Friday, 28 August 2015

Assessing a North Korean ground invasion

If North Korea launches a military strike against South Korea, how long could the totalitarian regime maintain high the attack?

The Korean peninsula is once again dealing with a heightened level of tension this month. South Korea is blaming a mine that maimed two of its soldiers on August 4 on North Korea. South Korea responded to the exploding mine by restarting propaganda broadcasts along the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ). The North Koreans then fired a rocket at a loudspeaker on August 20. An hour later, South Korea fired dozens of artillery shells at the rocket launch position. Presently, the two sides are negotiating to ease the strain.
South Korean President Park Geun-hye says she will be less tolerant of North Korean aggression, a stance that compounds the chances of escalation. North Korea also tends to react strongly against annual US/South Korea military exercises (August 17 – 28) which is a contributing factor in the heightened pressure.

The two sides are still technically at war and hostilities restarting is an ever-present fear. While both countries wish to avoid war, the sheer size of the military forces arrayed only a few kilometres from each other makes the question of how an invasion might occur is far from academic. The South Korean military is well trained and equipped. Only the Japanese and the US militaries field more capable combat units in the Asia Pacific.

Add to this strength the explicit and demonstrable assistance from United States Forces Korea (USFK) – the sub-unified command of United States Pacific Command - and an attack would be extremely costly for any invading force from North Korea, which also possesses a large and well-positioned military structure throughout the country.

Initially, the order of battle of a North Korean attack is likely to employ its massive amount of short or medium range artillery and missiles. The majority of these weapons are heavily concentrated along the DMZ. USFK predicts some of the longer-range batteries may also be in range of Seoul, although just how much ordnance would fall on the capital city is unknown.  

USFK estimates 500,000 rounds of artillery shells could be fired in the first hour of combat from the North, accompanied by missile and airstrikes. In response, the first hour would also see significant air-to-ground strikes and missile attacks from USFK and South Korean forces. Countering the North’s artillery and airstrikes are a central priority for the South and would limit the damage to Seoul, but not before significant damage was inflicted. The main North Korean ground force would rely on tanks and troops. Moving across the DMZ, North Korean armour would take one of three main routes. 

The first option is the road along the east coast of the peninsula. The distance between the mountains and the sea narrows in some places to the size of a large warehouse. These limitations suggest any large force of armour would be exposed to ships from the US 6th fleet and South Korean navy, as well as from the air. The second possible route, called the Kaesong-Munsan corridor, is on the other side of the peninsula. This is the floodplain of the Han and the Imjin rivers, and was North Korea’s invasion route in the war of 1950.

North Korean armour has already proved it can travel along this route without much obstruction. It does, however, require crossing the rivers, so military engineers will need to bring bridging equipment that will slow down an invasion force. However, about 20 kilometres south of the DMZ, South Korea has created the largest tank-trap in the world. Its existence is not classified and is clearly marked on every map. In order to keep it hidden from the North Koreans it is not officially referred to as a tank-trap. Instead it is called Seoul. A city of 14 million people may as well be a swamp for a tank army. So it is unlikely North Korea will take this route as it would be rendered immobile and vulnerable.

The third route relies on a valley in the middle of the peninsula called Ch'orwon. This valley begins inside the north, emptying out just south of the Seoul megalopolis. USFK estimates the route could handle large numbers of armour and artillery pieces making this the most likely invasion route. Yet it too has constraints. The valley is wide in the north but narrow in the south. Meaning the North Koreans if they travelled too far down this valley would eventually lose the ability to manoeuvre and become bottlenecked.

Even if Pyongyang could muster the political will, it is doubtful the regime could produce enough fuel or ammunition for its military to conduct a sustained campaign. Due to externally imposed sanctions and its self-imposed isolation from the world, the North Korean regime is always dangerously low on supplies, both for its military and the wider economy. Its military is considered first among equals and receives much of the country’s goods and energy services. But these are scarce and unreliable, indicating a sustained military campaign may not even last three days.

The North Korean air force mostly comprises older MiG aircraft (of the MiG-15/17/19/21 types), but includes small numbers of more modern MiG-23, MiG-29 and Su-25 aircraft. The aircraft deployed close to the DMZ are typically fueled at 25-35% capacity during exercises to avoid pilots defecting to China (a not unreasonable precaution). It is known that severe shortages of spare parts and poor maintenance mean much of its aircraft weaponry may not be functional at all. Low fuel supplies also limits training and flight time, bringing the competency of North Korean pilots into question as well.

North Korea’s military equipment is also old – an estimated 45% was designed in the 1960s, while the rest is much older – and would struggle to effectively fight any modern force. The International Institute for Strategic Studies suggests North Korea’s armoured forces possess enough combat hardware to equip perhaps ten US divisions, but have an actual capability equivalent to about 2.5 US armoured divisions.

“With infantry equipment added, North Korean ground forces possess an overall firepower equivalent to nearly five modern US heavy divisions”, according to research from the IISS. By comparison, the Iraqi army in 1990 could field up to six modern division equivalents. North Korean airpower, equivalent to six US air wings in size, corresponds to only two F-16 wing equivalents in estimated net capability. An air wing comprises of three squadrons, each squadron containing about 20 planes.

Nonetheless, despite shortages of spare parts, fuel and training, North Korea’s conventional capabilities do threaten large swathes of South Korea’s civilian population. It would also be unwise to discount the threat of chemical, biological, or even crude nuclear attacks on South Korea. North Korea’s nuclear threat is compounded with a series of relatively successful tests of a new generation of indigenous ballistic missiles capable of housing different payloads. However, those missile systems have not proven reliability and would be unlikely to be used in the event of war.

A photograph released last year of Kim Jong Un putting his Strategic Missile Forces on high alert caused alarm in the international media, but should be kept in context. A display board in the background apparently showed a series of missile trajectories terminating in the continental US and various American Pacific military bases such as Guam and Hawaii.

While Japan and South Korea are within range North Korean missiles, the US is largely out of range for even the longest-range missile, the Taepodong-2. This rocket may have an operational range of 6700 kilometres, putting it in range of the Alaskan peninsula at best. Tokyo is similarly concerned about uncontrolled tensions on the Korean peninsula. The Japanese have been rhetorically targeted by Pyongyang in the past and Japan is within range of a missile strike. The Japanese military are therefore impelled to become involved in a conflict early, compounding the threat for North Korea.

