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Weekend catch-up: #knightmare, social media, 'La Haine', Greek elections and more

by Brendan Thomas-Noone

Bringing together the best Interpreter articles you were too busy to read this week.

The Interpreter published several pieces this week on the international dimensions surrounding the controversy over Prime Minister Tony Abbott's decision to bestow a knighthood on Prince Philip, in what is being called the #knightmare. The decision prompted multiple reactions, some favorable, others not. But really the heart of  the issue is part of a much larger debate The Interpreter has tackled before: What kind of nation does Australia want to be?

First, historian James Curran on a similar controversy during the Menzies era:

To be sure, the Menzies Government's 'royal' decree was the outcome of months of deliberation and community consultation.  Treasurer Harold Holt had personally headed the special Cabinet Committee assigned the task of naming the new currency, a position that enabled him to quickly put aside tongue in cheek suggestions such as the 'coo-ee', the 'sheepsback', the 'bonzer' and even – wait for it – the 'bobmenz'. One more serious candidate, 'austral', was disqualified due to the unfortunate but inevitable slurring that would be produced by multiples ending in the letter 'n' – thus 'fourteen Australs' spoken quickly risked becoming 'forty nostrils'.

But the choice of the 'royal' (over the other shortlisted candidate, the 'regal') was at Prime Minister Menzies' personal behest.

Journalist Nick Bryant argued that the incident would hurt Australia's global reputation:

The re-introduction of a heraldic honours system that many Australians viewed as a museum piece was met last year with incredulity. His choice of the Duke of Edinburgh, ahead of thousands of deserving Australian women and men, has unleashed even more mockery. It was a 'captain’s call', said Mr Abbott, and arguably the worst since Greg Chappell asked his brother Trevor to bowl underarm to New Zealand's Brian McKechnie. That damaged Australia's international sporting standing. The surprise knighthood could have the same effect on the country's international reputation, especially in the region.

Sam Roggeveen did not agree:

So no, Tony Abbott's 'knightmare' is not a story about Australia's reputation abroad. But, as both Nick and James Curran have argued on The Interpreter, our constitutional arrangements and our attitude to the monarchy do say something about how the nation faces the world. Australia's gradual and halting move toward establishing a republic will, when it happens, reinforce the sense that Australia has evolved into a nation not just in Asia but of Asia.

Prime Minister Abbott, while defending his decision, also made some comments on the use of social media. Danielle Cave wrote a rebuke:

The Prime Minister's antiquated remarks about #electronicgraffiti could worryingly be read to reflect a lack of understanding of both the role of social media and how widely used it is around the world, including by his own government. Social media is no longer just the purview of angsty teenagers and online gamers. It is used globally to foster development and to help shape social and political change.

The Sydney siege and the attacks on the Charlie Hebdo offices have also stirred the old debate on the balance between security and liberty in Western societies. Anthony Bubalo would like to see a more rounded debate:

I would like to see a debate in which the proponents of liberty acknowledge the threat, understand that it provokes genuine fear in much of our society (even if more people die falling off ladders or in car accidents) and then ask themselves which of our liberties we should compromise for the sake of security. As the Charlie Hebdo case underlined, we don't even seem to be clear about the liberties we are defending.

I would like to see a debate where the proponents of security recognise that the threat to our societies comes not just from terrorism but from the way in which we fight terrorism, and that we should be prepared to accept certain levels of risks for the sake of preserving our rights and principles.

Nicole George wrote an insightful piece on the French film La Haine and it's relevance to present-day France and the Charlie Hebdo attacks:

My contention here is that this attack has its origins in the experience of marginalisation and inequality that is the lot of French immigrants and their descendants.

We too easily efface those motivations if we understand it only as an expression of Islamic radicalisation. Likewise, well-meaning slogans about the benefits of unity in the aftermath of this violence will do little to heal the wounds borne by the generations of citizens who became French as result of their forefathers' migration but live in circumstances characterised by profound exclusion.

This week also the saw the victory of the radical-left political party Syriza in Greece's national elections, with promises to renegotiate the country's debt and cut back on austerity measures. Leon Berkelmans on what this could mean for Europe's economy:

The problem with Greece, as it has always been, is contagion. If, due to problems in Greece, investors start to question the sustainability of the debt burdens of Europe's giants, we could be in trouble. This self-fulfilling questioning happened in 2011 and 2012. At that time, interest rates on Spanish and Italian debt rose. A debt burden that was sustainable at 4% interest was no longer sustainable at 7%.  Everything changed when Mario Draghi said the ECB would do 'whatever it takes' to save the eurozone. For this, and other reasons, the situation now appears different to 2012. Financial markets outside of Greece have not reacted too adversely to the election result...yet.

