11 February 2021

Sri Lanka Cancels Port Deal With India Amid Creeping Signs of Deterioration in Relations

By Abhijnan Rej

Despite hectic diplomatic engagement with Sri Lanka in the recent past, a key Indian project in the island nation now stands cancelled. The Sri Lankan cabinet announced on February 1 that the country will operate the East Container Terminal (ECT) in the Colombo port as “a wholly owned” facility, going against a 2019 agreement that would have seen the ECT developed in a three-way partnership between India, Japan, and Sri Lanka. The Hindu, reporting on the development, had noted an Indian government source as saying about the possibility of Sri Lanka reneging on the 2019 Memorandum of Understanding: “We would hope that Sri Lanka does not unilaterally decide on this matter, as there is a tripartite agreement on it.”

The newspaper also noted that pressure from Sri Lankan port workers had led the ruling dispensation in Colombo to take this decision, which is likely to further complicate India-Sri Lanka ties. According to the 2019 agreement, while Sri Lanka would retain majority stakes in the ownership of the terminal, the facility would be operated by the Indian multinational Adani Group – a point of contention between Sri Lanka port workers and the Rajapaksa government. As I had noted in an earlier article on the issue, the whole saga once again illustrates the complex relationship between domestic and international politics in South Asia, and how local political incentives and push-and-pull shape the latter.

Afghanistan Study Group Final Report: A Pathway for Peace in Afghanistan

In December 2019, Congress established the Afghanistan Study Group and tasked it with identifying policy recommendations that “consider the implications of a peace settlement, or the failure to reach a settlement, on U.S. policy, resources, and commitments in Afghanistan.” The Study Group’s report, released on February 3, 2021, concluded that there is a real opportunity to align U.S. policies, actions, and messaging behind achieving a durable peace settlement to end four decades of violent conflict in Afghanistan. This new approach would protect U.S. national interests in Afghanistan and the region by reducing terrorist threats, promoting regional stability, and protecting important gains in human rights and democratic institutions that have been made in Afghanistan. Active regional diplomacy could help generate a consensus among Afghanistan’s neighbors that all would benefit in both economic and security terms from supporting and sustaining peace in Afghanistan rather than fueling conflict through proxies.

Ultimately, concluding a sustainable peace agreement will be the responsibility of the Afghan parties to the ongoing negotiations, but the United States can play a key role in determining if this opportunity is taken. A responsible, predictable, and coherent set of U.S. actions could greatly increase the chances of a peaceful resolution to forty years of conflict; a rash and rushed approach could increase the chances of a breakdown of order in Afghanistan that threatens the security and interests of the United States and its allies.

The Study Group began its work in April 2020, shortly after the United States and the Taliban signed the Doha agreement that led to the current negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government. Those negotiations have created a pathway to peace, one that the Study Group believes can allow the return of our men and women in uniform under conditions that honor the sacrifices that have been made and that protect U.S. interests. But if that opportunity is to be fully exploited, there needs to be a significant revision of U.S. policy.

Inside the Shadowy Militias Luring Unsuspecting Afghans to Fight, or Die

By Fahim Abed and Thomas Gibbons-Neff

MAZAR-I-SHARIF, Afghanistan — A network of shadowy power brokers and warlords, bankrolled by the Afghan government and the national police force, is luring disadvantaged people into joining militias, sometimes under false pretenses, out of a growing desperation to hold territory around highways in the country’s north, according to former militia members and local officials.

These key arteries, which are the few means of road travel between the provinces, have increasingly become the front line for an emboldened Taliban insurgency. To protect them, local officials in Balkh Province are manning highway outposts with often untrained Afghans, who are given little more than a rifle and the promise of a paycheck if they survive. Others have been offered construction jobs, only to arrive and realize there is no repair work to be done.

The militia members are dropped in areas too dangerous to flee and only picked up weeks or months later, dead or alive.

The crooked recruitment practice is the latest indication that Afghanistan’s security forces have been hollowed out by degrading morale and poor recruitment as Taliban attacks continue at an unrelenting pace across the country.

It also signals a resurgence of warlordism, a distinct echo of a past civil war when the country was fractured into territories ruled over by strongmen and a disturbing warning of where the country’s future may lead as peace negotiations in Qatar stall and a possible complete American withdrawal is just months away.

Why Afghanistan Is Caught in a Budget Crisis – Again

By Mohammad Qadam Shah

On top of growing insecurity, pandemic challenges, increasing poverty, and the unclear prospects of peace and stability, the Afghan government yet again failed to pass its national budget. As a direct result, government employees (including teachers and frontline soldiers) have not been paid since December and the operation of ongoing development projects has stopped. The Wolesi Jirga, the lower house of the Afghan National Assembly, on January 16 rejected the Afghan government’s proposed national nudget for the second time. This rejection was based on what the Wolesi Jirga sees as massive misappropriation of the budget, the excessive, unchecked allocation and spending authority of the president, and the unrepresentative and unbalanced nature of the national budget. The government, however, rejects the Wolesi Jirga’s claims, calling them spurious and without merit.

