Is the Unknown Proliferating Cyber Fear?

By Edward Morris

A recent poll conducted by the Pew Research Center found that Americans are more afraid of cyber attacks than climate change, China’s rise, and the nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea.

cyber

Although similar studies have not been undertaken in Australia, prominent Australians have expressed considerable concern over cyber threats. In presenting her national security statement in February 2013, former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard stated, “Australia should prepare for a decades-long cyber war”.

Whilst politicians and media pundits episodically herald the threat posed by cyber attacks, a sobering fact remains – no death or injury has been proven attributable to a cyber attack. Why then is the threat perception of cyber attacks so severe? Is this simply a manifestation of effective Hollywood storytelling?

The effects of traditional weapons use – including swords, guns and bombs – are measureable, predictable and perhaps preventable. If one person pointed a loaded gun at another person and pulled the trigger, the result would be anticipatable – physical harm.

The impacts of cyber attacks are more difficult to comprehend. In contrast to traditional weapons, they lack causality between deployment and physical harm, at least thus far. Furthermore, instruments of cyber warfare are malleable – limited only by the technical skill and creativity of their designers. Powerful computer viruses, similar to their biological counterparts, are capable of adapting to their surroundings. These factors, coupled with the inconsistency of previous attacks, render cyber attacks extremely difficult to predict.

However, it is not solely the unknown that is to blame for cyber threat perception. Previous cyber attacks provide valuable insight into the genuine threat posed to various actors. Such attacks can be divided into two main categories; cyber espionage and cyber sabotage. It should be noted however that these and many of the definitions pertaining to cyberspace are disputed.

Cyber espionage – defined hereafter as the attainment of secrets without the authorisation of the target through electronic means – poses genuine threat to various actors. One prevalent example is its potential to create or exacerbate tension between countries. The political fallout between Australia and Indonesia continues, following the unauthorised release of intelligence by former U.S. National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, implicating the Australian government in spying on Indonesian President’s wife.

Acts of cyber sabotage attempt to either tamper with or shut down computer systems that govern automated activities, both of which can have significant ramifications. During the Cold War, the U.S. facilitated the explosion of a Trans-Siberian gas pipeline by deploying the “logic bomb” – a piece of code secretly inserted into a program that produces harmful system effects when certain conditions are met.

Although there has not yet been proven injuries or fatalities from past cyber attacks, it is not implausible to extrapolate the possibility of such an occurrence given nature of previous attacks.

Moreover, potential for extensive financial and perhaps economic damage on individuals, corporations and countries is evident from previous cyber attacks. The estimated cost of damages attributable to the cyber attacks on Epsilon in 2011 is up to $4 billion. Hackers collected and exploited the personal information of Epsilon’s clients for criminal activities.

The sporadic nature of past cyber attacks and Hollywood hits such as Travolta’s Swordfish may fuel our imagination, but examination of previous cyber attacks suggests the threat is genuine.

Edward holds a Masters in International Security from the University of Sydney, where he currently works as a Research Associate. He can be contacted at edwardmorris90@gmail.com.

Book Review: Ian Bremmer, Every Nation For Itself: Winners and Losers in a G-Zero World

By Ben Moles

A version of the below was first published by the Australian Army Journal and can be accessed here.

In Every Nation For Itself: Winners and Losers in a G-Zero World Ian Bremmer, President and founder of the political risk research and consultancy firm Eurasia Group, offers an insightful overview and useful guide for the general reader and armchair enthusiast of international affairs as to what he perceives being a fundamental challenge to the extant international system and explores the implications this will have on an uncertain future- a G-Zero World.

G-Zero

Bremmer’s thesis paints a rather bleak realist portrait of an anarchic global environment and international system that over the next decade, and perhaps slightly beyond, will be problematically characterised by: a deficit in (US) global leadership; a lack of cooperation between states; and Institutional paralysis within major Global Institutions, in a world which at the same time will be marked by a shift in the nature of threats likely to face states, the emergence and rise of, predominantly, non-traditional security challenges that like globalization will transcend international borders. In essence, this is the world of the international relations realist, this is Every nation for itself.

