Category Archives: Essays

What is the Canadian Military? Is it time to rethink?

In contrast in the eyes of many Canadians, Canada is still a country of peacekeepers, yet our nation’s contributions of personnel to UN missions has rarely been lower. So the question needs to be asked, what sort of military should Canada have?




[dropcap]R[/dropcap]ecently there has seen a number of news stories and article emerging about the state of the Canadian military. Questions of whether the navy should re-orientate itself to new challenges in the Pacific (China); the costs of stealth snowmobiles;  the ongoing procurement drama of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and this rather eloquent article on the middle power conundrum regarding military procurement.

A common theme of this discussion is the procurement and fiscal challenges facing the Canadian armed force. A former professor of mine Andrew Richter, wrote on the issue of Canada’s procurement challenges back 2003 titled Along Side the Best? The Future of the Canadian Forces. The article examines Canada’s long history of poor procurement practices and the tough decisions that would have to be made when the next round of procurement came about. Now, a decade later we are seeing this decisions (or lack there of) that Dr. Richter discussed coming to the forefront.

Part of the problem is that Canadians simply don’t care about the military when compared to the broader policy priorities (actual poll results here). The clip in the aforementioned link finds that the military ranks as a long term priority for a paltry 4% of Canadians. These numbers illustrate a rather obvious point that we as Canadians don’t put much stock into defense spending because Canada has no enemies (nation states) and we can easily free ride on the bloated military spending of the United States. As a result the military is seen as something that is nice to have and people want to use for missions that support our values but it is not seen as an essential part of Canadian society or a funding priority.  Despite the aforementioned poll being a year old, the year over year priorities for most Canadians tend to be relatively consistent with minor variation: the economy, health care, tax rates, the environment ranking near the top and the military ranking at or near the bottom. The impact of this policy catch 22 is that this apathy about the Canadian military has carried over into the political realm. The current Conservative government, which campaigned hard on a strong military has placed balancing the budget ahead of it campaign priorities resulting in the Department of National Defense facing steep budget cuts and constrained spending priorities.

This of course brings us to the crux of the real issue, what role do we as Canadians want to see our military play in the world and in turn, what sort of military do Canadians want to pay for? From a political standpoint the federal political parties are only talking about one option: maintaining an increasingly expensive all purpose military. Yes some are willing to ditch the increasingly expensive F-35s but the disastrous Cyclone Helicopter procurement and veiled threats from Lockheed Martin about canceling the F-35 contracts shows what can happen when the government makes a bad decision or changes it mind. The result can be an armed forces that are left empty handed while huge sums of money are wasted and could have been spent on alternative pieces of equipment.

With none of the political parties have engaged the public on the issue what sort of military do Canadians want and what other options are available. All of the parties speak of supporting the armed forces and ensuring our troops are trained and equipped properly for missions that they are sent on but none of them are questioning what sort of missions should we be sending them on. Canada obviously does not fund its military like the United States, yet there is a willingness to want to be able to do everything and be involved in missions that arises just as our armed forces capabilities have deteriorated to a point that may be unsustainable. In contrast in the eyes of many Canadians, Canada is still a country of peacekeepers, yet our nation’s contributions of personnel to UN missions has rarely been lower. So the question needs to be asked, what sort of military should Canada have?

All Purpose Military

Since the end of World War Two, Canada has maintained an all purpose armed forces, which simply means that we have three functioning branches to our armed force (an army, navy and air force). Unfortunately for us, due to years of constrained defense budgets, deferred procurement and expedited emergency replacement purchases all of the proverbial chickens are coming home to roost. With an estimated cost of $490 billion for new equipment, needing to be purchased over the next two decades the that Canadian taxpayers will be paying a high price in order to keep this all purpose capability. In theory maintaining an all purpose military isn’t necessarily a bad thing as it enables Canada to remain flexible in its role and contribute to a wide variety of military missions on the international stage.

The fundamental problem is that Canada will never have a military that can project itself on the international stage alone. Any conflict that Canada becomes involved with, will be as a part of a larger coalition of nations. Since many of our NATO allies and particularly the United States have militaries that are larger and more capable it is likely that Canadian military contributions would just supplement their capabilities. Canada’s contributions would hardly be a deciding factor in any intervention going forward nor would the size of the impact be significant in scale due to the relatively small size of our armed forces.

Canada has never had a large military, and the rising costs are threatening to shrink it even further. The ever rising costs of the F-35s have already illicit comments about buying fewer planes and bombs for those planes. The sheer cost of these new aircraft and buying them in the numbers needed to be able to deploy an effective force is already resulting in other branches feeling pressure with reports of an infantry battalion being cut from the army to help offset the F-35s. Questions about the costs of the shipbuilding contracts as well as the ability of Canadian shipyards to deliver on time and on budget place the navy’s procurement plans in question as well.

What this illustrates is that Canada’s armed forces is underfunded and facing a poorly organized procurement schedule from the standpoint of maintaining a truly all purpose military. Now this isn’t to say that Canadians may not want an all purpose military and it is also safe to say that Canadians would want the best available equipment to keep our soldiers, sailors and airmen safe in whatever mission they sent. But there has been no discussion of what the costs are going to be in order to maintain this military. Would Canadians be opposed to a X percentage defense tax in order to fund the military properly or would they prefer cuts to other spending priorities? There is no answer to this question because no political party is willing to have a serious discussion about what the future of the military will be.

Specialized Military

If funding an all purpose military is deemed to be too costly, an attractive yet under examined alternative is the specialization of the Canadian armed forces. In this context specialization refers to the prioritization of a single branch of the Canadian armed forces both in use and funding, The non-prioritized branches of the military would be shrunk or reorganize to a minimum capability with the cost saving then being spent on enhancing the capabilities of the selected branch.

This specialization is already occurring in Europe where austerity has forced deep military cuts onto several NATO powers. The Dutch Army for example no longer has any tanks as their final two battalions were disbanded in 2011 in order to save money.  What these cuts have resulted in a degree synergy of capabilities between nations like Great Britain and France sharing aircraft carriers or the Dutch-German military cooperation in “a bid to better utilize ‘scarce and expensive resources and capabilities’ at a time when Europe is facing a financial crisis.” For Canada this would mean picking a single service branch and prioritizing it while cutting back the capabilities of the other branches, likely in cooperation with the United States.

Although it is impossible to say exactly what this specialization would look like, I would argue that the Navy or the Air Force likely have the leg up on being chosen as the preferred choice. The reasoning is relatively straight forward as “boots on the ground” missions have gone the way of the dodo for Canada in the UN (see link above) and after Iraq and Afghanistan the desire for western troops being deployed anywhere is in relative short supply. Second, the fact that only the United States shares a land border with Canada means that our army really isn’t needed to deter or defend us from invasion (if the US did invade our army wouldn’t stop them). Under this assumption, the army would likely be turned into a largely reservist force with specialized units like Joint Task Force 2 (JTF2) and the Disaster Assistance Response Teams (DART) remaining to fulfill specialized needs as a part of a larger coalition where other countries provide the bulk of land forces.

As for the Navy or Air Force one of these two branches would likely be expanded and possible enhanced likely in the conjunction with out allies designs and desires as well as the capability to defend Canadian interests and sovereignty. So for the navy, it would likely see an expanded ship building program beyond that which is already planned. Since Canada doesn’t have the capabilities to build these vessels ourselves it would likely mean going abroad for some of the ships. One intriguing idea would be the possible purchase of Great Britain’s new aircraft carrier which is currently planned to be mothballed after it completes construction (although a recent policy reversal may change this).

If the Air Force is given primacy, we would likely see an expanded F-35 purchase or possibly diversification of aircraft purchases beyond the F-35. We would also likely see the purchase of attack helicopter, additional heavy lift aircraft, air refueling aircraft, airborne radar and an expanded drone force. These purchases would also be accompanied by a wider variety of ordnance with the adding of larger and more specialized weaponry like bunker busters and air to ground cruise missiles that would give the Canadian Air Force a strategic strike capability.

What we would also likely see is the emergence of some joint capabilities such as a Marine brigade being formed (if the navy is given priority) or an airborne brigade  (if the air force is given priority) with these new units gaining the means through which they can be effectively deployed to limited combat situations abroad. Such a convergence would allow some all purpose capabilities to be maintained but they would likely only be usable in the context of the broader support of allies or a limited deployment such as protecting an embassy or Canadians during a large scale evacuation similar to Lebanon in 2008.

The specialized nature of the single branch would result in Canada striving to become a leader in operations of that branch within NATO and other allied military operations. Canada providing a naval task force to the Persian Gulf in relief of an American one or being willing and able to launch the first round of strikes of an air campaign would become  standard and the norm rather then the current tertiary role that Canada currently provides.

Self-Defense Force

The self-defense role for the Canadian forces would see Canada’s military largely retreating from international deployments. Although some rudimentary capabilities for activities abroad such as the maintaining of our C-17 capabilities to provide humanitarian missions/disaster relief or JFT-2 for counter-terror operations; the bulk of the Canadian military would be transformed into a glorified domestic defense force. The Navy and Coast Guard would be merged into a single entity whose mission would be to police Canadian waters; the air force would be reduced to a minimum number of aircraft to protect our skies from foreign incursions and the army would be reduced largely to reservists whose primary purpose would be to assist in disaster relief and to provide limited aid for international humanitarian missions.

A slightly expanded version of this would see Canada maintain a true “Peacekeeping force” where a small, rapidly deployable force would be maintained that could be deployed for peacekeeping roles that are authorized by the United Nations. This is a double edge sword where fortunately for Canada, UN missions have become increasingly rare; unfortunately the missions that the UN tends to be deployed to have tended to be in far flung parts of the world where Canada has few interests in an effort to stop increasingly intractable conflicts.

The Icelandic Way

Finally, there is the Icelandic way. Let’s be frank, unless the United States invades Canada itself, no other nation will. Despite the rhetoric of the Cold War and Russians coming over the pole or the fantasy that are Red Dawn (the original was better) or Homefront geography dictates that Canada is a countries that is very difficult to attack from any direction but south. So the question is, do we actually need a military?

Although there would likely be some “backlash” from allies about abolishing the Canadian armed forces the fact of the matter is that Canada’s contributions to military endeavors are hardly deal breaking. If Canada hadn’t contributed to Kosovo, Afghanistan or Libya missions it is unlikely that the outcomes would have been any different. Fortunately, Canada can make it up to our allies in other ways if we aren’t willing to fund a military. The Department of National Defense budget estimate for 2012/13 totaled approximate $20.1 billion. Even if we put a portion of that amount towards subsidizing our allies military ventures that we support you would find that it has a major impact. The Kosovo air intervention in 1999 was pegged at $7 billion with another $100-150 billion for reconstruction and peacekeeping; the Libya intervention to remove Qaddafi was a relatively cheap 1.1 billion for the airstrikes; while Afghanistan although totaling likely in the several trillion dollar range, Canada’s portion costed $11.3 billion (excluding long term healthcare costs).

What this shows is that Canada could easily pay for more then its share of a military mission if we wanted to. Even if the 20.1 billion was split with half, with part paying down the national debt and other half being saved to fund military and humanitarian missions in a given year Canada could easily subsidize the costs to our allies for the deployment of their forces.


What is needed in Canada is a serious discussion on the fate of the Canadian military, unfortunately this isn’t a decision that our politicians are willing to have. With what is likely to be half a trillion dollars being spent on the armed forces over the next two decades Canadians need to be asked do they want to spend the money and what will that money buy? If Canadians don’t have this discussion, they risk being saddled with military of exorbitant cost that is without a clear mission or proper capabilities. This in turn will leave Canada isolated on the international stage unable to contribute properly to allied military ventures and lacking the financial flexibility to maintain a long term military operations without finding new sources of revenue or cutting expenses in other parts of the government.


Photo Credit: Mike Kouxommone

CBRN Weapons and Non-State Actors

What type(s) of non-state actors, according to their characteristics and objectives, are most likely to use CBRN weapons?




[dropcap]E[/dropcap]ver since the 1995 sarin attack of the Tokyo Subway by the religious cult Aum Shinrikyo (“Aum Supreme Truth”), there has been a growing fear that non-state actors, especially terrorist groups, might decide to resort to Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear weapons (CBRN) on a large scale. Governments and counter-terrorism agencies have set up measures to minimize the threat, while academics and experts have tried to profile the groups interested in acquiring and using such weapons. First of all, it is important to explain why this paper will deliberately focus on terrorist groups, which are only one sub-category of non-state actors (other groups would include political lobbies, criminal organisations, separatist groups or even single individuals). When it comes to CBRN weapons, this paper argues that any group willing to use them could be defined as a terrorist organisation (but not automatically, insofar as “terrorist” remains a label that does not have a globally shared definition), whatever its personal objectives or characteristics. Indeed, although CBRN weapons can be very different from one another, they share some key aspects that make them all identifiable as “terror weapons” (their ability to provoke mass destruction and generate unprecedented fear among the population, to name a few). The few case studies of previous CBRN incidents have lead experts to identify key characteristics of terrorist groups that would potentially have an interest in CBRN weapons. Most of them agree that apocalyptic or religious extremist groups are the most likely to use CBRN weapons. However, although groups that present such characteristics might be the most dangerous ones regarding the subject matter, I think that the assumptions underlying these conclusions are misleading. To overcome these issues, this paper will attempt to follow the same analytic pattern, identifying shared characteristics of groups that have turned to CBRN terrorism through four case studies. It will then present the conclusions drawn by academics and experts in major research papers and discuss them, stressing the risk of misconceptions regarding CBRN weapons. Finally, this paper will argue that the type of a group is too reductive to determine effectively which group(s) are most likely to use CBRN weapons and is not as crucial as the combination of factors that might lead the group to this decision.

Four different case studies are usually discussed when experts want to determine the characteristics of potential users of CBRN weapons. Three of them are large-scale “successful” CBRN attacks, while the last one is a potential threat that seems to be a major concern for the US government and the international community as a whole. Chronologically, the first successful CBRN attack happened in 1984, when the Rajneeshee religious cult poisoned 751 people, spreading Salmonella typhimurium bacteria over ten salad bars. No fatality was reported. The aim of the attack was to influence a local vote in Oregon by limiting the voter turnout. Another deadly agent, Salmonella typhi, had been suggested to the leader of the group, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, but he reportedly refused, claiming that the attack was aiming at incapacitating people, not killing them.[1] The second case occurred in 1990 in Sri Lanka. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a separatist militant organisation active in the north of the country, assaulted a military facility using chlorine gas. At least 60 soldiers got sick due to gas exposure, although no fatality was reported. The operation was a success, despite that members of the LTTE got exposed to chlorine when the wind shifted. The third case, previously mentioned, was the 1995 release of sarin gas in the Tokyo subway by the religious cult Aum Shinrikyo. The attack killed 12 people and injured 200, while up to 5,000 stormed in hospitals believing they had been exposed. Finally, the last case study is Al Qaeda’s reported attempt to acquire and intention to use a CBRN weapon. Extensive evidence can be found to support this statement: the declaration of bin Laden in 1998 that acquiring CBRN weapons ‘is a religious duty’[2] (remaining very vague regarding its actual possession of such weapons), the 2003 fatwa (a religious decree) condoning the killing of 4 Million of Americans, described as a legitimate act of vengeance, as well as numerous documents found in Afghanistan attesting of active researches and experiments in CBRN weapons. A whole volume of Al Qaeda’s “Encyclopaedia of Jihad” even details the construction of Chemical and Biological weapons.[3] Although it is not clear whether Al Qaeda remains at an early stage of development of CBRN weapons, there is no doubt regarding the organisation’s interest in such weapons.

Even though these case studies differ by many more aspects than they resemble each other, they share a few common points. In all four cases, a charismatic leader was involved: Prabakaran, leader of the LTTE, controlled the entire life of his followers up to their diet, bin Laden required that Al Qaeda’s members swore allegiance to him (bay’ah),[4] while Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and Shoko Asahara were the spiritual leaders of their cult. In the case of Asahara, he had a huge influence over his followers, predicting the end of the world and promising salvation to all members of Aum. Indeed, a charismatic leader is an important factor for a group that would turn to CBRN terrorism: the influence of the leader can be so important that his decisions are enough to suppress any moral constraint that a member would have, because he holds the truth and the justification of all the actions carried out by the group. Moreover, he is the only one bearing responsibility for them, the individual fading away in the group as a whole. An analogue argument regarding a divine justification of religious groups’ actions is also often put forward. In two cases, members of the group had a personal interest or obsession with CBRN weapons: Ma Anand Puja, the member of the Rajneeshees who suggested the use of Salmonella typhi, was suspected of being a ‘serial poisoner’,[5] while Aum Shinrikyo had a very hierarchical organisation with scientists as head of chemical and biological departments, not to mention Asahara personal fascination with unconventional weapons. He even wrote a song about sarin, titled ‘Song of Sarin, the Magician’.[6] Social alienation also played an important role in the Aum and Rajneeshee cults: after losing the 1990 elections, Aum decided that no one from outside of the group could be saved, drawing a clear line between “us” and “them”, while the Rajneeshees were living in a small community in Waso County, isolated from anyone else. The consequence of this alienation was that any exterior social constraint regarding violence would have no impact on the group’s decisions.[7] Finally, religion was a factor in three of these cases, or at least a major characteristic of the groups involved.

But that is as far as this comparison goes. The use of CBRN weapons was a rational choice that addressed very different needs and objectives in each case. While it played a central role in Aum’s prophesised apocalypse (although the 1995 sarin attack was a desperate action triggered by a planned operation of the Japanese police to close in on the group’s facilities), the LTTE only resorted to chemical weapons that one time because of a shortage of conventional weapons and has never used chlorine again. While Al Qaeda might be willing to use CBRN weapons for their psychological and symbolic impact, which requires visibility, the Rajneeshees’ attack went unnoticed for over a year. According to John Parachini, Director of the Intelligence Policy Center at the RAND Corporation, the role of religion has been played up, even in the cases of Aum and Al Qaeda.[8] Asahara had an egocentric personality and wanted to be the emperor of the post-Armageddon world, one of the few to actually survive the end of the world. Bin Laden’s divine justification of a holy war can be regarded as a personal vanguard against the United States and its allies.[9] The Rajneeshee was a religious cult but had a secular objective (winning a local election). Therefore, it seems that a simple profile of a group willing to use CBRN weapons cannot be deducted from these case studies only.

The literature on the subject reveals two different trends: one that mostly expends on the case studies mentioned above as well as minor CBRN incidents, using a qualitative approach to establish a typology of groups most likely susceptible to resort to CBRN weapons, and a second one using a quantitative approach, exploiting the CBRN terrorism database of the Monterey Institute of International Studies. It is worth noticing that the findings of both the approaches differ at some point. Regarding the qualitative approach, the different typologies are very similar in their content. I present here Drs. Charles Ferguson and Wiliam Potter’s typology of terrorist groups according to their potential interest in nuclear terrorism,[10] but it differs very little from Professor Robin Frost’s.[11] Ferguson and Potter focus their study on four types of groups: ‘apocalyptic groups’, ‘politico-religious groups’, ‘nationalist/separatist groups’ and ‘single-issue terrorists’. According to them, apocalyptic groups pose the greatest threat when it comes to nuclear terrorism, because some of them might want to bring about the Apocalypse they foresee, in which case the means becomes the end itself. The key characteristics of such groups are ‘charismatic leaders, isolation and alienation from the larger society, sense of paranoia and grandiosity’[12]. It is obvious that this category refers directly to Aum Shinrikyo, which is nonetheless a very specific religious cult that cannot be compared to any other existing terrorist group.

The second category they mention is ‘politico-religious groups’, cause and offspring of the 9/11 attacks. They call such groups ‘hybrids’ as an answer to those who claim that Al Qaeda’s objectives are not only religious, but also political (creation of a global caliphate, but also pushing the United States out of the Middle East). Ferguson and Potter contend that nuclear weapons might appeal to such groups, using the example of Al Qaeda that is willing to inflict mass casualties to the West. Whether the group would actually use a nuclear weapon if it managed to acquire one is not discussed by the authors, but that is a debatable point to which we will come back later.  Interestingly, Frost puts apocalyptic groups and politico-religious groups into one single category, ‘religious terrorism’, that encompasses altogether the Rajneeshee, Aum Shinrikyo and Al Qaeda.[13] He insists on the threat posed by a divine justification of an act presented as a religious imperative.

The third category of Ferguson and Potter’s typology, nationalist/separatist groups, also appears in Frost’s typology. The authors all agree on the disincentives such groups might be confronted with when it comes to using nuclear weapons. These groups, like the Irish Republican Army or Chechen rebels to name a few, are depending on their base constituency’s support and therefore cannot risk to alienate them by undertaking actions that they would not approve of. It was the case for the Real IRA, an offshoot of the IRA responsible for the bombing of a shopping centre in Omagh, Northern Ireland, which lost the support of the population after this operation, leading to its dismantlement.[14] These groups present themselves as “freedom fighters” in order to gain international support and claim to merely target military and governmental installations, although Frost mentions that their rhetoric does not deceive anyone: out of 1,800 victims of the IRA between 1969 and 1994, 600 were civilians.[15] Using a nuclear weapon would be counterproductive according to their strategy, although Ferguson and Potter claim that they ‘might benefit from appearing to have the capability’, an argument that they oppose themselves, mentioning the radicalisation of the government’s stance every time Chechens have mentioned resorting to CBRN weapons.[16] Finally, being geographically focused, they would risk a massive retaliation from the country they would attack, potentially leading to their annihilation.

The last category of Ferguson and Potter are single-issue terrorists (eco-terrorists, anti-nuclear activists, animal liberationists, anti-abortionists, etc…). According to them, these groups do not represent a threat insofar as they have very targeted goals that do not include mass casualties. In this category, Frost mentions an exception: ‘green anarchists’, terrorists who advocate a rebirth of the earth through the annihilation of the human race. This sub-category presents similarities with apocalyptic groups and might very well be willing to use a nuclear weapon to achieve its end, with very little moral constraint whatsoever.[17] Frost also adds ‘social-revolutionary’ and ‘right-wing’ groups in his typology, but argues that nuclear weapons would probably not appeal to them, as they present similarities with nationalist/separatist groups.

Other qualitative studies have also addressed the typology of groups that would be interested in using biological weapons, which is considered to be the most likely scenario of a CBRN attack by most articles in the literature.[18] According to Francisco Galamas, Islamic extremist groups are the most likely to use biological weapons, because they are set on killing non-believers in an indiscriminate manner. Biological weapons have the potential to kill thousands and could be effectively combined with suicide tactics to provoke mass casualties, such as using a contaminated terrorist to propagate a pathogen in a public area.[19] This argument would however be refuted by Adam Dolnik, who underlines the differences between a suicide bomb attack and a suicide CBRN attack, the latter lacking any of the incentives of the former.[20] According to Galamas’ typology, the second group that is most likely to use a biological weapon are religious cults. The author draws his argument from the examples of the Rajneeshee’s Salmonella poisoning and Aum’s numerous attempts to produce and use Botulinum toxin and anthrax between 1990 and 1993. It is worth noticing that religion remains the primary factor in biological weapons qualitative studies.

The main quantitative studies have been conducted by Kate Ivanova and Todd Sandler in 2006 and 2007, using data of hundreds of CBRN attacks indexed on the Monterey Institute’s CBRN terrorism database from 1988 to 2004. Their findings indicate that democracy, past CBRN incidents, corruption and transnationalism increase the risks of a CBRN attack. However, Ivanova and Sandler have also found that ‘religious fundamentalists and nationalists/separatists do not present (…) a CBRN concern’.[21] According to them, non-religious groups are five times more likely to use CBRN weapons than religious groups.[22] However, these results are not entirely at odds with qualitative studies, because Ivanova and Sandler found that religious groups that are also transnational – such as Al Qaeda – were the most likely to use CBRN weapons.  Nevertheless, it would seem that the factor “transnational” is of the uttermost importance and that religion alone does not support the use of a CBRN weapon.

All these studies attempt to profile groups that would be interested in using CBRN weapons. However, some of the assumptions they base their arguments on can be misleading. I will discuss three points that are often overlooked in the literature. First of all, I do not think like Frost that ‘the decision to “go nuclear” would necessarily involve the intention to do so’.[23] For example, in my opinion, Al Qaeda would probably benefit more from pretending to have a CBRN weapon than using one. The group is not insensitive to its followers’ opinion, otherwise the organisation would not have felt the need to justify the killings of 9/11. However, claiming to “potentially” have a CBRN weapon is a cost free psychological weapon in itself. Therefore, whether Al Qaeda would actually use a CBRN weapon is debatable. Another misconception is that CBRN weapons are necessarily weapons of mass destruction, and that terrorists would automatically use them to kill a lot of people and carry out an attack more spectacular than 9/11. Given its psychological impact, a CBRN attack does not need to make mass casualties to reach what Ivanova and Sandler call the ‘media bar’ of 9/11.[24] Moreover, to date, conventional attacks have proven far more lethal than CBRN attacks. Therefore, it appears that the “mass casualty” factor is not necessarily fundamental to explain the choice of a group to use a CBRN weapon.

This paper has attempted to show that the traditional approach consisting in determining the type of non-state actors most likely to use CBRN weapons through typologies and case studies might lead to false conclusions, when trying to fit all groups in one single model. CBRN weapons are very different from each other, and the motives explaining why one group would choose to develop and use one particular agent depends on its own objectives and characteristics. While these characteristics can be shared with other groups, they are not self-sufficient. Therefore, this paper argues that a correct approach to the issue would be to think of it as a threshold depending on a combination of all the characteristics mentioned above. Religion is not enough to resort to CBRN weapons, but if a religious group is also transnational, apocalyptic and lead by a charismatic figure, it becomes much more likely to use a CBRN weapon. This proposition would also explain why the Aum Shinrikyo case, symbol of CBRN terrorism, is unique and unlikely to be replicated: many positive factors have simultaneously converged to one very specific group.


Photo Credit: 

[toggle title= “Footnotes and Bibliography”]


[1] Parachini (2001), p. 390

[2] “Wrath of God: Osama bin Laden Lashes Out Against the West,” Time, 11 January 1999

[3] McCloud et al. (2003)

[4] Frost (2005), p. 44

[5] Parachini (2001), p. 390

[6] Brackett (1996), p. 119

[7] Parachini (2001), p. 397

[8] Ibid. p. 403

[9] Ibid. p. 403

[10] Ferguson and Potter (2004), p. 18

[11] Frost (2005), p. 46

[12] Ferguson and Potter (2004), p. 18

[13] Frost (2005), p. 51

[14] Ibid. p. 47

[15] Ibid. p. 48

[16] Ferguson and Potter (2004), pp. 19-20

[17] Frost (2005), p. 54

[18] Center for Counterproliferation Research (2002), p. 12

[19] Galamas (2011), p. 85

[20] Dolnik (2003), p. 32

[21] Ivanova & Sandler (2007), p. 292

[22] Ivanova & Sandler (2006), p. 436

[23] Frost (2005), p. 46

[24] Ivanova and Sandler (2007), p. 473



– Asal Victor H., Ackerman Gary A. & Rethemeyer R. Karl (2012), ‘Connections Can Be Toxic: Terrorist Organizational Factors and the Pursuit of CBRN Weapons’, Studies in Conflict &Terrorism, Vol. 35, No. 3, pp. 229-254

– Bale Jeffrey M. & Ackerman Gary A., ‘Recommendations on the Development of Methodologies and Attributes for Assessing Terrorist Threats of WMD Terrorism’, Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Monterey Institute of International Studies, accessed online at:, on 24 November 2012.

– Brackett, D. W. (2006), Holy Terror : Armageddon in Tokyo, (Boston: Weatherhill).

– Center for Counterproliferation Research (2002), ‘Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear Terrorism: The Threat According to the Current Unclassified Literature’, accessed online at:, on 24 November 2012.

– Cole, Benjamin (2011), The Changing Face of Terrorism: How real is the threat from biological, chemical and nuclear weapons? (London: I.B. Tauris& Co).

– Danzig Richard, Sageman Marc, Leighton Terrance, Hough Lioyd, Yuki Hidemi, Kotani Rui & Zachary Hosford M. (2011), ‘Aum Shinrikyo: Insights Into How Terrorists Develop Biological and Chemical Weapons’, Center for a New American Security, accessed online at, on 20 November 2012.

– Dolnik, Adam (2003), ‘Die and Let Die: Exploring Links between Suicide Terrorism and Terrorist Use of Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear Weapons’, Studies in Conflict &Terrorism, Vol. 26, No. 1, pp. 17-35.

– Ferguson, Charles D. and Potter, William C. (2005), The Four Faces of Nuclear Terrorism, (New York: Routledge).

– Frost, Robin M. (2005), ‘Terrorist psychology, motivation and strategy’, The Adelphi Papers, Vol. 45, No. 378, pp. 41-62.

– Galamas, Francisco (2011), ‘Profiling Bioterrorism: Present and Potential Threats’, Comparative Strategy, Vol. 30, No. 1, pp. 79–93.

– Ivanova Kate & Sandler Todd (2006), ‘CBRN Incidents: Political Regimes, Perpetrators and Targets’, Terrorism & Political Violence, Vol. 18, No. 1, pp. 423-448.

– Ivanova Kate & Sandler Todd (2007), ‘CBRN Attack Perpetrators: an Empirical Study’Foreign Policy Analysis, Vol. 3, No. 1, pp. 273-294.

– Kurth Cronin, Audrey (2004), ‘Terrorist motivations for chemical and biological weapons use: Placing the threat in context’, Defense & Security Analysis, Vol. 20, No. 4, pp. 313-320.

– McCloud Kimberley, Ackerman Gary A. & Bale Jeffrey M. (2005), ‘Chart: Al-Qa’ida’s WMD Activities’, Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Monterey Institute of International Studies, accessed online at:, on 24 November 2012

– Parachini, John V. (2001), ‘Comparing Motives and Outcomes of Mass Casualty Terrorism Involving Conventional and Unconventional Weapons’, Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, Vol. 24, No. 5, pp. 389-406.


The Hard Promise of China’s Peaceful Rise

The analysis below confirms an on-going change in the distribution of power in the Asia-Pacific. This shift not only discourages any optimistic expectations on China’s peaceful rise but is helpful in explaining the new American Strategy for the area, based on a massive redeployment of both US military forces and financial resources in order to contain China’s rising assertiveness.

{Department of International Relations, London School of Economics and Political Science}





The debate over the Chinese economic and international rise in world politics in the last two decades has been characterized by growing concerns about the nature of its peaceful purposes. In particular, with the deepening of the world economic crisis since 2008, several military and diplomatic operations have been aiming at containing the rise of Chinese assertiveness in the Asia-Pacific area, such as the strengthening of the American commitment to Japan’s defense, formation of Japan-South Korea alignment, the redeployment of Japanese forces, naval cooperation between the United States and the Vietnamese and Philippines forces, and, finally, the Asia-Pacific Security Strategy announced by President Obama and the former Secretary of State Clinton in the last weeks of 2011.[1]

At first sight, these concerns could seem exaggerated, given that on the 9th of December 2003 Chinese premier Wen Jiabao reiterated the concept of a new phase in China’s approach toward its neighboring countries, pointing out the peaceful nature of Chinese rise and the developing status of its economy, adding that hegemony and expansion never would have been pursued in the area, even with the full development of the country.[2]  Despite the attempt of reassuring further their neighbors and the United States by substituting the term “rise” with the more neutral “development” only a year later, several questions about the new role of China in world politics have emerged in the political and academic debate. In fact, according to Zheng, both “rise” and “development”  “were attempts to counter the ‘China threat’ theories by emphasizing the peaceful way in which China could emerge as a world power[3]: however, the sole fact of the emergence of China as a world power has been sufficient to raise relevant points about its political effects.

