The European Union, the world’s largest economic bloc, just announced “Global Gateway”, a project that directly challenges China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, a vast trillion-dollar network of roads, railways, ports, canals, airports, trade centers, and other infrastructure projects to link much of the world and China.
“We want to turn Global Gateway into a trusted brand around the world,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said during the annual State of the Union address Wednesday. “We will build Global Gateway partnerships with countries around the world. We want investments in quality infrastructure, connecting goods, people and services around the world.
She didn’t shy away from her primary target — China, which has been criticized by the West for extending its strategic reach and creating debt dependence through its multibillion-dollar infrastructure and investment scheme.
Now, two of the world’s top three biggest economies are looking to achieve both geopolitical and economic clout through initiatives that are unprecedented in their cost, scale, and multinational involvement. The EU is even seeking to develop a logo and “catchy brand name” for its Global Gateway, which further underlines its effort to win the hearts and minds of the international community.
We can expect that these won’t be the last megaprojects of their kind. The conspicuously absent United States has already hit back with similar plans: The Blue Dot Network, announced in 2019 with Japan and Australia, and the Build Back Better World (B3W), led by the G7 nations of the U.S., U.K., Canada, France, Germany, Italy, and Japan.
For its part, Chinese analysts quoted in state media have shrewdly framed these Western proposals as flattering imitations “likely inspired by the success of the BRI and will serve to fully demonstrate the effectiveness of Chinese-initiated global infrastructure program”.
It looks like power in the 21st century will be determined less by the usual metric of armies and territory and more by economic heft and sociocultural links with the most nations. Of course, that bring its own risks and problems, both environmental and human.
Alright, so I am being a bit cheeky here. (Come on, even the big-name media brands use hyperbolic headlines!)
But, buried within a 548-page United Nations report on the Libyan Civil War is a troubling account about an autonomous military drone (specifically an “unmanned aerial vehicle”, or UAV) attacking soldiers without any direct human command.
Described as “a lethal autonomous weapons system”, the drone was powered by artificial intelligence and used by government-backed forces against an enemy militia. According to the report, these fighters “were hunted down and remotely engaged by the unmanned combat aerial vehicles or the lethal autonomous weapons systems” and even when they retreated, the drones subjected them to “continual harassment”; no casualties are mentioned.
The report further states that the weapon systems “were programmed to attack targets without requiring data connectivity between the operator and the munitions”—in other words, it was a “fire and forget”.
However, it is unclear whether the drone was allowed to select its target autonomously or did so “on its own”, so to speak. Either way, some observers already consider it the first attack in history carried out by a drone on their own initiative.
It is worth mentioning that the drone in question is a Kargu-2, a small rotary drone built by a Turkish company closely affiliated with that country’s government. Turkey has emerged as an unlikely pioneer in drone technology: another one of its drones, the larger and better armed Bayraktar TB2, is credited with helping Azerbaijan win its war with Armenia in 2020; after years of literally losing ground against a militarily superior foe, Turkey’s ally gained a decisive edge because of these drones.
Drone strikes — targeting Armenian and Nagorno-Karabakh soldiers and destroying tanks, artillery and air defense systems — provided a huge advantage for Azerbaijan in the 44-day war and offered the clearest evidence yet of how battlefields are being transformed by unmanned attack drones rolling off assembly lines around the world.
The expanding array of relatively low-cost drones can offer countries air power at a fraction of the cost of maintaining a traditional air force. The situation in Nagorno-Karabakh also underscored how drones can suddenly shift a long-standing conflict and leave ground forces highly exposed.[…]“
Drones offer small countries very cheap access to tactical aviation and precision guided weapons, enabling them to destroy an opponent’s much-costlier equipment such as tanks and air defense systems,” said Michael Kofman, military analyst and director of Russia studies at CNA, a defense think tank in Arlington, Va.
“An air force is a very expensive thing,” he added. “And they permit the utility of air power to smaller, much poorer nations.”
