Friday, 18 December 2015

Why oil prices will remain low in 2016

This report misses a few crucial details about the global oil dynamics. Saudi Arabia’s decision to increase its oil output doesn’t make a lot of sense if you read this report in isolation. Indeed, it looks horribly “suicidal” as one of the quotes suggest.

The fact that oil is the Gulf’s only real raw materials export is partially true, the GCC states also make a lot of money from being a money house, smuggling haven and precious stones mover. But yeah, oil makes up a large share of its livelihood, so any movement in the price will affect their bottom line. That’s understandable.

More than oil price though, Saudi is concerned with market share. OPEC is dominated by the Saudi player followed by the other GCC countries, so any moves the make have massive impacts across the world. They did indeed increase their output in 2014 and have kept it high, and there’s no indication they’ll drop production any time soon either. According to some reports Riyadh is trying to find ways to increase it. Why are they doing this? It’s not simple but the answer probably lies in what happened in mid-2014.

The US was moving closer to a rapprochement with Iran and Saudi officials knew it. Despite what the headlines say, the parties involved in the talks were not just the five permanent UN security council members and Germany. Saudi has a special relationship with the US and France, and the sidelines of any international talks are where the magic happens.

In those sidelines was the Al Mukhabarat Al A'amah, the Saudi intelligence service. Their presence wasn’t secret, they weren’t “spying”, it was expected. If they weren’t present, then I’d lose all respect for them. Many more players than just the five and Iran were close to those talks as well. Saudi wanted to be there because of its long-term rivalry with Iran and the threat it felt would arrive if Iran and the US became more friendly.

The Saudis knew that this particular rollercoaster was at the top of the hill, ready to come down the other side. They figured that moment was at the midpoint of last year. You can see this in the way the P5+1 talks suddenly started to appear in the mainstream press, rather than isolated in journals or in expert communities. When this happened, I wrote that a US/Iran détente was imminent. A year later, it happened pretty much on schedule with the standard diplomatic process. The Saudis also knew this.

They knew the US and Iran were coming closer, they just didn’t know how long it would take for Iran to re-enter the international community. So they needed to send a signal to the world of their displeasure and frustration that they couldn’t manipulate Obama into keeping the Iranians at arms’ length. That signal was to put more oil on the market, faster.

If the Saudis could dominate the market for a long enough time, they could “teach” the world’s oil consumers. For this to make sense, you have to understand that oil tankers don’t mix different country’s oil together when they push it over the oceans. When a crude tanker arrives at a refinery, you can be sure the oil comes from one country. If Saudi started to dominate those shipping routes, refineries and consumers would begin to expect their oil from Saudi in the future. So refineries began to shift their accounts and logistics train to prefer Saudi oil over others, further increasing the Saudi’s market share. It was a good plan.

That way, when the Iranian oil fields eventually did come online and start churning out more oil (which they haven’t yet, precisely because the plan has worked so well), they would struggle to attract enough buyers. Not only have the Iranians not got the production capacity to rival Saudi, they also don’t possess the export infrastructure to rival Saudi. Their ports are rubbish and their pipelines aren’t good enough either. The only things that really works efficiently in Iran is its bunkering and smuggling routes, but these can’t transit nearly enough oil to compete with Saudi. So Riyadh was ahead in two very important ways.

The Saudis can’t stand the idea that Iranian crude will compete with them directly. Of course, Iran and Saudi both have enormous stores of energy, so this could go on for some time.

The other factor is the US shale “revolution”. The United States is now energy self-sufficient and overtook the Saudis as the world’s largest energy exporter in early 2014. The US is not part of OPEC, so they are not controlled by the Saudis. Saudi Arabia is an incredibly efficient producer of crude with massive state-run companies doing the work.

Those companies aren’t under much pressure to change or adapt quickly because the oil they drill is extremely accessible (it actually pours out of the ground in many places). The US shale deposits require smaller companies (mom-and-pop) to be agile enough to change their ways, go bankrupt or knuckle-down if the “revolution” is to persist. That’s a big ‘if’, but it seems to be a good mix so far. However, the Americans’ oil is very difficult to access and most plays have a high break-even point. Both of these factors make the US shale “revolution” fragile, to say the least.

Again, the Saudis know this. They aren’t dumb. Their decision to increase output was also a plan to dominate market share and deny it to the Americans. Because of the high US break-even point for most mom-and-pop shale businesses, it was simple for the Saudis to knock significant numbers of them out of the market by lifting the global crude price.

Suddenly those small companies couldn’t make any profit and hundreds or thousands of US shale drills have gone quiet over the last 12 months. Obama did have a response: he promised to provide subsidies to small drilling companies IF they could prove their operation was environmentally friendly. Many went on to meet the basic criteria for these subsidies (which is all the US govt wanted) and now their break-even point is lower, which means they can continue producing. But it’s still fragile.

The Saudi/GCC move has proven extremely influential on world markets and the oil industry. The US is still the largest producer of crude energy, and they can afford the subsidies, but it’s getting difficult. The Saudis aren’t stupid, they’ll know when the time comes where they need the money more than market share. But they also know the future is unpredictable. Their hedge is a smart one and these prices will continue to be low for the foreseeable future, because they have to be.

Given the above, I’m not sure I buy the conclusion that, because the oil prices are low, therefore the world economy is slowing down appreciably. That’s not exactly a logical conclusion. When oil prices are high, these people are the first to say this is the reason the world economy is slowing. You can’t win with people who have a motive to always read danger into the tea-leaves. And if you’re selling investment advice, it always pays to convince your customers that you know more than them…

Thursday, 17 December 2015

A net assessment of the world

There’s no such thing as the “end of the year” in geopolitics. The Gregorian calendar is only one way of tracking the earth’s path around the sun and every day is significant to one people group or another. Yet December is an opportunity to step back to frame the tectonics driving the world system.

