Lowy Institute
US presidential race 2016

Would-be Republican Senator Joe Heck hasn't had a great couple of weeks. His lead over former Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto, Heck's rival for the Senate seat to be vacated by Democrat leader Harry Reid (described by the Weekly Standard as 'one of the meanest and shrewdest politicians in America'), has evaporated, and people have been calling the highly respected three-term congressman and military physician all sorts of names. A few weeks ago on The Interpreter, Nevada-based Norman Bell predicted Heck would be in trouble after withdrawing support for Donald Trump. 

It's hard to believe Heck's late denunciation of Trump will win him many votes from undecided voters. But it might just cost him the votes of some true believers upset at his defection from the side of the true believers. 

The entire bit of theatre would be comic if were not so important. Control of the Senate may well hang in the balance on this one seat. This is the chamber that could moderate Clinton's choice of a judge for the Supreme Court or encourage her to go further left with her selection. It's the body that ratifies treaties too.

Now Heck has the President of the United States poking fun at him. You can watch the video of Obama at a rally with the Democrat Senate candidate (start 27 mins in) which was reported thus in DailyKos:

"Now that Trump's poll numbers have cratered, he is saying I am not supporting him," Obama said of Heck. "Too late. You don't get credit for that."

He mocked Heck for backing family values throughout his political career, but continuing to back Trump earlier in the campaign when he made denigrating comments about women.

"What the Heck?" he asked, referring to the congressman.

The crowd responded by chanting, "Heck no!"

Nevada is one of the battleground states where polling suggests Hillary Clinton has consolidated her position in the presidential race, and is now ahead of Trump by 4.7 points, according to RealClearPolitics. Republicans are starting to panic, not just about a Trump defeat, which many (except the candidate) now concede is the most likely outcome, but also about the down-ballot contests which could cost the GOP control of the Senate, and, most fundamentally, the future of their party. Here's Marcus Gee in the Globe and Mail writing on the likely ramifications as many Republicans, including Heck, backed away from their party's nominee for president:

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Political parties prize unity above all. Breaking apart is their worst nightmare. Split, they become easy prey for their rivals. The picture of one of the world’s most venerable political formations – the party of Lincoln, Eisenhower and Reagan – appearing to fracture just weeks before a critical election made for a startling sight. With an out-of-control leader in the saddle, the party that survived wars, depression and the Watergate scandal was galloping full tilt toward a cliff, with uncertain consequences for American democracy.

All of this means danger for the party, both on Nov. 8 and after. No matter how the election turns out, Republicans will emerge suffering from a profound identity crisis.

No wonder there is a note of desperation in this plea for unity from conservative commentator Hugh Hewitt this week who urged every GOP campaign fromTrump down to rookie would-be state legislators and the likes of Joe Heck in close-run Senate races, to 'stick with what works' ie a focus on rebuilding American military strength and repealing Obamacare. In closing, Hewitt, (who called for Trump to withdraw earlier this month) concludes: '...only the GOP can fix this disaster. Remind voters of that, every day, all day. And go tribe! Rally together!'

Photo by Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call


Trump clones and displays of Trumpism-fever by otherwise respectable politicians have become common in Europe. Much as a landslide for Hillary Clinton on 8 November would be the best put down of Donald Trump, the first line of defence in Europe would be elections that end in comprehensive defeat of his fellow populists. But such defeats are far from assured. 

The legacy of 20th century authoritarian rule in Eastern Europe still weighs heavily today. The desire for political strongmen has swept to power leaders such as Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Robert Fico in Slovakia and, in Poland, kingmaker Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the chairman of the nationalist Law and Justice Party. These men have much in common. On their way up, each claimed that their countries were heading for disaster; now they all claim they alone know what is best for the nation, actively seek to silence opposition, and pursue nationalist and xenophobic policies they promise will make their country ‘great again’. Together with the Czech Republic, they form the Visegrad Four within the EU. This group views Brussels exclusively as a resource provider. They reject any obligation to make any effort in return, while blaming ‘Eurocrats’ (including the Polish European Commission president, Donald Tusk), for pernicious internationalism that undermines their notion of absolute sovereignty and national independence.

Such views can be partially explained by the history of these countries. No such excuse exists for the larger Western European countries where active bouts of nationalistic Trumpism-fever have also broken out. The prime example is Brexit. Thanks to a litany of outright lies and nationalist flag-waving, a majority of Brits were convinced it was possible to wind back time to the glory days of the empire. Of course, this is an impossible (and dangerous) nostalgic dream. The major challenges and opportunities that European nations now face are of a nature and size that can only be managed through international cooperation. In Europe, that means supranational coordination within the EU.

A moment of sanity after the unexpected ‘leave’-vote brought to power Theresa May rather than the outlandish Boris Johnson or the Machiavellian Michael Gove (who together convinced the Brits to vote for what is shaping up to be a rough ride in the form of a ‘hard Brexit’), but all the more shocking was May’s railing at the recent Conservative party conference against the rootless cosmopolitan class, presumably guilty of perceived ills ranging from migration to pauperisation of the white lower middle class. In response, Roula Khalaf, the Lebanese-born, French-educated deputy editor of the Financial Timesmade a brilliant case for global citizens who hold multiple loyalties, citing recent research that showed more people around the world now view themselves as global citizens rather than citizens of one country.

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It's a sad fact that in these troubled times Trumpism-fever is not confined solely to the Right. As if Cameron’s political suicide was not enough of a warning, Italy’s centre-left prime minister Matteo Renzi has tied his political survival to the outcome of a referendum on internal reforms, in another bout of ‘all you have is to trust me’-egocentrism. And in Germany, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, foreign minister in the coalition government of Angela Merkel and potential candidate for federal chancellor, has spoken out against more sanctions against Putin, flatly contradicting his government’s known line by reviving his party’s traditional position of occasionally misplaced accommodation with a totalitarian East and fuzzy romanticism towards Russia.

Even more bizarre (but still very much in line with the notion of a Trumpist uber-ego by a political personality) is what has quickly become known as ‘Hollande’s Harakiri’. In a recently published book of authorised conversations with two journalists, aptly titled A President Should Not Say That, the socialist French president has swung wildly against all kinds of perceived enemies to his person, including France’s entire legal profession, the relative weakness of the national soccer team, and intellectuals whom, he said, are 'not very interested in France'.

However, Hollande will not have to suffer the resulting ridicule much longer as there is no way he will be re-elected to another five-year term in 2017. His disapproval rate is creeping up to 90%, a level that may set a new precedent in modern democracies. The last of his Praetorian Guard are jumping ship, including Prime Minister Manuel Valls, grumbling about the absolute necessity to hold democratic institutions of the Republic in high esteem.

Even if France escapes another term from this Trump of the left, or his respective clone, Nicolas Sarkozy, on the right (recent polls show the veteran politician Alain Juppe has a clear lead over the former president going into the primaries), and even if Angela Merkel, with her impeccable record on national, European and universal values, leads her party to yet another win in Germany next year, the alternative to Renzi in Italy looks dire. If Italians, motivated by what political pundits nowadays love to call citizen’s frustration with politics as usual, give ‘Five Stars’ leader Beppe Grillo a majority, the country will be led by a person who makes even Trump look reasonable. Alexis Tsipras’ Greek fantasies are outlandish but they pale in comparison to Grillo's promises for Italy's policies in Europe.

With all these balls in play, it seems the mechanisms the EU has at hand to rein in democratically-errand member countries will probably have to be set in motion again. However, its record in applying these in recent times to Poland and Hungary does not yet inspire confidence.

Photo: Getty Images/Anadolu Agency


In  surprise appointments of not one but two ministers to the energy and mineral resources portfolio earlier this month, Indonesian President Jokowi acknowledged the complexity and strategic and economic importance of the sector.

New Energy and Mineral Resources Minister Ignasius Jonan and Vice Minister Arcandra Tahar take on a portfolio that, including processing, contributes around 24% of Indonesia’s GDP. Key portfolio functions include primary mining (minerals, coal, oil and gas), processing of energy and mineral products; electricity generation, transmission and distribution; gas supply; and renewable energy and energy conservation.

