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Book Review: Military Waste: The Unexpected Consequences of Permanent War Readiness by Joshua O. Reno

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 31/03/2021 - 9:48pm in

In Military Waste: The Unexpected Consequences of Permanent War ReadinessJoshua O. Reno offers a new ethnographic study of the long retired physical manifestations of the US military-industrial complex in order to unravel the impact of US military waste on the people and communities living outside of formal war zones. This book is an essential contribution to the larger global conversation about the effects of war on the socio-political health of nations and the lasting environmental impact of its psychological residues and material remnants, writes Dr Joanna Rozpedowski.

Military Waste: The Unexpected Consequences of Permanent War Readiness. Joshua O. Reno. University of California Press. 2019.

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‘U.S. Military Produces More Greenhouse Gas Emissions Than up to 140 Countries’ reads the headline of one of the popular American weeklies in June 2019. ‘The U.S. military emits more greenhouse gases than Sweden and Denmark,’ recalled another. In an aptly titled journal article, ‘Hidden Carbon Costs of the ‘’Everywhere War’’’, Oliver Belcher et al examined the environmental impact of the world’s third largest military by active personnel (after China and India) and a foremost force in terms of its formidable hardware (3,476 tactical aircraft, 637 unmanned aerial vehicles, 275 surface ships and submarines, 2,831 tanks, 450 ICBM launchers and a total inventory of 5,800 nuclear warheads). Belcher et al reckoned that to accurately account for the US military as a ‘major climate actor’, one must first consider the geopolitical ecology of its global logistical supply chains which enable the acquisition and consumption of hydrocarbon-based fuels. With a 596 billion US dollar annual military spending budget – equivalent to the next seven biggest defence spenders, China, Saudi Arabia, the UK, India, France and Japan, combined – the ecological footprint of the US military is proportionally staggering.

Studies have shown that the U.S. Department of Defense remains the world’s single largest consumer of oil and a leading emitter of greenhouse gases, second only to China. A single mission can consume as much as 1,000 metric tons of greenhouse gases. Scholars have estimated that between 2001 and 2017, the Department of Defense, along with all service branches, emitted as much as 1.2 billion metric tons of greenhouse gases, which is a rough equivalent of driving 255 million passenger vehicles over the course of a year.

Scientists and security analysts have warned for more than a decade that global warming is a potential national security concern and a considerable threat magnifier. Some have even projected that the consequences of global warming – rising seas, powerful storms, famine and diminished access to fresh water – will make regions of the world politically unstable, strain social relations, lead to mass migrations and exacerbate existing refugee crises. Many worry that wars and protracted conflicts will inevitably follow.

Yet, with few exceptions, the military’s significant contribution to climate change and environmental pollution has received scarce attention. Joshua O. Reno’s book, Military Waste: The Unexpected Consequences of Permanent War Readiness, promises to remedy this omission. In his ethnographic study of the long retired physical manifestations of the US military-industrial-Congressional complex, Reno attempts to unravel the impact of such waste on the people and communities outside of formal war zones.

In his opening chapter Reno admits to the inherently wasteful nature of America’s permanent war preparedness and its excesses which permeate and interweave the country’s military and civilian worlds. In addition to the war’s obvious afflictions of human loss, injury and trauma, Reno shows that there are the less ostentatious, but no less injurious, toxic contaminations of the earth’s atmosphere and soil on and around sites where obsolete military debris is put to its final rest.

America’s geographically unbounded empire and its attachment to military hardware and dual-use technologies, combined with a penchant for war, have contributed to the technical mastery and militarisation of outer space and resulted in no less consequential orbital overcrowding and space pollution, issuing its own peculiar extraterrestrial ‘tragedy of the commons’. The American network of bases abroad – a critical infrastructure of US imperialism – has also made a pronounced mark on the fauna and flora of overseas island territories. Massive jet fuel spills, radiation leakages from nuclear-powered naval vessels, radioactivity on nuclear testing sites and harm done to plant species and marine life have all laid waste to sites the US military had once occupied. In Reno’s parlance, the US military has become ‘a vector for the spread of toxicity’ (201) at the affected periphery of its empire with a significant probability of blowback to its core.

Reno points out that consequential policy debates and specific budgetary allocations tend to centre on the necessity of investing in particular machinery and cutting-edge technology, instead of debating the efficacy and costs of maintaining the permanent war economy in the first place or inquiring after the ethically questionable practice of ‘private enrichment from public investment’ (33) that stems from the weapons manufacturers’ lucrative government contracts.

The excessive tolerance of government expenditures on the maintenance of unmatched military superiority and the many ‘creative and horrible ways’ of killing, Reno contends, resides in the American public’s anxiety about falling behind its real and imagined enemies, foreign and domestic. While the former yields the spectacular legacy of war profiteering from entangling foreign alliances, the latter contends with a generational inheritance embedded in America’s revolutionary founding. Here, Reno draws on the uniquely American affection for gun ownership to show parallels and paradoxes between the world’s largest and mightiest military and security apparatus and its heavily armed domestic population.

It is at this point that Reno’s book enters into a conversation with its near contemporaries: namely, Chalmers Johnson’s The Sorrows of Empire (2004) and Christopher Coyne and Abigail Hall’s Tyranny Comes Home: The Domestic Fate of U.S. Militarism (2018), which argued that America’s preparation for interventions and war abroad has fundamentally affected domestic institutions, values and liberties at home. An aggressive empire with a militaristic foreign policy runs the risk of fraying the social fabric and changing the character of its citizens. The rise of state surveillance, mass shootings and mass casualties, the militarisation of domestic law enforcement and expanding use of drones are not accidental but inevitable by-products of foreign interventions, which threaten to severely damage, if not destroy, the democratic foundation of the American republic. America’s squandered greatness – a self-inflicted wound permeating its militaristic core – has already rendered its historic providential mission obsolete and will undoubtedly cast the country in the eyes of its peers and competitors into further disrepute as its political and moral values decay at the expense of harnessing its military ethos.

Yet, Reno’s anthropological study is also a commentary on America’s creativity and entrepreneurial spirit. The author draws on the experiences of local conservationists to illustrate how the phenomenon of America’s perpetual war preparation ties with environmental devastation and oddly aids in its restoration. Reno’s book casts light on individuals who have used surplus military warcraft for coral coastline and reef restoration in places like Florida’s Key West. Here, ruin-scapes of dilapidated military apparatus can also become places of ‘imaginative possibility’ (86). America’s sunken military ships are thus impiously ‘memorialized’ (93) as reused and repurposed military waste, raising the possibility that the true worth of America’s impressive warcraft – irrespective of its astonishingly high research and development cost – might thus be found more in its storage, in the scrap yard or submerged and vanquished on the bottom of the ocean rather than in battle.