Since 2001, the Wolesi Jirga has annually rejected the national budgets at least once, if not twice. While the current impasse may thus seem like politics as usual for some, it signals serious gaps and flaws in Afghanistan’s planning and budgeting system. In this system, the president has excessive fiscal authorities while local actors – especially the local population – play no meaningful role. As such, the budget rarely represents local needs and preferences. While this year’s budget, like in the years before, will pass sooner or later, Afghanistan and the international donors, who fund more than 50 percent of the country’s budget, must immediately address the existing gaps and flaws in the system. Without a bottom-up and inclusive approach to planning and budgeting, budget controversies will happen again and again, national budgets would not reflect local needs and preferences, and the budget would continue to be a tool for the government to reward its friends and punish its foes.

Afghanistan’s Centralized Fiscal System

China and Russia blocked the UN from condemning Myanmar's military coup

Bill Bostock

China and Russia blocked the UN Security Council from condemning the Myanmar coup.

Myanmar's military detained politicians and imposed a state of emergency on Monday.

China has close ties to Myanmar, and its state media called the coup a "cabinet reshuffle."

China and Russia have blocked the UN from condemning the ongoing military coup in Myanmar.

The 15-member UN Security Council met on Tuesday to vote on a joint statement after Myanmar military chief Min Aung Hlaing on Monday seized control of the country, detaining hundreds of lawmakers including President Win Myint and the de facto head of government Aung San Suu Kyi.

The coup followed the November 2020 election that the military claims was fraudulent, with the military imposing a year-long state of emergency.

The Myanmar police, which operates under the military, charged Suu Kyi with breaching import laws and using illegal communication devices — walkie-talkies — on Wednesday, the BBC reported. The police also charged Win Myint with violating COVID-19 rules, per the BBC.

What America Should—and Shouldn’t—Do About Myanmar’s Coup


Kudos to all of you who had “Coup in Myanmar” on your “Unexpected Foreign-Policy Challenges for the Biden Administration” bingo card. If nothing else, the latest military takeover there confirms a point I made a few weeks ago: Foreign policy is a realm of constant surprises, and no global leader can anticipate everything that might occur on their watch.

That said, leaders do get to decide how to react. And the good news here is that events in Myanmar do not require much in the way of a U.S. response. The coup is far from a salutary development, but the military’s decision to reject the landslide victory by the National League for Democracy in the November 2020 elections and to detain members of the civilian government—including nominal leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who has now been charged with some comically obscure violations—does not impinge on vital U.S. interests or require dramatic action.

A few observers—such as Anne Gearan and John Hudson of the Washington Post—have labeled the events in Myanmar “an early test of American moral authority” under the new administration. Only a foreign-policy elite addicted to telling the world what to do would see it this way. Granted, President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have both pledged to give human rights greater priority in the conduct of U.S. foreign policy, and Biden repeatedly stressed his deep commitment to America’s democratic values. But realistically speaking, there’s little the United States can do to alter the trajectory of events in Myanmar, and nearly everyone understands this. It is only a test if the administration chooses to make it so.

The Death Knell of Myanmar’s Democracy?

David Scott Mathieson

The military’s seizure of power in Myanmar this week
unfolded in the squalid manner of coups everywhere. Senior politicians, including the country’s popular de-facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, were arrested along with civil society leaders in the pre-dawn hours of Feb. 1, just before the newly elected parliament was set to convene its first session. Meanwhile, tanks and soldiers took up positions at key intersections of major population centers, including the capital, Naypyidaw. The nation, and the world, were left stunned.

A coup had been telegraphed and feared, yet deemed improbable by many close observers of Myanmar’s vexed transition to democracy, which has proceeded in fits and starts since the end of military rule in 2011. The ruling National League for Democracy, or NLD, scored an overwhelming victory in last November’s general election, taking more than 80 percent of the parliamentary seats that were up for grabs. Those results appeared to send a clear message to the country’s powerful armed forces, known as the Tatmadaw, that a trajectory of reform and democratic consolidation had sweeping social support. Instead, the generals cried foul with allegations of voter fraud.

Myanmar Coup Highlights the Country’s Center-Periphery Divide

By Sebastian Strangio

Children play at a camp for people displaced by fighting between the Kachin Independence Army and the Myanmar military, outside Laiza, Kachin State, March 29, 2012.Credit: Sebastian Strangio

While writing about the heartening campaign of civil disobedience that has emerged since the February 1 coup in Myanmar, it was hard not to note the lack of a similar reactions during past military outrages: in particular, the army’s merciless assault on the Rohingya Muslims of Rakhine State in 2017.

This is intended as an observation rather than as a judgment. It is undoubtedly true that many ethnic Burmans harbor prejudice against the Rohingya or view them (much as the government does) as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. It is also probably natural for people to react to immediate local outrages more strongly than to less tangible, far-off ones.