Bremmer predicts that the problems inherent within the uncertain transformations of the current international system, an absence of (US) leadership being paramount and inability to cooperate being secondary, is likely to have a greater impact on the severity, magnitude and effects felt originating from these emerging non-traditional security challenges. In stark contrast to stability of the post World War II US led Western liberal international world order we have known up to this point, he contends, this will be a G-Zero World in a state of “tumultuous change”. Yet, what will inevitably be viewed as risks by some countries, companies and organisations will present opportunities for others; ultimately, choice, he asserts, is the key that will separate the Winners and Losers within it.

Every Nation For Itself is structured into six chapters and follows a progressive line of argument commencing with an explanation as to exactly what Bremmer’s concept of the G-Zero is. The second details a slightly long winded history of how we arrived at the G-Zero beginning at the end of World War II. The third assesses the impact of the G-Zero on diverse set of issues ranging from the global market and interstate/intrastate conflict to climate change and natural resource security before progressing to the fourth, highlighting what this will all mean for and how this will determine the Winners and Losers in a G-Zero World. For this reader, the most interesting chapter is the fifth, that asks ‘What comes Next?’ proposing, examining and evaluating four ‘likely’, plus one ‘wild card’, future scenarios that stem from it, concluding a fragmented ‘world of regions’ most likely. The sixth and final Chapter ‘G-Zero America’ is unquestionably aimed at the intended target audience of this book; those in the US, in particular those walking the corridors of power and a wider ‘Western’ audience more generally.

The message of this book is quite clear. Almost drawing a direct parallel to the choice the US was left facing at the end of World War II between “retreating into isolationism or expanding its power abroad” Bremmer subtly alludes to the point that yet again the US stands at a crossroad, but ‘Invictus’ style reassures the reader that the US is master of its fate, that, to quote Thomas Paine, “We [the US] have it in our power to begin the world over again”.

As enjoyable a read as Every Nation For Itself is there are a few criticisms worthy of mention. Firstly: Bremmer adopts a slightly romanticised, or at least extremely US centric view regarding both the success and benevolence of US global leadership/stewardship and the achievements of International Institutions/cooperation; neither of which particularly detracts from the quality of the analysis overall.

Nevertheless, following this point is a subsequent criticism. Because of the US centric view he takes, the main premise of the argument seems that at the heart of the problem (an inability to cooperate in face of emerging non-traditional security challenges) is a deficit in (US) leadership and that there in can lie its solution too. However, this argument could very easily be turned on its head: the key change isn’t necessarily a decline in (US) leadership exacerbating these challenges but the very different nature of these emerging non-traditional security challenges themselves (within a globalised environment), impacting on and leaving the concept of (US) leadership moribund.

Finally, the main criticism: In his introduction to the book Bremmer qualifies “This book is not about the decline of the West. America and Europe have overcome adversity before…Nor is this book about the rise of China and other emerging-market players.” However, this theme slowly but, as the book progresses, surely permeates from the pages so obviously that it makes the reader question the inclusion of the statement to the contrary at all to begin with. Despite protestations otherwise this book, all be it questioning off, is in fact thematically addressing the question surrounding the decline of the US and the rise of China.

Every Nation For Itself is an easy read and the argument is coherent, straightforward and simple to follow, this certainly isn’t a book furnished with scholarly terminology in which a degree in International Relations or Economics is a necessary pre-requisite. In recommending this book, I would add that in supplement and complementary to it, for those who have had their interest whetted by the themes Bremmer explores but are left wanting more, one should also refer to the US National Intelligence Council’s publication ‘Global Worlds 2030: Alternative Worlds’.

