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The ISIS Challenge Online: When Twitter Becomes Anti-Social Media

The Buzz

The so-called “Islamic State” owes more to Stalin than to Muhammad.

For the millions of Arabs suffering under its rule in Syria and Iraq, IS (also known as ISIS) publicly beats women for accidentally exposing a stray strand of hair, cuts off the fingers of old men caught smoking cigarettes, marks the houses of Christians and other religious minorities so that they can be killed.

No offense seems too small for ISIS not to punish harshly. Merely uttering of the word “Da’ish” — the Arabic acronym for “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria,” a nomenclature the organization rejects — is punishable by stoning.

While the reality on the ground is harsh, the view of cyberspace is oddly attractive to too many Westerners.

ISIS has won hundreds of thousands of followers and fans on Twitter and Facebook. Its seventh-century views are promoted through a deft social-media campaign: Jihadists from all over the world now holed up in ISIS territory transmit Tweets calling for new recruits in their respective native tongues. YouTube clips of masked men beheading Western hostages give the group an outlaw allure among young people in Europe and America.

And it works. Hundreds of British subjects and French citizens have left their comfortable lands to make dangerous journeys into war-torn Syria, where more than 200,000 civilians have been killed and millions displaced since 2011.

How can a free society counter such a cyber campaign?

Part of the answer lies beyond the realm of social media itself. Governments must wage information campaigns to dissuade Westerners from joining ISIS in the first place and police and intelligence services must track down those who do join nevertheless.

Social policy is also part of the solution. Studies of the life stories of Europeans and Americans who eagerly join ISIS point to a range of factors that made them vulnerable to the group’s call. They are desperate for the sense of meaning that comes from being part of a larger struggle. Western society has taken away so much responsibility from school- and college-aged youth; many Western recruits talk about wanting to make their own decisions and do something that they choose. Others report that they feel comforted by the total ideological embrace of radical doctrines. The creed’s severity—in direct opposition to liberal society’s notion that the individual can do whatever he chooses provided he doesn’t harm others—is part of the attraction. Still others report that their immigrant statuses make them feel as if they don’t belong in the Muslim lands that their parents left and don’t belong in the wild Western lands in which they now live. Joining ISIS takes them out of the uncomfortable middle ground. So a radical imam’s incendiary exhortations give them a sense of belonging, a side.

Addressing these matters requires cultural, political and social interventions that will entail coordination among government, domestic religious leaderships and mental-health institutions.

But the biggest part of the solution to anti-social social media lies not on the ground, but in cyberspace itself, where old-fashioned tools of warfare need to be reimagined. Traditional notions of deterrence do not have obvious utility in a campaign to counter social-media activity by a terror group.

Still, Western intelligence agencies appear to have stumbled upon one possible solution—a way of using advanced hacking techniques to force ISIS activists to pay an intolerably high price for some of their Tweets. Among the many boastful Tweets and blog entries posted from ISIS territory, some appear to have provided valuable intelligence to Western governments at war with ISIS, including the locations of hidden military targets.

Many of these telltale admissions were unconscious ones by ISIS recruits. Darien Kindlund, director of threat research at the American cybersecurity company FireEye, notes that metadata available through social media “… can contain information about the identity of the author, when the content was created/modified, and potentially reveal location information around where the content was authored.”

ISIS has noticed that its online sword is indeed double-edged. ISIS now warns its followers that the amount of documents and files that they are posting via social media could expose ISIS targets and, as ISIS leaders put it, the “data that could turn your hair gray.”

To the extent that some of ISIS’ “soldiers” of social media have grown fearful and reluctant to post new material—which appears to be the case—the siphoning of intelligence information from a social-media campaign does constitute a form of deterrence.

There also needs to be an offensive campaign via social media. It would necessarily include, on the one hand, a campaign of videos, Tweets and other postings that expose the hypocrisy of the ISIS ideology and how it strays from normative Islamic teachings. But truly regaining the initiative would entail the use of social media to reframe the broader discussion of Islam and Jihadism.

The United States has new technological capacities to analyze hundreds of millions of social-media messages by jihadists dating back to 2001, according to recent congressional testimony by Dr. Dafna Hochman Rand of the Center for a New American Security. Such analysis would enable the United States and its allies to more thoroughly understand the flow of ideas and map the successes and failures of competing arguments and narratives about religion and political violence online.

