Lowy Institute

The Asia Pacific is the most dynamic digital landscape in the world, home to the fastest adopters of new technologies and the largest concentration of mobile and social media users. An escalation in online activism, changing cyber dynamics, developments in digital diplomacy and the exploitation of big data are shaping the region's engagement with the world.

  • New Chinese mobile app 'MyIdol' is breaking the internet. The app, which is still only available in Chinese, allows users to turn themselves (or anybody else) into an animated avatar. Try it here.
  • China has turned to social media to help enforce the country's new smoking rules (taking effect 1 June) by asking residents to report violators via uploaded images or videos.
  • South Korea has allegedly uncovered the hacking codes North Korea has used against them in cyber attacks aimed at the country's financial sector and nuclear operators.
  • Internet.org has launched in Indonesia. The Facebook initiative aims to speed up internet adoption rates in some developing countries by providing free access to select basic web applications (a weather app, Wikipedia, Facebook etc).
  • Internet.org is under fire in India (and Latin America) for giving users a limited version of the internet. Mark Zuckerberg has responded.
  • Some Chinese companies are crossing the Straits and helping to revive Taiwan's tech industry.
  • At a Social Media Summit, Malaysia's former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad called on the government to censor some websites 'to block out all this filth that comes to us through the Internet' (but not including his own very popular blog).
  • Will robots kill the Asian Century?
  • Myanmar is planning to establish a new information and communication technology (ICT) zone that it hopes will boost the country's tech sector. (Thanks Elliott.)
  • Can the internet be saved without harming democracy?  
  • The Global Database of Events, Language and Tone (GDELT) project has launched an open-source live news dashboard. The dashboard, which maps worldwide news activity and summarises the world's top 60 trending narratives, is updated every 15minutes, and its news collections includes mass (machine) translation of 65 languages. Find out what news is trending in Asia (and elsewhere) here.
  • Congress Party Vice-President Rahul Gandhi, often described as one of India's most internet unsavvy politicians, is now advocating for net neutrality. What is net neutrality?

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Indonesia became a middle ground for China-Japan relations this week as the leaders of both nations attended the Asia-Africa Conference in Jakarta.

At the opening ceremony on Wednesday, Indonesia's President Jokowi was rather symbolically seated directly between China's President Xi Jinping and Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, to avoid giving the appearance of preference for either leader.

This is a stance Jokowi has maintained during his first six months as president. Despite suggestions that his party's preference is for loyalty to China over Japan, Jokowi has given a studious impression of neutrality, courting both countries for investment in a trip to Tokyo and Beijing last month. While China responded more generously than Japan — with an offering of around $63 billion in investment from Chinese companies compared to $8.9 billion from Japanese companies — Jokowi has refused to pick sides.

Investment from both countries will be crucial for Indonesia's development during Jokowi's five-year term, and especially for the realisation of the president's vision for Indonesia to become a global maritime axis.

China has enthusiastically backed the development of Indonesia's maritime infrastructure, pledging support during Jokowi's recent visit for private investment and sponsorship of projects through the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Meanwhile, Japan has offered to form a bilateral 'maritime forum' with Indonesia to enhance cooperation on maritime security and infrastructure development.

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One point Jokowi has been clear on is the need for peaceful resolution of maritime disputes and respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity among states in the region, interpreted by some as a statement of tacit support for Japan in its conflict with China over islands in the East China Sea. However, this has clearly not become a problem for cooperation with China and its investments in Indonesia.

With most negotiations taken care of during the visits to China and Japan last month, there was little left for Jokowi to discuss with Xi and Abe at the conference in Jakarta besides the implementation of the commitments made so far. For the two foreign leaders, however, the conference posed an opportunity to meet face-to-face and continue the slow thawing of relations.

The much anticipated meeting between Xi and Abe on the sidelines of the conference continued the process of mending relations that started when the two leaders met late last year. Amid ongoing tensions regarding territorial and historical disputes, China and Japan reaffirmed a commitment to improving relations in the interests of mutual strategic benefit and regional stability. To this end, Jokowi has done well to place Indonesia as a middle ground for the rival regional powers.

Photo courtesy of AACD2015.

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Every five years, Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) parties meet to review progress in limiting nuclear weapons proliferation, reducing the threat of nuclear arms and facilitating the peaceful uses of nuclear energy. The current review cycle culminates in the ninth NPT Review Conference in New York starting next Monday, 27 April, to 22 May. Only five countries will not be involved: India, Israel, Pakistan, North Kore and South Sudan. The first three are 'hold-out' states which have never joined the NPT, North Korea purports to have left it and South Sudan is yet to join.

What should be an opportunity for further strengthening the Treaty is likely again to be dominated by recriminations. The Iranian nuclear deal helps, but the failure to convene the promised conference on a WMD-Free Zone in the Middle East will feed resentments. And the five NPT nuclear weapon states will face growing unhappiness over their disarmament efforts.

But recriminations should give way to renewed efforts to address mounting challenges:

  • An alarming willingness by certain governments to brandish nuclear force.
  • A continuing threat of regional proliferation spirals in the Middle East and North Asia.
  • Rapid nuclear build-up on the Indian sub-continent with no systems to manage yet alone end the race.
  • Advances in industrial and scientific expertise providing a growing number of actors with potential access to WMD technologies.
  • A decline in public interest in nuclear security issues, potentially making it easier for governments to sweep them under the carpet.

The Australian National University's Centre for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, guided by former Foreign Minister Gareth Evans, has published a report on developments since the 2010 NPT Review, 'Nuclear Weapons: The State of Play 2015'. The report is comprehensive, authoritative and a sobering tool for all participants in the upcoming Review. Of 27 'action clusters' arising from the 2010 Review, none are judged 'implemented fully' and only two show 'significant progress'.

Australia has traditionally been a leading supporter of the NPT. Both sides of Australian politics understand that it helps underpin our national security. The commitment which Australia and key regional partners Japan, South Korea and Indonesia made to the NPT in the 1970s, and our subsequent fostering of high non-proliferation standards, have made our strategic environment immeasurably safer. And the NPT is central to Australia's stringent policies instituted in the 1970s on uranium exports.

So what will be the main issues for the Review Conference, and where will Australia stand?