In Azerbaijan, the videos of the drone strikes have been posted daily on the website of the country’s Defense Ministry, broadcast on big screens in the capital, Baku, and tweeted and retweeted online.
Little wonder why Ukraine is rumored to be seeking these same drones to take back territory controlled by Russian-backed separatists, or why Iraq is considering acquiring some to hunt down ISIS militants and even to shore up gaps in its fledging air force. (Unsurprisingly, Turkey has seized on the success and prestige of its drone industry by proclaiming itself one of the world’s three leaders in combat drone technology.)
To be sure, the U.S. is still far and above the dominant user of combat drones, due in large part to the massive expense of acquiring and maintaining the highest-end systems. Within a decade it may have up to 1,000 drones at its disposal, well above the less than 100 employed by chief rivals China and Russia.
Of course, a lot can happen between now and 2028; a technology that was once exclusive to just a handful of nations is now proliferating across the world, thanks to innovations that make drones easier and cheaper to develop, build, and operate. As of 2019, close to 100 countries use military drones — albeit the vast majority for surveillance purposes — up from around 60 a decade earlier. There are at least 21,000 drones in active service worldwide (though the number may be much higher), spanning over 170 different systems; 20 nations are known to have armed, higher-end models.
As to be expected, China and Russia are among the countries with armed drones, but so are the likes of Israel, Iran, Pakistan, and Nigeria. So far, only ten countries are known to have used drone technology on the battlefield: the U.S., Israel, the U.K., Pakistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Iran , Turkey, Azerbaijan, Russia, and the United Arab Emirate.
Note that most of these countries are not among the wealthiest or most powerful in the world, which can also be said of several more countries currently developing drones. The D.C.-based think tank New America has an excellent up-to-date report on this fast-moving world of drone tech, which includes the following infographics:
Drones have become accessible enough that they are even utilized by nonstate actors, ranging from paramilitary groups to terrorist organizations and even cartels
Military drones have come a long way since Israel first used them for surveillance purposes in the 1960s (the U.S. used Israeli-made UAVs to provide intelligence during the Bosnian War of the 1990s, and Israel remains a leading exporter of military drones). Indeed, just a few months after the U.N. report, Israel reportedly used a “swarm of drones” to identify and strike targets in the Gaza Strip—the first time this type of A.I. has been used. These swarms can number in the hundreds, coordinating with one another as they cover far more ground, and far more quickly, than other means. This is no doubt why China is also pioneering this particular type of drone tech, reportedly developing rocket-armed helicopter drones that can overwhelm targets like a swarm of angry bees—with just the push of a faraway button.
Not to be outdone, Russia is also looking to build an “army of robot weapons” backed by Chinese advances in A.I. tech. A report drawing on Pentagon intelligence identified two dozen platforms being developed by the Russian military incorporating some degree of AI or autonomy; these include land, air, and sea vehicles, specialized mines, A.I-powered logistical and training system, and supposedly even an anthropomorphic robot capable of dual-wielding firearms and driving cars. (This does not even include Russia’s purported edge in hypersonic missiles, which is already engendering yet another arms race between the big powers.)
While a lot of this is no doubt posturing, there is zero doubt that countries of all shapes and sizes are going to pursue this tech and ultimately succeed. There were times when firearms, tanks, and aircraft were cutting edge tech limited to a handful of great powers; now, even the smallest military forces have them.
Of course, as some hapless Libyan militants can attest, none of that hardware has the potential to go off the rails like A.I. does…
The man in question was Talat Pasha—former grand vizier of the Ottoman Empire, and the main architect of the Armenian genocide—whom Tehlirian shot point blank in a busy Berlin street two months before. The assassination, though little remembered today, influenced everything from the creation of the crime of genocide, to laying some of the ideological groundwork for Germany’s own atrocities decades later.
