Geopoliticus

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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Conflict Escalation: China and India’s Territorial Dispute in the Himalayas

During the summer of 2017, an unusually volatile territorial spat between China and India erupted in the Himalayan Mountains. For over two months, hundreds of Chinese and Indian troops were locked in an escalating standoff on the Doklam Plateau, a region disputed by China and Bhutan near the Indian border. (See map.)

The fact that there was a standoff came as little surprise to most observers of China and India’s long-running territorial dispute. Other standoffs have periodically occurred along the two countries’ 4,057-km mostly disputed border—called the Line of Actual Control (LAC)—from the rocky peaks of Aksai Chin in the west to forested mountains of Arunachal Pradesh in the east. But this latest case was different in three respects: the parties involved, the strategic location, and the length and level of escalation.

Parties Involved

In the past, whenever such incidents took place, they occurred on parts of the LAC that China and India shared. This one did not; it transpired on land claimed by a third country, Bhutan. The incident began in June 2017 when Chinese troops and bulldozers moved onto the Doklam Plateau to build an all-weather road. With no ability to stop them, Bhutan appealed to India for assistance. Obligingly, New Delhi dispatched a military detachment to confront the Chinese, prompting the standoff.

Of course, China saw things differently. It accused India of sending troops into its territory and obstructing its road construction. China also intimated that India had exercised its historic influence over Bhutan’s foreign affairs to manufacture the Bhutanese request for help. But while one can debate the propriety of India’s intervention, what prompted China to attempt to build a road on land that it disputes with Bhutan in the first place remains unclear. Some speculated that Beijing may have been trying to gain a bargaining chip with which it could pry Bhutan away from India’s influence. If true, that would have been a long shot, given Bhutan’s economic dependence on India.

Strategic Location

While standoffs have developed in sensitive areas before, the most recent one occurred near a particularly strategic location for India. The Doklam Plateau sits near a part of India where its territory is squeezed between Bhutan, China, and Nepal to the north and Bangladesh to the south. That location, known as the Siliguri Corridor, is strategic because it connects India’s northeastern states with the rest of the country. The Indian military has long worried about a possible Chinese thrust through Sikkim that could sever the corridor and cut India in two.

China’s rapid infrastructure development and military modernization over the last two decades have only heightened those concerns. Indian strategists fear that China could use its new all-weather roads, high-speed railways, and airfields to quickly mass its military might on the border. Chinese military doctrine and exercises suggest that China is preparing to do just that. During its Stride 2009 exercise, the Chinese military mobilized and transported four divisions across China in record time. Meanwhile, the Chinese military has been steadily acquiring new combat platforms suited for mountain warfare, from helicopters to light tanks able to operate at high altitudes. It also recently completed a major reorganization of its command structure to boost its joint war-fighting capability.

On the other side of the Himalayas, India has struggled to keep up with China. Already five years behind schedule, India has competed only 27 out of 73 roads that it had wanted built to improve its access to the LAC.[1] To compensate for that weakness, the Indian military has stationed sizable forces near the LAC so that it can quickly respond to any crisis there. But as the gap between Chinese and Indian military capabilities continues to widen, India has felt more pressure to strengthen its border defenses. In 2013, it began to raise a new two-division formation, the 17th Mountain Strike Corps, to be better prepared to repel a serious Chinese incursion. The Indian army is now outfitting the corps with some of its newest arms, including U.S.-designed M777 howitzers.

Length and Level of Escalation

Historically, when a standoff on the LAC has arisen, it is settled in a few weeks through a diplomatic resolution whereby both sides agree to a mutual and simultaneous withdrawal. Most observers expected that to happen in this latest case. Instead, whether by coincidence or design, China conducted a series of live-fire drills in nearby Tibet after the standoff began. Then, when India’s national security advisor travelled to Beijing in July, China rebuffed him. Rather than negotiating a resolution, China issued a lengthy position paper accusing India of wrongdoing and insisted on a unilateral Indian withdrawal.

In August, India upped the ante. It increased the combat readiness of its 50,000 troops along the eastern portion of the LAC, advancing the timetable for its annual exercise in the region and deploying its forces to their wartime positions. China’s state-owned Global Times warned that “China is more than capable of defeating India in potential military conflict” and had already mused that “perhaps it is time that [India] be taught a second lesson,” a reference to the 1962 Sino-Indian War.

The Next Standoff

Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed by late August, and the two countries reached a settlement. India withdrew its troops, and China removed its road-construction equipment from the disputed region. Eventually, what drove the easing of tensions may have been Beijing’s desire for stability ahead of a Chinese-hosted BRICs summit (to which Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was invited) in September and China’s Communist Party Congress in October.

