Meeting the New Year

The Project for a Post-American Century meets an international system with Chinese characteristics.

There’s something in this Evan Osnos article in The New Yorker for nearly everyone:

[Trump] announced his intention to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Agreement on climate change and from UNESCO, and he abandoned United Nations talks on migration. He has said that he might renege on the Iran nuclear deal, a free-trade agreement with South Korea, and NAFTA. His proposal for the 2018 budget would cut foreign assistance by forty-two per cent, or $11.5 billion, and it reduces American funding for development projects, such as those financed by the World Bank.

China’s approach is more ambitious. In recent years, it has taken steps to accrue national power on a scale that no country has attempted since the Cold War, by increasing its investments in the types of assets that established American authority in the previous century: foreign aid, overseas security, foreign influence, and the most advanced new technologies, such as artificial intelligence. It has become one of the leading contributors to the U.N.’s budget and to its peacekeeping force, and it has joined talks to address global problems such as terrorism, piracy, and nuclear proliferation.

Some of China’s growing sway is unseen by the public. In October [2017], the World Trade Organization convened ministers from nearly forty countries in Marrakech, Morocco, for the kind of routine diplomatic session that updates rules on trade in agriculture and seafood. The Trump Administration, which has been critical of the W.T.O., sent an official who delivered a speech and departed early. “For two days of meetings, there were no Americans,” a former U.S. official told me. “And the Chinese were going into every session and chortling about how they were now guarantors of the trading system.”

For Chinese leaders, Yan [Xuetong, dean of Tsinghua University’s Institute of Modern International Relations] said, “Trump is the biggest strategic opportunity.” I asked Yan how long he thought the opportunity would last. “As long as Trump stays in power,” he replied.

The Trump clan appears to “directly influence final decisions” on business and diplomacy in a way that “has rarely been seen in the political history of the United States,” the analyst [from the Pangoal Institution, a Beijing think tank] wrote. He summed it up using an obscure phrase from feudal China: jiatianxia—“to treat the state as your possession.”

For years, China’s startups lagged behind those in Silicon Valley. But there is more parity now. Of the forty-one private companies worldwide that reached “unicorn” status in 2017—meaning they had valuations of a billion dollars or more—fifteen are Chinese and seventeen are American.

There’s also an extended bit about a startup that combines AI and facial recognition. The company works very closely with police. For example, in one demo it displays jaywalkers’ names and official ID on a display screen at the intersection. “As a demonstration, using the company’s employee database, a video screen displayed a live feed of a busy intersection nearby. ‘In real time, it captures all the attributes of the cars and pedestrians,’ [the company’s VP of marketing] said. On an adjoining screen, a Pac-Man-like trail indicated a young man’s movements around the city, based only on his face.”

Happy New Year!

From the Metro Section of the Washington Post

Sometimes it pays to read beyond the front page:

Federal and local law enforcement authorities are investigating a shooting in Prince George’s County that critically injured a prominent intelligence expert who specializes in the former Soviet Union.

Paul Joyal, 53, was shot Thursday, four days after he alleged in a television broadcast that the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin was involved in the fatal poisoning of a former KGB agent in London.

Law enforcement sources and sources close to Joyal, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case, said the motive for the shooting was unclear. But several sources confirmed that FBI investigators are looking into the incident because of Joyal’s background as an intelligence expert and his comments about the Alexander Litvinenko case.

Joyal was shot by two men in the driveway of his house in the 2300 block of Lackawanna Street in Adelphi about 7:30 p.m. Thursday. The shooting was reported yesterday by Channel 4. …

In the “Dateline [NBC, a long-running news magazine program]” interview, Joyal accused the Russian government of being part of a conspiracy to silence its critics.

“A message has been communicated to anyone who wants to speak out against the Kremlin: ‘If you do, no matter who you are, where you are, we will find you, and we will silence you — in the most horrible way possible,’ ” Joyal said. …

He is well-known for his expertise on intelligence and terrorism and for his network of friends in the former Soviet Union, and he published a daily intelligence newsletter for 10 years that offered information on the former Soviet Union. In 1998, he was a lobbyist for the Georgian government in Washington.

Holy shit.

(Thanks to Laura Rozen for bringing this to my attention.)

Support Iraqi democrats – get them out of Iraq

Sorry for crossposting, but this needs wider visibility. This time, Blair seems to mean it about British troops beginning to draw-down their presence in southern Iraq. All the usual provisos still apply – so far, it’s just part of the extra force that is going, and the last squaddie is scheduled to leave in three Friedman units’ time, like he has been since 2003. But this time we have a timetable within one Friedman and a number.

So it’s time to talk seriously about the people who have worked for us in Iraq. The Americans are only accepting risible numbers of refugees. 50 per cent of Iraqi refugees in Europe are in Sweden. It won’t do to claim that the situation is peachy in Iraq. The interpreters, for example, are marked men.

Back in August, 2005 I said that

Unfortunately, the best form of support the British Left can offer secular Iraqis would be to countersign their applications for political asylum. I think someone suggested this recently – perhaps we could get a Pledgebank going?

The government is still trying to force existing refugees onto aeroplanes to Irbil in Kurdistan, this being the only place not so dangerous that the law would forbid it – apparently, if you get killed between Irbil and home that’s OK. It’s high time that we went operational on this.

I’m aware that the Danish government, for example, is also trying to leave its people behind.

Somewhere it’s always still the DDR

Who knew that there is a place that is forever East Germany? The fine Strange Maps posts a satellite image of Playa RDA, or DDR Beach, a 15 kilometre long by 500 metres wide sand spit on the southern coast of Cuba. On the 5th of June, 1972, Fidel Castro gave the sliver of land to the DDR during a state visit, renaming the island Isla Ernst Thälmann and the beach, Playa RDA. You can view it via Google Maps here.

