Tuesday, 30 June 2015

A net assessment of the Jihadist movement

On a beach in Tunisia over the weekend a gunman stalked among the recliner chairs and sun umbrellas looking for victims. By the time he was eventually killed by police, the black-clad terrorist had killed dozens of British holiday makers.

The same day in France an attack on a US-owned factory ended with a series of explosions, a severed head and the black flag of al Qaeda. Elsewhere, a bomb tore through a packed Kuwait mosque killed 27 people.

Initial assessments suggest the Islamic State (IS) has claimed some of these attacks but not others. The gunman in Tunisia claimed allegiance to the group and the Kuwait mosque bombing was claimed directly by IS. The question is whether these indicate an expansion of the jihadist movement.

After 14 years, the global jihadist movement still focuses much attention. That the jihadist movement of IS controls significant swathes of territory in Syria and Iraq proves the movement is extremely resilient and tough to eliminate. This adaptability is keeping jihadism alive, but how effective and dangerous is the movement in 2015?

There are three distinct branches of the global jihadist movement: al Qaeda Prime (AQP), al Qaeda franchise groups (including “lone wolves”) and the Islamic State. To construct a net assessment of the jihadism movement, it’s worth assessing each separately.

First it is important to understand the stark fragmentation of the movement. AQP, Osama bin Laden’s cadre in Afghanistan, focused its resources on targeting the United States, its allies and its global infrastructure. It wished to cement a “Caliphate”, but not until the US was destroyed. The group became a transnational enterprise resulting in the attacks of 9/11.

That was the high water mark of the jihadist movement. The military response by Western powers shattered AQP, forcing it to encourage semi-autonomous franchise groups in Yemen, Algeria and elsewhere. Those groups eventually became autonomous as pressure on AQP rose.

Following the death of Osama bin Laden in 2011, the AQP branch dipped considerably both in operational capacity and overall influence. It had struggled to survive when the US-led invasion of both Afghanistan killed many of its members and forced it to hide. However, the group’s propaganda has encouraged sympathetic Muslims in other countries to carry on the fight.

AQP was unable to conduct a second strike on the US homeland as it was ripped apart by coalition military and intelligence efforts. Aside from assisting Taliban groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the AQP branch is now all but expunged. Its enduring threat is in the surviving ideology of jihadism which has spread across the world via the internet.

After AQP collapsed, a decentralised network of jihadists sprung up. This created an amorphous and, for a while, much deadlier pattern of attackers. Inspired individuals inside and outside Western countries conducted attacks without instruction from AQP. These grassroots and franchise groups have by now killed thousands of local and Western citizens over the last 10 years.

The strength of this jihadist branch is in its inherent adaptability, decentralisation and isolation. Generally speaking, the franchise al Qaeda groups have been more concerned with shaping local politics than in attacking Western countries, but some have attempted transnational attacks. The lone jihadist individuals are proving both more deadly and almost impossible to deter.

One of those franchise groups, al Qaeda in Iraq, evolved over many iterations to become the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, before choosing its current name of the Islamic State.

Last year, the Islamic State split from the AQP group very publicly. The schism was a long time in coming since the previous leader of IS, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, drew criticism from AQP leaders for his exceptionally brutal sectarian terror tactics in Iraq. Any reconciliation between the two groups is now extremely unlikely.

Today, IS sits atop the jihadist pile as unarguably the most powerful al Qaeda franchise group. Its goal is to establish a worldwide Muslim polity, beginning in the Middle East. The group has taken advantage of a security vacuum in Syria and Iraq and has seen some successes. The vacuum in Iraq is currently being defended and repaired by the US, New Zealand and other nations.

Which brings us to the attacks in Tunisia and France on Friday. While they are certainly frightening the attacks exemplify a growing limitation in the overall jihadist movement.

Firstly, the attackers were not directly controlled by the leadership of IS or al Qaeda. They claimed allegiance to IS, but acted independently and alone. IS has encouraged Muslim sympathisers not to travel to the Middle East, but to attack from where they already live. This should be seen as a weakness, not strength, of the movement.

None of the three major branches of jihadism has the ability to replicate attacks on the scale of 9/11. Western intelligence and military efforts pressure the groups, squeezing attacks towards the less-dangerous but more-prolific end of the spectrum. After all, it is much easier to pick up a rifle and kill 30 people than it is to construct a viable explosive device to kill 400 people.

Secondly, the pool of talented and experienced jihadists is slowly shrinking due to airstrikes and other deaths. Each time an exceptional jihadist perishes, he cannot easily be replaced and the overall movement suffers. But ideologies are proving much harder to kill.

Thirdly, the reach and danger of these groups must be placed into context. The Islamic State controls a sizeable part of the Middle East, but it has not yet conducted a transnational attack on a Western target. Its focus is heavily on self-defence, which is exactly how the US-led coalition wants it to be.

Al Qaeda-affiliated individuals and franchise groups still pose a limited threat for the world, but will continue to fragment and dissipate over time. Failed states and security vacuums will attract jihadists, but this fragmentation and isolation is a reflection of the movement’s weakness.

Western coalition efforts against al Qaeda, its franchise groups and the Islamic State have been tactically successful, but strategically ineffective. The movement is degraded but not destroyed. Despite the weekend’s attacks, this net assessment suggests the weakening trend will continue as al Qaeda groups fragment under pressure from local and Western military forces and counter-ideologies.

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

The politics of a Greek breaking point

Greece’s financial crisis has now firmly it a political phase. The numbers still matter, and there’s a lot of zeros flying around, but both Greece and the country’s creditors know it’s time for a political agreement.

New Zealand prime minister John Key said a few months ago that Greece should simply default and leave the Eurozone because the country was “so deep in the hole that not even daylight can reach them”. Mr Key, perhaps a bit crudely, painted the Greek problem correctly: this is about whether Europe is viable as an idea and what ultimately happens to members which don’t follow the rules.

This week, Greek Prime Minister Alexi Tsipras presented an updated list of proposals for economic reform to Eurozone finance ministers. He is slowly understanding that the lessons of crisis are spreading. The European Union is looking more like a deeply unhappy family as the day’s progress.

Greek media reported Mr Tsipras’ proposals could increase the retirement age and reform taxes and pensions. The true details will be interesting to dissect, but the key point is that they show Greece opting for greater controls. The true question is whether the Greek government can enforce those reforms, especially since the ruling Syriza party’s core support base is already grumbling.