Ben Moles holds a Masters in International Security from the University of Sydney and is currently working for the British Foreign Office. He can be contacted at bwmoles@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @bwmoles

The Arab Spring: Call me a pessimist but…

By Ben Moles

(The below was originally posted by the Australian Institute of International Affairs in ‘Monthly Access’ issue 22, September 2011. I’ve republished it here to see if it might generate some thoughts on the Arab Spring- 3 years on)

“One swallow does not make a summer, neither does one fine day;
similarly one day or brief time of happiness does not make a person entirely happy.”- Aristotle

Thinking of spring evokes images of new beginnings and hope: a transition from the cold recesses and darkness of winter to an awakening and optimism before summer.

Bird

The transformations apparent in the seasonal change from winter to spring seem somewhat missing in retrospect from the so called Arab-Spring. One must remember the adage ‘one swallow doesn’t make a summer’ and ask what has really changed. Has the ‘Arab-Spring’ not just been a blindly optimistic term conjured up for a couple of warm days in July?

Tunisia held elections in October. However, controversy soon followed with troops having to disperse violent protests in Sidi Bouzid, where the Arab-Spring originated, and concerns remain, both inside and outside Tunisia, as to what can be expected long-term from the Islamist Ennahda party. Can the issues that initiated the original protests be addressed?

The emerging buds of discontent in Bahrain were quickly trampled, largely by Saudi military boots. Meanwhile Yemen, where Saudi funding has long-kept the Saleh regime buoyant, has been beset by tribal fighting, power struggles, civil-war and the emergence of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) for a number of years now, the current popular discontent  being linked to and heightened by the Arab-Spring, not initiated by it.

As Mubarak awaits trial in Egypt, power has been temporarily assumed by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. They look increasingly unwilling to relinquish that power and have the military means at their disposal to attempt to hold onto it. Let’s not forget that Mubarak’s fall was caused in part due to his inability to muster the necessary backing of the military.

Syria, like Egypt, also witnessed an eruption in public demonstrations, which despite recent Arab-League efforts to mediate, continue. However, unlike Murbarak, al-Assad has maintained his monopoly on violence by securing the loyalty and support of the military and has been unflinching in his willingness to unleash it.

Libya minus Gaddafi, the rebel movement’s unifying cause, has the potential to spiral into a protracted civil-war, explaining both: why the National Transitional Council asked NATO to extend its mission in Libya, and why NATO declined. In a country where tribal allegiances are key and many factions are now extremely well armed, arguably the most difficult task lays ahead for the NTC: preventing another Gaddafi emerging to fill the power vacuum.

Finally, what about the D word? Is the international community seriously ready for Arab democracy and the myriad results that might eventuate from it? We should remember it was only in 2006 that the United States refused to acknowledge the results of the Palestinian elections due to Hamas being catapulted into the Palestinian driving seat over the pro-US Fatah. The Palestinians simply voted for, and elected, the wrong party!

Perhaps as the dust settles and we begin to realise the mistakes marked by our own initial hubris and enthusiasm for the Arab-Spring, the façade of democracy – the pledge of instituting change at some yet to be determined stage in the future – will be enough.

Spring is a seasonal change marking a transition from winter. As we examine the Arab-Spring and ask what has really changed, can it honestly be said that much? If there really has been change, has it really been for the better? Is the initial optimism, marked by those early warm days back at the beginning of the year, sustainable or is it starting to look like those might be dark clouds on the horizon?

Call me a pessimist, but I cannot help but think that whichever way I look at it, it still looks like winter to me.

Ben Moles holds a Masters in International Security from the University of Sydney. He can be contacted at bwmoles@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @bwmoles

So, you want a job in policy?

