Young and Reckless

Many commentators have looked at the effect of youth bulges on the revolutions that swept through the Middle East and North Africa region in recent years. Combined with high levels of unemployment, the large amount of youth in Arab countries has led to a persistent instability. Of course there are other factors involved, but one would be hard pressed to say that population dynamics aren’t critical to ongoing events.

But what has been happening since the revolution took hold in various countries? At least in Egypt, the problem only seems to be getting worse. During the Mubarak era, Egypt generally saw a wavering trend line – a slight bump here, a slight decline there – that seems to have held relatively steady. However, in 2012 birthrates soared to 32 for every 1,000 people, which equaled the 1991 rate extant prior to the imposition of family planning campaigns during Mubarak’s reign. Whereas the Mubarak government viewed economics and demographics as linked, the Morsy government tends to either prevaricate and not tackle the problem via policy or to view this the instability as a strictly economic one.

Importantly, there may also be a connection between democratization capabilities and demographic time bombs. Richard Cincotta, of the Stimson Center, notes:

“Since 1970, for a country within the demographic arc of instability (often referred to as a “youth-bulge country”), the risk of intra-state conflict has been 2.5 times, or higher, than on the outside. At any one time, intra-state conflicts inside the arc outnumber those outside the arc by an average of nine to one. Perhaps more surprisingly, after a state’s population matures, and after its internal armed conflicts have been settled, it tends to leave behind much of the risk of an intra-state conflict.”

While one should be cautious of any certainty here, this does imply that Egypt’s ongoing population explosion will make further conflict more likely and thus inhibit Egypt’s democratization project. Of course there are other factors involved, but this certainly will not make things any easier on Egypt going forward.

Perhaps Egypt should look to the example of Iran. During the 1980’s Iran experienced a huge population boom, partly as a result of the desire for more children during the war years. In the 1990’s, however, Iran instituted one of the most successful family planning regimes in history. To give a rundown:

“After the war with Iraq in 1988, the government realized that rapid population growth was a hindrance to development and subsequently called for the establishment of a national family planning program. In December 1989, the revived family planning program was inaugurated with three major goals: 1) encourage spacing of 3-4 years between pregnancies; 2) discourage pregnancies among women aged under 18 and over 35 years; and 3) limit family size to 3 children. In May 1993, a law was passed that included disincentive penalties for couples who had more than 3 children. According to the Ministry of Health and Medical Education (1989-97), there was an increased use of contraceptives among married women, and the total fertility rate (TFR) dropped from 5.2 to 2.6 children. Moreover, Iran’s 1996 census showed a total population of 60.6 million with an average annual growth rate of 1.5% over the previous 5-year period.”

Clearly these trends are reversible via good policy. Iran was capable of completely turning its trajectory around. Yes, Iran still suffers a youth bulge due to the prior birth explosion, but the effects have been significantly mitigated.

Will Egypt be able to chart a similar trajectory? Only time will tell.

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

What’s the Deal? Crafting an Agreement on Iran’s Nuclear Program

Ever wondered exactly what an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program would look like? The NESA Center’s Strategic Studies Network (SSN) recently undertook the monumental task of drafting just such an agreement. Hosted at the Ca’Foscari University of Venice from 16 to 17 March, the SSN convened a specialized task force with that goal in mind. The group – consisting of P5+1, EU, GCC, Israeli, and Turkish experts and practitioners – was able to reach a shared understanding on a broad package that included a draft agreement, a phased reciprocal sequencing chart, and a sample of a bilateral “side letter” as a first step toward normalizing relations with Iran. As noted in the introduction to the report:

“Renewed negotiations surrounding Iran’s nuclear program have generated considerable commentary as international concerns about Tehran’s intentions rise and sanctions bite deeper into the country’s economy. The biggest headlines involve the military dimensions of the issue – debates over the relative merits of military action to destroy or delay Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapons capability versus deterrence or containment of a nuclear-armed Iran. Others shift the focus to diplomatic efforts and debate the potential scope of these negotiations – whether they should be narrowly focused on Iran’s nuclear program or encompass a broad set of issues constituting a “grand bargain.” Still others focus on the process of the talks themselves by exploring the effectiveness of particular negotiating tactics.