Joshua Reno’s book is an essential element of a larger global conversation about the effects of war on the socio-political health of nations and the lasting environmental impact of its psychological residues and material remnants. In reading this well-researched, albeit largely academic, study laced with its own specific theoretical context and jargon, one will emerge much better informed about the ways America’s war machines can be demilitarised and repurposed. To render its findings relevant, however, Reno’s study would benefit from a much greater engagement with the policymaking community. As it stands, Military Waste is a diagnostic work of scholarship, which focuses on the multi-pronged effects of the ailment rather than the prophylactic remedies against the pathogens which gives rise to it. Nevertheless, causes cannot be made known without first fully rendering their effects and Reno’s work provides the reader with a wealth of information on this interdisciplinary subject.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics. The LSE RB blog may receive a small commission if you choose to make a purchase through the above Amazon affiliate link. This is entirely independent of the coverage of the book on LSE Review of Books.

Image Credit: Old Hercules transport plane, Khe Sanh Combat Base (Ta Con), Vietnam (Paul Mannix CC BY 2.0).


Book Review: In the Dragon’s Shadow: Southeast Asia in the Chinese Century by Sebastian Strangio

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 16/03/2021 - 11:00pm in

In In the Dragon’s Shadow: Southeast Asia in the Chinese CenturySebastian Strangio offers a new study exploring relations between China and the nations of Southeast Asia, not only examining China’s contemporary involvement in the region but also providing historical context and reflecting on the implications for the twenty-first century. This book sets a high standard for future scholarship in this area, finds Thomas Kingston, as the author’s grassroots knowledge and journalistic skills have crafted a convincing and informative work. 

In the Dragon’s Shadow: Southeast Asia in the Chinese Century. Sebastian Strangio. Yale University Press. 2020.

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Southeast Asia has long been overlooked in both mainstream media and academic literature, and whilst this is a professional and personal peeve of mine, it has real-world implications. With Southeast Asia historically used as a launchpad for trade with and missions to China, the twentieth century represented a changing approach to the region. Informed by the ideological binary of the Cold War, efforts to counter Chinese-backed Communist groups led to open and covert interventions in the majority of the nations that comprise Southeast Asia. A realpolitik approach led to some notorious decisions, such as the US backing of the anti-Communist purges in Indonesia that are linked to as many as one million deaths.

The end of the Cold War resulted in reduced Western involvement and recent years have seen this go even further with US policy shifting from Barack Obama’s ‘pivot to Asia’ to Donald Trump’s ‘America First’. Almost simultaneously we have seen the ‘Rise of China’; whilst Southeast Asia was one of the first regions targeted for investment by former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, recent developments now mean China can be seen as a real alternative to US and European Union (EU) ties. Some might see this scaling back of US influence and the shift in Chinese policy as luck, but as Seneca is alleged to have said, ‘luck is where preparation meets opportunity’. It is to this confluence of preparation and opportunity that Sebastian Strangio turns his attention in his excellent new book, In the Dragon’s Shadow.

Strangio’s work is a timely addition to both the literature considering China-Southeast Asia relations and the increasing number of approachable books that explore the economic and political dynamics of the rapidly changing world we live in. Timely is a key word here: firstly, as this work to some degree rectifies the neglect of Southeast Asia in terms of accessible scholarship. Secondly, as COVID-19, the presidential transition in the US and Brexit in the UK all develop, both China and Southeast Asia stand to play a key role in how the rest of the twenty-first century might evolve. It is into this opening that this book fits, aiming to illustrate not only China’s contemporary involvement across Southeast Asia, but also the historical context for this and what this might mean for the future.

The author is a long-term resident of Southeast Asia and has worked as a journalist throughout the region during most of its radical periods of change. I first came across his debut, Hun Sen’s Cambodia, just before moving to the country to work on human rights-related issues. I found this work an invaluable foundation to understanding the sometimes confusing and hectic developments I was witnessing and working on. Strangio’s grassroots knowledge and journalistic skills, not only working with sources but also crafting a convincing and informative written work, are apparent throughout this book. Very little about the reader is assumed, and I would propose that all that is necessary to understand and enjoy this book is an interest in the topics discussed.

The scene is set in Chapter One, a masterful laying of foundations for what follows. Here, recent Chinese politics are brought to life with vivid descriptions, whilst the importance of this on a global level is underlined. Not only is this key to appreciating the rest of the book, but it is vital to understand Strangio’s stance on China’s rise and aims in order to frame his findings. Strangio’s assessment is that China does not seek to ‘overturn and replace the existing US-backed global security order’, instead claiming that ‘Chinese attitudes are more ambivalent’. Ultimately, China wants ‘to reclaim something of the centrality it enjoyed in East Asia prior to its subjugation by the Western empires and imperial Japan in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries’. 

A cursory glance at recent titles on China and news headlines demonstrates that this seemingly pragmatic stance is not without dispute or controversy. Whilst I feel it is a good thing, it should be emphasised that this work is not one that sees China as posing a direct ideological or military challenge to the ‘West’, but rather positions its rise as rooted in self-interest and historical dynamics. The context to this perspective is fleshed out in the remainder of Chapter One, which explores China’s multilayered historical relationship with Southeast Asia. The following chapter develops this further, albeit switching the focus from China’s interest in the region to the region’s interactions with and stance on China.

The remainder of the book follows a structure that considers the region nation by nation, starting with Vietnam before working through Cambodia and Laos, Thailand, Burma, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines. The book unpicks a complex web of ties, from ethnic Chinese communities in the region to China’s growing role as an ally and investor and, ultimately, an alternative to the US/EU support that often depends on democratisation and commitment to human rights. The nation-by-nation structure allows for a more detailed consideration of the differing experiences of the relationship between China and Southeast Asia. The exceptions to this approach (but not the treatment) are Cambodia and Laos, which get a combined chapter. Practically this makes sense as these nations lack the economic or political clout of populous Indonesia or small but mighty Singapore. Whilst in many other works this would mean less detail, this is not the case here.

In fact, this chapter was probably my favourite of them all. Whilst all of the chapters are strong in their own right, the section on Cambodia and Laos offers an insight into how radically China’s influence can change economic, political and social situations. Cambodia’s most notable examples include the rewriting of history, erasing the previous linking of China with the horrors of the Khmer Rouge as the country reorientates itself away from EU/US ties towards the allure of funding without ideological baggage (such as the requirements of democratisation and commitment to human rights). There is also an economic and material element to this realignment, usually linked to the Belt and Road Initiative. Whilst this initiative has been praised (usually by Chinese state media) for its role in development, the experiences of Cambodia and Laos demonstrate how the influx of investments, investors and workers is often accompanied by unofficial/private interests that have less than noble aims.

Amongst other issues, Strangio explains how unsafe Chinese-backed construction projects have led to the deaths of Cambodian workers, whilst the deeper pockets of Chinese investors have seen the pushing out of domestic vendors and businesses in Cambodia. This adds insight into what China’s attention means below the headline-grabbing level of trade deals and billion-dollar investments.