In any case, how Beijing handled the standoff on the Doklam Plateau seems to have marked an incremental shift in Chinese behavior. It demonstrated that China has become more willing to directly challenge the strategic interests of a large neighboring power and is less concerned over conflict escalation than it once was. If there is a lesson for India to learn from all that, it is to be better prepared for the next border standoff.


[1] Rahul Bedi, “Deadline for construction of India–China border roads extended to 2022,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Aug. 3, 2017.

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Trump’s Seoul Speech: All the Right Points, Still No Way Forward

President Trump’s speech in South Korea’s National Assembly on Wednesday, November 8, 2017 was likely the best foreign policy speech he has ever given. And that is not only because expectations were low. It would be more accurate, perhaps, to say that fears were high. After months of unpredictable diplomacy-by-Twitter—calling Kim Jong-un names, making seemingly off-the-cuff-threats, undermining diplomatic efforts by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson—many feared that Trump’s speech would be yet another moment of this sort.

But rhetorical strength is no replacement for policy. Even though Trump’s speech largely checked all the necessary boxes for what a U.S. president should say during a state visit in South Korea, a fundamental divide remains between him and South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in over how to deal with North Korea, and whether military strikes should really be on the table. Trump expressed a will to talk, but also continued to push North Korean denuclearization as a precondition for improved relations. North Korea has repeated time and time again that its nuclear weapons are non-negotiable. President Moon, on the other hand, has expressed several times a will to engage with North Korea despite (or perhaps because) of its nuclear progress. This is a policy difference about as big as they get and though symbolically important, Trump’s speech did little to change matters.

First, let us look at some of the good parts of the speech, of which there were many. Some have criticized Trump’s speech for being akin to a Wikipedia page on South Korean history. Such criticisms miss the genre, context, and point of speeches such as this one. Trump did not go to Seoul to lay out new, ground-breaking policy lines. This state visit was highly symbolic, especially after all the ups and downs of U.S.-Korea relations over the past few months. By speaking on South Korea’s history, and the history of U.S.-Korean relations, Trump tried, and succeeded, in affirming American respect and recognition of both.

By anchoring the U.S.-Korea alliance in the Korean War (1950–1953), the speech signaled that the countries’ relationship is about more than strategy and geopolitics. Take, for example, the following lines, almost right at the beginning (my emphasis):

“Almost 67 years ago, in the spring of 1951, they recaptured what remained of this city, where we are gathered so proudly today. It was the second time in a year that our combined forces took on steep casualties to retake this capital from the Communists. Over the next weeks and months, the men soldiered through steep mountains and bloody, bloody battles. Driven back at times, they willed their way north to form the line that today divides the oppressed and the free. And there, American and South Korean troops have remained together holding that line for nearly seven decades.”

In other words, the alliance is steeped in shared sacrifices on the battlefield. South Korea’s war—for the Korean War was never formally ended, fighting only stopped following an armistice—remains America’s, too.

Trump also dedicated significant time to extolling South Korea’s economic and political development. This part of his speech served an important purpose: it gave recognition to a national narrative of modern South Korea that is an important source of pride for many. This narrative obscures a great deal of suffering and oppression at the hands of the country’s military dictators, but you can’t demand full and perfect academic nuance from a presidential speech during a foreign visit. The success story, next to the failed, oppressive and poor hermit kingdom, is a powerful story.

But Trump repeated the same policy the U.S. has held onto for decades, and in very clear terms. Complete and verifiable denuclearization is the beginning of better relations, and not even a guarantee (my emphasis):

“And to those nations that choose to ignore this threat—or worse still, to enable it—the weight of this crisis is on your conscience. I also have come here to this peninsula to deliver a message directly to the leader of the North Korean dictatorship. The weapons you are acquiring are not making you safer. They are putting your regime in grave danger. Every step you take down this dark path increases the peril you face. North Korea is not the paradise your grandfather envisioned. It is a hell that no person deserves. Yet despite every crime you have committed against God and man, you are ready to offer—and we will do that—we will offer a path to a much better future. It begins with an end to the aggression of your regime, a stop to your development of ballistic missiles, and complete, verifiable, and total denuclearization.”

The leadership in Pyongyang sees things differently, to put it mildly. They see the nuclear weapons as the reason they haven’t met the same destiny as leaders like Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi. Moreover, while Trump’s “message directly to the leader of the North Korean dictatorship” was at least in part meant to reassure South Korea that the U.S. stands behind it, South Koreans know full well that they, and not the U.S. president or population, are the ones in greatest risk should tensions escalate into armed clashes or nuclear war. This difference underlies the basic but crucial tension between the U.S. and South Korean administrations, where there has been little visible coordination of statements and measures during the last months’ tensions around North Korea’s nuclear program.