From a theoretical point of view, international relations theory provides some helpful insights in order to understand whether the growing power of the Asian giant is able to affect the current international system and US interests in the Pacific region in the foreseeable future. Power transition theory, elaborated by AFK Organski in 1958, accounts for the existence of four different kinds of state-units, organized according to a hierarchal distribution of power: on the top stands the dominant nation, followed by great, middle and small powers. However, this distribution of power is not unchangeable and those states not completely satisfied with the status quo are willing to modify the hierarchy: “peace is threatened when challengers seek to establish a new place for themselves in the international order, a place to which they believe their increasing power entitles them.[4] In addition, Gilpin offers a more precise definition of revisionist and status quo orientations, by identifying some crucial components such as the distribution of power, the hierarchy of prestige and those “rights and rules that govern or at least influence the interactions among states[5]. Finally, according to Mearsheimer, all great powers are intrinsically revisionists because the anarchical system compels them to maximize their own power in order to achieve security.[6]

Within these conceptual frameworks, and in the light of the increase in international tension in the Asia-Pacific region in the last years, in this essay I will be presenting the two main academic positions about the evaluation of the Chinese role: can China be considered as a status quo power or, rather, as a major threat by virtue of being just a great power, and therefore revisionist, dissatisfied with the current American-dominated international system?

China as a status quo power: the importance of economic growth

In 2003, an article by Johnston clearly addressed the question about China’s role in the international system, stating its basic status quo character by underlying Chinese pro-globalisation attitude (given its priority in economic development and the growing economic interdependence) and by recalling Chinese increasing interest in joining regional institutions such as APEC, ARF, SCO, WTO through a comprehensive acceptation of their working rules.[7] Furthermore, China is more concerned about its domestic problems and, according to its own strategic plans, until 2050 its ruling class will be facing three big challenges on the road of state modernization, in order to become a medium-level developed country. Accordingly, the most compelling issues on the Chinese agenda are the shortage of natural resources, the environmental pollution and a lack of coordination between economic and social development.[8]

As a matter of fact, China’s primary objective is to avoid a confrontational foreign policy because it could threat its economic growth, the stability of the Communist Party and the country’s path to modernization: “China’s leadership appears rational, calculating, and conscious not only of China’s rise but also of its continued weakness”, finding more convenient a whole assimilation into the international system than being its worst challenger.[9] This wise and prudent behaviour is confirmed by the Chinese effort into developing friendly relations with the major states on its periphery (Russia, Japan, India, and the Central and Southeast Asian states) also for securing stable energy sources. In addition, Chinese leaders have become aware of the importance to promote China’s values and culture abroad in order to benefit from soft power’s advantages.[10]

Considering China as a status quo power contrasts with the theoretical frameworks previously mentioned. Those who apply power transition theory to evaluate contemporary China’s rise as a potential challenger to the US, rely on flawed historical analogies based on power relations between Germany and Britain in the early twentieth century.[11] According to Ikenberry, China will not “repeat the experience of post-Bismarck Germany” as it faces “a very different type of status quo international order than that faced by previous rising powers[12]: for such a reason, China will continue to work within the rules and multilateral institutions of the current international order. Along with the liberal idea on the Chinese role in international relations, Overholt and Shambaugh sustain that China does not represent a threat to their neighbours nor to the United States: on the contrary, it is the most supportive and helpful country for both of them, because China assures stability in the Asia-Pacific area and can represent a good ally for the US in facing the big regional political and economic issues.[13]

Against this backdrop, Kang, according to constructivist arguments, claims that a neo-structural perspective is too static and does not adequately depict the realities of Asia, where states do not seek hegemony or expansionist policies, even when they achieve great economic power and have the capabilities to expand. His main argument is that Chinese power created a degree of stability, and conflict has only resulted when China began losing power rather than when it was gaining power.[14]

To draw a first conclusion, the thesis that asserts future optimistic expectations on the Chinese peaceful rise lies to its economic growth, as Bijian bears out affirming that “China’s emergence has been driven by capital, technology and resources acquired by peaceful means[15]: but what if peaceful means are no longer sufficient to guarantee such resources? What could be the effects if the Chinese growth, so decisive in maintaining domestic and regional stability and cohesion and so interdependent with the international economic and political order now in crisis, comes to an unexpected slowdown after 30 years of uninterrupted rise?

The economic crisis and the role of Chinese nationalism

According to Buzan, the next 30 years of China’s peaceful rise have no likelihood to look like the past thirty, because the international order that China has joined so far has been deeply affected by the economic crisis in 2008. Such a crisis has been having a huge impact on Chinese strategy of export-led growth while the advanced capitalist economies are “no longer be able to sustain … their previous levels of imports from China”.[16] Chinese economic growth, so necessary to maintain its socio-political stability, commercial openness and the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party, has revealed to be little sustainable.[17] As a matter of fact, Yue underlines three major factors which have characterized China’s peaceful rise in the last ten years: accession to the WTO in November 2001 (thanks to which its international trade volume ranked the third and foreign exchange reserve overtook Japan’s to be the largest by the end of 2006); Chinese massive investments in resource-rich countries located in Central Asia, Latin America and Africa, where China’s political influence in those areas is rising as well; spillover effect in East Asia generated by China’s globalizing economy that drew China and ASEAN countries closer in geo-economic terms.[18] Having revealed the rhetoric on peaceful rise its dependence on the US-dominated international system and given that most of the resources imperative to China’s economic growth are distributed in areas under US domination[19], Yue does not deny that the competition for securing them could “heighten tensions and even increase the likelihood of conflicts between China and the developed world which would in turn be destabilizing to the international system.”[20] As a result, the new economic challenge has pushed China to turn toward a neo-mercantilist position: massive intervention in its economy through a deeper state control on critical industries, by building corporations like PetroChina[21] and increasing Chinese military expenditures in the last years to an impressive 1,97% of its GDP in 2009.[22]

Chinese more assertive approach to foreign policy, recently reiterated by warning the US to stay out of any disputes about the South China Sea, coincides with the emergence of the so-called geopolitik nationalism since 2008. Hughes, by analysing a number of popular Chinese texts all published in the last few years and after the deepening of the economic crisis in the US, such as Wolf Totem, Unhappy China, China’s Maritime Rights and China Dream, has discovered how concepts of lebensraum, ’maritime interests’, ‘sphere of influence’ underpin and foster Chinese domestic discourse on foreign policy.[23] As PLA Senior Colonel Liu Mingfu’s 2010 China Dream asserts, the Chinese national “grand goal” will be “to become number one in the world” by displacing the declining United States. Liu rejects the concept of a “peaceful rise” “arguing that China cannot rely solely on its traditional virtues of harmony to secure the new international order. Therefore, China needs a “military rise” in addition to its economic rise”.[24]

In substance, the rise of China is unquestionable and, as Buzan sustains, is necessarily transitional.[25] For such a reason, China can be at best defined as a reformist revisionist country[26]  whose major aim will be to continue its peaceful rise in the next thirty years, international economic restraints and the onset of nationalistic ideologies notwithstanding, reshaping the Asia-Pacific without provoking a Gilpinian hegemonic war in order to re-establish a new hierarchy of power and prestige.


The Chinese awareness of being militarily weaker than the US on the one hand, and the need to harness external threat and nationalistic ideologies in order to obtain domestic cohesion and reinforce the Party legitimacy undermined by the economic crisis on the other[27], have caused increasing concerns and serious doubts about the peacefulness of China’s rise. Indeed, as the 2011 Global Military Balance reported for the first time, the shift in economic power is already beginning to have a real military effect: while Western states’ defense budgets are under pressure and their military procurement is constrained, Asian Pacific nations and particularly China, are increasing defense spending by double digits annually. According to the report, “combined with its more muscular regional diplomacy, China’s increased defence budget has continued to provoke concern over the implications of its defence modernisation.[28] Furthermore, IISS Director General John Chipman echoes Mearsheimer’s temporal and theoretical predictions[29] when states that  “if current trends were continued it would still take 15-20 years for China to achieve military parity with the U.S.[30]

In conclusion, these data seem to confirm an on-going change of distribution of power in the Asia-Pacific and, accordingly, they not only discourage any optimistic expectations on China’s peaceful rise but are helpful in explaining the new American Strategy for the area, based on a massive redeployment of both US military forces and financial resources in order to contain China’s rising assertiveness.


Photo Credit: Pan-African News Wire File Photos

[toggle title= “Footnotes and Bibliography”]



[1] Hughes, Christopher. Class Lecture. East Asia: Primed for Rivalry?, LSE, London, 6 February 2012.

[2] Bijian, Zheng, “Globalization and The Emergence of China”, opening remarks at a conference hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, D.C., 13 November 2003.

[3] Zheng, Yongnian, “China’s ‘Peaceful Rise’: Concept and Practice”, China Discussion Paper – Issue 1, Nottingham: China Policy Institute, November 2005, p. 3.

[4] Kugler, Jacek, and A.F.K. Organski . 1993. “The Power Transition: A Retrospective and Prospective Evaluation.” In Handbook of War Studies, edited by Manus I. Midlarsky, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, p. 174.

[5] Gilpin, Robert, War and Change in World Politics, Cambridge, CUP, 1981, p. 34.

[6] Mearsheimer, John, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, New York, W.W. Norton, 2001, p. 29.

[7] Johnston, Alastair Ian, “Is China a Status Quo Power?”, International Security, 27/4, Spring 2003, pp. 5-56.

[8] Bijian, Zheng, China’s “Peaceful Rise” to Great-Power Status”, Foreign Affairs, Sep/Oct 2005, Vol. 84, Issue 5, pp. 18-24.

[9] Brzezinski, Zbigniew, “Make Money, Not War”, Foreign Policy, No. 146, Jan-Feb, 2005, p. 47.

[10] Tellis, Ashley J., “A Grand Chessboard”, Foreign Policy, No. 146, Jan-Feb, 2005, pp. 53-54.

[11] Jeffery, Renée, “Evaluating the ‘China threat’: power transition theory, the successor-state image and the dangers of historical analogies”, Australian Journal of International Affairs, 63:2, 2009, p. 314.

[12] Ikenberry, G. John, 2008, “The Rise of China: Power, Institutions, and the Western Order”, cited in Jeffery, ibidem, p. 316.

[13] Jeffery, Renée, ibidem, pp. 318-319.

[14] Kang, David C., China Rising – Peace, Power and Order in East Asia, New York, CUP, 2010, pp. 198-202.

[15] Bijian, Zheng, ibidem.

[16] Buzan, Barry, “China in International Society: Is ‘Peaceful Rise’ Possible?”, The Chinese Journal of International Politics, Vol. 3, 2010, pp. 19 – 21.

[17] As Cox predicted just two years ago: “The present Chinese model, with its severe inequalities, regional disparities, environmental problems and unsustainable growth, could itself easily become fairly unsustainable”, in Michael Cox, “Power Shift? Not Yet”, World Today, 66 (8/9) 2010, p. 22.

[18] Yue, Jianyong, “Peaceful Rise of China: Myth or Reality?”, International Politics, 2008, 45, p. 442.

[19] Yue, Jianyong, ibidem, p. 450.

[20] Yue, Jianyong, ibidem, p. 439.

[21] Kurlantzick, Joshua, “The Asian Century? Not Quite Yet”,  Current History, 110 (732) 2011, p. 27

[22] The Military Balance 2011, London, IISS, p. 198.

[23] Hughes, C., “Reclassifying Chinese Nationalism: the geopolitik turn”, Journal of Contemporary China, 20 (71) 2011, pp.601-620.

[24] Kissinger, Henry, On China, Penguin Books Ltd., London, 2011, p. 507.

[25] Buzan, Barry, ibidem, p. 32.

[26] Buzan, Barry, ibidem, p. 29.

[27] Levy, Jack S., “Domestic Politics and War”, The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Vol. 18, No. 4, Spring, 1988, pp. 653-673.

[28] The Military Balance 2011, London, IISS, p. 195.

[29] Mearsheimer, John, “Showing the United States the Door”, Foreign Policy, No. 146, Jan-Feb, 2005, p. 49. The scholar, in responding to Brzezinski, asserts that “it is true that China does not have the military wherewithal to take on the United States. That’s absolutely correct – for now. But again, what we are talking about is the situation in 2025 or 2030, when China has the military muscle to take on the United States.”

[30] Apps, Peter, “East-West military gap rapidly shrinking: report”, Reuters, 8 March 2011,



– Apps, Peter, “East-West military gap rapidly shrinking: report”, Reuters, 8 March 2011,

– Bijian, Zheng, “Globalization and The Emergence of China”, opening remarks at a conference hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, D.C., 13 November 2003.

– Bijian, Zheng, China’s “Peaceful Rise” to Great-Power Status”, Foreign Affairs, Sep/Oct 2005, Vol. 84, Issue 5.

– Brzezinski, Zbigniew, “Make Money, Not War”, Foreign Policy, No. 146, Jan-Feb, 2005.

– Buzan, Barry, “China in International Society: Is ‘Peaceful Rise’ Possible?”, The Chinese Journal of International Politics, Vol. 3, 2010.

– Cox, Michael, “Power Shift? Not Yet”, World Today, 66 (8/9) 2010, p. 22.

– Gilpin, Robert, War and Change in World Politics, Cambridge, CUP, 1981.

– Hughes, Christopher., “Reclassifying Chinese Nationalism: the geopolitik turn”, Journal of Contemporary China, 20 (71) 2011.

– Hughes, Christopher. Class Lecture. East Asia: Primed for Rivalry?, LSE, London, 6 February 2012.

– Jeffery, Renée, “Evaluating the ‘China threat’: power transition theory, the successor-state image and the dangers of historical analogies”, Australian Journal of International Affairs, 63:2, 2009.

– Johnston, Alastair Ian, “Is China a Status Quo Power?”, International Security, 27/4, Spring 2003.

– Kang, David C., China Rising – Peace, Power and Order in East Asia, New York, CUP, 2010.

– Kissinger, Henry, On China, Penguin Books Ltd., London, 2011.

– Kugler, Jacek, and A.F.K. Organski . 1993. “The Power Transition: A Retrospective and Prospective Evaluation.” In Handbook of War Studies, edited by Manus I. Midlarsky, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

– Kurlantzick, Joshua, “The Asian Century? Not Quite Yet”,  Current History, 110 (732) 2011.

– Levy, Jack S., “Domestic Politics and War”, The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Vol. 18, No. 4, Spring, 1988.

– Mearsheimer, John, “Showing the United States the Door”, Foreign Policy, No. 146, Jan-Feb, 2005.

– Mearsheimer, John, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, New York, W.W. Norton, 2001.

– Tellis, Ashley J., “A Grand Chessboard”, Foreign Policy, No. 146, Jan-Feb, 2005.

– The Military Balance 2011, London, IISS.

– Yue, Jianyong, “Peaceful Rise of China: Myth or Reality?”, International Politics, 2008, 45.

– Zheng, Yongnian, “China’s ‘Peaceful Rise’: Concept and Practice”, China Discussion Paper – Issue 1, Nottingham: China Policy Institute, November 2005.


A Realistic Assessment of Nuclear Disarmament

This essay focuses on three main criteria/assumptions in order to evaluate whether abolition is a desirable policy goal for the international community: the capacity of nuclear weapons to deter external threats, the possibility of nuclear terrorism, and the prospect of intensified worldwide proliferation.




[dropcap]W[/dropcap]ith the nuclear disarmament agenda being increasingly brought to the fore of world politics, firmly supported, at least in rhetoric, by prominent individuals and states, it is essential that a consideration of the issue be based on the clarification of the theoretical ambiguities pertaining to the attributes nuclear weapons have been customarily ascribed with. This essay focuses on three main criteria/assumptions in order to evaluate whether abolition is a desirable policy goal for the international community: the capacity of nuclear weapons to deter external threats, the possibility of nuclear terrorism, and the prospect of intensified worldwide proliferation. It adopts a primarily logical and secondarily factual approach – since history does not provide us with an adequately solid ground for predictions – and argues that the risk involved in a highly nuclearised world outweighs the purported benefits of nuclear weapons.

Deterrent and stabilizing power

One of the main attributes of nuclear weapons is their perceived deterrent power, which minimises external threats to the state that possesses them, reduces the possibility of war, and thus contributes to international stability and security. The Cold War has been the primary historical precedent which seemingly supports this notion, demonstrating that it is highly unlikely for two nuclear-armed rivals with second-strike capabilities to be engaged in a nuclear war. The US and the Soviet Union were both well aware of the catastrophic consequences of a possible nuclear escalation, so they refrained from using them. The idea here is that the certainty of mutual annihilation which accompanies a nuclear war – in contrast to conventional ones, where uncertainty and misperceptions cloud all subjective considerations regarding military capabilities, strategies and potential outcomes – ensures that political leaders will refrain from initiating full-scale nuclear confrontations and bestows deterrence with a level of credibility which is absent in a conventional world.[1]

This credibility, however, is not necessarily unquestionable. As Michael Quinlan correctly points out, the argument that nuclear deterrence has contributed to post-WWII stability and peace may be valid, yet practically impossible to prove.[2] Other factors may have played an equally important role in preventing the Cold War from turning onto a ‘hot’ one. The real intentions of the Soviet leaders, for example, may never be revealed, and we cannot undoubtedly claim that they would have invaded Western Europe in the absence of the US nuclear umbrella. The hypothetical nature of all possible alternative scenarios to the actual historical experience does not allow us to contrast what happened to what could have happened in a meaningful and useful way, yet the fact remains that there can be multiple explanations as to why the US-USSR rivalry did not lead to another world war, and nuclear deterrence is just one among them. Rather than being a factor for peace, nuclear weapons may have actually created or aggravated tensions and crises during the Cold War by minimizing the role of alternative forms of state power such as diplomacy and economic strength, by elevating the appeal of preemption and first-strike capability in military considerations thus promoting more precarious strategies and policies, and by shifting the emphasis from pragmatic to psychological calculations, from balance of power to show of resolve, as risk taking and demonstration of commitment became the recipe for success in the nuclear age, increasing the possibility of miscalculation and escalation.[3]

What is more, nuclear deterrence seems to have no considerable effect on the possibility of nuclear states being drawn into limited, peripheral wars, as the Korea and Vietnam wars have shown. Between roughly equally powerful rivals, the mutually assured destruction concept can nullify their nuclear capabilities, and their conventional forces return to the fore, while ‘small’, often politically convenient wars where the stakes are not so high as to threaten their very survival remain in the repertoire of policy options of democratic and authoritarian regimes alike. India and Pakistan have engaged in several such confrontations – the last one in 1999, when they were both nuclearised – without the nuclear arsenal of one or the other practically posing any convincing obstacle to full-scale military escalation. Similarly, it is perhaps unrealistic to assert that Egypt was completely unaware of Israel’s nuclear capabilities when it launched its surprise attack in the 1973 war, no matter how limited the scope of the Egyptian military objectives may had been at the time. Furthermore, in the absence of nuclear parity, or even between a nuclear and a non-nuclear state, deterrence can be just as problematic when it comes to low-intensity crises or non-vital interests: Argentina invaded the Falklands in 1982 apparently confident that the UK’s nuclear weapons would remain out of the military and political equation of the conflict, acknowledging the fact that they would represent, on the part of Britain, an overly disproportionate response to the invasion, even if they were invoked only in the context of a threat of use.

With the credibility of nuclear deterrence proving dubious in various cases, it is important to examine whether this is an indication that the deterrent power of nuclear weapons is generally decreasing, reinforcing the calls for their abolition.[4] Despite the aforementioned cases, a nuclear arsenal can still be seen as the most effective and efficient means of deterring external aggression, especially as a last-resort option in the face of imminent conquest by hostile armies. It is difficult to imagine an aggressor willing to push for total victory on the battlefield or complete occupation of another state when threatened by nuclear retaliation on its own troops concentrations or population centres. North Korea’s nuclear capability, for example, obviously decreases the possibility of the US undertaking large-scale military action against it, while an Iranian pursuit of the bomb would certainly be based primarily on a firm belief that the development of a nuclear deterrent can prevent the country from following the fate of its neighbouring Iraq. Especially democracies, with their traditionally low casualty tolerance, can be very effectively deterred by the prospect of even a single nuclear bomb hitting one of their cities. Furthermore, there seems to be no indication that we will be seeing a radically different international structure any time soon, one in which cooperation will have replaced competition and diplomacy will have eliminated the utility of war as a means to political ends. Rather, the system remains anarchical, states are still the primary actors, and survival and security are their main preoccupation. External threats to their existence or vital interests will continue to exist and any strategy or weapon that helps protect against those threats cannot be easily refrained from.

Nuclear terrorism and rogue states

Currently, the most frightening prospect associated with nuclear weapons is their potential acquisition by a terrorist organisation and their use against civilian populations. This danger has been customarily invoked to support the abolition of nuclear weapons, with the whole notion of a nuclear terrorist attack being based on a certain view of terrorists as irrational actors who would use any means in their disposal in order to achieve their goals with no consideration of the consequences. Against the multitude of political statements, scholarly studies and intelligence reports warning about the apocalyptic agenda of groups like Al Qaida – with the obvious expediency of the former and questionable credibility of the latter – one can juxtapose a logical evaluation of the problem which would be seeing terrorist aspirations as being governed by the same rational and pragmatic considerations and limits as those of state actors, in as much as there are clear and realistic political objectives behind any strategy or declaration. Given the US response to the 9/11 hit, i.e. the invasion and occupation of two sovereign states on the other side of the globe, it would perhaps seem unrealistic to assume that Al Qaida would be willing to provoke a much more furious reaction from the US, let alone a certainly more substantiated condemnation by and determined mobilisation of the international community against them, by detonating a nuclear device on American soil, in addition to actually giving unprecedented justification to the policies of its very enemy. Also, terrorists aspire to some widespread public support, or at least recognition for their cause, and it is doubtful if even the most fanatical among them seriously believe that the annihilation of hundreds of thousands of innocents would win them the hearts and minds of the masses, especially given the instinctive abhorrence of nuclear weapons people everywhere share. It should then come as no surprise that a 2008 study examining Al Qaida’s statements and internal debate over the possible use of unconventional means revealed that the organisation’s interest in them has been much lower than generally feared: in its deliberations of the issue during the 90’s, views were conflicting and even the proponents of acquiring a bomb mainly sought to prevent a US attack on their bases in Afghanistan; in any case, CBRN capabilities were apparently never central in Al Qaida’s strategy[5]

But even if we assume that there is real intent by terrorist groups to acquire a nuclear bomb, the practicalities of the whole project can seem to pose insurmountable challenges. There have been states, with all their technological, economic and logistical capacities, that have failed in this task after investing valuable time and resources, or struggled for decades before succeeding in their efforts. From a technical perspective, it would be extremely difficult and expensive for even the largest and wealthiest terrorist organisation to develop a nuclear weapon of its own, in terms of the required fissile material, technological know-how and laboratory infrastructure, while the acquisition of an already functional nuclear weapon is perhaps impossible, as the security measures protecting state arsenals are extremely sophisticated, and no nuclear state would seem prepared to sell one of its weapons to a largely uncontrolled terrorist group, given the possibility of facing severe reprisals if the weapon’s origin was traced.[6] Even if these obstacles were to be overcome, transporting and successfully detonating a bomb against a target in the US or elsewhere is a process highly prone to failure at every stage of the way, which can be made even more precarious for terrorists by effective security defences and precautions.[7]

When it comes to nuclear weapons, so-called rogue states, like North Korea and Iran, are often considered being as dangerous for international security as terrorist organisations. Irrationality is here, too, assumed, combined with the specifics of their political regimes, their purported sponsoring of terrorist groups, and their portrayal as inconsiderate of human rights and international law. These states are seen as unpredictable, irresponsible, lacking nuclear security safeguards and, in any case, as potentially capable and willing of either using nuclear weapons for their own aggrandizement or handing them over to terrorists. To begin with, the issue of what ‘rogue’ state means is highly controversial as it is ideologically charged. By today’s standards, both China and the Soviet Union during the Cold War were essentially ‘rogue’ states, following highly repressive, even murderous policies domestically, and aggressive internationally, yet they displayed rational self-restraint in their nuclear military posture and tensions in their foreign relations gradually eased.[8] In international affairs, tabs like ally, strategic partner, friend, enemy, rogue state and so on can replace each other very easily. Historical experience indicates that no state is likely to treat nuclear weapons lightly, let alone transferring nuclear technology or a functioning weapon to a group or organisation not operating under its direct command. Furthermore, the arsenals of such states would be quite small, and hence every single weapon would be too precious to be sold or not tightly protected from theft. Is it realistic to assume that the weapons even the existence of which the intelligence agencies of the most advanced states cannot confirm can be actually accessible to a terrorist group? In the case of the Iranian program, it is also evident that security concerns are the primary, perhaps the only motivation for the pursuit of the bomb, and not some notion of fundamentalist grandeur, as the country faces challenges coming from multiple directions, from nuclearised neighbours and potential proliferators, to the military presence of a hostile US right at its borders. Finally, regime type does not seem to have any practical effect in determining the maturity of a state’s nuclear posture, as democratic, dictatorial, totalitarian and even an apartheid state have all come to possess nuclear weapons, with seemingly no discernible difference in the degree to which this has affected the orientation of their external behaviour. An Iranian nuclear arsenal is bound to cause proliferation pressures and undermine international stability no more than a Japanese, a South Korean or a Brazilian one.

Systemic pressures

Besides the individual impact of each existing or potential nuclear arsenal on world politics, there is also a cumulative and compounding effect that stems from the characteristics of an international system facing widespread nuclear proliferation. According to Benjamin Frankel, the end of the bipolar, Cold War systemic structure and the potential shift towards multipolarity will intensify proliferation, as the diffusion of power to various centres will create a new and expanded set of security interactions and relationships, as well as challenges, which the weakened security guarantees of the superpower(s) will not be able to check effectively, reinforcing self-help tendencies; consequently, the increased complexity of the system in terms of possible rivalries and alliances translates into a greater probability of miscalculation, escalation and war.[9] As more and more states are considering or already moving towards nuclearization, the above systemic context will apparently be combined with growing arsenals, an abundance of available nuclear material and expertise that can be easily used for military purposes, new arms races and intensified competition in missile defence and high military technology, as well as the promotion of preemption and prevention in strategic thinking and planning, creating a setting in which even minor disputes or incidents could induce some form of nuclear response ranging from precautionary or symbolic deployment to actual weapons use.[10]

In evaluating these concerns, it is first essential to establish whether we are indeed moving towards a multipolar international system. The Cold War certainly ended with an undisputed winner, who could dictate policies and impose its will across the globe to a significant, perhaps unprecedented extent. Since then, however, we have seen the gradual revival of the Russian economic and political strength, the emergence of China as a potential superpower, and regional challenges to US’s political influence or military reach in South America, East Asia and the Middle East. It should be noted that in the case of Iran and North Korea this undermining of US predominance is actually linked to the issue of nuclear weapons, providing some confirmation that the relationship between systemic structure and state power can have two dimensions when it comes to nuclear capabilities: not only does the character of the international system affect a state’s nuclear choices based on the balancing options available, but the nuclearisation of one or more states might augment their own power while diminishing that of others to a degree that it can contribute to a considerably altered distribution of power and, ultimately, the creation of new poles. North Korea’s nuclear weapons, for example, have complicated the regional security status quo, increased South Korea’s and Japan’s motivation to emancipate themselves militarily from the US, limiting the latter’s strategic options and ability to control developments while enhancing the influence of China and Russia both bilaterally and in the context of the UN Security Council. Even if the current situation does not yet justify the term ‘multipolar’, the overall trend seems perhaps unambiguously set towards that direction.

What also requires examination is the effect that the possible break-up of the US’s global hegemony can have on nuclear proliferation and, hence, on the system’s stability. It is perhaps not so clear whether the proliferation pressures of the last 20 years have been indeed fuelled by the gradually declining American power. Strong security concerns have been central in the case of Pakistan, North Korea and in the initial deliberations in the Indian case, while security seems to be the principal consideration in Iran’s stance as well. Of course, it would be a valid assumption that an Iran, for example, that could enjoy the protection of a Russian extended deterrence would have no reason to seek nuclear weapons of its own, but this might not apply to a revisionist state like North Korea, who seeks not only to deter rivals but also to force upon them its political will and change the status quo. In any case, it does seem that the more dispersed power is in the international system, the more probable it gets that states, especially expansionist ones, will feel free to pursue self-aggrandizement through possession of nuclear weapons. Even if historical experience does not provide us with sufficient evidence that as the number of weapons increases so does the chance of their use, it can be logically argued that the risks imaginably associated with a potential plethora of nuclear states competing in a multipolar anarchical world are such that perhaps do not allow humanity the luxury of waiting for factual confirmation to its fears.


Overriding the natural apprehension of nuclear weapons in order to conduct a logical assessment of the desirability of nuclear disarmament is necessary if this goal is to be pursued successfully and for the right reasons. The three criteria analysed unfortunately provide conflicting suggestions regarding the issue at hand, which is already highly speculative, since it essentially involves the comparison of two hypothetical situations, on one hand a world with 20 or even more nuclear powers and on the other a global zero; pressures apparently point towards the two extremes and the current status is seemingly bound to change.[11] Firstly, nuclear deterrence, although occasionally problematic, does seem to minimise the possibility of a major war between nuclear states, providing a psychological barrier to escalation, and generally contributing to an effective and cost-efficient defence; in its absence, states would have to commit significant additional resources to achieve the same degree of security, and, thus, arms races are likely to intensify, while the prospect of conventional wars will possibly increase. Secondly, the danger of nuclear terrorism seems unrealistic at this point, as there are no clear indications that terrorists might be capable of acquiring a nuclear weapon, or willing to pursue such an objective in the first place; if we assume even a minimal level of rationality on their behalf (that is, excluding apocalyptic cults like Aum Shinrikyo), there seems to be no scenario in which terrorists would conceivably decide on a nuclear hit against civilians with a firm belief that this would actually work to their benefit. On the other hand, intensified proliferation would logically mean increased chances that something does go wrong, while the costs of such an eventuality can be as high as our complete extinction as a species. Weighing these three factors can be highly subjective, but I would argue, that with nuclear disarmament, we will not have really lost anything – as instability and conventional wars have accompanied us throughout the millennia – but we will have eliminated a literally mortal, even if remote, danger for humanity. A volatile nuclear weapons-free world is a much lesser evil than having no world at all.


Photo Credit: shadamai

[toggle title= “Citations and Bibliography”]



[1] Waltz (1990), pp. 733-7

[2] Quinlan (2009), pp. 159

[3] Gavin (2009-10), pp. 23-27

[4] Shultz et al (2007) claim that although deterrence is still a valid concept in relations between states, “reliance on nuclear weapons for this purpose is becoming increasingly hazardous and decreasingly effective.”; Wilson (2008) questions even the military utility of city bombing, on the threat of which nuclear deterrence is based, claiming that “it is difficult to argue that a threat of a non-decisive action is likely to coerce.”, p. 435

[5] Gavin, p. 20-1

[6] Frost (2005), pp. 69-70

[7] Gavin, p. 20

[8] Gavin, pp. 15-6

[9] Frankel (1993), pp. 37, 40-44

[10] Sokolski (2009), pp. 207-8

[11] What testifies to this trend is the 2014 US federal budget recently proposed by the Obama administration, which involves a 9% increase in funding for the Energy Department’s nuclear weapons activities, and a parallel cut to non-proliferation programmes, including counter-nuclear terrorism projects. Guarino (2013); Schneidmiller (2013).



Frankel, Benjamin (1993), ‘The Brooding Shadow: Systemic Incentives and Nuclear Weapons Proliferation’, Security Studies, Vol. 2, No. 3, pp. 37-78

Frost, Robin M. (2005), ‘Nuclear Terrorism after 9/11’, IISS Adelphi Papers, Vol. 45, No. 378.

Gavin, Francis J. (2009-10). ‘Same As It Ever Was: Nuclear Alarmism, Proliferation, and the Cold War’, International Security, Vol. 34, No. 3, pp. 7-37.

Guarino, Douglas P. (2013). ‘Obama Seeks Boost in DOE Nuclear Weapons Spending, Cut to Nonproliferation’, Global Security Newswire, April 10, 2013.

Quinlan, Michael (2009), Thinking About Nuclear Weapons: Principles, Problems, Prospects (Oxford: Oxford University Press) Oxford Scholarship Online.

Schneidmiller, Chris (2013), ‘Obama Budget Cuts deeply from Threat Reduction Accounts’, Global Security Newswire, April 18, 2013.

Shultz, George P. Et al. (2007), ‘A World Free of Nuclear Weapons’, The Wall Street Journal, January 4, 2007, p. A15

Sokolski, Henry (2009), ‘Nuclear Abolition and the Next Arms Race’, in Taylor Bolz, ed., In the Eyes of the Experts: Analysis and Comments on America’s Strategic Posture, (United States Institute of Peace) pp. 201-216.