Given the lack of adequate North Korean military equipment and strategic surprise, and the severe constraints on invasion routes, any conflict would cripple the North Korean regime without being an existential threat to South Korea or its allies. The net assessment is that a ground invasion into South Korea from the north is highly risky and unlikely to be undertaken. While a serious miscalculation may spark a new conflict, the North has much more to gain by maintaining the status quo.

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Sitrep - Aug 26, 2015

A land mine exploded inside the South Korean section of the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) on August 4, maiming two South Korean soldiers. Earlier this week, tensions rose again as South Korea responded to a North Korean rocket attack with dozens of its own artillery rounds.

The heightened tensions come as South Korea and US forces conduct their annual military exercises. Incidents similar to this year’s occur in a cyclical pattern aligning with those exercises. Presently, the two Koreas are negotiating to ease tensions.

However a change in South Korean rhetoric since Prime Minister Park Geun-hye took power suggests it will continue to respond more assertively to North Korean provocations, potentially increasing the chances of miscalculation in future skirmishes.

Further west, a spate of bombings in the Kabul district in Afghanistan continue this week as two truck bombings exploded near the capital. NATO forces were targeted, but the government is also under threat from elements of the Taliban militant groups.

The attacks underscore a breakdown in peace negotiations following revelations last month that Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar has been dead for two years. The news scuttled the talks. It is unclear now who speaks for the Taliban. And in a surprising change of position, Pakistan – a friend to both Kabul and the Taliban – has been criticised by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.

In France, a potential terror attack was stopped by train passengers before the perpetrator could kill any victims. Despite wounding three people, the Moroccan man’s weapon malfunctioned and he was eventually detained by French authorities.

The attack highlights the threat of returning fighters to home countries after fighting in conflict zones. It also shows the difficulty authorities face in stopping terror attacks. However, the quick thinking of train passengers also highlights the importance of the proper mindset of good situational awareness and the ability to take advantage of poor terrorist training to stop further bloodshed.

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

How (and how not) to fight a land war in Asia

The world is on fire. More precisely, the “World-Island” is on fire.

A full 100 years ago, English geographer Halford John Mackinder described his geostrategic “Heartland Theory”. He described how the globe pivots on the “World-Island” – the linked continents of Europe, Asia and Africa. This is the most populous and richest of all possible land combinations and ranges from the Volga to the Yangtze, and from the Himalayas to the Arctic.

"Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland; who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island; who rules the World-Island commands the world," he wrote.

Controlling the World-Island would be an impregnable and powerful position, every empire knows this. The only question is how to secure it. Plenty of powers have attempted this feat, none have truly succeeded. At the time of Mr Mackinder’s writing, the Russian Empire was in nominal control of much of the World Island, in competition with the British Empire in “The Great Game.”

The US has since tried to pacify the Heartland after the Soviet Union fell, learning a great deal of imperial lessons along the way. Former US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said that “Any future defence secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should have his head examined.” Military force, Mr Gates discovered, doesn’t work for very long in Asia.

The World-Island does not however sit passively. Instead, its natural state is to atomise into smaller clashing regional power structures. How far those powers can consolidate influence over the World-Island is largely decided by geography and force of either arms or ideas.

The 20th century closed with the nascent US Empire as sole global hegemon. Competition to this empire is now emerging in Eastern Europe, but also in East Asia and in the Middle East. If the World-Island cannot be secured by force of arms, might it be secured through the spread of coherent ideas? This is where the true battle for the World-Island really is – between the idea of the “international community” and all other competing ideas.

Perhaps it is unfair to bifurcate geopolitics, but there does appear to be an overarching binary question dominating the world system. Each nation grapples with a version of the question of inclusion or exclusion in this international community. To be excluded is to live in isolation or to create one’s own world order. To be included is to be inside the international community.

The international community is a legacy of a structure created when the US was victorious after the Cold War, and is now maintained by the US State Department as a series of default governance and economic systems for running global interactions. It is based on the political ideology of “progressivism” – the worship of progress – which is the mainstream US tradition.

The international community has become the central idea to cohere the modern world. A progressive ideology wishes to introduce democracy and monetary economics to all countries by encouraging nations to gain independence.

How does a country know whether it is part of this international community? One way is to ask whether it is independence and, more importantly, what it thinks it means by the word “independent.”

For example, when the US became independent in 1776 it understood this to mean no other country would fund or control her government. Its geography and economic heft eventually enabled the US to maintain this version of independence by not requiring aid from external patrons. The British Empire didn’t appreciate the US choice of excluding itself from the British international community, but London couldn’t do much about it.

In the modern era, there remain two chief versions of independence: legal and illegal. Legal independence is that which corresponds with the prevailing international community. Nationalist regimes, for instance, are considered good when their goal is to become nice, multilateral members.

Illegal independence is when those movements “defy international opinion” and turn against said community. In Iraq and Ukraine, the current independence movements are illegal precisely because they choose exclusion. They are bombed into submission because they are weak, but consider that China and Russia’s exclusion choice is equally important for the integrity of the international community – they are not as vulnerable to air power.

The international community is now more a US political tradition, it has become the central ideology of much of the world. And it has proven to be incredibly attractive. In fact, there is only one independent country today, neither truly legal nor truly illegal. It's called Somaliland and is not recognised by anyone in the international community. It is essentially invisible, for good reason.

Aid from foreign governments is non-existent in Somaliland. While it is de-facto an independent country, it is not de-jure (legally) recognised internationally. Hence, the government of Somaliland cannot access IMF and World Bank assistance. Of course, one wonders which version of independence the IMF and World Bank aid actually encourages – legal or illegal. The answer should be fairly clear by now.

It might sound strange, but Somaliland and the US are identically independent. Both have pulled away from a prevailing international community. Yet it’s safe to say Somaliland’s illegal independence doesn’t pose a threat to the prevailing international community in the same way the US choice once did.

On the other hand, encouraging the legal independence of both Ukraine and Iraq is incredibly important for the international community. Iraq and Ukraine must be independent in the required direction for any of the overarching structure to work.

