The Shanghai Cooperation Organization

It is not a a household name like NATO and the European Union, but the milquetoast-sounding Shanghai Cooperation Organization may become one of the most important geopolitical blocs in the world. Iran’s recent entry into the Eurasian alliance has given it a rare spotlight in mainstream Western news media.

Founded two decades ago, the SCO is the world’s largest regional organisation, covering three-fifths of the Eurasian continent, nearly half the human population, and one-fifth of global GDP. It originated from a mutual security agreement in the 1990s between Russia, China, and several Central Asian countries (all former Soviet republics), which committed to maintaining “military trust” along their border regions.

But since being announced by member governments in Shanghai in 2001, the SCO has become more integrated along political, economic, and even cultural lines, in addition to beefing up military cooperation beyond simply maintaining border security. The fact that the alliance is led by two of America’s chief rivals, and comprised mostly of authoritarian countries, certainly adds to its image as the principal antinode to the Western-led world order.

No doubt Iran’s membership will add to that perception, though it also joins the likes of India and Pakistan, which became members in 2017, both of which are close (if tenuous) partners with the United States and other Western countries.

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In fact, many analysts warn that the perception of the SCO as an anti-American or anti-Western bloc is vastly overstated. While it is certainly predicated on the idea of a “multipolar” world—coded language for an international order not dominated by the U.S. specifically—the group is far from presenting itself as anything akin to an “Eastern” NATO:

Rather than major political or economic gains, Iran’s main takeaway from this success in the short term may be limited to a boost in prestige and diplomacy.

The main issue with Iran’s approach towards the SCO is that it looks at it as a “concert of non-Western great powers” rather than a modern international organisation, and views it in an anti-Western or anti-US setting, says Hamidreza Azizi, visiting fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP).

“This is despite the fact that countries such as Pakistan and India are US’s close partners, and even Russia and China have never been willing to openly challenge the US on the global scene,” Azizi told Al Jazeera.

“The combination of these two misunderstandings, and also Iran’s self-perception as a natural hegemon in West Asia, would make the whole thing appear to the Iranian leaders as Iran joining other anti-Western great powers to form a strong coalition that is going to challenge the US hegemony.”

Azizi added that SCO members are reluctant to entangle themselves in Iran’s rivalries, which may be why, on Friday, they also admitted Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Egypt as “dialogue partners” in a balancing effort.

From a diplomatic perspective, the approval is significant.

Indeed, for a country as diplomatically and economically isolated as Iran, joining such a large and imposing regional body, whatever its limitations, is at least good optics.

SCO MAP 10 July 2015 - Including two new permanent members Pakistan and India.png
A slightly dated map showing SCO partners (dark green), observers (light green) and “dialogue partners” (yellow). Source: Wikimedia Commons

The SCO is far from being a full-fledged alliance with formal and binding commitments among its members; there is nothing like NATO’s Article 5, which obligates all members to come to the defense of another member in an attack, nor does it have the level of economic integration of the European Union. As one analyst describes it, the SCO is more of a “venue” for discussion among “high-level dignitaries”—which is perfectly suited for mostly autocratic countries that jealously guard their sovereignty.

Still, many powerful regional blocs like the EU did start from humble beginnings, growing from diplomatic talk shops to fully institutionalized arrangements over the span of decades. A wide array of countries have expressed interest in joining the group or are currently engaged with it in some way, including NATO members like Turkey and strategic partners like Saudi Arabia. It remains to be seen if the SCO will ever become as tightly integrated as its Western counterparts, though this is unlikely given its explicit commitment to nonintervention in members’ affairs—which ironically makes it all the more appealing for certain countries to join.

The Rise of Killer Drones

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.

See the source image
The alleged killer drone, the Turkish-built Kargu-2

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.

Washington Post

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.

