Militarisation (Cable from Korean #13)

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The Joint Security Area in the demilitarised zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea. American and South Korean soldier in the forground, North Koreans in the background. (Photo credit: author)

In an article for Esquire, Robert Bateman, a former American army officer, makes an argument that the US should be more grateful for Japan and South Korea. He persuasively posits that these countries are

…much more prepared than many Americans know, and with good reason: They’re a lot closer to the danger [from China and North Korea].

One of the points he uses to illustrate this is the size of South Korea’s military:

…South Korea, with a population of 51 million, has an active-duty Army that is actually a little bigger than the active US Army (490,000, versus our current 483,000 at the end of last year). At the same time, their reserve forces dwarf the US National Guard and Reserve elements. We have a total of about 820,000 part-time or emergency forces, but South Korea maintains a force of more than three million. And this is no mere mass of untrained cannon-fodder. The South Korean Army has some 2,400 tanks, and another 2,600 armored vehicles of other types.

To put this another way, the US Army has a total of 10 active-duty divisions, plus the equivalent of two or three more in non-divisional units. We have several more divisions in the National Guard, but those units generally take several months to come up to speed as trained organizations, so they are not of much use in a sudden fight. In contrast, the Republic of Korea fields a total of 49 divisions, and the equivalent of another six in non-divisional units. In other words, nearly five times what the US can put into the field around the entire planet. They can draw on their entire nation for the support they need in any fight on their own territory, and they are not designed for “expeditionary” warfare. They have one acid test, and they already experienced what happens if they are seen as “weak” by the North Koreans.

In order to get such a large force, South Korea requires every adult male to do two years of military service. Refusal to complete this service is punishable by eighteen months in prison. There is no allowance for conscientious objection. By all accounts it is brutal. Young men dread it and basically no one I have spoken to has anything nice to say about their time in the military. Armies tend to be deeply hierarchical organisations and Korea is a hierachical society, a combination that results in a situation where – to quote one of my friends – officers treat conscripts and subordinates ‘like slaves’. That may sound like hyperbole but earlier this year a general resigned after the military’s human rights commission found that service men assigned to his residence:

“had to stay on duty 24/7, wearing electronic bracelets to be alerted whenever they are needed. One of them was coerced into attending church services, although he was Buddhist. In addition, the soldiers were ordered by [General] Park’s wife to pick up clipped toenails and dead skin cells from the sofa. They were forced to be on duty from 6 a.m., when the general went for his early morning prayers, to 10 p.m. when he went to bed, regardless of their official working hours[.]

Also that:

One soldier at Park’s house had to wear an electronic paging device on his wrist to respond swiftly to calls from [General Park’s] wife, who threatened him to send to (sic) a military prison when he failed to react in time because of a discharged battery,

And most dramatically:

The wife threw a pancake at one soldier when he forgot to bring it to her son, hitting him in the face.

The situation is predictably even worse for young people in North Korea. Women serve for seven years, whilst men are in the military for a decade. Low rations appear to take many soldiers close to starvation and desperate enough to steal food from civilians. A poor diet and hygiene may explain why a North Korean soldier who recently defected via the DMZ was found to have a 27cm parasitic worm in his stomach. The situation is even worse for female soldiers, who generally have a lower rank and appear to be frequent targets of sexual abuse.

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While neither of these systems is pretty, they do allow the two countries to field huge militaries. Counting both active and reserve forces, the two Koreas have the largest militaries in the world. Note, that’s not combined but individually. South Korea has the largest, the North the second largest. That’s not counting the American soldiers stationed in South Korea. The result is that in the event of a conflict there would be almost 14 million combatants involved, even before international allies began sending forces to assist South Korea.

This is worth bearing in mind whenever people talk about pre-emptive strikes on North Korea or take actions that might provoke the regime such as tweeting that their leader is ‘short and fat‘. If those actions lead to a war – even a conventional one in which China did not intervene – we’d likely be looking at a war that involved the kind of casulties the world has not seen for decades.

Ratko Mladic deserves to die in prison

He was both a shocking throwback to Europe’s dark past and a disturbing herald of the power ethnic grievance still had in the continent

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A cemetery for victims of the Srebrenica massacre (Photo credit: author)

“People are not little stones, or keys in someone’s pocket, that can be moved from one place to another just like that…. Therefore, we cannot precisely arrange for only Serbs to stay in one part of the country while removing others painlessly. I do not know how [Speaker] Krajišnik and [President] Karadžić will explain that to the world. That is genocide”

Ratko Mladic

 

The BBC reported yesterday that:

Former Bosnian Serb commander Ratko Mladic has been found guilty of genocide for some of the worst atrocities of the 1990s Bosnian war.

Known as the “Butcher of Bosnia”, he faced 11 charges, including crimes against humanity, at the UN tribunal.

He was convicted of the massacre of more than 7,000 Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) men and boys at Srebrenica in 1995 and the siege of Sarajevo in which more than 10,000 people died.

I hope that this is a case where life means life. Mladic’s crimes were so enormous and so without justification that nothing else feels adequate.

A heart of darkness

A few years ago I took part in an inter-faith visit to Bosnia. Srebrenica was one stop on our itinerary. We visited the cemetries, museums and the battery-factory where so many of the shootings took place. We also met some survivors. They were a group of otherwise normal seeming young men, nonetheless haunted by horrors they would have faced while they were still children.

Srebrenica was supposed to be a safe haven for Bosniak’s fleeing a program of ethnic cleansing. A UN Security Council resolution had decreed that it “should be free from any armed attack or any other hostile act“. UN peacekeepers guarded it. And it soon became home to thousands of refugees.

However, rather than affording protection to its inhabitants, the town became a trap for them. Mladic’s forces surrounded it, cutting it off from supplies. Refugees began to starve. The UN forces in the town were outnumbered and running out of food, ammunition and fuel. In a separate battle around Sarajevo, a group of French soldiers were captured. Mladic threatened to kill these men in the event of Western airstrikes on his forces. That removed the last serious impediment to a Bosnian Serb takeover of Srebrenica and Mladic ordered his forces to take the town. Aware of the weakness of their position and with many of their members captured, UN forces struck a deal with Mladic. In exchange for being allowed to withdraw from the city, they would turn over thousands of refugees, supposedly to be transported into Bosnian territory.

In fact, what happened was that the Mladic’s soldiers began splitting the refugees into two groups. Men were seperated from women and children. They supposedly needed to interogate the men about purported war crimes. The women were ‘spared’ – that being a relative term as many were raped – but they were eventually given to the Bosnian government. However, the men were being taken to the battery factory, shot and buried in mass graves. Thousands of them. As news of this spread throughout Srebrenica, thousands more of the men began fleeing into the hills and trying to make it towards government held territory. Many of them made it. Many didn’t.

It took less than a fortnight for the massacre to unfold. In that time in a single town, Mladic had overseen the massacre of as many as eight thousands souls.

These and the crimes the army Mladic led, were to constitute his legacy: an instigator of genocide, who drove tens of thousands from their homes, enabled mass rapes, ran concentration camps, defied international law, used peacekeepers as human shields, and had his forces shell the homes of ordinary people and architectural treasures. In order to commit these crimes, he flat out lied. He told both the international community and the Bosniak refugees in Srebrenica themselves that he would spare them. That he only wanted to move them from Serb territory. All this while already having made the decision to massacre them.

A warning from history

On the surface Mladic can seem like a throwback to an earlier period of European history, a figure from the 1930s/1940s somehow making misery in the 1990s. One imagines that had he been born in a different time or place, he would have been helping Hitler to murder Jews or Stalin to starve Ukranians, and that the manner in which he approached that grim task would have been much the same.

However, he also presents a disturbingly contemporary figure. He and the other leaders of Serbian nationalism were amongst the first in the Europe that emerged after the fall of communism, to harness the power of a fusion of ethnic chauvanism and Islamophobia. In videos of his arrival in Srebrenica, Mladic refers to the Bosniaks as ‘Turks’ and presents the capture of the town as revenge for the centuries during which Serbia was ruled by the Ottoman Caliphate based in Istanbul. At his war crimes trial, he and his lawyers would attempt to excuse his actions by suggesting he was defending Serbs from “ethnic and religious fanaticism” and point to the prescense of a handful of foreign “mujahideen” in Bosnia as evidence.

Across much of Europe democracy, human rights and the rule of law are under enormous pressure. As in Bosnia, the culprit is a toxic mixture of national, ethnic and religious sectarianism.

Clearly as bad as these situations are, they are not remotely close to approaching the horror that was unleashed in the former Yugoslavia. However, taking precautions against such darkness is worthwhile, and perhaps Mladic’s conviction can serve as a warning to would be strong men and demagouges across the continent.

Plus, the fact that someone as richly deserving of justice as Mladic has recieved it, does give one hope that perpetrators of atrocities in Syria, Myanmar and North Korea might also find themselves in the prison cells where they belong.

