Welcome to the first edition of Mentioned in Dispatches. In keeping with the aim of Encyclopedia Geopolitica, here we hope to present you with the clearest and most compelling writing on geopolitics and security, but in this case from news sources around the web.
This column is intended as a quick reference guide to some of the best pieces of journalism available on the web on the events of the past fortnight. It’s by no means comprehensive and the form it will take is likely to change from week to week. Sometimes all the links will all be to one major topic. Sometimes it’ll be a chance to shine a light on less mainstream issues or events. There will be the occasional piece we include that should be filed under ‘might-seem-small-now-but-worth-keeping-an-eye-on’ too. Articles included on here may be from several different sources or from only one particular outlet putting out the most interesting material. Most importantly, this is hopefully the start of a conversation; if you think something is missing, misunderstood or just plain wrong please let us know in the comments.
When I pitched this section of our site to the team last year, none of us imagined that a fortnightly column would still be having articles of huge significance added so late before publication, but the acceleration of events since the Inauguration of the new President in the US has been remarkable. At the time of writing there are reports in the Washington Post that President Trump has had an incredibly contentious phone called with the Australian PM Malcolm Turnbull. If the article is accurate, and reports elsewhere appear to corroborate that it is, then it would mark a huge change in the traditionally rock-solid alliance between the two nations.
I’m wary of this first column setting a precedent as being predominantly about the new President but really, that’s pretty much the only thing that the past two weeks have been about in the world of geopolitics, so here we are. I was struck by this piece in The Atlantic from Norway that talks about the very real concerns that senior civilian and military leadership there have about a more muscular Russian posture.
“In December, Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg visited Donald Trump, then the president-elect, who has alternately called the North Atlantic alliance “obsolete,” suggested that America might ignore its treaty obligations, and mused that perhaps NATO could change its central focus to counterterrorism. Solberg urged Trump to reconsider the alliance’s importance, or at least to set a European policy and stick to it.
Defense officials in Norway explained why. European unity is fragile: While northern and eastern Europe see Russia as the biggest looming problem, southern Europeans are stressed by migration flows from Syria and elsewhere. The populist sentiments that drove Brexit exist elsewhere in NATO. Even in Norway, where a 2011 terrorist attack damaged the prime minister’s office in Oslo, there is little appetite for turning NATO into a primarily counterterror organization.”
Speaking of NATO’s counterterrorism mission brings us to the fight against the so-called Islamic State and the Iraqi-led operation to retake Mosul. France24 (The English-language broadcaster) embedded a team with French Special Forces who are operating in support of the Iraqi Army in Northern Iraq. There is some interesting footage here of usually camera-shy personnel talking about the sophistication of the defences they are coming up against including booby-traps and complex networks of tunnels. The documentary mentions that there are around 200 French troops providing support in Iraq, where they have been deployed for two years already. The clip is worth watching to see and hear from people at the forefront of what is likely to be a long and tough battle to liberate the Western side of Iraq’s second-city from the forces of the Islamic State.
For any of our readers with a Foreign Policy subscription, I’d point them towards this interesting piece regarding the possible realignment of German-Russian relations back towards the ‘Schröder’ model from the early 2000s. It’s an interesting article to read alongside the Norwegian piece above. The relevant passage that caught my attention was this:
‘Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who worked for Schröder when he was prime minister of Lower Saxony and then became his chief of staff in the “red-green” government from 1998 to 2005, has also made conciliatory moves toward Moscow. In an op-ed earlier last month, he criticized NATO exercises in Poland and the Baltic states — in which Germany was itself participating — as “saber rattling.” It was exactly the kind of thing Schröder might have said. In fact, in an interview published a day before Steinmeier’s op-ed, Schröder had made similar criticisms of Germany’s participation in the exercises and warned that they were contributing to “a new arms race.” Alexei Pushkov, head of the foreign affairs committee in Russia’s lower house of Parliament, called Steinmeier a “voice of reason.”
