Looking Ahead to a Russian Centennial

In less than three years, Russia will mark an occasion sure to arouse controversy and emotion: the 100th anniversary of the October 1917 Revolution, one of the defining moments of the 20th Century. The revolution uprooted the Russian population, split the country, and in the upheaval that ensued, millions lost their lives or fled their homes to join diasporas overseas. What followed was the establishment of a Communist regime that would remain one of the dominant global forces until the early 1990s: The Soviet Union's birth pangs were of war and unprecedented devastation. As the dust settled, the victorious Communist Party set out to establish total control of their territory's social and historical narrative, ensuring that only the Soviet side of the story was seen as official, or indeed even seen at all.  

It is not yet clear what line Russia's contemporary leaders will take in marking this centennial. During the Cold War, the Soviet government ensured that its revolutionary victory was celebrated as a massive, countrywide pageant in which the entire state must participate. Its purpose was to elicit a patriotic outpouring of gratitude for the achievements of the Soviet regime. Soviet media and Moscow's massive propaganda machine portrayed the actions of the Communist revolutionaries as just, necessary and inviolate. The "Reds" - Communist forces and their allies - were the good guys, while the "Whites" - counterrevolutionaries, monarchists, the pro-Tsarist nobility, Western imperialists and former Tsarist military elites - were represented as antagonistic, unjust, evil, and representatives of a rotten regime whose time had come. "Whites" had to be destroyed in order to make way for a new country whose bright future would be guided by social, economic and political egalitarianism. 

A chance to review history

Following the dissolution of the USSR, when a more objective view of the October Revolution could be attained - with archives and numerous documents declassified - many competing narratives emerged about events that had been so carefully guarded by the Soviet government - including what really transpired during the bloody civil war of 1917-1920. Vladimir Putin will face a dilemma in 2017: how to mark the anniversary of the demise of the a Russian Empire that lasted 400 years, and whose former glory he is seeking to partially reestablish, while at the same time according credibility and respect to the events that birthed a massive Soviet superpower. 

In fact, 1917 was marked by two Russian revolutions - the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II in February, followed by a Communist coup in October of that year. The former event led to the establishment of a democratic Russian parliament as the central ruling authority - the Provisional Government - while the latter was followed by a civil war that wrecked the country's economy and destroyed its social strata and political order before the emergence of a strong, centralized Soviet Union. 

During that pivotal year, the Russian Empire and its newly formed government faced a confluence of adverse factors that led to its eventual downfall: Its economy was under enormous economic strain due to World War I - millions of soldiers were manning the front lines and not the factories or farms. Meanwhile a string of military defeats at the hands of Germans begat a lack of confidence in the ruling elite's ability to assert the glory of the empire and lead the nation. The Provisional Government - made up of liberals, socialists and otherwise reform-minded politicians - had no answer for these vast challenges. Throughout society, competing political narratives and principles emerged to challenge Russia's monarchy and its political and social structures. 

At that pivotal moment in the country's democratic infancy, pro-Communist forces seized the initiative and led a coup in October that disbanded the Provisional Government, seized control of the capital - Petrograd - and pitted many competing interests against each other in what would eventually become a civil war of - Reds against Whites. Soviet propaganda later portrayed revolutionary actions as necessary in order to save the nation, rescue it from economic and political decline, and establish a strong, centralized regime with the ability to lead the nation and realize its full potential. In the Soviet view, the bloody civil war was needed to sweep aside any reactionary forces that sought to return the Empire to the status quo - either by restoring the Tsar to the throne or by keeping the power in the hands of the nobility and the emerging capitalist classes who had driven Russia's integration into the global economy.

Following the events of 1917, Soviet propaganda rallied the masses to eventual victory with simple slogans that criticized "Western imperialist" meddling in Russian affairs and sought to portray capitalist entities as foreign to Russian historical and social principles. While the industry that brought modernization to the Russian Empire prior to World War I produced the working classes so intrinsic to Soviet revolutionary victory, they were seen as agents of foreign influence and of principles that stood in the way of a unique system championed by the Communist Party across the former Russian Empire. 

In the past several years, Putin's government has employed a socio-political narrative that capitalizes on Russia's failed transition to a full market economy and to Western-style democracy between 1991-2001. Today, large segments of Russian society rue that decade. It is seen by many as a time of unrealized hope, of loss of economic power and global prestige, of a breakdown of the rule of law, a rise in criminality, and of military instability in regions such as Chechnya and the Caucasus. Putin's popularity is owed in large part to the real and perceived steps he has taken to centralize power for the sake of the country's economic and social stability. Even today, as the Russian economy and state face considerable pushback to their actions in eastern Ukraine, the majority of the population supports the government against what many view as Western influence in territories that were historically under Russian influence. 

As the anniversary of both 1917 revolutions approaches, Putin's government will have to choose how to celebrate events with so much importance to the history of Russian state. Authorities could draw a parallel between the months from February to October 1917 and the years from 1991 to 2001, emphasizing that Western liberal notions of representative democracy and capitalist economic principles have repeatedly failed to address the need for stability of a large state with so many social, economic, ethnic, and cultural nuances. And while troves of information about Red and White excesses during the civil war are readily available to the Russian population, Putin would not let slip by a chance to emphasize that the October revolution led to the establishment of the Soviet Union as a superpower. Russians are already indulging in a revival of cult Soviet personalities such as Joseph Stalin, and Putin has called the dissolution of Soviet Union in 1991 "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century."  As the 2017 centennial dates approach, the Russian government will try to strike a balance: acknowledging the negative consequences of the February and October events, while seeking to drive home the idea that it was all for Russia's greater good.

(AP photo)

Even 'Novorossiya' Isn't that into Russia Anymore

Ukraine's East-West divide has been bridged in at least one respect: From the Black Sea to the steppes, Ukrainians of every stripe have turned their back on Russia. 

Gallup went to work in Ukraine - everywhere except the separatist-controlled areas of Donetsk and Luhansk, as well as Russia-annexed Crimea - to ask the citizens of that unsteady nation what they think about the leadership of the European Union, Russia, and the United States. The findings reveal that no matter what their feelings are toward the EuroMaidan movement that toppled Viktor Yanukovych, Ukrainians have no appettite for further Russian interference.

As Julie Ray and Neli Esipova put it: "Any kinship Ukrainians used to feel with Moscow's leadership is gone after Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region in March."

In a companion survey, Gallup found that Ukrainians by wide margins prioritize relations with the European Union and the United States, even at the cost of hurting relations with Russia. Here regional preferences shade the results, but even in South and East Ukraine - the area Moscow has relabeled as Novorossiya - only one in four respondents favored closer relations with Russia if this came at the expense of Ukraine's relationship with the West.

If Gallup's snapshot is correct, such a notable change in sentiment means that any surprise Putin has in store will probably not involve a military effort to lay claim to "Novorossiya." It seems far more likely now that an already difficult military advance would be further complicated by a broader insurgency. As Stratfor analyst Lauren Goodrich pointed out in March: "The population in eastern Ukraine may be pro-Russian at this moment, may be talking about annexation themselves, but once you have Russian tanks roll down your street, you're not so pro-Russian anymore." Funny how an invasion will do that.

If the window for military action is closing, political instability in Kiev leaves plenty of openings for an opportunist Moscow to exploit. Russia after all doesn't need to overtly control Kiev, only to keep it weak and pliant. Gallup further found that views of the West - in particular of Germany - remain ambivalent, as Ukrainians wonder whether the West has the will to firmly back Ukraine against Moscow.