Malcolm Cook wrote on the death of 44 police in the Philippines last week, and the consequences for the peace process in the Mindanao region:

Both the MILF and the Aquino Administration have called for the peace process to continue unimpeded despite this apparent massacre, which stands out even by the violent standards of Mindanao. Many opponents to the peace deal in Manila and in Mindanao will disagree.

The decades-long search for peace in Muslim Mindanao has seen many false dawns and the recurrence of low-intensity war. While the 25 January clash may not, by itself, spoil the latest and most comprehensive peace deal, it will not be easily overcome. The delays to the peace process will put the search for peace at risk yet again. 

President Obama has concluded his much-anticipated trip to India. Ian Hall on why it should be seen as a disappointment:

In fact, what was really significant about the joint statement was what it left out. There was no mention of climate change or the upcoming Paris summit, despite Obama urging India to acknowledge what the US sees as India's obligation to accept binding limits on its carbon emissions. This particular failure to cut a deal, or even agree to a sentence on the issue in the joint statement, is telling, as the more perceptive media outlets recognised. It speaks to a continued inability on Washington's part to get India to be the kind of stakeholder in the liberal democratic international order the US has long hoped it would become.

Milton Osborne wrote on the damming of the Mekong river and warned of the unrecoverable damage that is being done:

It is hard to overstate the likely damage being done to the Mekong. The overwhelming weight of scientific opinion argues that the long-term effects of the Chinese dams will be negative for the countries downstream of China, though it may be decades before their full effects are obvious. With the dams Laos is planning and those which China is already constructing, the damage could be more immediate. More than 60 million people live in the Lower Mekong Basin below China and they are heavily dependent on the river for food and agriculture. One striking figure makes the point: almost 80% of the Cambodian population's annual protein intake comes from fish caught in the Mekong and its tributaries. Just as importantly Vietnam's Mekong delta region relies heavily on the Mekong for its agricultural production.

Lastly, Lauren Williams wrote an interesting and informative piece on the governance style of the often overlooked Nusra Front:

The prospect of Nusra replacing ISIS as the only viable alternative with administrative capacity over large swaths of Syrian territory presents a policy nightmare for the US. While the group may appear more moderate, al Qaeda is al Qaeda. Nusra may have taken the strategic decision to limit its policy of expansion now, but the time will come when the establishment of the caliphate is prioritised, and it will not adhere to the democratic and pluralistic Syria the US hopes for.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Tony Abbott.


Treat terrorism like crime, not war

by Paul G Buchanan

Earlier this week Anthony Bubalo suggested that a debate is needed about how to properly counter terrorism in liberal democracies, and more specifically how to achieve the proper balance between security and civil liberties when confronting violent extremism. This is part 1 of my response.

The post-9/11 security environment has been dominated by the spectre of terrorism mostly, if not exclusively, of the Islamic-inspired sort.

In many liberal democracies the response to the threat of this type of extremist violence has been the promulgation of a raft of anti-terrorism laws and organisational changes in national security agencies, the sum total of which has been an erosion of civil liberties in the pursuit of better security.

Some have gone so far as to speak of a 'war' on terrorism, arguing that Islamist terrorism in particular is an existential threat to Western societies that demands the prioritisation of security over individual and collective rights.

Although ideological extremists see themselves as being at war, this response on the part of democratic states, and the characterisation of the fight against terrorism as a 'war' marshaled along cultural or civilizational lines, is mistaken.

The proper response is to see terrorism not in ideological terms, with the focus on the motivation of the perpetrators, but in criminal terms, where the focus is on the nature of the crime. Those who practice terrorism can then be treated as part of a violent criminal conspiracy much like the Mafia or international drug smuggling syndicates. This places the counter-terrorism emphasis on the act rather than the motivation, thereby removing arguments about cause and justification from the equation.

There is no reason for Western democracies to go to war.

Whatever its motivation, terrorism poses no existential threat to any stable society, much less liberal democracies. Only failed states, failing states and those at civil war face the real threat of takeover from the likes of the Islamic State or al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. For Western democracies under terrorist attack, the institutional apparatus of the state will not fall, society will not unravel and the social fabric will not tear. The consent of the majority will be maintained. If anything, the state and society will coalesce against the perpetrators.

But there is a caveat to this: both the democratic state and society must beware the 'sucker ploy'. 

Terrorism is a weapon of the weak that is not only a form of intimidation but a type of provocation as well. Terrorist attacks against defenceless targets may be designed to punish or retaliate against the larger society, but they are also attempting to lure the target into taking security measures out of proportion to the threat. In other words, the weaker party commits an atrocity or outrage in order to provoke an overreaction from the stronger subject, in this case Western liberal democracies. 