Mr Mackinder’s World-Island is indeed on fire, by the heat of ideas and arms. The US attempt to secure it has hit geopolitical speedbumps in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and East Asia. But with massive free trade deals under negotiation, and the rival economic systems in China and Russia stuttering, inclusion or exclusion remains the overarching decision every country needs to make.

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Sitrep - Aug 19, 2015

A bomb in the Thailand capital Bangkok killed 22 people on August 17. A second device exploded after falling into the Chao Phraya river, but failed to cause any casualties.

Thai police say they are looking for a suspect responsible for both explosives but are unclear on the motive. No group has yet claimed responsibility for the attacks. Thailand is grappling with a low-level insurgency in its south which has killed more than 6500 people since 2004, and the country is currently controlled by a junta after the military led a coup in May 2014.

The attack could be a response to general and junta leader Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha’s promise recently to remove martial law and replace it with new legal rules. However, lawmakers and human rights activists say the new rules could consolidate Mr Prayuth’s absolute rule over the country.

In Europe over the weekend, negotiations to approve a third bailout for Greece ended with a promise of 86 billion euros for the country. The bailout will be delivered in tranches over three years set to coincide with the imposition of expected reforms and austerity measures as carrot-and-stick.

The ruling Syriza party only marginally passed the bailout deal when 43 of its members abstained in protest. Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras had to rely on opposition support to succeed, bringing into question how much control Mr Tsipras actually holds over his own party. Early Greek elections before the end of the year are now much more likely.

In Iraq, weeks of demonstrations have graduated from general complaints about electricity shortages to direct focusing on the al-Abadi government and widespread corruption. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi responded to the protests by submitting a range of reform proposals to parliament.

More surprising than the inclusion of scrapping the ethnic and factional “quota” system of Iraqi politics was the overwhelming support the reform package received from other members of parliament, including opposition figures. Rather than consolidate control over Iraq however, these reforms are likely to pull the country even further apart.

TPP, Unilever and the Market State - Revised

Marx was wrong: feudalism doesn’t precede capitalism, it succeeds it.

What we’re witnessing is a new breed of feudalism merging with a new mercantilism. Right now, the magical mix of nation states, international companies and the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) suggest we might be headed back to 1600 and the days of the East India Company.

Earlier this month, a rap music video criticising Unilever for allegedly dumping toxic waste in the country went viral. The video itself isn’t useful, but it does help illustrate how British-Dutch consumer goods company Unilever and the TPP represent the wider transition away from the nation state to a “market state.”

Yes, that's the East India Company flag
with the NZ flag. Scared yet?
The emergence of this market state is a systemic rearrangement of power as the descriptions of government are altered. As I’ve argued elsewhere, the underlying system of human governance doesn’t change over time, only the nomenclature and people’s titles do. As George Orwell knew, during government transitions it’s the powerful who control how things are named.

Before discussing the TPP in relation to the market state, let us examine the example of Unilever by breaking down what happened in India. The key drivers of the controversy appear to be: the Indian state, the Unilever Corporation and the Indian people.

India is interesting in that it’s a barely coherent nation state in the classical understanding of the term. India gained independence in 1947 under an authentic government, unfortunately leading to the political subdivision of the subcontinent. India's fundamental geopolitical friction will always come from within: from its endless, shifting spread of regional interests, ethnic groups and powers. The British did not conquer India so much as manage its internal conflicts to their advantage, as does the modern Indian state.

Industries such as Unilever eventually approached India with investment propositions, taking advantage of those same power splits. Once the company started producing goods and hiring the local population, it became difficult to expel even as its toxic waste allegedly accumulated. Who should take responsibility for the enormous task of cleaning up Unilever’s industrial waste? Your first answer is probably be Unilever, but it really isn’t. Read on!

Consider that the only reason Unilever exists is because people buy its products. And the only reason people still buy Unilever products is because they’re cheap. Unilever’s products are cheap because Indian wages are comparatively low. Unilever manufactures in India because its interests are aligned with those of the Indian government.

It also pays to remember that the Indian government, broken as it is, is the world’s largest democracy and, whatever the government looks like, it is an aggregate of Indian citizens expressing personal desires via their votes. It is the sum of individual vectors pointing in different directions. In other words, there’s a disturbing and unspoken connection between the people being harmed by Unilever’s toxins and their own decisions on election day. This logic would seem to suggest the Indian people are responsible for the poisoning of their own land.

That’s true on one level, but the situation is more complicated. The reason the land is contaminated is that Indian citizens collectively decided to prioritise a general rise in personal living standards provided by Unilever and other companies, over the detrimental health effects of incorrectly disposing of industrial waste caused by these under-regulated companies.

Individual Indians might not consciously think about this decision, yet exactly this selfish cost-benefit calculation was made by those individual citizens. In a very real way, rather than negating the harmful effects of industrial waste and thereby increasing the operating costs of Unilever, Indian citizens preferred the positive effects of a wider spread of low wages instead.

The Unilever industrial waste is an uncomfortable consequence of Indians wishing for a better life and voting in a government to provide it. Humans seem to possess the universal inability to understand how individual actions might affect others. In economic jargon this is called a “negative externality”. The question is: have we seen this all before? We certainly have. This is exactly the decision every Western citizen, including New Zealanders, made in the early years of the gradual construction of our own advanced society. The difference is only in timescale. My point is, the Unilever and India example is a bottom-up process, not top-down.

The Western world collectively chose to increase its living standards about 200 years ago and can’t now remember the effects of early industrialisation. India made a similar decision only recently, a decade or two ago – now they have the power of rap videos to remind them of those effects. Coal miners in England didn’t have Youtube, but they died on a proportionately similar level to Indian workers.

The problems ailing Indians are therefore different only in effect, not type. The reason we’re so appalled by what this video reveals is because most Westerners have no idea what’s it’s like to live in an industrialising economy and so incorrectly apply their own moral standards to the situation. The artists made their own cost-benefit calculation and decided against Unilever, but ironically this is a luxury which is a direct result of Unilever operating in India.

So what can we do? Stopping industry from operating in India would hurt everyone in that country by causing wages and living standards to drop. Not even the music video creators really want this, even though they are effectively campaigning for exactly this consequence. There must be a way to convince Unilever to operate more cleanly without raising the cost of production beyond the point that the Indian job market will benefit.

