"Any way the wind blows" - Queen, Bohemian Rhapsody
I recently finished read Andreas Krieg’s “Subversion: The Strategic Weaponization of Narratives”. A very interesting book that focuses on how actors (states and others) operate in the information space to gain political advantage. In addition to providing some theoretic and historical background to the concept and the importance of communication and propaganda in overall strategy, the book also looks at a range of current and past cases and examples. It specifically looks at Russia’s influence in the West and the UAE’s influence post Arab Spring (demonizing the Muslim Brotherhood and actors related to them).
The core argument of the book is that “Subversion is thus a twenty-first century activity that exploits vulnerabilities in the information environment to achieve strategic objectives below the threshold of war with plausible deniability and discretion. It makes use of weaponized narratives to achieve influence on the strategic level, allowing an external adversary or competitor to undermine the sociopolitical consensus and ultimately the sociopolitical status quo…. Subversion campaigns integrate a full spectrum of influence operations, releasing weaponized narratives across a variety of domains, and require tactical activities to be tied into a larger strategy. Only then can a tactical influence operation travel up the mobilization ladder, shaping attitudes and behaviors beyond the immediately targetd audience.” (pp.6-9.)
There were two main elements I found particular worthwhile to explore further. One is the concept the author develops of ‘information resilience’. In this context, he recommends the West needs to address key vulnerabilities that are both sociopsychological and infrastructural. The urgency of this is certainly clear – the COVID propaganda and disinformation is just one example. Nevertheless, it seems to me that government structures in the West are particularly badly set-up to deal with this threat and to support ‘information resilience’. The approach would mean reaching across silos of structures that deal with information technology, foreign policy, home affairs, espionage and education (to name but a few obvious ones) in addition to probably needing to be coordinated at a multi-country level.
The second element that seemed of specific interest to me would be to further explore the concept of subversion in the context of Francophone Africa. A very vocal anti-French narrative has been weaponized. The mixture of real grievances (e.g., French support for certain oppressive regimes) with subjective arguments (e.g., the desirability of the FCFA as currency), and conspiracy theory (e.g., seeing French machinations behind every negative event) is being amplified across media and in particular online (e.g., twitter / X). What is happening echo’s a statement in the author’s conclusions that, “… once a consensus builds, even if just in an echo chamber, narratives can be difficult to challenge, contest and remove, which leads to polarization…” (p. 204)
04.09.2023, Brussels, Belgium.
This blog started when we went to Niger, and I spent 3 years there with my wife and children (our second child was born while we lived there). As a result, I have a certain interest and attachment to the country. Working on Chad – with a clear Sahel context – has been ideal to follow what is going on in Niger. On 26 July 2023 a coup took place in Niger, with elements of the military holding the civilian president and claiming power.
A lot has been written and said about the coup, both its causes and its consequences (one of the articles I found the most interesting is by Rahmane Idrissa). But overall, both looking forward and backwards, it’s probably too soon to say anything definitive. Some somewhat random thoughts:
18.08.2023, Brussels, Belgium.
I have just finished reading Sharath Srinivasan’s, “When Peace Kills Politics: International Interventions and Unending Wars in the Sudans”. A very interesting read, both due to recent events in Sudan but also my work the past (almost) 20 years. The core argument of the book is that, “The tragedy of peacemaking is that even when it seeks to bring about a world that can sustain non-violent civil politics, the means that it has available to do this, and the ends it pursues as enabling this, risk coercing and debilitating that very politics, in turn motivating political violence and reinforcing its currency.” (p. 13).
Much of the argument resonated with me. Peacebuilding in Liberia, the Sahel, the Great Lakes region (to name a few regions I’m familiar with professionally) indeed do seem to follow the pattern suggested by Srinivasan. Despite efforts, it’s hard to argue that international actors supported the emergence of civil politics in these places – Liberia being the one possible exception. I did have to think of two other regions with which I am familiar – Mindanao and Aceh. Both the Bangsamoro Peace Process and the peace between the Free Aceh Movement and the Indonesian government can be described as successful. Yet both of these stand out by the fact that the ‘footprint’ of international partners were fairly light. (For Aceh one has to point out the exceptional situation post-Tsunami as well).
The nature of foreign interventions is of course problematic. International attention, and the corresponding emergency relief / mediation / aid caravan(s) rush from crisis to crisis. The international actors involved rely very much on domestic political agendas and (electoral) cycles. Inevitably local politics needs to be simplified and international interests (economic, migration, counter-terrorism, etc…) are often difficult to understand and can result in counterproductive policies. But key is probably understanding and supporting local politics – and in the end its local political dynamics that are in the lead over the medium to long term. (One could say international actors should particularly pay attention to do no harm). An important sentence from the conclusion to the book states that, “Peace interventions in the unending wars of Sudan and South-Sudan suggest that peacemaking will not end with non-violent civil politics unless it begins with such politics as well.” (p. 285).
