Lowy Institute

Jakarta has reacted to the Paris attacks with condolences, assurances that everything is under control, and scepticism from all sides that there could be any fallout at home. From senior officials to hardline Islamists, the message is that it can’t happen here. But it’s not that simple. It’s true that a coordinated attack on the scale of Paris is not going to happen in Jakarta or Bali or anywhere else in Indonesia. We could, however, see a change in tactics on the part of pro-ISIS groups here, including a decision to target foreigners.

Those who say there’s nothing to worry about are correct on their key points. Indonesia is not a member of the Western coalition bombing Syria; there’s no reason for it to be a target like France or the US. There’s no chatter that any Indonesian agency has picked up about plans for violence. The jihadi groups still active in Indonesia are focused more on getting to Syria than on undertaking any action and anyway, they are poorly trained, poorly led and largely incompetent.

But there are other signs that suggest that this is no time for complacency. More and more Indonesians are getting killed in Syria. Earlier in the year, those deaths came in battles against the Kurds, but the most recent deaths have been airstrikes – and revenge is a powerful motive. If Indonesian police have been the main victims of homegrown terrorism since 2010, we could now see a shift back toward Westerners and soft targets.

The Paris attacks drew praise from Indonesians with ISIS in Syria, among them Bahrun Naim, an ex-prisoner and jihadi intellectual who was involved in trying to organise an attack in Central Java from Syria last August. In a blog posting entitled 'Lessons from the Paris Attacks' (Pelajaran dari Serangan Paris), he urged his Indonesian audience to study the planning, targeting, timing, coordination, security and courage of the Paris teams. His readers aren’t fellow fighters in Syria, they’re too busy. He's writing for the terrorist wannabes on Java.

One of the saving graces for Indonesia over the last five years is that local terrorists have thought small. Bahrun Naim and some of his friends think bigger.

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The fact that Indonesian agencies are not picking up chatter may be partly because many of the committed ISIS supporters from Indonesia are using encrypted communications over WhatsApp and Telegram, not ordinary mobile phone communications that the Indonesian police can tap. Even if Telegram has decided now to close down pro-IS channels, it is still going to be difficult to track private groups. The jihadis are also faster to adapt to new technologies than law enforcement agencies.

Indonesian women extremists have been eager for a more direct role in jihad than ISIS has allowed thus far. Unlike al Qaeda, the ISIS leadership never sanctioned women suicide bombers, for example. But the Frenchwoman who was initially reported to have detonated her explosive vest in St Denis on Wednesday has captured the imagination of some Indonesian 'lionesses', and if policies change in Syria toward more active participation of women, that could have ramifications for Indonesia.

A power struggle between two Syria-based Indonesian ISIS commanders, Bahrum Syah and Abu Jandal, could also lead the contenders to urge their respective followers in Indonesia to undertake attacks, in a kind of lethal one-upmanship. (Bahrun Naim is with Abu Jandal.) In the absence of new leadership, there is not too much to worry about, but it could be of serious concern if anyone with combat experience or training came back from Syra to add some planning and organisational capacity to cells here.

There is as yet no ISIS structure for Indonesia, and pressure from some pro-ISIS quarters to form a unified organisation has not yet succeeded. Fortunately for us, the groups are divided along multiple lines, ideological as well as personal, and fears that a united Jamaah Anshorud Daulah or Anshorud Daulah Islamiyah could emerge, or a Wilayat Nusantara be declared, are still unrealised. If a structure does come into being, it could be more responsive to calls from the ISIS leadership for attacks on Westerners than we have seen thus far.

The Indonesian authorities are right that the risk of a Paris-like spectacular in Jakarta is low. But while the police and army have been focused on going after Indonesia’s most wanted terrorist, Santoso, in the hills of Central Sulawesi, ISIS has succeeded in building a network of supporters in the suburbs of Jakarta.

Bahrun Naim in his 'Lessons' article notes approvingly that the Paris attackers well understood the oath of loyalty they had taken toward ISIS and its consequences. None of the hundreds, maybe more than 1000 Indonesians who have sworn allegiance to ISIS since June 2014 have been asked to demonstrate their obedience to their leader. That could still come.

The essence of terrorism is unpredictability. If we assume that because it’s quiet now in Jakarta, it is going to stay that way, we could be in for an unpleasant surprise.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Global Panorama

  • Terence Wood analyses new polling data to get to the bottom of who actually supports Australian aid. (Hint: it helps to be young, educated, female and from the left end of the political spectrum).
  • David Cameron has announced that at least half of the UK's £9 billion aid program will be directed towards fragile states, up from 43% today.
  • Adam Davidson, founder of one of my favourite podcasts, takes to The New York Times to argue that the venture-capital philosophy of investing (basically, investing small amounts in many projects/ideas and then scaling up what works) can be a useful model for foreign aid.
  • Speaking of podcasts, the Innovations for Poverty Action team have released their development podcast playlist for the summer.
  • To mark World Toilet Day last week, WaterAid released a report ranking countries with the worst access to toilets in 2015:

  • David McKenzie and Anna Luisa Paffhausen from the World Bank take a look at what is being taught in more than 200 development economics courses from 54 developing countries. 
  • The Centre for Global Development's founding President, Nancy Birdsall, is stepping down after a stellar 15 year run. She will stay on until a successor is in place.
  • The Guardian takes a look at the best and worst aid videos of 2015. Here's the best: 


As the world slowly absorbs the full implications of the terrorist attacks in Paris, thoughts inevitably turn to whether events will be repeated elsewhere.

That ISIS or ISIS-affiliated groups and networks would seek to emulate the impact of the Paris attacks is almost certain. If an opportunity arises to attempt an attack on a similar scale, it is unlikely that ISIS would reject it. Its intent will persist.

The media has understandably highlighted repeated references to Australia and Australian fighters in ISIS propaganda, including in the most recent edition of Dabiq, its online magazine. But we should be clear about the role of ISIS propaganda. It aims to radicalise, recruit and inspire attacks in the West, not communicate ISIS operational priorities. 

We don’t know where Australia features in the thoughts and strategies of ISIS senior leadership. Or if responsibility for external attack planning lies with ISIS senior leadership or local networks. But it is reasonable to think that ISIS might have greater opportunity to attack the UK, Germany or Saudi Arabia for example, and that this would have a bigger impact on events in the Middle East.

Is ISIS capable of carrying out a similar attack in Australia? One way of answering this is to look at elements critical to the scale and success of the Paris attacks: the expertise of returning foreign fighters; access to weaponry; the ability to transport both across international borders; and the inability of intelligence and security agencies to monitor the individuals involved.

Around 30 foreign fighters have returned to Australia, with a further 110 Australians known to be located with terrorist groups in Syria and Iraq. Given the size of this group and what they will have learned, it is reasonable to assume that some will have the expertise and intent to conduct a similar attack here.

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When returning foreign fighters are involved in a terrorist attack, it is proportionately deadlier. Their battlefield experience and expertise makes them a force-multiplier and a focal point for an otherwise inexperienced network. A home-grown network might attempt to replicate the attack, but its chances of success and impact are likely to be reduced.

