Lowy Institute


Since ISIS came to the attention of the West in early 2014, several books and a number of investigative journalism pieces have illuminated the group's origins, structure and motivation. But this new report by Der Spiegel is particularly interesting because the paper has published pieces of the group's original organisational plans and material.

The collection of documents — outlines of the organisation's hierarchy, campaign plans and strategic communiques — were written by Samir Abd Muhammad 'Haji Bakr' al-Khlifawi, a former military intelligence officer in the air force of Saddam Hussein. It appears that the secular and nationalist Haji Bakr, who was killed in early 2014, was the author of much of the Islamic State's current structure and operations.

One of the more interesting things the documents reveal is how ISIS has used spies, intelligence and blackmail to manufacture a police state in the territory it controls: 

The spies were to find out as much as possible about the target towns: Who lived there, who was in charge, which families were religious, which Islamic school of religious jurisprudence they belonged to, how many mosques there were, who the imam was, how many wives and children he had and how old they were. Other details included what the imam's sermons were like, whether he was more open to the Sufi, or mystical variant of Islam, whether he sided with the opposition or the regime, and what his position was on jihad. Bakr also wanted answers to questions like: Does the imam earn a salary? If so, who pays it? Who appoints him? Finally: How many people in the village are champions of democracy?

Haji Bakr also structured ISIS in a way that reflected the old Saddam regime he used to be a part of, with 'departments' having multiple overlapping areas of responsibility and oversight:

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From the very beginning, the plan was to have the intelligence services operate in parallel, even at the provincial level. A general intelligence department reported to the "security emir" for a region, who was in charge of deputy-emirs for individual districts. A head of secret spy cells and an "intelligence service and information manager" for the district reported to each of these deputy-emirs. The spy cells at the local level reported to the district emir's deputy. The goal was to have everyone keeping an eye on everyone else.

Former members of the Saddam regime and the Ba'ath Party were already known to be involved with ISIS, but the Bakr documents reveal a deeper involvement than was previously understood. As Der Spiegel notes, and in what may be another result of the infamous decision by Paul Bremer to disband the Iraqi Army in 2003:

Bakr was "a nationalist, not an Islamist," says Iraqi journalist Hisham al-Hashimi, as he recalls the former career officer, who was stationed with Hashimi's cousin at the Habbaniya Air Base. "Colonel Samir," as Hashimi calls him, "was highly intelligent, firm and an excellent logistician." But when Paul Bremer, then head of the US occupational authority in Baghdad, "dissolved the army by decree in May 2003, he was bitter and unemployed."...

...Although Iraq's dominant Baath Party was secular, the two systems ultimately shared a conviction that control over the masses should lie in the hands of a small elite that should not be answerable to anyone -- because it ruled in the name of a grand plan, legitimized by either God or the glory of Arab history. The secret of IS' success lies in the combination of opposites, the fanatical beliefs of one group and the strategic calculations of the other.


Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal with US Secretary of State John Kerry. (US State Department.)

Planning and leading a military coalition is a complex task, and Saudi efforts in Yemen are proving no exception.

Such interventions need a defined and achievable aim; simply relying on an air campaign to reinstate a political leader who remains resident in the country which is doing the bombing has its practical and political limitations. Such operations also need to take into account the likely short- and medium-term impacts of the intervention. Coalition partners need to understand (and, even better, agree with) the intent of the operation. And in the modern age there needs to be a great deal of attention paid to collateral damage.

On all those counts the Yemen intervention is posing some serious questions for Riyadh.

The US has provided support to the Saudis, in the shape of intelligence personnel and air-to-air refuelers, but there is a sense that this is more out of a desire to reaffirm the close relationship with Riyadh than out of any belief that Saudi action in Yemen is likely to resolve matters. Riyadh and Washington have not seen eye to eye on Syria, Iran or Iraq in recent years, so if limited support for Saudi Arabia's Yemen venture is what it takes to reinforce relations, then so be it. The concerns of some US military officers — that the Saudis have neither a coherent strategic aim or an ability to prosecute the tactical battle without inflicting significant civilian casualties — are expressed in this recent LA Times article.

There is a risk that, the longer the air campaign continues, the more that disparate elements of Yemeni society will see Saudi interference as the real enemy. And to reinforce the perception that Riyadh is paying insufficient attention to the second-order effects of its intervention, there are already indications that al Qaeda elements are taking advantage of the chaos by seizing the city of al-Mukalla.

Saudi Arabia is also finding that putting together a coalition is not a straightforward matter. Pakistan for instance, was originally listed as a coalition partner, but Islamabad has now declined the kind offer, drawing opprobrium from some quarters. And to top it off, Iraq's prime minister criticised Saudi actions in Yemen during a recent visit to Washington. Leading coalitions in the Middle East is no easy business, and it won't get any easier.


'Who lost China?' is perhaps the most dreaded question of modern American foreign policy. It reveals the historical dilemma that haunts Washington today: The rise of China will inevitably challenge America's longstanding presence in Asia; it doesn't matter whether American interests actively help or hinder China's rise, this outcome seems inexorable.

As Hugh White warns, elite opinion in Washington appears to be swinging back to a harder-edged conclusion that abetting China's economic expansion has brought America a problem of its own making. A parallel bout of angst is troubling former Kremlinologists: why have the West's relations with Russia become so terrible? Did Western policies help or harm? Could it have been otherwise?