Once the patterns are analyzed, a new creative campaign could be organized to bring moderate religious leaders together with artists, writers and musicians. They would collaborate to construct a new narrative about the role of Islam in the future of Syria, Iraq and the broader Arab region. Where ISIS butchers tweet the joys of carnage, their opponents would tweet the virtues of civil society and understanding. Where ISIS beheads an innocent, its opponents would use art to breathe new life into the true teachings of Islam’s beloved prophet. And where ISIS spews hatred of all non-Muslims, as well as Muslims who disagree with them, its opponents would make the case that peaceful coexistence is the only answer to the turmoil of the Arab world today.

Singapore offers a compelling model upon which to build. When that city-state saw a substantial influx of radical religious teachers, its intelligence services quickly realized that they were too numerous to monitor or to arrest, and instead sparked a backlash. Instead, they launched a public-information campaign to demonstrate how radical groups have strayed from Islam. Osama bin Laden gave his fighters permission to drink alcohol, they pointed out, when Islam teaches no one has the power to ignore divine commands. They connected radical groups to dictatorial and unpopular nations. And so on. Calling on people to be good citizens or avoid violence simply won’t work. Engaging radical Islamic ideology directly and pointing out its internal contradictions and flaws does work.

Other models come from the Arab world. The so-called “prison debates” in Egypt—in which former radicals openly argued with active terrorists—and the televised debates in Tunisia between Jihadists and genuine Islamic scholars show that the radicals usually lose these intellectual fights. Why not host such debates online?

If we do nothing, Westerners will keep getting on planes to join ISIS and civilians in both the West and East will keep getting killed.

Ahmed Charai is publisher of the weekly Moroccan newspaper L'Observateur and president of MED Radio, a national broadcast network in Morocco, MEDTV network and chairman of the board of Al-Ahdath al-Maghrebiya Arabic daily newspaper. As an expert on Morocco and North Africa, he sits on the Board of Trustees of the Foreign Policy Research Institute and the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. He is a member of The National Interest's Advisory Council.

Image: Flickr/Creative Commons. 

TopicsISIS

Australia Can Lead the G20 Back to Economic Freedom

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President Obama and other G20 leaders should listen carefully this weekend (Nov. 15-16) in Brisbane, because Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott has a powerful story to tell them about economic revival.

Abbott hopes to focus the gathered heads of state— representing some 80 per cent of the world’s Gross Domestic Product—on how to boost economic growth because, as he says, stronger economic growth is the key to addressing almost every global problem.  Growing economies tend to produce more jobs, better infrastructure, freer trade and greater international co-operation.

Australia is already leading by example, inking job-creating free trade agreements with Korea and Japan.  Abbott took office just 14 months ago. Since then, Australia—a country of fewer than 24 million—has created 110,000 net new jobs. Meanwhile, gross domestic product (GDP) has grown at an annualized rate exceeding three percent.

While the Abbott government actively pursues free trade, the Obama administration has dragged its feet. It blocked approval of Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) negotiated in 2007 with South Korea, Colombia and Panama, then spent nearly four years renegotiating them. It has also dragged out negotiations for Trans-Pacific and Trans-Atlantic FTAs, and made no attempt to push an FTA for Brazil. Its support of the pro-market “Pacific Alliance” trade area of Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Mexico, Panama and Peru has been lukewarm at best.

On the home front, President Obama has followed the EU mega-welfare-state model, ramped up government spending, and added onerous layers of regulation. In the latter area, the U.S. president has far outdone the Europeans.

The Competitive Enterprise Institute reports that the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations (CFR)—the "codification of the general and permanent rules published in the Federal Register by the departments and agencies of the Federal Government"—filled 175,496 pages by the end of 2013.  In Brussels, the “Acquis”—the European Union’s rough equivalent to the CFR—tops out at roughly 170,000 pages.

What’s worse, under Obama the CFR has been growing. According to the Competitive Enterprise Institute, 63 Federal departments, agencies and commissions issued 3,659 rules last year, yet Congress passed and the President signed just 72 laws. That’s a ratio of 51 new regulations for every new law!  Overall, in his first five years in office President Obama added 17,522 pages of regulations to the CFR, an 11 percent increase in the size of the regulatory state.

The Abbott government, however, has gone in the other direction.  Under its twice-yearly “Red Tape Repeal Day” it has now eliminated more than 57,000 pages of unnecessary red tape under a plan expected to save Australian taxpayers at least $2 billion per year.  Although the mechanics of regulation are different in the U.S. and Australia, there can be no mistaking the starkly different approaches of the Obama and Abbott governments.  Obama wants to grow the administrative state, while Abbott wants to rein it in.