Could Australian foreign fighters return undetected, as appears to have been the case in Paris? There are certainly no guarantees, as Khaled Sharrouf’s travel to Syria demonstrated. But a key difference for foreign fighters who left from Australia,  in comparison to France, Belgium, and the other 24 signatories of the Schengen Agreement, is they cannot travel home without providing identification by slipping from Syria into Turkey.

A lack of land borders gives Australia significantly more control over the flow of individuals in and (just as importantly in this context) out, and makes it more difficult for networks planning attacks to source weaponry and explosives from outside of Australia.

This control means that while Australia has contributed a significant number of foreign fighters relative to population size, numbers have remained relatively stable over the past 12 months. Unfortunately, this means that the number of radicalised individuals unable to leave Australia and turning their thoughts to domestic attacks has got larger.

If we’re still uncertain how the Paris attack network slipped under the radar, the emerging picture is not a positive one for European authorities. A key issue appears to be a lack of coordination between authorities internally in France and across Europe, alongside a growing list of radicalised individuals.

Successfully countering the threat, assuming that intent exists, will require Australian authorities to continue and expand their efforts in a number of areas.

The 30 returned foreign fighters will continue to be assessed and monitored. Existing measures to monitor known foreign fighters and prevent them unexpectedly returning will also continue and may soon be combined with the ability to strip the citizenship of dual citizens. Identifying any previously unknown Australian foreign fighters is also critical.

Links between terrorism and organised crime, which is a likely source of weaponry and explosives, will also be a significant focus. As will the need to encourage intelligence and information sharing across state, federal and international partner agencies. Most important will be the ability to prioritise available resources in efficiently and effectively, given existing workloads.

Authorities will also focus on minimising the impact that such an attack could have. NSW Police have announced a new 'shoot on sight' policy for terrorist situations. Training for multiple shooter attacks will be stepped up, and detailed response plans developed. These types of activities don’t prevent attacks, but can make a huge difference to the death toll.

The Paris attacks may inspire copy-cat attempts in an Australian city. We’ll hear reports about 'terrorist chatter'. But there is no inevitability that it will progress beyond that, or that it will succeed. Panic, fear and a sense of inevitably is precisely what ISIS hopes to instill.

There are a number of factors working in Australia’s favour, particularly in comparison to France. Planning these types of attack takes time, expertise and people. Mistakes are likely. Australian authorities and their international partners will need to ensure they are ready.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Jordi Bolzareu


This week the attacks in Paris, and the subsequent manhunt for its perpetrators, has held the attention of the West. One thing that has struck me is the multiplicity of debates the attacks have touched and in some cases sparked anew, including on the role of the media and social networking sites, the Syrian civil war, refugee policy, European integration, intelligence failures and the future of terrorism. Daniel Woker, a regular contributor to The Interpreter, was in Paris on the night of the attacks:

Suddenly, a loud noise from the Boulevard. My wife says 'shots' and I reply 'I think not', as it sounds different to the dimly remembered live ammo exercises in my long gone army days. But a young woman runs by, gripping my arm and shouting with fear, 'viens, viens, they are shooting from cars at all of us'. We all race into the opposite direction. I distinctly remember thinking at that second how absurd that was, though of course it wasn't, as it turned out later.

Is this a new type of terrorism? Lydia Khalil suggested that the attacks displayed a mix of trends:

'Mumbai-style' attacks — multiple coordinated ambushes with small arms and suicide bombs — were certainly possible but appeared to be the purview of other capitals in the Middle East and South Asia. Sophisticated, audacious attacks a la 9/11, directed and organised by an international terrorist organisation, were a distinct but fading possibility. The consensus was that ISIS was a potent, but regional, threat and its focus was on state-building, consolidating territory in the Levant and building legitimacy for its caliphate.

What makes the Paris attacks particularly troubling is that it appears to be a confounding mix of all three trends. These were homegrown violent extremists, directed by a well funded international organisation that controls vast resources and territory, hitting purely civilian, soft targets in a sophisticated manner

Former intelligence analyst David Wells wrote on the role of Western security agencies in the attacks, and what they will view as an intelligence failure:

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The first thing to point out is there a difference between specific, actionable threat intelligence, and intelligence indicating intent. Yes, ISIS rhetoric pointed towards attacks in the West. And ISIS clearly had the capability and manpower to attempt these type of attacks. But without specific intelligence, the threat remains latent.

So does the attack constitute an intelligence failure? In the most general sense, yes. France and her partner intelligence agencies, including in the UK and US, are specifically looking for this type of intelligence. Internally, they will all regard their inability to prevent the attack as a failure.

Vanessa Newby related some personal stories about spending time in the Beirut neighbourhood that was bombed last week:

ISIS is believed to have launched this attack to punish Hizbullaah for its military involvement in Syria. I was surprised it picked Burj because this is not just  a 'Shi'a dominated or Hizbullaah stronghold', as has been reported. In fact, it is a very diverse area where if you launched an attack you would be just as likely to kill some of your own people as you would the other side. The level of support for Hizbullaah in Burj is unclear for two main reasons. First, the area is populated by a great many Syrians, who fled the Assad regime, and by Palestinians. Secondly, in the Shi'a community political support is divided between Amal and Hizbullaah.

What did these attacks have to do with the war in Syria? Rodger Shanahan suggested that ISIS may be trying to distract from the fact that it is losing territory:

In the space of 36 hours we saw suicide bombings in Baghdad and Beirut and the attack in Paris. This is unlikely to be coincidental, and more likely to be the result of explicit direction from ISIS central or implicit guidance understood by its affiliates.

In the last week and a half, the news regarding ISIS showed Kurdish forces re-taking Sinjar in Iraq, Iraq government forces closing in on Ramadi, Syrian government forces breaking a two-year siege by ISIS of the Syrian airfield at Kwereis and the likely killing of the ISIS Western poster-boy 'Jihadi John'. With the entry of Russian forces into Syria, and the bolstering of Assad’s ground forces by Iran and its militia allies, the ISIS main forces are under increasing military pressure on multiple fronts in the Middle East.

Anthony Bubalo on the growing sense of 'pragmatism' and dealing with Assad:

Assad is no more capable of returning stability to Syria with Western backing than he is without it. Any political process built upon Assad playing a transitional role in his country will soon collapse once it becomes clear that his role is becoming permanent. Any deal that unintentionally or otherwise helped Assad survive will also entrench Russian and Iranian strategic gains in Syria. No one in Syria owes more to the Russians and Iranians than he does. In fact, the West would be complicit in increasing the security threat that Iran and Hizballah pose to Israel as they expand their presence in Syria. 

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull continued with his world tour this week. Binoy Kampmark on Turnbull's bilateral meeting with Germany's Chancellor Merkel and the difference with former Prime Minister Tony Abbott:

Certainly the meeting in Berlin provided an interesting counterpoint between the old and the new. After Australia's rapid turnover of leaders, it's fair to say Australia's politics and politicians have featured more frequently and in more detail than usual in German media this year.  In its coverage of the the party coup that unseated Mr Abbott as leader, for example, the popular German newspaper, Der Spiegel, went so far as to note various designations, including the title of the 'Mad Monk'.  