(AP photo)

Around the World, Pope Francis Is a Hit

Even before his observation that dogs go to heaven, Pope Francis has proven remarkably popular around the world. Now, Pew Research has quantified just how popular. 

Across 43 nations surveyed, the Pope enjoys a median favorable rating of 60 percent, with just 11 percent disapproving. His favorable ratings are lowest, not surprisingly, in the Middle East where countries like Turkey, Jordan and the Palestinian terrorities give the Catholic leader lower marks. In Europe, he's soaring. Here's the geographical breakout:

The Pope tends to poll well among Catholics and non-Catholics alike, but Pew found the biggest divergence in Latin America, where non-Catholics were more likely to have an unfavorable view.

Pope Francis' popularity appears to be translating into more activity in the Catholic Church as well. According to Fortune, donations to the Church are on the rise around the world.

(AP Photo)

Putin Tries to Deny the Tatar Claim to History

In a recent address to the nation, Russian President Vladimir Putin tried to tie his foreign and defense policies to one of the turning points in Russian history: the conversion to Christianity of Vladimir the Great, the prince of Kievan Rus, in Chersonesos, in present day Crimean peninsula, in the late 10th century. Claiming that Crimea is sacred to Russia in the same way the Temple Mount is to Jews and Muslims, Putin enshrined the peninsula as being inseparable from the larger history of Russia as a state and of Russians as a people. In so doing, Putin sought to create the basis for justification of recent Russian actions, as well as those yet to come.

This marks a departure from the standard Russian interpretation of history. For decades, history books and popular culture have viewed Crimea largely through the lens of its history as the state of the Crimean Tatars. The Tatars ruled present-day Crimea and Southeastern Ukraine in the late middle ages and warred with Russian principalities - and later the Muscovite Kingdom - for several centuries. The Crimean Khan accepted Muscovite Russian subjects and collected their taxes. At times the sovereign burned Moscow to the ground in a show of strength and as punishment for Russian defiance. Crimea allied with the growing Ottoman Empire in the 16th century. Russia was finally able to crush the Crimean Khanate under the rule of Peter the Great, in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. In other words, Putin's Temple Mount statement notwithstanding, Crimea has always been seen as a place of war and conquest. Putin now wants to place Crimea in a continuum of Russian theological origins. His Temple Mount statement folds the region's history neatly into the story of Russian Orthodox Christianity. This re-imagining comes at the expense of the peninsula's present-day and once-original inhabitants - the Crimean Tatars.

A tragic turn for the Tatars

Tatars were accorded varying degrees of tolerance during the rule of the Czars, from Peter down through Nicholas II. Tatar history took a tragic turn, however, under Soviet Rule, starting in the 1920s, when the new Soviet government sought to crush any dissent and destroy any semblance of national identity among the numerous peoples folded into the newly established Soviet Union. Since there could only be one ideology under Communist rule - that of secular egalitarianism and belief in the Communist Party - no other national or ethnic identity was allowed to develop and flourish.

The Tatars' greatest tragedy began in 1944, when Joseph Stalin ordered their forced exile - out of Crimea and into the cold emptiness of Kazakh steppes and Russian labor camps. Nearly 200,000 people were uprooted from lands they had occupied for nearly five centuries. Many died en route and in the place of their unwelcome sojourn. Their deportation was triggered by Stalin's perception that these Tatars welcomed German armies and German rule in the first half of World War II. Such treatment was the fate of many ethnic nationalities that the victorious Soviet regime saw as pro-German - or as not pro-Soviet enough - and millions more were sent away to a promise of destitution and death.

The Crimean Tatars suffered in the most acute sense. Their entire population had seemingly been slated for extermination. Those who survived were left more or less alone once Stalinist paranoia subsided across the country. Starting with the political changes that marked Gorbachev's "perestroika," some Crimean Tatars began returning to their ancestral home. Their communities settled across the peninsula, and before Russian military actions this year, Crimea's numbers included nearly 300,000 Tatars.

The repatriation was not always smooth: Returning Tatars often found that ethnic Ukrainians and Russians had lived for decades on what the returnees viewed as their property. Conflicts over land and settlement rights occasionally flared up. Presently, Crimean Tatars fear that Russia's annexation of the peninsula will bring back the history of repression.

Moscow in fact has already taken significant steps to limit Crimean Tatars' political independence, barring Tatar leaders from returning to Crimea from Kiev; randomly arresting young men Moscow characterizes as extremist Muslims; and raiding mosques and schools. Locals fear such shows of force are meant to instill fear into a now twice-conquered people. Although the Ukrainian government did not explicitly limit celebrations of Crimean Tatar identity, the situation now may change drastically, since so much of Crimean Tatar history involves a direct competition with Russia for statehood and independence, punctuated by large-scale warfare and the destruction of entire regions. Can Russia allow people under its control to celebrate a history that seems to undermine Moscow's own narrative of ethnic-Russian military and religious victories?

This brings us to the question of how Russian popular culture will now portray Crimea and its people following Putin's recent statement - and in light of the bloody history between Crimean Tatars and ethnic Russians. Websites in Russia are replete with stories of Tatar abuses of the Russian population in 1943, when Ukraine and Crimea were under German control. Narratives that unfold like this:

"According to a special note from Chief of Soviet Secret Police Lavrenty Beria to Joseph Stalin, the local (Crimean) population complained that it suffered greater repression at the hands of Crimean Tatars than from (pro-German) Romanian occupation forces... Local Russian-speaking population appealed to occupying German forces for protection against Tatars ...and received it..."

For 25 years, Crimean Tatars lived outside of Moscow's direct reach and beyond its attempts to shift the memory of history to a narrative more favorable to Russia. Now, a population with much to fear from Russia is under Putin's direct control. Will suspicion continue to dominate the Russian government's perception of its new subjects? Current events on the ground suggest so, with potentially negative consequences for Crimean Tatars' history and ethnic identity.

Findings from the U.S. Senate Report on CIA Interrogation Methods

The U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence today released a 500-page report on its study of the Central Intelligence Agency's detention and interrogation program - more forthrightly, the "CIA torture report."

The wisdom of declassifying such a sensitive report is certainly debatable. In its findings and conclusions, the report's authors say the CIA's methods damaged the United States' standing in the world, but it's hard to see how broadcasting them now will do much in the immediate term to mend that damage. Nevertheless, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, wrote in her foreword that the report should serve as a "warning for the future."

Feinstein is unsparing, decrying the "abuses and countless mistakes made between late 2001 and early 2009."

She continues:

"The major lesson of this report is that regardless of the pressures and the need to act, the Intelligence Community's actions must always reflect who we are as a nation, and adhere to our laws and standards. It is precisely at these times of national crisis that our government must be guided by the lessons of our history and subject decisions to internal and external review. Instead, CIA personnel, aided by two outside contractors, decided to initiate aprogram of indefinite secret detention and the use of brutal interrogation techniques in violation of U.S. law, treaty obligations, and our values. This Committee Study documents the abuses and countless mistakes madebetween late 2001 and early 2009."

