin America.

Felicity Morse, Journalist, Life Coach and social media specialist, said many of the problems of 2019 originated from politicians and others not being entirely honest. Citing her experiences as a life coach, she said deception- whether self deception or deliberate misleading of others- invariably produced drama. But whether populations were ready for politicians and other leaders to be entirely honest about policies and other options was an entirely different matter. Populations and individuals often reacted badly when confronted with uncomfortable truths, she said.

Social media also appeared to be focusing more popular attention that ever on negative facts and arguments over their positive and negative alternatives, she said. This appeared to be fueling further anger. People were more likely to share content they hated than that they liked, she said, let alone that which challenged them.

London Event 11 March – Changing Face of the United Nations

Monday, 11 March, from 06:00 p.m., King’s College London, Room 1.67, Franklin-Wilkins Building Waterloo Campus, SE1 9NH

Hosted by the King’s College London’s War Studies Department.

Since its inception in 1945, the United Nations has played an instrumental part in global affairs. it has served as a platform in resealing international disputes, maintained peace in turbulent areas across the globe and played host to altruist diplomats and despotic dictators alike. It has not, however, been free of controversy. Criticism directed at the supposed ineffectiveness of the United Nations Security Council and accusations of abuse towards members of the peacekeeping corps, demonstrate that it is not a perfect organisation. As we delve deeper into the 21st Century, the future of the United Nations remains uncertain. Will it buckle and break under the pressure created by rising nationalism among its member states, or will it thrive in our ever more technological and connected world. Join PS21, hosted by King’s College London, for a discussion on the Future of the United Nations.


Dr Pablo de Orellana (Moderator) – Teaching Fellow at King’s College London, War Studies department.

Marcus Lenzen – Program advisor from the UN Department of Political Affairs from New York.

Vijay Mehta – Chair of Uniting for Peace and founding trustee of the Fortune Forum charity.

(Arrival Notice TBC).

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London Event 15 January – New year, new thinking? Ideas to define 2019

Tuesday, 15 January, 6pm,  Juju’s Bar and Stage, Truman Brewery, Brick Lane, London. 

PS21’s 2019 event program kicks off with a panel discussion looking at key themes that will define the year. In the run up to the World Economic Forum in Davos, we’re looking at both what will shape a rapidly changing world, and what should be done to make it better.


Peter Apps (Moderator) – Reuters Global Affairs Columnist, Founder and Executive Director, PS21.

Frances Hudson – Global Thematic Strategist, Aberdeen Standard Life.

Georgina Wright – Senior Researcher, Brexit, Institute for Government

Henry Wilkinson – Head of Intelligence and Analysis, Risk Advisory Group.

Jessica Toale – Former chair, Fabian Society International Group.

Jonn Elledge – Journalist, assistant editor of the New Statesman’s cities site.

Felicity Morse – Journalist, Life Coach, social media specialist

Doors open at 06:00 p.m., with discussion beginning at 07:00 p.m. and as usual, the bar will be open throughout. 

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Has EU lost its ‘carrot’?

Lesia Dubenko graduated from Lund University with a Master’s in European Affairs and now is a journalist in Ukraine

The EU’s foreign policy has previously developed by offering benefits. But with troubles in Poland and Hungary and ambiguous expansion policy, will Brussels open a new page in its ‘carrots and sticks’ approach?


The EU likes to see itself as exceptional — originally a trade project, it has turned into a union with benefits, incorporating the former Communist states and exercising regional influence. This image does sell well. Just recently the Western Balkan countries, including Serbia and Montenegro, showed enthusiasm after the EU declared 2025 as a potential membership date for these states, if they meet the conditions.

In a similar enthusiastic manner the Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko during his Davos speech had also expressed hope that the EU will announce the prospect of Ukraine’s accession in 2021, appealing to reforms and necessity to maintain societal stability.

The EU does realise that for Ukraine, which has been reinforcing its internal and external policy on the ‘European dream’ since the Maidan events in 2014, the membership is no less important than for the problematic ex-Yugoslavian region. But at the same time it cannot help but take time to self-reflect, as to what awaits it and how to proceed. More so, as it has now become clear that its regional influence is being weakened both inside and outside.

Thus, after the Soviet Union collapsed many, in the academic and political circles alike, had been entertaining the idea of the world moving into the post-modernist realm — a non-military, trade-prevailing international relations’ mode — with the EU acting as a role-model of prosperity and democracy re-ferred to as a ‘normative’ power. In this world, the EU imagined itself to be able to change others simply because of its attractive image and know-how.

However, the Balkan Wars, the Russian annexation of Crimea, the intervention in Eastern Ukraine, the subsequent reliance on the U.S. military help and the arrival of the nationalistic Donald Trump in the Oval office all shattered its post-modernist aspirations showing that tanks remain as popular as trade deals.