But the reason I’m raising this is that it struck me as a good illustration of a divide that runs through the heart of Myanmar’s politics. In many ways, the events culminating in this week’s coup are an outgrowth of a long-running struggle for and within the ethnic Burman-dominated central state – a struggle that remains separate from, if sometimes connected to, the struggles for autonomy that have simmered along Myanmar’s periphery since independence in 1948.

In her 2005 book, “Making Enemies: War and State Building in Burma,” the scholar Mary Callahan argued that Myanmar’s long years of military dictatorship could be explained as an attempted solution to “centuries-old structural problems of state building” in the regions beyond central Myanmar. These were regions that had rarely, if ever, been under the control of the precolonial Burman kingdoms, and retained a great deal of practical autonomy under the British.

China and Russia: Two Big Threats the U.S. Military Can't Ignore

J. William Middendorf II

On December 22, 2020, six strategic bombers—four Chinese and two Russian—flew a joint patrol mission over the East China and Japan Seas. According to the Russian Defense Ministry, the mission was intended to develop and deepen the comprehensive Russia-China partnership, further increase the level of cooperation between the two militaries, expand their ability for joint action and strengthen strategic stability.

It was the second joint patrol since July 2019, confirming Russian President Vladimir Putin’s statement that “the idea of a future Russia-China military alliance” cannot be ruled out. And this is happening even as the Biden administration considers making deep cuts in the U.S. defense budget.

The threat from China alone is rapidly rising. Its destabilizing actions include encroachment in the South China Sea, imposing an air defense zone in the East China Sea, aggression against the Philippines, coercion of Vietnam, harassment of Japan, border confrontations with India, and increasing pressure on Taiwan. Beijing currently is using non-military means—psychological, diplomatic, propaganda, and informational warfare—against Taiwan, but the regime has long suggested that it could take Taiwan by force if its non-violent ways are unsuccessful.

Questions persist as to whether the U.S. Navy is up to the challenge of doing what’s necessary to protect allies in the Western Pacific.

Stop Looking for Beijing’s Big Test of the Biden Administration


Analysts and journalists alike have agonized for months over how the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) might test the incoming Biden administration. Would it be a close clash at sea? An incursion into U.S. airspace? Underlying this is a broadly accepted assertion that such tests, probably involving the military, are de rigueur in U.S.-China relations when new leadership emerges in Washington and China looks to push the envelope.

During past presidential transitions, oft-quoted voices like Gordon Chang referred to this phenomenon as a given, while U.S. media organizations like MSNBC released commentaries referring to a “long history of China taking advantage of a U.S. presidential transition period to test a new president.” Headlines like “Is Trump Ready for China’s Inevitable Test of American Power?” blared from news outlets. Even the Myanmar coup has been proposed as a test of President Joe Biden’s will.

The only problem with this idea is that there’s no evidence for it and, in fact, the scholarship contradicts it. The activities that analysts see as tests are just the routine churn of Chinese action. By attributing unwarranted significance to events early in a new U.S. presidency, analysts risk locking in a flawed perspective on the state of relations between the two giants and cherry-picking evidence to support their favored perspective. This overweighting of certain events contributes to a false narrative on China as well as an American impulse to overlook events of actual import in favor of a few low-level security-centric case studies.

Don’t Underestimate China’s Military-Civil Fusion Efforts


In late January 2021, a Reuters report revealed that China’s BGI Group, the world’s largest genomics company, was collaborating with the Chinese military, likely providing them with access to foreign genetic data for their own research. An investigative piece by Zach Dorfman in December 2020 quoted a former senior CIA official stating that, “It’s not that Tencent or [its founder] Pony Ma are dancing to the tune of what the MSS [Ministry of State Security] says, but if at any point China’s security services need assistance, they are providing it.” Civilian entities across China are actively involved in supporting the military and defense apparatus, although the Chinese leadership claims there is still a long way to go in integrating civilian and military efforts. If these efforts represent an incomplete strategy, then a successful one could be catastrophic for the United States and its allies.

A new report by Elsa Kania and Lorand Laskai, both respected experts in the field, presents their takes on myths and realities associated with China’s military-civil fusion strategy, arguing that people in Washington often misunderstand the concept and should instead focus on how far China is from reaching its desired military-civil fusion goals. The authors make several strong points about the development of military-civil fusion and the institutional roadblocks it faces. However, focusing on the strategy falling short of its goals is misplaced. The real issue here is not how far China is from its goals but its current capabilities and the reasons behind the military-civil fusion program—and how the United States should respond to these plans.

Short of War How to Keep U.S.-Chinese Confrontation From Ending in Calamity

By Kevin Rudd

Officials in Washington and Beijing don’t agree on much these days, but there is one thing on which they see eye to eye: the contest between their two countries will enter a decisive phase in the 2020s. This will be the decade of living dangerously. No matter what strategies the two sides pursue or what events unfold, the tension between the United States and China will grow, and competition will intensify; it is inevitable. War, however, is not. It remains possible for the two countries to put in place guardrails that would prevent a catastrophe: a joint framework for what I call “managed strategic competition” would reduce the risk of competition escalating into open conflict.