Indonesia is consistently identified in industry surveys and expert assessments as having among the highest potential for policy reform of any resource-rich nation, reform that would lead to increased investment. At least 65% of all industry investment in Indonesia during the past decade has come from foreign sources.

While Vice Minister Arcandra has a background in offshore oil and gas technologies through his Houston-based consulting business, Minister Jonan (a former investment banker, railway CEO and transport minister) has by his own admission no direct experience of the energy and mineral sector. He joked to Ministry staff that his principal asset was being an ex-minister, but that he did have energy experience as a consumer of petroleum and electricity.

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Nevertheless, Jonan’s success in investment banking and reforming the moribund state-owned railway operator KAI has fuelled hope that will be able to build on the reforms of his predecessors in policy and legislation and across the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources.

Jonan summarised priorities for him and Arcandra in the handover ceremony from the Acting Minister, Luhut Panjaitan on 17 October. Understandably, electricity got first mention, with Jonan highlighting the need to accelerate the delayed 35000 MW construction program and achieve 90% electrification in 2016. 

He then mentioned application of new technologies in oil and gas and equitable cost recovery by explorers and producers under production-sharing contracts. The minister also highlighted the need to address the export ban on unprocessed ores and concentrates, smelter development obligations and taxes on exports.

While all of these issues need to be addressed by the Ministry, they represent only a subset of the structural inadequacies in policy and legislation that hold back sorely needed investment and the flow of benefits to national and regional economies. 

Oil exploration in Indonesia has fallen and production has declined during the past six years to the point where Indonesia is the only oil-importing member of OPEC. Investment in minerals processing and new mines is fitful, in large part as a result of misfiring policies that aimed to lift processing investment. Minerals exploration has slumped to levels well below what is needed to sustain the sector, while shortfalls in gas production are leading to uncompetitive energy costs for manufacturing. 

The first minister for energy and mineral tesources under Jokowi’s administration, Sudirman Said, implemented a comprehensive reform program that included a complete clean-out of the corruption-implicated oil and gas directorate and a spill of most other executive positions across the ministry. He also oversaw a policy review for oil and gas, put forward legislative changes and established a series of task forces to expedite project delivery and implementation of policy. Projects included the 35000 MW project and implementation of a renewable electricity generation program targeting 23% of total generation needs.

But for now many international resources investors are staying away from Indonesia, reducing investment exposure there, or actively exiting in favour of other destinations. The principal reasons given are policy and regulatory uncertainty, and investor-unfriendly settings compared to other nations. Resource nationalism and associated policy shifts affecting major projects have highlighted the hazards for investors. Former Minister Sudirman himself fell afoul of entrenched interests, thought to be a major factor behind his removal in a July reshuffle.

Minister Jonan and members of the parliament have acknowledged the need to progress amendments to the oil and gas law and minerals and coal law that are currently being considered by the Indonesian Parliament. Those close to the process, however, are pessimistic about   passage of amendments to either or both laws before the end of 2016.

As important a step as legislative change is meeting the need for clear pathways for the development of energy and minerals commodities. Such pathways are needed to restore investor confidence. While there is a codified policy for upstream and downstream energy, there are no such guiding policy principles for minerals. And both the energy sector and the minerals sector lack roadmaps for how the policies and laws will be implemented on the ground.

In minerals and coal, there is additional complexity for investors and regulators in the ongoing disjunction between national and sub-national jurisdictions in the administration of exploration and mining. While attempts have been made to resolve jurisdictional overlap and misalignment, more changes are needed to bring about certainty and administrative efficiency.

In his address to Ministry personnel and guests, Jonan highlighted the need for greater community engagement in resources development, including economic engagement. While Indonesia has a law mandating corporate social responsibility activities by major mining and non-mining projects, mining and petroleum policies are largely silent on community engagement during licensing, development and operating phases of projects.

Jonan repeated the capacity-building theme of his predecessors, highlighting the need for expertise within the Ministry to manage the technical and policy complexities of the minerals and energy sector. The abolition of specialist ad hoc groups within the Ministry by Acting Minister Luhut, however, has reduced its capacity to work cross-sectorally with other agencies to expedite investment.

Despite the challenges, the experience of Jonan in reforming organisations and in private sector investment, plus Vice Minister Arcandra’s oil and gas knowledge, may help them to advocate and adopt packages of policies and legislation that deliver energy and minerals development objectives and contribute substantially to Indonesia’s economic goals. 

The ministers don’t have much time, however. While there is almost three years left of the first Jokowi Presidency, reforms are unlikely to be passed by parliament or implemented in the 10 months leading up to the 2019 elections, meaning that Jonan and Arcandra have just two years to use their skills to turn the energy and minerals sector around.

Photo: Getty Images/Ed Wray


Dalian Wanda’s Wang Jianlin, China’s richest man and owner of Wanda group, is close to finalising a deal which would give him control of Hollywood’s Dick Clark productions, valued at $US1 billion. Fear has spread throughout Hollywood that China’s propaganda machine is coming to Tinseltown. But how afraid should Hollywood be of Wang Jianlin? 

With the purchase of Dick Clark Productions, responsible for staging the Golden Globes and the American Music Awards, Wang’s reach would extend to the glamourous side of Hollywood. The purchase would add another string to Wang’s entertainment bow, following his 2012 purchase of AMC Entertainment Holdings Inc and his 2016 purchase of Legendary Entertainment. 

Accounting for his rapid entertainment expansion, Wang explained that he hoped to 'aid China’s entry into Hollywood…and promote Chinese culture abroad'. Expanding China’s soft power into film is the logical next step of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) following its expansion into politics and media, within Australia and globally. As early as 2014, Xi Jinping had called for art to ‘disseminate contemporary Chinese values' and 'embody traditional Chinese culture’. Perhaps it's statements like these from Chinese leaders which have generated suspicions of Wang's motives for increasing his influence in Hollywood.

The US House of Representatives subcommittee is certainly suspicious. John Culberson, a Republican senator, asked the Department of Justice to assess Wang’s purchase to mitigate 'foreign propaganda influence over American media'. This intervention followed a September letter by 16 members of the US House of Representatives asking for the scope of the Committee on Foreign Investment to include the Chinese acquisition of US firms. Clearly there is concern within the US about encroaching Chinese propaganda. 

So should Hollywood movie executives start stocking up on Xi Jinping’s The Governance of China in anticipation of the Chinese propaganda onslaught?

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Well, not quite. While Wang wants to tell Chinese stories, it seems Chinese audiences are content to watch American ones. In 2015 Hollywood films accounted for almost 40% of China’s box office, despite government limits on the number of foreign films permitted to enter the Chinese market. For instance, over this Chinese summer the CCP relaxed its policy of restricting Hollywood films to be shown during the peak summer period. The latest Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Tarzan were both released over the holiday period. The easing of this policy was partly done to boost the number of cinema-goers, which had fallen in the second half of this year. Declining number of film viewers is partly due to the glut of movie theatres in China, with over 20 new screens added per day, and the end of the discounting war that saw tickets being sold for as little as $2. Given the Chinese thirst for Western films, it seems unlikely that Wang’s purchase will lead to Communist storylines becoming the de-jure storyline of Hollywood films. 

As previously written in the Interpreter, there is evidence that Hollywood films self-censors, even changing entire scenes to ensure their films meet the restrictions imposed by the Chinese State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT). Incentivised by Wang Jianlin’s announcement that he will give a subsidy of up to 40 per cent to studios that shoot films in China, some Hollywood directors will continue to self-censor in order to enter the Chinese market.

But the impact of this is not likely to be big. Where Hollywood excels (and China doesn’t) is a thriving market of independent filmmakers. Boutique Chinese filmmakers are hamstrung by layers of bureaucracy and censorship. In Hollywood, however, the abundance of production houses from arthouse to large corporations such as Netflix, ensures that American audiences have a plethora of options when it comes to their entertainment. 