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Australia will have a high profile: our Ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna will be chair of the committee reviewing progress on the peaceful uses of nuclear energy. Two other committees will review progress on non-proliferation and on disarmament. As a founding member of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Initiative, Australia will help drive the disarmament agenda. Australia is also the convener of the Vienna-based G-10 group which over successive Reviews has become the most influential contributor on non-proliferation and peaceful uses.

On the Middle East, the partial success in reining in Iran's nuclear program and the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons stock only narrows the focus further on Israel's nuclear program. The Review Conference should support a successful deal on Iran's nuclear program. Following Foreign Minister Bishop's visit to Tehran, Australia would be well placed to help articulate that support. The next phase of negotiations with Iran will centre on the role of IAEA inspections in monitoring the deal. Review Conference participants should commit the strongest political, financial and technical support to the IAEA to facilitate that complex and costly mandate.

The discussion on disarmament will focus on the P-5's failure to meet many of the modest targets set in 2010. They will be pressed to commit to further reductions of weapon stockpiles, reduce the launch-alert status of deployed weapons, and reduce the role of nuclear weapons in national security strategies.

Advocates of a treaty to ban nuclear weapons will continue their campaign for a start to negotiations. Last December Austria hosted a conference on 'the humanitarian consequences' of nuclear weapons. The 180-plus participating countries included for the first time the US and UK, who concluded that it is best to have their views heard than not. China, France and Russia stayed away. Those opposed to starting negotiations argue that negotiations would be futile without the participation of states with nuclear weapons, and that such talks would distract from the potentially more profitable work on smaller tangible steps such as a ban on the production of nuclear material for weapons (the so-called 'cut-off' treaty). Australia confirmed at the Vienna Conference its view that the better way forward was to recognise the inevitability of gradualism, thus siding with the P-5 sceptics. While Australia's view is responsible, particularly as we continue to rely on the US nuclear umbrella, it will come under pressure because it can so easily be an excuse for inaction.

The US will promote work on the policy, legal and technical tools needed to verify nuclear disarmament. While this initiative will not excite those who would like to ban nuclear weapons tomorrow, it is a practical step that warrants consensus support. Australia should commit to this project, preferably in collaboration with one or more regional partners; the Asia-Pacific Safeguards Network could be the framework.

Cooperation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy should be less contentious. Despite the Fukushima tragedy, some countries continue to expand their nuclear power capacities. Cooperation by NPT parties (including Australia) in nuclear power programs in non-NPT states, especially India, will be criticised by those who argue that NPT membership should be a condition for nuclear cooperation. For the many NPT parties with no plans for nuclear power, the IAEA continues its modest program of support for nuclear science applications in medicine, agriculture and industry.

How to measure the success or failure of the Review?

The public test of success of the Review will be whether or not there is agreement on a report on the implementation of the NPT over the last five years and setting goals for future strengthening. With membership as broad as the NPT, consensus is extraordinarily difficult, easily aggravated by the hot political issues of the day, and so not surprisingly not always attained.

However, the real test of success is the extent to which parties remain convinced that despite its weaknesses, the NPT serves their national and global security interests. This might be hard to read amid the acrimony of unmet expectations and regional conflict. But the global condemnation of North Korea's proliferation and the serious effort invested in a deal with Iran give cause for optimism. The way countries respond to these challenges to the NPT is the litmus test of its continuing relevance.

Photo by Flickr user James Brooks.

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When the economy is going well, we talk about the bright future. Why is it only when it is going bust that we look to the past?

The Economist recently published an interesting article on the resurgence of economic history after the global financial crisis. No-one who reads about the international economy would have been surprised to see the headline 'Long Live Economic History', given the success of authors the likes of Barry Eichengreen and Thomas Piketty. Eichengreen uses his extensive knowledge of the Geat Depression to shed new light on the 2008 crisis in his book Hall of Mirrors. Piketty's unique contribution to the study of inequality in Capital in the Twenty-First Century lies in the use of tax records from the 19th and 20th centuries.

It is not only the global financial crisis that has warranted historical treatment. Charles Kindleberger's 1978 book Manias, Panics, and Crashes, about speculative market bubbles, was revised and reprinted in 2000 after the end of the dot com boom. In the ABC program Making Australia Great, which aired last month, George Megalogenis used the example of the collapse of Melbourne's economic boom in the late 1800s to warn Australians not to waste the fruits of the economic growth of the last 25 years. 

What makes this trend so interesting is that the disciplines of economics and history make strange bedfellows.

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At their worst, economists pursue ahistorical models that are supposed to hold eternally across time and place, whereas historians tell us 'history never repeats itself' and present past events as contextually bounded and therefore without comparison. Since the 1970s the social sciences have been fragmented, with post-modernism and post-structuralism producing a shift in history towards cultural and micro-history, while economics has moved in the opposite direction towards neoliberal orthodoxy and imitating the rigour of the hard sciences. The self-imposed exile of economics from the other social sciences has led to the criticism that economists reject interdisciplinary approaches. 

However, the best economic history illuminates contemporary problems and offers practical solutions. Good writers of economic history demonstrate a strong grasp of technical economic concepts and a knowledge of historiography.

In the opening session of the annual conference of the New Institute for Economic Thinking held in Paris earlier this month, leading macroeconomists talked about how they found themselves re-reading Hayek, Keynes, and Friedman & Schwarz when grappling with the causes of the global financial crisis. This is not to say that there is nothing new in economic thinking, but rather that economists benefit from taking a long-term perspective.

While the effects of the global financial crisis are still being felt all over the world, a silver lining of the crisis would be a continuing interest in economic history so that we ensure we do not forget the economic mistakes of the past.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user C. Thomas Anderson.

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As the Prime Minister exhorts Australians to attend centenary Anzac Day services in order to support 'our country's values', I find myself reminiscing about my first experience at an Anzac Day service in Gallipoli a decade ago.

In 2005 I was privileged to attend the first of three Anzac Day services at Gallipoli in my role as the deputy head of mission at the Australian Embassy in Turkey. Our Embassy team, in cooperation with a small team from the Department of Veterans' Affairs in Canberra, was responsible for organising the ceremonies with our Turkish hosts and ensuring the safety of Australians attending the services. My principal job on the day was coordinating the visit of Prime Minister John Howard and his delegation.