These questions of course reflect an ancient anxiety over the two great powers. China and Russia are mighty, independent sovereigns with un-Western worldviews, and they always have been. As Andrew Browne recently wrote, it is 'bogus' to imagine that China (or Russia) were ever 'America's to lose.'

That may sound nihilistic, but he's right.

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A constructivist view would emphasise the importance of personalities. The leaders of great powers do make a difference to the course of events.

Almost a decade ago Edward Lucas foresaw that 'the men who rule Russia' were never going to accommodate with a liberal West. 'Once a Chekhist, always a Chekhist' goes the saying about the congenitally suspicious ex-KGB siloviki (hard-men). Ironically, Vladimir Putin once looked like an accidental appointment, a bland 'compromise' apparatchik with a safe pair of hands to succeed the tottering Boris Yeltsin. Looking at China today, it is hard not also to wonder if it would be different if, say, Li Keqiang's tuanpai faction in 2012 had been powerful enough to hoist him to the top job, instead of settling on the more 'neutral' candidate, Xi Jinping?

Probably not, thinks Jonathan Holslag, who has become a reluctant realist of the 'offensive' variety:

...whatever Chinese leaders claimed in terms of their grand strategy for peace in Asia, these policies can only work if China effectively builds a new empire... [and] that makes China almost pre-programmed to crush the existing liberal order as soon as it has the means to do so.

His melancholy new book, echoing John Mearsheimer and Aaron Friedberg, concludes that 'Asia is in for another tragedy of great power politics, but it is not China's tragedy alone.' With that last clause he emphasises that China is not specifically to blame; it is simply pursuing rational ends, to which others naturally will react. Even if China were democratic rather than authoritarian, it might make little difference. The realist tragedy is that 'we know how the story ends, we do not like it, but we are seldom able to change it.'

So rather than describing history by the whims of powerful leaders, or through ideological conflict, the realist view is a structural one.

Barring truly unexpected events, great powers typically act consistently to maximise their security, and therefore their power. In fact, the central argument of Holslag's book is this: 'for all the policy changes, China's interests have changed remarkably little.' He marvels at the adeptness of Chinese diplomacy, by turns threatening and pleading, magnifying small concessions while patiently hardening its own valued claims, 'gaining power without too much resistance.' He documents more than six decades of Chinese action conducted, sometimes brutally but usually delicately, around its consistent central aim to make the world safe for the newly restored Sinosphere.

Holslag splendidly describes China's ideal political, military and economic order in Asia, and it does not make easy reading for China's neighbours: they are either subsumed into China's project or marginalised from it. China's industries lead the world, its globe-spanning middle classes speed on bullet-trains through a verdant homeland of country estates. It controls all the Western Pacific, and from the Himalayas it looks down upon south and central Asia 'having urbanised without industries... slithering from one political crisis to the next.' Holslag is especially scathing about the weak reform performance of India, a nation that was China's equal not long ago. In his China-dream scenario 'Russia's fate is obvious' too: as a resource colony. Japan retires into irrelevance.

But of course these countries get a vote. It's possible things might not work out so beautifully for China. As Edward Luttwak has argued, others will – indeed must, by 'logic of strategy' – react by balancing. Holslag foresees a bipolar Asia as a real possibility, with the Sinosphere surrounded by a rimland of littoral states in loose alliance.

If so, the organising architect will be Washington. Perhaps the Americans are slowly awakening to this prospect, forced to completely modify their self-image as Asia's unique protector, and forced to recalibrate their relationships and ambitions in the region. This would mark a seminal change in US foreign policy. By contrast, Chinese eyes have been on their prize without blinking. Their objectives have been constant all along.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user See-ming Lee.

Digital Disruption

When you look at the global response to the threat of ISIS, a glaring gap is the cyber domain.

The internet has been critical to the terrorist group's success. It allows it to communicate unfiltered to the rest of the world, for onward mass dissemination by the media. It helps the group radicalise and recruit fighters and financiers. It also allows recruits to organise and network in the field and maintain ties when they return to their countries of origin.

For these and other reasons, ISIS's command of cyberspace needs to be aggressively contested, as I argued in this recent paper.

Yet some counter-propaganda efforts have been shown to have questionable impact, and others risk making things worse. There are, however, multiple ways to combat ISIS online, including:

  • Structural disruption: current efforts to hinder ISIS communications online are rudimentary. Twitter began deactivating ISIS accounts in September last year, but as my Brookings colleague JM Berger recently showed, this hasn't worked because it failed to grasp how ISIS is using Twitter. A more informed approach would make it much harder for ISIS to communicate and recruit.
  • Targeted counter-propaganda: in a brilliant piece in The Atlantic, Graham Wood makes the case that the key to understanding ISIS is discerning its interpretation of Islam. This includes the revival of what ISIS calls '"the Prophetic methodology," which means following the prophecy and example of Muhammad, in punctilious detail.' It is readily apparent that ISIS's ideology is bankrupt, but the centrality of its archaic interpretation of Islam makes it even more important (and easier) to highlight its hypocrisy. The State Department has started, but there is scope for a much more targeted local response and to join up efforts.
  • Regional cooperation: Australia is not alone in needing to combat ISIS online. The State Department has already announced a partnership with the UAE to combat ISIS online and others are keen to join forces.

