Seven Scenarios for the Future of Syria

Syria conflict war scenariosAs the war in Syria drags on, it is becoming ever more vicious. Militias kill hundreds of civilians, ethnic cleansing large swaths of the country in the process. Rebel groups fight among themselves for territory and even assassinate each other’s leaders. Prisoners are regularly tortured. Millions have fled their homes in fear. 100,000 are dead. Extremists now hold the upper hand on both sides. In the latest outrage, the Assad regime has apparently used chemical weapons, gassing hundreds to death.

Where will all this misery lead? What does the future of Syria hold?

As I warned in 2011, Syria is a complex mosaic of different ethnic, religious, and ideological groups, a tinderbox that was destined to explode if the fragile peace that the Assad regime enforced was disturbed. Now that the country has imploded, there is no easy way out. Continue reading

Envoys galore

For many years, the US has influenced UK national security thinking and vice versa. The 1947 National Security Act, pushed through by Harry Truman, was in many ways an attempt at copying the British system of government, which US policy-makers and commanders had come to admire during the years of close US-UK collaboration during WWII.

Later on, the influence tended to move the other way. The 1986 Goldwater-Nicols Act, which put the “joint” into the Pentagon, had as profound an effect on UK military organisation as the general staff system originally employed in Napoleon’s Grande Armée.

But whereas previously the ideas were studied and adapted to the UK’s constitutional set-up, today it seems anything invented in the US should be imported wholesale to the UK, regardless of whether it fits the political, legal and constitutional set-up or not.

So Richard Holbroke’s appointment as President Obama’s Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan has now been matched by the choice of Sherard Cowper-Coles as the Foreign Secretary’s Envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan. This adds to Jack McConnell’s role as Special Envoy for Conflict Resolution and what is rumoured to be Des Browne’s imminent appointment as the Prime Minster’s envoy to Sri Lanka. Continue reading

A Tale of Two Cities

 

Image Author: mike_is_scrumptious

Image Author: mike_is_scrumptious

Assume a robust global deal on climate and the world’s cities will have to transform their infrastructure, economies and societies in little more than a generation.

Assume uncontrolled emissions growth and they face growing impact from a less hospitable and more volatile climate.

Either way – big changes are on the way. Few cities’ leaders grasp the scale of the challenge, especially in developing countries, where towns and cities will have an additional 1.5bn residents to cope with by 2030.

This new think piece has been prepared as part of the British Council’s Climate and Cities programme. Download the pdf (which has full references) or read the full text below the jump.

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Kaiser Wilhelm II adds his two pfennig-worth to UK National Security Strategy horizon scanning

A few days ago, I did a post on the UK government’s current horizon scanning exercise – part of the process leading up to its second National Security Strategy – in which I suggested that “the really stand-out risk that barely got a mention in the events I attended was the possibility that serious erosion of states’ capacity and legitimacy [will undermine] their ability to respond to all the global trends that we were discussing”. 

As regular readers will know, that observation comes straight out of the writings of ‘fourth generation warfare’ theorists like William Lind, Martin van Creveld and John Robb.  But what may come as more of a surprise is the interesting revelation that Kaiser Wilhelm II made a similar point yesterday in his birthday conversation with Lind*:

“My generation of kings and emperors were fixated on the age-old contest between dynasties. Would the houses of Hapsburg and Hohenzollern defeat those of Romanoff and Savoy or the other way around? We could not see the paradigm shift welling up all around us, the onward rush of democracy and equality and socialism and all the rest of that garbage. What we needed was an alliance of all monarchies against democracy. Instead we wiped each other out, putting the levellers in charge everywhere, to the world’s ruin.”

“Does that hold any lessons for our time?”, I asked.

“From Olympus, the picture could not be more clear,” His Majesty replied. “As we were mesmerized by dynastic quarrels, so your politicians cannot see beyond the state. They think only of states in conflict. Will America be threatened by China? Should India go to war with Pakistan? Is Iran a danger to Israel? They cannot see that states are now all in the same, sinking boat, just as all the dynasties were in 1914.”

