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Washington Manoeuvres

Filed in Articles, Perspectives by on 17 August 2017 0 Comments
Washington Manoeuvres

Tensions between Washington and Pyongyang appear to have gone down a notch from boil to simmer as diplomatic efforts continue in an effort to prevent full-scale conflict. After days of incendiary comments from the leaders of the United States and North Korea, both seem to be stepping back a step. After receiving plans from his generals to launch missiles into waters off the US territory of Guam, North Korea’s state news agency says Pyongyang will monitor what the United States does next before deciding whether to launch the missiles. Kim Jong Un says he will go through with the launch if the “Yankees persist in their extremely dangerous reckless actions on the Korean Peninsula and its vicinity.” Less than a week earlier, Kim Jong Un threatened to fire missiles at Guam after President Donald Trump warned North Korea that it would “be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen” if it makes more threats against the United States. Days after his warning President Trump played down tensions with North Korea by announcing an investigation into China’s trade practices. With what seems a deliberate distraction caused by Trump’s ambiguous statements on violence at a Unite-the-Right rally in Virginia, the public seems to have forgotten the situation in North Korea.

During the US presidential campaign, Trump regularly branded China as a thief of American jobs, and accused it of stealing technology from US companies. He promised, if elected, to protect and restore American jobs, and to defend US companies from intellectual piracy by taking strong action against China. However, by giving authority to the United State Trade Representative merely to consider whether to begin an investigation into how China conducts trade, Trump has, at least temporarily, set bombastic rhetoric aside to persuade China to take stronger measures to prevent North Korea from engaging in further nuclear tests. This could gain more time for all members of the original six-party talks (North and South Korea, the United States, China, Japan and Russia) to find a mutually acceptable solution to their differences.

Conflicting options

Washington wants to stop Pyongyang from developing nuclear missiles that can hit the United States. North Korea wants nuclear weapons to protect itself against the US, and its allies Japan and South Korea. China and Russia jointly suggest a freeze on missile tests by North Korea in return for a moratorium on US military manoeuvres. The United States has dismissed the proposal, North Korea has ignored it. The U.S. says it and South Korea will proceed with joint military exercises, certain to antagonise North Korea. The United States also wants to station more conventional missiles in South Korea to counter missile attacks from the north. Washington, however, says it has no plans to overthrow Kim Jong Un, or to unite the Korean peninsula.

A China specialist with the Stimson Centre in Washington says the US rejection of the Chinese-Russian proposal raises questions in Beijing. Yun Sun says the perception of Chinese leaders is that the United States sees China, and its huge economy, as its true rival, and is using North Korea as a diversion to strengthen its strategy of military containment around China, especially since the US refuses to discuss plans for the Korean peninsula and the future use of the close to 30-thousand US soldiers in South Korea. President Trump’s Security Director, Steve Bannon, however, accuses China of using North Korea as a sideshow while it proceeds with its economic expansion. In the past three years, China has built islands in the South China Sea and expanded its defensive capability across one of the world’s most strategic international waterways. Beijing has also made huge investments in its One Belt, One Road Project. China’s new silk road is a patchwork of railways, oil pipelines and maritime connections that now extends across Asia into Europe and Africa. The question then becomes whose economy is going to come out on top, and at what price?

Thucydides’ Trap

In explaining the cause of the Peloponnesian War (431 BC to 404 BC), Greek historian Thucydides said “it was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable.” As China continues to challenge America’s position in the world, misunderstanding about each other’s actions and intentions could lead them into Thucydides’ Trap. This is what the Director of the Belfer Centre for the Harvard Kennedy School for Science and International Affairs calls the shift in the balance of power that leads to war. Graeme Allison sees two main ingredients to a war between great powers; the first is a shift in the balance of power as one power becomes more ambitious and gradually executes plans to replace the other. The second is when fear motivates the incumbent power to react to maintain its dominance. Allison sees Thucydides’ Trap playing out today, and warns that the chance of war between China and the United States is much higher than many realise. According to the CIA’s World Factbook, China now consumes more energy than the United States, and also has greater purchasing power. This growth in China’s economy is causing a shift in the international balance of power that undermines the strategic position of the United States.