With the UN Paris climate change negotiations just a week away, Erwin Jackson examined what has changed since 2009 and Copenhagen:

Throughout 2015, a number of Australian businesses have released statements showing their willingness to take action on climate. The Australian Climate Roundtable brought business, investor, union, research, environment and welfare groups together. A statement was released encouraging Australia to do its bit on climate change. In September, leaders from AGL, BHP Billiton, GE, Mirvac, Santos, Unilever, Wesfarmers and Westpac Group published a statement that supports an effective Paris agreement outcome

Fergus Green from LSE and Richard Denniss from The Australia Institute have a two-part series on the end of coal. The first piece looked at the global trends in the commodity, both in terms of energy consumption and the private sector:

Moreover, coal companies are becoming increasingly isolated politically. As the corporate world perceives increasing risks of binding carbon budgets, the oil and gas industries have begun to split the fossil fuel camp and stake their greater claim to the remaining budget. Coal, after all, is the highest-emitting and lowest-value of the three fossil fuels. (The motivations of the oil and gas executives in criticising coal are no doubt self-serving, but their political-economic heft could be helpful to the fight against coal.) In a sign of the industry’s growing desperation, coal companies have even started fighting publicly amongst themselves. 

Both Adam Henschke and Albert Palazzo continued our debate on drones this week. First, Adam on whether the falling costs of autonomous vehicles is worrying:

The overall point is that, as far as the ethics of remote weapons is concerned, we have largely left the initial concerns about the remoteness behind. In some senses we are moving into a new phase of assessment, where contrasting ideas of cheapness and complexity highlight a new set of areas that require further consideration and reflection.

Albert Palazzo had a short but interesting piece questioning whether armed drones can actually affect the outcome of war:

The contribution to success in war (to victory) is an important aspect of any evaluation of the ethical utility of a weapon. I would argue that a weapon that doesn't meet ethical standards is unlikely to make a positive contribution to forcing your enemy to accept your will. Rather, it is likely to have the opposite effect.

Armed drones have dazzled many military and political minds with their ruthless efficiency. But efficiency and effectiveness in war are not the same thing. Efficiency in killing won't translate into effectiveness in war unless the ethics are right.

Fergus Hanson continued his series on the internet and power by looking at the influence of social media conglomerates like Facebook:

What does this mean for policy makers? For a start, there is a need to look seriously at options for maintaining competition online. This isn’t easy, but the Europeans have begun. We also need to consider the implications and obligations companies with global monopolies might have when it comes to issues like censorship: if a company like Facebook is where most people get their news, should it be able to apply a stricter censorship regime than that allowed in your country of origin.

Leon Berkelmans took a closer look at the make-up of services in trade:

OK. Point taken. But when we are talking about dismantling barriers to trade, it is what crosses the border that counts. You can make all the changes to accountancy regulations you want, but if the cheese can’t get across the border, it doesn’t matter.

An interesting post from Stephen Grenville on capital flows, and the links between academic and practitioner economists:

They say that the challenge for academic economists is to prove that what happens in the real world could also happen in theory. Blanchard and his colleagues have taken a useful step in this direction, reconciling theory with inconvenient reality. This might be seen as progress, if only the political-economy of international economics were not still in the hands of Keynes' 'madmen in authority … distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back'.

Finally, how do observers, policymakers, academics, students and journalists see North Korea? Robert Kelly:

In short, North Korea is post-ideological and akin to The Godfather: a massive racket to shake down anyone, inside North Korea and out, to fund the self-indulgent lifestyle of a narrow elite. North Korea is what happens when Don Corleone takes over an entire country and can enforce his clan rule with a secret police rather than just capo henchman. Actually, North Korea is barely a country at all; it's an Orwellian gangster fiefdom.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user mafate69.


With Japan falling back into technical recession, the temptation to question Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's economic reform agenda is strong. But here are three counter-intuitive takes on the latest news (with thanks to Malcolm Cook for the links).

First, Matthew Yglesias in Vox:

The Japanese economy is shrinking because Abe already succeeded in fixing Japan's unemployment problem. Japan is simply in an odd situation where low and falling levels of unemployment aren't good enough to ensure economic growth.

The Japan Times:

If Japan’s economy is in trouble, you wouldn’t know it from the stock market.

In what’s shaping up to be a pretty forgettable year for global equity investors, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Japan is one of the few places providing double-digit returns that are backed by profit growth. The 12 percent gain for the Nikkei 225 stock average through last week came as its companies post record earnings, and valuations rose just 2.3 percent from the end of last year.

A Bloomberg editorial:

...recessions simply don't mean the same thing in Japan as they do most everywhere else. The country has suffered seven of them in the past 20 years -- two since Abe took office in late 2012. Given Japan's declining population, its trend growth rate is at best 0.5 percent, so even downturns as slight as last quarter's 0.8 percent decline can tip the economy into negative territory...

...Even if China's slump hadn't provided an unexpected headwind, efforts to revive Japan were always going to take longer than many observers acknowledged. Difficult structural reforms are under way -- to crack open the energy, pharmaceutical and agriculture sectors, for instance; to slash tariffs under the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact; and to unwind the web of cross-shareholdings that's stifled much of Japan Inc. -- but they can't be expected to yield benefits immediately.

Photo by Flickr user Alessandro Grussu.


In Manila this week Prime Minister Turnbull, echoing the language of other Western leaders of late, spoke of the need for pragmatism when it comes to Syria:

...what we need there is a political settlement. And it is clear that the principal determinants of, the people that will decide who can be in or out are going to be the people in Syria. You know that dictating terms from foreign capitals is unlikely to be successful. So, clearly the, as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, David Cameron, said in Turkey, and I endorse what he said, the approach of all the parties to a resolution in Syria has to be one undertaken in the spirit of compromise, and in a spirit of pragmatism.

It all sounds reasonable and sensible and in many respects it is. But the subtext of this pragmatism is a willingness to compromise with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the interest of destroying ISIS. The idea that we should settle with Assad because ISIS is worse was given more clear-throated ventilation by former Prime Minister Howard this week. 

There is no question that the priority today must be to end the conflict in Syria above all else. The scale of the catastrophe in Syria means that all options need to be considered, even unpalatable ones. Indeed, this has been obvious for a number of years. In September 2013, Rodger Shanahan and I wrote:

Syrian policy needs to operate within the realm of the possible, rather than the preferable. Having signaled that it is not willing to mount a major military intervention, the West needs to focus its efforts on diplomacy. This will not be easy. The West will need to find diplomatic solutions to the conflict and its consequences without, as far as is possible, rewarding the Syrian leadership for its brutal behaviour and for the responsibility it holds for the death and suffering of millions of Syrians.

But in considering unpalatable options, it is also vital that we be clear-sighted about them.

The current formulation being used by Western leaders to climb down from the 'Assad-must-go' tree is a willingness to contemplate Assad remaining in power for a transitional period. It is upon this slender branch that a bridge was purportedly built between the US and its allies and Assad's international patrons, Iran and Russia, at the Vienna talks.

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Significantly, that bridge does not yet extend to the Syrian opposition, who were not invited to Vienna, notwithstanding Turnbull's comment above that 'dictating terms from foreign capitals is unlikely to be successful.'

In any event, this does not really matter because I don't believe Assad or his international backers would stick to such a deal, even if they were prepared to agree to it. Over the last four years Assad has shown that he is prepared to sacrifice every last Syrian to remain in power. So far he has sacrificed a quarter of a million of them. Why would he budge now when his military position has been strengthened by Russian and Iranian intervention and when he thinks that the West fears ISIS more than it fears him remaining in power?

