Saturday, 30 November 2013

The Simmering War: Constraint In South East Asia

     Tensions in South East Asia are coming to a head once again as Chinese jets patrol disputed islands as part of the new Defense Zone declared recently by the  rising power. China is facing fierce opposition to its attempts to control the South and East China Seas with Vietnam, India, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, and the USA providing and supporting counter claims to the region that holds a great deal of importance not only in terms of prestige and strategy but in resources.

     However, as American, Japanese and Chinese aircraft sortie and counter-sortie in the east and Vietnamese and Indian vessels play cat-and-mouse with Chinese patrols in the south it may be worth taking a step back and placing this issue in a wider military picture to better hypothesize about the result. It is my belief that while tensions may continue to rise and fall there is no way that this simmering conflict can become full-blown war as it has in similar situations in the past. If one was to examine the contention that led to the war between Great Britain and Argentina over the Falkland Islands or, to provide an older if more local example, the tensions that led to the Russo-Japanese War in Manchuria and Korea in the early 20th Century it would be fair to assume that such heated rivalry in modern South East Asia would lead to outright conflict between China and its near neighbors.

     On the other hand, one must also examine the actors involved in these widespread disputes. Alone South Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam or even Japan are not capable of facing the full economic and military might of China but, in actuality Beijing is not simply dealing with this aggregate of small states but rather with their guarantors. In the south it must contend with the reasonably formidable power of India who has made it clear that it is backing Vietnam in its efforts to stop the spread of China's regional hegemony. India has long had cool relations with China, even after their association as part of the BRICS group, as their shared border is a matter of some issue.

    Beijing must also see that the nations to her east, such as Japan and South Korea, are backed by the might of the United States of America and also by the power it wields over organisations such as the UN and NATO. With the dramatic re-shuffle of US strategic interests which pivoted much of her maritime power to the pacific theatre America is easily capable of backing up its vital allies in the Far East if push came to shove.

    Even with its impressive military and economic capabilities it would be disastrous for China to become embroiled in conflict with either of these nations conventionally. Added to this the fact that both the USA and India are fully nuclear armed states unlike the countries whose interests they support and any form of direct military confrontation is unthinkable.

    So the big question that follows is what happens now? With all these nations snarling and swiping at one another like a group of lions around a kill only big enough to feed one of them, but with none of them stupid enough to be the first to attack, what options are available for the region? Diplomacy is of course the answer with the ASEAN group which includes many of the disagreeing nations and which has links to the US, China, Japan and South Korea as the most likely forum.

     That however is a whole new post in of itself and this case study does demonstrate something quite interesting. Whether diplomacy solves these issues or not this conflict cannot boil over, all it can ever do is simmer; indeed this effect may happen with greater or lesser intensity depending on new situations that arise but, unlike the previous examples discussed above, the post-Cold War international systems (including the deepening of international ties such as the UN, the rise of regional powers and even the prevalence of nuclear weapons) seems to have constrained the parties to such an extent that no war can ever truly occur unless something in the region radically changes. Now I am not normally one to sing the praises of international organisations or nuclear proliferation but, in the case of the South and East China Sea disputes there may have been some, often unintended, positive effects from their existence.


Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Post-Heroism And The Possibilities For Private Warriors In Syria

       The international community is faced with a difficult dilemma when it comes to the civil war in Syria. For the first time since the Rwandan Genocide there are no nations willing to completely engage in a terrible conflict which is killing thousands. The use of targeted strikes or no-fly-zones may help (or may make things worse!) but without putting boots on the ground there is no may to bring the conflict to an end. In a perfect world this job would fall to the UN but it is currently being stymied by Russia's alliance with the Syrian government and China's continued obstruction to intervention.