In June last year, TIME dubbed Australia 'the biggest per capita contributor of foreign jihadists to ISIS'. Given this, and the fact ISIS and its members continue to exploit the internet almost unchallenged, it makes sense for Australia to make a modest investment in an ICT offensive to complement other efforts. The Government's announcement of $18 million to do just this is right on point. It is critical that it be implemented effectively, that it draws on top tier technical and area expertise, and that it leverages existing resources, including the emerging efforts of other countries.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user U.S. Department of State.


Last month, a majority of the Republicans in the US Senate sent an open letter to the leadership of Iran.

In it, they declared that any deal on Iranian nuclear technology between Tehran and the Obama Administration might be undone by Republicans in Washington, especially if they re-take the White House in 2016. This was widely understood as an effort to undermine President Obama's search for a nuclear deal with Iran. There was much soul-searching about whether the GOP had overstepped its constitutional bounds, the Republicans' 'insurrectionary' disdain for President Obama, and so on.

But what I found most notable is how dangerous these sorts of neoconservative shenanigans would be if they were applied in Asia. 

As I have argued elsewhere (short version; long version), neoconservatism is handicapping America's ability to pivot to Asia. Although the Middle East is objectively less important to America's future than Asia, the Middle East plays a far greater role in our politics and activates far more social mobilisation and political attention, particularly on the right.

For example, the foreign policy 'litmus tests' (ie. where public opinion is deeply informed and highly committed) for GOP presidential contenders all turn today on Middle Eastern questions such as Israel, ISIS and Iran. This was evident in the presidential campaign debates four years ago, and I predict will be so again in the next 18 months. And in classic neocon style, the 'right' answer to those litmus tests is almost always more hawkish chest-thumping, rejection of any deals or negotiations, accusations of appeasement and retreat, higher military spending, and so on – what Daniel Larison once aptly called 'omidirectional belligerence.' 

To my mind, this is reckless and arrogant, the sort of 'exceptionalist' imperiousness that much of the world finds so fatiguing about Americans. But it is also politically feasible in the Middle East, because America's opponents there are so weak.

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Yes, ISIS is terrifying and an Iran with a nuclear weapon is unnerving. And certainly the forces of Islamism across the region espouse values deeply antithetical to our own. In that sense, they pose a serious, long-term philosophic challenge to liberal modernity. But all the actors in the region – state and non-state – are actually quite weak. GDPs are small; militaries are weak and shot-through with cronyism; states are fragile with highly illegitimate 'institutions'; many governments barely control their whole territories. And non-state actors, terrorist or otherwise, are even weaker challengers; for all their ideological-theological fire, Islamist groups have had a hard time actually building durable organisations, parties, and states. That Israel, a country of just eight million people, is considered the region's dominant military power signifies just how secure America is from the region's dangers.

In short, America enjoys the luxury of an enormous power buffer in the region, and that asymmetry creates the space for mischief-making like that GOP Iran letter. The US can absorb the costs of domestic irresponsibility and constitutional in-fighting, posture belligerently and abjure deals and negotiation, all because the costs are rather low (for the US). Even were the US to bomb Iran, the conflict would be far from US homeland with a minimal (or at least not very visible) impact on most Americans. Indeed, the US managed to fight an entire war in the Middle East that went horribly wrong and alienated much of the planet, yet without seriously jeopardising its regional hegemony. That is astonishing asymmetric power.

None of this applies at all in Asia.

One of my greatest concerns for US foreign policy in the coming decades is that this neocon 'omnidirectional belligerence' will, in time, come to the Asia Pacific. Neocon belligerence and recklessness are not feasible in Asia as they are in the Middle East, in Cuba or Venezuela, or even in responding to Putin. John McCain brought this type of thinking to Europe when he famously said 'we are all Georgians now' after the 2008 Russian invasion. Russia's stagnant GDP and population made such talk more feasible.

But the game in Asia is in far more flux than in eastern Europe, and America's power advantage is thinner here than anywhere else. This means diplomacy and accommodation — the messy realpolitik of wheeling and dealing with regimes we may not always like, such as China – are more necessary. These are not traits neoconservatives excel at. Indeed, they damn them as 'appeasement of evil' and so on.

But neocon high-handed moralism and American exceptionalism in this business-like region will fail spectacularly. Neoconservatism will make an enemy of China, permanently end the possibility of any nuclear deal with North Korea (unlikely to be sure, but that is for Seoul to work out, not the US), and frighten American allies and friends such as South Korea and Vietnam with the thought that the US  is a war-monger.

No one wants a repeat of the Iraq war in North Korea or Southeast Asia. No one wants grandstanding, culturally-ignorant American exceptionalists lecturing the region about the 'freedom agenda.' Much of Asia may share the neocon belief that democracy is good for the world, but the neoconservative means to that end – threats, moralistic self-congratulation, refusal to negotiate with 'evil,' reckless use of force – will just provoke the Sino-US Cold War everyone is worried about.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Mark Kortum.

