Lowy Institute
US presidential race 2016

Often marked by division between supporters of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, this week’s Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia ended on a note of conciliation and inclusion. In her nomination acceptance speech, Clinton, the first female presidential candidate of a major American political party, went as far as to draw a parallel between her campaign and one of the mottos of the United States itself, E pluribus unum: ‘out of many, one’.

America’s significant population of religious zealots might find fault with her decision not to focus on the official ‘In god we trust’, but there was a clear intention to distinguish her message from the exclusionary and overtly negative display of the Republicans and Donald Trump at their convention in Cleveland last week.

This approach included some none too subtle overtures in the direction of disgruntled supporters of Sanders, and even Trump himself, and often at the same time. ‘If you believe that we should say “no” to unfair trade deals…that we should stand up to China...that we should support our steelworkers and autoworkers and homegrown manufacturers…join us,’ she said at one point. Later Clinton chastised her Republican opponent for making ‘Trump ties in China, not Colorado’ and ‘Trump suits in Mexico, not Michigan’, with the geographic choices surely not coincidental.

It’s a long shot that Clinton will be able to claw back a statistically significant amount of the blue-collar white vote that has been successfully courted by Trump, but she may yet be able to win over enough disappointed would-be Sanders voters to ensure a large margin of victory in November.

Clinton’s biggest asset at the DNC was Sanders himself, who made a convincing plea for his supporters to fall in line behind the Democratic nominee. It helps that he has had some success in injecting some of his more progressive policies, or at least his rhetoric, into the mainstream party line. As well as trade deals, Clinton’s speech contained exhortations against ‘Wall Street, corporations, and the super rich’, even as she has long attracted the support of the first two and might reasonably be described as a member of the third.

Earlier in the convention, Michelle Obama, principally, made the case of African American voters to form a major bloc within Clinton’s ‘big tent’ election coalition.

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The first lady delivered one of the more effective speeches of recent American political history and was not afraid to draw on the some shameful aspects of the country’s history, just as the larger convention didn’t shy away from highlighting black victims of police shootings, while also acknowledging those officers who have themselves been killed in recent retaliatory attacks. Elsewhere, Clinton’s running mate Tim Kaine broke out his Spanish language skills for no apparent reason, other than the naked political one.

The contrasting approaches of the Republican and Democratic conventions and larger campaigns thus set the scene for a fascinating test of strategies for responding to a changing America. The country’s evolving demographics are famously not on the side of the conservative side of politics and, rather than attempt to move more toward embracing an increasingly diverse populous, Republicans have chosen to concentrate on consolidating control of the still-extant white majority; an approach which has reached its apotheosis with Trump.

Clinton’s more open and embracing message — seeking support across racial, class, and other divides — would seem a far better political strategy under most circumstances, but this has been one of the strangest, most logic-defying presidential campaigns in recent memory. The other side of the Trump coin is that he has broadened his party’s base to embrace more of the lower rungs of white society, whom some conservative elites had been content to consign to the historical scrapheap. While this demographic does indeed seem to be on a general downward trajectory, it could have one last laugh come November.

Trump himself has, meanwhile, shown a complete inability to stay out of the spotlight during the DNC by challenging Russia to hack Clinton’s email, in a seemingly unprecedented courting of one of America’s ideological and material enemies. The outburst stood in stark contrast with the carefully scripted pronouncements on display in Philadelphia, and served as another reminder that this presidential contest will not be fought within the traditional rules of engagement of American politics. Without question, Clinton and her DNC supporters delivered a more cohesive and accommodating message than Trump and other RNC speakers, but it’s difficult to tell how much that type of thing matters any more.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

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Kevin Rudd's bid to nominate as a candidate for the next UN secretary general (SG) has been vetoed by the Turnbull Government. This is more than a little embarrassing for everyone concerned.

In a few hours, many UN observers will wake to the news of Rudd's thwarted campaign and shake their heads in disbelief that a country would so savagely cut down a former statesman in such a public manner. All the other 12 candidates for SG were nominated by their respective governments. These nominations did not have to be publicly asked for, and there was no unedifying bashing of the prospective nominee. It is usually a rather straightforward, non-partisan process. In New Zealand, for example, the conservative Prime Minister John Key has backed former Labour PM Helen Clark. The NZ government has also bankrolled her Twitter campaign #Helen4SG.

But in Australia we do things differently.

The decision to not nominate Rudd will feed into already negative international perceptions of Australian politics: ie: ‘they’re a brutish lot down under, aren’t they?'

Clearly, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was in an awkward position. Cabinet was divided over whether to back Rudd (as indeed was the public, with the Lowy Institute Poll 2016 showing 49% thought Rudd would not be a good SG versus 46% who thought he would). In the end, Turnbull went against his Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and chose the path of least resistance.

Turnbull’s rationale was simple. He said Kevin Rudd, a former prime minister and foreign minister of a G20 country, is not 'well-suited' to the position.

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This is despite the fact that Rudd has been active in and around the UN over the past few years. He fashioned for himself quite a nice little campaign vehicle in the form of the Independent Commission on Multilateralism (ICM), which is based out of the International Peace Institute, a think tank which he also co-chairs. Rudd is also President of the Asia Society's think tank. Indeed, Kevin Rudd has put more effort into his campaign for Secretary-General then virtually all of the official candidates.

One can only assume that Turnbull took objection to Rudd’s style of leadership and management, and made a judgement on the question of Rudd's suitability. But surely that judgement would have best left to the membership of the Security Council? The P5 and their ten elected friends are well placed to make a judgment on the suitability of each candidate. All 15 Council members have spent many months pondering that question. Last week, they made clear their collective preference for former UNHCR chief António Guterres, an extremely surprising result (12 encourage, 0 discourage, 3 abstentions).