Like many Armenians at the time, Tehlirian came from the Ottoman Empire—namely the eastern half of what is now Turkey—which had been a major center of Armenian civilization for two thousand years. Before the First World War began in 1914, up to two million Ottoman subjects were Armenians—a significant proportion of the total population—who had historically occupied a tenuous and complex position in society: Armenians, as non-Muslims, were regarded as second-class citizens and stripped of many rights, but were nonetheless granted considerable autonomy and freedom of worship—often greater than they would have had under a rival Christian sect.
In the 19th century, the Ottoman government tried to implement Tanzimat, a series of reforms to modernize the waning empire across political, legal, and social dimensions—including by introduce concepts like equal rights regardless of religious or ethnicity. Suffice it to say that the effort largely failed, and circumstances gradually worsened for the Armenians and other minorities in the empire, culminating in one of the first genocides in modern history.
Whole books have been written about the genocide and the complex historical factors that led up to it; this post could not do it justice. But few debate the central role played by Talat Pasha, who was the de facto leader of the empire from 1913 until the end of the war in 1918. He headed the ironically named Committee of Union and Progress, which had begun in 1889 as a liberal reform movement, but by the time Talat rose to power was a nationalistic and autocratic political party. (In fact, the CUP government is considered the first example of one-party rule and may have even been a model for authoritarian parties across Europe leading up to the Second World War.)
Like many genocidal regimes, the CUP-dominated Ottoman Empire used war as both an excuse and a smokescreen for eliminating a target population—in this case, minorities like the Armenians deemed disloyal and incongruous to a pure Turkish and Muslim state. In 1915, just one year into the war, Talat ordered nearly all the empire’s Armenians to the Syrian Desert to die of exposure, hunger, or outright murder. Of 40,000 Armenians deported from Erzurum—Tehlirian’s home region—it is estimated that fewer than 200 reached their destination. When more Armenians survived than Talat had intended, he ordered more massacres the following year.
Talat coolly estimated that around 1,150,000 Armenians disappeared during the genocide. In 1918, he told a Turkish journalist “I assume full responsibility for the severity applied” during the Armenian deportation and, “I absolutely don’t regret my deed.” By the end of the war, the subsequent German ambassador Johann von Bernstorff described his discussion with Talat: “When I kept on pestering him about the Armenian question, he once said with a smile: ‘What on earth do you want? The question is settled, there are no more Armenians.”
Tehlirian’s hometown had 20,000 Armenians before he moved to Serbia before the war to study engineering; by the end of the war, it had none. After hearing about anti-Armenian atrocities, he joined the Armenian volunteer units of the Russian army, which was allied against the Ottomans in the First World War. As these units advanced west into the former Armenian homeland, they found the aftermath of the genocide. Realizing his family had been killed—he named 85 relatives in his memoirs—Tehlirian vowed to take revenge. He suffered from regular fainting spells and other nervous system disorders that were likely the result of what we now know is post-traumatic stress disorder; during his trial, he said they were related to his experiences during the genocide.
When the Ottoman Empire was defeated in 1918, Pasha and nearly all other major perpetrators fled abroad, mostly to allied Germany. In July 1919, the Ottomans established a special military tribunal that tried and convicted Talat and other CUP exiles in absentia for the “massacre and annihilation of the Armenian population of the Empire”, sentencing them to death. Yet because there was no international law on which they could be tried—indeed, the word genocide, let alone the concept, had not been invented yet—the genocide’s principal leaders remained immune so long as they were outside Turkey.
After it became clear that no one would bring Talat and his murderous cronies to justice, the Dashnaktsutyun—an Armenian political party founded in Russia and still active in Armenia and elsewhere—launched the secret Operation Nemesis, headed by Ottoman-born Armenians. The conspirators drew up a list of 100 genocide perpetrators to target for assassination, with Talat naturally at the top of the list. There was no shortage of volunteers for these dangerous missions—mainly young men who survived the genocide or lost their families. Nemesis operatives never carried out assassinations without confirming the identity of their targets, who were carefully tracked for weeks or even months before making a move;
Meanwhile, after the war, a vengeance-driven Tehlirian went to Constantinople and assassinated Harutian Mgrditichian, a member of the Ottoman secret police who facilitated the deportation of Armenian intellectuals on April 24, 1915 (widely regarded as the starting point of the Armenian Genocide.) This killing convinced Nemesis to entrust him with the assassination of Talat Pasha. His orders: “You blow up the skull of the Number 1 nation-murderer and you don’t try to flee. You stand there, your foot on the corpse and surrender to the police, who will come and handcuff you.