Waltz, Kenneth N. (1990), ‘Nuclear Myths and Political Realities’, The American Political Science Review, Vol. 84, No. 3, pp. 731-745.

Wilson, Ward (2008), ‘The Myth of Nuclear Deterrence’, Nonproliferation Review, Vol. 15, No. 3, pp. 421-439.


The Cyber-Industrial-Complex

The dynamic and rapidly evolving cyber-threat landscape has resulted in extensive budgetary, military, and legislative provisions, entrenching deep-seated relations between government, armed services, and commercial actors. The Cyber-Industrial-Complex and quest for ‘fifth domain’ dominance has significant geostrategic consequences. 




This paper lays plain the growing pressure and increased enthusiasm of governments, armed services, and commercial actors to develop and operationalise military capabilities in cyberspace. The argument shall be made that the lines between these ostensibly distinct spheres have become increasingly muddied, and we are witnessing the emergence of a new cyber-industrial-complex. Furthermore, blind faith that the militarisation of the fifth domain will achieve effectual cyber security is misplaced and, ultimately, the top-down control of cyberspace — at odds with prevailing internet behaviour — is an expensive means to achieve relatively ineffectual security.

Reference will be made to relevant case studies and conceptual frameworks from the social sciences. Analysis is approached through five convergent lines of enquiry: To provide context, first the development of the internet from a ‘tool’ to a ‘territory’ shall be discussed; exploring the various technological, demographic, and social shifts this evolution has fostered. Next, the geostrategic impact of cyber threats shall be touched upon, describing the economic, legal and strategic affects profoundly influencing our perceptions of cyberspace. This will be followed by the ways in which governments have sought to securitise cyberspace, highlighting the various budgetary and operational considerations driving the militarisation of the ‘fifth domain’. Following on, a discussion of ‘threat inflation’ and ‘cyber-doom’ narratives shall be presented, critiquing parallels drawn between ‘cyber-war’ and Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs). Finally, the amalgamation of political, military, and commercial interests within the ‘cyber-industrial-complex’ shall be examined. In concluding, many of the challenges facing policymakers will be considered, and the call for sober, research-driven policy prescriptions will again be reiterated.

Primarily however, the inherent limitations of exploring a relatively young, multidisciplinary field examining such a rapidly evolving subject must be acknowledged[1]. Themes discussed here are therefore more akin to Weberian concepts of ideal typical discourses than static social truths[2]. Despite this papers validity and current application, it is but a cursory examination of the cyber-industrial-complex, intended to stimulate further debate, and as such caution should be exercised when making wider generalisations, predications or forecasts[3]. Indeed, it is suggested that the hyperbolic status quo should be reflected upon, reconsidered, and replaced with a far more objective risk assessment of the threats posed.

In order to effectively address the question and avoid tangential theoretical debates, the utility of explicitly expressed working definitions is crucial — appreciating that more appropriate vernacular may very well develop[4]. Throughout, ‘the internet’ is taken as the “global computer network, providing a variety of information and communication facilities, consisting of interconnected [network of] networks using standardised communication protocols”[5]. Here, Stevens'[6] definition of ‘cyberspace’ as the “total landscape of technology mediated communication” is utilised. It takes Cramer and Thrall’s depiction of ‘threat inflation’ as the creation of “concern for a threat that goes beyond the scope and urgency [a]… disinterested analysis would justify”[7].

The World Brain: from Tool to Territory

To contextualise changing attitudes and perceptions of cyberspace it is important historically ground this evolution. In 1937, futurist H.G. Wells hypothesised the future development of an international encyclopaedia or World Brain, encompassing the sum of human knowledge. In the 1960s Joseph Licklider, first head of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), envisioned a ‘Galactic Network’ of globally connected computers through which anyone could access information. Advancements in packet switching, standardisation of Internet protocols, and the expanded connection of the original ARPANET to include research and education institutions in the 1970/80s, saw Wells’ vision being plausibly discussed for the first time. The commercialisation of the internet occurred in the 1990s, as final traffic restrictions were lifted[8].

Today cyberspace is almost unrecognisable from earlier manifestations, now fully entrenched in all facets of modern life, culture, and commerce. The astonishingly rapid growth of cyberspace, from a research tool used by a few, to the ubiquitous framework sustaining global societies is unparalleled[9]. Widely considered a catalyst for globalisation, the rise of the internet, concomitant to the ascension of the information based global economy, will doubtless come to epitomise this era of history as the enlightenment and industrial revolution has preceding centuries[10]. The internet has transformed and revolutionised: employment, trade, culture, innovation, politics, research, education, development, sociality, information access, and, most notably, the communications landscape. In 1993 1% of the world communicated through two-way telecommunications, by 2000 this had risen to 51%, in 2007 it was 97%[11]. Internet penetration exploded from 360 million in 2000, to 2.4 billion in 2012 – an extraordinary 556% rise[12]. The world population is on course to reach 7.3 billion by 2016, with mobile internet devices exceeding 10 billion[13]. The volume of SMS messages tripled between 2007 and 2010, topping 6.1 trillion, averaging 200,000 messages per second[14].

Beyond enormous technical enhancements[15], cyberspace is experiencing a demographical shift, as the pendulum of internet concentration swings from the global North to the South, challenging traditional Western hegemony[16]. While cyberspace may be indigenously American, countries such as China, India, and Brazil will come to outnumber the early ‘digital natives’ within our lifetime[17]. Asia constitutes 42% of the planet’s internet population (#1), but enjoys only 21.4% penetration (#6), illustrating the enormous potential for connectivity[18]. Of 5.3 billion mobile subscriptions in 2010, 3.8 billion were from the developing world, and 18/55 highest internet penetrating countries are some of the “poorest and weakest of the international community”[19].

Inevitably new demographics bring fresh cultural, social, political, and strategic priorities. Cyberspace is now widely acknowledged as a “commons” where people socialise, engage, and organise, but also an environment in its own right[20]. In keeping with the pioneering, post-territorial aspirations of the internet[21], Sanderson and Fortin[22] observe large-scale adoption of cyberspace as dissolving physical confines and redefining core societal precepts. Renninger and Shumar[23] view the internet as a tool and a territory, facilitating users to assemble in the virtual arena who would otherwise be unable. Amit[24] describes shifting anthropological appreciations of the social environment, from tangible social forms to emphasising the virtual. Cyberspace can no longer simply be viewed as simply a medium, or even a medley of mediums, but as a “continent, rich in resources”, possibilities, and challenges[25].

Geostrategic Influence

This shift towards perceiving cyberspace as a new environment transcending society, economics, and geopolitics, has attracted nefarious actors seeking to exploit vulnerabilities to reap enormous personal and collective rewards[26]. Inevitably, this has drawn the attention of nation states seeking to protect their interests, whilst staking claim and establishing control over this emergent terrain[27]. Governments have sought to delineate boundaries, through a myriad of legislation, whilst military and intelligence entities have scrambled to assert their own influence over this territory[28]. Minimal barriers and relative anonymity of malicious actors, combined with the emergence of Web 2.0 and “malware ecosystems” propagating hacking tool-kits and botnets, have allowed determined groups — whether criminals, freelancers, military or intelligence agencies — to make substantial gains beyond real world means[29].

Once the sole concern of an inner circle of technologists, internet control and security has become the preoccupation of nation states. The three primary cyber-threats concerning governments are: 1. Theft, corruption, manipulation or exploitation of information; 2. Disruption of accessibility to networks, data, or resources; 3. Destruction or degrading of networks, infrastructure, and communications[30]. Within a geostrategic paradigm, such threats have profoundly influenced the militarisation of cyberspace[31]:

Firstly, there is the economic burden. The UK government placed the 2012 national cost of cybercrime at £27 billion, £16.8 billion being industrial espionage[32]. US intellectual property theft purportedly amounts to $250 billion per annum[33], cybercrime a further $114 billion, or $388 billion factoring in downtime[34]. McAfee[35] estimates global annual remediation costs to be an incredible $1 trillion, a statistic often cited despite being disputed by the very researchers ostensibly quoted[36]. The pilfering of sensitive information cost Coca-Cola their attempted takeover of Huiyuan Juice Group in 2009, producing losses in the region of $2.4 billion[37]. Nortel, once the world leading telecommunications supplier valued at $250 billion, declared bankruptcy in 2009 following a nine year data exfiltration[38]. The “astonishing” number of “industrial scale”[39] cyber-attacks targeting UK companies, prompted MI5 Director General, Jonathan Evans, to issue warning letters to the top 300 British businesses stressing the threat of “electronic espionage”[40]. Although ascribing the true cost of cyber-attacks is extremely difficult, immeasurable even, it is clear the costs from intellectual property and R&D theft alone are enormous, rising, and potentially of the magnitude to influence global power relations[41].

Secondly, we see an obscurity of political liability by utilising proxy servers, ‘cyber-militias’, and freelance hackers to execute attacks [42]. Potentially creating the smoke and mirrors useful for implanting ‘logic bombs’ into critical infrastructure, but primarily affording states plausible deniability for actions likely at odds with their official political stance[43]. An interesting case is the oft-cited 2007 Estonian incident, where Russian ‘patriotic’ hackers launched a DDoS attack on banking and civil service systems. Russia inevitability denied responsibility, and attribution proved unsuccessful[44]. Nevertheless, Moscow achieved the same coercive ends without any serious diplomatic repercussions, essentially punishing Estonia whilst circumventing legal accountability for targeting civilian institutions[45]. In more pugnacious uses of cyber-militia by Russia during her conflict with Georgia, the sabotage of key Georgian communication systems synchronised with kinetic military operations, further demonstrated the efficacy of deniability[46]. Had the military been directly implicated, Russia would have violated legal armed conflict doctrines, as cyber attacks on third-party states were necessary to disrupt Georgian systems[47]. Again, Moscow successfully sabotaged Georgia’s communications whilst evading liability.

Thirdly, the rapidly transforming cyber-threat landscape, has redefined the strategic perspective of many governments. States now view cyberspace as a means to either augment or substitute their kinetic warfare capabilities. The 2007 Israeli bombing of the Syrian nuclear facility at Dayr az-Zawr provides an interesting case in point. By using UAVs similar to the ancillary US programme Senior Suter[48], Israel was able to hack air-defence systems and manipulate radar images to display a clear sky, allowing F15 fighter jets to carpet bomb the site and leave Syrian airspace without any resistance or retaliation[49]. Many governments are proactively seeking to develop their cyber-arsenals, creating numerous dedicated institutions and markets to this end.

Militarising the Fifth Domain

The four year, £650m British Cyber Security Strategy emphasises protective, defensive, and ‘pre-emptive’ action aimed at: tackling cyber crime to ensure a secure business environment; improving system and software resilience; encouraging stable social arenas; and improving knowledge and skill-sets necessary to achieve these stated goals[50]. It details numerous provisions seeking to raise public and commercial awareness, bolster law enforcement and cross-border collaboration, improve industry standards, and develop MoD and GCHQ capabilities[51]. Although emphasising target hardening and resilience — a necessary and welcomed development — the offensive stance throughout is arrant:

“Defence Cyber Operation Group [is] to bring together cyber capabilities from across defence. The group will include a Joint Cyber Unit hosted by GCHQ… [to] develop new tactics, techniques, and plans to deliver military effects”[52]

Notions of ‘pre-emptive defence’ are echoed in the NATO Strategic Concept, where the language of prevention, detection, and defence blends with notions of military capability, operational reach, and strategic dominance[53]. This doctrine is most explicit in the US, where the Strategy for Operating in Cyberspace: Priorities for 21st Century Defense are candid about intentions to boost military capabilities and operational effectiveness in all realms – land, air, maritime, space, and now the ‘fifth domain’, cyberspace[54]. This mission has fallen to US Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM), who established US Cyber Command (USCYBERCOM) to synchronise operations across the military sphere, including Army Cyber Command10th Fleet Cyber Command,  24th Air Force, and Marine Corps Forces Cyber Command. An interesting directorial feature is USCYBERCOM’s dual locality within the NSA, and the unprecedented tri-hatting of Gen. Keith Alexander as Director of NSAChief of the Central Security Service, and Commander of USCYBERCOM.

In the 2013 US fiscal budget cyber capabilities are a priority; designating $3.4 billion for USCYBERCOM, with a total allocation of £18 billion through to 2017[55]. The Department for Homeland Security will spend: $345 million on the National Cybersecurity Protection System and EINSTEIN.3 – the intrusion detection and analytics system; $236 million will be spent on the Federal Network Security Branch to secure agency systems; $93 million on U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team, the operational wing of the National Cyber Security Division; $64.5 million on cyber investigations and computer forensics conducted by the Secret Service; and $12.9 million on virtual training and cyber-war games[56].

Although the tendency for governments to view the cyber-domain through a military lens may be more acute than ever, it is certainly not a recent theme[57]. The history of militarising cyberspace has been a gradual process concomitant to the technological, demographic, and social shifts previously discussed. ARPANET was originally funded by the US Department of Defense (DoD), the term “cyber-deterrence” was coined in 1994, and ‘Eligible Receiver’, the first NSA cyber-war games were held in 1997[58]. The first public reference to “cyber-attack” and “information security risks” were made by former CIA Director George Tenet in 1998, the same year cyber operations were consolidated under the Computer Network Defense Joint Task Force[59]. In 2003, the National Cyber Security Division was established, tasked with protecting government systems, and in 2006 plans for USCYBERCOM were announced. Perhaps then, using tactical or warfare rhetoric to describe objectives in cyberspace is somewhat inevitable. Yet, despite a long military history in the fifth domain, the economic, political, and strategic affects of cyber-attacks, and the enormous budgets to further militarise cyberspace, no act of cyber-war has taken place. All known examples of politically inspired cyber-attacks amount to either sabotage, subversion, or espionage[60], and cannot be considered war by the Clausewitzian[61] definition, as all three rudiments are not present: violence and potential lethality of the act, instrumental imposition will over another, and perceptible and attributable political responsibility[62].

Cyber-Doom and Threat Inflation

Several high-profile cases are often referenced as evidence of impending cyber-war: the Estonian and Georgian DDoS incidents; The Operation Aurora case in which Google, Yahoo, Symantec, Northrop Grumman, and Morgan Stanley networks were compromised[63]; The Gh0stNet espionage network which leveraged Web 2.0 and cloud-based technologies to infect embassies, foreign ministries, NGOs, and government departments, implicating a Chinese military SIGINT base and organised crime[64]; The Stuxnet sabotage of Iran’s uranium enrichment facilities at Natanz, seemingly with US and Israeli involvement; and the sophisticated espionage toolkit Flame[65].

The drumbeat of “cyber-doom”[66] scenarios, replayed in the media echo-chamber, has provided a steady and constant cadence for the oratory emanating from  Westminster and especially Washington[67]. Prophetical disaster rhetoric evoked by ‘expert’ commentators envisage a cataclysmic cyber event, in which the financial sector collapses, planes collide midair, trains derail, military defences disintegrate, industrial control systems fail, “lethal clouds of chlorine gas” leak from chemical plants, gas pipelines and refineries explode, dams breach, reactors meltdown, power blackouts engulf the country, satellites spin into the obis, and “thousands of people” die… but authorities are paralysed in the face of crumbling communications and digital devastation[68].

This tone continues elsewhere: Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta’s ominous forecast of a looming “cyber Pearl Harbour”, former head of the National Cyber Security Division, Amit Yoran’s claims “cyber-9/11 has happened”, Vanity Fair’s portrayal of Stuxnet as the “Hiroshima of cyber-war”, and Director of the International Telecommunications Union, Hamadoun Touré’s claims that “cyber-war will be worse than a tsunami”, are the most infamous, vacuous, and distasteful examples of this apocalyptic theme[69]. Although the most revealing doomsday framing[70] comes from former Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman, Carl Levin, when he stated; “cyberweapons and cyberattacks… approach weapons of mass destruction in their effects”[71].

Yet, nothing remotely resembling ‘cyber-doom’ has come to pass, and no fatality nor building destruction has even been attributable to a cyber-attack[72]. Despite Estonian politicians claiming that DDoS attacks and “a nuclear explosion…[are] the same thing”[73], NATO’s Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence described the impact of the attacks as “minimal” or “nonexistent”[74] This solipsistic introjection — assigning imagined behaviours and character traits onto an invisible enemy[75] — combined with a technological malaise characteristic of late-modernity[76], has seen the development of societal pessimism, dystopian fears, and a sense of political impotence regarding the prevalence of modern technologies[77]. These fears are reminiscent of bygone anxieties regarding earlier communicative mediums and reflective of broader, tenuous concerns about societal fragility[78]. Previous 20th Century moral panics over increased radio, telegraph, and telephone use, ultimately proved unfounded and transient, soon to be surpassed by the latest technological trepidation[79]

The WMD parallel does, however, provide an illuminating comparison in one regard. In the run up the Iraq war the Bush administration described a “bullet-proof”[80] link between Sadaam Hussein and 9/11 – purportedly providing refuge and training to al-Qaeda[81]. Controlled Whitehouse leaks implied Iraq held WMDs, successfully conflating the very different threats and consequences of chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons[82]. Although allegations — including the purchase of ‘yellowcake’ for uranium enrichment — were ultimately proved fallacious, 40% of Americans still believed Saddam Hussein was “personally involved” in 9/11 as late as 2006[83]. Although no evidence substantiated these alarmist claims, the media relayed the government line without scrutiny and the administration was essentially able to cite news articles written speculating upon their own fictitious leaks[84]. It is this amplification of risk, or ‘threat inflation’, that Cramer and Thrall[85] describe. Speculative commentary about Iranian or North Korean cyber capabilities, unsubstantiated suppositions of the Chinese “lac[ing] US infrastructure with logic bombs”[86], and unverifiable assertions from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) that cyber threats represent “a strategic issue on par with weapons of mass destruction and global jihad!”[87], fuel cyber-doom advocacy, and conflate sabotage, espionage, and subversion, under the banner of ‘cyber-war’ in a manner eerily redolent of Iraq WMD threat inflation[88].

The Cyber-Industrial-Complex

President Eisenhower’s 1961 farewell address warned of a “hostile ideology…global in scope, atheistic in character, ruthless in purpose”[89]. He feared deepening monetary relationships between legislators, the military, and the industry providing defence services and supplies, would lead to skewed national, economic, and security priorities, in what he phrased the “military-industrial-complex”[90]. As during the Cold War, contemporary cyber-war rhetoric maintains pressure to keep up or fall behind in the neoteric digital arms race[91]. Despite technical and intelligence ambiguities as to how cyber-weapons would actually be deployed, the distinct absence of empirical evidence, and multifaceted ambiguities surrounding who, why, and what is under threat, and from whom[92], a thriving cyber-industrial-complex has emerged to save us from our cyber-doom.

In 2010, 1,931 private companies worked on intelligence and homeland security programmes in the US, 143 were contracted to “top secret” cyber operations[93]. In an era of austerity and defence cuts, US cyber-security expenditure is predicted to rise from $9.2 billion to $14 billion by 2016[94]. The global cyber-security market, currently worth $65.7 billion, will climb to $85 billion by 2016, growing by an extraordinary 9% in 3 years[95]. Upward budget trajectories have galvanised the cyber-security market, where the biggest beneficiaries will be traditional defence giants such as Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, ManTech, and Northrop Grumman, who are already repositioning themselves within the cyber-industrial-complex[96]. Leading technology companies like Symantec, IBM, Cisco, and McAfee will also prosper[97], as will smaller cyber-security start-ups like NopSec, whose revenue has rocketed by 600% since its recent launch[98].

“Those who profit from war in materiel and machinery will be supplanted in time by those who profit in war from digital goods.”  — Dan Geer, Chief Information Security Officer, for the CIA’s In-Q-Tel [99]

However, it is not public-private partnerships that Eisenhower feared, but rather the deep-seated relations between policymakers, the military, and commercial venture, particularly where companies place themselves as objective experts and/or seek political “opportunity to sustain themselves”[100]. In the US, these boundaries are now so porous and convoluted, that one cannot see the wood for the trees. Sen. John Rockefeller’s former Chief of Staff, turned Cisco Systems cyber-security lobbyist, Jim Gottlieb, donated $19,000 the Democrat candidate[101]. Rockefeller, who famously sought retroactive immunity for AT&T’s warrantless wire-tapping[102], proposed the 2010 Cybersecurity Act which directed billions into cyber-security programmes, prompting Sen. Ron Wyden to proclaim that the US is witnessing:

“The development of an industry that profits from fear … creat[ing] a cyber-industrial-complex that has an interest in preserving the problem to which it is the solution” [103]

This is indicative of the intensifying and intricate nexus of relationships developing. The election of Rep. Jim Langevin was funded primary by General Dynamics and Raytheon. Deloitte and BAE were amongst the top five contributors to Rep. Mike McCaul. Both men co-chair the CSIS panel, alongside Lt. Gen. (Ret) Harry Raduege, now IT executive for Deloitte, and Scott Charney, Corporate Security Vice President at Microsoft[104]. These conflicts of interest cast severe doubts over CSIS’ objectivity, as well as the agendas the policies they influence may serve[105]. Inveterate relationships have also seen the revolving-door culture of employment and opportunity develop. Former NSA Director, Vice Adm. (Ret) Michael McConnell, became Director of Defense at Booz Allen Hamilton, before being reinstated as Director of National Intelligence by the Bush administration. McConnell then later rejoined Booz Allen as Head of Cybersecurity Business, prior to Booz Allen securing a $71.5 million cyber-security contract, totalling $189.4 million if extended to 2016[106]. Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and BAE have all hired ex-military or security officials in cyber-security operations[107]. In 2012 Lockheed Martin won a $400 million contract facilitating the Pentagon’s Cyber Crime Center and Northrop Grumman secured a three-year, $189 million cyber DoD resilience contract[108].

Too Fast to Tie Down

Cyberspace has evolved from the auxiliary and novel, to the essential and omnipresent. Technological advancements have seen the internet develop from a research tool, to a ubiquitous framework transcending, connecting, and underpinning every facet of modern society. The post-territorial, nature of the internet has dissolved geopolitical boundaries, creating a borderless, open, but ultimately ungoverned, virtual region. The exponential rise of cyberspace within an incredibly short time frame, has meant growth has accelerated faster than government ability to control this emerging terrain.

Demographical shifts and the ascension of the global South as cyberspace’s prospective new majority, have brought new cultural, social, political and strategic priorities, underscoring real-world challenges to Western hegemonic dominance. These changes have aided shifting perceptions of what ‘cyberspace’ entails and represents, to the point that cyberspace is viewed as a domain in its own right, comparable to land, sea, air, and space. In the past, information fluidity and system connectivity took precedence over authentication, identity, and security. Consequentially, networked systems and platforms in energy, finance, transport, and communication sectors, have seen industrial control systems, critical infrastructure, and national capabilities reliant upon networks intended to be open, collaborative, and malleable. Unsurprisingly, this has led to a dynamic, complex, and rapidly developing threat landscape, with a spectrum of attacks mounted against individuals, governments, businesses, and industries, as malicious actors seek to exploit system vulnerabilities to further their political, criminal, or nefarious ends.

Within a geostrategic paradigm, cyber-attacks have had profound effect on: economic competitiveness and the loss of national advantage; technical attribution, plausible deniability, and diplomatic accountability; and governmental attention and political oratory paid to control, and security. Collectively, these factors have successfully redefined national goals and ambitions to reflect a strategically offensive stance, with discourses now firmly framed within the language of ‘pre-emptive’ action to protect interests. Reinforced by government narratives, and dramatically reported by an often uninformed and sensationalist media, several high-profile incidents, of varying seriousness and sophistication, have also brought cyber-security to the forefront of public consciousness. ‘Cyber-doom’ scenarios and apocalyptic prophecies have become commonplace, resulting in inappropriate and inane analogies. Despite lacking empirical evidence, cyber-attacks have been placed as equivalent to humanitarian crises, natural disasters, and even nuclear war.

Threat inflation has heralded a flurry of top-down legislative and budgetary accommodations regarding cyber-security, and the establishment of many new government entities with the sole focus of achieving geostrategic ambitions. These are mainly facilitated by military and intelligence entities who have a longstanding history of operating in the cyber domain. Enormous cyber-centric budgets have resulted in a burgeoning global industry, in which companies compete for government contracts and practitioners enjoy a revolving-door of work opportunities between government, military, and private industry. Consequentially, the cyber-industrial-complex has deeply ingrained relationships, resulting in clear conflicts of interest, and the erosion of objectivity. Individuals, companies, and governments whose business interests and careers are served by the maintenance of anxiety concerning cyber-security, convolute and inflate threats presenting their services as the solution.

Future Direction

Whilst online threats — stolen state secrets, intellectual property, competitive advantage and personal data — pose very real and difficult challenges for governments and private industry. The alarmist knee-jerk reaction to those threats and the societal fragility, the aggressive lobbying pursued, and the conflation of interests, raise serious concerns over larger, more calculated, commercial strategies and demonstrate how the cyber-industrial-complex has fanned the flames of a neoteric digital arms race.

This could result in an expensive Cold War-esque stand-off between those nation states at the forefront of the race for cyber dominance, namely America, Israel, Russia, Iran and China, escalating tensions further and eroding diplomatic and trade relations. This also risks coalescing military activity with subversion and economic espionage, subsumed under the catch-all banner of ‘cyber-war’. Secondly, absorption of talent and technology within the war machine, alongside increased asymmetric tactics by malicious actors circumventing attribution, will likely spawn new white and black-hat electronic markets engaged in the pernicious trading of cyber-arms, exploits, and botnet services, as increased labour divisions result in a modular business module[109]. Moreover, the actual security benefits achieved by extensive cyber-weapon investment may prove misplaced, weighed up against astronomical development costs. Target information must be so detailed and precise, that powerful weapons will only be of use against a solitary target, and for a single assault, before exploits ‘burn-out’. Furthermore, the speed technology evolves, compared to the time required to research, develop, and deploy a sophisticated cyber-weapon, means the shelf-life of weaponised code is short lived, risking weapon redundancy before deployment.

HG Wells’ optimism, expressed in The World Brain, had been replaced by pessimism and scepticism by the time he published Mind at the End of its Tether. In a similar manner, fears of a dystopian dependence upon technology, as well as enduring but largely erroneous anxieties about the brittleness of contemporary society, have led to a cyber paranoia and the merging of diagnostic and motivational discourses. The top-down militarisation of the fifth domain is hyperbolic and ineffective, discordant to the founding principles of cyberspace and at odds with prevailing W3 trends. Deterrence and protection likely to be more successful by resilience building, thorough upgrading, repairing, and modernising of systems, alongside encouraging decentralised, user-generated, organisation and governance of social arenas.

Detailed technical analysis; gauging vulnerabilities, developing technical solutions, and reconsidering software and systems architecture is critical. Adopting multi-disciplinary approaches to include analytical perspectives from political science, military and technology history, disaster sociology, and security studies, can also offer important insights, vital objectivity, and contextual grounding. This paper seeks to add to the burgeoning body of literature within this rapidly evolving field, and attempts to promote empirically grounded, research driven, and analytically sober debate with the mind to inform more conversant and commensurate cyber-security policymaking.


Photo Credit: Cristi eXPV

[toggle title= “Citations and Bibliography”]



[1] Shipman, (1997)

[2] Poggi, (2006)

[3] NCIX, (2011:i-iii)

[4] Shipman, (1997:16)

[5] ODO, (2012); Gralla, (2007:7)

[6] Stevens & Neumann, (2009:10)

[7] Crammer & Thrall, (2009)

[8] Greene et al (2003)

[9] Deibert & Crete-Nishihata, (2012)

[10] Bauman, (2000); Severs-Millard, (2012ac)

[11] Hilbert & López, (2011)

[12] IWS,.(2012)

[13] Alexander,.(2012)

[14] Deibert-&-Rohozinski,.(2011:23)

[15] IWS,.(2012);-Knight,.(2003:15);-Ahlgren,.(2005);-Edensor,.(2001)

[16] Deibert,.(2011);-Deibert-&-Rohozinski,.(2011:23);-Deibert-&-Crete-Nishihata,.(2012)

[17] Brito-&-Watkins,.(2011);-Lawson,.(2011);-Deibert-&-Rohozinski,.(2011:26)

[18] IWS,.(2010a);-IWS,.(2012)

[19] ITU-(2010);-IWS,.(2010b);-UN-OHRLLS,.(2011)

[20] Deibert-&-Rohozinski,.(2011:24)

[21] Goldsmith.&-Wu,.(2006:16-25)

[22] Sanderson-&.Fortin,.(2001)

[23] Renninger-&.Shumar,.(2002)

[24] Amit,.(2002:3)

[25] Glenny,.(2010)


[27] ibid.

[28] Glenny,.(2010);-Deibert,.(2012);-Deibert-&-Crete-Nishihata,.(2012);-Lynn,.(2011)

[29] Villeneuve,.(2010);-Henderson,.(2008);-Andres,.(2013);-Alexander,.(2011)

[30] Lord-&-Sharp-etal.(2011:25-40;165-182)

[31] Andres,.(2013)

[32] Detica,.(2012)

[33] Symantec-Corp.,.(2012)

[34] Alexander,.(2012)

[35] McAffe-Inc.,.(2012)

[36] Maass-&.Rajagopalan,.(2011)

[37] Wong,.(2008);-Lambert,.(2012:8);-Severs-Millard,.(2012c)

[38] ibid.

[39] Evans,.(2012)

[40] Rawnsley,.(2011)

[41] Severs-Millard,.(2012);-Clarke,.(2010);-Ottis,.(2010)

[42] Andres,.(2013);-Henderson,.(2008)

[43] NCIX,.(2011:1)

[44] Czosseck,.(2011)

[45] Andres,.(2013)

[46] ibid.

[47] Czosseck,.(2011)

[48] Gasparre,.(2008ab)

[49] Severs-Millard,.(2012)

[50] Cabinet-Office,.(2011)

[51] Cabinet-Office,.(2012)

[52] Cabinet-Office,.(2012: 26[4.9])

[53] NATO,.(2010)

[54] Department-of-Defense,.(2012a)

[55] Rosenberg,.(2012);-DoD,.(2012b);-DoD,.(2012c)

[56] Roberts,.(2012)

[57] Rid,.(2012b:5-6)

[58] Clayton,.(2011)

[59] ibid.

[60] Rid,.(2012a)

[61] Clausewitz,.(1832)

[62] Rid,.(2012);-Severs-Millard,.(2012)

[63] Paul,.(2010);-Naraine,.(2010);-Severs-Millard,.(2012);.Clinton,.(2011)

[64] Glaister,.(2009);-Markoff,.(2009)

[65] Zetterer,.(2012)

[66] Dunn-Cavelty,.(2007);-Dunn-Cavelty,.(2008)

[67] Brito-&-Watkins,.(2011)

[68] Clarke,.(2010)

[69] Panetta,.(2012);.Gross,-(2011);-Schneier,.(2010);-Meyer,.(2010)

[70] Dunn-Cavelty,.(2007);-Dunn-Cavelty,.(2008)

[71] Levin,.(2010)

[72] Rid,.(2012)

[73] Poulsen,.(2007)

[74] Ottis,.(2010:720)

[75] Suler,.(2004)

[76] Bauman,.(2000)

[77] Marx,.(1997:984)

[78] Crowley-&-Heyer,.(2006)

[79] Cohen,.(1972);-Crowley-&-Heyer,.(2006)

[80] Scmitt,.(2002)

[81] Bush,.(2002)

[82] Brito-&-Watkins,.(2011)

[83] CNN,.(2006)

[84] Massing,.(2004)

[85] Crammer-&-Thrall,.(2009)

[86] Clarke,.(2010:99)

[87] CSIS,.(2008: 15)

[88] Brito-&-Watkins,.(2011)

[89] Digital-History,.(2012)

[90] ibid.

[91] Deibert,.(2011)

[92] Walt,.(2010);-Stohl,.(2007);-Greenwald,-(2010)

[93] Priest-etal.-(2010ab)


[95] Gartner-(2012)

[96] Deibert-&-Rohozinski,.(2011:34);-Romm-&-Martinez,.(2012);-Flamm,.(2013);-Cole.&-Gorman,.(2009)

[97] Ricdela,.(2010)

[98] ibid.