One could very well argue that the post-modernist ideas were short-lived and partially naive to begin with. Yet the true and bitter awakening occurred when EU countries, which had long been granted the membership ‘carrot’, suddenly defied the Union’s key liberal principles.

In turn, Brussels unexpectedly found itself using ‘sticks’ towards not just the resisting third-countries, but also towards its members with the European Com-mission triggering the Article 7 of the EU Treaty against Poland. The often explosive ALDE leader Guy Verhofstadt fanned the flames tweeting: “The European Union was built to guarantee our citizens’ freedom, democracy and the rule of law. If the Hungarian and Polish governments want to build closed and illiberal societies, they must do it outside the EU.”

‘Sticks’ only time?

Were Poland and Hungary to be outside the EU, they would have simple been reminded that there is a ‘carrot’ worth abandoning its old illiberal, autocracy-inspired ways for — the membership. Yet, both states are already in — and they are surprisingly prepared for the ‘sticks’. The Hungarian Prime-Minister Viktor Orban, who is feeling increasingly comfortable acting as the Union’s enfant terrible, received support from the Hungarian Parliament to block the European Commission’s initiative regarding Warsaw, while the Polish President Andrzej Duda is showing modest interest in Brussels’ actions altogether.

Moreover, both countries are embracing everything that the EU stands against — nationalistic, de-secularised, semi-authoritarian narratives with unequivocal historical ‘truth’. Thus, Poland has recently approved the highly controversial historical law aimed to penalise those claiming that the Poles cooperated with the Nazis.

But what about the third-countries? Once the European Parliament adopted the Eastern Partnership Plus it became clear that the European Commission President Mr. Juncker’s rather undiplomatic, yet blunt statement that ‘Ukraine for the moment is neither in the EU nor NATO’ reflects the EU’s position on further expansion in the East. The document which has fairly been described as a failure contains various aspects of intensifying cooperation with countries, like Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova without, however, a clear membership prospect, a ‘carrot’, for the countries involved.

Instead of presenting that prospect, the EU has resorted to a ‘stick’, threatening to deprive Ukrainians of the long-awaited visas’ lift, if Mr. Poroshenko fails to establish the Anti-Corruption Court promptly. With the Ukrainian Parliament hesitating to adopt the law, and collapse of Ukrainian-Polish cooperation due to ‘irreconcilable differences’ in historical views, the Ukrainian near-future is looking full of ‘sticks’. And given its fragile society, appetite for illicit power con-centration, entrenched corruption, Kiev will eventually search for other, more immediate opportunities.

Like Serbia is already doing. The Balkan countries with their rich Yugoslavian years’ experience of balancing between the capitalist West and the communist East perfected by Josip Broz Tito and hunger for nationalist rhetoric are a dangerous lot. The EU is well aware of it and has now reintroduced the member-ship prospect both for Belgrade, Podgorica and others to win over growing China’s and Russia’s influence in the region.

The fear is clear: the EU recalls the atrocities of the Balkan Wars and the Union’s then powerless position and justly expects that sooner or later these countries will once again try to establish a ‘better’ citizen. In this case, Mr. Verhofstadt rightly underpins that the “EU must do everything in its power to fore-stall that scenario.”

However, will this ‘carrot’ — the most powerful one that the EU has its in arsenal — prove to be effective?

So far Belgrade, despite nurturing membership, is immensely irritated with the Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn’s refusal to make concessions regarding recognition of Kosovo’s independence. While the EU might believe that this is the right thing to do to protect, it will, however, see an inevitable rise of public dissatisfaction that the Serbian government. It will have to turn a blind eye, or find a clever way to deceive its European partners by employing dubious yet ubiquitous practice of promising everything to everyone.

Should Serbia resort to the latter and guarantee its electorate that once in the EU, it will ‘sort everything out’ by copying the neighbouring Hungary’s model of cooperating with Russia and building another semi-authoritarian state with its own history narrative, what ‘sticks’ will Brussels employ? Does it really have levers to stop this national and religious grandeur which is already happening in Central Europe?

The answers are strikingly ambivalent and leave Brussels with a tricky task of not just finding new ‘carrots’ both for the EU members and the aspirants, but also contemplating the effectiveness of this policy altogether.

Much like with the dreams of the world discarding tanks in favour of trade deals, the EU’s notion of serving as an unequivocal role-model who can pressure others is being slowly rejected in its own home, supporting the view of a German academic Hanns W. Maull who already in 2005 predicted that the membership’s value both for those inside and for those outside will decline over time.