Perhaps PM Abbott’s most exciting move to date has been his government’s repeal of carbon and mining taxes.  Such regressive taxes destroy jobs, retard economic growth, and fall most heavily on the poor. Even sadder, they don’t make a dent in global greenhouse gas emissions and therefore have no noticeable impact on global temperatures.

In short, the Aussies are busily taking steps to grow their economy. Meanwhile, the U.S. economy remains hamstrung by the unworkable complexities of Obamacare, a heavy-handed, top-down approach to financial regulations, wrong-headed energy and environmental policies, and a whole host of other problems that have resulted from too much government.

Much of the EU faces the same problems, and for the same reasons.  A voracious appetite for spending by EU governments is eating up nearly 45 percent of GDP.

Prime Minister Abbott wants other G20 countries to send the same message to their citizens that he is sending to Australians, that the country is open for business—not hostile to it.

After last week’s midterm elections, President Obama said that he had heard the message delivered to him by the American people.  Let’s hope he listens to our friends down under, too.

James M. Roberts is a Research Fellow For Economic Freedom and Growth at the Heritage Foundation. Before joining Heritage in 2007, Roberts served in the State Department for 25 years. As a Foreign Service Officer, he completed tours of duty at U.S. embassies in Mexico, Portugal, France, Panama and Haiti. He also worked on a wide variety of international trade issues and helped to coordinate major U.S. assistance programs, including efforts to reform Eastern Europe economies and to reconstruct Iraq.

TopicsG20 RegionsAustralia

Green Politics: Could This Be the Secret to Saving Obama’s Legacy?

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Judged by his achievements to date, President Obama will not be remembered as a successful foreign policy president.  Yet there are signs that administration officials still hope to rescue a positive legacy for the president in the guise of energy and environmental policy.  Through a combination of domestic policies and international agreements, the White House might yet bequeath some policy triumphs of lasting significance.  Unfortunately, however, the political pathway to success will not be easy for Obama’s team even in this chosen area of focus.

It is a truism that presidents in their second term turn to foreign policy as a way to cement a legacy for themselves.  Partly, it is argued, this is because second-term presidents suffer from waning influence in the domestic arena as their political capital dwindles and attention gravitates towards who will be the next to occupy the White House.  Six years into his presidency, President Obama certainly lacks the kind of clout in domestic politics that he began with, the Democrats having lost control of the House in 2010 and the Senate in last week’s elections and with Obama’s personal approving rating leaving much to be desired.

Chief executives looking to inject some energy into their presidencies are also said to be inclined towards international affairs because of the supposed leeway that the commander-in-chief enjoys over matters of foreign policy.  This notion was best captured by political scientist Aaron Wildavsky in his 1966 article, “The Two Presidencies,” in which Wildavsky argued that U.S. presidents are severely constrained by constitutional checks and balances when it comes to domestic policy-making but are veritable Caesars when it comes to their authority over the country’s conduct on the world stage.  How else to leave an imprint on the political landscape when gridlock in Washington prevents progress on domestic issues?

Is Obama trying to leverage this fabled outward face of the presidency to craft a lasting legacy for himself?  There are signs to suggest that he is.  Earlier this year, for example, the White House used executive orders to expand the scope of federal conservation zones in the Asia-Pacific in a move that was explicitly framed in terms of the Administration’s broader policy on climate change: “The pristine waters [of the U.S.-controlled Pacific Remote Islands] provide a baseline comparison for important scientific research that monitors and evaluates impacts of global climate change,” the Administration insisted, “including benchmarking coral bleaching and ocean acidification.”

More dramatically, the president this week revealed a quietly negotiated deal with China over cuts to carbon emissions.  While skeptics have pointed out the underwhelming scope of China’s commitment under the new agreement, the size of America’s undertaking is ambitious and headline-grabbing, sure to appease the president’s supporters at home and likely to buoy his relevance as an international leader amid criticism that the Administration is a spent force.

All of this pales in comparison to the lucrative opportunities on offer next year at the upcoming United Nations Climate Change Conference to be held in Paris.  After the failure of Copenhagen, the Paris conference will represent a somewhat last ditch opportunity for President Obama to inspire, coordinate and close a broad-based and far-reaching deal on climate change.  The result could be an international agreement more significant than even the Kyoto Protocol, especially if Obama is able to fully invest the United States in the agreement and ensure the compliance of other large-scale emitters of greenhouse gases.