Of course, there is probably more flexibility in reality than can be gleaned from major speeches. Secretary of State Tillerson, when talking to reporters in Vietnam on Friday, seemed to imply that the U.S. is open to talks with relatively few preconditions. He would look for a “relative period of quiet and an indication from Kim Jong Un himself that they would like to have some type of a meeting,” reported Bloomberg. Trump’s emphasis on the U.S. being open to talking to North Korea, under the right conditions, was also a change of nuance, if not of words, from his usual tone against the North Korean regime. Perhaps more is going on under the surface. But as of now, the deadlock remains.

For other articles related to the Korean Peninsula, see Russia-North Korea Economic Ties: Is There More Than Meets the Eye? and Time for Decisions on North Korea.

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There Is Still Room for Compromise in Catalonia

The Catalan independence crisis feels intractable. Ministers who defied the Spanish Constitutional Court to organize an independence referendum on October 1 have been jailed. The government in Madrid has dissolved the regional administration after the administration claimed the referendum as a mandate to break away. Carles Puigdemont, the Catalan president, has fled to Belgium.

Snap elections scheduled for December 21 are unlikely to break the deadlock. Polls show Puigdemont’s center-right separatist party losing support to hardliners, but the balance between pro- and anti-independence parties would be virtually unchanged.

That means the two sides could find themselves back at square one in the New Year.

Spanish attempts to suppress Catalan separatism have backfired. Since the government sent in the national police to disrupt the October 1 referendum (the regional police force largely refused to intervene), provoking clashes with voters in some cities and towns, Catalan support for secession has increased from 41 to 49 percent, according to the latest official survey. Only 43 percent want to stay in Spain anymore, down from 49 percent in June.

But public opinion becomes more fluid when Catalans are given more than two options.

Add becoming a federal state of Spain as a third option and support for independence falls to 40 percent.

That is still higher than it was during the summer, but the combined share of Catalans who are content with the status quo or want Spain to become a federation is larger: almost 50 percent.

This suggests there is still a way out of the crisis: the promise of more autonomy for the region could probably convince the majority of Catalans they are better off remaining Spanish after all.

Warnings from European leaders that leaving Spain would mean giving up and reapplying for EU membership—something the separatists don’t like to talk about—are also causing Catalan nationalists to think twice about secession.

Autonomy is what 78 percent of Catalans voted for in 2006, when they were asked in a referendum to approve a statute that had been decades in the making. It formalized the region’s self-government, giving it back the rights and privileges it had lost under Francisco Franco’s dictatorship.

Current Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s conservative People’s Party—then in opposition, now in government—felt the autonomy statute went too far. It appealed to the Constitutional Court, the same body that ruled the October 1 referendum illegal. In 2010, it overturned Catalonia’s fiscal autonomy and determined that its description as a “nation” had no legal standing.

Mass protests erupted in Barcelona. Starting that year, more than a million people, out of a population of 7.5 million, would take to the streets annually to demonstrate for self-determination and ultimately independence.

Rajoy ignored the protests. When he got into power, Catalan leaders asked for talks in order to rectify the Constitutional Court’s ruling. He rebuffed them. When Catalan elections returned a regional parliament in favor of breaking away from Spain, Rajoy still wouldn’t talk. Even now, six years into his premiership, Rajoy has not once negotiated with the Catalans. As he sees it, there is nothing to negotiate.

This needs to change. Curtailing Catalan autonomy and refusing negotiations has only radicalized the independence movement. Separatist hardliners in Catalonia have taken advantage of Rajoy’s intransigence to press their case. They can now credibly claim that so long as the People’s Party rules in Madrid, Catalan self-rule will be at risk. Better to break away than lose more powers.

Catalan suspicions are the reason Rajoy must blink first. Promising to return self-government to the winners of the December election, whoever they might be, might just convince Catalans who are wary of independence to support moderates, like Puigdemont’s pro-business party or the soft left, instead of hardliners. Starting a process of constitutional reform, as proposed by the opposition Socialist Party, could give Catalans a legal pathway to expand their autonomy.

The challenge is not browbeating the Catalans into submission, but rather convincing those who feel separate from Spain but fear the consequences of leaving it that there is still a future for them in the country. Is Rajoy up to the task?


Nick Ottens is the owner of the transatlantic opinion website Atlantic Sentinel.

