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.
Given all the death and dysfunction resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, it is worth appreciating the many potential outbreaks that never happened, thanks to the efforts of Kenya, Mozambique, and Niger, alongside the United Nations and other international partners
In December 2019, just months before the COVID-19 pandemic came in full swing, these nations managed to halt an outbreak of a rare strain of “vaccine-derived polio”, which occurs “where overall immunization is low and that have inadequate sanitation, leading to transmission of the mutated polio virus”. It is all the more commendable given that Niger is among the ten poorest countries in the world.
The fact that polio remains both rare and relatively easy to quash is the results of a U.N.-backed campaign announced in 2005 to immunize 34 million children from the debilitating disease, which often leaves victims permanently disabled. The effort was led by by World Health Organization the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF), Rotary International, and the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A little over fifteen years later, two out of three strains of polio have been eradicated—one as recently as last year—while the remaining strain is in just three countries: Afghanistan, Nigeria, and Pakistan. This once widespread disease is on its way to becoming only the second human disease to be eradicated, after smallpox, which once killed tens of millions annually. That feat, accomplished only in 1979, was also a multinational effort led by the U.N., even involving Cold War rivals America and Russia.
Even now, the much-maligned WHO actively monitors the entire world for “acute public health events” or other health emergences of concern that could portend a future pandemic. As recently as one month ago, the U.N. agency issued an alert and assessment concerning cases of MERS-Cov (a respirator illness related to COVID-19) in Saudi Arabia. Dozens of other detailed reports have been published the past year through WHO’s “Disease Outbreak News” service, spanning everything from Ebola in Guinea to “Monkeypox” in the United States. (WHO also has an influenza monitoring network spanning over half the world’s countries, including the U.S.).
On 31 December 2019, WHO’s China office picked up a media statement by the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission mentioning viral pneumonia. After seeking more information, WHO notified partners in the Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network (GOARN), which includes major public health institutes and laboratories around the world, on 2 January. Chinese officials formally reported on the viral pneumonia of unknown cause on 3 January. WHO alerted the global community through Twitter on 4 January and provided detailed information to all countries through the international event communication system on 5 January. Where there were delays, one important reason was that national governments seemed reluctant to provide information
Of course, it goes without saying that the WHO, and global institutions generally, have their shortcomings and failings (as I previously discussed). But much of that stems from structural weaknesses imposed by the very governments that criticize these international organizations in the first place:
WHO also exemplifies the reluctance of member states to fully trust one another. For example, member states do not grant WHO powers to scrutinise national data, even when they are widely questioned, or to conduct investigations into infectious diseases if national authorities do not agree, or to compel participation in its initiatives. Despite passing a resolution on the need for solidarity in response to covid-19, many member states have chosen self-centred paths instead. Against WHO’s strongest advice, vaccine nationalism has risen to the fore, with nations and regional blocks seeking to monopolise promising candidates. Similarly, nationalistic competition has arisen over existing medicines with the potential to benefit patients with covid-19. Forgoing cooperation for selfishness, some nations have been slow to support the WHO organised common vaccine development pool, with some flatly refusing to join.
The tensions between what member states say and do is reflected in inequalities in the international governance of health that have been exploited to weaken WHO systematically, particularly after it identified the prevailing world economic order as a major threat to health and wellbeing in its 1978 Health for All declaration. WHO’s work on a code of marketing of breastmilk substitutes around the same time increased concern among major trade powers that WHO would use its health authority to curtail private industry. Starting in 1981, the US and aligned countries began interfering with WHO’s budget, announcing a policy of “zero growth” to freeze the assessed contributions that underpinned its independence and reorienting its activities through earmarked funds. The result is a WHO shaped by nations that can pay for their own priorities. This includes the preference that WHO focus on specific diseases rather than the large social, political, and commercial determinants of health or the broad public health capacities in surveillance, preparedness, and other areas needed for pandemic prevention and management
In fact, it was this prolonged period of chronic underfunding, and of WHO member states prioritizing nonemergency programs, that precipitated the agency’s abysmal failings in the early phases of the 2014 Ebola outbreak. But once that crisis ended, member states, rather than defund or abandon the organization, opted to reform and strengthen its emergency functions; this overhaul resulted in the Health Emergencies Program, which was tested by the pandemic and thus far proven relatively robust:
On 31 December 2019, WHO’s China office picked up a media statement by the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission mentioning viral pneumonia. After seeking more information, WHO notified partners in the Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network (GOARN), which includes major public health institutes and laboratories around the world, on 2 January. Chinese officials formally reported on the viral pneumonia of unknown cause on 3 January. WHO alerted the global community through Twitter on 4 January and provided detailed information to all countries through the international event communication system on 5 January. Where there were delays, one important reason was that national governments seemed reluctant to provide information.
