Lowy Institute

Given the widespread use of social media in the contemporary age, and the lack of basic humanity shown by both the regime and the opposition forces, the Syria conflict should on the face of it engender a feeling of repulsion at the actions of both sides.

And to a degree it does. But one of the casualties of the instantaneous commentary culture has been a sense of perspective, or any incentive to engage intellectually with the problem. An emotive image is uploaded to the virtual world and what has has hitherto been an extremely complex issue is automatically simplified. In Vietnam, the iconic image of the 'Napalm girl' encapsulated, for many, the futility of the war. The image of an innocent girl caught in the crosshairs of unthinking and unfeeling American pilots who bombed the Vietnamese from 30,000 feet personalised the narrative of high-tech American forces arrayed against the low-tech Vietnamese. The iconic photo summed up what words could not: US bombing made an enemy of the innocent people it purported to be saving. 

The desire to use an image to encapsulate an argument remains. But the certainty of the anti-Vietnam movement has been replaced in the contemporary Middle East with conflicts in which neither side reflect Western values, and both sides seek Western support.

The social media battleground is a key element of both sides' information operations. The often equally odious combatants conduct these operations by appealing to the heart and not the mind. The horrible image, released by Syrian opposition forces ast week, showing a young boy named Omran in an ambulance after allegedly being pulled from the rubble created by a regime bombing run in Aleppo, received blanket media coverage. It was an image which moved a CNN presenter to tears (see above), and you would have to be made of stone not to be shaken by it.

But should it be used as a justification to take sides in the civil war? No, it shouldn't.

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There are equally horrendous images put out by regime sources which show the depravity of elements of the largely Islamist opposition. The photo of Omran in the back of an ambulance is disturbing, yet last month's footage of a boy being beheaded by individuals allegedly belonging to a US-vetted rebel group, described by the rebels as an 'individual mistake' (nb. there are no violent images in the linked article), are so disturbing that they won't be broadcast and hence won't gather the same degree of public opprobrium. And if it doesn't make the public space, it never happened.

Equally objectionable is the use of children as witnesses of record. A Syrian opposition group referring to the alleged 2013 chemical weapons attack in Ghouta near Damascus eschews the use of adults as spokespeople in favour of children. There is no reason why an adult could not have given an account of the incident in question, and of course researchers have difficulty relying on children as witnesses. But from an information operations perspective it is obvious that using children to 'sell' one side of the argument is preferable.

This co-option of children is extended to anybody that claims to be associated with them. Jihadis from Australia often claim they were either working  or intending to work in orphanages in Syria and couldn't possibly have been going to support jihadist causes. Doctors killed in air strikes or shelling are invariably paediatricians or were carrying incubators to basements when shelling began.

My aim is not to belittle the work of doctors who work with children in conflict zones or to try to sidestep the reality that children are killed in war. Obviously this occurs. But it occurs on all sides of this conflict. Jihadis deliberately position themselves within civilian populations and store weapons and ammunition in built up areas, while government forces and their allies pay scant attention to targeting processes or ammunition selection that would minimise civilian casualties. The government forces inflict more casualties because they have more resources, but the difference is really a question of quantity of weapons and munitions, not intent. The death of any child is inexcusable, but in Syria it appears that children are being used for more than just to remind us about the futility of war.

Photo: Getty Images/Anadolu Agency

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  • Australia’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has announced the government will embark on the first foreign policy white paper in 13 years. It will be interesting to see how much Australian aid, the management of which is now firmly ensconced within DFAT, will factor into the review. An Independent Review of Australian Aid was conducted in 2011, and an Australian aid White Paper in 2006.
  • Minister Bishop also marked World Humanitarian Day last week at an event co-hosted by the Lowy Institute in Melbourne where she launched Australia’s new Humanitarian Strategy.
  • Ashlee Betteridge and Stephen Howes evaluate the performance of DFAT’s Office of Development Effectiveness on its tenth anniversary.
  • Terence Wood proposes a new 0.7% target – that NGOs contribute as much to broader advocacy to fund a collective effort to persuade the Australian public and their elected representatives that Australia should give more, and better, ODA. This would reap about six times more funding than the existing budget of the Campaign for Australian Aid.
  • More details are emerging of the brutal attack on foreign journalists and aid workers by government troops in South Sudan last month, highlighting yet another case of UN peacekeeping forces failing to intervene despite desperate calls for help.
  • The Guardian has an insider’s view on the first few days of South Sudan’s chaotic slide back into conflict from the former head of the UN there.
  • Owen Barder writes about what international development can learn from Britain’s Olympic Team’s success.
  • Take a look at this video breaking down the world’s demographic and human development trends if it were only 100 people (h/t Duncan Green).

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Last week Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi laid down the gauntlet to Pakistan, sending a clear indication that India may be prepared to destabilise Pakistan’s fractious Balochistan province in response to perceived threats. While this represents a very significant change in India’s public posture towards Pakistan, it is important to understand the message was also directed at China.

In a carefully worded national Independence Day speech at Delhi’s Red Fort on 15 August, Modi sent his greetings to the 'people of Balochistan, Gilgit [and] Pakistan-occupied Kashmir'. These words caused outrage in Islamabad where they were viewed as an infringement on Pakistani sovereignty, 'confirming' their long-standing claims that India had been supporting insurgencies in Balochistan and elsewhere in Pakistan.

Playing the Balochistan card represents a big shift for India. Initially, Modi’s election in 2014 prompted expectations that Delhi would take a much less conciliatory line with Pakistan. But, to the surprise of some, beginning with the invitation of Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to Modi’s inauguration, the Modi government appeared relatively open to exploring approaches to reconciliation.

But Delhi seems to have now concluded its efforts have generated few returns. Sharif’s Pakistan Independence Day speech on 14 August, which he dedicated to the freedom of Kashmir, may have been the last straw for the Modi government, ending hopes that a detente could be reached with Pakistan’s civilian government.

India’s National Security Advisor Ajit Doval has long argued that India should play the Balochistan card in response to Pakistan-inspired terror threats. In one memorable speech, only days before his formal appointment, Doval addresses the camera (and presumably a Pakistani audience) saying: 'You do one more Mumbai [attack], you lose Balochistan.' Doval argued that Pakistan’s terror strategy against India could only be deterred by India using an asymmetric strategy of threatening to support Pakistan separatists. India’s move is a risky one, potentially inflaming tensions and undermining India’s high(er) moral ground.

But this development is more than just a new episode in India-Pakistan relations. Modi’s message was directed almost as much to Beijing as to Islamabad. Modi's speech came just one day after Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi returned to Beijing from Delhi. Wang’s visit to Delhi followed a period of growing irritation in India-China relations. India has been unusually forthright in rejecting China’s claims in the South China Sea, while China recently played a pivotal role in vetoing India’s application to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the group of countries that controls trade in nuclear technology. India sees joining the NSG as an important step towards changing its status from a de facto to a de jure nuclear weapons state. China’s move to block India’s application may not have been surprising, but it was regarded by Delhi as further proof, if any was needed, of China’s desire to keep India down.

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According to Indian analysts, Wang visited Delhi with an apparent offer that China might soften its position on the NSG if India relaxed its stance on freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. It remains to be seen whether Modi will take that bait.

But there is another important and growing dynamic in the India-China relationship that is directly related to Baluchistan. China is pushing forward with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which will involve the development of roads, railways, pipelines and other infrastructure along a corridor stretching from China’s western Xinjiang province to the Chinese-built port of Gwadar on the Indian Ocean. According to its proponents, the CPEC, with a claimed price tag of some $46 billion, has the potential to economically transform Pakistan. The project also has the potential to transform China’s regional role by creating a direct transport link between western China and the Indian Ocean.