The central reality of the 2015 world is the increasing instability of the landmass called Eurasia, described as between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and between the Arctic and Indian Ocean. Worse, as geopolitical forecaster George Friedman says, the separate crises have begun to merge.

Africa is not sufficiently developed to be unstable, and its countries seem every year to take two steps forward and one step back. That continent still attracts mixed predictions from the world’s experts as to its future. Geopolitics moves so slow in Africa that its trajectory is essentially a flat circle.

However, the continents of North America, South America and parts of the Western hemisphere are comparatively stable. This assessment does not include Europe which is realising its flawed attempts to avoid future conflict by forming a monetary and ideological union were doomed from the start. A major thread in 2015 is the European Union’s continued unravelling.

Many factors have led to the dissolution of the EU. Few people would have guessed that at the end of the year Europe would be wrestling with crippling immigration levels rupturing the status quo and forcing member states to reintroduce border controls. EU leaders say the measures are temporary, but it does not take much for temporary rules to become permanent.

Arguably the two most important EU member states – France and Germany – are drifting inexorably apart. The original EU conception was to balance those two states but the sheer productive dynamism of Germany and France’s existence as both a southern and northern European country pulls them in different directions. The Greek crisis shows how belligerent Paris and Berlin have become in matters both fiscal and political.

The aggression of Russia – as it too struggles to hold itself together with a crippling budget deficit and extremely low global oil prices – is also helping split Europe apart. There is no compunction among EU member states for political or military unity. No Dutch fighting force is interested in, say, coming to the aid of Poland or Latvia.

The EU was supposed to mimic the US structure, but it has turned out remarkably different. Inhabitants of California feel compelled to assist Michigan out of a financial hole because of a coherent and strong US narrative. US states often act like individual countries, as in Europe, but would never question sending troops for the other’s defence.

Not so in Europe. The complexity of Brussels’ and the suspicion of allotting it too much power precludes the supranational entity from driving the union forward, together. Instead, every time Brussels plays for more control it is pushed back by member states who consider themselves first as German, French or Italian and European second.

The Russian factor is exacerbating the European crisis, it is also forcing the world’s only superpower to learn the absolute basics of owning an empire. The US in 2015 has moved in fits and starts towards a post-9/11 reality. Acting as an interventionist force weakened the collective American will but strengthened its military prowess. Those two denominators have summed to a worrisome equation this year.

Parking a US aircraft carrier group off the coast of a rogue country is still enough to make most leaders think twice. But the difference is that the US is the one which is thinking twice. It still wants to engage with the world – by strategically tipping the scales whenever it must – yet the grand strategy of why it must tip the scales appears to be lost on many at the US State Department.

What is happening in Eurasia demands some action from the US, strictly because the US were the ones which made Eurasia this way. Not by hiding in the shadows fomenting unrest, but by inheriting control of a world order created by European powers centuries ago. The US is responsible for the maintenance of this world order because it chose neither to remove nor replace it.

Responsibility is power, yet the US is having difficulty organising its power over the world system and balancing its conflicting desire to encourage individual national autonomy. It certainly recognises the unrest in Eurasia but cannot reconcile what it must do with what it wishes to do. The maintenance of the world system demands that the US act amorally, not confuse ethics with responsibility.

In 2015, two usurper forces personify this dilemma for the US political ecosystem. Russia is the first and arguably the most dangerous example. Moscow is attempting in Ukraine to introduce an alternative government for its Former Soviet Union state. This has changed the now-frozen conflict into anything but a normal spat. It is a direct affront on the world order.

Russia was not pleased with Ukraine’s evolution towards becoming a Western-aligned government. The idea of being a nation state and operating a semi-functioning parliamentary system are still default assumptions for Russia, it can live with them in Ukraine. But it cannot live with the rest of the world order assumptions in Ukraine. If it had the power, Russia would prefer its own statehood not use this framework either. But right now, its usurper message is best played out in Ukraine.

The change Russia wants is a world system by which the collection of people groups are arranged not by place of birth, but by the language one speaks in their mother’s kitchen. Moscow does not recognise the borders separating Ukraine from Russia when there are Russian-speakers in Ukraine. According to them, those people are Russian and should be defended with tanks if necessary.

The US looks at Russia’s alternative government and knows it is a competitor to the Westphalian concept of the nation state and an injury to the idea of liberal democracy. Washington is responsible for both these concepts in the minds of every person. Westphalian nation states now cover the globe, but not every person is convinced the structure is suitable for them. This is a fragile system.

Without a defender of these concepts, the illusion falls away and competitive ideas fill the void. The governance of an empire – Washington is discovering – requires not simply the signing of trade deals or positioning troops. It requires the constant reiteration of those fundamental ideas and the squashing of competing ideas. After all, an imperial project is not axiomatic and is not concerned with someone telling the truth about it. The only worry is a more effective lie.

In the Middle East, the insidiousness of Islamist theocracy continues to evolve and is the second usurper. The most impressive group is the Islamic State (IS). It represents an alternative form of government nakedly competing with the idea of the Westphalian nation state and liberal democracy. It has thus drawn the attention of the US and its empire, known as the “international community”.

IS in 2015 managed to conquer and hold significant sections of the traditionally Sunni Muslim lands between Iraq and Syria. Similar to Russia’s competition, it does not wish to expel the concept of the nation state entirely. It only wishes for a grouping of people not by place of birth, but by religion. It recognises the historicity only of its Sunni Muslim beliefs and encourages all Sunnis to join its project regardless of their present nationality.

Far from being strictly a terrorist group, IS is now functioning as a nascent-state. It has the support of hundreds of thousands of its Sunni Muslims in the region and potentially millions more around the globe who wait only to see if the experiment will work before they join. IS does not threaten the US homeland, but it must be fought because it threatens the illusion of the international community.