What is missing from the conversation, however, is an investigation of the substantive configuration of these elements that might constitute a successful and internationally acceptable agreement on Iran’s nuclear program. A thorough examination of how the various policy prescriptions articulated to date might be reflected in authentic negotiations would advance thought leadership in this area beyond theory toward practical application. Moreover, the negotiated settlement that might result from such an endeavor could serve as the cornerstone of a broader effort to normalize the international relations of Iran.”

The full report, which includes the text of the draft agreement, the phased reciprocal sequencing chart, and the sample bilateral “side letter,” can be found here under the Publications section of the SSN website.

Xi Goes and Visits Putin – Oh Uh!

This weekend’s big news will be the results of a two-day meeting between China’s newly installed President, Xi Jinping and President Putin of Russia.  The meeting has Washington, DC all aflutter, with hundreds of analysts and reporters trying to interpret if this meeting is the beginning of a new strategic partnership between the People’s Republic of China and Russia. 

It makes a kind of sense for China and Russia to consider a stronger strategic partnership.  Both countries find themselves on the same side of several international issues – the Syrian civil conflict and Iran sanctions leap to mind – and both have been chaffing against international pressures regarding democratic development and human rights protection.  Finally, both China and Russia remain wary of American global power.

I have no doubt that China and the Russia will improve bilateral ties, for no other reason than China needs access to the ample petroleum deposits resting in Siberia.  Yet, the relationship will never mature as many in China and Russia hope and many more in the United States and Europe fear.  First, China is overt in its immediate interest in Russia – fossil fuel.  China’s economy, spurred by rapid urbanization and infrastructure development, needs access to ample resources.  China prefers to find these energy resources near its boundaries (partially explaining its spread into the South China Seas, seduction of Indonesia, and continued presence in Burma) and to avoid having to provide for the security of a region in order to gain access to resources (i.e. Africa and the Middle East).

China maintains its long-standing policy of openness to all, but committed to none.  With the exception of North Korea, China has no mutual defense treaty with any other country – and it does not wish to pursue such with other countries.  Chinese leaders and analysts think they can rise to supremacy by being clever in diplomacy and throwing its weight around economically.  It may be right, but that means it will invest in the types of strategic alliances that the United States crafts throughout the world. 

Finally, the game remains in East Asia for China.  It flirts with new foreign policy directions (such as the much discussed “March West” policy), but the country’s focus will remain for the foreseeable future in East Asia.  Regional preeminence is a necessary condition for the country’s long-term plans.  Russia, for all its continued importance in global affairs, is not an Asian power.  Vladivostok, Russia’s eastern port city, is a dilapidated mess and its eastern military units (particular the eastern fleet) remain minimal.  Russia is far more interested in Central Asia and the Middle East than in East Asia.  The Russians simply do not have the option of providing substantial assistance to the Chinese.

Going forward, the bilateral meeting between these leaders may lead to greater strategic cooperation.  China and Russia may agree to continue to hold the line regarding Assad’s regime in Syria and ratify some general guidance for mutual cooperation in Central Asia.  Thus, for the United States, the meeting this weekend may be of little immediate impact for strategic positioning.  In the long-term, it is Russian oil pouring into China that may prove to be the most important development.  Access to those deposits will allow the Chinese to continue to be a free rider in the Middle East – using US security structures to serve their own interests.

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Why China Won’t Become a Middle East Power

Ample attention continues to be paid towards Wang Jisi’s argument for a Grand Chinese Strategy – “the March West” – and rightfully so.  The “March West” proposes that China enhances its engagement with Central and South Asia, due to the complexities of East Asian engagement at this moment.  Wang’s proposal is a logical means by which the Chinese can escape the tense diplomatic environment of East Asia and build strong ties with surrounding countries.  The problem with Wang’s proposition is that encourages wild speculation regarding China’s interests throughout Western Asia.