Infographic: The Countries Set To Dominate Drone Warfare  | Statista

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…

America the Upstart

The United States is one of nearly 200 countries. Americans are less than five percent of the world’s population. Our nation just turned 244 and has been a superpower for only about 80-100 years—a drop in the bucket in humanity’s 250,000-year history. Iran alone is heir to several empires spanning over 2,000 years, including one of the first in history, the Achaemenid. One of them, the Sassanian Empire, was a global superpower for four centuries, rivaled only by the Roman-Byzantine Empire (which it continually fought for 400 years). Egypt was forming into one of the world’s first and most powerful civilizations back when woolly mammoths were still around.

For much of the last 2,000 years, about a third of all humans lived in what is now China, and perhaps another third in what is now India; until just two hundred years ago, they jointly made up half the world’s economy. The bulk of all humans who ever lived—and thus the bulk of human activity, art, invention, ideas, political intrigue—were in two places that are barely a blip to the minds of most Americans. Similarly, there was a time when Islamic civilization was the pinnacle of human progress and power, such that even non-Muslim rivals and combatants conceded its ascendancy.

My overall point is that history is a product of hindsight: Looking back on it—which most people can’t or don’t—makes it easy to forget that we are part of the same continuing processes and narratives. Americans, as in many powerful civilizations before, view ourselves as the center of the world. But that can and will inevitably change, and probably very quickly (at least by historical standards)—just as it did for our dozens of predecessors, many of which were longer lived and more powerful for their time. We would do best to learn not only from history—which is a predictable, if still unheeded lesson—but also from those nations that have a lot more to teach us by virtue of their age and experience.

The Countries Whose Citizens Are Most Likely Fight a War

According to a 2015 WIN/Gallup International global survey, which asked respondents in 64 countries whether they would be willing to fight for their country in a war, Japan had the fewest people willing to go to war (11%) while Morocco and Fiji tied for the highest (94%). The U.S. and Russia were at 44% and 59% respectively, while rising powers China and India were at 71% and 75% respectively.

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Regionally, Europe had fewest people willing to fight a war for their country while Asia had the most.

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A total of 62,398 individuals were surveyed globally between September and December of 2014, with roughly 1,000 men and women serving a representative sample for each country. Interviews were conducted in person, by phone, or online. I’d be curious to know how much the results have changed since 2014.

Of course, a willingness to go to war in the abstract does not necessarily mean that one will answer the call of war if it actually comes. I think Americans in particular are far more gung ho about war in theory — from which the vast majority are far removed from experientially — than in practice. (Tellingly, a lot of the higher-ranking countries in terms of willingness to go to war — such as Finland, Russia, and Turkey — have compulsory military service.)

Sources: Brilliant Maps; Gallup International

The World’s Most Canny Politician

Running an emerging global power and vibrant democracy would be hard enough without having one of the world’s most oppressive, erratic, and brutal states next door.

Yet South Korean leader Moon Jae In, less than a year into his presidency, has not only governed his prosperous country fairly well (if his stellar approval ratings are any indication), but he’s pulled off an amazing feat virtually no one though possible (much less any world leader): getting North Korea to tone down its bellicose rhetoric, suspend its nuclear program, and express willingness to participate in an historic summit between his nation and the North’s archenemy the United States — the two nations are even setting up a direct hotline between their leaders, which will not only mitigate the likelihood of an escalating conflict, but is a big symbol of the potential for normal relations (and one would hope, eventually reunification). Continue reading

Africa’s Ambitious New Free Trade Agreement

To most outsiders, Africa is a perpetually chaotic and conflict-ridden place, despite the fact that wars on the continent (both civil and inter-state) are at a historic low (albeit from a high base and with some nasty conflicts still brewing).

To take advantage of these improving political circumstances, and its nascent economic potential, most of Africa is coming together to forge the sort of pact typically seen as the pursuit of wealthier states: a united commercial market known as the African Continental Free Trade Area

From The Washington Post (bolding mine):

On Mar. 21, 44 African heads of state and government officials met in Kigali, Rwanda, to sign the framework to establish this initiative of the African Union.