The Chinese Communist Party is increasingly confident that by the decade’s end, China’s economy will finally surpass that of the United States as the world’s largest in terms of GDP at market exchange rates. Western elites may dismiss the significance of that milestone; the CCP’s Politburo does not. For China, size always matters. Taking the number one slot will turbocharge Beijing’s confidence, assertiveness, and leverage in its dealings with Washington, and it will make China’s central bank more likely to float the yuan, open its capital account, and challenge the U.S. dollar as the main global reserve currency. Meanwhile, China continues to advance on other fronts, as well. A new policy plan, announced last fall, aims to allow China to dominate in all new technology domains, including artificial intelligence, by 2035. And Beijing now intends to complete its military modernization program by 2027 (seven years ahead of the previous schedule), with the main goal of giving China a decisive edge in all conceivable scenarios for a conflict with the United States over Taiwan. A victory in such a conflict would allow President Xi Jinping to carry out a forced reunification with Taiwan before leaving power—an achievement that would put him on the same level within the CCP pantheon as Mao Zedong.

China’s latest weapon against Taiwan: the sand dredger

Taiwanese coast guard commander Lin Chie-ming is on the frontline of a new type of warfare that China is waging against Taiwan. China’s weapon? Sand.

On a chilly morning in late January, Lin, clad in an orange uniform, stood on the rolling deck of his boat as it patrolled in choppy waters off the Taiwan-run Matsu Islands. A few kilometers away, the Chinese coast was faintly visible from Lin’s boat. He was on the lookout for Chinese sand-dredging ships encroaching on waters controlled by Taiwan.

The Chinese goal, Taiwanese officials say: pressure Taiwan by tying down the island democracy’s naval defenses and undermining the livelihoods of Matsu residents.

Half an hour into the patrol, Lin’s nine-man crew spotted two 3,000-ton dredgers, dwarfing their 100-ton vessel. Parked just outside Taiwan’s waters, neither of the dredgers clearly displayed their names, making it difficult for a crew member to identify them as he peered through binoculars.

Upon spotting Lin’s boat, armed with two water cannons and a machine gun, the dredgers quickly pulled up anchor and headed back toward the Chinese coast.

“They think this area is part of China’s territory,” said Lin, referring to Chinese dredgers that have been intruding into Matsu’s waters. “They usually leave after we drive them away, but they come back again after we go away.”

China's Public Diplomacy is Changing Under Xi Jinping

by Yan Wu Richard Thomas

Joe Biden’s election victory was greeted with cautious optimism by Chinese state media. However, while the English-language Global Times offered friendly greetings to the US president-elect, the daily tabloid paper – a stablemate of the Chinese Communist Party’s People’s Daily – said that China must “keep vigilant and stick to the right path of strengthening self-reliance”.

Referring to Biden as “an old friend”, the paper recalled his 2011 visit to a Beijing restaurant while visiting the country as Barack Obama’s vice president. Such “noodle diplomacy”, as it became known, seemed to set a refreshing new tone for China-US relations. His visit to China, including watching a basketball match and visiting suffering people from the earthquake-stricken Sichuan Province, had “left a positive imprint in some people’s memories”, the paper said.

But the warmth that Biden’s visit seemed to engender was not to last through the presidency of Donald Trump. The paper quoted Jin Canrong, associate dean of the School of International Studies at the Renmin University of China in Beijing, saying: “We should not put too much expectation on Biden, because to contain and confront China is a strategic consensus between the two parties of the US.”

How you view China’s economic, political and military strength largely depends on where in the world you live. Developing countries, for instance, see it as an exemplary model of progress. Imran Khan, the president of China’s longtime ally Pakistan, said recently that his government wanted to learn from China’s industrial development to accelerate economic growth and eradicate poverty.

China's Belt and Road Initiative is Changing Cities But Not for the Better

by Elia Apostolopoulou

In 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping officially announced China’s aspiration to recreate this network. The 21st century Silk Road, also called the Belt and Road Initiative, is the world’s largest infrastructure project in decades, with conservative estimates suggesting that its cost will exceed US$1 trillion.

The creation of the New Silk Road involves the massive development of trade routes and infrastructure corridors, including everything from railways, airports, ports, pipelines, industrial parks and real estate projects to free trade agreements and treaties. It has the potential to reshape the world in political, economic and cultural terms, and poses important environmental risks. It is also profoundly altering cities across the globe – prioritising wealth and threatening vulnerable communities.

Three cities

My recent research focuses on three cities on the New Silk Road. In Athens, Chinese state-owned shipping and logistics company COSCO is privatising and extending the city’s Piraeus Port. The company seems to be aiming to make Piraeus a gateway for Chinese products to enter Europe.