First and foremost, China remains and shall remain centered on its objectives in the Pacific.  East Asia is a crowded neighborhood, full of modern states with strong militaries and economies, but regional supremacy is essential for long-term Chinese aspirations.  China’s relations with its East Asian neighbors (and other Pacific powers – i.e. the United States) are the marquee element of its foreign policy.  Yet, as recent events reveal, China’s plan to rise to preeminence lends towards the creation of hostility, misunderstandings, and unnecessary posturing.  Reaching out to its Western neighbors is a lower-risk operation.

It is without debate that China will seek to retain strong ties with the Central Asian Republics, primarily due to China’s Western Development Policy (a plan to develop its western provinces, namely Xinjiang).  Likewise, given South Asia’s proximity to China and continue strong relations with Pakistan, it is fairly certain that China will do more to engage its South Asian neighbors (it may work the opposite direction by encouraging India to reach out to East Asia).

What it will not do is involve itself heavily in the affairs of the Middle East.  China’s “March West” is being interpreted by some in North America and Europe as an indication of China’s interests in engaging in the Middle East.  Their logic centers on China’s rising energy needs.  Essentially, as the US builds up its domestic energy industry (shale oil/gas) and continues to withdraw its security forces from the region, China will have no choice but to “take” the United States’ place as the underwriter of Middle Eastern energy security. 

This view is wrong and fundamentally misinterprets how foreign policy decisions are crafted within China.  First, the United States is not “withdrawing” from the Middle East.  It certainly is seeking a lower profile in the region, but the past decade of US involvement in the region should be seen as an aberrant outlier, not a rule.  Second, China has not suddenly discovered the Middle East.  It has historic and strong ties to Iran, Syria (Assad’s regime), and Libya (pre-revolution).  The revolutions in Syria and Libya were a strong reminder of how wary they must be with investment in foreign regimes and their ties with Iran continue to be a source of continual diplomatic maneuvering.  China will certainly continue to engage the region and invest in specific projects (it has isolated projects sprinkled throughout the Middle East), but regional engagement will continue to be a secondary objective for Beijing. 

In short, the Middle East is too unstable for Chinese tastes.  It would rather stay in its own neighborhood or continue to develop investments made elsewhere (like in sub-Saharan Africa).  For its energy needs, I would bet that Middle Eastern stockpiles are not nearly as attractive as those found in Russia.  Therefore, expect China to continue to act as it has – seek preeminence in East Asia and invest strongly in its neighbors (i.e. Russia).     

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Cybersecurity in 2013

Cybersecurity is a hot topic this month. President Obama highlighted the issue during his State of the Union address, saying,

“We know hackers steal people’s identities and infiltrate private e-mail. We know foreign countries and companies swipe our corporate secrets. Now our enemies are also seeking the ability to sabotage our power grid, our financial institutions, and our air traffic control systems. We cannot look back years from now and wonder why we did nothing in the face of real threats to our security and our economy.”

In response to this threat, Obama further indicated that he signed an executive order, designed to “strengthen our cyber defenses by increasing information sharing, and developing standards to protect our national security, our jobs, and our privacy,” but emphasized that Congress still needs to do more to “give our government a greater capacity to secure our networks and deter attacks” (NYT).

A recent Bloomberg article offers a better understanding of the executive order, while addressing the political barriers blocking effective cybersecurity legislation. Essentially, it requires federal government to “develop voluntary cybersecurity standards for companies operating the nation’s vital infrastructure.” As mentioned in his address, “information sharing” also plays an important role in combating emerging cyber threats. According to Bloomberg, “the order expands a government program for sharing classified threat data with defense contractors and Internet-service providers to include infrastructure owners and the companies that provide them with network security.” With regards to cyber legislation pushed by both the House and Senate, the political objections are predictable – conservatives consider strict compliance standards as “burdensome regulation,” while the left expresses unease with companies potentially sharing customers’ personal data with the government.