Amanda Murdie and Kate Kidder

An often overlooked question for students embarking on studying within the International Relations field (or any other for that matter), and whether it be undergraduate or postgraduate level, is what next? If you have good enough grades progressing into further study is an option well catered for in both potential and advice. Government jobs throw up a plethora of graduate program possibilities also. But what if the area you envisage yourself working in is that which straddles the two, the policy world of International policy think-tanks? What follows is a response to a question posed by Amanda Murdie to her former PhD student, Kate Kidder, a research associate at the Center for a New American Security, asking for some advice for an undergrad wanting to get into the policy world. Originally featuring as a blog post at the Duck of Minerva, the advice has been reproduced here below with Kate’s kind permission.

interns

The question to Kate:

I’m advising a really wonderful undergrad who would like a career like you have.  Could you give her some advice as to how to break in to the security policy community?  I think she is really interested in trade-offs between law school, PhD programs, and MA programs.

Kate’s response: 

1. I would say that the number one thing that ensures a “way in” to this town/field is an internship- which are typically unpaid and last about 6 months. Of course, that was my experience, so I also admit that my sample size is skewed :). I can add a few things about my experience, both as a former intern and now as the manager of an intern:

A) you don’t just interview for an internship; your whole internship is an interview (a lot of people make the mistake of becoming poor team players as soon as they’ve “secured” an internship, which is a bad move. While internships aren’t exactly paid in cash, they are paid in networks, and those networks are worth more than money.).

B) Recognize that the foreign policy and Defense communities are really tiny, and then refer back to point #1. Recognize the confluence of three things: tiny community+tinier points of entry+bad economy= the majority of interns are essentially overqualified. The key is not to act like it (I know, it seems fairly intuitive, but you would be surprised). Also, don’t let it get you down. It’s worth it. (There should be an “it gets better” campaign for interns).

C) All interns in this city are smart. Really. All of them. So there is a lot of competition about “who’s smarter than who” or “who produces more.” A little secret: one of the ways to get ahead is to take some of that energy and just be kind and helpful. Cleaning coffee mugs with a good attitude gets you noticed. Then people realize you are smart and read your stuff.

D) Building off of that: recognize that your 40-hours-a-week is simply the cost of entry. If you really want to leverage your internship, expect to work a lot more (though no one will tell you that, because I’m pretty sure that legally they can’t). So your 40 hours of stuffing envelopes, answering phones, cleaning coffee mugs, setting up for events, etc. buys you the credibility to then turn in a piece–op-ed, blog post, what-have-you– that you stayed up all night writing before heading back into the office to stuff folders all over again. I was fortunate enough that I could incur the cost of not earning an income for 6 months; some of my fellow interns ended up doing all of that and then waiting tables until 2am…crazy, I know! Just think of it as if you’re Andrea Sachs in The Devil Wears Prada, except hopefully your boss is much nicer (mine certainly was!) and your shoes probably shouldn’t cost as much (though if you are in the market, here’s some worth investing in if you are going to be running around this city and want to look uber professional: http://www.zappos.com/cole-haan-chelsea-low-pump-black-patent?zfcTest=fcl%3A0)

As far as educational paths, some thoughts:

1) First things first: Go with your passion. It will all work itself out in the end. If you are more passionate about the law, go that way. If that is your path, recognize that a law degree opens a lot of doors- and a lot of lawyers in this town don’t actually practice law (and prefer it that way!). Just think, Samantha Power never took the bar.  If grad school in a specific program is more up your alley, go that route.

2) In all reality, you don’t need a Ph.D at this town at first- though an M.A. is a near-must. I’m fortunate to work in a think tank that runs like a start-up and thus is willing to be flexible- I kind of threw a wrench in the existing system by being a doctoral candidate at 29. The people who need Ph.Ds are at the fellow level- and these are people who also have about a decade of government experience. Coming in with a Ph.D and no government experience means you price yourself out of the Research Associate market without the value added of experience. But I’ve also seen that internships-turned-jobs tend to go to the interns who started with a masters. If you start the job with a masters and really want a Ph.D., work there for a few years and then pursue the Ph.D portion- and there’s a likely chance that your employer will pitch in. Alternatively, with a few years of work experience, even if you opt completely out of the workforce to pursue your Ph.D, you still have something on your resume.

