Reflections on the International Institute for Strategic Studies Annual conference 2010

I attended the recent annual conference, the “Global Strategic Review”, as it is called, of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (“IISS”) in Geneva on September 10-12 2010. Almost simultaneously the IISS published its 432-page Strategic Survey 2010 -The Annual Review of World Affairs.

Taking both together, here are my reflections on the international issues discussed.  You should know  that plenary sessions at the conference are on the record, while committee meetings are off the record. My comments below reflect this.

The Evolving State/Non-State Nexus

The IISS is noted for being careful in its choice of words. So I was surprised to hear Nigel Inkster, its director of transnational threats and political risk, coming out so strongly on FARC.  Venezuela was providing state support to the FARC rebels in Colombia and it was its long-term strategic policy to do so. He described the peace process that the FARC went through with the previous government of Colombia as “the peace process that never was”, in other words that the FARC were negotiating in bad faith. The centre of gravity of the FARC insurgency is now mainly in Venezuelan border areas, and its persistence is now solely due to the support of Venezuela.

The total manpower of the FARC is about 9,000 today, of who about 1,500 are in a variety of locations in Venezuelan itself. Overall Venezuela provides a safe haven, refuge, rest and recreation, healthcare, opportunities for redeployment, and help in exporting cocaine and in meetings with NGOs, the IRA and ETA.

Why does President Chavez do it? That question arises because the FARC has almost zero legitimacy in Colombia today. The potential answer is ideology and perhaps emotion. Chavez apparently now believes his own conspiracy theories about the possibility of a US invasion!

Emile Hokayem, senior fellow for regional security, IISS-Middle East, was equally frank about Hezbollah.

Hezbollah (the party of God) is no longer a proxy for Iran and Syria, but a full player, a full partner, in its own right. Each of these three now reinforce each other, see themselves as having a “common destiny”, and use each other as a force multiplier against what they see as a repressive Western order.

The role with Iran is seen as quite dynamic, with Hezbollah having a particularly close relationship with the Revolutionary Guards. Only Iran could now disarm Hezbollah, while the only thing that deters them is the possible destruction of the Shia community in Lebanon. Hezbollah helped Bashir al-Assad get legitimacy after he took power, and now protects Syria’s interests in Lebanon.

Breaking the alliance was seen as quite difficult, as it acts as a force multiplier for each of them. The alliance will not be given up easily-perhaps only as part of a grand bargain between the US and Iran, if even then. It is also likely that Hezbollah will not disarm even if the border issues with Syria and Israel are cleared. Its role in foreign operations is perhaps the one area where Iran “directs” Hezbollah-and there have been very few of them in recent years.

If Israel attacks Iranian nuclear installations the Hezbollah reaction is likely to be dependent on whether the attack was seen as an existential attack on Iran. If not Hezbollah would likely just wait.

State Building, Especially in Failing or Failed States

Some interesting conclusions  with  potential relevance to the debate with respect to how to help Africa.

Depending on your definition, there are between 12 and 50 states worldwide that are not fully sovereign today. In general interventions do not work, and are too expensive in every sense.

A particular problem is money spent on aid, which in the absence of external and internal full accountability,  is almost a complete waste of money. This contention is supported by the writings of Paul Collier; see my book review on his The Bottom Billion, elsewhere on this website.

The overall lessons for success in this area appear to be: one: the need for significant human capital, leadership. Two: recognise the economic agenda – the state must have revenue. Three: full accountability on spending and managing the money essential.

With Yemen at this point the problems are so extensive as to be insurmountable. As is well known both oil and water is rapidly running out, in a  country that has a very high birth rate, multiple competing armed  groups, and massive corruption and illiteracy.

Somalia  continues its 20-year collapse. Here and potentially elsewhere it is possible to see state building as actually a conflict producing exercises. This is because of the winner takes all approach in some tribal societies-the return of the state is feared because it is  seen,  and frequently was, predatory and rapacious. So although some want  law and order, they do not want the  return of  central government as it  effectively robbed them. In many such situations aid  just worsens the situation.

Some tentative conclusions in these situations: need to focus on jobs and skills; long-term agenda essential ; need to de-Westernize  the language and concepts used; aid  misses the point; potentially good examples of success in East Asia.

Energy Security

Some brief highlights:

Even with reasonable developments, by 2050, between 60% and 80% of global energy will still be provided by oil and gas.

The US is now the world’s biggest gas producer. Shale gas deposits could transform the gas security situation globally. In Pennsylvania shale gas deposits  could provide a hundred years of  world-wide consumption . However there may yet be significant environmental issues here.

Energy independence is impossible in an interdependent world and with an interdependent energy market. It is thought that China is beginning to realise this, and is now changing  its approach in this area. China is now the world’s biggest consumer of energy.

By  2030 the EU would still  be significantly exposed with respect to its need for oil and gas imports.

In addition energy infrastructure could be a target for terrorists in Europe.

With respect to Europe’s gas dependence on Russia (see my  article on this website) it was noted that Russia depends on the EU for 60% of its exports. There is mutual dependence here. The Russians now understand very clearly that their  use  of the gas energy weapon against the Ukraine  (and therefore against Western Europe) is a classic  example of the  costs (political and otherwise) outweighing  the benefits. They are very unlikely to do this again. A very very sore point with them.

Cyberpower and Strategy

Presentations by a senior scientist at Rand Corporation and  a senior adviser to the Ministry of Defence , Estonia.  (Estonia was the subject of a cyber attack, which many attributed at the time to Russia.)

  • Clear message that there has been significant overemphasis or hype of the dangers here. The attack on Estonia had limited impact.

  • Much of the impact would  be on the personal connectivity of individuals. A good description of the likely impact-“mutually assured annoyance.”

  • Note the comments here do not cover electronic warfare, which   is a more serious issue.
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