The executive order’s focus on protecting critical infrastructure comes as companies reported a significant increase in attacks on their computer systems, up 52 percent in 2012, according to the US Department of Homeland Security. At the forefront of this aggressive campaign is China. The New York Times article, “Chinese Army Unit Is Seen as Tied to Hacking Against US,” reviews the findings of Mandiant, an American computer security firm responsible for linking a series of cyberattacks to one group based in Shanghai, known as “Comment Crew.” Based on Mandiant’s analysis, as well as the recent National Intelligence Estimate’s findings, Comment Crew is likely a state-sponsored group whose aim is to not only steal sensitive information for economic gain, but to obtain access to critical infrastructure in the US, as well. As The New York Times reveals, one company targeted by the group had “remote access to more than 60 percent of oil and gas pipelines in North America.”

China’s increased focus on American infrastructure raises the question – why? Greg Austin, director of policy innovation at the EastWest Institute, suggests that if a war broke out between China and Taiwan, and the US intervened, then the Chinese could retaliate by targeting American infrastructure (NYT). 

Richard Andres explores this concept of state-sponsored cyber-militias in “Cyber-Gang Warfare”. These autonomous militias, Andres argues, allow states to “deflect responsibility for attacks originating directly or indirectly from the state sponsor,” essentially complicating the victim’s ability to attribute an attack to a specific entity. He notes that states also benefit tremendously from stealing intellectual property, and, as evidence, cites the theft of American F-35 design plans, which eventually led to the development of the Chinese J-31 stealth fighter, a replica of the American model.  

Andres also emphasizes how cyberwarfare places states on an equal playing field. Referencing the recent Iranian attacks on US banks, he notes that they have the “potential to inflict much greater costs than the Iranian military could extract in a conventional war.” Furthermore, Andres warns that these attacks send a worrisome message to other states, because they demonstrate how to inflict damage without fear of reprisal.  

Aside from threats posed by states and the cyber-militias they support, NPR recently featured a story on the dangers of flawed computer software. To a hacker, the glitch acts as a “potential back door into the computer network”; unfortunately, demand for this information is on the rise, and researchers frequently sell secrets no questions asked, reports NPR. One “vulnerability seller” explained, “I don’t see bad guys or good guys, it’s just business.” This mentality grants states or cyber criminals a chance to inflict significant damage, especially given the absence of regulation on the vulnerability market.

In combatting cyber threats, experts offer a range of options. Most often, companies are encouraged to improve their cyber defense capabilities, but some in the private sector are adopting offensive tactics in hopes of deterring and disrupting criminal activity. Former top FBI cyber-attorney Steven Chabinsky advocates this approach, saying, “There is no way we are going to win the cybersecurity effort on defense. We have to go on the offensive.” This approach, however, is met with some skepticism, prompting concerns that this tactic amounts to vigilante justice.

Richard Clarke, chairman of Good Harbor Security Risk Management and former special advisor for cybersecurity during the George W. Bush administration, highlights significant gaps in international cyberdefense policy, and presents a variety of remedies in his op-ed for The Washington Post. For Clarke, international cooperation is a vital component in combating transnational threats; in the cyber realm, he advocates creating an international cybercrime center capable of deploying “fly-away teams” to conduct investigations and help countries suffering from cyberattacks. He also encourages norm-building, focusing first on areas of joint concern. Since nations worldwide have an economic stake in secure global markets and financial institutions, Clarke recommends that cooperation begin on this front. Similarly, he advocates protecting the infrastructure that supports cyberspace.

Cyber threats won’t dissipate anytime soon, especially as states and non-state actors view cyberspace as an arena placing them on par with global superpowers. For the US, effectively confronting threats should start at home – first by pushing Congress to pass legislation with teeth. It’s also important this legislation be timely and flexible, written in such a way to keep pace with rapidly changing technologies. Though politically sensitive, requiring private companies to improve their cyber defense capabilities in order to better safeguard data, intellectual property, and customers’ private information is critical. As Obama’s new executive order establishes, the private sector won’t manage risks alone, but work closely with the federal government to pinpoint vulnerabilities, identify perpetrators, and eliminate threats altogether. Time is critical, though, and another day wasted on political bickering is yet another opportunity for states to steal valuable secrets, or even target critical American infrastructure.

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.