The siege has been boiling for much of the year and coverage of the Greek crisis oscillates between disaster and inertia. In reality no one really knows whether Greece will stay in the Eurozone. However, if the situation is political, not simply fiscal, then how the story is framed is integral to understanding what’s going on. And as emotion steams up the media, it appears plenty of power realignments are still to come as the conflict crawls to a conclusion.

An initial estimate must centre on the collapse of the Greek economy earlier this year. Its tax take has faltered numerous times since January, with a shortfall of more than 40% or €1.5 billion registered in that month alone. Most people don’t want to say it, but the term “failed state” often comes to mind.

Exacerbating this, capital flight has accelerated over the past few days forcing the government to discuss the introduction of capital controls. The ability of the European Central Bank (ECB) to continue supplying emergency liquidity depends on Greek banks remaining solvent and providing eligible collateral. Capital flight won’t be helping with that at all

Of course, the country is free to borrow as much as it wants on private markets to cover these shortfalls, however private markets are no longer willing to lend to Greece. If the ECB hadn’t stepped in and replaced much of that lost lending, the debt terms would not have been renegotiated.

Then there’s a larger dynamic at play, and that is the problem of moral hazard – both at the micro and macro levels. Kerin Hope at the Financial Times reports one banker saying around 70% of Greece’s restructured mortgage loans aren’t being serviced because people think foreclosures will only be applied to big villa owners.

That banker says he still owes a serious amount of money, including a “holiday loan” he’d “forgotten about”. In other words, at some point the lender needs to be blamed as well as the borrower. A “holiday loan” isn’t too different from loading a credit card, but it’s easy to get lost in the macro events when the entire Greek system consists of micro decisions similar to the banker’s.

Both sides of the debate know the status quo can’t be maintained beyond June 30 when the bailout expires so the conflict needs to be settled soon. Greece held out for a long time, refusing to budge on reforms, but Mr Tsipras’ pension reforms are an indication the country is responding to some punishment.

Keeping Greece in the EU to uphold the integrity of Europe is a convincing argument, yet all this new money teaches some very important lessons. As with any debate, it’s not the other side which needs convincing, it’s the audience. And the European audience is learning that an inability to control its finances doesn’t may not lead to harsh punishment after all.

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

US draws a cordon in Eastern Europe

As the ground finishes thawing and the flowers bloom again, the guns of Donetsk are barking once more. A large and abrupt Russian-backed separatist offensive in the east of Ukraine was narrowly repulsed at the beginning of the month.

The rebel thrust was not unexpected. Satellite imagery and intelligence suggested the groups had been preparing a strike for weeks. Although the “Minsk II” ceasefire demands the rebels and Kiev stop shelling, remove heavy artillery and disband all foreign armed groups, none of this has happened. The two sides (or three if we’re counting Russia) have rearmed for a resumption of combat operations in the warmer weather.

From Kiev’s perspective, repulsing the recent assault buys Ukraine time, but it doesn’t change the reality in the east. There is a growing and implicit understanding that Donetsk and Luhansk will emerge autonomous and Russia-oriented.

Russian President Vladimir Putin knows he does not possess the necessary military forces to push for greater territory in Ukraine or directly consolidate the captured separatist lands.

This has resulted in a stalemate where Ukraine is broken and split in important ways, unable to fully orient in either direction – to the EU or Russia. Essentially, if Russia can’t have Ukraine, then its logic is that no one can have it.

The Europeans are surely insecure about Ukraine, but at this point what Berlin or Warsaw thinks is largely irrelevant. The Europeans aren’t the central Western players in these borderlands, the United States is.

Checking Russian expansion into Ukraine is an American priority, but ensuring Russia doesn’t stir up antagonism in the Baltics or other Eastern European countries is of greater concern. And by looking at troop movements it is easy to see who holds the upper hand in the region.

Russia continues to send troops and armour to some regions neighbouring Ukraine. It has also upgraded its surface warship fleets in the Black Sea and begun military surveillance flights over European airspace. But Moscow isn’t displaying the capability to do much more.

Yet this week the US says it may preposition stocks of heavy weapons including tanks and infantry fighting vehicles in Eastern Europe sufficient to equip a brigade of 3000 to 5000 troops. It would be the first time such weapons deployments have been made since the end of the Cold War.

The US is also conducting a rolling programme of military exercises with allied nations in the region employing the full strength of US troops in Europe. The US will continue to conduct such exercises for the foreseeable future to send a message of readiness to Moscow.

These actions speak volumes for who owns the initiative in Eastern Europe. The US can extend its forces halfway across the world to run a defensive line from the top of the Baltics down through Romania. Washington might appear to be holding back in the Ukraine, but those troops and heavy weapons firmly say to Moscow, “here, and no farther”.

Mr Putin is not unintelligent, and he will be interpreting the manoeuvres in the desired direction. The question is whether escalating the tension in the region is worth the high costs on Russia. The answer depends on what Mr Putin wants to achieve in his gamble, and right now, that’s unclear.

Monday, 15 June 2015

Another TPP crisis that isn’t a crisis, and even less about the apocalypse

The idea that the US government is frustratingly glacial isn’t exactly news. Almost every week the Washington DC system provides yet another example of pathetic internecine warfare and partisan politics freezing any chance of useful compromise.

United States citizens (and everybody else) are often angry over the inability of American politicians to decide swiftly even when a choice is blatantly obvious. Often an impasse hurts only the US, but in a globalised world, decisions made by the world’s pre-eminent economy affect billions of people.

This week’s example is the US House of Representatives split over whether to pass the so-called fast-track authority needed to complete the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). If US President Barack Obama can’t get this authority, the TPP deal may pass eventually but not before drawn-out power battles as Congress fights over who gets what and how much.

New Zealand Trade Minister Tim Groser says if the authority isn’t passed soon, the TPP will have to wait for 2017 before the negotiations can restart. But even in 2017, with a new president on deck, there’s no guarantee the TPP will be that person’s priority.

The media machine wants to portray speed and drama in this trade issue, which probably requires the exact opposite. I’m not saying the US government’s refusal to allow fast-track authority isn’t a real problem. But it is entirely true that if the important news were still released in weekly format then the US government’s failure to compromise wouldn’t have happened.

Let me put this another way: if there was a lack of compromise over a national imperative by the time Friday’s paper came out, it would mean the US was getting a new flag. But that’s not going to happen, which means the inescapable logic suggests this “crisis” isn’t a crisis at all.

What to make of all this? Mr Groser says the US is putting itself in a “very strange position.” Essentially, his argument is the Americans are forfeiting their role in deciding how trade will be conducted in the future. A refusal to make an affirmative decision on the TPP will leave the US “high and dry on the beach,” which would be an “unbelievable situation”, the minister says.