On one hand, the interconnectedness of the US and Chinese economies, and the nuclear doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction make conflict unlikely. On the other, fear, honour and self-interest are powerful motivators, and in the tinder-box atmosphere surrounding the nuclear arms build-up in North Korea misjudgement becomes increasingly probable. It is also unlikely that a war with China would remain limited to Asia and the Pacific, especially since Russia is an ally of China. China’s drive to gain more influence in Asia then presents American decision makers with a stark choice. Containing Chinese ambition would involve greater defence spending, stronger links with coalition partners, and slowing down or preventing China’s military build-up. Another option is for Washington to accept reduced power in Asia. Each option has its own share of dangers through misunderstanding.

Common Danger or War

Since it is unlikely that China could escape the consequences of conflict on the Korean peninsula, and the use of nuclear arms is harmful to everyone, Chinese and American interests are best served in working together against a common danger, especially since nuclear weapons in the hands of Kim Jong Un serve no long-term purpose for either Washington or Beijing. The question, however, remains: can China and the United States avoid the trap of war? That Washington is acting slowly in its trade actions regarding China shows a better understanding of timing than one might think in light of the recent game-show atmosphere between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un. It is no coincidence that Washington’s decision to look into Chinese trade practices comes as President XI Jinping prepares for the crucial five-year National Congress of China’s Communist Party. The autumn congress is expected to choose a new leadership for the party, including the powerful Politburo Standing Committee, and the Central Military Commission as most current members retire.

Although it is assumed that President Xi will remain General Secretary for another five-year term, it is not known whether the Congress will be open to him staying on beyond that. China’s two most powerful positions, the Secretary General, and the Chairman of the Central Military Commission, are not limited by five-year terms. Whether the Congress takes a long view focused on stability when it chooses its new members, or a shorter more impatient view will depend on who has the better hand in internal politics. The United States won’t know specifically who to deal with until the new members are announced in Beijing between September and November. America’s action has to be seen as weak enough by Chinese decision makers that President Xi can continue to lead the country in its quest to become the world’s top power. If the U-S overplays its hand, Washington could well face a President Xi whose new committee is much more hawkish than it wants.







High stakes

Filed in Perspectives by on 29 July 2017 4 Comments
High stakes

Russia acted swiftly in late July 2017 in retaliating against a decision by the US Senate to impose sanctions against Moscow. Russia’s foreign ministry gave the United States a month to reduce its diplomatic staff in Russia to 455 people. That’s the same number of Russian diplomats left in the United States at the end of 2016 when the outgoing Obama administration expelled 35 Russians, and seized two Russian compounds. Moscow also announced the seizure of a recreational compound and a US diplomatic warehouse. Moscow’s action gives the US little choice but to cut hundreds of personnel. Most of the US diplomatic staff is based in Moscow. Others are in consulates in St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg and Vladivostok. A day before Moscow’s announcement, the US Senate voted 98 to 2 to strengthen existing sanctions as a further punishment against Russia for its annexation of Crimea in 2014. The vote also gave Congress the power to block President Donald Trump from using his veto against the sanctions. The US action and Russia’s reaction have brought relations between Moscow and Washington to their lowest point since the end of the Cold War. Diplomatic ties between the two superpowers have been on a downward spiral because of allegations by US intelligence agencies that Russia tried to influence last year’s presidential election in favour of Donald Trump. Moscow denies the allegation. Russia’s Foreign Ministry says “The adoption of the new sanctions law showed clearly that relations with Russia have become hostage to a domestic political battle in the United States. The new law aims to use political tools to create dishonest competitive advantages for the United States in the global economy. Such blackmail, aimed at limiting cooperation between Russia and its foreign partners, is a threat for many countries and for international business.” The Ministry’s statement also said that the US action confirmed “the extreme aggression of the United States in international affairs”, while Washington “arrogantly ignores the positions and interests of other countries…. counter to the principles of international law.”

Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, and his American counterpart, Donald Trump, met for the first time at the G20 Summit in Hamburg, Germany earlier in the month. Each was positive about their talks though their meetings did little to dispel distrust in Washington that Trump is willing to overlook Russia for any part it played in the US vote. Three weeks later the US Senate voted for tougher sanctions, followed by Russia’s counter sanctions a day later. Media reports spoke of US officials being shocked at the quickness and severity of Moscow’s reaction. However, Russia had already made it clear after President Obama’s sanctions that it would respond in kind should the Trump administration impose further sanctions. Ukraine’s president, Petro Porochenko, congratulated the US Senate for taking a stand against the “Russian aggressor”. Brussels says the new sanctions would hurt energy security for the European Union because they target plans for a new pipeline to bring natural gas from Russia to northern Europe. Berlin says Germany will not accept the sanctions against Russia being applied to countries in Europe.

The sanctions also impose financial restrictions against Iran and North Korea. Lu Kang, spokesman for Beijing’s Ministry of International Affairs, says “China is resolutely opposed to any measure that harms its interests.” North Korea’s reaction was more direct. It launched another missile that landed about one thousand kilometres away in the Sea of Japan. The altitude and distance of the test flight prompted international experts to suggest that Pyongyang now has the capability to target cities in the United States. Trump’s own actions in speaking out against globalisation, cancelling US participation in the Pacific Trade Agreement, and withdrawing from the Paris Climate Change Accord convey a message of wanting to go it alone rather than honour international agreements. Russia’s annexation of Crimea shows that it too is not above challenging international law. North Korea’s actions reveal hostility and contempt for international law.

According to the US Senate, the sanctions are also to punish Russia for tampering with US elections, and to serve as a warning not to do it again. However, revelations by Edward Snowden make it clear that the United States is as guilty in using its intelligence services and cyber-capacity for economic and political goals as Russia. The current rounds of sanctions, American and Russian, amount to little more than sabre-rattling in an increasingly high-stakes game. Years of sanctions did little to prevent North Korea from developing its own nuclear weapons. It is natural for a State to pursue its logical interests. However, as Lord Palmerston once said countries don’t have friends, they have interests. Through the lens of political realism that means avoiding conflict, and reaching agreements with other States even if it sometimes means turning a blind eye to how they conduct their own affairs. Ultimately cooperation leads to more productive relations than sanctions. The United States, Russia and North Korea have yet to learn that lesson. One can only wonder what the next step will be, and by whom. The clock is ticking.

On The Move

Filed in Articles by on 19 July 2017 5 Comments
On The Move

Since the end of the Second World War, we have become accustomed to seeing the influence of the United States and Britain in the Middle East. In 1943 President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had already declared that « the defence of Saudi Arabia was vital to the defence of the United States. » (1) On his way home from the Yalta Conference in February 1945 after meeting with Stalin and Churchill, Roosevelt met with King Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia on board the USS Quincy. Their agreement, the Quincy Pact, was not revealed for several years. It offered Saudi Arabia US protection from external enemies in exchange for secure access to future supplies of oil. Although there is some question as to whether they actually signed such an accord, the fact remains that the US has provided protection to the Saudi Kingdom, and received billions of barrels of oil since that time, echoing Roosevelt’s sentiments of 1943.

Shah of Iran


America and Britain were behind the ouster of Iran’s democratically-elected government in 1953 when the Shah replaced Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh with Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi in a coup d’état. A declassified CIA internal history entitled « The Battle for Iran » released in 2013 states “The military coup that overthrew Mossadegh and his National Front cabinet was carried out under CIA direction as an act of US foreign policy conceived and approved at the highest levels of government.” The documents describe how the US and Britain engineered the coup, codenamed TPAJAX by the CIA and Operation Boot by Britain’s MI6.” (2) The US and Britain considered Mossadegh a liability. According to Iranian-Armenian historian Ervand Abrahamian, author of The Coup: 1953, the CIA and the Roots of Modern US-Iranian Relations, says the coup was designed “to get rid of a nationalist figure who insisted that oil should be nationalised”. (3)

Oil became the underlying raison d’être in the conflict between the US and Iraq in 2003. The prélude to the conflict was the Gulf War, also known as Operation Desert Shield, when the United States and a coalition of international forces took part in Operation Desert Storm to counter the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. The next stage was the invasion of Iraq in March 2003 and the military occupation of the country until the US withdrawal of forces in 2014. Between 2003 and 2011, an estimated half-million Iraqis died in the conflict. (4) Although the invasion was based on a false premise to rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction, oil companies from the United States, Britain, Holland, Russia, and China were quick to take advantage of Iraq’s oil wealth. (5)