Pressure on Unilever to fix its pollution must reach a point greater than the company’s incentive to continue that process. There are two immediate ways this can happen: naturally (through market forces) or artificially (through dictate). Since we’ve already discovered democracy created the problem, it’s unlikely it will also be the solution. Maybe the market is the answer? If it is – and I’m no economist – the necessary pressure to change Unilever will require a corporation with greater strength. Thankfully, a bigger corporation does exist: it’s called government.

The modern construction of government is indeed a corporation in the strict sense of the concept: an organisation with a virtual identity. A government is simply a group of people working together for a common aim – a corporation. The only difference between a government and a private corporation is that the former is sovereign. Whether a government is good or bad is not determined by who its employees are or how they are selected; only its actions are good or bad.

If the Indian government is a more powerful corporation than Unilever then it leads to at least one conclusion: the modern Indian state needs reinforcing to compel Unilever to emit fewer toxins. This would balance the two corporations, leading hopefully to compromise and constraints on each. The question is how?

In order to answer that, let’s consider the example of large free trade deals such as the TPP. In many cases the negotiating countries will gain new rules to compel both state and private corporations to respect higher standards of conduct. The alternative for these corporations would be losing money and/or power, neither of which are desirable outcomes.

The TPP is meant to homogenise rules on investment, environment, intellectual property and labour for all its members by constraining what various corporations (including governments) can and cannot do. If a corporation fails to adhere to the TPP rules, the citizens of member countries can simply choose to purchase or sell to other companies as market entry and exit is streamlined.

Essentially, these rules are exactly what India and Unilever need. The TPP deal is intended to strengthen both state and private corporations by using the power and efficiency of the market. This is how the gigantic trade agreement matches up with a much more interesting reality. The TPP cannot be understood without the wider context of the transition of power away from the nation state to what US author of The Shield of Achilles Professor Philip Bobbitt calls the “market state”.

The market state is difficult to describe precisely because it is not yet fully formed. Mr Bobbitt argues that epochal wars force the state to innovate strategically or constitutionally, and the peace treaties ending those wars function by approving the next constitutional order. To comprehend where we are today, the 20th century must be thought of as one long conflict beginning with the First World War and ending with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Essentially, the period between the 1871 unification of Germany and the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union centred on a single story. The story was of Germany coming to grips with being a nation state. This is still the central question facing Europe today, although much less so. The consequence of this story is a wider transition to new governance replacing the failing nation state system.

According to Mr Bobbitt, the legitimacy of the nation state depends on how well it can deliver on the terms of the constitutional order under which it operates. The authority of the nation state is based on the idea that the state offers to improve the material well-being of its people in exchange for its power to govern. In contrast, the market state offers to maximise individual opportunities for its people in exchange for power to govern.

Whereas the nation state saw its role as growing the material wealth of citizens and was supposed to make sure wealth was fairly distributed, the market state instead seeks to increase the aggregate wealth of its citizenry through deregulation, growing public-private partnerships, and what Mr Bobbitt calls “the devolution of the welfare state.”

To support Mr Bobbitt’s claim that "legitimacy… is a matter of history," the nation state will fall because it can no longer: protect citizens from weapons of mass destruction (WMD); escape the reach of international law; control its economy; protect its culture; and protect itself from global problems such as climate change. "Terrorism in the era of the market state will reflect the nature of the market state. It will be decentralised, disseminated via the internet, and threaten the use of WMD and germ warfare," Mr Bobbitt adds. Bear in mind his book was published prior to the 9/11 terror attacks in the US, and took 12 years to complete.

The strength of Mr Bobbitt’s thesis is its flexibility and inclusiveness. The market state organises the powers of different organisations to run the state under the assumption that markets provide the most efficient means to run an economy. One pressing question would be how the military might be used in a market state. The private armies in the second Iraq war and other 21st century conflicts suggest the answer. Recall the 19th century East India Company’s ability to marshal private armed forces to enforce its trade deals and investment overseas. It had a trade monopoly that was also backed by the power of the British nation state.

In a market state system, all of this will enjoy a comeback. In other words, if the TPP doesn’t pass it will be replaced by another trading structure because it must be. This drive is not a US grand imperial project. It is a desire by all Asia Pacific countries for a rules-based and connected regional economy to maximise the accumulation of greater wealth and living standards – the fundamental goal of a market state.

The true problem is that, despite all the similarities we’ve never truly been here before. Not on this scale and not with such a globalised transition. The only option is to recognise the emergence of the market state and build in constraints, hence the TPP and other multilateral deals.

Where does this put us? The TPP isn’t ethical, but using ethics during a fundamental transition of constitutional order is probably undesirable anyway. The TPP is neither a good thing nor a bad thing. I simply don’t know what it will be, none of us do. It is entirely unclear how the TPP will nest within the emerging market state. The free trade deal is a medium-sized cog moving largely out of sight. The smaller cogs of Unilever and international businesses move faster, appearing bizarre and dangerous.

But it’s more important to watch the very large and slow cogs turning in the distance. If the TPP was being negotiated in a nation state system then ethical judgments might be useful. But the TPP can probably only exist with a market state system, and we don’t have ethics for that yet – let alone a coherent set of names and descriptions. For all the angry people yelling about the TPP, the question should not be: how can we stop this from happening? The question must be: given this will be the new future, how best might I manipulate it to my benefit?

The central problem for New Zealand is not the introduction of new trade rules, it is the lack of Kiwis innovating their way to a better life by using the system for themselves. If Mr Bobbitt’s market state thesis is accurate, then he and French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre might agree that modern citizens are “freer than we know” to “maximise opportunities to advance.”

All the pieces are being put in place for a new kind of feudalism and mercantilism. The efficiency of the marketplace might not be the best solution, but it is the one the world seems to be striving for.

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

The insidious link of geopolitics and media

Suppose you saw an article about Ukraine on the front page of the New York Times written by someone called Matthew Simon Monk. Taken in isolation, his article wouldn’t tell the reader very much. But in collating Mr Monk’s stories it should be possible to outline an overarching story.

However, a crucial detail which all New York Times subscribers are guaranteed not to read in this story is that one of the most powerful people in Ukraine – perhaps even in the top ten – is the journalist Matthew Simon Monk. With this kind of power, it pays to ask: what relationship does the media have to geopolitics?