The CPEC will likely involve many thousands of Chinese engineers and workers and the development of billions of dollars of Chinese-owned infrastructure over thousands of kilometres. While the final route of the corridor is yet to be determined, elements of the project will traverse the territories of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK), Gilgit-Baltistan and Balochistan; some of the most dangerous real estate on earth.

Pakistan has sought to address the security risks in the project by forming a special army corps of 12,000 personnel devoted to protecting the CPEC project. Overall, China seems surprisingly sanguine about the considerable security risks of the venture and its reliance on the Pakistan Army. Indeed Chinese views on the role of roads and bridges in curing religious extremism seem redolent of another era. Chinese Premier, Li Keqiang, reportedly characterised the Chinese projects as a means of 'weaning the populace from fundamentalism.'

Delhi is still formulating its views on CPEC. Indian Foreign Secretary, S. Jaishankar called China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) project: 'A [Chinese] national initiative devised with national interest, it is not incumbent on others to buy it.' If the CPEC succeeds as advertised, it could be a boon for Pakistan’s economic development. On balance, this would likely be a good thing for India to the extent it stabilises Pakistan. But CPEC also has the potential to enmesh China much more closely in Pakistan, making it a key player in the country’s internal political and security affairs. According to recent reports, Beijing is already pushing for the Pakistan Army to be given a leading role in CPEC, over civilian authorities. There is a real possibility that China could become a major target of Pakistani extremists and separatists. But one aspect that absolutely infuriates Delhi is China’s plans to build infrastructure in POK and Gilgit, territory claimed by India. India has repeatedly made its strong objections about this clear to China, without any apparent response. China seems intent on moving ahead with the OBOR initiative in these and other highly sensitive areas with little if any regard for India’s views.

Modi’s greeting to the people of Pakistan’s restive territories was a reminder to both Islamabad and Beijing that India has some powerful cards to play.

Photo by Arvind Yadav/Hindustan Times via Getty Images 

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This week North Korea’s number two diplomat in London, Thae Yong Ho, defected South Korea. Euan Graham (who, through his time as a North Korea specialist in the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office, came to know Thae Yong ‘about as well as a Western diplomat could hope to’) reflected on where the diplomat might go from here:

No matter how much Thae affected the tweedy accoutrements of British gentlemanly living, there was always a roguish edge showing through, in a grin or glint of the eye. Regardless of his feelings towards Kim Jong Un's regime, I believe he will remain proudly North Korean at heart.

North Korean analysts are prone to speculating as to what might happen in the event of Pyongyang’s downfall, without really analysing how such a collapse could happen, wrote Robert E Kelly:

Often find at conferences or in regional journalism a vague, almost teleological sense that North Korea's time is up, that it will naturally crumble…

I want instead to lay out a credible pathway to change, if not necessarily collapse: a Chinese cut-off of North Korea igniting divisions in the regime's elite, as Pyongyang factions fight over a declining budgetary pie. 

This week also saw the release of a major new report on the China-Australia economic relationship, reigniting the debate over Chinese foreign investment. Greg Earl:

Last week’s economic diplomacy brief noted the interim decision against State Grid Corporation and Hong Kong’s Cheung Kong Infrastructure buying a 99-year-lease to control Ausgrid was a watershed in China policy, given that Australia has benefitted more than most countries from years of strong Chinese growth.

This new 300-page Australia-China Joint Economic Report forecasts more of those benefits ahead even if China’s economy slows down and suggests that Australia can play an independent global scale role in helping China adjust to being an internationalised economy.

And Stephen Grenville:

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The Ausgrid decision provides a reminder of the difficulties in getting the investment relationship right…

This report, sensibly, refers to wider security issues only as context with just a box on regional security and a few paragraphs in the text of a chapter about risks. There is no shortage of pundits on the security challenges. We still await the (bold) author who revisits the idea that close economic integration makes open conflict unlikely, even unthinkable.

Peter Layton, meanwhile, argued that foreign investment could be utilised to offset the security risks that spooked Australian Treasurer Scott Morrison:

These Ausgrid problems presumably reflect limited state government funding to fix what are national security concerns. Ausgrid’s sale was slated to bring in some $10 billion to $13 billion; even 10% of this would be a sizable amount to allocate to addressing the identified national security concerns.

Sarah Ireland warned of the dire consequences of the coming exodus from Mosul:

Action must start now if we are to ensure the needs of those displaced from Mosul are met. Donors need to commit to providing funding for humanitarian assistance within a clear timeframe. And funding must be flexible enough to allow the UN and aid agencies to adapt to the ever-changing dynamics on the ground.

As it stands, humanitarian organisations do not have the funds required to prepare for the Mosul offensive. A failure to act now could have catastrophic consequences for the people of Mosul, and for Iraq.

Executive Director on the IMF Board Barry Sterland wrote a two-part series on why G20 engagement is an essential part of Australia’s approach to international economic governance. Part one:

This is not to say international groups are always effective – one only needs to sit through meetings and read dense communiques to know they are far from it.

Nevertheless, the G20 is large enough though to capture a good range of interests from all systemic economies, and small enough to forge efficient consensus on critical issues for the world economy.

And part two:

Turning to the institution I currently work within, I consider that the G20 has strengthened the role of the IMF and Australia's voice within it. Australia has a strong national interest in an effective IMF, given the key role its surveillance advice and lending can play in crisis prevention and stronger growth. We particularly have an interest in a Fund that is respected and trusted partner in Asia. The G20 has delivered the political consensus required to both increase the resources and better distribute voting power within the IMF, including among Asian emerging economies.

The appointment of Frances Adamson as Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is something to be celebrated, argued UK High Commissioner to Australia Menna Rawlings:

These days, it sometimes feels as if the UK Diplomatic Service is ahead of the curve in seeing the value in diverse workforces and leadership teams – although DFAT probably has the edge on us! I find myself in a number of meetings, particularly with CEOs from the business community, where I am still the only woman in the room. And out of over 100 Ambassadors accredited to Canberra, only 15 of us are women.

That’s why it’s worth pausing to celebrate Frances Adamson’s appointment as another milestone reached on the winding road to diversity in diplomacy, and to gender equality in the conduct of international relations.

Following a high-level counter-terrorism forum in Bali earlier this month, Zubaidah Nazeer wrote on how a lack of regional cooperation is hampering CT efforts in Southeast Asia:

Cross-border cooperation is far from optimal between Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines, countries that are either at high risk of terror attacks or that have identified active cells…

There are various reasons for this lethargy including sovereignty issues, porous borders and a lack of agreement on what needs to be done

In a fascinating three-part series, Matthew Dal Santo argued that Russian President Vladimir Putin is not attempting a ‘re-Stalinisation’ of the Russian state, but a restoration of the Romanov era. Part one

Despite his public image, says Mikhail Remizov, Putin isn’t a Vozhd (‘Leader’, a popular name for Stalin) before whom Russia’s ruling elite trembles; he’s an (imperfect) moderator of their squabbles.

‘Putin isn’t even a Stalinist in the good sense’, says Remizov, with irony. ‘He can’t fully discipline his own system. To defeat the Stalinist myth, you need to solve the problems Stalin solved with violence with non-violent means. And the present system cannot yet do that.’

Part two:

On a sunny afternoon in Moscow I meet a well-connected former editor of a Moscow daily. 

'Putin doesn't want to be seen as merely continuing the USSR', he says. 'The Soviet Union failed and for him that indicates that there was something wrong with it.'

