Lowy Institute

The race for UN secretary-general (SG) is heating up with a second round of interviews scheduled for 7 June and the recent nominations of Argentina’s Susana Malcorra and Slovakia’s Miroslav Lajcak, bringing the official candidate count to 11. The UN Security Council’s permanent five (P5) members remain the ultimate decision-maker on the SG’s selection, and although the P5 usually hold their cards close to their chest, rumours are swirling around the UN's Manhattan HQ that the UK was unimpressed by the initial crop of Eastern European candidates.

While commentators have thoroughly publicised the factors at play in the race related to gender and geography, there’s also a distinction to be made between UN insiders and UN outsiders, each bringing their own pros and cons. With the race still so up in the air, it’s worth taking a closer look at two candidates, one UN insider and one outsider, to see how their prospects are shaping up.

An insider – Irina Bokova (Bulgaria)

Bulgarian Irina Bokova brings considerable UN expertise to her campaign for SG, having served as Director-General of the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) since 2009. Born in 1952, Bokova grew up in Sofia in a prominent and influential Communist family, which has raised some questions throughout her career. Bokova’s father edited the country’s leading Communist newspaper, and she was a member of the Communist Party as a young person, an affiliation she acknowledges but clarifies was out of necessity and not by choice. She told a reporter in 2009, 'All my life I have shown I supported the political transformation of my country. I have nothing to be ashamed of'. Like other children in the elite at the time, Bokova studied at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations where she earned an MA in 1976. She speaks English, French, Spanish, and Russian in addition to her native Bulgarian.

In 1977 Bokova joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs where she served at its mission to the UN in New York and as a delegate to UN conferences on women’s rights. As a Member of Parliament (1990-1991 and 2001-2005), she promoted Bulgaria’s membership in the EU and NATO and participated in drafting its new constitution. Between MP stints, Bokova served as acting Foreign Minister, and afterwards she served concurrently as Ambassador to France, Monaco, and UNESCO (2005-2009).

As UNESCO chief, Bokova has garnered mixed reviews. Some have praised her energy and commitment to the organisation, where she has focused on advancing gender equality and education for all, while fighting racism, anti-Semitism, and violent extremism. Others have criticised her management skills and handling of UNESCO’s financial crisis (the organisation lost 22% of its budget in 2011 when the US withheld funding after UNESCO voted to admit Palestine as a member).

Bokova faced an uphill battle just to get the SG nomination. She received her country’s support from a Socialist administration back in 2014, but that government fell shortly thereafter, and the new administration reportedly preferred another Bulgarian; European Commission vice president Kristalina Georgieva. Georgieva ultimately withdrew her name from consideration, and Bokova got the nomination, but rumours persist about the possibility of Georgieva re-entering the race.

Some commentators have touted Bokova as an early favourite in the race, given her UN expertise and reported closeness to Moscow. Several recent developments, however, may be harming her candidacy.

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First, as an insider, UN observers had high expectations for her interview with the UN General Assembly, but some felt that her performance was disappointing and lacking in substance. I found it surprising, for example, that in response to a question about how she would strengthen the UN’s communication, she admitted that had not thought about it.

Second, Bokova faces accusations that she improperly hired a Brazilian official to a senior-level post at UNESCO. The allegations were reportedly triggered by an investigation that Britain’s ambassador to UNESCO helped launch in 2015. Bokova’s spokesperson has denied the allegations, but some wonder whether London’s concerns about her judgment could damage her campaign.

An outsider – Vesna Pusić (Croatia)

On the other hand, Croatian Vesna Pusić brings a wide range of experiences to her candidacy but is a clear UN outsider. Embracing that role, she has vowed to eliminate UN jargon, joking, 'Half the time no one in their right mind can understand what these people are saying'.

Born in 1953, Pusić grew up in Zagreb in a family of intellectuals where she says political and cultural debates around the dinner table were the norm. A sociologist by training, she holds a BA (1976) in Sociology and Philosophy and a PhD (1984) in Sociology from the University of Zagreb. Pusić began her career in academia, working her way up from researcher to professor of sociology. She also became involved in social activism from a young age, co-founding the first feminist group in the former Yugoslavia while in her twenties and later directing a think tank focused on promoting peace in the region.

Pusić turned to politics in the early 2000s, first as a party leader and parliamentarian and then as first deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign and European Affairs. From 2007-2011 she headed Croatia’s national committee for monitoring the EU accession negotiations, and in an achievement she describes as one of her proudest, she oversaw the country’s accession to the EU in 2013. Pusić currently serves as deputy speaker of the Croatian Parliament. She received her SG nomination from the outgoing prime minister in Croatia, despite uncertainty over the incoming government’s position on her candidacy. Pusić has maintained a lower profile than some of the other candidates, and she is funding her own airline tickets and hotel rooms during the campaign.

Rather than dwelling on her lack of UN experience, Pusić is framing herself as a sort of 'conflict resolution insider'. She suggests that her experience living through war and peace in a country that has also both received and provided development assistance gives her a sense of understanding and empathy that is important at the UN. 'Maybe it’s too much to expect that a secretary-general can change countries,' she says, 'But it helps a great deal if she can understand and know how it feels when talking to people in a country, or confronting a situation in a country before or during a conflict.'

Most of Pusić’s statements during her interview with the UN General Assembly were fairly unremarkable; however, her presentation was punctuated by a handful of passionate, concrete appeals. In one of the bright moments, she asserted that she’s never seen an organisation or a person that isn’t flawed and that acknowledging an organisation’s problems is part of preparing to work with it. An outspoken advocate for gender equality and LGBT rights, Pusić eloquently stood her ground when Saudi Arabia cautioned her against imposing social values on others by noting that bringing contentious issues to the forefront doesn’t pose a threat but rather serves as 'food for thought'.

While Pusić is well respected in the diplomatic community, several commentators speculate that her pro-LGBT stance and generally pro-Western record may cost her support from Russia. She speaks English and German in addition to her native Croatian, but her lack of French may raise questions for Paris, which has traditionally insisted on an SG speaking French (though Ban Ki-moon’s struggles with the language suggest that France is backing away from this requirement). Regardless, one UN watcher says Pusić has even hinted that she doesn’t believe she’ll get the job.

Looking ahead

There is a case to be made both for a UN insider or an outsider to become the next SG. Former SG Kofi Annan — the only SG in history to be selected from the UN ranks — benefited from a deep understanding of the UN’s culture and inner workings, but his loyalty to the organisation and staff probably at times led him to turn a blind eye to their faults. As an outsider, current SG Ban Ki-moon has brought some fresh perspectives. However, he came into the job with an incomplete understanding of UN protocol and almost immediately ran afoul of member states when he introduced structural reforms without the customary consultations. 

Although Bokova and Pusić are arguably both qualified for the post, albeit in different ways, neither may ultimately ascend to the UN’s top spot. We’ll learn more about whether Bokova can overcome the criticisms levied towards her or whether Pusić can distinguish herself from the field by the end of July, when the Council is expected to start its private consultation process.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user United Nations

Election Interpreter 2016

Admittedly, it is crashingly boring for policy analysts to complain that their pet issue gets too little attention from our political leaders. But last night's leaders' debate was notable for the fact that the outside world barely intruded into the discussion. Apart from a brief segue on border protection (and perhaps you could argue that the entire 'boats' issue is a proxy for Australian anxieties about globalisation), and a passing mention of the Australia-China FTA, the only direct reference to how global affairs affects Australia was in Prime Minister Turnbull's introduction:

We live in remarkable times. An era unprecedented in human history where the pace and scale of economic change is pre-eminent and unprecedented. China 40 years ago, barely part of the global economy, now the world's largest single economy and our largest trading partner. Within a few years half of the world's middle class will be living to our north in East Asia.

We have seen the pace of change in technology as great businesses and great industries are overtaken by newcomers. These are times of enormous opportunity and uncertainty. These are times of great challenge. These are times when we need a clear economic plan to secure our future. To ensure that Australians remain a high wage, generous social welfare net, first-world economy. And I have that plan.

So why do the epochal events to our north — the once-in-a-century shift of global economic and strategic power from the Atlantic to the Pacific — have so little impact on Australia's domestic political debate? (Immodesty alert: the following three links are all to pieces I have written). One reason is that political leaders and policy specialists have a hard time articulating how this shift actually impacts Australians in their day-to-day lives.