As a result, the vexed question of Germany’s relationship with Russia, which analysts such as Constanze Stelzenmüller of the Brookings Institution claimed was closed, is once again open. There is concern elsewhere in Europe, especially in the Baltic states and Poland, where many feel directly threatened by Russia and wonder whether they can rely on Germany as an ally. Only 38 percent of Germans questioned in a Pew poll in the spring of 2015 thought that Germany should use military force to defend a NATO ally that was attacked by Russia.’
I’d like to include here a longer article by the former speechwriter for President George W Bush, David Frum (coiner of the phrase ‘Axis of Evil’). Frum has been deeply critical of Trump since the beginning of his candidacy and writes a compelling piece illustrating the possible ways that the US might come to resemble less traditionally democratic nations around the world. There are so many well-written and thoughtful passages in it that I don’t think it does justice to pull one out but this just about sums the potential geopolitical shift that could be about to occur:
“Populist-fueled democratic backsliding is difficult to counter,” wrote the political scientists Andrea Kendall-Taylor and Erica Frantz late last year. “Because it is subtle and incremental, there is no single moment that triggers widespread resistance or creates a focal point around which an opposition can coalesce … Piecemeal democratic erosion, therefore, typically provokes only fragmented resistance.” Their observation was rooted in the experiences of countries ranging from the Philippines to Hungary. It could apply here too.
If people retreat into private life, if critics grow quieter, if cynicism becomes endemic, the corruption will slowly become more brazen, the intimidation of opponents stronger. Laws intended to ensure accountability or prevent graft or protect civil liberties will be weakened.”
Finally, this has been the piece I’ve been thinking about most for the past two weeks. The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos has reported on the survivalist trend that has apparently taken hold among the Silicon Valley elite. Previously a trend associated with the more libertarian or conservative end of the political spectrum in the US, it’s fascinating that this sort of thinking has taken hold among a group popularly imagined to have a more optimistic vision of the future. The link to geopolitics isn’t immediately clear beyond many mentions of the strategic importance of New Zealand in the eyes of many of the super-rich (such as Peter Thiel, who has just controversially gained NZ citizenship). But it is a good article for indicating the pessimism that has gripped the people meant to take us forward to a global technological utopia. Plus, it has an absolutely magnificent opening paragraph:
“Steve Huffman, the thirty-three-year-old co-founder and C.E.O. of Reddit, which is valued at six hundred million dollars, was nearsighted until November, 2015, when he arranged to have laser eye surgery. He underwent the procedure not for the sake of convenience or appearance but, rather, for a reason he doesn’t usually talk much about: he hopes that it will improve his odds of surviving a disaster, whether natural or man-made. “If the world ends—and not even if the world ends, but if we have trouble—getting contacts or glasses is going to be a huge pain in the ass,” he told me recently. “Without them, I’m fucked.”
Survivalism, the practice of preparing for a crackup of civilization, tends to evoke a certain picture: the woodsman in the tinfoil hat, the hysteric with the hoard of beans, the religious doomsayer. But in recent years survivalism has expanded to more affluent quarters, taking root in Silicon Valley and New York City, among technology executives, hedge-fund managers, and others in their economic cohort.
Over the years, Huffman has become increasingly concerned about basic American political stability and the risk of large-scale unrest. He said, “Some sort of institutional collapse, then you just lose shipping—that sort of stuff.” (Prepper blogs call such a scenario W.R.O.L., “without rule of law.”) Huffman has come to believe that contemporary life rests on a fragile consensus. “I think, to some degree, we all collectively take it on faith that our country works, that our currency is valuable, the peaceful transfer of power—that all of these things that we hold dear work because we believe they work. While I do believe they’re quite resilient, and we’ve been through a lot, certainly we’re going to go through a lot more.”
Alexander WG is a broadcast journalist based in London working in foreign news. His experience is primarily in U.S. politics with a splash of Europe, Middle East and African affairs thrown in for variety. Alex specializes in verifying news stories, journalism analysis and generally discovering the best reads from around the web.