Nor do I think Russia or Iran will abandon Assad easily. Every so often they float the idea that they are not wedded to Assad personally remaining in power, and to some extent this is true. Were they, for example, to be forced to choose between protecting their interests in Syria and protecting Assad, they probably would give him up. But they have never been placed in that position. Instead they suggest they might give up Assad in the hope of dragging the West closer to their position, gradually eroding Western opposition to Assad remaining in power permanently. 

It is not ordained that the US and allies such as Australia should have to be Russian or Iranian patsies. To get to closer to a political settlement, the West will have to concede some transitional role to Assad. This is the right kind of pragmatism. But it has to be accompanied by a determination to ensure that Assad's rule really is transitional.

I fear, however, that this kind of pragmatism will be accompanied by the wrong kind; the kind that has seen Western countries tolerate and even embrace myriad Middle Eastern dictators at great cost to both the people of the Middle East and to Western interests and security. These repressive, dictatorial systems have incubated radicalism and terrorism, and even at times promoted it. Repression does not create jihadism and extremism, but it creates the conditions for it to thrive, helping it to gain supporters and foot soldiers. 

It was, for example, the repressive policies of the Maliki Government in Iraq that drove Sunnis in that country into the arms of ISIS. And it was Assad's brutal response to the originally peaceful protests of the Arab uprising in Syria that transformed it into a violent civil war and a magnet for jihadists.

Yet we still turn a blind eye to this connection between dictatorship and extremism. In Egypt, for example, Western pragmatism is gradually winding down pressure on the increasingly repressive regime of President Sisi. Yet under his rule terrorism in Egypt has grown rather than diminished, as the recent bombing of the Metrojet airliner in Sinai underlined.

In the case of Syria, this wrong kind of pragmatism will mean, I fear, that after Western leaders concede to Assad a transitional role in running his country they won't have the determination, persistence or patience to stop his rule becoming permanent. In fact, I suspect some Western policymakers privately know this already; some might even favour it. They may be thinking that even if we cannot dislodge Assad after this 'transitional period', a permanent Assad is still better than the alternative. 

But they are wrong. 

Assad is no more capable of returning stability to Syria with Western backing than he is without it. Any political process built upon Assad playing a transitional role in his country will soon collapse once it becomes clear that his role is becoming permanent. Any deal that unintentionally or otherwise helped Assad survive will also entrench Russian and Iranian strategic gains in Syria. No one in Syria owes more to the Russians and Iranians than he does. In fact, the West would be complicit in increasing the security threat that Iran and Hizballah pose to Israel as they expand their presence in Syria. 

But most damaging of all, such a deal would reinforce the view in the Arab world that, when faced with a choice, the West will always side with repressive dictators over their citizens. And we will probably still wonder why they hate us.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user US Department of State.


The Paris climate negotiations, which seek to deliver the next global framework for reducing emissions, kick off in just over a week. As we head into Paris, it is fair to say that close observers are optimistic but nervous.

The draft agreement is 50-odd pages long, and a number of key political issues remain to be resolved. Sticking points include:

  • how to we ensure that countries regularly ratchet up emission reduction action through time.
  • How – if at all – does the agreement capture the fact that that countries are at different stages of development? What does this mean for the contribution of less-developed countries to global action?
  • How do we ensure that the world's poorest nations are supported, financially and otherwise, to participate in climate change solutions and adapt to its impacts?

But there is also cause for confidence. The Paris negotiations seek to establish an agreement for a new common international framework that will drive domestic action. For the first time, the agreement will call for domestic actions from all countries, a critical step toward keeping warming below the 2°C threshold. This 2°C threshold is what the international community has agreed, through time, we will avoid.

The careful planning and political leg-work ahead of Paris will, it is hoped, ensure we avoid the utter chaos that marked the Copenhagen summit in 2009.

Moreover, the world has changed significantly since then.

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First, climate change is no longer seen as solely an environmental issue. Governments, national security agencies, central bankers, institutional investors, health professionals, major global businesses and many others now regard climate change, and the global response to it, as a major strategic issue that must be managed. 

More and more countries have policies to limit emissions. At Copenhagen in 2009, there were some 420 climate change laws and policies at a domestic level. By the end of 2014, there were over 800. 

Another major development is the rapid transformation of the energy sector. Renewable energy is now the world's second-largest source of electricity. The scale of uptake and rapid cost reductions is giving countries the confidence to commit to reduce emissions.

Ahead of the Paris meeting, over 150 countries have also put forward initial emission reductions targets, covering nearly 90% of global emissions. These targets vary in their degree of strength and credibility, but they also show how meetings like Paris can increase global action. Without the looming climate negotiations, many countries, including Australia, would not have felt pressure to put forward new targets and implement new domestic policies to achieve them. As a result, we're closer to the 2°C target than we would otherwise be.

Analysts suggest that achieving these targets would put the world on track to almost 3°C global warming. This is a significant improvement on previous projections of global action, which put warming at 4°C or more, but still falls short of the sub-2°C limit. The targets also imply a significant acceleration of action to decarbonise high-emissions sectors such as electricity. For example, these targets would see investment in renewable energy increase to become the world's dominant source of electricity by 2030.

Finally, businesses are increasingly seeing climate change as a strategic issue that needs to be proactively managed. Climate change is already having wide-ranging economic effects, which are expected to become more intense. There is a growing trend of investment managers, with long-term horizons or fiduciary duties, considering the effects of climate change on their members. 

Throughout 2015, a number of Australian businesses have released statements showing their willingness to take action on climate. The Australian Climate Roundtable brought business, investor, union, research, environment and welfare groups together. A statement was released encouraging Australia to do its bit on climate change. In September, leaders from AGL, BHP Billiton, GE, Mirvac, Santos, Unilever, Wesfarmers and Westpac Group published a statement that supports an effective Paris agreement outcome. 

This provides some optimism for the future, regardless of the outcomes of the Paris meeting. If the core political issues in the meeting are resolved, the outcome can be a further catalyst for global action to address climate change. 

Yet, regardless of the outcome, business, investors, communities and governments will not turn their backs on the global boom in clean energy. That train has left the station. After Paris, it will be up to our political leaders to come together to ensure Australia minimises the risks of this transition while maximising the opportunities for our nation. 

The Climate Institute has released a brief on the potential outcomes from Paris, which can be accessed here. You can also view an animation on why Paris matters.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user UNclimatechange.


The view from Jakarta

Jakarta joined other world capitals this week in condemning the Paris attacks, while Australia built up business opportunities with its neighbour, and the speaker of Indonesia's House of Representatives became embroiled in a kickback scandal.

President Jokowi reaffirmed Indonesia's strong stance against global terrorism this week in response to the attacks in Paris, which were claimed by ISIS. The President said that 'terrorism of any kind cannot be tolerated', and urged greater international cooperation in response. Indonesia recently added a military counter-terrorism squad to its already strong police-run Detachment 88 and National Counterterrorism Agency (BNPT). The formation of the elite military squad is intended to bolster efforts to tackle terrorism, but concerns have been raised over the potential for the overlapping authority to add to existing tensions between the police and military.

