Japanese Aircraft Carrier’s: Asking Questions

by Stephen M. Saideman

From the National Interest.

The news of the month, Asia-Pacific-wise, is that Japan has admitted that its escort destroyers (and other names for its helicopter carriers) are going to be converted into aircraft carriers via some modifications and with purchasing the version of the F-35 that can take off from a short deck.  Why?

That is, why is Japan doing this?  I raise that simple question.  Folks think the answers are obvious:

a) China is bad and spending heaps on a larger navy

b) Trump is unreliable so Japan needs carriers more now than before.

And my response to these answers is this: how do carriers solve these problems?  Maybe they do, maybe they don’t.  But my study of Japanese civil-military relations suggests that damn few civilians are asking any questions at all.

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Bullies in International Relations

by Stephen M. Saideman

The past few years challenge much of the conventional understanding of international relations.  One of the big lessons from the IR scholarship of the 1970s is that the nature of international relations is that threats and bullying don’t work.  As Robert Jervis discussed it, the world can be either a constant chicken game or a repeated prisoner’s dilemma–aka deterrence vs. spiral model.  In short, is international relations an environment (a system!) where countries cave into threats or do they balance against them, that those who believe that pushing countries around are usually confronting with coalitions created by such bullying.  Kaiser Wilhelm, as IR scholars use as a example, threatened everyone, hoping that they would back down.  Instead, these countries solidified their alliances and showed up in Europe in August 1914.  Oops.

Over the past several years, we have seen a series of countries engage in bullying behavior–Russia, Saudi Arabia, Trump’s US and China.  Russia has wielded nuclear threats to encourage Europeans to not deploy troops to the Baltics and to dissuade them from supporting Ukraine.  How has that worked so far?  Saudi Arabia has seemingly become unhinged as of late, overreacting to Canadian discussions of Saudi human rights and all but warring upon Qatar.  Trump, well, is a bully, so we ought not be surprised by his threats nor by his ignorance of IR scholarship. Threatening the allies has led them to ponder hedging and alternatives.  He might think the North Koreans have submitted after last year’s threats, but I am pretty sure the North Koreans think they have the upper hand.

The big surprise, to me anyway, is China.  China has manged its rise so very well in large part because it has mostly wielded a velvet fist.  Yes, it has buzzed American planes and ships, had friction with Indonesia, and other stuff.  But generally, the China of the 2000s and early 2010s has been replaced by a more aggressive and obnoxious China.  The tiff with Canada is importance since Canada was the western democracy least likely to object to the Huawei company getting inside Canada’s 5G.  Well, not any more.  The current standoff is causing Canadian parties to rally against China–who is arguing now that Canada should submit?  Moreover, a conversation with a European diplomat today reminded me that Canada has more influence than folks think.  Not necessarily to push China back into the straight and narrow but to serve as bellwether.  If  a country has a problem with the US or EU, well, those are powerful entities that can antagonize.  But a country has a problem with Canada?  That suggests that the particular country is problematic… and, jeez, is China problematic these days.

I am not a China expert so I don’t really know what is driving China to behave this way.  I would guess domestic politics and nationalism (populism?  Not quite).  But everything I have learned in my career tells me that China’s choices now are self-destructive–that being aggressive does not pay in the long run.  That bullying is counter-productive.  Perhaps China is encouraged because the US led by Trump is so incompetent and unreliable, which means balancing will be late, inept and weak.  But it is still a dumb move–the Chinese have been gaining strength with little opposition because they were not overly aggressive.

The thing about IR theory stuff–it didn’t say that bullying didn’t happen. It just said it was not productive.  So, the question for future IR scholars, if we live so long, is whether China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Trump’s US are punished or not.  We shall see.


NATO and the International Order: It was Kind of Nice, Wasn’t It?

by Stephen M. Saideman

People have been asking me lately–what is the big deal with this international liberal order?  What has it ever done right? What has it ever given me? There are lots of pieces to it, but I am focused on NATO for obvious reasons, including my assignment at next week’s Kingston International Conference on Security.

