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Great Britain’s Time of Troubles: Why it Matters

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British politics is in a state of flux, with potentially major implications for European unity and transatlantic relations. 

Last month, the United Kingdom came close to dissolution as the Scottish electorate toyed with the idea of striking out alone.  Earlier this year, the UK Independence Party (Ukip) beat all three of the major parties in elections to the European Parliament—the first time in over a century that a party other than the Conservatives and Labour had won the popular vote in a UK-wide election.

There were points during the Scottish referendum campaign that it looked as though the 307-year old union between England and Scotland would be terminated.  Many believe that a decisive slice of Scotland’s voters were persuaded to maintain the status quo only on the promise that Scotland’s devolved parliament at Holyrood would be given extra powers.  As such, the ‘No’ campaign’s victory hardly can be interpreted as a vote of confidence in the British system.  Scots demanded constitutional reform.  What is more, politicians from across the political spectrum undertook to respond.

The defeat of Scotland’s bid for independence, then, offered only momentary respite for those invested in maintaining the Union.  A commitment has been made to rush extra powers for Holyrood.  At the same time, however, the demand for heightened devolution (“devo-max”) in Scotland has been matched by cries of unfairness by politicians in England.  Why should Scotland be afforded greater insulation from politicians in London when English matters are still being voted on by Scottish MPs?  Why is England the only country of the United Kingdom to lack its own devolved assembly?  Although English nationalism has not yet reached fever pitch, there is at least a growing appetite for the entire apparatus of the British state—not just its Scottish elements—to be revisited.  An uneven and unequal distribution of power cannot survive in the long-term.

Sub-national constitutional questions are not the only ones plaguing the Conservative-led government in Westminster, however.  Ever since Ukip won the European elections this summer, the question of Britain’s future in the European Union has been placed firmly at the top of the national agenda.  Ukip is virulently anti-European, with withdrawal from the EU comprising the party’s flagship policy.  Ukip’s stubborn popularity, then, is cause for consternation among the largely pro-European Westminster political elite.  Simply put: many ordinary Britons would like to see the back of Brussels.

The Conservative party in particular finds itself squeezed by the rise of Ukip.  Desperate to win a parliamentary majority next year, the Conservatives can ill afford to hemorrhage votes to the nationalistic Ukip on its right flank.  Two Conservative MPs already have defected to Ukip, their resignations prompting high-profile by-elections when the government would much rather project an image of unity, competence and stability.  Earlier this month, Ukip won its first ever elected Member of Parliament as a result of one of these by-elections.  Analysts predict that the insurgent force could gain as many as 30 seats in the House of Commons next year.

Ukip’s electoral success points to another trend that threatens to undermine the stability of British politics—that is, the country’s long suffering two-party system looks to be in potentially terminal decline.  A third party, the Liberal Democrats, has been in government since 2010.  As noted above, Ukip came first in national polls held this summer.  The Scottish National Party has been the largest party in the Scottish Parliament since 2007.  Nationalists also poll strongly in Wales, while Northern Ireland operates its own party system altogether.  Across Britain, Ukip and other parties such as the Greens—whose numbers have swollen of late—threaten to chip away at the Conservatives’ and Labour’s electoral dominance.

All of these developments should be of concern to Britain’s allies in the North Atlantic.  Britain’s future in Europe is the most obvious potential casualty of the political turbulence.  Ukip and Conservative backbenchers are loudly calling for a referendum on the issue.  The pro-European cause is hardly helped by the ineptitude of Eurocrats in Brussels: unbelievably, EU officials have recently ordered London to contribute an extra £1.7bn ($2.72bn) to the mammoth EU budget, punishment for Britain’s economy having out-performed its continental counterparts.  Cameron has vowed to ignore the request; his Eurosceptic critics argue that the government is powerless to resist.  What might otherwise have been an embarrassing political headache has the potential to become a major catalyst in the present context.  Steering Britain through such tempestuous seas will take great foresight and political leadership.

Britain used to be known as Perfidious Albion because of its reputation as an unreliable ally.  The charge then was that Britain only could be relied upon to pursue its own selfish interests, never to act with honor or altruism.  Today, the country might more accurately be described as Precarious Albion—an unreliable ally not because of perfidy but because of its inability to guarantee a future for itself as a strong and united player at the heart of Europe.  Its domestic political system in flux, Britain risks becoming a rickety transatlantic bridge indeed.