Another reason is that it is hard for politicians to tell Australians that they ought to pay more attention to Asia, because it makes them sound condescending.

A third reason is rational ignorance: voters are busy, so they apportion their attention to things over which they have a direct influence. And for the vast majority, their level of influence over national policy extends no further than their vote, which means the likelihood that they can have any substantial impact on policy is tiny. And that's just in the domestic sphere, where politicians, elected by the voters, can implement laws which are then enforced by the state. When it comes to events beyond our shores, the influence any single voter yields is diluted still further, because those same politicians are working on a stage where they have no legislative power and few means of enforcement. The only tools they have to shift events are persuasion, influence and occasionally military force.

So it's natural that voters don't focus heavily on international events, and that our politicians follow their lead.

Photo: Mick Tsikas - Pool/Getty Images

The Brexit referendum

As 23 June, the date of the UK's upcoming referendum on EU membership, nears, the attendant debate has intensified and fractured into two broad camps.

Those that want to 'Leave' argue the UK would have a stronger economy, and retain more national sovereignty outside of the EU. Those in the 'Remain' camp say trade with the EU makes the UK much stronger economically, and its voice within the Union makes it much more politically important. Although many have chosen their respective side, the Institute of Directors (IoD) remains neutral in the discussion: 63% of IoD members wish to remain in the EU, but 50% think that the UK could be economically successful outside of it.

Much of the debate has focused on the economic implications of a possible Brexit, with the Leave side arguing that, although there would probably be a short-term negative shock, outside of the EU the UK would be best placed to strike trade deals with the rest of the world, notably the US, India, Australia and Canada (although some, like the US, have mentioned that the UK would be at the 'back of the queue'). They also argue that a Brexit would also reduce EU-inspired regulation and save the UK the roughly £150 million (the Vote Leave website inaccurately says £350 million) net contribution sent to Brussels every week in the form the UK's contribution to the EU Budget as a price of membership (the lowest of any EU member as a proportion of the economy). The Remain side has focused much more on the economic costs of Brexit, highlighting the negative forecasts from the IMF, the Bank of England (BoE), the UK's Treasury and the OECD, all of which say that in the short- and long-term, the UK will be economically worse off, albeit to differing degrees.

As ever, the future is a bit tricky to predict, and the Vote Leave campaign's seeming lack of a detailed plan about the UK's future relationship with the EU is not making it any easier: various relationships have been discussed and then rescinded, notably the Norwegian model (so-called fax machine diplomacy), the Swiss model (a series of bilateral trade agreements that require free movement of people, among other things), the Albanian model (which liberalises trade in goods but not services), and WTO membership (which would see tariffs and 'rules of origin' principles re-imposed).

This does not even factor in the EU side of the negotiations where there is potential for at least one of 27 member states to not be disposed to express kindness to a departing member. That being said, given the sheer number of arrangements, it is possible that a new 'British' model may be developed, although what this may look like is anyone's guess (especially if there is a new British government in the wake of the 23 June vote).

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The IoD will not be wading into the relationship prediction game, but we note that referendum-prompted uncertainty about the future has begun to filter into the UK's economy. The BoE recently revised down growth expectations and several recent statistical releases from the Office for National Statistics have shown how uncertainty has begun to feed into the economy.

Firms have begun to hold off on increasing future employment (vacancies shrank by 2.4% in the first three months of 2016, the largest fall since 2011), and businesses have stopped investments in further capital expansions: business investment decreased 1.1% in the last quarter of 2015 when the EU referendum was certain but its date was not. The manufacturing sector helps to highlight how uncertainty is affecting business decisions because its time horizons are longer and its sunk costs higher. When uncertainty prevails, manufacturing firms are usually the first to signal a slowdown. Output in the sector shrank by 1.9% in the first three months of 2016 compared to the year prior. 

At the moment, the UK's service sector, which makes up 80% of economic output and 83% of the labour force, remains stable. Employment grew by 64,000 over the past three months and wages increased by 1.9% over the same period last year. The percentage of part-time employees that want full-time work is near a post-crisis low of 14.3%, almost a quarter lower than its high of 18.4% a little over three years ago. The economy's stability is likely due to its labour market's flexibility. Firms can shed employment during downturns relatively easily, so it makes sense to maintain employment until a downturn is certain (rehiring and retraining new workers can get a bit pricey).

If, however, uncertainty spreads or a slump takes hold, the downturn could be quick and severe. Consumers have already started holding off on purchases of high-cost goods: prices of furniture fell by 2.5% compared to the month before (although they had grown by 1% on average over the past 10 months), major household appliances saw a fall of 2% after six months of continuous growth, and the purchases of new cars grew by 0.3% compared to an average growth rate of 1.6% over the previous eight months. The same pattern was seen during the build up to the 2015 general election.

The last three years of the economic recovery have been notably labour intensive which, although causing record high levels of employment and low levels of unemployment, has also led to lower investment in capital such as computers, both of which have dampened the UK's productivity and nominal wage growth. The latter has averaged under 2% growth over the past two years. Disposable income growth has been low, too, increasing at a quarterly average rate of 1.1% over the past 8 years, contributing to a saving rate below 4%. 

This should be coupled with the fact that two of the three main sectors of recent employment growth are counter-cyclical: restaurants and pubs and the creative industries have 4% more employees this year compared to last. These sectors tend to be volatile, not particularly well paying, and have predominantly young staff. If there is a downturn, they will likely be the first sectors to shed employment. This can have tricky consequences for individuals, particularly 'generation rent', the young who are usually the first to be let go during economic downturns. They tend to live in big cities like London, where asset bubbles and other factors have increased rent levels by large amounts but where high levels of employment have led to lower levels of wage growth and higher levels of debt. They might be the first to feel the pinch of prolonged uncertainty (if not already).

The UK's economic recovery, while strong, remains fragile. Employment is high, but wage growth is low. Personal debt is high, but employment is becoming more secure. Consumption remains high, but expensive purchases are being delayed. While the UK collectively holds its breath over the next month, the referendum has, it seems, already started to exert an effect. How this feeds into the eventual outcome remains o be seen.

Photo by Leon Neal - WPA Pool/Getty Images


The Interpreter covered a lot this week — Brexit, India's space program, the 'Google' tax, international policing — but Saleem Javed's article on corruption in Afghanistan stood out for me. It is worth going back to the original article and to watch the video of the fairly remarkable scene between President Ashraf Ghani's security detail and some protestors at RUSI in London. Javed quotes some of the protesters below: 

'You are a liar. You lied to people of Afghanistan. And now you lie to the world.' Shouted Ahad Bahaduri from the audience while Ghani was speaking about his achievements. 'Listen to him but don't trust him' Bahaduri continued as he was forcefully removed from the event. 'One of Ghani's guards followed me outside to actually beat me but he was intercepted by a British security personnel in plain dress. The Afghan guard threatened me to death (in Dari). I am worried about my relatives back in Afghanistan now,' Ahad told me when interviewed by phone.

Susanne Schmeidl also wrote on Afghanistan, but on the American drone strike that killed the leader of the Taliban, Mullah Akhtar Mansur:

If we have learned anything from Afghanistan's long history of war, nothing is ever so easy defeating an entire movement by killing a single leader. The battlefield has simply been too fluid for too long, and many of the groups have fought more or less independently for some time. Unless some of the underlying problems of poor governance, poverty, land ownership and poor economic prospects are addressed in Afghanistan, insurgency will continue to fester in Afghanistan.

An incredibly popular post this week was written by Greg Lopez on Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak's growing hold on political power in the country:

On the institutional front, two of the four members of the high powered investigation team into the 1MDB are no longer there. Najib sacked the Attorney General Abdul Gani Patail while the Bank Negara (Central Bank) governor Zeti Akhtar Aziz retired. The Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission Commissioner Abu Kassim Mohammed, appointed by the prime minister has not said much. The Inspector General of Police (IGP), Khalid Abu Bakar is the only top ranking civil servant from that high powered investigation still in favour with Najib.