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Riyadh’s Great Leap Forward?

One of the clear analytical distinctions that could be made about the “Arab Spring” (2011-2014) was the marked stability of monarchial regimes—as opposed to “dynastic republics” (gumrukiyah) like Egypt, Syria, and Libya—in the Arab world. Eddies of the wave of rebellion that swept many of the Arab republics touched on Jordan and Morocco, but gained little traction (except in Bahrain, the newest Arab kingdom, whose challenges from its majority Shia population are different in kind).

Saudi Arabia is a stellar example of the truth of this generalization. For many years, for those who closely follow Middle Eastern politics, Saudi politics were an occasionally interesting but generally arid and glacial process. The country’s politics could be summed up as a gerontocracy of exquisite checks and balances between the dozens of sons of Ibn Saud, the founder of the third Saudi state, from his various wives, with the kingship passing from one son to the next. Their legitimacy and stability was buttressed by the fundamentalist religious establishment, and the state apparatus functioned to a large extent to facilitate the excesses of the sprawling royal family. This was all funded by the great wealth generated by the world’s largest oil reserves, which enabled the Kingdom to have great influence when it chose: since 2005, in Lebanese politics and since 2011, in Syrian politics. While challenges have arisen over the years from the Shia minority in the Eastern part of the Kingdom, they never posed a real threat to the survival of the regime. For decades, change in this incredibly stable system was anticipated only when the “rule by brothers” would eventually end, and the “generation of the grandsons” would begin.

The harbinger of this long-anticipated change in generations took place in April 2015 when King Salman appointed Mohammad bin Nayef—a member of the third generation and the grandson of Ibn Saud—Crown Prince, the second most powerful position in the Kingdom and for much of its history, the de facto day-to-day monarch, in place of Prince Muqrin, the latter’s brother. Salman also appointed his own son, Mohammad bin Salman—the Minister of Defense and the architect of the intervention in Yemen—as Deputy Crown Prince (second  in line to the throne). This June, Salman replaced bin Nayef with bin Salman. The Saudi “Great Leap Forward” picked up steam.

Many explanations have been given for the surprising and unprecedented (since the coup of 1964, at least) move this week against powerful members of the royal family. But many of them are tactical, and the explanations which see a significant cause in the Iranian threat should be taken with a grain of salt. The Iranian threat has riveted the Saudi leadership since 1979, but it does not seem to have qualitatively changed in the past year, and in any case has little bearing on the internecine politics of the Saudi royal family.

Rather, the generational shift of 2015 led to a release of political and social energy which had been bottled up for decades by the consensus rule of conservative septuagenarians and octogenarians. The change also occurred on the background of the elemental forces and changes released in 2011with the Arab Spring. In conjunction with the lackluster response and effort of the U.S. in the region, Saudi Arabia was pushed into an unaccustomed, overt leading role in the Middle East. The two Prince Mohammads led, to a very large degree, the country in its newfound role in the region. The urge for change and renewal, for a paradigmatic shift which would “shock and awe” the opposition within the regime, and for the new generation to quickly make its mark (supported by King Salman, who at 81, and understanding that he is the last king of the old order, may also feel this need) has, it seems, been enabled by the anti-status quo rhetoric and disposition of President Donald Trump, and his lack of concern for the internal hygiene of friendly governments.

For the past year and a half, Saudi Arabia has consistently been in the news with dramatic developments of the type never seen in the Kingdom: the plan to restructure and diversify the economy (including the well-publicized launch of a new economic zone called NEOM); the decision to take Aramco public (and then the reports of second thoughts); the economic war on Qatar; the granting permission for women to drive; the restrictions of the arrest powers of the religious police; the creation of an anti-corruption council under bin Salman (to ostensibly root out behavior that is the very essence of Saudi politics); and most recently, the moves by the Crown Prince against other princes in the Royal Family (in one way, these have all served Saudi Arabia well, as they have forced up the price of oil).

The key to the Saudi regime’s stability and longevity—but also to its inertia and lifelessness—has been its internal conservatism (including its grounding in religious fundamentalism), its ponderousness, and its frozen politics and society. The most hidebound country in the Middle East has provided in an incredibly short time its most sweeping changes in the past five years. Hopefully, Saudi Arabia’s Great Leap Forward will not carry it, through Salman’s and Mohammad’s own actions, into the abyss.

