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2016: Year of Global Risk or Global Opportunity?

by John Brian Shannon | December 31, 2015

While my default mode is to proactively engage with vision, leadership, pragmatism and organization, in order to preempt or preclude situations that allow dangers to form and thence for risk to concern us — there is certainly a time to take stock, to measure our place in the world, and to put our perceptions to the test in order to assess future threats.

Each year-end presents a wonderful opportunity to do exactly that.

We must keep in mind that every problem on this planet is a human-caused problem — and because we’ve caused them — we can solve them if we choose.

Humans alone wrote the madcap play that we’re the actors in.

Will 2016 be the year of global risk, or of global opportunity?

Will 2016 be the year of global risk, or of global opportunity?

The Eternal Question: Should We Steer Our Ship by the Stars, or by the Sea?

1. We must remember that when viewed through the prism of American or European thought, we in the West cannot fully understand the Russian mindset.

Yes, the Russians look like us, they buy many of the same products, they may even vacation in similar locales. But it would be a big mistake to think they are us or think like us based on those superficial comparisons.

Their national experience since October 1917 couldn’t be more different than our own.

Although the Soviet Union was founded on revolution, their experience in WWII (for example) was much different than ours. The people of the USSR endured almost inconceivable suffering and millions more deaths happened on the Soviet front as compared to our side of things during WWII, and so consequently, their response to us during the Cold War and their evident bias to not only end the Cold War but to disband their entire bloc and rewrite their constitution, were shaped by those experiences.

Suffice to say that the worldview of everyday Russians and their leaders are significantly different from North Americans and Europeans.

If we base our policies and subsequent actions on a flawed interpretation of the Russian mindset we are likely to be enablers of dangerous situations, resulting in increased risk.

Therefore, everything Russia must be viewed not only from the American or European world viewpoint, but through the lens of the Russian leadership and of the citizens of that country.

And frankly, that hasn’t been done as well as it could and should have been done, since the days of Kissinger, Brzezinski and James A. Baker III.

Our #1 risk factor isn’t Russia, it’s our lack of understanding.

2. China is a large country that isn’t going anywhere. We’ll be dealing with China for many decades to come. And they’ll be dealing with us.

If anything, we should avoid conflicts with China — and instead of always trying to ‘put them in the wrong’ we should become their guide, their facilitator, their mentor, and always be trying to ‘put them in the right.’

Every day of the year, we humans are teaching other humans how to treat us.

If we teach China that we are all about hostility, they’ll learn that fighting us is the way to deal with us. If we constantly criticize China, they’ll condemn us in return. If we give China reason to fear, we all know that “fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, and hate leads to suffering.”

It’s a great Star Wars line, isn’t it? Still, it’s just as true on Earth as it is in adventure movies.

To lower our risk with China, we need discipline. We need to be setting the bar, showing the way, shining the light, and using constructive criticism — praising publicly and criticizing privately.

In this way, we’ll be the Father, the Mentor, the Guide, the Explainer — and what we teach China about who we are, will tell them how to treat us.

If we teach China that use of force always works and that diplomacy doesn’t — we’ll be the worse off for it, and so will they.

Yet, it will have been us that wrote that madcap play.

Kissinger’s shuttle diplomacy to Peking (Beijing) as it was then-called by the West, was a great start.

Smatterings of constructive engagement since, have been helpful (but only in a smattering kind of way).

And Obama’s ‘Pivot to Asia’ may yet turn out to be, in retrospect, inspired — if handled correctly and properly followed-up. And the recent joint U.S.-China CO2 reduction plan seems to have added some amount of normalcy that has been otherwise lacking in that relationship.

Yet, the Windows of Lost Opportunity have been stupendous!

It’s a somewhat unmanaged relationship, with far too occasional bright moments of successful diplomacy.

Had the Sino-American relationship been handled proactively and correctly all along, the $1 Trillion dollar Apple success story would have represented only one of many similar stories. Perhaps a thousand similar success stories.

In reality, thus far, the relationship between China and the U.S. has been one of staggeringly huge, missed opportunities, and even worse, minor sabre-rattling.