And while the EU still realises that it has an appeal — whether for an overly-enthusiastic Ukraine, sceptic yet still European Serbs, or Mr. Orban who wants to stay but on his terms — it is also continuously being challenged.

The next big question now is can the Union turn a new page in its ‘carrots and sticks’ policy? Or will it eventually resort to the ‘sticks’ policy suppressing problems both inside and in its backyard, only to find them re-emerging with greater intensity?


Photo Credit – reetdachfan/Pixabay –

PS21 Event Writeup – ‘What to watch in Russia’

PS21 kicked off this year’s event schedule with a panel discussion on ‘What to watch in Russia’ on the 23rd January. As panellist Mathieu Boulègue put it; ‘Russia is everywhere’. PS21 invited the panel to share their predictions of the world’s largest country. With the forthcoming presidential elections in March, the FIFA World Cup and Russia’s growing taste of information warfare, there was plenty to talk about.

Alex Kokcharov, Russia Analyst at IHS Markit, foretold a predictable Putin election victory, despite the potential for growing protest and civil unrest. In Human Rights terms, his forecast was for increased repression, as well as the use of targeted fear as a political tool. He also expects increased international isolation, with a potential exit from the Council of Europe and the European Court of Human Rights -. The latter move could open the door for Russia to reintroduce the death penalty for certain crimes, as neighbouring Belarus has already done.

While Putin remains firmly ensconced in power aged 65, growing numbers within the Russian establishment and elsewhere are beginning to look beyond his rule. This is driving increasing rivalry within Russia’s political, economic and government elites. That may make Russian politics gradually more unpredictable in the years and decades to come.

If Putin’s power does begin to slip, it is possible – although not inevitable – that Moscow might become increasingly aggressive in its foreign policy. In the last 5 years, Putin has shifted his political focus from the middle class to poorer working class demographics in the regions who have generally responded positively to his now more nationalistic, socially conservative approach.

Mathieu Boulègue, Research Fellow at Chatham House, categorised Russia in the following terms: a ‘spoiler’ of the international system, a ‘meddler’ in elections and at worst, a ‘warmonger’. He identified key trends in Russian foreign policy, which he based his predictions on. These depict Russia as a more assertive force that is no longer hesitant to make use of its military power. From a social perspective, he stressed that should we see a revolution in Russia, it would come from the periphery, and not originate from the centre.

Western states were still far from clear on how to manage the new dynamics of relations with Russia, he added.

Iraq and Kurdistan: Untying the Gordian Knot

Peshmerga forces outside Kirkuk in 2014. Photo credits: By Boris Niehaus – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

By Gautham Ashok. Gautham holds an MA in International Conflict Studies from King’s College London.

Just as the dust is slowly settling on a nine-month long campaign to drive the Islamic State (IS) out of Iraq, the troubled country is lurching toward another war. According to the latest reports, Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) have taken control of the main military airbase in the disputed city of Kirkuk in the north of the country. The airport and surrounding areas were until yesterday manned by Kurdish forces. The ISF have also taken control of a vital oil field. The move comes amid escalated tension between the central government in Baghdad and Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Erbil over a controversial Independence referendum. Ironically, both sides have been trained and equipped by the United States.



The referendum over Kurdish Independence from Iraq held on September 25th was unilaterally and extra legally called by the dominant party in Northern Iraq, the Kurdistan Democratic Party. The referendum was held both in the official provinces in the autonomous region of Kurdistan, but more problematically also in disputed areas. These areas have historically been claimed by both Baghdad and Erbil. In any event, 92% of those who participated in the referendum voted for Independence from Iraq. Baghdad responded by asking the KRG to annul the results, a demand which was immediately rejected.

Following the vote, nationalist fervor in Kurdish areas reached fever pitch, as Baghdad’s assertions over the illegal vote became more and more stern. The past week has seen volatile rallying by both sides over their respective flags. Baghdad also implemented measures designed to isolate the region, by banning all international flights in and out of Kurdistan, and calling for a halt in crude oil sales from the region. The looming clash will most likely be centered in the long-contested city of Kirkuk.

Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution, which was ratified in 2005 following the US-led invasion of the country and the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime, mandates a three-step process for determining the status of Kirkuk and the surrounding areas. Firstly, the area would have to be “normalized”, following which a census would be held. Post these steps, a referendum would be conducted to decide if citizens of Kirkuk and the adjacent areas would prefer to accede to Iraqi union under Baghdad or join the autonomous region of Kurdistan under Erbil. Due to political turbulence, sectarian conflict and economic troubles, this referendum has yet to materialize.