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Sweden’s Foreign Policy: Nonaligned, But Not Entirely Neutral

In late 2014, Swedish authorities spotted what many suspected was a Russian submarine lurking off Stockholm. The incident set off alarm bells among Swedes. It reminded them of a similar incident in 1981, when a nuclear-armed Soviet Whiskey-class submarine ran aground a few kilometers outside Sweden’s main naval base.[1] Following Russia’s invasion of Georgia, annexation of Crimea, and intervention in eastern Ukraine, the recent submarine scare served to underline the threat that a resurgent Russia could pose to Sweden.

No wonder that, despite Sweden’s long tradition of neutrality and an “alliance-free” foreign policy, Swedish leaders of almost all political stripes began to consider closer ties with NATO. That of course irked Russia. Victor Tatarintsev, the Russian ambassador to Sweden, responded with what seemed like a backhanded reassurance that Russia had “no plans to invade Sweden.” In May 2017, Russian President Vladimir Putin put it more bluntly. He warned that if Sweden joined NATO, Russia would take military measures “to eliminate [the new threat].” While Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallström clearly stated that her government would not seek NATO membership, Sweden has moved closer to the Alliance. NATO naturally welcomed the shift, given Sweden’s strategic importance to NATO’s defense of its Baltic member countries.

Sweden’s National Interest in the Baltic Sea

Observers have long described Sweden’s security policy as “non-participation in military alliances during peacetime and neutrality during wartime.”[2] But that does not mean that Sweden takes its security environment lightly, especially when it comes to the Baltic Sea. For centuries, its waters have been a thoroughfare for not only trade, but also power projection. Should unfriendly forces control it, they could easily threaten Sweden and even reduce its access to the wider world. Hence, Sweden has had an enduring national interest in the security of the Baltic Sea and the coast beyond.

Armed Neutrality

Throughout the Cold War, the Soviet Union controlled the Baltic coast. Because of that, Sweden kept up its guard. It maintained a sizable standing military and nurtured a world-class defense industry. That attention to military preparedness has had a long history in Sweden where a popular nineteenth-century slogan proclaimed: “one man, one gun, one vote.”

After the Cold War, Sweden cut its defense expenditures. But the advent of an aggressive Russia across the Baltic Sea has led Sweden to rethink its military posture. In September 2017, it raised its defense budget by five percent over its already planned increase. It also recently reinstituted conscription to bring its military back to full strength. Starting in 2018, it will conscript 4,000 18-year-olds. That number will rise to 8,000 per year by 2022. Sweden still has more to do. Apart from the 60 JAS 39E fighters and two A26 diesel-electric attack submarines already on order, Sweden will need more and newer armaments for its soon-to-be larger armed forces.

Even so, Sweden has begun to strengthen its defenses on Gotland, a strategic island in the Baltic Sea. Contrary to reports in 2016 that reestablishing a permanent military presence on Gotland was unexpected, Sweden’s Defence Policy white paper—which all of Sweden’s major political parties agreed to in 2015—outlined Gotland’s rearmament as part of a broader set of security precautions that Sweden would take through 2020.[3]

New Normal for Swedish Neutrality

While it is perfectly understandable why neutral Sweden has felt the need to be better armed, what is unusual is how enthusiastically it has embraced multilateral defense cooperation. Roughly a decade ago, Sweden joined the European Union’s (EU) Common Security and Defence Policy and led the effort to create the EU’s 2,400-man Nordic battlegroup. Soon after, it helped to establish the Nordic Defence Cooperation, which brought together five Nordic countries, including two NATO members.

Recently, Sweden has stepped up its collaboration with NATO. It signed a host-nation agreement that allows NATO forces to train in Sweden and boosted its participation in NATO military exercises, like Baltic Operations (Baltops) and Steadfast Jazz. Sweden has gone so far as to commit a fighter squadron to fight alongside NATO’s rapid-reaction force.

Sweden is also shedding its long-time aversion to a bilateral military relationship with the United States. The number of meetings between Swedish defense ministers and U.S. secretaries of defense has noticeably risen, from an average of once every two years over the last decade to twice a year in 2016 and 2017. During Swedish Defense Minister Peter Hultqvist’s visit to the Pentagon in May 2017, he announced not only Swedish participation in NATO’s Baltops 2017 exercise in June, but also the involvement of about 1,000 U.S. troops in Sweden’s largest military exercise in 23 years. Over 20,000 troops from nine countries (seven of them NATO members) took part in the exercise, called Aurora 2017, which spanned three weeks in September and focused on the defense of Gotland.