Image: Office of the Prime Minister: UK/Flickr

TopicsDomestic Politics RegionsUnited Kingdom

The Future of War Is Here: Proxy Warfare

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Unconventional warfare isn’t popular among Western strategists these days. Whether it’s supporting insurgent groups (the strict definition) or supporting militias allied with government forces, proxy warfare has a bad reputation. The complex situation in Syria and Iraq isn’t helping matters: the US is struggling to find a reliable proxy in Syria and confidence in Iraq’s security forces and associated militias is low. In a recent editorial in the Canberra Times, Hugh White said, “For half a century America and its allies have been trying to win messy civil wars without fighting themselves and by training and equipping one side or the other. It never works.”

Professor White’s not alone in his dismal assessment. The New York Times’ Mark Mazzetti reports that a recent CIA study came to a similarly dim conclusion—that US efforts at unconventional warfare had little effect on the long-term outcome of conflicts. Despite those conclusions, it’s unwise for strategists prematurely to dismiss the idea of supporting insurgent groups and working with non-state armed groups in both current and future conflicts.

For those who find proxy warfare detestable, its poor record mightn’t seem worrisome. Unfortunately, global trends suggest future conflicts will be characterized by insurgents, militias, and non-state armed groups who’ll be important in determining outcomes. Reports, including the National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends 2030, show that increasingly those groups emerge to fill the security vacuums of failing states. They have easier access to external sources of support. Russia and Iran clearly see proxy warfare as part of their strategic culture. Even most conventional future scenarios—what Douglas MacGregor calls “wars of decision”—will have insurgents seeking to influence outcomes before, during, and after decisive actions. So it’s critical that strategists understand unconventional warfare and how to counter it. No matter how detestable we might find proxy warfare, it does work and our enemies would be happy to use it against us.

The data on supporting insurgent groups helps to illustrate my point. Studies of insurgencies and civil wars consistently demonstrate that external support is the most common enabler of insurgent success and that failure to isolate insurgents from external support is one cause of unsuccessful counterinsurgency campaigns. If external support matters so much in determining the outcome of civil wars, but US and allied efforts have a bad record, what’s the obvious conclusion? The problem isn’t that unconventional warfare doesn’t work; the problem is that we’re not good at it! The US and its allies are either doing something wrong or failing to do something important.

Actually, it’s both. Generally speaking, when supporting insurgent groups in the past, the US and its allies have either committed too little and/or expected too much. It’s important to recognize this failing now and to make a concerted effort to better understand how to incorporate unconventional warfare in future strategy. To be fair, the US and its allies have had some success when they chose to support a side in both insurgent and full-blown civil wars. Successful examples include Afghanistan in the 80s, at the beginning phases of Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001, and in Yugoslavia during World War II to name just a few. (There are more.) However, according to Mazzetti, the report claims that CIA efforts were less effective when insurgent militias fought “without any direct American support on the ground.” That’s a point I’ve emphasized before. Proxy forces will be more effective (and more malleable) when advisors are on the ground and providing them with capability, trust, advice, and support. Proxy forces live in the dangerous reality of civil war and social anarchy, and therefore have different immediate and long-term interests than their sponsors. It’s a principal-agent problem that has to be addressed. If we don’t commit blood and treasure to their cause, we can’t expect to influence their behavior—or the outcome.

Even if the commitment to proxies is strong, there’s also the danger of expecting too much from unconventional warfare strategies. In those cases where the US has been successful in supporting proxies, the desired outcome was broad. In Afghanistan in the 80s the US sought to punish and expel the Soviet Union from Afghanistan and cared little about what came next. Unconventional warfare with the commitment of only material support was good enough for the US, because Pakistani ISI provided the on the ground advice. In Operation Enduring Freedom, material support, in addition to on the ground advice and capability (air power) to the Northern Alliance was enough to defeat the Taliban—albeit not enough to secure the peace. In Yugoslavia during World War II, the objective was simply to keep Hitler’s divisions occupied. In each case, the objectives of unconventional warfare efforts were simple, broad end-states. The more control one expects over the outcome, the greater the need for a comprehensive strategy within which support for insurgents is merely one strand.

The lessons for anyone interested in military strategy are pretty clear. Future conflicts will be filled with sub-state and non-state armed groups. The capability to assess, influence, support, and integrate those entities into operations and strategy is something every credible military force needs to possess. Strategists need to understand those groups in both the context of the conflict at hand and in theory. The ability to influence such groups requires commitment. And, of course, the ability to influence outcomes requires that unconventional warfare efforts be part of a bigger strategy.