The declassified report (the full committee study, at 6,700 pages, remains under wraps) is available here. The report's main findings:

  • The CIA's use of its enhanced interrogation techniques was not an effective means of acquiring intelligence or gaining cooperation from detainees.
  • The CIA's justification for the use of its enhanced interrogation techniques rested on inaccurate claims of their effectiveness.
  • The interrogations of CIA detainees were brutal and far worse than the CIA represented to policymakers and others.
  • The conditions of confinement for CIA detainees were harsher than the CIA had represented to policymakers and others.
  • The CIA repeatedly provided inaccurate information to the Department ofJustice, impeding a proper legal analysis of the CIA's Detention and Interrogation Program.
  • The CIA has actively avoided or impeded congressional oversight of the program.
  • The CIA impeded effective White House oversight and decision-making.
  • The CIA's operation and management of the program complicated, and in some cases impeded, the national security missions of other Executive Branch agencies.
  • The CIA impeded oversight by the CIA's Office of Inspector General.
  • The CIA coordinated the release of classified information to the media, including inaccurate information concerning the effectiveness of the CIA's enhanced interrogation techniques.
  • The CIA was unprepared as it began operating its Detention and Interrogation Program more than six months after being granted detention authorities.
  • The CIA's management and operation of its Detention and Interrogation Program was deeply flawed throughout the program's duration, particularly so in 2002 and early 2003.
  • Two contract psychologists devised the CIA's enhanced interrogation techniques and played a central role in the operation, assessments, and management of the CIA's Detention and Interrogation Program. By 2005, the CIA had overwhelmingly outsourced operations related to the program.
  • CIA detainees were subjected to coercive interrogation techniques that had not been approved by the Department of Justice or had not been authorized by CIA Headquarters.
  • The CIA did not conduct a comprehensive or accurate accounting of the number of individuals it detained, and held individuals who did not meet the legal standard for detention. The CIA's claims about the number of detainees held and subjected to its enhanced Interrogation techniques were inaccurate.
  • The CIA failed to adequately evaluate the effectiveness of its enhanced interrogation techniques.
  • The CIA rarely reprimanded or held personnel accountable for serious and significant violations, inappropriate activities, and systemic and individual management failures.
  • The CIA marginalized and ignored numerous internal critiques, criticisms, and objections concerning the operation and management of the CIA's Detention and Interrogation Program.
  • The CIA's Detention and Interrogation Program was inherently unsustainable and had effectively ended by 2006 due to unauthorized press disclosures, reduced cooperation from other nations, and legal and oversight concerns.
  • The CIA's Detention and Interrogation Program damaged the United States' standing in the world, and resulted in other significant monetary and non-monetary costs.  
  • (AP photo)

    The Best Bet Against the Soft Power of the Islamic State

    In March 2013, rebels surrounded the Syrian army around Raqqa. From inside the city, residents pleaded with the rebels not to attack. While many citizens sympathized with the rebel cause, Raqqa was already full of refugees from other war-torn parts of Syria. They had finally found refuge and begged for their relative peace not to be disturbed yet again. The rebels did not listen, and after a quick assault, Raqqa became the first large city to fall under the full control of the forces in opposition to Bashar al Assad.

    That was almost two years ago. At the beginning of 2014, infighting broke out among rebels in the area, and the so-called Islamic State emerged victorious. Today, Raqqa is often referred to as their administrative capital. Those pleas issued by ordinary citizens two years ago might give us a small insight into the situation that paved the way for the Islamic State's formal entrance into the Syrian conflict.

    While conducting interviews for a documentary about Syria, I met a young former fighter who had left the Free Syrian Army due to their conduct in Raqqa. The fighter had joined the Free Syrian Army because he believed that overthrowing Assad is a fundamental necessity. However, he decided to flee after Raqqa fell and he saw fighters loot people's homes and steal their belongings. The rebels' behaviour outraged him. He had joined a fight against injustice. Every piece of land liberated by the FSA, he believed, should become the complete opposite of Syria under Assad: no arbitrary detentions, no excessive force against dissidents, and no sectarianism. He had not joined the Free Syrian Army to become a thug. 

    The Islamic State winning hearts and minds

    During the last year, the Islamic State has rampaged throughout Iraq and Syria. Only once they drew near Erbil and Baghdad did the United States move to roll them back, often with the help of uncomfortable allies such as the Hadi al-Amiri, the leader of the Iraqi Badr Brigades. In effect, the United States and Iran have the same allies on the ground in Iraq - a drastic turn in policy that underlines how seriously Washington and Tehran see the threat from the Islamic State.

    The military advances of the Islamic State, and their brutality, have been well documented by journalists and analysts. However, their successes are not only due to military prowess - equally important is their ability to provide a sense of safety and normality to their subjects. How do they administer the areas they control? What services to they provide?

    Any strategy to erase the Islamic State from the region clearly requires a decisive military component. But also crucial is a recognition that soft power is paramount to the Islamic State's success. If the group is to be permanently dislodged, its opponents need to administer the areas in a better fashion than the Islamic State and gain the support of the local population.

    The Islamic State does several things to raise public support. They administer relief aid for the most needy citizens, often filming the actions for online advertising. The Islamic State has also contracted engineers to repair or even build new bridges across the Euphrates. A contact currently based in Raqqa, who wishes to remain anonymous, also told me the group has employed former Syrian state employees to work on restoring water supplies.

    After having "revised" the traditional Syrian school curriculum to fit their moral views, the Islamic State began last year to open schools for children living in the areas under ISIS control. These schools indoctrinate students from a very early age, and they also provide military training. This should be particularly frightening for Western policy makers. But in a devastated country where schooling had been unavailable in opposition areas for three years, parents welcome the Islamic State's efforts to teach their children how to read and write.

    The organization's sale of oil to mainly Turkish dealers has received much media scrutiny. But the Islamic State also sells its oil at subsidized rates to the population under its control. Again, such public policy is something quickly turns local public opinion.

    The final aspect of the group's soft power is perhaps the most important. The Islamic State has two types of legal system. The first applies to enemy combatants. These fighters are not tried in courts and are often summarily and brutally executed. For citizens, however, there are courts administered under rule of law. While legal systems exist in other opposition-controlled areas, the Islamic State's courts are the most transparent and fair. If you break the law you will be harshly punished; if you do not, you are fine. Having lived for three years under near-total anarchy in the north and east of Syria, residents welcome Islamic State efforts.

    Syria's rebels as an opportunity

    U.S. President Barack Obama has so far seen Iraq as the main battlefront against the Islamic State, reasoning that the Iraqi government and the Kurds can supply foot soldiers that can engage the enemy. As a short-term approach this seems reasonable, but in the long run it will not succeed. Part of the reason for the Islamic State's success is that the group is seen by alienated Sunni civilians as the lesser of two evils. The Iraqi army, composed mainly of Shiites transported from the south of the country to patrol Sunni cities in the north, are seen as extending the reach of Baghdad's sectarian policies.

    Yet the current anti-ISIS strategy relies on, well, sending Shiites to patrol Sunni streets. If Washington hopes to slowly gain the approval of Sunni tribal allies, this doesn't seem a hopeful strategy. The tribes that largely routed Islamic State's predecessor, al Qaeda in Iraq, are not likely to take up arms against the Islamic State in the absence of a neutral force such as the American army. If the tribes ally with Baghdad, they know they are welcoming ruthless Shiite militias into their homes. The Islamic State has also learned from the Anbar Awakening in 2005 and has set in motion a strategy to pre-empt tribal insurrection. For the last few years they have carried out targeted assassinations of key tribal leaders, often filming their drive-by shootings and posting them online. This long-term strategy has been largely ignored by the media.