Seeking Partnerships, Not Alliances

Swedes—ever conscious of their cherished neutrality—have long opposed their country joining multilateral defense organizations, like NATO. But fewer of them do so than before. A national poll found that a slim plurality of Swedes favored membership in NATO for the first time in 2014.[4] While opinions of the public slipped back the other way two years later, those of Swedish leaders did not. Most now believe that Sweden needs to form stronger partnerships, though not alliances, with NATO and the United States. From their perspective, the real question is how Sweden can translate those partnerships into greater security without formal defense treaties.

Such partnerships bring Sweden close to breaching its traditional neutrality and “alliance-free” foreign policy. Someday, it may be forced to choose one approach over the other. In the meantime, Swedish leaders will continue to wrestle with what it means for Sweden to be a partner, but not an alliance member—to be nonaligned, but not entirely neutral either.


[1] Milton Leitenberg, “The case of the stranded sub,” Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Mar. 1982, pp. 10-13.

[2] “Sweden: Scene-Setter for Prime Minister Reinfeldt’s May 15 Visit to Washington,” May 4, 2007, WikiLeaks, WikiLeaks cable: 07STOCKHOLM506_a.

[3] Government Offices of Sweden, Sweden’s Defence Policy, 2016-2020, Jun. 1, 2015.

[4] Pütsep Mona and Ryen Linda, Opinioner 2016: Allmänhetens syn på samhällsskydd, beredskap, säkerhetspolitik och försvar (Karlstad, Sweden: Civil Protection and Emergency Agency, Jan. 2017), p. 75.

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The USA Rights Act: What’s In There?

There are now at least three bills pending in Congress to reauthorize Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA §702). Last week, George Croner presented a summary of the provisions of the USA Liberty Act Of 2017, authored by Representative Bob Goodlatte. This article presents a similar summary for another recently-presented bill, the Uniting and Strengthening America by Reforming and Improving the Government’s High-Tech Surveillance Act of 2017 (USA Rights Act). Mr. Croner concluded that the Goodlatte bill was seriously flawed. I agree, but perhaps for reasons entirely opposed to those of Mr. Croner.

The Uniting and Strengthening America by Reforming and Improving the Government’s High-Tech Surveillance Act of 2017 introduced by U.S. Senators Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Mark Udall (D-Colo.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), and Rand Paul (R-Ky) allows reauthorization of §702 with certain reforms. 

Senator Wyden has long been a proponent of increasing civil liberties protections afforded to Americans under both the USA PATRIOT ACT and FISA §702. He famously asked former Director of Nation Security James Clapper whether the National Security Agency collects “any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans.” Director Clapper’s answer, “No sir, not wittingly” was widely condemned as a direct lie under oath, but was explained as being (as Stephen Colbert would have said on Comedy Central) “truthy” and resulted in neither his removal nor prosecution.

With §702 authority to vacuum up vast volumes of telephone and internet communications due to expire on January 1, 2018, and general agreement that “collection” of foreign communications is something we want our Intelligence Community doing, Senator Wyden’s bill reauthorizes FISA §702, but adds important safeguards to protect the Constitutional rights of both United States Citizens and persons in the United States who are entitled to such rights.

The bill provides a few safeguards outside §702. First, the bill prohibits the “bulk collection” of telephone records of Americans, unless it can be established that the subject is in contact with a suspected terrorist or spy. Second, it prohibits bulk collection of Americans’ communications records. Third, the bill prohibits National Security Letters from being used for bulk collection, and requires more public reporting about how the government has used National Security Letters. Because a National Security Letter is a (typically secret) administrative subpoena issued by the government without a judge’s approval, Wyden believes that additional transparency is essential.

With respect to FISA §702, the bill reforms the present law by:

  1. Closing the “back door searches” loophole by prohibiting the government from searching through communications collected under 702 to deliberately conduct warrantless searches for the communications of specific Americans. This is known as the “back door searches” loophole because it effectively authorizes intelligence agencies to circumvent the constitutional requirement to get a warrant before deliberately searching for the phone calls or emails of individual Americans. 
  2. Prohibiting the government from collecting communications that are “about the target” rather than to or from the target, in non-terrorism investigations. 
  3. Prohibiting “reverse targeting,” which is the targeting of a foreigner in order to acquire the communications of an American who is known to be communicating with that foreigner. 
  4. Placing stronger statutory limits on the use of unlawfully collected information. The FISC has occasionally imposed restrictions on the government’s use of unlawfully collected information, but this bill imposes stronger and less discretionary restrictions.

Finally, the Wyden bill makes changes to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court by creating an independent Constitutional Advocate to argue against the government in significant cases by declassifying more decisions of the Court and by allowing Constitutional challenges to decisions in federal courts.