Laos, just across the border from China, illustrates this even further with the historical combination of poverty and war resulting in significant underdevelopment. New waves of Chinese investment and migration have meant a changing landscape and economy, with highways, railways and dams alongside Chinese business expansion. Laos’s position, whether in terms of geographical proximity, lack of development or ideological ties, means its experience with China is one to watch in the future. It is clear that Laos’s Communist Party has learnt a lot from China about shifting to economic liberalisation whilst maintaining power. China’s model of developing an agrarian nation into an economic powerhouse is surely desirable, whilst the poignant example of a border town’s meteoric rise, shabby contemporary state and potential resurrection demonstrates the uncertainty of such an economic relationship.

To any reader spurred by the inclusion of the Bruneian flag on the cover, hoping for a snapshot, I am sorry to disappoint as that is lacking – as is a discussion of East Timor. However, that in no way impairs the book and its contribution to the field. At the time of writing, out of the 106 books I read in 2020, this probably stands out as one of the most interesting and enjoyable, offering a well-balanced account. It avoids rose-tinted spectacles by recognising the nuanced reality of China’s relationships and history, but also avoids the reductionist take that sees China’s presence as invariably malign and undesirable. Informative yet digestible and combining accounts of geopolitical developments with the anecdotes of taxi drivers, this book sets a high standard for future works on the topic. It would be of interest to a wide range of readers, from those seeking to expand their knowledge of what the twenty-first century might mean on a global level to dedicated China watchers interested in understanding more about China’s impact.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics. The LSE RB blog may receive a small commission if you choose to make a purchase through the above Amazon affiliate link. This is entirely independent of the coverage of the book on LSE Review of Books.

Image Credit: Image by Thuận Tiện Nguyễn from Pixabay


Book Review: Libya’s Fragmentation: Structure and Process in Violent Conflict by Wolfram Lacher

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 03/03/2021 - 10:36pm in

In Libya’s Fragmentation: Structure and Process in Violent ConflictWolfram Lacher offers a detailed examination of the conflict in Libya, focusing on how the transformation of social ties and the fragmentation of local politics in different communities have played a key role in shaping the country’s trajectory since the overthrow of Qadhafi in 2011. This is a valuable contribution to the literature exploring the transformative effect of violent conflict on communities and is a crucial study for political scientists and scholars seeking to understand how the political and military landscape in Libya has fragmented, writes Burak Kazim Yilmaz.

Libya’s Fragmentation: Structure and Process in Violent Conflict. Wolfram Lacher. Bloomsbury. 2020.

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While it is nearly a decade-old conflict, the dynamics of civil war in Libya require comprehensive understanding by scholars and policymakers seeking to address the situation. Wolfram Lacher’s book, Libya’s Fragmentation: Structure and Process in Violent Conflict, explains how the predicament in Libya has gradually emerged after the toppling of Qadhafi’s regime in the 2011 revolution. Presenting a very detailed background to the conflict, with a particular focus on four different localities, Lacher mainly argues that it has been the fragmentation of local politics within different communities that has determined the country’s fate.

Before delineating the book’s main findings, the author’s nine-year field research, conducting over 300 interviews in Libyan Arabic without a translator, is worthy of praise. To collect data, Lacher travelled to different cities in Libya on several occasions between November 2011 and February 2019, even when the risks of being in and travelling between cities soared after 2014.

As the author himself indicates, in a country where sources of information are distorted, any document other than that obtained from the ground would have been unreliable as the basis for the book’s arguments. Therefore, these interviews with interlocutors – including politicians, businesspeople, members of armed groups, tribal notables and civil society activists – have great importance for the sake of any research on the Libyan civil war. Regarding localities, Lacher chose to analyse the Nafusa Mountains, Bani Walid and Misrata, which are all located in the west, and Tobruk, which is in the east. He explains the rationale behind this selection as an effort to best explore the differences in terms of communities’ varied exposure to and participation in violence in 2011 (12).

In successfully conducting research in a conflict-ridden country, this work will not only speak to scholars interested in Libya or the MENA region, but also to those who study violent conflict in general. Lacher claims that studies focusing on the role of pre-existing social structures in civil wars ‘neglect the fact that the onset of violence transforms social ties’ (62). He emphasises the uncertainties shortly before a civil war breaks out as actors experience difficulties in positioning themselves and end up demonstrating ‘collective indecision’. In such confusing environments, alignments are established by the triggering effects of contingent events. Thus, individual actions amid uncertainties may have a greater impact on galvanising people than expected.

Regarding the Libyan case, while people were hesitant to choose whether to support the revolution or to remain loyal to the Qadhafi regime in the first days of the uprising, it was minor incidents that led to the formation of armed rebels. For example, in Misrata, the protests erupted after a member of a prominent Misratan family criticised the actions of regime forces against the protesters in Benghazi. This started the chain of events that eventually forced regime forces to leave Misrata and made the city a revolutionary stronghold.

To grasp how violence transforms communities, Lacher provides insight into how these cities and regions were related to Qadhafi before the revolution occurred. Given this historical background, as one of Lacher’s interlocutors, a politician, states: ‘you should have expected Misrata to back the regime, given how much they had benefited from it. Bani Walid should have risen up, given how much it had suffered’ (74). While Misratans had been highly represented as ministers in Tripoli and its merchants worked with cronies of the regime, the regime had repressed Bani Walid harshly during the 1990s. However, with the outbreak of the civil war, Bani Walid emerged as a loyalist town, whereas Misrata became a host for staunch supporters of the revolution.

Another theme that the book focuses on extensively is the social embeddedness of armed groups. Rather than assume that armed groups represent separate entities, in Chapter Three Lacher suggests that armed groups ‘are socially embedded or insulated from their surroundings to varying degrees’ (106). This is the main driver of the process of fragmentation, the author argues. To the extent that an armed group is embedded in its community, its decision-making process is under influence of the community. This is why in a complex environment such as civil war, in which groups frequently have to make strategic choices, being deeply embedded prevents them from acting at the expense of other groups’ interests in their communities. Therefore, they cannot rise up to a position of central authority even in their cities.

In Libya, fragmentation has reached such a degree that some neighbourhoods have been harbouring different armed groups and the rifts among groups continue to widen as groups are obliged to make new choices. Lacher asserts that this tension between ‘strong local social ties and changing strategic conditions’ (145) has prolonged the war among different armed groups. In Misrata, the Nafusa Mountains and Bani Walid, communities increased their social cohesion on different occasions in victories or defeats but failed to maintain it once they began to compete over access to state institutions and resources. Innumerous groups have desired political office and other resources, all of which are scarce.

This framework also explains why Khalifa Haftar – ‘once an army officer close to Qadhafi, later his exiled opponent who after 2011 emerged as a blatantly power-hungry warlord’ (2) – was able to emerge as a strong power centre in eastern Libya. A close examination of Haftar’s rise in Tobruk demonstrates that the absence of local cohesive forces significantly contributed to his consolidation of power. Unlike other cities and regions, Tobruk did not experience a phase in which people fought for toppling the regime, as in Misrata and Zintan, or defending their city as in Bani Walid. The city was emancipated from the Qadhafi regime without much effort and this prohibited the emergence of local cohesive armed groups.