Australian troops charge an Ottoman trench, just before the evacuation at Anzac. (Wikipedia.)

The 2005 services were controversial because of problems with the Anzac Cove road, overcrowding, a decision to play disco music to entertain the crowds sleeping at the site, inappropriate behaviour by some younger 'pilgrims', and rubbish left at the site. Vast improvements were made the following year, including upgraded and educational screen entertainment provided to the visitors in the hours before the ceremony (keep in mind that the only way to reach the Gallipoli National Park on 25 April is via coach from Istanbul, so thousands of people arrive at the site in the dark and are there for many hours before dawn in near freezing temperatures and without shelter). The improvements were necessary but created a new (and expensive) tradition of the Australian Government controlling the telling of the Anzac story through high quality modern entertainment at a place many believe to be sacred.

The commemorative services at Gallipoli run over two days. The Turkish, British and French services are all held on 24 April. 25 April is reserved for the Anzacs, with the famous dawn service followed later by an Australian service at Lone Pine and the New Zealand service at Chunuk Bair.

The services on 25 April all work to a similar formula: 45 minutes of speeches from the most senior VIPs, then prayers, hymns, national anthems, catafalq parties, wreath-laying and the Last Post. I felt sorry for the speechwriters for visiting politicians and for my ambassador, who had to think of something new to say on a subject on which everything has been said while remembering to be conspicuously polite about our Turkish hosts. The overtly Christian nature of the dawn service and the other two 25 April services always seemed to me a little incongruous in a country where the practice of Christianity was heavily regulated and when Australia was apprehensive about emerging Turkish efforts to portray the Battle of Çanakkale (as the Gallipoli battle is known in Turkey) as a holy war.

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I lost count of the number of times Ataturk's famous words about Johnnies and Mehmets lying side by side in peace were uttered during each service, although I suspect our Turkish hosts kept very careful count. There is now doubt about the origin of those words but this is unlikely to have any impact on how often they are quoted in Anzac Day services at Gallipoli.

The Dawn Service at Anzac Cove is meant to be awe-inspiring but the inspiration is rarely found in the speeches or the hymns. I found the sun rising on the Dardanelles and lighting up the steep cliff-face behind us midway through the ceremony — a stark reminder of the impossible task facing our soldiers in 1915 — to be the most moving element of the service. This natural wonder alone made being at Anzac Cove more meaningful than dawn services in Australia. The catafalq party, carried out by Australian and New Zealand army officers, also had a way of making me hold my breath.

The Australian service at Lone Pine has a different flavour to the dawn service. As we arrived at Lone Pine for my first ceremony there in 2005, it was already full to overflowing with people and there were thousands more walking up the hill, expecting to find seats. Several groups of young Australians draped in the national flag were chanting 'Aussie, Aussie, oi, oi and oi', calling out to Prime Minister Howard and generally creating a carnival atmosphere — not exactly what I had expected.

As the searing sun in a cloudless sky reminded me I had not slept for 30 hours, we scrambled to find seats for all the VIPs and the growing number of Turkish military officers streaming in to the site, and somehow find places where a few thousand more people could at least hear, if not see, the service. While this first experience was somewhat fraught I remember enjoying the community feel of the services I attended at Lone Pine over the following two years, when volunteer choristers from home sang, and Australian primary school children who had won writing competitions read poetry and talked about Simpson and his donkey (sadly, like Ataturk's words, this story is more myth than history).

After three years attending Anzac services in Gallipoli, I remained somewhat baffled by the large numbers of young Australians who made a pilgrimage to an event marking a battle with which they had little if any connection. I was in awe of the success of the Government's efforts to create such passion in a younger generation when I had no such feeling, even as the granddaughter of a World War II veteran and a student of World War I.

Perhaps this was because I made my own connection with this place in a way that had nothing to do with ceremonies or ritual. I made my first trip to the Gallipoli peninsula in late December 2004. With Turkey's best guide, Kenan Celik OAM, and my English husband I visited the sites familiar to most Australians: Anzac Cove and Lone Pine, Hill 60, and then the battle sites and memorials relevant to other Allies and to Turkey. I learned more about Gallipoli from Kenan in one day than in all my years of schooling in Sydney.

The last thing Kenan showed us was a simple stone monument with no names of the dead or details of the battle inscribed. It marked a site where thousands of soldiers (mostly Turkish) were buried as they were killed (because the battle had to continue). It was mid-afternoon and we were beginning to lose the winter sun. I had spent a day walking among graves of young men and gazing at monuments to important stages in the battle. Yet although I had long been taught that this event defined my nation, I was struggling to create my own relationship with the place. It was only at this last, most unfamiliar of sites that I could hear the souls of the dead and I understood.

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The Indo-Pacific is a strategic system encompassing the Indian and Pacific oceans, reflecting the expanding interests and reach of China and India as well as the enduring role of the US. The Lowy Institute's International Security program presents a weekly selection of links illuminating the changing security picture in this increasingly connected super-region.

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The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is nothing short of a 'fate changer', said Pakistani Federal Minister Ahsan Iqbal, the man behind the historic project. The excitement appears to be mutual, as China has shown equal enthusiasm for the project throughout a two-day visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping to Islamabad which culminated on Tuesday.

Over 51 agreements and MoUs were signed between the two countries worth over US$46 billion, the largest ever investment in the history of Pakistan by any country.

Pakistan's deep-sea Gwadar Port (Flickr/Ahsan).

The major component of the CPEC includes power projects worth US$35-37 billion for energy-starved Pakistan, and massive infrastructure development throughout the country through concessional loans of US$7–8 billion, with the lowest interest rates in the international market. A chunk of the investment will be used for the development of a 3000km rail, road, and oil pipeline network stretching from Kashgar in China all the way down to Gwadar port on the Arabian sea, operated by the state-owned China Overseas Port Holding Company.

CPEC is part of an expanding network of corridors that will link China's eastern industrial zones with markets in Central Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Europe. This will allow China to rapidly develop its interior and western provinces which have 'missed' the Chinese economic miracle.