“What should states then do?”, I enquired.

“Form an alliance of all states against non-state forces, what you call the Fourth Generation,” the Kaiser answered. “The hour is late, and the state system itself has grown fragile. That is the lesson of America’s quixotic war in Iraq. You destroyed the state there, and now no one can recreate it. That is what will happen almost everywhere when states fight other states. But none of your leaders can see it, because they, too, are time-blinded. It is the human condition.”

* Since you ask: in addition to being one of the top experts around on counter-insurgency and fourth generation warfare, William Lind is also an ardent Prussian monarchist.  Consequently, he marks the birthday of Kaiser Wilhelm II (“my reporting senior and lawful sovereign”) with a column each year in which he records a conversation with that leader’s ghost.  Previous editions are highly recommended – e.g. here and here.

Get us out of this mess…

I’ve been in Japan today, speaking at ‘Reforming International Institutions – Meeting the Challenges of the 21st Century’,  a seminar organized by the United Nations University and the British Embassy in Japan.

You can download my talk here (with pictures, references etc) – or the text only is available below the jump. There’s a webcast too.

Headlines:

  • It’s going to be a tough year. The financial meltdown has a long way to go, and the downturn is risking turning into a global depression.
  • Trade is a bell wether. Protectionist pressures are already on the rise. If they gain traction, take that as a warning of a wider loss of confidence in global institutions.
  • The unravelling of global economic imbalances could prove corrosive to the international order. If countries start to devalue to protect exports, expect a tit-for-tat dynamic to kick in.
  • Scarcity issues (energy, water, land, food, atmospheric space for emissions) remain the key medium term driver of global change. Commodity prices will spike again as soon as there’s recovery.
  • The downturn has stemmed the uncontrolled growth of emissions, but also lessened the chance of a robust global deal on climate.
  • Economic bad times could well drive increased conflict. A major new security threat might be the fabled black swan – hitting just when the global immune system is already overloaded.
  • If we experience a long crisis (or a chain of interlinked crises), we are likely to see either a significant loss of trust in the system (globalization retreats), or a significant increase in trust (interdependence increases). 
  • You need to stretch time horizons to get the latter – shared awareness (joint analysis of risks and challenges), as a basis for shared platforms (loose coalitions of leaders), which can lobby for a shared operating system (a new international institutional architecture).
  • 2009 sets a challenging agenda for the G20 (financial reform and economic recovery – but framed by a broader vision on climate, resources, security etc.)…
  • …the G8 (caucus of rich countries able to tee up Copenhagen and kick start development assistance if developing countries begin to teeter)…
  • …the UN (especially Ban Ki-Moon’s proposed high level ‘friend’s group’ on climate, but also as a fora for getting to grips with scarcity issues)…
  • and the Bretton Woods institutions and the WTO (first of all ensuring they keep their heads above water, then looking to ‘save globalization from itself’).
  • Oh and be ready for the backlash – people are angry and rightfully so, but that may well lead us down some populist blind alleys.

Continue reading

The Tories and DFID

As everyone waits to see what Obama plans to do about reforming foreign assistance in the US, back here in Britain change is in the air too: the Conservatives are coming clean about what they really think about DFID, the Department for International Development.

For a while now, there have been whispers that the Tories don’t really buy into the idea of an independent DFID – and that perhaps (gasp!) they might be considering merging it back into the Foreign Office, where it resided until 1997. Well, following last week’s Independent interview with Conservative aid spokesman Andrew Mitchell, we can put that notion to rest: “We are very committed to DFID continuing as an independent department of state”, says he.