These two usurper movements in Eurasia are containable, and US President Barack Obama appears to be happy to place a fence around both and see how the story progresses. Yet as Mr Friedman points out the two crises, coupled with the slow-motion EU collapse, are merging this year. There is a danger here because other Eurasian countries are equally unimpressed with the fundamental assumptions of the US-administered status quo.

The merging of these crises is forcing a change in attitude and government in many Eurasian countries, including many outside this region in Asia Pacific and elsewhere. This change is a gradual, clear shift to the political right. The shift emerges from a frustration with the liberal world order, but one which stops short of letting that frustration to boil over.

The financial crisis of 2008 magnified this trend and in times of chaos and unrest, people prefer to band together. Frustration with the last few decades of constant movement in the leftward direction, towards greater freedom, rights and central government control, is having a detrimental effect on the international community. In these conditions, societies become less accommodating to outsiders and often slow the pace of societal liberalisation.

Elections in 2016 can be expected to bear this trend out as voters opt for greater security and societal order. The liberal desire to fragment hierarchical power structures to create chaos, and therefore more avenues for new power bastions, is antithetical to a struggling Eurasian landmass. Now, after years of the lids being ripped off the metaphorical societal bottles, its people are desiring a way to create stability. Russia and IS are only the first examples of this desire, there will be more.

The question connecting all this is whether the US, as caretaker of this fragile world order, can comprehend the extent of its responsibility and act intelligently to maintain it. At a high vantage point, it appears a few people in Washington are grasping this reality. It is a clear however that too few US lawmakers understand grand strategy and what it means to be an empire.

In order to cool Eurasia in the next five to ten years, the US must decide which actors accept the default assumptions and which do not. China, for instance is not a usurper. Beijing so deeply assumes the world system that it cannot think outside its framework, let alone propose alternatives. Instead it wishes only to have a say in how the future rules of that framework are written.

For a post-9/11 world, the US cannot be solely responsible for the maintenance of the world system. Instead it must remember that bottom-up control over hearts and minds is superior and reinforce those fundamental ideas. Should it fail in this enterprise, the world will become much more chaotic. That much is certain.

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Sitrep - 16 Dec, 2015

On the eve of a proposed December 15 ceasefire, 42 mercenaries from Academi (the successor to US-based private military company Blackwater) and 23 Saudi troops were killed in Yemen by a ballistic missile attack. Houthi forces still control the core geography of the embattled country, and significant heavy weaponry, but the upcoming ceasefire and the coinciding fresh round of negotiations in Geneva arrive because the 9-month-long war is stagnating.

The momentum for both the Houthi and loyalist forces slowed over the past month as neither was able to dislodge the other from territory. The Houthis, representing former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, do not wish to control Yemen. Rather, their decision to fight was drawn from a desire for greater political inclusion. How the negotiations will end is unknown, but the two sides are likely to return to fighting should they fail.

In Paris this week a replacement climate deal, described as “landmark”, was finally reached by the United Nations. It solidifies agreed-to language on dealing with carbon emissions and the effects of climate change among the 200 participating nations. However, the deal is voluntary and no punitive measures were included adding doubt that the deal will be effective.

The main contention in the talks was between developed and developing countries. Both see benefits in reducing carbon emissions, but some don’t wish to pay for the fix while others want to build the same standard of living as richer countries. The Paris agreement adds to the firm trend of economies moving naturally to a completely hydrogen-based fuel source, with the next popular fuel perhaps to be nuclear energy.

Also in France, the regional elections which so shocked the French and Europeans last week conducted the second round. The extreme-right National Front party scored well in the earlier round but was soundly defeated in the second, leaving it with the control of no French regions. The backlash against the National Front likely required cooperation from the establishment parties, reflecting the extremist party’s strength.

The elections are a temperature gauge for France, not necessarily for Europe. It shows that France remains suspicious of right-leaning groups. Yet the results also reveal how much the National Front’s opposition has shifted its policies further to the right in order to take advantage of an obvious popular sentiment. All eyes are now on the 2017 presidential elections as every party adopts new rightist policies.

Monday, 14 December 2015

Letter to a young journalist

Developing a thick skin is a concept I’ve never quite understood. Sure, I get what it means in theory. But how the hell does it work in practice? I mean, what exactly is the effect? When someone gives you criticism, are you supposed to take in on board or let it bounce off? Both are suggested, but they’re mutually exclusive. I prefer the concept of “fake it till you make it”.

That way, you’re creating a persona in your mind that you wish to be. If criticism would be helpful to that persona, then you use it to reinforce that projection. If the criticism is not useful, then simply disregard it. The power is in your hands. What would that persona do? That’s the criteria. This is the only way I’ve figured out how to survive at (any) work. When I walk through that front door, I “become” a journalist. Outside, I’m me. Inside at work, I’m a whole new person.

It’s like learning a language. If you’re learning French, the only way it’s going to stick is if you pretend to be Frenchperson and believe that your speaking in an accent. Otherwise, your brain fights against itself and the learning doesn’t work. I find it helpful to “become” a different person when I’m working because I know how important an image is for other people (and ourselves).

If that image gets muddled with my “real” self, then how can I ever know the difference? How can I ever relax? Developing a thick skin is what people who feel out of control say. It’s something they’re told to think, because it means they can be controlled by others. That’s why I don’t like that phrase.

Besides, every day that passes I feel like I find out something different about journalism and what it means to be a journalist. Last week, I thought differently. Next week, I’ll think differently. The main thread I’ve noticed is how much power this role has. I can make stories either exist or not exist. I have the power to shape people’s reality. And all it requires is 500-700 words.

In all seriousness, we reporters have more power than the prime minister to shape this country. After all, if you think about it, he needs our support if he wants to be re-elected. Without journos, he can’t get his message out. Without journos, he doesn’t exist. Now THAT’s power. Think about all the good things you could use it for.