The CPEC also holds symbolic value because it sits at the crossroads of China's Silk Road Economic Belt and Maritime Silk Road, cutting the travel time and distance of freight, especially oil imports, by thousands of kilometers to China. Moreover, in terms of geopolitics, the CPEC fills the last slot for China to complete a web of economic networks in the region. With major investments already in place in Sri Lanka, Burma and Bangladesh, China is shredding any Indian hopes of playing hegemon.

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It's a surprise, given India's strong linguistic, historical and cultural links with Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, that New Delhi missed the opportunity for economic integration with South Asia, allowing China to take the advantage. 

But China's economic inroads into Pakistan and its recent involvement in Afghanistan benefit the US, which has historically maintained a strong influence over Pakistan. With the US desperate to end its presence in Afghanistan, China is beginning to play a central role through its economic corridors in stabilising the region for a US withdrawal, a win-win for both China and the US. 

For Pakistan, a country in a perpetual state of war since the 1980s and which has suffered near economic collapse due to the War on Terror, CPEC is an opportunity to boost it's sluggish economy.

'At a time when no country was ready to invest in Pakistan due to security concerns, China has come forward to make an enormous investment that has a potential to transform Pakistan forever', said Federal Minister Ahsan Iqbal. CPEC aligns with the Vision 2025 economic plan of the Pakistani Government, which has regional connectivity as one of the seven pillars of Pakistan's future economic growth. 

The symbolism of this project is that it comes as investment, not aid. The latter is generally considered wasteful by authorities in Pakistan for having no real on-the-ground impact on poverty or development. 'Most of the aid goes to the non-governmental sector, and the bulk goes back to the donor countries', stated Ahsan Iqbal in an interview with AFP.

Such an enormous project comes with severe challenges, especially in terms of how much will eventually be delivered. And given Pakistan's fragile democracy, instability, a growing insurgency in the Baluchistan region (where Gwadar port is located), and dissident voices, many will wonder if these projects will see the light of day.

For Federal Minister Ahsan Iqbal, who recognises these challenges, the most important thing is to keep pace with China on the CPEC. According to him, 'CPEC is the shortest but not the only supply chain route available for China', and hence, if Pakistan is not able to implement and meet China's swift development, the CPEC will not go ahead as planned.

CPEC will face many hurdles, both domestically and from regional powers that may see it as a threat.  However, with a multi-billion dollar Chinese stake in the project, and Pakistan looking at it as a lifeline for survival, optimism remains high in both countries.

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With Japan now inching closer to agreement on the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership, some strong stuff from Timothy Lee in Vox:

Trade deals like the TPP have grown so complex because the global trade community has figured out how to solve a problem that has bedeviled philosophers and political leaders for centuries: how to craft international agreements with teeth. The WTO's dispute-settlement process, which serves as a model for the TPP, puts pressure on countries to actually keep the promises they make in trade deals. That's why everyone with an agenda — wealthy investors, drug companies, labor unions, environmental groups, and so on — is scrambling to get on the bandwagon.

But the complex, secretive, and anti-democratic way the TPP is being crafted rubs a lot of people the wrong way. The agreement will have profound and long-lasting effects on countries that sign on, yet voters in those countries won't even be allowed to see the text until negotiations are over and it's too late to make changes.

 From the conclusion:

We expect the laws that govern our economic lives will be made in a transparent, representative, and accountable fashion. The TPP negotiation process is none of these — it's secretive, it's dominated by powerful insiders, and it provides little opportunity for public input.

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The Gallipoli Centenary may well be the biggest civic cultural event this country has seen or will see in a generation. 

The commemoration of the First World War in various forms has been undergoing something of a resurgence in Australia in recent years. In itself this is an extraordinary phenomenon, especially when there was a prediction only a few decades ago that the various forms of Great War remembrance would not last.

During the 1960s, Anzac Day was expected to simply wither on the vine as the diggers themselves passed away. For a new Australia emerging at that time, the occasion was seen to carry too much British imperial baggage. As one panelist in a debate in 1965 said, 'If Anzac Day is to be used then it is certainly going to be changed from its present state'.

And indeed it has, with Anzac Day being invested with a new rhetoric of inclusiveness and belonging. Bob Hawke, Paul Keating and John Howard have all played critical roles in this transformation. As has popular culture, especially films such as Peter Weir's Gallipoli, Bruce Beresford's Breaker Morant, and even the mid-1980s mini-series Anzacs that featured Paul Hogan among its cast.

Gradually, Anzac shed its now dubious overtones of Empire and Britishness and became a story about the forging of distinctively Australian values. The new liturgy of Anzac undoubtedly permits a wider degree of community participation than it did before.

But that also brings with it new responsibilities. With no more survivors from the Great War left, the narrative of the conflict moves even more into the public sphere. The publication of the letters and diaries of those involved in the conflict will of course continue to give us an unparalleled insight into the horrors of battle and the private motivations of those who went, but the likelihood is that it will be the politicians, writers, historians and commentators who will increasingly shape our understanding of what these conflicts were about, and what they mean for us today. 

For some, this growth of interest in the remembrance of war, and the writing of it, is something to be wary of. In Australia we have even seen the hysterical suggestion that the country's entire history is being 'militarised'. I think such concerns are far-fetched.

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The real risk for Australia's wartime commemorative culture is not the proliferation of military histories weighing down the shelves of bookshops. Rather it is the danger that the rhetoric of Anzac becomes so caricatured and hackneyed that the occasion becomes little more than a national sedative, an annual Anzac dosage which dulls the mind and skates over the challenge of understanding the history of Australia's participation in global conflicts. 

The risk is that we lose sight of the national interest that propelled Australia into the Great War. We must resist the parochialism of the present which so often says that those who joined up in 1914 were little more than duped patriots, and that Australia followed blindly its British imperial masters with no thought as to its own interests. 

And yet this has been perhaps the most striking feature of the current media frenzy during the Gallipoli centenary: the distinct lack of serious reflection on why Australia went to war in 1914. Instead, we are now awash in sentimentalism of sometimes the crudest and most superficial kind.

Precious little has been said about how Australian leaders from the outset perceived this great conflict and its inherent dangers for Australia's future, especially in the Pacific. Not much has been written about the original decision to go to war, and how both sides of Australian politics competed with each other to profess their loyalty and commitment to the Empire's cause – without losing sight of the nation's interests closer to home. How many school students would know, for example, that Prime Minister Andrew Fisher, only days after saying that Australia would assist Britain 'to our last man and our last shilling', proclaimed that his 'idea of patriotism was to first provide for our own defence and if there was anything to spare, offer it as a tribute to the Mother Country'?