 

 

 

 

 

The meaning of Moon: 8 thoughts on the progressive victory in Korea (Cable from Korea #12)

Whilst much of the world moves to the right South Korea goes left. Here’s what I think that means.

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Apology 1: I wrote this in a hurry to ensure you could read it whilst it was still topical. As a result there will be more grammatical errors, and fewer references and hyperlinks than I would usually aspire to.

Apology 2: While I live in Korea, I do not speak Korean and good writing about Korean politics in English is sparse. So please treat this post as a collection of intuitions rather than anything more definitive.

A quick note of background

On Monday, South Korea held a presidential election. This was unexpectedly early because the previous holder, the conservative Park Gueyn Hee, was impeached as the result of a bizarre corruption scandal involving her soliciting bribes on behalf of her shamen. Against this backdrop, it is probably unsurprising that a liberal won. A former human rights lawyer and presidential chief of staff Moon Jae-in received more than 40% of the vote comfortably defeating his divided opposition.

Some observations and speculations

1. Everyone seems to be voting just at the moment

Last Thursday, there were local elections across most of the UK, on Sunday there was a presidential election in France, and then yesterday there was one in South Korea. That’s three consequential sets of elections in less than a week.

And it’s not stopping. A week on Thursday Iran will also vote for a president. Britain and France will follow up the votes they just had with parliamentary votes next month. Later in the year, Germany will have to decide whether to keep Angela Merkel or replace her with the SPD’s Martin Schulz, and even China will come as close to electing its leaders as it ever does, when the 19th Central Committee meets to select the members of the politburo.

2. The curious failure of anti-establishment politicians

The wave of populism that is supposedly destroying all before was only weakly discernible in last week’s trifecta of elections. Yes, Macron was running outside France’s traditional party structure, Theresa May’s platform centres on implementing Brexit, and Moon’s victory was powered by the massive anti-system outrage engendered by his predecessor’s scandals. However, none of them is that much of an outsider. Macron was the finance minister in the government he just deposed. May is the most small c-conservative of Conservative politicians and deeply wedded to the party as an institution. She seems to be using Brexit primarily as an opportunity to bolster it. South Koreans were given the chance to vote for some clearly anti-system candidates: a radical mayor who touted himself as the Korean Bernie Sanders, a businessman running for a new insurgent party, and a far-left labour activist who spent much of the eighties on the run from a military dictatorship. Instead they went for Moon-Jae In, who by more or less any definition is the ultimate machine politician.* He was the Democratic Party candidate in the last presidential election, when he narrowly lost to the now impeached Park Guen Hye. Before that he was chief of staff to a previous president. All of three of these politicians use populist energy, however, none of them really represents it.

3. Korean election graphics are amazing

4. Both the UK and South Korea are cursed with zombie parties

Jason Cowley, editor of Britain’s left-wing New Statesman magazine, as a zombie party because it ‘is too weak to win and too strong to die.’ It can neither win power but it won’t give way for another centre-left force that might. The local elections seemed to confirm that pattern as Labour lost seats but not enough to collapse, and make way for a less inert political force.

I wonder if the Korean right now has a similar problem. The impeachment of a conservative president owing to her abusing her office in order to get bribes for her shamen (no really that’s what happened. I’m not exaggerating I swear!), seemed to have broken South Korean conservatism. It split into three rival parties. Their supporters seemed to abandon them for Ahn Cheol-soo, a centrist representing a party mostly composed of former liberals, who nonetheless said hawkish things about North Korea. Polls showed that for a while this combination of borrowed conservative support and his own base put Ahn level with Moon. By contrast, the combined rating of all three of the conservative parties struggled to break 10%.

However, it didn’t last. Some combination of lacklustre debate performances, conservatives noticing he wasn’t all that conservative, and Trump saying stupid things that tarred South Korean hawks by association, dissipated this surge and Anh came third.

In second place was Hong Jun-Pyo, standing for the same conservative party that just lost the presidency. He managed to rally older voters in the conservative strongholds in the South-East of the country, with furious attacks on both Moon and Ahn’s supposed leftism and North Korean sympathies. It repulsed most of the country but attracted enough of it to kibosh the chances of centrists and more forward looking conservatives. Unless that pattern is broken, Korea may also have a zombie party on its hands.

5. The regional divides in Korean politics are amazingly stark

The major division in Korean politics is not class, ethnicity or religion but province. The east of the country votes conservative, the west liberal. And it is a stark split. In the liberal pastion of Jeolla, Hong got barely 2% of the vote. To put that in context, when Tony Blair demolished the Conservative Party in 1997, they still managed to get almost a fifth of the vote in Scotland and around a tenth in Liverpool.

[N.B. lest you think this just a political thing, I live in the east of the country and have heard westerners described as gangsters and peasants]

6. The North Korean situation may now be even trickier to handle

I’ve been astonished how little of the coverage of the crisis over North Korea’s nuclear program has mentioned that there were elections in South Korea, let alone considered how they might alter the dynamics of the situation.

To my mind that’s an especially grave error because it is on those subjects on which we should have the most reservations about Moon. He appears to wish to take a more conciliatory approach to inter-Korean relations and that involves risks.

During Moon’s tenure as presidential chief of staff, South Korea tried to buy off Pyongyang. Kim Jong-Il’s government took the money and the aid, whilst continuing to abuse human rights, develop nuclear weapons and threaten its neighbours. While a full scale resumption of this policy is unlikely, Moon has suggested re-opening a jointly operated industrial complex in the demilitarised zone between the two Koreas. That would likely breach UN sanctions on Pyongyang. That would make it almost impossible to criticise China for its lapses in sanctions enforcement.

Moon has also indicated an openness to withdrawing the ROK’s agreement to the placement of an American missile defence system in the country. That is doubly regrettable. Firstly, and most directly, that system would provide both the US and South Korea with a measure of protection from the North’s nascent ICMB program. Secondly, China has objected to the system on the grounds that its radar could potentially detect Chinese missile launches. It has responded in the manner of a petulant bully, and orchestrated an unofficial but very blatant campaign of economic intimidation: Chinese tourists have been discouraged from visiting Korea, K-Pop acts have been blocked from performing in China, and Korean shopping malls in China have suddenly been slapped with huge fines for supposed health and safety violations. This generated a backlash with Korean public opinion of Beijing suddenly turning very negative. If the system remains then this might teach China that it needs to treat its neighbours with more respect. If it goes then that will appear to vindicate its high-handed behaviour.

This would all be difficult to handle with an ordinary American president. With the current amateurish and unpredictable administration, that difficulty is magnified even further. I am not sure how well the current international system can handle friction between hawks in Washington and doves in Seoul.

7. Why has left/right politics in Korea not been replaced by a globalist/nativist battle?

Across much of the developed (and some of the developing) world, we’ve seen debates over the appropriate size of the state and extent of redistribution take a back seat to questions of how open countries should be to outsiders. Macron and Le Penn getting into the final round of the French presidential elections, whilst neither the socialist nor the conservative candidates did, provides a very clean example of this trend. It is, however, also visible in Trump’s election and the Brexit referendum.

This has not, as far as I can see, happened in South Korea. The presidential race centred on jobs, corruption, the role of huge family run conglomerates in the economy, and tensions with the North.

I am not really sure why this is but I might suggest the following as hypothesises:

a) There is relatively little immigration here (for the time being)

b) Korea is (for the time being) a substantial exporter of manufactured goods. That means globalisation is (for the time being) not associated with a loss of blue collar jobs, in fact quite the opposite.

c) That the main security concern is not terrorism but a nuclear armed and notionally communist rouge state, lends South Korean politics a decidedly cold war air. That might explain why it is still in a twentieth-century configuration.

d) The nativist/globalist split maps onto a graduate/non-graduate divide. In Korea, university education is as widespread as high school is in many western countries. That may mean the social underpinning for this ideological clash aren’t there.

8. Young people won!

Let us end on a positive not. Of late young people have seemed to be losing out economically and politically. And Korea is an especially hard place to be young. Kids here generally wind up on a brutal treadmill of exams and exam prep. That puts them under huge pressure, whilst leaving them little time for hobbies.

So, it is heartening to see their chosen candidate win despite South Korea being one of the oldest societies on earth.

Young people, not just students and graduates but also secondary schoolers, were central to the protests that brought about Park’s impeachment. When I teach high schoolers, it is striking quite how many of them will mention politics.

For more information on this I would recommend Korea Expose’s reporting on ‘the Sewol Generation’, a cohort whose formative political experience was a tragic ferry accident in which hundreds of teenagers drowned while adults on the ship’s crew, the coast guard and, ultimately, the conservative government did nothing to rescue them. It appears to have conditioned them to be less deferential to middle aged and elderly politicians. Moon’s victory marks their emergence as a political force and I am fascinated to see what they will achieve in the future.

 

 

*Most people would consider that an insult, so let me clarify that I don’t.