Middle East

In March 2017, Saudi Arabia and China signed commercial agreements worth up to 65-Billion dollars. The agreements, which include renewable energy and oil investments also mark a closer diplomatic rapprochement between the two countries. For Saudi Arabia, the agreements were part of its « Saudi Vision 2030 » policy to diversify its economy. For China, ensuring a continued supply of oil was also an opportunity to expand its diplomatic influence. Saudi’s King Salman expressed hope that China would increase its role in the Middle East, saying that « Saudi Arabia is willing to work hard with China to promote global and regional peace, security and prosperity. » (6) Although China’s president Xi Jinping spoke in terms of expanded trade with Saudi Arabia, his country’s actions in the region show Beijing’s desire to play a much greater role in international affairs. Several months later on the 11th of July 2017 China officially dispatched a fleet of military personnel from the port of Zhanjiang in southern Guangdong province to its first overseas base in Djibouti on the Red Sea beside the U.S. Lemonnier Base. According to the Xinhua news agency the so-called “support base will ensure China’s performance on missions, such as escorting, peace-keeping and humanitarian aid in Africa and west Asia.” (7) Xinhua says the base in Djibouti will also perform other functions such as military cooperation through joint exercises, evacuation and protection of overseas Chinese, rescue operations, as well as jointly maintaining security of international strategic waterways.

Silk Road Economic Belt & Maritime Silk Road

Silk Road – Land and Sea Routes

Four years earlier in the fall of 2013, President Xi announced plans to build a new Silk Road Economic Belt, as well as a Maritime Silk Road between Europe and China, together known as the Belt and Road Project. However, we see the beginning of China’s thrust in world affairs as early as March 1997 when Beijing’s National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) and a consortium of mainly Asian oil companies signed a deal with Khartoum to develop oil reserves in Sudan. After the end of the civil war between Sudan and South Sudan in 1995, Chinese businesses slowly set up shop in Juba. A year later China opened a consulate there. However, without the capability to project its power, China was reluctant to engage in efforts to resolve conflict. Beijing slowly began to stretch its policy of non-intervention when conflict did break out by organising several large-scale evacuations of nationals from countries in the region. In 2008, China used its influence in Sudan and in the UN Security Council to send UN peacekeepers to Darfur. When civil war erupted in Libya in 2012, China’s evacuation of 36-thousand Chinese nationals was a turning point. By sending aircraft and frigates through the Red Sea and the Suez Canal to the Mediterranean for the first time. « China’s evacuation of its citizens generated national pride and increased both its people’s and its investors’ expectations about Beijing’s global profile. …China extended the boundaries of its time-honoured diplomacy, suggesting growing willingness to take action when its interests are threatened. » (8) Chinese naval vessels in the Mediterranean was perceived by some in the west as Beijing gaining access to NATO’s lake. However, as stated in China’s state-controlled media, « the Mediterranean needed to become accustomed to China’s naval presence ». (9) China has since invested in shipping companies around the Mediterranean and has been expanding ports in Greece (Piraeus), France, Spain and Tripoli. It has also invested in rail and air terminals in Portugal, and Italy. (10)

(For detailed look at Maritime Silk Road,

Syria & Turkey

One of China’s allies now also has greater access to the Mediterranean. In January 2017, Damascus and Moscow signed an agreement to increase the size of Russia’s Mediterranean naval facility in the Syrian port of Tartus. The accord is for 49 year but can be extended by another 25 years. The Russian news agency, Tass, says the expansion means as many as 11 warships, including nuclear-powered vessels, can be berthed simultaneously in the port, more than doubling the facility’s current capacity. Tass quotes Igor Korotchenko, the editor-in-chief of the National Defence journal as saying that the enhanced facility « will be a major factor to deter unfriendly actions against Russia by any regional and international players. »  (11) Syria is one of the traditional western points of the ancient Silk Road because of its geographic location. Before civil war broke out in Syria, China was already using the country to ship goods into Iraq, and Lebanon from its hub known as China City – an area in the Adra Free Zone industrial park northeast of Damascus. China’s National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) has also considerable investments in two of Syria’s largest petroleum companies having agreed to help Damascus explore and develop its oil reserves. (12)

Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Turkey, immediately north of Syria, is another strategic point on the traditional Silk Road giving access to the Black Sea and markets in southern Russia and Ukraine and to the Mediterranean, the gateway to Europe. In May 2017, shortly before Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan was preparing for his fourth visit to China in two years, China’s ambassador to Turkey said Beijing was ready to discuss Turkey’s membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. Yu Hongyang said “China understands Turkey’s intention of becoming a member of the SCO, is ready for Turkey’s membership…in consultation with other member countries.” (13) If Turkey becomes a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, while maintaining its membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, it could well result in a conflict of interest between east and west, contributing to western destabilisation.