  • New 2015 edition of World Bank Development indicators shows 25 years of progress, but much left to do.
  • The report includes some good interactives; you can compare country progress on specific MDG goals.
  • Read CARE Australia's submission to the Parliamentary Inquiry on issues facing women and girls in the Asia Pacific.
  • How should aid be spent? Take the Guardian poll
  • Putting need before politics on the post-MDG agenda. World Politics Review post from Sarah Hearn.
  • Aid? What aid? Why neither major party is discussing it during the election campaign.
  • Why Ghana's success story has gone dark. Good post on Ghana's shaky economic success. (Thanks Sam.)
  • The UN appoints actor Daniel Craig as global mine action advocate:


This week, the new Director of the Lowy Institute's International Security Program, Euan Graham, gave an assessment of US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter's recent visit to Asia. The tour followed a particularly forceful speech the Secretary gave last week on the US pivot:

The logic of visiting Tokyo and Seoul ahead of other capitals in the region is straightforward. Between them, Japan and South Korea host over 80,000 US military personnel and the bulk of forward-deployed assets in the Western Pacific. They also bring more military capability to the table than other US allies in Asia. For these fundamental reasons, the US rebalance remains top-heavily reliant on its Northeast Asian treaty allies, not counting the US build-up on Guam, an American Pacific territory. 

Secretary Carter's introductory trip appears to have avoided unexpected traps or hurdles in the fickle business of alliance management.

Lauren Williams on Iraq and the sectarianism that is threatening to tear it apart:

The Iraqi Government is hopelessly sectarian and corrupt. In fact, it was the overtly sectarian policies of previous Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his coziness with Iran that gave rise to ISIS. His successor, Haidar al-Abadi, appears to present a genuinely moderate and unifying figure, but Maliki continues to lead his Dawa Islamic Party and the Government is paralysed by sectarian differences.

For Abadi to lead a pacified and united Iraq, the need to include the Sunni population (particularly the tribes) and avoid a further sectarian conflagration in resisting ISIS is paramount. The Iraqi parliament is working on a draft of a highly contentious National Guard bill that would form a unified military umbrella incorporating Sunni entities and tribal forces, possibly including the Kurdish Peshmerga and Shiite irregulars.

The Interpreter is running a new series,'Digital Disruption.' Danielle Cave has the first entry on Australia and digital diplomacy:

Today, digital diplomacy is a foreign policy essential. We live in a world where state and non-state entities all compete for influence and power in the same online space. That space now hosts more than 3 billion people, most of whom only access the internet through their mobile phone. When used properly, digital diplomacy is a persuasive and timely supplement to traditional diplomacy that can help a country advance its foreign policy goals, extend international reach, and influence people who will never set foot in any of the world's embassies.

The good news is that DFAT's online reach has grown significantly over the past two years.

An excellent piece from John Carlson breaking down the more technical aspects of the Iran nuclear agreement and negotiations:

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So, the scale of a 'legitimate' enrichment program easily dwarfs Iran's current program. This could be why the capacity/needs principle was dropped from the negotiations. But it is an important principle, and it should never be accepted that nuclear hedging is a legitimate purpose under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty for a 'peaceful' nuclear program. The last thing anyone – including Iran – would want is a proliferation of enrichment or reprocessing programs. It is essential for the international community to use the 15-year breathing space to address this problem of nuclear hedging.

At the end of last week, the Taliban published a biography of their leader Mullah Omar. Susanne Schmeidl thinks it is a desperate attempt to gain relevance against the tide of ISIS's online recruitment:

The Mullah Omar biography fails to speak the language of the young fighters when it reminds them of their leader's long list of war credential. Describing Mullah Omar as coming from a family of jihadists with the RPG-7 as his 'preferred weapon of choice,' in which he is said to be 'proficient and an expert,' does not seem particularly impressive. Where are the videos in which we can see Mullah Omar touting said RPG? That is what ISIS would have done. Furthermore, many know that the rock-star name of Mullah Rocketi has long been booked by ex-Taliban Mullah Abdul Salam. If Mullah Omar was better with the rocket than Rocketi, why did Abdul Salma get the name?

Andrew Selth on what the media got wrong about the recent student protests in Burma:

None of my interlocutors in Burma last month tried to excuse the MPF's violent tactics. Clearly, excessive force was used at Letpadan in what was described by one onlooker as 'a complete breakdown of police discipline'. Yet, as was also pointed out to me, on 10 March some officers, probably from the Bago Region MPF, attempted to curb the behaviour of the security battalions and even tried to protect protesters and bystanders.

Those actions highlight an aspect of the disturbances that has not been addressed in the news media, namely that the uncompromising attitude of the security battalions was not representative of the entire MPF. Indeed, one senior police officer told me that many in the force were shocked and disappointed by events. They regretted what had occurred and recognised the damage the Letpadan incident in particular could do to the MPF's reform program and its attempts to regain public confidence.

Has the Australian Treasury been assuming too much in their modelling of capital mobility? Leon Berkelmans thinks so:

When modelling and discussing the effects of taxes, Treasury frequently makes the assumption of perfect international capital mobility. This assumption means there is only one worldwide after-tax (risk-adjusted) rate of return on capital. If there were anywhere that offered a better deal, perfect capital mobility would imply that capital would flow into that area, until the return differential was arbitraged away. Similarly, if anywhere offered a worse deal, capital would flow out until, again, returns were equalised…

…In 1980 Marty Feldstein and Charles Horioka published a famous and influential paper that claimed capital was quite immobile. They based this claim on a very tight correlation between a country's saving and its investment. That may sound esoteric, but it is not. As I said before, if capital is freely mobile across country borders, it will seek the highest yielding opportunities. There is no reason for it to be invested in places with the highest savings. The most plausible explanation for the correlation was that savings tended to be invested in the home country, or in other words, there was a high degree of home country bias in investment.