The current situation in Sudan is marked by the collapse of the peace process / transition since the fall of Bashir in 2019. Unfortunately this fights the pattern of Sudan, could have severe ramifications for the country and the broader region, and reflects the difficulty to move to civilian politics. It is not clear if foreign (at least Western) actors can do much about this. International actors need much more humility and less hypocrisy.
21.05.2023, Brussels, Belgium.
The past few years have been quiet something. The war in Ukraine – the major event in Europe this year – but COVID 19, the ramifications of the 2008 financial crisis, and 9/11 and its consequences (most notably the war on terror). This all in the context of large-scale changes such as the rise of China (and along with it, much of the ‘global-South’), the increasing consciousness with regards to climate change, and the increasing of global inter-connectedness in many areas (i.e., ‘globalization’). The first few decades of the century have been noteworthy; but presumably that can be said of all periods. It made me think of the Martin Luther King Jr. quote, “We are not makers of history. We are made by history.”
In Europe and the US, the return of inflation has clearly marked 2022. The impact has varied – in the EU for example, in November 2022 according to Eurostat, annual inflation rates varied from 6.7% in Spain to 23.1% in Hungary. GDP growth – after a post-COVID 19 bump – has largely reduced to zero in both the EU and the US. The cause(s) of inflation have been much debated and thus there is no clear consensus on how to address this. Both the ECB and US Fed have aggressively increased their lending rates. However, there is no clear consensus on what fiscal policy should be and the role of central banks with regards to some of the less conventional measures (in the Eurozone). For Europe, it is clear that an important factor is the war in Ukraine and its impact on energy provision and energy prices. But this is also impacting the rest of the world and geopolitics.
The most evident impact has been on energy. In addition to the price increase (as mentioned – an important part of the inflationary pressures, at least in Europe), the cutting-off of / reduction of access to Russian energy (most notably gas) has pushed Europe in particular to access other sources and change its approaches. Another notable impact has been on food prices globally, both directly through the reduction in provision of specifics staples but also via the provision of fertilizers. The inflationary pressure has pushed both the US Fed and the ECB to increase interest rates and this is impacting economies around the globe who borrow in US dollars and / or Euro’s. Exiting the current low rates makes funding debt service harder for developing countries and emerging markets – some have not been able to return to the markets in 2022.https://findevlab.org/the-coming-debt-crisis/. The case of Ghana is illustrative. The war in Ukraine is also re-defining alliances and international relations. NATO (or ‘the West’) seems to have emerged as a more functional structure than many had expected. Russia has seemingly intensified its relations with Iran and North Korea, in particular with regards to weapons. Finally, China, India, and much of the rest of the world has in general tried to take a ‘neo-non-aligned’ position with regards to the war.
Where does all of this leave us for 2023? Some random thoughts: 1) The above, combined with the (relatively) low growth in China mean that development perspectives (in particular for non-energy economies) in developing countries are not good; and this good have political ramifications 2) The previous point + the direct tensions between the West and Russia over Ukraine mean that the perspectives for cooperation on global governance issues (e.g. climate change) are not good; 3) A particularly contentious US presidential elections in 2024 (with primaries to be announced between end 2022 and early 2023; conventions to take place summer 2024) means that the US is likely to be focused on internal affairs the 2nd half of 2023.
28.12.2022, Brussels, Belgium.
I just finished reading Daniel Yergin’s, ‘The New Map – Energy, Climate and the Clash of Nations’. A very instructive read on the impact of current developments in the energy sector and climate measures. The development of shale gas is presented as a key development – essentially turning the largest energy importer, the US, into an exporter. The dependency of China on energy imports and its (resulting) push to renewables is another important factor, as is the role of Russia as a large energy provider. The Middle East remains a complex situation, sitting on important reserves but with an uncertain future.
The war in Ukraine has been instructive. The relationship between the west and Russia – with the continued engaging in energy trade from both sides – is noteworthy. Both sides remain dependent even if in (indirect) conflict.
Another interesting thing to look at is the impact of the energy transition. Some energy producers / exporters risk loosing revenue and influence. Other minerals (e.g. used in the production of batteries) become more important and countries with key reserves of these become important economic and strategic actors (e.g. Chili with important reserves of Lithium and Copper). Interestingly, China is also an important source country for some of these minerals. The EU even has a strategy for these critical raw materials.
