The Global Strategic Review, the annual conference of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, took place in Geneva, Switzerland, on 9 to 11 September 2011.
About 250 members of this independent think-tank meet yearly to hear plenary sessions on various geo-political issues and discuss in special sessions significant issues of current concern.
Amr Moussa, presidential candidate, Egypt and former secretary general of the League of Arab States, delivered the keynote address.
His speech appeared to be predicated on the assumption that a change in rhetoric at the top in Egypt (even if well meant) would produce the right changes economically, politically, and socially in Egypt. Everything we have learnt about development in the broadest sense in the last few decades indicates this is anything but the case. Development takes significant time, effort, organisational coherence and confidence, good governance, and strong impartial and fair leadership.
Amr Moussa clearly favoured strong and continuing presidential powers in Egypt, with the parliament relegated to a secondary role for at least the next decade. He expected parliament to be dominated by a coalition, which should not be a concern according to him due to the presidential powers he clearly favours. I got an impression (and it can be no more than that) that he has done a deal with the Muslim Brotherhood, and will clearly tell all that they can be controlled if they do get into a position of power. Historically a potentially dangerous mistake.
Overall I came away from his speech somewhat pessimistic about the future of this key state.
First Plenary – Strategic Change in the Middle East and North Africa
Strong message that Arab revolutions (predicted by no one which is an issue in itself) were very much justice-driven, reflecting a third way or third approach, compared to the religious revolution in Iran and the civil war in Algeria. At this point not religious, Islamist, anti-Israel, or anti-West, but very much focused on the corrupt elites in the relevant countries.
Nation-based, not ended yet, and the contagion is eroding the wall of fear that kept many regimes in power. Foreign intervention will be the exception and this Arab Spring may finish the job on Al-Qaeda. Unclear what the impact will be in Morocco, Algeria and Israel. King Mohammed Vl is supported in Morocco. There is a succession issue coming up in Algeria, with instability possible. The Gulf states have spent $150 billion to offset the challenge for change.
The Middle East is still a very dangerous place, with the deadlocked Israeli/Palestinian issue, the continuing Sunni-Shia split, and the Iranian march towards nuclear weaponry.
Hamas is hedging, not supporting Syria, and considering changing its “allegiance” to Egypt, Turkey, or Qatar, depending on developments. Syria is now very weak, but despite some political misdirection, is still 100% supported by Iran. The key lesson for Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader in Iran is that you never give in to pressure, and he still supports the Syrian regime fully and would encourage them to fight to the end.
Turkey is going for leadership in the Arab world, an approach described as “bombastic” by one speaker. (And a week later very much in evidence during Prime Minister Erdogan’s visit to Egypt). This point was repeated during the weekend, with the impossibility noted of Turkey achieving its ambition of regaining its “Ottoman era” position in the Middle East and Gulf.
An interesting perspective was given on why Iran has not collapsed, despite the pressure on it by the international community, the green revolution and the Arab Spring:
Discontent is not focused on one key individual. In Iran the Supreme Leader (who is the key ruler) keeps a low profile, with others such as Ahmadinejad much higher profile. The security apparatus (particularly the Revolutionary Guards) is part of the regime itself and will not defect or stay neutral as it did in some parts of the Arab world.
There is deep popular support for the regime in at least 20% of the population.
While the opposition has a number of leaders, they are all under house arrest with no common goal.
With a reasonable price for oil, the regime continues to have funds to protect itself.
With respect to Iran’s regional role, Syria is a key asset, a key ally, the conduit to Hezbollah, and if the regime changed there, that would be a major loss to Iran. Turkey is a significant rival – one way of looking at the regional conflict between the two, is that Iran can be seen as “old Labour (in UK terms) while Turkey is “new Labour”.
In a question-and-answer session it was noted that the US is currently leaving a vacuum in the region at present, with Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia jockeying for position and influence. China and Russia are also increasing their profile in the region.
The staying power of the regime in Saudi Arabia may be stronger than many think: King Abdullah is popular, (a few weeks later he gave women the right to vote) the theocratic style regime is broadly accepted, and they have adequate funds to protect themselves.
Second Plenary – Iran, Gulf Security and Nuclear Proliferation
This plenary started with a major presentation by HRH Prince Turki Al Faisal Bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud, a man who has been at the centre of much of the diplomatic efforts by Saudi Arabia over the years.