Malcolm Cook on upcoming elections in the Philippines and how they might affect the country's position on the South China Sea:

Binay has no foreign policy experience, having risen to national prominence as long-time Mayor of Makati, the wealthiest city in Metro Manila and the country. In one of his first extended interviews addressing foreign policy issues, Binay focused on the prospects for joint Philippines-Chinese development of natural resources in the West Philippine Sea, and downplayed the case filed by the Aquino Administration to the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea regarding the Philippines' maritime boundary disputes with China. The ruling on this landmark case is expected to be delivered in mid-2016, potentially at the same time Binay takes over as president.

If Binay wins and follows through on these views, it would be a return to the policy preferred by Aquino's predecessor, President Macapagal-Arroyo…

Has the UK lost it's internationalist vibe, asks Nick Bryant?:

Britons watch their prime ministers attend commemorative events for the two world wars, and see them at summits like the G7, and tend to assume that the country's traditional lead role in global affairs is assured. But there's been a noticeable slippage. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is viewed by the Obama Administration as the dominant European leader. The French, rather than the British, have become the most interventionist European power, deploying troops in the Central African Republic and Mali. When it came to negotiating the Ukraine ceasefire between Moscow and Kiev, it was Merkel and Francois Hollande who brokered the deal rather than David Cameron, a notable absentee. As its failed campaign to block the appointment of Jean-Claude Juncker to the presidency of the European Commission demonstrated, Britain is often isolated in Europe.

Hugh White took aim at two recently published reports on US-China relations, one of which is authored by former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd:

So what should America do? Rudd says America and China can resolve the tensions caused by China's ambitions through diplomacy. The two powers can and should negotiate in a spirit of 'constructive realism', deepening cooperation where their interests coincide while quarantining and managing the issues on which they disagree.

It's a nice idea, but Rudd's account of it evades the hard question: is America willing to deal with China in the way he proposes? His model implies a complete transformation in the nature of US-China relations so that they become true partners in regional leadership. But his prescription will only work if America is willing to deal with China as an equal, which is of course incompatible with the old model of US regional leadership in Asia.

Yet Rudd does not acknowledge this in his report. No doubt he understands that it is something his American audience will not want to hear, but until this issue is squarely addressed, America's debate about China will keep on missing the mark.

Should global health be a G20 issue? Tristram Sainsbury thinks the current global health system is inadequate:

What is needed is a technical body that monitors vulnerabilities, identifies gaps, informs policymakers and coordinates responses. The WHO, with its current funding, structure and staff, does not seem able to provide the necessary oversight. Yet there is no other organisation that can match the reach or representativeness of the WHO. As Bill Gates points out, the problem isn't that the system didn't work well enough, it is that we hardly have a system at all.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Ash Carter.


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

  • There is enormous buzz around a new Citizen Lab report that claims China has created a powerful cyber weapon known as the Great Cannon. This weapon allows the government to intercept foreign web traffic as it flows to Chinese websites, inject malicious code and redirect the traffic towards any given target. China has responded by censoring discussion of the report.
  • Given the development of the Great Cannon, it's worth noting the recent launch of a US Government-funded security start-up which detects cyber attacks by trends in power consumption activity (rather than malware detection).
  • Indonesia's counter-terrorism agency is keeping a closer eye on its cyberspace - 20 websites have been blocked this month - amid growing concerns about the spread of online radical content (via Asia Digital Life Project).
  • Papua New Guinea's 'Phones Against Corruption' initiative, which allows staff from the Department of Finance to report suspicious behaviour via anonymous texts, has uncovered 250 cases of potential corruption.
  • The Philippines has an ambitious plan to connect 900 cities across the country with free wi-fi by July. How will they do it?
  • Apparently, the Chinese internet doesn't like Hillary Clinton.
  • Sam Roggeveen analyses how blogging and social media impacts Australia's international policy debate in this journal article.
  • In light of Cyclone Pam, here's a piece examining tech solutions in natural disaster response.
  • Wobe, a new app in Indonesia, has been developed to help disadvantaged women in South East Asia by allowing them to start their own micro-businesses (selling phone credit, electricity, bus tickets) via their mobile phone.
  • The Communist Youth League of China is planning an internet volunteer campaign involving 10.5 million youth, 4 million of whom will be required to exemplify 'positive energy' in internet usage, post comments that support Party ideology and report 'unhealthy' online information.

The timing is just right for Foreign Minister Julie Bishop's first-ever visit to Iran, given Australia's recently boosted troop deployment to Iraq,and the newly announced framework agreement on Iran's nuclear program.