Although China seems a willing partner and wants to engage, the same cannot be said of America. Europe is doing a little better, but only recently.

If China represents a risk to the West, it’s because we’ve been very busy with less important matters.

3. Except for the Western-inspired ‘Arab Spring’ the MENA region might have made some small amount of forward progress in the 2010-2020 timeframe.

I doubt anyone would suggest that citizens of the affected countries are any better off now, as compared to pre-Arab Spring.

Yet with the Iran nuclear deal secured and Israel now turning to domestic issues, the >1400-year-old chess game between Sunni Arabs and Shia Persians will continue as uneventfully as ever, I suspect, for many decades. (Lots of smoke, very rarely, any fire)

Containing ISIS and keeping Western nations safe from ISIS terror attacks would be best served by getting Western nation forces out of Syria (leaving the Syrian situation to the Syrian government and the Russians) and concentrate on increasing the coalition presence in Iraq, with plenty of assistance for Turkey, which has two problems: millions of refugees and a security threat on its southern flank.

4. The world (not just the U.S. and Europe) needs a dedicated (and properly funded) cybersecurity organization on par with INTERPOL, but geared to identifying and combatting cybercrime in realtime, and to offer all manner and levels of support to domestic agencies involved in countering cybercrime.

EXAMPLE: Whether that proposed anti-cybercrime organization is assisting a small town 5-person police department putting together its first anti-cybercrimes programme, or is assisting the Chief of the NYPD cybercrimes division to combat a cybercrime in progress, or briefing Homeland Security or the Pentagon (and other police and security organizations in other countries) it must meet those agencies and departments where they are and provide what they need in realtime.

If not, catastrophic failure will be the result.

The present situation just isn’t up to the forming threats. As well-intended as each department and agency’s efforts in this regard surely are, their capabilities are at least one order of magnitude less than what is required to defend us from cyberattacks against government and industry infrastructure and cybercrime that impacts private citizens.

By 2020, it might be two orders of magnitude short of reasonably preventing the most serious cyberattacks.

We spend money to insure our cars and trucks (in advance of mishap or misadventure) for good reason, because on an otherwise average morning, we might step outside to find that $50,000. of damage has occurred overnight to the $70,000. vehicle in our life.

A properly funded and properly overseen global anti-cybercrimes support centre would provide the ‘insurance’ we need to counter future cyberthreats.

TO SUMMARIZE: We live in a world of risks

However, that doesn’t mean that we have to play their game — after all, why play to our opponent’s strengths?

With the right vision (to preclude falling into ‘risk’ in the first place) and the right leadership (to put that vision into practice, or at the very least, turn-negatives-into-positives if things go awry) and by providing the proper support for those who negotiate or fight on our behalf — we can either change the game completely to better suit our strengths — or at the very least, lower our risk.

And that, my friends, is how to play the game of Risk and win, more often than not.


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Syria: Is the answer Diplomacy or War?

by John Brian Shannon | October 31, 2015

The only good thing to come out of the Syrian situation has been the organized removal of chemical weapons from the country

No doubt, tiny numbers of chemical warheads are in the hands of extremist groups who stole them from the Syrian Army at some point over the past 30 years. And it is possible that the Syrian Army has small numbers of such weapons that they can’t presently retrieve because they are well hidden in abandoned bases or in regions of the country now controlled by ISIS or other terror groups.

Regardless, the removal of most of Syria’s chemical weapons is by far the best success story to come out of the whole Syrian situation.

Something to build on. Except that nobody has…

Which is a shame. Because had the path of (careful, quiet, but firm) diplomacy continued, we might not have ever seen a Syrian civil war. Or if we did, it would’ve amounted to a number of small skirmishes, and only that.

SCUD missile destroys neighbourhood near Aleppo, Syria.

A man at a site hit by what activists say was a SCUD missile in Aleppo’s Ard al-Hamra neighborhood. Photo dated February 23, 2013. REUTERS/Muzaffar Salman

State Department policy makers and Pentagon war strategists knew that going to war against Iraq in 2003 would create a huge number of refugees that would flee to neighbouring states, including Syria.