When he was caught and turned over to police, Tehlirian stated “I am not the murderer; he was.” His legal defense was funded by the Dashnaktsutyun, mostly from Armenians in the U.S.; the strategy was to put Talat on trial for the Armenian Genocide, and to argue that Tehlirian acted as a lone vigilante driven by the trauma of his loss. The prosecution sought to avoid “politicizing” the murder, and the trial was half as long as requested by the defense, many of whose witnesses were never called. Extensive evidence on the genocide was heard, and it became an international platform for the Armenian cause; media around the world widely reported on the trial, which brought attention and recognition to the Armenian Genocide.
Tehlirian’s testimony, though false—he claimed to have witnessed and experienced the genocide firsthand, when he had only seen the aftermath—was nonetheless based on the collective stories and experiences of his fellow Armenians. Tellingly, the prosecution never challenged the veracity of these claims, and the truth was not uncovered until decades later. (Though it certainly helped that there were plenty of documents, reports, and firsthand accounts to back up the atrocities claimed.)
Indeed, observers understood the trial to be more about the Armenian genocide than Tehlirian’s personal guilt—just as the defense had intended. News coverage reflected the tension between public sympathy for the Armenian victims of genocide and the value of law and order; as the New York Times reported, the jury faced a dilemma: by acquitting Tehlirian, they would condemn the Armenian atrocities, but also sanction extralegal killing—“All assassins should be punished; this assassin should not be punished. And there you are!”.
After the closing arguments were delivered, the judge asked Tehlirian if he had anything to add, to which he declined. After just an hour of deliberation, the twelve-person jury answered the question of whether Tehlirian was guilty of deliberate killing with one word: “No”. The verdict was unanimous, leaving no possibility of appeal. The audience burst into applause, and the international reaction was largely positive. Transcripts of the trial were purchased by Armenians around the world, with the proceeding covering the cost of Tehlirian’s defense and raising money for the Nemesis operation
Following his acquittal, Tehlirian was deported from Germany. He went to the U.K. and then the U.S., where he adopted an alias; he continued needing medical treatment for his PTSD. He settled in Belgrade, Serbia, where, appropriately enough, he had a reputation as a skilled marksman at a local shooting club. He later moved to Morocco, then France, and finally California, before dying there of a brain hemorrhage in 1960. He was buried in an Armenian cemetery in Fresno, where his monument-grave can still be seen—an obelisk with a gold-plated eagle slaying a snake on top.; reportedly, the original artist claimed the eagle was “…the arm of justice of the Armenian people extending their wrath onto Talaat Pasha,” symbolized by the snake.
Unsurprisingly, Tehlirian became a national hero for Armenians, with statues and memorials in Armenia and major Armenians communities worldwide. Operation Nemesis continued for another year, assassinating several other high-profile targets, include Talat Pasha’s co-ruler, a founder of the CUP, and an Ottoman governor with an alleged penchant for killing Armenian children. (Another major leader was killed in a later role by a Red Army unit commanded by an ethnic Armenian.)
The trial’s legacy was bigger than anyone at the time could have foreseen. German nationalists condemned the ruling as a judicial scandal and began justifying the genocide; arguments justifying mass extermination were not only widely accepted by nationalist newspapers, but were predicated on now-familiar claims about the racial characteristics of Armenians. Years later, a major Nazi ideologue, Alfred Rosenberg, claimed only the “Jewish press” welcomed Tehlirian’s acquittal, and that Talat’s action were justified by Armenians leading espionage against the Turk—not unlike the antisemitic “stab in the back myth” that formed a key basis for the persecution and later massacre of Jews.