Australia has never fielded a candidate for UN Secretary-General, and now we are going to have wait a little longer. Kristina Kenneally offered an interesting comment earlier this week about the depth of Australian talent, saying: 'I can think of 12 Australians off the top of my head who would be a better secretary-general, and one of them is my Labrador'. I cannot speak to the qualifications of Kenneally's dog, but twelve seems a little high. The problem is that there are so few Australians leading UN agencies and departments. Peter Drennan, a former Australian Federal Police Deputy Commissioner, is Under Secretary-General for Safety and Security. He is the only Australian at the head of affairs in New York. No Australian has never led a UN peacekeeping mission or special political mission. Alexander Downer was UN special adviser to the secretary-general on Cyprus (July 2008 – February 2014), but he was never a mission leader.

Australians simply cannot compete for high level posts at the UN because they lack UN experience. There was even a question mark above Rudd's name in regards to UN experience, given he has never managed a UN agency, fund, or secretariat department. In comparison, eight of the 12 confirmed candidates – Christiana Figueres, Susana Malcorra, Helen Clark, Irina Bokova, Danilo Türk, and António Guterres, Vuk Jeremić, and Srgjan Kerim – have a depth of UN experience.

If we are to see an Australian secretary-general in the future, the government will need to develop a talent pipeline that encourages Australians to progress through international organisations. To that end, the government must become more forceful in nominating Australians for posts at the top of the UN.

For now, the second straw poll in the SG race will be held next week. Sadly, Kevin Rudd’s name will not be on the list of candidates, and Australia will be smaller for it.

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The G20 is a policy no-brainer for Australia, and we should be actively engaged in the forum. 

This is one of the basic conclusions that my colleague Hannah Wurf and I outline in our Lowy Institute analysis, Making the most of the G20, released today. 

The position may surprise those that have bought into the sheer cynicism embodied in Gordon Brown’s recent remarks that the G20 is widely viewed as ineffective. There’s been a noticeable downgrading of Australian government attention on the G20 (particularly in the treasury) since the end of 2014.

To be clear, the G20 may be a flawed forum (a viewpoint that is justified by a lackluster meeting among finance ministers last week in Chengdu) but it is certainly valuable.  At a time when multilateralism is in decline and countries are turning inwards, it is needed. 

As an economic governance scholar, I’ve found myself in many quite depressing conversations about the state of the world. I think that they can be ordered along a ‘spectrum of depressing challenges’. At one end (let’s call it the ‘positive’ end) are conversations with financial markets analysts, who will confidently weave a story about emerging dangers in financial markets and predict that the next financial market crash is just around the corner. There will be an impressive chain of logic backing up their views, and I often need to seek comfort in Nobel Laureate Paul Samuelson’s famous joke that Wall Street predicted nine out of the last five recessions (and its mistakes were beauties).

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Further along the spectrum are conversations with climate change experts. These are the people examining an existential threat for the planet. Generally, they will tell you that there is a narrow window in which we can act, although we can’t say for certain when or what the impacts of missing are. But they are confident that the clock is ticking, and that government efforts have only done enough to save the chance to save the planet.

This doesn’t even get close to those looking at refugee issues, where governance arrangements globally are failing both states and people, there is no coherent global architecture governing cross-border migration (and seemingly little appetite to create one), and an absence of global leadership. 

But the space at the end of spectrum needs to be reserved for multilateral trade experts. These are the people examining trade liberalisation; a movement that has a strong track record of contributing to global prosperity since the 1940s (even if benefits are not spread evenly). Yet we’ve experienced two decades of disappointing results, and significantly backsliding is an ever present and increasingly real threat. One only has to look at the number of protectionist measures implemented every six months and the dangerous rhetoric coming out of the US to recognise the threat to a crucial policy space.

You sit in enough of these conversations, and it becomes clear exactly why it is so important to have a forum like the G20 that brings together the political leaders to progress intractable issues.  

The G20 has developed a bit of a reputation of ‘good during the global financial crisis, but less effective over time’.  The forum certainly has design flaws and governments need to work to make the G20 more effective.

But here’s the thing: it still provides valuable political leadership on macroeconomic matters. For example, Australian policy settings, and the lives of Australians, are affected by minimum global standards on tax and finance. 

These are long-term issues that we will need to continue to engage in. Even if there were no other motive, being involved in and contributing to such discussions would be worth the price of admission. And as Phillip Lowe, governor-elect of the Reserve Bank, points out in our paper, Australia has a responsibility as a high-income country to contribute to global public goods.

In an uncertain world, and with at least one prominent global risk scenario (Donald Trump) having an uncomfortably high probability of realisation, the G20 remains the best means the international community has to coordinate responses to global economic and financial crises.  The G20 also has an as-yet-untapped potential to play an important role in countering anti-globalisation sentiment, although it needs to be stronger, clearer and more robust in its rhetoric in support of the liberal economic order and the institutions (such as the IMF and WTO) that underpin in.

The forum also gives us an unrivalled chance to influence, and not just listen to, the global economic debate.  As those who are not members of the G20 will readily tell you, it’s much better to be a policy-maker, and not a policy-taker.

Rather than a question of why engage in an ‘ineffective’ process, the key question Australians ask should be how do we get the most out of our membership. 

One important area is ideas. To make and shape policy as a middle power, you need to be continually coming up with influential suggestions. Australia has forged a strong reputation in this space over the past two decades. Our contributions are better when we do our homework: thinking about issues, developing proposals, socialising ideas, and backing our proposals with evidence. 

In this vein, Wurf and I argue that what is needed now is for Australia to make focused and strategic investments of ministerial time and bureaucratic resources.

Central to our efforts should be a Cabinet-approved long-term international economic engagement strategy. And it should start with the Australian prime minister and treasurer issuing a statement (much like the 1998 Task force on International Financial Reform) that details the challenges facing the global economy that could lead to a future international economic crisis. 

It would be a great opportunity for the government to demonstrate the importance it attaches to it the liberal economic order, that it is addressing global issues that Australians care about, and that it is improving how it communicates the relevance of the influential work of the G20 to Australians.

Photo: Getty Images/VCG

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Earlier this month a helicopter carrying three French special forces soldiers crashed near the village of Magrum, about 70km south of Benghazi in Libya, killing all three. Three days later, President François Hollande disclosed that the soldiers were involved in ‘dangerous intelligence operations,’ hours after the French defence ministry officially acknowledged the presence of French special forces in Libya.