Many rightly castigate the manipulation of people’s perception about Eastern Ukraine. All sides of the conflict release carefully worded disinformation to construct a specific story. The New York Times and Russia Today (RT) compete to spread their version of Ukrainian events as far as possible.

In order to understand this process, journalism must be seen as an arm of the state. Journalists often feel their job is to “speak truth to power”. But just as Marx described the existence of welfare as the entrenchment of the wealthy elite, so too the existence of journalism is the entrenchment of democratic governance.

This is one reason why journalism was cleverly termed the fourth estate by Edmund Burke. It is the subsequent column after the judicial, legislative and executive branches. Oscar Wilde wrote that the fourth estate has eaten the other three, nevertheless, journalism is government. The two are one and the same.

A journalist's function is as part of the civil service, similar to treasury employees and intelligence officers. The whole point of the civil service is to maintain and promote the modern democratic state system. In any battle between the civil service and elected representatives, civil servants always win.

They win because they are not subject to elections and are integral to any career continuation of elected representatives. The other branches of government must keep journalists on their side, not to defend their personalities, but to maintain state coherency and control. That is, after all, the whole point of modern statecraft.

Does this mean all journalism is official? Yes, but not in an obvious way. The force of effective propaganda is when it teaches citizens how to think, not what to think. For example, when the New Zealand government says has a watch-list of jihadists and will try to interdict them, the propaganda is not the list. It is not even in the government interdiction. The conviction is more fundamental.

Propaganda only works if there is a medium through which it can pass. Propaganda doesn’t, in other words, fall out of the sky. This medium will only be useful if the public has been convinced that truth comes from – and only from – using this medium.

Said differently, a sufficient amount of the public must be conditioned to assume the only way of knowing if an event actually happened is whether it appeared via this medium. Information gained elsewhere is therefore untrue by default. This process has had other names: priests, scholars, shamans, etc.

For modern propaganda to be successful the target must already believe a democratic government represents control and order. Whether there is genuine control is largely unimportant, the semiotics of control and order are more vital.

A person adopts this belief much like an organism adopts an infection. A virus of the mind is implanted using the special arm of the government called the media. The media preaches that the government and media are independent entities precisely to obscure their intrinsic relationship. This message has worked so well that even journalists and politicians believe they are separate.

All the little messages about which we become so irate are simply top layers of this façade. The damage was done when citizens became convinced the journalists had a special grasp on reality which was only accessible through the media. It’s this trust in the construct of the media and government which supplies the power of propaganda in Ukraine.

RT is obviously controlled by the Russian state. Does this make it different to the New York Times, BBC or NBR? Only in name. The structure is identical in every democratic country. This is a reasonable understanding of the modern Hegelian power enjoyed by today’s press.

In the interest of serving and upholding the state, journalists arbitrate with greater efficacy than elected representatives ever could. In Ukraine, the narratives of actors and belligerents display how the geopolitical conflict it is very much also a war between Russian and Western presses.

Friday, 14 August 2015

And if all others accepted the lie

Someone I know was recently tapped to work at the media organisation Russia Today (RT) in a European bureau. Pretty cool opportunity, but I used to joke that watching RT was important to know what not to think. I know I was having fun, then he asked me what I thought. It still boggles me why people want to hear my opinion. I told him RT is raw, stark and ugly propaganda and that this was all the more reason to join. He was confused, so I explained.

Russia is a strange place. The Enlightenment missed the country completely and now they have a completely different way of understanding European history. And the thing is, there's a lot of affinity between Russia and the West. But there's also enough difference to make for some interesting breaks.

During the Cold War for instance, the Russians were extremely good at manipulating the West. They were light-years better than any rule-based and ethical Western agency. They were so good in fact that there are reliable reasons to think the lack of nuclear war was due entirely to KGB penetration of NATO. The Soviet Union was terrified of a surprise attack along the North European Plain. The security dilemma made it hard to know why NATO needed so many tanks if it wasn't planning an attack. The Soviets worked into the top levels of NATO to see if the organisation was planning anything. If they'd discovered a serious plan to invade the USSR, they would have immediately preempted it with a nuclear strike. The West knew the Soviets would do this.

Along these lines, both Deception, by Edward Lucas, and Disinformation, by Lt. Gen. Ion Mihai Pacepa, are fascinating for how Russia interacts with and changes the West’s perception. Probably most of it will be known in a common-sense sort of way, but there’s a lot of great examples. Apparently the majority of the FSB (KGB) employees are foreign propaganda artists. Actual intelligence operatives are few and far between in the Russian security services. And it’s been this way for decades.

But to join RT, a decision should depend on what the person wants from the job. If they just want to work, can take instruction well, treat it only as a job, then it'd be a great experience. If a person's ideology is orthogonal to RT’s and threatens to impede their work, then perhaps working there isn’t a good idea. It’ll just lead to tears. If they're curious about most things (like any good journalist), and aren’t too worried about ideology, then working at RT would be a unique and highly prized experience.

Weirdly, RT's propaganda is actually easier to talk about. Of course RT is propaganda, it’s a media organisation, how could it not be propaganda? It has to be remembered that ALL journalism is best understood as an arm of the state. The very existence of a media institution is the entrenchment of a government system. In other words, if journalists feel their job is to “speak truth to power”, then the default assumption is that power exists in the form of a government. That’s why journalism is called the fourth estate, because it’s the next column on the line of the judicial, legislative and executive branches. Journalism is government. The two are one and the same.

A journalist's role and function can only be understood as civil service, similar to treasury employees and intelligence officers. The whole point of the civil service is to maintain and promote the modern state system. In every battle between the civil service and elected representatives, it is the civil servants which always win. They can win because they are not subject to elections and as a tool are integral to the victory or defeat of those elected representatives. The other branches of government must keep journalists on their side, not to defend their personalities, but to maintain the illusion of state coherency and control. That, after all, is the whole point of modern statecraft.

As an aside, educational institutions are part of the state apparatus as well. After all, universities and schools teach only that the modern democratic system is correct as the default assumption about organising power. I challenge anyone to provide an example of when an anarchic system was presented as anything but a comparison to the superior democratic system. Even if that person was being critical of democracy, they will still regard it as the default structure. Because only from democracy, they say, can other ideas arise. In this way, other government structures cannot be created ex nihilo. You cannot beat the system by playing with its rules.