Polish-Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin claimed that reading about the Armenian genocide and Talat’s assassination sparked his interest in war crimes. Lemkin asked his law professor why Talat could not be tried for his crimes in Germany, to which the answer was that national sovereignty meant governments could kill their own citizens, and that foreign intervention was unjust even then. Lemkin concluded that Tehlirian’s assassination was just, but worried about the excesses of vigilante justice, which prompted him to devise a legal framework for punishing genocide; this resulted in him coining the phrase in 1944—as no one knew quite what to call the Holocaust, let alone the earlier Armenian massacres— and in the near-universal ratification of the Genocide Convention in 1948.
Tehlirian’s trial was cited in later cases involving survivors of extermination meting out justice against perpetrators; these included Sholem Schwarzbard‘s assassination of Ukrainian anti-Jewish pogromist Symon Petliura in 1926, for which he was subsequently acquitting. One historian notes that the trials of Tehlirian and Schwarzbard were “the first major trials in Western Europe featuring victims of interethnic violence and state-sponsored mass atrocities seeking justice”. Hannah Arendt contrasted both cases with the later Eichmann trial—in which Israeli agents kidnapped Holocaust perpetrator Adolf Eichmann and brought him to Israel to stand trial—noting that both avengers sought a day in court to publicize the unpunished crimes committed against their peoples. Swiss lawyer Eugen Curti, defending the Jew David Frankfurter, who assassinated Swiss Nazi Wilhelm Gustloff in February 1936, cited Tehlirian’s act, presciently comparing the persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany to the Armenian Genocide; only under pressure from Germany, was Frankfurter was convicted.
Future Nuremberg trial prosecutor Robert Kempner, who attended the Tehlirian trial as a law student, believed it marked the first time in legal history when it was recognized that “gross violations of human rights, and especially genocide that is committed by a government can be contested by foreign states, and that [such foreign intervention] does not constitute impermissible meddling”. The German lawyer, exiled for his Jewish heritage and opposition to Nazi policies, would later help the U.S. in prosecuting many perpetrators of the genocide, based on his familiarity with German laws and legal doctrines.
The Christian Science Monitor has a great and topical piece examining the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on rights and freedoms across the world. As probably the only event in history to affect the entire world more or less equally—even the Spanish Flu and world wars were less widespread in their impact—the pandemic served as something of a social and political experiment: How is humanity as a whole responding? What are the distinctions across societies, cultures, and systems of government concerning this perennial challenging balance safety and security with individual and community freedom?
“That tension is long-standing, liberty versus security. Are they complements or substitutes?” says Marcella Alsan, professor of public policy at Harvard Kennedy School, who studies public health and infectious diseases. “What’s interesting about the current situation, and particularly prior to the development of the vaccines – when all countries basically have the very same rudimentary toolkit of these NPIs, these nonpharmaceutical interventions – was basically, How willing were people to go along with these restrictions? What were they willing to sacrifice and what were they not willing to sacrifice?”
Ms. Alsan oversaw a November study that surveyed over 400,000 people across 15 nations about their attitudes toward civil liberties during the pandemic. More than 80% were agreeable to giving up some freedoms during a crisis. A closer look at the results, however, reveals gradations between citizens of different nations. Those surveyed in the United States and Japan were far less willing to relax privacy protections, sacrifice the freedom of press, and endure economic losses than those in China. Citizens in European countries occupied a middle ground between those two poles. Respondents in India, Singapore, and South Korea were more willing to suspend democratic procedures for the sake of public health.
According to Human Rights Watch, 83 governments restricted free speech and free assembly in the name of pandemic protections. Enforcement of those measures could be harsh. Youths in the Philippines were locked in dog cages following curfew violations, says Ms. Pearson. In India, police physically assaulted 10 journalists who reported that a COVID-19 roadblock in the southeast was preventing villagers from reuniting with their families. South Africa enforced a ban on cigarettes and alcohol by setting up roadblocks to search cars for contraband.