Putin, he says, 'isn't interested in being remembered as some kind of Communist Party general secretary. He thinks of himself as a Russian De Gaulle or a Franco', head of a self-consciously 'transitional regime' aimed at restoring a semi-traditional political and social order.

And part three:

Between 1613 and 1917 the Romanovs transformed a remote and backward principality on Europe's periphery into a leading power not in opposition to, but within the European state system. There's a good argument that what Moscow wants today is not a return to the superpower confrontation of 1947 to 1989, but a version of the 'European concert' of 1815 to 1914.

Finally, in responding to a Gideon Rachman Financial Times column on Australia-China relations, Nick Bisley argued that Australia is the ‘canary in regional coalmine’:

Rachman thinks Australia might become a flashpoint in this contested region but here he gets the metaphor wrong. Australia’s beneficial geography means that it won’t be the place where tensions suddenly erupt into violent conflict. Rather, the pressure being put on Australia is significant because its circumstances are essentially the same as most of Washington’s regional partners: they have an asymmetric economic relationship with China.

Photo: Getty Images/The Washington Post

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  • Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and why the unmediated photo is the message.
  • The new Hillary Clinton app has taken a page out of Kim Kardashian's mobile app playbook.
  • The Australian Army, which has taken a leading role in the ADF's digital diplomacy efforts, has a new podcast. Hosted by @sharonmascall, the podcast takes a behind the scenes look at Exercise Hamel (#ExHamel), the Army's largest annual joint exercise.
  • Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are both using Pokémon Go to lure in voters.
  • Australia's Antartica Division is building a fantastic Twitter presence via  @AusAntarctic; use #icytweets to quiz them on drones, droids and robots.
  • Who owns your country's Twitter handle?
  • The White House has a launched a Facebook bot so that anyone around the world can 'send their stories, ideas and concerns' to President Obama. The White House's Chief Digital Officer explains how it works.
  • Is Sri Lanka ready to engage with networked diplomacy?
  • A refreshingly frank outline  from Australia's Department of Prime Minister & Cabinet (PM&C) on their short and sharp digital journey (three years ago PM&C had no communications branch, and then-Prime Minister Tony Abbott saw social media as electronic graffiti). 
  • With help from Facebook, the Indian Government has launched an app which streamlines engagement with its citizens overseas by bringing together the social media presence of its 170+ overseas missions.
  • ABC Managing Director Michelle Guthrie spoke about the importance of digital disruption and diplomacy in her recent Lowy Institute speech.
  • Australia's new Free Trade Agreement portal (built by CSIRO's data innovation group and DFAT) includes an API, allowing third parties to potentially display the data in innovative ways (h/t Dave).
  • Advice from the US on how Samoa can leverage data-driven diplomacy.
  • China's ministries and state-owned media agencies are on a video-making spree in order to influence opinion and get their messages out globally. The latest, on China's South China Sea position, is popping up as a video advertisement: 

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Myanmar's Upper House of Parliament recently approved a proposal calling for 'prompt action' in eradicating drugs in Myanmar. Myanmar remains the second-largest poppy producer in the world (despite recent reports of reduction in output), and is an increasingly significant producer of Amphetamine Type Stimulants (ATS). The latter are more difficult to target since, unlike poppy fields, drug labs can be moved.

Drug eradication has been a topical domestic issue this year. The Kachin-based civil society organisation (CSO) Pat Jasan conducted drug eradication activities, destroying poppy plantations in Kachin State before the government ordered it to stop in February this year. After reaching an agreement with authorities, Pat Jasan members were later assaulted by armed groups during subsequent eradication activities, despite promised protection.

Considering the international political pressure, tackling the drug trade is an attractive proposition for the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD), but it's also a problematic one. The role that drugs play (and have played) in Myanmar's society, economy and politics is complicated, and there are strong vested interests that will need to support any anti-drug activities if they are going to be successful. Any serious anti-drug efforts also have the potential to interfere with Myanmar's continuing peace process and planned talks (the '21st Century Panglong Peace Conference') at the end of this month.

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Many poppy plantations and drug labs are located in areas controlled by ethnic non-state armed groups. Although there is no official data, some estimates have valued Myanmar's poppy trade at between US $500 million and over US $1 billion per year, with ATS production likely to substantially increase this figure. Drug eradication threatens a lucrative industry; in the case of Pat Jasan, farmers responded violently when their livelihoods were threatened.

The new NLD Government doesn't have many options. Armed groups that profit from the drug trade are unlikely to give it (or their territory) up without a fight or significant compensation. But the government doesn't have the money to compensate these groups, and alternate crop substitution won't provide the same revenue or affect the increasing number of ATS labs. 

The government could consider giving affected groups full rights to natural resources in their respective areas, but this would deprive the government of much needed revenue. And some groups effectively control these resources anyway, so likely wouldn't see the formal rights as adequate compensation.

The NLD can't openly allow the illicit drug industry to continue, even in the interests of peace. Doing so risks international criticism and possible sanctions. Nor can it use CSOs (such as Pat Jasan) as proxies in enforcement due to the security risks CSOs would face, and because it could encourage other forms of issue-motivated vigilantism. Relying on CSOs would also undermine the role of the military and the police force, as well as NLD's stated desire for 'rule of law'. 

It's also unclear how the debate on drugs will fit in to the broader peace discussion, or to what extent it will influence the overall peace process. The International Crisis Group recently highlighted that only two thematic areas (political issues and security issues) out of the five originally identified will be part of the main peace group discussions. The remaining three – social issues (which includes drugs), economic issues and natural resources and land issues – have been relegated to the newly formed 'Civil Society Organisation Forum', which will somehow feed into the main discussions. 

This development means that the drug trade is not a central topic of discussion, despite the potential to influence issues such as disarmament and demobilisation. But many other issues (such as autonomy and natural resources) are also so interlinked that separating them into different topical discussions (some potentially by committees that have an unknown influence over the whole process) may give the impression that key issues are being neglected, and could result in less substantive agreements. 

It will also be hard to secure disarmament and demobilisation when those arms are being used to protect what many may see as their property, whether it is land, natural resources or an illicit billion-dollar industry.

If agreements can't be reached, it would be surprising for any party to publicly admit that the issue of drugs is partly responsible. We are instead likely to see claims that issues such as 'autonomy' couldn't be agreed upon. And if agreements are reached that don't factor in the drug industry (or other topical issues, for that matter), we are likely see conflict during their implementation. 

So far, military MPs have supported the recent anti-drug proposal, which is promising for the NLD. Eradication and enforcement efforts require the cooperation of the military and the police, which the NLD doesn't control. But military MPs emphasised that eradication efforts should be well-funded military-style operations, while cautioning against using 'drugs' as an issue for political purposes. It's unclear whether military eradication operations are precisely what the NLD has in mind.

The NLD is in an unenviable position. It is desperate for wins in the peace process, which would allow it to claim success where previous administrations failed. But to secure any substantive long-term agreements, the NLD will need to find a compromise between its stated anti-drug ambitions and the needs of armed groups who control the trade, or risk failing on both fronts. 

Photo: Getty Images/Taylor Weidman

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After the Australian election, I flirted with the notion of a worldwide trend away from globalisation, but on further reflection I am reluctant to embrace fully any grand theory about global political trends.

First, the notion that Trump, Brexit, the EU crisis and even Australia's near miss with a hung parliament all represent evidence of a single global narrative strikes me as flirting with the Orwell Temptation, the tendency among intellectuals to inflate the significance of contemporary events in order to make themselves feel more important.