The overreaction victimises the group from which the perpetrators are thought to come, and thus legitimises the grievances of the terrorists. Thus the democratic state plays into the hands of terrorists by expanding their struggle and providing grounds for recruitment. When democratic societies, panicked by fear, begin to retaliate against domestic minority populations from whence terrorists are believed to emanate, then the sucker ploy will have proven successful.

The sucker ploy has been at the core of al Qaeda's strategy from the beginning.

Enunciated by Osama bin Laden, the idea behind the attacks on the World Trade Centre and Pentagon, then the Bali, Madrid and London bombings, was to cause the West to overreact by scapegoating all Muslims and subjecting them to security checks, mass surveillance, warrantless searches and arrest, and detention without charge. With the majority supporting such moves, Muslim minorities in the West become further alienated, reinforcing the al Qaeda narrative that the West is at war with the entire Muslim world.

Bin Laden and his acolytes hoped would generate a global conflict between Muslims and non-Muslims, and the US and UK duly obliged by using 9/11 as one of the pretexts for invading Iraq, which had nothing to do with the events of that day and which had no Islamic extremists operating within it at the time. It does now.

After the possibility of staging spectacular large-scale attacks like 9/11 became increasingly difficult due to Western countermeasures, al Qaeda 2.0 emerged. Its modus operandi, as repeatedly outlined and exhorted by the online magazine Inspire, is to encourage self-radicalised jihadists born in the West to engage in low-level, small cell (2-5 people) or so-called 'lone wolf' attacks by single individuals on targets of opportunity using local knowledge of the cultural and physical terrain in which they live.

In recent years the Syrian civil war and rise of the ISIS have given recruits the opportunity to sharpen their knowledge of weaponry, tactics and combat skills with an eye towards future use at home. With reportedly 15,000 foreign fighters joining Syrians and Iraqis in the ISIS ranks and a number of Westerners gravitating towards al Qaeda, there are plenty of returning jihadists to be concerned about, especially given the availability of soft targets in open societies.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Mark Radford.


Why invading North Korea is a terrible idea

by Robert E Kelly

Earlier this month, Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry argued for a US invasion of North Korea.

Thankfully, the general response has been quite negative (here, here and here). Invading North Korea is a terrible idea, and it is worth laying out why in some detail. I do not intend this as a particular shot against Gobry – I do not know him personally – but rather against this general idea, as it does come up now and then. 

In 1994, the Clinton Administration came close to launching a massive air campaign against the North (well-discussed here). Then in the first term of President George W Bush, regime change was the watchword and North Korea was on the 'axis of evil'. If the Iraq invasion had worked out, it appears other states were on the Bush hit list. Neoconservatives (neocons) love to loathe North Korea.

I should note however, that in my seven years working in Korea on Korean security issues, I have never heard a reputable Korean analyst argue for preemptive attack in an op-ed, at a conference, on TV, and so on. Nor have any of my hundreds of students over the years argued for this. This is a Western debate that has little resonance with the people who would mostly carry the costs – already a big problem for Gobry's argument.

1. Moral revulsion is not enough

Gobry, and President Bush who placed North Korea on the axis of evil, both share an admirably strong moral revulsion towards North Korea which motivates their hawkishness.

Certainly that revulsion is warranted. There is little dispute that North Korea is the worst country on earth, although perhaps the emerging ISIS 'state' is giving it a run for its money. The moral argument against North Korea became clear as early as the 1950s, when Kim Il-sung solidified control of the North and turned it into a cult of personality so servile and vicious scholars began using the neologism 'Kimilsungism' to describe it.

But there are of course many nasty, awful dictatorships. Perhaps none as awful as North Korea, but certainly huge numbers of people have suffered in many other states, both powerful and weak. Mao's China comes to mind, as does Cambodia under Pol Pot, or Zimbabwe and Syria-ISIS today. 

For a brief moment under George W Bush, after his second inaugural address, it looked as if 'promoting freedom around the world' might actually become US foreign policy, thereby justifying widespread global military pre-emption. But that was always wildly impractical, and the American public rejected it immediately. And if there is anything we have learned from regime change in places like Iraq and Libya it is that the unintended consequences and bloodletting can be extreme.

2. South Koreans really, really don't want to invade North Korea

Much of the Western debate on North Korea assumes that South Korea will simply go along with whatever decisions emerge from Washington.