The AfCFTA will come into effect 30 days after ratification by the parliaments of at least 22 countries. Each country has 120 days after signing the framework to ratify.

This will be one of the world’s largest free-trade areas in terms of the number of countries, covering more than 1.2 billion people and over $4 trillion in combined consumer and business spending if all 55 countries join. 

[…]

It creates a single continental market for goods and services as well as a customs union with free movement of capital and business travelers. The African Union agreed in January 2012 to develop the AfCFTA. It took eight rounds of negotiations, beginning in 2015 and lasting until December 2017, to reach agreement.

The A.U. and its member countries hope the AfCFTA will accelerate continental integration and address the overlapping membership of the continent’s regional economic communities (RECs). Many African countries belong to multiple RECs, which tends to limit the efficiency and effectiveness of these organizations.

One of its central goals is to boost African economies by harmonizing trade liberalization across subregions and at the continental level. As a part of the AfCFTA, countries have committed to remove tariffs on 90 percent of goods. According to the U.N. Economic Commission on Africa, intra-African trade is likely to increase by 52.3 percent under the AfCFTA and will double upon the further removal of non-tariff barriers.

In addition to facilitating existing economic activity, it is hoped that ACFTA will help promote Africa’s underdeveloped but fast growing manufacturing sector, diversifying its economies beyond agriculture and resource extraction.

While it remains to be seen how this ambitious effort will play out, it is definitely a step in the right direction, especially for a region that is the youngest and most potentially dynamic in the world.

The World’s Most Ambitious Megaproject

China is marking its entrance onto the world stage as a great power in an unprecedented way: the $4-6 trillion One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative, an extensive network of infrastructure — railways, roads, pipelines, and energy grids — that will link China with 65 countries across Asia, Africa, and Europe. By the time it is completed in 2049, OBOR will span 62% of the world’s population and 40% of its economic output.

china-one-belt-one-road Continue reading

Africa’s Greatest Success Story

Few people have ever heard of the island nation of Mauritius, located 1,200 miles off the coast of Africa. Perhaps its sole claim to fame, if any, is that it was the only habitat of the extinct dodo. But as op-ed in the Daily Maverick reveals, this tiny country of just 1.3 million is a regional heavyweight in social, economic, and political development:

Mauritius’ average score in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business indicators is 77.54, ranking it 25th worldwide, compared to the sub-Saharan average of 50.43, or the score of its Indian Ocean neighbour Madagascar in 162nd position at 47.67. The next highest sub-Saharan African country, Rwanda, is in 41st slot. Kenya is at 80, South Africa 81st, and Botswana 82nd.

On the Ibrahim Index of African Governance, defined as the provision of the political, social and economic public goods, Mauritius again tops the African rankings, scoring 81.4 in 2017. Seychelles is second with 73.4, with Botswana completing the top three with a score of 72.7.

Mauritius’ GDP per capita is $9,630, well above the sub-Saharan African average ($1,464), that of Madagascar ($401), and South Africa and Botswana ($5,284 and $6,924). Only in this key regard does it rank below Seychelles where, with a population of just 95,000, it’s over $15,000. The average life expectancy of Mauritians in 1960 was 58; now it’s 74, whereas sub-Saharan Africa has gone from 40 to 59 over the same period.

Indeed, Mauritius’ economy has enjoyed average annual growth of 5 percent since its independence from the U.K. in 1968. This is a rare distinction both regionally and globally, and speaks to the country’s stable and effective governance despite its humble and unpromising beginnings. Continue reading

Democracy in Retreat?

Democracy Index 2017

The above map shows the state of democracy in the world as of 2017, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index. The results are based on 60 indicators that span five categories: electoral process and pluralism; civil liberties; the functioning of government; political participation; and political culture. Each country is classified as one of four types of regime: Continue reading