The problem for the White House, however, is that Wildavsky’s “two presidencies thesis” is somewhat overblown.  That is, U.S. presidents do not wield unlimited power when it comes to foreign policy.  Instead, and as James Lindsay among others has pointed out, Congress possesses several important levers with which to interfere with and even overrule a president’s foreign policy agenda.  The Administration’s abject nervousness that Congress might initiate legislation to undercut negotiations with Iran is testament to this fact.

As Paul Pillar has already noted, the domestic process of converting international agreements on climate change and energy will throw up some “formidable” obstacles to Obama making good on his pledges regarding energy and environmental policy.  Public spending on renewable energy technologies and new measures to restrict the use of fossil fuels will not be slam dunks with Republican lawmakers, and not every roadblock in Washington can be circumnavigated via executive action.  The bottom line?  President Obama will need to work across the aisle if his climate change agenda is to amount to more than restricting tuna fishing in the Pacific Remote Islands.

Image: Flickr/Creative Commons. 

TopicsEnvironment RegionsUnited States

Breaking Down Obama’s Big China Win at APEC: It's Not What You Think

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Let’s be clear, the United States won big this week, but not for the reasons most people think. The media and China analysts have focused overwhelmingly on the climate deal, touting the new commitments from both the United States and China as exceptional, even “historic.” But this is missing the forest for the trees. The real win for U.S. President Barack Obama is keeping China in the tent or, in political science speak, reinforcing Beijing’s commitment to the liberal international order.

To be sure, the climate “deal” is no small deal. The joint announcement—and for the sake of clarity, let’s note that there is no real deal here, just two separate pledges presented together—represents an important step forward for both countries. President Obama has committed the United States to deeper cuts in CO2 emissions than previously put forth, and Chinese President Xi Jinping has promised that China’s emissions will peak around 2030. But it doesn’t get the world where it needs to be with regard to climate change, and many climate experts in both countries appear to agree that much more can and needs to be done by both countries.

The real takeaway from the Obama-Xi meetings at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit is that China has put itself back in the U.S. game. The entirety of the package—extending visas, establishing rules of the road for maritime and air encounters in the western Pacific, reducing or eliminating tariffs on as many as two hundred information technology goods, and pledging to do more on climate change—is a win for the United States. That doesn’t mean it is not a win for China too; it is. It is just a win that binds China more deeply to U.S.-backed international security, trade, and environmental regimes.

Keeping China in the tent is no small achievement. Over the past two years, since he assumed power, President Xi has pursued a China vision of world order, evincing much more interest in flouting established rules of the road than in buttressing them. He has moved to enforce China’s maritime claims—recognized by no other party—in the East and South China Seas; proposed an Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank that could compete with the World Bank and Asian Development Bank; offered up a new regional security architecture in Asia that would exclude the United States; and initiated an Asia-Pacific–wide free trade agreement that threatens to upend President Obama’s drive to complete the U.S.-backed trade agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

The APEC summit does not represent a strategic change for China but a tactical one. Xi is not stepping back from any of his own efforts to establish competing institutions; indeed, he underscored his plans during his joint press conference with President Obama. The U.S.-China relationship will thus continue to be a challenging one underpinned by two competing visions of global order. Nonetheless, the White House can rightly claim a significant win for its China and broader Asia strategy. The pivot has proved its worth; it is here to stay.

This piece appears courtesy of CFR's Asia Unbound blog. 

Image: White House Flickr. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsChina

12 People to Follow on Twitter for the Iran Talks

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It’s fish-or-cut-bait time in the Iran nuclear talks, with the deadline for an agreement now less than two weeks away. Events are moving quickly. How can you prepare for the flurry of coverage as the deadline draws closer? And who should you listen to, knowing that every pundit with a pulse will soon be playing Iran expert? Here are some of the key voices to watch on Twitter—journalists, wonks, wags, and others—who actually know what they're talking about.

Laura Rozen

A veteran of Iran talks coverage who’s written for many outlets (presently, Al Monitor), Rozen’s feed is a clearinghouse for the most recent information on the talks.

Arash Karami

Another Al Monitor journalist, Karami keeps a close watch on the Persian-language press and has a great eye for the oddities that sometimes turn up in it.

Ariane Tabatabai

An associate at Harvard’s prestigious Belfer Center, Tabatabai has an excellent grasp of both the technical side of the talks and their day-to-day development. Her October analysis of just how many centrifuges Iran and the West will accept is a good example of how useful this combined perspective can be.