The second city is Colombo, where the China Harbour Engineering Company is leading a sea reclamation project. The goal is to create a new city from the ocean. Colombo Port City is expected to become a key hub for the Maritime Silk Road.

Biden's Middle East Balancing Act: Israel, Iran, Saudi Arabia

James Stavridis

James Stavridis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a retired U.S. Navy admiral and former supreme allied commander of NATO, and dean emeritus of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He is also an operating executive consultant at the Carlyle Group and chairs the board of counselors at McLarty Associates.

I was in Saudi Arabia in September 2019 when drone strikes, almost certainly instigated by Iran, hit major Saudi oil facilities. From the balcony of my hotel, I could see the smoke rising in the distance. I talked it over with the U.S. ambassador at the time, retired General John Abizaid, and we agreed that the Saudis were facing an existential threat from Tehran.

Nothing has changed: I recently spoke with retired General John Allen — a former commander of the U.S. Central Command and U.S. envoy to the coalition against the so-called Islamic State — who tells me, “Iran remains the top threat in the region.”

Iran has no interest in arriving at an accommodation with the Saudis and other Gulf Arab states. Last month’s missile attacks on the Kingdom’s capital of Riyadh by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen underscored that conclusion. Fortunately, they were thwarted by Saudi defenses.

Joint Russian-Turkish Karabakh Monitoring Center Opens Amidst Fresh Controversy

By: Paul Goble

Four days ago (February 1), the Joint Russian-Turkish Center for Monitoring the Ceasefire in Karabakh opened in Qiyameddinli (in the Agdam district of Azerbaijan), a village Baku recovered after the recent fighting. In attendance were Azerbaijani Defense Minister Zakir Gasanov, Russian Deputy Defense Minister Aleksandr Fomin and Turkish Deputy Defense Minister Yunus Emre Karaosmanoğlu. The ceremony was upbeat about the Center’s future role, one that will rely on surveillance drones and involve up to 60 soldiers each from the Russian Federation and the Republic of Turkey. But its opening—mandated by the November 9, 2020, Azerbaijani-Armenian-Russian ceasefire summit declaration and subsequently recapitulated by Baku and Moscow in early December—has been much delayed because of differences between Moscow, on the one hand, and Baku and Ankara, on the other (Interfax, January 30).

On the occasion of the opening earlier this week, Russian President Vladimir Putin telephoned his Azerbaijani counterpart, Ilham Aliyev, to “express the hope that the activity of the center will make possible the further stabilization of the situation around Karabakh and the close observance of the agreements fixed in the declaration of the presidents of Russia and Azerbaijan and the prime minister of Armenia on November 9, 2020” (Interfax, January 30). But the road to the opening of the ceasefire monitoring center suggests that even reaching this point had been anything but easy.

The Air War Against the Islamic State

by Becca Wasser

Research Questions

What happened during the air campaign against ISIS?

How was airpower employed?

Was airpower effective against different ISIS target sets?

What did airpower accomplish in or contribute to the defeat of ISIS?

What lessons should the U.S. Air Force and joint force derive from this campaign?

Airpower played a pivotal role in the U.S.-led fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) from 2014 to 2019 and contributed to the success of Operation Inherent Resolve. This report sheds light on the impact of the air operations in Operation Inherent Resolve and whether airpower could have been applied differently to achieve faster, more-sustainable outcomes. The authors incorporate interviews with U.S. and coalition personnel, primary-source documents, and U.S. and coalition strike and sortie data to document the operational history of the air war, assess the relationship between airpower effects, and analyze the strategic and operational impact of airpower in Operation Inherent Resolve.

Organizing for the future: Nine keys to becoming a future-ready company

By Aaron De Smet, Chris Gagnon, and Elizabeth Mygatt

The prospect of successful vaccines for COVID-19 has given business leaders everywhere hope that the pandemic may be finally nearing a turning point. And not a second too soon: the organizational adrenaline that helped many companies get things done quickly and well during the pandemic’s early days has, in many cases, been replaced by fatigue.

Yet even as leaders take action to reenergize their people and organizations, the most forward looking see a larger opportunity—the chance to build on pandemic-related accomplishments and reexamine (or even reimagine) the organization’s identity, how it works, and how it grows.

The pressure to change had been building for years. Well before the COVID-19 pandemic, senior executives routinely worried their organizations were too slow, too siloed, too bogged down in complicated matrix structures, too bureaucratic. What many leaders feared, and the pandemic confirms, is that their companies were organized for a world that is disappearing—an era of standardization and predictability that’s being overwritten by four big trends: a combination of heightened connectivity, lower transaction costs, unprecedented automation, and shifting demographics (Exhibit 1). (For more about these forces, see “Organizing for the future: Why now?”) And if incumbents didn’t see the future in themselves they saw it clearly in the competition: digital upstarts that continue to innovate, and win, in bold new ways.