I know I am digressing into a defense of WHO, but that ties into the wider problem of too many governments and their voters believing that global governance is ineffective at best and harmfully dysfunctional at worst. We Americans, in particular, as constituents of the richest country in the world, have more sway than any society in how institutions like the U.N. function—or indeed whether they are even allowed to function.
As our progress with polio, smallpox, and many other diseases makes clear, what many Americans decry as “globalism” is actually more practical and effective than we think, and increasingly more relevant than ever. We fortunately have many potential outbreaks that never happened to prove it.
Albania, one of the poorest countries in Europe, has committed to taking in up to 4,000 Afghan refugees, which is among the most in the world and the most in proportion to its population (which is roughly 2.8 million)Hundreds of Afghans, including roughly 250 children, are being housed in coastal resorts, under a clever emergency plan developed by the government in response to a devastating 2019 earthquake; when thousands of people were rendered homeless, officials opted to shelter them in the mostly unused space of beach hotels.
Such hospitality is deeply rooted in Albanian culture. The Muslim-majority country is known for its stringent code of generosity and hospitality to anyone and everyone who needs it. Known as besa, which roughly translates to “trust”, “faith”, or “oath”, it commits all Albanians to help people in need regardless of their background or circumstances. As locals explain, the tradition is simple: “If someone needs a place to stay, you give it to them, period”.
While the practice may go back to ancient times, it was first codified in the Kanun, a set of customary laws written in the 15th century to govern the many independent tribes of the region. Within this book is a proverb that sums it up nicely: “Before the house belongs to the owner, it first belongs to God and the guest.” You could knock on the door of any house and ask for help and the owner would have to take you in. The Kanun even advises households to always have a spare bed ready at any time, just in case.
While besa is a duty that binds all Albanians, there is evidence that they genuinely find hosting guests as a point of pride. There is one anecdote about a town that rebelled against a hotel that was going to be built there; everyone went to town hall and complained, saying people who needed a place to stay could just come knock on their doors.
Perhaps the greatest proof of this tradition is the Second World War, after which Albania was perhaps the only country to have more Jews than before the Holocaust. Not only did they save nearly their entire Jewish community, but they saved another two thousand or so who had fled to the country. Albanians largely resisted all the pressure and threats by Axis forces to turn over people in hiding. Had anyone given up their guest, they would bear a great shame that could only be solved by “cleaning the blood”—meaning taking vengeance against whoever took and harmed their guest (which is one hell of a story idea…).
This is also why Albania is relied upon by the U.S. and Europe to take in folks neither wants, from Iranian and Syrian refugees, to Guantanamo detainees deemed innocent but nonetheless untrusted.
Initially hopeful that the French Revolution would usher equality between men and women, Gouges became disenchanted upon discovering that the key revolutionary tenant of egalite would not be extended to women. In 1791, in response to the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen—an otherwise seminal work in human rights— she wrote a counter-declaration that proposed full legal, social, and political equality between men and women. She also published her treatise, Social Contract, named after the famous work of Enlightenment thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau, calling for marriage based upon gender equality.
Even before the revolution, Gouges was well ahead of her time both ideologically and professionally. She dared write plays and publish political pamphlets at a time when women were denied full participation in the public and political space. After releasing a play critical of slavery, she was widely denounced and even threatened for both her anti-slavery stance and being involved in the male profession of theatre in the first place. Gouges remained defiant: “I’m determined to be a success, and I’ll do it in spite of my enemies”. Unfortunately, threats and outright sabotage from the slavery lobby forced the theatre to abandon her play after just three days.