Lieutenant Colonel Jan K. Gleiman is an active duty US Army officer and a visiting fellow at ASPI (where this first appeared) from United States Pacific Command. 

Image: U.S. Army Flickr.

TopicsSecurity RegionsUnited States

Why the Hong Kong Student Protest Movement Is in Trouble

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While the Hong Kong protests vanish from the front pages of the press, replaced by other shiny-object foreign-policy issues, they reinforce why meaningful political and economic change in China will remain phantoms in the air for the foreseeable future. The Chinese Communist Party, as many already know, is incestuously tied to business interests in Hong Kong and the mainland. Change to the political system risks wreaking economic havoc on politically tied business interests. Thus, neither business, nor political elites have any reason to alter the current system. The protesters in Hong Kong, specifically the students, are directly challenging this relationship in the territory. This is a commendable effort that, as negotiations this week demonstrated, will ultimately fail in achieving the desired end state. Unfortunately, the students walked right into an ambush this week by engaging in publicly televised negotiations with the Hong Kong government.

Before we explore why the students just bolstered the Hong Kong government’s ability to drive a wedge between them and other Hong Kong interest groups, it is important to highlight some uncomfortable figures about the Special Administrative Region. Hong Kong has the twelfth worst Gini Coefficient in the world. In comparison, mainland China ranks 27, Singapore 32 and the United States 41. Hong Kong is in the company of Haiti, Sierra Leone, Central African Republic, Honduras and Guatemala in this ranking. While Hong Kong only registers 3 percent unemployment, approximately 20 percent of the population lives in poverty. Press reporting indicates that students, as well as religious and political actors are well aware of these economic inequalities.

Representatives of these groups make public statements that suggest they feel Beijing’s political patronage networks are increasingly seizing the economy and limiting the ability of average Hong Kong citizens to improve their stations in life.

The August 2014 announcement by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress to limit the choice of Chief Executive candidates only to those approved by the Hong Kong Election Committee has further increased the sense of political insecurity. While students, Christian religious leaders and longtime Democratic activists believe this ruling jeopardizes Hong Kong’s political future, they do not all agree on a viable alternative solution. The Hong Kong Federation of Students (led by Alex Chow) and Scholarism (led by Joshua Wong) believe that Hong Kong citizens should have the right to directly nominate Chief Executive candidates for election consideration. In 2013, Scholarism created a petition for parties in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council (LegCo) to sign. The petition would demonstrate these parties’ support for direct nominations of Chief Executive candidates by citizens of Hong Kong. No party fully supported Scholarism’s petition. The Democratic Party along with several others refused to sign the petition. These parties believe there is a better solution to nominate Chief Executive candidates than that proposed by Scholarism.

Several Christian religious leaders and other Democratic operatives are throwing their support behind Occupy Central with Love and Peace (Occupy Central). The founders of Occupy Central are both religious representatives in their communities. Benny-Tai is the group’s first leader and a Christian Law professor at the University of Hong Kong. Reverend Chu Yiu-ming is a Baptist leader who is concurrently the new leader of Occupy Central. According to press reporting, members of the Democratic Party, such as founder Martin Lee, support Occupy Central.

Occupy Central started forming in the summer of 2013. By August 2013, the Hong Kong Catholic Diocese used its main publication, Kung Kao Po, to legitimize the use of civil disobedience to force the new Chief Executive’s government to propose a universal suffrage solution. The Diocese claimed that the government had twice put off referencing the issue to Beijing, as called for in the Basic Law; was violating the fundamental rights of the people based on the UN Charter for Human Rights by not developing a universal-suffrage system; and that any proposal must not only offer universal suffrage, but must also include a process of nominating the Chief Executive candidates that allowed for the consideration all opinions.

While the students want direct nominations, other leading political groups want a less disruptive approach to gather opinions. This tension of interests makes it difficult for the Hong Kong government to provide any viable solution that satisfies all groups. What unifies these two movements is their disdain for the voting solution offered by Beijing and what they perceive to be the most recent affront to their lives by Beijing authorities.

This brings us to this week’s negotiations. One early complaint by the students was that the Chief Executive was not engaging in meaningful dialogue with Hong Kong citizens, despite campaign promises. His refusal to come and literally talk with protesters only reinforced this view. Now his government is publicly speaking to the students. While the government offered no roadmap, as the students demanded, it did start laying the groundwork to create the impression that it is sincere about engaging with the students. The goal of the government is to publicly make the students appear stubborn and spoiled, while the government builds the narrative that it is the responsible, grown-up party.

