Déjà Vu All Over Again: China Re-Opens Flight Route M503

On January 4, the People’s Republic of China announced the opening of four new flight routes over the Taiwan Strait. Instead of giving the region some time to process the announcement, planes began using these routes the same day. Due to the location of the routes and the unilateral nature of the announcement, Taiwan has protested the opening of the routes.

The new paths consist of one northbound route (M503) and three east-west extension routes (W121, W122, W123) that link to the main one. Taiwan’s Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA) has estimated that over 20 flights have used these routes daily since their opening.

In the announcement, China noted that opening up these additional routes would help with delays in an already congested flight area. To the casual observer, such an announcement makes sense: if there are too many flights on a specific route, it would make sense to open new ones to prevent flight delays. Who likes when their flight is delayed?

Behind these new flight routes, however, is the poor state of cross-Strait relations. Since May 2016, China has cut official communication with Taiwan due to the inauguration of Tsai Ing-wen and her refusal to acquiesce in Beijing’s demand that she accept the so-called “1992 Consensus” and the related “one China Principle.” China has also recently increased the number of “island encirclement” missions, whereby Chinese bombers and surveillance planes fly around Taiwan and occasionally breach its Air Defense Zone. Talk of a Chinese invasion—although the possibility of invasion remains remote—has been a topic of much discussion since December 2017, particularly after a Chinese diplomat threatened invasion if a U.S. ship ever makes a port call in Taiwan. When compared to these other issues, a commercial flight route could be seen as innocuous.

But the new flight route is all a part of China’s strategy—ratchet up pressure on Taiwan in both large and small ways—especially while the world is focused on the crisis on the Korean Peninsula. If China continues to increase measures to force Tsai’s hand, which of the many threats would she ask China to limit or remove first?

In response to the announcement, Tsai tweeted: “Cross-strait stability is [important] to regional stability. Recent unilateral actions by #China – including M503 flight route & increased military exercises – are destabilizing & should be avoided. #Taiwan will continue to safeguard the status quo. We call on all parties to do the same.”

Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council reiterated Tsai’s point in a statement saying, “We believe . . . this is purposefully using civil aviation as a cover for improper intentions regarding Taiwan politics and even military affairs.”

China opened a similar route in January 2015, and Taiwan protested due to aviation safety concerns—the flights then (and now) were 7.8km away from Taiwanese airspace and cross paths with some domestic Taiwanese flights. By March 2015, Taiwan and China reached an agreement that one southbound flight route would remain open but the route was moved further west and that before China would open new routes, it would do so after consultation with Taiwan.

There is one slight, yet extremely important, difference between the 2015 spat and now. In 2015, the president of Taiwan was Ma Ying-jeou, a member of the Kuomintang, the party that advocates for closer ties with China. Now, in 2018, Tsai Ing-wen is president, and she is a member of the Democratic Progress Party, the party with a less favorable view of China. That’s the only change in the situation and thus the reason that the routes were opened again and the reason that China won’t be as amenable to compromise this time.

Taiwan under Tsai has limited leverage to push back against a more recalcitrant China, but it has done several things to make its stance known to China and the world. To try to press China into some sort of dialogue, Tsai’s government has called on the United States, Canada, and other countries to support Taiwan in this endeavor and for their planes to avoid using the new route. On January 18, the Taiwan CAA confirmed that it “has provisionally delayed approval of applications by two China-based airlines to operate additional cross-strait flights during the Lunar New Year holiday in protest at China’s unilateral decision to launch a northbound M503 route.” This postponement will affect nearly 200 flights and about 50,000 passengers.

Tsai has also made Taiwan’s stance known to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a UN organization that deals with global aviation issues. Unfortunately, since Taiwan is not a member of the United Nations, it is also not a member ICAO and cannot broach the topic directly. It must work through other indirect channels, specifically its formal and informal allies in ICAO. ICAO is not likely to do anything with Taiwan’s complaint because Taiwan is not allowed to be a member of the organization. Moreover, the Secretary General of the organization is a Chinese citizen, and Taiwan was excluded from the 39th Assembly in Montreal in 2016 after attending at China’s request in 2013.

For these reasons, it is unlikely that ICAO will work in favor of Taiwan even though according to ICAO guidelines, before a country makes a change to a flight route, it must work with “all parties concerned.” And China did not do that. In fact, China only notified Taiwan’s Civil Aeronautics Administration two hours before it sent out the official notification. At of the time of writing, ICAO has not formally responded to Taiwan’s complaint.

For its part, the United States has encouraged “authorities in Beijing and Taipei to engage in constructive dialogue, on the basis of dignity and respect,” but has not done much else. The United States should be more forceful in its rebuke of China’s unilateral action because since Tsai’s inauguration, China has shown it is not willing to have any dialogue with Taiwan. For now, to quote the great Yankees catcher Yogi Berra, “it’s déjà vu all over again” for cross-Strait relations.

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The Revolution Will Not Be Streamed—Yet

The current protests throughout Iran are unprecedented in its post-revolutionary history. They are driven primarily by a popular sense of economic indignity borne of decades of mismanagement, rampant cronyism, low oil prices, and tough sanctions; in other words, the catalysts are not ideological. The protests are spread across the country, remarkably making their way to the capital, rather emanating from it. They are at present leaderless, unlike 1979 or 2009. And distinct from the latter year’s Green Movement, when perhaps less than one million Iranians possessed smartphones, over 47 million now have them at their disposal. When the revolution eventually comes, it will be streamed.

A number of Arab autocrats were brought down in comparable circumstances. Endemic corruption. Social injustice. Egalitarian grassroots movements connected through social networks and other exciting tools of information communication technology. Yet, as time has shown, the courageous struggles of millions of Arab peoples were met with mixed success, if not abject failure in Egypt and Syria. Reflections on those events known as the Arab Spring would be worrying if used as a prism foretelling the Iranian regime’s imminent collapse.

And collapse it will—but not just yet. Rather than pointlessly reviving the genuine, but unwarranted, headiness of the Summer of ’09, for now, a more sobering view best be taken with considerations of what is different this time.

“It’s the economy…”

The unmet economic expectations of many Iranians have boiled over at last. President Hassan Rouhani had widely foregone the gratuitous and unsustainable subsidy programs of his predecessor. (Former President Mahmood Ahmadinejad was uniquely astounding in his unswerving ignorance of basic economics.) Yet, Rouhani was able to do so with the implicit belief of the Iranian people that, nuclear deal with the West secured, the economy would open up with attendant wealth generation. To the questionable extent that it did, there was no trickle down. Thus, it is worth noting Iran analyst Mohammed Ali Shabani’s prescient application of the J-curve theorem, whereby economic hardship crystallized in unmet expectations tips into civil strife.

To argue with certainty that something other than pitifully poor economic performance is the primary driver behind the past week’s demonstrations would be disingenuous. Recognizing that the 20th century’s major revolutions were largely rooted in cries for greater economic equality, they were coupled with political demands based in an ideology that would theoretically deliver social justice as understood by the discontented. Accordingly, the economic malcontent that led to the 1979 Revolution was shared among its competing factions of liberal democrats, leftists, and Islamists, yet each with their own specific concept of governmental (e.g. political) remedy. And while poor standards of living were a factor in the Green Movement’s broad appeal, 2009’s protestors initially took to the streets calling “Where’s my vote?”—a political appeal, first and foremost.