Even with these three authorities in place, ISIS-affiliated terrorist groups continue to operate in Indonesia, and almost 300 Indonesians are suspected to have joined IS in Syria and Iraq. A civil servant from the Riau Islands reportedly joined ISIS in Iraq together with his wife and three daughters in recent months. Analysts have warned that even a small number of such cases should be cause for concern for Indonesia's security.

Religious leaders in the Muslim-majority nation have been quick to condemn the latest violence in Paris. The country's two biggest Islamic organisations, Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama, have called the attacks 'inexcusable' and accused the attackers of having 'tainted Islam's image'.

Within Indonesia, inter-faith intolerance has become a more widespread issue than global terrorist ideology. A recent survey by the Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace found Jakarta's satellite cities of Bogor, Bekasi, Tangerang and Depok to be among the least religiously tolerant regions nationwide. One region in West Java this week took the unusual step of issuing a circular demanding respect for freedom of religious expression, in line with the constitution and the state ideology of Pancasila, which guarantee freedom of worship for those practising state-recognised religions. The step was taken in response to mounting anti-Shiite activity in the region.

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Anti-terrorism was on the agenda for Malcolm Turnbull's trip to Jakarta last week, but following the Prime Minister's visit, bilateral discussions turned to matters of business. Australia's trade minister, Andrew Robb, led a huge delegation including 360 Australian business representatives to Yogyakarta on Tuesday for Indonesia-Australia Business Week. Business seems to be the safest foundation from which to rebuild relations between Australia and Indonesia at present, following tensions over spying, executions, and various issues regarding borders and boats. The trade and investment delegation to Yogyakarta was the biggest of its kind to date, signalling Australia's interest in pursuing business opportunities with its nearest Asian neighbour.

A report by the Australia-Indonesia Centre titled Succeeding Together was launched at the event, detailing the ways in which the two countries could develop joint comparative advantage in certain sectors if they improve cooperation. However, as President Jokowi remarked during Turnbull's visit last week, the proximity of Australia and Indonesia brings as much potential for friction as it does for friendship. Better business cooperation between the two countries cannot be guaranteed while government and cultural ties remain strained.

Meanwhile, US miner Freeport this week found itself at the centre of a scandal in Indonesian politics. House of Representatives speaker Setya Novanto, who was last in the international spotlight for his appearance at a Donald Trump campaign rally in New York in September, has again come before the House ethics council, this time over allegations he asked for kickbacks in return for a contract extension for Freeport. It is alleged that Setya asked for shares in Freeport in the names of President Jokowi and Vice President Jusuf Kalla during government negotiations with the company.

A report on the incident filed by Energy Minister Sudirman Said also implicates politically connected businessman Muhammad Reza Chalid and chief security minister Luhut Panjaitan, who was until recently Jokowi's chief of staff. But Jokowi has opted to leave the case to the ethics council, commenting only to media that he's aware of the online memes regarding the scandal that riff on the infamous mama minta pulsa ('mama wants phone credit') text message scam. The current trending topic is papa minta saham ('papa wants shares'), the President reportedly joked to journalists.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user hendrikMINTARNO.


The 10th East Asia Summit this weekend promises to be one of the most interesting bits of summitry in some time. This, the last stop on Malcolm Turnbull’s five-nation tour which has included one-on-one meetings with the top three on Forbes' Most Powerful List, is also likely to prove the most challenging.

Rather than the more familiar topics of economic affairs, Mr Turnbull will have to negotiate an EAS geared toward discussions on the region's myriad security concerns. It's an opportunity for him to prove his foreign policy skills and show himself to be a handy all-rounder.

Mr Turnbull has a different worldview to his predecessor. There is a streak of realism that seems to drive a manual transmission, rather than automatic, in balancing relations between Australia's chief military ally and its biggest trade partner. And his consultative, business-centric approach is far more akin to that of his Asian counterparts than Tony Abbott's hawkishness.

Canberra has recently championed the 18-member EAS, which brings together the region's two key security guarantors and India, as one of the most important summits in the region's security architecture. As Australia’s top diplomat, Peter Vargese, described it in an address to the Lowy Institute earlier this year, 'From an Australian perspective, the EAS is the regional institution which has the highest priority and the most potential'. He added: 'A core objective of the EAS should be to nurture habits of consultation across the region'.

In the wake of the Paris (and Bangkok) attacks, counter-terrorism will top the agenda this weekend. The Southeast Asian boat people crisis, and irregular migration overall, are also likely to feature.

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Indeed, with the onset of the sailing season across the Bay of Bengal and Europe's increasingly closed-border policy, the region may be set for a new, and potentially much bigger, wave of irregular maritime migration. Establishing regional frameworks to manage such flows would save lives and mitigate political fallout for national governments.

By far the thorniest issue to be discussed, however, will be the South China Sea and the US Navy's Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) last month. China's representative, Premier Li, will try to steer discussions toward a statement condemning the Paris attacks, similar to that agreed at APEC. China will also want to focus on improving counter-terrorism cooperation and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). But a draft declaration from the EAS Chair which raises concerns over the South China Sea disputes and urges adherence to UNCLOS suggests the territorial disputes could be subject to perhaps their most intense discussions yet (they are also expected to feature in the ASEAN Chairman's statement).

This year, Canberra has spoken plainly on the South China Sea. Australian diplomats have emphasised that Australia's key interest in the region is to uphold the rules-based system. Further afield, Australia has also been vocal on Russia's flouting of the rules-based system in Ukraine. This weekend at the EAS, Russia and China, the two countries which have demonstrated 'strategic behaviour' (to use the language of Varghese) to test what they can get away with rather than adhering to rule-based norms, will be at the table. The 10th EAS may be viewed, to some extent, as a critical test of these behaviours. Australia is better placed for those discussions with an unblemished, shirtfront-free, Turnbull.

Michael Wesley noted this week that the US will be looking to leaders who have not been vocal against Beijing's (or Moscow’s) whatever-you-can-get-away-with behaviour to speak up. As Wesley wrote: 'The summits offer a chance for the US to put its allies and partners on the spot'. When Obama and Turnbull met earlier this week, they sang from the same songsheet, This weekend, Mr Turnbull could be pushed to go further.

Then again, as Ernie Bower has noted, the US is 'felling its oats' after a stellar few months. The TPP is signed, its bet on Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar (in which Hillary Clinton’s political future is heavily invested) has paid off, and Washington finally pulled the pin and launched FONOPs. Obama is coming into this EAS with a strong hand. That may give Australia more room to manoeuvre. Rather than having to stand behind the US, Mr Turnbull could take a bit of distance and possibly even act as a middle man in brokering agreement.

There are continued aspirations that the EAS, particularly in its 10th year, will live up to its potential and become the premier forum for the discussion of security issues in the region. If the EAS is bolstered, through either a series of reforms or by reaching significant agreement (such as on territorial disputes), it would be a big victory for both the embattled rules-based system and improved cooperation in the region.

It would also be a big win to mark on Mr Turnbull’s foreign policy record. The greatest pressures Mr Turnbull faces ahead of next year's election are domestic. However, a stronger EAS would put another shock absorber into the regional framework to address crises such as the South China Sea dispute, which always have the potential to upset an election campaign. Moreover, a more robust EAS, enabled by Canberra, would be a crucial support for the pivot of Australia's national psyche to Asia.