9 reasons why we’d be better off ignoring terrorist attacks

We pay a serious price for our alarmist reaction to terrorism. Here is what we would would gain if we could better manage our fears.

This is the fourth post in a multi-part series on the dangers of overeacting to terrorism. Click here to read the first, second and third parts.

In November 2015, Daesh executed a Chinese advertising consultant they were holding hostage in Syria. At first, this was widely reported both in China and abroad, and as a result the execution became a major topic of conversation on Chinese social media. Then the Communist Party’s censorship apparatus bored down on the issue. Reports on the topic by domestic outfits were pulled, those by international organisations were blocked and social media posts that included the deceased hostage’s name, and even phrases like ‘Chinese captive’, began disappearing.

That kind of behaviour is not an aberration. An anti-terrorism law passed shortly afterwards means that “[d]isseminating information about terrorist activities is now banned” in China, and apart from “pre-approved news media outlets, nobody is allowed to report on a terror attack nor the authorities’ response, online and offline”.

The latter point hints at a cynical (and this being China, very likely at least partially accurate) read of the Communist Party’s actions. That an attack has taken place could be perceived as a failure on the part of a government that didn’t manage to stop it. However, in an article for Foreign Policy, Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian provides a more generous rationale. She speculates that “hawkish sentiment among China’s grassroots” was in tension with the government’s desire “to avoid involvement in the sort of military quagmires that have plagued the United States”. In this context, preventing the public finding out about attacks could allow for a more measured response.

I do not for a moment condone this kind of censorship. Proper scrutiny of how government deals with all issues, including terrorism, is necessary. In addition, creating a healthy public attitude towards terrorism probably requires a degree of trust between government and people that simply won’t be there if citizens discover, as they inevitably would, that news is being kept from them.

Nonetheless, I would argue that there would be benefits if we managed to voluntarily move a bit closer to this kind of situation.

Currently, when an attack happens, it becomes the focus of intense coverage. Politicians will reassure us that they take the threat very seriously. There may be new security measures, changes to the law, or even military action.

I want to suggest an alternative approach. Media coverage of attacks would not be formally limited but outlets would make an editorial decision to afford them only as a much space as a bus crash with the same number of casualties. The topic would not be considered a topic of intense national importance. When asked about security, immigration or foreign policy, politicians would probably not mention terror in their answers. Unless you worked for the police or intelligence services, or were directly affected by an attack, terrorism would be something you only rarely discussed or thought about.

Not only would this be warranted by the actual (as opposed to perceived) scale of the threat but it would have the following benefits:

1. We’d face less terrorism

The less seriously we take terrorism, the less attention we will give it. That attention amounts to publicity for the groups that carry out the attacks. Without it, they’d find it harder to gain additional recruits.

If we were calmer, we could probably avoid unduly punitive responses that imperil our position on the moral high ground.

The air of panic around terrorism is also part of what radicalises the likes of Anders Breivik. Getting rid of it would likely serve to deflate that noxious tendency.

[Further reading: How our fear of terrorism helps terrorists]

2. Our civil liberties would be more secure

At the time of writing, France has been in a state of emergency for over a year. That allows, among other things, for the police to search homes without warrants, a power which they have used thousands of times. This often involved doors and other properties being broken, and parents being handcuffed in the presence of their children. Few of these searches lead to a prosecution, and when they don’t, an explanation for why an innocent person’s home was raided is rarely forthcoming. There is no end in sight to the state of emergency.

The Snowden leaks revealed that most electronic communications across most of the world are now monitored in some form. And it’s not only the NSA that has gained greater powers to snoop. In Britain, post-9/11 anti-terror legislation gave local municipalities surveillance powers previously restricted to the police and intelligence services. Predictably, such organisations had little cause to use them on potential terrorists. Instead, they spied on ordinary people suspected of crimes like littering and lying about their address on a school application form.

More acutely, America and some of its Western allies, precisely the countries that thought of themselves as exemplars of human rights, have felt the terrorist threat compelled them to engage in assassination, kidnapping and torture. The latter went by the euphemism ‘extraordinary rendition’ and in one case involved a prisoner having pureed food pumped into his anus.

In this context, the open-ended nature of the War on Terror is especially problematic. Suspending some freedoms in times of war is not unusual but a war against another state will generally have a defined end point – a peace treaty or surrender – after which freedom can be restored. By contrast, a war on a strategy will never end. Thus, our fear of terrorism has not driven us to suspend freedoms but to abandon them altogether.

It would be better if we realise now that we are not at war. We face a nebulous but low-level threat from some criminals, and they are not an adequate reason to discard important rights.

3. It would remove a pretext for autocrats

Assad destroying moderates

In the point above, I was mostly talking about trade-offs between security and civil-liberties that, whilst excessive, are nonetheless mostly made in good faith. There are, however, people for whom compromising freedom is the point and preventing terrorism is merely an excuse.

The most egregious example of this must be Bashir Al-Assad’s regime. It has consistently represented the opposition as almost uniformly composed of jihadis, and sought to present themselves as the only thing standing between extremists and control of Syria. At the same time, by focusing most of their effort on destroying the moderate rebels and largely leaving Daesh alone, they made that fiction into a reality. And there are people willing to applaud, rather than condemn, Assad for this. Donald Trump has said that “I don’t like Assad at all, but Assad is killing Isis. Russia is killing Isis and Iran is killing Isis and, before the sarin gas attacks on Khan Shaykhun, had appeared to indicate support for Assad remaining in power.

Trump has also embraced Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the military dictator of Egypt and by Trump’s reckoning, a man doing “a fantastic job in a very difficult situation”, on the grounds that he is opposed to Islamists and terrorism. This, in spite of the fact that Sisi killed hundreds of protesters in order to take power, and when he did so, reversed virtually all the increases in political liberty that resulted from the protests in Tahrir Square (which overthrew Hosni Mubarak). Nor does the situation seem to be improving. Amnesty International recently published a report on Egypt with the subtitle “disappeared and tortured in the name of counter-terrorism”.

The US also continues to back the Saudi government and its brutal war in Yemen. Riyadh argues that only by propping up its client regime in the country can a victory for Al Qaeda and/or Iranian-backed militias be prevented. At home, the theocracy uses anti-terror legislation to outlaw atheism.

The equivalent legislation in Turkey was used to prosecute a British academic for the crime of carrying an invitation to a Kurdish New Year celebration. Which seems strange but anyone writing in Kurdish or about Kurdish issues is now liable to prosecution as a sympathiser with the PKK, a group that wants an independent Kurdish homeland. This goes a long way towards explaining why Turkey has 1% of the world’s population but a third of its imprisoned journalists.

Nor is this behaviour confined to the Middle East. Beijing has used a small number of jihadis amongst the Uighurs, a Turkic ethnic minority living in the remote west of the country, as a pretext to suppress the Uighur culture and religion. Civil servants can be fired and students expelled for fasting during Ramadan, long beards and face coverings are banned, and mosques are routinely closed or demolished.

If we recognised how rare terrorism is, we’d see more clearly that it is no excuse for such widespread abuse.

4. There would be fewer wars

Terrorist attacks are often the trigger for wars that kill vast numbers of people. Hundreds of thousands of people have died in Iraq and Afghanistan since 9/11 precipitated American invasions. The assassination of the Archduke of Austria-Hungary was the trigger for the First World War and the millions of deaths that resulted. There is even a real possibility of terrorism triggering a nuclear war, as the most likely scenario for a war between India and Pakistan would involve a militant attack within India being blamed on Pakistan. In all these instances, the resulting wars have (or would) produce massively greater casualties than the terrorists themselves could ever hope to. A more measured, non-military response would save numerous lives.

5. We could do away with security theatre

Security measures that don’t make us all that much safer but do consume our time and money (known as security theatre) are a bane of modern life. It encompasses measures like having to take your shoes off before boarding a plane or being patted down on the way into sports events. Terrorism is rare, so unless measures like these achieve a significant reduction in its probability, or are very low cost, then it’s probably not worth implementing.

I suppose you can argue that security theatre makes people feel safer. However, I suspect that in the long run, constant needless reminders of the threat only makes us more anxious. So, if it’s alright with you, I’d very much like to stop having my bags searched before going into the Natural History museum!

6. We’d avoid unnecessary behaviour changes

The threat of terrorism pushes many of us to engage in a kind of internal security theatre, where we change our behaviour in the hopes of making us less vulnerable to terrorism. In reality, this is just a silly inconvenience to ourselves.