Not that the latter will be top of Bishop's agenda for this visit. As Lowy Institute Middle East expert Rodger Shanahan says in the interview below, there is now enough depth in the West's relations with Iran that third-party envoys are no longer needed to carry messages to Tehran. Rodger also talks about the delicate subject of Iran's role in the Iraq conflict, and the economic opportunities that might arise for Australia in Iran from a cut in the sanctions regime:


For a long time American (and Australian) thinking about China has been dominated by a broad consensus that, despite many signs of growing assertiveness, Beijing does not pose a fundamental challenge to US leadership in Asia. The argument goes that, whatever they might say, China's leaders know that its economic future is too uncertain, its political system too fragile, its military too weak and its friends too few to allow it to contest American primacy. They also know that China's own stability and prosperity depend on the regional order that only America can uphold.

Therefore, the consensus has concluded, America doesn't have to do much in response except remind everyone that it intends to stick around. Hence the 'pivot', which has emphasised declaratory statements rather than substantive actions.

But that consensus may be unravelling, at least in America. Washington's AIIB debacle seems to have sounded a wake-up call and now, in just the past week, two major reports from the heart of the US foreign policy establishment have chimed in too. Both reports argue that China's challenge to US primacy in Asia is for real, and that America's policy in Asia needs to shift radically to respond.

At first glance they offer diametrically opposed views of what that response should be, in ways that might appear to frame the debate Washington is now having about how to respond to Beijing's challenge.

In fact, as we shall see, they share a reluctance to address the real issue, and to acknowledge the real risks.

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One of these reports is by our own Kevin Rudd (US-China 21: The Future of US-China Relations Under Xi Jinping). It is the product of his stint at Harvard's Belfer Centre, and is now being showcased by his new home at the Asia Society. The other, from the Council on Foreign Relations, is by two well-known policy heavyweights, Robert Blackwill and Ashley Tellis (Revising US Grand Strategy Toward China).

Both reports argue that China's economic rise marks a fundamental shift in the distribution of power in Asia, and that China's leaders, especially under Xi Jinping, are determined to use their newfound strength to transform the Asian order in their favour. Rudd's argument on this is particularly strong, in part because he draws on a deeper understanding of China. It reminds us that, at his best, Rudd can be a very good analyst indeed.

So what should America do? Rudd says America and China can resolve the tensions caused by China's ambitions through diplomacy. The two powers can and should negotiate in a spirit of 'constructive realism', deepening cooperation where their interests coincide while quarantining and managing the issues on which they disagree.

It's a nice idea, but Rudd's account of it evades the hard question: is America willing to deal with China in the way he proposes? His model implies a complete transformation in the nature of US-China relations so that they become true partners in regional leadership. But his prescription will only work if America is willing to deal with China as an equal, which is of course incompatible with the old model of US regional leadership in Asia.

Yet Rudd does not acknowledge this in his report. No doubt he understands that it is something his American audience will not want to hear, but until this issue is squarely addressed, America's debate about China will keep on missing the mark.

Blackwill and Tellis do not make this mistake. They say upfront that perpetuating US primacy is America's primary strategic objective, and they urge America to build up its economic, military and diplomatic position in Asia to preserve it from China's challenge. This is, in effect, a policy of containment.  Any accommodation of China's ambitions is ruled out.

They are rather glibly optimistic about what this policy would require. They call for the strengthening of America's economy, military power and diplomacy to counter China's rise, and a 'geo-economic' counter-offensive against China's growing economic sphere of influence, without saying how all this might be done. This suggests they do not really understand how radically China's rise has shifted the distribution of power.

But more importantly, Blackwill and Tellis are optimistic about how China would respond. They say America could continue cooperating with China where that suits US interests, while relentlessly resisting China's ambitions to build a new regional order. Their policy prescription assumes that China will be happy to continue working with the US on these terms. In other words, their prescriptions assume what their analysis disproves: that China is not really serious about challenging US primacy after all. If that was true, America could follow Blackwill and Tellis' prescription to resist China's challenge and preserve its primacy without running the risk of disrupting its relationship with China, which is what Americans want to hear.

This brings us to point where Blackwill and Tellis converge with Rudd. Both reports evade the fact that strategic rivalry between America and China is ultimately caused by their fundamentally incompatible aims in Asia. America's primary aim is to retain leadership in Asia, and China's is to displace it.

Rudd assumes America will abandon its aim, while Blackwill and Tellis assume it will be China that steps back. Rudd at least assumes that China will also be willing to compromise, whereas Blackwill and Tellis seem to think that America need make no substantial concessions to enjoy a peaceful relationship with China.

The big risk, of course, is that neither side will be willing to make concessions, because each expects the other to blink first. That leads straight to escalating rivalry and an ever-higher risk of war. Both these reports downplay that risk, because they seem to assume China does not want to change the regional order enough to risk a military confrontation with the US.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user U.S. Department of Defense.

Digital Disruption

After a decade of swimming against the tide, the Australian Government is slowly engaging in the world of digital diplomacy.

The term 'DFAT the Dinosaur' no longer applies, a label slapped onto our foreign affairs department in 2010 after a series of public refusals to incorporate the internet into its engagements with the world. This strategy, or lack thereof, was a bizarre own goal.

Rather alarmingly, the Government's extended inertia in this area exposed a lack of understanding of the evolving ways in which states, organisations and individuals use information and communication technology (ICT) tools to engage, coordinate and influence one another in an increasingly crowded environment of international actors.

Today, digital diplomacy is a foreign policy essential. We live in a world where state and non-state entities all compete for influence and power in the same online space. That space now hosts more than 3 billion people, most of whom only access the internet through their mobile phone. When used properly, digital diplomacy is a persuasive and timely supplement to traditional diplomacy that can help a country advance its foreign policy goals, extend international reach, and influence people who will never set foot in any of the world's embassies.