Peter Cai was in Taiwan from the inauguration of President Tsai and wrote on her plans to make the country economically diverse:

On the innovation front, Taiwan has been and still is an innovative economy with a large and vibrant small and medium enterprise sector. During my trip to attend President Tsai's inauguration ceremony, I also went to see two such firms: Singtex, a fabric firm that makes cloth from used coffee beans and recycled plastic bottles, and Gogoro, an electric scooter company that makes stylish and environmentally friendly scooters.

The first entry in a five-part series, Jiyoung Song starts by laying out the  anthropological basis of migration:

Not everyone has the means to leave their homes, especially when there is no guarantee of success or even survival in a new place. The majority choose to stay. But, for many brave and adventurous people, migration has long been used as a means to survive or thrive. Since the movement of homo erectus out of Africa 1.75 million years ago, humans have been migrating to new locations due to climate change or food shortages. Migration is one of the most common evolutionary behaviours in the natural world.

David Wells on the security and counter-terrorism implications of Brexit:

Brexit would not deal the UK’s counter-terrorism relationships with the EU a fatal blow. But it would disrupt them at a time where Europe’s counter-terrorism agencies are under strain, and limit the UK’s ability to shape a Europe-wide counter-terrorism strategy in the years ahead. It is hard to see how Brexit would reduce the terrorist threat to the UK.

Derry Hogue also wrote on the growing debate about Brexit across Europe and in the UK itself:

In response, the Leave campaign is revving up its anti–immigration arguments as well as threats of worse crime, jobs lost and an increased terrorism threat. The other side is also upping the ante.

Britain Prime Minister David Cameron, foremost advocate for the Remain campaign, might not have the flair of Johnson, However there was a nod to the BoJo style when Cameron said Russian President Vladimir Putin and ISIS would welcome the UK leaving the EU.

What exactly do we mean when we say 'boots on the ground'? Rodger Shanahan thinks it's misunderstood:

The term 'boots on the ground' means many things to many people, including news media. The military (and most politicians) would consider the term to mean combat manoeuvre forces, implying one is decisively committed to the fight. The presence of advisers and enabling (or supporting) forces falls short of that measure, even though there are military personnel physically present in operational areas. The media struggle to understand the difference.

Darshana Baruah on India's maritime policy in the Indo-Pacific:

India is going to do what it thinks is necessary and that includes engaging and collaborating with regional navies and building a network of friends and partners. What India does not consider necessary is meeting another state’s expectations of what constitutes regional responsibility.

There may be limits on how Australia cooperates on international policing matters and our values advocacy, wrote John Hardy:

Although it is important to advocate Australia’s morals and values in the international community, seeking to making partnership with other nations contingent on those nations adhering to our value systems in their legal jurisdictions is problematic. We may agree in Australia that the specific case of the death penalty warrants special treatment in this regard, but an opposite example, where a partner country refused to honour its partnership agreements with us unless we applied their values in Australian legal cases might be instructive.

Also, Cameron Sumpter with a good piece about potentially using former members of ISIS to break the group's narrative:

Despite the severe moral code that ostensibly guides ISIS, psychotropic drugs are allegedly available in the caliphate. One Syrian defector who admitted to feeling scared on the battlefield said he was given a pill which made him feel 'indestructible and unbeatable', but then couldn't sleep for the following four days. 'Many of the ISIS members use this drug', he said. A Lebanese manufacturer of Captagon (an illegal amphetamine-based drug popular in the Middle East) told reporters last year that 'Everything daesh does is because of this pill'.

Mike Callaghan wrote on the 'Google Tax' in Australia:

Will Australia’s Google Tax be effective? Shadow assistant treasurer Andrew Leigh has called it a joke, claiming that ‘putting aside their enforcement measures, the Coalition’s multilateral tax measures are budgeted to raise just $200 million…this falls well short of Labor’s multinational tax package’.  However, as Ross Gittins points out, the aim is not to raise tax at the DPT rate of 40% but encourage multinationals to pay tax at the standard 30% rate in the first place – the DPT will only catch the ‘slow learners’.

The US pursuit of ballistic missile defence, even in the face of Russia's concerns throughout the 2000s, has warped the debate, says Glenn Diesen:

The gradual expansion of missile defence capabilities is not a possible unintended development, but rather a planned approach of continuously upgrading the system as new technology and funding becomes available. The former US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld, explained in 2003: 'We have instead decided to develop and put in place a rudimentary system by 2004 . . . and then build on that foundation with increasingly effective capabilities as the technologies mature.' 

Emma Connors with her weekly wrap-up of the US election, this time on the GOP uniting behind Donald Trump:

In the beginning, there were 17 candidates vying for the Republican nomination. As the field thinned, speculation grew that a successful run by Donald Trump would rip the GOP asunder. And now? Republicans are falling into line behind Trump, memorably described by conservative columnist Hugh Hewitt as 'the unlikeliest, most unconventional nominee of a major party in modern times'.

An excellent, short and informative piece from Morris Jones on the space race (sorta) in Asia:

India seems to have been panicked by the tremendous strides achieved by the Chinese program. One reaction was a crash program to send a robot orbiter to Mars before China could achieve the same goal. The other has been the start of a human spaceflight program.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user DFID.


Istanbul is a city living under the shadow of the war in neighbouring Syria. A bomb blast in the heart of the historic tourist centre earlier this year killed several people including foreign visitors, causing the tourist dollar, which many rely on, to evaporate. Locals allege the Assad regime was behind the terrorist attack in retaliation for Turkey's support for anti-Assad forces.

Locals claim an influx of Syrian refugees has undercut local wages, driving resentment and exacerbating economic malaise. Young men are drafted into military service to fight the separatist Kurdish PKK or hold the line on the border with Syria, and then released, embittered and psychologically scarred by the death of friends and family.

Against this troubled backdrop, 10,000 delegates descended for the World Humanitarian Summit earlier this week. The Summit (held, paradoxically, in a subterranean convention complex buffered by rings of police, secret service with helicopters overhead) aimed high, to climb lofty peaks. Where it landed though was somewhere in the foothills.

The question at the heart of the Summit was how to revitalise and restore a failing international humanitarian system. The answers to this big question were either negative or positive in proportion to the degree of expectation the participants invested.

The sheer scale of the Syrian refugee crisis and other complex disasters globally – 60 million people displaced, and rising, coupled with an inexorable rise in climate-induced disasters – means the aid response is woefully inadequate to meet the scale of need.

The humanitarian system, created at the end of World War II and comprising five or so large donors, a cluster of UN agencies, the International Committee of the Red Cross and half a dozen international non-government organisations (INGOs), is sclerotic. Increasingly professional and rarefied, with principles that are being openly flouted by states, it is unable to meet demand and apparently unable to reform itself. What is to be done?

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The common view at the Summit was treatment is required, but there was divergence on the cure.

Antono Donini from the Feinstein Institute, a guru and sometime stirrer, argued persuasively that there were no humanitarian solutions to the crisis because the causes were political and lay with states. The humanitarian system was a buffer to the failure of states, he argued. Looking to states to fix the problem was to look in vain: 'You cannot dismantle the master's house using the master's tools,' he intoned. Better to build coalitions and garner public support to force politicians to change, he claimed.

But change what, and where to begin? At this point, as conference participants dropped down from the paralysing macro analysis to the mezzo and micro solutions, presenting a bewildering array of fascinating ideas and initiatives, as well as compelling advocacy prescriptions. This was where the real richness of the humanitarian endeavour was to be found, and was the major success of the Summit.

'Localisation' was all the rage, with the Network for Empowered Aid Response (NEAR) being launched by 20 southern INGOs. Driven by a sense of disempowerment and injustice arising from decades of lousy engagements with the 'system' of donors and northern INGOs, who purport to support but override and bypass Southern actors, the network claimed they were not getting mad but hoping to get even. 'Don't give us more capacity building in humanitarian response standards, give us 10 percent overheads to build our organisations in the same way as INGOs have grown fat over decades,' they demanded.

Backed by Gates and Rockefeller Foundations, NEAR is exploring new funding instruments that allow pooled donor funding. Their powerful call to donors to work directly with the South left INGOs forlornly claiming they were local because 'all their staff were nationals', or rather more defensively arguing that it wasn't about North and South but the outcomes.

