20th of December: Special Christmas Edition

Man of my word, innit. Despite being physically exhausted just looking at this week’s list of bookmarks, I told you I’d cover all your reading needs through the New Year, and I’ve delivered. Let’s get right to it.

Last year I think I shared a whole load of Christmas music with you but, tbh, if you’ve reached the last Sunday before Christmas without hearing Wham! and Mariah Carey without my help, I don’t really want you reading this list. However, you may not know about Kanye West’s Christmas song, so have that. The Marvin Gaye sample is perfect.

With a view to making 2016 the year this blog takes off, please do share it with your friends and family to give them some lovely Christmas cheer and me some lovely Christmas clicks. It’s available as a blog and newsletter.

  • About that Christmas cheer thing… this piece about three Syrian women in Raqqa and how they were variously involved with ISIS is very interesting and emphasises their voices and stories. This piece on the Syrian Kurds is, I think, overly optimistic on how far they can extend their successes, but worthwhile. On the other hand, the aftermath of one of the highest-profile victories in the war on ISIS, the battle for Kobane, left it an uninhabitable ruin – this account of a visit is a good reminder of the long-term consequences. I hate video #content and documentaries but this Vice embed with the Kurds as they re-entered Sinjar was decent.
  • A lot was made of the UK’s very good missiles being the reason we could make a difference in Syria*, and I don’t know what validity that has or ever had but this RUSI primer on the different military technologies the UK brings to the table is interesting (if you’re a very specific kind of nerd, admittedly). Also on a similar note, the arms manufacturers that make all the bombs being chucked around the Middle East literally can’t build them fast enough.
  • Which suggests we should maybe not start chucking bombs at space, but look! That’s the plan!
  • Interesting interview with a Belgian counter-terrorist officer
  • I like this piece from an actual historian on how sloppy narratives about French Algerians and the legacy of the war are used, mostly in the Anglophone media, to substitute for any sort of analysis
  • Yes, pieces about other people’s sobriety are well boring, but this one is good, so.
  • Two lovely, personal pieces on love and mental health – one, based on You’re the Worst’s stunning, affecting depression story this season (well good show that, watch it) and one on how bipolar disorder affects relationships
  • Super robot brains! Artificial intelligence! Literal immortality! Lot to get your head round in this two-parter on the road to superintelligence, and part of me suspects it’s all bollocks but.
  • Less exciting – a critique of lots of the assumptions in space travel and colonization narratives
  • This really long essay on The Selfie is incredible and almost makes all the tedious sneering at young people with their snapchats and their instagrams worthwhile if it led to it
  • This is an old recording of an old poem so not sure why it’s here but Jeremy Irons reading Eliot’s The Waste Land is beautiful and chilling and just about makes final year English Lit
  • As a classic Nice Guy tm ,  I liked this on the fading appeal of the ‘bad boy’**
  • Always a good sign of how hip you are when a hip music outlet does their “best of 2015” list and you don’t even recognise 75% of the artists. Good little source if you want more songs though, mostly leaning hip-hop
  • Fascinating on The Knowledge and the cabbie school on Cally Road
  • On drunk texting and why we’re so embarrassed by it
  • Profile of the lovely and very good Carly Rae Jepsen
  • Having played computer games since I was a wee lad, I’ve never really stopped to question the amount of prior assumptions and experience that go into it, but this piece by an older person (50 year old bloke, I think) who decides to start gaming for the first time is really interesting
  • The new Star Wars is, in fact, very good so this piece on how Disney are planning to perpetuate the franchise for all eternity in a cynical corporate master plan is Well Exciting.
  • Great little look at the furniture in the background of video games.
  • Five year anniversary of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, so Noisey did a whole load of articles about it. This one was good. Secret confession time: I didn’t listen to MBDTF till first year of university and didn’t really Get it for another year, so I can’t do the whole “first time I heard Nicki’s verse on Monster it changed my life” act. Shameful.

*basically gave up on ever writing up my thoughts about this tbh

**largely kidding

Punching Above Our Weight?

Often, complaints and worries about the United Kingdom’s diminished military role in world affairs seem a bit of a stretch. This is, after all, a P5 state, one of a handful of nuclear powers, with the fifth-largest defence budget in the world. Other times, however, you begin to think the delusions stretch to the top.

image from the Guardian

image from the Guardian

Sending eight fighter jets, a handful of spy planes, and a couple of hundred trainers to Iraq is many things. According to Dave, it makes the UK the second-largest contributor to the war on ISIS.  What it probably isn’t, however, is an effort on par with one of the most pivotal air wars in history, a moment where the UK faced a literal existential threat. Comparing the war on ISIS, Operation Shader, to the actual Battle of Britain would be absurd. It would sound like a desperate attempt to clothe today’s conflicts in uncontroversial past glories to shield them from criticism. An actual government minister wouldn’t make that comparison.

“Today, with more warnings of threats to our citizens in Tunisia following the horrific events of two weeks ago, I believe we’re fighting a new Battle of Britain.

Once again, against a fascist enemy, an enemy prepared to kill enemies and opponents alike, our RAF are again spearheading our defence in the counter attack targeting the terror menace in Iraq. Flying missions and launching strikes day and night, using precision weapons including Brimstone for surgical strikes.”

Defence Secretary Michael Fallon, 16/07/2015

Sigh.

So look, this is kind of very transparent. The coalition strategy in Iraq and Syria is not working as spectacularly as we might have wanted. The USA, which is doing the most, is facing calls to do more, bomb more, send more troops. These calls, as predictable as they are, are at least based on some sort of reality – the USA probably could (but shouldn’t) do loads more, which is just one of the benefits of spending 40% of the world’s entire military budget. Even if this nebulous “do more” weren’t a bit of a non-starter, it isn’t enormously clear how much more the UK could be doing with its limited power projection capacity.

Faced with the awful attack in Tunisia, the need to be seen to be doing more is understandable. Absent this possibility, absurd rhetorical escalation is… also good? Like if pretending we are fighting WW2 again does enough, electorally, to obviate the need for racist and ill-thought out counter-terrorism initiatives then that’d be good, right? Oh.

The only obvious immediate step to take would be authorising the UK to officially join strikes across the Syrian border1 (such at it is). That wouldn’t have much effect but sure. We aren’t doing much, and we’re not likely to do much more, and we probably shouldn’t. Fine.