[100] John-Slye,-citedin-Romm-&-Martinez,.(2012)

[101] FEC,.(2013)

[102] EFF,.(2005)

[103] Webster,.(2012)

[104] Carney,.(2011)

[105] Brito-&-Watkins,.(2011)

[106] Mclean,.(2011)

[107] Carney,.(2011)

[108] Romm.&-Martinez,.(2012)

[109] Sagemanetal.(2008);-Rid-&-Mc-Burney,.(2012)



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The Emergence Of The United States As A Global Power

From a foreign policy analysis perspective, what drove the United State’s rise to power in the early twentieth century?


Yalta Stalin Churchill Roosevelt


The United States (US) established itself as a great power in the early 20th century. America’s economic dynamism enabled it to become pivotal in both regional and world politics (Brzezinski, 1997: 4). The path was forged through continuous application of US’s growing power; hard and soft alike. America shaped its regional milieu to best serve security and material ends. In the period studied (1898-1918) US foreign policy is characterised by interventionism and the use of military might to further America’s vital interests: security and economic well-being (Art and Waltz, 2004). America also exerted other forms of power. Notably, US gained influence in international diplomacy, swaying global events. To elucidate US’s rise to world-power status, we will focus on specific case-studies, assessing them with the help of the three levels of analysis.

We begin this essay analyzing American economic growth, its sources and its implications for US power and foreign policy. Economic power set the foundations of American power, facilitating leaders to pursue ‘grand’ policies. In this essay we examine how this immense wealth was transformed into great power. Enlightened Presidents and top decision-makers with their visions and strategies were crucial in this crusade to power. McKinley’s shaping of America’s milieu with its positive implications for security and trade were critical starting points. Moreover, Roosevelt’s building of the Panama Canal, his effective defence strategy and his diplomatic achievements were also fundamental. The personal beliefs, values and ideologies of the ruling elite are considered when analyzing these policies. Mahan’s geopolitical suggestions and their influence on policy-making were also decisive (Vevier, 1960: 334). Involvement in WWI established America in a prominent position among world powers. Wilson’s sense of timing, effective planning and successful carrying-out of US participation in WWI propelled America to the top of the world order.

Economic Growth (1890-1920) and its Implications for America’s Rise to Power

“Economic dynamism provides the necessary precondition for being a global power.”

(Brzezinski, 1997: 23) 

Economic expansion was crucial in US’s rise to world-power status. It enabled its leadership to build a powerful nation. Primarily, it financed America’s major defence, the navy. Moreover, through international trade and cooperation, US’s values, beliefs and cultural influences were conveyed (Mead, 2002: 103). Additionally, US’s soft power was crucial in attracting immigrants (Nye, 1990: 170)[1]. US’s rising population provided a solid basis for further growth in agriculture and industry. The sources of American wealth, summarized in Kennedy (1989: 312-313), were largely linked to geology and geography. US territory was rich in minerals, oil and auspicious for agriculture. Commodities, industrial and agricultural produce, aided by railways[2] reached efficiently America’s domestic market or were traded internationally through, progressively more, US-supervised sea-routes. Kennedy concludes that America’s unique geographical location offered a higher degree of security than European states.

Enlightened individuals from the economic sphere like Carnegie, Morgan, and Rockefeller were fundamental not only in accumulating huge wealth, but also for the technological innovation furthered by their firms (op. cit.). Importantly the politico-economic elites employed wisely their wealth. They invested in Research and Development, built top academic-technological institutions[3] and continuously expanded their firms and Economies-of-Scale. Technological innovation ameliorated production methods, improved infrastructure and enhanced output quality and performance (Abramovitz, 1973: 433). US’s up-and-coming capabilities facilitated decision-makers to undertake projects of significant political and commercial value. Notably, the Panama   Canal was built despite the huge challenges-difficulties posed[4]. US also drew international attention through leading innovators like Edison, Bell and the brothers Wright (McDougall, 1997: 102).

Our comparative analysis suggests that US gradually gained an impressive economic lead. In 1900 US concentrated 38% of world’s wealth, 13% more than Britain. By 1914 US produced roughly equal coal as Britain and Germany together, its national income surpassed that of the next four economies combined and, in 1919, overtook Europe as the region possessing the larger economic output (Kennedy, 1987: 257-259, 14). Economic power paved-the-way for other forms of power: soft, latent[5] and hard. Wise utilization of America’s wealth and the strengths it conveyed, allowed US to assume a leading international role.

The Spanish-American-Cuban-Filipino War in 1898

“The immediate aim of the war was the eviction of the Spanish from Cuba; its long-term implication was catapulting the US into the first rank of world powers.”

(Schulzinger, 2008:16)

In 1898 US declared war on Spain and crushed the waning Empire, destroying its fleet outside Santiago harbour in Cuba (op. cit., 18). Clear defence and strategic considerations lay behind the war with Spain. They were largely driven by security maximization and cost-benefit calculations (Mearsheimer, 2001). America was facing a winnable war which would bring gains in terms of influence, security and trade. Additionally, public opinion and Congress largely favoured[6] intervention (LaFeber, 1993: 141). The victory fortified US’s advantageous grip on the Caribbean, building a naval base in Cuba and annexing Puerto Rico (Peceny, 1997: 423). Moreover, it extended US’s influence into the Pacific through the annexation of the Philippines and Guam (Gilderhus, 2003: 134). It also conveyed a strong global message that the US will use military might to repel expansionary attempts in its regional milieu. Furthermore, it demonstrated the power and effectiveness of America’s new navy which would deter opportunistic states and protect US interests across both oceans.

Washington’s new strategic thinking was principally outcome of Mahan’s naval strategy (Zimmerman, 2002). Mahan emphasized the need for a powerful navy and the creation of “coaling stations” in strategic regions with significance in world trade (Mahan, 1893: 472). Mahan expected these to become areas of great power rivalry (Grenville, 2005: 69).  Based on these, McKinley, his administration and especially Roosevelt[7] believed that simultaneous attacks against the Spanish fleet were required in both the Philippines and Cuba (Kennan, 1952: 13). Kennan (op. cit) argues that Roosevelt long felt US ought to take the Philippines. The Philippines were seen as one of the most strategic points in East Asia and the Pacific. The islands of the Caribbean were also important in view of a proposed Trans-Isthmian Canal (Mahan, 1893: 465-466). These would maximize US’s security and trade capabilities.

There was also an important symbolism in expelling Spain from the New World.  Spain came first to the region and left last. Therefore, its expulsion signified the end of a circle of colonial rule in the American Continent. Henceforth America was the sole power-centre in the Western Hemisphere (Meernik, 2004: 56). It was a regional strategy with the international message that US must be acknowledged as “world power” (Weitzel, 1927: 120; Schulzinger, 2008: 20).

America – an Imperial Power with a Global Reach

Hay’s “Splendid little war” was the easiest labour any nation ever endured in giving birth to an empire.

(LaFeber, 1993: 145) 

US fought a bloody three-year war to defeat the Filipino insurgents but secured a point of trading and geostrategic importance (op. cit., 164). Controlling the Philippines meant controlling a strategic gateway to China’s market and a vital naval base in Subic Bay (op. cit., 167). It is also crucial to emphasize the instrumental role of US “imperialists”, including Mahan, Roosevelt and Lodge (Schulzinger, 2008: 3). They found a champion in McKinley, whose religious convictions guided his policy of civilizing and Christianizing the Filipino’s (op. cit.). Besides religious drives, parts of the press were also crucial in pushing for the war (please see footnote 6). Customarily wars left the warring parties with large debts. McKinley was instrumental however in planning how to cover as fully as possible the war expenses and escaping debt (op. cit., 145). McKinley importantly avoided practices that would have rendered US dependent, with negative repercussions on its economy.

Following the Teller Amendment, US established a protectorate in Cuba and built “Mahan’s” base in Guantanamo. The naval and military victories were crucial in an additional way. They created enthusiasm in both public and Congress enabling McKinley to annex Hawaii as a necessary military and naval base en route to Manila and Shanghai (Zimmerman, 2002). Also, Roosevelt deemed that the Philippines, located distantly, would be hard to defend (Grenville, 2005: 72). Therefore, newly-acquired Hawaii increased US’s capacity to defend them. Guam had a similar function, linking Hawaii and the Philippines. In 1899 US divided Samoa with Germany, obtaining the island of Wake (Zimmerman, 2002). An invisible line linked US-Cuba-Hawaii-Wake-Guam-Philippines-China. Mahan’s vision became reality in the Pacific; US commanded considerable influence in this most strategic region.

Hay and the “Open Door” Policy to China

State Secretary Hay originally expressed the “Open Door” policy (DoS, 2009). All great powers maintained physical and commercial presences in China. Hay proposed a fair, universal platform for trading relations based on free market principles (op. cit.). The policy was essential, highlighting the influence of American ideas in international diplomacy. Equally influential was Hay’s message to respect the “territorial and administrative integrity of China”. With his policies towards China, Hay achieved big diplomatic successes without substantive backing of hard power. America helped prevent a possible disintegration of China, setting conditions for advantageous Sino-American relations. Also vitally, Hay’s policy founded the special relationship with the UK (Zimmerman, 2002). Hay’s experience as US’s ambassador in London facilitated the diplomatic successes with Britain. Hay managed to change US’s perception of Britain as its major enemy. He persuaded Roosevelt that Britain held America’s world-view and had shared interests (op. cit.). Most crucially, Hay settled all border and territorial disputes with Britain[8] setting the conditions for a long and stable alliance (op. cit.). US sealed a decisive coalition with the world’s chief colonial power, with positive spillovers to its security and trade.

Roosevelt’s Presidency and the Trans-Isthmian Canal

Roosevelt’s main vision, also advocated by Mahan, was to build a Trans-Isthmian canal (Schulzinger, 2008: 26). In 1900 Hay negotiated a treaty with Britain allowing US to build a neutral and unfortified canal. Crucially, President Roosevelt refused to accept the treaty unless it allowed America to protect the canal with its navy (op. cit.). The second Hay-Pauncefote agreement (1901) granted this. The renegotiated treaty safeguarded US interests in the canal, protecting the investment and allowing it to exercise leverage on regional politics. By 1902 Senate concluded that the canal should be built in Panama[9] (LaFeber, 1993: 192). Colombian Senate’s rejection of the US-offered treaty in 1903, enabled Roosevelt to support and recognise Panama’s independence (Schulzinger, 2008: 28). Roosevelt sent six US battleships, menacing and deterring Colombia from neutralizing Panama’s revolt (op. cit.). Following Panama’s secession, Hay signed a treaty with Bunau-Varilla[10] granting US “titular sovereignty” over a ten-mile-wide strip (LaFeber, 1993: 194).

The canal, completed in 1914, boosted trade, brought revenue from tolls, and reduced by two-thirds the distance from Puget-Sound[11] to Cuba (Travis and Watkins, 1959: 407). Mahan emphasized that it supplied the navy with means of communication between the Atlantic and the Pacific (op. cit., 408). In parallel, it enabled the US to control more efficiently its dependencies and especially Philippines. Navy’s competence doubled and the supply of raw materials greatly accelerated (op. cit., 408). The canal simultaneously augmented the navy-based US defence capabilities and encouraged-facilitated domestic and international trade[12]. US’s navy could respond to a two-ocean naval warfare more quickly and effectively than ever before (Dalton, 1999: 33). The canal proved significant in supplying US forces overseas in numerous crises (Heinrichs, 1982: 258). Once completed, America gained an unparalleled advantage in terms of naval balance-of-power. Notably, Britain withdrew its naval squadron from the West Indies in tacit recognition of the transfer of regional naval supremacy to the US (Weitzel, 1927: 120-121). The Canal’s importance radiated outward, making America particularly concerned with the stability of the regions around the canal, expanding US’s sphere of influence (Meernik, 2004: 56).

Theodore Roosevelt’s Deterrence & Diplomacy: Advocate of War, President of Peace

“Immense armaments are onerous, but by the mutual respect and caution they enforce, they present a cheap alternative, certainly in misery, probably in money, to frequent devastating wars preceding the era of general military preparation.”

(Mahan, 1893: 472)

Roosevelt frequently threatened, intimidated and used the word “war”. However, he generally refrained from actually implementing these threats. His 1901 annual speech cautioned North Americans and Europeans alike (LaFeber, 1993: 195). Nevertheless, he privately hoped that both sides would restrain themselves (op. cit.). This divergence between his public and private statements may explain his (deterrence) strategy (Dalton, 1999: 31). Mahan’s above quote contains elements of such a strategy: building a robust army is an effective and socio-economically beneficial way to avoid war. We would argue that Roosevelt’s “corollary” to the Monroe Doctrine (1904) was more part of this strategy than a desire to wage conflicts (McDougall, 1997: 114). Roosevelt used “extended executive powers” to swiftly pursue preventive rather than aggressive strategies. The “corollary” was essentially an expansion of US’s sphere of influence; US would intervene, if needed, “as a policeman” to protect the interests of American Nations.

The following instances underline Roosevelt’s strategy. In 1902 Roosevelt sent armed forces to Alaska saying he was ready to fight Canada over a border dispute. Without any shots fired, using diplomacy, he won a settling in America’s favour (Dalton, 1999: 33). Moreover, prevention worked in Colombia, winning Panama’s independence without American casualties. In the Dominican Republic Roosevelt used his “corollary” to achieve two ends. Firstly, to protect and expand US commercial interests in the country and the region. Secondly, to pacify the Dominican civil war while obstructing potential foreign interventions. This benefited America’s economy and demonstrated the credibility and determination of its leadership. US would serve as a gendarme and tax-collector in the region (McDougall, 1997: 115). Roosevelt sought an end to foreign interventions like the German in Nicaragua in 1902 (op. cit). Essentially, he declared a US’s “mare nostrum”, extending its sphere of influence, security and economic well-being. In all above mentioned cases, armed forces mainly accompanied diplomatic-political efforts. The Dominican example was an effort to pre-empt unwelcome interventions, while promoting and safeguarding US interests.

In parallel, Roosevelt kept building-up the navy. In 1907, following a war scare with Japan, he sent the new-fangled navy to an around-the-world voyage. Twenty-two first-class battleships (LaFeber, 1993: 207) cruised longer than any navy before (Zimmerman, 2002). This had two important dimensions. It highlighted US’s military reach, emphasizing to Japan and Europe its capacity to defend its interests. This would also contribute in averting hostilities with Japan. Secondly, as Dalton (1999: 32) points out, the cruise enabled Roosevelt to build congressional support for increased naval spending. Consequently, in 1920, the American navy matched the British (Grenville, 2005: 72).

In 1915 Roosevelt advocated preparedness; once prepared for war, US would actually keep conflict away[13] (Dalton, 1999: 34). President Wilson pursued this line in the navy but not in the marines. US power deterred both Japan and European powers from challenging it militarily. All above mentioned incidents could be characterised as part of a rather successful deterrence strategy. This approach reinforced US’s power, furthered American interests, sealed diplomatic victories and averted conflicts. With few exceptions, including the inherited Filipino and Cuban crises, “Hamiltonian” Roosevelt, arguably, refrained from war with positive spillages to US economic growth (Mead, 2002: 124-125).

The US as a ‘Force for Good’ or Early Attempts for a Leading American Role in International Diplomacy 

US importance in international diplomacy also mounted under Roosevelt. Roosevelt believed fervently in America’s mission; that America’s influence must rise to benefit all those benighted people who weren’t born in America (Hunt, 1987: 126). This was connected to his broader “Progressivist principles”: social-Darwinism, moralism and nationalism (Schulzinger, 2008: 24-25). It was America’s moral duty to be a force for good in the world and its responsibility to ensure international order. The President dynamically demonstrated America’s diplomatic capacity when he successfully mediated the Russian-Japanese war in 1905[14]. McDougall (1997: 116) stresses its importance in elevating American influence and brokering balance-of-power. The 1905 success was confirmed in the following year, when Germany invited Roosevelt’s mediation over the Moroccan crisis (Schulzinger, 2008: 35). The Algeciras[15] Conference attracted international attention, enhancing US-Roosevelt’s role as peace-broker. This peace-mediation was more collective, promoting international cooperation. Interstate cooperation strengthens ties and promotes peace; in this instance it prevented a Franco-German war. Arguably, US had not only a say but also a sway in global issues. Roosevelt’s mediation achieved both of its aims: maintain the French-British alliance and contain Germany[16]. Roosevelt also pushed for the Second Hague Conference, encouraging amity and the settlement of European disputes (Dalton, 1999: 32). US engagement was crucial as America participated in global decision-making, sharing its distinct intellectual-diplomatic capital with another 43 nations and leading efforts for international prosperity (op. cit). Roosevelt’s Presidency enforced, furthered and, through deterrence, prevention and effective diplomacy, set the conditions for peaceful expansion of US’s power.

Wilson, WWI and US at the top of the World

“The ideological offensive led by President Wilson during WWI was the defining moment for the US in the twentieth century.”

(Ambrosius, 2003: 151)

Wilsonianism[17] delayed US’s entrance in WWI. For three-years Wilson tried to negotiate a “peace without victory”. Wilson and the majority in Congress and Senate did not want physical engagement in WWI[18]. He advocated a “just peace”, but the Allies saw no alternative to total victory (Kennan, 1952: 63). An important trigger was the Zimmerman telegram[19]. Wilson’s ethics and morality were shaken by Germany’s tactics (Stevenson, 2004: 317). The realization that his vision of “peace without victory” and the establishment of a League of Nations are not possible with “militaristic and antidemocratic” Germany led Wilson to support intervention (Kennan, 1952: 67). In April 1917, US declared war on Germany.

The US entered WWI primarily because Germany resumed unrestricted submarine warfare which harmed American interests (Stevenson, 2004: 318). Economic and emotional ties to the Allies made the continuation of trade with Britain and France imperative (Clements, 2004: 63). Opposition, led by the nationalists pressed for intervention (Schulzinger, 2008: 63). Moreover, economic lobbies, mainly banks supporting Britain with huge loans, had a stake in Allied victory (op. cit.). For Wilson, WWI was the bitter part of a long-run peacekeeping effort. Victory would signify the end of all wars, make world safe for democracy, and establish solid foundations for his League of Nations. Diplomacy would become the only means of conflict resolution (McCormick, 2005: 25). Wilson also believed that the war was in its final stages and that America’s participation would lead to a swifter end (op. cit.).

Victory in WWI solidified and exemplified US’s rise to global power status. America was established as a Great Power. The fact that American resources crucially allowed the allies to prevail gave America enormous influence in European and global affairs (Stevenson, 2004: 319). Critically, America was one of the “Big Four” in the Paris Peace Treaties, deciding concurrently the future of Europe and of the rest of the world. The weakening of Germany and Britain accelerated US’s rise to the top of the world order. It increased America’s economic pre-eminence and security. The exhaustion of Germany, Britain and France led to a comparative increase in US’s economic and military reach. The post-war balance-of-power was also auspicious for America. It prevented Germany from becoming Europe’s hegemon and protected America’s allies (Mearsheimer, 2001: 255). Concluding, the waning of the other great powers increased US’s security and dominance in the Western Hemisphere, making it unthinkable for any European power to challenge this.


In conclusion, America’s flamboyant economy was largely behind every policy success. Economic preconditions enabled US to develop further all aspects of power. Economic growth contributed in increasing US’s diplomatic leverage, providing resources for navy-army build-up, building the Panama Canal, expanding trade and enhancing US’s soft power. President’s acted on the basis of their visions, ideas and strategies. These were materialized due to their country’s economic and technological dynamism. In analyzing these points, the three levels of analysis provided crucial explanatory value for US’s rise to global power status.

The effective implementation of Mahan’s naval strategy and deterrence was originally realized under McKinley and Roosevelt. US’s strong navy and its ability to withdraw to newly acquired coaling stations was a contributing factor to America’s rise to power. The strengthening of the alliance with Britain and the closer cooperation with China proved durable. Crucially US’s involvement in WWI restored peace and stability in Europe and protected the Allies. US surfaced as an eminent world power; an economic superpower which commanded substantial leverage in global decision-making.


Photo Credit: Cal Almonds

[toggle title= “Citations and Bibliography”]


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[1] With its strong freedom loving profile, inspirational idealism, America was a promise of a better life for millions of immigrants flowing into it; chiefly from Central and Southern Europe (Grenville, 2005: 65).

[2] US’s railway system developed in the greatest globally, being 8 times better than Russia’s (Kennedy, 1989: 189, 313). The ultra-efficient American railway system and the new steamships were critical advantages (op. cit).

[3]For instance, Carnegie founded in 1900 what is today CarnegieMellonUniversity (2009) and supported several other institutions. Rockefeller founded the RockefellerUniversity (2009), and wealthy politician and railway entrepreneur Stanford founded StanfordUniversity (2009). These institutions furthered R&D, human capital efficiency and productivity.

[4] Notably, France had failed in achieving this prior to America’s success (LaFeber, 1993: 195)

[5] Mearsheimer defines Latent power as the socio-economic ingredients that go into building military power; largely the wealth of that state and the overall size of its population (2001: 55).

[6] Public opinion and many congressmen pushed for war following the sinking of the “Maine” which was portrayed by the press as an attack on US soldiers, causing a “rallying around the flag effect”. Senate favoured intervention on moral grounds: free and democratize Cuba; protect freedom-loving Cubans from Weyler’s atrocities (Schulzinger, 2008: 18). These considerations were further cultivated by portions of the press which continually published shocking stories, generating a responsibility to protect those abused (Peceny, 1997: 421). “Cuban Junta” and its lobbying were also effective in gathering support of the Cuban Cause (op. cit.)

[7] Roosevelt was then Assistant Secretary of Navy; he was also friends with Mahan (Kennan, 1952: 13).

[8] Most importantly Hay settled US’s border disputes with Canada, removing a major obstacle from the British-American relationship (Zimmerman, 2002).

[9] Bunau-Varilla and William Cromwell lobbied for the panama route using a number of tactics to increase their persuasion), and in June 1902, Congress approved the Panama route (Schulzinger, 2008: 27).

[10] Bunau-Varilla had named himself foreign minister of Panama (Schulzinger, 2008: 28). Roosevelt’s administration enforcement of the treaty on Panama could be linked to the President’s ideology of “Progressivism”, which included Social Darwinism which could explain why the fittest nation enforced the treaty on the weaker (op. cit. 24). Roosevelt could have relied on the fact that he could do so without consequences.

[11] The largest naval shipyard in the West Coast, established in 1891, in the State of Washington. (Global Security Organization, 2005)

[12] LaFeber (1993: 195) notes that it halved the shipping distance between New York and San Francisco.

[13] Roosevelt’s preparedness was along the lines of Vegetius’s Maxim “si vis pacem para bellum” or “seek peace through preparedness” (Wallace, 1981: 92). Mahan also believed that a well prepared for war state may enforce peace without fighting.

[14] Roosevelt received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1906 for his diplomatic success (Dalton, 1999: 32). This development concentrated constructive attention on America highlighting its contribution to peace and emphasizing its global relevance. Roosevelt was the first American to receive a Nobel Prize. This highlighted the international recognition and appreciation of US’s auspicious global role.

[15]Roosevelt, wanting to see America assuming a prominent role in global affairs, invited the great powers to a conference in Algeciras on the Spanish coast (Schulzinger, 2008: 35).

[16] There was a clear realist rationale behind containing Germany. Germany was advancing impressively in military technology, its economy and population also grew impressively, it had expansionist ambitions and was seen by Roosevelt as potentially dangerous.

[17] Wilsonianism consists of four principles; advocacy of self-determination, Open-Door globalization, collective security provisions and progressive historicism (closely associated with  liberal interventionism/internationalism (Ambrosius, 2003:149).

[18] Many Americans were still sceptical, considering the advice of the founding fathers to avoid entanglement in European conflicts and power struggles, living in peace and harmony with all (McDougall, 1997: 45-47).

[19] The German Foreign Minister, Zimmerman, asked Mexico to attack US was it to enter WWI. It was offering Mexico significant economic and territorial returns for accepting this proposal (Stevenson, 2004: 313).


Case Study: Roshonara Choudhry

The Radicalization Process of Roshonara Choudhry
{War Studies Department, King’s College London}


Anwar Al-Awlaki


This paper examines Roshonara Choudhry as a case study in violent homegrown radicalization. Emphasis is placed on the processes of framing and collective identity construction – drawn from social movement theory – as facilitators of violent radicalization and mobilization in the absence of direct links to violent groups or networks. This paper proceeds in three parts; it begins with a brief summary of the Roshonara Choudhry’s transformation from gifted student and productive member of her community to a radicalized individual who adopted and then eventually acted on her belief in a violent extremist ideology. It then turns to a discussion of theoretical approaches drawn from social movement theory relevant to the process of violent radicalization. Finally, Choudhry’s case will be discussed with reference to the approaches developed in the preceding section.

Some of the terms used throughout this paper are ‘essentially contested concepts’, or concepts ‘whose meaning lends itself to endless dispute but no resolution’.[1] Thus, for the purposes of academic clarity, the following working definitions apply to this paper: the definition of Islamism is taken from Neumann and Rogers, and refers to a literalist interpretation of Islam combined with ‘revolutionary political ideology…proclaiming a global community of believers (the ummah) to be liberated and/or united under Islamic rule, and the belief that the most effective way of accomplishing this aim is through violence’ and not the religion ‘Islam’practiced by over a billion and a half people worldwide. [2]  The terms radical and extremist are sometimes used interchangeably, it is therefore important to clarify the distinction between the two. In this paper radical refers to an individual with a ‘deep-felt desire for fundamental socio-political changes’[3], whereas an extremist is a person who accepts political ideologies that are opposed to society’s core (constitutional) values and principles’.[4] Radicalization therefore refers here to the process through which individuals come to support the need for fundamental societal changes. Violent radicalization is the process through which individuals come to experience ‘changes in attitude that lead towards sanctioning and, ultimately, the involvement in the use of violence for a political aim’.[5] Violent extremism is the willingness to use violence in pursuit of extremist ideologies.[6]


The eldest of five children, Roshonara Choudhry grew up in East Ham, a suburb 12 kilometers east of London and was raised by parents of Bangladeshi background – though her mother was born in the United Kingdom.  Choudhry’s father was a tailor but had been forced to rely on benefits and money from his children after losing his job.[7] Friends of the Choudhrys described the family as ‘moderate Muslims’.[8] Roshonara was an excellent student throughout her academic career.  She earned straight A’s on her GSCEs, and received high marks at the Newham Sixth Form College.[9] After Newham, Choudhry attended King’s College London, choosing to study English and Communications in the hopes of becoming a teacher [10] – one of her lecturers, Dr. Alan Fortune of King’s Collect London, said that she was expected to earn first class honors.[11]

By all accounts Roshonara was a productive member of her community, but was shy, and inclined to keep to herself.  She provided private tutoring to children for £5 an hour at KnowledgeBox to help pay for her schooling.[12] Choudhry volunteered at West Ham United FC as a learning mentor, helping children with their literacy and numeracy skills.[13] Three years before her attempted assassination of Stephen Timms, she met the MP at a school outing to the House of Commons; during the event a fellow student repeatedly questioned Timms about his support for the war in Iraq. Choudhry admits that at the time she felt ‘embarrassed’ by the incident and thought the girl ‘should be quiet’.[14] According to one neighbor in East Ham, Roshonara ‘seemed like a normal girl’.[15]

According to Choudhry she had always been ‘quite religious’ but hadn’t been going to a mosque to pray, nor is there any indication given that she was directly linked with any radical imams or groups of radicalised individuals. During her interview with the police, Choudhry mentions the website, YouTube videos of the radical Islamist clerics Anwar al-Awlaki and Sheikh Abdullah Azzam, videos from fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a series of downloaded Awlaki lectures as potential sources of radicalisation. Interestingly, Choudhry didn’t search out Awlaki; instead through YouTube’s related-videos algorithm Choudhry stumbled upon the radical Islamist cleric, who she credited with inspiring her to stab Stephen Timms, while watching the stories of Muslim converts she thought were ‘interesting’.[16] Between November 2009 and May 2010, Choudhry downloaded and listened to more than one hundred hours of Awlaki’s lectures.[17] Choudhry also visited and watched YouTube videos about ‘the resistance’ in Iraq and Afghanistan.[18]

A dramatic shift occurred in Choudhry’s thinking around April 2010; prior to then she had come to agree with Anwar al-Awlaki’s lectures, believing that Muslims had an obligation to defend other Muslims in places like Iraq, yet still wasn’t prepared to fight, thinking it was predominantly a man’s duty.[19]  However, several weeks before the attack, Choudhry watched a YouTube video of Sheikh Abdullah Azzam, in which according to Choudhry, Azzam said that all Muslims had a duty to defend a Muslim land when they didn’t have the means with which to defend themselves.[20] Choudhry identifies Azzam’s video as the moment when she realized it was her duty to fight on behalf of fellow Muslims.[21]

The planning stages of Roshonara’s attacks were rather banal; most of the information necessary for identifying a target and planning the attack was conducted online using Google and open government websites. [22] Choudhry settled on Timms after finding out that he had a rating of 99.9% in support of the invasion of the Iraq war according to the website[23]  Choudhry said that made her feel angry because the ‘Iraq war [was] just based on lies and he just voted strongly for everything as though he had no mercy’[24]

On April 27, 2010, after choosing Timms as her target, Choudhry dropped out of King’s College London.[25] This, according to one report, was the only indication her family had that something may have been wrong as she had purposefully kept her activities a secret in order to avoid implicating anyone else.[26]  After dropping out of King’s, Choudhry made an appointment to meet with Timms at 2:45pm on 14 May.[27] Shortly thereafter, Choudhry purchased two knives (in the event one broke during the attack), and hid them in a shoebox underneath her bed.[28]

On the morning of 14 May, dressed in all black, Choudhry paid off her student loan – to prevent her family from being liable for her debt – and emptied her bank account, ostensibly to prevent the UK government from confiscating the funds after her attack.[29] Choudhry then made her way down to the Beckton Globe community centre in Newham, east London to carry out her attack.  When she walked in to meet Timms he pointed for her to take a seat, instead Choudhry purposefully walked around the desk, reached out with her left hand as if to shake his, pulled a knife from her purse and stabbed him twice in the top of his stomach.[30] Choudhry was then disarmed by Timms’ assistant and arrested by police. Choudry’s trial began on 01 November 2010; during the trial she refused to enter a plea or recognize the legitimacy of the court.[31] On 03 November 2010, Choudhry was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison for attempted murder. She is currently imprisoned at HM Prison Bronzefield.


There are many theories available to explain Roshonara Choudhry’s radicalization and eventual commitment to carry out an act of terrorism in the West; there is however, no single ‘grand unified theory’ of radicalization and many theories fail to explain how a seemingly normal, healthy individual becomes a terrorist. Root cause explanations, for example, might posit that Choudhry’s behavior was a product of grievance or societal strain related to discontent over the war in Iraq or economic hardship caused by her father’s joblessness. Certainly, the war in Iraq was central to Choudhry’s personal narrative about the decision to stab Stephen Timms,[32] and her father’s unemployment may have contributed to a belief that Muslims in the UK were being persecuted by non-Muslims; however, many Muslims in the West were enraged by the war but only a minority have planned or committed terrorist attacks. Grievance and strain may create the conditions for radicalization and terrorism, but they fail to explain how individuals become radicalized, and how once radicalized, individuals’ grievances are mobilized into terrorist action.[33] Similarly, psychopathological theories of terrorism, which posit that terrorists are psychopathic or mentally unstable individuals afflicted by a pathological drive to commit violence, have enjoyed a sizable following, but are widely discredited and should be avoided as means of understanding violent radicalization[34] – all the more so, given that Choudhry exhibited no signs of mental illness.[35]

Social movement theory (SMT), from the field of sociology, is comprised of many overlapping frameworks that attempt to explain how social movements attract, socialize, and mobilize supporters. SMT assumes that individuals who engage in terrorism and political violence are rational actors rather than mentally unstable individuals afflicted by a pathological drive to commit violence; thereby moving focus away from individual personalities and towards the processes underlying mobilization for violence.[36] Scholarship from the so-called ‘cultural turn’ in SMT focuses on how social movements, their leaders and supporters attract, socialize, and mobilize supporters by rendering events meaningful through the dynamic processes of framing, and collective identity construction, and therefore provides a more applicable framework for analyzing Roshonara Choudhry’s process of violent radicalization. [37]

The process of framing involves the production, articulation, and elaboration of interpretative schemata (frames), which individuals, groups, and social movements use to ‘locate, perceive, identify and label occurrences within their life space and the world at large’.[38] When frames reference broad interpretative schemata shared by a number of (sometimes competing) movements or communities they are referred to as master frames.[39] Frames are produced via three ‘core’ tasks performed by frame articulators: diagnostic framing, which defines social problems as unjust and attributes blame; prognostic framing, which proposes possible solutions and strategies to confront those problems; and motivational framing, which provides a compelling rationale for mobilization.[40] Much of this framing is built around injustice frames, which establish particular social occurrences as unjust and intolerable.[41] Thus, frames highlight injustice, point towards a credible solution, and importantly, provide the motivation and justification for action.