Then there is the 'parochialism of the present' — the tendency to believe we are living through uniquely important times. We might, but equally we might be ascribing too  much significance to events just because we happen to be living through them.

Moreover, we shouldn't forget the many local factors at play. It goes without saying that Trump's victory in the GOP primaries was a historical outlier, and a great many small things had to go right for Trump to win. If the dice hadn't rolled just the right way on any one of them, we wouldn't be discussing global trends against liberalism and internationalism.

Still, if you are interested in grand, overarching theories on the state of world politics, this long essay in Slate on the week democracy died is a good example:

There are years, decades even, in which history slows to a crawl. Then there are weeks that are so eventful that they seem to mark the dissolution of a world order that had once seemed solid and to foretell the rise of one as yet unknowable.

The week of July 11, 2016, has every chance of being remembered as one of those rare flurries of jumbled, inchoate, concentrated significance. The centrifugal forces that are threatening to break political systems across the world may have started to register a decade ago; they may have picked up speed over the last 12 months; but never since the fall of the Berlin Wall have they wreaked havoc in so many places in so short a span of time—showcasing the failures of technocratic rule, the terrifying rise of populist strongmen, and the existential threat posed by Islamist terrorism, all in the span of seven short days.

At first glance, a political crisis in London; a terrorist attack in Nice, France; a failed putsch in Ankara, Turkey; and a bloviating orator on his way to becoming the Republican nominee for the presidency of the United States look like the dramatic apex of very different, barely connected screenplays. To my eye, they are garish panes of glass that add up to one unified, striking mosaic. Looked at from the right distance, they tell the story of a political system, liberal democracy, that has long dominated the world—and is now in the midst of an epic struggle for its own survival.

Photo: Getty Images/The Washington Post

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Part 1 of this post examined the basic business case for Australia's involvement with the G20. This post examines the other, less appreciated strength of the forum: how it complements most other key planks of our economic diplomacy strategy. The key question therefore is not one of choosing how to 'balance' our G20 efforts with other approaches, but, rather, how to build a coherent strategy that secures Australia's interest through the totality of our relationships.

The G20 includes all our key bilateral economic partners and provides unrivaled opportunities to strengthen these relationships through regular contact and cooperation. Certainly the side meetings around the G20 are important opportunities to progress bilateral issues.

But international relationships are a bit like interpersonal ones: they gain strength from participating in common activities. Hence, our relationship with key countries have been deepened by our work with them in the G20 – negotiating common positions on G20 issues, caucusing, and ensuring Asia Pacific and other common interests are protected.

The G20 also supports our interests in key international institutions. The G20 has itself strengthened the role of the key economic crisis prevention and response institutions like the IMF and the Financial Stability Board (FSB). The G20 created the FSB and provides it with the necessary political backing, and this represents an important institutional strengthening of the global financial system. Our membership of the G20, and our own record of sound and pragmatic implementation of financial regulation, gives us a strong seat at this table.

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Turning to the institution I currently work within, I consider that the G20 has strengthened the role of the IMF and Australia's voice within it. Australia has a strong national interest in an effective IMF, given the key role its surveillance advice and lending can play in crisis prevention and stronger growth. We particularly have an interest in a Fund that is respected and trusted partner in Asia. The G20 has delivered the political consensus required to both increase the resources and better distribute voting power within the IMF, including among Asian emerging economies. The G20's wide membership has assisted the Fund's own transition in recent years to developing policy positions more suited to a multipolar global economy.

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Fund Management and staff rightly take seriously the task of advising the G20 on key economic policy issues. The G20 provides a forum to test the IMF's policy advice supporting growth and resilience. This is about getting better traction for Fund advice, and hence the priority on supporting the G20 is completely consistent with the Fund's mandate, and the interests of its members.

The IMF of course has its own governance institutions that must be respected, including the Board. It is particularly critical that the G20 doesn't step into operational decisions, and that policy decisions are subject to the involvement of the full membership.

Nevertheless, gaining consensus for major changes at the IMF is hard, and inevitably involves political trade-offs. The G20 provides an opportunity for key players to hammer out the basic outlines of consensus, which the more formal governance bodies can then work with to produce concrete progress. In this way, having a strong Australian presence within both the G20 and the Fund governance bodies is complementary.

Australia has always had a strong and respected voice inside the Fund, and this has been strengthened by our membership of the G20. We have a good reputation coming mainly from good economic performance over a sustained period. Sitting on the IMF Board as country experiences are assessed, it is clear we have done most things right over the last few decades across the key areas of structural reform, macroeconomic frameworks, macroeconomic management, and financial stability. This alone means people listen.

We have also brought a different perspective to the IMF as an advanced economy in a dynamic region with predominantly emerging economies. Indeed, one of the other ways in which our G20 and IMF participation are reinforcing is that we have long shared a chair at the IMF with Korea, another G20 country, and one that has only recently moved from emerging to advanced economy status. Our own interests as a country and a constituency generally match the broad range of interests in the Fund. This has, for example, put us in front of the curve on governance reform, and given us some ability to assist in forging consensus within the Fund on a range of issues. This approach works well with the structure of the G20 with its variety of players.

Our chairing of the G20 in 2014 was widely regarded as successful by Fund Management, staff and other Board members, which has further strengthened Australia's already strong reputation.

The G20 should by no means be the only element of our economic diplomacy but it should remain a central priority given its reach across our interests.

Photo: Getty Images/Mark Wilson

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One of the great career mistakes a North Korea analyst can make is to predict Pyongyang's downfall, or (even worse) try to attach an actual date to that event. The Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) manages to survive no matter how much the world throws at it, no matter how many times we on the outside confidently predict it will fall.

And it sure looks like it should fall. North Korea violates almost every expectation we have about successful (or at least stable) states in the contemporary era. Indeed, we often label it a failed state, which suggests that instability or breakdown are imminent or likely.

But one does not often see a credible pathway, one without huge changes in current circumstances, laid out for that implosion. Instead, I often find at conferences or in regional journalism a vague, almost teleological sense that North Korea's time is up, that it will naturally crumble, subject to 'historical forces' or something. The South Korean government is particularly prone to this sort of nebulous-but-confident speculation. Its presidents ritualistically suggest unification will happen soon. Lee Myung-Bak wanted a 'unification tax' for this imminent event, while Park Geun-Hye spoke of it as a soon-to-come 'bonanza.'

Even more fantastically, the South Korean left likes to speculate about a Korean federation paralleling relations in 'greater China' or even the EU. I have seen lots Powerpoint presentations over the years on what to do with the North Korean military or its nuclear weapons after unification and so on, but surprisingly few credible scenarios of how to actually get from here to there.

So rather than predict a date for North Korea's collapse, I want instead to lay out a credible pathway to change, if not necessarily collapse: a Chinese cut-off of North Korea igniting divisions in the regime's elite as Pyongyang factions fight over a declining budgetary pie.

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There are other obvious possibilities: a war could break out (probably by accident, as a result of a North Korean provocation gone too far), and ignite a tit-for-tit spiral that escalates. North Korea would lose that war.

Andrei Lankov has also suggested that the ongoing flow of information into North Korea could ultimately create generational change. The young of today, exposed to the outside world, will inherit North Korea's institutions tomorrow and slowly change them. Or perhaps, North Koreans will themselves rise, as Eastern Europeans did in 1989 and Arabs in 2010. But all these scenarios involve huge changes, whereas mine tries to deal with the DPRK as it is now.

