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BLOGGING FOREIGN POLICY

Obama Mid East strategy: a nod to Bush era, or new shift?​

| September 12, 2014
Obama-and-Bush

President Barack Obama’s speech on Wednesday marks the third major shift in United States counterterrorism strategy since 9/11, but it remains to be seen if the new approach will work better than the previous ones.

The first shift followed the 9/11 attacks, when George W. Bush launched what became known as the Global War on Terror. The main elements of this strategy included forcible regime change in Afghanistan and Iraq; mass deployment of US and allied ground forces to both countries; a global hunt for suspected Al Qaeda operatives and their incarceration in secret “black” prisons run by the Central Intelligence Agency, or in the US military base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba; the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” ordered by President Bush; and enormous growth in the domestic and foreign surveillance apparatus of the US and other Western countries.

The second shift occurred when Barack Obama took office. He had campaigned on ending the “dumb war” in Iraq and on concentrating on “nation building at home” in the aftermath of the financial crisis. He downgraded the war on terror as a US foreign policy priority, excising the term, itself, from official government communications, and he signed orders to close the Guantánamo detention centre and to forbid the use of torture by the US.

In fact, Obama’s policy changes were less dramatic than his statements suggested. While the new president reduced the number of detainees at Guantánamo, he failed to shut down the prison, intrusive surveillance practices begun under the Bush presidency remained largely in place – as we learned from former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden – and Obama continued the clandestine campaign against Al Qaeda and its affiliates, including the commando raid that killed Osama bin Laden in his Pakistan hideout. In addition, US drone strikes against suspected terrorists in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia multiplied under Obama’s watch.

In one big area, however, Obama charted a different course: He began bringing American soldiers home from Iraq and Afghanistan. Critics attacked him for failing to negotiate an agreement with the Iraqi government that would leave a small US contingent in that country, but Obama was determined to “end” the war. He has similarly set a deadline of 2016 for the final withdrawal of the remaining US troops in Afghanistan, and he signalled a US foreign and defence policy “pivot” towards Asia and away from the Mideast and Europe, where the US would encourage local partners to take the lead.

But events have a way of disrupting the best-laid plans. Russia’s aggressive moves in Ukraine caused Obama to reassert America’s leadership as the guarantor of European security, including the protection of former Soviet republics that are members of NATO. And now, the festering, spreading chaos of the Syrian war has prompted yet another shift in US counterterrorism strategy since 9/11.

The new strategy recommits American military power to the stability of Iraq, but this time in a different way: Americans ground forces and troops from allied countries, including a small contingent of Canadians, will serve as advisors to local fighters against ISIS. The US will also provide intelligence support and conduct a “systematic campaign of airstrikes.” In his speech, the president portrayed this strategy as consistent with the approach he has “successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years,” where the US has “[taken] out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines.”

In truth, the new enterprise is different in kind and a much larger undertaking than recent US actions in Yemen and Somalia. For one thing, the US will soon have 1,700 troops in Iraq, whereas there are reportedly no more than a handful of US military advisors in these other countries. More to the point, the US will be directly involved in generating, training and supporting fighting units in Iraq – not only the Iraqi armed forces, but also Kurdish troops and what Obama called “national guard units” in Sunni areas. This suggests that the US hoping for a re-enactment of the Sunni Awakening when tribal groups in Sunni parts of Iraq took up arms against ISIS’s predecessor, Al Qaeda in Iraq. Meanwhile, American officials will continue to press for further progress in forming a broadly representative government of Iraq. These objectives will bring the US back into Iraq as a major military and political actor.

On Wednesday, Obama also indicated that he will authorize US airstrikes in Syria and that Washington will seek to ramp up support for opposition groups in that country. But the moderate Syrian opposition has been crushed between the Syrian government’s army and jihadist forces including ISIS. Obama’s new counterterrorism strategy thus suggests that the US will now become a big player in Syria’s war and internal politics, too.

All told, Obama appears to have drawn lessons from his own and his predecessor’s mistakes. Excessive reluctance to deploy American power may be just as dangerous as the reckless deployment of the 82nd Airborne to depose a dictator. Like Goldilocks, Obama found Bush’s counterterrorism strategy “too hot,” but his own strategy proved “too cold.” Now, he’s hoping for “just right.”

But it will be a long time before we know if this third US strategy will work. The task that the president has set for the US – and by extension for its allies, too – will almost certainly take many years to accomplish. ISIS can certainly be “degraded” with a few airstrikes. But destroying ISIS presupposes that some other group or entity – one that is both powerful and legitimate in the eyes of the local population – can take its place.

That’s mainly a political challenge; and as the Syria-Iraq war rages on, it remains a distant prospect.

President Barack Obama’s speech on Wednesday marks the third major shift in United States counterterrorism strategy since 9/11, but it remains to be seen if the new approach will work better than the previous ones.

The first shift followed the 9/11 attacks, when George W. Bush launched what became known as the Global War on Terror. The main elements of this strategy included forcible regime change in Afghanistan and Iraq; mass deployment of US and allied ground forces to both countries; a global hunt for suspected Al Qaeda operatives and their incarceration in secret “black” prisons run by the Central Intelligence Agency, or in the US military base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba; the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” ordered by President Bush; and enormous growth in the domestic and foreign surveillance apparatus of the US and other Western countries.

The second shift occurred when Barack Obama took office. He had campaigned on ending the “dumb war” in Iraq and on concentrating on “nation building at home” in the aftermath of the financial crisis. He downgraded the war on terror as a US foreign policy priority, excising the term, itself, from official government communications, and he signed orders to close the Guantánamo detention centre and to forbid the use of torture by the US.

In fact, Obama’s policy changes were less dramatic than his statements suggested. While the new president reduced the number of detainees at Guantánamo, he failed to shut down the prison, intrusive surveillance practices begun under the Bush presidency remained largely in place – as we learned from former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden – and Obama continued the clandestine campaign against Al Qaeda and its affiliates, including the commando raid that killed Osama bin Laden in his Pakistan hideout. In addition, US drone strikes against suspected terrorists in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia multiplied under Obama’s watch.

In one big area, however, Obama charted a different course: He began bringing American soldiers home from Iraq and Afghanistan. Critics attacked him for failing to negotiate an agreement with the Iraqi government that would leave a small US contingent in that country, but Obama was determined to “end” the war. He has similarly set a deadline of 2016 for the final withdrawal of the remaining US troops in Afghanistan, and he signalled a US foreign and defence policy “pivot” towards Asia and away from the Mideast and Europe, where the US would encourage local partners to take the lead.