A variety of new 'instruments' were presented. Insurance policies being trialed by the World Food Program in Africa promised to have states divert some resources into preparation instead of putting all into response, by buying premiums against disasters such as drought. Insurance risk assessment would be better able to predict the local impact of incipient disasters, and pre-payments can be made to help authorities respond early before the disaster became a crisis. The point was made that states needed to pay premiums over years as opposed to one-offs, and the prospected of multilateral donors augmenting and building state contributions generated interest with Government delegates.

Of the Sustainable Development Goals however, there was nary a sighting. Reflecting the decades-old separation of humanitarianism from development, and a wariness about being expansive in embracing new agendas, my colleague captured the humanitarians' mood, opining 'there's a reason you build silos: it keeps the (humanitarian) grain in'.

Away from the engaging side seminars, the formal sessions ground on in traditional UN format: behind time, full of short, monotone statements by state leaders and other actors. The wordsmithing skills of the hardworking team of DFAT officials was on display as Australia's Minister for Development, Concetta Fierravanti Wells, set a record for how many initiatives one could commit to in the minutes allotted to her in the plenary session. Caught in caretaker mode by the Australian election, no cash promises were made.

The official solution to what ails the humanitarian system, offered by UN humanitarian head and former UK politician Stephen O'Brien, were 'commitments' where states and humanitarian actors such as INGOs would all publicly pledge to improve and reform. Hundreds of commitments were made and covered important areas such as disability, for example. But the fact remains, no adequate mechanism to monitor the promises made, let alone hold anybody to account, was agreed at the Summit.

The Holy Grail of all the commitments made was to be the 'Grand Bargain' whereby states would increase funding in return for greater efficiency and effectiveness by humanitarian responders in the UN and INGOs.

The Bargain was already looking challenged, however, by the much reported absence of heads of G7 states beyond Germany's Angela Merkel. The Grand Bargain's high-powered session, featuring UNDP Administrator Helen Clark, UK Development Minister Justine Greening and 10 others, was startling for its lack of Asian participants and only one eloquent African from the International Committee for the Red Cross. Underscoring the Euro-centric/Anglosphere love-in audience, question time was led by state members from Denmark, Luxembourg, Sweden and others getting up to approve of the speakers' statements. If the Grand Bargain couldn't muster China, India or Indonesia to its plenary sales pitch, then it looks rather like the post-World-War-II humanitarian order will roll on, arthritis and all.

Except that it won't. Increasingly, it is being observed that new players like China, who delivered a huge but under-reported response to the earthquake in Nepal, will be responding on their own terms. What does this mean for the sanctity of 'humanitarian principles'? Well for Antonio Donini it marked the emergency of a 'pluri-versalist' humanitarian system: different folks, different strokes. Don't expect that new players are going to sign up to the old player's rules. A period of co-existence was predicted.

So at the end of the two days of the World Humanitarian Summit, I certainly feel more 'committed' to the humanitarian endeavour, alert to new ideas and improvements, and have immense respect for the ability of humanitarian responders. And the promise of a 'Grand Bargain' fixing the humanitarian system? Well, it is a bit like all advertising: caveat emptor.

Photo by Flickr user Pablo Cuneo.


The G7 countries of the US, UK, Germany, France, Italy, Japan and Canada have met for the 42nd time in Japan to discuss the biggest risks to global security and the world economy. Here is their 32-page official statement.

The G7 is an interesting grouping, often seen as outdated with its heavy European influence. How much do Italy's policies affect the world these days? The group has waxed and waned — occasionally the G8 when patching things up with Russia — and has become dwarfed by the G20 since it became a leader-level forum in 2008. The pessimistic view was that the latest G7 meeting would be 'unlikely to result in any significant agreement for coordinated action on the range of issues on the agenda'.

The G20 prides itself on being the 'premier forum for international economic cooperation' and making up 86% of the global economy as measured by GDP. The G7's strength has always been its grouping of 'like-minded' countries, a much more subjective criterion to measure. President Obama used his press conference speech to talk about the international order and G7 as a group of 'like-minded countries who are committed to democracy and free markets, and international law and international norms'. Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, also brought up values – 'If we are to defend our common values, it is not enough these days to only believe in them. We also have to be ready to protect them.' 

Sheila Smith from the Council on Foreign Relations wrote a good overview of Japan's approach to the G7 and how Prime Minister Shinzo Abe 'would like to see the G7 reassert its role of global leadership'. It is not surprising therefore that China and Russia have been quick to heap scorn on the G7.

The tension between the G20 and G7 is even more acute this year given that Japan is hosting the G7 and China is hosting the G20. The Kremlin announced that Russia is more interested in cooperation with the G20 and China's Xinhua was keen to point out the domestic problems within G7 countries and blame Japan for bringing up the South China Sea.

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The G7 summit covered a lot of issues in two days: the global economy, trade agreements (Trans-Pacific Partnership and Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership), maritime security, counter-terrorism, refugees, extremism, the regime in North Korea, Russia's actions in Ukraine and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals.

On the global economy, nothing is likely to change. Tom Bernes from the Centre for International Governance Innovation notes that 'the G7 is not the forum where significant progress on bolstering economic growth should be expected. It is not the right membership as over half of global growth comes from the emerging markets which are not represented'. The G7 also has the same problem of the G20 in being unable to bridge differences over how to stimulate growth. When G7 Finance Ministers met, Japan wanted coordinated fiscal stimulus, but Germany stuck by structural reforms.

Even in the world of international summits, all politics is local. President Obama brought up Donald Trump and his 'ignorance of world affairs'. Just as in the G20 Finance Ministers' meetings in Shanghai earlier this year, Brexit came up. The G7 communiqué warns of the economic consequences of a Brexit. But it was Chancellor Angela Merkel who won the day with a demonstration of her hallmark Merkel-Raute

The G7 leaders were talking about all the right things. But the stability of the liberal world order is dependent on more than seven countries. Effective multilateralism needs everybody who matters at the table.

Photo courtesy of Twitter user @g7.


President Barack Obama’s visit to Vietnam (the first by a US president in nearly 10 years) came at a time of unusual political turmoil.

In mid-May I wrote on how the large 'fish kill drama' was the first test for the new government in Vietnam, and that until both the immediate problems were properly addressed and the deeper underlying public worries of food security and management of foreign investment taken into account, people would continue to 'choose fish’ over economic development. 

However, in the short term it turns out dead fish are not nearly as interesting as barbecued pork and rice noodles, provided the leader of the free world is eating them with a TV chef known for his love of Hanoi’s food. President Obama sitting down for a dinner of bun cha with Anthony Bourdain was well-covered by local and international news outlets, and there was a crowd of cheering fans outside the restaurant.

Much came of President Obama’s visit, most notably the full lifting of the arms embargo after a partial lifting on non-lethals in 2014. This has been described by the parties involved as just another step on the long road to a full normalisation of ties, rather than another large brick in an alliance-like encirclement of China. This is something even Beijing publicly agrees with, calling the embargo a leftover from the Cold War (Beijing also called Australia’s Defence White Paper Cold War-esque) and welcoming closer ties between the two nations. 

The Vietnam-US Comprehensive Partnership saw an update, with agreement for cooperation across a number of areas. President Obama also met with activists to discuss their concerns, though some (such as the 69-year-old activist Nguyen Quang A) were prevented from attending the meeting.

The deft soft power moments of the president eating dinner at a regular restaurant in Hanoi (even though that dish is typical lunchtime fare and hard to find after 12:30pm) and later listening to a performance from female rapper Su Boi captured the people’s attention and sent Vietnam’s social media into overdrive (for those with VPNs, at least, given that many have reported Facebook blocked again). 

The high esteem in which President Obama is held is made clear in Calvin Godfrey’s excellent  Asia Sentinel piece on waiting for the president in the rain outside Saigon’s DreamPlex where he addressed a large group of young entrepreneurs (full transcript here). President Obama responded to this adulation in kind, speaking often during his addresses of the bright future of Vietnam and the opportunities for partnership (particularly through the Trans-Pacific Partnership).

While he did meet with activists and noted that Washington was still concerned over Vietnam’s human rights record (noting that freedom of speech and assembly are, after all, actually enshrined in Vietnam’s own constitution), the message of the visit was of bright hopes for the future, more tight-knit cooperation and a generation of young entrepreneurs ready to do great things. 