When people are told to vote, think a bit about how many layers of conditioning for the democratic system is required to get her head nodding in agreement. I mean, the sheer packaging of assumed information each one of us receives at educational institutions for us to function in a modern state (and more importantly the incentive not to question the default assumptions), is absolutely phenomenal.

Anyway, back on track. Does this mean that all journalism is propaganda? I'm here to inform you that yeah, it pretty much all is. But not in the way you’d think. The thing about effective propaganda is that it teaches people how to think, not what to think. For example, when you hear that the New Zealand government has a “list” of jihadists and is doing everything to stop them attacking its citizens, the propaganda is not in the list. It is not even in the government interdiction. It's much more insidious.

For any propaganda to work a reader/watcher/consumer must already believe the government represents a structure of control and order. Whether there is true control is ancillary, the semiotics of control and order is more important. How does a person adopt this belief? It works much like an infection. A virus of the mind is implanted through the special arm of the government called the media. The reason people are told the government and media are independent entities is precisely to obscure this intrinsically connected relationship. And the propaganda has worked so well that even the journos and politicians believe they are separate.

Propaganda only works if there is a medium through which it can pass. Propaganda doesn’t, in other words, just fall out of the sky. And this medium will only work if the public has been convinced that truth comes from - and only from - the medium. Said differently, a sufficient amount of the public must be conditioned to assume that the only way to know if an event actually happened is whether it appeared to them via a medium of some sort. Truth and reality spoken by hearsay, bloggers, etc is the antithesis of this process. The medium has changed over the millennia. At one point it was priests and kings, now it's the media and government titles which have us convinced they own a direct line to the truth.

It’s this trust in the construct of the media and government that is the power of propaganda. The little messages we get so annoyed about are way, way, way up the layers. The damage was already done when people were convinced the government and journalists had a special grasp on reality which was only accessible through them. This is the how in propaganda.

RT, as far as I understand it, is a media outlet controlled by the Russian state. It is essentially the Russian version of BBC or MSNBC. Does this make it any different? Only in name. The structure is identical to every other media outlet on earth. To be honest, if a journalist is worried about writing propaganda, then he might be in the wrong job. Yet they decide to stay balls-deep in the system with each word they write. Being "independent" is even worse because it just becomes another layer obscuring the reality of the media's function.

The trick is to know at a deep level that what you’re doing as a journalist is essentially the maintenance of the status quo and the overarching government construct, while being able to operate at a functional level enough to get paid at the end of the month. I work through it all by thinking about the absurdity of it all. I’m an observer at heart and it’s hilarious to watch how serious most people take it all - they think government institutions exist outside of their heads! But it’s all nonsense. Journalism, media, government, corruption, propaganda, postal services, blah, blah, blah. None of it’s real, but the simulacrum is so much fun to play with!

To be honest, if I was offered an editor role at RT, I’d take it. I’d love to see how it all works. To see how all the lies and truth are muddled up and watch as people believe both without realising neither exist. It’d be an experience like no other.

Thursday, 13 August 2015

India, Unilever, the TPP and the emergence of the market state

Interesting video. I almost (almost) got distracted by humming the original song. But I lasted long enough to hear the poorly timed rap too. To be honest, I know what this girl’s trying to say, I just don’t think she said it.

The reason I bring this video up is because I was asked about it recently. The question went mostly like this:

Listening to this, I'm drawn to the potential detrimental effects that could arise in the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) countries. Thinking about that post you made a while ago about limited governmental power, as large corporations are increasingly reaching a level of power to challenge sovereignty, how will TPP curb or limit large corporations wishing to move into the member states to exploit their weak infra structures? 
I know I might be going off on a tangent, but watching this video got me thinking about the new SDGs (sustainable development goals) put forward to extend on the MDGs (millennium development goals). The 17 new SDGs are very encompassing of everything governmental organizations and NGOs should be working towards. But in a multi-state trade treaty such as TPP that, for me, appears to predominantly uphold the benefits to capitalists, I'm puzzled at how any state will get around to implementing those SDGs without resistance from multi-national corporations that run the world.  
What do you reckon? I know you're clearly for the TPP, but for me, I'm just not into thinking neo liberalism is gonna solve it all and that's what we should constantly pursue. ... you don't see neo-liberalism cleaning up kodaikanal. .... I'm a bit tired so I realize I might have gone off track

I don’t think this person went off track (I do know the person, but you know, anonymity), those things are intimately connected. The thing is, what’s happening as our beloved nation state transitions into a market state (as I see it) there is a rearrangement of power as people begin to control and change the words and nomenclature of existing structures. As I’ve argued elsewhere, the underlying system doesn’t change, only the words do. What differentiates the transitions is who controls the words for that system.

First off, I totally agree that liberalism (or as I'm calling it, Universalism) is not going to make this world a better place. It is essentially Christianity without supernaturalism and is in all seriousness a cancer to any advanced societies using it and needs to disappear. But it’s currently the dominant power belief, so it’ll take some uprooting. But I’m game if you are!

Second, what happened in India is, I suspect, more complicated than portrayed in the music video (of course). To break it down into manageable bites (so we can think about it), the key points are: the state, the industry and the people. One thing most geopolitical analysts are agreed on is that the Indian state is barely functioning as a coherent entity. There is greater regional than central control, which leads to corruption and self-serving decisions on who invests where. Almost no one involved in Indian regional power listens to New Delhi about anything important.

Then the industries like Unilever come along with investment propositions. Industries have historically taken advantage of the power disparity in India, sure, but the responsibility primarily lies with the government who ultimately let the industries into the country. Once a company has started churning out goods and hired members of a population, it’s difficult to expel the company unilaterally even if waste is building up. The clean-up of industry waste might sound straightforward, but who should take responsibility of this enormous task? Taking a wider view, consider that it’s not just the Unilever mercury waste under scrutiny here. What about the particulates emitted from most factory smoke stacks? What about airline exhaust? What about discarded fishing line in the ocean?

Consider also that the only reason Unilever exists is because people still buy its products. And the only reason people still buy Unilever products is because they’re cheap. Those products are cheap because they were manufactured in India where people want to work for less wages than the US. And they were manufactured in India because there was a connection of interests between Unilever and the Indian government. Finally, the Indian government, broken as it is, is the world’s largest democracy and is a result of the Indian people voting depending on what they all personally want. There’s a disturbing and unspoken connection between the people being harmed and their own decisions at the polls.