As a result, when Haftar built an army in the city, he did not face a rival also seeking power. Furthermore, Haftar received strong support from foreign countries such as Egypt and UAE: ‘no other Libyan actor benefited from support even remotely comparable in magnitude and constancy to that available to Haftar’ (185). These factors enabled Haftar to disembed himself from social networks in the east and allowed him to strengthen his authority. Lacher states that Haftar was even able to abduct or assassinate his adversaries (189-90) and eliminate the regional autonomy movement without any limitations from social networks.

In conclusion, with Libya’s Fragmentation, Wolfram Lacher has made a remarkable contribution to the literature on civil conflict and the Libyan civil war by putting forward the transformative effects of violent conflicts on communities. His work is crucial for political scientists and policymakers seeking to understand how the political and military landscape in Libya has fragmented and why the actors are still in dispute with each other.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics. The LSE RB blog may receive a small commission if you choose to make a purchase through the above Amazon affiliate link. This is entirely independent of the coverage of the book on LSE Review of Books.

Image Credit: (US Institute of Peace CC BY 2.0).


Book Review: Tomorrow, the World: The Birth of U.S. Global Supremacy by Stephen Wertheim

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 17/02/2021 - 10:56pm in

In Tomorrow, the World: The Birth of U.S. Global SupremacyStephen Wertheim challenges the myth that the United States reluctantly acquired armed superpower status, instead focusing on World War II as a crucial period in which the US transformed its role in the international order and achieved global primacy. While unconvinced by the book’s argument that the pursuit of US primacy has been immoral and unwise, Charles Dunst nonetheless praises this admirable historical scholarship for providing an important corrective to the notion that the United States sleepwalked into a position of global supremacy.

If you are interested in this book, you can listen to author Dr Stephen Wertheim discuss its findings at the LSE book talk, ‘How the United States Decided to Dominate the World’, recorded at LSE on 20 October 2020. 

Tomorrow, the World: The Birth of U.S. Global Supremacy. Stephen Wertheim. Harvard University Press. 2020.

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In classrooms across the United States, children learn from an early age that our country did not choose its current superpower status, but that the world thrust it upon us. It was circumstance — the rise of Nazi Germany and imperial Japan — that in 1941 awoke America from its isolationist slumber, forcing us into World War II; it was again circumstance — Europe’s destruction and the rise of Stalinism — that forced the United States to assume the role of liberal leviathan. Many still believe that the US ‘leadership role’ had ‘been thrust upon us by fate’, as President Gerald Ford later declared, adding: ‘Circumstances, destiny, fate, or whatever you call it […] the fact is that the United States of America is today the world’s best and perhaps its only hope of peace with freedom’.

Yet, as Stephen Wertheim — a Research Scholar at Columbia University and founder of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft think tank — shows in Tomorrow, the World: The Birth of U.S. Global Supremacy, this story is a myth. Instead, beginning in the 1930s, and particularly from 1940 to 1945, US foreign policy elites embarked on ‘a veritable reconceptualization of their nation’s world role’ to reimage the United States as ‘the premier power in the world’, a project that would culminate in America’s unquestioned post-World War II primacy.

Wertheim’s history is convincing, as he shows through the deft application of near-century-old documents that the United States did, in fact, choose supremacy. Yet his concluding argument — that such supremacy ‘has left the United States with awesome destructive power and little prospect of peace’ — is less persuasive. Like most liberal-minded critics of US global leadership, Wertheim fizzles on perhaps the most pressing front, as his critique does not grapple with the chaos that came before the US-led liberal order, the Soviet-led alternative that could have arisen had the US not claimed leadership or the current most likely analogue: China’s proposed illiberal order. US global supremacy has certainly been imperfect, and its critics are too often maligned as ‘isolationists’, as Wertheim smartly argues, but comparisons of this order with some amorphous almighty, rather than with the actual alternatives, remain doomed to fall short.

Wertheim’s historical scholarship is nonetheless admirable. He presents readers with an array of documents to show that foreign policy elites were drawing up the blueprints of a Pax Americana, an era of global peace to be insured by US dominance, before World War II even started. These elites, meanwhile, defined ‘internationalism’ as we know it today by setting themselves against ‘isolationism’, a term that achieved notoriety upon appearing in Walter Lippmann’s 23 March 1939 column in the New York Herald Tribune.

Close-up of US flag

As Wertheim adeptly shows, though, ‘isolationism’ not only misrepresented the history of the supposedly insular United States — which had always engaged with the world — but delegitimised ‘isolationists’ in two ways: firstly, by signifying ‘spatial enclosure and separation’ that ‘conjured a world without international interaction and a United States confined, in every respect, to its own borders’; and secondly, by conveying a ‘regression of time’ that implied its advocates to be anachronistic. The Wall Street Journal, for its part, went as far as to identify isolationism as ‘nothing more or less than a retrogression of civilization’.

Isolationism was neither a defining characteristic of previous US foreign policy nor an apt description of those who hoped to avoid entering World War II. Yet, as Hitler’s forces marauded through Europe, American thought leaders railed against this ‘ism’ to make their case: that ‘the United States should underwrite international order by securing its own political and military supremacy’, as Wertheim notes. This argument found purchase in elite circles like those at the Council on Foreign Relations, meaning that by the time Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, the United States was primed to pursue global supremacy. ‘The attack on Pearl Harbor marked the culmination of America’s decision for dominance’, Wertheim writes, ‘but it did not initiate it’.

Washington’s decision to rule the world is thus perhaps best understood as a logical response to the catalysing events of Pearl Harbor: Americans, thanks to the designs of foreign policy elites, had global supremacy in them, but they needed to be hit hard before agreeing to take it on.

Indeed, from 1941 to 1945, the American public became more and more supportive of internationalism, and more critical of isolationism, thanks in no small part to the writings of thought leaders like Henry Luce, whose 1941 Life magazine proclamation of the coming ‘American century’ set the tone for our pursuit of global supremacy. ‘The big, important point to be made here’, he wrote, ‘is simply that the complete opportunity to leadership is ours’. These were world-historical ambitions, and ones to which the American public increasingly became accustomed. By 1945, internationalism had succeeded, with the founding of the United Nations demonstrating that the US was ‘in the world to stay’, as The New York Times put it.

The rest of the story is well-known. The United States, as part of the Allied powers, won the war; Britain, while technically also victorious, was so dilapidated that it ceded world leadership to the Americans, who, in turn, built the liberal international order we know today. It is at this point in the book, in its conclusion, that Wertheim’s argument loses a bit of steam.

From the outset of Tomorrow, the World, Wertheim aims to paint the US decision to pursue supremacy as immoral and strategically unwise. But he offers little evidence to make this point; in fact, he actually presents evidence to the alternative.

Before the United States claimed the mantle of world leadership, for instance, in 1939 strong majorities of Americans favoured a policy of ‘impartial neutrality in which the Nazis could purchase American exports’. This may have been strategically ‘wise’ for a country keen on remaining beyond Europe’s power politics, and able to do so thanks to its geography, but it is far from moral. Meanwhile, it was US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt who in 1941 — after promising that the US would fight against ‘the new order of tyranny’ — requested that Britain relinquish control of India and that France place its Indochinese colony under international trusteeship. Even in the early days of US global leadership, Washington was wielding its clout, albeit inconsistently, for profoundly liberal purposes.