What I’d like to look at it2 is where this constant demand for us to do more comes from.

As I pointed out earlier, the UK claims to be the second-largest contributor to the war on ISIS. The Defence Select Committee, in its call for us to do more, disagrees:

The Secretary of State for the Defence has insisted that the UK operations in Iraq are ‘major’. The Prime Minister implied that the UK contribution was second only to that of the US:

[…]

But, in reality, the UK contribution so far has been—in comparison to actions taken between 2003-06 and even in relation to other coalition partners—surprisingly modest.

The situation in Iraq and Syria and the response to al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq al-Sham (DAESH)

Numbers are difficult to find, as the UK government announces data weirdly and periodically, but it is very worth noting that the Select Committee cites the Defence Secretary in early December

“In the House on Monday 12 December, the Defence Secretary announced that only 99 air strikes had been carried out since the UK started flying missions.”

Meanwhile, from the French, probably our closest peer in terms of size and capability:

“In total, then, as of the 1st of July 2015, French aviation carried out 964 sorties over Iraq, and made 162 strikes.3

I’m no mathematician, but the numbers here don’t really suggest what the Select Committee imply. The French and British air-strikes started fairly concurrently, across about a week in late September. That leaves the French having conducted about 15-20 a month since September. If in December, after two and a half months, the British had carried out 99, that’s closer to 30 a month. Since then, the Ministry of Defence website appears to indicate about one strike every other day, although some of those entries include more than one mission.

Regardless, if we’re doing similar amounts to France, a country that, depending on who you ask, spends more or less the same as us on defence4 then is there a problem here? Beating the French is a noble pastime if you’re a Top Gear presenter, but unless you want us to compete with the global hegemon in military capacity, which would be silly…

It is, I think, telling, that this was basically the essential justification for the above criticism by the Defence Select Committee:

“This amounted to fewer than one a day. Six days prior, US CENTCOM (which is coordinating strikes) announced that 1,676 strikes have been carried out, meaning that the UK is responsible for just 6% of the strikes carried out so far.”

Basically, “punching above our weight” is a silly ambition. We seem to be punching about as hard as we should be, and that should do. We aren’t going to be able to go toe-to-toe in terms of strike tempo with the US Air Force any time soon because of course we aren’t.

 

Technically there should be another three paragraphs here to make this a more convincing argument but I’ve already gone over a thousand words and I want to play some Civ 5. x

 

1 state of this outcry over the embedded pilots taking part in US missions against ISIS as if a) the border means anything b) we aren’t already bombing them elsewhere c) those pilots are anything other than exchange students. and also I’ve just gotten annoyed about the continued misinterpretation of the 2013 Commons vote on airstrikes on Syria again.

2 talk about burying the lede

« Au total, donc, au 1er juillet 2015, l’aviation française a effectué 964 sorties au-dessus de l’Irak et procédé à 162 frappes »

4 and gets a lot more for it, see my previous work, and also see the fact that the French are conducting missions against ISIS from an actual aircraft carrier

Put BAE in the bin

1

A very interesting article showed up in The Telegraph last Monday. Headlined “Break up the RAF and stop buying British”, it seems like an article that the sub-editors have sexed up2 but it actually follows through. It’s worth reading, so I’ll give you a few seconds.

As I write this, I’ve started to see some flaws which I’m sure, if they’re reading, the more military-minded of my readers will be able to pick apart 3 4.

But basically, it’s good. I wrote about several of the issues he raises during my time with NATO Council – the F-35 here, the aircraft carrier here, the troop number cuts here, and the impact of all the cuts on the fight against ISIS here.

here’s a picture of some BAE products from the Daily Mail

What had somewhat eluded me was the overall impact of all this.

Perhaps because I’m so on the fence about all this I had only seen the opposing positions of the left (the UK military budget is too big and needs further cuts) and the right (the British military is too small and needs a bigger budget), missing the actual disconnect between budget and capability that renders both positions almost moot.  Solving the problems identified in this article would probably enough to satisfy both sides, which sort of points to how major the problems are.

The arguments in this piece undermine some of the key defences of government support for the arms industry. This is generally either legitimised through its provision of industrial jobs or, in the case of export support, through the fact that exporting weapons helps keep costs down for domestic procurement, giving the armed forces security of supply. As Page points out – BAE is cutting jobs all the time, and as the Campaign Against [the] Arms Trade shows every few years, for every British job created by the arms trade, the government gives thousands of pounds in subsidies. Meanwhile, even with this support and subsidy, military procurement is still obscenely expensive, and still isn’t independent. The complex web of beneficial side-effects used to justify government policy collapses entirely and an overhaul seems like a no-brainer.

It isn’t going to happen though.

There are fairly dispiriting but obvious reasons for this. They don’t even all require buckets of cynicism to accept.

For one thing, the arms industry is corrupt as hell, both overtly and also in terms of the general dodgy practices that keep big business big. They’d presumably fight quite hard to keep afloat.

For another, this is the sort of radical change that requires some concerted effort behind it to actually get anywhere. Insofar as corporate power is likely to be opposed, that leaves the people. In terms of being better protected, having our taxes better spent, less of our fellow citizens killed for lack of equipment, etc. etc., “we the people” would benefit from this sort of change. Unfortunately, it’s your classic collective action problem – the minority who stand to lose from this proposal would lose a lot, while the majority who would gain would only gain a little, and as I wrote in what feels like eight very boring essays this term, those are difficult to overcome 5.

The bright side, though.

When placed under scrutiny for its fuckery, the arms industry and its advocates point to hard-nosed self-interest. First time I’ve done this, but from my dissertation:

“On one occasion, the Minister of State for the Armed Forces, when questioned about Britain selling arms to the “murderous dictator” Suharto (HC Deb 12 January 1993 vol. 216 c749), outright stated: “The point of selling Hawk aircraft to Indonesia is to give jobs to people in this country” (HC Deb 12 January 1993 vol. 216 c749). This quote highlights two things – first, that the primary motivation expressed by policy-makers for the Hawk sale to Indonesia was economic […] The second is that the economic argument was used as a direct response to criticism of the human rights implications of the sale.”