The Institute for Science and International Security

Headed by physicist David Albright, ISIS is a tiny outfit with a big voice in Washington. Its assessments of International Atomic Energy Agency reports cut through the bureaucratese, highlighting what’s new and charting Iran’s progress. Their consistent calls for stricter monitoring make it hard to say whether Tehran should be more worried about Albright’s ISIS, or Al Baghdadi’s.

Sam Cutler

Any deal will see major adjustments to the Western sanctions on Iran. And there are few who know the sanctions in more detail than Cutler, who works at a law firm that specializes in sanctions litigation.

Mark Dubowitz

What ISIS is to the technical side of the talks, Dubowitz is to the sanctions side, appearing regularly on Capitol Hill and in the press. Dubowitz has been a tough critic of the Obama administration’s conduct of the talks, arguing that the sanctions relief granted under the initial framework agreement sharply reduced Western leverage, allowing Iran to stabilize its economy and take its time in talks.

Reza Marashi

Marashi serves as the research director of the National Iranian American Council, one of the main organizations opposing the current sanctions regime. He’s already practicing a “celebration dance” for the possible deal.

Mohammad Ali Shabani

The London-based former editor of the Iranian Review of Foreign Affairs and an alum of the Center for Strategic Research (headed until last year by a Dr. Hassan Rouhani), Shabani is one of the most active Iranian voices in the English-language Twitter conversation on Iran.

Abas Aslani

Aslani directs international coverage at the hardline Tasnim News Agency and has served in a similar role at the more (in)famous Fars News Agency. Expect him to be at the final rounds of talks, and expect him to get good access to the Iranian negotiating team.

Iran Nuclear Energy

The social media account of a website defending the Iranian nuclear program. A steady stream of quotes from Iranian officials and details of the logistics of the talks.

Matt Lee

The tenacious Associated Press diplomatic reporter is often the first one to get a quote from the State Department when news is breaking. He’ll also fill you in on the latest Buffalo Sabres developments.

Eskandar Sadeghi-Boroujerdi

A scholar of Iran’s Reformist movement whose feed is a good mix of pressing developments and deeper analysis.

So there you have it: a dozen accounts that’ll keep you up to speed on the Iran talks. (If twelve isn’t enough, you can follow me, too.) November 24, the deadline under the current framework, can’t come soon enough!

TopicsNuclear Proliferation RegionsIran

U.S.-Taiwanese Relations After the Midterms: A Unique Opportunity

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On the 35th anniversary of the Taiwan Relations Act, I argued in The National Interest and at an event at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) that our relationship with Taiwan has suffered from benign neglect for far too long. Sustaining a productive partnership with Taiwan is critical to the success of U.S. strategic goals in the Asia-Pacific region. Unfortunately, the Obama administration still needs to do more to reinvigorate the bilateral relationship. It should work directly with Taiwan to actively promote peace and stability in Asia; strengthen the bilateral economic and trade relationship; preserve democracy, human rights, and media freedom; reopen blocked channels of communication; and facilitate meaningful participation in international organizations.

Will Republican majorities in the House and Senate benefit Taiwan in concrete ways? It’s hard to say. On the one hand, Congress is able to successfully speak out on sensitive bilateral issues that are more difficult for the administration to address directly and forcefully in public. In recent years, Congress has also held a number of public hearings focusing on various aspects of the U.S.-Taiwan relationship. The previous generation of Congressional Taiwan hands pushed for the island to respect human rights and democratic norms during the White Terror. Yet, China’s increasingly aggressive behavior is demonstrating to a new generation of Congressmen and women that the United States must support Taiwan’s continued democratic consolidation and international diplomatic breathing space as well as promote enhanced bilateral economic and security relations. These are nevertheless all largely bipartisan efforts.

Perhaps the strongest potential benefit of a Republican Congress is enhanced support for the Asian rebalance and regional trade agreements. If the GOP leadership can facilitate the renewal of Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), then it might ultimately hasten Taiwan’s ability to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership or signal the possibility of a bilateral free trade agreement (FTA) in the future. According to the Congressional Research Service, while “TPA is not necessary to begin or even conclude trade negotiations… it is widely understood to be a key element of defining congressional authority, and of passing trade agreement implementing legislation. Therefore, its renewal can be construed as signaling serious congressional support for moving ahead with trade negotiations.” Although both the United States and Taiwan would need to commit to serious negotiations before either of these potential trade agreements could come to fruition, having a trade-friendly Congress is a positive first step.