As historian Neville Meaney has emphasised, Australians fought a 'hot war' in the trenches in Turkey and Europe, but Australian leaders pursued a 'cold war 'in the Pacific in an attempt to ensure that Japan, an uncertain ally in the First World War, did not gain a strategic foothold in the region. That fear of Japan, which had permeated the Australian consciousness since the late 19th century, by no means suddenly vanished as the First Australian Imperial Force set sail. Japanese manoeuvring in the North Pacific was to prove a constant source of angst for Australian leaders throughout these years and into the peace.

It can only be hoped that one by-product of the commemorations is a greater understanding of the fundamental issues – geopolitics, national security, loyalty and race – that conditioned Australia's response to the world in that era.

It is remarkable that so many more young Australians are now traveling long distances to visit the graves on the Western Front and the Gallipoli peninsula. It suggests that in the culture of immediacy in which we live, there remains a basic hunger to know about the past, and to learn from it. But the commemoration of Anzac cannot be allowed to become a cult of uncritical veneration, one which loses sense of the gravity of what occurred in those places and the history behind Australian involvement. Otherwise we risk turning Anzac Cove into a playground for package-tour patriots.

Photo courtesy of Australian Defence Image Library.

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In recent commentary on the horror and tragedy now playing out in the Mediterranean Sea involving the deaths of many hundreds of migrants, there has been a tendency to discuss the numbers of migrants involved uncritically. This is partly due to the patchiness of data on migrant smuggling but it is also due to the complexity underpinning migrant movement.

While there have rightly been numerous calls for more humanitarian action to prevent further loss of life, this has not been accompanied by discussion of the significant gaps in knowledge about migrant smuggling routes. Some have suggested that counting the number of smuggled migrants is not all that important. Both are critically important and both need to be improved drastically.

Greater monitoring of smuggling can only benefit migrants. It can help inform responses designed to prevent the deaths of migrants planning perilous journeys in the upcoming European summer. But just as importantly, it can inform the development of sustainable responses aimed at sparing future generations of would-be migrants from the lure of smugglers' hollow promises.

As UNHCR realised many years ago, quantifying the number of people suffering and in need of assistance — especially over time — has provided a vitally important bedrock of evidence. UNHCR made considerable effort to improve its global statistics, and along with many other organisations (such as EU's Frontex), it continues to invest in its statistical holdings.

This type of work may not grab the headlines in the way humanitarian assistance does, but it is vitally important.

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For example, the recent work of the Regional Mixed Migration Secretariat (RMMS), based in Nairobi, has shone a light on migrant flows from north-east Africa to Europe and Yemen as well as the exploitation, danger and extreme vulnerability experienced by migrants and potential migrants at the hands of smugglers. In a situation few would have foreseen, there is now a flow of migrants escaping conflict in Yemen to the Horn of Africa. RMMS is well set up to report on and analyse these flows.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) began tracking deaths of migrants in transit in early 2014 as part of its Missing Migrants Project following the tragedies in October 2013 near the Italian island of Lampedusa, when over 400 migrants died in two shipwrecks. IOM's reporting makes for grim reading and, as acknowledged by IOM and others, deaths are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the danger and vulnerability experienced by migrants in transit.

So why is collecting and analysing data on migrant smuggling important? And how can it help migrants?

First, being able to quantify smuggling over time can highlight trends and put emerging issues into context. Increases, anomalies and changes in demography allow analysts, policymakers, migrant rights' groups, and NGOs to better understand smuggling dynamics and question prevailing assumptions. To give an example, the fact that the majority of migrants interviewed for a recent research project on voluntary return used the services of smugglers is significant, in that it suggests smuggling has become the norm in many locations. 

Secondly, quantifying smuggling in different locations provides geographic and geopolitical context. The greatest attention is often afforded to the most highly visible routes, such as in the Mediterranean Sea, yet some of the largest maritime smuggling flows are thought to be in Southeast Asia.

Thirdly, enhancing data holdings on smuggling flows as well as on potential movement allows for a keen eye on the future. The case for effective responses to migrant exploitation can be strengthened by greater appreciation of the scale of the problem. With smuggling operations changing radically in tactics and scale, it is data on the potential or likely flows that can cause policymakers' eyes to widen.

Responding to immediate humanitarian crises is clearly critical, but an effective and sustainable response requires robust data and evidence.

To suggest that the cessation of Italy's maritime rescue operation Mare Nostrum has had no dampening effect at all on smuggling in the Mediterranean Sea is sadly naïve. Unfortunately, the number of people being smuggled could have been much higher had the operation continued, and suggestions otherwise fail to acknowledge the marketing efforts of smugglers, who point to the humanitarian services provided at journeys' end, including by European governments.

One of the world's leading experts on human trafficking and smuggling, Dr Anne Gallagher AO, noted recently that 'a state that is willing to do a bit better than others, for example by rescuing migrants in distress at sea, will inevitably incur a disproportionate burden.' The pivotal role of smugglers in opportunistically exploiting the good will of others for profit is at the heart of this tragic phenomenon. Some smugglers openly admit they are deliberately 'putting pressure' on Europe for monetary gain, including because they are angry about EU policy. The safety of their passengers appears to be of little or no consideration.

The horrific situation in the Mediterranean once again highlights the fact that the links between people smuggling, humanitarian responses and the international protection system are not well understood. Improving that understanding is a global priority.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

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Forecasts prepared for the IMF's 'Spring Meeting' in Washington last week predict global growth of around 3.5% this year, about the same as in the last few years. This is not the 'slowing' discussed so often in earlier Fund documents, but nor is it the normal robust recovery that might be expected after a deep downturn like the 2008 crisis. 

Larry Summers and Raghuram Rajan, Governor of the Reserve Bank of India, during the 2015 IMF/World Bank Spring Meetings, Washington DC. (Flickr/IMF)

Managing Director Christine Lagarde clearly thinks growth is too slow and that more should be done. Given the constraints on blunt speaking, however, Lagarde's policy message lacks punch: keep monetary policy accommodating; those countries not weighed down by excessive official debt should implement fiscal easing; and, as usual, everyone should implement structural reform.