If Wang really wanted to become a force of Chinese propaganda in America, he could as owner of AMC decide to show only Chinese politically correct films in his cinemas. However, he would likely face a long legal battle. In 2015 the Justice Department forced AMC to sell movie theatres to protect competition. In any event, with the rise of streaming and video on demand services, American audiences are more likely to stay at home and watch Netflix than go out and see a propaganda-lite film. 

China’s expanding cultural and and political influence is no doubt of concern to some. But in a time of proliferating entertainment options, concern over China’s expanding influence in the film industry is overrated. The beauty of on demand entertainment is if viewers don’t like what they see, they can just say no. 

Photo: Getty Images/VCG


In counter-terrorism, it sometimes feels like every silver lining has a cloud. While the Mosul offensive is making steady progress into the Islamic State-controlled city, this success risks triggering the movement of IS fighters from Iraq and Syria to Europe and beyond. 

Even if an immediate mass exodus of IS fighters to Europe is very unlikely, those that do leave Iraq and Syria over the coming months will pose a serious threat, particularly in Europe where the returning foreign fighter problem has been described as the biggest current security issue.

Beyond the obvious threat posed by individuals with experience fighting for a terrorist organisation, there are three elements that make their return so challenging. First, foreign fighters may potentially return home undetected; the Paris and Brussels attacks made it clear what consequences this could have. Second, even when their arrival is identified, their motivations for returning are unclear. And finally, even when arrests are made, securing a conviction for terrorist offences might prove difficult, partially due to a lack of admissible evidence and partially because many of the terrorist offences introduced since 2012 remain untested in court.

It is still unclear how many fighters will return home. As Islamic State crumbles, fighters are unlikely to behave as a homogenous group. This splintering of the threat into multiple locations and/or groups might make it even less predictable and more difficult to track. 

For national governments, knowing which of their foreign fighter contingent will choose which route will be difficult. Attempting to address this uncertainty by monitoring groups and individuals in multiple locations will require intelligence and security agencies to expend a large amount resources. Now might be the time for governments to consider a more proactive approach to shaping the foreign fighter outflow through a foreign fighter ‘amnesty’ or plea bargain scheme.

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Its broad aim would be to repatriate those foreign fighters disillusioned with the jihadist cause and keen to return home, but prevented from doing so by fear of a long prison sentence or their inability to leave the Middle East. 

From the outset, a scheme would need to be clear and unambiguous. It would not be a ‘get out of jail free’ card. While significant prison time would be non-negotiable, it could offer a reduced sentence in exchange for an admission of guilt against one or a range of terrorist offences. The deal could include further mandated requirements, such as public renunciation of IS and their ideology, participation in CVE and de-radicalisation programmes or cooperation with intelligence agencies.

This is undoubtedly difficult territory for any government to work in. They have rightly warned their populations of the threat posed by returning foreign fighters, and thus any government that encourages their return and offers sentencing leniency is likely to face immediate public backlash. So why should any government consider such a proposal?

Firstly, it would remove the uncertainty around the who, when, how, and why of returnees. The foreign fighters that accepted the deal would be returning at a time and manner of the government’s choosing. And even if their long-term motivations remained unclear, they would have signed up to meaningful prison time.

The plea bargain would also allow a government to reliably convict and imprison those returning foreign fighters. There would be no guarantees of post-release behaviour, but the threat they posed would at least be put on hold. And while in prison, their activities could be more easily monitored to assess future intent. They would be a potential threat, but a known, identifiable and manageable one.

Simultaneously, this would make the unknown foreign fighter threat smaller. By peeling off the less-committed parts of the network, authorities could be more certain those that remained required their full attention.

And from a counter-narrative perspective, dozens of foreign fighters defecting from ISIS (not to their rivals, but to prison in the West) would be a damning and hopefully influential indictment of the ISIS movement.

The scheme would need to tread an extremely fine line; offering sufficient incentives to attract disillusioned fighters, but not making it a viable option for sleeper cells seeking to conduct terrorist attacks in future.

Realistically, a scheme along these lines is unlikely to be overwhelmed by applications from foreign fighters. We don’t know what proportion of the remaining cohort would be amenable to returning home, and any such individuals may decide to take their chances with the existing criminal justice system. But given the risk and resource implications of the status quo, even the removal of a small number of foreign fighters from the battlefield would be worthwhile. And with Europe and much of the West facing a generation-long struggle against this threat, any scheme that makes countering it easier is surely worth considering.

Photo: Getty Images/John Moore


There has been great speculation, both inside Thailand and internationally, as to the reasons for the Thai Crown Prince’s unexpected decision to not immediately succeed to the throne – ostensibly to mourn his late father.

Some observers of Thailand’s politics are attracted to the theory that the Crown Prince may have been 'blocked' from assuming the throne by his enemies in the Thai royalist establishment. Such a view is particularly influential among some sections of the Red Shirts movement, who believe that succession instability may provide an opportunity for an uprising against the royalist establishment that have repeatedly destabilised and overthrown pro-Thaksin governments (former PM Thaksin Shinawatra was overthrown by a military coup in 2006) in  the last decade. The international media focus on the Crown Prince’s unorthodox and colourful private life tends to convey the impression that he may not be 'up to the job' – or even interested in it.

But based on what we actually know at this time, such speculation is almost certainly wrong, for the following reasons.

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First, the long official mourning period – at least one year – means that any overt political activity at this time would be portrayed by the military regime as disrespectful to the late king. Indeed, this may have been one of the considerations of the regime in imposing such a long mourning period.

Second, as many observers have argued, the military coup of 2014 was carried out precisely to ensure that the military was in control when the succession took place. The military has been successful in suppressing all political activity during this time. There is no reason why this should not continue.

Third, the military and the monarchy have been in a close and mutually beneficial political alliance since the late 1950s. The military provides ultimate protection for the monarchy; the monarchy has long provided legitimacy for the military’s political role, which has included sanctioning coups and approving amnesty bills which absolve the military from all legal responsibility for their actions. For this reason, it is in the interests of both to ensure that the succession is as smooth as possible. The last thing either institution wants is disunity.

Fourth, and most importantly, it is clear that the Crown Prince is already in a powerful position. Well before the late king passed away he had begun to move decisively to prepare for his assumption to the throne. Two years ago the prince divorced his wife, Srisasmi, and removed her royally-bestowed name and title, presumably because she was seen to be unsuitable as a future queen. Her young son has been taken from her, she is currently under virtual house arrest, while her father, mother, brothers, sister and uncle have been imprisoned on charges of lèse majesté. The Crown Prince has begun to allow his new consort, Suthida, a former THAI Airways hostess who currently lives with the prince in Munich, Germany, to accompany him to official functions in public. She has taken the prince’s name, Vajiralongkorn, and has been given the rank of major general. All this suggests that she is being prepared to take on the duties of the new Queen of Thailand.

The Crown Prince has also begun to 'clean house'. When claims that some of his entourage were involved in corruption in a charity event organised last year in honour of the former king, they were swiftly arrested, charged with lèse majesté and imprisoned. Three of those arrested were later reported to have died in prison, two by 'suicide', one of a 'blood infection'.

Last August the acting head of the Bureau of the Royal Household – whose family was known to be close to the former king – was summarily dismissed. The new 'Lord Chamberlain' is Chirayu Isarangkun na Ayuthaya, Director of the Crown Property Bureau, which manages assets with an estimated value of between $US40 billion-$50 billion for the monarchy. But there are unconfirmed rumours that Chirayu may be in the process of being moved from the directorship of the Bureau to make way for someone closer to the Crown Prince. As exiled political historian Somsak Jeamteerasakul has argued, it is likely that the Crown Prince’s decision to delay the succession is purely idiosyncratic, typical of his well-known lack of respect for convention and tradition. Given the prince’s reputation, few would dare question his decision.