But events have a way of disrupting the best-laid plans. Russia’s aggressive moves in Ukraine caused Obama to reassert America’s leadership as the guarantor of European security, including the protection of former Soviet republics that are members of NATO. And now, the festering, spreading chaos of the Syrian war has prompted yet another shift in US counterterrorism strategy since 9/11.

The new strategy recommits American military power to the stability of Iraq, but this time in a different way: Americans ground forces and troops from allied countries, including a small contingent of Canadians, will serve as advisors to local fighters against ISIS. The US will also provide intelligence support and conduct a “systematic campaign of airstrikes.” In his speech, the president portrayed this strategy as consistent with the approach he has “successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years,” where the US has “[taken] out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines.”

In truth, the new enterprise is different in kind and a much larger undertaking than recent US actions in Yemen and Somalia. For one thing, the US will soon have 1,700 troops in Iraq, whereas there are reportedly no more than a handful of US military advisors in these other countries. More to the point, the US will be directly involved in generating, training and supporting fighting units in Iraq – not only the Iraqi armed forces, but also Kurdish troops and what Obama called “national guard units” in Sunni areas. This suggests that the US hoping for a re-enactment of the Sunni Awakening when tribal groups in Sunni parts of Iraq took up arms against ISIS’s predecessor, Al Qaeda in Iraq. Meanwhile, American officials will continue to press for further progress in forming a broadly representative government of Iraq. These objectives will bring the US back into Iraq as a major military and political actor.

On Wednesday, Obama also indicated that he will authorize US airstrikes in Syria and that Washington will seek to ramp up support for opposition groups in that country. But the moderate Syrian opposition has been crushed between the Syrian government’s army and jihadist forces including ISIS. Obama’s new counterterrorism strategy thus suggests that the US will now become a big player in Syria’s war and internal politics, too.

All told, Obama appears to have drawn lessons from his own and his predecessor’s mistakes. Excessive reluctance to deploy American power may be just as dangerous as the reckless deployment of the 82nd Airborne to depose a dictator. Like Goldilocks, Obama found Bush’s counterterrorism strategy “too hot,” but his own strategy proved “too cold.” Now, he’s hoping for “just right.”

But it will be a long time before we know if this third US strategy will work. The task that the president has set for the US – and by extension for its allies, too – will almost certainly take many years to accomplish. ISIS can certainly be “degraded” with a few airstrikes. But destroying ISIS presupposes that some other group or entity – one that is both powerful and legitimate in the eyes of the local population – can take its place.

That’s mainly a political challenge; and as the Syria-Iraq war rages on, it remains a distant prospect.

The NATO Summit: Commitmentphobia

| September 8, 2014
Poroshenko

Last week, I suggested what we might expect at the NATO Summit in Wales: speechifying, document-blessing, announcements about a Rapid Reaction Force, basing of some kind in the East. But the biggest questions I had went largely unanswered: “Who is in the Rapid Reaction Force? Who is not? Who will be basing their troops in eastern parts of the alliance? Who will not?”

Why? Well, the same dynamics that bedeviled NATO elsewhere matter here as well. The key to understanding NATO is this: “Force generation is begging.” NATO does not obligate anybody to do anything. So, getting anyone to contribute means persuasion, cajoling, arm-twisting. And for a force whose mission is not at all clear? Persuasion is that much harder. More …

Indeed, for countries that need legislative approval before deploying troops, it is not clear that it would even be constitutional to commit to a force that has no explicit mission and would require a nearly instantaneous decision process. For countries like Canada, where the prime minister can send forces to places without a vote (yes, Harper can do that, despite his own confusing stance on this), it is less problematic.

But even Canada said “wait and see” when it came to committing to this Rapid Reaction Force. This was a bit more surprising since the commitment would be small and not especially risky. Sending 4,000 troops to Poland or Estonia, which seems to be the imagined mission of this new force, would signal a commitment to Eastern Europe without any risk of casualties coming home. That NATO, including Canada, could not come up with a more fully realized Rapid Reaction Force does not speak well of the alliance.

NATO’s new commitment to spend more on defence was pretty weak too. The goal of each member spending 2 percent of their GDP on defence remains aspirational at best. Canada resisted mightily, making sure the words in the various documents focused on “aiming” to make progress, which ultimately means very little. Will we see the end of defence cuts? For some NATO countries, probably. For Canada? Not until after the 2015 election, when Harper has pledged to have the budget balanced.

The one area where NATO really made progress was on changing attitudes towards cyberattacks. In 2010, the alliance could not even agree that a significant cyberattack could be viewed as “an attack upon one.” Now, thanks to Russia’s use of cyberwarfare against Ukraine, NATO has taken the position that such an attack could be Article V worthy if there is a consensus to do so, thus making the threat of a response, either along conventional or cyber lines, more credible. But a cyberattack still does not mean an automatic agreement to invoke Article V and NATO itself does not possess the capabilities to respond, although some members do.

All of this, of course, is really hard to do in practice. Russia is very skilled at the art of salami-tactics – of engaging in small provocations that erode alliance commitments without risking full-blown conflict. Grabbing one Estonian officer from the border, as Russia did on Friday, is an example of such an effort. Does that count as an attack worthy of invoking Article V and ultimately risking nuclear war? Probably not. But a response will be required. Deploying the Rapid Reaction Force to Estonia could do the trick, but only if NATO can get such a force up and running in the first place. If it can’t, then it is up to bilateral relations to fill the gap. In other words, maybe the United States will send some troops to Estonia while the rest of NATO looks on approvingly. Of course, this would exacerbate the alliance’s burden-sharing problem. But then, we are used to that, aren’t we?

Changing the Drug Policy Narrative

| September 8, 2014
Mexican-marijuana-plantation

Change is the air. Latin American opinion and decision-makers are pressing for a new approach to global drug policy. For one, they are calling for an end to militarized strategies that have contributed to soaring organized violence and swelling prisons. Meanwhile, they are proposing new approaches that put the health, safety and rights of people at the center of paradigm.

In short, they are changing the narrative. More …

One of the most influential voices of this new generation of drug policy reformers is Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos. After decades of fighting a war on drugs, the former Defense Minister is pushing for alternative approaches emphasizing crop-substitution, harm reduction, and decriminalization.

Santos is not alone. Political leaders from Argentina and Costa Rica to Guatemala and Uruguay are exploring innovative strategies, testing long-established drug policy orthodoxies. They are also supported by an eclectic mix of activists, police chiefs, health workers and scholars from around the world. And the way they are talking about drugs is a far cry from the discourse that has dominated for the past fifty years.