The absence of genuine political demands at present suggest that regime change is secondary, so don’t be misled by chants of “Death to the Dictator.” As one analyst aptly noted,

Iranians have been conditioned for nearly 40 years to reflexively shout “death to” something when they are enraged. It can mean anything from “please overhaul this whole system” to “please get rid of this particular leader who embodies all my grief at my troubled life.”

Or, it could simply mean, “Bring the prices of eggs and such under control, some real job opportunities, and a little less isolation and we’re cool.”

It is no coincidence that these rather politically rudderless demonstrations lack central leadership. Among other things, people look to leaders for solutions, i.e. alternative approaches to fix what isn’t working. Absent such an individual(s), the ball sits in the regime’s court as they scramble to craft a mollifying response, one that may be acceptable to the majority of demonstrators while preserving the state’s post-revolutionary foundations.

No Rest for the Wicked

Can the regime apply a Band-Aid big enough to finagle an extended lease-on-life? Perhaps so, but one increasingly short term as indicated by the other two unprecedented—and interconnected—aspects of the past week’s uprisings.

First is the geographic expanse of the protests, underlining their economic impetus. This is a level of discontent that can’t be explained away as whining by “disloyal” urban elites. Iranians of all classes are increasingly fed up not only with a weak economy, but also with a rapidly diminishing water supply, endemic air pollution, and the state’s deplorable response to last November’s earthquake, not to mention a bulging youth demographic desiring greater individual freedoms.

So while some Basij—a paramilitary militia under Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps direction—goon may club a hipster for being part of an imaginary Fifth Column, it is conceivably harder for him to beat a poor farmer demanding water for his crops. Nor might a small town policeman be inclined to shoot at a neighbor (cousin?) on the pretext that he or she, demonstrating for the sake of job opportunity, is actually an agitator in some fabricated imperialist plot. There still exists among many Iranians a sense of human decency that the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran can’t and will never control. This scares them to death and rightfully so.

Second, the regimes’ desired command control of communications is becoming increasingly illusive. The once-touted “Halal Net” has yet to effectively block Iranians from multiple avenues to unadulterated information. Unable to rollback the remarkable expansion of smartphone usage and the mass dissemination of information that they enable, the Iranian government is decreasingly capable of isolating its citizens from one another, much less them from the world beyond its borders. To place the potential impact of these means of communication in perspective, hypothesize how much shorter the USSR’s life span would have been had Soviet citizens such accessibility to information and contact.

Returning to the present: Ayatollah Ali Khamenei will not make the grave error of showing empathy and a willingness to negotiate. He watched the Shah do so in late 1978 and then witnessed the opposition remorselessly go for emperor’s jugular. Tragically, he and the Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps will probably soon respond with as much torturous and murderous brutality as necessary to quell the streets. As effective as that tactic may be, it could drive Iranians to nationwide strikes, an especially effective maneuver that worked effectively in the late 70s. Should the wheels of the economy halt, then perhaps a more conciliatory tack may be taken by the Supreme Leader.

Considerations of the waning years of the Soviet Union are warranted, much more so reflections on the Arab Spring. Not only are more and more citizen becoming gravely dissatisfied with their government’s rule, but some regime elites (perhaps even Rouhani himself) see the system as untenable. Challenged are the merits of regional power projection at the price of their most pressing domestic needs. The economic model is hollow, and the regime’s ideology is bankrupt.

Time is on the side of Iran’s opening. Those who participated in the ’79 Revolution and the hundreds of thousands more who lost their beloved in the barbaric war with Iraq that followed are slowly passing on. Replacing them are generations with no connection to those sacrifices, instead staring at the dysfunction surrounding them, detached from their forefathers’ emotional baggage. They will unequivocally demand a different kind of life. And I’ll wager that a technocrat will lead them. But it will be a bit longer for the next revolution’s uploads.

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How Sweden’s Anti-Semitism Problem Challenges Its Core Values

Swedish News Channel Coverage of Synagogue Attack

For a Swedish Jew, it’s a strange time to be home to see friends and family. Over the past few weeks, Jewish institutions have been hit with several violent attacks within a short time span. On Friday last week, a group protesting Donald Trump’s decision to move the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem chanted in Arabic about “shooting the Jews.” The following day, some 20 masked men descended upon the synagogue in Gothenburg, Sweden’s 2nd largest city, throwing Molotov cocktails on the building while a youth group was holding a party inside. They had to huddle together in the building’s basement until police arrived. Two days later, the chapel at the Jewish cemetery in Sweden’s 3rd largest city, Malmö (and its primary hotbed of anti-Semitism), was also attacked with firebombs.

These events have yet again put the spotlight on a problem that much Swedish officialdom has never known (and still does not know) how to handle, or even recognize or talk about. Solid and recent statistics are difficult to come by, but according to one 2005 study by the Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention (Brottsförebyggande rådet), 39 percent of Swedish adults of Muslim faith hold anti-Jewish attitudes. By comparison, only five percent of the general population subscribe to such views. In other words, the source of the wave of anti-Jewish violence and hate is not the average Swede, but usually, people who have immigrated to Sweden from the Middle East and North Africa. While some have attempted to paint anti-Jewish hate as a problem of the far-right – a much more comfortable version for many – the threat in the past few years has predominantly come from other groups. One relatively recent study shows that 51 percent of anti-Semitic incidents have been reported as committed, according to the victims, as “someone with a Muslim-extremist view.” In 2010, one study showed that while 18 percent of Swedish high school students hold anti-Jewish attitudes, the figure among those who identify as Muslim was 55 percent.

After the firebombs against the synagogue in Gothenburg, three suspects were taken into custody. Two were from Syria and one from the Palestinian Territories. All had come to Sweden only in the past few years. One of them was later released due to a lack of evidence.

For Sweden, this is a highly uncomfortable reality that society is only slowly beginning to wake up to. That people from one minority group can commit violent crimes and express hate against another goes against ideas deeply entrenched in the political culture, where racism has been seen as something that only fringe groups on the far-right exercise against ethnic minorities. The very idea that people from an ethnic minority can spread racial hatred against other ethnic minorities has been difficult for many Swedish politicians to grasp, particularly when it’s been easy to dismiss the hatred as motivated by what some see as a justified hatred of Israel.

But that attitude no longer works, and it’s slowly starting to sink in among Sweden’s political establishment. On Monday, Morgan Johansson, a Social Democrat and Minister for Home Affairs and Justice, argued in a parliamentary debate that, only until recently, many in his own party preferred not even to acknowledge that anti-Semitism is disproportionately strong among immigrants from the Middle East. Johansson stated – rightly – that anti-Semitism is a problem in all three movements of violent extremism that exist today in Sweden: the far right, far left, and Islamic extremist groups (author’s own translation, somewhat edited for clarity):

“We should react strongly when [the hate] comes from the right, from Nazi groups on the streets, or from the far-right extremist online trolls. We should react as strongly when it comes from Muslims,” Johansson said, and continued:

“I believe that if you have been given a refuge in Sweden, our rules must be obeyed, and then, I demand that you contribute to decreasing tensions and to conflict resolution, rather than increased tensions between groups. You can’t bring the Middle East conflict here, you have to contribute to de-escalation.”