Yet Wertheim decries American leaders as ‘covering the stark coercion of superior force with the veneer of liberal freedom’. There is no question that the United States secured its global supremacy through force, but to deem its commitment to freedom as nothing more than a ‘veneer’ only pages after providing evidence of Washington’s early commitment to this principle is jarring.

These episodes are indicative of the greater tension — between Wertheim’s belief in the immoral nature of US global supremacy and the evidence he presents — that undermines the book, which is otherwise a valuable historical study.

Of course, American global leadership has been far from flawless, but the liberal international order has, remarkably in the course of modern global history, prevented a war between the Great Powers. This is not an achievement that should be so easily overlooked; nor should the order be so easily denigrated. Yet Wertheim, like many other critics of the order, does not compare it with the alternatives. Perhaps this is outside of his book’s scope, but given that Wertheim portrays the liberal order so negatively — as one in which the US, ‘seeking to order the world by force […] mete[s] out continual violence, akin to policing the frontiers by empires past’ — many readers will be left expecting and then, ultimately, yearning for an explication of what better alternatives to this order might be.

Perhaps Wertheim avoids this because while the liberal order, propped up by a United States that chose global supremacy, may not be without flaws, no compelling alternative has yet been offered. It is telling that the Trump-era absence of US global leadership for much of the world prompted not glee but deep concern, comprising expressions of sadness and calls for more US leadership. It seems that former Republican presidential nominee Wendell Willkie’s 1940s argument continues to win the day: the world, as he wrote nearly eighty years ago, still ‘demands the full participation of a self-confident America’ (emphasis in original).

Regardless, with this book, Wertheim provides an important historical corrective to the notion that the United States sleepwalked into global supremacy. And while his efforts to paint this decision as unwise or immoral are less persuasive and unlikely to convince adherents of American primacy, Tomorrow, the World is nonetheless an important read for believers and non-believers alike, if only to better understand how the United States became supreme.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics. The LSE RB blog may receive a small commission if you choose to make a purchase through the above Amazon affiliate link. This is entirely independent of the coverage of the book on LSE Review of Books.

Image Credit: Photo by Samuel Branch on Unsplash.


Chinese-Australian journalist Cheng Lei formally arrested for alleged spying in China

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 12/02/2021 - 5:39pm in

Tensions between Australia and China continue to intensify

Screenshot from ABC TV 7.30 video: Cheng Lei's family speaks out for the first time since her detention in China on February 9, 2021

Australian journalist and television presenter Cheng Lei has been formally arrested and accused of unlawfully supplying or intending to supply state secrets or intelligence overseas, according to Chinese authorities.

Cheng, who was the anchor for a business program on state television’s China Global Television Network (CGTN), was detained in August 2020. The Chinese government was called out at the time for so-called “hostage diplomacy.”

Members of her family spoke out on the ABC (Australia) 7.30 current affairs program.

Journalists working in China for foreign media have faced numerous difficulties recently. Australian journalist Bill Birtles, the 7.30 reporter for this story, was the ABC Beijing correspondent before making a rushed exit home in September 2020. He explained some of the background during the 7.30 segment:

Cheng Lei was taken away six weeks after ASIO [Australian security] raided the homes of four Chinese state media journalists in Sydney.

The anti-foreign interference investigation prompted Beijing to target Australian journalists in China but it's not clear if Cheng's arrest is related to the tense diplomatic relationship, because four months after she was taken away, her close friend, Haze Fan, a Chinese journalist working for American media, was also detained on national security grounds.

There is a much broader context of tensions between Australia and China involving trade, security and diplomacy.

Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne has dismissed claims by China that Australia is trying to interfere in their judicial system. Payne responded that Cheng Lei “deserves the basic standards of justice, procedural fairness and human treatment to be met in accordance with international norms.”

Another prominent case involves the continuing detention by Chinese authorities of writer and popular online commentator, Chinese-Australian Yang Hengjun, since January 2019. The latest news concerning Cheng Lei has been greeted online in Australia with anger and frustration. Laoch’s tweet captured the growing reaction “Down Under” against the Chinese Communist Party:

Brisbane Twitter user Bob Bruce raised the possibility that Cheng Lei may have been involved in breaches of Chinese national security:

Paul Barrett, former Secretary of Australian Departments of Defence and Primary Industries & Energy, drew parallels with the way that imprisoned Aussie journalist, Julian Assange, has been treated by his government:

Australian journalist Peter Greste, who spent 440 days in jail in Egypt, has continued his strong support for Cheng Lei. In a statement for the Alliance for Journalists’ Freedom, he is quoted as saying that:

…Chinese authorities have had ample time to gather evidence, and unless they are willing to show it, they should release Cheng immediately.

China’s record on press freedom is already deeply troubling. In the absence of evidence, Cheng’s arrest only adds to the impression that Beijing does not care about the freedom of the press. Her case stands as a clear warning to other journalists to support the government or risk being imprisoned too.

Several news stories were posted to Reddit, where there was lively discussion.

Defamedprawn raised an issue that many others agreed with:

I don't mean to be harsh, but the lady is an anchor [for] CGTN, which is very much an arm of the regime. For instance, they're notorious for televising forced confessions and pretending they're interviews.

So should I feel sympathy for this person?

Catalyst1945 showed cynicism about whether the Australian government would take any real action:

Can’t wait for our spineless prime minister to do nothing.

Given the nature of Chinese trials, it is possible that we may never know what motivated her detention:

Meanwhile, Australia faces claims of hypocrisy over lack of judicial transparency. Ann raised the contentious issue of its own secret trials:

Chinese-Australian cartoonist Badiucao walks a fine line to avoid being politically hijacked

Image by Chinese-Australian cartoonist Badiucao alluding to the fact that several companies, including Muji, are believed to purchase cotton harvested by ethnic Uyghur prisoners in Xinjiang. Image used with permission.

Being in the middle of two countries currently engaged in one of their worst rows in years is a difficult space to navigate, even more so if one is an outspoken visual artist. This is precisely the case of Badiucao, a Chinese-Australian cartoonist known for his stand on human rights, freedom of expression and fight against racism who, even while being targeted by Beijing supporters, finds himself increasingly isolated and alienated by all sides in Australia.

Born in mainland China, Badiucao sought political asylum in Australia where he is now a citizen. His art seeks to act as a voice of reason, denounce political instrumentalization and support human rights globally.

A turning point in bilateral relations between Australia and China came in 2020, significantly worsened by a series of economic, political and ideological disputes that still remain unsolved. Until last year, both countries enjoyed an economic honeymoon: in 2014, Canberra and Beijing announced their relationship to be a “comprehensive strategic partnership”. By the time they reached the peak of their economic integration in 2019, China had absorbed over a quarter of Australia's trade, and in that year alone, 1.4 million Chinese tourists had visited Australia.