“Freedom House has been tracking a decline in [global] democracy for the past 15 consecutive years, and what we found is that COVID-19 has really exacerbated that decline,” says Amy Slipowitz, research manager for Freedom House, a U.S.-based nonprofit that tracks civil liberties worldwide.
Frightening stuff, and not entirely surprising: The Spanish Flu of the early twentieth century, which ranks second only to COVID-19 in its reach and impact, saw similar concerns, controversies, and conflict related to lockdowns and their political and civil ramifications. Over a century later, we are faced with very familiar problems—only this time, governments are exceedingly more technologically sophisticated.
One country that stands out in the report is Taiwan, whose highly effective response to the pandemic—as a developed and vibrant democracy—has led its star to rise like never before in the global community. Apparently, its excellent job at minimizing the spread and death toll of the virus did not come at the severe cost of its citizens’ freedoms, now or into the future.
[Some] countries, including Sweden and South Korea, placed a high value on maintaining a fairly open society. Taiwan did so by forging a state-society collaboration. Prior to becoming one of the world’s freest democracies, the small island nation had been subject to martial law and single-party rule from 1947 until the late 1980s. That relatively recent experience colored the Taiwanese response to the pandemic. Taiwan’s Centers for Disease Control had legal authority to implement stringent measures, but it didn’t declare a state of emergency. Schools and stores remained open. In those instances when Taiwan did curtail liberties – including a track-and-trace program that included strict border controls – it employed a humane touch. Individuals placed under mandatory 14-day home quarantine received meal deliveries and trash disposal services. A hotline was set up for their mental health. And in response to concerns that those penned inside a digital fence could be watched by Big Brother long after the pandemic, the state promised to erase that cellphone data.
“The government recognized that, because the people’s freedom of movement is temporarily suspended, it is the responsibility of the government to take care of those individuals who had to be isolated for the sake of the public,” says Tsung-Ling Lee, an assistant professor of law at Taipei Medical University. “The government is seeking broad-based social support in that a lot of our measures that have to be implemented in the epidemic are relational.”
Taiwan’s government also favored persuasion over coercion. Case in point: its handling of one of the world’s three largest religious ceremonies, the Dajia Mazu Pilgrimage. Every April, tens of thousands join in a nine-day parade that originates at the Zhenlan temple and proceeds through a large swath of the island. Taiwan’s Centers for Disease Control has broad legal leeway to institute emergency measures such as prohibiting large public gatherings. Instead, the minister of health and welfare approached the temple’s chairman, a former opposition party member of the country’s legislature. The minister persuaded the temple to change its plans and delay the parade by several months. The temple went even further – it donated its parade budget to the Central Epidemic Command Center. In turn, the minister later appeared at a temple ceremony as a gesture of grateful appreciation to the worshippers.
“It’s better to foster a bottom-up approach toward where the boundaries should be versus having a top-down authoritarian approach of where the boundary should be,” says Ming-Cheng Lo, a professor of sociology and East Asian studies at the University of California, Davis, in a phone call from Taiwan.
All this is a huge turnaround from nearly a decade ago, when Taiwan was an epicenter of the 2003 SARS outbreak, to which it responded with political infighting, polarization, and social fragmentation and cynicism. While that virus infected fewer than four hundred people, and left “only” 73 dead, it exposed some very troubling rifts in Taiwanese society and government that could have made its COVID-19 cousin even deadlier.
Instead, Taiwan appears to have learned its lesson: While political divisions are no better than eight years ago, citizens and politicians alike have set them aside for the greater good. Media across the political spectrum emphasized the “importance of societal collaboration and compassion”. One Taiwanese sociologist credits the “traumatic” experience of the SARS outbreak with helping “Taiwanese to fundamentally reassess the boundaries between personal choice and civic duty during this emergency”. As she told the CS Monitor:
To have that consensus, then eliminates the need, or at least minimized the need, of having to send police to patrol the streets to see if people who are under quarantine are actually breaking the rules. Citizens deliberated among themselves and said, “This is a sacrifice that we should all make in order to protect the greater good of all of us.”