It is likely, though, that the succession will come soon, since any new legislation – most importantly the new constitution – requires the royal signature to be signed into law.

In the weeks and months to come the key task for the new king will be to continue to establish his authority over the institution of the monarchy. This will likely involve purging many of his father’s former appointments and perhaps even punishing some who are known enemies of the prince.

One problem the new king will face is how to win the hearts and minds of the Thai population. It will be impossible for him to emulate his father’s image as a deeply pious Buddhist monarch, a 'future Buddha'.

It is no secret that the Crown Prince is generally unpopular. Yet he has support among some sections of the pro-Thaksin Red Shirts movement, based on the widespread rumour that Thaksin is close to the Crown Prince. According to his theory, once the Crown Prince becomes king, this may open the way up for Thaksin, who is currently living in exile in Dubai, to return to Thailand. Even if the former prime minister does not himself return to politics, he may be able to finally exert his political influence without being destabilised by the royalist establishment as in previous instances over the last decade.

For his part, Thaksin has something that the Crown Prince lacks: enduring popularity with around half the population, especially the rural population in the northeast and north of the country, as well as in working class urban areas around Bangkok and parts of the central region. Thus there is the potential for an alliance of convenience between the new king and the former prime minister.

Yet Thaksin is hated in equal measure by the middle and upper class in Bangkok and through most of the upper- and mid-south. How the new king manages this political fault-line that has opened up over the last decade will be crucial to the stability of his reign.

The new constitution drafted by a military-appointed lawyer and approved at a tightly-controlled plebiscite in August makes for a weak parliament, an enhanced political role for the military, and the possibility of a non-elected prime minister. This is also to the benefit of the new king.

All this suggests that the authority of the Crown Prince has been underestimated. In particular, his ruthless use of the lèse majesté law as his political weapon of choice, not only to destroy his enemies but to forbid any criticism of his actions, is an indication of what we might expect when the reign of King Rama X finally officially begins.

Photo by Borja Sanchez Trillo/Getty Images


The third and final US presidential debate took place this week in Las Vegas, Nevada, marking the end of four and half hours of under-moderated candidate-on-candidate discourse.

Though he was the best host by far, even Fox's Chris Wallace eventually struggled to control the masochistic bull in a china shop that is Trump, and most chalked it up as win three out of three for Clinton. Norman Bell:

Clinton correctly called Trump on his habit of seeing himself as a victim. He’s previously claimed rigged Republican primaries, rigged judicial processes in the matter of Trump University, rigged media, rigged polling, even a rigged process for deciding not to hand an Emmy award to his TV show. The good news for Trump (and the bad news for America) is that The Donald is not the only one who feels victimised. It is a trademark of the Rust Belt men who have seen their jobs go offshore, the Southern states still playing catch-up 150 years after the Civil War, the under-educated who see immigrants getting ahead of them. These voters form the backbone of Trump’s support.

 James Bowen examined what was potentially the scariest bit of rhetoric from Trump  the notion that he would not respect the final result of the election, were it not to go his way:

'I will look at it at the time' is bound to be the lasting line from the third and final debate of the 2016 US presidential campaign, and it's a worrying one. Donald Trump's refusal to confirm that he will accept the results of the election on 8 November, in keeping with his accusations of a rigged process, will have many concerned about how his supporters will react to what still seems a likely defeat. 

In light of Trump's claims, there has been widespread media promotion of the fact that cases of voter fraud in the US are extremely rare, and that its decentralised electoral system makes it virtually impossible to coordinate such a campaign on a national level. It has also been commonly pointed out that Republicans have long engaged in widespread suppression of votes from minorities and gerrymandering efforts that put a fairly heavy thumb on the scale ahead of election day.

Matthew Sussex examined Trump's extremely baffling unwillingness to condemn Russian interference in the electoral process:

Trump has absolutely nothing to gain by defending the Kremlin. Russian citizens don’t vote in US elections. While there are some on the American far right who admire Putin and wish for a strong man in the White House, they are not numerous enough to tip the balance in Trump’s favour. Ironically, they are the same constituency that Russia has been assiduously courting in order to undermine confidence in American political institutions. At a more structural level, Moscow has been for some time now a bete noir (and sometimes a convenient one) for Western policymakers. Focusing attention on the perceived threat from Russia can be a useful distraction from the more pressing geopolitical competition emerging in the Indo-Pacific strategic space.

Pre-debate, Emma Connors covered the havoc Trump is wreaking on the GOP:

The Republican party machine has its hands full trying to keep the pro- and anti-Trump factions from tearing each other apart (and putting off voters in the process) before the election. The inter-party friction ratcheted up after the audio surfaced of Trump making lewd comments but a few weeks earlier, another swathe of Republicans came unstuck when Ted Cruz announced, finally, he would support Trump.

Allira Attwill argued that there is more to do to combat Zika:

Overall, the initial response to Zika was both prompt and coordinated. Though it has failed (as yet) to mobilise the finances sought, the WHO is demonstrating its ability to lead a collaborative global health response. Likewise, even resource-constrained countries appear to be leveraging cost-effective control, prevention and detection campaigns, though they often require additional support to reach the most vulnerable populations. The scientific community and pharmaceutical industry (the latter albeit enticed by market forces) responded hastily and in line with the WHO’s call. The most significant failure so far is the delayed US response and lack of stewardship within the region, though this is symptomatic of the reliance on political lobbying in US decision-making processes.

Hannah Wurf said Australia is downplaying its commitment to the UN's Sustainable Development Goals:

But in Australia, the SDGs have been a non-event. In 2015, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop didn't attend the critical Addis Ababa conference to determine how the SDGs were to be financed. It is not yet clear if Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has any well-formed views on the goals (though one development enthusiast tried to cherry-pick from previous speeches how he might support the goals in theory).

Malcolm Cook noted the alarming pivot from Philippine President Duterte:

In an interview with Chinese state television released on Wednesday, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte doubled down on his embrace of China and dismissive attitude towards the US-Philippine alliance. Duterte pronounced his state visit to China as 'the defining moment of my presidency', expansively claimed that a quarter of the Philippine population (including himself) are Chinese descendants, contended that China was the Philippines' 'only hope economically', and hoped that President Xi Jinping would find it in his heart to give the Philippines a railway.

In a speech to an overseas Filipino audience on the same day, Duterte repeated his 'son of a whore' reference for President Obama while stating 'No more American influence. No more American exercises. It's time to say goodbye, my friend. Your stay in my country was for your own benefit'.

As Duterte rachets up the rhetoric on Manila's pivot away from the US and towards China, there are early signs of problems back home.

It's business as unusual in China, wrote Greg Earl:

Packer's advisers may regret not paying attention to analysis like this new study from University of California academics, which suggests the graft crackdown is 'primarily an attempt to root out systemic corruption problems' rather than a factional powerplay. Whatever the reason, this episode underlines how the old backroom way of doing business with authoritarian Asian governments is losing its efficacy, as public opinion, the actual law and shifting economic circumstances have the potential to suddenly undermine deals. Alastair Nicholas and Geoff Raby make good points about the real operating landscape in China.

Matthew Dal Santo on why Russia is unlikely to back down on Syria:

One of the problems with assumptions about a 'new Cold War' may be that they're not scary enough. After all, from a Western point of view, the Cold War not only passed without cataclysm, but also (according to the conventional wisdom) ushered in a triumph that apparently vindicated, perhaps for all time, the ultimate victory of the West's social, political and economic liberalism.    

The suggestion is hardly original, but surely the years before World War I provide a better, if more sobering, analogy for the state of US-Russia relations today. From the Bosnian crisis of 1908 to the contested outcome of the First and Second Balkan Wars in 1912-13 and the 1913 German military mission to the Ottoman Empire, Russia saw itself as suffering a series of deliberate international humiliations at the hands of the Kaiser's Germany.