The French newspaper Le Monde first reported the French military presence in February. According to Le Monde, a detachment of special forces was aiding the Libyan National Army (LNA) under the command of General Khalifa Haftar in the fight against ISIS out of a base at Benghazi airport. A spokesperson for Haftar said the French were gathering intelligence on fighters from Boko Haram who have relocated to Libya recently after the group pledged its allegiance to ISIS. An Islamist militia operating in the area of the crash, Benghazi Defence Brigades (BDB), claimed responsibility for downing the helicopter, posting pictures of the wreckage on social media. 

On Tuesday, the Government of National Accord (GNA), led by Fayez Sarraj and backed by the UN, summoned French ambassador Antoine Sivan. The GNA released a statement saying it 'considered the French presence in Libya's eastern region as a breach of international norms and sovereignty'. Protests against the French presence and the GNA broke out in Tripoli and Misrata.

While the incident raises sensitive issues of national sovereignty, it also illustrates the fine line Western powers are treading in Libya between backing the unity government (GNA) and fighting terrorism. In response to the GNA’s statement, the French were quick to confirm their support for the unity government.

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Since its establishment last December, the unity government has been seen by the international community as the primary vehicle for achieving political stability in Libya. But as I have argued previously, the increasing threat posed by ISIS in Libya has forced France, Britain, and the US to deploy special forces teams on the ground to fight Islamic militants alongside the LNA, which opposes the unity government in Tripoli. As a result, the international community is indirectly bolstering Haftar's standing in Libya and is thus undermining the success of a unity government to which it have has pledged its support.

Admittedly, the current 'two-pronged' strategy is one of very few feasible options the international community has in Libya. But it is not just the success of the unity government that could be in jeopardy. The breakup of ISIS’s stronghold in Libya (imminent, following GNA forces entry into Sirte in early June) could set up a confrontation between the LNA and Misrata-based militias allied to the GNA. Other extremist groups (such as BDB) could exploit this division and infighting. The BDB already has the support of the Derna Mujahideen Shura Council, an alliance of Islamist militias from Derna with links to Al Qaeda.

The focus of the international community should be on establishing a joint military command for non-extremist forces (including those loyal to the GNA and the LNA), as Mohamed Eljarh has argued. Until a solution is found that integrates the various military structures in Libya, security concerns will persist and Libya's unity government will be united in name only. 

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Last week's announcement by US Vice President Joe Biden that Washington has accepted an invitation to send a ship to New Zealand for the navy's 75th anniversary fleet review in November was widely heralded as the end of a thirty-year standoff between the two countries over nuclear-powered or nuclear-armed vessels. 

But although the announcement generated headlines in the Wall Street Journal and Time, it didn't come as much of a surprise to most New Zealanders. The strong possibility of a US Navy visit has been publicly floated since at least last November. In fact, New Zealanders would probably have been more surprised if the US had said 'no'. A poll conducted in May showed that 75% of Kiwis favour a ship visit, including two-thirds of those who identified themselves as supporting opposition parties.

In part there has been little fuss because a ship visit won't represent a dramatic shift in ties with Washington. The thaw in NZ-US relations actually began during the second term of the George W Bush administration, when both governments began to look for opportunities to work around the 'rock in the road'. A visit by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2010 saw the signing of the Wellington Declaration, with stepped up cooperation in the South Pacific on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, and the resumption of regular high-level dialogues. In 2012 the defence relationship grew closer still with the Washington Declaration, which committed both to cooperation on developing 'deployable capabilities' in the wider Asia Pacific. 

Within this political framework, the two militaries have rapidly developed deep practical links. A busy exercise program now exists, with Marines and US Army training in New Zealand since 2012. Kiwis are regulars in the annual Pacific Partnership humanitarian missions and the New Zealand Defence Force has been part of RIMPAC military exercises since 2012. Apart from a minor kerfuffle when the frigate Te Kaha was assigned a berth in Honolulu's civilian port, the NZ Navy has been given a warm welcome along with everyone else at Pearl Harbor. And after a decade-long presence in Afghanistan, New Zealand troops are now training the Iraqi military as part of the US-led coalition fighting ISIS.

Against this backdrop of intense military cooperation, the ship visit is an important symbol, but hardly a dramatic break with the past. But where to from here? What might the post-post-ANZUS era look like?

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First, it would be a mistake to see the resumption of ship visits as a logical step towards the inevitable resuscitation of the ANZUS alliance. When the Washington Declaration was signed in 2012, Defence Minister Jonathan Coleman was quick to make clear 'it wasn't ANZUS in drag'. Indeed, when the 2016 Australian Defence White Paper described Australia and New Zealand as 'close partners and ANZUS allies' Prime Minister John Key rejected the term, saying it was more accurate to describe it as an 'ANZAC' relationship and insisting (erroneously) 'we suspended ANZUS and have no intention of rejoining'. And although New Zealand's recent Defence White Paper describes the relationship with Washington as 'one of the country's closest', the word 'ANZUS' does not appear once.

Second, New Zealand's strategic environment in 2016 looks very different to 1985. China is now the country's largest export market and was described in the recent White Paper as an 'important strategic partner'. In 2015, Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee announced the conclusion of a five-year engagement plan with the People's Liberation Army. Despite the much closer defence relationship with Washington, New Zealand has walked a careful line when it comes to key regional issues like territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas. Wellington might share American and Australian concerns about China's growing assertiveness, but it has chosen to express its views less publicly and in rather different language. A recent Global Times story claimed that two weeks after the Permanent Court of Arbitration decision, no countries outside the region have supported it except Australia, the US and Japan. New Zealand's absence from the list probably won't have worried anyone in the Key Government. Certainly the hope that New Zealand might someday soon be participating in US Freedom of Navigation Operations seems misplaced.