The fact that there *is* now an ISIS (or ISIL) was no surprise to them, these are eventualities in every war. Refugees will flee to countries in the region and tell their stories to the locals. Which generates anger and thoughts of revenge.

In WWII, this led to many underground groups operating (heroically) to fight their Nazi oppressors.

In the Iraq War (and since) this led to the formation of a multitude of (wrong-headed) groups being formed with names like ISIS and Al-Qaeda in the Levant in order to fight their perceived oppressors.

Syria was already the most fertile ground in the region to produce a cadre of anti-Western fighters and anti-Assad-regime fighters. Ergo, the rise of terror groups in Syria and a two-track war (from the point of view of the terrorists) was inevitable. One track being dedicated to the fight against the coalition that invaded Iraq and the other track dedicated to the overthrow of Bashar Al-Assad.

These things were and are utterly predictable and foreseen by the State Department and the Pentagon.

What has been lacking are policies to deal with the eventualities of the Iraq War

Due to the power vacuum that created the right conditions to enable five years of Syrian civil war, Russia, Iran, and now Iraq, cobbled together a (mostly military) response to the disaster in Syria which has some Americans angry at their news channel.

However, before a coherent Syria policy can be devised by the United States, some questions need answers:

  1. Is the United States the world’s policeman?
  2. Should the U.S. get involved in every internecine squabble in the world?
  3. Can the U.S. afford that?
  4. Is that what taxpayers are paying for?
  5. Does the U.S. belong in Syria?
  6. Does fighting Muslim terrorists only create more terrorists?
  7. And does fighting Muslim terrorists only convince them to look with renewed vigor at the U.S. as a target?

It should be a major topic of discussion by 2016 presidential candidates as the answers to those questions will determine U.S. policy in the region for the next decade (at least) and will affect everything from the economy (Iraq War $1 trillion, for one example) to (potentially) civil unrest in the U.S.A. (see: Vietnam protest movement of the 60’s and 70’s) to America’s future standing in the world.

Situations like we see in Syria are not something a president can dispatch 10 military helicopters to solve over the course of a weekend.

Indeed, Syria is in such disarray and there are so many variables there that the best U.S. policy might be complete non-involvement by the U.S. — as every other option is almost certainly worse.

Of course, there are some U.S citizens who would approve without further ado, another $1 trillion dollar war bill, another 5000 U.S. military dead, and another generation of America-haters bent on destruction of the U.S.A.

These people fall into two broad groups:

  • The do-gooders, who want peace, democracy, and freedom to one day flourish in Syria — they want to see Syria as the next Costa Rica or UAE. (Wouldn’t that be nice? Yes!)
  • The war-economy people, who think that any war is good for the overall economy and for the largest number of Americans, even though comparatively small numbers of military people may get killed or maimed in battle.

On those two broad groups, I think both camps are naive people who’ve not had the chance to travel the world and see what it is really like, nor have ever served their country in a combat role, nor have any experience in international relations. The fact that they are likely to be incredibly patriotic citizens, is a different matter altogether.

And there are the people who think the U.S. should pursue a course of non-involvement in Syria and those people too, fall into their own two groups:

  • Those who feel that the U.S. should return to being a near-isolationist nation and that the Executive and the Government should expend their efforts on the domestic economy and other domestic issues.
  • Those who feel that Syria is a no-win-situation for the U.S. and see it for the moneypit that it could represent to America.

On those two similar groups, I think that isolationism can work well in the short term. However, history shows us that after only one decade of an isolationist posture it begins to work against America’s best interests and for that reason should only be invoked for ten years per century at the most. As for U.S. involvement in Syria to continue being a no-win situation, I think there is only a remote chance to pull success out of the epic disaster that is Syria.

To summarize my view of the entire Syrian situation, let me say this; If there is a return to the long term, careful, quiet, but firm diplomacy — of a kind that worked to allow most of Syria’s chemical weapons to be removed and destroyed without firing a shot — then we might see the chances for successful U.S. involvement in Syria rise past 50 percent. Otherwise it’s a losing proposition for the U.S.A. with zero chance for a win by any metric whatsoever

But even a qualified success requires that a president have a significant mandate from voters, support within the State Department, the Pentagon, and a good relationship with the various partner nations poised to assist in the rebuilding of Syria.