Chinese Rail Link Across Eurasia

China to England Rail

Another sign of Beijing’s progress to expand its trade and influence across Eurasia is China’s new rail service with Europe. When the first freight train arrived in London from Wiwa in eastern China in January 2017, it caught the attention of businesses eager to sell their wares to a larger market. The train made the 12,070-kilometre journey in 18 days. On the way it rolled through Kazakhstan, Russia, Belarus, Poland, Germany, Belgium and France before crossing under the English Channel into Britain. Since then, London has become the 15th European city to have a direct rail link with China. Even though the route is longer that Russia’s Trans-Siberian railway, it’s one thousand kilometres shorter than the link between China and Madrid, which opened in 2014. According to the China railway Corporation, its services are cheaper than air transport and quicker than shipping. (14) British officials say the new rail line is part of greater trade links to China in preparation for its exit from the European Union, due on the 29th of March 2019. Beijing’s rail expansion also extends into parts of the Middle East. China signed an agreement with Israel in 2012 to build a light rail link from Tel Aviv to Eilat on the Gulf of Aqaba, as well as a rail line for cargo between the Mediterranean port of Ashhod and Eilat. Strategically this offers an alternative to the Suez Canal in the event of any future instability caused by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Beijing has also signed agreements with Cairo to build a high-speed railway linking Cairo, Alexandria, Luxor and Hurghada on the Red Sea. China has also been enlarging the Port of Sudan on the eastern side of the Red Sea, enabling it to ship trade or military goods to Sudan, East Africa and the Horn of Africa. Since 2009 when China overtook the United States as Africa’s number one trading partner, the Middle East has become a strategic region that connects markets in Europe, Africa and Asia. Africa is especially important in China’s foreign policy agenda because of its vast energy reserves needed to fuel the country’s economic growth. Although the public emphasis is on trade, China’s expansion of rail links across Eurasia and the Middle East, and eventually to Africa, also serves as an additional means to project its power across continental distances to protect its interests. “The People’s Liberation Army (PLA)’s General Logistics Department (GLD) is actively participating in the design and planning of China’s high-speed railway, with military requirements becoming part of the development process. Indeed, the GLD is looking to implement rapid mobilization and deployment of troops via high-speed rails once they are completed across Eurasia.” (15)



The Asian portion of China’s Silk Road initiative is equally ambitious. Pakistani and Chinese companies are building a railway, as well as an 800-kilometre highway that will link the port of Gwadar on the Arabian Sea to Kashgar in western China. Through an initiative known as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, or CPEC, Beijing is also building electrical power stations, and a pipeline that will carry oil from the Persian Gulf through Iran to western China. Several countries speak in glowing terms of China’s Road and Belt Initiative. Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn of Ethiopia called the project unique, historic, extraordinary and momentous, seeing China as an ally in the fight against poverty. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif called it the “dawn of a truly geo-economic revolution”. Pakistan’s age-old enemy India disagrees, calling China’s initiative a colonial enterprise that will infringe on other countries’ sovereignty. China’s reaction was swift. The state-controlled Xinhua new agency, published a commentary saying that “China harbours no intention to control or threaten any other nation, seeing its actions as a chance not “to assert a new hegemony, but an opportunity to bring an old one to an end”. (16)

Chinese bankers overseeing the Shanghai-based New Development Bank set up by BRICS in 2014 will play a key role in the success of the Belt and Road Initiative, and some have urged caution. Peter Cai, a fellow at Australia’s Lowy Institute for International Policy says their appetite to fund infrastructure projects and their ability to handle the complex investment environment beyond China’s border will shape the speed and the scale of the initiative. Mr. Cai says there is general recognition that the project will take ten years and many are treading carefully. However, given that the United States, and England through its decision to leave the European Union (Brexit) “are both retreating genuinely or symbolically from their commitment to globalisation” Mr. Cai feels that this is a good time for China to promote itself as the new champion of globalisation.” (17)