More recently, Kurdish Peshmerga fighters seized control of Kirkuk and the surrounding oil rich areas in 2014, following the collapse of the Iraqi Army during the initial phases of the IS assault. By capturing Kirkuk and the nearby oil fields, the Kurds prevented IS from controlling a major revenue source. The brutality of the caliphate, and prospective state failure forced Baghdad and Erbil to work together to rout out the Jihadist threat. Now that IS, has been driven out of Iraq, Baghdad desires a return to the pre-2014 status quo i.e. joint administration of the region. Erbil has thus far refused to surrender any of the gains made in 2014.


A Game of Dominoes

In the case of civil war breaking out between Baghdad and Erbil, the conflict would have major implications in a region already dealing with a resurgent Al Qaeda, a wounded IS and a severe refugee crisis. If fighting does break out, Turkey and Iran would both enter the fray. Both nations vigorously oppose any notion of a Kurdish nation state on their borders. Iran and Turkey also house sizeable numbers of Kurdish citizens, any conflict will escalate the chances of internal strife in their own domain. Moreover, Tehran holds considerable sway over the Shia majority government in Baghdad, and Iranian militias have been at the forefront of the fight against IS.

In this event, the Kurds will likely appeal for aid from their main ally, the US. In Washington, right wing think tanks have already started pushing the Trump administration to use the Kurds as a bulwark against the “Iranian backed government of Iraq.” If the Trump administration does heed Erbil’s call, then Washington’s position in the region will likely become even more entrenched. Kurdistan does not have an air force, and will have to rely on US airpower to repel any major advances by the Iraqi government. Such an expansion in US – Kurdish ties will most likely irk Ankara, and thereby push Turkey into a deeper alliance with Iran and Russia. Relations between Ankara and Washington are already frosty, following Turkey’s decision to suspend processing new visa applications from the US.

With regards to Kirkuk itself, recent history indicates that the Iraqi Security Forces will likely enter the city easily, but will eventually be bogged down by a likely urban insurgency. Bellicose statements and inflamed rhetoric by any of the involved parties, will likely reduce chances of compromise and peace and produce more victimization on all sides. The human cost of such a war will likely be huge, lessening the chances of democracy and instead leading to less security and more radicalization in the future.


PS21 is a non-national, non-governmental, non-ideological organisation. All views expressed are the author’s own.



Britain’s sorry return to imperial ignorance

By Tim Abington. Tim is currently pursuing an undegraduate degree in International Relations at the University of Birmingham. 

The partition of India is of one of Britain’s most monumental colonial blunders. It is an overwhelming testament to the horror that can be caused by a state’s lack of foresight; lack of knowledge and lack of understanding.

So it is somewhat ironic that in the same year as the atrocities’ 70th anniversary, one of Britain’s greatest assets in tackling ‘imperial ignorance’ is to lose yet another chunk of funding. 

Savings targets in one country, sectarian violence in another

The BBC Monitoring service seeks out, identifies and analyses information from foreign (and often obscure) news outlets across the globe with an aim of providing its beneficiaries (including both the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office) with ‘a wider understanding of the world’.

Government funding for the service ended in 2013, a decision that at the time was criticised as woefully short sighted and ill-thought out. This year the service is to lose a further £4 million.

The results of Britain’s past ignorance have already left the globe with social scars and sectarian violence, it appears that there is a determination to add to them in a bid to meet savings targets.

It was on these pages a year ago that Cat Tully argued for long-term thinking in the face of uncertainty. It has been the more subtle signals acquired from a BBC Monitoring analysis of foreign local media, that have provided the knowledge that allowed the FCO to respond.

Despite providing this critical service, the financial pressure that has been piled on under the guise of ‘efficiency savings’ continues into a fifth year.

A steady, slow decline in UK influence abroad

The news that Britain had fallen in its position on the Soft Power index was unfortunately, unsurprising. Two years ago the UK led this particular index, it fell first to the United States and it has now been usurped by the French Republic.

HM Government appears to have an apparent determination to continue this trend of decline.

In 2016 the index publishers, Portland Communications, noted that the FCO had recorded funding losses of 41% in the department’s budget since 2010. The British Council, another vanguard of British influence across the globe recorded similar funding cuts, a loss of a quarter of its budget.

There have been convincing cases (indeed, several have been put forward by PS21 panelists) that have dismissed soft power as a purely academic pursuit. After all, it is machine guns and mortars that win wars, not foreign language television shows.

Yet, the face of conventional warfare has changed. Several years ago a missile fired across the airspace of a key American ally would most likely have justified retaliation beyond a strongly worded condemnation.

Moreover, the world (at the time of writing) has not yet descended into thermonuclear warfare, leaving media outlets and foreign services the main frontmen for a nation’s interests abroad.

Shots across the bows, gun boats and cannonfire are no longer what determines a nation’s influence. Gone are the days where an imperial empire could use a man-of-war to force a treaty upon a minor state.