Without all of that, even a U.S. president with the best of intentions has no chance of pulling a success out of the Syrian situation. And I think that’s what we’re seeing. A U.S. president who knows what to do, it’s just that not everyone is there yet.

How do I know that?

Let’s look at the building blocks that have been placed in and around Syria in recent years:

BB1: The first ‘building block’ of a successful Middle East policy for the U.S. was the removal of American combat troops from Iraq.

BB2: The second ‘building block’ was the successful program to remove chemical weapons from Syria and its success is almost unprecedented.

(Yes, Moammar Ghadaffi gave up his WMD’s and was promptly killed for his good deed — not a good precedent for similar diplomatic initiatives in the future. And yet, in spite of that terrible precedent, the Obama Administration was able to secure the Syrian chemical weapons deal. And now Bashar Al-Assad is ‘under fire’ literally and politically, for his good deed. Such obscene precedent-setting in the case of Moammar Ghadaffi and Bashar Al-Assad is not conducive to other world leaders giving up their WMD’s in the future — something many people would like to see happen within their lifetimes)

BB3: The third ‘building block’ was a successful nuclear deal with Iran.

BB4: The fourth ‘building block’ must now be a lowering of the rhetoric surrounding the Syrian situation and a return to consensus-building between all of the interested parties — and that must occur without any preconditions, save for the safety of the negotiating teams.

(Preconditions such as removal of Bashar Al-Assad from power are non-starters. Regardless of his actions, he is still the democratically-elected leader of Syria and that country is fully engulfed in civil war. Until such times as he loses an election and refuses to step down, we have no legal case to be in the country except by invitation)

BB5: The fifth ‘building block’ must be a high-level diplomatic push by all interested parties. If former President Jimmy Carter were in better health I would nominate him to lead the American team, and I suggest that the Russians would respond with their best retired diplomat to lead their team.

All other diplomatic teams too, must be led by high level retired diplomats of the highest calibre — ones that have long ago surpassed the desire for media accolades or career advancement. It’s time to ‘get it right’ it’s not the time to ‘use the present situation to get a better career posting’.

I’m only half-joking when I say that all of these diplomats should be locked away in a conference centre in Geneva or Istanbul and not let out until they have arrived at the best plan to save Syria as a viable nation-state, save the Syrian people from five more years of horror, return the Syrian economy to a steady-state and restore Syria to a place of good standing among the nations.

I believe that President Obama has been quietly ahead of everyone on all of this and has put the ‘building blocks’ in place right under everyone’s noses. His only limitations are the people he must work through in order to accomplish these things. And he has limited time, as January 20, 2017 will be his last day in office.

Those who seek confrontation with Syria, Iran, Russia (or any country) are operating at the lowest-common-denominator level (to put it politely) and have no concept whatsoever of what it takes to build a safe, prosperous, and interdependent world order (that is also) compatible with American values.

A safe, prosperous, and interdependent world order is the obvious goal for humankind. Therefore, all of our policies and actions must always be in accordance with our mission otherwise we will without doubt, fail as a species.

And that, my friends, is where we are today.

Spratly Islands in the Spotlight

by John Brian Shannon | October 27, 2015

The Spratly Islands are a hodgepodge of islets that sometimes appear above sea level in the South China Sea

At high tide, only a few islets are visible above the waterline, while at low tide most of the islets are exposed. Which is concerning enough for ship Captains sailing in perfectly clear midday weather — but can be downright terrifying at night, or during a storm or typhoon with the ship being tossed around by waves as it is simultaneously pulled along by the incredibly powerful and deep currents in that waterway.

The Spratly’s are also located in the centre of a typhoon corridor, which means there are frequent distress calls during the annual storm season. Depending upon local weather conditions the islands can vanish under the waves by a few feet, or they can appear above the surface of the water.

South China Sea dispute October, 2015

South China Sea dispute October, 2015

Until now, the Spratly Island chain was merely a complex navigational challenge for ships to navigate around, especially at night or in inclement weather

Recently, China began a dredging/island reclamation project on one of the Spratly Islands to turn one or more of the islets into air bases, presumably to serve as a refueling station for their long range patrol or military aircraft, or possibly for civilian airliners in distress.