The Hong Kong government’s approach aims to directly show that the students do not have Hong Kong’s economic interests at heart, lack an appreciation for their political rights and have no meaningful solution to offer Hong Kong. This message may resonate with Hong Kong citizens who own small businesses, make their livings driving taxis and are old enough to remember harder economic times.

As noted earlier, the students want direct nominations of Chief Executive candidates and some even want an end to the functional constituencies in the Election Committee. Liberal parties do not agree with this solution. By suggesting publicly that the election rules can change after 2017, the Hong Kong government is attempting to put a carrot in front of these liberal groups. Simultaneously, the government is using the students’ own demands to demonstrate to the public that their interests collide with the political goals of the liberal parties. The students walked right into it—unfortunately.

At the end of the day, the students are unintentionally positioning themselves as the political losers. The Hong Kong government is using its public engagement with them to shape their grievances as separate from those of the average Hong Kong citizen, civil society and liberal political groups. The bigger losers, though, will be the citizens of Hong Kong, as the larger socioeconomic issues—Party patronage networks, corruption and social immobility—will continue to fester. Given that the mainland suffers from these issues, without any meaningful realignment of political rights that reduce the Party’s hold on economic levers of power on the mainland, Hong Kong will continue to experience growing economic inequality and a sense of social insecurity resulting from Party-business ties.

Nicholas Iorio is a private-sector international security affairs consultant specializing in the Asia-Pacific.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Underbar dk/CC by-sa 4.0

TopicsDomestic PoliticsDemocracy RegionsChina

Japan and America: Forging a Global Alliance?

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Recently, the US and Japan released the Interim Report on the Revision of the Guidelines for US-Japan Defense Cooperation (PDF). The revision’s the first since 1997 and occurs in the context of Asia-Pacific power shifts. So countries in the region are watching closely just how much the USJapan alliance is changing, both practically and conceptually. That includes the Australian government, which has long been supportive of a more ‘active’ Japanese security and defence policy at both the regional and global level. It’s a line Japan’s current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has also been pushing.

Indeed, the five-page interim report points to the prospect of a USJapan alliance moving beyond a narrow focus on the territorial defense of Japan against major aggression (from China or North Korea, for example). Instead, it’s based on a “strategic vision for a more expansive partnership” and the need to build the alliance as a “platform for international cooperation that would continue to make positive contributions to the region and beyond.” It stresses that among other things future bilateral defense cooperation would focus on:

- “seamless, robust, flexible, and effective bilateral responses;

- the global nature of the U.S.-Japan Alliance; and

- cooperation with other regional partners.”

Moreover, the report’s interesting for what it doesn’t say: in recognition of the expanding scope of geographical cooperation, the report doesn’t mention “situations in areas surrounding Japan,” a phrase that underpinned the 1997 guidelines.

While the 5-page document isn’t specific on details, the report provides some ideas on what these three aforementioned headings might entail. When it comes to “seamlessly” ensuring Japan’s peace and security, it observes that there could be “cases where swift and robust responses are required to secure the peace and security of Japan even when an armed attack against Japan is not involved [italics mine].” In other words, in theory at least, Japan could be asked to provide protection for US forces in hostile environments beyond its immediate neighborhood; for instance in the area of ship-based ballistic-missile defense.

Concerning increased “cooperation for regional and global peace and security,” the document notes that “areas of cooperation to be described may include, but are not limited to”: peacekeeping operations; international Humanitarian Assistance/Disaster Relief; maritime security; capacity building; intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance; logistics support; and non-combatant evacuation operations. While the US continues to try to reassure Japan about its security commitments (for instance, the US Navy just announced plans to forward deploy three more ballistic-missile-defense-capable destroyers to Japan over the next three years), Washington also sees the revised guidelines as a chance to move the alliance beyond Tokyo’s preoccupation with the “China threat.”

How likely is the emergence of a more “global” USJapan alliance? The good news is that Japanese officials involved in drafting the interim report agreed to the report’s language, probably in anticipation of the Abe government’s expectations. Moreover, Japan has been stepping up its Asia-Pacific defense engagement. For example, it agreed to provide both the Philippines and Vietnam with modern Coast Guard vessels. As well, Japan and India are in talks about the possible sale of Japanese amphibious aircraft. Lastly, there’s still the prospect of a submarine deal with Australia.