Until recently, the goals of drug policy were predicated on supply-side metrics designed to combat the problem. Typical indicators included hectares of illicit crops eradicated, the amount of drugs seized, the street price of narcotics, and the number of people arrested, prosecuted and convicted for drug law violations. Yet even when measured against its stated objectives, the global drug control system is “floundering.”

It is worth recalling that the international drug control regime, including the Commission on Narcotic Policy, is premised on two basic aspirations. The first is to ensure access to drugs for medical and scientific purposes. The second is to prohibit access to certain drugs for other uses. Its overarching goal is to protect the “health and welfare of mankind.” Notwithstanding these objectives, some governments interpret drug policy through a punitive criminal justice lens.

Notwithstanding the allure of simple solutions, the design of effective drug policy demands a clear reading of the issue. It requires making a distinction between the problems generated by drug use – including dependence and overdose – and the negative ramifications of enforcement-led drug policies, including the criminal violence associated with the illicit trade. Some governments have unhelpfully conflated the harms generated by drug consumption with those arising from repressive policies.

A small but influential clutch of policymakers talk in generalized terms about the “global drug menace.” This kind of nomenclature has long justified the resort to heavy-handed responses that in turn perpetuates drug-related harms. Government strategies often rely heavily on heavy-handed enforcement and the criminalization of producers, sellers and consumers. The expectation is that the threat of more muscular policing and longer prison sentences will deter would-be criminals. A “tough on crime” approach burnishes their crime fighting credentials.

Yet the reality is that drug use encompasses a wide spectrum, from the “non-problematic” to the “compulsive.” The UN itself admits that less than 10 per cent of people using drugs are actually problem users. Even so, drug policy hardliners continue treating all users as if they constituted a threat to society. The discussion is framed as a “fight” against the “evil” of drug addiction. A chief exponent of this conservative view is Pope Francis who recently condemned the “scourge of drug use” referring to the “evil” nature of drug addiction.

A welcome feature of the emerging drug policy debate is the turn toward scientific evidence as the basis for public policy making. After all, effective prescriptions rely on an informed understanding of the problem and the outcomes of proposed solutions. And part of this shift has also entailed a widening of the drug policy lens to account not just for criminal justice perspectives, but others connected to public health, development, and human rights.

In the process, drug policy reformers have started asking whether the international community is setting the right goals or deploying the most appropriate metrics to gauge change. Do the targets established by drug warriors reflect the public good or are they instead serving corporate and bureaucratic interests? While the focus on fumigation, drug interdiction, and arrests may reflect their commitment and resolve, it is fair to ask whether these same indicators adequately capture changes in the health and welfare of affected populations.

A growing coalition of leaders is calling for the explicit rethinking of the goals, targets and indicators of global drug policy. The Global Commission on Drug Policy, along with others is proposing arguably more appropriate measures of drug policy impact. What they demonstrate is that efforts to destabilize drug production and trafficking are means, not ends, of public policy. And in the process, these opinion-makers are laying out a framework for more humane goals and metrics to gauge drug policy effectiveness and efficiency.

At a minimum, revised drug policy goals should emphasize public safety and reductions in drug-related violence. Monitoring the hundreds of thousands of people killed, injured and displaced by the war on drugs is a step in the right direction. Likewise, a refocusing on minimizing the power and influence of criminal organizations and cartels can provide a good index of whether drug policies are achieving their desired effect.

Another worthwhile drug policy goal could be the ending of the criminalization and stigmatization of drug users. The people whose lives are most harshly affected by punitive policies are low-level dealers (as opposed to higher-order kingpins) and drug users. The harsh sentencing of consumers generates far-reaching social and economic costs, effectively taking young men and women out of the formal economy. It also distracts policy makers from the real priority, which is disrupting the drug market and attendant violence.

A reformed drug policy regime might also curb drug use through public health measures, rather than solely through the application of criminal justice. At the center should be strategies that reduce excess mortality and morbidity generated by drug consumption, including overdose and diseases such as HIV-AIDS and Hepatitis A and B. Governments are already adopting national and municipal legislation supporting harm reduction based on demonstrated good practice.

One more effective measure of successful drug policy could include a reduction in the incarceration of non-violent drug related offenders. The traditional emphasis on enforcement and incarceration has resulted in an explosion of prison populations around the world. This has resulted in non-productive spending on private detention facilities and what some call a “prison industrial complex”. There is disproportionate sentencing for small-time possession and consumption. New goals and metrics should rebalance the burden of penalties accorded to first-time offenders and track alternate sentencing measures.

None of these goals advocate that governments go soft on organized crime and cartels. Scarce law enforcement and justice resources should absolutely be devoted to taking on high-level drug trafficking organizations, many of who have infiltrated public institutions. Curbing the reach and influence of these groups, including their financial assets and connections with the banking sector, should be a top priority.

Arguably the most important step that leaders can take is to experiment with different models of drug regulation. This is not as radical as it sounds. There are currently 23 U.S. states with legal medical cannabis markets and 17 more that have decriminalized personal possession. Meanwhile, Australia, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany, Moldova, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Spain, Switzerland and many more are experimenting with different regulatory and harm reduction models.

As with any public policy innovation, the move toward a regulated market entails risks and can backfire. There is no guarantee of success or a single solution. To the contrary: a wide array of options is available for regulating the production, supply and use of various types of drugs. The lessons being gleaned from pioneering efforts from around the world, especially the Americas, will inform an iterative and fascinating process of change.

Central to the design of more effective and efficient drug policy is agreement on new goals and metrics to monitor and evaluate impacts. Notions of a “drug free world” are not just outdated, they sustain irrational and dangerously misguided policy prescriptions. A resort to ideology over evidence is not the way forward. Fortunately, a movement is underway to reframe the drug policy narrative and in so doing, changing the future trajectory of global drug policy for good.

This article was supported by Ilona Szabo de Carvalho, the director of the Igarapé Institute and executive coordinator of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, with insights from researchers associated with Brazil’s Pense Livre network. 

The Foreign Policy Think Tanks of the Future

and | September 4, 2014
PNG

The world of foreign policy think tanks is booming. Today there are over 6,500 think tanks spread out across 187 countries, with some 390 think tanks in Washington D.C. alone. Collectively, these organizations compete for billions of dollars of annual funding and employ tens of thousands of people in their drive for influence and impact. Given the instability stretching from the Middle East and North Africa to Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia, their advice is more urgently needed than ever.