Photo courtesy of Facebook user Malcolm Turnbull.


This is the first in a two part series by Fergus Green, climate policy consultant and researcher, London School of Economics and Political Science and Richard Denniss, chief economist, The Australia Institute. This post examines trends in coal demand. Part two will focus on proposals to regulate supply, including the call for a moratorium on new coal mines.

Ask a climate scientist what keeps them up at night and chances are it’s the potential for continued warming of the climate to trigger a tipping point — an abrupt, system-wide change that is difficult or impossible to reverse — in one or more of the Earth’s key climatic systems.

Compared with these growing risks to physical systems, the pace of human action to tackle the causes of climate change can seem grindingly slow. But human systems have tipping points, too; something that can seem impossible one day can suddenly acquire an unstoppable momentum.

Right now, we are arguably experiencing a tipping point in the global use of coal.

For years, the coal industry and its political supporters have clung to 'business as usual' forecasts (such as those produced by the International Energy Agency) that point to continuing growth in coal demand for decades, insisting that such forecasts are evidence of the fuel’s strong future.

It may come as a shock to those who genuinely believed the forecasts, then, to see consensus crystallise around the notion that coal consumption is peaking. In September, Goldman Sachs forecast that global coal consumption would peak before 2020. Even that now looks conservative: on Monday this week, the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) made the call that global coal consumption likely peaked in 2013.

Whether IEEFA’s call turns out to be accurate, we will not know for sure for some time. But the headline numbers are striking. According to IEEFA’s analysis:

Beyond China’s 5.7% year on year decline to date in 2015, US domestic coal consumption is down 11%, Germany is down 3%, the UK is down 16%, Japan is down 3%, Canada is down 5%, and Turkey is down 13% year over year. With Russia’s economy in recession, we wouldn’t expect consumption growth [in] coal there. Korea is flat, Indonesia is down 2% and Mexico is down 1%.

Against this, only two major coal-consuming economies are reporting positive growth in 2015. Indian coal consumption is up 3-6% year on year, while Australian coal consumption is up marginally, following the Abbott Government’s repeal of Australia’s carbon price, which had previously caused Australian coal consumption to decline.

There are multiple factors causing this rapid shift in the fortunes of coal.

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Critically, for the prediction that the peak has passed, the key factors are long-term structural trends. One common factor is competition for electricity generation from zero-emissions wind and solar photovoltaics and (especially in the US) from lower-emissions gas. Another is the increased regulation of coal, as regulators impose stricter standards on emissions of carbon dioxide and local pollutants, requiring companies increasingly to internalise the environmental and social costs of their activities.

Local pollution, health and climate concerns are also provoking grassroots opposition to projects spanning many countries and all parts of the coal supply chain. A rapidly growing financial divestment movement is having a delegitimising effect, placing coal in the same category as tobacco, asbestos and other toxic products, and so paving the way politically for increased regulation.

These and other factors have different weights across local contexts. Consider the variations among the three largest coal consumers, China, the US and India, that are collectively responsible for more than 70% of global coal consumption.

In China, which consumed more than half of total global coal consumption in 2014, the end of a decade-long boom in construction and energy-intensive manufacturing (steel, cement etc) has slowed greatly the growth in China’s demand for energy. Meanwhile, acute public concern about air pollution, that is estimated to kill 4,000 people per day, and caused primarily by the burning of coal, is leading to ever-stronger policies to limit coal and shift the energy mix toward other sources. Coal use likely fell by around 6% year on year in the 9 months from January to September 2015. Even the International Energy Agency concedes its forecasts of coal growth in China are well out of date and that 'the rapid growth of Chinese coal demand is over'.

In the US (11.7% of 2014 global consumption), record low US gas prices, record expansions of renewable energy (9 gigawatts of wind and 8 gigawatts of solar in 2015), and flat electricity demand have contributed to thermal coal consumption declining 11% year on year.

In India (9.3% of 2014 global consumption), electricity growth in the year to September was only 3.1% and steel production (which uses coking coal) has stagnated, according to IEEFA’s analysis. This slow growth largely reflects challenges facing India’s electricity system, in which retail prices are set lower than wholesale generation costs, meaning state distribution companies face losses on every additional unit of electricity they sell (decentralised solar PV systems are able to bypass this problem).

Declining consumption in China and elsewhere, moreover, has caused prices for traded coal to slump, in turn rendering uneconomical the construction of many new supply projects, such as mines and transport infrastructure.

Watching these economic, regulatory and social phenomena unfold, hard-headed investors and financial analysts are concluding that coal’s future is limited and that companies whose business models depend on coal are of little value, a sentiment reflected in such companies’ languishing share prices.

Moreover, coal companies are becoming increasingly isolated politically. As the corporate world perceives increasing risks of binding carbon budgets, the oil and gas industries have begun to split the fossil fuel camp and stake their greater claim to the remaining budget. Coal, after all, is the highest-emitting and lowest-value of the three fossil fuels. (The motivations of the oil and gas executives in criticising coal are no doubt self-serving, but their political-economic heft could be helpful to the fight against coal.) In a sign of the industry’s growing desperation, coal companies have even started fighting publicly amongst themselves.

Various dynamics complicate the endgame for coal, which we consider in our next post. Moreover, these dynamics differ between thermal and coking coal.

Image courtesy of UN Photo


'Should Donald Trump be elected US President, Australia should tear up the ANZUS alliance', leads this article by veteran analyst and political reporter, Daniel Flitton.

He doesn’t hold back:

Malcolm Turnbull or Bill Shorten could be prime minister by this time next year, but this is a simple bipartisan choice. If Trump wins the keys to the White House, there will be no need for a congratulatory phone call. Just get the clock ticking on the 12-month waiting period required to formally withdraw from the treaty. 

This remarkable and uncompromising statement demands that Australia end a successful alliance that has served us well for more than 60 years.

Not for reasons relating to Australia’s strategic circumstances, mind you. Not because the US would be pulling back from the Asia-Pacific, or because Australia’s future in Asia would be deemed to require a more independent stance. No, instead the trigger would be the election of a US President that some (ok, many) Australians would find objectionable.

First, let’s consider at this point in the election cycle the probability that Trump will become the Republican nominee.

When Trump first announced his candidacy, pundits from across the political spectrum boldly stated that this was ‘silly season’ in US politics, and that there was ‘zero chance’ of Trump becoming the Republican nominee, let alone of him winning the presidency.

Despite Trump’s stratospheric poll numbers, such views have continued to dominate.

At first, there were good reasons to believe them. After all, other than Bush, Trump was the only name anyone in the country recognised. It was assumed that as more ‘serious’ candidates entered the fray, Trump would quickly fade.

Even as Trump’s poll numbers proved sticky, many strenuously argued that he would quit the race. After all, campaigns are incredibly expensive, and just how much money would be Trump willing to pour into a losing bid? Well, so far, none. Given his celebrity status and the ratings he pulls for networks, Trump has been saturated in media coverage. As he boasts: 'I’ve spent the least money and have the best poll numbers'.

Over the past month or so most pundits have begrudgingly moved from insisting Trump has ‘no chance’ of becoming the nominee, to there being ‘only a slight chance’. The overwhelming majority, however, still rank multiple candidates well ahead of him. To my mind, this view is now desperate to the point of delusive.