This logic would seem to suggest the Indian people are responsible for the poisoning of their own land. That’s true, on one level, but it’s more complicated than that. The reason their land is poisoned is that they collectively decided to prioritise a general lifting of living standards provided by allowing Unilever to operate in India, over the detrimental health effects of incorrectly disposing of Unilever’s waste. Indians might not have made this decision consciously (but who thinks economically anyway…), yet this exact cost/benefit calculation was nevertheless made by every single person in India. In other words, rather than seeing the harmful effects of letting Unilever dispose of waste like this, every person in that country preferred to see only the positive effects of drawing a salary from the company. This logic doesn’t make me feel good, but it is true. The Unilever waste follows a direct line from Indians wishing to live a better standard of life. Individual humans have a universal inability to understand how their actions will affect others. Have we seen this somewhere before?

Certainly have. What’s happening in India today is exactly the decision process every Western nation, including New Zealand, made in its own gradual construction of an advanced society. The difference is only timescale. New Zealand and America made the choice to collectively increase living standards by concentrating on individual living standards about 200 years ago. Now these countries are so rich and well-off they can’t remember the effects of early industrialisation (although there are plenty of books about it).

Put it this way, the effects of coal-fired factories and power plants killed many more people in England and the US than have been killed as a result of Unilever’s product waste. India is making this industrialisation decision very recently, only a decade or two ago, hence why we’re hearing about it now. The problems ailing Indians from industrial waste are different only in type, not effect. The reason this appears so bad to you and I is because most people in the Western world have no idea what’s it’s like to live in an industrialising economy and we incorrectly apply our own standards of morality to their situation. In fact, the logic above suggests that removing Unilever from India might actually be a form of racism (I’ll expand on this later).

So what can we do? We’ve already figured out that stopping Unilever, and other companies, from operating in India would by necessity hurt everyone in that country by causing wages and living standards to drop. But there must be a way to convince Unilever to play more fairly without raising the costs of production higher than the market will accept. Pressure on Unilever to fix its pollution must reach a tipping point which is greater than the company’s incentive to continue those processes. There are two ways this can happen: naturally, through market forces or artificially through dictate.

Since we’ve already discovered the market has created the problem, it surely can’t also be the solution. So the only way this sort of pressure is going to be achieved is by a corporation with greater powers than Unilever. A bigger Unilever, is there such a thing? Glad you asked, it’s called a government. The modern iteration of a government is essentially a corporation in the strict sense of the word, i.e., an organisation with a virtual identity. Which means we’ve found a more powerful corporation than Unilever, leading us to one conclusion: the Indian state needs to be reinforced in some way. The question is how.

Now, bring in the TPP. India isn’t part of the TPP, and right now including India in the negotiations would scuttle the whole deal (precisely because the Indian government is not a centralised power as mentioned before). But the TPP does include some states in Asia with similar histories to Unilever and India. These offer a good way to check to see how a greater corporation power might affect industrial waste output.

Vietnam for instance is one of the world’s largest garment manufacturers. The dies involved in making those garments are highly toxic and kill many Vietnamese every year. International companies operate in Vietnam, but many of those garment manufacturers are owned by the state. Those manufacturers maintain their nasty processes because there is no incentive for them to change, and no need to bend to other people’s rules. At least, that was the case before Vietnam entered the TPP negotiations. Now there’ll be a reason for Vietnamese garment manufacturers to clean up their mess.

The TPP is meant to homogenise rules on investment, environment and international corporate activity for all its members. The whole point of plurilateral trade deals like this is to make it easier for each country’s businesses to operate together or competitively. This means the rules on what a corporation can and cannot do are mirrored by a treaty. If a corporation fails to adhere to the TPP rules, the signatory countries can choose other companies from which to purchase goods and marginalise the offending country. Rules in the TPP essentially strengthen the state while bringing back the power of the market to enforce those rules.

From what I’ve seen in the TPP (without reading the text), the rules don’t actually go as far as I would like. But the nature of the TPP being a “living agreement” is that its members will be able to revisit the deal over time (especially when the hoped-for second round kicks off). Rules can be tightened or relaxed depending on their efficacy once the deal is passed. As far as I can see, there’s room for TPP members to monitor the deal to see how it’s affecting the various countries. The proposed TPP rules are, however, far better than most of the member countries presently have. In many cases the countries will be bound to rules they have never experienced before, forcing international corporations to respect high-standards of conduct or go elsewhere (which they do not want to do because they will lose money).

I think the TPP needs to be kept in this overall context. At the top level we have a systemic transfer of power (sovereignty) away from the nation state structure into the market state. This might sound like it’s a huge change, but it’s not really. Without going into too much detail (because I’ve written about this a lot), the dynamics of a market state are identified by the replacement of descriptions not people. A market state appears to emerge when a sovereign nation state begins to act more like an international corporation. At this point, the differences between a nation state and a corporation become truly indistinguishable (if you want something else to worry about, ask what a nation state’s military might be used for in this situation…think of the East India Trading Company’s ability to use the British armed forces to enforce trade deals and investment overseas.)

Anyway, back on track. If the TPP doesn’t pass, it will probably be replaced by another deal attempting to prepare the same outcomes. This is not a US imperial drive so much as a desire by most developing Asia Pacific countries for a rules-based, more equal, globalised economic region to assist in the accumulation its greater wealth and an overall lift in living standards. It is a way for people to be more selfish, with the effects of becoming more selfless. Bizarre, I know, but that’s why logic is weird. The introduction of a TPP-esque trade charter is simply the next inevitable step in a globalising world.

The problem is, we’ve never been here before. This is a time characterised by the largest concentration of wealth creation, which will occur in only half a century (1995 – 2045). Since the global system has clearly thrown in with a currency-based liberal capitalism as the default system, then this trajectory described above isn’t going to change soon. The best thing we can do will be to recognise the emergence of the market state and build in constraints for it as the old-styles of people government become more difficult. Hopefully we get it right, but if we don’t, hopefully we’re humble enough to adapt as this transition flows on.