However, the lead up to his visit has been a strange time in contemporary Vietnamese politics. As I noted in relation to the 'fish kill saga,' it is highly unusual for a government to announce a terrorist threat in the newspapers it oversees just days before the first US presidential visit in a decade. The potential for things to go wrong was large – possibly explaining why there were arrests before the president’s arrival. Facebook has been blocked at times, according to various anecdotal sources. The thousands-strong protests of early May, which saw arrests and violence, were blamed on Viet Tan, an overseas pro-democracy group that Hanoi still classes as a terrorist organisation (Viet Tan has condemned the lifting of the embargo). 

Elections for the National Assembly, the main legislative body in Vietnam, were held on Sunday. Citizens may vote for National Assembly candidates but as almost all are usually Communist Party members it is not typically a vibrant show of democracy. This year has been different, however, with musicians, comedians and other outsiders vying for National Assembly seats (Nguyen Quang A was another candidate). 

However there has been little mention of this by President Obama, despite many activists hoping he would bring up the government response to 100 tonnes of dead fish left on beaches after an apparent pollution accident from a Taiwanese steel mill. But the political and environmental crisis that swept up so many non-activists has seemingly been forgotten in favour of Obama-mania. If human rights and greater government transparency are important enough to mention in speeches, then wouldn’t a mention of their latest breaching be helpful? 

Vietnam does not like to be lectured by foreign powers. President Obama had to bring up human rights and freedom of speech, but alluding to the recent protests may have galvanised the citizenry, embarrassed the government and blocked that ‘road to normalisation’. As Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang said, Obama’s trip has ‘deepened mutual understanding’ and that ... ‘relations on the basis of friendship, equality, cooperation and respect for each other’s political regimes and legitimate interests is the only path leading to a brighter and more prosperous future’.

There is something else to consider – what of Cam Ranh Bay, the tremendous deepwater port in the centre of the country? The US would like military access to it, but the only nation currently allowed much more than a visit has been Russia. No announcement has been made and access is a far bigger bargaining chip than a few dissidents released and sent off to the US as proof of good government behaviour.  

Keeping relations friendly and uniting against a more aggressive China are mutual goals for the US and Vietnam. As for the Vietnamese people? They’ve taken a break from choosing fish, but even a president can’t be a distraction forever. 

Photo: Getty Images/Linh Pham

  • The Russian Government's use of the internet to spread disinformation, particularly in Germany, is prompting calls for a direct and visible response.
  • Why was a Q&A with the US Embassy in Beijing on 'discovering America' scrubbed from Chinese social media?
  • Earlier this month ISIS launched a social media campaign involving supporters from European cities, in response citizen-journalists tracked those supporters down
  • New research (pdf) has found China's 50-cent party is mostly public servants who are fabricating almost 490 million social media posts a year, primarily designed to distract the public and deter protests.
  • Drenched in hashtags, periscopes and vines, the Israeli Foreign Ministry is aiming for 'less propaganda, more deep and truthful discourse'.
  • DFAT is beginning to use social media to publicly advocate for LGBTI rights overseas (h/t Lucy).
  • China is doing cross-Straits damage control after a Xinhua op-ed attacked Taiwan's new president for being unmarried. After demanding it be deleted, local media were instructed: 'In the immediate future, all reports touching on the Cross-Straits issue must go through responsible media personnel before they are published'.
  • A new Future FCO report by former Ambassador Tom Fletcher contains 36 ideas for modernising British diplomacy, including accelerating digital diplomacy and ramping up open-source data use.
  • This NY Times Magazine piece on how Ben Rhodes, White House deputy national security advisor for strategic communications, rewrote the rules of diplomacy for the digital age sparked a storm of controversy (Rhodes, the NYT and the journalist respond).
  • An Australian Army officer blogs on counter intelligence threats in the age of social media, including a warning for the 4675 defence employees on LinkedIn.
  • The US Government created a stir by using Weibo to announce and share photos of the same-sex marriage of its Consul-General in Shanghai to his partner.
  • The UK's cyber intelligence agency @GCHQ has joined Twitter. It's not the first intelligence agency to join social media (CanadaSouth Africa & many in the US tweet) and it won't be the last. 


Rising anger against a decision to change the route of a vital electricity supply line in Afghanistan is becoming more and more visible — both inside and outside the country.

Before the global Anti Corruption Summit in London earlier this month, British Prime Minister David Cameron was famously caught on camera telling the Queen that leaders of two 'fantastically corrupt' countries were attending the summit, namely Afghanistan and Nigeria.

Afghan president Ashraf Ghani came anyway, saying he had no hard feelings about Cameron's corruption remark because 'the first part of addressing a problem begins with acknowledgment'.

When hundreds of Afghan-British protesters demonstrated in front of the Summit venue, they gave Western audiences an insight into what Afghans think is a highly visible manifestation of that problem; Ghani's decision to change the route of TUTAP (Turkmenistan-Uzbekistan-Tajikistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan) electricity project, a multi-million dollar project funded by the Asian Development Bank. It had been slated to go through central provinces of Bamyan and Wardak, which are dominated by ethnic Hazaras, but the planned route has been switched to the northern provinces, passing from Pul-e-Khumri through Salang to Kabul.

The protesters accuse Ghani, an ethnic Pashtun, of discriminating against non-Pashtuns, particularly Hazaras. They point out German consultancy firm Fichtner's recommendation for the Bamyan route because, among other reasons, it would 'further generation by coal fired power plants along the route' and 'secure power supply of Kabul and south Afghanistan'.

The Bamyan-Wardak route is also judged to be less exposed to natural disasters. The central provinces believe the government's decision to change the route is due largely discrimination, especially as there is already a transmission line passing through Salang. This has deepened the sense of deprivation among the residents of central Afghanistan, who believe Kabul has intentionally kept development projects away from their provinces.

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Demonstrations have been held in various provinces to protest the route change, including the 'Million March' in Kabul last week, in which tens of thousands of people took part. But the protests have not been limited to Afghanistan, as seen by the demonstration by British-Afghans, mostly with roots in central Afghanistan.

The demonstrations followed Ahsraf Ghani around London. At one event organised by Royal United Services Institute, at least four protesters where expelled by Ghani's bodyguards after they confronted Ghani about the TUTAP project (see video).

'You are a liar. You lied to people of Afghanistan. And now you lie to the world.' Shouted Ahad Bahaduri from the audience while Ghani was speaking about his achievements. 'Listen to him but don't trust him' Bahaduri continued as he was forcefully removed from the event. 'One of Ghani's guards followed me outside to actually beat me but he was intercepted by a British security personnel in plain dress. The Afghan guard threatened me to death (in Dari). I am worried about my relatives back in Afghanistan now.' Ahad told me when interviewed by phone.

'Sit down like a dog, you idiot,' yelled President Ghani's chief security officer General Akhtar Mohammad Ibrahimi at protester Jafar Atai as he questioned the decision to reroute the TUTAP transmission line. 'He hates Hazaras', shouts the activist while pointing towards the President.

'At this point Ghani's personal guards rushed towards me. I asked them to let me talk. But they grabbed my tie, covered my mouth, pressed my neck, pulled me down and beat me up.' Jafar told me from London.

'We just wanted to raise our concerns about the change in TUTAP route. We had no intention of disruption or insulting the president. It was Ghani's guards who caused the heckling through abuse and violence.' Jafar explained. He had bruises on his face and has filed a complaint against the attackers to Metropolitan Police in London.

Siamak Harawi of Afghan Embassy in London told BBC Persian the activists were there to disrupt the President's speech and it was the actions that followed which led to physical clashes.

However, it appears there was never a physical threat to the president so there was no reason for his bodyguards to physically attack the demonstrators. One can't help thinking that if an ethnic Brit had been assaulted in the same way as Jafar Atai, it would have become a diplomatic incident.

After the massive demonstrations in Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani suspended implementation of the cabinet decision about the rerouting of the transmission line and ordered formation of a commission to come up with new suggestions. The commission handed over its findings to the president who issued a new decree saying that a 220kW transmission line will be extended to Bamyan, which is claimed to be enough for the entire central province.