I suspect few other journos actually understand this, which is why no one talks about it. But it is real. They certainly don’t talk about journalism like this at Uni. So put yourself in the shoes of every person you talk to. Before you called them up, they were a statistic – one out of 4.whatever million people living in New Zealand. They could have gone through their entire lives without their name known by more than about 100 people.

Then you showed up. Your only job is to take their words to comment on a story you were already going to write - and they do this willingly, as in, free. Let me repeat that: they do this for free. Why? Is it because they think you’re special and important? No, it’s because they think they are special and important. They want to be seen. And everyone you talk to exists only because you say so. I don’t know about you, but I find that incredible.

And guess what? You and I were not elected into this powerful role. No one votes in ballots every three years to put professional journalists behind a keyboard. No one quite knows how the journo hiring process works, even if they have a sneaking suspicion. The only thing they care about is whether you call them up or feed them the information they’ve been told to want. When they see you behind a desk or talking on a phone – even a picture in the paper next to a story does this – they don’t think, they know, that you’re supposed to be sitting there. They don’t ask whether you’re a “real” journalist. Some way, some how, you ARE a journalist. Do you want to know why they think this?

It’s because the entire system is set up for them to believe this in a way that really, really, really does feel like it’s their free choice. When people think of journalism – I mean actually think about journalism – they tend to discover that there’s no reason why journalists should be believed over anyone else’s opinion. Journalists have no objective access to the truth. What a reporter says about a topic is never true (in the capital “T” sense of the word), it’s just what they could discover in the available time between deadlines.

But that is not the assumption of the reader. Instead, the reader implicitly thinks that truth and reality only come to their eyes via a media (hence the name). This is what people mean when they say media teaches you how to think, not what to think. That you are writing for a “newspaper” is integral to this illusion. Think about it: did you invent the idea of a newspaper before you got to the to this paper? No, of course not. The machinery was in place centuries before you arrived, all you had to do was slip into the role. This the case in reverse for all your readers.

So what’s the difference between you and a blogger? The paper masthead. I know that’s not a funny joke, but it’s accurate. The two roles would be identical without the centuries and millennia of people being told that truth and reality only come to us via a media (before newspapers it was universities, before them it was clergy, before them it was shamans, etc). Someone must tell us what the truth is, because all our lives we’ve been told that we shouldn’t trust our own minds or eyes. Why do we believe this lie? Because we were told to. Simple as that. Is it possible to stop believing this lie? Of course, but how would you know the truth? That’s the trick. Smart, huh!

I tell you all this not to bore you, but to help describe how I see this job. It’s not a job at all, it is a symbol. You walk in here, pick up the phone and start writing and you “become” something that doesn’t, but absolutely MUST, exist in the minds of everyone walking outside on the street. Without you, the whole illusion of society collapses. I’m not kidding about this.

Without the media, how would anyone know to do anything you currently take for granted? Things like: voting, paying taxes, obeying the speed limit, earning money, buying Mallowpuffs, even praying towards Mecca. If you didn’t hear about any of these things through the media (books, TV, radio, internet, newspapers, etc), how then would you know what action to take to be part of this society? How would you know what to believe if you didn’t trust that those media had some kind of access to the truth? It doesn’t occur to people that the only reason they trust the media is precisely because the media told them too.

I don’t know about you, but this blows my mind. This is why I enjoy what I do, and why I enjoy learning about what this is. I’m an observer at heart, so I always prefer to watch rather than participate. Between you and I the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do is get “behind the curtain” to see what happens as people are controlled and society is structured. I thought this could be done by working for the government in some secret agency in a basement. But the more I understand about what I do right now, the more I realise you and I have more power and are further behind that curtain than any of those snivelling spooks or government officials.

I don’t know what you want out of journalism, but you won’t get it anywhere else. I can almost guarantee that. The things you see, the conversations you have, the ideas you discover and the people you meet are amazing. Truly amazing. And you get paid for it! Paid to write! I mean, jesus, that’s like getting paid to piss around.

I really do mean journalism could be the best thing you’ll ever do. I’m just getting a feeling for that now, and it’s pretty cool (if not a little scary). But I think I’d be suspicious of this job if it were too easy. It’s not. It can be very difficult at times. And for what it’s worth, I want you to stick around. This feeling you have now will pass, I know this. I want to be sitting across from you when it does.

Saturday, 12 December 2015

The strange desire to squash freedom of speech

People seem split about US presidential candidate Donald Trump. His hair, sorry, his policies neatly separate the left from the right, not only in the US, but in every country pretending to care about the pre-primary silly season currently hogging the airwaves.

In a perfect world, I wouldn’t need to speak about Mr Trump at all. He wields no power and is unlikely to secure any despite what his supporters claim. But this is not a perfect world, and Mr Trump represents a deep problem also found in New Zealand society that’s worth discussing – as opposed to yelling.

I am not interested in Mr Trump’s ideas about forcing the Mexican government to pay for a security fence to keep illegal immigrants from stealing across the border. Neither am I interested in his attacks on the politically-correct “regressive”-left (as Muslim author Maajid Nawaz so eloquently recently called the progressive left). He may as well command the sea to stop being wet.

I am not even interested in his back-of-the-envelope proposal to stop all Muslim immigration to the US. Presumably this unworkable policy precludes Muslim Americans on holiday or working overseas from re-entering the US too. Never mind that the idea rips up the US constitution, how exactly will Mr Trump screen for such people?

No, what concerns me is every side’s attempt to stifle the other’s words. Being offended isn’t a nice feeling, we can all relate to that. But it does not mean we should force other people to be silent simply to feel good. It is a direct attack on freedom of speech – the only thing that makes Western civilisation worth protecting.

Or maybe it’s not worth protecting? That’s what a Martian watching the developed world’s politics would think. It’d guess that the silencers represent the majority of their fellow citizens, but it would be wrong. There has been no country-wide referendum in any developed nation over the outlawing of particular words or ideas. It is only assumed that causing offence is worse than crushing freedom.