For me, the paradigm example is that after the terrorist attacks in Paris, there was a 5% drop in tourists visiting the city. The drop was much more pronounced amongst some nationalities, in particular Chinese and Japanese tourists, with the number of the latter falling by 40%. This not only denies tourists an experience they were presumably looking forward to – and Paris is objectively a great city – but also puts jobs connected to tourism in danger. Indeed, it seems that the attacks cost the city billions of euros. What happened to Paris was not an isolated incident . It seems to happen after most widely publicised attacks. Often, it happens to places less able to cope with it than the French capital. ISIS’s attacks on resorts in Tunisia resulted in a massive drop in visits to the country. That was especially unfortunate, as its economy is heavily dependent on tourism. An economic downturn at that point would have been especially problematic considering Tunisia was trying to consolidate its new democracy after the Arab Spring.**

While I understand being frightened of terrorism and wanting to avoid it, I can’t really condone this kind of response. For starters, the risk of being killed in a terrorist attack whilst on holiday is like the risk of being killed by a terrorist attack almost everywhere – small. The news brings us coverage of the single or double digit casualties amongst tourists visiting a certain place, but not the five, six or even seven figure for people who visit the same place and are not caught by an attack. What’s more, there’s something thoughtlessly callous about it. The effect is to financially penalise somewhere for being the victim of a terrorist attack. That seems to me to be compounding a wrong.

7. We could focus on more pressing security challenges

Military strengths graph.jpg

My suspicion is that when our current time is taught as history, our priorities will baffle many students. Teachers will have to patiently explain that, as strange as it seems, whilst North Korea became a nuclear power, Russia modernised its military, and China displaced the US as the most influential power in the Pacific, Americans and Europeans were focused on a few thousand religious zealots with rifles and trucks!

As rival states grew stronger, we worried that weak states might incubate terrorism.  We went into many of the least stable and developed parts of the world, and expended our strength fighting messy, anti-guerrilla wars against groups that had no prospect of defeating us.

We have allowed the threat of terrorism to warp our thinking about security in other ways. Donald Trump has branded NATO ‘obsolete’ because it offers ‘no terrorism protection’ as if terrorism was the only thing its members might need defending against.* While a lot of what Trump says is idiosyncratic, the line of reasoning that says ‘it doesn’t defend against terrorism therefore we don’t need it’ is a pretty common one. For example, we often saw the strange argument against missile defence, here articulated by John Kerry, that it would “do nothing to address…a much more likely and immediate threat to the American homeland from terrorists and from nonstate actors, who can quietly slip explosives into a building, unleash chemical weapons into a crowded subway, or send a crude nuclear weapon into a busy harbor.” With North Korea moving closer to developing an ICBM, and missile defence playing a key role in the American response, this view already seems spectacularly short sighted.

We have already made ourselves less safe and the broader world less stable with our fixation on terrorism and the resulting overemphasis on issues in the Islamic world. It is time to take our eyes off the fringe and refocus on more consequential matters.

8. Less of a backlash against innocents

There are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world and only a few thousand jihadis. Not only do the bulk of Muslims not associate with groups like Daesh and Al Qaeda but polling evidence shows that they view them unfavourably.  They are widely condemned and reviled, which is unsurprising given that most of their victims are Muslims.

Despite this, ever since 9/11, Muslims have faced discrimination and demonisation. The same research that shows that most Muslims reject terrorism also shows that most Westerners perceive them as ‘fanatical’ and ‘violent’. They have been subjected to hate crimes and even terrorist attacks. They have borne the brunt of punitive counter-terrorist measures and have had to suffer the indignity of an attempt to ban them from the United States.

This issue is not confined to Muslims. During the Northern Irish Troubles, numerous Irish men on the British mainland were wrongly convicted of involvement with IRA attacks on the basis of their ethnicity, thin circumstantial evidence, and confessions the police beat out of them.

Prejudice is closely connected to fear, and if we can calm down about terrorism, then we can probably avoid acts of cruelty against people whose only crime is coming from the same community as some terrorists.

9. We’d all be less upset

Heart watches the news

This is the least tangible point but in many ways the most important. Each of the proceeding eight points come about because of how learning about terrorist attacks makes us feel: deeply demoralised. It makes us feel scared, upset, angry, vulnerable, powerless and defensive. We think it tells us something bleak about our world. But as we’ve established in earlier posts, acts of terrorism are freak occurrences. They take place against a backdrop of decreasing global violence. They are weapons of the weak, not the strong. We cannot stop them happening altogether but our societies are well able to overcome them.

 

 

 

*It is worth noting that the only time the mutual defence clause of NATO’s charter has ever been invoked was in response to 9/11, and that the alliance has played an active role in Afghanistan.

**Though in fairness as the attacks in Tunisia were targeted at tourists, I find the risk calculation that says to avoid the country more reasonable than for Paris.

9/11 is NOT history’s most deadly terrorist attack

It’s not terrorist attacks that produce mass casualties. It’s our overreactions to them.

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This is the third post in a multi-part series on the dangers of overeacting to terrorism. Click here to read the first and second part.

Grim reading

Wikipedia has a list of the terrorist attacks with the highest death tolls. This is not a fact that should come as a surprise. It has thousands upon thousands of lists including “people who have lived at airports” and “works with the subtitle: Virtue Rewarded.”

The rather more sombre accounting of victims of terror is an instructive read. Not least because so many of the deadliest attacks loom so small in our collective memory. Many are massacres in villages in developing countries, which is not even what most people think of when they think of terrorism. Others had a larger place but then faded: the slaughter at a school in the Russian town of Beslan horrified the world when it happened, but I cannot recall the last time I heard it mentioned. Others seem to justify greater mention but don’t receive it: For example, a 1978 arson attack on an Iranian cinema by an anti-Shah revolutionary that killed 400 people. Others represent causes that now seem arcane, such as the Columbian far-right or Sikh nationalism. In general, it serves to support the broad position of this series of posts: that whilst terrorism is both grisly and morally repugnant, it is also mostly ineffective at changing the course of history.

There is, however, one atrocity that stands out amongst the others: 9/11. Not only is it an order of magnitude deadlier than others, it lives on with a vividness none of the others can match. Most of us can recall it not only as a fact or a name, but can playback images of the event in our head.

The pebble

Despite this, 9/11 only constitutes history’s deadliest terrorist attack if we confine our attention to direct casualties. Once we consider not only those who die as a result of the attack but also the reaction to it, then 9/11’s dubious honour passes to a shooting in which two people died.

One of them was Archduke Franz Ferdinand, next in line to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian empire. The other was his wife, Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg.

On the 28th June 1914, they were visiting one of the empire’s southern most cities: Sarajevo in the then province of Bosnia. Its population was overwhelmingly neither Austrian nor Hungarian. They were mostly Serbo-Croatian speaking Serbs and Bosniaks. They lived just over the border from the independent kingdom of Serbia, and many among them dreamed of creating a new nation that would unite all the Southern Slavic peoples – Serbs, Bosniaks, Croats and others – into a single nation.

One group that were especially radical in pursuit of this objective were ‘the Black Hand’. They had already killed the royal family of Serbia so that they could be replaced by one more sympathetic to their goal. Now they would target Austro-Hungarian royalty.

A team of six Black Hand agents threw a bomb at the Archduke’s car. They missed. They had not accounted for the convertible hood on the vehicle and the bomb simply bounced off it. One member of the team attempted to commit suicide by swallowing cyanide and then throwing himself into the river. Both efforts failed and he was captured. One member, a young man named Gavrilo Princip, skulked off to see if he could make a second attempt. The other members scattered.

The Archduke arrived at the City Hall where he was due to give a speech and, after berating Sarajevo’s mayor for allowing the attack to happen, did so. There was discussion of bringing in troops to protect the Archduke until he left the city, but this idea was vetoed because the soldiers were taking part in an exercise and would not have dress uniforms appropriate for being seen by the Archduke. The decision was then made to rush the royal couple out of the city as quickly as possible. Their other visits in Sarajevo were cancelled and the plan was for them to be driven straight to the train station.

In some alternative version of history, that’s exactly what happened. They arrived back in Vienna with scars, a harrowing story and perhaps further evidence that something was awry in the Empire’s southern provinces. But they would have been alive and their deaths would not have served as the starting gun for the sequence of violent conflagrations that would define the twentieth century.

Having intervened once to save the royal couple’s life, fate would intervene again and reverse the outcome. In the confusion, no one communicated to the royal couple’s driver that the route had changed. So, he drove them back into central Sarajevo. It took a while for anyone to notice the mistake and tell the driver. By awful happenstance, they did this just as the car was passing Gavrilo Princip, the member of Blank Hand who had slipped away to look for a second chance to kill the Archduke. The driver slowing down to turn the car round presented the perfect opportunity. He shot and killed the Archduke and the Duchess.

The avalanche

As news of the assassination spread throughout Europe, it does not appear that most people realised that something world changing had happened. For example, British politicians initially appear to have been more concerned about the situation in Ireland than Bosnia.

However, the possibility of a catastrophic confrontation had long been foretold. Ten years earlier, Arthur Conan Doyle had imagined a fictional Prime Minister trying to engage Sherlock Holmes’ services on a case of geopolitical intrigue with the warning that:

It is not too much to say that peace or war may hang upon the issue…The whole of Europe is an armed camp. There is a double league which makes a fair balance of military power…[war might] well mean the expenditure of a thousand millions and the lives of a hundred thousand men.