Human beings aren’t passive receptors of information, compelled to act based on simple inputs from external sources, they must be primed to accept new ways of thinking about the world.[42]  Quintan Wiktorowicz identifies the process of becoming receptive to new ideas and worldviews as a cognitive opening.[43] According to Wiktorowicz, cognitive openings can occur when a) a crisis (social, economic, or political) ‘shakes certainty in previously accepted beliefs and renders an individual more receptive to the possibility of alternative views and perspectives’ or b) when movements facilitate openings through outreach activities that produce a sense of crisis.[44] If individuals experience a cognitive opening, the frames with which they are presented must still be perceived as credible and salient, and must resonate with their lived experience.[45]

Collective identity construction refers to the way in which identities within social movements are defined, shaped, and constructed.[46] The process of identity construction is linked closely with dynamic framing processes, which not only bring social movement participants together ideologically but also play a role in the construction of collective identities.[47] Collective identities designate attitudes, commitments and expected behaviors, and delineate social affiliations to others.[48] They also establish protagonists, antagonists, and neutrals or fence-sitters in the context of contentious politics.[49]

Central to identity construction is boundary activation[50], the process of increasing the salience of particular social boundaries in order to differentiate the ‘in’ group from the ‘out’ group, and divide ‘us’ from ‘them’.[51]  In activating boundaries, social movements politicize and amplify those identities which fit the movement’s goals while suppressing those that don’t.[52]  As boundary activation increases so does importance of the identity around which the boundary is being activated, and thus individual and group activity is increasingly organized around the evermore salient collective identity. [53]

The Violent Radicalization of Roshonara Choudhry

Framing and collective identity construction outlined in the section above, offer a valuable framework for understanding Roshonara Choudhry’s process of violent radicalization because unlike many cases, Choudhry had no direct links to organizations that promoted violent extremism. Choudhry’s only know window to violent extremist ideologies was through the videos she watched and the websites she frequented.  In the following section, the SMT framework elaborated above will be applied to the sources of radicalization identified by Choudhry herself – namely the lectures of Anwar al-Awlaki – to demonstrate their role in her decision to commit an act of terrorism.

Police transcripts confirm that Roshonara Choudhry perceived Anwar Awlaki as a credible religious authority and frame articulator during her process of violent radicalization. When asked where she had been learning about Islam and what websites she had been looking at, Choudhry answered that she had been listening to downloaded lectures from Anwar al-Awlaki that explained the importance of jihad and the Quran.[54] In the transcripts Choudhry admits to being motivated to learn more because she was ‘surprised’ by her lack of knowledge about Islam and that she felt she could learn a lot from him.[55]  This surprise may have also provided the initial fuel leading to a cognitive opening, making Choudhry more receptive to Awlaki’s message. Choudhry also states in the police interview that Awlaki is a ‘quite famous’ ‘Islamic scholar’ and that ‘everybody listens to him’.[56] Choudhry says her interest was piqued by Awlaki because his explanations were interesting and comprehensive.[57] When asked by police where she went to have her questions about Islam answered Choudhry stated ‘I don’t ask anyone I just listen to [Awlaki’s] lectures. There’s no one to ask’.[58] Choudhry even attributes her decision to leave King’s College London to Awlaki’s lectures.[59]

We know that after watching some of Awlaki’s lectures on YouTube Choudhry downloaded his entire series, listening to at least one hundred hours of lectures in all. In his lectures Awlaki proffered convincing frames that clearly resonated with Choudhry. These frames provided an explanation for the contemporary problems facing the Muslims, promoted a sense of injustice, proposed solutions drawn from the Quran and the past experiences of Jihadists, gave convincing motivations to act, and helped to develop a collective Muslim identity (embodied by the ummah), in opposition to the West.

One of the more frequent diagnostic frames in Awlaki’s lectures is developed from the ‘War on Islam’ master frame.[60]  Throughout his lectures ‘The Dust Will Never Settle Down’, ‘The Battle of Hearts and Minds, and ‘The Constants of Jihad’ a consistent diagnosis is given explaining the troubles of the ummah: the West is at war with Islam, they are murdering Muslims indiscriminately, they are humiliating Muslims, and things are getting worse.[61]  In ‘The Dust Will Never Settle Down’, for example, Awlaki says in reference to the release of cartoons mocking the Prophet Muhammad:

And this affair that is happening now, is one of the worse events, there are incidents of cursing Muhammad (P.B.U.H). In fact it might be the worst in our history…[62]

In ‘Battle of the Hearts and Minds’, Awlaki further develops this diagnosis:

[W]e see this happening all the time, to the extent that now it is imprinted in the minds of people, that Muslims are violent people who have no regards what so ever, for the rights of innocent human beings. Why? Because this is a fallacy that has been spread by the Western media, this is the agenda of the West; it is to put the Muslim in such a light. But any decent human being, with the least amount of intelligence, would be able to see, that it is the US now who is killing innocents in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Somalia, and elsewhere throwing bombs indiscriminately in areas of Muslim population.[63]

Not only did these lectures serve to provide diagnostic framing of events, they also constructed a sense of collective identity through mechanisms of boundary activation, which may have crystallized Choudhry’s strong identification with her Muslim self.  For example, in ‘Battle of the Hearts and Minds’ Awlaki draws on the life of the Prophet Muhammad during a time of war to establish and harden the boundary between Muslims and kuffar (non-believers):

When the Prophet Muhammad (P.B.U.H) passed with his army next to Diyar Thammud…some of the Sahabas wanted to go in, the Prophet (P.B.U.H.) did allow them to. Why? So that they should not be impressed with what they see…It should be taken as a lesson…This is to establish a barrier between us and these Kuffar.[64]

In ‘The Life and Times of Umar bin Khattab’ Awlaki employs boundary activation mechanisms, using the concept of al wala’ wal bara’ or the separation of rightly-guided Muslims from deviants others.[65] Awlaki claims that Muslims must recognize they can no longer trust Western society, and that they need to separate themselves from the kuffar.[66] In ‘Constants on the Path of Jihad’ Awlaki engages in similar boundary activation, stating that ‘there are some people who claim to be Muslims, but they have the opposite of this…they are willing to stand alongside the kuffar to fight against Muslims. So they represent the opposite though they claim to be Muslim’.[67] These examples shed light on how Awlaki’s lectures may have influenced Choudhry’s interpretation of the world around her, dividing the world between Muslims and non-Muslims and transforming her from an integrated Muslim woman to living in nearly total isolation in a relatively short period of time.

In ‘Constants on the Path of Jihad’ Awlaki provides powerful prognostic and motivational frames, building on his diagnostic frame of the ‘War on Islam’ arguing that the West is engaged in a religious, political, cultural, economic, and media war against Muslims.[68] He presents jihad or hijrah as the two possible alternatives to Muslims to combat the threat.  The first, hirjah, requires that Muslims migrate from the land of the kuffar if they have the means to do so, separating themselves from non-Muslims.[69] The second option, jihad, requires that they participate in armed struggle against the kuffar in defense of Muslims. Awlaki sanctions jihad saying:

Allah says ‘Fighting has been prescribed upon you and you dislike it…But Allah knows and you know not’…fighting is prescribed upon you, so it is a fard, it’s an instruction from Allah.[70]

He offers further motivation for attacks in the West in defense of Muslims everywhere saying:

Jihad is global. Jihad is not a local phenomenon. Jihad is not stopped by borders or barriers.[71]

Awlaki buttresses his prognostic and motivational frames with incentives for action, saying that those willing to fight will triumph, and that they will earn the love of Allah.[72]

Awlaki’s framing work and identity construction weren’t enough to convince Choudhry to engage in jihad in the West. Additional motivational framing was needed to credibly establish a basis for attack.  According to Choudhry this additional ‘push’ came from a YouTube video of the deceased Sheikh Abdullah Azzam in which he stated that it was the duty of all Muslims to defend Muslim lands. It was after watching Azzam’s video that Choudhry states she realized it was her duty as a Muslim woman to ‘fight’.[73]

The prognostic and motivational frames articulated by Awlaki and Azzam are mirrored in Choudhry’s police transcripts, demonstrating their centrality to her process of violent radicalization, decision to leave school, and eventual resolution to commit an act of terrorism. Choudhry reveals her commitment to Awlaki’s hijrah prognosis stating she left school because continuing to attend ‘would be against my religion’.[74]  Choudhry also says that she feels that she has shown loyalty and fulfilled her duty to Muslims in Iraq and Palestine by attacking Stephen Timms and that her actions may have ruined her life but that they are ‘worth it because millions of Iraqis are suffering and I should do what I can to help them and not just be inactive and do nothing’.[75]

Thus, following her seemingly accidental introduction to the lectures of Anwar al-Awlaki, Choudry adopted the frames proffered by the radical cleric – namely that of a war against Islam in which jihad, hijrah and the clear division between Muslims and non-Muslims were considered realistic solutions and duties incumbent upon all Muslims.  Furthermore, through listening to Awlaki’s lectures and watching videos of the ‘resistance’ in Iraq, Choudhry came to identify with a collective – the ummah – to which she owed allegiance and on behalf of which she felt compelled to commit at act of terrorism.


This paper has sought to apply key insights from social movement theory to offer a partial explanation of Roshonara Choudhry’s radicalization and embrace of a violent extremist ideology. Emphasis was placed on the role of framing and collective identity construction processes in the absence of direct links to violent groups.Roshonara Choudhry’s path from gifted student to terrorist is important because it presents a unique case in which concepts from social movement theory can be applied directly to the study of terrorism and the processes of violent radicalization.  It should be noted that Choudry is a rare and special case; many so-called ‘lone wolf’ terrorists are actually linked, if only in a superficial manner, to radical communities and organizations that espouse violent extremist ideologies. Choudhry, however, represents a true lone wolf.  This paper therefore does not claim to offer a useful framework for understanding all cases of homegrown terrorism; instead it points towards the necessity of adapting and applying available tools from diverse disciplines – like sociology – to highly specific contexts.

Despite being lacking generic applicability to all violent extremists, at the level of theory we can observe that processes described by social movement theorists are indeed critical in explaining Roshonara’s radicalization. This provides grounding for the practical application of social movement theory to the processes of radicalization that lead to violent extremism. Moreover, it reinforces the notion that a diverse knowledge of available theoretical frameworks is necessary in order to gain a comprehensive understanding of homegrown radicalization and violent extremism.


Photo Credit: Magharebia

[toggle title= “Citations and Bibliography”]

[1] Weinberg (2001)p.2

[2] Neumann & Rogers (2007)p.7

[3] Dalgaard & Neilson (2010)p.798

[4] Neumann &.Rogers (2007)pp.12-13

[5] Neumann & Rogers (2007) p.6

[6] Neumann & Rogers (2007)p.6

[7] Dodd, Vikram ‘Profile: Roshonara Choudhry’ The Guardian, 02 November 2010; Gordon and Bingham ‘Stephen Timms stabbing: how internet sermons turned a quiet student into fanatic’ The Telegraph, 02 November 2010

[8] Ibid; Ibid

[9] ‘Stephen Timms stabbing’

[10] ‘Profile: Roshonara Choudhry’

[11] ‘Stephen Timms stabbing’

[12] ‘Stephen Timms stabbing’; Dodd, Vikram ‘Roshonara Choudhry: Police interview extracts’ The Guardian 03 November 2010

[13] ‘Stephen Timms stabbing’

[14] ‘Police interview’

[17] Ibid

[18] Ibid

[19] Ibid

[20] Ibid

[21] Ibid

[22] Ibid

[23] Ibid

[24] Ibid

[25] Ibid

[26] ‘Stephen Timms stabbing’

[29] ‘Profile: Roshonara Choudhry’

[30] ‘Stephen Timms stabbing’

[31] Ibid

[32] ‘Police interview’

[33]Tore Bjrgo (2005)pp.256-264; Neumann & Rogers (2007)p.7; Tarrow (2011)pp.22-23

[34] Silke (2008)pp.103-105

[35] Dodd & Topping ‘Roshonara Choudhry jailed for life over MP attack’ The Guardian 03 November 2010

[36] For an argument in favour of applying social movement theory to terrorism Gunning (2009)pp.156-177

[37] Tarrow (2011)pp.141-156; Snow and Benford (1992)pp.133-152

[38] Snow and Benford (2000)p.614

[39] Snow and Benford (1992)pp.133-152

[40] Snow and Benford (2007)pp.123-132; Della Porta and Diani (2006)pp.73-87

[41] Tarrow (2011)p.145

[42] Wiktorowicz (n.d.)

[43] Wiktorowicz (n.d.); Wiktorowicz (2005)pp.20-24

[44] Wiktorowicz (2005)p.20

[45] Benford and Snow (2000)pp.619-622

[46] Tarrow (2011)p.143

[47] Snow, Benford and Hunt (1994)p.185-186

[48] Friedman and McAdam (1992)p.157

[49] Ibid

[50] Meleagrou-Hitchens (2011)p.117

[51] Tilly (2004)pp.211-236; Wiktorowicz (2004)p.xi

[52] Tarrow (2011)p.151

[53] Tilly (2004)pp.223-224

[54] ‘Police Interview’

[55] Ibid

[57] Ibid

[58] Ibid

[59] Ibid

[60] Meleagrou-Hitchens (2011)

[61] Awlaki (2008); Awlaki (2005); Awlaki (2008)

[62] Awlaki (2005)

[63] Awlaki (2008)

[64] Ibid

[65] Meleagrou-Hitchens (2011)p.17

[66] Ibid p.48-51

[67] Awlaki (2005)

[68] Meleagrou-Hitchens (2007)p.60-62

[69] Awlaki(2005); Awlaki (n.d.)‘al-Hijrah’

[70] Awlaki (2005)

[71] Ibid

[72] Meleagrou-Hitchens (2011)pp.63-64

[73] Ibid

[74] ‘Police interview’

[75] Ibid


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Al-Awlaki, Anwar (n.d.) ‘al-Hijrah:’ (accessed 01 December 2012)

Al-Awlaki, Anwar (2008), ‘The State of the Ummah’ 01 March 2009 (accessed 01 December 2012)

Bjrgo, Tore (2006) Root Causes of Terrorism: Myths, Reality and Ways Forward (New York: Routledge)

Dalgaard-Nielsen, Anja. (2010), ‘Violent Radicalisation in Europe: What We Know and What We Do Not Know’, Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, Vol. 33 No. 9 pp. 797-814.

Della Porta, Donatella and Mario Diani (2006), Social Movements: An Introduction, 2nd edn. (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing)

Dodd, Vikram (2010) ‘Profile: Roshonara Choudhry’ The Guardian, 02 November 2010, (accessed 05 November 2012)

Dodd, Vikram and Alexandra Topping (2010), ‘Roshonara Choudhry jailed for life over MP attack’ The Guardian, 03 November 2010, (accessed 05 November 2012)

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Neumann, Peter & Brooke Rogers (2007), Recruitment and mobilisation for the Islamist militant movement in Europe’ International Centre for the Studies of Radicalisation and Political Violence

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Wiktorowicz, Quintan (2005) Radical Islam Rising: Muslim Extremism in the West (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, INC.)


Neo-Realism & Virtuosity: The Rise of Turkey

Josef Joffe’s analysis centered upon the concept of two distinct geopolitical Belts is fascinating. However, it fails to consider the bridge between the two most relevant macro-groups: Turkey. In the last decade Turkey has radically changed and has strategically implemented its previous relationships with the Western and the Eastern belts, giving itself a new and crucial place on the geopolitical chessboard.


turkey 1


In the conference held at the Johns Hopkins University in Bologna on the 20th of December, Josef Joffe, publisher and editor of Die Zeit, and Senior Fellow of Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, delivered a lecture about the uses and limits of realism in international affairs. After a short introduction illustrating the landscape of contemporary IR theories, Joffe focused his analysis on the most compelling issues currently at stake, such as the Iranian bomb and the U.S.-Chinese rivalry in the Western Pacific.

Structure as Destiny

Joffe’s theoretical background privileges structural realism as the key through which international relations are explained. Against this backdrop, Joffe asserted that ‘structure is destiny’. Examining the relationship between U.S. and Europe, for instance, he states that their power and position in the international system affect their behaviour. Indeed, if in the post-WWII period the U.S. has gone to war more than any other nation, Europe, on the other hand, has only fought symbolically against Serbia, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, and was led by the U.S. in three of those conflicts.

If applied to a broader context, Joffe, suggesting again the thesis contained in his Überpower, stated that the world could be divided into the Berlin-Berkeley Belt and Baghdad-Beijing Belt. The first one is the blessed, pacified, prosperous, stable, democratic, liberal West, where some given basic rules of international politics have been unhinged, above all the security dilemma that drove many conflicts in the past. Conversely, the second belt is depicted as Hobbesian, competitive and fear- and ambition-driven: in this realm, international politics’ rules keep on working as usual. For instance, the Middle East, where there have been the most, and the most dangerous, wars in the post-war period, provides a fitting example. In addition, it is worth recalling the nuclear competition between Pakistan and India, and the Chinese rising-power phenomenon, which is characterizing the relationship between Beijing and Tokyo in adversarial terms, mostly due to dispute over the Senkaku-Diaoyu islands.

Theoretically speaking, Joffe’s analysis is fascinating and seems to be straightforward as well. However, it fails to consider the bridge between the two most relevant macro-groups: Turkey. As a matter of fact, in the last decade Turkey has radically changed, and strategically implemented its previous relationships with the Western and the Eastern belts, giving itself a new and crucial place on the geopolitical chessboard. Indeed Turkey, slipping away from inclusion within either the one or the other belt, and not exclusively belonging to the Middle Eastern region in purely geographical terms, deserves a closer attention. As a matter of fact, this country is domestically pacified, prosperous, stable, democratic-liking; at the same time, however, Turkey is still involved in potentially lethal security issues, and its ruling class does not hide anymore geopolitical ambitions over the Greater Middle East. Given its expanding soft and economic powers, and the massive investments in military expenditures (14th worldwide), a legitimate question arises: would Turkey aim at connecting the Western and the Eastern belts by becoming the next regional hegemon in that geopolitical vacuum?

The Turkish-Belts Relations

To provide a satisfactory answer to this theoretical and political question, a brief but compelling screening on the relationships between Turkey and the most relevant actors of each “Belt” will be enlightening.

First of all, Turkish-Iranian relationships are characterized by Ankara’s twofold balancing attempt at preventing military conflict as well as minimising Iranian hostility. Nevertheless, the nuclear issue has allowed Ankara to gain the Iranian goodwill on bilateral issues, such as the opposition to Kurdish militancy and the completion of favorable energy deals that should enable Turkey to increase its dependency on Iranian hydrocarbon resources and to become a key energy transit corridor. Lastly, as Elliot Hentov has remarked, accepting Turkish mediation on the nuclear file, and by virtue of the Turkish vote against the US in the UN Security Council, Iran has reluctantly promoted Turkey’s role as the leading regional power. As a result, Turkey looks at Iran as a regional partner.

Secondly, if balancing is the strategic rule in the Turkish-Iranian relations, Beijing, as the last part of the Eastern Belt, is seen through a different perspective, possibly based on a more competitive approach. Indeed, attempts toward a strategic partnership, either commercial and political, have often resulted in substantial disagreements over security issues in the Middle East, the fate of the Arab Spring, the protection of the political and cultural rights of the Turkic-Muslim people residing in Xinjiang, and the Chinese interference over the Turkish attempt at improving economic relations with Taiwan. Lacking any bases to develop better relationships, Turkey resistance to Chinese warnings witnesses for a clear independent position from the Eastern Belt, whereas the major political objective lies, and is limited to,  mutual recognition, commercial ties and balancing policies.

On the other hand, Turkey maintains closer relations with the Western Belt, even though a greater degree of strategic detachment is coming out. After having enjoyed challenging and intricate relations with the European Union for over half a century, Turkey is progressively stepping aside from its own historical dream of EU membership. If, on the one hand, commitment over the membership is seriously lacking by both sides, on the other the EU-Turkey relationship is losing its historical fascination. The response of Europe to the financial crisis, the emerging multipolarity, new security challenges, and questions of European identity and human rights have come under scrutiny. As a result, since a complete diplomatic severance between them is out of the question, for Turkey is currently more convenient to deal individually, rather than multilaterally, with each of the EU countries. As for the Iranian case, Turkey seems pursuing balancing and pacific relationships with its Western closest neighbour.

The United States, differently, represents a more challenging partner for Turkey. Indeed, in the last years several contradictions and frictions have emerged between Washington and Ankara. First of all, the fraying and tense relationships between Turkey and Israel, in conjunction with the increasing cooperation of the former with Iran; secondly, different positions over the Arab Spring and the military intervention against Libya; thirdly, and more importantly, the contrasting strategic view over the Middle East. If the Obama administration has unsuccessfully tried to implement the policy of “offshore balancing” by embedding Turkey as one of its most loyal NATO-ally, Ankara has rejected the plan, claiming for a re-balancing of the relationship between the American superpower and its allies so as to accommodate the new geo-economic and geopolitical landscape. Despite that, Emiliano Alessandri underscores how Ankara’s activism in the most recent years has been directed “at carving out a space for itself more than at seriously developing a new idea of international engagement agreeable also to Washington”.

A Conclusion

Which conclusion can be drawn from this analysis? As recently stated by Abdullah Gul, Turkish President since 2007, Turkey aims at becoming a soft power with a substantial role in the Middle East as a good and successful model for Egypt, Tunisia and Libya to follow. In doing so, according to Gul, Turkey should increase its international role by assuming the feature of a “virtuous power”:

A virtuous power is a power that is not ambitious or expansionist in any sense. On the contrary, it is a power where the priority lies with safeguarding the human rights and interests of all human beings in a manner that also entails the provision of aid to those in need without expecting anything in return. That’s what I mean by a virtuous power: a power that knows what’s wrong and what’s right and that is also powerful enough to stand behind what’s right. (Foreign Affairs, January/February 2013, Vol. 92, No. 1, p. 7).

What these vague words mean is still unclear for the future of the region: by all means, and beyond any rhetoric, Turkey wants international recognition as a great power in a multipolar world, and the politics of “zero problems with neighbours pursued by its Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, a professor of international relations, captures well his country’s regional and global vision. By confirming the neo-realist assumption that “structure is destiny”, Turkey, by relying on its large population and dynamic economy aims to become the political and economic hegemon at the crossroads of the Balkans, the Caucasus, Central Asia, North Africa, and the Middle East.

Just a huge and hegemon-free regional room between the two Belts.


Photo credit: Christopher Frank /


The Greatest Transfer of Wealth in History’: how significant is the cyber-espionage threat?
{Department of War Studies, King’s College London}


China blue Army SIGNIT


This paper presents a synoptic assessment of cyber-espionage, exploring the increased enthusiasm and capacity to exploit system vulnerabilities in order to illicitly obtain intellectual property, trade secrets, and competitive advantage. It considers how progressive technologies, tool sharing, and improved technical and social engineering techniques have augmented and indeed transformed modern espionage, making it increasingly easy for malign actors — whether malevolent insiders, foreign intelligence services, or hackers for hire — to steal vast libraries of sensitive information with instant results, minimal cost, and relative anonymity.

This investigation is presented through five distinct areas of analysis: After a brief synopsis of the technological and communicative shifts which have fostered the growth of cyber-espionage, a review of the public, political, and scholarly discourses surrounding cyber-security shall be presented, in an effort to establish what we really mean when we talk of ‘cyber-espionage’. This will be followed by a discussion of the many difficulties associated with establishing and recording the true cost of espionage. The ambiguities and cultural disparities revealed by attempts to accurately attribute offences shall then be examined, followed by a brief overview of the crucial, but often overlooked, non-technical methods employed by such attacks. In concluding, many of the problems facing policymakers shall be considered, and the need for inter-disciplinary co-operation in formulating a more nuanced, holistic understanding of cyber-security shall be reiterated.

By drawing upon pertinent case studies and applicable theoretical paradigms throughout, gauging the associated assets, exploits, and vulnerabilities involved, I shall demonstrate that not only is cyber-espionage a genuine and escalating threat, but its implications have far greater consequence for the balance of global power, than traditional military dominance or sensationalist notions of cyber-warfare.

Definitions and Limitations

It is important to recognise this papers limitations, especially when approaching an eclectic, multi-disciplinary field still in its relative infancy[1]. Distinguishing ‘cyber-espionage’, as considered here, from ‘cyber-warfare’ is fundamental. The former concerns the exploitation of cyberspace and human intelligence as a means of illicitly gathering, collating, and analysing covertly extracted data, the latter focuses on the efficacy of malicious code as a weapon and/or to supplement traditional kinetic warfare[2]. Equally, this paper does not represent a detailed forensic examination of cyber-weapons or DDoS attacks, but instead focuses on the economic, political, and social implications of cyber-espionage. Finally, although many themes presented here have wider application, this paper’s primary focus is that of the infiltration and theft of sensitive data from private companies, research facilities, and government contractors — consequentially one should be cautious when making broader comparisons or drawing wider generalisations to other areas of cyber security[3].

In order to adequately address the question and circumvent theoretical quandaries debating contentious terms, it is crucial to employ solid working definitions from the outset, whilst acknowledging more suitable and descriptive vocabulary may evolve in the future[4]. Throughout, ‘the internet’ refers to the “global computer network, providing a variety of information and communication facilities, consisting of interconnected [network of] networks using standardised communication protocols”[5]. Here, ‘cyberspace’ is taken as the “total landscape of technology mediated communication” as outlined by Stevens[6]. It takes Rid’s[7] definition of ‘cyber-espionage’ as “attempt[s] to penetrate an adversarial system for purposes of extracting sensitive or protected information… either social or technical in nature”. It utilises Berners-Lee’s description of ‘W3’ as “the universe of network-accessible information, resources and users on the Internet…using Hypertext-Transfer-Protocol”[8].

Globalisation and Late-Modernity

The exponential rise of information based economies, concomitant to the universal ascension of the internet and other advanced computer mediated communications (CMC), are unprecedented modern phenomena. Alongside other pervasive expressions of late-modernity and globalisation, they will likely come to epitomise this phase of human history as the enlightenment and industrial revolution have previous centuries[9]. Huge advancements in the speed, volume, and accessibility of information, as well as the systems and virtual architecture that constitute and sustain cyberspace[10], have transformed the way we communicate, work, trade, innovate, research, develop, and store information in our increasingly ‘glocal’ world[11].

The rapid growth experienced by China and India especially, but also Vietnam, Russia, Indonesia, and Brazil, have seen new global players emerge, which have begun to challenge the hegemonic dominance of the West[12]. Technological advancements in CMC saw internet penetration and W3 usage increase by 556% in 12 years; from 360 million in 2000, to 2.4 billion in 2012[13]. By 2016 the world population is expected to reach 7.3 billion, with internet facing mobile devices topping 10 billion[14]. Whilst cyberspace has cultivated and nurtured innovation, productivity, efficiency, and transnational co-operation, it has simultaneously exposed vulnerabilities and revealed new threats, due to its open nature and our increased reliance upon it[15]. It is no surprise malevolent  actors have also enthusiastically exploited the internet to infiltrate and extract information from opponents at immense speeds and on enormous scales, underscoring the changing nature of espionage and the increasing redundancy of traditional counter-measures[16].

Discourse and Rhetoric

Aside from detailed and rapidly evolving computer science analysis, a cursory examination of the current literature reveals a tendency to focus on government-centric paradigms, offensive strategies, and warfare models of cyber security[17]. These themes have reinforced sensationalist public discourses, and apocalyptic moral panics concerning cyber attacks[18]. Leon Panetta’s almost Nostradamian predictions of a pending “cyber Pearl Harbour”, and Vanity Fair’s equally inane and rather crass analogy of the Stuxnet virus as the “Hiroshima of cyber-war”, are perhaps most infamous examples of this[19]. The end-of-days rhetoric propagated by Clarke[20], in which planes fall from the skies, trains derail, critical infrastructure fails, nuclear reactors meltdown, and military defences crumble, appears to have become an recurrent narrative in both the wings of Washington and the corridors of Whitehall.

In an attempt to substitute the sensational for the rational, and replace the speculative with the empirical, scholars and policy makers alike should be mindful that all known instances of politically motivated cyber-attack are essentially advanced versions of three activities; sabotage, subversion, and, of course, espionage[21]. Whilst these actions are certainly as ancient as warfare, they do not constitute an act of war in the classic Clausewitzian[22] sense, as the three constitutive elements of ‘war’ are not present: violence and potential lethality of the act, the instrumental imposition of will, and political impetus and so discernible culpability. Indeed the majority of oft-cited incidents of ‘cyber-war’ have, in fact, been cases of espionage, and although the level of technical expertise and complexity may be high, espionage by its very nature is not explicitly instrumental, let alone violent[23]. Espionage amounts to the clandestine gathering of information that may subsequently help establish better instruments of war, inform tactical decisions (or as is increasingly the case) enhance commercial advantage, secure material assets, resources, and business dominance. Given that there is no direct linear relationship between computer keystrokes and physical violence, ‘cyber-war’ is unlikely to replace kinetic military tactics anytime soon[24]. However, when considering espionage, cyber methods not only supplement, but now surpass traditional methods, as the primary tactic of infiltration and data exfilitration, begging the question; at what point should one drop the ‘cyber’ prefix, and simply talk of ‘espionage’?

Discovered in 2012, Flame is a salient example of “a complete attack toolkit designed for general cyber-espionage purposes”[25] and is probably “the most complex malware ever found”[26]. Flame infected approximately 1,000 specific machines including governmental organisations, educational and research institutions, and private computers across the Middle East[27]. Partly written in Lua script with linked C++ code, the dropper allowed for other attack modules to be downloaded after initial infection[28]. An atypically large programme at 20 megabytes, Flame utilised five encryption methods and an SQLite database to store information[29]. The injection vector was covert and the malware itself sophisticated, in the sense it ascertained a machine’s particular antivirus software, and customised its behaviour accordingly to reduce the likelihood of detection. It altered file-name extensions and protected memory pages, even including a remote ‘kill’ function to purge itself if identified[30]. Flame also installed a fake audio driver which was used to maintain persistent control over the compromised system[31]. Due to the complex, multifaceted composition of the malware, Flame’s apparent objectives (ostensibly built to attack primarily Iranian targets) and the associated timescale and development costs, it is likely a “nation-state sponsored the research”[32] and most experts and acquainted commentators have indicated probable Israeli involvement[33].

Inconsistency, Inaccuracy, and Inaction

Gauging the cost of cyber-espionage, to consumers, companies, and/or governments, has been hugely controversial[34]. How representative estimates are, when compiled by profit-motivated software security companies, should be bore in mind here[35]. Symantec[36] place the cost of intellectual property theft to the U.S. at $250 billion a year, with cybercrime at a further $114 billion annually, or $388 billion inclusive of downtime[37]. McAfee[38] estimated global remediation costs to be a staggering $1 trillion per annum, however this is heavily contested, even by those academics McAfee claim to cite[39]. Detica and the Cabinet Office report the cost of cybercrime to UK to be £27 billion in 2012, of which £16.8 billion amounts to intellectual property theft and industrial espionage[40]. The Data Breach Investigations Report (DBIR) investigated 855 incidents of industrial and corporate systems penetration, recording 174 million compromised records across the US, UK, Holland, Ireland and Australia in 2012[41]. Recently MI5 made the unprecedented move of issuing 300 warning letters to UK business leaders highlighting the risk of “electronic espionage” from “Chinese…organisations”[42]. Indeed, according to Jonathan Evans, MI5 Director General, an “astonishing[ly]” high level of cyber-espionage target Western nations on an almost “industrial scale”[43]. These remarks echo General Keith Alexander, NSA Director, who claims cyber-espionage amounts to “the greatest transfer of wealth in history”[44].