Some last pieces of advice:

  • Whichever way you go with grad school/law school/experience, start to carve out your own voice. Have a “thing” that you want to claim as your little slice of expertise. The strange thing about this town is that what you claim to be an expert on, your are perceived to be an expert on until proven otherwise (which can be a really good thing or a dangerously bad thing!) Read up on it- academically, in the news, on blogs, in its industry. Sign up for Google news alerts on it. Figure out who the players are, what the arguments are, etc. (For me, it’s defense personnel policy). The policy world needs people who are simultaneously flexible enough and educated enough on research methods that they can research any topic thrown their way, while also offering their unique perspective on a very specific topic.
  • Just as in Academia, publications carry a lot of weight. But the difference in Washington is that volume kind of counts for more than quality (I know…it makes me shudder). So start getting your name out there with smaller pieces- op-eds, pieces in smaller publications, etc. Of course, it never hurts to have a piece placed in ForeignPolicy.com or Foreign Affairs- but when in doubt, get something out there. And this is a great way to get an edge on your “expertise.”

Amanda Murdie is an assistant professor of Political Science at the University of Missouri. Kate Kidder is a Research Associate at the Center for a New American Security in Washington DC, USA. This post originally appeared on the Duck of Minerva

The pivot and the red line: the Syrian Civil War and US credibility in the Asia-Pacific

By Andrew Kwon

Called a ‘War Speech’ by the Washington Post’s Max Fisher, Secretary of State John Kerry dispelled all doubt at his Monday evening press conference over the Obama administration’s consideration of military action against Syria’s Bashar Al-Assad regime. Almost a year to the day since President Obama made his ‘Red line’ comment regarding the use of chemical weapons in Syria, its most recent (and visible) use on the outskirts of the Syrian Capital of Damascus has forced the President and his administration into the awkward position of preparing for another Middle Eastern conflict at a time they’d promised to be thinking about the Asia-Pacific.

Syria piece picture

Despite the words of key administration officials  and even its unveiling as the Administration’s foreign policy blueprint by President Obama before the Australian Parliament in 2011, doubt over the US ‘Rebalance to Asia’ formed unsurprisingly quickly. At the core of these doubts, even prior to current issues related to sequestration, stood the tall order of US disengagement from combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Due in part to the considerable investment of the Administration’s early energy into reducing the visible presence of the US in the Middle East, it seemed inevitable to some that the region would reemerge as the primary focus of the Administration as unaddressed issues would build critical mass and become too large to ignore.

This view seemed to pick up steam as major architects and proponents (such as Hillary Clinton and Kurt Campbell) of the ‘Rebalance to Asia’ in the administration began to depart from their respective positions and became all but certain with the nomination and appointment of then-Senator John Kerry to Secretary of State. Perhaps to best summarise the view of these observers is Randy Schriver, a Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs for the G.W. Bush Administration who at a recent event hosted by the Atlantic Council in Washington, noted his inability to call to mind an official as the Obama Administration’s current ‘Asia point man.’

To a certain extent, most states in the Asia-Pacific seemed unfazed by the re-shifting in focus. Beyond a change in key personnel as well as doubts and confusion related to the strategic coherency of the ‘Rebalance to Asia’, the general difficulty of the Obama Administration (such as sequestration) from the start of its second term made efforts to preserve political capital understandable. However, what’s potentially unacceptable is the possibility that the US will be unable to act both decisively and clearly during its upcoming recommitment to the Middle East despite having again freed up its focus in the Asia-Pacific to do so.