On the other hand, although Congress has the capacity to pass laws that address specific bilateral problems—for example, mandating that the Senate must confirm the position of the American Institute in Taiwan director, our de facto ambassador in Taipei—it is the arguably the White House National Security Council and U.S. Department of State that have the greatest role in shaping, implementing, and managing Taiwan policy. It is thus unlikely that shifts in the political makeup of Congress will have a substantial effect on the overall contours of our bilateral relationship.

Although many members of Congress would undoubtedly like to pay greater attention to the Asia-Pacific region, developing a strategy to combat and destroy ISIL will remain a high priority for both the executive and legislative branches of government. Opportunities for pragmatic engagement with Asia—including Taiwan—will nevertheless emerge. Scholars, policy experts, and the American public at large must remain ready to grasp these opportunities as we work with our partners around the globe to secure long-term peace and stability.

When the 114th Congress convenes in January 2015, it would behoove them to think critically about the ways in which U.S. policymakers can leverage Taiwan’s strengths to enhance the proper functioning and effectiveness of the Asian rebalance. Washington cannot rely on traditional military allies alone. Our leaders must engage in robust, transparent, and honest dialogue with counterparts in Taipei to discuss how the island can help counter military threats from Beijing. Congressional leaders should also focus on bolstering our bilateral trade relationship while helping Taiwan lay the groundwork to enter into TPP negotiations. Diversification represents the key to Taiwan’s future growth, and is necessary to hedge against systematic risk from China.

The relationship between Taipei and Washington rests on a firm and durable foundation. Yet, a new generation of lawmakers has a unique opportunity to re-envision and reinvigorate the U.S.-Taiwan strategic and economic relationship during a pivotal and transformative period in our two nations’ development. The time is now to reaffirm our shared values and mutual stake in promoting a peaceful and prosperous Asia-Pacific region.

Julia Famularo is an International Security Studies Fellow at Yale University.

Editor’s Note: Excerpts of this article first appeared in Ketagalan Media Debrief here.

Image: Flickr/Creative Commons. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsTaiwan

The Secret Sauce: If China Wants to Lead Asia, Here Is How

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Recently the growing rivalry between the United States and China seems to be spilling over into the economic and institutional arenas. The US is leading the push for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a new regional free-trade agreement which excludes China. And Beijing appears to be implementing a new strategy for transforming its own economic strength into regional leadership.

Whereas China previously used bilateral channels to build relationships and acquire influence, it’s now leading multilateral initiatives, headlined by the US$50 billion Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and US$40 billion Silk Road Fund—the latter planning to build a network of trade-and-transport infrastructure linking China to Central and South Asia, the Middle East and Europe. Those initiatives have the potential to eclipse the World Bank and Asian Development Bank as the dominant multilateral lending institutions in Asia, shaking the foundations of the regional order set up by the United States following World War II.

Beijing is also pushing back on the multilateral trade front, securing an agreement from APEC leaders for a two-year study of a Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific. The FTAAP could become a direct competitor to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the central economic component of the Obama Administration’s rebalance to Asia.

There’s a clear strategic logic to China’s multilateral approach. The existing system is a product of US leadership and undeniably favours American interests, but it’s also open, rule-based, and structured around institutions. As John Ikenberry has argued, countries accepted American leadership in part because they were given a say in how the regional order was built and maintained.

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China has recognized that it can’t join (or replace) the United States as a regional leader without offering a degree of continuity with current arrangements. States around the region have flourished under the stability, certainty and reciprocity of the existing order, and are unwilling to give up its cooperative and collaborative aspects, even if they’d receive billions in development assistance in return.

Leadership can’t simply be bought with economic largesse. Economic incentives are certainly a good way to begin a political realignment, but they’re rarely enough to conclude one. An essential ingredient is lacking—security. The American order ultimately endured because it made the majority of governments and peoples in the region feel secure (admittedly with some notable exceptions). Washington’s great achievement was to lead without seeming to threaten countries’ core interests in sovereignty, security and autonomy. The alliance network was a critical ingredient in that accomplishment, not just because it offered security against external threats, but because alliances helped America manage its bilateral relationships, providing reassurance and making American power more “predictable and user-friendly.”

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Countries will oppose the leadership of a great power under whom, for whatever reason, they feel insecure. And despite its lucrative economic offerings, China is making many in the region nervous. Escalation of China’s maritime disputes in the East and South China Seas, Xi Jinping’s declaration that “security in Asia should be maintained by Asians themselves,” and outbursts by senior officials at regional fora, all raise doubts over whether China’s displacing of the United States would necessarily be in the region’s best interests.