I thought the same before I moved to Korea. Like many, I figured that the ROK was a democratic ally standing 'shoulder to shoulder' with the US for freedom, democracy, and so on. But South Korean foreign policy is far more realist. I have been arguing for a long time that South Koreans are not neocons and that they really don't want to up-end the status quo if it is likely to be costly.

Polls have shown for years that South Koreans fear the cost of unification, increasingly don't see North Koreans as a fellow people (for whom they should make a huge sacrifice), and don't think North Korea is a huge threat. The polls also show they dislike Japan almost as much as, if not more than, North Korea, they dislike conscription, and worry a lot that the US might do something rash and provoke a war.

Neocons like Gobry may see this as a moral failing – South Koreans slacking on the defence of democracy and their historic responsibility to end the world's worst tyranny. I will admit myself that I think South Koreans need to step up more on this. But that is ultimately for South Koreans to decide.

Far more South Koreans would like to see the two Koreas slowly grow together after North Korea has changed on its own (for example, by a coup, by Chinese pressure, or by internal breakdown). There are lots of hawks in South Korea (try here and here), but not even the most extreme argue for a preemptive invasion.

3. North Korea has nuclear weapons

If the first two reasons are a little soft, this one strikes me as a show-stopper. The US has never fought a sustained conflict against a nuclear power.

Indeed, the very reason North Korea built nuclear weapons was to deter US offensive action. It is hardly a leap of logic to think that the North would launch once US ground forces arrived on its territory. Gobry assumes, far too blithely, that the US could find all the missiles and hit them before they launch. That is a helluva gamble, and certainly not one South Korea or Japan, the likely targets, want to make. At the very least, we cannot go over the heads of Seoul and Tokyo if we choose to seriously strike the North.

4. The (North) Korean People's Army would probably fight

This is a tricky debate, because we have no good opinion data on KPA morale. We guess at readiness based on drills and the ferocious-looking marches through Kim Il-sung Square and so on. But we don't know.

The neocon position in such situations is to again assume the best – that rogue state armies are paper tigers and would collapse quickly. Certainly the Iraqis did in 1991 and 2003. And I would agree that KPA would suffer revolts if pushed into an offensive against the South. But a US invasion would justify all the propaganda Northern soldiers have heard for decades. Overnight they would go from a conscript army used primarily as slave labour on construction projects to defenders of the nation against a long-foretold invasion.

Do we have any sense that the US military would be 'greeted as liberators'? That is yet another huge gamble, because if we are wrong, it is a war against a state where almost every able-bodied male has extensive military training. Even in Iraq, the insurgency showed how tenacious third-world nationalism is and how easy it is for such feelings to ignite when faced with armed foreigners, however noble their intentions.

5. The People's Liberation Army might fight too

A US invasion would also set US-Chinese relations back by decades, and almost certainly push the US and China into a larger, violent, heavily militarised cold war throughout Asia.

Neocons who loathe China's repressive oligarchy might not care, but post-Iraq, that frightening insouciance about the world's second largest economy would almost certainly be a minority opinion in the West, and definitely would be among America's Asian allies who would carry most of the costs of militarised Sino-US competition.

Indeed, if the US invasion spun out of control – which is easy to envision given the North's nuclear weapons and the size of the KPA – China (and Japan) could easily get chain-ganged in. China went to war in 1950 to keep the Americans off the Yalu River, and that was a war the North started. If the US were to invade, America would suddenly look like an aggressive, aggrandising power. It would be easy to see the PLA fight once again for essentially the same reasons.

6. Reconstruction would fall to the US

Here is yet another Iraq lesson neocons seem blind to. When regimes like Libya or North Korea are decapitated, something new needs to be put in place.

Gobry's assumption is simply that South Korea would absorb ex-North Korea. And it probably would in more traditional collapse scenarios. But if the US were to proactively invade North Korea, it would be easy to see Southern and global opinion arguing that this is yet another mess made by belligerent Washington that it should clean up. And there is also the potential for a nasty insurgency by Kimist dead-enders, a point Gobry does not even consider.

Neocons really need to learn a few lessons from Iraq and the war on terror about the use of American force. 

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Morning Calm Weekly Newspaper Installation Command.


The French Intifada

by Milton Osborne

Nicole George's perceptive pointer to 'La Haine' on The Interpreter as a way into the fraught world of the contemporary France's banlieues is a reminder of the fact that a sizeable section of French society is alienated from the social mainstream by a combustible mix of religion, ethnic origin and the historical experience of colonialism.

This has been the case for many years.

A more recent, if flawed, examination of what this means for France and the French is David Hussey's The French Intifada: The Long War between France and the Arabs, published last year. I say flawed because Hussey's book, although full of useful insights, suffers from a number of problems, many of which are noted in The Guardian.