As such, the question related to Syria for many observers in and around major US partners and allies throughout the Asia-Pacific is not related to the actual use of chemical weapons, rather the potential US response to their use. Faced with the prospect of being damned by ‘owning’ the conflict if the response is too ‘heavy handed’ or faced with being damned through questions over its ‘reliability’ if the response is too ‘light’, states in the Asia-Pacific are no doubt watching closely as to how the Obama administration will act—no doubt, a source of unwanted additional pressure.

Overall, whatever the response, strategic thinking in the Asia-Pacific will undoubtedly be affected as factors (like the credibility of US security assurances) are reassessed. A particularly depressing thought lies in the potential repercussions of the ‘what if’ scenario where the Obama administration bungles both management and messaging of the crisis. Side effects could range from a frustrated legislative agenda due to reluctant participation of allies and partners in ongoing efforts such as Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations and even a more confident and aggressive North Korea. The question really boils down to a simple metaphor; would you dance again with a partner who couldn’t get his left and right foot right?

Andrew Kwon is a Joseph S. Nye Jr. Research Intern at the Center for a New American Security in Washington DC, USA. This post originally appeared on the ASPI Strategist and can be found here. The views expressed are his own.

Red Line Follies

Mohsin Zeb

Barack Obama came into power carrying with him the aspirations of an expectant nation and the good will of the wider world. He was many things – handsome, articulate, intelligent and charismatic and above all else he was not George W Bush. Indeed not being Bush appeared to be such an achievement for the Chicago man that he was promptly awarded the coveted Nobel Peace Prize despite not having done anything of note to merit it at the time.

In the years that have followed since his historic win and inauguration in 2008, Obama has had his foreign policy successes that the world should not forget – he ended the war in Iraq, he brought to book Osama Bin Laden in the most dramatic of ways and he is on course to wind down US involvement in Afghanistan starting in 2014. However, history may record all of those achievements as mere footnotes in his presidency. All of them were issues he inherited from his predecessor – and highlighting the differences between himself and President GW Bush was the crux of his presidential campaign – he promised ‘change’ from the status quo as it then stood.

obama-red-line-cartoon

However, in dealing with issues that have either emerged or matured under his watch, it is a sad reality that Barack Obama has failed to live up to expectations. Few were more enthusiastic then I at the sight of Obama taking the Presidency – it embodied for me the progress America has made as a society, a man who would once not have been served in countless eateries, who would not have been allowed to use particular washrooms or who would have had to face countless daily humiliations of account of his colour had taken occupancy of the world’s most noteworthy and powerful position – he, a black man – the son of a Kenyan student- was President of the United States. Making history by becoming President is not however an achievement of his Presidency, it is a social and cultural landmark that has assured him a place in history for eternity, but we must not let the magnitude of his holding Office cloud our judgement of him as President as relates to foreign policy decisions.

For me, two things will define Obama’s Presidency as relates to foreign policy – Syria and Iran. The two are inextricably linked and weakness over one is sure to magnify the challenges posed by the other. In setting a red line over chemical weapons for the Assad regime Obama placed his credibility and the credibility of the US on the line. By not acting in a forceful and decisive manner, as now seems sure to be the case, Obama has sent a terrible signal to the world. The redlines of this US President mean nothing, free to be ignored by any dictator in the world without fear of ramifications. It seems if you have powerful friends you are free to flaunt Washington’s warnings at this time as the political will is lacking to back his words with actions. I was shamed and appalled when the British parliament decided not to hold Assad to account for his criminal actions – the UK failed in its obligations to the global community. If the great democracies of this world do not stand tall for human rights and human dignity, who will? I had hoped that the US would still act as the protective arm of the powerless, as a friend to the friendless – but under this President that now seems too much to ask. Being champions of freedom can never be about vocal support alone, it means much more then that – it means action to protect the sanctity of human life. Clinton showed the true meaning of the mantle when he brought Serbia’s genocidal war machine to a screeching halt in 1999 – and for all the opposition, President GW Bush also backed his verbal warnings to Saddam Hussein with the use of force. Obama’s indecisive nature and flip-flopping almost makes one yearn for the days of George W Bush! At least with the Texan you knew if he said it, he meant it. He bit his tongue for no one. Some called him evil or unbelievable, but rest assured had he issues the red line and saw it ignored; Assad would be hiding in a rabbit hole somewhere as pain rained down on his illegitimate regime.