The demonstrations, however, will continue, says parliamentarian Ahmad Behzad, unless the Government implements the original master plan. 'It is hilarious that the government had earlier claimed the Salang route was a few millions cheaper. But now it says it will invest manifolds for a separate transmission line for Bamyan. It is nothing but a conspiracy,' Behzad claims.

A huge demonstration is already planned for today, 27 May, in Kabul.


David Shambaugh's slim volume, China's Future, stands in stark contrast to the conventional wisdom on China. Indeed, it is hard to discuss 'China's future' without immediately speaking of 'China's rise.' The majority of contemporary literature on China focuses on its military modernisation and 'string of pearls' expansion into the South China Sea. The Interpreter devoted an entire debate series to unpredictability in China's maritime strategy in 2014.

Shambaugh touches on these concerns, but offers a sobering counter-narrative: China is in serious trouble. This conclusion is buttressed by extensive facts and figures — likely too much for the non-expert audience — which paint a picture of a country on a downward trajectory. If this is the case, then, why are experts so committed to seeing China as a rising power and future threat? It seems there's just something about China that fosters anxiety.

To demonstrate China's current path, Shambaugh uses the analogy of a car approaching a roundabout (China being the car, in case that isn't obvious). The car can opt for one of four exits: Neo-Totalitarianism, Hard Authoritarianism (stay the course), Soft Authoritarianism, or Semi-Democracy.

Shambaugh comes down strongly in favour of the last exit and his shameless embrace of liberalism and Democratic Peace Theory, which he explicitly acknowledges, is refreshingly honest. This results in the book's overall argument that, 'Without a return to a path of political reform, with a substantial liberalization and loosening of many aspects of the relationship between the party-state and society, there will continue to be very marginal economic reform and progress.' In short, on its current path, the China car will run out petrol.

As evidence of its demise, Shambaugh provides extensive evidence from a wide range of sources, including many colourful personal anecdotes. Here is a sample:

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  • China experiences 200,000 dispersed 'incidents of mass unrest' every year.
  • Over the next fifteen years, China's population aged 60 and above will grow from 200 million to over 300 million. This has implications not only on the labour force, but also for healthcare and pensions.
  • 70% of China's lakes and rivers are contaminated.
  • Plagiarism and lack of originality are rife in the Chinese education system. An analysis of President Xi Jingping's thesis, for example, reveals numerous instances of plagiarism.
  • 'The shadow banking industry in China has grown to the point where the volume of its total assets amounted to the RMB equivalent of $5.2 trillion or 51 percent of GDP.'
  • Between 2012 and 2014, China's national property market declined by 25 percent. This is particularly worrying as the property market accounts for 15-20 percent of national GDP.

Perhaps one of the greatest pressures on the leadership in Beijing will be the rising middle class, or what Shambaugh refers to as 'the revolution of rising expectations.' He cites a McKinsey study that found 'the upper middle class will swell to 54 percent of the urban population by 2022.' In yet another metaphor, Shambaugh compares Chinese society to a 'very dry forest or grassland in summer where multiple fires can break out at any time and then spread quickly.'

The government is quick to intervene to prevent economic collapse or public dissent, but, according to Shambaugh, this 'only exacerbates and deepens existing dependence on the state while further postponing much-needed reforms.' He, therefore, recommends political change towards Semi-Democracy and, in foreign affairs, 'competitive coexistence' with neighbours and the US. But there are at least three pieces missing from this map guiding China off the roundabout.

First, Shambaugh never identifies who is driving the car. More specifically, there is scant discussion about the individuals involved in Chinese decision-making, aside from a vignette on the modest reformer, Zeng Qinghong, and a short summary on Xi Jingping as a strong, confident leader who is unlikely to modernise unless forced to do so.

Second, the democratic exit on the roundabout could be a hazardous road. Democratic reform comes with risks, and the leadership's concerns with such reforms may not be unfounded in as diverse and complicated a society as China's. Shambaugh's recommendations do not offer enough detail for how to implement these reforms while minimising risks to the current leadership and system.

Lastly, rather than exiting, China may end up going around in circles on the roundabout for the foreseeable future. Given Xi's prioritisation of stability and his reluctance to change, it may be public protests, internal bureaucratic disputes, or economic pressures that eventually push China off the roundabout.

So what is it about China? Perhaps Shambaugh's most interesting contribution is on the importance of perception. He offers statistics demonstrating a consensus among experts that China will replace the US as world's leading power and from public polling that the US sees China as a competitor. China-watchers are likely to continue to see it as a threat, as it may well be. But China's Future comes with a reminder, one that should have been learned from the Soviet Union: no adversary is as perfect or secure as it appears from the outside.


In the days leading up to last Friday's presidential inauguration ceremony in Taiwan, turtle eggs and pineapples hogged the front pages of the island nation's newspapers and airwaves. Chinese customs officials have become suddenly concerned about residual pesticides on pineapples exported by Taiwan . Buyers of Taiwanese turtle eggs are also dialling down their orders.

Given this fresh examples of the collateral damage caused by jittery cross-straits relations, its not surprising Taiwanese exporters, media commentators and politicians are increasingly worried that Beijing will use its considerable economic leverage to hurt the pro-independence, new Taiwanese government.

The country's new president is also clearly focused on matters economic. While much of the analysis on President Tsai Ying-wen's inauguration speech focused on how the new government will treat the '1992 Consensus', which stipulates both sides stick to the legal fiction of one China, the economic agenda was the subject of the first part of that speech. It is clearly the chief focus of the new administration.

This is in keeping with the views of the country's voters. According to a survey conducted by Taiwan Brain Trust, a pro-independence think tank with a close relationship to the new government, 62.9% of Taiwanese rank the economy as the top priority. Just 5.9% think managing the cross-Straits relationship should be the new government's main focus. Voters, particularly young Taiwanese, are concerned, like their counterparts elsewhere, about jobs and house prices. It seems the Clintonian maxim of 'it's the economy, stupid' also applies in Taiwan.

Dr Tsai's economic policy is centred on three themes: participating in regional economic free trade agreements; fostering more innovation; and encouraging more sustainable development. Like everything else in Taiwan, the one inescapable factor that will affect the success of all these laudable aims is China.

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Taiwan is arguably the world's most China-dependent economy. More than 40% of its exports go to the mainland. The island country is also one of the largest foreign investors in China while millions of Taiwanese work, study and invest in mainland China. The economic fabric of Taiwan and mainland China are closely interwoven.

The new government does not like this and worries about the over-reliance on China. Dr Tsai wants to strengthen 'the vitality and autonomy' of Taiwan's economy and 'bid farewell to our past over-reliance on a single market.'

Rong-I Wu, chairman of Taiwan Brain Trust and a former vice–premier in the Chen Shuibian government (in power from 2000–2008), says one of the key reasons behind Taiwan's recent economic struggles is the slowdown in China.

'Over-reliance on a single market is very dangerous. We want to strengthen our relations with other developed economies and we want to diversify our risk,' he said, 'Beijing's industrial policy is also aimed at substituting Taiwanese imports with domestically produced goods.'

So, how does the new government aim to reduce its exposure to China? The first priority is to join regional trade agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). Taipei will also promote a 'New Southbound Policy' that encourages Taiwanese businesses to expand their presence in Southeast Asia and India.

It is not clear whether Taiwan can easily join the TPP or RCEP. Chen-Sheng Ho, director of international affairs at Taiwan Institute Economic Research, says the 'China factor' looms large in Taiwan's ability to participate in global or regional economic trade regimes. Given the uncertain state of the cross-Straits relationship, we don't know if China will seek to frustrate Dr Tsai's ambition.

One should not, however, underestimate China's willingness to play hardball when it comes to Taiwan related issues. Past experience suggest Taiwan will face significant challenges in joining these regional trade agreements without China's implicit acquiescence. Dr Tsai also faces some resistance at home from the agricultural lobby, already unhappy with the new government's intention to relax import restrictions on American hogs.

Taiwan's pivot to Southeast Asia is also likely to result in competition with China's ambitious One Belt and One Road strategy. Senior Chinese officials are busy touring the region offering large cash sums to win over Southeast Asian countries, and China is already ASEAN's largest trading partner.