But the post-2008 recovery has been so feeble that others are talking in terms of 'secular stagnation', the idea that the advanced economies have run out of dynamism and are stuck with chronic slow growth.

This idea was last in vogue in 1938. Rapid post-World War II expansion then took it off the table for a generation, but the slow recovery from 2008 has revived it. Robert Gordon blamed the stagnation partly on slower population growth. More controversially, he asserted that most of the really good ideas (innovations in technology, education and labour markets) have already been put into practice.

Since then a group of heavyweight economists have refined their arguments and policy prescriptions. Former US Treasury Secretary Larry Summers agrees with the idea of secular stagnation, but sees it as a shortage of demand rather than a supply-side limitation. The 'animal spirits' that should drive investment have become dormant. With policy interest rates already close to zero, monetary policy can't do any more to stimulate demand. But, at the same time, these low interest rates open the opportunity for countries (especially America, but Germany as well) to greatly expand fiscal spending on infrastructure, which is woefully run down in both countries.

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Former US Fed Chairman and now avid blogger Ben Bernanke agrees that the problem is deficient demand. While he supports the idea of more infrastructure spending as a short-term palliative, he worries about the longer-term implications for official debt if stagnation is indeed a chronic problem. As an alternative policy prescription, he has enlarged on his earlier view that the demand-sapping problem is global excess saving. Nearly a decade ago, he pointed the finger of blame at China, which supported its domestic economy by keeping its exchange rate artificially undervalued. This promoted exports, boosting Chinese production and income. Most of this boost was saved rather than spent, in the form of a substantial current account surplus.

Bernanke's preferred policy prescription focuses on the ongoing global current account surpluses. He sees this 'excess saving' as resulting from market-distorting policy settings in the surplus countries, which should be corrected. More 'naming and shaming' of foreigners is needed so that they rectify these policies.

How can these ideas be translated into policy?

Even if Bernanke is right about global excess savings (and his own table shows that the global imbalances have dramatically fallen since 2006), there doesn't seem much that policy can do about it. China was an easy target in 2006, but its surplus is now small. Germany isn't ready to do anything about its external surplus, running at over 7% of GDP, and the depreciating euro will actually strengthen its international competitiveness. Switzerland and Singapore (whose external surpluses are far larger than Germany's as a ratio to GDP) haven't even been named as recalcitrants. 

That leaves Summers' idea of greatly expanding infrastructure spending in America, Germany and some emerging economies. But what about the debt concerns that put an end to fiscal expansion in 2010?

Summers and Brad DeLong argue that the hand-wringing about government debt has been unwarranted for most advanced economies (Japan is the notable exception). Investors seem only too happy to take up government debt (Germany's 10-year bond yield is less than one-fifth of a percent; almost free money). They could borrow a lot more, and if they use it for beneficial purposes (some would say that is a big 'if'), it can be self-funding as it adds to GDP as well as to debt. In any case, DeLong argues that as countries get richer, they should have more public debt, because richer consumers want more of the goods which governments supply.

Meanwhile, the financial markets are fixated on something largely irrelevant to the challenge of boosting growth. They are trying to pick exactly when the Fed will raise the short-term policy interest rate, outdoing each other to name the day. All this single-minded anticipation might actually encourage the Fed to repeat the mistake of 1937 by raising rates too early in the recovery (a mistake made more recently by the Swedish central bank). Bernanke says that the rate should be set so as to bring savings and investment into equality at full employment. With all this talk of secular stagnation, the interest-rate rise should be much further off than the markets (or some members of the current Fed Board) are thinking.

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Julia Gillard and Barack Obama formed a strong connection in office. This was no coincidence. In many respects, they are surprisingly similar politicians.

Of course, they are not identical. On the occasion of the President's visit to Canberra in 2011, he and the Prime Minister were to deliver a joint press conference live during the commercial television news programs from 6pm. The PM gave a rather breathless performance, even seeming flustered – especially next to the famously cool and scholarly Obama.

In truth though, her breathlessness was literal rather than metaphorical. When the two leaders had walked from the PM's office to the press conference room slightly late, the President had unthinkingly trotted up the stairwell two steps at a time. Julia Gillard, inches shorter and yes, wearing a skirt and heels, found herself racing after him and out of breath, just at the moment before one of the bigger press conferences of her term in office.

Ironically, it was Obama's personal aura of stillness that most impressed those who met him while he was in Canberra, rather than this athleticism. The 'no drama' Obama style in private naturally appealed to the methodical Gillard.

They shared a fair bit else in common too. Bloomberg Business described them as soulmates, noting they were both 'trailblazers — Australia's first female leader, America's first black one — who pledged to change the tone in their capitals. Both are likable politicians who inspire visceral and often inexplicable dislike and face daunting levels of opposition from cynical foes out to derail their every effort. Both confront a news media that has swung from fawning to churlish.' *

As I note in my new book The Gillard Project, the two were the same age, shared a rationalistic and reserved personality, and have a common modernised social democratic outlook. They were both activists in the face of the global recession, and paradoxically, they shared a scepticism about the glamour of international relations.

As was pointed out seemingly every time she ever traveled, Gillard said in an interview during her first overseas trip as Prime Minister in 2010 that 'If I had a choice I'd probably more be in a school watching kids learn to read in Australia.' In 2014 in the New Yorker the President would say, 'I didn't run for office so that I could go around blowing things up.'  So perhaps both were also overly inclined to illustrate a point of difference with their predecessors.

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Obama has paid a price for that observation – and for his similarly droll axim 'Don't do stupid stuff' – but I find it interesting that Gillard's statement became seemingly infamous, not just emblematic. In emphasising the importance not only of domestic affairs but specifically of school education, she chose a word picture which could be read as a strikingly feminised one: the school teacher. When Obama is periodically characterised as academic or professorial, quite a different inference is left.

Australian conservatives are fond of arguing that Australia is better served by Republican presidents. Putting aside the disastrous black swan of George W Bush, there's been some logic to the argument that the free traders, internationalists, Asia hands and realists of the old Republican mainstream served Australia's interests well. But Australian public opinion appears to favour Democratic presidents, and in turn the US, and the alliance, seem to rise in popularity during Democratic presidencies. This is not a small advantage in an alliance between democracies.