Rather than looking for a black-swan event like implosion or collapse, the possibility of regime splits at the top (leading to some sort of mild, perhaps rolling political change) is far more likely. Comparative political science often argues that authoritarian states are prone to change when divisions arise among elites. Often popular revolts catalyze these divisions. But North Korea has never had a popular protest in its history and there is precious little evidence of a civil society. So what other mechanisms might set the DPRK's elites against each other? As it is basically a gangster state, how about their money and goodies?

The current South Korean and US strategy is to slowly isolate North Korea in hopes of pushing it back toward the bargaining table. Sanctions have steadily increased; this year has seen the heaviest UN sanctions yet, plus the targeting of Kim Jong Un personally by the US. This has likely slowed the nuclear and missile programs, but North Korea's behaviour this year is arguably its worst since 2010. South Korea closed the Kaesong Industrial Complex, depriving North Korea of US$100 million in legal currency per annum. And Seoul is now seeking to peel away North Korea's 'third-worldist' friends, like Cuba and Namibia. This should make it harder for North Korea to evade sanctions and engage in the gangsterism that has provided cash to the regime for decades. This approach slowly shrinks North Korea's room for maneuver, and it wisely pursues low-hanging fruit first. Cutting off subsidies, thickening sanctions, and isolating North Korea step-by-step from its few remaining friends slowly backs it into a corner, where it survives almost exclusively on Chinese forbearance. 

North Korea is greatly dependent on China. China accounts for roughly 90% of North Korean trade. Its banks hide the regime's slush funds. Informal cross-border networks help feed North Koreans where the state no longer can. It is the pathway over which luxuries like alcohol, HDTVs, and jet-skis travel to the Pyongyang 'court economy'. The closure of Kaesong, roll-up of other allies, and tough new sanctions on North Korean shipping increasingly leave China as North Korea's last major pipeline to the world economy.

Chinese cut-off would therefore be disastrous. It would dramatically reduce resources flowing into the country, especially the luxury goods that underwrite the governing bargain between the Kim family and the military. In the mid-1990s, Kim Jong Un's father promised the military extraordinary access to politics and the budget, in exchange, most analysts believe, for not overthrowing Kimist rule after the end of the Cold War. This was known as the 'military first policy' (son-gun), but it is better understood as a gangsterish bargain: the Korean People's Army (KPA) will not overthrow the Kims so long as they provide the goodies to the brass. Those benefits include living in Pyongyang in nice apartments with proper electricity, water, and so on; foreign luxury items like HDTVs, liquor, films, and automobiles; a blind eye to corruption and personal debauchery; and limited access to the outside world for elite families and their money.

Critically, this 'songun bargain' (my term) requires an outside pipeline. These luxuries are not substitutable domestically, no matter how hard the regime squeezes its population. Should the booze, jet-skis, clandestine shopping trips to Beijing, and so on be cut off, what are the benefits to the KPA standing by the Kims? The costs are clear and enormous; senior regime figures are marked men globally, individually subject to the whims of the Kim clan, cannot travel easily, will likely be lynched or executed should North Korea fall, and so on. Why carry these costs if the luxury benefits are not there?

Further, all sorts of other goods, such as hydrocarbons and machine parts, would dry up if China took sanctions more seriously. Fuel shortages already inhibit KPA training, for example. Factories would shut down. 

In short, if the Chinese seriously shut the gate, there would eventually be a contracting budgetary and foreign-goods pie in the court economy at the top, which could set elites against each other over what was left. This would not happen immediately; there would be a 'pipeline effect' of several years, perhaps a decade. Extant reserves would cover initial losses. China would probably not seal off North Korea completely, even if it were offered a withdrawal of US forces from South Korea in exchange. North Korea would likely return to serious gangsterism in order to find funds, and the regime would first crack down even harder on its own people to find resources for the court economy.

But eventually the shortages (particularly in niche foreign goods, such as Kim Jong Un's favorite cigarettes) would feed through to the top. As resources shrank, it is easy to imagine a gangster regime, already built on predating its own people and the international community, falling into mafiosi gangland-style infighting over what was left.

If there will be no popular uprising to push North Korean elites toward fracture, maybe depriving them of the luxuries (the only benefit they accrue from the whole awful system) will. North Korea cannot survive on its own. It has always required a foreign patron; the only time it did not have one, it fell into a man-made famine. Worse, the regime's ideology is a preposterous quasi-theological monarchism that its elites almost certainly know is bunk. The military-first policy and well-known indulgence of the North Korean elite strongly suggest their cynicism. We also know that North Korea reacted sharply to the US pursuit of its illicit holdings at Banco Delta.

Exploiting this weakness for foreign cash and luxuries will, as ever, require Chinese cooperation on sanctions, plus a long-term effort to convince China that North Korea is greater threat to it than a unified Korea. This re-evaluation may be underway, and South Korea should China, however humiliating it may be. The road to Pyongyang still runs through Beijing.

Photo: Getty Images/The Washington Post

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On Wednesday the Australian government announced its disappointment that the long-planned commemoration ceremony at Long Tan, in southern Vietnam, had been shut down at the last minute by the Vietnamese government. Today marks the 50th anniversary of the battle that killed 18 Australian and possibly 245 Vietnamese soldiers. Australia has been holding ceremonies there, one way or another, since 1989.

This year's event would have been the largest by far, with media reporting more than 1000 Australians planned to attend the event at the Long Tan site, where a memorial cross marks what is now a corn field.

The shock caused by the late cancellation reached the highest levels with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull calling his counterpart, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, for an explanation. It seems now that small groups will be allowed into Long Tan, in an orderly manner. For a long time now it has been this way; military uniforms (save for our military attache from the embassy in Hanoi), medals, flags have long been disallowed.

The controversy is unfortunate for veterans and their families and for all those who worked so hard for the event. The abrupt announcement so close to the event was undoubtedly poor management. However we don't know who made the call. Was it the local government in Ba Ria-Vung Tau or the national administration in Hanoi? And, more importantly, why?

The Australian media has mentioned local sensitivities and fears that the event had simply become too big. It’s important to remember that hundreds of Vietnamese were killed in this battle, which was part of a war that divided a nation. The battle of Long Tan and its commemoration by Australians has long been sensitive locally.

It's understood Hanoi had to get the local Party on side for a cross and a site from the very beginning and local officials have not not always been convinced of the benefit, even as handfuls of Aussie vets have returned to the nearby seaside resort of Vung Tau to make the the town their home and even undertake charity work. Of course, Vietnamese veterans have long been happy to meet (and drink) with their foreign counterparts, and to talk about the war also. A dinner between the two sides had been organised.

The first official Long Tan commemoration took place in 1994. Australia's ambassador to Vietnam at the time, Dr Susan Boyd, remembers it was 'complicated and torturous' process. She told me yesterday: 'There were lots of levels of decision making and approvals. It wasn’t easy. There were a lot of sensitivities.'

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Three years after that first ceremony, the US sent its first post-war ambassador to Vietnam, Douglas ‘Pete’ Peterson, an air force pilot who had spent six years as a POW in North Vietnam. Now an Australian citizen living in Melbourne, he said he was puzzled by the decision to cancel today's event. 'I can’t imagine why they would do it … these things are generally local decisions.' Peterson oversaw the normalisation of ties between the US and Vietnam, including the bilateral trade agreement struck in 2000 that helped Vietnam’s economy tremendously.

Vietnam has prided itself on its hatchet-burying since the American War. But it seems it likes to be in charge; it wants to control the shovels and decide where and when to dig the holes. The event planned for today, involving so many Australians, seemed rather 'triumphalist', according to a Vietnamese source quoted by Fairfax’s Lindsay Murdoch.