But the fact that these words are at all noteworthy indicates how late to the game politicians such as Johansson are. Some journalists, most prominently Paulina Neuding, have written about anti-Semitism among Muslim immigrants for many years, while much of the political establishment either chose to ignore the problem or to blame far-right extremists as the main source of anti-Jewish sentiments.

On the upside, several Muslim groups and individuals have spoken up in much clearer terms than Swedish officialdom. Nalin Pekgul, former elected official for the Social Democrats, has long spoken up frankly and clearly about the anti-Semitism she has observed for years among some Swedish immigrant groups. After the recent attacks against Jewish institutions, she decided to mark her disgust by openly wearing a Magen David necklace in the center of Tensta, a Stockholm suburb with a predominantly immigrant population. On December 14th, 14 Swedish imams published an editorial in one of Sweden’s largest newspapers, Aftonbladet, stating that it is “…a great shame for us Muslims that anti-Semitic hate crimes occur among some of Sweden’s Muslims.” Bassem Nasr, a local politician in Malmö for the Green Party and of Palestinian origin, has spoken out several times about the anti-Semitism he has witnessed in the pro-Palestinian movement in Sweden.

In other words, there are many who aren’t afraid to acknowledge the problem. In the wake of the recent attacks, several officials have spoken up with more clarity than ever before. One can only hope that words will lead to action.

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Sexual Violence: It’s Everybody’s Problem

Whether you get your news online, on the radio, on television, or in print, there is no way to escape the recent spate of revelations of sexual harassment, sexual misconduct, and sexual assault that have taken place in every industry and at every echelon. Powerful politician, billionaire media mogul, tenured professor, it makes no difference; the Harvey Weinstein scandal (rather than the countless sexual disgraces associated with our Commander-in-Chief) provided the watershed moment that now has our country engaged, at least for the time being, in this important, albeit uncomfortable, conversation.

One can easily feel saturated by the flood of news and opinions on this topic. And one might ask why two foreign policy scholars at a think tank dedicated to international affairs feel the need to write this blog post. There are two answers to that question: First, everyone has a responsibility to speak up about this issue. Second, the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) approach toward global affairs is actually quite useful when discussing this issue as well. The FPRI outlook, as we understand it, tends to take a realistic (some might say pessimistic) view of the world and human nature. We are not afraid to expose our own or anyone else’s warts. But we believe that only after taking in the world as it is can we begin to ask what is to be done. This approach is as necessary as it is lacking in foreign policy analysis… as well as in much of the current dialog on sexual assault and sexual harassment.  

Sexual assault was, and still is in many cases, synonymous with war—both as a tool wielded by the strong against the weak and as a spoil of war. There is a reason that the terms “rape and pillage” are habitually used in tandem. One can find instances of rape in almost every war in human history. The handful of examples provided by Anna Louie Sussman in her piece “Is Rape Inevitable in War?” from the Rape of Nanking to the rape camps of Bosnia and Herzegovina illustrate this gruesome reality.

Similarly, forced marriages and concubinage have existed from antiquity (including in the Bible) up through the modern era. The shocking tales of sex slavery practiced by ISIS are but the most recent manifestation of this age-old practice. The sad truth is that women have found themselves at the mercy of male sexual aggression for most of human history. Often, that situation was considered normal and accepted.

Workplace sexual assault and sexual harassment cannot be divorced from this history. Nevertheless, much of the discussion of sexual assault portrays it as an aberration, while at the same time portraying women’s rights as inherent in the state of nature. This is simply not true. Humanity has its darker sides. There is no tabula rasa. The idea that we have to be taught to hate, to discriminate, and to be violent has long been debunked. Human minds work to separate themselves from the other at an impossibly young age, as so much research has shown.[1] If anyone is looking for examples, Chapter Three of Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman’s book NurtureShock, titled “Why White Parents Don’t Talk About Race,” contains a number that are particularly poignant. Conversely, acceptance, tolerance, and equality for the other must be taught. And because we have failed to acknowledge the prominent place of sexual assault in human history, that simply hasn’t happened. So here we are.

Sexual innuendo and coercion in the modern workplace (be it Hollywood, the government, or think tanks) has its roots in this ugly past. Although the power dynamic inherent in the war context is much more extreme than in the workplace, the two are not unrelated. Those in power, and let’s be honest, there is overwhelming evidence that we are primarily talking about men here, have used sexual harassment and sexual assault to assert themselves over their subordinates. Psychotherapist Lyn Yonack explains, “Although the touch may be sexual, the words seductive or intimidating, and the violation physical, when someone rapes, assaults, or harasses, the motivation stems from the perpetrator’s need for dominance and control. In heterosexual and same-sex encounters, sex is the tool used to gain power over another person.”  Being in a position that determines the professional fate of others, where “no” is not an acceptable response, where growth and reward come from being close to those who possess power, is a heady position to be in and is often abused. And people seem to know that it is going on.

A new NBC News/SurveyMonkey poll shows that while “more than four of every five Americans believe that sexual harassment is taking place in the workplace,” “just 9 percent of those employed — believe that sexual harassment is a problem in their own office.” Well how can that be? One reason is that sexual harassment is largely under-reported. As Jane Coaston recounts, “though up to 75 percent of women surveyed in one study had experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, just 29 percent reported it.” Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev link low reporting levels to fear of retribution. They report that “among people who file harassment complaints with the [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission], at least one-third say that after complaining to the company they were demoted, moved to lousy jobs or shifts, fired, raped, or further harassed.” Dobbin and Kalev point to several large-scale surveys that show, “people who file harassment complaints are much more likely to lose their jobs than those who experience similar levels of harassment and say nothing.”

There is a toll that these experiences exact on women’s careers as more and more of them simply opt out or change lanes. As Rosa Brooks wrote, in this case about the national security landscape, “at every point along that spectrum from merely offensive to actually criminal, crappy male behavior is part of what pushes women out of the national security workplace.” Brooks invoked what Dan Drezner’s called the hidden “tax” on women, which amounts to “an extra burden that makes it that much tougher for women to advance or even stay in the workplace at all.” Male-dominated industries like national security and foreign policy are rife with sexual harassment not only because of their sheer numbers or boy’s club culture, but also because of hierarchy and authority. Dobbin and Kalev point to a host of studies that show harassment “flourishes in workplaces where men dominate in management and women have little power,” and “in organizations where few women hold the ‘core’ jobs.” Similarly, Lyn Yonack notes that sexual assaults and sexual violence “typically arise within asymmetrical power dynamics, where the perpetrator occupies a more powerful or dominant position in relation to the victim.” This dearth of women at the top, more than sensitivity training or any of the other myriad of Band-Aids that have come into vogue over the years, is where the work needs to start.

If we accept that sexual assault and harassment are endemic in human history, and probably in human nature, we must also accept that they cannot be treated passively. Providing a sugar-coated rendition of human interactions that treat perpetrators of sexual assault as deviant misses the point. From a historical perspective, those of us who wish to ban sexual assault from human interactions are the outliers. If we truly wish to address this issue, we need to be proactive.

Fortunately, there are a number of things we can do, beginning with ensuring that more women are in leadership positions and occupying “core jobs.” This also has a strong bearing on the need to first acknowledge and then resolve gender wage inequality in the workplace—a touchy issue that is intimately tied to promotion. Another takeaway is that this is not something that should come only from women. Men need to step up. It’s time for a change—a meaningful cultural shift that begins at infancy and is reinforced until retirement by men and women alike, but particularly by men. That change can start now, while this issue still has our attention. It needs to happen on a national level, but it also needs to happen in every one of our workplaces by anyone and everyone who has the ability, the clout, or the platform to do so.