Finally, the much warmer defence relationship of the last six years has occurred in the context of the US rebalance to Asia and has been helped by President Obama's enormous personal popularity (in fact, Vice President Biden's visit disappointed some New Zealanders, as it confirmed Obama himself wouldn't be coming before his term ends). But a central part of the rebalance and a crucial goal for the Key Government is passing the Trans-Pacific Partnership. With both presidential candidates opposed to TPP and its prospects fading by the day, even a win by Clinton might see questions again asked about America's commitment to the region. And if Trump is the next Oval Office inhabitant, then New Zealanders will look at a defence relationship with Washington very differently. Rather than symbolising the start of a new era of military cooperation, it's possible a ship visit in November could yet represent a fleeting high point, with more uncertain times ahead.

Photo: Flickr/Ash Carter

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The philosopher John Gray is always worth reading. Two highlights from his latest book review, first on the rationality of terrorism:

The practice of suicide bombing has very often been analysed in cost-benefit terms and found to be highly efficient. The expenditure of resources involved is modest and the supply of bombers large; if the mission is successful the operative cannot be interrogated. The bombers gain status; their families may receive financial reward. (Religious beliefs about an afterlife are not a necessary part of suicide bombing, which has been practised by Marxist-Leninists of the Tamil Tiger movement and in Lebanon.) An enormous literature exists in which asymmetric warfare has been interpreted as demonstrating “the power of the weak”: the capacity of militarily inferior groups using unconventional methods to prevail against states with much greater firepower at their disposal. Understood in these terms, there can be no doubt that terrorism can be a rational strategy.

Second, what makes ISIS different:

...we need to ask for whom terrorism works, and why. When we do this in relation to Isis, the answers we receive are not reassuring.

Nothing in human conflict is entirely new. There are some clear affinities between anarchist terrorist attacks around the end of the 19th century and jihadist “spectaculars” at the start of the 20th. However, there are also certain discomforting differences. Anarchists at that time made public officials, not ordinary civilians, their primary targets; they attacked state power rather than an entire society; and they never acquired a mass base of supporters and sympathisers. Bestowing identity and significance on dislocated individuals and enabling them to discharge their resentment against a hated way of life, terrorism by Isis is of another kind. Against the background of deep divisions in European societies, these rewards could become an increasingly powerful source of the group’s appeal.

(H/t The Browser.)

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Any marketer will tell you that when you think you've got a good product but it's not selling, then it's time to change the marketing. With that in mind, we should lend little weight to yesterday's announcement by the leader of Jabhat al-Nusra (JAN), Muhammad al-Jawlani, that his jihadi group has broken with al Qaeda.

The move has been foreshadowed for several weeks; not for any ideological reasons but because of the military pressure JAN was under from Russian airstrikes and the increasing speculation about a Russia-US agreement that would allow for cooperation on the targeting of ISIS and JAN.

The group's name has been changed from JAN (Victory Front) to Jabhat Fatah ash-Sham (Levant/Syria Conquest Front) and the black shahada flag swapped for a brighter look in white, with a new logo. In reality though, little has changed. The announcement praises both al Qaeda and Usama bin Laden and states that the newly-branded organisation remains committed to jihad and indeed seeks to unify the jihadist groups in Syria (presumably under its own leadership). Its tactic of re-branding itself as a type of moderate Syrian resistance group is also undermined by Jowlani's previous assertion in a TV interview that JAN had about 30% foreign fighters, as well as the fact that one of the three people featured in the announcement was an Egyptian, Abu Faraj al-Masri.

The early reaction indicates that an appropriate degree of cynicism is being exercised. The State Department said that they judged groups by what they did, not what they called themselves, and US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said it was a PR move designed to avoid being targeted militarily.

Western countries and the UN should move quickly to include the group's new designation among the names used by JAN in their proscription legislation. There is nothing in the announcement that indicates they have changed their core ideological outlook, nor that they have given up armed jihad in Syria. As David Cameron once said, 'We should be intolerant of intolerance', and as we are seeing around the world there is nothing more intolerant than an armed jihadist group.

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Two recent events have brought into sharp focus a growing divide between India's geoeconomic and geopolitical strategies: India's failed bid for membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) in June – essentially scuttled by China – and the Modi Government's desire for closer defence ties with the US.

The NSG issue, and the signing of some kind of logistical support agreement with the US , were high on the American agenda when US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter visited India in April. But beyond these mechanics, the larger question of how to sync India's economic priorities (which would call for a greater partnership with China) with its national-security ones (which demands accepting the US as a de-facto ally) remains to be answered.

The trading dragon

The traditional approach in diplomacy compartmentalises economics and security issues. This will not work when it comes to China, where mandarins do not see these two as being independent realms of statecraft. China's One Belt, One Road initiative is a case in point. China's geoeconomic weltanschauung – where geoeconomics is defined as a state's economic management of geopolitical interests, and not merely as a synonym for its international economics and trade policy – should be matched in New Delhi.

According to the latest statistics from India's Ministry of Commerce, India-China bilateral merchandise trade grew by 9.9% in 2014-15 while India's total trade fell by 0.8%. China is India's largest trading partner, and India is the second-largest shareholder in the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Pragmatists in New Delhi are seriously investigating the possibility of India jumping on board the One Belt, One Road wagon, albeit in a way wherein India's core security interests are not compromised. India is a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and along with China would be one of the founding members of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, often viewed as an Asia Pacific trade architecture rival to the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

Reconciling this record with growing calls for India's involvement with the US in managing Chinese intransigence in the South China Sea, as well as Beijing's continuing support for Pakistan's military establishment, will emerge as key challenges for Modi's foreign policy.

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Indian policy-makers are operating under the assumption that economics will follow its own logic, and can be de-coupled from strategic competition and even potential conflict. But China is witnessing an unprecedented consolidation of both economic and strategic decision-making in one individual, President Xi Jinping. Premier Li Keqiang's role as the custodian of Chinese economic policy-making has been abrogated by Xi. Yet it seems India's economic policy planners have convinced the security establishment that the logic of the invisible hand will act as a 'firebreak' between India's pursuit of closer economic ties with China and its pursuit of a military embrace with the US.