Yet in this information (saturated) age, even the most enlightened politicians, diplomats and business leaders are reluctant to wade through think tank reports. U.S. State Department employees only recently acquired Internet access. Until comparatively recently, many senior policy-makers had little real-time access to unfolding facts from the world’s hot spots. Policy briefs were once the primary means of communication. But now decision-makers have ready access to information as it emerges. They’re more inclined to read tweets than papers. More …

Even big international organizations are struggling to be heard. The World Bank, for example, releases at least one major policy report every single day of the year. Yet a recent assessment found that 87 percent of its own outputs were never cited, and 31 percent not even downloaded – not once. The same is true for most other think tanks which are grappling with how best to influence. According to the Carnegie Endowment for Peace’s Jessica Mathews “the weakness of most think tanks is they view the published product as 95 percent,” failing to properly reach the “hands and heads of people that can use it.”

Yet there are other ways that foreign policy think tanks can spread quality ideas and potentially drive real positive change. They could do worse than following the old aphorism to “show, don’t tell.” Instead of drafting briefing papers describing policy proposals in the abstract, think tanks can consider building software and data visualizations that demonstrate how these same policies might operate in practice. This is not as hard as it sounds – there are some tried and tested steps worth considering.

First, engineers should be purposefully integrated into the DNA of think tanks. From the moment they arrive, these experts – who are not part of the IT department – should be invited to take part in decision-making meetings and to join research trips. Technology is relevant to every topic; integrate them into every area of the think tank instead of building artificial walls between them and the rest of the organization.

Second, think tank managers might consider taking a crash course in software development. This could begin with some recommended reading, especially classics like The Soul of a New Machine and Crossing the Chasm. They might also consider building out a small technical team of full-time software engineers, as the New America Foundation has done. But they should resist the temptation to outsource contractors who are not invested in the mission of the think tank.

Third, think tanks should think long-term. Creating a functional team takes time. It may take up to twelve months for technical experts and policy specialists to learn each other’s vernacular. This requires managers to set aside the requisite time to deep-dive on the requirements involved in each type of work. In our experience, many software engineers thrive when they leave the sanctum of the cubicle and get their fingers dirty in the field, working on projects with real global impact.

While there is no guaranteed recipe for success, these and other steps can help foreign policy think tanks communicate ideas more effectively and efficiently. We both work for organizations that successfully combined traditional policy researchers with on-staff engineers working together on technical projects. We’ve also pursued a number of joint collaborations and projects and in our experience, the model works. We’re not the only ones. Think tanks like the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute and the Citizen Lab are adopting similar approaches.

The think tank landscape is changing fast. Information and communications technologies are revolutionizing the way we produce, disseminate and consume data. There’s still no substitute for in-depth policy research – and there never will be – but think tanks can no more ignore new technologies than they can neglect lobbying, seminars and report writing. Rather than relying exclusively on the written word, think tanks of the future are writing code.

A version of this post was originally published on the Huffington Post.

NATO in Wales: What to expect at this week’s summit

With the Rapid Reaction Force initiative, is NATO confusing hope with a plan?
| September 2, 2014
NATO

The first thing to know about any NATO summit is that it is much like a conference for an academic — an event that creates an artificial deadline that forces people to finish their papers. The Wales Summit, like preceding summits, mostly recognizes the work done by diplomats in Brussels and policy-makers in the national capitals in the months leading up to the summit. Most of the statements and speeches and papers will have been thoroughly vetted by each member, making most of the event rather boring.

The Wales Summit, to be held this Thursday and Friday, will be more interesting than the average because its agenda will almost certainly be quite different from what was anticipated at the end of the previous summit. Russia/Ukraine is now at the top of the list, forcing NATO to come up with a stance. Still, most of the summit will follow from the tried and true NATO playbook.

Every member’s leader will get to make a speech. The media will focus almost all of the coverage on the speeches by the leader of their country and that of President Obama. This time, unlike nearly any other summit, there will be probably more attention paid to the statements by the leaders of Poland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. These “frontline” states are far more concerned about Russia’s gambits in Ukraine than most of the members with only Canada perhaps providing strident statements. More …

The meeting will “bless” a series of documents and communiques. The relevance of these will become more apparent over time as their language gets inserted into many, if not most, NATO related decisions. During my year in the Pentagon in 2001-2002, we inserted the same contradictory words into every Balkans-related document based on the President’s speech at the previous summits: “In together, out together” and “We must hasten the day that the conditions are set for NATO to depart.” Of course, these are open to reinterpretation and thus not so binding. NATO left Bosnia, replaced by the European Union Force, which meant that only the U.S., Canada and a few others left Bosnia, and most of the European members of NATO swapped out their NATO badges for EU badges. So much for “in together, out together.”

Unlike recent summits, Russia will not be present or at least not in the same way. The NATO-Russia Council is no longer going to complement the regular NATO meetings. However, the meetings will focus on Russia. There will be some attempts to bridge the divisions among the allies about how to respond to the events in Ukraine. In the lead-up to the summit, Germany was resisting the long-term basing of NATO troops in Poland and the Baltics as it was seen as provocative and escalatory. However, Russia seems to be already be provoked as it continues its invasion of Ukraine.

So, the “deliverables” that will be the output of this meeting may still be in flux, unlike the ordinary NATO summit. German leaders had said that they would be more flexible if Russia invaded Ukraine. Well, we are there now. So, I am now expecting some kind of announcement about basing of NATO troops, whether that is permanent or semi-permanent or infinitely recurring is not yet clear.

The key deliverable that is already being discussed is the NATO Rapid Reaction Force with Canada apparently committing a battalion. The idea is to create a 10,000-troop force ready to deploy in very short notice. I am eagerly awaiting the actual documents because I have no clue as to how this unit would operate. The problem is that unless the military head of NATO, the Supreme Allied Commander of Europe [SACEUR], is pre-delegated authority to deploy this force, the permanent representatives from each member would have to meet and authorize the deployment. This can happen quickly if each permanent representative has authority to make the decision, but they often have to consult back and forth with their leaders back home.

More importantly, the obstacles to multilateral military cooperation that David Auerswald and I identify in our book must be overcome ahead of time. Countries do not give up control of their troops even when they hand them over to NATO command. They often impose a series of restrictions or caveats on how these forces can be used, which often makes them impossible to use quickly or flexibly. So, either the pool of forces to be included in the Rapid Reaction Force will come from countries that tend to impose only minimal restrictions (U.S., Canada, UK, Denmark and sometimes France) or countries such as the Netherlands, Norway, and Germany will have to get pre-approval from their legislatures. Unless this challenge is resolved one way or another, I simply find the concept of a rapid reaction force to be almost entirely theoretical. In this, NATO may be making the classic mistake of confusing hope with a plan. Without working through the difficulties of multilateral military cooperation, the Rapid Reaction Force is more likely to be a wish than a reality.