      Post-Heroic Theory comes into it's own when looking at the motivations of the nations embroiled in the intervention negotiations. It argues that nations who have suffered great military defeats or psychologically damaging events change there national psyche to reflect them. For example, the USA's traumatic defeat in the early stages of the Battle of Mogadishu (the infamous Black Hawk Down incident) made the American government and public afraid to lead any intervention into the Rwandan Genocide.

     The disastrous invasion of Iraq and the soul-sucking war in Afghanistan have had similar effects on the USA, UK and France, the nations normally at the forefront of international intervention. They balked at conducting ground operation against the Libyan government and contented themselves with air strikes and arms dealing and the outlook for a Syrian campaign look even worse. The UK has refused to take part along with other NATO nations such as Germany. France and the US have taken the decision to their respective legislatures, a completely different approach to all military activity since the start of the century. The old belligerents have entered a new phase of Post-Heroic soul searching and, without there help, local forces from the Arab nations could do little against Assad.

     However, if competent Western forces refrain from offering ground support then there is another option for intervening forces attempting to establish safe zones or conduct other ground interventions. The deployment of Private Military Companies (financed by the states unwilling to provide troops) could be a viable alternative. They are capable soldiers, often employed from special forces of Western states  who also have access to advanced weaponry, intelligence capabilities, vehicles and air power. Working along side under-trained and under-funded local forces they could provide backbone and other assets which, without Western involvement would be impossible to obtain.

    There are several examples of interventions in which PMCs have played an active role and, indeed, succeeded in bringing warring parties to the negotiating table. In Sierra Leone a South African company, Executive Outcomes, turned the brutal Revolutionary Untied Front (RUF) rebels from the doorstep of the capital, recaptured the vital diamond fields and forced them to negotiate an armistice with the government. This success was not only achieved at a fraction of the cost of the later UN mission but with greater professionalism and speed.

    While it is unlikely that the US will not take part in the Syrian conflict they will most likely not take part in combat operations if regional forces mount ground operations. It is arguable that utilising PMCs offer another option for Western states, a third way between pointless hand wringing and facing their fears over losing even more troops in another foreign war.

Monday, 19 August 2013

"Land Of Liberty" - The Outdated Propaganda Of The United States

      When politicians and military leaders from the United States use terms like 'liberty', 'democracy' and 'freedom' when pushing their national foreign policy the rest of the world quietly laugh and carry on about their business. Had such speeches been made before the landings at Normandy or at the Siege of Berlin they may have invoked a rousing "hurrah" from America's old allies and at least a grudging look of respect from its rivals. However, there has been a distinct, and well documented, change in US foreign policy since the affront caused by 9/11. However, it is not necessarily the very non-liberal activities of the US that has caused the cynicism in others but, rather, the failure of American policy-makers to update the propaganda that accompanies these actions.
       What with NSA activities, both in their own country and abroad, drone attacks in Yemen, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Cuban detention camps, black sites and assassinations the US has lost all credibility as champions of the free and the deliverers of democracy. As Andrew O'Hehir points out in his insightful article on America's support for authoritarian regimes, "Actions speak louder than words, and America’s real foreign policy has been to subvert democracy at every turn, replacing untrustworthy elected governments with compliant military strongmen wherever possible."
      It is clear that the US has abandoned all pretext of supporting democracy and, therefore, it needs to change the way it interacts with the world. The term 'propaganda' has been given bad connotations by modern democracies, only spoken of in connections to authoritarian regimes like North Korea and Syria. However, considering that it is the use of targeted information to influence others, it is a policy choice taken by all governments including the United States. 
      The US must change its stance on the world stage, become more pragmatic in the propaganda it utilizes so that it can begin to fix the damage of two decades of poor PR. It has not only failed to uphold the interests of the democracy it seeks to promote but failed to sell such failures to the rest of the world. On the national and individual level much of the world has lost respect for the United States, except in-so-far as respect is given to the school-yard bully. For the US to remain dominant it must have friends, to have friends it must begin to communicate correctly with its peers. How it chooses to do that is up to it but one thing is clear, the time of the 'Leader Of The Free World' has come and gone. 