When New Delhi policy-makers do wake up to the fact that economics and national security interact, they end up drawing all the wrong lessons. After China blocked the UN listing of Masood Azhar (head of the Pakistan-based group Jaish-e-Mohammed) as a global terrorist, an unnamed member of the security establishment suggested India could pause some of the incoming investment from China on national security grounds. Setting aside the myopia involved in such a line of thinking, it betrays a lack of understanding of economics. India's pursuit of Chinese FDI is one way by which the US$48 billion trade deficit in favour of China can be addressed. The manifest lack of parity in the India-China trade relationship implies very little leverage on India's part when it comes to coercive economic statecraft against China.

The one-eyed eagle

Carter's agenda during his April visit was discussed vocally in the Indian media and on social media. The gist of this debate was the possibility and desirability of India and the US signing one or more defence agreements that would bring the two countries an inch closer to becoming military allies in all but name.

At the Raisina Dialogue in March, the chief of the US Pacific Command Admiral Harry Harris stunned the audience by reviving the idea of a quadrilateral defence cooperation mechanism between the US, Japan, Australia, and India. The 'Quad', in the jargon of strategic analysts, has been a four-letter word for many. Beijing views it as a China-specific military alliance, and Australia, one of the closest US allies in the Pacific, had formally declined to be involved in what would surely be interpreted as a provocation by China. It quickly became clear after Harris's remarks that India too is less than enthusiastic about the Quad. Furthermore, Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar has made it clear that joint patrolling of the South China Sea is off the table, at least for the time being.

On the economic front, the US-India relationship continues to be fraught with disagreements and hostility, which has now extended to a spat about India's solar energy initiatives at the World Trade Organisation. The fact that the AIIB's first loan this year will likely go towards funding solar energy projects in India is an irony lost on few. Washington's much-toasted natural democratic all-but-ally in the Asia Pacific is not so when it comes to trade, as demonstrated by India's non-participation in the TPP.

The need for a realistic grand strategy

Ashutosh Varshney has suggested a distinction between mass politics and elite politics in India. Trade is a determinant of living standards in any open economy and therefore is a determinant of mass politics; national security and foreign policy issues are still in the realm of elite politics. As India's trade/GDP ratio – and urbanisation – grows, there will be a need to rethink how the latter influences the former, even from a purely domestic electoral point of view. A cohesive national grand strategy needs to be developed, bringing various ministries together in a vision that is internally consistent, cross-cutting India's economic and strategic interests.

Photo by Flickr user Harini Calamur.

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In this Quick Comment, historian Sir Lawrence Freedman, Emeritus Professor of War Studies at King's College London, considers the Permanent Court of Arbitration finding on the South China Sea from China’s point of view. Freedman also compares and contrasts today’s sense of all-consuming change with the last time the world seemed to be re-organising on such a large scale: the end of the Cold War.

Sir Lawrence spoke at the Lowy Institute yesterday on the topic, 'Can we Learn Too Much from History?'. You can listen to his full remarks here.

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The steady stream of terrorist attacks over the last two months has seen the worst fears of many terrorism analysts realised, and called into question the fundamentals of how governments 'do' counter-terrorism.

The investigative ethos at the heart of counter-terrorism is fairly simple. Intelligence agencies ask two broad questions: is this person or group linked to people we already know are terrorists, and does their visible activity include behavioural precursors that have been reliably linked to terrorism in the past?

These two questions lie at the heart of both the triaging of new leads and active investigations. In the case of the latter, agencies have created 'tripwires' to identify suspicious behaviour, such as suddenly buying large quantities of fertiliser or making unexpected plans to travel overseas.

In the current climate, where most agencies have more targets than investigative capacity, drawing a negative on both of these questions means an investigation is unlikely to go any further. Yet from what we know so far about the staggering number of individuals and groups behind attacks over the past eight weeks and beyond, for some the answers to these questions would have drawn a blank.

This is in large part due to a shift in terrorism strategy articulated by al Qaeda in their Inspire magazine in 2010 but brought to life by ISIS: open-source jihad. By encouraging attacks in which the attacker alone identifies the target, timing and method, it removed the requirement for pre-attack coordination with known terrorist entities.

In many ways, the conflict in Syria (while an obvious fillip for Islamist extremism across the world) delayed the advent of these types of attack. Why focus domestically when you could travel to Syria and Iraq instead? But as Western governments began to realise the scale of what was unfolding in the Middle East, it became more difficult to travel to those locations. As a consequence, radicalised individuals unable to leave their own country (such as Numan Haider in 2014 in Melbourne) shifted the target of their violence inwards.

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The subsequent media coverage and ISIS's praise for such attackers as martyrs for their cause have had real consequences. The dual factors of posthumous media infamy and the pardoning of previous sins has attracted individuals beyond those connected to known terrorists or with terrorist-like behaviours, individuals for whom intelligence agencies would have drawn a blank.

We saw this in Orlando in June. Omar Mateen was neither meaningfully connected to known extremists or behaving like one. Based on what we know so far, neither was Nice attacker Mohamed Bouhel. Instead, analysis has focused on issues of identity, sexuality, mental health and a violent past (and, in Bouhel's case, on further evidence of the connection between persistent criminal behaviour and a subsequent shift towards extremism).

These factors may be useful in understanding which individuals already under investigation might take extreme and violent actions, but they are not unique behavioural indicators of use to intelligence agencies. In a practical sense, any attempt to overlay them on top of the existing counter-terrorism investigative approach would be unworkable.

If our understanding of what a terrorist looks like is starting to shift, so too is the judgment intelligence agencies must make about whether links to known terrorists are an important factor in deciding whether an attack is likely to succeed, and how lethal it will be.

This second point has also historically been central to counter-terrorism strategy. Operational experience and statistics showed that an attack plot involving returned foreign fighters or instruction from terrorist groups overseas would be significantly deadlier than those that did not. While lone actors or self-starters were certainly a concern, they typically struggled to build explosive devices or get access to weaponry without contacting known terrorist or criminal entities.

Unfortunately, isolated actors and their cheerleaders overseas have realised this too. As Nice, Orlando and potentially Wurzburg all demonstrate, these unconnected individuals or networks are instead focusing on softer and typically more local targets. And utilising an attack methodology that challenges intelligence agency notions of what behaviour makes an individual 'look like a terrorist'. After all, possessing a knife or renting a truck is no obvious precursor to a terrorist attack.