So, as the Summit occurs at the end of this week, focus not so much on the pre-baked statements and the hectoring of Russia, but on the details of the proposals. Who is in the Rapid Reaction Force? Who is not? Who will be basing their troops in eastern parts of the alliance? Who will not? As always, getting agreement is hard, but getting participation is much more difficult.

NATO’s Old Playbook Still Comes In Handy

| August 26, 2014
Wales-Summit

NATO has had an on-going existential crisis since the collapse of the USSR. Built to confront the Soviet Union in Europe, it seemed to have lost its raison d’être in 1991. Quickly, it became clear that the alliance was handy for more than just confronting the big bear to the east.

What can we expect from next week’s summit in Wales? A look back at NATO’s successes shows that despite being slow, flawed and possibly broken, its playbook may provide some clues.

In the 1990s, NATO served as a far more credible and effective peace-enforcer in the Balkans than the European Union or the United Nations AND facilitated the development of democracy in Eastern Europe via improved civil-military relations. Essentially, NATO helped make the Dayton Accords, which ended the Bosnian war in 1995, possible by bombing the Bosnian Serbs, and then providing troops to enforce the agreements after other organizations tried and failed. NATO, too, was able to hold itself together to deal with Serbia when the Kosovo issue boiled over just a few years later. More …

The older members socialized the newer members of NATO. The militaries in Eastern Europe have now thoroughly bought into civilian control of the military: the parliaments and executives of these countries now take oversight over their militaries seriously, and the threat of coups is pretty close to non-existent. The exception—Hungary’s creeping authoritarianism—is due to executive dominance and not due to the military.

While there was much bickering about burden-sharing in Afghanistan (explained in our book), NATO countries expended much in terms of money, lives and political capital to hold the country while the U.S. was dealing with its unfortunate Iraq obsession. While the aftermath of the 2011 NATO campaign in Libya has been problematic to say the least, NATO sought to do one thing and did it—provide air cover for Qaddafi’s opponents. Sure, people will complain that this exceeded the mandate of protecting Libyan lives, but I have argued elsewhere that the responsibility to protect can imply regime change.

The key reality is that NATO has 65 years of interoperability—of democracies working together to coordinate their militaries. As such, it has fundamental flaws that are deep in the organization’s DNA. To do anything, there must be consensus. To be sure, this doesn’t mean there has to be unanimity. Rather consensus exists when enough countries agree to a course of action and the rest are not opposed. To gain consensus, NATO has a built in opt-out clause. The vaunted Article V that is the essence of NATO—an attack upon one is equal to an attack upon all—does not require any country to respond in any particular way. Each responds as “each deems necessary.” No democracy could surrender control of its military, so an alliance of democracies provides each member a variety of “outs” or “red cards” to opt out of a particular mission or out of an entire effort. This does lead to much uneven burden-sharing, but there is no other way to do it. All this means that any decision will involve much politics.

The thing is, any form of multilateral military cooperation will suffer from the same problems but have fewer benefits. Members of the coalition of the willing that joined the U.S. in Iraq had their own caveats that limited what they could do. The Spaniards said ‘No’ when asked to confront the Sadrists. Any good history of the Second World War will have many stories of U.S.-British friction, not to mention challenges in working with de Gaulle.

NATO has legitimacy. Indeed, left-wing and Green Parties have had to become “NATO-compatible” when they seek to be office-holders. In Canada, the NDP, a traditionally pacifist party, ended up supporting the NATO effort in Libya in part because it was much closer to being a mainstream party that could potentially hold office. Being too pacifist by holding onto anti-NATO stances was seen as a barrier to being taken seriously by potential cross-over voters. Canada is not alone in this, as left-wing parties in Europe have found support of NATO to be almost required to be taken seriously. This led to greater support for the Libyan effort.

Some would suggest that NATO is broken, due to burden sharing problems, and we should build a new organization. This ignores the basic reality that it is hard to build institutions. It is easier (although not easy) to reform existing ones. That there are no substitutes for NATO—not the United Nations and not the European Union. To paraphrase Churchill, NATO may be the worst form of multilateral military cooperation except for all the others.

We can always expect NATO to be slow, to be bedeviled by bickering. But we can expect that when people question its ability to act, it ultimately acts. I fully expect that the Wales summit will produce commitments that countries have thus far been shy of making—a more lasting presence in Eastern Europe. After all, NATO was built to deal with a threat to the east. So, the old playbook might be handy, and NATO as a collection of democracies will do what democracies always do—act slowly but then provide more than enough effort to deal with the threat.

The ‘strong’ state: threatening or protective?

Events in Iraq, Ukraine, Gaza and even Ferguson, U.S., underscore the fine balance of state power
| August 13, 2014
Iraq-Security-Forces

A few years ago, I worked with a great group of scholars on a core problem for anyone addressing civil wars: how do you develop a strong enough government so that it can thwart evil doers and deter potential rebels while assuring the citizens that its coercive power will not be used against them?  The book did not make a huge splash partly because it was over-priced and partly because we did not have many great solutions.  I am thinking of that book now because I see the problem so vividly in each of the media spotlights of August 2014.

The fundamental problem in Iraq now is not that the government did not have enough coercive capability but that the governors were using that capability against the Sunnis.  The Iraqi government could have assured the Sunnis that force would only be used against those who were opposed to the government.  Instead, promises were broken, and the focus was on exerting dominance, which then reduced both the capacity and legitimacy of the army that the U.S. had trained and equipped.  The Sunnis who had opted to join with the less-bad choice of the U.S. in 2007 have now opted for the Islamic State. More …

The balance has shifted in Ukraine not so coincidentally after the Presidential election as the government is doing a better job of trying to assure the people of Eastern Ukraine that they will only harm those who are fighting the government.  The use of force is not as selective as we would like, but, to the people of this area, Ukraine seems a better choice than the separatists.  Recent news has proven that those sponsored by Russia have committed other crimes besides shooting down the Malaysian airline.

The Israel-Gaza conflict has many elements, but it also speaks to the challenge of balancing deterrence and assurance.  Hamas has shown little interest in assuring Israel of anything.  Israel insists that it only seeks to deter attacks but seems to forget a key component of deterrence is that the status quo has to be somewhat attractive.  After all, deterrence is a threat with a promise —that if you do nothing bad, nothing bad will happen to you.