    I have previously on these pages argued for the establishment of a strategy to form a more coherent Syrian opposition. This strategy should be coupled with an effort to form some sense of normality in the areas controlled by the opposition. Obama has described the rebels as being "made up of former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth." In fact, Syrian rebels do need exactly those types of people, perhaps not as fighters, but to provide services. Brutal as he may be, the leader of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, seems to possess a better understanding of how to win hearts and minds in the war-torn territories than does Obama. In an audio statement released in July, Baghdadi urged supporters to emigrate to ISIS-controlled areas, saying: "We make a special call to the scholars, fuqahā' (experts in Islamic jurisprudence), and callers, especially the judges, as well as people with military, administrative, and service expertise, and medical doctors and engineers of all different specialisations and fields." Baghdadi understands that in order to win the war, he needs hard military power, but he also needs doctors, farmers, and administrators.

    In the search for long-term solutions, the Syrian rebels seem to be best positioned to drive back the Islamic State. A coherent Syrian force can take back Der-er-Zor and Raqqa without being seen as occupiers. No other regional actor is in such a favorable position. To rely on Iraqi Kurds and Shiites would be to repeat the same mistake and expect a different result: the definition of insanity. If Syrian rebels become a more coherent fighting force, and if they are trained in how to administer the areas they occupy, we might start seeing a serious rollback of the Islamic State. If this aspect of the conflict is not recognized, then the Islamic State's grip on large parts of Syria is more likely to endure.

    Putin Leads the Russian Power Play

    Andy Langenkamp is a global policy analyst for ECR Research.

    Russian President Vladimir Putin has annexed Crimea, stirred up revolt in eastern Ukraine, and kept the fires of revolt burning bright - all while signing two mega-deals with China on gas supplies and pipelines. The global attention he has drawn has no contemporary parallel, and it's clear enough that U.S. president Barack Obama and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping are no match on the power politics stage for their colleague from Russia. Forbes named Putin the world's most powerful man this year for good reason: Indeed it is not too much to say that Vladimir Putin has put power politics back onto the European map.

    Boxing Versus Trading

    Europe cannot afford to remain passive. It has played a weak hand badly so far, and the problem is that Europe is no longer set up to play power games. Europeans are unsure how to handle a man who has donned boxing gloves and has no qualms about using hard power to expand his country's sphere of influence.

    In Europe, geopolitics has fallen out of favor in recent decades. Normative policy expansion and trade interests have been given such primacy, in fact, that member states seem unable to understand why any country would opt for confrontation, rather than just carry on doing business together. Europe holds an implicit belief that the whole world will shift toward a capitalist, democratic system in which it would be unthinkable to take up weapons against trade partners - or anyone who might become a trade partner.

    Is Europe Naive?

    Global developments have clearly shown the error of this approach. Armies may no longer feature in relationships among European countries, but Europe was naive to think that the same would apply outside the union's borders: Europe's demilitarization did not set an example for the rest of the world.

    Typical of the gulf between Europe and large parts of the wider world is the approach to commodities. Until recently, Europe viewed resources almost exclusively as a trade issue. This basically implies that after some negotiation, a price is set, and everyone is happy. By contrast, elsewhere in the world - including in the United States - commodities are seen in the context of power politics, and supplies are considered essential to national security. European politicians are becoming aware of this discrepancy, but it will be some time before a changed mindset translates into policy.

    The Power Triad 

    Now that Putin has put power politics back on the European map, it makes sense to analyse what constitutes power in international relations. Roughly speaking, power has three aspects: military, political, and economic. Europe has focused too much on the latter while paying scant attention to the first component. European leaders declared from the start of the Ukraine crisis that military action was out of the question. This was unwise. Meanwhile, Putin deployed a hybrid strategy of military smoke screens, commandos, propaganda, economic pressure, energy policy and diplomacy.
    The stress tests Europe carries out on its banks provide an apt metaphor to illustrate why Europe will probably waver again. John Gapper wrote: "The authorities can run all kinds of stress tests on ... banks, trying to predict how well they would bear losses in a future crisis. The stress test they really need to run is on themselves - whether they will stick to their promise to work nicely with each other or will revert to self-interest." So far, Europe has been unable to take measures decisive enough to counter Russia - and more cracks will likely appear in the ‘united' European front as the stress increases.

    Undoubtedly, Putin will do his best to increase that pressure and to maintain a degree of control over Ukraine. The pro-European results of the Ukraine elections will have displeased him, and Putin will try to destroy any semblance of unity in Kiev. The rebels lack firm footing in eastern Ukraine, so they continue to rely on Russia. Putin seems to feel that Moscow should have more control - by continuing to send troops and materiel, he can secure the rebels' loyalty. Crimea is a worry for Putin because it is virtually isolated and cannot easily be supplied. Ideally, Putin would like to dominate a continuous area from eastern Ukraine to Crimea via his proxies.

    Who will blink first?

    Increasingly, power politics and economic policy overlap. Agreements such as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership and the Trans-Pacific Partnership are not just tools to generate growth - they are geopolitical instruments. Such developments can undermine consumer and producer confidence.

    Russia is hampered by its aggressive foreign policy. Russian growth will slow further. Russian companies struggle to attain financing, and reserves that were supposed to be allocated to infrastructure are now used to purchase corporate bonds as a way to provide businesses with cash. One implication is that the (already poor) Russian infrastructure is thrown back even further.

    But if Putin doesn't back down, Europe's unity will continue to be tested, and the result could well be disappointing. Politicians may be tempted to look inward rather than outward as they attempt to deal with what could turn out to be the biggest threat to the Eurozone and the European Union: disgruntled voters whose fears for their financial futures will be exacerbated by geopolitical instability. A dissatisfied electorate that is suspicious of the powers that be is one reason economic growth in Europe is bound to continue to be sluggish for a prolonged period. This in turn will undermine Europe's soft and hard power capacities even further. 

    (AP photo)

    This Just In: Afghanistan Is in Bad Shape

    As President Obama faces pressure to step up the campaign against ISIS, Gallup is out with some new research into the wellbeing of Afghanistan -- a country that has been on the receiving end of substantial investment in U.S. blood and treasure for well over a decade. The results are grim. 

    Here's how Gallup's Steve Crabtree put it: "Already the worst in the world in 2013, Afghans' ratings of their lives declined even further in 2014. More than six in 10 Afghans evaluate their lives poorly enough to be considered 'suffering' -- the highest figure ever recorded for any country since Gallup started tracking life evaluations in 2005. As in 2013, no Afghans rate their lives highly enough to be considered 'thriving.'"

    The percentage of Afghans who described themselves as thriving was not always zero. In 2010, Gallup found the percentage up to 12 percent, having grown year-over-year since 2008. Not great, obviously, but at least moving in the right direction.

    Here's a geographic breakdown of where suffering rates are highest:

    The South was a Taliban stronghold before the U.S. invasion and recent news reports indicate steady Taliban advances and bolder military assaults in the region, which likely contributes to the suffering rates (if not explains them outright). As for Western Afghanistan, it is, as Gallup notes, a bastion for opium addiction. 

    The NATO mission in Afghanistan ended this year (although they're not quite getting completely out). After 13 years, the costs and benefits of the U.S. nation-building committment there will certainly be debated for years, if not decades, to come. 