Op-ed: The best way for Biden to go on the cyber counterattack

Nation-state cyberattacks are becoming more frequent and severe and the Solarwinds hack attributed to Russia has exposed massive weaknesses in our national defenses.

Cybersecurity experts are recommending the Biden administration create a new task force, a new cabinet post, new legislation, and new cyber warfare rules of engagement.

But the U.S. has many existing cyber options within the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Agency (CISA) that have never been more important to national security, writes Dan Schiappa, chief product officer at Sophos.

An aerial view of the US Cyber Command joint operations center on the NSA campus is seen on May 25, 2020, in Fort Meade, Maryland.

Like North Korea's Sony Pictures email hack in 2014 or the Equifax data breach in 2017, the SolarWinds data breach of multiple U.S. federal agencies has again thrust cybersecurity into the spotlight. But it would be a mistake to treat this as a one-off episode. Nation-state cyberattacks are ramping up, not slowing down. Their effects are becoming more destructive, more costly, more widespread — and we still haven't scratched the surface of the kind of havoc these adversaries can really let loose. The United States government is one of the best practitioners of cybersecurity in the world, and yet as SolarWinds shows, if even a single attacker is able to slip through, the consequences can be devastating.

With a new administration in office, now is the time for a major rethink on all things cyber. Arguably the best, most effective, and possibly easiest thing the Biden administration can do on this front? Unleash the cybersecurity talent we already have.

Why Tackling Corruption Is So Urgent—and So Difficult

The world is constantly reminded that corruption knows no geographic boundaries. In South Africa, former President Jacob Zuma remains embroiled in court cases involving corruption allegations that helped remove him from power, while in Malaysia, former Prime Minister Najib Razak was recently found guilty and sentenced to 12 years in prison over the fraud and embezzling charges that precipitated his downfall. A money laundering investigation launched in Brazil in 2008 expanded to take down a vast network of politicians and business leaders across Central and South America. And former U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration was plagued by officials who used their offices for private gain and were forced to resign.

The impact of actual corruption is devastating, whether it siphons money from public use or drives policy that is not in the public interest. The effects can be particularly pernicious in developing countries, where budgets are tight and needs are vast. The United Nations estimates that corruption costs $2.6 trillion in losses every year.

Opinion: Republicans have been living the big lie for too long

Fareed Zakaria

We are all wondering how the Republican Party — the party of Lincoln — got to the point that it has an elected member of Congress, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), who has called for the execution of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), cast doubt on the events of 9/11 and suggested that a Jewish cabal used lasers to start the California wildfires. The answer is in plain sight: the accommodation of extremism by the party’s leaders. This week, the Republican congressional caucus declined to censure Greene in any way. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) pretended not to even know what QAnon was.

In the Senate, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has finally drawn the line, describing Greene’s views as “loony.” But it is too little, too late. The party has been encouraging loony views for years. Today we rightly laud Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) for his political courage — but it’s worth recalling that when he was running for president in 2012, he craved Donald Trump’s endorsement. When Romney got it, he gushed, “There are some things that you just can’t imagine happening in your life.” Later that year, he tacitly endorsed Trump’s most noxious lie — birtherism — joking that “no one’s ever asked to see my birth certificate.”

The real big lie at the heart of the modern Republican Party is about public policy, not conspiracy theories. Starting in the 1930s, Republicans promised their voters the repeal of FDR’s New Deal. When the next Republican president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, did nothing of the sort, the modern conservative movement emerged, furiously branding Ike a traitor. When LBJ enacted the Great Society, conservatives pledged that once elected, they would tear it all down — and never did. Ronald Reagan launched his political career by denouncing Medicare as a direct path to socialism. If it passed, he warned, “[We] are going to spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it once was like in America when men were free.” Of course, as president, Reagan left Medicare largely intact.

Biden Signals Break With Trump Foreign Policy in a Wide-Ranging State Dept. Speech

By David E. Sanger and Eric Schmitt

WASHINGTON — President Biden on Thursday ordered an end to arms sales and other support to Saudi Arabia for a war in Yemen that he called a “humanitarian and strategic catastrophe” and declared that the United States would no longer be “rolling over in the face of Russia’s aggressive actions.”

The announcement was the clearest signal Mr. Biden has given of his intention to reverse the way President Donald J. Trump dealt with two of the hardest issues in American foreign policy.

Mr. Trump regularly rejected calls to rein in the Saudis for the indiscriminate bombing they carried out in their intervention in the civil war in Yemen as well as for the killing of a dissident journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, on the grounds that American sales of arms to Riyadh “creates hundreds of thousands of jobs” in the United States. And he repeatedly dismissed evidence of interference by President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia in American elections and Russia’s role in a highly sophisticated hacking of the United States government.

Saudi leaders knew that the move was coming. Mr. Biden had promised to stop selling arms to them during the presidential campaign, and it follows the new administration’s announcement last month that it was pausing the sale of $478 million in precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia, a transfer the State Department approved in December over strong objections in Congress. The administration has also announced a review of major American arms sales to the United Arab Emirates.