Taken together, the reforms proposed by Senator Wyden allow ample surveillance authority to remain under FISA §702, while balancing the essential right of Americans to be free from warrantless search and surveillance. As between Representative Goodlatte’s proposed revisions, which Mr. Croner argues would be burdensome and largely ineffective, and Senator Wyden’s targeted reforms, one should hope that Congress will recognize the value of retaining §702 powers while increasing respect for the rule of law by both the agencies authorized to spy under §702 and all of those protected by our Constitution.

Click here to read George Croner’s analysis of the recently proposed USA Liberty Act of 2017, as well as the proposed FISA Amendments Reauthorization Act of 2017 and USA Rights Act, two other bills addressing this issue.

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Sweden’s Importance to NATO’s Defense of the Baltics

Sweden is not a member of NATO. But Sweden is very important to the defense of NATO’s Baltic member countries of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. That importance mainly stems not from what Sweden could add to NATO’s collective military strength, but from how its strategic position could help NATO overcome the operational challenges it would face if it needed to respond to a Russian invasion of the Baltics.

Strategic Position in the Baltic Sea

Spanning the length of the Scandinavian Peninsula, Sweden’s geography dominates much of the Baltic Sea, a fact that NATO has long appreciated. Early on in the Cold War, NATO recognized that Sweden could serve as a valuable location for early warning facilities to monitor the Soviet Union in peacetime and for combat aircraft to interdict Soviet lines of communications across Germany and Poland in wartime.

Sweden took on a new relevance for NATO after Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania joined the Alliance in 2004. With tiny military forces of their own and large Russian military forces on their borders, the three Baltic countries are highly vulnerable. Russia could easily sever their air and land connections to the rest of NATO and capture all three countries—a prospect that could jeopardize the very existence of NATO. Thus, NATO holds annual exercises called Baltic Operations (Baltops), in part, to practice reinforcing the Baltics by sea. But, in a conflict, Russian strike aircraft and coastal defense missile batteries based near Kaliningrad could interdict such seaborne reinforcements before they ever reached the Baltics. (See Map.)

Sitting astride of NATO’s most likely reinforcement route, Sweden could mitigate many of Russia’s military advantages. That is what makes Sweden so important to NATO. Were Sweden to allow NATO reinforcements to sail through its territorial waters, NATO could halve the distance over which its reinforcements would be exposed to Russian air and missile attacks between Denmark and Estonia. Theoretically, Stockholm could even allow NATO to safely transport its troops and supplies over land to Sweden’s east-coast ports before they embarked for an amphibious assault across the Baltic Sea.

Got Land?

Sweden also controls Gotland, an island situated in the middle of the Baltic Sea. Gotland is strategic because it is an ideal location from which to defend forces moving through the Baltic Sea or to project power into the Baltics. Though primarily seen today as a holiday destination, it has been prized for its strategic location for centuries. During the Cold War, Sweden stationed a reinforced armored brigade, fast attack craft, and a fighter squadron on Gotland to defend it. While all of those forces have since been deactivated or dispersed, Russia’s recent aggressive behavior prompted Sweden to reestablish a permanent military garrison on Gotland in 2016.

NATO also sees the value of Gotland. At a minimum, the island could complicate Russian anti-ship cruise missile strikes on NATO reinforcements sailing to the Baltics. But if Swedish cooperation with NATO were to increase, NATO air forces could use Gotland’s airfields to fend off Russian air and missile attacks as well as provide air support for NATO military operations in the Baltics. Gotland’s main port of Visby could even serve as a logistical hub for NATO forces fighting in the region.

On the other hand, Sweden could also help NATO by simply defending its territory from Russian incursions during a conflict between NATO and Russia. Doing so would constrain Russian freedom of action in the Baltic Sea. If nothing else, denying Russia use of Gotland would prevent it from not only making any seaborne reinforcement of the Baltics extremely difficult and thus narrowing NATO’s operational options, but also threatening the Baltic coasts of Germany and Poland behind NATO’s frontline.

Sweden in NATO?

Though not a member of NATO, Sweden is important to NATO’s defense of the Baltics.

Swedish cooperation with the Alliance would make protecting the Baltics easier and thereby strengthen NATO’s security guarantee to its member countries. That, in turn, would improve NATO’s ability to deter Russian aggression in the region.

Meanwhile, some have begun to speculate whether Sweden would shed its longtime “alliance-free” foreign policy and join NATO. But Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstroem has dismissed such speculation. She cautioned that NATO membership “would expose Sweden to risks, both political and otherwise” which her government was not willing to bear.[1]

Still, over the last decade, Sweden has taken a more active role in Nordic and European Union defense arrangements, many of whose members are also NATO members. Moreover, Sweden has stepped up its direct military contacts with NATO and the United States. While NATO membership may be off the table for Sweden, it would appear that Sweden has come to believe that NATO’s interest in deterring Russian aggression is very much in its own national interest, too.