So did an internationally isolated nation that has only been democratic for roughly thirty years crack the code of balancing liberty and security, personal freedom with public health, and all the other complexities that come with maintaining a democracy? If so, what does that say about the role of cultural and community values in helping society navigate the precarious balance of safety and freedom? What are your thoughts?
A friend from abroad once shared an observation that has stuck with me: That most Americans do not realize how our elections have ramifications for the rest of the world. (Which is why so many nations are invested in them, one way or another.)
The U.S. is still the most powerful country in the world by most measures, and the only one (for now) whose people have some say in its policies or actions. Our president can start de facto wars and launch nukes with little or no oversight; entire nations, if not the world, are potentially at the mercy of whoever occupies the Oval Office. Laws passed in Congress can directly inspire other countries or affect the global economy, by virtue of how large a role we play in this interconnected world. Our economic, diplomatic, and even cultural influence gives us considerable sway over the biggest problems facing humanity, from climate change to the next pandemic. For better or worse, we still set the trend on many global responses, largely by virtue of our vast resources; even our consumer habits can disproportionately impact environments a world away. Many U.S. companies and individuals are richer and more powerful than entire nations; how or whether we choose to reign them in has consequences, too.
The U.S. is not the superpower it once was, and not every global issue comes down to our leadership; many other countries have roles to play, too. But few things are in isolation any more; how our society or presumed leaders do things still has effects across the world that many of us do not even think about. It is an odd thing to imagine something as parochial as elections having anything to do with the rest of the world, but like it or not, they do.
As with most things, it is easier to focus on the failures than the successes—especially when success is measured by the bad things that never happened. The absence of tragedy does not feel as salient as its occurrence, which makes it easy to take for granted.
This is especially the case with diplomacy and global conflict resolution, which usually happens behind closed doors to allow the parties to save face. Imagine how many wars never happened because cooler heads prevailed, often with the help of nameless and faceless diplomats.
The Cuban Missile Crisis brought us to the brink of World War III, but few know, let alone appreciate, that it was the newly appointed Secretary-General of the United Nations—a soft-spoken career diplomat from Burma named U Thant—who persuaded both sides to walk back from the brink and provided a mutually acceptable resolution. American and Russian officials credited the UN, and Thant in particular, for helping deescalate the conflict; JFK remarked that “U Thant has put the world deeply in his debt.”
We see this again with UNIFIL, a multinational UN force that has been stationed at the Lebanon-Israel border since 1978 to keep the peace between the two nations. On its face, the mission has been an abject failure: skirmishes between Lebanese militias and Israeli forces continue to this day, even leading to outright war in 2006. Both sides, as well as the U.S., regard UNIFIL as worthless and often call for its mandate to end.
But an official in the Lebanese government noted that there were plenty of flare ups that had been diffused, or even prevented, through negotiations mediated by local UN forces. For all the conflicts it failed to avert—and that subsequently capture all the attention—there were just as many, if not more, that never happened because of UNIFIL intervention behind the scenes.
These are just two examples. Who knows how many more “almost-wars” and tragedies are being avoided every day, even as we speak, by thankless diplomats, negotiators, and mediators.
Postal services have always been a core foundation of advanced civilizations. Hence the U.S. Postal Service is one of the few federal agencies explicitly authorized by the Constitution, based on the understanding that an open and prosperous society relies heavily on the free-flow of information.
We take for granted that until very recently, mail was the world wide web of the day—the sole means in which everyone could communicate and access information on equal footing. That is why the USPS is still relevant to this day, since it is the only service to be fully egalitarian by guaranteeing equally cheap delivery to everyone, regardless of where they live. No wonder it is the most popular federal agency in the country.
There is a lot of historical precedence for this. In the fifth century BCE, Darius the Great of Persia established the earliest confirmed postal service, the Angarium, to consolidate what was then the largest empire in history. It facilitated trade, communication, and cultural exchange at a rate of efficiency that was unprecedented at the time. Remnants of this mail infrastructure are still around.