Why is Australia so opposed to a UN resolution prohibiting nuclear weapons? Richard Lennane:

Australia has been curiously reluctant to engage honestly with other governments about its true objection to the ban treaty. Instead of frankly expressing their concerns about the implications that an absolute prohibition of nuclear weapons might have for Australia's defence doctrine, Australian officials have continued to trot out one flimsy and transparent pretext after another. Ambassador John Quinn told the First Committee that a ban treaty 'would not rid us of one nuclear weapon. It would not change the realities we all face in a nuclear-armed DPRK'. This is a ludicrous criticism from a country that supports the 'step-by-step' or 'building blocks' approach to nuclear disarmament. A fissile material cut-off treaty would also 'not rid us of one nuclear weapon', but Australia (rightly) supports it as one of a range of measures needed to move closer to a world without nuclear weapons.

The Mosul offensive was launched this week. Lauren Williams says it will be hard, but future challenges will be harder:

Intelligence reports suggest many of the IS command have already left Mosul and slipped across the border into Syria (a border they destroyed two years ago) well ahead of the offensive. There, they are likely to remain unmolested for now. The fear is that from the relative safety of its Syrian capital of Raqqa, IS will be able to regroup and frustrate efforts to restore order in Mosul down the track. It is essential that once the Iraqi Army and its allies secure Mosul, they work to restore governance and regain the cooperation of the local civilian population by restoring infrastructure and functionality, and addressing the urgent humanitarian needs of the population.

A failure to restore such order and trust (and it's far from clear there is a workable plan to do so) raises the spectre of Shiite militia-led reprisals against the Sunni host population in Mosul (it’s happened before) that could sow the seed for the same kind of dissatisfaction that gave rise to IS in Iraq two years ago. Perhaps even more concerning for the West, there is every chance a depleted IS may shift its attention to exporting terrorism attacks abroad from its safe base in Raqqa.

Jim Molan also wrote on Mosul, and how the battle is likely to play out:

The militias are a real concern, especially the Iranian backed Shia militias known as the Popular Mobilisation Units (or PMU). There were accusations of war crimes towards Sunnis following the Tikrit and Fallujah battles, and Abadi tried to stop them from participating in the Mosul fight. He was not able to do this. While the PMU nominally answer to him, many Shia militias are really controlled by Iranian Quds Force officers. Abadi seems to have allocated these militias a task on the West flank of the Mosul offensive in the area of Tal Afar, but what they will do there, and whether they will be content to stay there, is yet to be seen. For both these reasons, it’s imperative that a carefully planned Raqqa campaign closely follows the Mosul offensive.

Simon Heffer argued that a new Anglosphere is not out of the question:

...when the campaign to leave the European Union formally organised itself about a year ago, and started to outline what life would be like if it achieved its aims and, indeed, left, the Commonwealth started to assume an importance it had not had for more than 40 years. The talk was now of trading globally: with China, and Brazil, of course, but more to the point with those nations with whom the British share ties of history, blood and language. The new British prime minister, Theresa May, appointed a Secretary of State for International Trade in her cabinet; Dr Liam Fox, who had been one of the most ardent campaigners to leave, and who had been closely associated in his earlier days with the late Lady Thatcher. Dr Fox immediately got on a plane to India, and since then has continued to travel the world to discuss possible trade deals for Britain. He is not permitted to conclude any such deals yet – that cannot happen until Britain has left the EU, which may take another two and half years – but his travels will also include the US, where he has fostered close political links for the last 20 years.

Euan Graham analysed Australia's domestic FONOP debate:

Last year, I argued that a distinctly Australian FONOP was worth it on balance to underline concerns and interests that are defined independently of the US. However, the surface environment near China's artificial features in the Spratlys is becoming more complex and potentially threatening . This is informing US preferences for a 'rainbow' coalition approach to FONOPs with allies and partners, not simply for reasons of political solidarity but out of a basic need for force security. A solo Australian surface FONOP, while still possible, will entail operational risk. This may reinforce Canberra's caution, although overflight is legally clear cut and, for the moment, less risky.

Realistically, no multi-national operation on a significant scale is likely to happen before the next US administration can formulate its policy on the South China Sea. That does not mean that US allies and partners should simply wait. This is precisely the time for allies to show leadership, not by launching uncoordinated quixotic actions – that would suit China – but by consulting and coordinating on ways to demonstrate rights of access to international air and sea-space in the South China Sea, within heightened but acceptable bounds of risk. For a concerted international approach to have meaningful effect it cannot be composed only of Asian treaty allies and European powers, like France or the UK. Asia including Southeast Asia needs to be represented. Canberra should also continue to explore ways to keep The Hague tribunal ruling alive, creatively maximising the value of Canberra's seat at the tables of ASEAN-plus summitry.

Finally, sledging globalisation may suddenly everyone's favourite pastime, but many of the proposed solutions would diminish the benefits of globalisation, argued Stephen Grenville:

Once globalisation has become the accepted punching bag, everyone can proffer their favoured nostrums, some of which make little sense. Jared Bernstein and Lori Wallach offer a 'progressive' response; stipulating that there should be rules covering everything from currency manipulation to international rules on labour and environmental conditions, and that countries that didn't play by said rules should be ostracised. Some of their criticisms are valid; trade deals like the TPP should be negotiated for general benefit rather than vested interests. But it is still a rag-bag collection of ideas.

This debate still has a long way to run. Here is some tentative guidance on how to evaluate the multitude of suggestions.

Photo: Getty Images/Bloomberg

US presidential race 2016

Another debate, another good start for Donald Trump ending in a train wreck.

Media pundits are freaking out about Trump saying he won’t promise to accept the election result as legitimate. The system is rigged, he blusters. Blasphemy, they scream. The democracy’s foundation is built on a peaceful transition following a fair election. To not accept the premise is to disqualify yourself.

Election day can’t come soon enough.

America is poised to elect Hillary Clinton as its president, a bit of gender history unfolding before our eyes. But the challenges to her government will be many. Polls suggest Democrats will take control of the Senate but the House is likely to remain controlled by Republicans. Legitimate or not, that result would assure ongoing stalemate. The wild card is the continuing erosion of Trump's support as voters tire of his personality and his antics. Will it cause some Republicans to stay home, harming the party’s chances in down-ticket races?

Clinton correctly called Trump on his habit of seeing himself as a victim. He’s previously claimed rigged Republican primaries, rigged judicial processes in the matter of Trump University, rigged media, rigged polling, even a rigged process for deciding not to hand an Emmy award to his TV show. The good news for Trump (and the bad news for America) is that The Donald is not the only one who feels victimised. It is a trademark of the Rust Belt men who have seen their jobs go offshore, the Southern states still playing catch-up 150 years after the Civil War, the under-educated who see immigrants getting ahead of them. These voters form the backbone of Trump’s support.

They are troubled that their wives are often becoming the primary breadwinner. They recognise they lack the pensions and security their fathers had. They see the American Century slipping away. And they don’t like any of it.

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For this cohort, time is moving too fast. They don’t need to roll things back to the 1950s, but the 1970s would be nice. Trump’s promise to 'make America great again' resonates here.

The question is about the size of this group. How many of their wives have been peeled away to support Clinton? How many of them will buy into the consequences of the rigged system they perceive and stay home on election day?

Trump has fanned the flames with his bashing of the North American Free Trade Agreement and other international deals. He says America is being taken advantage of by shrewd foreign negotiators. Looking at the closed plants in Flint, Michigan; Bethlehem, Pennsylvania; Youngstown, Ohio; or Birmingham, Alabama, these Trump backers just nod in agreement. They too see themselves as victims. The image of a firm leader who vows to enact nationalist and populist solutions is attractive. They believe a Putin-esque strong man would set things right. And on the morning of 9 November they’ll awaken to a nation led by a woman with a huge collection of political baggage who makes for a believable beneficiary of a rigged system.

Amid the instant punditry after the final debate, there was talk of Trump setting up his own television network after the election to institutionalise this victimisation world-view. There was even discussion that the effort to delegitimise the election process is really a plot by Russia to give America a dose of the same medicine it was forced to take in Eastern Europe and the Baltic States. The idea of Russian election observers is guaranteed to play poorly in the US, but may resonate better overseas, where Trump may still look more like a viable candidate than he does at home.