Yet despite enormous losses being cited and stark warnings being issued, the true extent of cyber-espionage is not fully known and may ultimately be incalculable[45]. The difficulties in precise estimations are many, including but not limited to: Companies not reporting or publicising losses; for fear of brand and/or reputation damage, company devaluation, loss of public confidence and sales. Inconsistency in cost calculations; does one just include the cost of research and development? Or projected future earnings? Anticipatory costs such as antivirus software, insurance, penetration testing etc.? Consequential direct and indirect expenditures? Responsive costs such as compensation, fines, or remediation?. Inability to ascribe economic value to certain information, such as; minutes from meetings, business-to-business correspondence, marketing strategies, or data with transitory value. Apathetic or indifferent reaction to attacks; companies may misunderstand, slowly respond, or be simply naïve to the severity and immediacy the threat poses to their business[46].

Often organisations are unaware or unconcerned their systems have been compromised — of the 855 incidents investigated by the DBIR, 92% did not discover their breach until an external party informed them[47]. Threat ignorance is clearly concerning, but a stark illustration of how indifference may be equally challenging is articulated by Brian Shields, former ICT Security Advisor at Nortel Networks Corp., who realised in 2004 that passwords of senior executives had been compromised[48]. Tracing the originating IP address to Shanghai, Shields requested an investigation, yet beyond changing passwords no further action was taken[49]. In 2008, recurrent background data exchanges with a Beijing server was again detected, unearthing a major eight year data exfiltration stretching back to 2000[50]. Shields wrote a beseeching 14 page letter to Nortel’s Board of Directors, warning; “the Chinese are still in your system…steal[ing] technologies”, and “not [to] trust the security of any [digital] information”, as “sales, costing, business strategy, research and development” were all being routinely monitored and compromised[51]. Nortel, once the telecommunications equipment world leader valued at over $250 billion, filed for bankruptcy the following year in 2009[52].

Over the same 2000-2009 period Nortel’s primary competitor, Huawei Technologies, headquartered in Shenzhen, China, and founded by ex-military technologist Ren Zhengfei, saw accelerated growth[53]. The year following Nortel’s bankruptcy, Huawei, who only began internationally trading the year of Nortel’s original breach, declared record profits of $3.64 billion[54]. The U.S. House of Representatives Select Committee went as far as issuing a report in 2012 warning of the risks posed by Huawei, both in terms of their business practices and their monopoly of the communication technologies industry[55]. Today Huawei supply 45 of the world’s 50 largest telecommunications operators, yet whether Nortel’s long-term compromise and eventual collapse is linked to Huawei’s extraordinary success remains hugely contentious[56]. Former Nortel CEO Mike Zafirovski maintains those “who looked at [the hacking] did not believe it was a real issue”[57], and it very well may be the case that poor business decisions and over-expansion are the true root causes. Nonetheless, the negative correlation between the rise of Huawei and the fall of Nortel, combined with the amazing set of coincidences involved, could equally lead one to a different conclusion entirely. Here Janis’ criminological analysis of white-collar crime and specifically the concept of ‘groupthink’ may have import — where boardroom conformity to prototypical collective world-views can bypass critical evaluation, condemn criticism, and rationalise (in)action[58].

Even when decisive moves are made to mitigate losses, often breaches can be concealed from regulators, employees, the public, even shareholders and senior executives by the company involved[59]. In 2009 hackers pilfered sensitive information regarding Coca-Cola’s $2.4 billion attempted takeover of Huiyuan Juice Group, tipped to be the largest foreign acquisition of a Chinese company in history[60]. Coca-Cola never publicly disclosed the breach, the nature of the attack, nor why the Huiyuan deal collapsed three days later[61]. This culture of silence is by no means unique to Coca-Cola, breaches often only later being divulged by internal reviews or individual whistle-blowers. Following the theft of sensitive archives, BG Group did not go public[62], neither did steel manufacturer ArcelorMittal after cyber attacks targeted Chinese acquisition executives, nor did Chesapeake Energy when information relating to their tenure of gas leases was extracted[63]. Indeed, transient or temporal information regarding high-stake business transactions, mergers, and acquisitions has become highly prized and increasingly targeted. A week prior to the Iraqi Rumaila oilfield going to auction, oil giants ExxonMobil, Total, Fina and others were infiltrated and confidential bidding information compromised[64]. The world’s fourth largest oil field, producing 1.33 million barrels per day, was eventually secured in partnership by China National Petroleum Company, although clearly the direct connection of the two remains unsubstantiated and a hugely controversial issue[65].

Attribution, Deniability, and Cultural Biases

The majority of sophisticated cyber-espionage attacks suggest Chinese, Russian or Israeli involvement, although directly attributing responsibility for these incidents has proven recurrently nebulous and, often, politically strenuous[66]. The intentional global distribution and obscurity of attacks, via numerous proxy servers across multiple countries, has meant competent hackers enjoy relative anonymity in committing cyber-espionage[67]. Although often framed as an exclusively technical problem, the attribution issue is far more multifarious[68]. Attempts have been further confounded by the blurring of criminal and political acts, as well as conventional notions of ‘state’ and ‘non-state’ actors[69].

Associated with the characteristics of Web 2.0 and contemporary W3 social movements, the ubiquity of effortless propagation, dissemination and redistribution of information, via CMC, through online communities, is the most socially and, therefore, politically significant of all prevailing modern trends[70]. Certain underground hacking communities in cyberspace encourage tool sharing, code swapping, and the proliferation of malicious software, as well as facilitating Dark Web black-markets trading in zero-day vulnerabilities and stolen data[71]. These clandestine forums, what Villeneuve[72] describes as “malware ecosystems”, consist of an array of programmers who understand network protocols, can write code, create viruses, malware, and rootkits, and who may even operate botnet infrastructures. There are also technicians who compile, package, and effectively utilise pre-built, open source, hacking tools, the so-called novice ‘script-kiddies’ who dabble with the execution of basic code, and surreptitious traders who actually buy and sell stolen data[73]. It is also extremely likely that nation-states covertly engage and trade in these forums.

In line with the post-territorial, founding philosophy of the Internet[74], Sanderson describes how large-scale adoption of CMC has dissolved boundaries of physical locality and consequentially our understanding of ‘community’[75]. Wellman and Gullia[76] suggest such virtual arenas “foster the formation of social networks and personal communities”, but that such environments are distinctly insular and retreatist in nature[77]. Wiktorowicz points to primary social contact occurring within small, introverted, clandestine dynamics, as conducive to cultivating high-risk behaviours[78]. Suler[79] highlights how the dissociative anonymity of W3 mitigates ones accountability, whilst disinhibition effect reduces restraint. Freed from societal checks and balances of normative behavioural conduct, and combined with the solipsistic introjection of imagined character traits onto others, Turkle[80] notes how users of online communities to put their “fantasies-into-action”[81]. Such enabling environments have successfully blurred lines between criminal exploitation and political espionage, making digital forensics and the ascription culpability and blame an increasingly complex and painstaking task[82].

Some states have proactively exploited this ambiguity to provide a plausible position of legal deniably in committing hostile cyber acts. Utilising freelance, criminal, or independent ‘patriotic’ hackers to augment state operations seeking to spy upon or compromise foreign governments, military, industrial, and economic assets, has muddied the water yet further[83]. Whilst the vast majority of purportedly state-sponsored cyber attacks have been for the purpose of espionage, the very notions of ‘state’ and ‘non-state’ actors are not as patently discrete as often assumed[84]. Henderson’s research into the Red Hacker Alliance (RHA) is an interesting case in point[85]. Although RHA’s assertion of being an independent union of hackers appears correct, the terminology and cultural disparity of the inquiry is fundamentally flawed, and concluding the Chinese state and RHA are completely disassociated is decidedly misleading. Walton[86] explains the difficulty arises when formulating distinctions based upon Western “liberal, democratic conception[s] of the nation-state”, where one’s cultural biases assume that elements of Chinese society acting ‘autonomously’ must imply a disconnect from the state, and conversely, cyber-espionage must entail the briefing, mobilisation, and supervision of a government entity.

The People’s Republic of China consider the populace as a fundamental facet of what it terms “comprehensive national power”, featuring prominently within the Communist Party rhetoric and their strategic calculations[87]. The “masses” are viewed as both essential to, and responsible for, Chinese national security[88]. The mobilisation of civilians alongside the military is embodied in the Maoist concept of “the people’s war”, a philosophy still deeply engrained in modern Chinese culture, with a degree of potential application to many ex-Soviet countries also[89]. Therefore, the non-state-status, if you will, of RHA may be theoretically true, but to say that they have differing objectives, or are not advantageously concomitant, or even at the point of engagement and data extraction the two are culturally and strategically separable, is mistaken. Although perhaps not recognisable as a singular monolithic entity, this “non-traditional relationship” with the hacking fraternity has been proactively sought. Such freelance groups can mount tremendously sophisticated operations against foreign targets; intelligent, skilled and patriotic, overheads are kept low and they are easily disowned if indentified[90]. The information elicited may be extremely valuable and the economic and social damage caused substantial. It has been operationally prudent, sagacious even, for these governments to have such efforts deflected overseas, whilst forestalling domestic assaults.

Discovered in 2009, Gh0stNet provides a further example of state/non-state ambiguity[91]. The spying network infected high-value political and economic targets in 103 countries, infiltrating the networks of embassies, foreign ministries, NGOs, and government departments[92]. Spear-phishing emails targeted organisations with malicious attachments, which delivered the payload onto their system when opened. By leveraging Web 2.0 and cloud based technologies as mechanisms of command-and-control, Gh0stNet was designed to maintain influence over compromised machines, even if the infrastructure was taken down[93]. The malware would connect to Google groups, Twitter accounts, or Blogspot threads, to obtain the instructive domain name – if this server was removed, new IP addresses were reposted allowing the infiltration to continue[94]. The two-stage dropper would often instruct the installation of Gh0stRat, which allowed hackers to gain real-time control over computers, activating webcams and audio-recording to enable surveillance[95]. Gh0stNet’s exposure revealed an infrastructure largely based in China with some interesting twists: One of four control servers was located on Hainan Island, home to Lingshui Air Base, China’s signal-intelligence facility[96], two in and around Chengdu, a city dominated by the Triad mafia cartel[97], and the fourth was a centrally run government server[98]. This implied a degree of shared knowledge, collusion even, between the intelligence agencies, organised crime syndicates, and the Communist Party.

Social Engineering and Non-technical Vectors

One of the most renowned cyber-espionage cases, the breach of global aerospace, defence, and advanced technology company Lockheed Martin, is also an excellent example of social engineering. Although breached in 2011, the preparation for the attack stretches back far further, encompassing the infiltration of two additional companies prior, originating with the successful hack of a relatively small and unprotected recruitment company called Beyond[99]. Impersonating the Beyond webmaster, spear-phishing techniques targeted one of their clients; the network security company RSA, who produce the SecurID authentication token used by Lockheed Martin. This is a complex mechanism of two-factor authentication, utilising a cryptography algorithm which generates a random code at fixed intervals, used by companies wishing to introduce a strong layer of security to their networks[100]. The vector of infection was an email-attached Microsoft Excel spreadsheet which stated: “I forward this file to you for review”[101]. Upon opening the attachment a Flash exploit embedded in the spreadsheet launched on RSA’s network, utilising the W32/Poison.Ivy backdoor[102]. The payload gave a command-and-control server in Seoul, South Korea, remote access to the infected machines, enabling hackers to leapfrog into RSA’s network and access the cherished algorithm which underpinned SecurID[103]. In 2011, Lockheed Martin announced that a cyber attack had successfully bypassed their security systems and managed to gain access to “sensitive materials”[104]. Whilst the nature of the information compromised was never extrapolated upon, the following month the U.S. Government redefined casus belli for an act of war to include cyber attacks[105].

The Lockheed Martin case was remarkable due to its complexity, strategic nature, and intelligent use of both human and cyber exploits, yet some are notable due to their simplicity and utility of non-technical infection vectors. The 2008 Russian compromise of the Pentagon’s top secret network occurred by baiting techniques of scattering infected USB thumb-drives in government carparks, then simply waiting for staff to pick one up, take it into work, and connect to a secure network[106]. Other traditional, ‘non-cyber’ means of obtaining intelligence to socially engineer convincing cyber-espionage attacks include; Freedom of Information requests, pitching marketing services, conferences, conventions, tradeshows, exploiting collaborative research ventures, and, of course, open sources[107].

Dubbed Operation Aurora, the 2010 exploitation of zero-day vulnerabilities in Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, employed crucial social engineering elements, compromising numerous U.S. corporations including Google, Yahoo, Symantec, Northrop Grumman, and Morgan Stanley[108]. Staff were sent messages supposedly from known colleagues which included bogus weblinks. Once clicked the malicious code launched, allowing hackers to piggyback from local machines into the entire network[109]. Whilst much of press coverage reported the infiltration of Chinese dissident gmail accounts, Dmitri Alperovitch of cyber investigation firm CrowdStrike, believes they accessed far more, claiming the Chinese are “hacking every company imaginable… stealing everything they need to capture business and market share”. The breach is widely considered a “watershed moment”, in so much as it demonstrated that private industry and commerce had become as important, if not more so, than military or government targets in global cyber-espionage efforts[110]. Today, the most besieged assets include; information and communications technologies,marine systems, aerospace/aeronautics, military, dual-use and clean technologies, advanced materials and manufacturing techniques, pharmaceuticals, chemicals, and agricultural technologies[111].

Future Direction

Technological developments and the increasing number of internet facing systems have seen the enthusiastic adoption of cyber means to illicitly obtain vast libraries of sensitive data. The expansion of online hacker communities, the emergence of W3 black-markets trading in espionage tools, technical instruction, and stolen data, as well as the utility of Web 2.0, have seen the blurring of criminal and political motivations. Historically and culturally grounded factors have also distorted traditional Western notions of ‘state’ and ‘non-state’ actors, further confusing conceptions of what ‘state sponsorship’ entails. These dynamics, combined with the technically distributed, largely anonymous nature of attacks, have obscured attempts to precisely attribute responsibility for cyber-espionage offences.

Rightly considered one of the most advanced persistent threats to information security today, costing billions annually in lost innovation, research, development, and revenue, this paper draws attention to some of the inconsistencies, inaccuracies and (in)competencies associated with documenting and measuring the cost of cyber-espionage. However, whilst cost estimations may vary so wildly as to render them an almost redundant exercise, undeniably it will always be faster and cheaper to steal intellectual property, trade secrets, or acquisition information, than to fund research and development directly, or conduct business fairly and honestly. In line with the dialects of globalisation, late-modernity, and transnational liberal capitalism, we have seen economic competitiveness and national advantage seamlessly merge to the point one cannot be separated from the other. When considering espionage, not only are the motivations patent, the perpetrators determined, and the data losses gigantic, but the economic, social, and political ramifications are enormous also.

In our current climate of austerity measures, efficiency drives, and stagnant growth — alongside the emergence of new global powers and the scramble for finite world resources — a nation’s research, innovation, and economic competitiveness is as critical to guaranteeing the future security and prosperity of a country, more so even, than military strength alone. Certainly the anonymous and often surreptitious nature of cyberspace lends itself to espionage in ways perhaps not immediately compatible with warfare, where political oratory, drum beating, and flag flying are inherently part and parcel. As cyber-espionage continues along its steep incline, bolstering the technological and economic migration East, security analysts must reflect upon whether it is really warfare, or more likely economics, which will come to define the global distribution of wealth, resources, and political power. Given this, it is our appreciation of espionage, not necessarily warfare, in the Fifth Domain which is likely to better inform our understanding of these shifting relations. Indeed if, as John Dryden said; “war is the trade of kings”, then trade is certainly the king of war. If espionage is the crook that controls the king, then we start to appreciate the true nature of the hierarchy.

This analysis underscores how cyber-espionage is not always a matter of hugely complicated code silently pilfering data in the background of networks. Non-technical methods, social engineering techniques, and the efficacy of human exploits, are still tremendously important and must not be overlooked as cyber security hysteria grips academics, practitioners and policymakers on either side of the Atlantic. Espionage is nothing new, but the capability, persistence, and magnitude of the threat has changed forever, our responses must be commensurate but composed, effective not foolish. It is the nexus and interplay between the technological, economic, cultural, and geopolitical shifts which provide us with a more nuanced understanding of espionage today.

Given its restrictive parameters, this paper should by no means be viewed as a exhaustive account detailing every facet of cyber-espionage, but rather a cursory analysis of this novel yet increasingly ubiquitous threat. Analytical perspectives from political and social sciences have significant import to cyber-security and can afford us some pertinent insights. Combining these with comprehensive technical analysis from computer science, assessing core vulnerabilities, best-practise solutions, and rethinking architectural and software design is essential. This paper seeks to promote further multidisciplinary research within this rapidly developing field, bridging the knowledge-gap between technologists, academics, policy makers, and wider industry. Encouraging research driven, empirically informed, and theoretically conversant countermeasures, seeking to reduce cyber-espionage and, ultimately, bolster our information security.

[toggle title=”Citations & Bibliography”]

[1] Shipman, (1997)

[2] Clarke, (2010)

[3] NCIX, (2011:i-iii)

[4] Shipman, (1997:16)

[5] ODO, (2012); Gralla,.(2007:7)

[6] Stevens & Neumann, (2009:10)

[7] Hoffman, (2006:40)

[8] Berners-Lee, (2001)

[9] Bauman, (2000); Severs, (2012)

[10] IWS, (2012); Knight, (2003:15); Ahlgren, (2005); Edensor, (2001)

[11] Roudometof, (2005); Appadurai, (1990); Giddens, (1991)

[12] Wolfowitz in Alexander, (2012); Baumann, (2000)

[13] IWS, (2012)

[14] Alexander, (2012)

[15] ibid.

[16] Foryst, (2010)

[17] Rid, (2012:5-6)

[18] Cohen, (1972)

[19] Panetta, (2012); Gross, (2011)

[20] Clarke, (2010)

[21] Rid, (2012)

[22] Clausewitz, (1832)

[23] Rid, (2012)

[24] ibid.

[25] Albanesius, (2012)

[26] CrySyS Laboratory, (2012)

[27] Zetter, (2012)

[28] Gostev, (2012); Kindlund, (2012)

[29] CrySyS Laboratory, (2012)

[30] ibid.

[31] Kindlund, (2012)

[32] Lee, (2012)

[33] Erdbrink, (2012)

[34] Maass & Rajagopalan, (2011)

[35] NCIX, (2011:3)

[36] Symantec Corp., (2012)

[37] Alexander, (2012)

[38] McAffe Inc., (2012)

[39] Maass & Rajagopalan, (2011)

[40] Detica, (2012)

[41] Verizon, (2012)

[42] Rawnsley, (2011)

[43] Evans, (2012)

[44] Alexander, (2012)

[45] Clarke, (2011)

[46] Faber, (2012); NCIX, (2011:2-4)

[47] Verizon, (2012:51)

[48] Gorma,.(2012)

[49] Faber, (2012)

[50] ibid.

[51] ibid.

[52] ibid.

[53] Anuradha, (2011)

[54] Boomberg, (2011)

[55] Rogers et al. (2012)

[56] Vance, (2011)

[57] Gorman, (2012:28)

[58] Janis, (1972)

[59] Elgin et al. (2012)

[60] Wong, (2008)

[61] Lambert, (2012:8)

[62] ibid.

[63] Elgin et al. (2012:1-6)

[64] Clarke, (2011)

[65] Rasheed, (2009:4)

[66] NCIX, (2011:1)

[67] NCIX, (2011:1-5)

[68]Rid, cited in McGraw, (2012)

[69] Walton, (2008)

[70] Severs, (2012)

[71] Sageman et al. (2008:1347-1349)

[72] Villeneuve, (2010)

[73] Eli, (2010)

[74] Goldsmith & Wu, (2006:16-25)

[75] Sanderson & Fortin, (2001)

[76] cited in Steinkuehler, (2006:1)

[77] Jenny, (2008)

[78] Wiktorowicz, (2002); Severs, (2012)

[79]Suler, (2004)

[80] Turkle, (1995:226); Severs, (2012)

[81] Jones, (2006:104)

[82] Villeneuve, (2010); Richardson, (2006:21-36)

[83] Rid, (2012:20)

[84] ibid.; Edensor, (2001)

[85] Henderson, (2008)

[86] Walton, (2008)

[87] Henderson, (2008); Hutton, (2007)

[88] ibid.

[89] ibid.

[90] ibid.

[91] Glaister, (2009)

[92] Markoff, (2009)

[93] Villeneuve, (2010); Nagaraja, & Anderson, (2009)

[94] IWM, (2009)

[95] Markoff, (2009)

[96] Harvey, (2009); Hsiao, (2010); GS, (2011)

[97] Villeneuve, (2010); Nagaraja & Anderson, (2009)

[98] Akkad, (2012)

[99] Schneier, (2011b)

[100] RSA, (2012)

[101] Clarke, (2011); Schneier, (2011a); Hodge & Sherr, (2011)

[102] Schneier, (2011b); Peter, (2011)

[103] Oquendo, (2011)

[104] Wolf, (2011); Lockheed Martin, (2011)

[105] Sanger & Bumiller, (2011)

[106] Mello, (2010)

[107] NCIX, (2011:2-7)

[108] Paul, (2010); Naraine, (2010)

[109] Kurtz, (2010)

[110] Faber, (2012)

[111] NCIX, (2011:1)


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Photo Credit: Don Hankins

The Great China/Hong Kong Divide

Given China’s own complex situation, granting Hong Kong universal suffrage seems highly unlikely. Perhaps it is likely later on future when democracy, civil participation, voting and free speech are more understood and developed in China.


hong kong skyline at night


Recently, the streets of Hong Kong were flooded with protestors demanding their new leader, Leung Chun-Ying, to resign because of his alleged illegal renovation of his luxurious mansion. Many have utilised the opportunity to vent their other discontents such as demanding gay rights, rising property costs, housing issues for growing families and the sluggish economy. Protestors accused him of being a lackey for the Chinese government, merely doing Beijing’s bidding while ignoring the needs and priorities of Hong Kong citizens. Leung has a bigger challenge than resolving his building breaches; could he foster positive relations between Hong Kong and China? Since 1997, Hong Kongers have grown more defensive of their distinct identity and remain very suspicious about the Chinese government and somewhat unwelcoming to mainland Chinese.

Criticisms of Leung being too close to China

Leung Chun-Ying was appointed as the Chief Executive of Hong Kong on 1 July 2012, beating opponent Henry Tang, who was the former Chief Secretary for Administration of Hong Kong. Tang’s popularity plummeted because of his illegal construction of a basement on his property at 7 York Road, Kowloon Tong.

Leung’s road to leadership has not been a smooth ride. In Hong Kong media, Leung is aligned with the personality of a wolf because of his apparent ruthlessness in politics. In April 2012, demonstrators demanded Leung to step down because of his seemingly pro-Beijing stance and he would only be an instrument for the Chinese government. A citizen name Lam Sim-Shing commented “Beijing blatantly interfered in our election,” and “he will be a ‘yes’ man for Beijing…”.

Some pro-capitalist politicians and media and anti-Leung protestors have accused him of being a loyal member of the Chinese Communist Party, to which Leung firmly denied. He responded: “I am not a member of the Communist Party. I am not a so-called underground member of the Communist Party. In fact, I’m not a member, and have not been a member of any political party anywhere in the world”.  He was once asked whether Liu Xiaobo, the 2010 recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, deserved the award and he answered former Chairman of the Central Advisory Commission of the Communist Party, Deng Xiaoping, should be the first Chinese Nobel Laureate. Leung addressed his inauguration speech in Mandarin, rather than Cantonese as the previous Chief Executive, Donald Tsang, had done. Most Hong Kongers see Cantonese as the dividing line between them and mainland Chinese. Many Hong Kongers may interpret their leader would only serve to please the Beijing elites. Moreover, Leung’s introduction of Beijing’s controversial education reforms, which were announced in 2012 (will be discussed later), further reinforced anti-Leung citizens’ opinions about him.

Mass protests erupted in early January when Leung was accused of illegally renovating his flat that breached the Buildings Department regulations. According to The Guardian, Hong Kong media discovered he had constructed “a trellis, a metal gate, a canopy over his garage” on his property just six months after winning his election. Now Leung is facing pressure from protesters and authorities to give an explanation.

Thousands of protesters flooded the streets of Hong Kong. According to The Guardian protesters held up signs that depicted Leung as a wolf, and calling him a liar. From other sources, some illustrated Leung with a long nose – resembling Pinocchio and one protester wore a wolf costume with the Chinese Red Guard uniform. One of the protesters claimed Leung “is not honest. As chief executive, he cannot convince the public that he is leader with credibility” and “I don’t want Hong Kong to be led by a person without credibility”. Another citizen complained they have not the right to vote for their own leader; “we don’t even have a vote, he is elected by a small group of people. We cannot use our voting right to express our view no matter how his performance is”.

The Great Divide Between Hong Kong and China

The protests clearly show us there is still a deep divide between Hong Kong and China. Hong Kong was ceded to British rule when the Qing Government was defeated in the First Opium War (1839-1842). After signing the Treaty of Nanking 1842, influence and connections from China became very limited and Hong Kong had lived under western-style democracy. The sovereignty of Hong Kong was transferred back to China in 1997, ending more than 150 years of British control and China had agreed to have a “one country, two systems” policy. Yet, since the reunification, many Hong Kongers are still concerned Beijing would meddle in its affairs and enforcing laws that would threaten their free speech and democracy.  Some protesters were seen waving the British colonial flag; a clear indication that democracy and free speech were guaranteed when they were under British jurisdiction. However, one must note that even during the colonial days, Hong Kongers could not vote for their Governor.

According to a poll conducted by the Public Opinion Program at the University of Hong Kong in 2011, it revealed that Hong Kongers do not perceive themselves as Chinese citizens but rather, ‘Hong Kong citizens’. Only 16.6% identified themselves Chinese citizens.  Despite a majority of Hong Kong citizens being of ethnic Han descent, writing Chinese characters and retaining aspects of Chinese traditions, they see themselves as been distinct from their mainland Chinese counterparts.

Several incidents reflect contemporary relations between the two sides. In 2011, the popular song sung by Hong Kong singer and actor Eason Chan, Under Fuji Mountain, was replaced with lyrics (by Hong Kong citizens) that deride mainland Chinese people as “stealing, cheating, and lying” and “thanks to Mainland China, Hong Kong is now deteriorating inch by inch”. This edited version, called Locust World, has become a big hit in Hong Kong.  According to China Smack, some Hong Kongers would sing this song to mainland Chinese.

Many Hong Kongers are resentful towards increasing Chinese immigration, seeing them as threats to Hong Kong’s identity and holding them responsible for raising property prices. Lots of Chinese tourists come to Hong Kong and although this brings great economic benefits, yet some local residents cannot withstand some of the tourists’ unrefined and discourteous behaviours. There have been growing incidents where heavily pregnant Chinese mothers travel to Hong Kong to give birth due to Hong Kong’s better medical facilities and for their children to gain residency in Hong Kong. With the growing number of Chinese mothers, Hong Kong’s soon-to-be mothers have been, unfortunately, shunned aside by hospitals.

Last year, there was an incident on a train in Hong Kong which reflects contemporary attitudes of Hong Kong people to mainland Chinese people. A man saw a child eating on the train and he told the mother eating is not permitted on trains. Rather than being praised for his efforts in abiding by the law, a fellow passenger (from the mainland) derided his Mandarin and a heated argument exploded. Another passenger intervened and stated “don’t bother. Mainlanders are just like this”. This confrontation was caught on video and went viral and Hong Kong viewers praised the man as a hero.

To many Hong Kongers, they feel they should not be pressured to be ‘Chinese’ in the way that is expected from mainland China. Margaret Ng, a legislator, commented:

“We are Chinese without being only Chinese. We can accept western civilisation without identifying with the west. We observe universal values without losing our own cultural identity”.

Controversial National Education Reforms 2012

In September 2012, thousands of angry protesters marched against the national education reform policy introduced by Beijing. Demonstrators indicted Beijing of trying to ‘brainwash’ students and young people on patriotism to China, supporting a one-party system and implementing education policies that would wipe out free and independent thought.

One protestor named Joshua Wong claimed “we’re here on a hunger strike…because the government is not listening to the people’s voice”. Beijing maintained the reforms aimed to educate Hong Kong youths more about Chinese history, culture and forging positive links between the two sides. These are the following aims  the Beijing government claimed:

“The government council’s guidelines on the new curriculum highlight goals for improving morality, positive attitudes, self-recognition, judgment, identity, and responsible decision-making. Those moral qualities included “Chinese values” such as “benevolence, righteousness, courtesy and wisdom,” but also an interest to “foster universal values, including peace, benevolence, justice, freedom, democracy, human rights.”

Leung did not oppose to the education reforms. But seeing the intensity of the protests, Leung announced  the reform would not be compulsory but up to schools to decide. He declared: “we’re giving the authority to the schools,” and “this is very much in line with our school-based education policy”.

With growing discontent about China and mainland Chinese, mounting property prices, poverty, housing issues and Hong Kong citizens demanding universal suffrage, Leung has a difficult and gruelling job.  Hong Kong-China relations remain convoluted as there is an interesting interplay of political and cultural differences due to 150 years of separation and different values and many Hong Kongers not referring themselves Chinese citizens but insist they have their own unique identity. It seems positive relations are hard to achieve now. However, Hong Kong has just been returned to Chinese administration for a mere 16 years and in this generation of Hong Kong citizens, they are still adapting to the transition.

On the other hand, China has only recently emerged from political turmoil, social instability and an impoverished economy which it had experienced decades ago and is still dealing with priorities such as poverty, improving education in regional and rural areas and corruption etc. However, this is not to say Hong Kong is not an important region to China. Last year, the Chinese government announced new plans to assist Hong Kong with its social and economic development.

Given China’s own complex situation, granting Hong Kong universal suffrage seems highly unlikely. Perhaps it is likely later on future when democracy, civil participation, voting and free speech are more understood and developed in China.


Photo Credit:

Terrorism is Terrorism? How Communication Exacerbates the Definitional Problem

Why is terrorism so difficult to define? {Department of War Studies, King’s College London}


riot balaclava terrorist[dhr]

A definition of terrorism is arguably one of the woolliest concepts of modern discourse. Its manifestations arrive from a complex mosaic of compounding issues that affect any real brevity in assessing it. Since 9/11 it has been promoted to the forefront of most political agendas and yet no definitional consensus has followed. In the second presidential debate for example, Mitt Romney lambasted President Obama for not calling the attack on the US Embassy in Benghazi a terrorist incident, of which Obama took 14 days to finally call it such. The interim Libyan leader in comparison described it as an act of criminal violence. Politicians and subsequently media organisations have been careless, imprecise and sloppy in labelling incidents as acts of terrorism. This essay will therefore, scale back from the larger definitional debate and acknowledges that issues will be omitted. However, by arguing that terrorism is wrapped up in political motivations and rhetoric in tandem with the rise of modern communication, ultimately has a greater impact in understanding why terrorism is so difficult to define.

A Definitional Overview

To argue with clarity, the first logical step is to assess why terrorism is so important to define. Since 9/11 the word ‘terrorism’ has increasingly become intertwined in today’s society, and is synonymous in creating powerful images of violence, self-sacrifice and catastrophe. However, are we any closer in understanding what constitutes it? There are many academics and professionals who not only struggle to grapple with a definition, but utterly refute any notion of needing one. Walter Laqueur, perhaps the most prominent in this category, argues that a definition “does not exist nor will it be found in the foreseeable future.” Additionally, Jeremy Waldon and George Fletcher, in separate works, acknowledge that there are too many questions and not enough answers. Both seem to deviate from any real conclusion and believe the best possible course in understanding terrorism – is to know it when you see it.

The British Ambassador to the United Nations also shares this argument. In a post 9/11 speech he shunned the attempts of a definition by stating, “let us be focused about this: terrorism is terrorism… What looks, smells and kills like terrorism is terrorism.” However, if terrorism is taken as a transnational issue and not a single state-centric paradigm, to simply say every terrorist attack has characteristics that are obvious in all instances and consistently the same, is not only trite, but affects any sort of successful counter-terrorism strategy. Therefore, if terrorism is a global affair encompassing many different countries, a definition is vitally important to understand and ultimately combat it.