A shift in western diplomacy

China’s growing thrust across Eurasia comes as two of the planet’s major power blocs, the European Union and the United States, find themselves at a crossroads. Not only is England involved in Brexit talks to leave the EU, western economic sanctions imposed on Russia over the annexation of Crimea and the conflict in eastern Ukraine deprive the EU of trade opportunities in central Asia. This creates pressure on the EU to choose between readily available energy from Russia and Ukraine or to remain in the “Atlantic camp”. In May 2017, shortly after the U.S. President, Donald Trump, met Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel, at the G7 Summit in Italy, Merkel said that Europe could no longer rely on the US or the United Kingdom and must ‘fight for its own destiny.” Her statement marked a dramatic and unexpected shift in post-war western diplomacy. (18)

From the U.S. action in Iraq in 2003 to its ill-fated efforts in Libya, to the abandonment of a decades-long relationship with Egypt, the credibility of the United States and its guarantee of security has considerably eroded. Its isolationist view, lack of a strong response to China’s reclaiming of islands in the South China Sea, one of the world’s strategic waterways, and its inability to prevent North Korea from becoming a nuclear power has done little to reassure its allies. What the United States decides to do next will have long-term implications, not only for security in the Middle East and in East Asia, but for the world. Allies, power blocs, trading partners are all watching and waiting to see what happens over the next four years. Will the United States stand up to guarantee security and stability on the planet? Will the Washington Consensus give way to the Beijing Consensus? Is this an historic cycle where the sun now shines on the Middle Kingdom? We do indeed live in interesting times.

And Then The Wheels Fell Off

Filed in Articles by on 10 September 2016 4 Comments
And Then The Wheels Fell Off

We would do well to remember Edmund Burke’s oft-repeated phrase “ Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.” On the 28th of June 1914, a Serbian nationalist, Gavrilo Princip, assassinated Franz Ferdinand, the archduke of Austria-Hungary. In the preceding years, the various major powers in Europe had gradually formed alliances. Britain, France and Russia formed the Triple Entente, while Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy comprised the Triple Alliance. A month to the day after the assassination, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia.gallipoli The Ottoman Empire and Germany signed a secret alliance five days later. On the 3rd of August Germany declared war on France and invaded the next day. That prompted Britain to declare war on Germany on the 4th, the same day Germany invaded Belgium. On the 10th of August 1914 Austria-Hungary invaded Russia. Essentially, the First World War came about because of the domino effect of each country coming to the aid of another.

Reichstag Fire

In late February 1933, a month after Adolph Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, a fire burned down the Reichstag or German parliament. A month before the fire, Hitler had made it clear that his government could not work with the left-leaning parties in parliament. While the National Socialist Party (NAZI) was the largest party in the Reichstag, Hitler did not have a working majority despite his coalition with the German Nationalist People’s Party because of the combined power of the Social Democrat Party and the Communist Party. Since the Reichstag was set to have new elections in early March, Hitler’s party risked losing support.

Burning of the Reichstag 1933. Germany / Mono Print

Reichstag Fire, Germany, 27 February 1933

Hitler took advantage of the situation by telling President Hindenburg that the fire was part of a Communist plan to overthrow the state, and persuading him to issue a decree giving him powers to arrest those responsible. The “Reichstagbrandverordnung” or Decree for the Protection of People and State led to a one-party state. By arresting political opponents without charge, dissolving political organisations, closing down publications, and giving the central government the authority to overrule state and local governments, Hitler effectively ended democracy in Germany.

alliance-allies-axisIn October 1936, Nazi Germany formed the Berlin Axis with Italy, and annexed Austria in March 1938. Hitler invaded Poland in September 1939 prompting Britain to declare war on Germany, beginning the Second World War. Other countries joined both the Axis and Allied Alliances expanding the conflict across Europe, northern Africa and Asia.


Turkey’s Failed Coup: the 2016 version of the Reichstag Fire!