Yet both Nice and Orlando have proved deadlier than many previous attacks directed by terrorist networks overseas or carried out by returning foreign fighters. Their tragic impact will not have gone unnoticed by the rest of the would-be terrorist community.

Terrorist attacks over the past two months have challenged many counter-terrorism pre-conceptions. The Australian Government is right to review existing processes to counter these 'new' threats, and in particular, look at the safety of public events. But attempts to draw a wider net, and include mental health records, links to criminality and addiction, are no guarantee of success. What is certain is that, in the short-term, there are unlikely to be any easy answers.

Photo: Flickr/European Parliament

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The lights are still on in Manila.

That must come as quite a surprise to defence hawks who like to beat the drum that the sale of New South Wales electricity distributor Ausgrid to a Chinese company could compromise our national security and be contrary to the national interest.

Last week, Peter Jennings, Executive Director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), wrote in the Australian Financial Review that we cannot afford to be naïve when it comes to Chinese investment in critical infrastructure assets, particularly when it is from a company that is government-owned. After all, Jennings said, 'China's aggressive behaviour in the South China Sea shows that Beijing operates according to its own strategic priorities' and 'flouts the rules-based global order that is so central to Australian security'.

What better place to test this claim than Manila. China is locked in a bitter territorial dispute with the Philippines in the South China Sea. State Grid – the same Chinese government-owned company now bidding for Ausgrid – that is the single largest owner of National Grid Corporation of the Philippines (NGCP), the company that operates the electricity grid in the Philippines. It has held a 40% stake since 2007.

If there was ever a scenario in which the Chinese government might seek to use a government-owned company holding infrastructure assets abroad to exert a nefarious strategic influence, then the recent South China Sea arbitration case was surely it. Yet the judgement came and went, and despite being unfavourable to China, the lights in Manila haven't flickered. 

Responding to hawks of his own, Philippine Energy Secretary Jericho Petilla made the fairly obvious point that 'The State Grid of China may own 40 percent of NGCP, but what really matters most is who is running the operation.'

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Meanwhile there have been no reports of electricity outages in Victoria or South Australia since the Australian government offered a statement of support for the arbitration decision that Crisis Group International said used stronger and more detailed language than any other country in the region. That's despite State Grid also holding electricity distribution assets in these states.

Instead, in a repeat of the Darwin wharf deal last year, vague connections are being drawn between how a Chinese company part-owning an infrastructure asset in Australia might facilitate spying and espionage. But recall in the case of Darwin wharf that it was the unanimous decision of the chiefs of Defence and ASIO that there was no security risk. 

The obsession of hawks with painting China as a strategic foe is in stark contrast to the official designation of the relationship, which is that the two countries enjoy a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. It is also at odds with the position taken by the Australian public. In this year's Lowy Poll China was the most popular choice as 'Australia's best friend in Asia'. In polling released by the US Studies Centre at Sydney University in June, more Australians said our relationship with China should be stronger than those who said the same about the US.

It's true that Australians do not readily embrace foreign investment in infrastructure. The 2014 Lowy Poll reported that foreign investment in 'ports and airports' held the lowest level of public support of any sector. But this concern is directed at foreign investment generally, not Chinese investment specifically. In April, polling by the Australia-China Relations Institute and the Centre for the Study of Choice at UTS found that the overwhelming concern of the public with respect to foreign investment in infrastructure is the share of overseas ownership, not which country the investor is from, nor whether the investor is government or privately-owned.

There are economic payoffs from having Chinese companies fiercely bidding for Australian infrastructure assets. The public wins. Last year the NSW government struck gold when it sold electricity distributor Transgrid for $10.3 billion to a consortium that included Canadian and Middle East investors. But the price only reached such stratospheric heights because it was pushed all the way by a rival Chinese offer.

Despite some noise from the minor parties, neither the government's trade and investment minister, Steven Ciobo, nor his pre-election Labor counterpart, Penny Wong, have hyped the Ausgrid sale. With a decision on Ausgrid expected next month, cool heads are exactly what are required.

Photo by Flickr user Indigo Skies Photography.

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Cambodia is once again at the heart of ASEAN problems in relation to the disputes associated with the South China Sea. Reports that it has not been possible for the ASEAN ministers meeting in Vientiane to find an agreed form of words about the issue should surely be no surprise, however regrettable this might be.

As Hun Sen deals with criticisms of his family's involvement in the kingdom's business affairs by Global Witness, with allegations of secret deals and probable corruption, and the furore that has followed the recent execution-style killing of one of the CPP government's most vocal critics, Kem Ley, the Cambodian leader has not taken a backward step from his pro-Chinese position on the South China Sea dispute.

Just as was the case in 2012, when Cambodia, as ASEAN chair, prevented ASEAN from issuing an agreed communique because of its support of China's position, Hun Sen has continued to support China's stated policy that it will only deal with disputed issues and claims on a bilateral basis.

This reiteration follows several recent statements by Hun Sen in which he castigates critics of his position, including unnamed fellow ASEAN members

Cambodia is deeply dependent on China for aid, as Hun Sen has repeatedly stated, including most recently when he excoriated European countries that suggested aid to Cambodia might be cut because of its human rights record. China has long been Cambodia's principal aid donor and has very recently announced the provision of a further $600 milllion in aid to the country. And once again Hun Sen maintains there are no strings attached.

How ASEAN deals with this continuing problem is a matter for speculation, but for the moment there is little to no chance that Hun Sen will change his position.