That was to prove overly optimistic. In the conflict that followed the assassination, British casualties were closer to a million and worldwide the figure may have been as high as twenty million.

How did the world get from two fatalities to twenty million? Well, the Austro-Hungarians blamed Serbia for the assassination and sent the Serbs an ultimatum demanding that Serbia allow Austro-Hungarian police to operate on Serb territory. They refused and the Austro-Hungarians declared war.

This was unacceptable to the Serb’s principal ally: the Russians. The Austro-Hungarians also had an important ally: Germany. Berlin was not prepared to see Vienna defeated by Moscow, so they declared war on Russia. This also expanded the war westwards. Russia was allied to France and the Germans did not want to fight two powers on two flanks at once, so they decided they had to knock France out with a pre-emptive strike. The Franco-German border was heavily fortified, so the German forces went through Belgium. London objected to this breach of Belgium sovereignty and declared war on Germany. That prompted the German navy to begin sinking ships headed to the UK, in the hopes of throttling the island nation’s economy. As much of that shipping originated in the US, that, in time, brought the Americans into the war. Naturally, both sides sought to expand their circle of allies. Germany offered the Ottoman Empire – which ruled most of the Middle East – warships. Britain offered Germany’s holdings in the Far East to Japan. All sides deployed men and materials from their respective colonies. For example, the outbreak of war prompted Gandhi to suspend his pacifism and actively encouraged Indians to enlist to fight in Europe. It is, therefore, far from hyperbole that this conflict is now known as the First World War.

The war’s casualties would not only be people. Nations would also perish. The Ottoman Empire broke apart to create a map of the Middle East that looks a lot like the one that exists now. The Russian Empire was overthrown by Lenin and his Bolshevik comrades, who transformed it into the USSR. The end of the war also meant the end of the Austro-Hungarian empire. It was on the losing side and defeat discredited its ruling family. Revolutionaries seized power in the capitals of the Empire’s many provinces and declared them to be independent republics. Austria-Hungary became Austria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Poland and Yugoslavia. The latter being precisely the Southern Slavic state the Black Hand had wanted to create. In the process of trying to avenge the slaying of the Archduke, Austria-Hungary not only destroyed itself, but also achieved the Black Hand’s objective.

Those who do not learn from history

Deadly overreactions to terrorist attacks are sadly not a thing of the past. More Americans have died fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq than were killed on 9/11. Those two conflicts also claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of Afghan and Iraqi civilians. They also contributed to the instability that allowed the Syrian Civil War to turn so deadly.

As we have seen in a previous post, terrorist attacks claim relatively few lives. You are twice as likely to be killed by a snake as by a terrorist. Wars, on the other hand, really do claim enormous casualties. On a single night in 1945, American bombing of Japan killed the equivalent of thirty 9/11s. Battles in Berlin, Leningrad and Stalingrad produced over a million casualties. And while the armed conflicts of the twenty-first century are nothing like as deadly as those of the twentieth, there were still fourteen conflicts that claimed more than 10,000 lives in the past year.

It stands to reason that small cells can kill fewer people than armies of thousands. That means it will almost always be a bad idea to treat terrorist attacks as if they are an assault by a rival military. Going after the groups behind them with tanks, battalions and fighter jets is more likely to put lives in danger than protect them. The capacity of terrorism to produce direct casualties is modest but, as the sorry case of the Archduke and World War I demonstrates, the potential indirect casualties are almost limitless.

 

Further reading

If you are interested in the assasination in learning more about the Sarajevo assasination then I would recommend The Trigger: Hunting the Assassin Who Brought the World to War by Tim Butcher.

The impotence of terrorism

The horror of 9/11 taught us to view terrorism as a threat to our civilisation. That has blinded us to the weakness of its perpetrators.

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The White House situation room during the raid that killed Bin Laden. There is something strange about the leaders of a superpower giving so much attention to small groups of zealots. (Source: Pete SouzaWhite House Flickr Feed)

This post is the first part of a multi-part series on the perils of overreacting to terrorism. Please check back in over the next fortnight for subsequent installments.

So, what are you arguing today?

That politicians, the media and the public all dramatically overstate the threat of terrorism. It is a tactic utilised by weak movements, not strong ones and we would be wise to pay it less heed.

Why do you think that?

Because we seem to have made a transnational assessment that terrorism and jihadism are matters of overriding importance.

A survey by the Pew Research Centre found that 80% of Americans registered to vote in the 2016 Presidential Election considered terrorism as “very important” to their vote. That’s more than said the same of healthcare, education, immigration, the environment, or abortion. Only the economy registered as a greater concern.

Even terrorist attacks with modest casualties become a focus of attention to people living thousands of miles away. The day after the incident on Westminster Bridge that killed four people, my colleagues here in Korea felt compelled to ask me about it and to check I was OK. Had those four fatalities been caused by someone driving under the influence of alcohol rather than a political ideology, I doubt they’d even have known that it happened. It would have been a local news story rather than an international one.

BBC new bulletins gave the recent attacks in Stockholm precedence over the US airstrikes on the Assad regime. President Xi Jingping sent condolences to the King of Sweden. In turn, the Swedish Prime Minister vowed that his country would not be ‘defeated’ and that Swedes would not be prevented from living ‘normal lives’. In many ways this is an admirable sentiment but the Prime Minister’s comments had the unfortunate impact of implying that a single guy driving a truck had put the survival of a nation of ten million people with a thirty thousand strong military into question.

Politicians seem unable to resist putting terrorism in these grave terms. The Swedish PM was trying to be reassuring and to indicate that his nation is stronger than the terrorists attacking it. Yet in the process, he framed their efforts as an existential threat to Sweden.

Many politicians are even less restrained.  George W. Bush responded to 9/11 by declaring that America was now at “war” with terrorism. Others have gone further still. Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich said that this was not simply a war but ‘World War III’. Gingrich was an early endorser of Donald Trump, who carried forward his backer’s theme. At one point the future president said that:

In the 20th Century, the United States defeated Fascism, Nazism, and Communism. Now, a different threat challenges our world: Radical Islamic Terrorism.

Isn’t such a strong reaction warranted? The terrorists are trying to kill us!

They are but they are highly unlikely to succeed. The US State Department estimates that about 35,000 people a year are killed in terrorist attacks. Which sounds like – and is – a lot of death. Remember though, that this number is spread out across the entire globe. To put it in perspective, 56.4 million people die each year. That means terrorism represents 0.0006% of all mortality. It is dwarfed by the truly big killers like heart disease, diabetes and traffic accidents, each of which kill millions each year. It is  even less common than fairly niche causes of death like dog and snake bites (55,000 and 94,000 fatalities respectively). Being killed by a terrorist is, essentially, ‘winning’ the world’s worst lottery.

It doesn’t feel like that. Every time I turn on the television there seems to be a report of fresh attacks. In the past few weeks alone there have been attacks in Alexandria, London and Stockholm.

The media distorts our perception of risk. It is drawn to terrorism because it makes a compelling story. It involves danger, provides a clear villain and we can easily imagine ourselves being caught up in it. As a result, they will bring you terrorism stories whenever and wherever they happen. The three incidents just mentioned, happened thousands of miles apart in three different countries on two separate continents. The media focuses on the needle, not the haystack. As a result, it feels like there are needles everywhere.

Indeed, a large part of why terrorism is news is precisely because it’s rare. A death from cancer or a car crash seems mundane. But terrorism is far enough outside our ordinary experience to make for compelling television.

 But don’t Islamist terrorist groups have aspirations that go beyond bombing and shootings?

There are places in the world – Afghanistan, Northern Nigeria, Yemen – where this is a very real concern. In these places, terrorist groups have ceased to simply be terrorist groups. They have raised armies with which they can take and then rule territory. But that’s not true of anywhere in the West (or most other places really).

Well established states can generally suppress guerrilla movements. For example, the Provisional IRA fought the British state for almost three decades in pursuit of a United Ireland. It was a sophisticated, disciplined and well-organised group. It carried out bombings, shootings, assassinations and kidnappings, not only in Northern Ireland but also on the British mainland. It had fundraising, training, propaganda and counter-intelligence departments as well as an affiliated political party. At its peak, it may have had as many as 30,000 active members, a number that does not count auxiliaries and is all the more striking because it was focused on combatting a single state, not most of the world like ISIS. Members of British intelligence whose careers have spanned both the fight against Irish and Islamist terrorism, have reportedly commented that stopping attacks by the former was harder because the IRA enjoyed more support in the Catholic communities of Northern Ireland than the Jihadis do amongst British Muslims. As a result, the security services received far fewer tips regarding the IRA than they now do about ISIS and Al Qaeda. However, despite all this the IRA was still defeated.