If there had been a democratic process asking whether the central tenants of freedom of speech should be retained or rejected, and the majority of New Zealand or US citizens chose the latter, that would probably be acceptable. But the powers that benefit from these outrages prefer to say the attacks on words do not erode freedom of speech. And we believe them.

Mr Trump is only the most visible example of someone attacking freedom for ideas and speech. Millions of people of different countries agree with him. Many people were breathlessly waiting for an opportunity to compare the man to Hitler. But this exact response – spitting nastiness and hatred – is the problem. I can spot narcissism at 1000 paces.

The thread connecting everyone in the Western political spectrum is a desire to negate “bad” speech. The excuse is that some speech causes offence and the world would be better if no one was allowed to say those things. Fine. But where does this desire come from? And, more importantly, who will be empowered to choose which words stay and which will go?

Understand first that narcissism is not just a psychological affliction anymore. In the Western world, and across most developing human societies, it is a full-blown social ideology.

Perhaps this is the inevitable consequence of mixing capitalism with democracy, or perhaps it’s an integral part of the human condition. Either way, the society in which we live can only exist if the key driver is identity, not community.

This is why those who wish to outlaw speech and ideas gain such impressive traction. Narcissism can be difficult to recognise, the clue is that it functions outside of time. In narcissism believing in something is superior to acting because the former is about you and the latter is about everyone else.

A narcissistic culture is obsessed with broadcasting personal identity, requiring not just external validations but validations visible to others of a person’s individual value. If what we’re witnessing is narcissism, then its purpose is to protect identity at the expense of everything else. The questioning of a person’s assumed identity is an insult – a narcissistic injury.

There are three ways humans deal with narcissistic injuries: rage, displaced rage or (the one that ruins you) making the offence about yourself until it becomes your “fault”. People increase their pain to save their identity. It is clear that Mr Trump’s single-mindedness of purpose ignores each of us as individuals.

But give him the benefit of the doubt that he’s doing what he think is best for society, for America. What the listeners hate is that it isn't for them, for you, or for me. People hate the seeming indifference to their individual worth and sense of importance. Votes don't count. Everything is about religion and race. Where in all that is the individual?

Voters are only tools to a politician’s "higher cause." Of course people say they’re angry at the cause, but I think it's really anger that they're being used for something that doesn’t confirm that the individual is the central character in their own story. It means he exists independently of the person. The individual is not the main character in the movie. Mr Trump has his own movie and we’re not even in it. That's a narcissistic injury. It is the worst calamity that can befall a narcissist.

And if all rage comes from narcissism and narcissism is the social broadcasting of a person’s chosen identity, what identity is the average person broadcasting in this particular political era?


This is politics everywhere. Modern people don't want the political solution to be “about the next generation” because they’d prefer the answer to be about them – their own fulfillment, happiness, safety and sanity.

But the more regressive manoeuvre is to define oneself in opposition to things. “I can't tell you what I want for dinner,” says a toddler, “but I am certain I don't want that. Or that. Or that.” Then the contents of the bowl paint the walls.

The introspection and demand that personal thought bubbles not be polluted with different thoughts leads to the desperate desire to skip right over healthy debate and straight to rage. For instance, this week people in the UK thought Donald Trump shouldn’t say such nasty things about Muslims, so now they want to bar him from entering their country. This is a defence of identity resulting in rage. Take a look at the Twitter universe if you don’t believe me.

People who truly understand and value free speech say the only cure for bad speech is more speech. The idea that this world might be better if certain concepts are no longer around is utopian. In other words, it is undesirable. After all, utopia comes from the Greek words for “no-place”. If this isn’t a red flag, you haven’t been paying attention.

What’s frightening about the responses to both Mr Trump and the “regressive” left is how few people want to do the work to debate constructively. The preferred response is hatred and control (rage and displaced rage). Healthy debate is a combination of effort with empathy, and neither is possible in a society obsessed with broadcasting identity, defined only by what they oppose.

If we engage others with reasoned debate, might poisonous speech disappear? Of course not. But we must not believe the old adage that it is impossible to reason someone out of a position they did not reason themselves in to. I have seen this succeed many times.

Only you, dear reader, can turn this franchise around.

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Sitrep - 9 Dec, 2015

French regional elections this week reinforce the right-wing National Front’s impressive rise in popularity. The party won six of 13 metropolitan regions in the first round, while support dropped for competing parties – including President Francois Hollande’s Socialist Party. National Front’s success reflects an unease among French voters frustrated with high unemployment and sluggish growth, coupled with security and immigration worries.

It also adds another data point to a continuing trend of Euroskepticism. This week Denmark voted not to reverse the long-standing opt-out on EU justice legislation and law changes on the European Police Office (Europol). Although the rule change was apparently minor, the Danes are suspicious of interpretations benefiting Brussels in the future. Many EU countries, Denmark included, are losing trust in Brussels’ complex bureaucracy which is slowly ripping the wider EU project apart.

In Ukraine, military commanders announced that two towns in the country’s restive east are once more under Kiev’s control. This follows the destruction of electricity pylons in Crimea, cutting the peninsula off from energy. Kiev blames “thugs” for the sabotage, but the scenario that Kiev had nothing to do with the pylon destruction is looking increasingly unlikely. Russia has retaliated by ceasing coal exports to Ukraine, but otherwise is staying quiet.

These events suggest a new crisis is developing in the embattled country. Ukraine is essentially a frozen conflict and Kiev is worried the US and Europe are losing interest in its plight and want a quick negotiation agreement. Manufacturing a crisis would help attract attention back to the conflict and Kiev, but it is a risky move. Russia appears not to have taken the bait and prefers Ukraine to be a peripheral concern for the US. Kiev will however look for more ways to attract attention.

Venezuelan legislative elections unveiled the impressive discontent brewing in the country’s civil society. Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) won 99 of the 167 assembly seats while the government’s traditionally pro-government Chavista party, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), won 46 seats. With 20 seats remaining to count, the opposition party could achieve a qualified majority giving it significant powers.