Perhaps this is because it's been fifty years since a Democratic president led us into a military folly. But it also seems to many observers that the centre of Australian politics is to the left of the American political centre; in turn, it seems to me that moderate Democratic presidents have a strong appeal in Australia while conservative Republicans represent a politics and policy outlook very alien to this country's traditional egalitarian identity and communitarian ideas.

Certainly Gillard and Obama shared policy outlooks. It was said that during that same visit, Obama remarked 'maybe if we get unemployment with a five in front of it, we can have a carbon price too'. They also shared a practice and thought of foreign policy as being increasingly integrated with national identity and domestic policies, rather than a discrete category.

Obama spoke confidently in the Parliament about American democracy, noting that China must change or fail (a speech many confidently argued would damage Australia-China relations, not a contention which seemed persuasive by April 2013). Gillard had spoken in Washington DC earlier the same year of shared reform agendas in 'education, energy and the environment', telling the story of Australia's success in 2009 while adding that 'stimulus and recovery are not enough', connecting her own domestic reform agenda ('human capital, innovation and clean energy') to the challenge of getting the world economy growing after the financial crisis.

By November 2011 the world, the allies and their leaders had moved far from Curtin and Roosevelt's cautious exchanges, but the liberal language of the Four Freedoms and the progressive origins of the alliance in a global war against fascism still sounded intense harmonies with the two nations – and with their two progressive political leaders.

* The quotation marks around this quote were omitted when the piece was first posted. This was an editing error.

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In 2011, Burma's hybrid civilian-military government launched an ambitious reform program that, among other things, envisaged the transfer of responsibility for Burma's internal security from the armed forces to the national police.

Given Naypyidaw's firm and public commitment to this policy, it was surprising last month to see civilian 'vigilante' groups being used by authorities to help quell civil unrest.

Scene from student protest in Latpantann in March. (Flickr/Burma Democratic Concern.)

In Burma, the use of such groups to 'assist' in the resolution of political disputes has a long history. In the 1950s, for example, political bosses employed gangs of enforcers. During the Ne Win era (1962-1988), the Burma Socialist Programme Party was used to help monitor the mood of the civilian population, generate support for the government and in various ways encourage compliance with the regime's laws and regulations. 

After the armed forces took back direct political control of the country in 1988, 'unofficial' civilian groups played a more direct role, including in the security arena.

In 1993, Burma's ruling military council created the Union Solidarity Development Association (USDA). Its purpose was mainly to mobilise the population in support of the regime's policies. Not long after its formation, there were reports of a USDA-sponsored 'militia' designed to provide paramilitary, intelligence and law enforcement services to the regime. The militia's structure was believed broadly to mirror that of the civil administration, but it had no legal status.

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One part of this militia was later identified as the Swan Ah Shin (SAS; literally 'Masters of Force'). This was essentially a loose collection of civilians attached to local councils that included members of the fire brigades, first aid organisations, women's organisations and the USDA, as well as criminals released from jail, members of local gangs, the unemployed and very poor. At different times, reports put SAS groups under the command of the civil authorities, intelligence agencies, army and police.

These organisations first prompted international scrutiny in 1996, when Aung San Suu Kyi's car was attacked in Rangoon by about 200 USDA supporters. In 2003, her motorcade was set upon by a much larger mob at Depayin in Upper Burma. These 'government-affiliated forces' (as they were described by the State Department) appear to have been organised in an effort to intimidate (or, in the latter incident, possibly even assassinate) the popular opposition leader. At Depayin, dozens of her followers were killed and many more injured. 

The SAS also played a part in the suppression of the so-called 'Saffron Revolution' in 2007. Up to 600 criminals were said to have been released from jail and given basic training in crowd control. They were initially used to intimidate protesters but, after the anti-government demonstrations grew in size and scope, SAS members acted in concert with the police and army. The state-run New Light of Myanmar described them as 'peace-loving people' preventing 'instigators from trying to cause instability and unrest'. Aung San Suu Kyi has called them Burma's Brown Shirts.

Since 2007, there have been claims that shadowy groups like the SAS have been involved in other outbreaks of civil unrest. For example, several commentators and activist groups have suggested that the Buddhist extremists active in 2012 and 2013 had official sanction, accounting for the apparent reluctance of the police and army to prevent the anti-Muslim violence that occurred in those years. No firm evidence of such sponsorship, however, has yet been produced.

Indeed, it was hoped that, with the advent of a new and reformist government in 2011, the use of groups like the SAS would cease. Naypyidaw emphasised the management of internal security through an expanded and modernised civil police force which publicly embraced modern doctrines such as community policing. The role of the armed forces was reduced and greater emphasis given to 'the rule of law'. 

Such hopes, however, have been dashed.

Last month, 100 or so civilian 'auxiliaries' were used to break up the remnants of a garment workers' strike in the Shwepyithar Industrial Zone. Auxiliaries were also deployed outside Rangoon Town Hall during a protest against the National Education Law. Wearing red armbands stating that they were 'on duty', they assaulted the protesters and helped police to detain eight of them.

These 'vigilantes' were recruited by ward officials at the order of the Chief Minister of Rangoon Region. Most seem to have been unemployed men who were offered meals and modest daily payments to 'assist' the authorities maintain law and order. Some were only teenagers. They were untrained, ill-disciplined and, as far as can be determined, poorly led. During the Rangoon protest they appear to have ignored or exceeded police orders.

Strictly speaking, the popular label 'vigilante' is a misnomer. These auxiliaries were not self-appointed. Nor were they acting without legal authority. As both regional and national officials have pointed out, according to Article 128 of the Burmese Code of Criminal Procedure (which dates from 1898), magistrates and police station chiefs have the right to recruit civilians to assist in the breaking up of protests and to help make arrests. 

On 10 March, President Thein Sein ordered an investigation into whether or not the security forces acted properly in Rangoon, and if the authorities acted in accordance with the law. The commission's report was due on 30 March but has not been released. It is unlikely to find the authorities at fault, but it may help answer some of the questions surrounding the use of deputised civilians.