Elevating ‘deterrence by denial’ in US defense strategy

by Erica D. Borghard, Benjamin Jensen, and Mark Montgomery

Navy photo by Lt. J.G. Samuel Hardgrove via ABACAPRESS.COM and ReutersJoin Forward Defense for leading-edge commentary and key recommendations as we help chart the course for the United States’ next National Defense Strategy.

The United States is at a critical strategic juncture. At the systemic level, changes in the distribution of military and economic power signal that the American unipolar moment has passed. Protecting US security and advancing US interests in an increasingly multipolar world—one defined by both rising and revanchist powers—now form the crux of what national-security commentators call “great-power competition.”

Yet the conversation around great-power competition is incomplete without considering how emerging technology and global connectivity alter the strategic landscape. In calibrating a new strategic approach to great-power competition, President Joe Biden’s administration should orient US foreign policy around the logic of a concept known as “deterrence by denial.” This means denying adversaries the ability to threaten the global connectivity on which we all rely. The concept must become a key aspect of defense strategy.

While deterrence is often associated with the nuclear standoff of the Cold War, the concept remains a cornerstone of US foreign policy. Practitioners of deterrence generally seek to maintain the status quo—to prevent a target from engaging in some undesired action it has not yet undertaken. Successful deterrence is therefore defined in negative terms. It’s reflected in the absence of activity.

How Russia’s SolarWinds Hack Exploited U.S. Cyber Strategy

by Joseph Bodnar

The SolarWinds breach shows that Russia had more than top-tier offensive cyber tools at its disposal. Moscow’s hackers also leveraged an understanding of the U.S. strategic priorities and the norms of cyberspace.

On Election Day 2020, the head of U.S. Cyber Command General Paul Nakasone reported that the United States had successfully countered the online weapons Russia had directed at the election, telling journalists, “we weren’t surprised by their action.”

One month later, CNN ran the headline, “Why the U.S. government hack is literally keeping security experts awake at night.” With the United States simultaneously tearing itself apart and focusing extensive resources on defending its elections against foreign attacks, the Russians pivoted to a separate line of effort in the broader geopolitical contest over information and ideas.

Russia’s foreign intelligence service launched a months-long cyber espionage campaign that has at least impacted the departments of State, Treasury, Commerce and Justice, and Fortune 500 companies. Among other things, the exfiltrated data likely offered insight into U.S. policy debates, which would allow the Kremlin to better understand, anticipate, and undermine U.S. actions on the world stage.

The massive reach of the hack can be credited to Russian skill and U.S. failures. Moscow’s hackers took advantage of known vulnerabilities in the U.S. technology supply chain, covered their tracks, and communicated through IP addresses in the United States, exploiting legal restrictions that prevent domestic surveillance to avoid detection.

The tactics outsmarted Einstein, the U.S. government’s $6 billion detection system. It also evaded the U.S. Cyber Command operatives tasked with maintaining a constant presence in adversary networks to “confront our adversaries from where they launch cyberattacks.” In fact, while Russian hackers were moving through U.S. government servers, Cyber Command was focused on managing another serious threat while forces were deployed to Europe to counter Russian cyber operations targeting the American election.

No Substitute for Strategy: What’s Wrong with “Defending Forward”

by Gil Barndollar Justin Logan

President Joe Biden has entered office promising reform at home and restoration abroad. But American foreign policy needs new thinking, not a return to the past. Despite the serial incompetence of the Trump administration and the poison pills it left behind, the two decades preceding Donald Trump were a time of massive American overreach, and yes, “endless wars.” As the fight to shape Biden’s foreign policy begins, the administration should pause before just pressing the reset button.

For the past twenty years, U.S. foreign policy has been dominated by a group of hawkish, Middle East-centric scholars and officials. The results have been disastrous. Since the September 11 attacks, the United States has squandered more than $6 trillion on wars in the Greater Middle East. It has won none of them. Now, under the auspices of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD), many of those same scholars have written a monograph urging the continuation of these policies.

The past four years have treated FDD well—the think tank helped drive and justify President Trump’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and helped author the “maximum pressure” policy that brought the United States and Iran to the brink of war. Its budget soared from $12.2 million in 2018 to $32.5 million in 2019. Yet at the same time, Trump’s term saw the rise of realist and restraint-oriented foreign policy camps in both the Democratic and Republican Parties. The hawks’ operational environment has gotten worse.

In Defending Forward, FDD is firing an early warning shot across the bow of the incoming Biden Administration. Under a bipartisan guise, with former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta in the lead, the report calls for a globe-girdling grand strategy that makes faraway problems of all sizes look bigger because they are closer.