In June the UK suffered an embarrassing and humiliating defeat at the United Nations.  By a margin of 94 to 15 countries, delegates supported a Mauritian-backed resolution to seek an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice on the legal status of the Chagos Islands. 22 EU member states, including France and Germany, abstained.

Although it was an impressive victory for the tiny nation, the outcome of the United Nations resolution is far from certain, given the UK’s opposition to the involvement of the ICJ. But it must act as a warning. An indication that Britain can no longer assume to be secure in its international standing abroad.

Today, any article touching on UK international relations can not fail to mention Brexit at least once. Prior to the Brexit vote, such a result would have been unprecedented. Mauritius’ total GDP is less than Birmingham, Bradford or even Brighton. The loss of the support of fellow Europeans in the debating chamber will inevitably create more embarrassment for Britain.

Never has it been more necessary to reinforce the image of the UK abroad.

It has been scorned by Europe, belittled by the BRICs and is now becoming irrelevant across much of the globe. Britain must re-envisage the way it operates abroad. As conventional ‘big gun’ warfare begins to decline, different forms of influence are required for the UK to remain at the top table. Soft power offers a way for Britain to continue to operate globally; it must not try and undermine it in the name of austerity.

PS21 is a non-national, non-governmental, non-ideological organisation. All views expressed are the author’s own.


Why Al-Qaeda has lost support amongst Western jihadists

The scene at Saadallah Al-Jabiri Square in Aleppo after the attacks in 2012, attributed to Al-Nusra. Photo credits: Zyzzzzzy –, CC BY 2.0,

By Jakob Guhl. Jakob completed his undergraduate studies with a BA in Political Science and Religious Studies from Goethe University Frankfurt. Currently, he is pursuing his postgraduate studies at King’s College London, with a focus on jihadism and home-grown radicalisation in the West.


For over a decade following the 9/11 attacks, al-Qaeda captured the public imagination in many Western countries unlike any other terrorist organization. But despite the optimism following the deaths of Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki in 2011, al-Qaeda continued to exist. Since the declaration of its caliphate however, ISIS seems to have eclipsed al-Qaeda as the most infamous and headline-garnering jihadist organization. So has al-Qaeda lost the arms race for the hearts and minds of potential jihadists? The answer very much depends on the layer of the organization and possible audience of support one focuses on.

Al-Qaeda does not constitute a unified organization. Instead, we can differentiate in between at least four layers that are associated with the network: 1) core al-Qaeda 2) regional affiliates 3) directed networks 4) undirected networks. The distinction in between these layers may not always be clear- cut. Core al-Qaeda (1) for example has sent a group of veteran members to Syria in order to influence the operations of its former regional affiliate Jabhat al-Nusrah (2) and AQAP (2) claimed that the brothers who carried out the Charlie Hebdo-shooting (3 or 4) acted in its name. Al-Qaeda’s exact scope may also change over time. Over the last years, previously unaffiliated groups have joined (al-Shabaab, AQI, AQIM), and hitherto affiliated groups have parted ways (Jabhat Fatah al- Sham, ISIS) with al-Qaeda. Furthermore, al-Qaeda has established regional franchises like al- Nusrah and AQIS by itself.

To its own disappointment, al-Qaeda has never enjoyed great support amongst the global Muslim population and mainstream Islamic scholars, which were shocked by its indiscriminate targeting of non-combatants. This led al-Qaeda to re-evaluate its strategic approach and focus on local conflicts in Muslim-majority countries instead of striking the “far enemy” in the West. By appealing to the political desires of local populations and presenting themselves as the more “moderate” jihadist alternatives to ISIS, al-Qaeda affiliates have managed to gain ground, especially in Syria and Yemen. Al-Qaeda’s former affiliate Jabhat Fatah al-Sham has even managed to unite different factions anti-Assad opposition that broadly share its ideology under the banner of Hayat Tahrir al- Sham, which includes former members of Ahrar al-Sham. If anything al-Qaeda’s regional affiliates have gained strength and local trust.

However, if we look at the support from Salafi-jihadists in Western Europe and North America, the picture changes. Al-Qaeda failed to capitalize on the increased levels of radicalisation unleashed by the civil wars in Syria and Iraq. Even though its regional affiliates did attract foreign fighters from the West, most of the estimated 4,000 foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq joined its competitor ISIS.

In addition, attacks committed under the direct order of or inspired by al-Qaeda have declined further in their frequency and severity over the last few years during a time in which attacks organised or at least claimed by ISIS have risen. But why has al-Qaeda lost support amongst potential western recruits to its cause? While there is not a singular factor we can point to, there are multiple organisational, strategic and ideological reasons for AQ’s relative demise amongst westerners.