Trump is likely to win the nomination. Here's why:

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1. Bush is tanking, but has all of the money.

Raising huge donations early was a deliberate tactic employed by the Bush camp to intimidate potential rivals out of the race. Bush’s campaign is terminal, but with the money already raised he will probably linger on, keeping votes and donors from his infinitely more promising Florida padawan, Marco Rubio.

2. Republican voters have been well trained to hate government

Every Republican says ‘government is the problem’. Problem is, they are the government. Ergo, why not vote for an outsider? Enter Trump, Carson, Fiorina.

3. Trump is an entertainer

Being an entertainer immunises Trump from scandal. Given the bombastic things he’s already said, if Trump’s popularity hasn’t waned by now then it won’t be scandal that brings it unstuck. On the contrary, every time he says something outrageous, people are reminded that Trump is not a typical politician. There is only one risk to Trump’s long-term popularity, and that's he becomes boring. As it is, being an entertainer is no drawback. We’re frequently reminded that Ronald Reagan was a movie star, after all.

4.Trump is on message

Pundits generally dismiss Trump’s supporters as mercurial or just plain ignorant; they cannot understand why any sensible, reasoned individual would do anything but dismiss Trump out of hand.

The fact is that inequities in American life are now so bad, and so entrenched, that no US president is going to significantly change this in a maximum eight year term. The American people know this. Trump’s promise to ‘make America great again’ might just be pillow talk, but at least it’s inspiring. Other candidates are tarnished by tepid solutions that just remind voters of their problems.

5. Trump has the energy

The US election cycle is a marathon. Staying power is a critical trait for any presidential hopeful. Early on, one of the things pundits argued was that Trump wouldn’t be prepared for the scrutiny of a campaign. Instead, Trump has proven himself among the hardest working candidates, doing interviews and speaking at rallies round-the-clock. Indeed, just hours after the latest Republican debate Trump was in New Hampshire speaking to business leaders at a ‘politics & eggs’ breakfast.

6. Trump has the votes where it counts

Republican candidates have only ever been successful in securing the nomination if they’ve taken either Iowa or New Hampshire in the primaries. In Iowa, Trump has a tough race against Ben Carson. Iowa has a large number of conservative Christian voters among whom Carson is the undisputed favourite. Moreover, Trump hasn’t exactly draped himself in glory among Christian voters by the manner in which he’s been attacking his pious rival, as well as making derogatory comments about Iowans generally.

Still, Trump remains competitive in Iowa, and even if he loses there he retains a near unassailable lead in New Hampshire. These primaries are quickly followed by much larger delegate sweeps in states like Nevada and Texas, where Carson’s vote languishes. Trump will certainly outpace Carson, and a third candidate would have to make electoral history to win the Republican nomination against this tide of early momentum.

So, yes, Trump could become the Republican nominee. And yes, there is also a chance he could also beat Hillary Clinton in the election.

Let’s then assume that in early 2017 Donald Trump is sworn in as the 45th President of the United States. What would this mean for Australia?

Here I am going to commit heresy, especially as I am firmly on the progressive side of the political spectrum. While I have strong differences with Trump across a range of policy areas, for Australia and the alliance, I have little concern. Indeed, under either Trump or Clinton, ANZUS is likely to enjoy a very bright future.

I say this because on foreign policy Trump is calm, sensible, realistic, and firmly rooted in strategic logic.

On Syria, Trump is happy to work with Russia, and has long been pragmatic about joining Assad in common cause to defeat ISIS.

On Ukraine, Trump is supportive of NATO allies, but is likely to put significantly more pressure on the Europeans to invest in their own defence to resist Russian aggression.

Even on Cuba, a hot button issue for most Republicans, Trump strongly endorses opening relations.

With regard to the nuclear deal with Iran, Trump is critical of Obama’s apparent desperation to conclude an agreement. But, unlike many Republican rivals who pledge to ‘tear it up’, Trump has acknowledged he’d be bound by the agreement.

Trump also distinguishes himself from his Republican rivals by emphasising the strategic priority of the Asia Pacific, rather than Europe or the Middle East. This is where the real long-term challenges lie, and it's also where Australia wants the US to be.

Whatever else one might say, the man is no fool. The real Trump is very cunning and understands exactly what he’s doing. To that end, he delivered a lengthy speech in Texas the other day. One excerpt in particular is worth watching. Start at the 28:05 min mark and watch to 35:25 min. Trump predicts that under his presidency America's enemies will one day be saying: 'This guy is freaking crazy. We give up. We give up'. This could just as easily be said by Trump’s critics.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Gage Skidmore


Last month in this space I argued that North Korea is not really a communist state, at least not as we normally understand Marxist-Leninist states in the 20th century. For example, North Korea is governed by a monarchic family clan; its 'socialism' has been broadly replaced by corruption (at the top) and informal marketisation (at the bottom); it flirts with race-fascism. Yet it does still retain obvious elements of old Stalinist states – for example, in its iconography, obsession with ideology, and anti-Western foreign policy relationships.

In my experience in this area, both scholarly and journalistic, this creates a lot of confusion and intellectual competition, with consequent political repercussions over how exactly to respond to North Korean provocations. There is a wide division out there about just how to interpret North Korea, what it 'really' is, what it 'really' wants, and so on. Similarly, a common retort to de-legitimise one's intellectual opponents in the study of North Korea is to claim another does not really 'understand' the 'true' North Korea.

The easy answer is to throw up one's hands and call North Korea sui generis. That may be right in the way North Korea synthesizes seemingly disparate elements into what should be an ideological rube-goldberg jalopy. But North Korea manages to hang on regardless of how many times we analysts say it is an incoherent mess. So it seems worthwhile to sketch out some of the various interpretations floating around out there. Based on my experience at conferences, in the scholarship and journalism, from my trip to North Korea itself, and so on, I would say there are five primary interpretive angles:

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1. North Korea as 'classic' Cold War Stalinist alternative to South Korea

Who believes this? Non-Korean journalists, Korean conservatives and military, non-elite Americans

What is their ideology? Traditional conservative

What is their big fear? A Northern invasion of South Korea

I argued against this interpretation last month, and I would reckon most North Korea analysts would say this is no longer the best way to read Pyongyang. But I find it is still quite popular. Its appeal is obvious. It is easy to understand, parallels nicely with South Korea as the liberal democratic alternate, and fits into an obvious frame – the Cold War.

And because North Korea started out this way, all sorts of vestiges remain: the socialist moniker (the Democratic People's Republic of Korea), the iconography (lots of red, the flag, the national seal, the party symbol), the autarkic ideology. And Kim Il Sung, the regime founder, almost certainly believed in socialism or communism (although whether his son and grandson do is matter of intense debate).

2. North Korea as a dangerous rogue state gumming up the works of globalisation and US hegemony

Who believes this? US hawks and think-tankers

What is their ideology? Neoconservative

What is their big fear? Nuclear proliferation

The idea here is that North Korea has actually successfully adapted to the end of the Cold War and remade itself as a gremlin in global governance. It refuses to follow even the most basic rules; its decision-making is a fog to outsiders; it does not belong to any international organisations. It is the most unpredictable state in the system. Back when he was Undersecretary of Defense, Paul Wolfowitz captured this anxiety well: 'I'm more profoundly skeptical of North Korea than of any other country—both how they think, which I don't understand, and the series of bizarre things they have done.'