Photo courtesy of Flickr use iwishmynamewasmarsha

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By Harriet Smith, an intern with the Lowy Institute's Melanesia Program

  • After surviving a vote of no-confidence last week, PNG Prime Minister Peter O’Neill has reshuffled his cabinet. O'Neill has pledged stable government until next year's national election but opposition leader Don Polye wants another vote of no confidence.
  •  In this Interpreter post, the Lowy Insititute's Jonathan Pryke traces the arc of the O'Neill government, from its promising start to now.
  • Former PNG Attorney-General Kerenga Kua has called for an end to the political camp systems that played a central role in the vote of no-confidence, saying the practice is outmoded and reflects badly on the country’s democratic development.
  • The PNG Supreme Court has adjourned a case brought by  five refugees at the Australian-run detention centre. The case was based on a Supreme Court ruling in April that found the Manus facility was unlawful and unconstitutional. The five refugees want  to resettle in Australia.
  • Australia's minister for international development and the Pacific, Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, has announced a partnership with the Solomon Islands business community to strengthen the role of women in the economy. 
  • Speakers at the Pacific Update conference were optimistic about the  Fijian economy, noting economic resurgence reflected in the country's 2016-17 budget.
  • Fiji’s police commissioner opened the fourth in a series of workshops on gender-based violence (run by the Women’s Crisis Centre), saying it was essential police learn how to tackle this endemic issue.
  • A new Lowy Institute Analysis by Dr Anna Powles and Jose Sousa-Santos, 'Principled Engagement: Rebuilding Defence Ties with Fiji', argues Russia’s sale of arms to Fiji demonstrates how the security orthodoxy in the Pacific Islands region is changing. Unless Australia and New Zealand adapt to these changing strategic circumstances, the authors argue they will lose influence in the region to external players.
  • A recent documentary Haka and Guitars examines the role of Maori culture in the peace process on Bougainville.
  • A 12-year-old Samoan, Lupe Va’ai, has become a published author, recently travelling to London to launch her book The Voice of an Island, which examines the impact humans have on the environment.
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The recent DNC hack, which led to the leaking of emails purporting to show favouritism towards Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders, is another example of the arms race moving into cyberspace. It has also sparked a frenzied hunt for the perpetrator, with Russia the most logical candidate. Undermining Clinton’s bid for the White House — or so the story goes — will assist Donald Trump, who is more likely to be sympathetic to Russian interests.

There are a number of reasons why this story is significant, although the ability of states, groups and individuals to steal and leak sensitive electronic information isn’t one of them. Rather, it’s the implications or effects of those capabilities that matter. Cyber-security was recognised as a major threat long before Wikileaks. But the digital era means that the overall challenges faced by security professionals, industry and individual citizens are now indivisible, even if the types of risks might differ. In other words, what can be personally damaging can also be politically damaging, and damaging to national security as well.

A more immediate question, though, is what Putin stands to gain from a Trump presidency. Here we might identify a variety of answers. Some of them are quite reasonable. Others remain possible, but are more speculative.

The first has to do with Russia’s geopolitical and geo-economic interests. During the Cold War, both Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher saw in Mikhail Gorbachev someone the West could do business with. Putin has a similar perspective on Trump. The Republican presidential nominee is not Putin's ally by any means, but he is a populist who has risen at a time when Russia needs to break out of its (largely self-imposed) isolation. Moreover, Trump regularly pays Putin personal compliments, and has stated that NATO might not get involved in any potential conflict with Russia over the Baltics.

Trump’s anti-immigration line, his muscular stance on ISIS, and his penchant for ‘simple’ solutions mean Russian audiences find him infinitely easier to relate to than Clinton or Obama. And while much of the Western media focus has been on Trump’s ability to stir up xenophobia, the Trump trade agenda is actually far to the left of the Democrats. A protectionist Trump presidency would seek to reverse the course of global trade liberalisation that has been the centrepiece of US foreign economic policy for decades. And his determination to seek a new deal for US allies, based on the view that if nations want US protection then they should pay for it, would result in hard choices across the global network of American security partners.

In other words, Trump would suit Russian strategic priorities very nicely. He would wind back open markets, which Moscow (and Beijing, for that matter) see as powerful instruments of Western hegemony. He would renegotiate US alliances, weakening them at a time when many analysts argue they need to be strengthened. And he would push a neo-isolationist agenda that would hasten a multipolar global order rather than delay it.

The second theory that links Trump to Putin has to do with his business interests.

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Since he was declared bankrupt, Trump has found it difficult to raise capital, which means that he has been forced to rely heavily on Russian financing. Much of the Trump SoHo development in Manhattan, for instance, was reportedly funded from Russia and Kazakhstan, but Trump’s refusal to release his tax records make establishing a direct link difficult. Carter Page, who is Trump’s main foreign policy advisor, has longstanding career ties to Gazprom. And Trump’s campaign director was previously in charge of communications for Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-Russian Ukrainian President ousted in 2014.

All this is intriguing but, as with many allegations about the conduct of Russian elites, there is no ‘smoking gun’ that tiesTrump directly to the Kremlin. A lack of evidence is also why one cannot take the next step, and claim that Trump’s connections to Russia are so extensive that he is actually a Muscovian (not Manchurian) candidate.

But the fact that such a possibility is even being raised proves how effective it can be to encourage a view that nobody is safe from Russian information operations. This brings us neatly back to cybersecurity and information warfare, which is undeniably a force multiplier in the contemporary security environment.

Russia has invested a great deal of money and thought into exploring how to exploit the blurring of the lines between war and peace. The ‘Gerasimov Doctrine’, penned by Russia’s Chief of General Staff in 2013, set out what Russians have come to see as the precepts for what we have come to call ‘hybrid’ or ‘non-linear’ warfare. One of its key observations is that war cannot be separated neatly into military and non-military domains. As a result, responses to a problem must utilise the full spectrum of a country’s capabilities, through an adaptive approach that relies as much on control of information as raw might.

Igor Panarin, one of Russia’s most influential strategic thinkers, has taken this further to claim that the manipulation and fabrication of information is a vital asset which is cheap, universal, has unlimited range, and can easily cross state borders. This provides the opportunity to engage in social manoevering and lobbying, and even extortion and blackmail. Information, therefore, can be used to do what militaries traditionally did: to perform disruption, deterrence and denial functions. And like the digital equivalent of a drone, it can be used against people in groups, or even singly.