    (AP Photo)

    Harsh Lessons for Sweden

    Sweden has long been a beacon for some political parties in Europe. Bring up Stockholm's immigration policies with any center-left politician in the Netherlands, France, or Great Britain, though, and you'll be met with exasperation and incredulity.

    The Swedish minority government has fallen. The far-right Sweden Democrats in essence brought the fresh center-left coalition down over the party's demands for changes to immigration policies - changes that Prime Minister Stefan Lofven of the Social Democratic Party, and his coalition partner, the Green Party, refused to accept.

    Determined not to compromise with parties on the right, Lofven formed a minority government with the Green Party shortly after elections in September. He was opposed by center-right parties who disagree with his socio-economic policies but are generally in alignment concerning refugees and asylum seekers. Not so the Sweden Democrats. The party wholly rejects Sweden's current asylum policies.

    Lofven made another gamble by sticking to the previous government's liberal policies on asylum, in combination with his new government's center-left budget. The policy cocktail proved too much to bear, both for the center-right opposition and for the Sweden Democrats. Although the parties generally loathe each other, their vote went against the budget, and it was rejected. Lofven called new elections; yet another gamble, one through which Lofven hopes to finally attain a majority.

    Lofven's Gambit

    This now puts Swedish voters in a bind. Lofven will likely cast the opposition parties as irresponsible, but the minds of many voters will be on immigration, thanks to Sweden Democrats' move.

    A social problem is brewing in Sweden. The country has thus far been very welcoming to refugees from wartorn countries such as Syria. Former Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt roused Swedes when he bluntly stated that Sweden should accept more asylum seekers, regardless of popular opinion. The Scandinavian country, however, seems stuck in the 1990s. It continues to accept refugees from countries with different cultures, but it doesn't seem to have thought through what to do with them. In 2013, riots hit the Stockholm suburbs, with many cars burnt throughout areas populated by refugees. The main reason: unemployment and frustration.

    Unemployment among asylum seekers and second-generation immigrants is rampant, and the economy isn't providing enough jobs for all Swedes. Immigrants seem to be concentrated in small areas, creating pockets of discontent, much like in France.

    This kind of discontent has proven to be fertile ground for populist far-right parties like the FPO in Austria, the Front National in France and the PVV in the Netherlands. Stefan Lofven - and anyone else hoping to win Swedish elections set for March 22, 2015 - would do well to heed the lessons of Western Europe of the past 20 years.

    (AP photo)

    Is the Left Capable of Governing in Europe?

    Pourquoi suis-je impopulaire?

    Contrary to the imaginations of most Americans, Europe is not a socialist utopia -- mainly because it's neither socialist nor utopian. Yes, Europeans favor bigger government and more generous social safety nets, but (depending on the country) they can be surprisingly conservative, particularly on the issues of abortion and immigration.

    This reality, however, has not killed the European stereotype. Indeed, one prominent American journalist referred to conservatives as a "remnant party" in Europe, despite the fact that as recently as March 2012, according to this nifty interactive map in The Guardian, 20 of the then-27 member nations of the EU were governed by center-right parties. (Note: The map has not been properly updated since 2013.) Today, the left-right split is roughly even.

    Yet, an intriguing trend has emerged from the natural ebb and flow of political dominance. Center-left parties, particularly in the major European nations, appear weak, shriveled, and unable to govern.

    In Germany, for instance, the moderately conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel has been in power since 2005. Her first government was a grand coalition between her center-right party (CDU) and the center-left opposition (SPD). Her second government, beginning in 2009, disposed of the SPD and replaced it with another conservative party, the FDP. In 2013, the SPD hoped to take back complete control of the Bundestag. It failed. Now, it finds itself in yet another grand coalition under the auspices of Mrs. Merkel.

    In France, the center-left and hapless Francois Hollande is the most unpopular president in modern French history. Nicolas Sarkozy, who was booted from the presidency in 2012, is making a political comeback. He is now the president of his center-right party (UMP), and he is well poised to recapture the presidency in 2017. Hollande, should he choose to stand for the election, is unlikely to survive the first round of voting. Instead, polls suggest that Sarkozy's biggest rivals are fellow UMP member Alain Juppé and far-right nationalist Marine Le Pen. The center-left will not even be a factor in the next election.

    Similarly, in the United Kingdom, Labour's love has been lost. Ed Miliband, the current Labour leader, is widely perceived as weird and uncharismatic. There is even an entire website dedicated to his weirdness. The Conservative Party, which for the past couple of years appeared dead-in-the-water, looks increasingly likely to be re-elected, especially if the 16% or so of British voters who prefer UKIP, an anti-EU party, get cold feet and pull the lever for the Tories.

    Now, the brand new center-left Swedish government, not even three months in power, has collapsed. Fresh elections will be held in March 2015.

    Of course, none of this means that Europe is going to suddenly take a hard turn to the right (much to the chagrin of several ultra-nationalist and racist parties). Eventually, center-right politicians will prove themselves incapable of governing, and the center-left's fortunes will be revived. But that scenario, under the current circumstances, appears to be a rather distant prospect.

    (AP photo)

    The World Sees World War III Coming, Real Numbers Say Otherwise

    The endless litany of global conflicts have provoked some very dark thoughts from global publics, according to a survey conducted by Ipsos and sponsored by the Halifax Forum.

    A full 83 percent said the world has become a more dangerous place and 62 percent of respondents said that a major war involving superpowers, similar in scope to the World Wars, is likely in the next 25 years.

    Conviction that WW III is on the horizon is strongest in the United States, with 78 percent of respondents saying it was strongly or somewhat likely. Among other potential great power combatants, 62 percent of Russians and 57 percent of Chinese saw a major conflict as likely over the next 25 years. Short of a major world war, 51 percent of respondents believed that their country entering into a major armed conflict was a real threat. 

    Not surprisingly, Ipsos also found that a majority of global respondents (57 percent) thought defense spending needed to increase to cope with global dangers. 

    It's useful to point out that the public's perception of the global security environment doesn't necessarily correspond to reality. More objective measures of the global security situation show that we are living in an age of unprecedented peace and security.

    Of course, a World War III-style conflagration could rapidly reverse this progress, but until then, it's useful to keep our heads. 


    Iran Extension Foreshadows a Bad Nuclear Deal

    (AP photo)

    The deadline for a nuclear deal came and went Monday with no agreement - just a seven-month extension of the interim agreement. Public comments by Western and Iranian officials, as well as media reports, suggest that enough progress has been made since Iran and the six world powers signed the interim agreement in Geneva last year to justify carrying on talking. After 11 years of inconclusive negotiations, there is only one possible final outcome: Unless the West folds to Iran's demands, there is no chance that an agreement will be reached. 

    The extension of the interim deal does not bode well for those who wish to see Iran's nuclear ambitions blunted. Eleven months of sanctions relief delivered Iran from economic collapse and prematurely squandered much of the leverage the Obama administration and its European partners held over Tehran. That leverage, diminished despite the lack of any major Iranian concessions, will continue to shrink over time. Additional extensions will further erode any Western advantage, without requiring Iran to yield significantly to Western expectations.