Let us turn to the organisational factors first. It has often been assumed that terrorist networks without strong hierarchies have organizational features that make it tough for states to effectively confront them. Al-Qaeda’s development after 9/11 may be a counter-example to this hypothesis. Core al-Qaeda’s capacities to carry out major attacks in the West have been significantly reduced by the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and the continued counterterrorism efforts of the United States. Most subsequent plots and attacks had therefore to be planned and carried out autonomously by local admirers, who were not able to establish contact to the leaders of the organization. Operations by such autonomous groups are very difficult to prevent. On the flip side, the impact of small cells remains limited, because they lack strategic direction and their attacks does not serve any attainable long-term political goals. Their violence becomes vacuous.

Next we need to look at how the strategic decisions al-Qaeda has made have disconnected the group from their western admirers. Over the last few years, al-Qaeda has shifted its strategic approach away from the “far enemy” towards participation in local struggles in Muslim-majority countries through its regional affiliates. A combination of three factors can explain this change: firstly, offensive U.S. counterterrorism efforts put a lot of pressure on core al-Qaeda. Secondly, the American intelligence services simultaneously improved at preventing terrorist plots. Thirdly, the group recognized that its strategy during the 1990’s and 2000’s failed to win over Muslim populations. This led core al-Qaeda to place more importance on local conflicts in Yemen, Syria, Somalia and Mali, in which regional AQ-franchises adopted comparatively more moderate tactics to win over the hearts and minds of the local populations. In a certain sense, core al-Qaeda sacrificed part of its global appeal in order to rebuild its strength by establishing more stable and sustainable bases. For western jihadists, it might have become more difficult to fully align with movements who seemed to be primarily concerned with national issues and not the global struggle.

A last explanation for al-Qaeda’s relative decline among support from Western jihadists concerns the ideological differences between itself and ISIS and the way they have been communicated. Terrorist groups thrive on narratives. Establishing a caliphate while gaining immense amounts of territory in a very short time provided ISIS with a powerful narrative. ISIS appeared to be confident, strong and victorious while al-Qaeda did not seem able to provide a powerful counter-narrative. Furthermore, ISIS communicated its message in a more accessible fashion by relying on social media, well-produced videos and stylish online magazines, while AQAP’s famous online magazine “Inspire” deteriorated in the quality of its articles and was also not published as often following the deaths of Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan in 2011. While al-Qaeda still put out sophisticated theological treatises, ISIS internet propaganda appealed to and specifically targeted a broader, less selective profile of volunteers. ISIS also came to be seen as the more radical, violent and apocalyptic group than suddenly “moderate” al-Qaeda. which may also have made al-Qaeda become less attractive for rebellious youth aspiring to join the cause.

When looking at al-Qaeda’s current support base, an ambivalent picture emerges. On the level of European jihadists, al-Qaeda has lost support in terms of groups committing directed or undirected attacks. Furthermore, the network has not been able to recruit as many jihadist foreign fighters from Europe as its rival ISIS. Regional affiliates of al-Qaeda however continue to be a major factors in local conflicts. Today, it has become clear that the jihadist movement is bigger than al-Qaeda and can easily survive al-Qaeda’s declining support amongst western jihadists. It will be interesting to see whether core al-Qaeda can re-establish a “safe haven” in Afghanistan and Pakistan after the American troops exit from Afghanistan. Without direction from a strong core al-Qaeda it does not seem like the group could inspire much support from potential western recruits in the future. With the current demise of ISIS’ caliphate and al-Qaeda’s preliminary success in establishing safe operational bases, it is however conceivable that al-Qaeda will present the more dangerous long- term terrorist threat to the West. Not much is left from the powerful narrative ISIS was able to present in 2014. Whether or not that might help al-Qaeda to regain its popularity among Western jihadists remains to be seen.

PS21 is a non-national, non-governmental, non-ideological organisation. All views expressed are the author’s own.

From ‘good boy’ to terrorist: What is the appeal of ISIS?

Westminster, 23 March 2017. Photo credits: Prioryman – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

By Linda Schlegel. Linda is a trainee at the Council of Europe.

The so-called Islamic State has dominated and continues to dominate headlines with the recent Barcelona attacks, for which it claimed responsibility. Although the question of what makes someone become a terrorist has been discussed since the rise of left-wing terrorism in the 1960s and 1970s, the rise of ISIS has intensified the discourse surrounding the processes of radicalization. The attackers were young and seemingly well-integrated immigrants of Moroccan descent and did not suffer from objective economic hardships. Yet they made the decision to kill and die for jihad. What drives those, who have lived in the West for all their lives or for a very long period of their lives, to sacrifice themselves for an organization that predominantly fights to gain territory in Iraq and Syria. What could make a young man murder innocent civilians and commit suicide for an imagined ideal of the caliphate or the ummah, the global community of Muslims? Governments and civil society also ask what can be done to prevent so-called ‘homegrown’ radicalization and decrease susceptibility to radical ideas.