So, here’s Mattis’s quote from the NAC (North Atlantic Council) Defense Ministerial:

and my reaction.

I used to scoff at the usual NATO existential crisis stuff–that NATO needed a reason to exist in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse, that there was some conflict within that might lead to the alliance breaking up, etc.  But now I am in the club of those who fear for NATO’s future.  Why?  Trump.  It is that simple.  Putin actually did more for NATO unity in 2014 than anything else by making folks remember NATO’s day job–keeping Europe peaceful and, as a result, prosperous.  But his gambles on Trump, on Brexit, on supporting right wing aspiring autocrats (Orban of Hungary, Erdogan of Turkey, etc) have worked out.

The alliance has worked and changed our conception of alliance not just because it is far more institutionalized than any other alliance past or present, but because all of it relied on largely shared values.  Not just democracy but democracy with embedded liberalism–that governments played a role in adjusting to international shocks, made easier by international cooperation.

And now is a splintered G-7 meeting due to Trump using “national security threat” to play a particularly problematic card–to impose tariffs on allies without the consent of Congress.  To be clear, this is the opt out card built into the agreements.  He does not really believe that these countries or their exports to the US are any kind of threat, but he does not believe in norms, rules or the future. So, Trump has used this exception, antagonizing everyone except maybe the Italians (their own populist election results are handy for self-destruction).

So endeth the shared values.  Orban has already promoted illiberal democracy, and Trump would too if he could articulate anything (note that Gorka is back, and Gorka is a living embodiment of Orban’s illiberal democracy).  True, Trump is not the US, but he is, alas, 40% of it, and the GOP seems ok with selling out American values for tax cuts and court seats.  So, even if/when the Democrats come into power, they will not be able to reassure the Europeans and the Canadians.  After all, this big split is the most significant … since the last Republican president and the misconceived Iraq war of 2003.

So, how can NATO provide security by reassuring nervous members and deterring adversaries?  The lack of common values undermines NATO credibility–will the US show up if Russia does something?  Perhaps not since Trump is now trying to get Russia back into the G8 despite everything Russia has done since seizing Crimea.

NATO isn’t dead, and I hope to see signs of life when I go to the expert side party at the summit next month. But NATO is far from healthy, and I worry that we soon look back at those 70 years Mattis speaks of and wistfully remember the good old days.  Maybe the good old days weren’t as good as they seem, as Billy Joel reminds us, but they were better than the days before that–WWI, WWII and all that.


Much Learning in Two Weeks in Korea

by Stephen M. Saideman

Fun times in Korea, eh?  I was really struck during my two weeks there of a split in opinions–most of the folks I met were “cautiously optimistic” about the situation, that the Trump-Kim summit might lead to a significant improvement in regional tensions, while other folks were in the “ruthlessly pessimistic” camp.  And I was a member of the latter.  Why?  Because TeamRP just could not see anyway for North Korea to “denuke” in any meaningful way when the US had, ooops, done some regime change on Libya.

So, I get back to North America and notice that Bolton has been talking about the “Libya Option” seriously, which did ultimately send the desired signal (if Bolton does not want peace) to the North Koreans.  So, the North Koreans have said that they had no intention of trading their nukes for economic assistance.  That, along with the earlier announcement that that they were skipping a meeting since the US and ROK were not cancelling a key military exercise, reminded us that North Koreans have always been the most obnoxious trolls in International Relations (sorry, John and Stephen).

So, folks are having an epiphany–negotiating with North Korea is hard, and they aren’t giving up their nukes.  I had a bit of a different Korean epiphany thanks to some sharp outsiders (Canadians and Americans who took me out for drinks and bbq:

American troops have long been based in South Korea to do two things: deter the North Koreans and reassure the South Koreans.  Standard tripwire type stuff.  Now, things have flipped as smart South Koreans want the Americans to stay to deter an American attack on North Korea.  Yeah, that seems backwards, but the idea is that Trump would not attack North Korea with so many Americans in harm’s way (is that wishful thinking rearing its ugly head again?).  That Trump would have a freer hand if the Americans were no longer down range of North Korean artillery….