Where does this put us? The TPP isn’t a “good” thing, but the construction of morals and ethics in the midst of a fundamental transition of power is always difficult and, to be honest, undesirable. I’m not sure it’s a good or a bad thing. I simply don’t know what it really is, none of us do – even the negotiators – because none of us know how it will nest with the emerging market state. A lot of it is uniformitarianism back-extrapolated hope, but it’s the best we’ve got at the moment. The TPP is a large cog moving somewhat out of sight of most people. The smaller cogs of international business move faster and nearer our vision, so can appear starker.

But I’m just watching how this all fits together as the very large and slow cogs turn in the background behind the curtain. If the TPP was being suggested in a nation state world, I’d be happy to apply some moral judgments to it. But the TPP can really only exist and affect a market state system, and there’s really no decided ethics for that yet (because it isn’t here), let alone a coherent series of names and descriptions. Long story short, we’re going to need to think about this transition to a market state with a lot more detail.

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Sitrep - Aug 5, 2015

Close to 3000 Saudi-backed entered Yemen this week as Riyadh began a full-blown ground war in the embattled country.

Months of airstrikes conducted by Saudi Arabia, and supported by US targeting intelligence, has halted the Houthi assault on Yemen’s southern province of Aden. Now, pro-government, Qatari and Saudi forces are pushing to extend territorial control northwards to secure key strategic points as the civil war rages on.

The US now ponders its next move in Yemen also as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) becomes exposed to unmanned aerial vehicle strikes as the Houthi rebels are pushed out of the south.

Riyadh has shown it may be willing to incur increased casualties in its campaign in Yemen, but it’s motivations for the recent offensive remain unclear. It could be looking to crush the rebel forces or bring them to negotiation. The next few weeks will play this out.

Meanwhile in Afghanistan, Taliban leader Mullah Omar is reported once again to have been killed along with equally ambiguous rumours that Haqqani Network leader Jalaluddin Haqqani is also dead.

Their deaths would partially explain why peace negotiations between Kabul and the Taliban have stalled this year. As the Taliban internally fight over a successor, any chance of a negotiated settlement in the third quarter is low. Kabul is expected to maintain military pressure on the group.

In Syria, a collapse of the US-backed “New Syrian Force” following an assault on its position by al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra marks a serious embarrassment for President Barack Obama’s Syria intervention strategy. The force, comprising only 60 men, was supposed to be supported by US airpower and is now either killed, captured or otherwise combat ineffective.

This puts the entire US rebel support programme in jeopardy. And since Turkey has spent the last two weeks bombing Kurdish position in Syria and Iraq rather than focusing on degrading ISIS – despite coming to an agreement with the US-led coalition – it now makes it nearly impossible for moderate Syrian rebels and Kurdish forces to trust Washington’s strategy in the country.

The centrality of Syria’s civil war

Everything pivots around Syria. Well, at least everything necessary for a broad realignment in the Middle East after last month’s Iran nuclear deal. But at the moment, that is everything.

As with any deal, some players stand to benefit and some do not. The immediate effects of the deal, however, are not the most crucial. It is the second and third order effects keeping analysts up at night. The fundamental concern now is how Iran’s neighbours will manage its re-entry into the international community.

Down in the South Pacific, Foreign Minister Murray McCully says New Zealand should benefit from its existing conciliatory relationship with the Islamic Republic of Iran. The opportunities are “significant in the short-term and even bigger long-term”, and he says the deal could “reset” relations in the Middle East leading to a quicker resolution in war-torn Syria.

As good as that sounds, resetting relations doesn’t always work out as planned. New Zealand wasn’t deeply affected by the sanctions on Iran. This country, along with the six world powers which negotiated the deal, does not have to live next to a reinvigorated Iran either. Those that do are already facing a series of recalibration decisions which won’t be easy or violence-free.

One might think, given Iran’s rhetoric over the years that Israel is the centre of Mesopotamian existential anxiety. And it is true that Iran’s financial, ideological and military ties with militant group Hamas – which currently controls the Gaza Strip – could receive an influx of funds and attention from Iran in the coming months and years. But Israel is peripheral to the emerging structure.

Saudi Arabia also has mixed feelings about Iran’s new-found freedom, and is a bigger player than Israel. Riyadh has already reached out to Persian Gulf partners and Egypt in an effort to construct a Sunni Arab counterweight. Former Egyptian president Gamal Abdul Nasser attempted a similar approach decades ago, and it appears Riyadh now sees some wisdom in the idea.

The Saudi monarchy is already financially and militarily engaged with various Salafi-jihadist groups and militants. With Iran’s chains now lying on the floor, Riyadh sat down with the Hamas leadership recently to discuss a shift in the group’s patronage. And earlier this week, 3000 Saudi-backed forces began a ground war in Yemen, another indication of Riyadh’s existential fretting.

Turkey has its own regional interests and last month became involved in the turmoil when its domestic politics demanded a show of strength. The government is stalling a political after a game-changing election result in June. It clearly thinks intervention in Syria against the Kurdish separatist movement ticks enough boxes to make strategic sense.

Between all these players lies the largest intelligence and covert operations melting pot on the planet, otherwise known as Syria. This is the battleground where the eventual balance of Middle Eastern power will be decided. To many, the fragmentation of Syria is an unavoidable consequence.

Both Lebanon and Syria are long-time allies of the Islamic Republic of Iran. And considering how terribly the civil war is faring for Syria’s President Bashar al Assad as hundreds of regime men are killed each month, most people expect some of Iran’s newly acquired $150 billion will flow to Syria in the form of fresh materiel and fighting forces.

Bulking up the Syrian regime may tilt the military initiative back on the side of Mr al Assad, potentially reversing recent rebel gains in the south near Damascus and in the northern city of Aleppo. It will also help the regime retake strategically important towns controlled by the Islamic State. But Iran is not the only country with interests in Syria.

Far too many diverging and overlapping dynamics colour Syria to gain a clear strategic picture of how this war might end. But end it must eventually. In the meantime Syria is a convenient space for dozens of powerful nations to duel in quiet. In a world of instant video and media, the fog of war is an ideal place for those who hide in the shadows to fight their battles.

What happens after Syria’s war is important, as it will decide where the lines of control are drawn and how the region’s players may interact over the medium term. But what is happening right now in this riven and angry country is equally important. Geopolitics is moving quickly in the Middle East.