[1] Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, NurtureShock: New Thinking about Children (New York: Twelve, 2009), Chapter 3: Why White Parents don’t Talk about Race, pp. 45-70.

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What’s in a Name?: Strategy Behind the “Indo-Pacific”

Throughout his tour of Asia in November 2017, U.S. President Donald Trump repeatedly referred to the region through which he travelled not as the “Asia-Pacific,” but rather as the “Indo-Pacific.”  While other American presidents have spoken of the “Indo Pacific” before, they did so infrequently. Trump’s continuous use of the term prompted some to speculate whether it offered a clue to the future of American strategy in the region.

Only a week later, Australia released a new white paper that embedded the term “Indo-Pacific” into its broad foreign policy objectives. The white paper made mention of the “Indo-Pacific” 74 times and the “Asia-Pacific” only four times. In contrast, Australia’s prior foreign-policy white paper, published in 2003, mentioned the “Asia-Pacific” 26 times and the “Indo-Pacific” not at all. Clearly, policymakers have intended the term to hold some deeper meaning.[1]

You Say “Asia-Pacific,” I Say “Indo-Pacific”

What does the term “Indo-Pacific” convey that the term “Asia-Pacific” does not? It conveys a wider view of the region to include the Indian subcontinent and, specifically, India. Why include India? Most likely it is because incorporating a country of India’s size and significance into the traditional conception of the Asia-Pacific region would help to balance the growing economic and military heft of China in it.

That makes sense, given that Australia, Japan, and the United States have already brought India into their Asian security discussions. Back in 2007, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe first suggested formalizing such a multilateral collaboration through what he called the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue. He hoped to bring together Asia’s four liberal democracies to promote their shared security goals. At the time, the concept fizzled for fear of alienating China. But that apparently is less of a concern today. With the rise of Chinese assertiveness, the four countries have begun to participate in joint military exercises all along Asia’s periphery. Since 2014, India, Japan, and the United States have conducted annual naval exercises from the Bay of Bengal to the Western Pacific. And, since 2015, Japan has joined the biennial Australia-U.S. military exercise called Talisman Saber.

Indo-Pacific Security Relationships

Still, for the moment the Indo-Pacific region’s only formal security alliances are the bilateral ones that link the United States with Australia, Japan, the Philippines, and South Korea in what some have described as a “hub-and-spokes” arrangement. The United States also has long-standing security relationships with Singapore, Taiwan, and until recently, Thailand. All other regional security ties are fairly nascent, including the one between Australia and Japan. Though both countries seem drawn to one another, their bond is not yet strong. Seen in that light, Australia’s recent decision to abandon a Japanese design for its future submarine fleet was probably a missed opportunity to reinforce that bond.

Meanwhile, India, which leaned towards the Soviet Union for much of the Cold War, has a relatively new security relationship with the United States. It was not until President George W. Bush orchestrated a civil nuclear deal with India, which implicitly recognized its nuclear weapons status in 2005, did that relationship really start. And even then, it did not grow quickly. Many Indians, including former National Security Council military advisor Prakash Menon and the former foreign secretary Shyam Saran, had reservations. In 2012, they, along with some notable Indian security experts, penned a strategy paper entitled Nonalignment 2.0 that downplayed the importance of stronger ties with the United States.[2]

Since then, however, China’s growing pressure on India’s borders and influence among India’s neighbors have made Indian leaders less concerned about India’s distance from the United States and more interested in finding common cause. As a reflection of that, India—once an exclusive Russian arms importer—has begun to acquire American military equipment and to consider Japanese ones, too. Australia specifically cited its interest in “much closer” ties with India in its recent foreign policy white paper.[3]

Indo-Pacific Encirclement of China?

For years, Chinese strategists have chafed at what they regarded as the geopolitical encirclement of China. But the number of such commentaries seems to have fallen over the last year or so. Perhaps that is because China has strengthened its relationship with Russia and made diplomatic headway in Southeast Asia. Or perhaps that is simply because China feels more powerful than it was. Ironically, China would have more reason to feel encircled today, if the other major Indo-Pacific powers choose to revive something akin to the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue.

What’s in the name “Indo-Pacific?” The answer, in this case, might be a strategy for balancing Chinese power in the region.

[1] Australia Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, The Commonwealth of Australia’s 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper, Nov. 2017; and Australia Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Australia’s Foreign and Trade Policy White Paper, 2003.

[2] Sunil Khilnani, Rajiv Kumar, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, Prakash Menon, Nandan Nilekani, Srinath Raghavan, Shyam Saran, and Siddharth Varadarajan, Nonalignment 2.0: A Foreign and Strategic Policy for India in the Twenty First Century (New Delhi: Centre for Policy Research, 2012).

[3] Australia Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, The Commonwealth of Australia’s 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper, Nov. 2017, p. 42.

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Conflicted over Trump’s Jerusalem Announcement

I’m an Israeli, a Zionist and an orthodox Jew. I admit—I am conflicted about the Trump administration’s plan to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. And I shouldn’t be. There is no question that this is a long overdue step. But the timing, and the potential for harsh reactions which may harm U.S., and perhaps even Israeli, interests, while promoting those of our enemies, is problematical.

In 1947, under the UN Partition Plan, Jerusalem was supposed to be a “corpus separatum,” and be placed under international regime, uncontrolled by either the Jewish state or the Arab state, which were supposed to come into being. That plan was never implemented: it was rejected by the Arab rulers; Israel declared itself a state as the British left, with Jerusalem as its capital (for the next 19 years, it was sovereign only over the larger, Western part of the city) and was admitted as a member state to the UN in 1949. Jerusalem has been Israel’s capital for close to 70 years. Whoever wants to meet our President, our Prime Minister, our Supreme Court, our Parliament must come to Jerusalem. Anwar Sadat visited Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. So did King Hussein of Jordan, when he attended Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin’s funeral at our national cemetery at Mount Herzl.

But the international community has lived for 70 years with the fiction that the status of Jerusalem is unclear and subject to the terms of a future peace settlement. That is why all foreign embassies are in Tel Aviv and why when foreign diplomats talk about the Israeli government, some of them say “Tel Aviv,” the way they say “Moscow” or “New Delhi” or “Abuja” (or, for that matter, “Taipei”). Because over sixty years ago, it was thought that the political geography west of the Jordan was fluid and that something might soon change. In addition, after Israel passed the “Basic Law: Jerusalem, Capital of Israel” in 1980, declaring that “Jerusalem, complete and united, is the capital of Israel,” the world’s foreign offices, and the UN, decided that recognizing the fact of Jerusalem being Israel’s capital meant recognition of the “Occupation” as well. This is a fair cop, but doesn’t really explain why West Jerusalem was never recognized as Israel’s capital. The simple answer is that the international community is at this point holding back recognition of Israel’s capital as a potential quid pro quo for concessions by Israel in the future.