Five years ago I was at the 45th anniversary commemoration at the same site. It was a smaller event, but the crowd still numbered some 500. All were respectful and then-Australian Ambassador Allaster Cox honoured both the Australian and New Zealand fallen and 'the many millions of Vietnamese who died in the struggle for full independence in their homeland.'

Among those present were former war correspondents and diplomats from New Zealand, led by Carl Robinson who reported for Associated Press during the war. US-born Robinson emigrated to Sydney with his Vietnamese wife after the war to work for Newsweek. He now convenes the online Vietnam Old Hacks group and travels back to Vietnam regularly. He too was puzzled by this week's about face.

He says for many veterans, going back to Vietnam 'is about the best thing they can do to move beyond the experience of the war. In less than 24 hours all those years of anger and resentment disappear...the people are as friendly as ever and make them feel so welcome.'

He adds Australia 'has gone out of their way to be very respectful over the years'. 

Until this week, most who know the Vietnam-Australian relationship well would say it has never been better. Vietnam has become more and more international – as shown during this year's visit by the US president and the progress of that relationship – and Australia has proved a good friend in the region. Yet, despite all the diplomatic, aid and trade activity, and the much- treasured person-to-person links, there are clearly some different views of important events, reminders that the long-ago war still exacts a price today. 

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia userTacintop

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Dramatic news broke this week that Thae Yong Ho, number two at the North Korean Embassy in London, has defected with his family to South Korea.

He is the most senior diplomat to defect in years, possibly the most important since Hwang Jang Yop, one of Pyongyang's chief ideologists, fled in 1997. Thae Yong Ho's arrival in South Korea has been instantly heralded as a triumph by the Park Geun-hye administration. His debriefing promises a potential treasure trove for South Korea's National Intelligence Service. In the course of his career, specialising in the UK and Europe, Thae is likely to have accumulated substantial knowledge about Pyongyang's overseas finances – licit and illicit. His connections and influence ran deeper than a deputy position at the embassy suggests.

Over several years as a North Korea specialist in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office I came to know Thae Yong Ho about as well as a Western diplomat could hope to. While our interactions were professional, occasionally tense, never wholly trusting, we developed a rapport nonetheless. As this BBC profile makes clear, Thae appeared strangely at home in suburban North London. Like some other North Korean diplomats, but to a greater degree than most, he had a disconcerting ability to compartmentalise the varied requirements  of his portfolio.

There is a quick-witted, calculated confidence to his conversation, and I think he enjoyed intellectual sparring as much as he enjoyed tennis, at his local club in Acton. In the course of his two postings to London, it appears that enough of the Anglo influence rubbed off in ways that led him to profoundly question his allegiances, and to plot his escape for months – if not years – in advance.

Initial reports said Thae was bound for a 'third country'. This may have been misinformation to disguise the fact that he was still in transit for Seoul. Alternatively, it could be a pointer that South Korea was not his first-choice destination. Although defectors from the North are automatically entitled to South Korean citizenship, some have chosen to live elsewhere. However, such a high-value catch would have triggered an all-out effort on Seoul's part to bring him to South Korea. Whether he will remain there with his family remains open to question. If so, they will face restrictions on their movements and require around-the-clock protection against assassination or kidnap.

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While a single defection should not be over-read as an indicator of instability, this will badly rattle the North Korean regime. Statements subsequently attributed to North Korea's Atomic Energy Institute, claiming that Pyongyang has resumed plutonium reprocessing, look suspiciously like an effort to bury bad news.

Increased counter-intelligence measures for North Korea's overseas officials must surely follow. Diplomats will find themselves at least temporarily reined in and under intense scrutiny, for fear of copy-cat defections. Family members may be recalled to Pyongyang. There could be direct repercussions for Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho. Thae served his first posting in London under Ri, before the latter was appointed as the North's chief nuclear negotiator and then foreign minister. Ri will face tough questions as to how his protégé's ultimate act of disloyalty went undetected. Thae had a very high level of trust vested in him, including escort duty when Kim Jong Un's brother flew in to attend Eric Clapton concerts in London in 2015. Thae was privileged to be accompanied by his children on a foreign posting. With his escape a fait accompli, someone will have to face punishment, potentially including extended members of his family.

In my experience, no matter how much Thae affected the tweedy accoutrements of British gentlemanly living, there was always a roguish edge showing through, in a grin or glint of the eye. Regardless of his feelings towards Kim Jong Un's regime, I believe he will remain proudly North Korean at heart. If he lives long enough to see re-unification he may even have a returning role to play there. Before then, he will need every ounce of cunning to navigate the next phase of his career.

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Membership of the modern G20 has been an important development in Australian foreign policy, and has quickly formed a key part of our economic diplomacy.

The core case for maintaining effort in the G20 is that it offers the chance to progress Australia's economic interests in a way that no other forums provide.

At its heart the G20 means that we are part of the key global 'economic steering committee'. This gives us valuable intelligence on global trends affecting Australia and, more importantly, insights into the way top policy makers are thinking about responding to them. It also means that we have a seat at the table making major decisions around global economic policy cooperation.

Policy cooperation becomes critical in an international economic crisis situation, and the case is stronger as international factors dominate domestic ones. In crisis times, economic issues normally the concern of finance ministers and central bank governors become issues for leaders, as economic performance dominates other concerns and responses require whole-of-government efforts. This can be seen in the broad ranging nature of the G20 response which played a major role in averting a major economic collapse in 2009. It is no surprise at all therefore that the G20 was 'more successful' during the crisis and has since found progress more difficult; it will always be thus.  The G20 is nevertheless now a key part of the global crisis response architecture, pulling in all major systemic players. Australia has a huge stake in the success of these actions. A major payoff in crisis mitigation is relatively rare, but the payoff from successful crisis response is so large that this 'insurance value' alone is worth a significant investment in the G20. Habits of cooperation built up in non-crisis environments then become critical. Read More


In more normal times this cooperation is difficult to secure, and judgements of the effectiveness of any forum need to recognise the inherent limits of international cooperation. Nevertheless, it is fair to say that the G20 has made important progress, and certainly relative to many other international institutions. The Brisbane growth commitments created an important benchmark with which G20 individual and collective efforts could be judged. Even if progress against this benchmark has been incomplete, it has raised the bar and pushed countries to put forward substantive reforms in a way that qualitative commitments would not. It has highlighted in a sharper way what needs to be done to reduce the burden being borne by monetary policy in the current recovery, and lift long term growth.

There are other examples of G20 success in 'normal' times. Commitments around exchange rates have played important roles in calming markets at times in the post crisis period, in 2013 and as recently as Shanghai earlier this year. G20 discussions in Sydney and subsequently achieved important consensus about international monetary policy cooperation, where systemic central banks made explicit their willingness to be mindful of international spillovers and all agreed to their responsibilities to build domestic resilience. This was hard fought and marked a change in atmospherics around international tensions over monetary policy, which has to some extent endured.

The G20 is also an important forum for testing new ideas in macroeconomic policy arising from the very different circumstances of this recovery. By bringing together idea generators such as the IMF and key policy makers grappling with the practical and political realities of implementing policies, the forum accelerates the policy development process. For example, it has been an important forum for discussing the various ways to take pressure of monetary policy, including through well targeted structural policy and infrastructure spending. These discussions don't produce immediate results but affect underlying policy paradigms with long-lasting effects on the global economic environment within which Australia operates. As we are not immune from the some of the same forces, this discussion can also benefit domestic policy making. Our participation provides us with the opportunity to ensure Australia's specific circumstances are taken into account and, with other countries, shape an emerging consensus that is more relevant to our situation.