…Gouges took on her mother’s middle name, changed the spelling of her father’s and added the aristocratic “de.” Adding to this already audacious gesture, the name “Gouges” may also have been a sly and provocative joke. The word “gouge” in Occitan was an offensive slang term used to refer to lowly, bawdy women.
Unsurprisingly, once the French Revolution came into full swing, Gouges wasted no time in seizing the moment. Aside from her already-bold feminist views, she rigorously supported a wage of policies and rights that proved radical even for the revolution:
She produced numerous broadsides and pamphlets between 1789 and 1792 that called for, among other things, houses of refuge for women and children at risk; a tax to fund workshops for the unemployed; the legitimation of children born out of wedlock; inheritance equality; the legalization and regulation of prostitution; the legalization of divorce; clean streets; a national theater and the opening of professions to everyone regardless of race, class or gender. She also began to sign her letters “citoyenne,” the feminine version of the conventional revolutionary honorific “citoyen.”
Gouges’ opposition to the revolution’s growing and bloody radicalism, and support for a constitutional monarchy, put a target on her back. Above all she openly disliked, Maximillian Robespierre, in effect the most powerful man in the country, going so far as to use the informal tu when referring to him in an open letter. This proved the last straw; she was tried, convicted, and executed for treason as one of only three women to be executed during the Reign of Terror, and the only one executed for her politics.
Nonetheless, Gouges’ legacy lived on for decades, influencing women’s rights movements across Europe and North America: the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention in New York—the first convention dedicated to women’s rights—based its “Declaration of Sentiments” on her “Declaration of the Rights of Woman”.
The world has been fortunate to only see nukes used aggressively against one nation, nearly eighty years ago, during the waning days of the Second World War (of course this is small comfort to the hundreds of thousands of victims in Hiroshima and Nagasaki).
This is all the more surprising considering we now have nine countries with nuclear weapons, some of which have been governed by certifiable mass murders (e.g., Stalin and Mao) or by men with questionable moral positions on ordering nuclear strikes (e.g., Nixon). One would think sheer probability would have resulted in at least an accidental launch (of which we have had several close calls).
This got me wondering how this select group of nuclear-armed countries approach the weighty issue of using their nukes against another nation. The most recent and reliable source I could find is a 2018 article from the Council on Foreign Relations, which offers a country-by-country breakdown on the “no first use” policy, the position that nukes should never be used first in any conflict but only in retaliation to a nuclear strike.
Based on the article, I made the following map, which shows the distressing rarity of that commitment:
As explained in the article:
A so-called NFU pledge, first publicly made by China in 1964, refers to any authoritative statement by a nuclear weapon state to never be the first to use these weapons in a conflict, reserving them strictly to retaliate in the aftermath of a nuclear attack against its territory or military personnel. These pledges are a component of nuclear declaratory policies. As such, there can be no diplomatic arrangement to verify or enforce a declaratory NFU pledge, and such pledges alone do not affect capabilities. States with such pledges would be technically able to still use nuclear weapons first in a conflict, and their adversaries have generally not trusted NFU assurances. Today, China is the only nuclear weapon state to maintain an unconditional NFU pledge.
Given that such pledges are not binding, it is odd that more nations do not make them anyway; China’s lone commitment to this stance—which only India comes close to echoing—may not count for much, but clearly it carries enough significance for other nuclear powers to avoid it.
In fact, the United States had previously considered adopting an NFU policy, but has refrained from doing so out of fear that it might indicate insufficient deterrence of foreign threats:
During the Cold War and even today, the credible threat of the United States using its nuclear weapons first against an adversary has been an important component of reassuring allies. At the height of the Cold War, the threat of U.S. tactical nuclear use was conceived of as a critical bulwark against a conventional Soviet offensive through the Fulda Gap, a strategically significant lowland corridor in Germany that would allow Warsaw Pact forces to enter Western Europe. A nuclear first-use policy was thought to be a cornerstone of the defensive posture of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), given the large number of bases of Warsaw Pact conventional military forces. Accordingly, NATO has always opposed a U.S. NFU declaration and has never ruled out U.S. first use under its “flexible response” posture since 1967. Today, U.S. allies in East Asia and Europe alike rely on credible commitments from the United States to use nuclear weapons first to deter major nonnuclear threats against them.