I think that it’s an aberration that Israel’s closest and most powerful friend and ally, the United States, has been unwilling to step up and cut through the crap for so long, and that this anomaly should be corrected as soon as feasible. The fact that every six months for twenty years, the “time wasn’t right” for the State Department to honor the wishes of the majority of Americans and a strong bipartisan majority of the legislative branch—and instead had the president ask for a waiver saying that a suspension of the law written by Congress mandating the move of the embassy “is necessary to protect the national security interests of the United States”—is nothing short of bizarre. Is the fact that in 1996 it looked like there might soon be a further accord between Israel and the Palestinians (remember, we already have two from 1993 and 1995), so that the Congress “authorize[d] the President to suspend [the implementation of the legislation] for six months (with possible subsequent six-month extensions” for the above-mentioned national security interests, still relevant today?

Inertia is a powerful force. It’s never going to be the “right” time. For those who don’t want to do the right thing—bring American policy in line with American values—or are afraid of the repercussions, there will always be a reason not to do something.

But . . . we have a saying in Israel: “don’t be right, be smart,” and this is why I am conflicted. Because timing is everything.

Because the Muslim world is divided as never before. Blocs have formed due to the civil war in Syria, and there is a bloc which is close to the West, and closer to Israel than ever before. Under the surface, and increasingly, on the surface as well. Past experience shows us that of the very few issues which can unify Muslims, and of the many which can inflame the Muslim street, one of the most powerful is a perceived threat to Jerusalem and to Al Aqsa. Arab governments and publics think in terms of conspiracies. The U.S., and the Trump administration, has no credit saved up in the Arab World and does not seem to be planning this step as a sweetener in a broader process. Putting the spotlight on Jerusalem at this stage—even if there is no operational result for years, in terms of construction of an embassy—is problematical. It puts the “good guys”—Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt—on the spot, and they are already warning about the consequences. It will further weaken Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in his struggle with Hamas, which bludgeons him with his continued willingness to engage with Israel and the U.S. administration. It also could provide a strong following wind to the ships of Israel’s enemies—Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah, Turkey, and the jihadi universe.

Past Israeli governments have spitballed solutions which would square this circle (and lost elections, largely for this reason). One of those solutions, that the Palestinian capital would be in the Jerusalem suburb of Abu Dis, was reportedly mooted recently by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman; it was rejected by Palestinians in the past. Russia, by the way, recognized West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital back in April 2017, while saying that the future capital of Palestine will be in East Jerusalem and that it had no intention of moving its embassy out of Tel Aviv. But no one threatened “punishing” Russia, or harming Russian interests in the Middle East, as a result; they wouldn’t dare. However, recognition of West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, while leaving open the question of East Jerusalem, won’t fly in the American political constellation (though the same constellation can mitigate, since the Congress may not put President Trump’s feet to the fire, to start moving the embassy soon).

Israel’s capital has been and will always be in Jerusalem. Israel’s capital is not and never has been Tel Aviv. The diplomatic world is sometimes a bizarro world. We are a strong country. So is the United States. I applaud President Trump’s willingness to rectify the U.S. position on the Jerusalem issue.

But we don’t need the United States’ validation, though it would be nice to have it. We don’t need anyone to tell us where our capital is, and no one can. And I don’t want Americans to say that because of Israel, American lives are in danger. It is nice to think that this fear of bad people doing bad things in response should not prevent states from doing the right thing. But in an imperfect world, it often does.

I admit—I am conflicted. And I shouldn’t be.

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Spared a War: Abe’s Victory and Japan’s Rearmament

I made my genuine Thanksgiving on October 27. The occasion was Mr. Abe’s crushing victory in the Japanese election; the reason was a genuine, though perhaps erroneous, sense that we had been spared a potentially ghastly war in Asia, by the rebalancing of regional power that victory brought.

Japan will now start deliberately rearming and aiding her neighbors, with the pace determined by China’s aggressiveness. If China does not abandon her current expansionist territorial policy, but rather attempts nuclear blackmail against her neighbors, at the end of the day, Japan will match that too, with her own nuclear force, checkmating China. This will bring an armed peace.

Since at least 1995 when she occupied the Philippine Mischief Reef, China has been attempting to expand her territory to include Arunachal Pradesh (“South Tibet” in Beijing’s terminology) in India and islands held by South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, and others, as well as to take control of the entire South China Sea, half again bigger than the Mediterranean.

China calculated that no one would react seriously. She was emerging as the hegemon of Asia; others would recognize this fact (which may not be one) and doff their caps, no more. Certainly, the United States would continue to do nothing. The Obama administration had done effectively nothing while this attempt to transform the Indo-Pacific region was being carried out.

China is also actively seeking bases in Africa and elsewhere, with a view to controlling the key choke points in the international maritime transport network. This is Griff nach der Weltmacht, with Chinese characteristics. A continuation of such aggressive behavior will almost certainly lead to conflict, escalation, and perhaps general war.

In 2010, sparks flew at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit, as Hillary Clinton delivered a strong verbal condemnation. Then, in 2014, the Philippines filed suit in The Hague, under The Law of the Sea, the authority of which China has ratified and accepted. In 2016, the International Court of Arbitration found that all of China’s actions were illegal. China, however, ignored the decision completely, continuing her expansive policy, assuming that she could divide her opponents, intimidating them above all with her immense military and nuclear capabilities.

This seemed to work. Rodrigo Duterte, an erratic man, became president of the Philippines, and he began to come to terms with China. It became bad form to mention The Hague’s decision. Having torn up the international court’s decision, China looked set to create a fait accompli by flouting the law to use military intimidation instead.

The United States began to take serious action with the new administration in office. When President Trump made his highly successful visit to Asia, he did not need to mention security, as an almost unprecedented three Carrier Strike Groups were exercising in the seas nearby, message enough.

The United States is far away, though, and not trusted by anyone to use nuclear weapons to defend them. That is why the United Kingdom and France, both allies, maintain at great expense their own independent nuclear deterrents. But Japan? She foreswore war in her Constitution. Not only that, the United States presented herself as the “cork in the bottle” that would prevent Japanese armament. The drastic changes that China started unilaterally, assuming Japan would dither, in fact focused that country’s attention.

With Abe’s victory, we may expect Japan to become normal, which is to say possess a self-sufficient military capability including, if so pressed, nuclear weapons that will deter China and freeze her current policy. A democracy, Japan can move only with the support of her people. China’s threats to her territory, as well as the firing of two North Korean ballistic missiles over the islands, contributed to Abe’s victory. Now, we can expect a carefully calibrated Japanese response that will match China at every stage.

What does Japan have now? Her self-defense force numbers at about 250,000. At present, she lacks any but defensive armaments. Even so, her advanced technological capabilities mean that she can develop herself any weapon she needs, as good or better as the American systems on which she now largely relies. Japan does not steal technologies. She already has her technologies.

The jewel in her crown is her small (19) submarine force. The Sōryū is a conventional submarine so stealthy that the highly skilled Japanese anti-submarine forces can find only 5% of them when under way. They regularly sink American carrier escorts (using lasers) in war games. More importantly, as retired Chinese General Liu Yazhou 劉亞洲, an adamant Japanophobe, has warned, in case of naval conflict today, the Japanese submarines could sink the entire Chinese East Sea fleet in four or so hours.[1] (Liu is also an outspoken advocate of democracy). As the Japanese ambassador remarked to this author, “We are a shadow nuclear power.” In other words, it might take them a week to create an arsenal.