The good news is that DFAT's online reach has grown significantly over the past two years.

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Most major embassies now have a Facebook account and a growing number of ambassadors have an active Twitter presence. Some social media accounts are doing better than others (Ireland needs a little help; Pakistan and Indonesia do not). A number of embassies have piloted small exercises. For example, Australia's High Commission in PNG attempted live topical Q&A sessions. Hashtags like #NewColomboPlan and #innovationXchange are used by the generic @dfat Twitter account to promote initiatives and link stakeholders. Recently, a blog was launched authored by Australia's Ambassador in Germany (in German). Leveraging off the success of 'The Embassy' TV show, online forums were hosted on the Smartraveller Facebook page (there is also a Smartraveller mobile app). DFAT's new consular strategy briefly mentions an intention to improve and expand social media use. 

Social media is a valuable tool the Government should continue to use and expand on to enhance its international footprint. But digital diplomacy is far more than diplomats and embassies communicating via social media. 

The Brits define digital diplomacy as 'solving foreign policy problems using the Internet'. The Americans have coined the term '21st Century Statecraft,' of which their well-resourced decade old e-diplomacy team forms but one part. No matter which definition you subscribe to, a social media presence is only a part of an evolving picture. Ben Scott, Innovation Advisor to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, outlines three components of digital diplomacy:

  1. Public diplomacy, including the use of online platforms.
  2. Building expertise in technology policy and understanding the way the internet impacts international developments such as political movements (ie. Hong Kong's Umbrella movement).
  3. Impact on development policy and how ICT can be used more effectively to promote economic growth around the world.

With these definitions in mind, a comparison of Australia's efforts with those of our counterparts proves rather humiliating and should serve as a rude awakening for the Australian Government.

The US leads from the front, as it should given the resources at its disposal. Fergus Hanson's analysis of the US State Department's digital diplomacy remains unrivalled, and State's DipNote blog provides regular updates on new initiatives, including how the US uses open data and collaborative mapping to enhance diplomacy. The US, along with a number of other countries, is also building online networks to counter the digital momentum of ISIS. 

The UK isn't far behind, having published a digital strategy in 2012 after widespread consultation, which led to the launch of a new Digital Transformation Unit within the Foreign Office (case studies of successes can be found here). Its empowered staff – through social media and blogging – actually play a part in the public policy discourse, unlike our own. 

France decided in 2008 that its soft power relied on digital technologies, while Polish and Japanese foreign affairs departments employ an extensive collection of social media networks, quadruple the size of our own. Germany turned to ICT platforms to crowd-source opinion and new ideas from the public that fed into its 2014 foreign policy review. India continues to invest heavily in building up its online reach despite resource constraints. Israel has matched its aggressive traditional diplomacy with one of the most active digital diplomacy units in the world, which has worked hard to influence the outcomes of US-Iran nuclear talks. 

Following former Canadian Foreign Minister Baird's speech to Silicon Valley last year, his department's online presence has exploded. Canada is now experimenting with how to best advance its interests online, including by funding university projects that use ICT to circumvent Iranian Government censorship. Sweden's digital diplomacy flourished under former Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, a long-time master of Twitter, who can now be found helping Canada. Small countries are also making significant progress: Romania hosts regular forums to discuss how to enhance its efforts and Kosovo has a (apparently lauded) digital diplomacy strategy.

So what of Australia? DFAT's social media accounts efficiently push out and amplify information, the majority of which is already publicly available via other channels. But these accounts are almost entirely devoid of policy detail and you'll be hard pressed to find the views or positions of the Australian Government beyond a re-tweeted media release.

Instead, the accounts are dominated by Ambassador photo-ops, visa information, trade facts and cute snippets about Australia (koalas, beaches, sport etc). Photos of officials shaking hands are uploaded, an article on why to study/holiday in Australia is posted, a link to an aid announcement is shared and the odd Ambassador tweets their schedule. Engagement with others is generally limited to tweets praising the 'good' and 'useful' meetings they've just had.

There is value in this. But because DFAT communicates only this, its social media accounts are performing more of a marketing function rather than a diplomacy function. But most importantly, communicating is not the same as influencing. This is where Australia's attempts at digital diplomacy come completely unstuck.

Along with many readers of this site, I've sat through dozens of events where Australian officials have delivered muscular public speeches advocating the Government's views on any number of contemporary issues, be it relations with China, resetting our relationship with PNG or the peace process in the Philippines. But while these official views are public, they are not reflected or advocated for online. Why does the Government suppress its own policy positions online while other countries leverage the internet to project their viewpoints and jockey for influence. It is perplexing, and even stranger given Australia has a foreign minister who so easily conveys her personality online and who has such a personal approach to her use of the internet.

It's time the Australian Government invested in digital diplomacy capabilities that extend far beyond regurgitating traditional media. There are risks, as there are when any organisation uses the internet. But the biggest risk of all is not engaging in this space, because the world will soon be home to four, five, then six billion internet users. Until digital diplomacy is taken seriously as a tool of foreign policy, the Australian Government is not equipped to reach them.


This week we've had the IMF and World Bank spring meetings.