Reassurance is the key to leadership. If it wants to lead, China needs to convince its neighbors that it doesn’t pose a threat to their fundamental security interests. The mantle of leadership will burden the rising power with a series of costly choices. Will China exercise power forcefully and arbitrarily, or with restraint and rule-based commitments? Will China act to maximize its short-term interests, or make beneficent sacrifices in the name of long-term stability? Is China a security threat, or can it be a security provider?

No one said leading was easy.

This piece first appeared in ASPI's Strategist here

TopicsSecurity RegionsChina

China and America: Raising the Bar on Climate Change

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It’s official: the United States and China have reached a mutual agreement on global warming. President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping together pledged to take significant steps to reduce their respective countries’ contribution to climate change.  The U.S. agreed to deepen emissions reductions from 17% to 26-28% over 2005 levels by 2025, while China pledged to peak its carbon dioxide emissions by 2030.  Although the agreement was expected, the announcement represents a landmark achievement that promises to transcend the divide between developed and developing countries that has long hamstrung global climate negotiations.  Moreover, the announcement contains a number of creative initiatives that can help deepen U.S.-China cooperation to address climate change.  But neither side can be complacent. To realize the promise of this week’s accord, Washington must strengthen engagement with other major economies, and ensure that measures are in place to make Beijing’s commitments credible.

What makes this week’s agreement so important is that it represents the first time that a major developed country and a large developing country have mutually committed to limiting or reducing carbon dioxide emissions, the principal cause of climate change.  It also effectively buries the hatchet between the United States and China over the climate issue – in 1997, Washington withdrew from negotiations over the Kyoto Protocol, the world’s only binding international agreement to limit carbon emissions, citing China’s refusal to limit its own emissions.  Subsequently, American inaction gave China and other large developing countries a convenient excuse to avoid making commitments on climate change.  With Obama and Xi’s agreement, this Sino-American deadlock has been broken.  But now comes the hard part – Washington must translate this bilateral achievement into a new multilateral agreement to replace the Kyoto Protocol, currently scheduled to expire in 2020.

In order to build on this momentum, both the United States and China must engage other large economies in order to ensure a new agreement covers all major sources of climate change.  Among these, India is a crucial player.  Its emissions are increasing rapidly, and are expected to surpass those of the European Union by 2019.  Despite this, India has long resisted even discussion of limiting its emissions, claiming, and not without reason, that poverty reduction and expanding access to energy must come first.  But China’s agreement to limit its own emissions denies New Delhi its most convenient source of political cover, and puts its own climate policy in the spotlight.  The United States and China should leverage their recent announcement to press India to act aggressively on climate change, and help to conclude a new global climate treaty over the next year.

At the same time that Washington should leverage its agreement with Beijing, it must also ensure that China builds the capacity to make its commitments credible.  Keeping track of emissions, referred to as measurement, reporting, and verification (MRV) is challenging for all large economies, but China has a patchy track record in this area.  Several years ago, a massive, long-running scam was uncovered in which Chinese factories deliberately increased emissions of greenhouse gases, and then charged foreign firms to reduce them under an emissions-offset program.  Other countries will be hesitant to new emissions commitments unless they can be assured such incidents won’t be repeated by others.  Accordingly, the United States must continue to work with China to increase its capacity to accurately track and certify its greenhouse gas emissions.             

Indeed, although news headlines focused on emissions targets, the fine print of the U.S. – China joint announcement offers the greatest promise for this kind of strengthened cooperation on climate change. Other areas covered by the agreement include new partnerships linking water scarcity and sustainable energy, a demonstration project for carbon capture and storage (CCS), and a sustainable cities initiative. Integrating energy and water issues promises to expand U.S. – China climate cooperation from an almost exclusive focus on emissions mitigation to one that also helps both countries adapt to climate change. Greater cooperation on CCS, meanwhile, will help develop a technology that is needed to help wean the world off fossil fuels by storing carbon dioxide deep underground instead of releasing it into the atmosphere.  The sustainable cities initiative, finally, builds on dynamic sub-national action on climate change in both the United States and China, with the leaders of places as diverse as New York and Jiangsu Province pledging to work together to reduce emissions.  Washington must devote serious resources to ensure that these initiatives fulfill their promise.             

This week’s agreement is the most hopeful sign in years for global efforts to address climate change.  But standing before the cameras was the easy part.  Having set the bar a bit higher, Washington and Beijing must now lead the rest of the world over it.    

Scott Moore is a Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellow, and studies Chinese environmental policy.  

Image: The White House. 

TopicsClimate Change RegionsUnited States

Russia's Naval "Demonstration of Power" in the South Pacific: A Cause for Concern?