Democracy is seen as the solution to this problem of combining effective governance and restrained governance.  Indeed, some of the chapters in our book make that quite clear.  Yet, even in democracies, the balancing act continues with swings towards too much coercion and too little assurance leading to tensions and conflict.  The situation in Ferguson in the U.S., where protests and even perhaps a riot have followed the shooting of a young, African-American man, illustrates this.  We need police to have the capability to use force, but we need that use of force to be limited and targeted or else the police lose legitimacy.  It is too early to say exactly what has happened in Ferguson, but the pattern in the U.S. over the past few years suggests that the wrong kind of discrimination has been taking place.  Rather than being discriminate in the use of force by targeting carefully those who are most threatening, it seems like police forces, like Ferguson’s (and like New York’s) are discriminating on the basis of race.  Again, deterrence only works if the government assures the citizens that they will only be targeted if they are engaged in unlawful behavior.

This is one of the reasons why due process is so very basic to democracy.  Due process is not just about justice but about being careful: applying the coercive power of the state against the citizens only when procedures are followed to make sure that the targets are deserving.  Due process may not always work out perfectly — some innocents are convicted, some guilty go free.  But it is far better than capricious application of force. Or perhaps worse — when the use of force is discriminating but in the wrong way.

WWI, The Cold War, and Today

| July 28, 2014
Lest-We-Forget

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I with the declaration of war by Austria against Serbia. Much has been made of the centennial of this horrific conflict. A year full of international tension in which we are just more than halfway through have had many pondering if the world is now more dangerous since the Cold War (John McCain’s latest bit of hyper-hyperness). The answer is not so clear.

Yes, people who were calling for the end of conflict worldwide were over-reaching, but the reality is that there still remain fewer international wars than there used to be and less violence within states than there once was. There is also less violence in the world now than during the first decade of the post-Cold War Era. It may not seem that way given recent news coverage, but Syria, Gaza, and Ukraine have their matches and then some in Bosnia, Rwanda, Chechnya, Sierra Leone, Algeria, Armenia-Azerbaijan, the First and Second Congo War, Eritrea, and so on. Recency bias means that we pay far more attention to the latest events, but violence after the Cold War is hardly new. More …

The more obvious reality is that the world is more stable than before. That is, whatever conflicts there are will still be less likely to do what World War I did: start from a minor dispute between two middle (or lesser) powers to become a major conflagration among the most powerful countries in the world. Yes, the United States and Russia are squabbling over Ukraine, but there is no rush to war this time. Why?

Most importantly, this is because World War I (and World War II) happened. A century later, it still provides the lessons for conflict management and for wariness about being sucked into an ally’s war. In truth, World War I did not resolve much, but several trends starting then have slowly made an impact on the likelihood of war. In the years since WWI, self-determination has been both a peaceful and violent process, but it is now a widely accepted cornerstone of international relations that conquest is almost unthinkable (excepting the recent case of Crimea). We will never get to a point where the lines on the maps perfectly reflect the distribution of ethnic groups (nor should we), but colonization and wars over colonization are very much in the past.

Even with some back-sliding (Hungary), there are far more democracies now than there were in 1992. Even as some are symbolic, most of the new democracies are fairly functional. While the democracy and peace debate still goes on—whether democracies are less likely to fight other democracies and why—we do know that democracies have less civil war. Why? Because political change can occur within the system at a far lower cost than going outside the system. Yes, there is still some violence in some democracies, but Churchill’s line suggesting, “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others” applies here most strongly.

Interestingly, one of the hidden requirements of democracy works far better now both in older democracies and newer ones—civilian control of the military. There are still coups today, but we no longer leave war to the generals and admirals. We learned from World War I not only that civilian leaders must question their militaries about their plans and capabilities, but also that we need expertise on the military outside of the military so that we can intelligently question their tactics and strategy. This has led to think tanks, research centres at universities, non-government organizations, bigger staffs on the civilian side of government, and more.

While the League of Nations proved quickly to be a bust, the lesson from World War I that we need to cooperate to manage the shocks and conflicts in international relations is an enduring one. There is no one way to do this. We have seen the creation of a veritable cornucopia of multilateral organizations to manage various elements of international relations from the United Nations to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to the International Monetary Fund to the African Union to the European Union to the International Civil Aviation Office to the World Health Organization and on and on. There are also less formal organizations like the G-7/8 and others.

And there are nuclear weapons. It may not be pleasant that mutual hostage-taking may deter escalation, but it has been the reality for some time between the big powers of the world. World War III is far harder to imagine today than World War I was a hundred years ago precisely because we have gotten so much better at killing each other. War is very much something to be avoided. The attitudes before World War I were far different—that war was inevitable and perhaps noble, that social Darwinism meant that those who survived the fires would be stronger and better off.

As much as confirmation bias, ideology and politics often means that learning can be slow and that mistakes can be repeated, we have learned many of the lessons of World War I. It may have taken a second World War to really learn them, but the world is a better place now than before. There is actually less poverty. The big financial crisis did spread throughout the world, but the system worked in limiting how bad it got, so that we did not repeat the mistakes of the Great Depression.

To be sure, the problems we face today seem very, very hard to solve. Indeed, I am skeptical about our ability to fix most of them, but I do think that most can be managed. We need to have more humility about what we can accomplish in the short term, but we have accomplished a great deal over the past one hundred years. History’s progress is hardly smooth but it has been actually quite… progressive. We can look, for instance, at Russia’s behaviour and worry about its assertiveness (and we should). However, we should also note that Russia has used proxies and has not actually chosen to conquer Ukraine. That might be small comfort, but it is a big contrast from the international relations of 1914. So, on this anniversary of the start of the World to End All Wars (talk about hubris), I will take my solace where I can find it.

The Bill Graham Centre and the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs, with support from the Canadian Armed Forces, will hold a conference “1914-1918: The Making of the Modern World” on July 30 and a concert “1914-1918: In Memoriam” on July 31 to commemorate the centennial.

How Canada Can Make Multilateralism Work

| July 22, 2014
Bretton-Woods

The post-war multilateral economic system has been one of the most successful policy projects in modern history. July 22, 2014 marks seventy years since the end of the Bretton Woods conference where John Maynard Keynes and the representatives of 44 Allied nations gave birth to the key institutions that rebuilt the global economy after World War II: the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank and, much later, the World Trade Organization (WTO).

The 2008 financial crisis provided the greatest test these bodies have faced since their inception. Despite the Bretton-Woods institutions’ best efforts, the destruction of wealth, production and jobs following Lehman Brothers’ 2008 collapse was massive. Yet, in contrast with the 1930s, the system managed to prevent a complete meltdown and its actions paved the way for our nascent recovery. More …

Our multilateral institutions have managed to adapt to the regular upheavals that have rocked the global economy roughly once a decade since World War II. But as global economic power continues to shift to emerging markets, we need to help the multilateral system reinvent itself once more.