He gave a very blunt presentation, which proposed a WMD free zone in the Middle East, ” the most militarised area in the world.” He proposes holding a conference in the region on this topic in 2012. He stated plainly that Iran and Saudi Arabia were in “conflict”. He criticised Iran’s provocative “cat and mouse game” with the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN’s nuclear watchdog. He pointed out that the economy in Iran is in a mess, and that it is particularly vulnerable in the oil sector – clearly a hint to the UN Security Council about imposing sanctions against Iran to produce a change in its continuing nuclear misbehaviour. It is very unusual to hear Saudi diplomats speak in this fashion in public. The question is why now? Is it the fears of the impending conflict over Iran’s nuclear activities, or just publicly acknowledging what Wikileaks showed them saying in private, or a combination of both?
The next presentation, delivered in a low-key fashion, was by Mark Fitzpatrick, Director, -non-Proliferation and Disarmament Program, at the I ISS.
Even with regime change, it is likely that the nuclear situation would continue in Iran as it has to date-in other words regime change (whether externally imposed or internally developed) is not a solution to the nuclear problem. He pointed out that three separate developments are needed to produce a nuclear weapon: fissile material, weaponisation, and a delivery system. In each area Iran has made progress recently.
The timeline for Iran to have a usable nuclear weapon is something slightly less than two years.
The third speaker was Dr Ariel E Levite, an Israeli with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
He asserted that Iran was close to the tipping point with respect to acquiring a nuclear weapon. He analysed the Iranian nuclear issue from three perspectives – technical, strategic, and political.
He reiterated some of the points from the preceding presentation, particular on fissile material, noting that Iran seems to have less of a desire to hide what it is doing in this area now. He also noted the striking absence of a culture of safety in nuclear work generally in Iran.
Strategically he sees a possible window of opportunity over the next few months, which would then quickly close. Iran is threatened by developments in Syria and tensions with Turkey. Counterbalancing that, the West’s economic weakness at present does not help in terms of sanctions. Unfortunately from an Iranian perspective, what has happened in Libya has strengthened the desire for nuclear weapons in Iran. (Libya gave up its nuclear weapons programme after the invasion of Iraq, and now the regime has been successfully removed. Iran sees parallels.)
Politically the regime’s base of support is narrowing. This is a problem in that the nuclear issue is a populist cause in Iran (it is supported quite broadly) and so the regime can rally some support because of foreign pressure, including that of the UN, in this regard.
In questions-and-answers it was noted that having one nuclear weapon is of limited utility, and so Iran is likely to go for two or three at least.
A well-made point – attacking Iran to stop its nuclear weapons programme would have incalculable results. Iran acquiring nuclear weapons or a capacity to produce them would have incalculable results.
In response to questions Prince Turki Al Faisal made some further unambiguous comments: “Iran intends have nuclear weapons”. He told a story, which I had heard elsewhere, about a Gulf state minister raising the nuclear issue with President Ahmadinejad of Iran, and his worry about fallout from something like a Chernobyl accident or incident. The response from Ahmadinejad was anything but reassuring-“We will not use Russian technology, we will use Iranian technology”! The prince went out of his way to draw attention to the attitude underlining this comment – fallout from an incident in many of the nuclear sites in Iran would have a much bigger if not catastrophic impact on some of its Gulf state neighbours rather than on Iran itself.
Third Plenary-Crises, Conflict and Intervention: Global Perspectives
Speakers from Brazil, India, and the IISS.
Predictable stuff – nothing new.
Breakout Session 1 – Warfare in the Cyber Domain
An interesting session, all off the record, which unfortunately did not quite meet its potential.
I already knew some of the information provided. It was agreed that attribution (finding out who was to blame) of cyber attack was possible – it just took time and significant effort and therefore significant cost. Cloud computing would of course be quite at risk in this area.
The initial problem with respect to any cyber attack is to know what type it is – is a rogue “one man hacker” attack or a serious national major attack?
Broad agreement that for the moment the offence is dominant in this area over defence, and also that in five years time most systems would be much better protected than they are today. That would then stop many rogue hacker attacks in their tracks. Noted that all US Defence Department systems had been penetrated to an extent that they cannot even “repair” them, and have to use them assuming they are penetrated. It is clear that the number of attacks happening is enormous.