Charlie Winter, Senior Research Fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence (ICSR), has written extensively on Islamic State propaganda and identified 6 key themes in their narrative: brutality, mercy, victimhood, war, utopianism and belonging. In contrast to popular belief, IS propaganda is not merely a depiction of violence and brutality such as beheadings, but includes a sophisticated understanding of which different types of narratives may drive people to seek a new, radical self-image in the name of defending the caliphate. Space does not allow for a discussion of all themes here, but the narrative of ‘belonging’ may be especially important to understand in the context of homegrown radicalization. In theory, one should feel loyalty and a sense of belonging to the country one has grown up in, but homegrown radicalization questions this assumption and the ability of Western governments to help form collective identification with the nation they are representing.

Social isolation has been shown to impact our psychological well-being, our mental health and our behaviour towards ourselves and others. Multiple theories of radicalization also involve isolation or the perceived lack of embeddedness in society at large as one of the facilitating conditions, which might make individuals more susceptible to radical ideas. ISIS propaganda is partially designed to appeal to this group of dis-embedded young people and to fill the emotional void of a lack of belonging. In the context of nationalism, Benedict Anderson has shown that we construct collective identities based on so-called imagined communities. They are imagined, because we cannot possible know every member of that community, yet we feel a connection with them based on, for example, a common nationality. For jihadists, the imagined community is not the nation, but the ummah, the global community of Muslims. ISIS constructs this community as the only community for Muslims and based on this shared identification seeks to justify violence against anyone not belonging to this group.

There is a general trend caused by the forces of globalization to, on the one hand, make almost global identification with popular culture the norm and, on the other hand, to facilitate a tendency to identify with very restricted yet transnational communities such as the ummah. Anthropologist Scott Atran writes in his book Talking to the Enemy “together with a flat and fluid world, a more tribal, fragmentized and divisive world emerges as people search for social identity and greater sense of purpose“. ISIS provides precisely this sense of social identity and purpose to fight for the group one identifies with. The propaganda is aimed at creating the image of a global brotherhood of Muslims, which stand together and fight for a holy cause against the dark forces of the West. A classical Manichean narrative, which portrays ISIS as the champion of justice and other forces such as Western states or Middle Eastern governments as the embodiment of evil. All of us seek purpose in our lives and social isolation can call previous meaning-providing structures into question. Isolated individuals are therefore vulnerable to a narrative that emphasizes belonging and purpose simultaneously.

Because socially isolated individuals may be drawn to a strong narrative of collective belonging, both governments and civil society need to engage not only in counter-messaging, but in the construction of inclusive narratives and realities to decrease the number of people ISIS propaganda may appeal to. Aside from measures to include individuals through employment, volunteering, housing and other opportunities necessary to feel embeddedness and belonging, governments should initiate a discussion on collective identity. What does it mean to be British/Spanish/German in a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-religious society? It is not enough to ensure that everyone abides the law, civil inclusion must also have an emotional component of identification with the greater collective. As humans, we seek this feeling of belonging and togetherness and if it is put into question, the likelihood that we seek it outside of the national context, increases. It is a very difficult task for governments and needs to be done carefully in order not to appear to force a pre-made national identity upon the population. Identity building works best if facilitated by institutions, but driven bottom-up by those facing the diversity in their communities every day. The fight against terrorism has and will continue to dominate the political sphere, but governments are well advised to take community building, trust enhancing and identity building ‘soft power’ measures seriously in order to counter the emotional identity appeal groups such as ISIS display. In doing so, they do not only strengthen the health of the nation overall, but contribute to the long-term decline in recruitment power due to the ‘belonging’ component Winter identified.

PS21 is a non-national, non-governmental, non-ideological organisation. All views expressed are the author’s own.

Imagining 2030: Post-ISIS Middle East

Photo by Mstyslav Chernov – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia

By Linda Schlegel. Linda is currently pursuing an MA in Terrorism, Security, and Society at King’s College London.

While the ideological appeal of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) remains high as exemplified by the recent attacks throughout the United Kingdom, the group’s territorial base is constantly shrinking. It is too early to proclaim the end of the caliphate or the defeat of ISIS. After all, Al-Qaeda was believed to have vanished into nothing more than a ghost of the past, yet it continues to operate, albeit with changed organizational character. ISIS, just like Al-Qaeda, will not just vanish even if all territory held by the group was liberated. One does not simply defeat terrorism by physical force. ISIS as an idea and an ideal will continue to live on far beyond its physical manifestation.