Researching this was an infuriating process because where the government could, they would outright deny, in the face of all evidence, that British weapons were used in human rights violations 6. Where this was impossible, they’d do it anyway, and obfuscate a bit (see also: the coalition waiting until Israel was basically done bombing Gaza to threaten sanctions if they carried on, and then ignoring the fact that they carried on). Finally, if their backs were up to the wall, they’d yell “jobs!” and hide.

This was particularly infuriating, because, again, the non-moral arguments are just as bad as the moral ones. In fact, I reckon you could make better economic and strategic cases against government support for arms exports than any of the moral arguments that get made on a regular basis7.

Bright side is coming, I promise.

First – the CAAT’s latest campaign, Arms to Renewables (explained in catchy infographic form here) places a stronger emphasis on a) the economic arguments and b) the positive alternatives to the arms industry – instead of swords to ploughshares it’s APCs to solar panels or whatever. Not only is this set of arguments much stronger on their own merits, it also connects the CAAT to zeitgeisty campaigns like fossil fuel divestment.

Second – that the article which kicked this all off was written by a veteran and published in the Telegraph offers the possibility that anti-arms industry campaigns don’t necessarily have to be of the left and run by students and Owen Jones. Obviously, the CAAT is honourably anti-war, while Page and the Telegraph seem mostly concerned that the current system places constraints on our ability to solve policy problems with precise application of high explosives. They are unlikely to become bosom buddies. As I said earlier, however, solving the problems Page identifies goes some way to resolving both left and right’s issues with defence spending. There seems to be potential for the sort of non-partisan campaign that could create a broad coalition and ultimately produce some sort of Review of policy which would implement superficial change while leaving the rotten edifice largely intact.

Didn’t say it was going to be a proper bright side, did I?

1 among all this company’s many crimes, it’s ever-changing acronym over the past twenty years has to be up there – throughout my dissertation it went backwards and forwards from BAe to BAE to British Aerospace Systems. Evil.

2 admittedly a very limited and tedious definition of “sex” here

3 Robert Farley, who is excellent and makes similar arguments across the Atlantic, centres his case in Grounded (which I haven’t read, so pinch of salt) around both the inter-service redundancies and tensions caused by the air-force (similar to Page, here) but also the inherent limitations of independently-operated airpower to win wars. Page lacks this second component, and based on the force makeup he argues for (the Navy as a helicopter launch platform, the Army centring on air support, etc.) he doesn’t seem to believe in it, which surely has some implications for the coherence of his position

4 for one thing, the French don’t buy American and they seem to do all right

5 This has actually become my favourite explanation for Why Things Are Bad.

6 still a bit annoyed I didn’t get to use this quote from Mark Phythian’s The Politics of British Arms Sales Since 1964  in the final draft but it is gold: “The possibility of their being used in East Timor prompted MPs Bob Parry and Bernard Braine, and Lord Avebury, to write to the FCO. The FCO reply to parry stated that the vehicles ‘can only operate on roads and in reasonably dry, open country. Their usefulness in the jungle and difficult terrain of East Timor would therefore appear to be limited.’ This was a dubious assertion, as it was far from obvious that the vehicles could operate only on roads, and seemed to assume, in any case, that there were no roads in East Timor.”

7 the latest one seems to be that we should cancel billion-pound contracts with Saudi Arabia because of their cruelty in the case of Raif Badawi. While this is undoubtedly Bad, it is very hard for me to understand how a momentary interruption in Riyadh’s supply of fighter jets (momentary because Dassault and Boeing would obviously be there in a heartbeat to replace BAE) would do anything to help Saudi victims of human rights abuse. There’s a stronger case, admittedly, regarding the war in Yemen, which arguably places sales to Saudi Arabia in contravention of UK rules regarding not selling weapons “which might be used for internal repression or external aggression”.

Is the Pax Anglo-Saxonica worth defending?

Recently, expressing opinions, let alone writing them down, has felt like wading through mud. Given the absolute flood of bad, unfounded, wrong, nonsense opinions that is The Internet, one less take is not necessarily a bad thing. Still, if I want to become a white middle-aged male columnist paid absurd sums to write vacuously on topics I have no real expertise on in The Guardian, I need to get the practice in.

Naked aggregating wasn’t actually a particularly good way to do so, and while I do still occasionally reach for the “add to favourites” button on Pocket like it’s a missing limb, the reading list is ultimately an experiment I’ve moved on from*. I’m not ready to let go of the crutch of other people’s work to buttress my own though**, so I’m going to try something here. Here endeth the navel-gaze, which I’ve put in italics for you. Post begins now.

Perhaps it is unsurprising that an essay by a man who can get commissioned by both the leftish*** New Statesman and the (seemingly) broadly neo-con/liberal hawk American Interest magazines should have such an interestingly broad reach, but there you go. Dr. John Bew’s “Pax Anglo-Saxonica”, published in The American Interest in April 2015, is the rare essay on the special relationship, benevolent hegemony, and the liberal world order that a) doesn’t include a call to bomb a single country (explicitly) and b) might not entirely alienate The Left.

Bew argues that the ‘special relationship’ between the UK and the USA is founded not simply on strategic interests so much as a shared set of norms and ideological assumptions, perhaps drawn from their shared sense of relative security:

“Wolfers argued that the distinguishing characteristic of Continental theorists was that they operated in the face of constant external threats to their national existence. Meanwhile, the Anglo-Americans had the advantage of relative security from foreign invasion; they were both islands of sorts. Theirs “was a philosophy of choice, then, which was bound to be ethical, over against a philosophy of necessity, in which forces beyond moral control were believed to prevail.””

The key is Bew’s articulation of the hypocrisy at the heart of what he calls “the higher realism”. Both the British Empire, and in turn, the USA, acted aggressively to maintain the status quo, defending it as a liberal, rules-based international order, “while failing to mention that those laws had been crafted in their image and in their interests.” Both powers created self-serving myths to set themselves apart from each other:

“The British myth is that the United Kingdom wielded a softer, more subtle form of power, replete with a more sophisticated diplomatic armory […] The American myth is that the British Empire of the 19 century represented something immeasurably different from the American Century that followed it.”