3. North Korea as a semi-fascist barracks state

Who believes this? Various intellectuals (Brian Myers, Josh Stanton, Christopher Hitchens, Vox), my North Korean minders

What is their ideology? None

What is their big fear? Nationalist competition with and subversion of South Korea

Brian Myers has led this school, which argues that North Korea is a misunderstood racist state based on Japanese and German fascist forms from the early twentieth century. It rallies its citizens through aggressive race-based nationalism (the defence of minjok), defends the racial 'cleanliness' of Korea in a big intrusive world, insists that ethnic Koreans of other nationalities are still Koreans, and routinely uses racist language in its diplomacy. On top of this, it is one of the most highly militarised states in the world. Racism plus hypermilitarism looks a lot more like fascism than communism.

Notably, when I was in North Korea, my minders used a lot of this sort of language. As one of them put it, 'no mixing' (ie. inter-racial mixing).

4. North Korea as neo-Confucian kingdom defending Korean independence against foreign predators

Who believes this? Doves (here, here, here), the South Korean left, Korean college students

What is their ideology? Leftist

What is their big fear? American misunderstanding and overreaction

If the above interpretations are all congenial to conservatives and hawks, here is perhaps the one I encounter most from the left. The idea here is that North Korea is more Korean than socialist or fascist, and that if we look at Korean history, we can see where it came from. For example, the North Korea monarchy is not a transplant of Stalinism but a reversion to Korea's earlier Confucian political form, a point evidenced by the inclusion of a Confucian writing brush in the party symbol, and in the DPRK's insistence that it is a modern version of Koguryeo, a much earlier Korean kingdom.

Or, it was US behaviour during the Korean War – specifically the extraordinary bombing of the North — which radicalised Kim Il Sung and the Korean Workers Party. If the US had not been so brutal, the logic goes, the North Korea would have been more like North Vietnam or East Germany, instead of the Orwellian tyranny we know today. The policy extension of this view is that North Korea must be brought in from the cold by outreach such as the Sunshine policy.

5. North Korea as a mafia racket masquerading as a country

Who believes this? No clear school (me, Alastair Gale, Josh Stanton)

What is their ideology? None

What is their big fear? An Inter-Korean federation that effectively subsidises North Korea permanently

This is perhaps close to the neoconservative interpretation. The more I study North Korea, the more the gangsterism strikes me. North Korea is indeed a trouble-making rogue. But it is far more predictable than rogue/conservative interpretations permit. North Korea is not in fact suicidal, nor is it likely trying to bring down South Korea, invade it, or otherwise achieve Northern-led unification. This is all out of its reach, and there's no way China, Japan or the US would stand by if these eventualities actually began to play out. What Pyongyang wants more than anything else is just to survive, so war is highly unlikely; and its elites want the lifestyle to which their bloody climb to the top has entitled them.

We know that North Korea routinely engages in illicit behavior: smuggling, drug production and running, insurance fraud, proliferation, counterfeiting of dollars and RMB. We know that throughout the 'sunshine' period it took every advantage to demand South Korea pay for joint projects, and even pay Pyongyang off directly. It rips off its own labour force, whether working aboard in Siberia or in the Persian Gulf, or at home in the Kaesong industrial zone. Inside North Korea, corruption is endemic, and its elites gorge themselves at the population's expense. Kim Jong Il's appetites for liquor and women were neronian, while Kim Jong Un has continued his father's partying rule by building a ski resort (yes, really).

In short, North Korea is post-ideological and akin to The Godfather: a massive racket to shake down anyone, inside North Korea and out, to fund the self-indulgent lifestyle of a narrow elite. North Korea is what happens when Don Corleone takes over an entire country and can enforce his clan rule with a secret police rather than just capo henchman. Actually, North Korea is barely a country at all; it's an Orwellian gangster fiefdom.

  • Two advocates for traditional landowners in Vanuatu explain why the Western model of development promoted by Australia through its aid program is inconsistent with Melanesian values.
  • The resignation of Fiji's Police Commissioner Ben Groenewald, and the appointment of RFMF Land Forces Commander Sitiveni Qiliho to act as his replacement, continues to reverberate with prominent lawyer Richard Naidu resigning from the Constitutional Offices Commission in protest and Defence Minister Timoci Natuva defending the appointment.
  • Jenny Hayward-Jones says Qiliho's appointment is a setback for rebuilding democracy in Fiji. 
  • The Nauru Government's commitment to the rule of law is still in doubt as lawyers for opposition MPs await visas to enable them to represent the MPs in court. 
  • See what was discussed at the Aus-PNG Network's latest PNG Emerging Leaders Roundtable on the topic of critical infrastructure for development in PNG. 
  • This Special Humanitarian Bulletin from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs gives an update on El-Niño in the Pacific. A lack of rainfall is already starting to have devastating impacts on agriculture and food security, especially in Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands, which are still recovering from the impacts of Tropical Cyclone Pam. 
  • In Bougainville, many families are still waiting on news of missing relatives 20 years on from the conflict. They are calling on the Autonomous Bougainville Government to do more to ensure remains are returned to home villages.
  • New Zealand rugby union legend Jonah Lomu died unexpectedly this morning at the age of 40. Former All Blacks teammate Alama Ieremia said Lomu redefined what wing play was all about and described Lomu as 'a very gentle person and a very genuine Islander'.

5 of 6 This post is part of a debate on The future of drone warfare

The recent series of posts on armed drones from James Brown, Sam Roggeveen and Jennifer Hunt each make a compelling case for the need to consider the ethics of these weapons. These authors are right, but what they may not be aware of is that such consideration is underway,  at least in the Australian Army.

On 21-22 June 2016 the Army's Strategic Plans Branch will co-host with UNSW-Canberra a major conference on military ethics. The ethics of armed drones will be on the program. This conference is open to the public and its proceedings will be published, as Army encourages an open discussion of the ethics of contemporary war.

Moreover, through its Research Scheme the Australian Army has already commissioned papers on the ethics of other emerging technologies such as soldier enhancement, and intends to commission additional studies.

The ethics of armed drones are only one of numerous issues regarding their possible use that must be considered by Australia and other states considering their acquisition. Armed drones have demonstrated a stunning ability to kill people from great distances with virtually no risk to their operators. But there has been little consideration by the world's military organisations of their contribution to the ultimate objective of all war, the ability to compel an adversary to accept your will (in the classic Clausewitzian sense). The effectiveness of military technology has been a theme of Williamson Murray's work, to which he recently returned, and he finds fault in the wisdom of the recourse to drones and precision strike.

For me, the question that needs to be answered is: if a target is subjected to unexpected and instant death, has there been any effect on will?

The contribution to success in war (to victory) is an important aspect of any evaluation of the ethical utility of a weapon. I would argue that a weapon that doesn't meet ethical standards is unlikely to make a positive contribution to forcing your enemy to accept your will. Rather, it is likely to have the opposite effect.

Armed drones have dazzled many military and political minds with their ruthless efficiency. But efficiency and effectiveness in war are not the same thing. Efficiency in killing won't translate into effectiveness in war unless the ethics are right.

Otherwise, armed drones are nothing more than instruments of murder.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Airman Magazine.