Economic heavy-hitters from around the world descend on DC to attend committee meetings, seminars, briefings, and other policy-maker fun. Also, the IMF's World Economic Outlook is released. Chapter 4 in the most recent edition looks at something I've written about a couple of times: low investment growth.

This chapter concludes, using some novel statistical techniques, that the disappointing performance of investment is just what we would expect given the disappointing performance of the global economy. In other words, it is not investment holding back the economy, it's the economy holding back investment. There are exceptions; in some European economies, uncertainty and credit constraints are weighing on investment. But for the most part, the report concludes, investment is not unusually weak, given the state of advanced economies.

Why are advanced economies weak? Part of the reason is covered in Chapter 3. Potential growth is lower than it used to be. Potential growth is the growth the economy can achieve under 'normal' conditions. It's influenced by productivity growth and labour force growth. So it's not special factors holding back investment. The mood of business isn't overly or unnecessarily pessimistic. It's something more fundamental.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user International Monetary Fund.

Digital Disruption

The ability of individuals and organisations to access and respond to information instantaneously, via any number of information and communication technologies (ICT), is flipping the switch on international relations. Non-state actors – from businesses to civil society and even terrorist groups – have adapted more quickly to a wired world and are transforming our understanding of global power and influence. State actors are scrambling to catch up, with some doing much better than others. 

Approaches to diplomacy, intelligence, aid and defence policy are changing as countries try to adapt to this 'digital disruption'. The benefits and burdens it brings will prove one of the great challenges of 21st century foreign policy.

Digital Disruption is a special Interpreter series starting this week, in which we will publish posts from a range of Australian and international experts analysing the ground-breaking ways the internet and advancements in ICT are impacting on Australia's place in the world and on international affairs more broadly. From ideas on how to combat ISIS in the cyberworld to a review of diplomats' use of the internet to the growing influence of Chinese-owned search engines, Digital Disruption promises to be an exciting series that we hope will spark an ongoing conversation. 

The series supplements the Digital Asia links produced every Friday on The Interpreter by Danielle Cave, and complements the Lowy Institute's existing library of research papers, including Digital Islands: How the Pacific's ICT Revolution is Transforming the Region and Revolution@State: The Spread of e-Diplomacy.

If you would like to submit an idea for a post, or have any feedback on the series, please email sdunstan@lowyinstitute.org.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Trey Ratcliff.


It is generally not a good sign when a virus becomes prominent in the public consciousness. The Ebola epidemic was one of the enduring and tragic stories of 2014, with terrible humanitarian and economic consequences. It also revealed a darker side to the speed and interconnectivity of today's globalised world.

The world has dug deep to provide much needed finances, medicines and personnel, and there are hopes that the outbreak will end in 2015 if everything goes to plan. In time, attention can shift to long-term recovery in affected countries.

Whether the world will heed the lessons from Ebola remains less clear. Hannah Wurf and I explore this issue in the latest Lowy Institute G20 Monitor

Most objective assessments would agree the outbreak was poorly handled and the international community should have done more, and more quickly. It appears that the World Health Organization (WHO) was simply overwhelmed by Ebola. At the peak of the crisis, Director-General Margaret Chan declared that the WHO is a technical agency and that health care remains the responsibility of national governments.

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Health policy does remain, for the most part, a domestic policy area managed within national borders. Even for internationally-transmitted infectious diseases, there is a focus on actions at the national level, with each country expected to detect, assess, report and respond to public health risks of international importance. But the capacity of health systems around the world vary considerably. It appears that the entire African continent was ill-prepared to manage emerging health threats just before Ebola struck. 

What is needed is a technical body that monitors vulnerabilities, identifies gaps, informs policymakers and coordinates responses. The WHO, with its current funding, structure and staff, does not seem able to provide the necessary oversight. Yet there is no other organisation that can match the reach or representativeness of the WHO. As Bill Gates points out, the problem isn't that the system didn't work well enough, it is that we hardly have a system at all.

The problem is truly global, and solutions need to be developed at a multilateral level. It is sure to be high on the agenda at the UN World Health Assembly in May. However, the risk is that while these discussions advance technical solutions, without high-level political leadership they will not be able to address the deficiencies in the health architecture that Ebola has exposed. Until that political leadership comes, the world will continue to hope the next fast-spreading health crisis will prove controllable. 

This kind of situation appears tailor-made for G20 attention, given the forum's membership and its focus on the international 'rules of the game'. A G20 focus on global health governance would also build on the political support given to the international crisis response by G20 Finance Ministers in Cairns and Istanbul, and on the commitments included in G20 leaders' Brisbane communique and statement on Ebola

Wurf and I focus on three areas that would define an appropriate, clear and well-targeted global health governance agenda:

  1. Politically reinforce the WHO as the central organisation for health crises, strengthen its mandate for cross-border infectious diseases and secure its funding structure.
  2. Improve health-risk surveillance and ensure that decision-makers are informed of evolving health risks that could derail economic activity.
  3. As Larry Summers advocates, incentives need to be structured for the development of vaccines, diagnostic tests, and medicines that primarily benefit the poor.

Together, these initiatives would be an important step forward in the global management of future health crises, and recognition that the challenges that developing countries face pose global risks. The tragedy of Ebola is top-of-mind and it would be a shame to waste that momentum.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user DFID.