That’s not an isolated incident either. Spain broke ETA. Sri Lanka eliminated the Tamil Tigers. Columbia forced the FARC to the negotiating table. All of these movements were in a stronger position within their societies than ISIS and Al Qaeda are within theirs. They also had far more modest aims. Nonetheless, they still failed to achieve them.

And Jihadis are never going to get as far as the IRA and the like did. At least not in the parts of the world you probably live in. Those groups had broad bases of support. Violent jihadis do not. Their ideology has essentially zero appeal to non-Muslims and that creates a hard (and low) ceiling on its support base in most societies. Muslims make up less than 6% of Europe’s population and 1% of the United States’s. That would make those countries largely immune to any attempt at launching a large-scale insurrection within their borders. And that’s before one accounts for the clear polling evidence that an overwhelming majority of Muslims reject violent jihadist movements. A minority of a minority is hardly a credible basis for a successful insurgency.

So how come we seem to be suffering so many military defeats at the hands of jihadis?

Well, we did make ourselves far more vulnerable to that by sending our own forces into parts of the world with Sunni majorities.

Even then, Western militaries and their allies have a pretty reasonable record. ISIS’s predecessor, Al Qaeda in Iraq, was crushed during the 2007 surge. In the present day, it is losing territory and support. ISIS’s own propaganda acknowledges that it is making more use of ‘lone wolf’ attacks because its position is weakening. Their ‘Caliphate’ is disintegrating, and soon it will probably move from being a real place consisting of actual territory to an ideological abstraction. SIS may still carry out terror attacks on Western targets, but this is something it tends to do in the aftermath of military reversals in Iraq and Syria. It is its way of looking strong at moments of weakness. However, even that capacity seems to be being eroded. Of late, intense surveillance has largely prevented them from orchestrating attacks using their own networks. As a result, they have instead begun relying on using their propaganda to incite sympathisers in the West to carry out ‘lone wolf’ attacks. While this is often presented as an alarming new development, this is actually further evidence of the group’s increasing weakness. Imploring the dregs of western Muslim communities – the Westminster bridge attacker was a petty criminal and the Orlando shooter an unemployed habitual steroid user – to carry out attacks in ISIS’s name but without any material support from them, and then still give the group credit, shows a degree of resourcefulness on their part, but also the extent of their desperation. It faces the real possibility of not only becoming a state without territory, but also a movement without an organisation. Elsewhere, a joint French, African Union and Malian force defeated an Islamist insurgency in Northern Mali that once threatened to capture the nation’s capital. Boko Haram is in retreat.

The picture is, of course, not universally positive. The Al Qaeda affiliated Al Nusra front has successfully co-opted much of the opposition to the Assad regime in Syria. Though, given that Russian assistance seems to have given Assad’s government the edge over the opposition, it is debatable how much that is actually worth to them. he Taliban is also gaining ground in Afghanistan, but all that amounts to is them regaining territory they lost during the 2001 invasion.

Given the disparity in military force available to Jihadis and their opponents, none of these situations should alarm us unduly. They are in a weak position, that is likely to weaken further.

Shouldn’t we still be concerned? Violence is just one way that radical Islamism can spread.

Clearly there are people telling us we should. For example, Ayann Hirsi Ali, a Somali born author who has branded Islam as “a destructive, nihilistic cult of death and the new fascism” has a new book out that purports to describe:

the ceaseless, world-wide ideological campaign waged by Islamists as a complement to jihad. It is, she says, the greatest threat facing the West and “could well bring about the end of the European Union as we know it”.

But the non-violent subversion of the West would founder for the same reason as violent insurrection. It would be entirely reliant on support from a (minority) of Muslims and there just aren’t that many of them in Europe and America.

Hirsi Ali’s rejoinder would likely be that the point of these campaigns is precisely to win new converts (and might also involve encouraging the emigration of supporters to Europe or America). It is true that Muslim populations in the West are likely to grow in the near future. However, they will do so from such a small base that it will simply go from being a small minority to a slightly larger but still small minority. Anything beyond that seems unlikely. This isn’t like the IRA trying to convince Irish Catholics to back them. The new identity radical Islamists would require potential converts to adopt, would not be complimentary to their existing one, but quite distinct and in many cases opposed to it.

Whatever we might read from Hirsi Ali (or in Breitbart or the Daily Mail), theocracy and sharia law are not coming to any unexpected places.

So, what would you like to see change in the west’s response to terrorism?

First and foremost, abandon the idea that we are engaged in a grand struggle with Islamism on a par with the fight against communism or fascism. During the Cold War, there were plausible routes by which the Soviet Union and its allies could defeat us militarily or incite the overthrow of our political systems. Those routes are simply not available to radical Islamists.

At its peak, ISIS had a fighting force the same size as Bulgaria’s. Now I don’t mean to disparage Bulgaria or its military. It is by all accounts a lovely place. And I’m sure that, if required, its people would fight ably to defend it. But it’s in no danger of being mistaken for a geopolitical superpower. If we do not put Bulgaria in that category, we should not put ISIS in it either. If Bulgaria cannot do something, neither can ISIS. If Bulgaria suddenly became a rogue state, we would regard it as an annoyance rather than an existential threat. We should think of ISIS and its ilk in a similar fashion.

Looking at the ideology of radical Islamism more broadly, we can see that it competes with liberal democracy in a few parts of the world. When we consider those regions, we should factor its power into our foreign policy calculations. We should not allow it to shape our broader strategy for engaging with the rest of the world. When the US or EU engage with China or Russia, Islamism should be considered a side issue.

We must also accept that, as threatening as it seems, terrorism is just a crime. It is not even a very common one. If four people were murdered in London or Stockholm over money or jealousy, it is clear to me that people in China or Korea would not need to worry about it. The same should be true of murders with political motivations.

If you work with the police or security services, then clearly you should aim to prevent terrorist attacks and prosecute those who commit them. While terrorism may be a modest source of mortality, we should nonetheless hope to see it reduced. However, we should also accept that there may not be proportionate means by which to prevent all deaths from terrorism. From time to time, attacks will probably happen.

When they do happen, we should view them as tragedies not catastrophes. They can no more destroy our way of life than a tiger can be felled by throwing a pebble.

Even though we must live with terrorism, we should not let that threat interfere with our ordinary lives. That’s not a new suggestion, but it is normally said in a way that implies that doing so is an act of courageous defiance. In reality, it is simple pragmatism. Most of us have more important – and more pleasant – things to be thinking about than terrorism.

But isn’t it safer to overreact than to underreact?

Hold that thought. It will be the subject of a series of further posts that I will publish over the next few days.

 

NOTE 1: When this post was first published there were issues with moving the text from the word document where I drafted it into WordPress. I think I’ve now fixed them but if you see, for example, the start of a sentence but not the end, please let me know.

NOTE 2: This post from Vox on the anti-Islamic worldview of Steve Bannon and other Trump advisors reinforces many of the points I made above.

America: a lament

 

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Let me start by saying this: today has been a wretched day. I’m going to try and get more specific and rational in a moment, but before I do it’s only fair to acknowledge the emotional place I am writing from. This post is not about informing, persuading or educating you. It is about making me feel better. When something bad happens I often find writing about it helpful. Reality may be chaotic and unknowably complex but if I can grab hold of it for long enough to examine it and knit an argument from it, then I feel like I am back in control even if only on the page. I could, for example, feel the gut punch of the Brexit vote and yet still stand up and craft a plan for what should happen next.

But the enormity of what has happened, the range and power of the shockwave it will create leaves me unable to produce anything that coherent. Too much has changed and too little is stable for me to feel I have a purchase on it. And that uncertainty is distressing.

After Brexit, I felt like I’d lost my country. After Trump’s victory, I feel like I’ve lost my world. I used to assume that, broadly speaking and with exceptions, the world would get more prosperous, safer and more co-operative. Even horrifying events like 9/11 and the 2008 financial crisis, seemed like setbacks rather than fundamental reversals. Trump’s victory seems more devastating than that.

The most powerful man on earth is a racist, misogynistic, conspiracy theorist, who has admitted to assaulting women, lacks any respect for the rule of law, has dodgy finances, holds some ‘maverick’ views, possesses little understanding of the issues with which he must grapple and most damningly seems to have no compunction about telling blatant lies.

That seems to speak to America and the West more generally having given up on making the world better and instead now just want to lock it out. We have gone to a dark place of hatred and suspicion, and I don’t know if we even want to get out of it.

If this was happening anywhere else it would not be so devastating. Even when grim events hit my own country, like the upsurge in hate crimes that followed Brexit, we could at least see them as our problem rather than something universal. Of course, it wasn’t happening in isolation. Nativism, populism and authoritarianism are on the rise more or less everywhere, and Brexit actually seemed to be a milder form of that tendency. Nonetheless, Putin, Erdogan, Duterte, Orban and the like still seemed to be a nasty sideshow so long as there was an American president willing to use his country’s enormous power to counterbalance them. Now one of their number is headed for the Oval Office and they suddenly seem to run the world.