This account is helpful for understanding the past two centuries, and the continuities between British and American foreign policy, and like most of what I’ve seen of Dr. Bew’s work, it’s just generally quite interesting in that anecdote/reference-rich way good historians have****. What is, I find, more interesting, is the unspoken assumptions in this:

“the world today could still benefit from a Leviathan with a skin thick enough to bear the allegation of hypocrisy, all in the name of a higher realism. Alas, for that to work the Leviathan must believe in its own benign nature, however self-serving that may be. Too much humility and not enough ethical egoism, it turns out, is not good for international security.”

And it is, of course, here, with the “benign” Leviathan and the “ethical egoism” of the British Empire and the USA, that one must turn left. Not even that far left, really. In the recurrent debates over American retreat*****, a point that the better critics often make is that what the Kagans and Fergusons of the world wilfully obscure is that the golden age of hegemonic stability, while obviously devoid of the horrors of great power war in Eurasia, was pretty grim for lots of people in lots of the world.

There is almost a dishonesty in claims for the benevolence of empire and hegemony that don’t mention the cruelty, violence and aggression they are all founded on. Bew toes this line in this piece, but I think what saves him from the bin Niall Ferguson lives in is that he doesn’t pretend the positive side-effects of British self-interest were the point – he makes a realist case for British foreign policy, not the sketchy case that the Empire and its intentions were noble.

Nevertheless, this problem recurs when you try and extend the logic in this essay to the present. Bew discusses how the German and Japanese challenges to this liberal world order were born of their resentment of their place behind the “noble Anglo-American vanguard”. Particularly in the European context, this is fair enough as an explanation, encompassing strategic rivalries and ideological differences. This has the advantage of ultimately being resolvable by a conflict of arms. Implicit in the idea of benevolent hegemony is that at the end of the day, it’s backed by a big stick.

Bew provides more optimism than most on hegemonic transitions:

“Britain was swift to reconcile itself to the fact that the United States had inherited its role as the strongest nation on earth”

Which invites the possibility that when the United States face the same challenge from China, they might also ‘swiftly reconcile’ themselves to that fact. Except while Britain and the United States shared a culture, history, and interests which helped them through the transition******, it is less clear that the United States and China share anything similar – there is not, to my knowledge, a Chinese Castlereagh.

I’m stretching here, but I can’t help but read Bew as suggesting that the USA either faces, or will face, another situation akin to the World Wars, where it was reluctantly dragged in despite its attempts to stay aloof from the world’s problems. There are about three steps from this argument to the credibility fairy and American support for literally any war that should crop up. Once you concede that the USA can’t “avoid suffering the consequences when [the Anglo-Saxon world order] began to unravel due to neglect” you invite more vigilance for signs of neglect or unravelling.

This is where, as much as I like Dr. Bew’s work, and this piece, my wariness leads me to tense up and compose some snarky tweets.

There is a very strong case to be made that despite being driven by elite self-interest in the respective countries, the Pax Anglo-Saxonica has been more benign than it could have been.

It is nevertheless undeniable that the Pax Anglo-Saxonica has been very bad for a really large proportion of humanity. From the Bengal Famine to concentration camps in Kenya to literally any U.S. policy south of its borders until about last week, you don’t have to be Noam Chomsky to concede that the Pax hasn’t been universal.

Again, not the worst. I genuinely don’t know where I stand on the truth of this but I think there is a case to be made that, even accepting the very worst claims made by critics of American foreign policy, you could do a lot worse as far as hegemons go.

But the fact that you could also do a lot better leaves me very uncertain about the implications of this argument for the future. Bew posits some inherent qualities to Anglo-Saxon ideology******* that make it more benevolent, which would then suggest that this particular hegemony is the best we can hope for, and therefore worth seeking to protect, aggressively if need be. This is unclear, at best.

I’ve yet to see challenges to the Pax Anglo-Saxonica that aren’t from that strand of the left that critique the current order without offering anything else. I’m far from convinced a 安******** would be better. Nor am I convinced that it would be so much worse that we should be supportive of future great power (and nuclear) war to prevent it.

I have gotten this far without losing faith in my own words********* and I am not about to pretend I can offer a glib conclusion on the future of great power relations, the Asia pivot, liberal internationalism, the rules of the game as we know them, and imperial power in the 21st Century. This is where I trail ineffectually away in true mediocre columnist style.

You should read Dr. Bew’s essay********************. He’s smarter than me, tbh. I just hope I’ve offered some Food For Thought for when you’re done with it.

 

 

*although I did get to use it fairly credibly in a job interview earlier which was interesting – I didn’t mention the Kanye gifs

**which to be completely fucking honest I’m going to put down in the “pro-Gabby_L_M” column, as there are altogether too many amateurs writing authoritatively on stuff they don’t know about and even though I’m mostly refraining out of insecurity, I’m going to reframe it as a moral stand against the student bloggers of the world

***despite its best efforts to drag itself down by standing on all the worst sides of every internet feminism debate going recently

****dude looks young which makes him all the more impressive

*****cf. the grand strategy section in at least one post a month from the reading list

******pretty sure the bit about Britain during the American Civil War is my favourite in this essay just because of Germany being all “SMH England you’re weak man”

*******am I being unfair here?

********this is ‘peace’ in Mandarin and don’t you ever say that I don’t treat you, dear reader

*********at the cost of a bottle of cheap wine and a ton of asterisks

**********once a content-aggregator….

October 5th: Exit Polls

Longest ever break, that – we just skipped, I think, two weeks? I very nearly missed today, not through lack of internet so much as wanting to play more Far Cry 2. Couldn’t even write it at 4 in the morning like I used to as I was up at the crack of dawn to trek (quick and empty bus almost directly from home) to queue up (there was no queue) at the Brazilian embassy all day (I was out in 15 minutes). So that was exciting – certainly the most significant election I’ve ever voted in.

Anyway, I have now settled into the flat, but not into the rhythms of actually studying. My Pocket queue has gotten absurd, as whenever I do read it’s for tedious university stuff, so we’ll see how much there is to share every week, but for now, I’ll stay with the same system. Meanwhile, there’s a veritable glut of links to be getting on with this week, so I’ll get straight (says he, 165 words in) to it!