Before I left for South Korea, I thought that the likely outcomes from a KJU-Trump summit would be in decreasing likelihood:

  1. A modest agreement, such as NK agrees not to test any more nukes (its test area is broken and other new nuclear powers tested six nukes, so a convenient time to give away this chip) and US promises to de-escalate a smidge.  Trump would come home, declaring he solved the Korean problem, and the pundits/press would buy it, but not much would have really changed.  Woot!
  2. NK agrees to give up its ICBM capability, Trump agrees to reduce or even eliminate US forces in South Korea, so NK gets not only recognition of being a nuclear power but decoupling of South Korea and Japan from US.
  3. Trump and KJU yell at each other as each is upset that they don’t have a common understanding of “denuclearization.”  So, the road to war is a bit clearer, and John Bolton does a happy dance.


  1. No meeting as NK does not want to signal that it gave in to “massive pressure” from US.
  2. No meeting as Trump realizes he can’t get the Nobel Prize.
  3. A meeting with much reduced expectations–perhaps freezes of NK’s weapons in exchange for US promising not to regime change (which is believed by none).
  4. War.
  5.  A meeting, then war.

So, yeah, not great.  Are things clearer now than two weeks ago?  Not sure.  I do think Team Relentless Pessimism is feeling pretty good about feeling pretty bad. Woot?


What Do We Know About the Kurdish Referendum

by Stephen M. Saideman

Not much as I haven’t studied the Kurds.  McGill Phd David Romano has studied them a great deal, and there are others who are far more expert.  However, I do know something about separatism, referenda and irredentism, so here’s what I think:

  1. Separatism is not as contagious as advertised. The only folks who really get encouraged by an effort, successful or otherwise, are those who are kin.  Everyone else is far more focused on their own incentives and constraints.  They will learn from the examples elsewhere whatever lessons that support their pre-existing inclinations.  Yes, I was a fan of confirmation bias long before it was cool.
  2. The Sunnis will not be pleased.  It is hard enough for two smaller groups to attempt to balance the Shia in whatever semi-democratic institutions, but with Kurds leaving, Sunnis are dwarfed by Shia.  Hard to craft a democracy or anything else that gives Sunnis some chance of not being dominated.  So, yeah, Kurds leaving would screw Sunnis just as Slovenia screwed the Bosnians.  Everything old is new again.
  3. Irredentism is not in the cards.  Sure, one could talk about a Greater Kurdistan, but which Kurds get to rule it?  Milton (and Khan) was right: better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.  So, no, despite what Turkey might say, there will be no significant effort at Greater Kurdistan.
  4. I am not a fan of secession from advanced democracies–the costs of changing are too high and always underplayed by the secessionists, democracy depends on losers staying in the system, and usually there are ways to get what you need, if not what you want.  But the Kurds have some reasonable grievances, starting with how they can’t trust the Shia dominated government of Iraq.
  5. The timing makes sense–Kurdish strength is at an alltime high given that the US, Canada and others have armed and trained the Kurds.  Those efforts are already declining now that ISIS has been mostly removed from the Kurds’ neighborhood.  Iraq is still weak due to the ongoing war with ISIS, so now makes sense….
  6. But a referendum does not mean independence.  It can mean a process, a bargaining process that can take quite some time.  The question of violence really now depends on what the Iraqi government will do.  Governments generally don’t let secessionist regions leave–lots of work on this especially by Monica Toft.
  7. Countries will support whichever side they have ethnic ties (article version).  If no ties, then other interests, such as seeking stability will kick in.  The one thing, for damn sure, is that countries will not be deterred by their own vulnerability to separatism.
  8. Turkey will overreact.  Duh.

What does it mean for the war against ISIS?  Damned if I know.  Anyhow, my past work suggests this will be both better and worse than what the pundits say.  Woot?