American democracy may be messy but it’s seldom dull.

Photo: Getty Images/Mark Makela


In Washington, they refer to news stories that only matter to the political class as being 'inside the beltway', a reference to the road which encircles the capital. Maybe we can coin a Canberra variation on the term? How about 'inside the parkway', given that, roughly speaking, Canberra is framed by two north-south arteries, the Tuggeranong Parkway and Majura Parkway.

And if we wanted to define an 'inside the parkway' story, we could do worse than starting with yesterday's events in Senate Estimates, in which DFAT Secretary Frances Adamson got in a muddle over whether the Foreign Minister had commissioned a Foreign Policy White Paper or whether it would be called something else. The press release from Shadow Foreign Minister Penny Wong's office explains the details, and asserts somewhat hyperbolically that the Turnbull Government's foreign policy is 'in chaos'. The news media has largely ignored the story, though it will increase scrutiny on the White Paper process, which looks rather unformed despite the fact that the announcement to write a white paper was made two months ago.

The Interpreter has already carried several pieces on the new white paper (and yes, it will be called that, as Secretary Adamson clarified late yesterday), including one by Peter Layton on why the new document probably won't be a real strategy, another by Hugh White on how DFAT can do it right, and a third from Geoff Kitney: Foreign Affairs White Paper will be a Big Test for a Public Service in Decline''.

For my part, I was fascinated by Minister Julie Bishop's comment when the document was first announced that it would establish a 'philosophical framework to guide Australia's engagement, regardless of international events' (my emphasis).

Fairfax's Dan Flitton has pointed out that previous white papers were outdated almost as soon as they left the print-shop because they were overtaken by events, and Bishop's statement seems to obliquely acknowledge this danger. If we take Bishop's statement at face value, we could see a very different sort of white paper to the documents we are used to, one which stops short of making forecasts about the future (because they are unreliable anyway) but looks instead for perpetual or at least long-lasting factors in the formation of Australia's foreign policy. Geography and demography are two obvious examples — the first is permanent and the second changes only slowly and predictably.

But it is impossible to allocate resources without making some kind of rough bet about what the future will look like, and if this document is to be of any use it will have to make some decisions about our priorities; after all, if everything is important, then nothing is.

So if the white paper team does focus its energy on divining the future of our region and the globe, I hope it doesn't only seek advice from the intelligence, think tank, and academic worlds. Prediction markets are one other possible source, but there is also crowd-sourcing, and Professor Philip Tetlock from the University of Pennsylvania has led an intensive study in cooperation with the US intelligence community on improving the techniques of forecasting. See the video above for a taste of Tetlock's work.



In February, the WHO declared the Zika virus a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC). Determined to avoid another Ebola-like failure, it called for a coordinated international response to improve Zika surveillance, detection and diagnostics, vector control and expedited development of vaccines. How effective has the response been?

The virus continues to spread rapidly, from 23 countries (mainly in Latin America) in February to 67 countries as of 13 October, including 47 countries in the Americas, seven in the Western Pacific and three in Southeast Asia. Moreover, 22 countries have reported microcephaly and other Zika-associated symptoms and 19 countries have reported an increased incidence of Zika infection among Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS) cases. The WHO has not released updated global estimates of Zika cases, though earlier this month the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported 3936 cases in US states (878 in pregnant women), and 25,871 cases in US territories (1806 in pregnant women).

What do these figures and the cross-regional spread of Zika indicate about the effectiveness of the response so far? Have governments and international organisations failed the populations they seek to protect? Not necessarily.

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The first point to make is that it is difficult to assess the effectiveness of public health interventions. This is because (a) it is hard to determine what would have happened if the public health response was different and (b) there are a multitude of extrinsic, often volatile factors beyond decision-makers’ control (such as environmental factors, relative population density, and the way a disease or virus behaves and adapts).

A more valuable approach, therefore, is to examine factors over which decision-makers do have control (such as the haste, extent and combination of interventions) with a view to finding where the response has been effective; where, why, and how it failed; and, perhaps most importantly, who is accountable. This process allows us to see where opportunities were leveraged or lost and to highlight the true successes and failures in the response so far.

To start with, good public health policy responses are evidence-based. So, what to do when, as in the case of Zika, we do not have a strong knowledge base on which to form our response? We start from scratch. 

This required the ‘coordinated international response’ requested by the WHO. Overall, this call was answered. Supranational organisations, governments, NGOs, industry, scientists, and healthcare workers collaborated. Supranational organisations provided guidance that was adapted as needed and implemented at national and local levels, mainly in the form of prevention efforts (such as mosquito spraying and removal of stagnant water) and communicating key public health messages based on best available knowledge. But this initial response did not secure funding for more consequential action. Herein lay the first battle.

Ultimately, funding depends on political/donor will, and such will requires impetus. In April, the CDC provided such impetus by confirming Zika is a cause of microcephaly and other severe foetal brain defects. Establishing this causal relationship was vital. The scientific community's consensus was an early success and a major win in the battle against Zika, as it allowed decision-makers to allocate funds, drive prevention efforts, focus research activities, and justify and inform public health messages about the risks of Zika.

At the supranational level, the Zika-microcephaly link allowed the WHO and partners to justify and define a strategic response to Zika and allocate funding to prevent and manage its associated medical complications. WHO estimates that US$122.1 million is necessary to effectively implement the Zika Strategic Response Plan from July 2016 to December 2017. However, as of earlier this month, donor contributions totalled approximately US$24 million, less than 20% of the requested amount. 

Resource mobilisation efforts have also struggled to reach targets at national levels. In February, the White House requested US$1.9 billion in emergency funding from Congress to respond to Zika, but the request repeatedly stalled due to disputes over how it would be paid for, family planning controversies (read: Zika-related abortions) and other issues. As a result, it took nearly eight months for US$1.1billion (US$800 million less than requested) to be attached to a bill that temporarily extends funding into the 2017 fiscal year, a short-term solution.

Therefore, one could argue that resource mobilisation efforts at both supranational and national levels have failed to yield the financial commitment required to effectively manage Zika. However, the real test is not whether key actors can mobilise a seemingly arbitrarily defined amount, but rather whether they can mobilise enough resources and maximise efficiencies to create a response that works. If so, the resource gap does not necessarily equate to failure.

When considering the efficacy of the Zika response within the framework of the WHO’s call to action, we must also consider progress in terms of detection, prevention, support and research efforts, all of which are dependent on the aforementioned funding.

The WHO’s Strategic Response Plan addresses all four of these factors to support national governments and communities in their Zika response.

Most countries have implemented efforts to improve detection. In light of the virus’s emergence in Southeast Asia, all countries in the region have accelerated prevention procedures and have the laboratory capacity to conduct Zika virus testing and identify microcephaly. Thailand recently confirmed two cases of Zika-related microcephaly, illustrating that procedures are being followed.

Zika and microcephaly prevention efforts span from vector control to contraception. Promisingly, at-risk states have designed and implemented Zika Preparedness and Response Plans, aligned with WHO’s. However, consistent with history, the poorest are the most vulnerable and lack ability to pay for repellents, bed nets and contraception, often available only via the private market and less accessible in rural areas. Furthermore, Latin America has the highest proportion (56%) of unintended pregnancies worldwide.

On 9 March, the WHO prioritised research and development efforts, which now focus on diagnostics, vaccines, and innovative vector control tools. Meanwhile, as of 2 March, 67 companies and research institutions were already working on a number of products (31 on diagnostics, 18 on vaccines, eight on therapeutics, ten on vector control). In fact, by August the first early-stage study had commenced to evaluate a vaccine’s safety and efficacy.