Now the authority will go through another round of voting in the coming days and weeks. The members of the House of Representatives aren’t stupid. They are all career Machiavellians and won’t let a good crisis go to waste. The TPP is a prestigious deal for the Obama presidency. They know that for Mr Obama to get what he wants will require reciprocity. And they all have special interests.

So we’re playing the blame-game: it’s the greedy, selfish politicians who are at fault. But that’s the easy analysis, although it doesn’t answer why this kind of thing keeps happening in the land of the free and the home of the brave. If anything, analysing the fast-track collapse by isolating a single cog in the machinery of US society doesn’t explain much at all.

How the [West] was won
The first place to start is, well, at the beginning.

The US was built by people who were deeply respectful of French revolutionary thought, especially Montesquieu. They made a real effort to create a governing process that couldn’t be hijacked by the powerful few.

The US Constitution separates government powers into three branches: the legislative, the executive and the judiciary. In case of an administrative misstep, this structure will default to the legislative, because the US considers the rule of law as more important than the whims of the president of the day.

The president does have significant power to act to control American foreign policy but, unlike in old Europe, the US president does not have full control over the domestic sphere and must rely on hundreds of representatives in Congress.

The idea that someone might become absolute ruler, running roughshod over the republic concerned the Founding Fathers greatly. They created a president with heavily constrained powers, and built a country of multiple competing states which they called “these” United States – not “the” United States.

The Founding Fathers knew this structure would slow the process of government. But they had seen what too much power can do to a country, and realised limiting power was necessary evil if the ethics of constitutional democracy was to be upheld.

In other words, the common refrain about how the US government is slow, inefficient, argumentative and indecisive is precisely how the Founding Fathers wanted the country to operate.

Also, just like every country, the US has its own interests and national imperatives. A country’s interests and national imperatives do not always overlap – interests change depending on historical circumstances. One of America’s imperatives involves securing greater trade access to larger numbers of countries, so Mr Groser is rightly astonished the TPP is being held up now.

That the US would stubbornly opt out of the TPP doesn’t seem to fit with the realities of this interconnected world and makes the weekend’s decision very confusing. So there’s something else going on here.

The overarching thread in this globalised world is the choice between inclusion and exclusion. Countries must choose between the status quo rules, or be isolated by either no rules or someone else’s rules. For instance, Russia is ripping up the rule book and China is attempting to write its own.

TPP member states align want inclusion. The world of inclusion is one in which many democratic and liberal countries wish to form a mutually beneficial trading system. The TPP is one aspect of this.

Surely US politicians understand what’s happening with new trading rules around the world. Other TPP members certainly do want the US included but they won’t wait forever. And if it’s not the US, then it might be China they all turn to for the rules. What would the US government think then?

So, taken together: if the default US government system is sluggishness; the country has imperatives beyond the personal interests of representatives; and the world system demands either inclusion or exclusion, then the current TPP infighting suggests what we’re hearing isn’t the full story.

Yet this is the narrative we’re all seeing, which means there must be some other details to connect before we can see what’s really going on.

To cook a good crisis, start with…
And since this is America we’re talking about, the media is having an enormous role in packaging the perception of an impasse in Washington DC.

Most people know about the TPP deal via a process of cradle-to-grave Pavlovian training called the mass media. Events and controversies can’t be true, or exist – let alone be bad or good – unless they are represented in the media. A perception of the US government as a broken machine is common, but few stop to ask who told them this.

If a machine starts smoking, the answer is to stop and check it, not continue until it melts down. The US government is that machine, and it might appear to be smoking but that’s only Photoshop effects. What’s actually happening with the TPP is the ordinary backroom realigning of interests and powers.

After reading a few headlines about the TPP, the question most people will think to ask is whether the US will pass the necessary authorities (hint: that’s never the real story). The question we should be asking is why the narrative is presented in this way.

After all, what exactly has changed with this present controversy? The structure of the US government is still partisan. And it’s hard to prove that today’s partisans are any more livid and antagonistic than those in decades past. The US population is also partisan. But again, this isn’t so strange either.

What is different is how the 24/7 news media has transmogrified politics into a stage show. Congress now knows it must bow to its constituents, and it knows America’s national imperatives must be respected. It’s the media’s job to frame this balance in a way that both makes it more money and allows the politicians to avoid provoking the public into participating in politics.

Today’s impasse on the TPP is the inevitable consequence of a government not permitted to compromise, drowned by a media which will kill itself and the country to get a juicy headline as it yells about the destructive effects of partisanship.

The problem with blaming everything on partisan politics is that the partisan politicians on either side know exactly what they want. And when there are specific things a person wants, compromise is usually possible. The public, meanwhile, don’t understand politics at all. Instead, their beliefs are knitted together one trending Twitter topic at a time.

No one’s given any context to complex stories and the only way the media interprets the facts is to stay as far away from them as possible. Compromise becomes impossible because the central argument for both sides boils down to asking someone else to give up something they want very much – in exchange for nothing. That way it’s always someone else’s fault when no one moves.

…and as it boils add a dash of ennui
In my opinion, the only time a 24/7 news network ever functioned as planned was during the week of September 11, 2001.

Yet 14 years later all-news-all-the-time channels still have to fill 24 hours with stories nowhere near as terrifying and unpredictable. Despite all those empty hours, the media never finds time to explain the interplay between complex issues, preferring instead to hype them to dramatic crises. Don’t blame the industry, that’s all it knows how to do – besides, we pay it to function exactly like this.

The media doesn’t want politicians, it wants cage fighters. If a politician makes a concession, the media calls him a hypocrite and a coward. Since there is clearly no reward for compromise, the best idea is to present it as a controversy and discuss the real issues in private – note: this is entirely the fault of the voting public.

It is a truism that we “get what we vote for”. And if we’re going to be honest, we also “get what we click on”. What is happening in the US is largely true for New Zealand too. Almost nobody gets involved in politics unless its every three years and we can vote for our favourite colour again.

That’s the whole point of the media and, dare I say it, propaganda. There might be left and right partisans in the US and New Zealand but this isn’t the point. Propaganda doesn’t want you to believe something, it wants you to do something. And in the TPP case it’s to do nothing, which is also an action.

Propaganda doesn’t work because it is manipulative, it works because people want it, need it. With all these pseudo-crises and a vacuum of information, the awful result is a media with the power to control how a viewer thinks and a widening gap between those who can change things and those who can’t.