Not only has Obama’s inaction let Syria off the hook – it sends a dangerous message to weakness globally. If Obama dares not strike Syria, where is the assurance that he will stop the theocratic, Shia expansionist regime in Tehran from acquiring even more dangerous arms? If his red line on Syria is a faint mark in sand, why should the world believe his statements on Iran? Iran has seen the inaction over Syria and become emboldened. It will push the nuclear envelope in the coming years and assume its cordial ties with Moscow will too prevent it from being stopped by force. Imagine the dangers of a nuclear Iran! Not only will regional states feel threatened, some like Saudi Arabia will surely seek to counter Iran’s arsenal by developing their own nuclear weapons. In a blink, the entire Non-Proliferation Regime will collapse like a house of cards! Further threats to allied nations and energy supplies mean a nuclear and belligerent Iran is not an acceptable option for anyone – on this issue countries normally far removed from consensus are united. But I like many others and many allied nations, will not take the assurances of the current US President to be credible any more.

There is a fix – Obama should authorize the use of lethal force to break Assad’s war machine and bring down his regime. Further, Iran needs to know that any further disregard for global norms will mean war. Iran does not have great options in terms of retaliation – it cannot choose all out war as the power disparity is too great in favour of Allied nations. It will not block the Strait of Hormuz as that would force further punishment. It will utilize its proxies but this present only tactical nuisance and not any strategic threat owing to overwhelming power disparities in favour of any threatened nation states.

Ultimately, inaction only emboldens aggressors – history has taught us this – and Obama does not want to be the President who allowed his inaction to enable continued untold humanitarian horrors in Syria on his watch – or the nuclearization of Iran and the subsequent complete collapse of the Non-Proliferation Regime. The credibility of the man – and the Office of President of the United States – and by extension the free world at large – is at stake and that is too much to gamble.

Mohsin Zeb, MA Reading University

Wither Japan?

Mohsin Zeb

Much is made of the rise of China as a superpower these days, with comparatively scant attention being paid to the concurrent decline of Japan as the regions’ leading power and the impact of that slide down the global power tables has and will have on the Japanese people and Japan as a state.

JapanNationalism

Two things are important to note from the start – one, that historically and certainly over the past few centuries, Japan has had the better of its regional rivals Korea and China and has in comparative recent history subjugated both via military conquest. The second core point is that the rise of China to superpower status – now surely undisputed as a reality in the near future if Beijing is not already acknowledged as such – will impact Japan more directly than any other state – including the United States. It is Japan that sits a stone’s throw away from China, Japan that is directly in line of the growing and increasingly assertive Chinese military, Japan that faces being sucked into the economic dynamo that China now is – finding itself usurped as the regional leader in every field. Indeed steps towards further economic integration, the one area where cooperation seems logical and desirable by all in the North East Asian region, are somewhat stymied by the fear amongst Japan and South Korea that in a free trade area, neither could complete with China on cost – thus seeing a sizable outflow of capital to maximize the benefit of China’s comparative cost advantage for Japanese and Korean producers. However this article deals not with the economics of China’s meteoric rise – but rather hopes to focus more on the political and social impact of the shifting power dynamics in East Asia.

To gauge this, I rely partially on my own unscientific but tremendously interesting experiences. Many moons ago during my first incarnation as a doctoral student I struck up a friendship with a Japanese student enrolled on the same program. Perhaps we both subconsciously thought that the only other ‘Asian’ in the class would enable an easier friendship to emerge or perhaps he assumed I too was a foreign student who would be equally shy speaking in English before more obviously apparent ‘native speakers’- but none the less over time we became quite close and despite my zigzag journey though different programs and cities to where I am now, we remain good friends. I shall not give his full name as he is still on the program and I have no wish to embarrass him but Nish as I called him (Nishi was too much to say!) gave me a tremendous insight into the mindset of segments of the educated strata of Japanese society and how they both view and react to the sea geopolitical changes taking shape around them.