I move in circles where to degenerate America and its power is fashionable. Even the American’s do it.  The US and its hegemony was a menace to freedom, the story went, it used its incredible power to get rid of those who got in it – and its corporations – way. It overthrew awkward but democratically elected leaders like Chile’s Salvador Allende and Iran’s Mohammed Mosaddegh, it missteped all over weaker countries like Vietnam and Iraq, and even made the rest of us sign up to its stupid copyright laws just because Disney can afford a tonne of lobbyists.

That is a reasonable story but it is only partial. It sees America’s imperfect espousal of democratic values as equivalent to other actors rejecting them outright. That’s an especially grievous error because while America is not alone in having these values, no other country backs them up so forcefully. America sometimes act like a bully because its strong and it’s that strength that guarantees freedom in many parts of the world. When Putin eyes the Baltic States, when Xi wonders about bringing Taiwan to heel and when Kim Jong-Un fantasies about the reunification of the Korean peninsula, a voice says “DON’T YOU DARE!” and it has an American accent.

Trendy lefty anti-Americanism has never given America enough credit for this. It has looked at America’s huge defence spending and seen a monstrosity, not a burden it bears for the sake of the global stability in which it wishes to share. Yes, this was self-interested, it made it easier for America to trade and reduced the risk of them being caught up in any instability. But that was also in the rest of the world’s interest too: it made it easier for us to trade and stopped us getting caught up in instability. 

Now Trump, knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing, doesn’t appreciate this. Which ironically may be what finally gets people like me to see the merit of an America that tries to control the international order. The alternative may not be liberty but that order breaking down, and a return to a world of more naked geopolitics in which Russian or Chinese wolves can eat Ukrainian or Vietnamese lambs. But I fear it’s too late now. We will probably never get a chance to be grateful for that America, for it is likely gone, replaced by something meaner, nastier and smaller.

The best things I’ve read recently (01/05/2015)

A Spell Deferred (the New Republic) by David Hajdu

“[Nina Simone’s] voice, in pointed contrast to her piano playing, was untutored, informal—blistered and gray. She sounded oldish at twenty-five, and her quivery vibrato gave her music the quality of a haunting. Simone was mocked sometimes for sounding masculine, and the tinge of the transgressive likely contributes, too, to her enduring appeal to the pop audience. There is no cheesy chanteuse continentalism or cutesy pin-up sass in her singing. Her tone, always acrid, grew more stinging over time. She tended to sing a couple of microtones sharp—not quite out of key, but on the top end of the notes, an effect that gave her voice some of its spikiness. To hear one of Simone’s recordings on a playlist today, popping up between tracks by singers such as Björk or Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Simone sounds among sisters. She pioneered the caustic severity that pop singers, male and female, have learned to adopt to show their seriousness.”

Two men dancing in their underwear – Boris and Ken (the Guardian) by Mariana Hyde

“One of the greatest acts of comic sabotage in the entire Tony Blair premiership came during prime minister’s questions, when a Labour backbencher, Tony McWalter, stood up and inquired solicitously: “My right honourable friend is sometimes subject to rather unflattering or even malevolent descriptions of his motivation. Will he provide the house with a brief characterisation of the political philosophy that he espouses and which underlies his policies?”

Despite four days’ notice of the question, Blair was more than momentarily silenced. Yet compared to Boris, Tone was John Locke. You’d have more luck finding Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction than you would a sincerely held view not predicated on Boris’s personal ambition. I shrieked when he attempted to map himself on to the space occupied by Winston Churchill by publishing a book about the man who frequently polls as Britain’s greatest ever leader. It called to mind a great line in Working Girl: “Sometimes I sing and dance around the house in my underwear. Doesn’t make me Madonna. Never will.””

Why I’m too selfish to have children (Vox) by Sung J. Woo

“As a child of war, the Korean Conflict forced my mother and her family to literally run for their lives. She was 5 when the tanks started rolling and 8 by the time it was over, and during those years she learned what it meant to lose her home, to have all her essential belongings in a burlap bag, to have not enough to eat €— which is why Costco is now her favorite place in the world. When she walks into that warehouse stacked full of everything, her shoulders relax.  She smiles as she hugs the enormous rolls of paper towels and loads it into the cart. As she gazes at the giant bin of bananas, I’m certain she’d like to swim in them, like the way Scrooge McDuck wades in his pool of gold coins. Her closet in her condo is like a survivalist’s dream, triples and quadruples of toilet paper, kitchen gloves, Ziploc bags, because in her uncertain upbringing, nothing was permanent. Nothing could be counted on.”

Leave Root Causes Aside—Destroy the ISIS ‘State’ (the Atlantic) by James Jeffrey

“Defeating ISIS-as-state is not dependent upon solving Syria as a social, historical, cultural, religious, and governance project, let alone doing the same with Iraq. ISIS feeds on the conflicts in both countries and makes the situation in both worse. But it is possible to defeat ISIS as a “state” and as a military-economic “power”—that is, deal with the truly threatening part— without having to solve the Syrian and Iraqi crises or eliminate ISIS as a set of terrorist cells or source of ideological inspiration. Of course, even if ISIS is destroyed as a state, we would still have the Syrian Civil War and Iraqi disunity, but we have all that now, along with ISIS, which presents its own challenges to the region and the West.”

Make China great again!

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Why Xi Jinping would vote for a president Trump

America’s political culture can be befuddling even for someone like me who hails from another English speaking democracy. Imagine how baffling it must seem to someone who’s reference point is China. A twitter account called the Relevant Organs, which parodies the Communist Party’s English language propoganda, had fun with this notion during one of the Republican debates. The fictional official running the account supposedly struggled to understand the proceedings:

One can only imagine what this official would have made of the ‘Orange defendant’ saying in an earlier debate that:

“The TPP is a horrible deal, It is a deal that is going to lead to nothing but trouble. It’s a deal that’s designed for China to come in, as they always do, through the back door and totally take advantage of everyone.”

The Trans Pacific Partnership, to give it its full name, is a free trade deal recently signed by the US and 11 other countries. Trump’s assertion was strange because as Senator Rand Paul promptly pointed out, China wasn’t one of those 11 countries and is unlikely ever to qualify to join. Indeed, and this is what would have made Trump’s point so confusing for Chinese viewer, the deal is supposed to exclude rather than include rather China. Believing that is not Chinese paranoia. When TPP was signed Bloomberg reported:

A 12-nation Pacific trade deal strengthens President Barack Obama’s hand in his strategic pivot toward Asia and challenges China to accept U.S.-backed rules for doing business. A trading bloc stretching from Chile to Japan, with the U.S. at the economic center, bolsters Obama’s effort to counter growing Chinese military and economic influence in the Pacific.

TPP’s failure – which would be assured if Trump ever became president – would actually be a big win for China both economically and geo-politically.

I point up this incident to highlight a major problem with Trump’s policy proposals. He presents them as a sign of his toughness and his determination that America should ‘win’. Yet they’d almost certainly weaken America’s position.

To see why place yourself in the position of a Chinese observer of America considerably more sophisticated than our fictional debate watching official: Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping. Foreign policy is important to you. Once upon a time, the rule of the Party was legitimised by Maoist ideology but you gave up on that decades ago; then it was the astonishing improvements in living standards the people were seeing and for which the Party took credit but now those seem to be tapering off; so now he will be hoping that nationalism might do the job. If you can show them the Party has – to coin a phrase – ‘made China great again’ then they’ll feel good about that and won’t start asking for any pesky democracy.

You’re well on its way to achieving that objective. Gone are the days of Western powers waging wars to make the Chinese buy opium or of Japanese soldiers marauding round the country commiting every human rights abuse imaginable. And in the near future – recent troubles notwithstanding – China should become the world’s largest economy  and that will eventually pay for the most powerful military.

Nonetheless, you still worry about the US. Not that you have anything against the place; your daughter went to Harvard! But history has taught you not to trust them. All the way back to the 19th century despite their anti-imperial rhetoric they followed the lead of the European nations and took part in the exploitative unequal treaties. They’ve been arming the rebel holdouts in Taiwan for decades. And moves like TPP give you every indication that they intend to continue undermining your country for a while longer.

Given the shifting balance of power, you know they can no longer achieve that alone. They need the co-operation of your neighbours. Unfortunately, they have a lot of scope to do that. Despite all that spending on Confucius Institutes, most people in the world still have more admiration and trust for American liberalism than Chinese autocracy. That’s especially true of your neighbours who regard you as an overbearing bully. So what you really need is an undiplomatic oaf to come along and torpedo America’s relations with these potential allies. Well cometh the hour, cometh the man!