The riders of the Angarium were well regarded for their honesty, discipline, and efficiency; they could deliver a message across a distance of almost 1,700 miles in just one week—the normal speed was three months! Greek historian Herodotus wrote that:
There is nothing in the world that travels faster than these Persian couriers. Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor darkness of night prevents these couriers from completing their designated stages with utmost speed
Other empires borrowed from the Persians, or soon realized on their own the vital nature of postal communications. In the first century CE, the Romans established the Cursus publicus to provide special light wagons and faster horses for mail. Genghis Khan created the sophisticated “Ortoo” system for his massive Mongol Empire, which consisted of a complex chain of relay stations 20–40 miles apart, each with a messenger ready to complete the next leg of the journey; with spare horses, food, shelter, this ensured information was constantly on the move without each messenger getting tired. Hence why the famous Silk Road was even a thing!
Following the horrific The French President is personally visiting Lebanon—a former French colony that remains staunchly Francophilic—as his country prepares to send aid. Russia has reportedly already dispatched humanitarian flights, while the U.S. vows to do the same. Smaller nations from Norway to Hungary are sending help to Lebanon.
Israel—which is technically in a state of war with Lebanon—has taken the unusual step of offering assistance through the UN. Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt, Qatar, and Turkey—all with varying degrees of animosity with one another—are united in sending material and financial support. Even the beleaguered people of Gaza are lining up to donate blood.
I have no delusions that at least some of this aid is motivated by self interest: countries, like individuals, care about their image, reputation, and connections. Lebanon is an especially fractious place where lots of foreign interests, big and small, regularly intervene or back particular factions.
But given the amount of suffering on the ground and the immediate need for assistance, I consider this a win. It was not the long ago that most of us would never even have heard of something happening in a neighboring country, much less halfway around the world, and let alone caring enough to help.
Somehow, amid all the geopolitical rivalries, tensions, and rising nationalism, nearly three dozen countries—China, India, Japan, South Korea, Switzerland, Russia, the U.S., and all 27 members of the European Union—are joining forces to launch the largest scientific research facility in history.
Known as ITER, the roughly $24 billion megaproject is being built in southern France to demonstrate the scientific and technological feasibility of fusion energy. Current nuclear energy relies on fission, where a heavy chemical element, usually uranium, is split to produce lighter ones, thereby generating energy—but also radioactivity.
Nuclear fusion works the opposite way, combining two light elements to make a heavier one. This process powers stars like our sun and releases vast amounts of energy with very little radioactivity. Since it can work with light and abundant elements like hydrogen, it has the potential to supply humanity with limitless energy for millions of years.
To put it in perspective, through nuclear fusion, a relative handful of hydrogen could produce enough energy to power 2,300 American homes annual (equivalent to about 10,000 tons of coal, the most common fuel in the world and highly polluting). A 2,000 megawatt fusion power plant would supply electricity for two million homes.
Despite 60 year of trying, there has been little progress in making nuclear fusion commercially viable—hopefully until now. By the time ITER is completed in 2025, we may finally come within reachable grasp of this promising energy source. In addition to being the largest research facility, it will also be the largest nuclear fusion experiment and will have the largest system of superconducting magnets.
At the heart of ITER will be Tokamak, a Russian invention that uses a powerful magnetic field to confine a hot plasma to generate fusion. While devised in the 1960s, to this day a Tokamak is the leading candidate for industrial-scale fusion—hence ITER will have one stretching 100 feet and comprised of one million parts.
In announcing the groundbreaking of the project today, France’s President Emmanuel Macron said the effort would unite countries around a common good. “ITER is clearly an act of confidence in the future. The greatest advances in history have always proceeded from daring bets, from journeys fraught with difficulty. At the start it always seems that the obstacles will be greater than the will to create and progress. ITER belongs to this spirit of discovery, of ambition, with the idea that, thanks to science, tomorrow may indeed be better than yesterday.”
Good to see the world still managing to stick together for something this big and consequential. A heartening display of our species’ potential.