Propaganda gives people’s lives meaning and defends against change. No one actually wants to join in the complexities of politics, which is why it’s all fed to us as a series of crises. We think: “I don’t like this idea or deal because of how it represents me as a person. Besides, it’s way too important for me to get involved, best leave it to the experts”.

We all pretend this decision is made with free will, but it is nevertheless emotion leading to inaction. This isn’t the unfortunate consequence of modern democracy – it’s the desired outcome.

Will the US Congress get to a consensus on the TPP? Probably. Will it be the consensus you want? No, but who cares? TPP or no TPP, it doesn’t matter. All we’re waiting for is the next crisis so we can express the correct amount of emotion as a proxy for actually doing something useful with politics. And that is exactly the way we want it to be: frantic energy as a substitute for change.

In fact, it’s way better if the average voter doesn’t do anything other than express outrage. All that’s required is support for the assumption that the politicians and experts are acting in our interests.

Sure, the media doesn’t make it easy for politicians to compromise, at least publically. But compromise isn’t what they’re interested in. Politicians learned a long time ago how to frame an issue as a controversy, build it into a crisis, before coming to the rescue just in time to “do the right thing”.

That’s the whole gimmick of the media: it makes us feel so strongly about something that don’t do anything. The message is simple: leave the complex things to the experts. And the more dangerous things appear, the more this is true.

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Why the mailbox seems to matter

Consider the mailbox, and every commodity. The importance is what it offers, its specific appeal. It is a kind of psychological work-around in defence of my identity. That’s why commodities are commodities, it’s what makes them desirable as commodities. What matter is what is in them “more than themselves”.

When Karl Marx says of commodities take on theological niceties and mystical whimsies in the first volume of Capital, it's this phenomenon he’s referencing: the phenomenon of “reified belief”.

Stick with me: someone wants to change their mailbox. Indicating they “really believe” in its ability to speak for the person. I think they’re being shallow. I think they’ve been tricked by our stupid culture and by advertisers and the anonymous millions with hands in pockets. In short, I “don’t really believe”.

But that doesn’t matter, because what I miss is that “the reification works even if I don’t believe”. Because we’re not talking here about the material properties of the mailbox, about its dimensions or physical utility. And we're not really talking about the mailbox at all (or about “use-value”), but about the symbol of the mailbox, what it “stands for”. And in this case, whether I buy into its ability to speak for me or not, whether or not I “really believe”. Regardless, its symbolic efficiency is the same.

That’s why my first thought of ––“This is fucked up!”–– doesn’t have the power to change reality. This one ––“I’m fucked up!”–– does have that power.

When I make the first statement, I’ve already accepted the form of the argument. I’m still defining myself through reference to the mailbox, albeit in a negative way. Because what I’m really saying in the first instance is, “Look! Everyone is tricked, they’ve all really believe! But not me; no, I realise that someone, some company or corporation, some government or agency, in short SOME OMNIPOTENT ENTITY has conspired to convince us all that commodities can speak for us!”

When I make the second statement,  I recognise no one has forcibly taken away the power to speak from anyone, but that we’ve all freely given it away of our own accord. We’ve done it unconsciously (disavowal), so that we can hear the message returned to us that we want to hear and pretend like it came from someone else.

The real value of a commodity has nothing to do with the commodity’s actual use, but about the way it’s able to send our own message back to us in an inverted form: I want the commodity to speak for me because (by the inverted virtue of wish-fulfillment) IF it can speak for me, THEREFORE there is a “me” to begin with. That’s the crazy thing: all is existentialist and post-god, but no one realises it.

All over the whole world people are acting and thinking like this at the exactly the same time which gives us our “society” or “the system”. No one really believes it and yet we all do believe in its reality very much. The system is “nowhere dense” but “everywhere present”. A perfectly decentralised structure. The ant-hill I mentioned in previous posts couldn't be more accurate. Why are we going up? Because that's how ant-hill are built. Duh.

And the thing that tops it all off, the really mind-blowing kicker, is the realisation that, when it comes to the “mystery of substitution”, the question of how/why objects are initially given the power to speak for us, this account of things reveals the power to speak was never “ours” to begin with. “Substitution” is actually original and constitutive.

Monday, 8 June 2015

A tale of two audiences in the South China Sea

High-profile meetings of policymakers tend to consist of platitudes and positional speeches. They generally aren’t memorable and rarely are they vicious. Yet the recent Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore showed an unusual amount of fireworks.

United States defence secretary Ashton Carter delivered an intelligent and cutting address last week without being overly confrontational. His topics were varied, but his remarks about China’s movements in the disputed South China Sea got everyone’s attention. However, while everyone heard, few actually listened.

China is growing its military and economic might, both of which are leading to inflammatory territorial claims in its near abroad. Over the past couple of years, disputes over tiny islands in the East China Sea between Japan and China almost got nasty. Causing even greater concern is China’s claims in the South China Sea.

US surveillance overflights of the Spratly Islands – shoals claimed by China and the Philippines – show Chinese boats building artificial reefs and islands on the archipelago. If those islands were simply islands, few people would be upset. But the imagery shows China placing airfields and artillery installations on the fresh sand patches.

Mr Carter told the public dialogue, including members of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), any attempt to turn an “underwater rock into an airfield simply does not afford the rights of sovereignty or permit restrictions on international air or maritime transit”.

He says the US military will “fly, sail and operate” in any international waters regardless of China’s plans. That tough US response has admittedly been slow in appearing, too slow in the eyes of many US allies in the region.

Because at the same time Beijing is pressing its dangerous idea of treating the South China Sea as a Chinese lake, the US Navy is rearranging its combat capabilities for the Pacific. This “streamlining”, as former US defence secretary Chuck Hagel called it, limits the funding for the US Navy substantially.

Yet Mr Carter’s speech avoids both demonising China and bringing attention to a US Navy’s catch-up game in the region. The narrative he presents is one of greater cooperation in achieving economic success across the Asia Pacific, and an emphasis on national self-determination of every country in reaching this goal.

That was a smart move by Mr Carter. China has been using its idea of a “community of common destiny” in dealing with the region and with Asean. So pointing out that China’s belligerent island reclamation puts it at odds with the rest of the region shifts the conversation from being a US-China problem to a China-Asia problem.

From the US perspective, the audience for Mr Carter’s narrative is not Western eyes. It is allies in the Asia Pacific which have been promised a US military umbrella.

As US President Barack Obama attempts to change the larger US strategic thinking to be less trigger-happy on the subject of intervention, military incidents where the US has so far declined direct military involvement, in Ukraine and Syria for instance, are causing nervous questions amongst Asian allies about whether that umbrella still exists when it comes to Chinese aggression.