For those who doubt it’s worth the effort, recall that the IMF and World Bank are two of the few remaining international institutions where Canada has a seat at a major decision-making table. We lost our last campaign in 2010 for a seat on the United Nations’ Security Council and we took a pass on mounting a new effort. As a result, our chairs on the Fund and Bank executive boards are all the more valuable.

With an economy based upon trade, Canada depends on other countries to consume our goods. Moreover, having spent ninety years as a net debtor to the rest of the world, we’re unusually reliant on other countries’ capital to finance our investment. Despite ranking as the world’s 11th biggest economy, our access to international trade and capital markets has always depended on international rules, expectations and decision-making processes to check the excesses of larger powers.

Until recently, the effectiveness of the Bretton-Woods institutions has depended on a few dominant global powers to push their processes to workable conclusions. But these traditional leaders—the United States, Europe and Japan—are less free to act in a multi-polar world and are handicapped by domestic weakness.

The United States, in particular, is hamstrung by a gerrymandered Congress so skewed toward extremism that it won’t ratify trade deals or reform the IMF’s voting system even though these initiatives are clearly in the United States’ interests. Europe, for its part, will likely remain focused on its own existential sturm und drang for years. And Japan is still waiting for the “Three Arrows” of Abenomics to knock it out of two decades of stagnation.

Emerging markets now account for half of both global output, but their governments have been hesitant to pick up the mantel of the older powers and push multilateral processes to cloture.

The G20 has helped engage new powers in cooperative decision-making, but its nonbinding processes aren’t enough to keep the international system working. Instead, international decision-making is fragmenting into mega-regional trade deals, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP); regional monetary arrangements such as the central-bank liquidity swaps under the southeast Asia’s Chiang Mai Initiative; and alternatives to the World Bank, such as the BRICS countries’ New Development Bank.

We still need the more fully inclusive IMF, World Bank and WTO to guide the global recovery and there are specific actions relatively small countries like Canada can take to support them.

First, we need to integrate regional pacts into our multilateral institutions. Whether trade deals or currency swaps, regional arrangements can be stepping stones to more inclusive multilateral structures if Canada uses its influence to design them correctly. Multilateralism is not an all or nothing proposition.

Second, Canada can support efforts to slim down our multilateral negotiating processes. Early talks should be limited to systemically important countries. The IMF and World Bank already do this, with majoritarian decisions taken by representative Executive Boards of 24 and 25 members, respectively. Canada should lobby to move the WTO to similar processes and end the need for unanimous agreement amongst 188 members.

Third, Canada should advance reform through soft initiatives—the articulation of standards and voluntary efforts by the multilateral institutions to which countries can subscribe without the agreement of a super majority or global consensus. Rather than waiting for every country to come along, those willing to act can provide each other with mutual support.

Fourth, Canada should push to slim the work programs of our multilateral institutions. The WTO’s 12-year old negotiating agenda needs to be distilled to a manageable set of goals on which it can deliver success. Similarly, the World Bank needs to get out of lending to middle-income countries and focus on the poorest nations that don’t and shouldn’t have access to capital markets.

Finally, Canada should deepen its collaboration in these institutions with allies, such as Australia and New Zealand—similar resource economies with massive capital inflows into over-valued real-estate sectors—and it make it clear to larger powers that effective support of the multilateral system is the quid pro quo for access to those resources.

The Age of Law Enforcement Surveillance

| July 21, 2014
body-worn-video

Brazil’s military police have long equated law enforcement with warfare. But there are signs that the status quo is changing, and worldwide.

On July 14 last year, military police arrested Amarildo de Souza, an unemployed bricklayer. He was picked-up from the front doorstep of his home in Rocinha, Rio de Janeiro’s sprawling favela, reputedly the largest slum in all of South America. He was taken to the headquarters of the neighbourhood’s pacification police unit, deployed there two years earlier. There he was tortured to death by the police and his body was never recovered.

The pacification police were originally intended to inject a community-oriented ethos to law enforcement. The idea was radical for a city used to being policed by thugs. The first goal of pacification is to recover slums controlled for decades by drug traffickers, and the second is to then win the hearts and minds of local residents. The tragic case of Amarildo, however, exposes the grave shortcomings of one of the world’s most fascinating police experiments.

Brazilians are tragically accustomed to brutality, especially at the hands of their own military police. Between 1985 and 2002 one in every 23 people arrested by Rio de Janeiro’s police force was killed before making it to trial. Compare that to the New York Police Department’s (NYPD) record – 1 in 37,000. Rio’s police kill some 80 civilians a month, making them among the most violent anywhere. The pacification police were supposed to change all this. More …

Until recently, the torture and killing of a dirt-poor Carioca at the hands of the police may well have gone unnoticed by everyone but his killers and the victim’s family. After all, 35,000 Brazilians have disappeared without a trace since 2007. But the case of Amarildo shows how the public mood is changing in Rio, and across the country. And technology is playing a part in amplifying local grievances.

The suspicious circumstances surrounding Amarildo’s death – he was spotted by a CCTV camera – sparked massive demonstrations online and off. Grainy footage of Amarildo being escorted into the police station went viral and was viewed by millions. Curiously, the same camera that caught Amarildo entering the station failed to record him leaving. Everyone started asking “quem matou Amarildo”, or who killed Amarildo?

Within two months, ten police officers were detained on charges of torture and concealing a corpse. Local newspapers reported that corrupt pacification police officers killed Amarildo, an epileptic, during interrogations that featured electric shocks from a Taser and the wrapping of a plastic bag around his head. Another 22 residents from Rocinha have since reported being tortured by the police. The case is continuing today.

In a series of remarkable pilots from New York to Kingston and Cape Town to Toronto, police are starting to come under intensive scrutiny. Specially developed technologies are being deployed to protect ordinary people from arbitrary arrest and extra-judicial violence. The results are already showing results. But perhaps the most interesting one of all is that these tools are welcomed not only by citizens but by police officers themselves who are equally enthusiastic about the idea.

The case of Amarildo triggered a round of soul searching across Brazil about the direction of public security in Rio de Janeiro. Social media campaigns denouncing the military police and calling for wholesale reform raged throughout 2013 and 2014. Brazil’s Minister for human rights, Maria del Rosario, weighed in, declaring that the “investigation [of Amarildo] reveals the necessity of changes so that the police are more focused, more accountable to citizens and not oriented towards criminal disregard for human rights”.