Is the same dynamic in play again? On the 15th of July 2016, an attempted coup in Turkey failed when President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called on the public to take to the streets to save the republic. In the next few hours some 300 died and 2100 were injured. Erdogan declared a State of Emergency, which was followed by mass arrests, starting with a purge in the military. This extended to the civil service, and even into the country’s schools. By mid-August, Erdogan had suspended or fired more than eighty thousand civil servants, including three thousand soldiers. Some twenty-one thousand teachers were stripped of their licence to teach. Turkish police detained some thirty-five thousand people, half of whom were formally arrested under the orders of a government tribunal. Erdogan also issued a decree giving him, and a handful of government officials, authority to issue direct orders to the commanders of the army, navy and air force.

turquie-plusieurs-morts-dans-une-explosion-ankaraErdogan blames the attempted coup on Fethullah Gülen, a Muslim cleric who has been living in self-imposed exile in the United States since 1998. Gülen was a close ally of Erdogan until 2013 when Erdogan branded him and his followers terrorists, accusing them of being behind an investigation that uncovered several government ministers involved in corruption. Gülen denies any involvement with the attempted coup. Turkey issued an arrest warrant for Gülen, demanding he be extradited from the United States. Washington has asked for evidence to substantiate the allegations. A group calling itself “Peace at Home Council” claims responsibility for the attempted coup, accusing Erdogan of destroying Turkey’s constitutional order and secular democratic state.

It appears Turkish authorities may have known about the coup attempt in advance. Three days before the failed coup, Turkey issued an arrest warrant charging Vice-Admiral Zeki Ugurlu with being affiliated with the Gülen movement, which it accuses of trying to infiltrate Turkey’s armed forces. Ankara also asked NATO to terminate Admiral Ugurlu’s posting in Norfolk, Virginia and send him back to Turkey. NATO ignored the request. After the attempted coup, Turkey issued a second warrant charging Ugurlu with helping to plot the coup.

According to Al Monitor, a news website in the Middle East, there is a perception in Ankara that NATO was “involved in the coup attempt because of the active roles played by military units that are part of NATO’s Rapid Deployable Corps-Turkey.” This growing distrust of NATO comes amid Turkish and US involvement in Syria against rebels opposed to Bashir al Assad, against the Islamic State, the refugee crisis, and Turkey’s opposition to Kurds who claim part of Turkey as their homeland. In interviews with Russian and Turkish media, Turkey’s Minister of Defence, Mevlut Cavusoglu, expressed alarm at NATO’s unwillingness to cooperate with Ankara, and hinted that he was open to greater military, intelligence and diplomatic cooperation with Russia. He also accused the West of being responsible for the crisis in Ukraine.

Turkey has failed to be accepted into the European Union despite adapting its laws to European standards. One of the major changes to Turkey’s constitution was the abolition of the death penalty, as well as rewriting laws to ensure respect for human rights. With such a wide-reaching purge, and Turkey’s stated intent to rewrite the constitution, Turkey seems to be turning its back on Europe. If, as Peace at Home Council maintains, the attempted coup was an effort to prevent Turkey from drifting away from secularism, and into a more Islamic influence, it appears Erdogan’s actions are aimed at trying to re-establish Ankara as the capital of a new version of the Ottoman Empire. Turkey’s position on the Dardenelle Strait linking the Mediterranean and Black Seas, his disapproval of the European Union, his wariness of NATO and his openness to Russia, puts Erdogan is in an unusual position of power over one of the world’s most strategic waterways.  ankara

While Turkish and Russian forces purportedly battle Islamic State terrorists in Syria, Russian forces are also shoring up the regime of Bashir al-Assad, therefore ensuring Russia’s continued access to the port of Tartus on Syria’s Mediterranean coast. China has offered its support to the Assad regime in the form of increased arms sales. China imports roughly half its oil and gas from the Middle East, mainly from Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Since these countries back opposing sides in the conflict in Syria, China will most likely choose not to alienate them, remaining the only permanent member of the Security Council not involved in military operations in Syria.

Even though Turkey is opposed to Assad, its disenchantment with Europe and NATO, and China’s presence suggests a new dynamic, which could eventually result in Turkey becoming a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Agreement. While China and Russia align their long-term strategies for a greater say in future political and economic decisions in the Middle East, Britain, Western Europe and the United States are fighting against Islamic State terrorists in Iraq and Syria, supporting rebels against the Assad regime, as well as trying to deal with isolated terrorist attacks from radicalised Muslims, and a growing disenchantment with immigration and globalisation.