Weekly-ish reminder that if you’d rather receive this direct to your inbox instead of hassling ALL THE WAY to click the link yourselves, you can subscribe here

Song of the week is hardly a secret, but I’ve listened to it about seven times in the past 24 hours. We watched Bridget Jones again this week* and then it came on at a house party and jumped into my gym playlist – it’s Chaka Khan’s “I’m Every Woman”.

 

First up, a couple of my NATO Council pieces dropped out of the system while I was away. This was supposed to come before the piece on India’s submarines (as evidenced by the transitional bits all over it), on Brazil’s own programme, while this, when I wrote it, was a reasonably topical look at France finally deciding to suspend the sale of the Mistral-class warships to Russia.

  • Naturally, it’s an ISIS-heavy list. The problem is, I’ve read so much on ISIS these past weeks that it’s all blurred into one. If it’s made it into the list, I think it’s good, and there are some that have stuck in my mind, like this overall look at Middle-East politics by Andrew Bacevich or this meditation on how hysteria has developed over ISIS, or this anatomy of mission creep. Otherwise, it’s just one, two, three, four, five pieces on ISIS that are all worth reading if you’re interested but broadly indistinct.
  • Lovely, bittersweet piece on how Odessa and its residents have been affected by the past year’s events in Ukraine
  • On a similar topic, I’ve not liked much leftist writing on Ukraine, as most of it seems about as sophisticated as the rant I got off the hippie who drove me to Madrid, but even though I don’t agree 100%, this is a really good critique of the West’s role in the crisis (without degenerating into The Nation-esque apologetics)
  • Also, good rebuttal of abusing recent events to fit them into a ‘clash of civilizations’ framework
  • A few good pieces on today’s presidential election in Brazil – one impressed by Marina Silva, one less so (Pt.), and a profile of Dilma Rousseff.
  • Sad profile of some of the campaigning mothers who have lost children to police violence in Brazil
  • In more positive news, this recognition of a quilombo community’s right to its land in Rio is a very interesting and encouraging sign – more context on the quilombos’ campaign here
  • Again, a bit late but this is quite good on what would have happened to the respective militaries had Scotland left the union – does nothing to dispel my belief that we could have reannexed them if necessary
  • Encouraging reminder that sometimes international climate efforts work – the ozone got better
  • Corrective to the idea of China as a “lonely diva”
  • A reflection on R2P
  • You can always count on Jay Ulfeldler for some well-sourced optimism – this on the “end” of the era of democratisation is good
  • Examination of what happened when Britain de facto secretly decriminalised cannabis (nothing good)
  • Mostly obvious stuff but some quite interesting bits and pieces from an informal experiment replicating Tinder
  • Powerful column on street harrassment**
  • 100% here for writers taking Kim Kardashian seriously
  • Two plane articles. One which will make you never want to fly EasyJet again because you know how the other half live. One, long, horrifying, dripping with tension, which will make you never want to fly again because you know that, basically, humans weren’t meant to fly.
  • Good response to a column on the “death of masculinity” in television (I didn’t read the original because I don’t like to waste free clicks on paywalled sites on hatereads, but this response stands alone).
  • Oliver Burkeman turns his guns on empathy
  • This is lovely on being a Sikh woman in business
  • As if #gamergate (ugh) wasn’t already enough of a nasty, sad, pathetic “movement”, it’s chief British supporters are the terrible Milo Yiannopoulos, and James bloody Delingpole, who is once again shown to be a troll by the devious trick of comparing his articles with each other. All it needs is for Toby Young to lend his support and it’d be a collection of the worst humans.
  • Finally, I loved this two-part examination of alliances in The Lord of the Rings films and its attempt to draw real-world lessons from the Battle of Helm’s Deep***.

 

 

 

  • * Which reminds me – I watched it with a friend who loathes the series, while I really like it, but I was wondering – are they explicitly, textually anti-feminist? Not the character of Bridget herself, which is where most criticism pointlessly goes, but the intention – I mostly noticed the negative portrayal of the ambitious lawyer lady, as well as the straw-feminist that is her sweary mate. IDK. Still love the films.**though it is a baffling haircut

    ***One minor quibble though – I’m pretty sure the elven reinforcements in The Two Towers come from Lothlorien not Rivendell, which mildly undercuts her point about overcoming isolationism. *adjusts spectacles*

7th of September: Human Sadness

We now enter into this blog’s seventh month (I think). So that’s cool.  Seven months in, I still occasionally forget what day it is and leave writing/compiling links to the last minute, which is telling. As ever, I’m about to send out the newsletter version of this, so you can subscribe over here.

Song of the week has to be Julian Casablancas’ mad new single. (called Human Sadness, hence the title)

NATO Council article of the week is on India’s nuclear submarine programme – as you can tell by the “previously”, there should be another one before it but IDK.

I also wrote a quick post on the announcement that the UK will operate its second carrier after all, which was based on faulty assumptions, but still got a lot of traffic. Embarrassing.

  • Stephen Saideman has had a number of good posts on NATO and Russia this week, with a number of little correctives and explanations – I’ve linked one on burden sharing, but it’s worth going back a few days.
  • Normally, “X must lead” is irritating do-somethingism, but I like this from the RUSI.
  • Speaking of irritating do-somethingism, great defense of Obama’s caution and a good critique of current rhetoric around Ukraine
  • Solid proposal for reinvigorating European defence
  • Interesting counter to the narrative of an “isolated” China.
  • Report from a journalist embedded in the Donetsk People’s Republic
  • Jihadism expert J.M Berger examines what their different approaches to hostages may mean about the future of IS and Jabhat al Nusra
  • Rather terrifying account of the Filipino peacekeepers’ escape from the Golan Heights
  • Defence of the lack of an ICC investigation in Gaza by its chief prosecutor
  • Again, Boris is a cretin.
  • Great attack on motorists’ dominance in Britain – published in the Telegraph, too!
  • Interview with Gordon Brown
  • Professor Marlière explains recent events in French politics
  • Meanwhile, France finally suspended the Mistral sale. This examines some implications (Fr.)
  • Quite scary account of an operation under the Brazilian dictatorship in 1970
  • Depressing New Yorker feature on gun culture in the States
  • Fascinating story on Google’s drone delivery programme
  • Number of excellent pieces on the stolen celebrity nudes. One here. These two, read in tandem, because I liked the BuzzFeed one but this is critical of it and I don’t know what to think.
  • Brilliant defence of bad British food, and a great article on Jamie Oliver
  • Rather great short story
  • Moving article on how we fail to deal with terminal illness
  • Lovely piece by Ta-Nehisi Coates about learning French as an adult
  • The Debrief have become one of my favourite sites in recent weeks – then they got an interview with Jon Hamm and now I’m dying of envy
  • Oliver Burkeman reviews some self-help books
  • Rediscovered this great career advice article from George Monbiot this week
  • Lovely feature on hangovers across time and cultures
  • Finally, very cool remix of the Game of Thrones theme

And that’s it. Have a good week x

HMS Prince of Wales: Refloated?