In a sense, information attacks are a darker version of modern smart sanctions, which are a ‘legitimate’ way to target individuals, because they have similar goals: to put pressure on people to change their behaviour. They can also be joined up with other tactics to cause much broader ripple effects, working off the assumption that publics — especially those in the West — are brittle. A state utilising that approach could release compromising information about a person (or even the sniff of it), to cause a scandal that ends a career or splinters a family. It could tacitly aid far-right movements and deepen existing fissures in the EU. It could turn off the power in Ukraine to make people angry — with some of that anger inevitably directed at the government. And it could raise doubt in the integrity of democratic processes in the world’s most powerful liberal state, and even potentially influence the outcome of an election.

The West is understandably reluctant to openly engage in similar behaviour. One of the main constraints of deliberately manipulating information is that it is deceitful and dishonest. It is something that nations never admit to doing, but express outrage about when it is done to them. But perhaps the reverse is also true, in that at least being coy about one’s own capabilities can help prevent a sense of weakness, and limit the fear generated by a public stance that is purely defensive and reactive.

In other words, when it comes to manipulating information, the West can do it too. And an advantage of targeting authoritarian nations is that not much manipulation is really needed. Perhaps it is time to start thinking about making such efforts a little more overt. 

Photo by Adam Berry/Getty Images

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The release of the United Nations’ mid-year report on civilians casualties (CIVCAS) in Afghanistan came two days after ‘the deadliest single incident recorded by the UN in Afghanistan since 2001’. Eighty civilians were killed and as many as 290 injured in a suicide attack on peaceful protesters in Afghanistan’s capital Kabul on 23 July. 

For the first time the UN report, which documents the relentless toll of the conflict on civilians (63,934 CIVCAS — 22,941 deaths and 40,993 — since January 2009) dedicated a section to ISIL Afghanistan/Daesh, which claimed responsibility for the Kabul attack. The UN attributed 122 CIVCAS to Daesh in the first half of 2016 (compared to 13 the year prior). That figure has now increased fourfold. It's clear the group is increasingly a major player in Afghanistan's protracted conflict.

Daesh never set up shop directly in Afghanistan, but, rather, ‘picked’ up groups that broke away from the Taliban after its founder and longstanding leader Mullah Omar was officially confirmed dead. Some of these groups view the Taliban as increasingly under the influence of Pakistan, others prefer to franchise the Daesh brand. There are also reports that many of those fighting for Daesh are not Afghan, but from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan. All this makes it hard to pinpoint the territorial spread of Daesh outside of its stronghold in Afghanistan’s eastern province of Nangarhar, though there are reports it is also operational in Kunar, Logar and Wardak, with activities in Zabul, Northern Afghanistan and, obviously, Kabul.

The fact that the Hazara minority accounts for nearly all those killed and injured in the Kabul attack has prompted some observers to warn of the dangers of a sectarian conflict. In my view, however, we should be careful about fanning the fire of sectarian conflict — unless we wish to advance the political agenda of Daesh. This is not to say there is no element of ethnic targeting. The Hazara are both an ethnic and religious minority and they are indeed Shia and not Sunni Muslim which puts them firmly in Daesh's sights. In the days since the Kabul bombing, a Daesh commnader claimed it was retaliation for the support offered by some members of the Hazara community to the Assad regime in Syria. In addition to this specific attack, the Hazara have been disproportionately affected by seemingly random abductions and killings over the past months. All this said, few things in Afghanistan are simple or clear cut. As the UN report documents, some 51% of all CIVCAS occur in Afghanistan’s Pashtun belt (South, Southeast and Eastern Afghanistan), with 28% in Southern Afghanistan alone, the Taliban’s heartland. Civilian suffering is spread across all ethnicities and creeds.

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It is also true that the Hazara have long been a repressed minority. They were persecuted in the past under the Taliban and many Hazara feel their region has been neglected economically, with relatively few aid dollars finding their way there. After all, Saturday’s demonstration was to express discontent with the Afghan government’s decision to reroute the Turkmenistan-Uzbekistan-Tajikistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan (TUTAP) electricity project from Bamiyan to the Salang routes, with the Hazara region losing out on associated jobs and benefits. Tensions over this project have been simmering all year. Protesters repeatedly interrupted Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s speech in London on 13 May, following up with a demonstration three days later. Many feared then that something could go wrong at a mass protest with ethnic dimensions.That event passed without incident, making Saturday's attack a shocking contrast.

The Hazara have gained a great deal of political power and integration over the last decade. They are well represented in the current government, including high-ranking positions. President Ghani (a Pashtun) quickly condemned the attack in Kabul and declared a national day of mourning while vowing revenge. These actions reflect a conflict between a heterogeneous Afghan government and an insurgent group that happens to be majority Sunni. Furthermore, the insurgents the government are fighting are increasingly heterogeneous as well. Daesh and the Taliban do not always see eye to eye. There were reports they declared jihad on each other early on, and have since fought for territorial control, especially in Nangarahr. In addition, some Taliban commanders that had joined Daesh were recently reported to have defected back citing ‘ideological rigidity and ultra-violent action’. The Taliban was also quick to deny responsibilities for Saturday’s devastating attack. 

Thus, while sectarian targeting played a role in the Kabul bombing, others factors were also at play. It was an opportunity to create maximum effect (in the form of human suffering) with minimum resources and to prove Daesh is active in Kabul and hence needs to be taken seriously. Which of these three considerations was the most important for Daesh is hard to say. What matters is the attack had its intended effect: it delivered international attention and the group is now considered to be a serious threat in Afghanistan.

In light of the above, in a country where the conflict — and allegiances — have always been rather fluid, with opportunism and pragmatism frequently prevailing over firm convictions, and where every ethnic group has been victim and perpetrator at some point in time, one should be careful before attributing too much solely to sectarian conflict. It is very valid to cry out against an attack on a civilian demonstration, and the targeting of minorities, but as the Afghan government has proven, such an event can equally become an opportunity to demonstrate solidarity between the different ethnic groups, rather than emphasise difference. The Afghan government responded maturely by condemning the attack, and so did many Afghans regardless of ethnicity and creed. Similarly, the beheading of ethnic Hazara by Daesh in November last year caused public uproar and led to a demonstration where Hazara were joined by others in the public condemnation. Speaking of sectarian conflict ultimately gives Daesh what it seeks by indirectly empowering the group and its agenda.

Photo by Haroon Sabawoon/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

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