While the elections are not presidential, they do mean the ruling party will struggle to enact legislation quickly in 2016. Voters have suffered a particularly tough 2015 as the global oil price – Venezuela’s largest export – slipped to all-time lows. Inflation on the bolívar is close to 200% and food imports are only trickling in. However, Caracas has chosen to invest in its energy infrastructure in the hope oil prices will rebound. Time will tell whether this is a wise choice.

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Inside the Islamic State's administration success

The Islamic State (IS) isn’t an easy entity to describe. It challenges many assumptions about waging war in the 21st century and what it means to govern people groups.

On the one hand IS acts as a militant organisation, trying to conquer and hold portions of the Arab world. On the other it conducts terror attacks in disparate places. Then there’s the mystery of how the group – if that is indeed its best description – manages to keep an estimated half a million people in the core IS territory of Raqqa and Deir el-Zour in Syria from starving by operating a semi-functioning economy.

If IS should be described as a terrorist organisation, then dealing with it through disruption and international law enforcement will have some effect on negating the threat. This process mostly succeeded in Afghanistan against the grandfather of IS, al Qaeda, but the strategy wasn’t enough to stop the group from splintering into franchise groups and ultimately leading to the creation of IS.

Also, whether the group is a militant organisation depends largely on the tactics it uses to achieve strategic goals. Terrorists use terrorism to undermine the morale of an enemy, then often switch to militancy to occupy territory once an enemy shows some weakness. It’s this oscillation between the two that makes an asymmetrical force such as IS so difficult to destroy using conventional military means.

Then again, maybe the obvious is worth pointing out. When the enemy tells you its plans, the best thing to do is listen. IS has been telling the world its desires ever since it took the city of Raqqa in March 2013. The group never wanted to kill the city. Its plan was to form a new regime based on Sharia law, from which IS could spread the ancient form of government throughout the Middle East and North Africa. This is what they tell us they want.

It’s no surprise then that the international community prefers to describe IS as a terrorist entity. Not only does it fit the community’s strategy and dedication of resources for fighting Islamic extremism, it avoids the dangerous step of talking about, and thereby offering some legitimacy to, the idea of an alternative government system. After all, the clue is in the name: Islamic State. It is the idea of change which must be fought, not just the group.

From the point of the view of the US State Department, the preeminent force for upholding democratic government in the world, the threat of an alternative government must be quashed with its full weight. This is why the US and the international community is so concerned about North Korea, Iran, Russia, China and IS. It is no coincidence they are considered “rogue”.

All of these peoples are not happy with the present world order of nation states, international trade and democratic values. So this is where describing the Islamic State gets interesting. If what IS wants is to create an alternative government system in the Middle East, the only question is: do the people living in its occupied regions desire something similar?

To answer this, we have to go back to 2014 in Iraq’s third-largest city, Mosul. After IS overtook Raqqa, it purposefully split from al qaeda and took the opportunity to drive across the border into Iraq. Following the Euphrates, it swept Iraqi government forces before it. Yet most observers thought IS couldn’t break into Mosul.

Then government forces fled the city as soon as the guns started firing. US commanders, who had trained the government troops were shocked. But the most intriguing facet of IS’ thrust was how quickly every institution controlled by Baghdad was also forced out of the city – from its police force to sanitation. Clearly IS’ goal wasn’t simply to spread terror. Something larger was going on.

A more important question is how a force of perhaps a few thousand IS fighters overran and occupied Mosul, a city of 600,000, in such short time. The answer is that it wasn’t only IS who used weapons that month. Reliable reports tell of thousands of angry citizens walking into Mosul’s courts, police stations and other government institutions to firmly request those civil servants depart the city or face death.

They did this in part because Baghdad is presently governed by Shiite Muslims, controlled by Iran as a proxy government and caring only about the well-being of the predominantly Shiite regions of Iraq in the south. Mosul is in the north, a traditionally Sunni region, and the general feeling there is that Baghdad neither represented nor administered the Sunni lands well at all.

A thousand IS fighters cannot supress a city of half a million, that requires an agreement of worldview. So because IS is primarily a Sunni force, the people of northern Iraq chose to align with the militants as a serious protest to Baghdad. They chose religion – and a specific sect of that religion – as the fundamental descriptor of their representation. They did this consciously and with planning.

The true story of IS’ incredible resilience in both Iraq and Syria is that it is out-administering the central governments. It does conduct terror and militant attacks, but many of the people attracted to its project are doctors, lawyers and clerical staff. Many do come to fight, but many more want to be a part of the alternative government represented by the Islamic State.

IS not only offers an alternative to the existing world order, it offers an alternative to anarchy. Sure, the project cannot be tolerated by the international community, lest the illusion be dispelled in other parts of the world, but it achieves something for the local people that democratic values and the nation state could not. Maybe, just maybe, it’s time to realise that parts of the world do not want democratic values no matter how much they are forced upon them.

Whatever the international community’s response to IS in the coming years, it must have an ultimate plan to out-administer it. This could be done by creating a more representative democratic state or asking which form of government Syrians and Iraqis wish to have. But one thing is clear: non-combatants will align with whichever force offers the most robust set of laws which allow them to continue tilling their fields and protecting their families.

Today this set of laws in Northern Iraq and Eastern Syria is given by the Islamic State. It does not have to be this way, yet the attempt to introduce democracy has also failed. Could it be introduced in a more robust way to out-administer IS? That is the crucial question without an obvious answer.

The frightening implication about the Arab Spring is how much of this counter-narrative thinking already existed in the Middle East before the uprisings. World leaders should be asking how many other people groups around the world might feel the same, just waiting for their own version of IS?