Not the HMS Prince of Wales. Artist’s impression of the HMS Queen Elizabeth via militaryphotos.net

 

Today, in the closing statement of the NATO Summit in Newport, Wales, British Prime Minister David Cameron, among other things, announced that the Queen-Elizabeth class aircraft carrier, HMS Prince of Wales, would not be mothballed after all, as had been suggested in the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review.

Under severe budgetary pressure, the incoming Conservative-led coalition* sought to scrap the second aircraft carrier entirely, but it was discovered that the contract they had inherited from their predecessors included clauses that made it more expensive to cancel it than to let it be built.

I wrote about the long and winding road to the ocean its sister ship, the HMS Queen Elizabeth has travelled, in one of my first pieces for NATO Council of Canada – you can find that here. A lot of the criticisms levelled at that process apply to the Prince of Wales, though I’m gutted I didn’t make any bold predictions as to its future back in July.

Now, the HMS Prince of Wales will enter service with the Royal Navy when it is complete, giving Britain continuous carrier strike capability**.

The statement was limited in details, so several questions remain – I’ll try and update this post when the government release more information.

UPDATE: Update the post I have, but it’s not for government information so much as Twitter information. A very informative conversation over there cleared up some doubts and confusions I had. I’ve flagged updated bits.

  1. Will the HMS Prince of Wales, as planned, be built with catapults and arrestors (CATOBAR***)? This sounds trivial, but it’s probably the most important question. The CATOBAR system, used on US and French aircraft carriers, would allow the Royal Navy to launch a variety of jets from its decks, including the F-35C. There had been plans to adapt the Queen Elizabeth to a CATOBAR system, but as costs mounted, these were cancelled (I explain it in slightly more depth in the above article). This leaves the carrier unable to fly anything other than Short Take-Off and Vertical Landing (STOVL) jets, which, for the foreseeable future, means the Lockheed Martin F-35B. If the Prince of Wales, as expected, goes with a CATOBAR system, not only would the Royal Navy have more strategic options, but the Ministry of Defence would have more procurement choices – there are a lot more options for fighter jets that can be launched by catapult than there are STOVL ones. EDIT: I may have gotten lost in the twists and (u-)turns of the carrier saga here. I had assumed HMS Prince of Wales was being designed from the ground-up with catapults and arrestors – turns out it’s subject to the same costly modifications that did for the Queen Elizabeth. So it looks pretty likely that it’ll be the exact same model as its sister ship.
  2. Following on from the previous question, and largely contingent on it – what will it fly? Will the government need to order more Joint Strike Fighters, or will it just spread the existing purchase across the two carriers (I suspect the latter, but you never know). EDIT: To be clear, there’s also, I think, a question of what to fly – if they have different launching systems, will they fly different planes? As was pointed out to me in that Twitter conversation, since the carriers are meant to be interchangeable (to ensure continuous availability), it would make most sense for them to have the same air wing, etc.
  3. Where will the money come from? The HMS Prince of Wales was to be mothballed to cut costs. While the government has promised that they have finished their defence cuts, and budgets are set to rise in the next few years, this is certainly a turnaround, and may require extra spending or cuts elsewhere in the armed forces.

This was a surprising announcement, but, generally, a positive one. There doesn’t seem to be much clearer a statement of British commitment to its own defence than ensuring the Royal Navy has the means to project power across the globe, all year round.

PS: In the ongoing tale of my descent into weird military fetishism this past year or so, getting excited over the announcement of a really expensive piece of military hardware may mark a nadir.

PPS: I mean technically I don’t even think the HMS Prince of Wales has been put together or even built, let alone ever floated but this was a far more exciting title than just “removed from hypothetical mothballing”

*these days, I keep forgetting the Lib Dems are even a thing

**with only one carrier, the need for maintenance, training, etc. would mean there would be stretches of time where the carrier was unavailable.

***the most conversational military acronym I think I’ve heard

31st of August: Final Stretch

In the UK at least, summer seems to have collapsed in on itself. Which can only mean I’m that much closer to moving into a flat and restarting some semblance of a life again, so with any luck, these posts will get a lot more streamlined. Until then, I’m still pinging across London multiple times a day, several days of week, with all the scope for consuming enormous amounts of reading. Without any further ado, then, let’s get stuck in.

Song of the week was my favourite revelation of last week’s VMAs – Usher and Nicki Minaj have done a song together, and it sounds like something that could have come off Confessions, which was lovely as I’ve kind of lost touch with Usher since then. NB: Going to be a Nicki-heavy week*. EDIT: There’s a real video! Excitement!

 

First up, NATO Council of Canada article this week involves neither Canada or NATO, but it is on procurement, so I just about stayed on-topic – I looked at Brazil’s military modernization programme.

Also, weekly reminder – I’m still sending this out in newsletter form every Sunday, hoping that it’ll eventually hit critical mass – you can subscribe here.