Thälmann was the German Communist leader up to 1933, and was commemorated by a couple of other things, such as a German battalion in the International Brigades during the Spanish civil war. Later, a statue of him was erected on the island after a ceremony at which some hundred guests took part.

According to German Wikipedia, there was a serious point to all this. World trade in sugar was subject to a quota system at the time, and the transfer of the island was theoretically in exchange for an East German sugar refinery’s share of the European export market. No wonder the Cubans were pleased.

The island is in a Cuban military training area near the Bay of Pigs. Which makes me wonder, if during the late 1970s, when East German warships regularly sailed to African and South American ports, they ever visited it? And what is the communist equivalent of “15 men on a dead man’s chest, yo ho ho! and a bottle of rum!”?

What do you need to bomb Iran?

The National Security Archive‘s publication of the original powerpoint slides used in planning for war with Iraq has got a lot of attention, especially the prediction that by now there would only be 5,000 US soldiers in Iraq. But it’s also interesting as an index of tension with Iran.

The briefing includes several scenarios on what to do if a “triggering event” occurred before the completion of the ground forces deployment. These specify a range of options, from minimal, through a week-long Desert Fox-like campaign of air raids, up to a 14-day bombardment. This last one, option Red would have encompassed all suspected WMD targets and a range of military ones, and would have included 3,000 individual weapon aiming points from 2,100 aircraft sorties and a considerable number of Tomahawk cruise missiles. (See document E(pdf doc).)

So what does this tell us?
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Five Easy Questions

Before the war in Iraq, Europe did not have a coherent policy for dealing with that country. Given that the current large-scale American presence there will not last forever, some questions arise for European governments:

Should Europe as a whole have a common policy for dealing with Iraq?
If so, what should it be?
Who will implement it?
Who will pay for it?
What needs to be done now to get a policy in place by the time the US Army starts winding things down?

The Orientalist by Tom Reiss

Ali and Nino, the closest thing that modern Azerbaijan has to a national novel, was first published in German in 1937, sold in various translations, hit US bestseller lists in the early 1970s and bears the name Kurban Said as its author.

But the question of the author’s identity had never been resolved. All anyone agreed on was that Kurban Said was the pen name of a writer who had probably come from Baku, an oil city in the Caucasus, and that he was either a nationalist poet who was killed in the Gulags, or the dilettante son of an oil millionaire, or a Viennese cafe-society writer who died in Italy after stabbing himself in the foot.

The answer, which Reiss gets to quickly, is essentially, “All of the above.” And therein, of course, lies a tale. Or twelve.
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Transparency International Strikes Again

So the new Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index came out last week. If you are a development geek — cough, cough — this is like Beaujolais Nouveau Day.

Not that there are any /huge/ surprises. The top ten slots are dominated by the same countries, year after year — Finland, the Netherlands, Singapore. European readers can be cheered by the fact that European countries occupy 13 of the top 20 slots.

The CPI is, of course, a perceptions survey. They poll a lot of investors and NGOs and whatnot and ask what they think. There are some obvious issues with this methodology. Other hand, they try to be rigorous about it, and keep the tests constant from country to country and from year to year. If you’re trying to measure corruption — an inherently difficult task — this is probably about the best broad-guage metric we have.

Meanwhile, a few geeky comments.
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Premature Evaluation: Albion’s Seed

Why is America the way that it is?

Wrong question, the author of Albion’s Seed would say. America isn’t any one way, and hasn’t been since the very beginning of European, particularly English, colonization. David Hackett Fischer puts the core of his argument straight into his subtitle: Four British Folkways in America. He identifies four distinct migrations from Britain, and to a much lesser extent Ireland, that shaped American culture and regions down to the present day. These migrations were fairly coherent in origin, destination and religion. Understanding these origins will help understand cleavages in the contemporary United States, and it will help understand America as a whole.
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Chirac has a transient dishonesty malfunction

Everyone’s now blogged about Jacques Chirac’s unexpected remarks about Iranian nuclear weapons.

But I think there may still be some angular momentum to be had. Chirac stated that, should a hypothetically nuclear Iran launch a nuclear weapon, Tehran would be destroyed before it had gone 200 metres. This is a pretty basic statement of nuclear deterrence, with the further point that in a sense, having one or two nuclear bombs makes you weaker than having zero nuclear bombs but the capacity to make them. Once you fire the one bomb, you have no further deterrent, and you’re definitely going to be nuked.

Quite a range of powers have credible deterrence against Iran – there’s the US, obviously, Israel, obviously, but less obviously France, Britain, Russia, India, China, and Pakistan. So, Chirac argued, the real danger wasn’t so much from a North Korean-style couple of bombs, but that this would lead to a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, with Saudi Arabia and possibly Egypt also rushing to obtain nukes as a counterdeterrent. (In yesterday’s Libération, Francois Heisbourg, the director of the IISS, restates this point adding Jordan to the list of presumed possible proliferators.)

He was of course right. Saudi Arabia has been quietly and consistently making noises about nuclear bombs for years, and it has close military-to-military ties with Pakistan. Some say Saudi money financed the Pakistani bomb project, and alone among nations they are in a position to actually buy the bomb. Egypt would probably see a Saudi bomb as unacceptable, and start using its own considerable scientific-technical establishment to work on going nuclear. (Chirac saw this differently – he suggested rather that the Saudis would finance Egyptian efforts – but I doubt this due to the historic competition for Arab leadership between the two states, and the Pakistani option.) Gah.
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