As well as being a steering committee, the G20 plays a key role in setting the rules of the road. The G20 has been key to progressing global standards and norms that are important for a resilient international economy. The coordinated strengthening of financial stability legislation has been arguably the most important achievement of the G20. It has lifted capital and liquidity requirements on key banks, which has significantly improved the resilience of the core international financial system – the main reason why, despite the significant economic uncertainties, talk of 'Lehmans' crisis are overblown. The G20 has progressed important norms on anti-corruption, and has been key to making headway on international tax cooperation.

Australia, like other countries, will generally adopt such standards through market or political pressure, so it makes sense for us to participate in their development to better protect our interests. We want standards that make the international environment genuinely safer, and that can be sensibly tailored to our interests. This means we should strive to be part of the decision making process. Of course we need to be realistic about our influence – but we should also not underestimate our ability to progress important Australian interests when we share these with other G20 members.

And finally, the success of international institutions should not be measured only by the progress they make, but by the extent to which they stop bad things happening. The G20 has found it hard to accelerate progress on trade liberalization, but it has been important in resisting the extent of rising protectionism. This is set to remain an important role for the body, and will need to be progressed in the context of a broader inclusive growth agenda.

This is not to say international groups are always effective – one only needs to sit through meetings and read dense communiques to know they are far from it.

Nevertheless, the G20 is large enough though to capture a good range of interests from all systemic economies, and small enough to forge efficient consensus on critical issues for the world economy. The modern G20 engages leaders, which gives it its power, but also means its agenda needs to be focused on issues that require the highest political input to progress.

 Part two of this post will examine how Australia's involvement with the G20 fits within our broader economic diplomacy strategy.

Photo: Barcroft Media via Getty Images

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Joint forces are planning a major military offensive to recapture the last major Iraqi city under Islamic State control - Mosul. Fierce fighting is already raging south of the city and the escalation in military activity is likely to have an even greater humanitarian toll than the battle for Fallujah, which forced 85,000 to flee their homes. Humanitarian organisations are already overwhelmed by the needs of those displaced within Iraq. The upcoming military offensive on Mosul, tipped by some to begin in late September, is expected to result in a humanitarian operation that will be the ‘largest and most complex in the world in 2016’.

Refugees from the battle of Fallujah (Photo: Hamit Huseyin/Getty Images)

Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq, has been under IS control since 2014. The battle for Mosul is anticipated to be far more complicated than other battles against IS in Iraq. This is in part due to the large civilian population that has remained in the city and could be trapped by the fighting. Up to 2.5 million people are estimated to be inside the likely area of the Mosul military operations, while 55,000 people have already been displaced in the lead-up.

As fighting intensifies in Iraq, the numbers of people forced from their homes is exploding. Humanitarian actors were completely overwhelmed in responding to the sudden displacement of people in the wake of the battle for Fallujah over May and June. Critical gaps in funding, and inadequate planning and coordination meant that displaced families, who had already been through five months of siege, were left with insufficient food, water, shelter and medical assistance, along with services such as psycho-social support and child protection.

We need to learn from the Fallujah experience and ensure there is adequate and flexible funding available, planning has been sufficient, and emergency supplies are pre-positioned to respond to the spike in humanitarian needs that will result from the upcoming military offensive on Mosul.

With fighting around the city already underway, there is a limited window for planning and actual implementation of preparation activities. Already people fleeing Mosul are ending up in overcrowded camps where they are sleeping in the open, sharing tents with several other families, and have poor access to clean water. Serious protection threats – particularly for children – are growing in these camps.

In July the UN launched an emergency appeal for Mosul to prepare and respond to any large-scale displacement. This appeal outlines the UN’s plans for ‘best’, ‘medium’ and ‘worst’ cases with costs varying with the number of people involved. Scenarios range from 300,000 people displaced for three months, requiring $US143 million of humanitarian funding, to one million people displaced for one year, requiring $US1.8 billion of funding. 

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The plan also estimates two and a half months of preparations will cost $US284 million in order for humanitarian organisations to be ready to respond.

While the UN planning is welcome, it if had begun earlier it would have given the humanitarian sector and donors more time to prepare for the looming humanitarian fallout from this fighting. Additionally, current plans do not consider the humanitarian needs of the 70,000 people who are expected to flee to north eastern Syria from Mosul. This means these people are unlikely to receive the anticipated humanitarian assistance they will require.

The situation in Iraq is complex and evolving as the front lines shift, military offensives start and end, and civilians move to find safety elsewhere in the country, with some crossing the border into Syria. While the 2016 Humanitarian Response Plan for Iraq takes into consideration the essential needs of millions of Iraqis who have already been affected by the crisis, it does not consider the full impact of large-scale military offensives and subsequent displacement, such as those in Fallujah and Mosul. As such, it is essential that donors fully support both the development and implementation of preparation plans and fund additional ‘emergency appeals’ in response to anticipated humanitarian catastrophes.

Since 2014, the Australian Government has contributed a total of $60 million to the crisis in Iraq. With the Mosul offensive looming, it’s essential that Australia continues to ensure funding is directed towards humanitarian assistance.

Of course, money alone will not fully address the needs of affected people. Some of those who fled the Fallujah fighting, often families with children, were caught in crossfire, triggered improvised explosive devices, and drowned when attempting to cross the Euphrates. States involved in the conflict, including Australia, need to learn from this, and work with the Iraqi government and local authorities to create safe exit routes for civilians and help construct additional camps at a safe distance from the conflict. The capacity of local authorities to ensure that international standards are adhered to and maintained should also be enhanced.

But we have very little time to get these plans in place. Action must start now if we are to ensure the needs of those displaced from Mosul are met. Donors need to commit to providing funding for humanitarian assistance within a clear timeframe. And funding must be flexible enough to allow the UN and aid agencies to adapt to the ever-changing dynamics on the ground.

As it stands, humanitarian organisations do not have the funds required to prepare for the Mosul offensive. A failure to act now could have catastrophic consequences for the people of Mosul, and for Iraq.

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Security trumps economics, or so the Ausgrid saga seems to have taught us.

But maybe this framing is all wrong. Security and economics might be better thought of as being directly connected. If this is so, Australia is in real danger of building a poorer, less secure future through a flawed premise.

The rejection of the two Chinese bids for Ausgrid was justified by Treasurer Scott Morrison on national security grounds. No one can say what exactly those grounds were, but many have assumed there are worries over cyber security and continuity of electrical supply. 

At first glance this all seems a bit reminiscent of Monty Python (or at least Fawlty Towers). After a state government asset was tendered internationally, the federal government suddenly realised there were critical vulnerabilities that hostile countries could exploit. Moreover, there is no plan to fix them. These national security shortcomings (whatever they are precisely) will continue to exist indefinitely.

Ausgrid is only an electrical distribution system. There must be straightforward engineering solutions to these vulnerabilities, otherwise all such electrical distribution systems would have the same vulnerabilities, which seems highly unlikely. The rapidly developing technology of off-the-grid power generation could potentially address continuity issues, while any cyber security shortcomings seem able to be fixed (and urgently should be).  

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These Ausgrid problems presumably reflect limited state government funding to fix what are national security concerns. Ausgrid’s sale was slated to bring in some $10 billion to $13 billion; even 10% of this would be a sizable amount to allocate to addressing the identified national security concerns. It’s hard to see these vulnerabilities being addressed any other way; Australia’s defence budget seems heavily committed to new fighter jets, warships and armoured vehicles, not to funding electrical infrastructure protection improvements.