  • Lots on the Islamic State this week** A thought-provoking John Schindler essay (/polemic) on what he sees as the generational struggle against militant Islamists. IDK. Worth reading, possibly overblown.
  • A couple of good pieces looking more closely at IS – this one on the Britons going to join it, and this on its rise, relationship with Al-Qaeda, and future
  • Boris Johnson is a cretin.
  • Interesting discussion of why we respond so much more to IS’ violence than, for example, gang violence in Latin America, given their apparent similarities
  • Clear pushback on the emerging idea that we should side with Assad against IS
  • Great essay on the vacuum of power (but not a “why won’t Obama lead”) in the Middle East
  • Kind of terrifying article embedded with the Shia militias on the frontlines in Iraq
  • Important reminder from a while back that bombing Syria last year would have done fuck-all, and diplomacy has eliminated their chemical weapons
  • Investigation of the possible legal justifications for American airstrikes against IS in Syria
  • Another good Stephen Saideman piece on reforming NATO
  • First of the week’s New Yorker backlog clearout – long feature on Putin and the new anti-Americanism in Russia
  • Lot of talk of Obama’s foreign policy falling apart this week. A reminder that the low-hanging fruit is gone.
  • Hopi Sen continues his hot-streak in his first appearance this week, on the “Stop the World” coalition – I remember wanting to argue with something in this but not finding anything.
  • Second New Yorker is a feature on the Sri Lankan civil war. Hard reading, but nothing that’ll surprise anyone who watched the Channel 4 documentary (go watch that if you haven’t)
  • This profile of an abortion doctor in Mississippi is a great look at a wonderful man, that doesn’t lose sight of the fucked up conditions he is forced into
  • Couple of good pieces on the dangers of condescending reporting on the Ebola outbreaks in West Africa. This one, at the Atlantic, is heartbreaking (that ending – chills). This one, at the Monkey Cage (I know), more scholarly
  • Hugh Muir is excellent on the continuing horrors coming out of Rotherham and the shameless attempts to blame them on PC gone mad.
  • Thoughtful essay on admitting your white privilege
  • History of race riots in the USA, and growing more positively out of similar fuckery in the UK, a history of the Notting Hill Carnival
  • Harsh piece on war reporting today
  • Rather weirdly beautiful piece of writing on war through the eyes of the C-130 transport plane
  • Obviously this is a great blog on what all the horrid images shared on Twitter do to us, but I’m mostly sharing it because despite having consigned Thinking Fast and Slow to the “two-thirds read” pile***, I recognised the quote!
  • Fascinating account of the botched rescue of the Iranian embassy hostages
  • I may have linked to this before, but you should all be checking out Willard Foxton’s WW1 History Tumblr – based on a collection of contemporary magazines, he also shares little anecdotes or histories. Really interesting little tidbits every day.
  • Hopi Sen, again, on the need for a Spotify for news – I feel this.Even if money wasn’t a concern, the hassle is maddening – the Financial Times is pretty egregious in this regard.
  • Told you Nicki was going to feature heavily. These two posts that I found really helpful provide context to the brilliant Anaconda video– plenty overlap, but this one is a snappy Tumblr, and this one is a bit boilerplate feminist. Meanwhile, this by Emily Reynolds is just quite funny.
  • Now that Playboy have de-perved their website (mostly), can respectably link to them. This, on the whitewashing of hip-hop, is great.
  • Suspect time-lapse videos are going to be everywhere soon (Dad showed me the new Instagram app), but until then, this one of the Panama canal is quite incredible
  • IDK if I’m horrified or enticed by Arby’s Meat Mountain but this is a brilliant article
  • I defer to no man**** in my love for About a Boy/Bridget Jones Hugh, but this is funny.
  • As the start of the academic year approaches, this might be helpful to some of you.
  • Finally, Fuck this tortoise.

A long one, but there you go. Lots to be getting on with – see you in September! x

*I have some thoughts on Super Bass, which for some reason, I hadn’t heard before, and I have a platform so: 1) the aesthetic of this video is terrifyingly frenzied. Just that blinking in the first verse is disquieting 2) first time I heard it, I was immediately reminded of the soundtrack to Thomas Was Alone and this felt like a really good insight. Look!

**I’ve noticed that about half of these articles are still referring to ISIS. There are sound political reasons for this (not legitimising them as a state, chiefly) but I go with IS largely out of laziness and Twitter character limits.

***started it up again last night after writing this

****admittedly I probably don’t need to

10th August: Binary Mood

I don’t know if this is just one of those confirmation bias things but I feel like the past few weeks have just been a bleak, bleak time to be human. The last awful headline barely has time to be fade before another horror arrives on the news. So I’m rejigging the structure a bit this week. The first half is pretty grim but, I hope, interesting as ever. Meanwhile, I’ve shoved anything mildly optimistic/light-hearted into the second half, regardless of topic. If you’ve read enough dire reports on the state of the world today, scroll straight down.

Song of the week  – Guns N’ Roses’ “Coma”. Had forgotten about it as I’m no longer 16 ( 😦 ) The last two or three minutes of this song are properly incredible – rest is good two but from the solo onwards it’s something else.

 

After some hiccups in the posting schedule, my latest-ish piece at NATO Council is up (hoping for a couple more to appear soon) – this one was on the United Kingdom procuring the F-35. It’s also the last of the little miniseries I was writing (in my mind) on British defence matters so that’s cool. Been playing with a concluding post to go up here, may arrive this week.

With that, let’s get the nastiness out of the way first

The Bad

  • So IS(IS/L) have been all over the headlines (and all up in US bombsights now) this weekend. This essay in the London Review of Books is properly depressing stuff – they look increasingly likely to be here to stay
  • I’m sure you’re all dying to know – the official stance here is cautiously in favour of the operations against IS announced this weekend. Then again what the fuck do I know I was pleased when UNSC1973 got passed and look at Libya now. Regardless this is a well-argued proposal at Foreign Policy for a proper disengagement by the USA from the Middle East.
  • I’ve spent the past few days sneering, sniping and generally being unpleasant about the various irritants who make up the British liberal interventionist segment of the media. So it’s only fair that I share with you this thoughtful, honest meditation by Hopi Sen, shining light among them, on the current state of Western foreign policy
  • Properly arming the Kiev government would be a bad idea right now
  • Vladimir Putin seems a bit of a tragic figure, aside from all the nastiness. But what if sanctions do force him out of power?
  • Bringing research and scholarship to bear on the ongoing problem of creating a lasting ceasefire in Gaza
  • The fact that the Ebola serum has only been used on two white Americans while Africans die by the hundred looks bad – but it’s more complicated than that
  • This is a powerful, upsetting read about a young reporter’s first night in Kiev. Dispiriting but important. TW for sexual assault.

Ugh. All-round unpleasant.

But look.