Vietnam, Japan and the Philippines don’t necessarily desire US aircraft carriers intervening in the South China Sea, but they do want to know – not assume – that the US will defend their rights to self-determination and protect territorial claims wherever they might be. Mr Carter’s well-crafted speech helps assuage those concerns.

China’s audience isn’t the Western media either. If it wanted to threaten the United States’ implicit control over international waterways in the South China Sea, then its actions would surely be categorically different.

China’s navy cannot yet be considered a peer adversary to the US Navy, and China is decades away from competency in projecting force outside its self-imposed “Chinese lake” in the South and East China Seas. Its main imperative is ensuring some Chinese coordination over the particular rules governing those seas, but it isn’t ready to take the leap necessary for outright control.

Whether Beijing heard what Mr Carter says is largely unimportant – not because the CCP isn’t listening to American rhetoric, but because it wants the Chinese people to hear what Mr Carter says. The Chinese economy is slowing, and when the government’s legitimacy is intertwined with a promise of continued economic growth, then this economic reality becomes an existential problem.

There aren’t very many ways to fix it either. Corruption in China is so widespread that any CCP recourse to values of Confucianism is out of the question. Similarly, China’s evolution into a market economy doesn’t translate well for a reinvigoration of a Marxist ideology. One of the only options remaining for the ruling CCP is to stoke China’s nationalist credentials. Hence the sea spats.

The nationalist fire could have very different consequences if not handled well. But for the CCP, its existence depends on whether the Chinese people believe the party can protect everything the nation has worked for over the decades. Little flare ups in the South and East China Seas project to the Chinese people exactly the impression the CCP wishes to show.

If the Chinese wanted to possess the Spratly Islands there’s really very little stopping it from doing so. But the balance between seizing control of China’s waterways and retaining its economy dictates how far it is truly willing to play with military belligerency.

Mr Carter clearly speaks for an administration that knows exactly this, and his speech to the Shangri-La Dialogue suggests the Americans are watching closely but see themselves in a strong enough strategic position not to unnecessarily increase the tension.

In private, the US will be reassuring its regional allies that its relationships cannot be undermined. In China, the message of CCP strength will equally be read loud and clear. The only people who aren’t listening is the Western media shouting about war.

Pain for Turkey’s ruling party after surprising election

Most election results don’t matter to the world. Turkey’s election result does.

Turkey’s GDP is nudging the $US900 billion mark even despite stagnating growth. And, to the south, an entire region’s power structure is destabilising. Both are forcing Turkey to choose between continued insularity and greater engagement, a choice that will resonate beyond the Middle East.

The June 7 election results reveal a thin parliamentary election victory for Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). It threatens the plans of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to consolidate his power and change the country’s democratic model.

Mr Erdogan was planning a constitutional referendum to bring Turkey under a new presidential system if the AKP gained a super-majority in the elections. However, with much of the vote counted, the AKP appears not to have gained enough votes and will need to form a coalition with other parties to govern.

Out of a possible 550 seats in the Turkish parliament, the AKP needed 367 seats to reach super-majority. With this, Mr Erdogan could have begun the process for a presidential system. The party needed only 276 seats for a simple majority to govern on its own.

Yet after months of campaigning to convince Turkey that Mr Erdogan’s vision represents the correct path for the country’s emergence as a strong regional power, the Turkish voters have spoken and the AKP’s rule will now face tighter constraints.

According to initial projections, the AKP’s 41% share of the vote translates roughly 258 seats. This is 18 fewer than it needs for a simple majority. The election result signals the end of the one-party dominance the AKP has enjoyed for more than 13 years. The Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) succeeded in passing the 10% threshold and will get between 75 and 80 seats, while the nationalist Republican People’s Party (CHP) received 25% of the vote.

Presidential plans
Mr Erdogan’s plans for creating a constitutional presidency have been slowly emerging over a number of years. He stepped down as prime minister of Turkey in August 2014, after serving the constitutional limit of three full terms, to become president. The move raised political neutrality concerns and criticisms from the rest of the Parliament and the public of Mr Erdogan’s power consolidation efforts.

His plans for constitutional reform are to claw back some power for the presidency from the prime minister and parliament. Currently, the president of Turkey is supposed to be independent. However, Mr Erdogan attracted criticism in February after publicly encouraging the public to vote for the AKP.

Over the past decade, the plan’s success appeared possible as he balanced the country’s secular legacy with Turkey’s increasingly religious populace. He also balanced the wealth of Istanbul against the poverty of the Turkish hinterland.

But these political manoeuvres have not been without friction. Although Mr Erdogan successfully undermined his political opponents and remains at the top of Turkish politics – shrewdly placing controllable and docile party members in positions below him – the popularity of the AKP has fallen as the once-booming Turkish economy slows down.

During his transition to presidency in 2014, members of the AKP lashed out at the party leader, showing some discontent. Mr Erdogan is sure to face increasing tension from members within the AKP after the June 7 election results. His attempts to encourage greater Islamic religious influence in Turkey and outreach to the minority Kurdish population may help the AKP’s inevitable coalition negotiations but Mr Erdogan’s plans for reforming the constitution are slipping away.

Economic problems
Turkey currently boasts more than 80 million people with an estimated $US830 billion economy, placing its GDP strength between 17th and 18th in the world. But that is changing too. Turkey’s rising unemployment and inflation statistics are a boon for the AKP’s opponents but a blow to the ruling party’s influence. Its growth oscillates close to 3% with a volatile exchange rate, which threaten inflation problems in the future.

Prime Minister Ahmet Davuto─člu recently told the Council on Foreign Relations thinktank that despite some concerns about Turkey’s economy, he is proud of the AKP’s economic stewardship.

“Our GDP was around $US240 billion when [AKP] came to power. Now it is around $US830 billion. Per capita income from $US2,500 now around $US10,500. And in all statistics, especially in infrastructure, there has been a tremendous change,” he says.

All this could arise from good stewardship but Turkey’s inflation and growth numbers reflect a decline in investor confidence. Its economy is highly dependent on foreign investment and Mr Erdogan’s meddling in central bank decisions over the years has spooked foreign investors.

The AKP built its reputation on the promise of growing Turkey’s economic vitality. So while its economy remains one of the largest in Europe, the present downturn has clearly hurt the AKP’s image.