For any significant government department, or business, the working assumption from my perspective should be that somebody has accessed any information in a system that is ever online, or is connected to another computer, which is ever online. The only way now to keep something confidential is to ensure the relevant computer system is not “connected”, directly or indirectly. There is literally no other way, short of handwritten notes.
One intriguing question. A question asked about Pres Obama’s recent statement that a significant cyber attack on the US could lead to a military response. The response was unequivocal-this was completely appropriate on the part of the US.
Breakout Session 2 India and Pakistan: Prospects for Dialogue
A session featuring some significant disagreements between the speakers, who were from Pakistan, India, and the US.
A strong impression generally that there was a significant trust deficit in India vis-à-vis Pakistan. Significant questions about who was in charge in Pakistan, and the general feeling in India that “enough is enough” with respect to Pakistan. Every six months there is an incident, which probably involves Pakistani collusion with the relevant militant group, and the Pakistani assumption is they will get away with it once again.
Both countries assume the US will leave Afghanistan, and will leave a mess behind them, which could create an interesting situation vis-à-vis China, who India sees as a threat and who are strategic allies of Pakistan.
Noted that at present, Pakistan is the country in the world going through the fastest pace of nuclear development i.e. growth in its nuclear weaponry. [This is not a good development. Both countries have nuclear arms. There is a widespread belief that many of the terrorist attacks on India or Indian interests, are carried out by terror group supported by elements of the Pakistani state. There appears to be an assumption in Pakistan that the possession of nuclear weapons means it will not be retaliated against. India has been developing conventional military responses for such situations, assuming that any such quick, focused attack into Pakistan would not produce a nuclear reaction. Such is an assumption that could easily turn out to be incorrect, and therefore inadvertent nuclear war is always very possible in this conflict.]
Neither country seems to want to compromise, there is no internal support for such, and no peace movement in either country. In Pakistan the US relationship with India is seen as strategic, while its own with US is seen a short-term and one that will be discarded easily. Amongst the Indian elite there is significant frustration and bitterness towards Pakistan. A very dangerous situation – one more big terrorist attack by Pakistani or Islamic militants on India could provoke a military attack on Pakistan from India .The Indian leader Manmohan Singh would like to leave as a heritage peace with Pakistan, but the government in India is weak and may not be able to deliver this.
Generally a feeling of “profound pessimism”. Any conventional war could now easily escalate to nuclear use.
Discussion Panel-over Dinner – a Long-Term Strategy for Afghanistan
This comprised four IISS speakers, each an expert in a different area relevant to Afghanistan.
Instead of the previous focus on Al Qaeda, in Afghanistan now you have what is described as a form of ” Jihadist soup”. The biggest, and most dangerous element of that soup is the Haqqani network. This is been active for a lengthy period of time, is very close to the Pakistan authorities (who refuse to move against it in Pakistan), and has been responsible for some of the more serious and successful attacks against NATO and Afghan government forces. The group supports Al Qaeda and the concept of international terrorist attacks, but has carried out none itself.
With respect to the drug problem in Afghanistan, it is now accepted that you cannot eliminate drug-growing activities and do successful counterinsurgency at the same time. The drug problem is therefore a long-term issue. It is estimated that one-third of drug revenue goes to the Taliban (in the form of protection money) while the other two-thirds effectively goes to Afghan president Karzai and his associates.
A retired military speaker expected that in 2014 when international troops hand over military control to the Afghan army the likely result will be the government holding the Kabul region and other major areas, with the Taliban in control in the East, bordering Pakistan. A less likely, but possible outcome is of course civil war.
With respect to the conflict in Afghanistan between India and Pakistan [a key driver of much of Pakistan’s activities], it appears that India is now reducing its footprint in Afghanistan. It has spent approximately $2 billion on infrastructure in the country. Pakistan sees the US as going soon, and feels they will be on their own and will probably draw closer to China whom they perceive as their long-term strategic ally.
Corruption is embedded in the country, and around president Karzai, with the judicial system particularly corrupt and ineffective. The constitution established for the country after the Taliban were removed was hopelessly optimistic and assumed a centralised state was the appropriate approach. Unfortunately a centralised state has never really existed in Afghanistan in recent history. This was a bad mistake in retrospect.