But serious obstacles stand in the way of a truly global—or even regionally more active—USJapan alliance. For a start, Japan’s new ‘three conditions for the “use of force” as measures for self-defense’ still impose significant restrictions on the Self-Defense Forces in the exercise of Japan’s right of collective self-defense. If Japan decides to support the US in a regional or global contingency, it’ll probably remain strictly limited to tasks such as logistical support or minesweeping outside the area of actual combat. Moreover, despite much talk about Japan’s “remilitarization,” in reality there’s no such thing. As Brad Glosserman and David Kang have observed in these pages:

“Japan’s defense policies are evolving to keep pace with a changing regional environment, but the idea that Tokyo will be able to threaten its neighbors is just not credible. There is no will, nor the capability to do so.”

As I’ve argued (here and here), Japan’s defense policy remains fundamentally defensive in nature. As Alessio Patalano has shown (paywalled), Japan’s naval modernization reflects a “targeted enhancement” of capabilities required for the protection of its sea lanes, particularly in the area of anti-submarine warfare and basic expeditionary capabilities to safeguard its many islands. Moreover, security reform in Japan remains a cumbersome process (PDF)—and there are already signs that attempts to flesh out at the legislative level what exactly the JSDF could or couldn’t do in support of the US in a conflict mightn’t come to fruition any time soon. Lastly, the Japanese side’s apparently frustrated that the interim report emphasizes the alliance’s global role but makes no mention of China.

We’ll have to see what the final guidelines bring. But in any case, it’s prudent to expect evolutionary, not revolutionary, changes in the USJapan alliance—and in Japan’s defense policy in particular.

Benjamin Schreer is a senior analyst at ASPI. 

Image: U.S. Navy Flickr. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsUnited States

Why the Battle for Kobane Matters (and Doesn't Matter)

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If you relied only on the media, you could be forgiven for thinking that the focus of the fight against ISIS has been on the Syrian city of Kobane.

This is thanks to the easy access for international media to the Turkish side of the border near Kobane and the resulting images, as well as the work of the Kurds and their associated lobby groups who want the world to focus on their issues. At one point the Australian Broadcasting Cooperation (ABC) even claimed that a hill near the town was “strategic.” Tactically important perhaps, but strategic? I don't think so.

As US Secretary of State John Kerry noted, the US does not consider Kobane a defining element of the coalition strategy. Rather, it quite rightly sees that Iraq is ISIS’ main effort and hence the bulk of Washington's force is directed there.

Kobane's value though, lies in what it represents more than what it is. One of the principles of war that applies to insurgent groups as much as it does to conventional armies is the maintenance of momentum. If you have momentum, then you force your opposition to make reactive decisions under pressure that often turn out to be sub-optimal. You can also create fear and panic in the opposition, as ISIS showed in its attack on Mosul and subsequent drive south, which resulted in the collapse of several Iraqi army divisions. ISIS has also relied on battlefield victories to replenish its ammunition stocks and gain military equipment and recruits.

The capture of Mosul, though, may well represent a high point in ISIS's campaign.

While the group is still pressing its advantage in al-Anbar province in Iraq, it has lost Mosul dam and has been investing in Kobane for over a month without success. If it is unable to capture Kobane, it will have lost significant personnel and resources against some Kurdish irregulars (with coalition air support) for little to no gain. One of ISIS's lines of operation will have stalled, and very publicly so.

ISIS is a media savvy organization and it realizes that being beaten back in Kobane would be a very public loss. And in the social media world ISIS inhabits, a public loss can also be a strategic one. Images of coalition airstrikes and Kurdish fighters tearing down ISIS flags don't do much for ISIS's reputation as a near-invincible jihadist war machine, an image on which it has relied for much of its success to date.

Kobane also offers the coalition opportunities greater than the limited value of the town itself. In the past week the coalition has increased its support for the Kurdish fighters, indicating a willingness to fight for the town's defense. This limited action offers some significant practical benefits for the coalition. It will be learning much about integrating airstrikes with indigenous forces and can use the Kobane battle as a live run for future actions against ISIS in Iraq. At the same time, the coalition is able to degrade ISIS forces in the region, which appear to be reinforcing failure in their assault on Kobane.

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

Image: U.S. Air Force/Flickr. 

TopicsISIS RegionsSyria

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