Brexit – European Fault Lines Uncovered

Britain’s decision to leave the European Union revealed several fault lines in the United Kingdom and in continental Europe. The majority of those who voted to leave the European Union are from the small towns and cities of England, where factories closed as a result of globalisation and the transfer of jobs overseas. Jobs became even harder to find with the arrival of immigrants from Eastern Europe. brexit The Brexit vote is forcing countries on both side of the European divide to think out strategies for the future. Germany, which has been plagued with isolated terrorist attacks and a growing backlash against immigration, is considering asking its citizens “to prepare themselves in the case of a large-scale terrorist attack or civil unrest”. This would involve stockpiling emergency food, water and supplies for at least ten days.

Europe Looks For New Options

France has been marked by several Islamist terrorist attacks including the brutal shooting of twelve editors at the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, the massacre at the Bataclan theatre where 130 Parisians were killed, to a Bastille-day attack in Nice when a truck was driven through a crowd killing more than 70 people. This has turned French public opinion against its Islamic population. Given the growing popularity of Marine Le Pen, whose platform is against immigration, a vote in her favour in the next regional elections in 2017 could lead to the end of the Schengen Accord for free cross-border movement in Europe. This could weaken other links in the union, hastening dissolution.

In the United States, Donald Trump has steadily gained support for his staunch opposition to immigration and international trade agreements that have had the same result in America’s industrial heartland as in England. The terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California, alleged to be from an Islamist sleeper cell, has served only to strengthen an us versus them attitude.

As Turks, Germans, French, Brits, Americans and others speak out against globalisation and economic blocs, which have made more profits for large corporations than for ordinary citizens, societies once held together by a world order that respected people are breaking apart into clans. While Turkey’s secular government takes advantage of its own ‘Reichstag fire’ to purge anyone it disagrees with, geopolitical blocs are recalculating how to promote their own interests.

Growing numbers of people in Europe and America are turning away from a world order based on international trade and movement of people. Globalisation seems to be passé as countries head into a zero sum game where societies look inwards, pitting the diplomacy and compromise that enables societies and nations to work together against those who are perceived as a danger. The economic-political order the world has known since the end of the Second World War is dissolving, making it easier to demonise immigrants and others rather than to resolve differences.

Economic and defence blocs 2016

Economic and defence blocs 2016

As events unfold seemingly in slow motion, we tend to view them in isolation, failing to see the overall picture. For those who recall history, it took five weeks from the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand to go from peace to the First World War, and the death of millions. The Treaty of Versailles, which ended the conflict, contained the seeds of the Second World War by imposing severe war reparations on Germany. The Reichstag fire advanced the process eventually leading to the outbreak of conflict, and the death of millions more. No country is immune when the tipping point of negative logic is surpassed. Will growing disenchantment and opposition to western economic hegemony over the past 20 years result in a third world war? If history has taught us anything, it’s that war is prevented by extending peace and economic benefits to all, not to a chosen few. It’s a history lesson we would do well not to ignore.


The Shimmering Illusion

Filed in Perspectives by on 15 November 2015 7 Comments
The Shimmering Illusion

Based on presentation to the Thomas More Institute in Montreal, Canada in November 2015.

Wouldn’t it be nice if political leaders actually served their citizens? However, despite noble words of taking office to serve people, over time consensus, negotiation and agreement tend to give way to such sentiments as ‘You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.’ One compromise leads to another and democracy slowly shifts from serving the people to serving those in power. In extreme cases, violence replaces dialogue. The Fragile States Index for 2015 assigns countries a score based on such social, economic and political criteria as mounting demographic pressures, massive displacement of refugees, uneven economic development, severe economic decline, and wide spread human rights abuses. Countries such as the United States have a score of 35.3, Canada 25.7, Germany 28.1, the United Kingdom 33.5 and France 33.7. The lower the score, the better political leaders serve their citizens. However, if we choose four countries in Africa in various states of development, we see a marked difference in the score. Mali, for example, comes in at 93.1, Malawi 86.9, Togo 86.8 and Côte d’Ivoire 100. Continue Reading »

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