Some African countries could benefit from these developments (i.e. with reserves of these raw materials) but others could loose (i.e. if the interest in traditional energy drops). Of course, all the traditional risks (bad governance, Dutch disease, how to move up the value chain and create jobs, etc.) even if a country is ‘lucky’ in this regard. The future geopolitical landscape is also – as always- difficult to predict (another interesting read in this regard).
18.04.2022, Brussels, Belgium.
I just finished reading Noah Feldman’s book, ‘The Arab Winter: A Tragedy’. A very interesting read reflecting on the results of the Arab Spring. With the exception of Tunisia (though at this point even that could be reviewed), the book concludes, the result has been (renewed) dictatorship, civil war, extremist terror, and at times all three. A sobering and depressing analysis. Yet the book does note that for the first time in modern history the Arabic-speaking people to real free and collective political action. So even if the results may not be what was hoped for, it probably is an important political development.
For me – not following the events in great detail – it was a good way to catch up. Not only on the events but also with a bit of a meta-perspective. Last summer the Economist magazine had a special on the ‘Arab World’. It’s opening article, ‘A misshapen square’ (referring to Cairo’s Tahrir Square which was at the heart of its 2011 revolution against Mubarak) concludes that Arab states suffer of ‘external weakness’, ‘internal brittleness’, and a ‘crisis of identity’. The states and their economies cannot deliver the economic growth needed, the rulers lack legitimacy, and the ‘death’ of Arab nationalism has left a gaping hole. Feldman’s analysis of ISIS as a ‘utopian’ (but of course extreme nihilistic and Islamist) movement is interesting in this perspective. An interesting and important region to keep an eye on, both from a European and African perspective.
19.03.2022, Brussels, Belgium.
After months of Russian military buildups close to its borders with Ukraine (and in Russia’s ally, Belorussia), two days ago it finally happened – Russia invaded Ukraine.Though inevitably, in particular of late, I have done some reading on the issues (and I would strongly recommend the satirical ‘The Death of Stalin’) I’m not nearly familiar enough with them to arrive at any strong conclusions (or at least they are not particularly interesting to share).But I’ll permit myself a few general points and EU / Africa relevant ones:
26.02.2022, Brussels, Belgium.
I started a blog a while ago by stating that, “The past few weeks, and arguably the past years, have not been kind to the Sahelian countries.” After Mali, Chad, Guinea, Sudan, Burkina Faso has now had a coup d’état. Guinea Bissau faced an attempted coup yesterday. (I’ll leave out Myanmar for geographic reasons – but the ‘coup’ seems to be back).
Each case has its particularities and specificities. In Chad, the death of the former long-term dictator clear was the very definition of an institutional crisis. In Sudan, after a popular uprising against the former dictator, the country is going through a complex transition. (One has to note the heroic courage of the Sudanese people). In Guinea the former president (elected democratically) had modified the constitution to allow himself a third term as president. In Burkina Faso though a democratically elected president (after a popular uprising against the former dictator) has been removed in a coup. It is clear that both the armed forces and much of the population was frustrated with the president’s difficulties in dealing with the (growing) terrorist menace spilling over from Mali. Of course, the fact that the army that failed in dealing with the terrorists is taking control is somewhat ironic.
To me, a few things stand out;
02.02.2022, Brussels, Belgium.
I just finished reading ‘Hidden Hand’ by C. Hamilton and M. Ohlberg. Briefly summarized, the book is an explanation of influence operations by the Chinese communist party around the world and it essentially argues that this is a specific and urgent issue for the West. The book makes provides an extensive overview of how the Chinese government and security services are organized with regards to influencing foreign governments and societies. The links with economic interests and the Chinese abroad are particularly interesting. The book – in particular for someone not particular versed in the subject – is a very good introduction and overview. The book is convincing in its argument that the Chinese communist party makes the Chinese ‘state’ different than a ‘regular’ state / government and that they put extensive effort in espionage and lobby abroad. It is something that is an issue, and arguably one that is somewhat underappreciated.
Where the book is weaker is regarding how the nature of the Chinese efforts is different than that of other powers. Espionage (industrial or otherwise), influencing (through financing NGO’s, thinktanks, students, etc.) are not a uniquely Chinese phenomenon. And attacking the Chinese of trying to get more influence in international organizations is of course somewhat hypocritical if we look at the state of IMF / World Bank governance and the UN Security Council.
For both the EU and Africa, the big question is how to deal with this. Clearly ‘size’ is an issue, and hence (supra-national) unity becomes more important. This is of course relevant both with regards to the US and China. Both Europe and Africa benefit from multilateral governance – a bigger issue and concern when the two major global players have at best an opportunistic relationship with this.
01.01.2022, Brussels, Belgium
Online encampment of A. S. Barry. Disparate and not-so-disparate thoughts on international relations, development, writing, and life.