I guess these pledges are not so vacuous after all.
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 contributions of our foreign allies to the Afghanistan War have been overlooked or downplayed throughout the 20-year conflict. But in proportion to their size, many of them committed more troops and funds, and suffered more casualties, than even the U.S.
The 9/11 attacks were the first time NATO invoked Article 5 of its treaty, which enshrines the principle of “collective defense” by recognizing an attack against one ally as an attack against all allies. Thus, all the other 29 members of NATO—along with 21 partner countries ranging from Australia to South Korea—contributed troops, money, and other aid to the war in Afghanistan.
(It is also worth adding that even the typically-deadlocked U.N. Security Council resoundingly supported American retaliation, indicating an exceptionally rate amount of international support.)
Besides the U.S., the top five countries to send troops were the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Italy, and Canada. The U.K. in particular supplied roughly two to three times the troops of the other top contributing allies relative to its population.
British and Canadian troops put their lives at risk at twice the rate of American troops, when seen as a percentage of each country’s peak deployment. Proportionally, both suffered more than double the casualties of U.S. forces, while France suffered a similar rate.
As proportion of their military, many smaller countries played an outsized role, with Denmark, Estonia, Georgia, Norway, and North Macedonia ranking near the top after the U.S. and U.K.; consequently, some of these countries suffered the highest fatality rates per capita.
The top contributing allies lost over a thousand lives in U.S.-led conflicts in Afghanistan as well as Iraq; all told, roughly half of all foreign military deaths in Afghanistan were among U.S. allies.
When measured as a percentage of their annual baseline military spending, the U.K. and Canada spent roughly half as much on Afghanistan as the U.S.; relative to their overall economic size, the U.K. spent more than the U.S., while Germany and Canada spent about the same.
This did not have to be our allies’ fight. The likes of Georgia, Norway, and South Korea (among dozens of others) had little to no skin in the game, aside from a broader sense that terrorism could potentially impact them. But even then, involvement would put them at greater risk of retaliation and domestic opposition (as Spain learned the hardest way when it lost nearly 200 lives in a terrorist attack perpetrated in response to its participation in Iraq).
The United Nations warned about the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan for years, and just three months ago published a report with tragically accurate warnings about the repercussions of a hasty withdrawal. It is a grim reminder that we should pay more attention to international institutions like the U.N., since they benefit from having a large pool of resources from different countries, and are given access that most governments are denied.
The U.N. report stated the Taliban was trying to demoralize the government, intimidate the populace, and put “major pressure” on near the capital, “massing forces around key provincial capitals and district centers, enabling them to remain poised to launch attacks”—which we saw play out in barely two weeks.
U.N. observers believed the Taliban were planning their operations around the withdrawal date announced by Trump and Biden when foreign troops would “no longer [be] able to effectively respond”. It cautioned that the Afghan military was “in decline” and that our departure “will challenge Afghan Forces by limiting aerial operation with fewer drones and radar and surveillance capabilities, less logistical support and artillery, as well as a disruption in training”—again, all this explained why the government melted away so soon.
The U.N. also predicted that the Taliban would target departing foreign troops to “score propaganda points” and believed the group is “closely aligned” with al-Qaeda, with “no indication of breaking ties” despite trying to mask their connections. To make matters worse, the U.N. believes Islamic State may position itself in Afghanistan, which recent news reports suggest is already happening.
While it remains to be seen whether some of the pending predictions come true, the U.N.’s overall conclusion was sadly spot on: “The Afghan Taliban poses a major threat to the survival of the Afghan government, which is likely to substantially grow with the full withdrawal of U.S. forces”.
[Literally one day after I shared the U.N. report on social media, Kabul’s airport was attacked by an Islamic State affiliate, killing over a dozen Americans and scores of Afghans desperately trying to flee. The report had warned of other extremist groups that are or will grow more powerful, often with tacit Taliban support, and that the Taliban would take full advantage of our withdrawal and target departing foreign troops to “score propaganda points”. Sadly, it was once again not too far off the mark.]
I am not sure how many more disasters and tragedies it will take for us to learn to listen to our international partners, many of whom have intelligence networks and resources we lack. One does not have to be a “globalist” to recognize that — the writing was almost literally on the wall.