So, a ringing endorsement of DFID, then?  Er, not quite.  Here’s the full context:

The shadow International Development Secretary, Andrew Mitchell, said DFID had begun to encroach on the work of other departments and to come “perilously close” to setting its own foreign policy, a role he said should be reserved for the Foreign Office. He said the Foreign Office will be given much greater influence over the use of overseas aid should the Tories win the next election …

“There are times when DFID comes perilously close to pursuing its own foreign policy and that is not right,” Mr Mitchell said. “Foreign policy is decided by the government and the Cabinet, led by the Foreign Office, and DFID should not be an alternative to this. We are very committed to DFID continuing as an independent department of state. But we would make it more of a specialised development department and a little less like an aid agency,” he said.

That left me wondering just which specific instances Mitchell was thinking of in arguing that DFID was coming close to having its own foreign policy.  Iraq? Afghanistan? Climate change? (Thinking that Paul Wolfowitz might not be such a great idea for President of the World Bank?) Sadly, we don’t know.  Earlier today I called his office to ask him to elaborate, but he declined to say more.

This is a shame, on two counts. First, because it’s a cop out.  For the Opposition front bench spokesman on international development to argue that the Department he shadows has come ‘close to pursuing its own foreign policy’ is a serious claim – and one which he ought to be prepared to substantiate.  To fail to do so leaves him open to accusations of offering soundbites rather than reasoned argument.

More fundamentally, though, it’s a shame that Andrew Mitchell wouldn’t elaborate because this debate needs to be had.   Continue reading

Bretton Woods II – let’s remember the last time

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In last month’s New Atlantic, James Fallows had a fascinating interview with Gao Xiqing, Chief Investment Officer at China’s sovereign investment fund, and the man responsible for a significant chunk of China’s huge holdings of American dollars.

Gao – who Fallows dubs one of the US’s new banking overlords – thinks Americans need to learn some humility and fast.

“The simple truth today is that your economy is built on the global economy,” he says, “and it’s built on the support, the gratuitous support, of a lot of countries. So why don’t you come over and … I won’t say kowtow [with a laugh], but at least, be nice to the countries that lend you money.”

The US should disentangle itself from expensive overseas conflicts, Gao believes, raise its diplomatic game, and – above all – tell its citizens to get saving as part of a “long-term, sustainable financial policy.”

It’s all well and good, but maybe Fallows should have pushed Gao a little harder on whether China’s own financial policy is sustainable. After all, despite recent appreciation, the yuan remains substantially under-valued against both the dollar and the euro – the main reason why the Chinese has ended up holding so much Western debt.

Gao’s comments on the dollar are somewhat contradictory (and reflect all the ambiguity of China’s own dollar position). On the one hand, it defends its status as a reserve currency. The US is still the most viable and predictable market, he says. But on the other, Chinese investment in the dollar is widely unpopular at home. According to Gao, China’s citizens ‘hate’ its support of rich Americans (“people eating shark fins”) at the expense of “poor [Chinese] people eating porridge.”

More significant than public pressure, perhaps, is Gao’s belief that the dollar is highly likely to lose value over the short to medium term (with a corresponding appreciation for the yuan). This will wipe billions of Chinese reserves (reserves that have only been built up through consumption foregone) – while challenging China’s export-led growth model:

We are not quite at the bottom yet. Because we don’t really know what’s going to happen next. Everyone is saying, “Oh, look, the dollar is getting stronger!” [As it was at the time of the interview.] I say, that’s really temporary. It’s simply because a lot of people need to cash in, they need U.S. dollars in order to pay back their creditors.

But after a short while, the dollar may be going down again. I’d like to bet on that! The overall financial situation in the U.S. is changing, and that’s what we don’t know about. It’s going to be changed fundamentally in many ways.

Unravelling these imbalances seems certain to be ugly. Reading George Cooper’s book, The Origin of Financial Crises, on a plane the other day, I was struck by strong parallels between today’s economic woes, and a crisis we have heard little about recently – the ‘Nixon Shock’ that led to the end of the Bretton Woods system. Continue reading