[1] Damien Sharkov, “Putin Vows Military Response to ‘Eliminate NATO Threat’ If Sweden Joins U.S.-Led Alliance,” Newsweek, June 2, 2017, http://www.newsweek.com/vladimir-putin-vows-eliminate-nato-threat-sweden-joins-619486.

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David and Goliath in Zimbabwe: How a Pastor Has Challenged Robert Mugabe

While Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe was deriding President Trump as a “Giant, Gold Goliath” at the UN General Assembly last week, the 93 year-old dictator’s own suspected “David” was arrested back home in the capital city of Harare on charges of subversion.

Evan Mawarire, a Harare-based pastor less than half Mugabe’s age, was released Tuesday when police failed to bring him to court within 48 hours following his arrest, but he is due to stand trial at a later date on other preexisting charges. “Pastor Evan,” as he is known among friends and followers, unwittingly started a reform movement in April 2016 when he posted a YouTube video that quickly went viral across the cash-strapped nation. In it, Mawarire lamented his country’s ongoing economic woes and called for citizen action. Since then, the movement has catalyzed uncommonly large-scale protests and helped mobilize a more robust opposition ahead of the 2018 general elections. Mawarire himself has hinted at a presidential bid, further eliciting Mugabe’s scorn. 

Mugabe himself has ruled Zimbabwe with an iron fist since the country’s independence in 1980. State security forces loyal to his ZANU-PF party have felt little restraint in employing violence against civilians, starting with the 1983 massacre of over 10,000 members of the Ndebele ethnic minority group and recurring sporadically—especially during close elections. Political opposition has tended to tread carefully, and citizens often remain silent on government abuses.

#ThisFlag, as Mawarire’s movement is known, defies this orthodoxy. It has drawn international attention, in part due to the pastor’s global connections. The U.S. Embassy in Harare issued a statement last week calling for “an end to arbitrary arrests and intimidation for political purposes” in Zimbabwe, and the British Embassy tweeted on Monday that it would be following the case closely throughout the week.

I spoke with Pastor Evan over the phone last November. In describing his country’s shifting status quo, he recalled, “You’d think about the corruption of government officials and so forth but never would speak of it, never would address it from the pulpit, or address it from the perspective of trying to rally people around something like that. . . . Zimbabwe’s not a place that you would speak openly about these things. You wouldn’t challenge the system openly about things like this because of the dangers involved on your life. The danger of pro-government people is quite real.” In a mere 18 months, emboldened Zimbabweans have followed Mawarire’s lead in turning this conventional system on its head.

Clergy-turned-activists can pose strong challenges to repressive governments, given the esteem that local congregants and global coreligionists hold for people of the cloth—and officials’ reticence to provoke these key groups. Though politically active clergy remain all-too-frequent targets of suppression by suspicious regimes anxious to shore up their public image, their revered status certainly makes governments think twice about whether and how to shut them down.

Religious leaders’ ability to harness media coverage adds particular pressure to even the most authoritarian systems, and likely emboldens activists who find themselves enmeshed in a sympathetic global community of fellow believers and retweeters. Mawarire learned of his impending arrest while preaching to a small congregation last Sunday and promptly began filming himself wrapping up the sermon, capturing his congregants’ concerned expressions and deliberately adding to the moment’s drama. Observers and supporters widely circulated the clip, as he certainly would have intended. On the other hand, Mawarire has gotten into trouble based in large part on his outspoken Facebook and Twitter posts, underscoring the uncertain advantage of his online platforms of choice.

Transnational networks of coreligionists tend to be overlooked as influential nonstate actors. But as religious adherence in the so-called “global south” continues to rise in the coming decades, figures like Mawarire—who has benefited from wide-ranging domestic and international support—will command ever more serious attention. Religiously-motivated actors certainly have a range of objectives, from inspirational to nefarious, but the key point is that their power in a shifting global order must not be taken for granted.

In Zimbabwe, Mugabe and ZANU-PF will likely continue to work through the courts to weaken the regime’s newfound rival ahead of 2018 elections. If unsuccessful, voters are likely to face coercive regime tactics at the polls. But even the biblical Goliath’s “sword and spear and javelin” were not sufficient for the Philistine champion. The young Mawarire, with his army of Twitter followers and extensive network of sympathizers, may be correct in perceiving that the time is ripe for change.

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