On the innovation front, Taiwan has been and still is an innovative economy with a large and vibrant small and medium enterprise sector. During my trip to attend President Tsai's inauguration ceremony, I also went to see two such firms: Singtex, a fabric firm that makes cloth from used coffee beans and recycled plastic bottles, and Gogoro, an electric scooter company that makes stylish and environmentally friendly scooters.

However, even when a good base exists, boosting innovation is much easier said than done. Rong-I Wu, a senior advisor close to the new government admits as much. He says the new government will allocate more money to research and development, education and training, and he believes it will make a difference.

The new government's decision to reduce its dependency on mainland China is sound. Past experience indicates Beijing has no qualms about using economic leverage to exert its influence. However, it is not clear whether it will be possible to reduce Taiwan's dependency on mainland China anytime soon. Despite China's sluggish growth, it is still the most important and fastest growing market for many companies, including those from the US and Japan.

It looks like the road to economic autonomy will be a bumpy one for Dr Tsai's new government.

Photo: Ashley Pon/Getty Images


Looking for a universal, all-purpose hypothesis for the weirdness that is Trump, Sanders, Brexit, Austria's near-miss with a far-right presidency, and the worldwide decline in democracy? How about neoliberal globalisation?

The neofascist reaction, the force behind Trump, has come about because of the extreme disembeddedness of the economy from social relations. The neoliberal economy has become pure abstraction; as has the market, as has the state, there is no reality to any of these things the way we have classically understood them. Americans, like people everywhere rising up against neoliberal globalization (in Britain, for example, this takes the form of Brexit, or exit from the European Union), want a return of social relations, or embeddedness, to the economy.

Personally, I prefer this explanation from economist Tyler Cowen, though as others have noted, it is a highly speculative piece:

The contemporary world is not very well built for a large chunk of males.  The nature of current service jobs, coddled class time and homework-intensive schooling, a feminized culture allergic to most forms of violence, post-feminist gender relations, and egalitarian semi-cosmopolitanism just don’t sit well with many…what shall I call them?  Brutes?

Quite simply, there are many people who don’t like it when the world becomes nicer.  They do less well with nice.  And they respond by in turn behaving less nicely, if only in their voting behavior and perhaps their internet harassment as well.

Female median wages have been rising pretty consistently, but the male median wage, at least as measured, was higher back in 1969 than it is today (admittedly the deflator probably is off, but even that such a measure is possible speaks volumes).  A lot of men did better psychologically and maybe also economically in a world where America had a greater number of tough manufacturing jobs.  They thrived under brutish conditions, including a military draft to crack some of their heads into line.

Reminds me of the small torrent of articles produced in the US in 2009 on the so-called 'man-cession' or 'he-cession' because job losses in that downturn were felt so disproportionately among men. There were wider implications, argued Reihan Salam at the time:

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The great shift of power from males to females is likely to be dramatically accelerated by the economic crisis, as more people realize that the aggressive, risk-seeking behavior that has enabled men to entrench their power—the cult of macho—has now proven destructive and unsustainable in a globalized world.

Indeed, it’s now fair to say that the most enduring legacy of the Great Recession will not be the death of Wall Street. It will not be the death of finance. And it will not be the death of capitalism. These ideas and institutions will live on. What will not survive is macho. And the choice men will have to make, whether to accept or fight this new fact of history, will have seismic effects for all of humanity—women as well as men.

Photo by Flickr user Jason St Peter.


Last weekend Tanya Plibersek, Labor Deputy Leader and Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs and International Development, committed Labor to restoring the Coalition's latest round of cuts to Australia’s aid program and providing 'around $800 million more for overseas aid than the Liberals' over the next four years. The commitment has been near universally welcomed by the Australian development community that has had nothing but bad news about the budget for the past four years. In that context it is indeed worthy of praise. But, looking back at when the Rudd government came into power in 2007, it’s clear that Labor’s commitment to aid is not what it used to be.

So what does Labor’s commitment mean for the Australian aid budget?

An immediate restoration of $224 million in the 2016–17 budget would bring the total budget back to just over $4 billion, 5% more than the Coalition’s current plan. The extra $200 million per year in the three years thereafter, which roughly pegs the aid budget to forecast inflation, would leave the aid program at roughly $4.3 billion in 2019–20, about $200 million or 5% higher than the Coalition’s planned 2019–20 budget.

Labor's planned increase is substantial but it would only slightly nudge up our aid generosity. It would bump up aid as a proportion of Gross National Income from 0.21% under the Coalition’s budget to only 0.22%, a level that would still be the worst point of generosity in Australia's history and far below the OECD average of 0.3%. There is also the UN mandated goal of 0.7%, achieved a few years ago by the United Kingdom while it was the depths of austerity.

Plibersek’s statement also set out how a Labor government would spend almost all of the planned increase. The UNHCR would be allocated an additional $450 million over three years, a sensible commitment considering the strain the sector is under. Core funding to NGOs would be lifted by $40 million a year, a 30% increase on the current budget of $130 million that goes directly to Australian NGOs. To be clear, NGOs have proven to be effective implementing partners time and again, but there was no justification given as to why the sector, which had a heavy presence at the Labor announcement and is also the most vocal in the development community, was singled out for such a large increase in funding. Together these two commitments make up $600 million of the planned $800 million increase, leaving whatever is left to restore the cuts made in 2016–17. That doesn’t leave much room for any more bold funding commitments.

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Of course, Plibersek is right to argue that 'it is impossible to fix the aid program quickly' but we should also ask ask how much more Labor can and should reasonably commit to. The simplest way to answer that question is to look at what the last Labor government did.

Table 1: Labor then and now*

Note: I take a five-year horizon under Rudd and a four-year horizon under Shorten as the government has committed to restoring the $224 million in the 2016–17 cycle whereas, while Labor won the election in November 2007, its first budget wasn’t until 2008/09. Dataset here

Table 1 shows that, over a similar timespan the Rudd government delivered an increase to the aid budget double that to which Labor has promised under a Shorten government. While the previous scale-up wasn’t without its teething pains, and I doubt AusAID could have handled a scale-up at any faster rate, the comparison illustrates Labor position on foreign aid has softened significantly since it last waged an election campaign as an opposition. I would argue that this is driven by a few factors.

The first is that we simply don’t have a champion of the aid program with the weight and influence of Kevin Rudd in 2007. Rudd’s personal commitment to foreign aid is well known, and likely far outweighed the majority of his own party. The clearest reflection of this can be seen in the successive delays to the scale-up trajectory committed to by Rudd after he was removed from Cabinet in 2012.

The second is that there was a much clearer bipartisan commitment to foreign aid in the 2007 election. A sequence of high profile regional interventions and disasters (Timor-Leste, the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands, and the Boxing Day tsunami being the most prominent) showed the Coalition how critical our aid program can be and resulted in our aid budget nearly doubling (in nominal terms) under the Howard government between 2000/01 and 2007/08. (ODA/GNI increased from 0.24% to 0.28% over the same period.) This led to a bipartisan commitment to increase the aid budget to 0.5% in the 2007 elections. Neither party has such a commitment this time around.

Finally, this election campaign contrasts starkly to that of Howard and Rudd nearly a decade ago. The hyperactive media cycle, devotion to polling, and instability on both sides of the aisle have left political leaders increasingly reluctant to try to lead and change public opinion in areas beyond the bread and butter issues of domestic politics. In this context, both sides of politics appear to have decided there are no votes in aid, and the domestic agenda will dominate this campaign more than most. In a period where the key determinants of Australia’s future are international, and the humanitarian needs that can only be served by a robust aid program are becoming even more acute, this is very unfortunate state of affairs. Labor has at least devoted time and thought to developing an aid policy but it is clear this opposition is not as internationalist in its approach and perhaps even philosophy than the Labor party that fought (and of course won) the 2007 election.

Tanya Plibersek will address the Lowy Institute on Tuesday 31 May. Details here. Greens leader Senator Richard Di Natale’s speech on foreign policy, delivered at the Lowy Institute on 17 May, can be found here.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user DFAT 

*Correction: This piece was edited on May 27. The author was mistaken in assuming Labor’s commitment to the aid budget in 2019/20 would be $800m higher than the Coalition’s. This is in fact a cumulative commitment over four years and the piece has been edited to reflect that.  We apologise for the error.


Najib Razak's term as prime minister of Malaysia is now in its seventh year and there is every reason to believe he will continue to lead Malaysia for a long while yet.