Otherwise, Japan has a slightly obsolescent air force to which U.S. F-35s are being added. More importantly, she has a prototype sixth generation stealth fighter the X-2 “Shinshin.” Cynics say she is building this to force American prices down. That may have been correct in the past, but today she is building it so as to be self-sufficient in aircraft. I believe this will be a superb jet: remember, not until 1943 did the United States field a fighter that could down the Japanese Zero.

Japan has also been launching “Information Gathering Satellites” since 2003. The most recent, launched earlier this year, is thought to have resolving power far superior to any other nation’s. Japan has enlarged her intelligence service. Particularly in cooperation with Taiwan (below), Japan will achieve intelligence dominance in the region.

What is missing?

Japan has only very short-range missiles. Now, however, she has undertaken a program to build a maneuverable missile having sufficient range and payload to pose a severe problem to any adversary, and a 1,000 mile-range missile nicknamed the “Japanese Tomahawk” about which in fact we know very little.

The Japanese speak of these as counter-strike missiles: in other words, to be used only after being attacked. Nothing, however, prevents their pre-emptive use. Likewise, they are intended to be conventional. Nothing, however, prevents the Japanese from unscrewing a conventional warhead and replacing it with a nuclear weapon.

In other words, Japan is now on the threshold of becoming a regional great power, not capable of attacking or invading her adversaries, but of paralyzing them by means of her advanced military capabilities. This fact transforms the Asian strategic situation. No longer will China be able to intimidate without fearing retaliation. The Hague decision will be proclaimed as justification, and who can gainsay the legitimacy of that?

Japan will become an Asian alliance focus in the emerging alliance—“The Quad”—of Australia, the United States, India, and Japan—hammered out, significantly, on the sidelines of this year’s ASEAN conference in Manila, so far China’s chief target. Also, she will become a non-U.S. source of advanced weaponry.

This last point—weapons supply—is particularly significant with respect to Taiwan. United States policy has always been to keep Taiwan weak enough that China can imagine conquest, yet fulfill the letter of the Taiwan Relations Act which requires us to supply defensive armament, by selling mostly obsolete or unwanted systems at great profit to our defense contractors. In fact, the loss of Taiwan, while it would be a crime against humanity, would not affect American security.

It would, however, mortally threaten Japan, whose main islands are 800 miles away, while her closest small island, Yonaguni, is less than 70 miles from the east coast of Taiwan. Japan and Taiwan are part of the same mostly submerged ocean mountain range. So we may expect Japan and Taiwan to cooperate in whatever ways are necessary to keep China at bay. If we continue to seek to please China even as we supply Taiwan with inadequate equipment, we may expect Japanese systems to fill the gap—submarines, naval vessels, state of the art aircraft. Not to mention close intelligence cooperation. Taiwan is often thought of as an American issue. Look at the map, though. It is a Japanese issue.

Finally, we must speak of diplomacy. Japan is widely distrusted, though this is perhaps a myth. Even South Korea, which was tortured brutally by Japan during the period she was a colony (1910-1945), maintains a high level of day to day security interaction with Tokyo. Japan’s diplomatic prowess is often underestimated, in part because she conceals it. But, particularly if aided by the United States and other “Quad” powers, she will show great effectiveness. “The Quad,” which China never imagined but was instrumental in creating as a counterbalance to her aggression, is more than a sufficient counterweight.

Note that China has created this situation for herself. She has no real allies: does anyone expect Russia or Pakistan to go to war on her behalf? Rather, by making such vast territorial claims from India to Japan (with the Russian Primorskii Krai, which controls the Pacific coast of Eurasia from Korea north on deck as the next), she has alienated, effectively, all her neighbors—here I include unstable Pakistan and opportunistic Russia—creating what political scientists would call a “countervailing coalition.”

Our greatest 19th century general, Winfield Scott, might have called it “an anaconda” that China has created, but in the toils of which she now finds herself. This entanglement will render impossible China’s miscalculated policies.

Note too that without China’s aid or at least acquiescence, North Korea would not be able to command the attention or elicit the fear that she does now. She is a dependent variable in this larger change, which will undermine and weaken her. South Korea is furthermore high on the list of nuclear capable states.

Actions elicit equal and opposite reactions, so Newton states. Clausewitz notes that unlike physical reactions, those in conflict, being the product of the human mind, are entirely unpredictable. When she set out on her ill-conceived expansion program, China wrote off both Japan and the United States. Now, they are at the heart of the game.

Of course, all of this could go wrong. The possibility of a war worse than any in history erupting in Asia remains with us. The developments outlined here, however, render that less and less likely, while a cold and peaceful standoff looks more realistic.

If such should turn out to be the case, we may date its onset from the Japanese election that has brought Abe to complete power. Now, our task is to create an alliance with Japan such as the late Ambassador Hisahiko Okazaki always advocated—as close as ours with the United Kingdom.

So let us celebrate a war that I believe has been averted!

[1] 流亞洲 ”日本4 小時內 ‘清空’中國東海艦隊” in當代世界 October 2015,, p. 1.

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Jamaican Shipwreck: Will Merkel Go Down with the Ship?

For more than a month, representatives of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), have been engaged in preliminary discussions about creating a coalition government with two other smaller parties—the pro-business liberal (in the European sense) Free Democratic Party (FDP) and the environmentalist Greens. Following a long German habit of identifying political parties and their coalitions by traditional colors, the linking of Christian Democrats (Black), Liberals (Yellow), and Greens has been referred to as a “Jamaica” Coalition, reflecting the colors of the Caribbean nation’s flag.

Jamaica is a popular vacation spot, an island of tropical dreams. Today, however, it represents a disturbing political reality. The collapse of those negotiations has plunged Germany into its deepest political crisis since reunification.

Such a coalition is a new development in German politics, having been tried out so far only on the state level in Saarland (from 2009-2012) and currently in the far northern state of Schleswig-Holstein. It is a sign of increasing political fragmentation in Germany, as the relative decline of the larger parties has made broader coalitions necessary, and of the desire of centrist parties to cooperate in the face of extremist challenges from both the neo-communist Linke (Left) and the nationalist-populist Alternative for Germany (AfD).

It also happened, in this case, to be Angela Merkel’s only mathematical chance at a majority after the disappointing results of national elections on September 24. Despite her high international profile, the CDU/CSU suffered significant losses, winning barely a third of the overall vote. Merkel’s coalition partner, the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), fell even further. The once-proud SPD gained barely 21% of the vote, and on election night, its leader, Martin Schulz, announced that the Social Democrats preferred to go into opposition to regroup than to continue as a shrunken junior partner in another (increasingly less) Grand Coalition. Unwilling to include the AfD, who rode a wave of anti-immigrant and anti-establishment sentiment to 13% of the vote, let alone the Linke, Merkel and colleagues claimed to welcome the chance to make Jamaica a reality.