Foreign policy and Turkey’s political future
That will affect Turkey’s foreign policy too. Under the AKP-majority government, Turkey held to a policy of non-intervention in its near abroad, which it called “zero problems with neighbours.” This position has become increasingly unworkable as Turkey’s power grows. Not only has the Middle East and North Africa dealt with extreme fracturing and instability since the turn of the century, the economic weight of Turkey is also affecting its relationship with Europe and Israel.

Access to the EU common market was once considered out of the question when Turkey was considered the “sick man of Europe” (it was first called that by Tsar Nicholas I of Russia in the late19th century). However, entering the EU is similarly difficult now its economic heft is larger than most EU members.

Turkey and Israel are competing to develop an enormous undersea liquid natural gas and oil field in the eastern Mediterranean. An energy pipeline project under consideration could help renew the Israeli-Turkish partnership after years of strain. The issue could be used as a springboard for normalising diplomatic relations and encouraging more bilateral investment and intelligence cooperation.

Syria will also cause headaches for the new government regardless of whether the AKP finds a suitable coalition partner. The Syrian regime is under siege from multiple rebel and Islamist groups, many of which Turkey is now actively assisting – albeit covertly.

All these dynamics force Turkey to reassess its non-interference policy. It has found the problems boiling on its southern border difficult to avoid and is realising that as the US disengages from the region, Turkey can take advantage of an emerging vacuum.

Turkey’s politics are about to enter a period of greater gridlock as the new players in Parliament organise control around what’s left of the AKP’s dominance. While the AKP’s domineering president will retain limited control, tensions within the AKP and the emerging coalition will make it an increasingly paranoid party.

The Turkish population has voted against a consolidation of power but also away from a traditional two-party parliament towards greater plurality, which will make Turkish politics less stable. It will pay to watch Turkey closely over the next election cycle, as it answers tough questions about what sort of country it wishes to be as its regional influence rises.

Thursday, 4 June 2015

Reader Reply: Doesn't voting in the developing world matter?

In response to my recent voting piece, someone pointed out the experience of developing countries might be different. Since what we're dealing with here is the problem of humans, then it's hard to see this as possible. Humans are good at many things, but if a Western culture is this invested in a lie about voting and then goes out of its way to introduce the idea of democracy - fully-fledged - to a culture without any experience of it at all, then there's no way that culture is coming out unscathed.

His argument's are clear, so that's a good start. But he's wrong in a very specific way:

I agree to a point, at least in a first world system like NZ. Ultimately the general voter is educated enough that if the 'system' seems unbalanced, something is done to right it. 
And by and large, no matter who's in power the status quo is generally maintained (i.e. developed countries generally sustain themselves, give or take the odd misstep, because they have the resources and their citizens are "better off" than most of their developing and third world counterparts).  
How else would you explain a tool like Tony Abbott (who by the way is now the most hated public figure in Australia if you believe the latest polls) getting elected to power!? The scenario becomes more complex in developing and third world countries. In South Africa for example, the 'popular' vote is neither educated nor rational, but rather based on historical realities.  
It doesn't matter that the democratically elected party and president mainly looks after its own interests while the "masses" that voted it into power slide further into poverty. If anything this benefits the powers that be, because a more educated electorate would be a risk to the power base. In this case you could also argue your vote doesn't make a difference, except it does, because the more the educated minority votes, the more eroded the power base becomes for the liberation party (it's no coincidence that the Western Cape, which has the highest level of education in the country, is also the only province not governed by the ANC). 
South Africans, by and large, vote with their hearts not their heads. Until that changes true change and a 'mature' democracy can't prevail. Ironically enough, that would only bring the country closer to a point where voting counts less to shift the status quo.

It’s all a bit disheartening. On one side, and he's right to point this out, the maintenance of the status quo is extremely effective in keeping advanced Western systems going. But on the other, it’s hard to be sure that when a developing nation’s citizens start to vote they’re not being manipulated in exactly the same way for exactly the same reinforcement.

The question I keep in my mind when thinking about non-Western voting is that democracy isn’t their own idea. They didn’t invent this thing they've now adopted, and that’s crucial.

If the reason we vote in New Zealand isn’t a product of our own free will, as I argue, and yet we have the benefit of the legacy of hundreds of years of democracy, then how much less free will must a citizen of Malawi have in choosing whether to vote?

Note that I’m not critiquing how the Malawian votes. I’m only pointing out that every Malawi citizen believing he/she should take part in democracy via a ballot box is, when you think about it, an extraordinary achievement of manipulation.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not falling into the all-white-men-are-bad trap. But in order to see just how deeply people in the Western world have been convinced their votes will “give us power”, just look at Malawi or any other country with sub-50 years-worth of democratic experience. Every single time they vote, nothing changes.

The corruption remains, the votes are tipped and the people at the top stay in power. The entire process a sham, and it’s painfully obvious. But it’s only obvious because it’s extremely rough around the edges. A US or NZ election “appears” more democratic, but it’s not. There’s just different people and interests involved and we’ve got the benefit of 400 years of being balls-deep in the democratic status quo, so therefore we think ours is more legitimate.

But it should be clear no power is gained or retained by doing the very thing the system expects of us. Like I always say, unless you’re throwing rocks don’t expect a protest to change anything. I’m not suggesting you throw rocks, I’m only pointing out why your revolution won’t work.

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

FIFA boss steps down so that nothing needs to change

How ironic...

It’s safe to say Fifa hasn’t had a very good month. Will it see better? Possibly. And football as an institution will undoubtedly keep going, which should ring alarm bells – even though it won’t.

A lot of money flows into world football. New Zealand Football spent $3.8 million in 2014 on national teams and football events of various age groups. To put that into perspective, a single English Premier League team (Manchester City) spent £619 million ($1.322 billion) in the last decade.

So it’s really no surprise when we discover corruption, graft and bribery are as tied up with the world’s most popular sport as shoelaces and exaggerated injuries. It didn't have to be this way, although it’s difficult to find any industry with so much money that isn’t inevitably susceptible to a taste of human greed.

Most recently, a Swiss national by the name of Sepp Blatter, resigned after presumably feeling the pressure from a suspiciously intense investigation led by the FBI. Mr Blatter spent 16 years reigning at the top of world football.

“I have been reflecting deeply about my presidency and about the 40 years in which my life has been inextricably bound to Fifa and the great sport of football. I cherish Fifa more than anything and I want to do only what is best for Fifa and for football.

“What counts most to me is the institution,” Mr Blatter said with a hilariously straight face.

Now that he's gone, what will happen to football? Well, another person more interested in money than the integrity of football will likely take Mr Blatter’s place. The sport will go on, and people will enjoy watching and playing it all over the world. Arguably, whatever bribery was occurring for years at the top echelons barely affected the myriad competitions anyway, so there’s really nothing to worry about.