    By exacting sanctions relief early, Iran changed market psychology and improved the fundamentals of its economy. A year ago, Iran's economy was on a downward trajectory; all signs now point to a slow but steady recovery. This has in turn diminished the sense of impending doom which, according to Western officials, rushed Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to negotiate a stand-in deal. As a result, Iran feels it needs only to negotiate, not to compromise. For Tehran, this has been a wise approach: Confronted with Iran's stonewalling, Western negotiators have shown that they are more eager to avoid another diplomatic failure than to avoid midwifing a bad deal. 

    Graced with softening Western demands and a gradually improving economy, Iran is free to continue pursuing its goals. Tehran is trying to keep its nuclear infrastructure intact while peeling away at the sanctions architecture the United States and its European allies have put into place, with considerable difficulty, over the past eight years. Iran knows that once this architecture has been dismantled, reassembling it will be prohibitively difficult. While Iran holds fast, the six world powers are blurring their demands on every element of the negotiations, in the hope of attaining any deal they can tout as a success. It will be a success, eventually, but for Iran.

    Nowhere has the erosion of Western red lines been more evident than over the issue of Iranian enrichment. By obtaining recognition for a right of enrichment in the interim agreement, Iran already undermined six UN Security Council resolutions and established that whatever else happens, Iran's indigenous nuclear enrichment program will remain in place. Negotiations are now apparently stuck on the scope of Iran's enrichment capacities - from the initial symbolic number of 400 centrifuges, Western diplomats have reportedly conceded that Iran's program will retain thousands. In fact, Western negotiators may have even offered to allow Iran to leave all centrifuges in place, if only Tehran agrees to disconnect some of the piping between them. 

    Enrichment is the core of any nuclear weapons program. Western diplomats are deluding themselves if they think that stringent verification measures on their own can prevent Iran from resuming enrichment. No such arrangement would stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons the day the regime were to violate an agreement - something Iran has repeatedly done in the past. 

    By refusing to budge on any substantive issue, Iran is ensuring that, if a deal is to be had, Iran's attainment of a nuclear weapon will be delayed, but not scuttled. 

    Other Western retreats from previously heralded red lines will also eventually prove costly. Iran's ballistic missile program, which can hit Russia and parts of Central Asia, as well as Western China and Central Europe, is no longer subject to negotiation. Iran's stonewalling of the International Atomic Energy Agency over the nuclear program's clandestine military dimensions has elicited no consequences. Iran's history of nuclear procurement will not likely be documented in full. A new verification regime will not be as stringent as required, given Iran's history of nuclear deception. And the duration of the deal will not be measured in decades, but merely in years. This means that once the deal has expired, Iran's nuclear program will be treated like Great Britain's, Germany's or the Netherlands' - but Iran will likely continue to behave like Iran.

    Given how far Western negotiators have gone to accommodate Iranian demands, it is unlikely that Iran will suddenly agree to dismantle much of its nuclear infrastructure, offer full transparency about its past nuclear activities, and accept a stringent verification regime that will enable early detection of any violation. If a deal emerges, it will be a bad one. 


    Two Films Show the Change in Russia's Warrior Culture

    Two films, one made during the twilight years of the Soviet Union and the second during the Putin era, tell essentially the same story, but with striking differences in tone and style. The films offer a salient look at Russia's changing attitudes as Putinism took hold and the post-Cold War era faded into memory.

    The plots are drawn from a turning point in Russian history, as young men are sent to fight in Afghanistan. The soldiers begin with a sense of purpose and a commitment to reshaping Afghanistan, a rugged country deeply steeped in tribal traditions and Islam. But the environment turns on them in the worst possible way. Afghanskiy Izlom (Afghan Breakdown), made in 1990 - a year after Soviet forces officially withdrew from the country - tells the story of the military unit sent to conduct mop-up operations toward the end of the war. At the outset of the story, the soldiers display a dedication to military duty and discipline. They function with a sense of purpose. As the action progresses, however, the violence of the war, and the anxiety felt by all over the fundamental changes altering the Soviet Union during the perestroika of 1986-1990, lead to a disintegration of unity and moral purpose.

    Sadness and uncertainty prevail, and the movie's realistic action sequences don't stop it from mirroring the melancholy that defined the Soviet Union's attitude toward the consequences of this war: traumatized veterans, disabled military personnel with no access to treatment, billions spent on a war that led nowhere for a country facing an existential crisis, and the very idea of the socialist future left under threat. 

    in the grand Soviet tradition of sad and dramatic endings, the lead character is shot in the back as he moves through ruins of yet another destroyed Afghan village - perhaps alluding to the film's critique of Soviet actions that over the course of a decade essentially failed to accomplish Moscow's original objectives.

    Fifteen years later, a very different film portrayed the same war. Devaytaya Rota (Ninth Company) was a 2005 big-budget production that overly dramatized the events of January 1988. The film tells the story of the Airborne Guards Regiment as they defended a high point against Afghan mujahideen in the closing months of the war. In reality, the unit suffered relatively few causalities, but this film tells a different story. Its dramatic sequences show young Russian men facing almost certain death - the company is decimated in spectacular, bloody close-quarter fighting. Devyataya Rota moves the audience to tears as young soldiers' stories, wishes, desires, fears, and the friendships forged in fighting, culminate in massive battle sequences where their lives are snuffed out.

    Rota's stark realism is shown most vividly approximately one hour through the film, when newly-minted Air Cavalry soldiers land at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan - the same base that Americans would use following their 2001 invasion. As soldiers disembark from the aircraft, newly demobilized Marines rush to fill its seats, eager to get home to the Soviet Union. One of the returnees grabs hold of one of the lead protagonists and gives him a safety amulet as a gift. As the aircraft rises toward the mountains that frame the base, a surface-to-air missile is launched by the Afghans, hitting the Russian aircraft broadside. The wounded plane turns about to land back at the base, only to burst into a fireball as it attempts to crash land.

    Izlom was made at a time when Soviet society were breaking apart and law and order was breaking down. Government authority came under question, and history was critically re-examined. Rota shows the Afghan War in a far different light. Its young men rise above the conflict and its savagery through personal sacrifices, showcasing military discipline that eventually wins the battle.

    If Izlom showed the Soviet Army as it approached its lowest ebb, then Rota is a signpost for the military Vladimir Putin desires for Russia - one imbued with a sense of purpose and personal commitment to finishing the mission. Rota's action sequences and musical scores mirror Hollywood productions such as Apocalypse Now and Hamburger Hill. The film was generally well received by Russian audiences, earning a respectable amount after the initial release. Izlom's protagonists were not hailed as heroes, but Rota's young soldiers were. This is the cultural advent of Putin's Russia - a nation that does not want to abandon its warriors to critique and forgetfulness and will gloss over actions taken in a conflict of questionable importance to the Soviet state. 

    Why Congress Should Have Courage on Iran Deal

    If a nuclear deal with Iran is reached tomorrow, or sometime next year, it is likely to face considerable skepticism in a divided and increasingly hawkish U.S. Congress. While any agreement reached between Iran, the United States and the P5+1 countries will not require Senate approval since it will not be a treaty, the deal can be undermined by a lack of Congressional support in the short term, and it will require Congressional endorsement and a lifting of sanctions later on. Opponents of any deal with Iran are adept at using visceral, fear-based arguments to question the very premises of diplomatic engagement with a country the United States has long been estranged from. To get beyond these shortsighted arguments and see a deal clearly, members of Congress need to put these negotiations in historical perspective and understand that it will require some political courage to take a step that will increase America's security in the long run.