Supporters of the Jamaica idea have hailed it as a creative solution to political stasis, providing an alternative to the stale cooperation between the CDU/CSU and SPD. The very idea that the CDU/CSU and the Greens could contemplate a coalition would have appeared ludicrous to politicians in the 1980s, when the Greens first emerged out of the peace movement to denounce the pro-NATO policies of CDU Chancellor Helmut Kohl. It certainly says a lot about the changing German political landscape that such cooperation has functioned reasonably well at the city and state level, and has become a national possibility. Both sides have altered their positions on key issues, especially as a degree of environmental consciousness has become part of the mainstream consensus, and they have also displayed a degree of pragmatism in finding common ground. Critics, however, pointing out significant policy differences on migration and environmental policy not only between the CDU/CSU and the Greens but also between the FDP and the Greens, denounced the idea as far-fetched and doomed from the start. Unsurprisingly, the leaders of the AfD have been especially harsh, viewing Jamaica as merely the last bastion of a political elite determined at all costs to keep the AfD from government. But even sympathetic European centrist observers such as Timothy Garton Ash have called it an “improbable pantomime horse.”

Well, that horse broke a leg on Sunday night when the telegenic leader of the FDP, Christian Lindner, announced that his party was abandoning the preliminary coalition talks. The trip to Jamaica has been at best postponed, and at worst canceled.

Two questions come to mind:

  • What happened?
  • What’s next?

Answering the first question depends heavily on where one stands politically. Lindner portrayed his decision to break off talks as a blow for political principle. Blaming the Greens for their insistence on liberal policies on the reunification of migrant families, Lindner claimed there were compromises he was not prepared to make. “It is better not to govern than to govern incorrectly” (Besser nicht regieren als falsch), was the slogan that appeared with suspiciously immediate ubiquity on all FDP social media platforms. Supporters of the other parties, however, have rejected this portrayal. CSU Chair Horst Seehofer (himself an advocate of stricter immigration policies) claimed that an agreement was “within reach,” while other Christian Democrats and Greens denounced the FDP as inflexible.

Lindner is also pursuing a clear, if risky, political calculation. He succeeded in returning the FDP to the Bundestag with a campaign that hinted at a more pro-business and nationalist liberalism, with enough criticism of Merkel’s immigration policies and of the European Union to appeal to those middle-class voters who were upset with Merkel but perhaps not quite willing to vote for the AfD. Looking around the European neighborhood, Lindner may have seen possible role models in the equally young and telegenic Emmanuel Macron in France (who basically created a new political party riding a wave of frustration with the political establishment) and also Sebastian Kurz in Austria (who has embraced a hard line on immigration to build a center-right coalition). Finishing behind the AfD but slightly ahead of the Greens was a notable but incomplete success. Although a coalition with the CDU/CSU alone would have appealed to many center-right voters, it was not clear that being part of a government with the Greens would be good for the FDP’s long-term strategy of appealing to dissatisfied but respectable conservatives. (Indeed, the AfD was founded by defectors from both the CSU and the FDP, so this would be a kind of reunion strategy.) A few years in parliamentary opposition may serve that purpose better, giving the FDP a chance to hone its message. Indeed, Lindner and the FDP reacted especially strongly to Martin Schulz’s announcement that the SPD would not be available for another Grand Coalition—not out of any affection for the existing arrangement, but because it provided a target-rich environment for the FDP’s rhetorical jabs. After Schulz’s demurral, it would have been hard for the FDP to say no to negotiations. Lindner may have even been serious about participating in the government if the terms were right. Nevertheless, it’s not surprising that Lindner chose this dramatic step, and has even suggested that new elections are necessary. Especially by suggesting that immigration was the sticking point, Lindner is clearly preparing the FDP for a campaign in which it runs hard to capture conservative votes.

As for what happens next, that depends on how the parties and their leaders manage the details of the German constitution. Merkel has met with Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who has the constitutional responsibility to approve coalition negotiations. Assuming that Steinmeier, who comes from the SPD and served as Merkel’s Foreign Minister in a previous Grand Coalition, cannot convince his old party to return to government, and that the FDP is serious about rejecting Jamaica, the only remaining options would be a minority government (either of the CDU/CSU and Greens, or, less likely, the CDU/CSU alone) or early national elections.

There is no tradition in postwar German history of minority governments at the national level, which would make every parliamentary decision a drama as the government sought supplementary votes from other parties. It is not an appealing prospect now, especially at a time when Germany faces both domestic and international challenges—from immigration to the Brexit negotiations—and has to deal with difficult international interlocutors including Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin, and Donald Trump.

That makes new elections appear inevitable. Here again, however, the constitutional rules do not make it easy. First, the Bundestag would have to go through the process of voting on Angela Merkel as Chancellor candidate of the largest party. If she fails to receive a majority vote, the Bundestag would have two weeks to reconsider before voting again on whomever is nominated to be chancellor. Only after that second round of voting was complete would it be possible for the Federal President to dissolve the Bundestag, with elections taking place sometime in the late winter or early spring.

Either way, Germany and Europe face months of further political uncertainty. To make matters worse, at the end of it all, there is no guarantee that the election results would provide any more clarity. Current polls suggest a picture at least as fragmented as the September elections. Lindner may believe he can gain votes, but it is also possible that a campaign that includes multiple parties offering anti-establishment rhetoric will only serve the purposes of the AfD. One of their leaders, Alice Weidel, has already announced that the AfD welcomes new elections. It is very likely that the next Chancellor will face many of the same problems, and the individual parties will face many of the same existential choices of whether to retreat into opposition or to take up the responsibility of governing.

All of this leads us back to the woman who has stood at the center of German, European, and in some cases, even world politics since 2005—Angela Merkel. The September elections were always going to be her last in active politics. Despite ongoing criticism for her handling of migration and of the ongoing Euro crisis, her apparent political recovery over the course of the past year led pollsters to assume that she would enter a fourth and final term with a range of coalition options. Instead, she finds herself with few, and with her reputation as the stable hand on the tiller guiding Germany through choppy seas facing its greatest challenge.

Merkel’s critics, from the AfD to the broader Euroskeptic press (sometimes together) are gleefully proclaiming that “Merkel is finished!” Whether she is or not will depend on how she manages this last crisis. At stake is not only her personal political fate, but the future of German and European politics. Merkel may not guide the Germans to Jamaica after all, but we can hope that her failure doesn’t send everyone back to Weimar.

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What to do During a Coup? Shocked Citizens of Zimbabwe Weigh Their Options

A visitor to Zimbabwe’s capital city could be forgiven for missing the apparent military coup underway at Harare’s “Blue House.” But despite business-as-usual in much of the city, anxiety and confusion are rife beneath the surface. 

Just before dinnertime in the capital on Thursday, prominent pastor Evan Mawarire—founder of the country’s #ThisFlag “citizens’ movement”—took to a livestream on Twitter in an attempt to resolve uncertainty and shape the unfolding situation in favor of citizens. Mawarire spoke with his usual authority, but imparted no clear roadmap. His broadcast became part question-and-answer, part brainstorming session, as questions and conflicting comments from concerned citizens rolled in. “The whole world is watching us; what should Zimbabwean citizens be doing?” he asked. 

It appears no one—Zimbabwe Defense Forces included—planned for a coup. Most Zimbabwe observers believed that 93 year-old dictator Robert Mugabe would die in office, and that a political transition of some sort would follow. But when Mugabe last week abruptly removed his vice president Emmerson Mnangagwa—a man with presidential aspirations and a loyal group of powerful supporters—the deposed VP’s calculus suddenly shifted. Security forces loyal to Mnangagwa acted quickly in subsequent days to arrest rivals and secure Mugabe—a largely peaceful series of events that the military continues to claim do not constitute a coup. The international community was slow to respond with assistance, though the South African Development Community (SADC)—a body created to promote cooperation between 16 states in the region—has since held a meeting, and South Africa has sent envoys to facilitate conversations between Mugabe and the military.