Military planes aircraft are notoriously thirsty aircraft — either because they are long range patrol aircraft of significant size and weight and therefore use a lot of fuel, or are lightweight, high-performance fighter aircraft which use even more fuel per hour. Having a nearby refuelling station/landing strip can lower the stress level of military pilots to put it mildly.

And for ships that have encountered rough weather or have had mechanical difficulties, the Spratly Islands are located perfectly should China decide to maintain a Chinese Coast Guard presence there. It is the logical place to deploy from in order to rescue passengers from ships in distress or aircraft crashed in the water.

Finally, in the case of combatting at-sea piracy and to conduct anti-terrorism inspection of suspect ships, the Spratly Islands are well-positioned to host the necessary aircraft, ships and anti-terror personnel.

IF that is what China is planning, they are doing a good deed for all of the shipping and aircraft that pass through that waterway and smart nations that regularly travel through the region might consider contributing funds or other assistance to that noble endeavor.

The fear has been raised that the Spratly airbases could be used as a ‘jumping-off point’ for attacks by China on Southeast Asian nations

Well yes. That could happen. But then again, a big piece of plasma could be ejected by the Sun and crash into Earth wiping out all life on the planet. Neither is very likely, yet it is theoretically possible that either (or both) could happen.

It just depends if you see the glass as half-full or half empty

If you see the United States and its partners as nations that are sliding from their historical high place in the world and are now feeling threatened by China’s incredible economic surge, then it’s understandable that the U.S. and its partners might base their decisions on fear.

If you don’t think the sky is falling, then the Spratly’s are a ‘tempest-in-a-teapot’ and that ships should continue to navigate as carefully around those islets as they’ve done for centuries.

If it were up to me

Were the decision up to me, or if we had a stronger UN body, the suggestion would be to use nuclear weapons for peaceful purposes — boring holes deep beneath the islands to safely place an appropriately sized bomb, in order to liquefy all of the rock 5 miles below the islands.

By deploying a number of tiny nuclear devices deep under the rock formations upon which those islands stand, the rock strata far below the islets could be liquefied, allowing the islets to sink deep below the surface — permanently removing those threats to shipping in the region.

This has been done before, and with zero radiation release into the air or water. It’s a completely enclosed detonation and like the molten magma deep under the Earth’s crust it would never come anywhere near the atmosphere or seawater.

One would hope that one islet would be spared for the purposes of building a massive emergency base that all Southeast Asian nations would “own a share of” and “feel comfortable enough with” to contribute aircraft, ships and personnel in order to maintain a high level of anti-piracy/anti-terrorism readiness, for rescue missions, and to carry forward-based and rapid assistance to future tsunami/earthquake victims throughout the region.

Of the choices available to us, which are the most appropriate?

  • Human beings could use our much vaunted technology to sink all of the Spratly Islands to a depth far below any ship hulls thereby removing a significant navigational hazard from the charts.
  • China could turn one of the islands into a joint rescue, anti-piracy, and anti-terrorism super-base, where  operations could operate at a high level and tsunami/earthquake aid could maintain a rapid-response level. (This could be done regardless of whether the other islets were sunk)
  • We could annoy and provoke China into a conflict over how far we allow that country to project its maritime power. That fight could escalate in a matter of minutes or days, and as both China and the U.S. are superpowers it’s possible that the conflict could spread far beyond the South China Sea.

From a purely human life and health standpoint, deaths due to shipping accidents worldwide are relatively rare, amounting to less than 8,000 people per year, while deaths due to terrorism total less than 15,000 per year, and military conflict between nations can range from small numbers of deaths up to (potentially) all life on the planet if a nuclear war between two superpowers is allowed to develop.

Therefore, it seems appropriate to resolve the situation using diplomacy. In that way, the present default slide towards conflict can be turned into a positive.

Win-Win or Lose-Lose: Our choice

Human beings will either be ‘up to the task’ of resolving the differences between nation states, or eventually there will be no life on the planet.

Let’s be civilized people and choose, Win-Win.

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