But there is much that is worthwhile in this book, not least the opening section, 'State of Denial', with its dramatic account of a riot Hussey observed at the Gare du Nord in 2007 involving 'mainly black and African youths' and 'a level of violence that would have shaken most European governments, but here in France the incident seemed unremarkable, even banal.' The rest of his book is an attempt to analyse what it is that makes young men such as the rioters he observed 'soldiers in a "long war" against France and Europe'.

Hussey's book is as much an account of French colonialism in North Africa as a record of the contemporary world and one wishes that his discussion of the Muslims who make up so many of France's prison population went beyond its sketchy characterisation. But in present terms it is well worth reading, as other reviewers in the Financial Times and the New York Times attest.


Abbott's blunder won't hurt us in Asia

by Sam Roggeveen

Of all the ink spilled on Tony Abbott's 'knightmare' over the course of the week, Greg Sheridan had what was, for me, the definitive take. I agree with every word.

It truly was a diabolically poor piece of judgment, as was the original decision to re-introduce knighthoods. Abbott may have believed that both initiatives were consistent with his conservative principles, but it was really the act of, at best, a nostalgic, and at worst a reactionary. It's true, to paraphrase William F Buckley, that occasionally the job of the conservative is to stand athwart history yelling 'Stop!' But true conservatives never hit reverse. Conservatism is not about undoing change but  about accommodating inevitable change within a stable and familiar social order. In that sense, Australia's evolving relationship with Britain is a case-study of conservatism done right: there was no revolution, and there has been no breach. Instead the connection with Britain has loosened gradually, organically, in line with the temper of society. Abbott's attempt to reverse that tide questions the wisdom not only of Australians today but of at least the last four generations (I'm counting from World War II, when Australia switched its primary foreign policy allegiance from the UK to the US). In short, it was a highly un-conservative act.

Still, for all the damage this does to Prime Minister Abbott at home, I'm not convinced by the idea advanced by Nick Bryant yesterday that this debacle damages Australia's reputation overseas, particularly in Asia.

For one thing, Nick doesn't really offer evidence for this judgment (although Crikey has a nice collection of overseas media stories one could point to). Secondly, it neglects the fact that many of these Asian societies are much more culturally conservative than Australia. Some of them are themselves monarchies (Japan, Thailand, Brunei, Malaysia [sort of]), and most are more socially hierarchical, less individualist and more reverent towards institutions than is liberal Australia. I doubt it would shock them to see an honour conferred on a social elder, even if he is a foreigner.

But those are really secondary points. As an overseas media story, it's a one-day wonder, a curiosity. I suspect that what's really going on here is a case of projection: republicans who would like to see Australia sever its bonds with the monarchy are projecting their own views onto the governments and people of Asia.

Here's a test: would we hear the same level of concern for Australia's overseas reputation if some other issue was at stake?

Take marriage equality, for example. I happen to be strongly in favour of gay marriage, and it looks like I'm in the majority in Australia. It seems inevitable that the country will over time move towards marriage equality. Yet in socially and religiously conservative Southeast Asia, we can expect a decision like that to be quite unpopular. If gay couples in Asia began to travel to Australia to get married, it might even cause some tensions in regional relations.

Should we expect critics of Australia's constitutional monarchy to display the same level of concern for our international reputation in that event as they are showing at present? It seems unlikely. The same point could be made about the death penalty, which is in the news at the moment. I'm not hearing many people worry that our opposition to the death penalty is damaging our relations with Indonesia, and nor should there be. We are right to protest this barbarism.

So no, Tony Abbott's 'knightmare' is not a story about Australia's reputation abroad. But, as both Nick and James Curran have argued on The Interpreter, our constitutional arrangements and our attitude to the monarchy do say something about how the nation faces the world. Australia's gradual and halting move toward establishing a republic will, when it happens, reinforce the sense that Australia has evolved into a nation not just in Asia but of Asia.

Nick Bryant cites Tony Abbott's Anglosphere speech as evidence of the Prime Minister's reluctance to grasp this future, but that's a one-dimensional reading. I really can't add much to what I have said before on this topic, which is that Abbott's alleged sense of Western 'superiority' needs to be balanced with other comments he has made about non-Western cultures, and also that Abbott's 'Anglosphere' exists mainly in the realm of ideas — it is a liberal-conservative worldview or, if you like, a personal philosophy. As a cursory glance at the Abbott Government's record will attest, the 'Anglosphere' does not describe this government's foreign policy.

Photo courtesy of @TonyAbbottMHR.


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