Then again, tell that to the 4000 workers predicted to die in Qatar building the 2022 World Cup stadiums. Accurate numbers are hard to come by, for understandable reasons, but reports from independent sources suggest thousands of workers are paid as little as $50 a week to build the $260 billion sporting infrastructure.

And in Brazil, where the most recent competition was held, the 12 stadiums which cost Rio de Janeiro a package worth $3.6 billion of money it could barely afford, now lie dilapidated. Almost none of the stadiums have been used for anything after the last crowds filed out in 2014. The government just hopes it can use the stadiums for the upcoming Olympic Games, although it probably can't.

Before Brazil's hosting, the same competition was held in South Africa. Each of its new stadiums set the South African government back R70 million ($8 million) a year simply for maintenance. Again, there’s no real reason to use those stadiums for anything else in the future. And South Africa spent $5 billion constructing the necessary infrastructure, again, with money it could barely afford.

A recent study conducted by the University of Oxford found the “legacy” of running the Football World Cup is often one of financial pain and economic hardship for the host country. Dr Eamon Molloy, lead researcher for Oxford’s Said Business School, says the competition always end in the same way.

“Failure to improve management of infrastructure around major sporting events means that the world's sporting entertainment will be paid for by those least able to afford it,” the research bleakly concludes.

Don't get me wrong, sport is a great pastime, especially when it’s played (not so much when it’s watched). And most people won’t have a problem with the idea of making money from something other people love. But when a country half-cripples itself for the tenuous prestige of hosting a football competition, maybe the real problem isn’t Sepp Blatter after all.

The fundamental reason Fifa is awash with money is because the sport is immensely popular. Companies ranging from Adidas, McDonalds, Coca Cola, Emirates, Sony, Visa, Castrol and Itau all find it commercially useful to spend billions on advertising their different brands on shirts, billboards, balls and pitches. They must earn magnitudes more money from this venture, otherwise the investments wouldn’t make sense.

On an individual fan level – speaking here strictly as an observer – it feels like the magic of football isn’t so much that someone’s team lost the last match but that their team could win everything in the future. Their team might eventually be the best team in the world, even if the individual fan probably won’t be world-best at anything.

Watching football is aspirational, just like Adidas advertisements. Ads create a gap between the viewer and the product, so does sport. Both sell the viewers a deep hope that maybe they too can be world-beaters/beautiful/happy if they pay enough money or believe strongly. And since many football viewers' identities are tightly wrapped in whichever team they support, this gap is never bridged. Hence the constant desire for more sports.

All of which leads me to predict nothing will change following Mr Blatter’s resignation, because the Fifa boss doesn’t actually matter here. Sure, the man needs to read some moral philosophy and maybe meditate for a few hours each week. But most football fans probably had two screens running today, one watching his resignation while the other blared out the latest match.

It might feel good to knock down someone on Mr Blatter’s level. Yet an institution of this size, with an ocean of funds, relied on by millions of people for income and considered by most fans to be a deep part of their individual psyche probably won’t bat an eye at revelations of corruption.

It’s possible to internalise anything, except blame. And like it or not, while Sepp Blatter might be a bad guy, he’s only the scapegoat. His carcass will be thrown to the wolves so football fans the world over can sleep at night feeling that things are being fixed. This is nothing but a time-worn tactic of the defence against change – because people hate change.

Yet it’s worth considering: If football as a sport relies on grassroots participants and viewership in the hundreds of millions watching thousands of games each year – the net value of which is reinforcement of a football fan's personal identity – then maybe the problem isn’t Sepp Blatter and the Fifa management team.

Maybe the problem is you.

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Of course, things will be better if you vote

Look how much change they're bringing!
Who says New Zealand’s political commentary is myopic and vapid? I’ll have you know its writers express visionary ideas on a daily basis! Take this piece on voting for instance by the good Bernard Hickey, political commentator extraordinaire:

“…There were 743,200 aged 18-29 who could have voted in the election and who will have to pay the taxes to cover the $100b in pensions by 2060, yet only 49 per cent voted. 
If the young had voted at the same rate as the elderly there would have been an extra 282,000 voters. 
That would have easily been enough to get the attention of politicians and open up the debate to include the interests of those who will be paying taxes from 2020 to 2060 - the core of their working lives. 
Instead, the debate is frozen in time because a generation of politicians nearing retirement can rely on the indifference, inattention and laziness of a generation who will have to pay the price.” [Emphasis mine]

Perhaps Mr Hickey is talking about voting in FIFA? That would kinda help his argument make sense. But if this is all about voting in the real world (not to be confused with general elections), then what I said earlier about NZ’s quality political analysis was wrrrrrrr…sorry, ahem, it was wrrrrrrrr… sigh… Dammit, I’ll get that word right one of these days.

I believe Mr Hickey fundamentally misunderstands the purpose and effects of voting. First off, I cannot accept the form of his argument, which is the only form he’s decided to ask: change can only happen via voting, therefore those who don’t vote are detrimental to their own livelihoods. This is incorrect, and I’ll mention why soon, but it is an entirely correct way of thinking from the perspective of the status quo.

I really have only one reason I don’t participate in voting: there are a series of decisions which can only and always will be made in one direction regardless of a person’s ideology in leadership. If that leader wishes to remain in control of a viable and growing country, then it is possible to predict what those choices will be if one understands his/her constraints. These are called national imperatives. With a particular emphasis on “imperatives” – as in, must-be-done.

If Mr Hickey thinks a few thousand more votes would alter those imperatives, then he’s drunk the cool-aid and there’s nothing else I can do for him. Politicians only pretend to listen to the public if it helps their efforts to get into a position of power, a position from whence they can then make decisions about choosing the national imperatives.

If someone says a politician is making a decision based on what they say the “public” wants, you should slap that person all the way back to maths class, because they can’t add or subtract. Any decision made because the public apparently “desires” it, is, by definition, not a national imperative.

Yeah, you tell 'em
Just sticking with the given example: should the retirement fund be proven as detrimental to the viability of this country, then a decision will be made to alter it. But if it is shown to actually be viable for the country, then it will be boosted or at minimum left alone.

No politician – or mass of voters – has the power to control the nation by the winds of social feeling. Only tyrants and true revolutions can do that. And even then, both act within different constraints. And both will scuttle the country in an effort to forge a new one.

Yes, I know people think voting is their chance to “tell the government what you think” and “getting its attention”, but this is false in a very specific way. Ask yourself where you heard about the importance of voting. The idea certainly isn’t biological, so someone definitely convinced you at some time in your past that it was a good idea.