It is fair to argue that a definition is imperative in combating terrorism. However, coming to that conclusion is not an easy feat. Alex Schmid has become a cornerstone in the definitional debate and arguably places significance on “anxiety-inspired methods” which are implied on victims “generally chosen… (targets of opportunity).” He interestingly includes state-actors within his definition, which further adds weight to the necessity for a classification, because it can separate who or what are committing the acts. In a direct response to Schmid, Weinberg et al conclusively found no room in their definition for psychological effects and place politics as the primary reason behind terrorist strategy. Bruce Hoffman also asserts the importance of politics and views it as the key tool in understanding terrorists modus operandi. However, viewing a terrorist group in the sole constraints of politics reveals only a partial picture, as ignoring religious or ideological motivations limits the scope of analysis. John Horgan moves away from the idea of politics by putting explicit importance on the psychological use of ‘terror’, which in his words “removes part of the mystery” in understanding terrorism.

The use of terror is vitally important in assessing an attack because, as John Mueller identifies, it breaks down the moral criminal code that almost all populations abide by. Thus, understanding the potential method and targets not only helps polarise state and non-state actors but also allows a better degree of understanding of what the potential aims of a group are. There is arguably not one definition to use and it is fair to say that the scattered academic radar adds more uncertainty to how terrorism is defined. Nevertheless, if a definition is used, it does enable a set of parameters to be implemented allowing terrorist activity to be assessed.

The Misuse of ‘Terrorism’

The understandable academic ambiguity around the manifestations of terrorism is one that will continue, however, it is arguably not the basis of why terrorism is so hard to define. The way the word is used in its entirety by political apparatuses and influential individuals has a far larger footprint in misguiding the real meaning and use of terrorism. Ian Lustick’s thought provoking book ‘Trapped in a War on Terror’ portrays this argument and crucially identifies how terrorism became the Bush administrations political foundation. Patriotic fist pumping speeches that hark back to old veteran sentiments helped legitimatise policy-making decisions and misalign people’s perceptions of what terrorism actually is. There is perhaps little to dispute with this argument especially when assessing Bush’s clay footed notion of fighting a ‘War on Terror.’

Other hazy statements seem to be in abundance when terrorism is assessed and the idea of an attack to have a ‘look and feel of terrorism’ seems to be the optimum phrase when there is no uniformity concerning a violent attack. The blurry platitudes imposed by state echelons is unrelenting and is further compounded by the systematic use of “apocalyptic alarmism” whereby a top down smothering of scare tactics is employed – specifically in the United States. Homeland Security for example, not only portrays the threat of terrorists having the capability of CBRN weapons but also the ability to use those weapons “from home and abroad.” The imprecise and often inaccurate statements seem to have other motives. Fred Kaplan, in The Guardian, believes “policies will gain maximum support if they are linked to the war on terrorism.” Therefore, if terrorism is bound up in political drives for public support it begs a very serious question whether it is possible to separate truth from fiction and thus provide an accurate definition.

Communications Unique Role

Government’s apparent manipulation of the subject nature of terrorism is compounded by mushrooming nature of globalisation and the subsequent rise of modern technology, which in Manuel Castells words has created a “new communication space” where “power is decided.” The expansion of ideas to previously untouched parts of the world and the connection of disparate communities to their home nation has created a complex dichotomy that Sir Richards labels as a “global network of grievances.” The rapid expansion in technology, and the explosion of social media sites has arguably transformed opinions and debates into a virtual, informational space. This, allows people to move “rapidly and seamlessly” within a virtual world. David Betz has aptly labelled this as Web 2.0, in which all vectors of society can interact simultaneously, and subsequently, the public are no longer passive spectators but an active cog in the informational world.

Modern technology has therefore now provided an unprecedented platform to move messages horizontally across an archipelago of national and international borders. If the message is incorrect or misleading it can have exponential consequences by smattering the population with distorted information. In that respect, a political message is increasingly becoming a media message and has the ability to influence all spheres of society instantaneously. However, on the other hand, the role of modern technology also means people can circumvent not only traditional state controls but also contrived information. This is evident with General Sir David Richards’ summary of technology where he argues modern communications “are way beyond the state’s ability to control without threatening all the other functions of that state.” However, this works on both feet and allows governments to wield a certain degree of autonomy in the use of modern media processes. Therefore, as David Kilcullen argues, the ends and means of developing sources of information have a paucity that makes it very hard to distinguish origins or accuracy.

A government message is thus now instantly input into the media and the subsequent outlets play a significant role in shaping how it is defined. If terrorism is put through these many different communication filters, the outcome is a kaleidoscopic mesh of compounding definitions. They are connected to public opinion, leader personality and the usual platitudes around foreign policy. John Horgan therefore argues, to assess terrorism in its definitional entirety; a movement away from the media process is vital. However, with governments increasingly using the term in its haziest context and media being completely associated with political issues, this arguably is not possible and subsequently affects coming to terms with a definition of terrorism.


To conclude, this essay has focused on a very selective variety of sources and is not by any means conclusive in bringing the definitional debate to a finish line. It has specifically focused on the US government’s role due to its unique place in combating terror and an investigation into other nations could lead to a very different argument. However, misinformation imposed by any government can arguably filter down into everyday life and is further exacerbated by the role of modern communications. This ultimately gives a larger footprint and further muddies the water in trying to come to terms with an accurate definition of terrorism.


Photo Credit: bixentro

Chinese Soft Power: Sources And Implications For The US

Where does China’s soft power stem from, and what are its implications for the US? 
{Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Cambridge}


China rickshaws at drum tower


China’s rise, fuelled by more than three decades of ‘miraculous’ levels of economic growth, has equipped Beijing with an impressive and quite unique set of ‘powers’ (Lampton, 2007). Economic power is at the heart of all other aspects of Chinese power. It has enabled investment in the rapid modernization of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) (Tkacik, 2007), as well as related ‘asymmetric capabilities’ (Shirk, 2008:194) as cyberwarfare (Fritz, 2008) and advanced military space technology (Logan, 2007). Moreover, it has allowed Beijing to maximize its security through deals advancing China’s energy security and securing key raw materials. These issues, and their implications for US security interests, are extensively studied in Washington (e.g. Waldron, 2005; Ridley, 2005; Office of the SoD 2009, 2010).

Apart from economic realpolitik, as in the form of securing resources and capacity for economic warfare[1] (Segal, 2004:169-170), China’s economic growth, has also energized Beijing’s ‘soft power’. Soft power, coined by Nye in 1990, can be broadly defined as non-coercive, co-optive power- the power of attraction. The attractiveness of a state is affected by its culture, history, membership and role in international institutions, as well as its economic performance and stature (Nye, 1990:167). Other crucial sources of soft power are ‘political ideology and diplomacy’ (Gill and Huang, 2006:17). China’s economic power is the key motor behind its mounting soft power.

This paper focuses on China’s soft power, with a view to delve deeper into the latter’s impact on the US and its interests. It begins with an analysis of the sources and complex structure of China’s soft power. Subsequently, it assesses how the US may be affected by Beijing’s co-optive power, with an emphasis on both direct and indirect aspects of that influence. It looks at China’s ideational influence in its near abroad, the MENA region and Latin America to shed light how Beijing’s influence may affect American interests. It closes with an analysis of China’s augmenting soft power in multilateral settings, and how this may on occasions marginalize US influence. America remains the most powerful state in the international system. No country in the world has more ‘global’ interests than the US. China’s growing soft power affects American interests around the world therefore, a thorough assessment of this process is imperative.

II. The Sources of Chinese Soft Power: Economic Performance, an Alternative Development Model and a Unique Culture

Economic Performance

The preeminent source of China’s attractiveness is its economic performance. The ability to maintain close to 10 percent growth for over three decades (Kaplan, 2010:22), enjoy substantial stability and lift 300 million people out of poverty[2], together constitute an unprecedented achievement (Ramo, 2004:10-11). Beijing has realized these achievements following a novel, unconventional, non-western development path. Underlying driver behind the Chinese development model is innovation. The continuation of the ‘Chinese miracle’ depends greatly on incessant innovation, which ‘cuts time-to-reform’ and is ‘the only cure for the problems of change’ (ibid.:15). Innovation increases the ‘density’ in the Chinese society, which in turn decisively boosts economic growth (ibid.:13-16). Cultural values, as national ‘pride of culture’ may also increase density (ibid.:33); the CCP recognises and uses this accordingly.

Economic and Political Ideology

Beijing has embraced many of the key tenants of capitalism and is largely a market economy (McKinnon, 2010:504), with a ‘Chinese twist’, that Halper (2010:10) calls ‘state capitalism’ or ‘market-authoritarianism’. The CCP largely controls key business sectors, owns firms of strategic importance, and restricts political liberties with a view to ensuring stability (Halper, 2010:30). The ‘Chinese way’ to economic growth and development is increasingly emulated around the world. The illiberal nature of Chinese ‘market-authoritarianism’ means developed democracies are unlikely to be lured and show any keenness to emulate this model (Nye, 2006:9). Reversely, growth and development, without western democracy[3] seems a particularly luring ‘package’ to various illiberal regimes across the developing world, and especially in Africa and the Middle East (Gill and Huang, 2006:20). The ideology of self-determination and the inviolability of sovereignty which Beijing puts forth simultaneously, further attract those illiberal states which are worried in the light of a more interventionist West[4] (Halper, 2010:31).

The Beijing Consensus

‘The Beijing Consensus’ (BJC) is a concept / theory, first discussed by Ramo (2004) and further developed by Halper (2010), which draws together the different aspects of Chinese soft power, delineates the powerful links between economic and soft power, and explains China’s muscle. Ramo (2004:11-12) explains the three central theorem’s of the BJC: a) the key to development is ‘bleeding-edge innovation’ to ‘create change that moves faster than the problems change creates’; b) fundamental need to shift development’s focus to individuals, their ‘quality-of-life’ with sustainability and equality as priorities; c) a security doctrine which stresses self-determination, through the use of leverage and asymmetry. Halper (2010:32) explains that deliberately or not:

‘Beijing is inadvertently promoting a most troublesome export: the example of the China model’.

While many Americans see the BJC as a challenge, an increasing number of nations, especially those ‘tired of others interfering’ see Beijing and the BJC as a great opportunity (Vogel, 2006:16).

Power – Values, Culture, Ideas

China’s power in the realm of ideas has been rising exponentially, largely hand-in-hand with its ‘development model’- as the latter ‘goes global’. Beijing advances a set of ideas, which accommodate its rise as a great power. Key idea is the concept of a ‘peaceful rise’ put forth by Bijian in 2003 (Suettinger, 2004:2). It is instrumental for Chinese soft power, as it serves to reduce the stress induced to neighbours and other powers byChina’s ascension to great-power-status. By alleviating fear and suspicion, ‘peaceful rise’ effectively allows China’s soft power to blossom. Also, China has become the world’s largest contributor to UN peacekeeping missions (Wang, 2008:264). This, arguably helps Beijing put forth a more comprehensive profile of a ‘champion of peace’, prosperity and stability (Lampton, 2007:119-120). Importantly, China’s ‘peaceful rise’ is only part of the puzzle of the ‘peaceful rise of Asia’ (Suettinger, 2004:2-3).

Another important concept serves to frame Beijing’s vision of society. That is the idea of a ‘harmonious society’– stable, based on spiritual civilization, but simultaneously a ‘society of thrift’– one that continually innovates and addresses resourcefully the repercussions of the ‘old model of industrialization’ (Bijian, 2005:22). To realize these, the CCP advances the concept of ‘closeness to the people’ (Ramo, 2004:30). Closeness of government to the people, will create ‘an environment where bottom-up development can work’ (ibid.:31). These ideas are very important, especially with placing the individual at the heart of the national development strategy. This last concept for instance attracted the attention of Brazil and Mexico (ibid.:33-34).

Lastly, the Chinese cultural value of ‘social stability’ is the second most important social value in China. In sync, it is the single most important element for economic growth (ibid.:23). Since social stability is the key to economic growth, and economic growth and development are central to the legitimization of an authoritarian government, then, the fact that China champions both makes her and her model hyper-attractive in certain areas of the world.

The Broader Context

Important external factors for the rise of Beijing’s soft power include the failure of the Washington Consensus, the erosion of US soft power and the global economic crisis. In the years following 9/11 America went through its ‘unipolar moment’, which claimed it political capital, weakened alliances and distanced friends. Human rights violations in Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib further weakened America’s attractiveness and traumatized its moral example. This paper deems that there was a power vacuum in the realm of ideas that China’s concepts in part came to fill. In parallel, the BJC comes as a bright contrast to the ominously failed Washington Consensus. Even more importantly perhaps,China has managed to maintain robust, double-digit economic growth at the most difficult perhaps time for Western economies since the Great Recession (Halper, 2010:33-37).

III. Implications of China’s Soft-Power’s for the US; Evidence of Direct influence

To begin with, an increasing number of American tourists visit China to discover its culture, history and get their own, first-hand impression of the rising power. Moreover, a systematic promotion of the Chinese language has been underway for quite some time, and now an increasing number of people are ‘flocking to China to learn the Chinese language’ (Saich, 2006:4). In parallel, an increasing number of American schools are introducing Chinese language programs (ibid.). Moreover, one fourth of US universities now have Chinese language courses (Gil, 2008:119). Gill and Huang (2006:18) stress the importance of the ‘HSK’-‘TCFL’, the ‘Chinese’ TOEFL, which has been seeing a 50% annual growth.

The number of Confucius institutes in the US has also been growing exponentially. Since 2005 when the first Confucius institute was set up in Maryland, another 86 institutes have been set up in 37 American states (CIO, 2011). Confucius institutes advance the teaching of Chinese culture and language, while they also work to improve the ‘Brand China’ (Ramo, 2007). In other words, Confucius institutes are investments in ‘public diplomacy’ (Wang, 2008:264), geared at presenting a ‘kinder and gentler image of China to the outside world’ (Gill and Huang, 2006:18-19).

On a similar note, the influence of the China Radio International (CRI) (which broadcasts in Washington), has been expanding considerably, largely thanks to consecutive CCP investments (Nye, 2006:23). The CRI promotes tourism, cultural exchanges and the spread of the Chinese language. CRI’s stated objective is ‘to introduce China to the world’ (CRIENGLISH, 2011). In parallel, China has been sponsoring Chinese cultural festivals in the US, some on an annual basis. An exemplification of these efforts was the impressive $2m month-long China festival at the Washington Kennedy Center in October 2005 (Gill and Huang, 2006:19).  The spread of the Chinese language, coupled with an interest in Chinese culture and history, is tangible evidence of Beijing’s increasing soft power influence in the US.

An important policy advice CCP gives to major businesses and also practices with state-sponsored firms is investing in the US as part of ‘an effective and long-term solution to China’s image problem in the US’ (Lampton, 2007:122). The calculation is that setting-up firms and factories in the US means hiring American employees – hence, buying influence over their congressmen (Lampton, 2007:123). For instance ‘Chinese companies invested $280m and created more than 1,200 jobs in South Carolina alone’ (Prasso, 2010)[5].

In spite of multilevel, strategic direct engagement of Chinese soft power and its extensions with the US public, Lampton   (2007:124) suggests that:

China’s reputation in the United States still suffers. International public opinion polls uniformly reveal that Americans have more negative views of China than do most other people, predisposing Washington to be tougher with China than are other governments.’

This does not mean that the increasing presence of Chinese soft power institutions, cultural exchanges and influences are unimportant. However, it does suggest that in spite of systematic efforts, a clear image problem in the US persists, impeding Chinese ideational power from profoundly influencing the American public. Hence, though discernible and tangible, its implications are not decisive enough to influence considerably Washington’s China policy.

IV. ‘Weiji’ in the Near Abroad and Significance for the US

Weiji, the Chinese word which describes the combination of threat and opportunity, best describes the way China is perceived in its near abroad. Take Taiwan for instance. Taiwan has the greatest justification to feel ‘threatened’ by China’s rise; and it does. Nonetheless, concurrently, the rise of China has presented Taiwan with immense opportunities. China is Taiwan’s largest trading partner and Taiwan one of China’s biggest investors. Economic ties have flourished over the last years (Halper, 2010:18). Now over a million Taiwanese live and work in the mainland, while more and more Taiwanese set up businesses and invest in China (ibid.).

Chinese soft power and the concepts that underlie / frame it, have been central for improving relations with Taiwan. The Chinese guarantee of non-forceful (re-)unification with Taiwan is enhanced strongly by the ‘peaceful rise’ policy and associated rhetoric, as well as the ‘good neighbourliness’ concept, epitomized by the saying: ‘A far away relative is less helpful than one living nearby’ (Ramo, 2004:52). Improvement of Taipei’s relations with the mainland is good news for the US, the main protector of Taiwan. It reduces the risk of crisis and escalation, while continuous multi-level bonding in the social and economic sphere coupled with confidence-building exercises has produced solid outcomes as the election of the Kuomintang Party (2008) (Halper, 2010:19).

Japan, can understandably be worried seeing China modernising the PLA, especially given the fact that Japan has no nuclear deterrent or overwhelming conventional forces. Beijing’s lack of transparency re its military budget is not helping either (Carpenter, 2007). Also, Japan saw China overtaking it as the world’s second largest economy in mid-2010 (Barboza, 2010). Nonetheless, trade and cooperation between Japan and China have seen a great surge. Cooperation through the ‘ASEAN Plus Three’ – (APT) framework has been important in this respect (Foot, 2006:85). Moreover, the ‘peaceful rise’ – ’good neighbourliness’ policies and China’s overall emphasis on peaceful, diplomatic resolution of Sino-Japanese disputes (with the exception of some rather short bursts of Chinese realpolitik assertiveness) has been crucial for preventing so far an Asian ‘arms race’. Chinese assurances, and tangible evidence of backing them, have helped prevent a major security dilemma; hence, Japan feels less pressured to emphasize re-armament and perhaps move rapidly to acquire nuclear weapons. This also means one less worry for the US, who labours to prevent a proliferation race in the region. Moreover, Yoshihara and Holmes (2008:136) also point to the important role of the sizable Chinese ethnic minorities in the region and in Japan, which ‘naturally’ encourages diplomatic solutions over confrontation.

North and South Korea are perhaps an even more complex case. South Korea is arguably attracted by the economic opportunities posed by having Beijing as its partner under the latter’s benevolent neighbourhood policy. Reversely, North Korea is attracted to Beijing as it provides it with a way around the tough sanctions and other US-led counter-measures geared at pressuring Pyongyang to put an end to its nuclear programme. Moreover, Pyongyang is arguably magnetized by the Chinese miracle as it is in great need of rapid economic growth and development – not least in order to legitimize its rule at a time when the majority of its citizens are going through profound economic poverty and hardship. Though this stance is undermining South Korea’s security interests, economic opportunity and anticipation of a more ‘responsible’ stance by China on the North Korean issue (Zoellick, 2006:96), have allowed closer Chinese-South Korean cooperation. The situation for the US would be much more complicated if Beijing-Seoul relations were only confrontational and antagonistic in nature. This, rather more balanced picture allows space for engagement, cooperation, and at times, through deliberation allows for more constructive US – Chinese – South Korean diplomacy re Seoul.

In sum, Beijing’s ‘charm offensive’ (Kurlantzick, 2007) in the near abroad, has helped isolate Taiwan internationally, but engage it further on all levels nationally. It has tried to ease the worries of Japan and South Korea with evidence of occasional success. Lastly, it has charmed North Korea, over which it has, in theory, considerable diplomatic influence, but has not yet coordinated action with the international community adequately. Beijing’s ‘charm offensive’ largely advances American interests. Beijing’s foreign policy doctrine and approach works to reduce confrontation and tensions – and hence the risk of conflict. Therefore, it follows that it also reduces the risk of America having to intervene to uphold its guarantee to Taiwan, or extend its nuclear shield to Japan.

V. Chinese Soft Power in Africa, Middle East and Latin America and the Importance for the US                                                 

The influence of Chinese soft power in the MENA region and Latin America is profound, complex and needs ample space to be evaluated in depth. This section epigrammatically and selectively refers to some key points and assesses their importance for the US.

China and MENA

The absence of conditions apart from conforming with the ‘one-China-policy’ to trade with, or receive aid from China is crucial for Sino-African relations. Many African states increasingly rely on Beijing, fascinated by China’s growth and development, hoping they can learn and gain from the ‘Chinese example’ (Brookes and Shin, 2006:1-2). The security dimension of the ‘Beijing Consensus’ – and particularly the ‘self-determination’ clause – is very attractive for isolated ruthless regime’s, in pariah / nearly-failed states, like Mugabe’s Zimbabwe and Al-Bashir’s Sudan (Halper, 2010:83-87). This renders the conduct of strategic diplomacy by the US ineffectual. Isolation fails, sanctions miss, and the option / threat of humanitarian intervention seems less threatening given the improbability of mandating action through the UNSC.

In Africa, China’s image has been thriving, not least because of its tangible contribution to economic development, mainly through the building of infrastructure projects and advancing the technological capabilities of many developing nations (Foster, et. al., 2008). This advantageous image, of the benevolent actor who delivers results, combined with the ‘spirit’ and values enshrined in the BJC explains why now most of Africa looks to China rather than the US for a reliable partner[6]. A key implication of this new reality for the US is that it is losing out in the ‘race’ of securing energy resources, as Chinese energy firms increasingly ‘lock’ resources through long-term semi-barter deals in resource-rich African states (Brookes and Shin, 2006:2).

Similar difficulties have been posed in dealing with proliferation in the Middle East, and the question of Iran. China’s enthusiasm to fill the vacuum left from Western – largely American firms – leaving Iran in conjunction with US (and EU) sanctions, have held back the negotiations and undermined the ability of the US and the international community to effectively pressure the Iranian government. China’s ‘diplomatic cover’ / umbrella has on occasions, proven a major obstacle (Halper, 2010:91-92).

In Latin America, the role of China has been expanding rapidly. Chinese cultural and educational programs have been expanding with positive impact for the reception of China in the region (Pan, 2006). Moreover, Bush era’s American hegemony alienated friends and distanced allies in Latin America, who increasingly find in Beijing a robust and increasingly crucial partner. Both Halper (2010) and Ramo (2004) discuss in considerable depth the strengthening of Venezuelan – Chinese relations. America is the largest consumer of Venezuelan oil. In pursuit of more independence, Chavez increasingly opts to maximize oil sales to China (Halper, 2010:90). Expanding Chinese soft power in Latin America may be disturbing for the US for geopolitical reasons, as Beijing’s friendships and alliances in America’s near abroad may generate concern. Also, America cedes ground in the ‘great game’ of resource acquisition.

VI. Chinese Soft Power and Multilateral Fora. A New Role? The Significance for the US

China’s attractiveness is particularly evident in multilateral settings. As always, interest in China relates to the economic opportunities that arise from increased cooperation. Nonetheless, multilateral organizations are crucial marketplaces of ideas in conjunction with everything else. Chinese ideational power is increasingly apparent in a series of fora/IOs. For instance, the China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) started out with the focused agenda of mediating border disputes, but Chinese ideational leadership quickly broadened SCO’s mandate to include politico-economic cooperation in other spheres as well as broader issues of security. To cite an example, in 2005, after denying US observer status in the SCO (Cohen, 2006:8), a Chinese-led SCO declaration pressed Washington to withdraw its forces from Uzbekistan (Halper, 2010:79). Chinese soft power has effectively created a multilateral milieu which deliberately excludes the US, and can at times pressure it.

Similarly, the US is excluded from both the ‘ASEAN Plus One’ and the ‘APT’ arrangement. China has a leading role in these arrangements, effectively creating separate economic spheres with considerable geopolitical gains for China and non-negligible implications for America (Halper, 2010:28). In 2009, the first ‘BRIC Summit’ took place, serving as a platform for exchange of ideas on trade and aid, with an emphasis on how to exclude the US. When Obama asked to send a delegation with the status of observers, his request was turned down (Halper, 2010:29). Through these multilateral settings, China advances simultaneously its ‘good neighbourliness’ and the ‘China Opportunity’ concepts, which command considerable gravitas in the above-discussed regional IOs (Ramo, 2004: 51-53).

Overall, the exclusion of the US from increasingly important fora and IOs is a demonstration that Chinese soft power and effective multilateral strategy can be in direct competition with American soft power. Moreover, it shows that whenever Beijing ‘marks a victory’, it opts to exclude the US from the new setting, to carve out alternative spaces for ideational exchanges, often with the deliberate collective aim of operating outside the US-set / dominated framework.

VII. Conclusion or A clear Assessment of the Nature and Composition of Chinese Soft Power as well as its Impact on America and its Global Interests

Chinese soft power is uniquely complex. It is so conflated with economic influence that they seem, at times, almost inseparable. This paper found that Chinese soft power stems greatly from the example of its development model. It impresses nations around the world that may not necessarily want to emulate the model, but are attracted to China, and draw closer to Beijing. A set of ideas, many endeavouring to frame China’s intentions vis-à-vis its neighbours, partners and friends, are also a key component of China’s ideational influence. The ‘Beijing Consensus’ has considerable analytical value and is a handy summation of Beijing’s ‘power of example’, cultural and political influence. China’s soft power has been also empowered by the erosion of US soft power America suffered during the G.W.Bush era.

After identifying the sources of Chinese soft power, this thesis examined its impact on American interests. It started with an analysis of the direct impact of Chinese soft power on the US to show that although on-the-rise, Chinese soft power has a limited direct impact on the US. Subsequently, this paper analysed the impact of Chinese soft power in its near abroad, and found that though China presents a threat and opportunity at the same time, its power of public diplomacy and attraction rather advances America’s aim of peace and stability in this sensitive area. This paper’s succinct analysis of China’s ideational influence in MENA and Latin America demonstrated that Chinese ideas often attract dodgy regimes, with which China engages, and hence carries high responsibility. When China uses its soft power in a responsible way, then, America and the international community benefit greatly; when not, it undermines efforts aimed at making this world a safer place (Zoellick, 2006, Shirk, 2008). Lastly, China’s soft power in multilateral settings is impressive. Apart from the UN, China has empowered the ASEAN Plus One and APT fora, has developed the SCO and has given a new dynamic to the ‘BRIC Summit’. In all these, it has laboured to carve a leading role for itself, while marginalizing America’s role.

*Information cut off point: May, 2012 (albeit minor updates)

[toggle title=”Citations and Bibliography”]


1] (e.g. dollar reserves or trade policy)

[2] Other sources, as Wan (2008: 416) suggest that Beijing lifted 422 million people out of poverty.

[3] (or economic freedom without political freedom)

[4] Alluding to concepts as humanitarian intervention and responsibility to protect; as well as pre-emptive and preventive military action.

[5] Multiply 1,200 by at least say 3 (family), and Chinese firms may influence the lives (and hence votes) of over 3,500 people – a serious political capital indeed.

[6] China’s charm offensive in Africa has equipped China with considerable sway over an impressive voting bloc in IOs and the one third of the UN General Assembly in particular (Halper, 2010: 112-113). Crucially, this helped China be awarded the 2008 Olympics, a significant soft-power boost. Most of these relations are cultivated through the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (ibid.).


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Photo Credit: Stuck In Customs

The ‘China Threat Debate’ Revisited

Does China threaten the US in the economic and military realms?
{Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Cambridge}


chinese flag nationalism


China is the biggest and fastest-growing rising power (Garret, 2010:29). Its rapid and profoundly steady economic growth increasingly facilitates the simultaneous expansion of its military power. Beijing’s gravitas as an actor in the international system was considerable even before the last 30 years of impressive growth. In 1970 China already held a permanent seat in the UNSC and had 20 nuclear-tipped ICBMs (Burr, 2000). This essay analyzes whether China’s 30-year-long economic development and its far-reaching implications pose a genuine threat to the United States. It does the same with China’s military development. But before outlining how we are approaching these central questions in this paper, we need to clarify what we understand as a ‘genuine threat’. Succinctly, we interpret here a ‘genuine threat’ to be an eminent danger or direct challenge to another actor’s existence or his vital interests.

We first tackle the question of China’s economic development, examining the potential challenges this may pose to the US, to demonstrate, that the challenges posed are mostly outnumbered by the opportunities at hand. The argument of growing interdependence and the enmeshment of China in the structures of global economic governance will be evaluated, to examine its potential significance for Sino-American relations. Subsequently, an analysis of the military dimension of China’s rise will follow, examining the challenges posed by Beijing’s ascension in Asia and beyond, with the aim of identifying the space for conflict, accommodation and understanding with America and its regional interests. Throughout the essay, we refer to the ‘China Threat’ theory, developing their arguments and testing them against evidence at hand. We agree with Ramo (2004:7), that of the most interesting aspects of the ‘China Threat’ debate is that the ‘louder…it becomes, the less sense it makes’. Our findings suggest that attempts to present China as an existential, pressing and genuine threat to the US, are, at this stage at least, exceedingly exaggerated.  

Chinese Economic Development: Threat, Challenge, or Opportunity?

Nicholas Kristof, predicted in 1993 (p.59) that, ‘if continued, China’s rise will be the most important trend in the world’. Well China has in fact continued to rise rather steadily for 17 years since that prediction, and it seems China will continue to rise in the proximate future (Makiel, 2008). As Bijian (2005:18-20) points out, the main driver of China’s rise, the motor behind its expanding influence, is its profound economic growth. In the last 32 years, China has averaged GDP annual growth rates ‘of more than 10%’ annually (Kaplan, 2010:22). This trend accounts for China being the ‘fastest-growing’ economy in the world (Makiel, 2008:24). Since 2010, China has emerged as the world’s second largest economy after the US (Barboza, 2010)[1]. Overtaking its regional competitor, Japan, China emerged as the most powerful economic actor in Asia[2].

Despite these impressive economic achievements, this paper will argue that China’s emergence as an economic superpower, is certainly not a threat, and though it does pose some challenges, they clearly are of less magnitude than the great opportunities it presents. To begin with, it is important to remember that America remains by far the most technologically advanced economy and still possesses roughly four times China’s share of the global wealth[3]– China is not pushing America in the sidelines of the global economic order just yet. Moreover, China is still a developing country, still ranking 97th in terms of GDP p.c. (IMF, 2010). One may rush to say this is irrelevant. Well, this is not true in the case of China. China’s priority is economic development and modernization (Bijian, 2005). For as long as China lags behind in terms of economic development and living standards, China’s leaders will concentrate on thriving in this arena (Bijian, 2005:18). It is critical for the progress of China as a nation, the survival of the CCP and its leadership, as well as for social cohesion and national unity (Shirk, 2008:7-8,256).

Economic Interdependence

[China] has come to rely on international markets, global institutions and free trade to achieve economic growth’-(Halper, 2010:1)

Moreover, as Waldron (2005:719-721) points out, there are several reasons to believe that though possible, it will certainly not be easy for China to continue to rise at that pace. It will indeed require the prioritization of the economy over all other issues, and also the minimization of any tensions in its foreign relations, as China is dependent ‘to an unhealthy degree on exports[4]’ (Waldron, 2005:719). There are many additional factors why Chinese economic progress largely depends on the country’s (evident) commitment to ‘heping juegi’[5]. Notions of ‘codependance’ (Garret, 2010:29) and interdependence are central to understanding, why Beijing and Washington genuinely need each other for their mutual economic advancement.

Importantly, it is true that China’s Central Bank holds the world’s largest foreign currency reserves, including the largest share of US dollars. Some like Miller (2010) see a danger in this, stressing that China’s dollar reserves equip it with leverage over the US. Such analysis neglects the fact that if China does attempt to speculate against the dollar, this means China will lose billions because of the dollar value it holds. Hence, it has become partially China’s interest for the dollar to be stable and thriving as opposed to unstable and collapsing. Furthermore, it is important at this stage to reiterate that China needs to devote a larger effort to remain a reliable economic partner, as potential repercussions are graver. Reversely, US’s long held position at the peak of the global economic pyramid enables it to turn more easily to other rich economies to secure increased partnership (even at a higher cost).