Finally with respect to Iran, it is playing an important role, and will support an independent Afghanistan (as opposed to a client or vassal state of Pakistan). In the meantime it is increasingly arming the Taliban.
Fourth Plenary – the Rise of a Militarised Asia: Global Implications
The Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defence for Asian and Pacific Security affairs Derek J Mitchell stated that the US did not see China as a threat, but noted the increasing range of disputes between China and many of its neighbours in the South China Sea.
Other speakers repeated this latter point, and noted increasing tension between various countries in the region. Potential flashpoints include the Korean peninsula, Taiwan, and the border between China and India. China still lags the US in military power and will continue to do so for at least another two decades. It has not gone through a revolution in military affairs as many Western militaries did. It therefore is relying on asymmetrical capabilities, including cyber warfare, space activities, missiles etc.
China still sees itself as a victim state, and now has a very low opinion of NATO, summarised in the joke for what these initials stand for – no action talk only!
Interesting comments from a retired Indian admiral. Although China may outspend India on its navy, India has learned a lot from its intensive cooperation with Western navies, and therefore is more likely to prevail in a naval contest. By 2030 India and China would be at their peak military position, but China would be significantly weakened demographically.
Significant increase in military budgets in Asia. The expenditure is on modern systems and power projection, but is not really an arms race, more parallel military progress. Why such expenditure? Insecurity and the desire to prevent and maintain access and control resources.
China’s short-term focus is on Taiwan (ensuring it does not declare independence), medium-term focus the “near seas”, and denying air and surface space to any potential enemy. In essence it is targeting the resources in these areas, which is causing increasing concern to its neighbours and the US.
One particular worry mentioned – with Chinese over-confidence, a miscalculation could easily lead to conflict, with very worrying signals coming from recent Chinese behaviour in the South China Sea.
In the question-and- answer session, noted that China spends more on internal security than external security! One interpretation of the situation between India and Pakistan is that the actions of Pakistan, focus India on them, and thereby mitigate an Indian challenge to China.
The allies of China in Asia are a joke – North Korea, Burma, and Pakistan, much weaker than US allies in the region. Also noted a significant change in South Korea. If another provocation occurrence by the North, South Korea could strike back, with very unclear results.
Fifth Plenary – US Politics and the American Foreign Policy Debate
Much comment here and elsewhere, that the US is returning to a form strategic thinking like that of Pres Eisenhower. The idea is to manage “relative decline” properly.
The big election issues are unemployment, federal debt, and taxes. Recent polls of what US citizens are worried about: the economy 60%; healthcare 16%; debt 6%; Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya 6%. Two- thirds of the population now say that America should not be concerned about exporting democracy. That really says it all with respect to international affairs and interest.
Six particular issues noted:
- Defence expenditure will be cut.
- Polls show absolutely no interest in a ground combat role for the US in Asia or the Middle East.
- If a terror attack occurred in the US, there would be a harsh response, but no boots on the ground and no nation building.
- If another Libya occurred the US will either do less or do nothing.
- China is seen as playing a negative role.
- If Iran was considered to be close to developing nuclear weapons, airstrikes on the relevant facilities are supported by two thirds of the US population.
This is not isolationism, just an acknowledgement of reality of today’s world.
From a European perspective, expected the US will retrench from Europe, little positive change will happen in the multilateral order, and the EU will definitely not rise to the challenge. Libya may be Europe’s last hurrah.
In question-and-answer session limited future seen for NATO. Military action possible against Iran. NATO described variously as “old folks home”, the “maiden aunt” one visits occasionally. Key point – there will be no future US land wars in Asia or the Middle East.
Sixth Plenary – 10 Years on: Terror, War and Strategy
If the Arab Springs fail, a high chance of “revolutions of failed expectations”. The IMF recently simply noted that Arab states need to increase their growth rates by 50% to generate reasonable employment. That is a very big issue.
In assessing 9/11 etc. the ideological element of the threat has been ignored which is a mistake. The age of religious terrorism is not over yet.
In question-and-answer session it was agreed that the risk of terrorist unconventional attacks is low. Who gained most from 9/11? Answer – China and Iran.
Globalisation will continue in the 21st-century, leading to violent change in many areas. We are likely to shortly go through the second phase of the global financial crisis. It is now make-or-break time for the EU. Many in the Chinese administration/bureaucracy are worried about the future of China and what is likely to happen.