Whether or not the recruitment of such groups is found to be legal, the thinking behind their use is hard to fathom. The Shwepyithar and Rangoon protests were quite small and could easily have been handled by police security battalions. Even if the auxiliaries did not behave badly, they had no legitimacy in the eyes of the public. Their use thus undercut the authority of the national police. Indeed, to many police officers they threaten a key goal of the force's reform program, which is to win back the respect of the population through higher standards and better community relations.

There has been an outcry in Burma and abroad against what many have seen as a return to the 'bad old days' of 'officially sponsored thugs' being used to crush popular dissent. The use of such tactics has added to growing scepticism about the November elections and the Government's willingness to permit criticism of its policies in the lead-up to the poll. Some commentators have even cited the recent use of 'vigilantes' to raise doubts over the entire reform process. 

This is drawing rather a long bow, but after last month's events Naypyidaw certainly has some serious questions to answer.

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When Greece's Alex Tsipras met Russia's Vladimir Putin in Moscow earlier this month, it was grist to the mill for those who see Russia's hand in the war in eastern Ukraine as a Kremlin plot to break up the EU.

They include Yale historian Timothy Snyder, author of the acclaimed Bloodlands, who repeated recently on ABC radio his long-held view that, in Ukraine,'The chief fight isn't between Russia and the United States or even between Russia and Ukraine. It's between Russia and the EU.' 

This appeals to a view of the EU as a harmless giant, spreading the fruits of democracy and Europe's kinder version of capitalism across the continent in an act of far-sighted selflessness. But what if Europe's most serious security crisis in a generation were a result of Brussels' own flawed policies? To put it another way, does the war in Ukraine represent the limits of Western diplomacy or the tragedy of some of its premises?

Brussels' role in setting the stage for the crisis is one theme of an important new book, Conflict in Ukraine: The Unwinding of the Post-Cold War Order, by Rajan Menon and Eugene Rumer. Its main merit is the unusually searching light it shines on EU diplomacy.

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According to received wisdom, the Association Agreement (AA) that the EU offered Ukraine in November 2013 was essentially a progressive document designed to strengthen Ukraine's liberal political and economic forces and thus help transform the country into a modern European democracy. 

Without necessarily denying that this was true at an EU level, Menon and Rumer stress that the AA's intended practical effect – indeed, its unacknowledged goal, for many EU members – was to wrench Kiev from Moscow's orbit and tie it economically, politically and strategically to Brussels, while avoiding the risks associated with full EU membership. Given Ukraine's divisions and Russia's sensitivities, they imply that this was like extending a lighted match to a pile of tinder. 

Economically reliant on subsidised Russian gas to sustain the high public spending of the late Soviet era, an independent Ukraine apparently wanted to have its cake and eat it too, simultaneously enjoying the benefits of both independence and the old union state. This, and the unresolved question of whether Ukraine was a 'state for the Ukrainian nation or for the people of Ukraine', was Ukraine's fundamental weakness, which the division between its western and eastern regions amplified rather than caused.

Yet it appears Brussels never fully understood the combustibility of Ukrainian politics or its fragile statehood. 

This mistake was only compounded by the conflicting aims of the Eastern Neighbourhood Policy (ENP), out of which Ukraine's AA grew.  Rumer and Menon argue that, for all the emphasis on trade and internal reform, the ENP's most enthusiastic supporters (Sweden, Poland and the Baltics) had geopolitical goals. They wanted an unofficial buffer against Russia, with the post-national cover of the EU allowing them to disavow geopolitical ambitions and talk instead about democracy, human rights and economic liberalisation (the Western press rightly complains about Russian propaganda, but it's less often noted how often the EU practices its own doublespeak). Menon and Rumer write:

Though the ENP did not explicitly aim to create a wider sphere of EU influence or a collection of satellites subservient to Western Europe, the ENP's practical effect would still have amounted to creating a peripheral region where it would exert considerable influence. Extensive trade and economic relations would involve the EU as the dominant partner, and the EU would enjoy expanded political and cultural influence...In a word, Brussels' writ would be extended well beyond the European Union's borders to countries that were not even on the path toward EU membership.

Though Brussels presented the ENP as nothing but altruism, idealism and geopolitical self-interest in fact coincided. But by playing the Ukrainian AA down as nothing more than a 'trade deal', the EU refused to acknowledge, let alone prepare for, any of its attendant risks. As policy towards a country as deeply fissured as Ukraine, it was a cruel gamble. 

It was also wishful thinking when it came to Russia. The ENP's 'major weakness', Rumer and Menon write, was its 'premise, even if implicit...that Russia would somehow accept...the integration of post-Soviet states into the EU, and indeed that it would have no choice but to come to terms with that denouement, despite finding it disagreeable'. Yet 'historical, cultural, economic and strategic reasons' gave Russia ample grounds to do so. 

In other words, because Brussels was in denial about not only the geopolitical consequences of the ENP but also, even more damningly, its aims, it believed it could afford to ignore Moscow. Indeed, Menon and Rumer imply that Brussels simply found Russia – an old-fashioned power pursuing hard interests rather than values – impossible to fit within its model of the world. The gap was filled by the hope (famously 'not a policy', as the authors remind us) that Russia would see the world as Brussels saw it.

Not for the first time, this hope got the better of prudence. 

Before 2002, there was no shortage of warnings that Europe's very different national economies simply did not constitute an optimal currency area. Yet out of a mix of ambition, expediency and, as a recent report by the Centre for European Reform all but concedes, an excessively large measure of hope, Europe's leaders pushed ahead anyway. 

In foreign policy, as Henry Kissinger puts it in his recent book World Order, 'Everything depends on some conception of the future.' For many in Brussels and elsewhere that future is liberal, transnational and European. In Moscow, it is decidedly not. Whether or not it should be is a moot question. But making up the difference with wishful thinking simply isn't enough and the recent diplomatic initiatives by Germany's Angela Merkel suggest that Berlin at least now understands this. 

The appearance of a Greece-sized crack in EU unity on Russia is still a possibility before or after sanctions come up for renewal in July. If Europe's twin crises – the euro and Ukraine – morph into one, it will only confirm that the main danger facing Brussels isn't a Russian plot but rather, again in Kissinger's words, 'identifying its internal construction with its ultimate strategic purpose.'

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Mykhailo Liapin.

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