By 2020, the partnership deteriorated as Australia raised serious concerns about issues of human rights and democracy in the context of the many Chinese-Australian citizens, Hong Kong and pro-Taiwan students that were targeted and sometimes attacked by pro-Beijing supporters in Australia. Beijing rejected the criticism and retaliated by imposing a series of bans on key Australian imports. The situation escalated towards the end of 2020 when China decided to stop purchasing key commodities, such as coal, from Australia — a ban that possibly caused power shortages for millions of Chinese.

In an interview by phone with Global Voices, Badiucao suggested that the diplomatic fall-out should not have come as a total surprise:

I think the problem has been present for a very long time, because it was never mutually beneficial. China sees Australia as a ground for infiltration, from education to politics to media. For such a long time, the Australian government was short-sighted about this relationship, it only saw the economic benefit, but [not] much beyond. 

The COVID-19 pandemic did not help matters. Many of the estimated 260,000 Chinese students who were in Australia in 2019 were prevented from returning, and Canberra accused Beijing of a lack of transparency in its management of the pandemic. The impasse has damaged both sides: society and government bodies have engaged in anti-China or anti-Australia movements, some of them violently racist.

Wine label designed by Badiucao calling for other countries to buy Australian wine after China banned its imports. Image used with permission.

To explain the crisis, Badiucao points to a fundamental difference in values and tolerance for criticism between the countries:

Australia has realized that this toxic relationship has to end and that basic values, such as freedom and democracy, can no longer be overlooked. Canberra wants to make clear [that] the relationship must be mutually beneficial, and that Beijing needs to know the difference in their value systems. However, China is not used to any kind of criticism of its government, and responds in an outrageous manner, particularly under Xi Jinping's strategy of wolf warrior diplomacy. 

The cartoonist believes the crisis is a healthy eye-opener not only for Australia, but for the rest of the world, when determining whether to depend economically on China:

I think that because of the geographic locations of China and Australia, we are the first country in the free world seeing the problems of this relationship. China is not willing to play by the rules like other democratic countries. I hope there could be an alliance against those bully threats China can project on countries like Australia, as in the case of the wine exports.

A narrow space for democracy

While this crisis might indeed be a wake-up call, Badiucao is finding it increasingly difficult to make his voice heard in Australia. While the right and far-right have a strong anti-CCP (Chinese Communist Party) line, that discourse, he explains, often includes elements of xenophobia and racism. Many on the left, meanwhile, are afraid to criticize China in the name of political correctness, lest they be accused of supporting racism.

Within Australia's Chinese communities, the narratives are even more complex and do not favour Badiucao. An estimated 1.2 million Chinese Australians (nearly six percent of the total population), come from very different geographies, as Badiucao decodes:

We often overlook the differences within the community: there are second or third generations; they don’t really know much about what is happening in mainland China, and they might have a sense of nostalgia more related to Jackie Chan movies. There are also recent Hong Kong immigrants who have a different understanding of their identity and political stand. But here is the bottom line: we have to tell the difference between people [and] government. The Chinese government does not represent the Chinese people. Unfortunately, some Chinese-Australians are brainwashed by platforms […] in Australia.

Badiucao thinks the Australian government is not doing enough to communicate this distinction between the Chinese government and being Chinese, and that it needs to invest in the Chinese-Australian community much more efficiently in order to counterbalance Beijing propaganda filtering through WeChat and TikTok. 

Cartoons for human rights

For Badiucao, the best way to spread the message of universal human rights is through his art. Political cartoons require no or little translation and can be immediately understood worldwide. Paradoxically, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a positive effect on his outreach. Offline art events have virtually stopped, but Badiucao has always relied on social media to share his art, which has worked to his advantage.

His cartoon transposing the iconic Beijing 1989 TankMan to the context of Trump's America shows how powerful his integration of global images can be:

Image of the 1989 Tiananmen Square iconic Tank Man transposed to the context of Trump's America, by Badiucao. Image used with permission.

Political satirical art may be global, but Badiucao warns against the manipulation around this form of freedom of expression that occurs in authoritarian countries like China. In November and December 2020, Wuhe Qilin (乌合麒麟 ), a satirical artist based in mainland China, released a series of photoshopped images pointing at an investigation conducted by Australia's own military, which found that the country's soldiers may have committed war crimes in Afghanistan.

Badiucao explains why one should be very careful when comparing the role and function of cartoon art in China and in democracies:

I wouldn't use the term ‘artist’ or ‘political cartoonist': the whole narrative [that] he is an independent artist who cares about human rights in Afghanistan is bogus. Here is a telling detail: the work he posted on November 23 on Weibo has no signature of the user ID and no time stamp, which is mandatory as per Weibo regulations. This could indicate Wuhe Qilin himself provided the original copy to the Chinese authorities. Besides, for a long time, he smeared Fang Fang, the author of the Wuhan Diary, [portraying her] as a villain hired by the CIA. He is not an independent artist, because there is no such thing as independence in China. If you don’t collaborate, you don’t have a shred of space to survive or you end up in prison. 

Baiduacao responded to Wuhe Qilin via a series of images showing a PLA (People's Liberation Army) soldier repeating the same gesture aimed at Uyghur, Tibetan and Hong Kong people, wondering whether China would allow Wuhe Qilin to be critical of his own country's violations of human rights:

Book Review: The War on the Uyghurs: China’s Campaign Against Xinjiang’s Muslims by Sean R. Roberts

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 22/01/2021 - 12:17am in

In The War on the Uyghurs: China’s Campaign Against Xinjiang’s Muslims, Sean R. Roberts offers a new account exploring how the US-led Global War on Terror has been used by China as a cover for the persecution of the predominantly Muslim Uyghur population. Giving a voice to the Uyghurs themselves and providing detail that only an expert can offer, this book is an empathetic and deeply informative work for those hoping to understand the humanitarian crisis in Xinjiang, writes Charles Dunst

The War on the Uyghurs: China’s Campaign Against Xinjiang’s Muslims. Sean R. Roberts. Manchester University Press. 2020.

Years before COVID-19 was first identified in the Chinese city of Wuhan, the Chinese government had already set its targets on another purportedly dangerous pathogen: Islamist extremism, which Chinese officials said was ‘infecting’ the Uyghurs, the predominantly Muslim indigenous peoples of northwest China’s Xinjiang region.

In 2014 and 2015, the People’s Republic of China (PRC)’s bio-politicisation of this supposed threat reached its zenith, with the PRC Justice Department’s Party Committee Secretary suggesting that some 30 per cent of Uyghur villagers were ‘polluted by religious extremism’ and required ‘concentrated education’ (203). The secretary added: ‘when the 30% are transformed […] the village is basically cleansed’ (203). Long before the world was reintroduced to the concept of ‘quarantining’ as a measure to avoid the spread of COVID-19, the PRC had deemed such treatment necessary to deal with the Uyghurs ‘in order to ensure that the alleged infection of ‘‘extremism’’ did not spread to others’ (203), as Sean R. Roberts writes in his exceptional new book, The War on the Uyghurs: China’s Campaign Against Xinjiang’s Muslims.