The Buzz

One word that keeps cropping up in the recent hysteria about the movement of some Russian ships in the South Pacific is "power." But it is hard to see how that word applies.

Few terms generate more heat and less light in international relations than 'power', but the basic premise is that it involves Actor A behaving in such a way as to get Actor B to do something.

But if that is power, then there is nothing to see here. There is no evidence Russia is seeking to change Australia's behaviour over MH17 or at the G20, nor is there any likelihood that this sea cruise will have any effect on Australia's positions and attitudes.

A more subtle take is that this is not about using power so much as a "demonstration of power." But again, that claim is hard to justify. We already knew Russia spends more than double what Australia does on its defence budget and that it has a moderately large navy. So Russia does not need to demonstrate the existence of these assets. Nor is this a demonstration of willingness or capacity to use those assets. Russia will not use force against Australia because of some harsh words about MH17 or over any other issue on the table today.

This is not like the US sailing an aircraft carrier down the Taiwan Strait in 1996. In that case, the US was going through the motions of what it could do in a war-type situation, on an issue over which it is committed to use force. Some Russian ships hanging around PNG meets none of those criteria.

The takeaway point here is the over-emphasis our society still places on material assets and "hard power." It's visible and easy to count, hence the proliferation of news stories. Everyone knows military power is vital in actual wartime scenarios. But outside of those times, I think we pay it too much attention in understanding how the world works.

As US President Barack Obama stated, Moscow is neither a super or great power, but a regional one. Nothing about this story challenges that claim. Russia has a stagnant economy which has been hit hard by the stock market and international sanctions. No matter how many ships Russia has, the illegitimacy of its actions in Crimea have led the world to punish Moscow in ways that are hurting.

As I've argued in other places, hard power is hard to use and often achieves far less in the international arena than autocratic leaders like to imagine. Twenty-five years ago the Berlin Wall fell and the USSR's military was powerless to stop it. Let's not indulge those who still can't get over this by rewarding the word "power" for what is a mere sea cruise.

This piece was first posted on The Interpreter, which is published by the Lowy Institute for International Policy.

TopicsSecurity RegionsRussia

The Current AUMF Debate Is Weird

The Buzz

At some point soon, either in the lame-duck session or early next year, Congress is likely to vote on an Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) against the Islamic State. Recently, there have been a number of proposals, both from legislators and outside experts, about what such an AUMF might look like. The main questions that are up for debate are: Will the law have any geographical or temporal restrictions? How much detail will it go into about what exactly the mission is and what means the executive branch can or cannot use to achieve it? What reporting requirements will it impose on the White House? And will the authorization only deal with the Islamic State, or will Congress revise and update the 2001 AUMF (the basis for the larger “war on terror”) at the same time?

These are all important questions. However, in this post I want to zoom out and make one very general point about just how weird this whole process is. Namely, this entire debate is about a hypothetical AUMF that the White House does not think it needs for a war that started over three months ago.

The United States began conducting limited air strikes against the Islamic State in early August. On September 10, President Obama gave a speech in which he laid out a broader strategy that Washington would pursue in order “to degrade and ultimately destroy” the group. Since then, the White House has maintained that the campaign against the Islamic State is legally supported by both the 2001 AUMF and the 2002 AUMF that authorized the Iraq War. The Obama administration has said on multiple occasions that it would “welcome” congressional support for the ongoing operations, but it has been equally adamant that it doesn’t view such a vote as necessary.

This was made explicit in a press briefing with White House press secretary Josh Earnest last week. Earnest said that Obama believes “that it is beneficial to the broader effort if we send a very clear signal to the international community, both to our allies and to our enemies, that the executive branch and the legislative branch are on the same page when it comes to the strategy.” But, when asked by a reporter if Obama would “press forward with this mission” even in the absence of congressional action, Earnest replied, “That's correct, because Congress has already given him this authority in 2001.” And so the war against the Islamic State will continue whether or not Congress votes for it.

This doesn’t mean that pursuing a new AUMF is a waste of time. The details of what the authorization will actually say matter a great deal. And it would doubtless be an improvement to place the ongoing mission in Iraq and Syria on sound legal footing, rather than basing it on a questionable interpretation of a thirteen-year-old law. But, at the same time, we should all understand just how limited the frame of this debate is. When it comes to what the Pentagon is calling Operation Inherent Resolve, the only real choice members of Congress have is between a war they’ve voted for and a war they haven’t.

TopicsCongressLawDefense RegionsIraqSyria

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