To say he is a nationalist would be an understatement. His grandfather and granduncle fought and died in Iwo Jima in spring 1945, he had been taught to be proud of his roots and over the years has interned for politicians who now make up the second tier of Japan’s ‘Japan Restoration Party’ – a fiercely nationalistic outfit who govern Osaka and now have a few dozen MP’s in Japan’s parliament. The rapid national rise of the JRP is reflective of the mood of a particular set of Japanese of which Nishi is perhaps representative. Affluent, culturally aware and with a family tradition of military service, their concerns centre on the future of Japan – and I shall relate them as follows.

Why they ask, nearly 70 years after World War Two ended; does the US still have troops in Japan? They see Japan as being occupied and sold out by governments to agree to humiliatingly one sided terms in bilateral US-Japanese ties.

Why is Japan still governed by a constitution forced upon it after the War ended by the Allies? This constitution constrains Japan’s freedom as a sovereign state and leaves it at the mercy of the US in so far as security is concerned?

Why is it wrong for Japan to honor their war dead yet the war dead of other countries are celebrated? Are Japanese war heroes less worthy of recognition?

The undercurrent of frustrated nationalism in the Japanese may not remain so hidden should the feeling that their nation is being superseded by China become more apparent. World War Two and the subsequent political mechanics have bottled Japanese nationalism, have cut out from common conscience that history that glorifies Japan and emboldens the nationalistic Japanese. However, Japan may not wither into second tier power status quietly as some have expected. We have all seen the protests against US troops; against China when events transpire between the two and the rise of right-wing parties such as the JRP reflect the existence of a very real current of nationalistic rebirth evident in some Japanese.

Somewhere in the national psyche of the complex Japanese people is that warrior spirit that made them so feared by Allied powers and so successful as an expansionist military power for centuries. It is my belief that the right external stimuli could well bring this characteristic back to the forefront should the Japanese people – who remain fiercely proud and xenophobic as even close Japanese friends will admit to ‘outsiders’ when they are being honest – feel they face permanent national loss of position and prestige in their region.

It is this undercurrent of anger, frustration and regret that the Japan Restoration Party taps into and the same sentiments are expressed by even some amongst the most educated, worldly and sophisticated Japanese people. It is possible that Japan withers as a power or it may attempt to bridge the gap by investing heavily in its military and in reviving its’ still mighty economy to try and retain its regional leadership.

However, should Japan wither, it is my understanding that it is unlikely that Japan will wither away quietly. Efforts are underway to try and open up the constitution to allow for some offensive military capability and just recently Japan inaugurated the largest warship it was had since its halcyon days of Empire in World War Two – a huge helicopter carrier named Izumo. As China becomes more assertive and expansionist – it should be ready to face stiff resistance from Japan, resilience lesser states such as the Philippines cannot possibly offer. I do not doubt that East Asia has seen a changing of the guard – a passing of the baton to a new primary power, but judging by political developments within Japan – and a renewed overt patriotism within an influential element of Japanese young adults – those who will tomorrow govern the nation on account of their education and noble blood, the Japan will to retain leadership remains. From a valued friendship I have learnt of a culture I knew nothing off, learnt to appreciate a finely crafted Masamune sword or the epics of Japanese literature – but as a political scientist, I have learnt most importantly to observe – not just the ideas of one friend, but a movement led by Japan’s youth – a youth who yearn for the power and prestige their ancestors once knew and enjoyed. From everything I take one core lesson – Japan’s youth will not surrender its regional status without a fight.

Mohsin Zeb, MA Reading University