  • First up, Daniel Woodburn presents a more optimistic look at ISIS’ prospects*
  • Intriguing proposal to end the violence in Ukraine from Dan Drezner
  • Slight, but fascinatingly futuristic idea for humanitarian relief
  • Realistic proposals for positive change in the DRC? :O
  • A reminder that there are no nuclear weapons in South America – that’s nice. Interesting look at why that is.
  • Hesitated on where to put this, as it’s bittersweet, but a lovely profile of one of the women involved in the Supreme Court case against the Defence of Marriage Act.
  • The New Statesman has a tendency to publish pretty irritating stuff on feminism**, but this brilliant (long) essay on trans people and radical feminism kind of makes up for it
  • Was only vaguely aware of this – amid the commemorations of the soldiers, Paul Mason argues the First World War was brought to an end by workers’ movements
  • CityMetric is an interesting project. This is cool on the definition of a city, and this is encouraging on the urban revolution.
  • Speaking of cities: very fun account by Clive Martin of a pub crawl through the worst of gentrifying London dickery. Surprisingly even-handed. While most of my trips into Central London make me pray for the day all its wanky boutiques, pop-ups, craft beer and fancy coffee houses disappear from the face of the Earth, this sort of piece makes me wonder if I shouldn’t give it a chance while I’m still here.
  • Great interview with the wonderful Christina Hendricks
  • Been reading a lot of The Debrief this week (you should too) – enjoyed this on the mad reactions to J-Law’s breakup, and not just because her dating that annoying kid out of About a Boy was annoying
  • Liked this by Daisy Buchanan – just eight years to go till I hit my peak, apparently
  • Really want to play Far Cry 3 again after reading this great piece
  • I identify deeply with this Buzzfeed.
  • My hero.

Also, I wanted to do a Kanye-eyeroll here but can’t be arsed, but can we just take a moment to note that on Thursday morning Dan Hodges wrote a weasel wordy, incoherent, ignorant column decrying the paralysis and cowardice of the non-interventionism that dominates Western policy and literally like twelve hours later, Obama was authorising airstrikes on ISIS (just in time to spare us a tedious Nick Cohen column on the topic, I hope). Beautiful.

Long’un this week. Whoops. We’re done. Enjoy the week as best you can guys. This too shall pass, maybe? IDK.

As ever, if receiving this thing to your email inbox late Saturday night instead of seeking it out yourselves during Sunday appeals to you, I’ve started a newsletter which you can subscribe to ->here<-

*optimistic for us, not them, obv.

**which I’m loathe to really criticise because I’m a bloke but.

3rd of August: “Commuter” Edition

I’ve decided I don’t like coming into London during the week. As befits my status as “a bit of a waste of space” ™, recently I’ve been coming in to the centre, wearing shorts and sunglasses, and overlapping with various segments of commuters on the train, all besuited and miserable, and god. Nothing quite like it to remind you you’ve done nothing with your week.

Nothing but read a bunch of stuff! The advantage of “commuting”, of course, is I read a bunch of stuff – which is good for you, as you don’t even need to do the commuting bit (unless you do anyway, in which case, sorry)

Song of the week isn’t exactly a song so much as an indulgence. Despite realising their audience is apparently mostly 14, and despite their hawking their songs to every awful thing from the Olympics to Twilight, I still have a lot of time for Muse, if only out of loyalty to high-school me. This week’s song is the three-part ‘symphony’ off the end of The Resistance, ‘Exogenesis’. It’s ridiculous, self-indulgent, and just a bit beautiful. It’s also twelve minutes long: luckily, there are a lot of links this week.

  • Two posts on the international response to Vladimir Putin’s actions in Ukraine. One arguing for a more assertive policy, and one praising the restrained one so far. You choose*
  • Interesting article examining different scenarios for China’s rise to challenge the narrative of its inevitable hegemony
  • What are NATO and the EU’s rapid response forces good for? Also wrote an article about this, which I submitted about three hours before reading – annoying.
  • Mean Girls reference and slamming right-wing orthodoxies? Sold. On Mitt Romney, the ‘fetch’ of presidential candidates
  • Damning piece on the aftermath of the Libyan intervention
  • The Early Warning Project present their assessments for risks of state-led mass killing in 2014 – interesting for my dissertation, but also for you
  • Adam Elkus has some problems (to say the least) with US policy in ‘AfPak’
  • Bitterly funny.
  • Quite nice interview with someone who I assume is famous in the States on travel, food, and …war
  • I don’t know how the hell to summarise this piece without sounding mad. One of their pictures might help:

    taken from The Atlantic

  • Reassuring blog by Tom Chivers on the Ebola outbreak.
  • There was a lot of money sloshing around for contractors after the Afghan and Iraq war – this piece looks at someone who made a lot of money from them, perhaps not too ethically.
  • Charlie’s got more thoughts on development – interesting ones
  • Lovely piece from Roxane Gay
  • Dorian Lynskey has an excellent feature on the egregious example of cultural appropriation that is the ‘festival headdress’
  • Mythologised history is fun, but it’s nice to know the truth about les taxis de la Marne
  • Speaking of mythologised history, this (multi-part, not sure which link I’ve given you) “degenerates” into mid-century Swiss army fan-fiction (as if that’s a bad thing), but is interesting on the German plans for an invasion of Switzerland in WW2
  • Ally Fogg is not unhappy that men’s appearances are getting more scrutiny than in the past
  • This sounds appalling to me, because strangers, but quite an interesting concept – like blablacar but for food
  • This is nice, somewhat encouraging, stuff by Bim Adewunmi
  • The pieces from the New Yorker archive are starting to come through. This week, celebrity profiles! First up, this is cool on George Clooney
  • Didn’t mean for this to happen, honest, but GQ’s interview with Kanye West is great, and it was right next to this very interesting (quite old, pre-Red) profile of Taylor Swift** in my bookmarks. I’mma let you finish indeed.
  • Got endless time for writing about Confessions
  • This is inexplicably funny.

Weekly reminder that if you’d prefer, the Reading List is available in newsletter form here, and with that, I bid you bubye. Enjoy the weather or something. x

*currently writing something on Parliament’s report on the issue, so watch this space

**god this has been a week for “guilty” pleasures, hasn’t it? Muse and Taylor Swift (who even my teenaged sister (ie, Swift’s target audience) rolls her eyes at me for liking).