Additionally, China has been buying American debt in IOU’s and bonds. This paper agrees with Garrett (2010:29-31) that the format-‘China buys American debt and Americans buy Chinese goods will endure’. This is the case because both benefit through this model, addressing their imbalances to strike a mutually beneficial equilibrium. ‘China Threat’ proponents might again be alarmed by this ‘erosion of America’s economic sovereignty’ (Ridley, 2005). They again seem to be missing the whole picture. Instead of interpreting this development as a danger, they should be welcoming it as a positive step. Chinese purchases of US debt integrate China further into the world economy, but also tie China to the flourishing of the American economy. Based on the analysis conducted above, it should also become clear that if US fails/stops for some reason to continue repaying its debt, this would first and foremost damage Chinese economic interests, leaving the CCP leadership with very restricted room for manoeuvre.

China’s Integration in the World Economy

Apart from buying America’s currency and debt and US being the largest importer of Chinese goods, China has integrated economically with a series of other capitalist economies. It has bought the rights of Greek ports, Irish debt, German technology, and is the EU’s largest supplier of a series of commercial goods. China’s experts now increasingly man top offices in the IMF and the World Bank. Added to this, China’s commitment to economic cooperation was exemplified in joining the WTO (Kynge, 2006:226-227). Indeed with opt-outs –not very different ones though than many Western WTO signatories including America. China’s WTO accession exemplifies Beijing’s determination to be a reliable centre of economic power, abiding by the accepted norms and regulations of international trade (Lardy, 2002:21). Put simply, engagement, or better, enmeshment works (Roy, 1996:766). Kynge (2006:227) summarizes well the above-developed argument:

‘China is perhaps too much wedded to the world, too deeply insinuated into its organizations and treaties, and too dependent on others to bite the hands that feed it’.

China has also become a ‘key’ market for Japanese and Taiwanese goods. These trade ties, should come as a reassuring sign to ‘China Threat’ proponents like Kristof (1993:67-68) and Bernstein and Munro (1997:29-30) whose anxiety reverses around Taiwan and/or the Senkaku islands. One could argue that given the economic interests derived from the economic interaction of these three parties, chances of confrontation decline. Especially, given that China, who ‘China Threat’ proponents see as the most aggressive of these three actors, is the one who needs economic stability the most. The economic argument sheds light to why the diplomatic and economic cost of any serious tension over territorial disputes constitutes the latter very unlikely.

The Real Problem? – Chinese Currency Manipulation

Beijing has been systematically preventing the Chinese Remninbi (RMB) from appreciating (Morrison&Labonte, 2010)[6]. Hence, with the RMB undervalued, Chinese exports are rendered disproportionally competitive. This policy, not only boosts Chinese exports, but also facilitates attracting FDI. As certain American enterprises find it difficult to compete with the (‘artificially’) cheap Chinese exports, US Congress deems that China is effectively ‘exporting unemployment’ (Bergsten, 2010). Though figures are often exaggerated, this Chinese policy indeed harms certain American economic interests.

However, America and other parties affected, have apparatus in their toolbox to address this challenge. Obama employed the diplomatic tool, devoting the largest part of his bilateral with Jiabao in the White House on this issue. The US congress, took a harder line adopting certain protectionist counter-measures. To complicate the issue further, Morrison and Labonte’s (2010:27-28) Congress-summoned report concludes that ‘none of the solutions guarantee that the bilateral trade deficit will be eliminated’; and that if China can keep combining the advantages of ‘low-cost labor and rapid productivity gains’ Chinese exports to America will continue to grow ‘independent of the Exchange Rate regime’. The analysts continue explaining how a swift revaluation of the RMB could actually prove more destabilizing, with China having to massively sell its currency reserves to achieve this. This paper wants to highlight that China is still a developing country, that Beijing has allowed already RNB to appreciate, and that Washington’s efforts should concentrate on finding the most constructive policy-response to this sensitive issue for both China and America. This could be coupled with an emphasis on improving the competitiveness of American goods[7].

In sum, it seems that, overall, in the decisive sphere of economics, there seems that China and America have found great space for cooperation, trade, multilevel interaction, trust, and mutual profit and development. The magnitude and vitality of these ties suggest that there is very little space for economic warfare or other deliberate attempts to hinder each other’s economic prosperity.

The Military Challenge Posed by China: Real, Imagined or Reasonable?

China’s sustained economic growth has simultaneously enabled a modernization and empowerment of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Chinese efforts mainly concentrate on developing PLA’s air-force, transforming China’s ‘White-Water’ Navy to ‘Blue-Water’ and maximizing the effectiveness in terms of utilization and training of the PLA standing army. One could add to these R&D in Space-Satellite Technology and Cyberwarfare capabilities.

Firstly, this paper does not hold that military force is, in itself, a bad thing. Instead, there are legitimate reasons why a vast country like China, with extensive borders to police and protect, in both land and sea, might require an effective and modernised military (Fravel, 2008). However, ‘China Threat’ theorists interpret China’s military ‘build-up’ as a creeping attempt for China to eventually attempt to re-integrate Taiwan by force (Kristof 1993:68) and press for the 200-miles claim linked with the Senkaku/Diaoyutai islands (Segal, 1993). Both claims can be challenged.

As far as Taiwan is concerned, there seems that a considerable degree of diplomatic understanding has been achieved. US commitment to ‘One-China policy’ and the mutual recognition by China and Taiwan that cooperating is safer and more productive at this stage, render predictions of war rather baseless. Kagan (2008:34) sees this war as ‘eventually unavoidable’. The argument is that pro-independence forces will declare independence, enticing China to attack (Manhubani, 2005:54-56). This argument seems less valid if one examines the stance and the leverage of America in this issue. So far, the US have managed to advise and on occasions restrain Taiwan’s leaders from any overt and potentially aggravating attempt to alter the status quo[8]. Deterrence theory best explains why this is -and is likely to remain, the case (Ross, 2002). The US, with its overwhelming military capacity can guarantee Taiwanese security if China, mobilizes against it unprovoked. Reversely, China would be very sceptical before confronting the US militarily for time to come. Furthermore, the US can explain to the Taiwanese, that if they violate or attempt to violate any of the existing agreements, it will be difficult for America to come to Taiwan’s aid (Ross, 1997; Ross, 2002:80-83).

Respectively, China’s 200-mile policy has proven largely a rhetorical exercise. The very time this essay is written, America is having a joint exercise with South Korea within the 200 miles zone. Apart from Chinese flexibility, one must not neglect the comparative naval military capabilities of China and America. Even if China attempted to block the Malacca Straights (scenario developed in Halper, 2010) in 2015 or 2020 using a handful of Aircraft Carriers (that it may have acquired by then), America, potentially joined by France and Britain and other allies who would not accept to see this crucial sea lane closed, could respond with despatching more than a dozen aircraft carriers. Therefore, the author of this paper thus finds speculation on the impact of Chinese aircraft carriers -at this stage when both Congress reports cannot specify when and if these will appear[9]– at least unconstructive (Annual Reports to Congress 2009:53, 2010:57).

Another point we need address is the suggestion that China is developing the sort of capabilities necessary to tackle American military advantages (Halper, 2010:15). This view suggests that China is strategically ‘leapfrogging’ certain key aspects of America’s military capacity. These include underwater submarine platforms in the proximate underwater milieu of China, and anti-aircraft-carrier short distance, surface-to-surface and surface-to-air missiles (Wortzel 1994:165-166). Though this paper understands the above-mentioned argument, it still believes that this suggests no threat per se. It is still required for the US to send its aircraft carriers in China’s immediate milieu for them to be threatened by these Chinese capabilities. Hence, one could argue that the defensive dimension of the Chinese rationale here is stronger.

The Numbers Game

‘China Treat’ theory suggests that China threatens its milieu and America by systematically lying about its military expenditure (e.g. Carpenter, 2007). The argument goes that China’s leaders, malicious and cunning, are undertaking an ambitious military project to reach military superpower status (Tkacik, 2007:1). To achieve this aim without raising alertness, they methodically understate their defence spending. For example, Bernstein and Munro suggest that while the Chinese claimed to have spent $8.7 billion in 1997, in fact, the actual figure (taking also into account PPP) was ‘a minimum of $87 billion’. Similarly, Halper (2010:12) suggests, that in 2008 the Chinese claimed a military budget of roughly $30 billion, when, in fact, they were spending between $105 and $150 million. The Chinese indeed are not very transparent with their defence budget (Roy, 1996:759), not including R&D expenses, arm sales income, and does not take PPP into account. Indeed, critics have a point here; China does spend more on defence than it tells us, or seems at first sight.  However, this does not explain why China poses a threat. Even when factoring PPP on the highest US estimates of Beijing’s real military budget, the latter remains a fraction of America’s. Added to this, the world’s sole superpower has been for six decades the epicentre for research on military technology. Worries of China catching up, at this stage, might be slightly premature.


‘China’s hard-eyed communist rulers…put at risk the very national existence of the US’-(Gertz 2002:199).

Let us assume that indeed China is developing a formidable army, and that it will achieve this soon. This still does not reveal much about CCP’s intentions. Intentions (and interests) should be the epicentre of the debate (Roy 1996:765). ‘China Threat’ champions Bernstein and Munro (1997:24) suggest that the People’s Armed Police, over-manned and stormed with ex-soldiers, serves as ‘a reserve for…international conflict’. This suggestion can be challenged on multiple grounds. Primarily, one must not neglect that the world’s most populated nation -even if it was a western liberal democracy, would still require a respectively large police force. Additionally, a country as vast as China, both in terms of borders and population has both the need and the capability to generate a large army. Overall, the fact that China seeks a large army is not bad or irrational or threatening in-itself. The US maintains and spends in military more than the next seven states combined (5 of which are staunch US allies).

Thus the question persists: why is Chinese military power perceived as threatening when American is not. Many China Threat theorists suggest that there are historical factors, issues associated with the illiberal nature of the CCP, the hawkish nature of the PLA’s chiefs and other arguments along these lines. The problem with these suggestions is that CCP and PLA leaders, apart from some absolute red lines (e.g.-Taiwan) and some more flexible ones (200-mile-policy), especially since 2003, emphasize their efforts to ensure a ‘prosperous’ and ‘peaceful rise’ for China (Suettinger, 2004). This has been reflected in the speeches of China’s leaders and Jiabao’s in particular, where he often identifies the parameters and stresses the fundamental significance of China’s ‘heping juegi’. Fravel (2008:312-313), further underlines that China prefers and seeks to settle border disputes diplomatically. China, historically, used forced surgically, with limited aims, non-pursuing territorial expansion, as much ensuring recognition and respect of its sovereign borders.

China’s Real Military Threat(s)?

‘Cyber-warfare will provide China with an asymmetric advantage to deter stronger military powers’-(Fritz, 2008:28)

Present-day ‘China Threat’ proponents as Halper (2010), stress that there are three areas today where China challenges directly the US: Cyberwarfare, Surveillance (satellite and conventional) (Myers, 2010) and Space technology/capabilities (WSICP, 2006). Space is an area where in the absence of cooperation there can be no real benefits for the actors involved. In fact, roguish and hawkish actions by any actor can be deterred or retaliated in kind by almost any other satellite-holder. Thus, Space technology mostly maximizes the effectiveness of Chinese surveillance (Myers, 2010). Surveillance, though key for information gathering, is not threatening in itself. Therefore, Cyber-war capabilities are the major source for concern. The effectiveness and extensive record of Chinese cyber-attacks suggest China has taken a leading (and arguably aggressive) role in this crucial sphere. China has proven to command substantial technological know-how and impressive execution skills. In the last decade, Chinese cyber-militia have managed to penetrate key US institutions including the Pentagon, IOs as the WTO (Harris, 2008; Fritz, 2008), as well as corporations as Google who were defeated-out of China’s cyberspace (BBC, 2010). This paper holds that perhaps the major ‘military’ challenge posed by China is in the cyberspace. The threat here is genuine and tangible, but addressable.


Chinese power is rising fast. The ‘faces of Chinese power’ are also increasing (Lampton, 2007:115). Nevertheless, the enmeshment of China in the global economy, the structures of global economic governance and regional economic integration increasingly account for China’s economic prosperity, the nation’s priority. Economic interdependence and the necessity of economic stability and progress in China encourage stability in China’s foreign relations and advance the peaceful settlement of conflicts and disputes. Codependance between China and America, though with challenging facets, remains principally a mutually beneficial relationship, likely to continue. In the economic sphere, there is more room for appropriating opportunities and intensifying cooperation than there is for conflict and completion.

In the military sphere, the challenges linked to China’s military development have been and can continue to be addressed with effective combination of multilevel and on-all-sides diplomacy with deterrence. Such an approach has proved and can continue to be effective on sensitive issues as Taiwan and the Senkaku, and serve as a tested basis for Washington’s policy. The ‘peaceful rise’ goal, is inextricably linked with the goal of rapid and sustainable economic development, and defines the context in which the PLA can operate. Perhaps the major military challenge posed by China is in the field of Cyberwarfare, and Washington has to do more in this sphere if it wants to be guarded against this threat.

This essay has shown that China’s economic and military development do not endanger America either genuinely or directly at this stage. Cooperation and opportunity are the defining features of Sino-American economic relations, whereas accommodation and understanding the military. As a final note, the author of this paper would like to recognise that due to the constraining word limit, he opted not to link China’s economic success with Beijing’s growing soft-power. It would be useful perhaps to delve-deeper into this new debate, initiated by Ramo (2004) and picked-up by Halper (2010), to assess the impact of this facet of China’s power on the US.

*Information cut-off point: December, 2010

[toggle title=”Citations & Bibliography”]


[1] Some analysts stress that it should be thought as third, after the EU (Bergsten, 2008)

[2] China is now predicted by some analysts to surpass the US by 2030 (Barboza, 2010)

[3] US’s 20% compared to China’s 4% (CIA’s World Factbook, 2010; Bijian, 2005:18)

[4] China depends 40% on exports, twice the extent other great economies do (Waldron 2005:719).

[5] Heping Juegi is the ‘idea of China’s “peaceful rise” to international prominence, as a responsible, threatening and nonthreatening global power’ put forth first by Bijian in 2003 (Suettinger 2004:1).

[6] This is linked to the purchase of foreign currencies. Bergsten (2010) explains that to keep the RMB undervalued, China purchases over a billion US dollars worth of currency reserves.

[7] (e.g. through R&D where America still holds a decisive lead, instead of focusing on how to reduce the competitiveness of Chinese products)

[8] (e.g. Sui-bian’s 2003 proposal for a referendum on pro-independence sentiment)

[9] Storey and Ji conducted a study into Chinese aircraft carriers in 2004, to find that the two of the three aircraft carriers that had passed from China had developed into museums and amusement parks.


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Photo Credit: Kathy_Zhuang

Threats To Stability As Myanmar Awakens

The recent economic opening of Myanmar is a huge chance for the country. However it has also given rise to threats to its stability, and especially to populations in areas affected by ethnic conflict. International actors will need to be careful not to exacerbate the situation further.


A Karen Family Flees from Their Village in Northern Karen State


Sitting at the crossroads of India, China and South East Asia, military-dominated Myanmar (known by many in the West as Burma) is under transformation. March this year marked two major milestones: 50 years since the military first seized power, and 12 months since the incumbent quasi-civilian government was inaugurated. The months following have seen the country all but shed its burdensome pariah status, with high-level diplomatic dialogues becoming an almost weekly occurrence, and most Western sanctions being lifted or indefinitely suspended.

While Myanmar remains a deeply fractured state along geographical and ethnic lines, the country appears to be rapidly entering a new era, one that will be defined primarily by a military-heavy centralised elite, aiming to play off Western and Asian interests in pursuance of economic growth. While many benefits will be felt throughout society and further transformation should certainly be encouraged, a new set of security risks are emerging, most acutely for populations in areas affected by ethnic conflict.

Economic and Strategic Imperatives

In the public sphere, the West’s shift in approach has largely been attributed to the allowance of the country’s most popular leader Aung San Suu Kyi into the parliament, alongside half-baked efforts to implement less draconian policies on matters such as freedom of speech, expression and association. The government has also been praised for the signing of preliminary ceasefires with many of the country’s pro-democracy armed opposition groups and the release of hundreds of political prisoners.  Perhaps most encouraging has been the 180 degree shift in leaders’ rhetoric on such issues, with former generals not only admitting the downfalls of their autocratic approach to governance but stating commitment to genuine reform.

Such ameliorations have been crucial to fostering greater engagement and should not be overlooked. However, the causes are rooted in the convergence of Western and Myanmar economic and strategic imperatives, most significantly those relating to China.

Pushing primarily to meet its vast energy needs, China has become a dominant force in shaping the economies of developing countries across the world. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in neighbouring Myanmar, which holds a wealth of natural resources and a key corridor connecting China’s landlocked south western provinces to the Indian Ocean. Somewhat aggressively permeating much of the country’s decrepit economy, China has attracted vicious opposition among much of Myanmar’s population as well as many of its military leaders. As a result, following the former dictator’s recession from power, progressive elements of the former junta led by President Thein Sein have come to the fore and are prioritising the reparation of relations with the international community in order to diversify their trade partners and political connections.

Concomitantly, the allure of the region’s burgeoning markets has gained the focus not just of multinational corporations, but of governments from across the globe, facilitating a new epoch of Western-Myanmar relations.

Free trade agreements in the region have formed an integrated economy more populous than NAFTA and the EU combined. 2015 will see the formation of the ASEAN economic community, allowing free-flow of goods, capital, services and labour across all ASEAN member states. Integral to these plans is Myanmar, as the region’s only link to the Bay of Bengal – key for seaborne trade with Africa, the Middle East and Europe – and across land to India and beyond. This geostrategic reality has not only made engagement with Myanmar crucial to Western states and their allies, it has also provided incentive for Myanmar’s military elite to come out of isolation and enlist the support of international financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, the Asia Development Bank and the World Bank.

Shaping Reforms

So where does this leave the people of Myanmar, a devastatingly oppressed and poverty-stricken population, most of which have no regular access to electricity or clean running water and have experienced decades of persistent human rights abuse and conflict?

In many ways, Myanmar’s citizenry is already benefiting significantly from the transition underway, and that looks likely to continue. While for the most part, the country’s awakening has been orchestrated to suit the needs of the former junta and associated elites, it has been influenced unprecedentedly by a somewhat embryonic civil society movement, that has been on the rise since 2008. A vast array of actors, some well-connected with the existing political and military frameworks, others more in touch with the country’s poorest communities, have been instrumental in shaping reforms. While the priorities of government and business elites often differ to those held by civil society organisations, many unexpected dialogues are taking place on issues ranging from land management to freedom of the media.

In urban areas particularly, development of infrastructure is underway and many in the educated classes are eagerly anticipating the arrival of Western companies in the services, manufacturing and tourism sectors. Compared with most of those from Asia, Western companies offer better pay, labour standards and opportunities for career development. New products too are already available, and after years of dumping from neighbouring states, economists in the country have long-argued this is a crucial step. Perhaps most significantly, citizens now have unrestricted access to the Internet, while newspapers and journals no longer have to go through the censorship board. Though further steps still need to be taken, this has given people an unprecedented level of access to information on the politics and socioeconomics of their country. This is crucial if the government is to live up to claims that 2015 general elections will be free and fair.

Building Tensions

In rural areas, however, the socioeconomic trajectory appears less clear, particularly in the country’s peripheral States, which are home to the majority of the non-Burman population and a lion’s share of the country’s natural resources. Aside from coastal areas in the west, these areas are characterised by densely forested mountain ranges and remain home to a myriad of armed actors of diverse ethnic groups. The largest have been active in some form or other since the country’s independence, retaining arms in order to secure greater autonomy from the government. While some are driven by a political reform agenda, ultimately seeking the formation of a federal union, others are primarily concerned with holding territory in order to profit from local resources and govern people of their ethnic group without interference. To complicate the landscape further are an unknown quantity of small militia, some aligned with state, others remaining hostile, which typically man checkpoints or provide security for bribes from traders and construction companies. As the West ramps up support for the government, and substantive military cooperation becomes a realistic possibility, its overall impact on such an environment must be carefully managed.

Mapping out the actual political dynamics of many of these regions is an impossible task, not just for foreign developmental partners, but even for the government itself. Worryingly, supremacist ideologies that defined the doctrines of former regimes’ form a basis for much of the new constitution, which provides next to no local autonomy to administrative states and regions, particularly on matters pertaining to development and security. Nevertheless, concerted efforts are being made by the President to reach out to the most established groups and a noted change in tone when compared with former regimes has been rewarded with a series of unprecedented ceasefires.

On the ground though, these agreements remain fragile, with opposition groups and the government seemingly at odds with where to go next in order to reach a lasting settlement. The government’s strategy is reminiscent of those it used in the 1990s to buy groups out by allowing economic concessions and developing business partnerships. In theory, such an approach to counter-insurgency doesn’t only appease armed actors themselves – or at least large portions of them, encouraging divides to form – it also opens space for business to grow, benefiting local livelihoods and curbing their enthusiasm for supporting insurgents.  However, following decades of the Myanmar state forces targeting entire populations with brutal violence and devastation of livelihoods to achieve such ends, opposition groups’ political aims have gained widespread popular support and mistrust of the government is rife.

The majority of armed groups themselves have persistently called for comprehensive political dialogue to precede any major development programmes. This demand has been accepted in principle at the negotiation table by government delegates, but has not been referred to officially. Sources close to the delegation have confirmed that its primary aim is to get signatures on paper, with the hope that rebel groups will dissipate over time as the socioeconomic environment improves. Such an approach has left relations on a knife-edge, provoking diverse responses from different groups.

Most opposed to Government peace plans is Myanmar’s second largest non-state armed group, the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO), which had held a ceasefire based on similar principles between 1994 and 2011. Along with a myriad of ethnic armed forces in the late 80s and early 90s, the KIO signed an agreement which gave them patches of territory in areas populated mostly by Kachin ethnics, and began cooperating on development programmes with the promise that political dialogue would follow. In reality, dialogue never materialised, and tensions came to a head in June 2011 when government forces infiltrated KIO territory to secure a dam construction site they felt was under threat. Ensuing events set in motion conflict that continues to this day, having displaced around 75,000 civilians and set the stage for horrific abuses to be committed by the state on locals, including an alarming number of women and children.

The government has extended an olive branch to the KIO numerous times, most recently in October 2012, when the delegation promised the group political dialogue and agreed to hold negotiations for the first time with a mil-pol alliance spearheaded by the group including all of the country’s pro-federal ethnic armed groups. However, while brutal attacks on rebel fighters and civilians alike continue in KIO territory and that of their allies that have signed ceasefires, confidence appears very low among KIO leaders. This was clearly indicated recently when low-ranking officials were sent by the group to negotiations.

International Intervention

With Western sanctions lifted, the floodgates are open for developmental assistance to the Myanmar government and the arrival of multi-national corporations. As a result, the country looks set to experience rapid economic growth, with the centralised quasi-civilian administration and its corporate associates at the helm. With military cooperation on the horizon too, international actors will need to be careful not to exacerbate fragilities further. As learned in Afghanistan, propping up a centralised regime is rarely conducive to lasting stability and can damage the reputation of Western powers among locals significantly.  A security framework capable of managing Myanmar’s complex geopolitical structure, and its abundance of point-source resources, must incorporate ethnic armed actors that are trusted and supported by the people, or it is doomed to perpetuate further conflict and instability.


Photo Credit: Worldwide Impact Now (used with permission)

The Changing Dynamics of Palestinian Movements

Terrorists or not, it is clear that as Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad make their rise the West will gradually lose its already-weak influence over decision-making processes in the Palestinian political landscape.


Palestine party politics protest[dhr]

Since the ’Arab Spring’ began in the December 2011, geo-political experts across the world have anticipated (and sometimes prophesised) the coming of changes to the Palestinian political landscape. However the popular uprisings that toppled governments in Egypt, Yemen as well as Libya and are trying to do so today in Syria, have eluded the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Yet it seems political commentators have self-caused the idea of the Arab Spring passing the Palestinian political environment to become axiomatic. By expecting to see such mass protests against the ruling regime in Occupied West Bank or Occupied Gaza Strip, what these commentators have missed is the more subtle and behind-the-scene change in Palestinian political dynamics – one that has been fuelled by the regional changes originating from the ‘Arab Spring’ events.
Palestinian political landscape is silently going through its own ‘Arab Spring’ moment with old gerontocratic leaders finding it difficult to assert the same power they have been wielding for such long time. At the same time new (Islamist) political forces are establishing themselves in politics, while other organisations are re-asserting themselves as new (and often more extreme) resistance forces.

Fall of Fatah

The ’old guard’ of Fatah led by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and technocrat Prime Minister Salam Fayyad seems to have its back against the wall. Firstly the economic situation of the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority in the West Bank is on its last legs and according to the latest World Bank report will face a $ 400 million budget deficit that needs to be covered (as always) with the finances coming from international donors. The West Bank Palestinians are realizing that the current government cannot fill their expectations regarding improvement of quality of life or making progress in reaching peace with the Israelis that would lead to an independent Palestinian state. Of this bears witness the fact that numerous protests against both the rule of President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad took place in various West Bank towns throughout the last summer. Possibly the first nail in Fatah’s coffin is the latest poor showing at the West Bank local elections where the party won just two-fifths of the seats it contested for. What is more it lost its control over such key West Bank towns as Ramallah, Nablus and Jenin to former Fatah members who had seceded from the party.

It is of course too early to write off Fatah completely. Mahmoud Abbas has launched for the second time a Palestinian initiative in the United Nations and this time the Palestinian leader might succeed in what he is seeking. Abbas aims to change the legal status of the Palestinian entity to a non-member observer state at the United Nations and currently it looks that he is going to accomplish that as 150 to 170 countries supposedly will vote in favour. But this victory could turn out to be a Pyrrhic victory for Abbas. In reality not much will change for the Palestinian leadership – Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories will continue and can realistically be ended only through bi-lateral negotiations. And certainly nothing will change for the common Palestinian living in the West Bank or Gaza Stip. He or she will continue to face economic difficulty and Israeli occupation. Fatah leaders, by raising the hopes of Palestinian people and then returning from the General Assembly with nothing more than a legal piece of paper and no real benefits, might do disservice to themselves.

New political rise of Hamas

Misfortunes of Fatah have opened up opportunities for other Palestinian political actors. Hamas has been a central player in Palestinian politics, at least since the movement won Palestinian parliamentary elections in January 2006 and possibly even before that. The political changes of the Arab Spring have furthermore fuelled Hamas’s ever-accelerating accent – a political rise that is seriously threatens Fatah’s role as the premier Palestinian political actor.
Hamas like many other organisations found its position at the beginning of Arab Spring weaken as its relationships with its traditional backers Iran and Syria chilled. With the Syrian Alawite regime gradually cranking up violence against its Sunni subjects Hamas leaders distanced themselves from the al-Assad regime and eventually outright condoned the brutal crackdown. This subsequently entailed Hamas’s external bureau leaders leaving their traditional headquarters in Damascus as well as drying up of Iranian financial assistance and arms deliveries. But Hamas soon found new patrons – Turkey, Egypt and Qatar.

Somewhat surprisingly it has been the small but rich Gulf state that has proved to be the most supportive and possibly valuable ally to Hamas. Hamas leaders at first must have expected Egypt to become premier supporter of the Palestinian Resistance Movement. But the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi has been wary when dealing with Hamas and in numerous accounts has done less than Hamas leaders would expect from him vis-à-vis supporting the movement. Qatar seems to be more open regarding its support to Hamas, something that became clear just recently with Qatar pledging $400 million for different projects in the Gaza Strip that was followed by the Emir Hamad bin Khalifah Al Thani’s visit to the Palestinian enclave.

Hamas, a Palestinian organisation that throughout its history has aspired to replace Fatah as the prominent Palestinian movement, will benefit Qatar’s recent generosity and Emir’s subsequent visit in numerous ways. Firstly the injection of cash will improve the living conditions of Gazans and will provide many unemployed people with much needed work. Of course even with this financial boost Gaza is still a long way from a comfortable and modern place to live, but that might not be the point. For Hamas and especially Gazan leaders they will be able to show that Hamas (irrespective of this being through foreign investment) is improving the living conditions of Palestinians in Gaza, while the Fatah led-government is pursuing populist goals at the time when the West Bank population is languishing in economic hardship. Hamas looks to win some political points with the West Bank Palestinians and could very well succeed through this strategy.

The visit of Qatari Emir is important also from an international perspective. It is widely publicised that Emir Al Thani was the first head of state to visit Gaza Strip since Hamas took power in June 2007. The real importance of the visit is however that it challenges the long-held monopoly by Fatah and the PLO as being accepted by the international community as the sole representative of Palestinian people. While Hamas officials have been on political visits to different Arab (and occasionally non-Arab states) the visit of the Emir, at least de facto if not de jure, confirms Hamas’s positions as the official ruler of the Gaza Strip and thus representative of (some) Palestinians. Moreover Qatar opened a diplomatic mission in Gaza while not doing so in the West Bank – a development that could reinforce the idea that the Gulf emirate sees Hamas as the new dominant Palestinian political force.

Hamas itself has for long sought to be accepted as a more credible political actor, but has struggled to relinquish its image of a resistance movement. The new Qatari recognition and financial injection into Gaza might very well help Hamas to move away from violence against Israel and commit more extensively to ruling the Gaza Strip. Firstly Qatari visit and the opening of the diplomatic mission might open the door for other (first Arab and later non-Arab) states to establish official contacts with the Hamas government inside Gaza Strip. Secondly when the Qatari-funded skyrises, hospitals and schools start to be built in the Palestinian enclave, Hamas has every incentive in limiting violence from the Gaza Strip that could incur destructive Israeli retaliation. There is no point in building a new hospital one week if it is destroyed the next. Hence Hamas’s internal security services will step up their actions to curb violent attacks by other Gazan-based militants groups against Israel. By providing Gazans with better life conditions Hamas can palliate itself from focusing less on the continuation of the armed resistance. It is unlikely however that armed resistance will stop altogether – nature abhors a vacuum. While Hamas is moving away from violence and becoming more involved in non-violent political and ruling process, another Islamist movement is posed to take its place as the quintessential Palestinian resistance movement.

The Resurgent Palestinian Islamic Jihad

Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) has long been living in the shadow of its rival Hamas. Although being one of the first movements participating in the First Intifada, the PIJ as an Islamist movement was forced to take the back seat after the creation of Hamas and has since then been seen as the supportive ‘little brother’ of the former. That is until recently.

The PIJ has become more critical of Hamas and has accused the later of selling out on the idea of resistance to Israeli occupation. True enough Hamas has scaled back its armed attacks against Israel following the 2007-2009 Gaza War that proved painstakingly destructive for Hamas and the Gazan population. Increasingly critical of Hamas, the PIJ has stated that it will continue the armed resistance against Israel even if Hamas decides to abandon such action. More importantly it seems that the PIJ actually possesses the necessary means to do so. Abu Ahmad, the spokesperson of the military wing of PIJ, said in an interview to Reuters in late 2011 that the organisation had at least 8000 fully equipped fighters under its command and that there was no shortage of new recruits wanting to join. Iranian connection to the PIJ was also mentioned during the interview and taking into account the fact that Hamas has fallen from the good graces of Iran it might be the PIJ that has come to replace Hamas as the main recipient of Iranian military assistance. In the light of this the alleged Israeli Air Force air strike against the Yarmouk arms factory in Sudanese capital Khartoum on 23 October might have destroyed 40 containers of weapons meant not for Hamas, but for its rival the PIJ.


Although the Palestinian civil society has not gone through a large-scale popular uprising as we have seen in other parts of the Middle East there is rock-solid evidence that Palestinian political dynamics are changing. And from a Westerners perspective the change (like many other political changes brought on by the Arab Spring) are worrying. Fatah, the long-time Western ‘go-to guy’ in Palestinian politics is fast losing its authority and might be on its way out as a political player. With the other two up-and-coming Palestinian political entities – Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad – the West largely lacks any meaningful connection, much to do with the fact that they are considered terrorists. Terrorists or not, it is clear that as these two groups make their rise the West will gradually lose its already weak influence over decision-making processes in the Palestinian political landscape. Instead it will be the various Arab and non-Arab states in the Middle East that will see their influence increase. Will these states exert their influence over these Palestinian entities to pursue peace or to pursue war? Only time will tell.


Photo Credit: No Lands Too Foreign