Jez Littlewood on Bill C-59 and what it means for Canada’s national security

The recently introduced Bill C-59 described by experts as the biggest overhaul in Canadian national security since the creation of the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS) in 1984, enacts the establishment of a so-called super watchdog agency – the National Security and Intelligence Review Agency – to keep an eye on federal departments and agencies gathering intelligence, as well as revamps the Communications Security Establishment (CSE) and its activities, among other provisions. Katarina Koleva talked to Jez Littlewood, an Assistant Professor at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, who teaches courses on terrorism, national security, intelligence, and arms control, about his thoughts on Bill C-59, the changes it introduces, and what they mean for Canada’s security.

iAffairs: What exactly is Bill C-59 going to change?

Jez Littlewood: The Bill is going to change a lot of things. It is omnibus legislation. It changes a number of existing acts of legislation such as the CSIS’s Act, the National Defence Act, it changes parts of what was the antiterrorism act in 2015 – Bill C 51. In that sense, it changes a lot in terms of accountability structures but equally, in reality, it is tweaking and refining some of the major issues that were clearly points of concern among parliamentarians as well as among the public in Bill C-51 rather than rejecting them and getting rid of them in their entirety.

iAffairs: In what way does Bill C-59 address and refine some of the concerns raised by Bill C-51?

Jez Littlewood: It tries to do this in two ways. The first is to refine or amend some definitional terms in certain areas. To give two examples in that sense. First, major concerns were raised about the idea that CSIS could take part in what are considered to be disruption activities. This makes CSIS, rather than a passive gatherer of intelligence that was passed on to other people, if there was a threat to the security of Canada, more actively involved in disrupting those threats. C-51 allowed or certainly permitted that those disruption activities could be potentially very far ranging, to the point that it allowed breaches of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, in certain circumstances, if a federal judge approved a warrant for such activities in contravention of the Charter. In one sense, a major concern was that we were allowing our intelligence agency to essentially violate certain portions of the Charter, under federal warrant, but that warrant itself will be delivered in secret. Bill C-59 rolls that back by essentially making it clear that there are certain disruption activities which do not require a warrant even though these are not specified in the Act. Listed in the Act in seven broad categories of disruption where a warrant would be required. These are the areas of potential concern.  Equally, it is clear that C-59 passes what the lawyers would call the Section One Charter test, which means it is supposed to be within the infringement of civil liberties and rights the Charter permits for national security reasons. That is one area.

Another area relates to disclosure of information and what was the Information Sharing Act. The concerns in the Bill C-51, in that context, was that 17 agencies and departments in Canada were named in the act itself as being able to share information, if perceived to be necessary to assist in the security of Canada. That, “security of Canada,” was a very broad definition. This has been narrowed somewhat, in an attempt to clarify that we are not talking about new intelligence collection, and that such sharing of information can only happen if it really does assist in national security investigation. So, there is some tweaking of the definitions in C-51 and refinements to certain portions of it rather than a wholesale rolling back.

iAffairs: What would be the mandate and the structure of the new super watchdog agency and how would it fit within the existing bodies of ministerial, judicial, and independent oversight?

Jez Littlewood: Essentially, the new agency deals with a problem that we’ve long had in existence in Canada. At this stage, the intelligence accountability is based upon review bodies that are sort of agency or department specific. For example CSIS had the Security Intelligence Review Committee and it could only look at CSIS; CSE has the Office of the CSE Commissioner; the RCMP has the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission. The barriers between these review bodies, the silos, have been quite firm, not impossible to bridge, but nonetheless still quite firm. This new review agency – the National Security Intelligence Review Agency – is going to subsume and take over certainly SIRC and the CSE Commissioner’s office. It will take some responsibilities for the national security component of the RCMPS’s review body in a way that allows review and accountability agencies to follow the thread of the investigations, as people say, rather than be siloed. We are likely to see, assuming C-59 passes in due course, a fundamental restructuring of Canadian intelligence and accountability oversight issues. This is, of course, in conjunction with two other areas. The first is the establishment of the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians which gives parliamentarians a role here, which is separate to what is in C-59. But equally we would see in C-59 itself the creation of an Intelligence Commissioner who will handle some of the ministerial authorizations so that the instructions and permissions from the ministers to CSE, within its foreign intelligence and cyber role, and within CSIS related to the retention of its open source datasets.

iAffairs: How would the new review Agency and the Parliamentarian Committee complement each other?