Saturday, 25 May 2013

The Lords of War

'Lord of War' is a rather gripping film with Nicholas Cage playing Yuri Orlov, a kid from the Bronx who becomes an international arms dealer. Topping off a number of chilling facts the film ends with the revelation that "the biggest arms suppliers in the world are the USA, the UK, France, Russia and China." This is accurate though most accounts also place Germany somewhere in the middle too (

However, as the film goes on to point out, the countries it mentions are also distinguished by being the five permanent members of the Security Council of the United Nations, an organisation set up to prevent conflict and tragedy around the globe. There is something immensely disturbing about the idea that on the one hand these countries condemn the violence inflicted on suffering peoples around the globe and, on the other, supply the weapons to make that happen:

  • The USA has sold weapons and riot control chemicals to an Egyptian government suppressing protests by its own people as well as supplying the governments of Yemen, Bahrain and Colombia who have also committed atrocities against their own citizens.
  • It is believed that 10% of Russian arms, including tanks and fighter jets, have been sold to Syria. It has also been linked to arms sales to Libya and rebels in Sierra Leone.
  • France and Germany are some of the largest suppliers of NATO arms and both sell to other countries including Greece, Turkey and South Africa
  • The UK supplies arms globally with India, the US, Saudi Arabia and South Africa being important clients.
  • China has a terrible record for arms sales to rogue and dangerous nations including Algeria, Angola, Bangladesh, DRC, Guinea, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kenya, Libya, Myanmar, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Sudan and Zimbabwe.
It is amazing to think that the five main members of the most respected authority on security matters in international relations do so much to further violence and war globally! Why then should we believe that the UNSC is anything more than simply a leftover of the Cold War who care more about wealth and power than about global peace? Not to sound flippant or sensational but these nations, held up as the leaders of our age, do more to destabilise and assault global peace than the nations that they vilify as the 'axis of evil'. Their betrayal of the peace to which they were given guardianship should not be forgotten by history or by us.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Medicalisation And Secularization: The Changing Needs Of Populations?

     It is a defining characteristic of humanity that we need to find answers to the deeper questions in life. We see unusual behavior and look to others to understand. Previously, we looked to religion to provide the answers, seeking theological explanations and solutions to problems we couldn't solve on our own. Clearly, religion still plays this role for many people but in an Euro-American society where secularization plays a large role, demonstrating that many people are looking elsewhere for solutions for the big problems.

     Especially since the 1960's religion has been on a drastic decline in Britain along with many other Western nations. People have stopped going to church, baptizing their children, and labeling themselves as religious. In the 2010 Social Attitudes Survey, 43% of people said they had no religion (at increase from 31% in 1983). This is not to say that society has no need for religion, or indeed that Christianity does not hold serious social and political clout, however, secularism is an important process and demonstrates important characteristics about current social interactions.

     A second important process, though a more modern one, is that of medicalisation. This is the framing of social issues as medical problems. To illustrate this process it is instructive to look at the rise of behavioral problems such as Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) which have become commonplace in modern child development and education. What would have previously been looked at as a social issue, a overexcited child or a misbehaving student, has now been medicalised as a health disorder with its own language, medication and public understanding. It is also characterized by increased status for the medical profession and the knowledge they possess.

     So there is a correlation between secularisation, the shift away from religion as a big part of people's lives, and medicalisation, the placing of previously social problems into a medical context. This article does not go as far as definitively arguing that there is causality in the correlation. However, when looking at how people solve their problems it is an interesting thought that health has taken the place of religion in solving social issues; indeed that doctors have become priests, hospitals have become temples and medical training has become the occult knowledge. With the bio-political impact that pharmacology and doctors have over the lives of people, literally from birth to death, it is easy to see how it has come to replace religion in the eyes of an increasingly atheistic society. Doctors are now being asked to solve a wider and wider range of problems with 'patients' often being unsatisfied unless their issue is classified medically and treated in a pharmacological manner. It is important that we understand the mentalities of a population that may be turning towards the sciences and medicine as new methods of understanding themselves and solving the issues that impact upon their lives.