Eventually this surge of research will be of value, but in the meantime, significant knowledge gaps remain. Consider now that more than half the world’s population lives in areas infested with Aedes aegypti, the mosquito responsible for spreading Zika, and that researchers recently detected Zika in monkeys and in female Aedes albopictus mosquitoes, a species that can survive temperate winters. It is clear that Zika has immense potential and could expand far beyond the initial geographic estimates, and that we need to fill knowledge gaps quickly.

Overall, the initial response to Zika was both prompt and coordinated. Though it has failed (as yet) to mobilise the finances sought, the WHO is demonstrating its ability to lead a collaborative global health response. Likewise, even resource-constrained countries appear to be leveraging cost-effective control, prevention and detection campaigns, though require additional support to reach the most vulnerable populations. The scientific community and pharmaceutical industry (the latter albeit enticed by market forces) responded hastily and in line with the WHO’s call. The most significant failure so far is the delayed US response and lack of stewardship within the region, though this is symptomatic of the reliance on political lobbying in US decision-making processes.

Moving forward, the efficacy of prevention, detection and supportive efforts will depend on the extent to which donors and local agencies continue to monitor and report cases, spur and leverage political will and support resource-constrained communities.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Agência Brasília

US presidential race 2016

Rolling Stone's Matt Taibi penned an essay a week ago about the Trump phenomenon, which builds to a stirring close:

Trump's shocking rise and spectacular fall have been a singular disaster for U.S. politics. Built up in the press as the American Hitler, he was unmasked in the end as a pathetic little prankster who ruined himself, his family and half of America's two-party political system for what was probably a half-assed ego trip all along, adventure tourism for the idiot rich.

That such a small man would have such an awesome impact on our nation's history is terrible, but it makes sense if you believe in the essential ridiculousness of the human experience. Trump picked exactly the wrong time to launch his mirror-gazing rampage to nowhere. He ran at a time when Americans on both sides of the aisle were experiencing a deep sense of betrayal by the political class, anger that was finally ready to express itself at the ballot box.

The only thing that could get in the way of real change – if not now, then surely very soon – was a rebellion so maladroit, ill-conceived and irresponsible that even the severest critics of the system would become zealots for the status quo.

In the absolute best-case scenario, the one in which he loses, this is what Trump's run accomplished. He ran as an outsider antidote to a corrupt two-party system, and instead will leave that system more entrenched than ever. If he goes on to lose, he will be our Bonaparte, the monster who will continue to terrify us even in exile, reinforcing the authority of kings.

If you thought lesser-evilism was bad before, wait until the answer to every question you might have about your political leaders becomes, "Would you rather have Trump in office?"

Trump can't win. Our national experiment can't end because one aging narcissist got bored of sex and food. Not even America deserves that. But that doesn't mean we come out ahead. We're more divided than ever, sicker than ever, dumber than ever. And there's no reason to think it won't be worse the next time.

If you want to read more about 'Trump's people', for weeks now I've been recommending to friends this interview by Rod Dreher in The American Conservative with JD Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and a Culture in Crisis

RD: A friend who moved to West Virginia a couple of years ago tells me that she’s never seen poverty and hopelessness like what’s common there. And she says you can drive through the poorest parts of the state, and see nothing but TRUMP signs. Reading “Hillbilly Elegy” tells me why. Explain it to people who haven’t yet read your book. 

J.D. VANCE: The simple answer is that these people–my people–are really struggling, and there hasn’t been a single political candidate who speaks to those struggles in a long time.  Donald Trump at least tries.

What many don’t understand is how truly desperate these places are, and we’re not talking about small enclaves or a few towns–we’re talking about multiple states where a significant chunk of the white working class struggles to get by.  Heroin addiction is rampant.  In my medium-sized Ohio county last year, deaths from drug addiction outnumbered deaths from natural causes.  The average kid will live in multiple homes over the course of her life, experience a constant cycle of growing close to a “stepdad” only to see him walk out on the family, know multiple drug users personally, maybe live in a foster home for a bit (or at least in the home of an unofficial foster like an aunt or grandparent), watch friends and family get arrested, and on and on.  And on top of that is the economic struggle, from the factories shuttering their doors to the Main Streets with nothing but cash-for-gold stores and pawn shops.


In an interview with Chinese state television released on Wednesday, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte doubled down on his embrace of China and dismissive attitude towards the US-Philippine alliance. Duterte pronounced his state visit to China as 'the defining moment of my presidency', expansively claimed that a quarter of the Philippine population (including himself) are Chinese descendants, contended that China was the Philippines' 'only hope economically', and hoped that President Xi Jinping would find it in his heart to give the Philippines a railway.

In a speech to an overseas Filipino audience on the same day, Duterte repeated his 'son of a whore' reference for President Obama while stating 'No more American influence. No more American exercises. It's time to say goodbye, my friend. Your stay in my country was for your own benefit'.

As Duterte is rachets up the rhetoric on Manila's pivot away from the US and towards China, there are early signs of problems back home. In a moment of candour during his confirmation hearing, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana admitted his ignorance of recent presidential pronouncements on the US-Philippine alliance: 'Mr. Chair, I really don't know because the President has been issuing statements without consulting the Cabinet.'

An 8 October opinion piece by former President Fidel Ramos, who sat at the side of Duterte at his election celebration and who Duterte nominated to lead the recommencement of talks with China over the South China Sea dispute, strongly criticises Duterte's pivot and his caustic attitude to relations with the US. A recent Social Weather Stations' poll strongly suggests that the concern with Duterte's pivot to China and away from the US may well go much deeper. The poll shows that Filipinos' already very low trust levels towards China are worsening, with 55% expressing little trust in China, compared with only 11% 22% expressing much trust. The results for the US were the mirror opposite: 11% little trust and 76% much trust.

If this visit to China will be the defining moment of Duterte's presidency, he may not like the definition.


Next Wednesday we begin a new phase in the life of The Interpreter, which is now nine years old. We've only had one previous redesign in that period, so we figured we were due for a new look.

Over those nine years The Interpreter has matured from a group blog to a true digital magazine. Granted, those categories are flexible and hard to pin down, but The Interpreter began as a true blog, built to host the quick takes of the Lowy Institute's in-house experts. And of course it was designed from the outset with that signature reverse-chronological layout of a blog.

The site soon began to also host the views of experts and commentators from outside the Institute, and then took on many other attributes we associate with a magazine: it always had a full-time editor, but the staff has grown modestly over the years, we commission writers, run regular special features, hold daily editorial meetings, and maintain a thorough editorial process for submissions.

Through it all we have maintained the familiar reverse-chronological format of a blog, but that is about to change. We think The Interpreter is Australia’s leading magazine for daily commentary and analysis of world events, and our new look reflects this evolution. The Interpreter will have a true front page where we can highlight our best and most important articles of the day.

You will also see a striking new design for the Lowy Institute website, and improved integration between the two sites.

Next Wednesday, after the launch, you may notice that the URL for The Interpreter will change. But if you have the current site bookmarked, you will be redirected automatically.

US presidential race 2016

'I will look at it at the time' is bound to be the lasting line from the third and final debate of the 2016 US presidential campaign, and it's a worrying one. Donald Trump's refusal to confirm that he will accept the results of the election on 8 November, in keeping with his accusations of a rigged process, will have many concerned about how his supporters will react to what still seems a likely defeat. 

In light of Trump's claims, there has been widespread media promotion of the fact that cases of voter fraud in the US are extremely rare, and that its decentralised electoral system makes it virtually impossible to coordinate such a campaign on a national level. It has also been commonly pointed out that Republicans have long engaged in widespread suppression of votes from minorities and gerrymandering efforts that put a fairly heavy thumb on the scale ahead of election day.

Yet these facts didn't stop Trump from claiming at the debate that there were now 'millions of people' registered to vote who shouldn't be, and placing this in a broader context of a corrupt media lined up against him (compounded by the failure of authorities to charge his opponent Hillary Clinton over her email scandal). 