The aforementioned oaf is not an unknown quantity in the People’s Republic. He was an executive producer for a Chinese version of the Apprentice and the original American version has fans in China. And his books have been translated into Chinese. And in a country with such a rapidly growing economy entrepreneurs are a revered group. To quote one of Xi’s most important predecessors: “to get rich is glorious“.

Nonetheless, Xi Jinping is unlikely to be impressed by Trump. His boorish sexism and racism probably won’t bother Xi as much as it does most westerners; despite the CCP’s supposed commitment to equality and brotherhood, the niceties of political correctness have never really caught on in China. Still even for the head of a regime that regularly equates Islam and terrorism, banning all Muslims will seem a bit much. But what will be really shocking to someone like Xi is that an individual without a background in public administration might be considered a fit person to be president. The Chinese system, in theory at least, is a meritocracy that owes more to Confucianism than communism. Entrance to the civil service is by competitive exam and promotion is – in theory at least -based on performance. In order to be allowed to run a big city you must first prove yourself running a small one. Hence in order to reach a position like Xi’s you need to have a great deal of experience. The possibility that a newcomer with a flair for showmanship could be made president just he gets the most votes, confirms all your prejudices about democracy.

And Xi can already see the mistakes Trump is likely to make. The rejection of TPP would undermine US credibility with regards to the territorial disputes over the South China Sea. All of the countries that claim islands within that space – Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia – were signatories to TPP. If Washington proves unreliable on trade, then why would these countries expect it to back them up militarily? Without a superpower in their corner they are going to be much less assertive in challenging Beijing, which would conversely then feel able to be more assertive. It might well begin building more artificial islands and deploy larger forces to the islands it already has. The US would then be faced with a China able to lock them out of the South China Sea altogether, which is precisely what American policy up to this point has been geared towards avoiding.

That turn of events would certainly perturb Tokyo and Seoul. However, what would really concern them are the noises Trump is making about America’s treaty commitments to defend their countries. Essentially, Trump wants them to contribute to the cost of keeping American forces in the region – which they already do – and to have a reciprocal requirement to defend the US. Now given his self-image as the master deal maker, he would contend that he’d make Japan and Korea agree to his demands. But there are practical difficulties he may not be able to bluster past. There are lobbies in both countries that dislike the presense of American soldiers and would make it hard for their governments to make concessions. And Japan’s pacifist constitution – which was written by the US – would make things complicated. And even if Trump could bring this shift about, Japan and Korea would be left smarting and resentful and less likely to co-operate on other matters.

Even on the other side of Asia, Trump would likely push countries towards China. He subscribes to the conventional Republic stance on Iran: that he would back out of the nuclear deal. That would suit China fine. If it is the US turns its back on a perfectly viable deal then China will feel no need to reimpose sanctions. That will allow it to form trade links with Iran and thereby gain second hand influence in the Middle East.

 

Trump might well respond that this wouldn’t matter because as president he would put China in its place and leave these allies and potential allies with nowhere to turn but the US. The meat of this appears to be his intention to slap tariffs on Chinese goods imported into the US in retaliation for China’s manipulation of its currency. Essentially what Trump and others allege is that China has artificially lowered the value of the Renminbi to make its exports cheaper than they otherwise would be. There are a number of problems with this. For starters, it’s not true. China has been actively trying to stop the Renminbi depreciating and its one of the few currencies of emerging markets not to have fallen in value recently. And tariffs are a weapon that launches backwards as well as forward. Slapping them on Chinese goods would hurt American consumers as well as Chinese producers. Indeed, while reducing Chinese exports to the US would have a negative impact on firms that exports it wouldn’t necessarily be a disaster for their economy overall. One of its major problems, which Xi appears to be trying to rectify, is that the economy relies too heavily on selling goods abroad rather than at home. American tariffs that depressed exports might actually help achieve this objective. So what Trump is proposing is essentially to threaten Beijing into stopping something it’s not doing in the first place with a policy which if enacted would cause more harm to the US than China. And by utilising that weapon to combat a phantom threat, he does not have it available to retaliate against say a cyberattack.

Trump’s misreading of the situation vis a vis America’s relationship with China arises from two fundamental problems. Both of them can be gleamed in his claim that:

America doesn’t win anymore… nothing works in our country. If I am elected president we will win again.

 

Such a sweeping claim is unlikely to right in all circumstances and buying into it will obscure the cases where it isn’t. Clearly there are aspects of US foreign policy in Asia that aren’t working. For example, North Korea is resolutely not being denuclearised, quite the opposite in fact. But plenty of what the US is doing to maintain a geopolitical balance with China seems to be working. In particular, it does seem to be preserving and expanding its network of allies in the region. Consider the following for evidence of this:

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That’s not enough to stop a shift in power from the US to China but remember that power is a relative concept. America can lose it not through its own failure but as a result of the success of others. Indeed, it would be surprising if China did not become more powerful in the wake of shirking off the self-imposed handicap of a centrally planned economy. Washington can find better or worse ways to deal with China’s rise but that ascent does not necessarily indicate that American policy isn’t working.

Among the worst ways of dealing with the situation would be to alienate allies. Trump’s focus on relentless ‘winning’ seems misplaced with regards to geopolitics. Is it desirable to ‘defeat’ your friends? If President Trump was to make losers out of Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, the Philipines, Malaysia, Indonesia, India and even Iran that wouldn’t make America the winner. The beneficiary would be China. Rather than facing a co-ordinated effort to prevent it asserting it dominating its neighbours, it would face a variety of actors none of whom would be strong enough to challenge it and many of whom would doubt it was worth it anymore. That would substantially increase China’s options and reduce America’s. So if Xi Jinping had a vote in the Republican primaries, he’d probably cast it for Trump.

 

Caveat: The post above has taken it as an axiomatic that the US should see China’s rise as a threat and seek to counter it. There’s a real debate to be had about that. Nonetheless, Trump seems to percieve China as a menace and I have chosen to critique his proposals on their own terms.

Churchill made a great argument against leaving the EU

And he did it in 1934.

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Debates about Britain and Europe are not new. Indeed, they long predate the creation of the EU.

In many ways – almost all of them depressing – Europe in 1934 resembles Europe now. There were severe economic problems brought on by a misguided attempt to maintain a transnational currency. And this was accompanied by a severe swing towards extremist ideologies and an upsurge in political violence.

Not surprisingly, many Brits concluded that they wanted nothing to do with this mess. Winston Churchill wasn’t one of them. In a speech broadcast on BBC radio, he explained:

There are those who say: Let us ignore the Continent of Europe. Let us leave it with its hatreds and armaments to stew in its own juice, to fight out its own quarrels. Let us turn our backs upon this alarming scene. Let us fix our gaze across the ocean and lead our own life in the midst of our peace-loving dominions and empire. There is much to be said for this plan if only we could unfasten the British islands from their rock foundations and could tow them 3,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean and anchor them safely upon the smiling coasts of Canada. I have not heard of any way in which this could be done. No engineer has come forward with any scheme; even our best scientists are dumb. It would certainly in any case take a long time. Have we got a long time? At present we lie within a few minutes’ striking distance of the French, Dutch and Belgian coasts, and within a few hours of the great aerodromes of Central Europe. We are even within cannon shot of the Continent. Is it prudent? Is it possible, however we might desire it, to turn our backs upon Europe and ignore whatever may happen there. Everyone can judge this question for himself. And everyone ought to make up his mind, or her mind, about it, without delay. It lies at the heart of our problem.

Clearly this speech does not directly address the question Britain will shortly hold a referendum on. Churchill was focused on military issues rather than the social and economic ones that will be the focus of the campaign. And it is impossible to say with certainty what he would have made of an institution that did not emerge until after his death. He did call for a ‘United States of Europe‘ but it’s unclear what precisely he meant by that and what part Britain should play in it.

Nonetheless, what he identifies as “the heart of our problem” remains very relevant. A strand of Conservatism longs for us to become the 51st state. Another is nostalgic for deeper links with the Commonwealth. And there are those on both left and right who despise globalisation in its entirety and hope for isolation. Each of these notions is nullified by inconvenient facts of geography that no political decision is able to change.

Whether the British public vote to leave or remain, we will still be an island separated from the European continent by a channel so thin that it is sometimes possible to see across it with the naked eye. And along the border between Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland there is no gap at all, one can walk from the United Kingdom into another EU member state. Therefore, the most convenient locations to which to send our exports and receive imports from will always be in Europe. The same applies to migrants coming from and going out of this country. This near inevitable flow of people, money and objects between Britain and Europe means that whatever the outcome of the referendum, decisions made within the EU will still impact the UK. What is at stake is whether they are made with our input or not.

So while it’s probably a mistake for either side in the referendum to claim Churchill as a supporter, there are nonetheless clear Churchillian arguments for remaining. Britain’s entry, with his support, into both World Wars arose in large part from a conviction that what happens in Europe matters to Britain. It would be folly to imagine that this has changed. One fundamental point of continuity between 1934 and 2016 is that we still live on an island rather than a boat.