Najib Razak withVladimir Putin at the Russia-ASEAN Summit on May 19 (Photo: Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images)

Given his scandal-ridden tenure, this is a remarkable outlook, one enabled by the sidelining of opponents, an illiberal electoral system, a divided opposition, and civil leadership that took a wrong turn.

As unlikely as it seemed when the The Wall Street Journal reported investigations of corruption and malfeasance on a massive scale related to investment fund 1MDB, Najib, through the power of incumbency, has gone from strength to strength while his detractors have lost momentum.

Even if Najib wanted to resign he could not. Unlike former prime ministers, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi and Mahathir Mohamed, who were forced to quit by their party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the corruption allegations and supporting evidence against Najib are too serious, substantive and too public (everyone knows about them). A face-saving exit strategy could not be designed without compromising its designers.

All powerful individuals who were brave enough to oppose the prime minister have been cut down to size. As demonstrated through the sackings of then deputy prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin, and then minister for rural and regional development Shafie Apda, Najib has systematically separated his detractors from the power, patronage and machinery that would have been required to topple him.

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Mahathir Mohamed, Najib’s most vocal opponent, has also been diminished. This has been accomplished in two ways. Firstly, Mahathir's power and influence has been cut down. His son, Mukhriz Mohamed, was forced to resign as the chief minister of Kedah, Mahathir’s home state. Mahathir was compelled to resign as chair of Proton (Malaysia's national auto company) after earlier being fired as the chair of Petronas (the national oil company).

Most damaging however, was Najib’s suggestion that Mahathir had betrayed UMNO by working with the Chinese-dominated opposition. This resonated with UMNO supporters. Mahathir’s humiliation was complete when he lost the police escort accorded to former prime ministers.

On the institutional front, two of the four members of the high powered investigation team into the 1MDB are no longer there. Najib sacked the Attorney General Abdul Gani Patail while the Bank Negara (Central Bank) governor Zeti Akhtar Aziz retired. The Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission Commissioner Abu Kassim Mohammed, appointed by the prime minister has not said much. The Inspector General of Police (IGP), Khalid Abu Bakar is the only top ranking civil servant from that high powered investigation still in favour with Najib.

Similarly, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) that had been vigorously investigating the 1MDB issue was severely compromised through the promotion of four of its members to ministerial positions, and the appointment of a new chairperson.

Then there is the electoral system. Bridget Welsh, in her extensive analysis of the recent Sarawak elections, demonstrated the extent to which Najib can rely on the illiberal electoral system to keep him in power. (Read Welsh’s extensive analysis here, here, here, here and here).

Some have suggested the Sarawak electoral results would not be replicated on the peninsula. But domestic politics have once again aligned in Najib's favour as the opposition, civil society and the majority of the Rakyat, united in the general elections of 2008 and 2013, are now again fragmented.

The People’s Justice Party (PKR), which bridges the secular and the conservatives on the peninsula faces leadership transition uncertainty, both within the party itself and the opposition coalition. The party is split between those who support PKR deputy president Azmin Ali for leadership and those who don’t. Other possible candidates for the leadership include PKR vice president (and Anwar Ibrahim’s daughter) Nurrul Izzah, and PKR’s secretary general Rafizi Ramli.

Outside of the opposition coalition, Azmin Ali appears to have a good working relationship with the Islamic conservatives in the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) but this has alienated both the Parti Amanah Negara (PAN), PKR’s newly formed coalition partner (in the new coalition Pakatan Harapan), made up of moderates who were purged by the PAS, and some members of the Democratic Action Party (DAP).
The upshot of all of this is there is no longer a united opposition to UMNO and Najib. In fact, PAS (the largest opposition party by membership) is now actively being courted by UMNO, and its newly chosen conservative leader, Abdul Hadi Awang, has defended Najib on several occasions.
Civil society, in particular Bersih, had been in recent years the champion of principled politics through its efforts to reform Malaysia's flawed electoral system. However, the recent actions of its leading lights, Maria Chin Abdullah and Ambiga Sreenevasan, who have supported Mahathir Mohamed (albeit in their personal capacities) in his efforts to topple Najib, have sown confusion and discord.

Mahathir Mohamed has made it clear his 'Save Malaysia' campaign is primarily focused on toppling Najib and saving UMNO, and much less so on improving governance. One time supporters of the campaign, such as jailed former opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, have come to see it primarily as a Mahathir vehicle rather than a genuine reform movement, as made clear in this scathing letter to PKR leaders. 

With these formidable challenges crippling the opposition and his detractors, it is difficult to see how Najib can be dislodged.


For such a nondescript city in Iraq, Fallujah has name recognition beyond its importance. In Western military circles at least the name is synonymous with the 2004 battle that turned into the bloodiest urban assault undertaken by the US military since Vietnam.

Iraqi soldiers at Garma, part of the Fallujah operation (Photo: Ali Muhammed/Getty Images)

This time around, though the circumstances are different, it is once again a fight against Sunni insurgents who have had the benefit of long periods to establish defensive positions above and below ground. Regardless of the number of fighters inside the city, the urban environment offers the defenders many advantages, and diminishes the effectiveness of some of the attackers' advantages, particularly air power.

Much is riding on the outcome for the Iraqi government. The under-siege prime minister Haider al-Abadi, who announced the beginning of the assault on national television, seeks to shore up his position with a decisive victory. Of course the inevitable civilian casualties will be prime material for his enemies to use against him even if the assault goes to plan, and none other than Grand Ayatollah has called for restraint to be used during the battle. Videos of Iraqi forces assisting some civilians to flee have already begun to emerge and more of these should be expected as part of the political PR campaign.

Part of the difficulty for the Iraqi government is the confusing command and control arrangements between the various parties involved; the Iraqi army assaulting the city; the Iraqi police units providing support; the various Shi'a militias grouped under the Popular Mobilisation Units (some very loosely, if at all) who are supposed to conduct supporting attacks; and the Iraqi and coalition forces (including from the Australian Defence Force) who supply the air support and Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTAC). With the number of differing (and some potentially competing) agendas among those groups, it will take an impressive commander (and/or advisory staff) to effectively coordinate everyone's efforts.

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The Shi'a militias have so far satisfied themselves with conducting operations on the perimeter as part of the outer cordon. They have promised to leave the main assault to Iraqi government forces, but this has not stopped them from capitalising on their participation through selected photos circulated to the media including one allegedly featuring the scarlet pimpernel of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Qassem Suleimani 'coordinating actions' in Fallujah.

It will be interesting to see the degree to which Islamic State is willing or able to commit resources to the battle. US–supported forces operating under the Syrian Democratic Forces banner (largely the Kurdish YPG) have commenced an advance south towards the outskirts of Raqqa. IS leadership in Raqqa will therefore have to deal with its more proximate threat while simultaneously addressing the assault on Fallujah. Defeat in Fallujah should be inevitable, and if the cordon built up over the past few weeks and months has been even partially effective it should have made IS's ability to move fighters in or out difficult but not impossible. IS has already attempted to position itself ideologically for the fall of Fallujah in its most recent audio recording in which spokesperson Abu Muhammad al-Adnani claims that the loss of cities does not mean they are defeated as long as they retain the will to fight. 

IS may well see strategic utility in suffering a defeat while imposing an enormous cost in civilian lives and damaged infrastructure. This could breed ongoing ill-well among the Sunni Iraqi population, laying the groundwork for a sympathetic Sunni environment into which some of its Iraqi members could continue to operate after IS loses its territory. In this scenario, it would make sense to retain a relatively significant force in Fallujah. But if IS has deemed the defence of Mosul and Raqqa to be its main effort, it may well have withdrawn fighters and perhaps left local IS members to die in place. Until the battle proper is joined we won't be any the wiser as to how IS views the defence of Fallujah.

What is certain is that the re-taking of Fallujah may lead to nought strategically if it is not re-built and administered effectively and efficiently. Only then can the Iraqi government have any hope of extending its writ into the Sunni heartland of western Iraq. But that is for the future. For the moment, re-taking Fallujah will maintain the momentum of the Iraqi Security Forces and allow them to switch the main effort to the main prize perhaps before year's end — Mosul. 

Ali Muhammed/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images