Other Republicans seemed still not to have come to grips with Trump's worldview in the lead-up to the Las Vegas debate, with even his vice presidential candidate Mike Pence saying his running mate would 'absolutely accept' the election results. Trump's campaign manager Kellyanne Conway echoed these sentiments, as did his daughter Ivanka. Despite obvious, recorded and widely disseminated testimony to the contrary, they'll likely continue doing so in the remaining campaign weeks.

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Peter Beinert, writing for The Atlantic, is probably right to predict that Trump's refusal to embrace an essential element of legitimate democracies (and to stay more in line with the authoritarian Russian regime of Vladimir Putin, which he again refused to outright condemn) will dominate the news cycle up until election day, with other members of his party forced to either defend or decry it ad nauseum. 

I'm not sure it will move the dial much in terms of his polling or the likelihood of victory for either himself or Republicans in congress, however, with any remaining undecided voters surely lacking the decisiveness necessary to seal an envelope or travel to polling locations in a few weeks.

Let's not forget that Trump has already been in similar territory before, and fairly recently: his second debate warning that Clinton 'would be in jail' were he president similarly shunned democratic convention, while a Foreign Policy discussion this week characterised him as nothing less than seditious over invitations for Russia to hack more of Clinton's emails and for 'second amendment people' to do something about his opponent's Supreme Court appointees should she come to occupy the White House.

There is past electoral evidence that Trump's most recent dangerous rhetoric may ultimately be most damaging to his own campaign, with voters who believe they are disenfranchised unlikely to turn up to vote. Yet there may also be a far more concerning reaction to the tone of the final weeks of the campaign. There are reports of many of Trump's more deplorable (to adopt a Clintonism) supporters intending to act as unofficial election observers, intimidating voters who somehow have the look of illegal immigrants, and threatening violent repercussions and even a coup against Clinton should Trump lose. Militias such as the one that holed up in rural Oregon earlier this year are reportedly enjoying a fruitful recruiting period in light of the former secretary of state's ever-narrowing odds.

We can hope that these are empty threats, and that common sense will prevail on election day and those days that follow. The onus will largely be on Trump, and also the 'alt-right' media such as Breitbart that sustains him, to respond in a more responsible manner should he suffer defeat as is expected. This seems a difficult proposition under present circumstances, particularly given the no-longer fanciful suggestions that Trump will exploit his newfound appeal with the establishment of a new television network after any unsuccessful election, which gives him little incentive to make a clean break from the demographic that will likely comprise its audience.

What becomes of the large numbers of supposedly disenfranchised (and definitely angry) voters in Trump's corner in the longer term is also being firmly considered at present. They will certainly cause some major headaches for Paul Ryan and the other 'establishment' Republicans, who, let's not forget, have only really earned that demarcation in the past year and could risk being swept aside by a new breed who recognise the greater political appeal of nationalism and white identity politics, compared with free market economics and religious conservatism. 

Trump's accusations of a rigged political process are also intrinsically linked to notions of a rigged economy and, indeed, a rigged 21st century that seems to diminish the power of many people through the rise of globalisation more broadly and the non-white population at home. As other nations continue to challenge US dominance and demographic changes deliver more and more diversity, the temptation to withdraw from the world stage and cling to rapidly shrinking power base becomes, perversely, more appealing. As confused as he often appears, Trump seems to have an intrinsic understanding of this dynamic, though he may not fully appreciate the extent of the dangers of encouraging it.

Photo: Getty Images/Joe Raedle

US presidential race 2016

Recent developments in the US presidential race should put to rest any lingering doubt that one nation’s information warfare capabilities can fundamentally affect the politics of another.

At the third US presidential debate in Las Vegas, Hillary Clinton accused the Russian government of aiding her opponent, both directly and indirectly through cyber-attacks. In response, Donald Trump spent some time seemingly defending Vladimir Putin, talking up Russia’s strength and statecraft while simultaneously talking down the competency of US diplomacy and its intelligence agencies.

Russia, its role in the US election and its links with the presidential candidates therefore took up quite some time in a debate where every second is precious. This prompts several observations; on both Trump and the state of relations between Russia and the West.

First, Trump’s refusal to accept a Russian link to state-sponsored interference in American politics (and it took much prompting for him to eventually give a grudging and generic condemnation of such interference should it have occurred), is almost impossible to understand.

While many of the Republican presidential nominee's tactical choices defy conventional wisdom on how to maximise voter support, his habit of casting Russia in a positive light – if not an admiring one – now goes beyond what we could reasonably call rational behaviour. It would be much simpler, and politically more advantageous, for Trump to lock in behind Clinton and the US intelligence community on what amounts to repeated violations of American sovereignty. The fact that he still does not do so only invites more speculation about his motives, and his ability to lead should he be elected.

Trump has absolutely nothing to gain by defending the Kremlin. Russian citizens don’t vote in US elections. While there are some on the American far right who admire Putin and wish for a strong man in the White House, they are not numerous enough to tip the balance in Trump’s favour. Ironically, they are the same constituency that Russia has been assiduously courting in order to undermine confidence in American political institutions. At a more structural level, Moscow has been for some time now a bete noir (and sometimes a convenient one) for Western policymakers. Focusing attention on the perceived threat from Russia can be a useful distraction from the more pressing geopolitical competition emerging in the Indo-Pacific strategic space.

More broadly, and perhaps more importantly, the emergence of Russia as a central theme in the US Presidential race reflects the escalatory trajectory in security rivalry between Russia and the broader West. It is also an excellent example of what that rivalry looks like, in an age where traditional kinetic power is now increasingly linked to the power of information and misinformation.

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Of central importance here is not only that technology has developed new tools for governments to affect others, but critically that they naturally favour the offensive. The weight of evidence, from WikiLeaks to the DNC hack, the shutting down of the Ukrainian power grid, Stuxnet, and countless other cyber incursions are testament to this.

On those grounds alone it is of little value, for instance, to try and resolve cyber security threats by linking them to the nuclear deterrence strategies of the Cold War. For one thing, nuclear deterrence rests on a basic assumption of restraint. But hacking, DDOS and hijacking of data occupies a grey area between the digital and the physical. Put simply, it is hard to determine how to respond to cyber-attacks. In kind? With sanctions? With physical force? There are legal, ethical and political costs associated with each option, especially in pluralist societies, not least of which is the often-elusive burden of proof.

As a result, escalation costs from information warfare are much lower than mutually assured destruction: it is the disruption and erosion of political authority and critical infrastructure rather than its wholesale devastation that is at stake.

This is a problem already occupying policymakers in the West, including Australia. It is further complicated because the risks of competition in one arena can easily translate across to another, with more serious implications. For instance, the recent decision by UK banks to close Russia Today’s accounts was another escalation in the tit-for-tat propaganda war. Expressing its public outrage at what it saw as an attack on free speech, Russian attention may well fall on the BBC, as an ‘equivalent’ state-owned media agency. That would limit the ability of Western governments to offer an alternative narrative to a population for whom any dissent against the state-sanctioned line is increasingly dangerous.

That’s worrying because as Russia has shown, information operations and strategic operations can also be mutually reinforcing. Its targeting of rebels in Aleppo by Russian airpower has weakened the enemies of the Assad regime, but it has also wiped out moderates and kept refugees flowing into Europe, some of whom may well be radicalised by the experience. This bolsters the anti-immigration Far Right across the transatlantic space, which in turn puts pressure on free trade agendas, the costs of strategic partnerships, and strengthens the ‘sovereignty first’ argument that Russia has been advocating all along.

And so we come back to Trump. It is little wonder Russia backs him. After all, he is promising to deliver every major strategic objective the Kremlin would like to engender. He will divert the liberal order that has upheld Western power back to protectionism; weaken NATO; and rein the rules-based order back to first principles, based on states’ rights.

Given that, we should not be surprised that another state is taking such an interest in that the affairs of another. But we should be concerned that it has done so with few obvious repercussions, and in a manner that serves to reinforce its broader agenda, rather than as a sideshow with the potential to dilute its overall efforts. Ultimately, it should also serve as a warning to other governments in the West: be prepared.

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