Monday, 7 December 2015

Rumours of Turkish troops in Iraq reveal Ankara's changing strategy

Reports over the weekend that Turkey deployed three regiments into Iraq appear to be untrue. Yet the rumours highlight how Ankara is changing its view about its near abroad.

On Saturday, a handful of media stories warned that hundreds of Turkish troops crossed into Iraq to Nargizliya militia camp near the northern city of Mosul in Nineveh province. Reuters reports the soldiers are providing training for Iraqi troops as part of a “routine exercise”.

According to news service, the troops were already in Iraqi Kurdistan and moved to Mosul accompanied by armoured vehicles. US and coalition commanders in Baghdad say they were aware of the deployment.

Iraq’s foreign ministry called a meeting on Sunday with the Turkish ambassador to demand Ankara pull out its troops. In contrast to the coalition statements, Baghdad claims it was not told of the troop movement. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu denied this, saying Turkish troops were sent to the camp over a year ago with Baghdad's approval.

If a large Turkish force had entered Iraq it would indeed be a significant escalation of combat power. The initial rumours counted three regiments entering Iraq. A regiment is approximately 1000-3000 troops, although some militaries calculate differently. As it turns out, the actual size was a much smaller force of 130 Turkish troops – nearer the size of an infantry battalion.

That the rumours gained such impressive traction in world media is important in itself. Turkey has been involved in escalating military engagements over the past few months, from airstrikes on Kurdish and Islamic State defensive positions to the shooting down of a Russian SU-24 bomber in northern Syria. It is also facing a return of left-wing and ethnic terrorism and an increase in Islamic extremism.

The government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has also had a tough year. It failed to organise a political coalition after it lost the general elections in June. It then managed to claw back sufficient popular support for a majority victory during the November follow-up elections.

Now that Mr Erdoğan controls the government – coupled with the fact that Turkey boasts Europe’s largest military force (after the US) – the Turkish state is in a strong position heading into 2016. Yet Mr Erdoğan’s ruling AKP party is resisting getting too involved in the region, despite its growing power.

This puts it at odds with the US and other of Ankara’s NATO allies who want Turkey to shoulder greater security responsibility for the region. Try as it might to avoid the conflicts to its south, Ankara is being drawn into the conflicts against its will. But if it is inevitable that Turkey become more involved, it must do so on its own terms. Top of mind for Mr Erdoğan is the Kurdish question.

Ankara considers the Kurds to be an existential threat to the Turkish state. This ethnic population wishes to carve its own country out of a space stretching from northern Iraq, through Syria and deep into Turkey proper. Turkey has been fighting Kurdish militants for decades, it does not want to accidentally usher in a Kurdish state by upturning the status quo in Syria and Iraq.

But geopolitical reality has a way of forcing nations’ hands. Turkey is no exception. Since the fall of the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century, the Turkish state retreated into itself becoming more secular and adopting a policy of non-interference in its near abroad. It is only recently that the Turks reluctantly decided some measure of interaction with the Middle East is necessary. This does not mean Turkey desires the conflict.

But Turkey’ non-interference strategy is coming apart. The shootdown of the Russian bomber was a clear sign Turkey is no longer happy to let events play out as they will in Syria. Russia moving too freely inside Turkish borders without response risks telegraphing weakness to its neighbours, all of whom are hoping to secure a slice of the splintering Mesopotamian pie.

That Turkey has limited numbers of troops in Iraq should be seen as a strategic imperative, not adventurism. It is in Ankara’s interests to maintain the stability of the Iraqi government and join the US-led coalition to some degree. Turkey can be expected to increase its exposure to conflict over the foreseeable future, but a deployment of thousands of Turkish troops into Iraq or Syria would have been out of character.

What is interesting is how much the media in the region and others clearly expect Turkey to dive deeper into the fray, and potentially soon. This is a situation so widely expected that a routine rotation of 130 Turkish troops was exaggerated to appear as thousands. This is a notable insight on the political temperament of the region.

It is no surprise either that the rumours centre on the Iraq city of Mosul. Iraq’s third-largest city has been under Islamic State control since mid-2014, much to the group’s fighting credit. Both the US and Turkey are discussing how they – along with Iraqi forces – might recapture the city in coming months. Kurdish and Iraqi security forces are already working to sever the supply lines between Mosul and the Syrian city of Raqqa – the Islamic State’s de-facto capital – in preparation.

Defeating the militants in Mosul would be a huge boost to the fragile anti-IS coalition. It is precisely this fragility keeping the forces arrayed against IS from conducting the anticipated operation. The level on infighting between the Shiite, Sunni and tribal forces is frustrating many observing Western commanders. And given how exaggerated the Turkish troop movement was in the media, some sort of strike on the city is probably being formalised.

Overall, Turkey knows it must tread carefully in the complex environments of Syria and Iraq. There are large players with non-overlapping interests involved, and Ankara does not wish for a larger security problem. Yet it knows those players will one day leave the region. It, however, cannot leave.

Turkey is unfamiliar with playing the role of kingmaker, and even less comfortable with shouldering the responsibility for whatever Syria and Iraq are turning in to. Expect to hear Turkey mumble and groan in the coming weeks and months, but do not be surprised to see it commit to more military engagement in the region. Turkey is re-learning how to play the long game in a high-stake world.

Thursday, 3 December 2015

The time to act in Ukraine is now

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin knows how to work the Western media. When he wants the New York Times to concentrate in one place, he dangles a manufactured crisis in front of its reporter’s greedy eyes.

This isn’t the reporter’s fault, they’re simply enacting their role as an arm of the modern state. It is part of their job to disparage attempts by nation states to alter the structure of the international community, and to uphold that concept as the default assumption in the minds of their readers. Mr Putin is therefore a worthy target of this state apparatus’ wagging finger.

To explain Russia’s moves, we must start with its decision to enter the Syrian conflict on behalf of its President Bashar al Assad. This move was consistent with Moscow’s age-old support of rogue statelets. Rogue in the sense – as per the Times – that these countries chose friction over integration with the international community. Russia has always been generous to such states, even in times of its own financial pain.