Roberts, an associate professor of the practice of international affairs and director of the International Development Studies Program at George Washington University, convincingly shows through extensive interviews and Uyghur language sources that the PRC’s claims of a large-scale Uyghur ‘terrorist threat’ are profoundly disingenuous. Yet they found purchase following 9/11, allowing the PRC to fold the Uyghurs into the ‘Global War on Terror’ (GWOT) in order to suppress them. This, however, created a ‘self-fulfilling prophecy of Uyghur militancy’ (20) that, in turn, gave the PRC only further justification to clamp down on the Uyghurs in what Roberts and others have termed ‘cultural genocide’. For those hoping to understand both the motivations behind and practicalities of China’s brutal crackdowns, Roberts’s book is a deeply useful, if disturbing, read.

The War on the Uyghurs offers a history of what Roberts calls Chinese colonialism, arguing that ‘modern China’s relationship with the Uyghurs and their homeland has always been, and continues to be, one best characterized as colonial’ (23). Not only has the Chinese state successfully wrought control of the Xinjiang region from those indigenous to it, but the Han population, evoking the colonial idea of ‘civilising’ the colonised, distinguishes the Uyghurs and other local Turkic people ‘as fundamentally different from and inferior to the dominant Han population and, thus, incapable of becoming equals to the Han or of even knowing how to best care for themselves’ (24), as Roberts writes.

This attitude towards the Uyghurs has persisted from the Qing Dynasty’s 1750s conquering of the region — which received the title of Xinjiang, or the ‘New territory’, only in 1884 — up until today. It also explains why Beijing made sure that the Uyghurs’ two para-states, the First and Second Eastern Turkistan Republic (ETR), were short-lived.

The first ETR, founded in 1933 by ‘indigenous intellectuals inspired by a variety of ideologies of self-determination’ (36), fell in 1934 to Dungan (Hui) armies but continues to cast a long shadow on Xinjiang’s historical memory, with many Uyghurs hoping to recreate this era of self-rule. The second ETR was slightly longer-lived, lasting from 1944 to 1949. Its demise was tied to an August 1949 plane crash that killed five ETR leaders, saving both regional powers, China and the Soviet Union, from having to deal with the independence-minded Uyghurs for decades. This paved the way for PRC control of the region.

From colonialism, Roberts takes us into the era of counterterrorism, showing how PRC leaders seized on George W. Bush’s GWOT to implicate the Uyghurs within it and, accordingly, legitimise the illiberal repression of them as ‘terrorists’.

Only five weeks after 9/11, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson went on what Roberts calls a ‘tirade’ against the East Turkistan National Congress, a Europe-based Uyghur advocacy group, calling them, without evidence, a ‘terrorist force with the objective of splitting China’ that ‘has closely colluded with international terrorist organizations to undertake numerous horrible violent terrorist acts’ (69). Soon after, PRC officials at the United Nations in New York, again without evidence, claimed that the Uyghurs were directly connected to Osama bin Laden, the GWOT’s number one enemy (70).

While more than a few US policymakers and scholars were suspicious of China’s claims regarding Uyghur-led terrorism, the United States nonetheless deemed the ‘Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement’ (ETIM) — a Uyghur separatist group alleged to be operational in Afghanistan — a terrorist organisation in August 2002. This was despite the fact that the US Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Rights and Labor had only months before said that the PRC had ‘chosen to label all of those who advocate greater freedom [in Xinjiang], near as I can tell, as terrorists; and we don’t think that’s correct’ (77).

What changed, as Roberts suggests with ample evidence, was that the United States granted Beijing its wish — US confirmation of the Uyghurs’ ‘terrorism’ — in exchange for China’s broader support for the GWOT.

The question of whether Uyghur violence constitutes ‘terrorism’ comes down to definitions. Roberts, acknowledging that ‘terrorism’ is notoriously difficult to define, describes it as an act that is ‘violent, politically motivated, and deliberately targets civilians’ (13). Accordingly, he notes that the overwhelming majority of Uyghur attacks, while certainly violent, do not fit this definition of terrorism, as they ‘either did not target civilians or did not even constitute premeditated political violence’ (74). Instead, they targeted police stations and other PRC apparatuses; Roberts therefore argues that they are more accurately described as Uyghur guerilla warfare (74).

In Roberts’s view, only a very small number of incidents since 9/11 fits this definition of terrorism, including the knife attacks at Kunming train station in 2014, which left 31 civilians dead, and two bombings in Urumqi later in the same year that, combined, killed 45. But the PRC extends the ‘terrorist’ label to ‘any thought, speech, or activity that by means of violence, sabotage or threat, aims to generate social panic, influence national policy-making, create ethnic hatred, subvert state power, or split the state’. Whereas Roberts sees Uyghur violence as resistance to oppression, the PRC classifies Uyghur resistance against the Chinese state as terrorism in order to legitimise its own crackdowns.

But PRC violence has only begat Uyghur violence, bringing into existence what Roberts calls a ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’. While small numbers of Uyghurs had made their way to extremist groups in the Middle East and Central Asia over the years, it was only after China began its war on terror in Xinjiang that these numbers and Uyghur attacks against the PRC increased. Those who travelled to Syria, Roberts writes, ended up ‘fight[ing] in a foreign war far from their homeland, either in the hope of one day using their experience to fight the Chinese state or merely as a means of survival and a sense of belonging’ (194). A number of those who stayed home in Xinjiang responded to growing oppression by picking up low-level arms against the PRC.

Yet the actual threat posed by Uyghur groups to Chinese national security is effectively ‘imaginary’, as Roberts argues. Uyghur resistance has indeed been violent at times, but Uyghur groups, both at home and abroad, simply do not have the resources to truly pose a threat to the Chinese state. This, however, did not stop Beijing from creating the disturbing reality — the ‘cultural genocide’ of the Uyghurs through the mass internment, surveillance and forced labour that Roberts describes in later chapters — with which we are familiar today. The PRC’s goal, meanwhile, is not to tamp a real terrorism threat emanating from the Uyghur community but, as one Han official put it, to ‘break their lineage, break their roots, break their connections, and break their origins’ (235).

Roberts argues that the PRC has under GWOT’s auspices produced a tragedy to which the global response has been lacking — and that if this crisis is allowed to go on unabated, the racist logic of settler colonialism, coupled with mass repression and ethnically profiled population control, will find greater purchase the world over. He also argues that the West, thanks to its own GWOT-era human rights failings, has lost seemingly all of its moral clout to pressure China. This strikes me as too pessimistic, given that the US and others still retain substantial soft power across the Global South, parts of which are becoming increasingly hostile to China. Current trends, however, do indeed give reason to be pessimistic.