Crucially, Chinese companies could then bid on Ausgrid, ensuring a much better sale price than seems likely now. The effective banning of Chinese investors suggests a fire sale and not an attempt to get the maximum financial return on the asset. Investment specialists consider that Chinese bidders were offering 1.7 times the regulated asset base but that this may decline to only 1.3 times with their exclusion. A 25%-30% reduction in sale price is significant. Including Chinese bidders and allocating, say, 10% for national security purposes would still bring the state government comparatively more cash for infrastructure spending. 

Even so, there would still be issues.Firstly, some may be uneasy about seemingly reducing security – the first business of governments – to a simple matter of dollars and cents, but of course that is just what budgets do. The government is steadily increasing the Australian defence budget to 2% of GDP. More money will mean a better defence force, enhancing national security. Recycling funding from asset sales can bring economic growth that then feeds into a stronger defence force (the larger Australia’s GDP, the more money defence gains from a 2% allocation).

Secondly, security and economics might be two sides of the same coin but some incentives exist for Australia’s security agencies to always oppose asset sales to China, the likely highest bidder. China today is more assertive (particularly in the South China Sea), government-run newspapers can be jingoistic, some Chinese netizens are hyper-nationalists and the authoritarian Chinese Communist Party has opaque decision-making. All of this is worrying. 

Australia’s national security agencies are in the insurance business, to be called upon when disaster threatens.  They accordingly focus on risk management and here China looms large; no one knows what might happen in the 99-year Ausgrid lease. Accordingly, it’s always less risky to stop an asset sale then allow it, especially when there are no evident national security gains. 

However, redirecting some funds to  fixing national security problems identified by agencies suddenly changes this equation. Now the agencies can see benefits (sometimes even for themselves) in approving privatisations. There might be some delicious ironies in this: money from a Chinese state-owned enterprise could be crucial to fixing Australian cyber security gaps, and so to preventing future Chinese cyber intrusions. 

John Howard famously said that Australia did not have to choose between China and America – between our prosperity and our security.  We should embrace his sage advice. It’s important for our future to make economics and security work together, not be split apart. The Ausgrid sale process badly needs some innovation.

Photo: Flickr/Bill Collison

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Part two of this series examined the public rehabilitation of the Romanov Tsar Nicholas II. This part analyses what the restoration of the Romanovs might mean for Western policy.

Could Putin really be planning a restoration of the Romanovs?

Of Putin's three 'favourite' philosophers (Vladimir Solovyov, Nikolai Berdyaev and Ivan Ilyin) it's Ilyin who is thought to have exercised the greatest influence over Putin's understanding of Russia's political and spiritual history. 

In his best-known work, Our Tasks, Ilyin depicts all of Russia's 20th century woes (its descent into tyranny, its economic collapse, its cultural and spiritual ruin) as flowing flow from the Tsar's abdication. Seeing the essence of what he calls Russia's 'national legal self-awareness' to rest on 'two foundations, Orthodoxy and faith in the Tsar', Ilyin asks why that self-awareness failed in 1917 and what can be done to repair it. 

'The obligation rests upon us', he writes, 'on this generation of Russian people who have suffered this revolution with sorrow and torment, to ask ourselves wherein the essence of healthy, strong and deep monarchical legal consciousness consists and how to replant it in Russia.' 

Certainly, Putin's views have moved in step with Russians' changing perceptions of the 1917 revolution. When in January of this year he reproached Lenin for errors of moral and political judgement during and after the Revolution, he provoked rage among Russia's remaining Communists.

'Everyone accused the tsarist regime of repressions', he said. 'But what did Soviet power begin with? Mass repressions.'

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Of these, he said, 'the execution of the Tsar's family together with his children' was the 'most outstanding example' (one wonders whether he had the icon of the 'New Russian Martyrs' in mind).

Certainly, Putin has come to see it as part of his legacy as president to 'restore the links of time, the unbrokenness of [Russia's] history', as he put it when in August 2014, he dedicated Russia's first memorial to the dead of the First World War, written off in Soviet times as an inglorious imperialist venture. 

But when it comes to Russia's public memory, the Kremlin shares power with the Russian Orthodox Church, a critical voice in any future zemsky sobor. Indeed, it was the Patriarchate that last year frustrated the government's plan to rebury the remains of two of the Romanov children alongside those of their parents in the Imperial mausoleum, lest it stir undue controversy among the many Russians still nostalgic for Soviet days.

Vakhtang Kipshidze, a Patriarchate spokesman, cautioned against any perception that the Church was looking for a restoration. 

A 'political struggle', he said, was 'not on the Church's agenda'. The goal instead was spiritual, what Patriarch Kirill in a 2015 address to the Duma called 'historical reconciliation'. 

Central to this project have been the three 'My History, Orthodox Rus' national historical exhibitions staged annually in Moscow's Manezh Exhibition Center under the joint aegis of the Patriarchate and Ministry of Culture since 2013, when the first opened in honour of the Romanovs' 400th anniversary. 

Each attracted around half a million visitors in Moscow before touring the country. They're now permanently if incongruously housed in a brand-new building in the dated, Soviet-era surrounds of Moscow's All-Russia Exhibition Park. A portrait of Alexander III flanks the entrance. 

In the spirit of the times, advertisements in the Moscow metro bear the famous riposte of Peter Stolypin (Nicholas II's liberal conservative prime minister and a known Putin 'hero') to anti-tsarist deputies in the Duma: 'You, gentlemen, are in need of great upheavals; we are in need of a Great Russia.'

To be sure, this is an essentially conservative project. But 21st century Russia resembles more the conservative, but ultimately limited, authoritarianism of the last Romanovs than the industrialised totalitarianism of the Soviet Union (with its goal of worldwide Marxist-Leninist revolution). Like the tsars, Russia's ruling caste today seeks to control a programme of modernisation based on the selective imitation of the West. Though the government is hostile to competitors for political power, the Soviet-era ambition of absolute control over Russians' thought and economic lives is foreign to it.

What might all this mean for Western policy?

Talk of a 'New Cold War' has made it commonplace to cast Putin's Russia as a neo-Soviet power in deluded search of vanished global superpower status, an aspiring and implacably anti-Western hegemon in Europe, and an imminent threat to Western democracy. It has fuelled calls for NATO to embrace a policy of 'Containment 2.0' (as the Alliance effectively did at its recent Warsaw summit).

But rethinking the sources of Russian behaviour possibly changes this picture.

Between 1613 and 1917 the Romanovs transformed a remote and backward principality on Europe's periphery into a leading power not in opposition to, but within the European state system. There's a good argument that what Moscow wants today is not a return to the superpower confrontation of 1947 to 1989, but a version of the 'European concert' of 1815 to 1914. 

Thus, unveiling in 2014 a bronze statue of Emperor Alexander I (1801-25) in the shadow of the Kremlin wall (pictured above), Putin hailed the tsar who defeated Napoleon as a 'farsighted strategist and diplomat, a statesman' who created 'the conditions for a so-called balance, built not only on a consideration of countries' mutual interests, but also of moral values.'

We needn't take this at face value. Alexander was inspired more by a vision of Christian universalism than realism. But as a statement of present-day Russia's aims, it's consistent enough. In the face of NATO expansion, re-establishing such a balance has been a theme in Russian foreign policy for well over a decade.

Finally, there's the question of the succession – to Putin. His present term ends in 2018, the centenary of Nicholas II's murder. Nobody knows for sure whether he'll run for president again (he has left open the possibility that he might not). 

But absent a single legitimate heir, Russian monarchists are remarkably fond of observing that, should it ever come to a zemsky sobor, nobody says Russia's next tsar must be a Romanov.

Photo: Kremlin.ru

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