The US also utilises statelet sponsorship. A rival power is unlikely to intervene militarily in a breakaway region if it suspects US troops are somewhere on the ground. The diplomatic disaster of potentially killing US advisers in Eastern Ukraine, for instance, has forced Russian-backed separatists (which include Russian regular troops wearing incognito uniforms) to isolate their combat to the Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts. Had they not been in place, perhaps the Dnieper River would be the frontline of this frozen conflict.

Because ultimately, despite Mr Putin’s attempts to draw the Times’ attention away from the Ukraine crisis by entering Syria, the problem of Kiev still drives the Russian leader’s every decision. What happens in those breakaway regions is a matter of sheer existential significance for the Russian state.

According to the Times, the dominant narrative is that Mr Putin is an arch-villain. His bare-chested, anti-gay belligerency suggest the man is either malicious or conniving, or both. He is trying to pull Ukraine back into a neo-Soviet Union with force. The narrative says all Ukraine wants is to join the West. But seen from Moscow’s point of view this narrative struggles to hold.

What makes Mr Putin a villain is his attempts to rip up the rulebook to change how people consider themselves “citizens.” He has said on multiple occasions that the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century was the collapse of the Soviet Union. Mr Putin is not being selfish here, he is describing how many people living in Former Soviet Union countries see the world today.

The 20th century was a period of incredible upheaval. But from New Zealand’s point of view – attached as it is to the period’s military victors – the map looks stable, aside from the odd secessionist movements. But consider Ukraine’s recent election maps. It should be clear that after the music stopped in 1989 millions of people in Europe suddenly were in the wrong chairs. And few of them are happy about this.

Ukraine is not like Poland or even East Germany. There is no roughly homogenous people group sharing history and ambitions calling for the country to do this thing or that. The borders around Ukraine corral dozens of ethnic groups, fiercely hoping to protect their traditional patches of earth. Ethnic Russians live in the immolated east, and it is these people Mr Putin cares most about.

The international community is angry with the Russian leader’s splintering of Ukraine precisely because he believes citizenry should be decided by the language a person speaks in their mother’s kitchen, not where the person was born. The international community cannot allow him to get away with this fundamental reconstruction of the world system, because hundreds of other sub-national groups will be keen try his experiment also.

Mr Putin’s gamble in Syria shouldn’t distract the international community from the opportunity and danger now opening in Ukraine. Recent reports suggest the Europeans may not extend their sanctions on Russia after the first half of 2016. This is serious news. While Europe and Russia aren’t likely to become friends soon, the slipping of European sanctions could help Russia keep control over Ukraine’s eastern regions and perhaps over Kiev itself.

Europe is thinking this way because the barely-holding ceasefire and the recent cancellation of separatist elections are seen as justification for loosening its sanctions. But it is for economic, political and probably financial reasons that Europe is losing its courage. If there was ever a time to press Mr Putin to leave Ukraine for good, it is now.

The danger is the dark possibility of splitting Europe strategically from the US. This will have consequences beyond Ukraine just when the US most needs its allies to tackle emerging and persistent unrest. Mr Putin wants to trade with Europe stability in Syria – thereby stemming the refugee tide – for implicit control of Kiev and Ukraine’s future. While clever, his long game must not be allowed to succeed.

Russia holds a weak hand in Ukraine, and it knows it. Yet a deal must be organised that recognises Russia’s attachments to the region. Such a deal should create parameters for internationally validated local elections in 2016. If some autonomy in the two breakaway oblasts is necessary, Moscow must promise to respect this. Only then should Europe and the US remove the sanctions.

This will not be an easy deal for any side. Forced into talking to a bellicose Mr Putin is distasteful, and what he is doing in Ukraine will probably happen elsewhere. But threatening transatlantic unity is much worse. The idea of the nation state is under stress, yet letting it be ripped up in Ukraine for a few energy pipelines or the pretence of “security” will have far reaching and deadly consequences.

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Sitrep - Dec 2, 2015

At the end of November, cameras pointing to the skies over Syria captured a burning Russian jet after two Turkish F-16s fired air-to-air missiles at the aircraft. The Russian SU-24, a ground attack aircraft, was reportedly flying illegally through Turkish airspace when the interceptors struck.

Russia immediately denied their plane was ever inside the Turkish border, releasing transponder data to prove their claim. However, the Turkish defence ministry countered saying its jets warned the Russian pilots 10 times within five minutes not to enter Turkish airspace and released its own radar tracking data showing the Russian jet did cross the border.

Observers of the conflict in Syria and Europe have been concerned with increasing Russian aggression in crossing illegally through other country’s airspace since the beginning of the year. Indeed, it is surprising such an incident with the Turkish interceptors hasn’t happened before. At a minimum, Russian ground attack aircraft will now be escorted by air superiority fighters to avoid a repeat, increasing the amount of armed aircraft in the region and the probability of mistakes.

Turkey has been reticent to join either the international coalition, led by the US, or Russian efforts in Syria. Ankara treats northern Syria the same way Russia considers Ukraine – as an existential protection for its core. Its goal is to ensure both the Kurds and Syrian President Bashar al Assad are weakened during the current civil war. Turkey therefore thinks the Islamic State group is a useful tool, rather than enemy, putting Ankara at odds with the international community.

In the US, the controversial metadata collection programme, Section 215 of the Patriot Act, passed through its 180 day grace period on Sunday. As a result, the parts of the programme collecting phone records of millions of Americans has been switched off. The collection of internet and social media data will remain in effect according to the USA Freedom Act – the updated Patriot Act.

Ending the phone record collection is a small victory for privacy advocates. The Obama administration has attempted to balance security and privacy regarding its intelligence collection and thinks some parts of the divisive programme are worth retaining. Shutting down the entire programme risks undermining overall security in the US.