    The most vocal conservative opponents of any deal maintain that Iran is such a bad actor on international terrorism and human rights, and has such a long history of hostility toward the United States, that we simply should not engage with them. But they only need to look to their conservative predecessors, including heroes such as Ronald Reagan and practical politicians such as Bob Dole, to see the limitations of this attitude. Those staunch defenders of American security recognized that pursuing arms control with the Soviet Union was not an endorsement of Soviet behavior. They continued to confront the Soviet Union in other arenas around the globe and to criticize human rights abuses while working on arms control agreements on separate, parallel tracks. This smarter approach led to arms control agreements that helped defuse the most serious nuclear threats for decades. Reagan was initially vilified as a sellout to the Soviets by the most hardline elements of his party when he pursued the INF treaty in the late 1980s, but his accomplishments in promoting arms control are now seen as enduring part of his legacy. Arms control agreements did not result, of course, in a perfect and peaceful world, yet they left America better off than if caught in an unconstrained, perpetual nuclear arms race, and they created a political space in which the Cold War could safely wind down.

    Senators of both parties were deeply skeptical of Soviet intentions, just as today's hawks are of Iranian intentions. Opponents of arms agreements were adamant that the Soviets could not be trusted, would not comply with an agreement, and were using the arms control process to dupe the United States into letting its nuclear guard down. Getting past these doubts required convincing Senators that strong verification regimes would be in place. On this point, Senator Dole was characteristically blunt during the 1987 INF treaty debate, simplifying Reagan's famous dictum, "Trust, but Verify," to his own mantra: "verification, verification, verification -that's the key." With strong verification processes in place, there was a gradual recognition that, despite some ups and downs, the Soviets were committed to compliance. This history enabled a more rational political discourse that led to passage of subsequent treaties up through the New Start treaty in 2010.

    The current negotiations with Iran, intended to prevent the Iranians from developing nuclear weapons are, of course, much different than those with a power such as the Soviet Union that already possessed a huge nuclear arsenal. Yet many of the political considerations are similar.
    In both cases, decades of hostility and mistrust presented an initial obstacle to even beginning negotiations. In the case of Iran, after 35 years of estrangement, bilateral talks between U.S. and Iranian diplomats have quickly become routine. This has facilitated negotiations, but has not yet built trust and has left negotiators operating in a field of uncertainty and risk. But as we saw in decades of engagement with the Soviets, the political courage to accept these risks, combined with practical efforts on verification, can lead to effective, enforceable agreements.

    An intrusive inspections regime has already been in place for almost a year, under the interim Joint Plan of Action which halted Iran's program in return for limited changes in sanctions. Under a comprehensive deal, this kind of robust inspections regime will provide ample time to detect any broad resumption of a nuclear weapons program. No regime is foolproof, and certain violations of any agreement could be missed, but if there is a continuing effort to evade compliance it will be difficult to keep hidden, as years of successful intelligence gathering on Iran's program have demonstrated.

    Conservative hardliners in Congress say they would support a deal if it guaranteed that Iran would never be able to build a nuclear weapon. This disingenuous claim ignores the fact that the Iranians already have the necessary knowledge to build a weapon. A good agreement can minimize the risks that Iran can clandestinely move toward building a nuclear weapon, and it can provide incentives for the Iranians to step back from the path toward nuclear arms. More thoughtful members of Congress recognize that without a deal Iran can resume activities that can lead to a nuclear weapon, leaving us with only two options: military action or dealing with a nuclear-armed Iran. Without a deal, the international sanctions regime will likely unravel, diminishing pressure on Iran to allow continued intrusive inspections. The world will be more dangerous and unstable in this scenario than it would be if there is a good, verifiable deal that still entails some uncertainties and risks. A little historical perspective can help spark the political courage needed now in Congress to back a deal which will make America safer and prevent an unnecessary war.

    Germany's Neo Nazis Think a New Image Is What They Need

    Hipsters, not skinheads. That's the image some of Germany's neo nazis apparently wish to adopt. According to one person interviewed, it's part of an effort to appear as less of a subculture. Vocativ has the full report.


    Russia Works to Freeze Perceptions of Kiev

    The military dimension of the conflict in Eastern Ukraine seems to have stabilized for now, with opposing fronts drawn with relative clarity in the Donbas. In the information war surrounding the conflict, meanwhile, the Kremlin is shifting up: To match the more or less frozen conflict, Moscow-aligned media is working to entrench a permanently negative view of Kiev's actions in the region - one that links to the shared history of ethnic Russians still sensitive to the memories of World War II.

    A recent entry by the Russian daily Komsomolskaya Pravda illustrates this trend with a report from the small town of Gorlovka, outside Donetsk. According to the report, the Ukrainian military hit a residential building, instantly killing a young family of four people. The title of the article leaves no doubt on how to interpret the actions of the Ukrainian military: "Despicable Ukrainian death squads continue to kill children in Donbas."

    The article cites similar tragedies and suggests that civilian deaths are of no concern to Kiev and its allies in the West:

    "Last week, according to residents, a young woman and her daughter were killed by a shell ... There were many killings earlier as well. No one saw OSCE observers or the International Red Cross in Gorlovka, so Ukrainian propaganda ascribes such killings to the pro-Russian militia. It is easy to calculate where the artillery shells came from - Kiev is all too accustomed to Western observers and journalists not bothering to investigate such incidents."

    The author says the killings were mere "drunken fun" by the Ukrainian military. He goes on to accuse Kiev of deliberately creating fear among the pro-Russian population of the country's eastern regions:

    Another, more "humane" version for chaotic killings of civilians is that Kiev is trying to expel as much of the population of Novorossiya in order to clear this land for future settlers from Western parts of the country ... There will be more victims at the hands of Ukrainian military, and more kids will be killed by Ukrainian shells, because there is no one to stop and shame Kiev. The progressive Western public today sided with the sadists.

    Meanwhile on Friday, the Parliament of the self-declared Donetsk People's Republic was in session, and its chairman, Andrei Purgin, indicated that while hard times are ahead for the region, there is now turning back - the region will not again be part of Ukraine. Pugin:

    "You need to finally realize and accept the fact that the desire of the people of our Republic for freedom, justice, and happiness is natural, inalienable and inviolable ... For the blood of our fellow countrymen, for their houses burned and torn down, for destroyed factories, mines, schools, hospitals - for all of that, you will incur inevitable responsibility as war criminals. We will never forget."

    Solving Europe's Corporate Tax Hypocrisy

    (AP photo)

    Amid the furor of a tax avoidance scandal, the new chairman of the European Commission has come out in favor of a pan-European corporate tax. With public anger over corporate tax avoidance increasing, the idea may at last have legs - in large part, ironically, thanks to the chairman's former role.

    "Jean-Claude Juncker favours a common corporate tax base and financial transaction tax", Margaritis Schinas, Juncker's spokesman, said Nov. 7, a day dominated on the European airwaves by reports of a corporate tax avoidance scandal.

    In one of the most expansive news investigations ever undertaken, media organizations in 26 nations revealed that Luxembourg was the linchpin for tax rulings - in some quarters known as "comfort letters" - that helped companies secure billions of dollars in tax savings. Having served for 25 years as Luxembourg's prime minister and its finance minister, Jean-Claude Juncker's fingerprints are all over the scandal.