Jez Littlewood: They are separate or will be separate in law. But certainly within the first drafting of C-59 it is clear that the new review agency will work with parliamentarians, if they decide or they have a common interest. They can certainly share or would be expected to share information where it is possible to do so. So, we should see these bodies as separate but nevertheless complementary. I certainly don’t detect in the way the legislation is written that these are competing rather than complementary, in different levels. There is a level of interest and focus within parliamentarians and a different level of experts working inside and along with an agency, department, or entity which is doing intelligence. In reality, the latter is not what you would expect parliamentarians to be doing anyway. But the overlap exists and Parliamentarians have a quite wide latitude on paper to go where they see fit.

iAffairs: Do you see any weaknesses in the text of Bill C-59?

Jez Littlewood: There are a number of issues which have to be thought about, in some detail, and presumably discussed quite robustly in parliamentary committees. It is clear that some organizations remain concerned about the level of information sharing. The information sharing components of C-51 have now been renamed the information disclosure components of C-59. There are also some issues in terms of the tweaking of the passenger protect program, i.e. the no fly list, which remains a concern for some civil liberties organizations. So I would certainly expect the government is going to be pushed quite hard in consultations, and don’t necessarily think we should expect this to be simple or easy ride, in terms of the passage of Bill C-59 in due course.

iAffairs: When is the bill likely to become law? How long will the process take?

Jez Littlewood: I would imagine it will take at least one year. There is an expectation that there will be further delay. So, even if we allow for parliamentary committees to be up and running, and considering this in October, it is a wide ranging bill, with a lot of moving parts. If it is going to be reviewed correctly, that is going to take, in my view, at least six to eight months of committee hearings, and back and forth. I would be surprised if C-59 is law by this time next year, in 2018. At the same time, I would be somewhat disappointed given the fact that I am broadly in favor of what is in C-59. There are some things that might need attention but I will be somewhat disappointed if it wasn’t finally tweaked and becomes acceptable by the end of 2018.

iAffairs: The document permits CSE to hack foreign nations. Is it aimed to shut down potential cyber-attacks?

Jez Littlewood: The CSE already has foreign and signal intelligence, as well as cyber safety and cyber assurance role. It is in its existing mandate, as well as offering technical advice to existing law enforcement intelligence agencies. It is really putting armour or proposing to put on a legal footing the fact that CSE can have more interventionist role, more active or offensive role. But equally it can have an active defensive role in thwarting attacks and interfering with the structures in the cyber domain. At this early stage, we understand, these will not be decisions taken solely by the CSE internally. Such decisions would have to involve ministerial authorizations and oversight of a fairly high level of government. So, it alters CSE mandate pretty much in line with what people have been thinking is going to be necessary in the future years, and puts more extensive and intrusive technical capabilities in the hands of government on a much more formal legal foundation.

iAffairs: Are there models of super watchdog agencies, in other countries, that Canada can draw examples from?

Jez Littlewood: The one, in some sense of a model, might be Australia which has the Inspector General approach which looks across all of Australia’s national security and intelligence community. In some respects we can look at that. In another way, in a separate environment, we can look at the UK’s Independent Commissioner to deal with counterterrorism issues which is focused on counterterrorism, not the broader set of national security. Canada’s approach is to cover all aspects of national security.

iAffairs: What are your thoughts with regard to the latest terrorist attacks in London and elsewhere – using vehicles as weapons?

Jez Littlewood: It is not a new terror tactic in the sense that we’ve seen vehicles used as weapons in Nice, France, in Germany, in Sweden, and elsewhere. However, it has been an innovation over the last decade or so, a part of a broader trend with two characteristics. The first is coming exclusively from the so-called Islamic State for individuals to basically carry out acts of terror wherever and however they can. Even if you do not have access to bombs or weapons, you use what you have and this is what we see in the propaganda, as well as in the literature – use a vehicle, use a knife. A good example, of course, being October 2014, and the attack in Quebec. The other part of that trend is that counterterrorism efforts have made it more difficult, but not impossible, for individuals to get quite sophisticated weapons. So, in one sense the success of counterterrorism in largely removing bomb making capabilities has pushed terrorists into using bladed weapons, vehicles etc. This trend reinforces what we’ve known for a long time throughout the history of terrorism – terrorism and counterterrorism have action-reaction effect on each other. If some things become harder or more difficult for terrorists, they shift to different kinds of targeting tactics. This, unfortunately, is one of those realities we are all living in.