Most people have been socialised to accept not just the imaginary benefits of voting, but the imaginary consequences for non-participation as well. Not only has voting been made to feel like it’s a free choice, which you’ve made for the benefit of society (of course), you’re actually doing the system’s job of controlling other people’s behaviour in the desired direction by forwarding articles like this and telling them that they’re hurting themselves if they don’t vote.

What I’m trying to say is, the belief that voting is a useful pastime isn’t your fault. It emerged as a good idea, fully formed, in your head at some point in your deep past. And by “deep past”, I mean way before your birth created by family members and neighbours you never met. How did this happen? Why is it so effective? Voting is just one detail in a script designed to get people like you playing along with modern nature of society. And the rules and levers of this society have figured out ways of making YOU think voting is a free choice. Game, set and match.

Voting prods our egos from an extremely malleable direction. It reinforces the self-imposed, socialised and narcissistic illusion that everything we do as individuals actually matters. That you aren’t just a number or a battery without cosmic significance, let alone significance in the family living room. We’ve been told throughout our entire lives that WE matter, so why shouldn’t our votes count? And off we go to tick the two boxes while wearing shirts that “totally bring out my eye colour”.

That you have any significance has never been true. It will never BE true. And the longer we keep this illusion up by “participating” in a vote every three or four years (how much do voters read/learn about politics during that three-year period anyway?), then the only thing that’s changing is the public’s gradual distancing from the halls of political “power” and the abdication of influence to those (re: companies) who actually know how to manipulate the country’s national imperatives to their advantage.

Monday, 1 June 2015

What the Patriot Act taught the US about fear

The United States “can still catch terrorists using the Constitution,” Kentucky Senator Rand Paul said this week after successfully blocking the government’s attempts to renew its authority to sweep the world’s telecommunications records in the hunt for terrorists.

Sen. Rand took umbrage to the renewal of the National Security Agency’s (NSA) vast powers of interception as part of the so-called US Patriot Act. The bill was introduced after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 when then President George W. Bush was advised the US intelligence community’s capabilities were too constrained to prevent a repeat of the attacks.

NSA Fort Meade, Maryland
However, as the years have ticked by and 9/11 fades into history, the Patriot Act is considered too far reaching and intrusive by many Americans, especially since NSA technician Edward Snowden released stolen classified files detailing the extent of its digital interception programmes.

New Zealand’s own Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) is a close global partner of the NSA. The GCSB has benefitted from the expanded NSA powers and will receive significantly less signals intelligence data should the Patriot Act provisions entirely dry up.

Although US President Barack Obama allowed parts of the Patriot Act to expire this week, his inaction is somewhat offset by the potential USA Freedom Act as replacement. This bill is meant to end the bulk collection of US citizens' digital metadata, end the secret laws created by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court and introduce a “Special Advocate” to represent the public in privacy matters.

It is unclear what the new surveillance laws will look like at this point, but the shutdown of the Bush-era powers is the most significant US intelligence reform in a decade.

Most of the public will probably never know how effective the US intelligence community has become in the years following 9/11. The community benefited from increased funds, helpful legislation and more people-power and further large-scale attacks never occurred. But exactly how much America’s spies are to thank for thwarting follow-on terrorism is largely guesswork.

Yet to discuss this debate correctly, an accurate understanding of the type of intelligence being gathered by the NSA – the phone calls and metadata – is central to both the parameters of the controversial collection and any consequences of limiting those efforts.

Since the Snowden leaks in 2013, the argument’s framework has distorted the details of exactly what the agency was doing. According to the NSA’s own secret files, the NSA legally captured some US citizens' phone records and metadata – described as data about who phoned whom, for how long and from where.

The agency was never authorised to intercept and store voice recordings or other content from US citizens' communication devices in bulk without a warrant issued by the FISA court. Collection against foreign individuals has not been subject to the same constraints relating to US citizens.

Collection of metadata was not considered a constitutional matter, as there was no reasonable expectation of privacy for those records. However, some unresolved legal questions now require rethinking for current circumstances.

Switching off the programmes might appear to be the best decision given the public’s reaction to the NSA’s programmes. Yet many polls suggest the majority of Americans support the NSA’s tracking of millions of phone records, saying investigating terrorism takes precedence over privacy.

This isolates the true dynamic of the NSA and Patriot Act debate. Ultimately all intelligence questions are about where the public wishes to balance security with its privacy. Given the fear engendered by the terror attacks of 2001, it was reasonable for the US government and public to dial-up the powers of its intelligence agencies as the nation prepared to defend itself.

Domestic US protection was paramount, but the government also sought an Authorisation of the Use of Military Force to take the fight to the enemy and away from the homeland. The United States has now been fighting a constitutionally legal war for almost 15 years. Both of these actions required lifting the bar of security.

Kentucky Senator Rand Paul
But increasing security has two outcomes, one immediate and one delayed. The immediate consequence is the narrowing of public privacy, especially in the digital age, as the government searched for terrorist communication needles inside the enormous haystack of completely innocuous data generated by US citizens.

It was inevitable the NSA would stumble upon private records while disrupting terror plans both inside and outside the United States. Legal constraints (albeit conducted in secret courts) were established to avoid many dangerous imbalances. The NSA became comparatively successful in self-policing compared to almost every other nation’s intelligence agencies.

The delayed consequence is the intelligence community’s incredible achievements over this period. The Patriot Act supplied it with much-needed capabilities to defend the nation. Of course, the agencies were not perfect and some threats still seeped through (many conducted by US citizens, which the NSA was not legally allowed to monitor), but the agencies were largely successful, perhaps leading to a false sense of security among the public.

But there will always come a time when the legal and moral bar balancing security and privacy requires recalibration.

Today, transnational and domestic terror threats are arguably more diverse and adaptable than ever before, yet the US public has blessedly forgotten its collective fear of the dark days following 9/11.

As a result, the NSA’s powers are now being trimmed, but this does not mean the country is safe. The United States can be sure it will be threatened again in the future, leading to another rebalancing of the bar away from privacy. But hopefully a few lessons have been learned.

The US is vulnerable no matter what it may otherwise think and the public discussion about balancing the twin values of privacy and security needs to be constant to avoid knee-jerk reactions in times of fear or peace. Trimming intelligence powers was inevitable, but cutting them off will only imperil the country’s safety by prioritising an illusory desire for privacy in a world that doesn’t care for it at all. Has the US public learned that lesson? One can only hope.