Most of the world’s majority Muslim countries, many of whom have close ties with China, have remained largely silent, while the West, itself deeply enmeshed economically with China, has offered little in the way of a meaningful response. John Bolton claimed in his recent book that former US President Donald Trump, for his part, had told his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, that he thought building internment camps for the Uyghurs ‘was exactly the right thing to do’. In contrast, Trump’s successor, President Joe Biden, whose campaign said that China’s repression of the Uyghurs rises to ‘genocide’, is expected to take a tougher stance on the issue.

But while international condemnation is growing, the world’s response remains lacking. For instance, when outgoing Arsenal footballer Mesut Özil, a German Muslim of Turkish heritage, spoke out on social media in support of the Uyghurs with a post bearing the first ETR’s flag, his employer cowered to China’s economic clout, posting on their Weibo page that Arsenal has ‘always adhered to the principle of noninvolvement in politics’. Özil, to his credit, did not back down, while another Muslim professional footballer, Senegalese striker Demba Ba — who previously played in China — joined him, asking, ‘When are we going to see the rest of the world stand up for Muslims?’

Giving voice to the Uyghurs themselves and drawing attention to this crisis, The War on the Uyghurs is striking, empathetic and deeply informative. Providing detail that only an expert can offer, Roberts documents what is perhaps today’s worst tragedy. Ultimately, Roberts’s contribution serves as a vital testament to the Chinese government’s strategic brutality in Xinjiang, the Uyghurs’ perilous position and the world’s failure to live up to its promise of ‘never again’.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics.

Image Credit: Demonstration for Uyghur rights in Berlin, January 2020 (Leonhard Lenz CCO).


Two Visions Are in a Fight to Control Our Government

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 30/11/2020 - 2:26am in

It seems as if Trump and President-Elect Joe Biden are in a contest to see who can will their vision of the future into life. Continue reading

The post Two Visions Are in a Fight to Control Our Government appeared first on

Report into Australian special forces war crimes in Afghanistan ‘gut-wrenching’

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 25/11/2020 - 4:04pm in

Twenty-five defence force personnel face charges over thirty-nine killings

Afghan Files- Four Corners video 16 March 2020 ‘Killing Field’ screenshot

Screenshot: Australian Broadcasting Corporation Four Corners video 16 March 2020 ‘Killing Field’

A report published on November 19 into alleged war crimes by special forces in Afghanistan has stunned Australians. Australia has had troops in Afghanistan since 2001 as part of the International Security Assistance Force. Combat troops were withdrawn in December 2013, with 400 trainers and advisers remaining till today.

Despite media stories and widespread rumours of troop misconduct, the Afghanistan Inquiry report has been described as a horrific bombshell.

The inquiry was conducted by Paul Brereton, a judge and Army reserve Major General. The independent investigation, commissioned by the Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force (ADF), reviewed over 20,000 documents and 25,000 images and interviewed 423 witnesses. “57 incidents and issues of interest” were examined in detail.

The investigation followed a 2016 review of special forces culture by military sociologist Dr. Samantha Crompvoets. Crompvoet's investigation was commissioned by the ADF in 2015 after rumours of war crimes circulated in the special forces community. She found that there was, “illegal application of violence on operations, disregard for human life and dignity, and the perception of a complete lack of accountability at times.” The review has a comprehensive list of media reports about special operations overseas from 2000 to 2015 but was finished before the sensational 2017 Afghan Files revelations mentioned below. Her review did not document specific incidents. Media stories helped to inform the Brereton investigations but are not specifically detailed in its report.

Guardian Australia reporter Paul Daley summarised the background and findings of the recent report:

For more than four years, the Maj Gen Justice Paul Brereton has investigated allegations that a small group within the elite Special Air Services [SAS] and commandos regiments killed and brutalised Afghan civilians, in some cases allegedly slitting throats, gloating about their actions, keeping kill counts, and photographing bodies with planted phones and weapons to justify their actions.

Among the findings of the Brereton report are the following:

  • 39 Afghans were killed and 2 others treated cruelly between 2009 and 2013. 25 current or former ADF personnel are implicated in one or more of the 23 incidents identified.
  • The killings did not happen ‘under pressure in heat of battle’.
  • Junior soldiers were required by patrol commanders to shoot a prisoner for ‘their first kill’, a practice called ‘blooding. The commanders were usually senior NCOs (non-commissioned officers).
  • So-called ‘throwdown’ weapons were carried by Special Operations Task Group to be placed next to bodies to justify killings.

This screenshot is an example of the heavily-redacted nature of the report, with names and other details blacked out:

Brereton report extract page 73

Screenshot: Brereton report extract (page 73).

Incidents involving 19 individuals have been referred to the Australian Federal Police (AFP) for criminal investigation, which may result in murder charges.

The report also explores the fostering of a ‘warrior hero culture’ as a contributing factor. An example of the toxic culture emerged in September 2020 when an Instagram account run by special forces soldiers, past and present, mocked war crimes allegations. Many Australians on social media were appalled at the time:

The report has dominated social media. Afghan-Australian human rights lawyer Diana B. Sayed posted this statement on Twitter:

There has been ‘shock and anger’ in Afghanistan. Hani Marifat, CEO of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, raised the implications for other nations:

The Australian government’s intention to pay compensation to the families of victims in Afghanistan has been welcomed.

However, not everyone accepts the report’s recommendations:

The report found that ‘no evidence that there was knowledge of, or reckless indifference to, the commission of war crimes, on the part of commanders at troop/platoon, squadron/company or Task Group Headquarters level, let alone at higher levels such as Commander Joint Task Force 633, Joint Operations Command, or Australian Defence Headquarters.’

In an article on The Conversation, veteran journalist Michelle Grattan questioned how it was possible for those up the chain of command to not know.

If senior officers did not pick up gossip and whispers, surely they should have been enough aware of the broad special forces culture to know that extensive checks should be in place to guard against the ever-present threat of misconduct.

Former soldier Dr. Julian Fidge believes that the culture of military leadership has led to a lack of accountability at higher levels:

A potential consequence of the recent report concerns former SAS member Ben Roberts-Smith, a recipient of Australia’s highest military honour the Victoria Cross. The Court has directed him to hand over documents from the Brereton inquiry. The documents may reveal whether he is implicated as a suspect. His old SAS squadron is to be disbanded as a result of the recent report. Roberts-Smith is currently suing newspapers for defamation.

Whistleblowers and the media

Between 2014 and 2015, Australian Army lawyer David McBride leaked information on war crimes in Afghanistan to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). A criminal prosecution against McBride is still proceeding. There are many people calling for the charges to be dropped:

However, Federal prosecutors are not proceeding with charges against ABC journalist Dan Oakes as it was not in the public interest. Oakes helped expose secret defence force documents leaked to the ABC in 2017 (also known as the Afghan Files), he was also one of the journalists at the centre of an Australian Federal Police raid on the ABC in June 2019.

The chief of the ADF, Angus Campbell, has been accused of hypocrisy:

Colin Hocking blames the Federal police and Prime Minister Scott Minister for the pursuit of the media:

On the broader front, the ramifications of these disturbing events will be playing out for years to come, especially criminal charges.