    As he is wont to do, Juncker went on the offensive, throwing his support behind existing ideas for a pan-European common corporate tax base and a financial transaction tax.

    The latter idea is gaining traction, but the Common Consolidated Corporate Tax Base plan is still a political non-starter: It faces profound political opposition by member states.

    Economic war is alive and well

    The European Union was created to prevent open conflict. Under the surface, though, economic wars between the member states rage on. Europe's smaller countries in particular are constantly jostling for the attention of companies they hope will bring jobs.

    A number of impressive tax avoidance schemes have brought public embarrassment to a number of governments. Companies such as Starbucks and Google, but also government-owned organisations such as the Dutch national railways company Nederlandse Spoorwegen, have made use of morally odious bilateral tax treaties and tax rulings. This while any civilian caught avoiding the tax man faces often faces harsh sentences and public persecution.

    Fiscal food industry

    The origins of these tax schemes were benign: They were meant to draw jobs and investment. Those good intentions proved far too vulnerable to exploitation, however, and while it is increasingly clear that fiscal chicanery in exchange for jobs is a formula that no longer works, companies continue to expand their profits using constructs like the "Double Irish with a Dutch Sandwich."

    Public support for the fiscal arms race has rapidly waned since the onset of Europe's financial crisis, and governments have started to ask companies who use arcane fiscal constructs to explain their actions.

    In response, some companies stop at oblique references to national tax laws and government agencies. Others use subtle threats in their lawyerly replies, for instance reminding governments of the number of jobs the firms have created for voters. It's a bit like Tony Soprano coming in to talk to you about the importance of proper protection because, you know, it would be a shame if something happened to your shop.


    If national corporate taxes are scrapped and replaced by a uniform European tax rate, the very reason for the fiscal arms race ceases to exist. Politicians who have thus far said that countries should compete on the quality of education and infrastructure can finally put their money where their mouth is and dispense with the shady tax breaks.

    What's the World Scared Of?

    While there's no shortage of things to worry about, a new survey from Pew Research has actually quantified what it is we fear. They've found (not suprisingly) that our fears depend very much on where we live.

    If you live in the Middle East, religious and ethnic hatred tops your list. If you live in the United States and Europe, inequality keeps you up at night. In most of Asia, pollution looms large - though South Korea follows the United States and Europe in singling out inequality as a leading threat. Japan also breaks with the regional trend by worrying most about the spread of nuclear weapons.

    In Africa, the spread of infectious diseases, especially HIV/AIDS, is public enemy number one - and this survey was taken before the Ebola outbreak became a global story, so we can only assume this fear has been compounded by recent events.

    While the United States collectively sees inequality as the largest threat, there's a clear ideological breakdown to those results. Republicans were more likely to identify religious and ethnic hatreds as the top threat, while Democrats singled out inequality. Independents were slightly more likely to finger inequality as the top threat as well.

    Pew found a similar dynamic at work in the United Kingdom, with conservatives more concerned about religious tensions than inequality. 

    The Trade Deal Tokyo and Washington Need to Seal


    Japan and the United States have the best opportunity to elevate our bilateral relationship in many years - by concluding the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations. The deal is about much more than expanding bilateral and regional trade, important as that is. The TPP stands to establish a new and enduring foundation for U.S.-Japan relations. The pact can guarantee Asia's future economic architecture and its trade rules, and it can cement our joint leadership at a time when regional economic competition is growing more intense and maintaining regional security is increasingly difficult.
    There is much positive activity in the bilateral relationship. U.S. and Japanese companies from a wide variety of industries embark on new collaborative relationships on a daily basis. New defense guidelines are scheduled for completion this year; energy cooperation is moving forward, with the approval of new licenses to export U.S.-produced liquefied natural gas to Japan; and Washington has indicated its support for Japanese administration of the Senkaku Islands, as well as its willingness to help defend the isles under the U.S.-Japan security treaty. 
    But for the benefits of geopolitical cooperation to take full form, we need a new economic framework that strengthens Japan's economy and regional leadership while firmly establishing the long-term commitment of the United States to Asia. The TPP is the centerpiece of any such framework.  
    While Washington and Tokyo agree on most of the rules being negotiated in the pact, Japanese and U.S. negotiators are hobbled by disagreements over market access to the agricultural and automotive sectors. The impasse has created a rough patch in the bilateral relationship and is holding up the overall negotiations - an outcome in neither party's interest. 
    The economic benefits of the TPP have been well documented.  Eliminating tariffs on agricultural and manufactured goods and non-tariff measures that hinder services trade through TPP will give a major boost to the participating economies. According to widely reported work by Peter Petri of Brandeis University, Japan stands to gain more than almost any other TPP economy - a $105 billion boost to GDP by 2025, and $125 billion if South Korea ultimately joins, as is likely. 
    The TPP is essential to maximizing these gains, and to close the deal, Japan will have to take difficult steps - as will the United States. Japan must open its agricultural market. In return, its industrial exports will enjoy greater access to the TPP economies. Moreover, it will win stronger protections for its intellectual property and will benefit from new rules affecting investment, digital trade, competition with state-owned enterprises, customs and supply chains, government procurement, and other areas that will help Japanese companies compete in the TPP economies while fostering growth at home. 
    A big, bold TPP agreement will do more than simply boost Japanese trade and competitiveness. It will send a clear signal to the world that Japan indeed "is back," as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe likes to say, and is dedicated to vital reforms. By demonstrating that it is prepared to open its markets with ambition equal to the other TPP economies, Japan will bolster its credibility on economic reform while strengthening its economic ties with countries across the Asia-Pacific. Most of all, a strong TPP agreement will strengthen Japan's geopolitical and economic relationship with the United States.    
    Reaching an ambitious, high-standard and comprehensive agreement that opens markets fully and establishes 21st Century rules for trade is all the more necessary because of the geopolitical importance of the TPP.  Binding countries together under common and forward-leaning rules that emphasize the critical role of open markets, strong protections for IP, and the rule of law will not only create new commercial opportunities among the partners, but strengthen the bonds between - bonds based on shared values and a long-term vision for the region.    
    Neighboring China is asserting its own regional strategic and economic visions with increasing vigor. China dominates trade in the region with its high demand for products and raw materials from other countries. Beijing is also increasingly exerting leadership through its investment, through regional trade negotiations such as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, and through initiatives such as the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank. Given the extent to which the United States and Japan rely on trade with China, securing an agreement in which we work together to set the highest possible rules and standards for Asia will lead to better results for both countries, but also for the other economies involved - including that of China, if and when Beijing is able to meet the high standards of the TPP. Equally important, the pact will leave the United States and Japan in better position to secure high-standard commitments from China to open its markets.
    Given the huge importance of maintaining the strongest possible U.S.-Japan strategic relationship and of establishing a vibrant trans-Pacific economy, the TPP is an opportunity too great to miss. Failure would complicate U.S.-Japan relations, worsen foreign perceptions of Japan's economic reform efforts, and impact our shared values and vision in fostering mutually beneficial regional and global trading systems. This is the moment when leaders and politicians need to think strategically and exercise the political will to do what is in our collective national best interests. 
    General James L. Jones (Ret) is former Supreme Allied Commander Europe and former U.S. National Security Adviser. 

    Burning Putin in Effigy

    Protests in London aside, looks like the real fun on Guy Fawkes Night happened in Lewes:

    Adam Taylor at The Washington Post has more.