Nevertheless, governments and civil society actors can and should prepare for the possibility of a Middle East with a much weaker presence from ISIS, and develop long-term solutions beyond the immediate military defeat of the group. The challenges in the region are manifold and the interests of powerful states such as the US, China and Russia make negotiations often conflictual rather than cordial. Many issues beyond ISIS will remain, such as the conflict between Israel and Palestine, Iran’s influence in the region or the post-war troubles in both Afghanistan and Iraq. One problem all parties will be facing equally, however, is the reintegration of those, who lived and fought under ISIS.

At its peak, ISIS controlled territory with over 10 million inhabitants. Current numbers are hard to estimate as territorial boundaries are constantly changing and the situation in Syria makes it impossible for the United Nations and other organizations to adequately assess the population size and the number of victims. Whatever the current numbers may be, it is clear that millions of people, who lived under ISIS rule will have to be re-integrated into their societies after the decline of the group. Returning foreign fighters are a problem by themselves with regards to re-integration in their home societies, but the problem will be even more pronounced in the Middle East and exacerbated by returning refugees. It is not feasible to incarcerate all those, who were forced to fight for ISIS and much less those, who perpetrated unlawful acts to simply survive under the extremist group. But how can one re-build a country where returning refugees live next to someone, who was part of an ISIS fighter group? How can the international community assist the people in Syria and Iraq to adequately deal with this situation? There are many different issues to be taken into consideration, but two possible measures are discussed below: a truth commission and de-radicalization.

The first question on the path to re-integration is whom to integrate and whom to imprison. ISIS territories, however, are currently unmonitored and it will be extremely difficult to trace crimes and violent acts to their specific perpetrators in retrospect. Therefore, a possible first step ought to be, the establishment of a truth commission. The international community has experience with this endeavour, for example in the case of South Africa after apartheid or Rwanda after the genocide. While high-ranking leaders of ISIS are likely to be tried in tribunals for crimes against humanity and gross human rights violations, low-level members of the organization are unlikely to be tried in this setting. A truth commission is a useful way of dealing with the foot soldiers before re-integrating them. It is useful for different reasons.

Firstly, it establishes an account of what happened, which is necessary in order to map-out atrocities committed. In chaotic situations such as under the rule of a terrorist organization, truth cannot be established, but in the aftermath actions can be traced back by a commission. Secondly, truth commissions are reconciliatory in nature. Rather than exercising a punishment, truth commissions place an emphasis on establishing an account of what happened and thereby aiding the process of closure for victims. They are also aimed at bringing victims and perpetrators together and to carefully re-establish relations, which is especially important considering that people of both groups need to be able to live together in order to re-build the country.

The second step needs to be some form of de-radicalization program for those, who were exposed to ISIS propaganda and may have come to accept some of it as their own world view. While Islamist groups will come and go, the long-term goal of the international community should be to counter the extremist ideology these groups spread. This may be especially relevant for children, who lived under ISIS rule and have been exposed to a high degree of ideological material and indoctrination. In many areas controlled by ISIS, TVs and other entertainment equipment were destroyed and substituted with public preaching and even military training for children of all ages. These children do not only need a de-radicalization program, but are likely to need counselling as well in order to put their experiences with ISIS in perspective and to help them overcome what they have been taught. While it is important to focus on the future and ensure that the children of Aleppo and other Syrian cities do not become a ‘lost generation’ by adequately caring for their psychological needs post their experience with extremism, it is just as important for a reconstruction of a society to de-radicalize adults.

As a first step, behavioural de-radicalization should be the goal; that is, giving up violent behaviour and the willingness to use violence to advance a political or religious agenda. This is the most important aspect to starting re-integration and the ideological component, the cognitive de-radicalization, can then be achieved in a long-term process through culture specific de-radicalization programs. Culture-specific, traditional measures to tackle local issues in the aftermath of conflict have proven to be successful, for example in the Gacaca trials in Rwanda. Many countries have experience with de-radicalization programs, for example in prisons, and this knowledge should be utilized to support Syrians in the restructuring of society.

ISIS cannot be proclaimed dead and perhaps never will be, but it is declining and therefore measures to re-stabilize the region post-ISIS can and should be discussed. There are many issues to be negotiated, economically, politically and socially, but developing an account of what happened as well as establishing some form of re-integrative program for local ISIS members are necessary steps towards a free and peaceful future for Syria. If the international community fails to support these steps, the countries affected will remain the cradle of terrorism and conflict regardless of whether ISIS will continue to exist or not.

PS21 is a non-national, non-governmental, non-ideological organisation. All views expressed are the author’s own.