What Russia’s Navalny Affair is Really About

by Mark Episkopos

Russia has been rocked by a second wave of anti-government protests following the detention of prominent opposition figure Alexei Navalny. Demonstrators gathered across a slew of Russian capital cities, with the two greatest concentrations being in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Turnout numbers remain contested, as the Navalny team offers estimates that are widely divergent from those given by Russian authorities. There is, however, a rough consensus around an estimated 4,000 to 5,000 arrests following widespread clashes between protestors and police. Not all of these on-site arrests resulted in detention, and even fewer are likely to lead to criminal convictions. For a sense of comparative scale, consider that, of the roughly 1,500 demonstrators detained in Moscow during last week’s protests, the majority were promptly released with little to no jail time. 441 participants were charged with the minor infraction of attending an “unsanctioned” political event—only a handful of protestors, most of whom are accused of violently assaulting police officers or exposing others to Covid-19, are facing detention with the possibility of prolonged imprisonment.

As with last week’s actions, the demonstrators were united less by their political support for Navalny than by their shared opposition to the Kremlin. Some, especially in St. Petersburg, expressed frustration with Russia’s coronavirus-related lockdown measures. Others were regional activists, including far-eastern demonstrators expressing pent-up grievances over the arrest of Khabarovsk Krai Mayor Sergei Furgal in the summer of 2020.

Shutting down the internet

Darrell M. West

In 2016, I wrote a Brookings research paper about a worrisome trend that was emerging in many countries around the world. In order to keep political opponents from organizing, governments were shutting down mobile networks and/or the internet to impede public communications. They understood that technology can be a democratizing influence and a way to help critics find like-minded individuals. Occurring mainly in authoritarian regimes or illiberal democracies, public officials saw internet shutdowns as a way to limit the opposition and keep themselves in power.

For that research, I identified 81 cases of internet shutdowns that took place in 19 countries between July 1, 2015 and June 30, 2016. I compiled data on scope, duration, and the size of the population affected by the shutdowns and using data on the country’s Gross Domestic Product, the number of days of the shutdown, the size of the internet economy, and the percentage of the population affected by the shutdown, I estimated the financial costs of these shutdowns as at least $2.4 billion. Most of the shutdowns I found were short-term in nature and took place at local rather than national levels.

At that time, I argued shutdowns were a dangerous development because they harmed economic development, were undemocratic in nature, undermined civil liberties, and threatened human values. In a number of places, leaders clearly were using internet shutdowns to stifle criticism, maintain their own political control, and use selective digital disruptions to harm particular geographic areas or stymie political opponents.

Cyber denial of service is cyber attack

James Van de Velde

The media and some U.S. politicians called the 2020 Russian cyberspace intrusion into U.S. government agencies to steal information a cyberspace attack, though it was clearly an act of espionage and involved no denial of service or damage. (In other words, the event was cyberspace espionage and not a cyberspace attack.)

Conversely, some politicians, many lawyers and some analysts want to call the 2014 North Korea destruction of Sony Pictures computers, the 2015 Russian denial of service attack against TV5 Monde in France, or the 2015 and 2016 Russian cyberspace denial of electricity in Ukraine a “violation of sovereignty,” but not a cyberspace attack, nor even a use of force. This is troubling and trivializes such events. By the same logic, for instance, ransomware events are not cyberattacks.

Historically, it is difficult to find a politician, lawyer or analyst who questioned the longstanding term computer network attack (CNA). They all accepted that such events involving creation of denial effects were CNA, since they involved actions that met the standard definition: “to disrupt, deny, degrade or destroy information resident in computers.”

Likewise, it would be hard to find a notable example of a politician, lawyer or analyst questioning the even longer-standing term electronic attack (EA) — the use of electromagnetic energy “to degrade, neutralize or destroy enemy combat capability.” EA has long been considered a form of “fires” and a bona fide form of attack.

Hezbollah and Other Non-State Actors Acquire Asymmetric Tools in Cyberspace

Annie Fixler

The cyber domain is again forcing the United States and its allies to reevaluate assumptions about deterrence. But instead of rethinking the credibility of deterrence, the United States should focus on deterrence by denial.

Hezbollah’s cyber operatives are back in the game, according to a new report by Israeli firm ClearSky Cyber Security. After years of apparent inactivity, the group’s reappearance is part of a larger trend in which non-state actors increasingly acquire sophisticated cyber tools that exploit insufficient investments in cyber defense.

ClearSky identified suspicious network activity in early 2020 and discovered an updated version of custom-built remote access malware previously used only by an Advanced Persistent Threat (APT) group known as Lebanese Cedar or Volatile Cedar. Another Israeli cybersecurity firm, Check Point, uncovered the group in 2012 and concluded that it originated in Lebanon. At the time, other researchers linked the group to Hezbollah, although Check Point itself did not make a positive attribution.

Yaniv Balmas, the head of cyber research at Check Point, said that the new report’s findings are consistent with his company’s assessment of Lebanese Cedar. While Balmas reiterated that Check Point has not identified the organization within Lebanon responsible for this APT, he noted that the victim profile “could match the motives of Hezbollah.”