In terms of prevention, are we going to harden every bridge, every sidewalk? That is unlikely. That is not really going to happen. Some measures might be temporary, in terms of, for example, if you have a special event where the street is closed off for a public celebration. The streets around it, you may have a much more controlled access to a given area. There are some practical short term measures that can be taken. But the reality is it is very difficult for any intelligence agency or police force to prevent an individual who may simply get in his own car and decide to target civilians. It is an unfortunate reality. We have to accept that we can do some things but we cannot eliminate all risks in their entirety.

This article is a cross-post from iAffairs.

Crisis in Civ-Mil? Sajjan and Canada’s Misplaced Attention

I spent much of November and December arguing that naming a very recently retired former general as Secretary of Defense is problematic–that there is much confusion to be had, by the former officer, the person who picked him, and the public.  Well, we see in recent days that this argument may have applied to the country to the north as well.

Harjit Sajjan has gotten into hot water for stating that he was the architect for a major effort, Operation Medusa,* in Afghanistan in 2006.  Whether he was or was not (probably not), this is problematic to those soldiers who serves because he is seen as taking credit for what was a multi-person effort.  So, either bragging or lying violates the sense of honor that Canadian soldiers have.  Today, Sajjan will be answering questions about it in Parliament.

So, what is my take?  Is this just a tempest in a teapot? No.  Is this a fireable offense? Probably not. Is this mostly distraction sauce?  Probably.  Let me explain my still confused take.

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Academics in the Media Landscape

by Stephen M. Saideman

Carleton is having an event that, among other things, ponders the future of public affairs stuff 25 years from now.  I was on a panel on:Academics in the Media Landscape: The Role of Scholar-Columnist-Bloggers with Stephanie Carvin, my colleague and frequent twitter banterer, Mira Sucharov,Hayden King,Dwayne Winseck and Frances Woolley (who is frequently wrong about bags of milk).

What did I say about the future of blogging?  I started with humility as I am not sure what 2042 will look like.  I put up pics of computing 25 years ago, now and the future (but blogger didn’t like them so you can’t see them here).

To suggest that 25 years ago, we had no idea what computers/the internet would look like in 2017 and thus we can’t predict 2042 too well.

My second point is that we can’t be too humble–we need to put ourselves out there even if we might be wrong, and so I displayed my post predicting a reasonably big Hillary Clinton victory.  Ooops.

I then suggested what will remain the same and what may change. In short, more academics will do some kind of social media to communicate their work, but not all as we are a varied group of folks, that how we do it will change quite a bit (who knows what the successor to twitter may be), that politicians will still be upset when academics say things about them, but that universities will eventually learn that trying to sit on bloggers is counter productive.  I also made a clear statement that tenure in the future, if it still exists, will still be focused on reserach and not engagement.  Oh, and that the media will rely on us even more since we provide heaps of content, including for those reporters who just want to cut and past a few tweets.

I concluded by saying our (academics) role is and will be:

  • Translate academic knowledge into digestible bits for broader audiences (the public cares not for lit reviews or methodology discussions).
  • Provide media with content/expertise
  • Engage–it can be a two way street, not just lecturing but interacting
  • Embrace academic freedom–who else can speak with few consequences?

The other panelists said smart stuff that I storify here.

Wrong Camoflauge is Right Message: US Moves to East Europe Early

by Stephen Saideman

People gripe about twitter, and deservedly so (evergreen opening line), but it is mighty handy.  Latest examples:


I had a question, and it got answered quickly: that the US deployment of troops to Europe will close the window of opportunity presented by the gap in how long it will take for the allies to follow through on their Warsaw Summit commitments.  I have been worried since November and was reassured when I saw Obama sending the troops early.

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