Notwithstanding public hand wringing, incidents such as those occurring in Rocinha are distressingly routine. Part of the problem is that Brazil is an extremely violent place: about 56,000 people were murdered in 2012 alone, many of them residents of favelas of mega cities like Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo. To put this grisly toll in perspective, more people are massacred in Brazil each year than in every war zone combined. The country’s military police have long equated law enforcement with warfare. But there are signs that the status quo is changing.

Thanks to the technology revolution, policing in Brazil and around the world is changing. Law enforcement agencies are starting to harness big data detection systems to crowd-sourcing and mobile scanners to improve their ability to anticipate, track and prevent crime. Some police forces have started deploying body-worn cameras. Of course technology alone cannot keep crime at bay. But this is not stopping governments from doubling down on digital solutions. Earlier this year the Sao Paulo government announced an investment of $4.3 million in the Detecta system which will arm 100,000 officers with tablets, laptops and smart phones to a live network of smart cameras.

In the United States, these systems are now commonplace. Many of them draw inspiration from a computerized platform originally built by Microsoft for the New York Police Department (NYPD) to counter terrorism after 9/11. Domain Awareness System (DAS) mobilizes public and private closed circuit cameras to predict crime patterns and sound alerts. Today there are more than 90 fusion centers scattered around the country.

The most celebrated instance of police-worn body cameras is from the Californian city of Rialto. There, randomized field experiments using just 54 mobile cameras in 2012 reported an 88 percent reduction in complaints filed against officers and a 60 percent fall in incidents of police use of force. Police wore specially designed HD audiovisual recording devices that captured all police encounters with the public. Rather than introducing a chilling effect, the use of body cameras – or cop cams – actually increased positive officer-citizen contact.

Behavioral psychologists attribute these positive results to an increased sense of self-awareness and what is called “socially desirable responding.” People often act in ways that may be viewed as favourable by others when they themselves know they are being watched. The Rialto experiment has rocked the policing world. It was mentioned favourably by a New York judgewho ruled in 2013 that the NYPD stop-and-frisk program was unconstitutional. She also ordered New York’s finest to begin testing wearable cameras.

Meanwhile, hundreds of other American policy departments are getting into the act. In Tuscon, Arizona, the police ran a 50-camera trial. Most of the officers originally opposed to cop cams quickly became ardent supporters. They are credited not just with catching officers doing something wrong, but also changing behaviour before abuses occur. Likewise, in Greensboro, North Carolina police scaled-up a pilot of body cameras to all serving officers. The scheme was launched with $130,000 worth of community donations, indicating impressive local buy-in from the get-go. Also, in Oakland, California, the police started using cameras in 2009 and now all of its officers are wearing them. And all this innovation is not reserved to the United States alone.

For the past decade British police departments have also been testing body cameras. Following large-scale trials overseen by the country’s premier policing college, Met Commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe noted how “people are more likely to plead guilty” when they know the incident in question was captured on video. In his view, these technologies speed up the justice process, put genuine offenders behind bars, and protect officers and would-be victims. There is also evidence of the so-called placebo effect whereby the mere presence of a camera defuses potentially violent situations.

And following recommendations issued in a 2013 Police and Community Engagement Review report, police forces in Canada are also beginning to roll-out cop cams. The Toronto police are starting to test so-called “lapel cameras” to supplement CCTV already installed in booking halls, interview rooms and squad cars across the city. The decision came in the wake of controversies over so-called “carding” as well as a coroner’s investigation into the death of three mentally ill people shot dead by the police. The jury recommended that the city’s police consider adopting body cameras as a preventive measure.

While comparatively inexpensive, there are still barriers to entry. Taser International, one of the companies’ marketing body cameras for law enforcement in Rialto, charges roughly $900 for each device and its accessories. Vievu Cameras charges a similar amount to capture data from daylong shifts. Server costs can be reduced by piggybacking off existing systems, but still run in the tens of thousands a year. Police forces do not appear deterred. Working with Taser, the London Metropolitan Police Service is running one of the largest field trails ever, and law enforcement agencies everywhere are taking note.

Start-ups in Latin America and Africa are also getting into the act. The Igarapé Institute, a non-profit group based in Brazil, is developing an Android app that runs on open-source software. It is testing the app with Brazilian, Kenyan and South African police. And the biggest cost driver may not be the cameras or mobile phones, but rather data storage, training of officers, and the time required to manually review videos in response to public-records requests.

Not surprisingly, there is heavy criticism of the use of mobile cameras by police forces. Critics believe they presage a dystopian future where “everyone is under suspicion” and Big Brother is watching. They have a point. If unchecked, there is a risk that crime prevention turns into pervasive surveillance. Body cameras running 24/7 are potentially invasive since police officers often enter people’s homes and interact with bystanders, suspects and victims. Many privacy activists take a dim view of the proliferation of cop cams.

Yet there are also rights campaigners who see a possible win-win outcome of arming police with mobile cameras. The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California – a regular critic of police abuse – has come out in favour of the technology. Along with the American Civil Liberties Union, or ACLU, they have argued that with the proper controls – including regularly deleting videos and keeping them private except for prosecutions – the gains in accountability outweigh privacy concerns. According to the ACLU “police on-body cameras are different (from surveillance) because of their potential to serve as a check against the abuse of power by police officers”. It is no longer a question of whether the tool is warranted, but rather how the solution is implemented.

The controversy can be boiled down to a single question – how to balance the right to individual privacy against the responsibility of police to ensure public safety? In the case of cop cams, a series of checks and balances have been proposed to maximize privacy. The American Civil Liberties Union has advocated for the inclusion of citizen notification schemes and limiting filming in people’s homes. They advise against retaining data for longer than necessary and call for guidelines around the use of recordings, and some degree of public disclosure.

The opportunities afforded by new technologies are gaining traction among police forces in Brazil, Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, and around the world. Everyone agrees that crime prevention is no longer restricted to boys and girls in blue walking the beat, but also requires mastering new technologies. And while there is much to be gained by tapping into the digital revolution, there is also peril. The outfitting of police with body cameras is to some extent inevitable, but still raises tricky ethical and legal questions for law enforcement and citizens.

So far, the introduction of body cameras is being pursued cautiously. The long-term success of this and other technological tools to prevent crime depends in large part on public confidence in the integrity of the technology and the way it is applied. If crime victims do not call for help owing to a fear that their interactions will become public, then the experiment will fail. But if implemented effectively, then future Amarildos could be prevented. Whatever the future holds, this revolution is being televised.

A version of this piece appeared on OpenDemocracy on July 17, 2014. More information on body cameras can also be found a recent BBC World Service documentary released this month and an op-ed featured in the Los Angeles Times on July 10, 2014.

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