Now, Zimbabwean citizens, including Mawarire, are coming to grips with the fact that Zimbabwe’s future may finally be up to them to decide. But they are in uncharted waters. Yesterday, over 115 civil society organizations (CSOs) in Zimbabwe issued a joint statement calling on citizens to merely “freely contribute to their preferred way forward and solution to the current crisis.” Some vocal citizens have urged a significant role for SADC, but many appear to oppose intervention. Mawarire earlier called for a citizens’ march, but his followers were quick to point out to the dangers involved. The only thing Zimbabweans appear to strongly agree on at the moment is the need for a nonviolent transition. 

An Afrobarometer survey from January and February of this year suggests that most citizens trust the coup’s leaders, who are prominent army officials. The research organization found that “Almost two-thirds of Zimbabweans […] trust the army at least ‘somewhat.’ But even more said they disapprove of military rule and prefer democracy over any other political system. Importantly, respondents overwhelmingly said they feel ‘not very free’ or ‘not at all free’ to criticize the army.”

These findings are reflected in conversations currently taking place on Twitter and in the Zimbabwean press. There appears to be broad citizen support at the moment for the army’s actions, but a reticence to unwittingly provoke the Blue House’s new guests. Mawarire, for his part, hopes to carefully open conversations with coup leaders by conveying this apparently strong popular support: “Do you support what the Military has done in Zimbabwe?” reads a poll posted to his Twitter page earlier today. As of 9:00 pm in Zimbabwe on Thursday, almost 4,000 people had participated. Mawarire made vague reference in his evening broadcast to his own next steps: he would attempt to engage directly with the army, he said. “If they beat us they beat us, but I don’t think they will beat us,” stated Mawarire.

Zimbabwe joins 40 African countries that have experienced coups since the 1960s, though the phenomenon is relatively rare in the southern region of the continent. Precedents are not exactly promising: more than 30 African heads of state have perished in power grabs, and militaries are often loath to relinquish power once they’ve attained it. As I wrote yesterday, violence stemming from fighting between rival factions or suppression of citizen dissent remains possible despite citizens’ cautious sense of optimism. But Zimbabwe’s “robust and active civil society” promoting “peaceful, non-violent change” may be cause for hope, as Susan Stigant of the US Institute for Peace says.  

Zimbabweans fed up with decades of political and economic turmoil are unlikely to take a backseat in the coming days if they sense that the military will delay moving the country in a democratic direction. As Mawarire said this evening, “We need to get to a place where we realize that when we have a moment to change some things, we can’t just sit back; we need to jump in.” What form any citizen action takes remains to be seen. Swelling with a renewed sense of purpose at the close of his broadcast, Mawarire announced, “I think that by tomorrow we should have found a way to reach out to the military.” Then, “I’ll be back with you tomorrow morning.”

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Mugabe Is Out, but Don’t Look Away from Zimbabwe Just Yet

Violence remains a possibility in a country heaving with hope

Zimbabwe and the rest of the world awoke this morning to an apparent military coup that has so far remained bloodless. After President Robert Mugabe dismissed his vice president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, last week on charges of plotting a takeover, members of the military loyal to Mnangagwa decided the time was ripe to tear open a longstanding rift in the ruling party and publicly challenge the nonagenarian dictator. Change was clearly on the horizon yesterday as tanks neared the capital city: the Twittersphere burst with buoyant visions of how #MyNewZimbabwe would look in a post-Mugabe world.

Much of the international community had hoped that Mnangagwa, who is seen as a stabilizing force despite his dismal record on human rights, would succeed the aging dictator. Indeed, the South African Development Community (SADC), the United States, and the United Kingdom, among others, have remained notably aloof as forces loyal to Mnangagwa have seized power, calling chiefly for nonviolence and a democratic process.

While the situation appears peaceable at the moment, the international community should remain attuned to threats of possible political violence in the coming days and beyond.

The most urgent threat of violence stems from a possible outbreak of fighting between party factions loyal to Mnangagwa and Mugabe’s wife Grace, respectively. Grace Mugabe, whose path to power seemed all but certain less than a week ago, has reportedly fled the country, leaving open the option that she may soon draw on her Youth League supporters to stage a comeback. Her backers, eager for power after years of service, have become quiescent in recent hours, as they apparently decide whether to seek an alliance with Mnangagwa’s “old guard” or rally their own faction to challenge their party rivals. Just before the coup, key Grace supporter Kudzai Chipanga affirmed that “Defending the revolution and our leader and president is an ideal we live for and if need be it is a principle we are prepared to die for,” suggesting the lengths to which they are prepared to go. But Chipanga appears to have been arrested, calling into question whether a subordinate will act in his place. Grace, for her part, currently faces a decision between living in exile from her homeland or pursuing the power and prestige of her husband’s position. It is not at all clear that she will choose the former.  

If Grace perceives a political opening, evidence suggests that she and her supporters would not hesitate to employ violence. Some observers believe Grace, who is 41 years Mugabe’s junior, helped enable her husband’s horrific attacks on white landowners and state-led political violence surrounding elections that began in earnest a few years after they married in 1996. In recent years, she has become increasingly willing to leverage state power for personal gain. When she met resistance in seeking to procure more land near her farm, she had police burn houses and forcibly evict and arrest residents. “I might have a small fist,” she said, “but when it comes to fighting I will put stones inside to enlarge it, or even put on gloves to make it bigger. Do not doubt my capabilities.” Grace’s assaults on strangers abroad were once the stuff of juicy tabloids, until they became indicators of how the next president might behave. Her use of crude rhetoric against perceived critics—once saying of a former VP that “dogs and fleas would not disturb her carcass,” for example—isn’t a causal predictor of mass violence, but also isn’t exactly reassuring. Fiery braggadocio is not unknown in Zimbabwean politics, but Grace’s invectives reach a new and graphic level.

A second threat of violence stems from choices made by the interim leader that emerges. If he (or she) does not quickly establish a unity government or schedule elections, Zimbabweans themselves would likely stage protests—events that Mugabe (and Mnangagwa under him) have previously met with force. As I wrote last month, citizens have already become so exasperated that many freely denounce Mugabe in ways that would have been unthinkable a few years ago. The only hope that remains for those suffering through prolonged economic catastrophe is life in a post-Mugabe world, as the Economist recently reported. Zimbabweans won’t easily abandon that hope. Watching another negligent dictator take the reins is an intolerable prospect for many. But Mugabe’s decades-long history of state-led violence against civilians suggests that his successor would similarly seek to maintain power by aggressively suppressing dissent.

Almost overnight, many Zimbabweans, desperate for change, have found themselves in perhaps the most hopeful position in memory. Violent scenarios are certainly not inevitable at the moment, but neither are they unfathomable. The coup has shocked many veteran Zimbabwe watchers, suggesting that more unexpected turns—or even a violent crackdown to maintain the status quo—may lie in store. Life-or-death factional wrangling for party support or brutal suppression of political opposition are not unthinkable in the current high-stakes environment. Zimbabwe watchers have been ruminating for decades about the contours of the country after its longstanding dictator abandons his office, and it appears the dramatic moment has finally arrived. May the world not cheer or turn its back too soon.

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