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

The Arms Flood That Could Hinder More Than Help

The world could be facing a set of contradictory coincidences that could prove dangerous to stabilizing efforts around the world. This is an issue that draws many actors into the legal and illegal arms trade and demonstrates how one decision can have effects far beyond the immediate situation.

Firstly, there are the disturbing ramifications of the intervention by Western states in the Libyan civil war. By arming and supporting the rebels against the Qaddafi regime without a exit strategy it has led  to heavy weapons, armored vehicles and explosives being smuggled across porous borders. These weapons have been implicated in the hostage crisis in Algeria and the enthno-nationalist/Islamist rebellion in Mali. They have also been linked to groups operating in surrounding states including Boko Haram in Nigeria. With terrorist, insurgent and criminal networks developing globally it is important to not simply consider it a regional issue in the Sahel but essentially a huge influx of stock into an illegal arms trade valued at $3 billion.

Secondly, the decision by various actors to intensify the support for the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in their own, two-year fight against the Assad government. In a scarily similar situation to Libya, Syria could possibly turn into a new flood of arms into the region and further. Today, Britain announced that it would provide non-lethal support including armored vehicles, medicines and body armor. Similarly, the Arab League gave passive consent to regional powers like Saudi Arabia to provide any assistance to the rebels. However, within hours of these announcements it was confirmed that soldiers affiliated to the FSA have captured and imprisoned 20 Philippine UN Peacekeepers and their vehicles in the disputed Golan Heights region between Israel and Syria. While some try to show the FSA as an organised group capable of controlling their soldiers  and their arms it seems clear that they have neither.

Lastly, there is the decision of the UN to lower the embargo on arms to Somalia in an attempt to better arm the national army and demonstrate that the security emergency has passed and that the latest round of development and support has produced tangible results. However, with a disorganized army and clear links to other militia and the Islamist Al Shabaab this move is clearly flawed. There is a possibility that arms from other unstable regions could either be illegally shipped to the rebels or sold by their legitimate new owners. It seems clear that the flood of arms from the Sahel and possibly from future commitments to Syria, could have a destabilizing effect on a country just beginning to get back on its feet after over 20 years of civil war.

It is incredibly important that intervening states in countries like Syria and Mali understand that their decisions on arming and supplying local groups can have far-reaching consequences. Somalia is but one example of precarious situations that could be adversely effected by the flood of arms that may be coming. 

Monday, 21 January 2013

There Is Snow Reason To Panic!

It has become a national joke that Britain cannot cope with even a tiny amount of snow. As soon as the white stuff starts coming down our quiet society is taken over with traffic chaos, panic buying and Armageddon metaphors.

I recently had to explain this situation to some international friends studying with me at Sussex University. They were very excited to have a snowy winter but, having explained the unedifying facts to them, they were stunned that we were so incapable of dealing with this entirely uncomplicated weather phenomenon.

It would seem that climate change and shifting weather patterns cause snow to be an annual occurrence yet as a country we have absolutely no resilience to an event that barely causes raised eyebrows in others. We need a political and social change in attitude to help combat the stress, chaos and huge monetary lost caused every year when a couple of centimeters of part-frozen perspiration shuts down the whole country. We need a large increase in funding to allow local councils to respond with greater efficiency and alacrity in dealing with snow. As in many aspects of life I have been impressed by Brighton and Hove City Council in dealing with the recent snowfall but even so a couple of inches caused a full day-or-so of disruption.

We must look to Northern Europe and Canada to see systems capable of dealing with feet of snow rather than inches. We must look at the money we lose due to disruption and invest in better innovations and resources. Most importantly of all...WE MUST NOT PANIC!