May 15, 2018


May 10, 2018

Daryl Copeland

The Professional Association of Foreign Service Officers (PAFSO)—which represents more than 1500 active and retired Canadian foreign service officers—held its first professional conference last week in Ottawa on the “foreign service officer of the future.”

While the discussion at the conference was under Chatham House Rule, as a former diplomat and five-term elected member of PAFSO’s executive committee, I was delighted to know that PAFSO is thinking about the future of foreign service. Such an exercise is both timely and relevant, given that in the face of the new threat set facing humanity (climate, biodiversity, global commons, pandemic disease, alternative energy, and food and water security, to name a few), diplomacy is our best bet.

There are no military solutions—these issues are immune to the application of armed force.

That said, when it comes to diplomatic practice and institutions, there is much work to be done. Time to raise the bar and up the game. And while diplomats are certainly already working to improve the foreign service—OpenCanadarecently reported on the efforts to make the service gender balanced, for instance—I have additional advice for diplomats currently working in the field. Here are five steps each can take to improve the quality of our foreign service immediately.

1. Modernize professional development training.

Learn the essential tradecraft, which turns on both art and science in roughly equal measure. Explore vital distinctions: diplomacy vs. journalism; policy vs. intelligence; political/economic reporting and analysis vs. the news; the role and place of international science and technology; the importance of acquiring a fundamental understanding of history, culture, people and place. While there are many courses available on the curriculum of the Canadian Foreign Service Institute—on protocol, trade promotion, intercultural effectiveness, foreign languages and so forth—how can it be that Canada’s diplomatic academy still offers no actual training in diplomacy? 

Time to hit the reset button and get back to basics in training and professional development.

2. Remain grounded.

Be true to yourself. Don’t drink the Kool-Aid. Stand by your values and ethics and have the courage of your convictions. Do not go gently. Offer fearless advice and speak truth to power rather than worry about its accommodation or comfort.

Beware the paradox of connectivity—you may feel more networked than ever and rejoice in your vast number of e-contacts, but in key matters of statecraft nothing compares to direct human exchange founded in confidence, trust and respect. In a pinch, act. Instructions have their place, but in our increasingly fast-paced world remember that it is always easier to ask forgiveness than to beg permission.

3. Avoid the hierarchy trap.

Praise the Lord (Lord Acton, that is). “There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it,” English intellectual John Dalberg-Acton once wrote.

Absolute power may corrupt, but bureaucratic ambition, particularly in a hierarchic, authoritarian setting such as a foreign ministry, transforms personalities and corrodes interpersonal relations. The Jekyll and Hyde syndrome is a classic here. So don’t specialize in pleasing the boss, or fall into the kiss-up/kick-down model of career advancement. And always judge ideas by their quality, not their provenance.

When the adulation of seniority is substituted for genuine dialogue and functions as the primary organizational ethos, the work environment tends rapidly to become septic, if not toxic. Weed out the upper echelons, and make way for new blood by making successful performance outside of the foreign ministry—through mandatory secondments and exchanges with a wide variety of partners—a pre-condition to promotion into the executive cadre or assignment abroad as head of mission.

Bring back the PEG (the PAFSO Evaluation Guide), a bottom-up, membership-driven damage control scheme designed to identify, assess and isolate chronic underperformers and corporate ogres.

4. Embrace risk.

Risk is to be managed, not averted. When in doubt, resist. Dissent constructively and avoid self-censorship and the production of lowest common denominator mush. Pablum won’t save the planet. Hone critical consciousness and think freely. If you want to be heard, don’t run with the herd. Canada’s foreign affairs department was the ancestral home of Lester Pearson, Charles Ritchie, George Ignatieff and John Halstead—not to mention whistleblowers Joanna Gualtieri and Richard Colvin. None were obsequious toadies or grasping acolytes. 

To be sure, the department that brought the world peacekeeping, the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, the Rio Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), victory through public diplomacy in the “Fish War” with Spain, and the human security agenda, is no more. Worse yet, the Conservative government’s decade of darkness (2006-2015)—with its disastrous engagement in Afghanistan, muzzling of diplomats and scientists, privileging of ideology over evidence, assault on democracy and de-resourcing of international policy institutions—has taken a profound toll on the capacity and willingness of Global Affairs Canada employees to initiate. What are we doing with the G7 presidency? Our United Nations Security Council candidacy? Achievement of the UN Sustainable Development Goals? Not much, and certainly not enough.

5. Finally, always strive to innovate.

Respect the Vienna and Geneva Conventions, but dare to be unconventional. Understand the importance of the personal and situational. Chance, luck and timing often trump factors associated with terms masquerading under the banner of objectivity, merit and performance management in conditioning—if not determining—workplace outcomes.

Be strategic where possible, but improvise where necessary. Innovate relentlessly. The foreign ministry is not a cathedral. The foreign service is not a priesthood. Diplomacy is not liturgy. The diplomatic ecosystem is in crisis and this profession is in desperate need of a leadership transfusion, radical reform and reconstruction from the ground up. Carpe diem.

The norms of Canadian public service have been decades in the making. To find a better way ahead, begin by looking back. Don’t forget: the path of least resistance is often a dead end. Push back. Build back. Take back.

A diplomat is much more than a glorified international policy bureaucrat. That distinction is crucial but seems to have been lost on the bland, ashen-faced apparatchiks, timid time-servers and clever careerists who prospered during the Harper years and now dominate the senior ranks. That must change, and there is a better way forward. But none of this will happen by itself. A foreign service wake-up call is long overdue.

Note from the CPD Blog Manager: This piece originally appeared in OpenCanada and has been adapted for the CPD Blog.

Let's Make a (Larger) Deal

May 04, 2018 Bain Snap ChartBy Matthew Crupi and Lucas Martin

Sales representatives may pursue deals of all sizes, including many small ones, because their companies cannot tell them what a "good deal" looks like. However, the true value usually lies in larger deals, given the time required to close any single deal and the cost to serve. When one IT services company analyzed its recent deals—not just at a gross margin level, but for their fully loaded marketing and sales costs—it realized that small deals were usually unprofitable, as shown in the chart. That led the company to reject any deal below a certain size threshold, helping focus valuable sales time and resulting in a quick improvement in sales productivity.

Matthew Crupi is a partner and Lucas Martin is a principal with Bain & Company. They are based in Dallas.

The Economic Cost of Conflict

U N diplomacy, modern conflict prevention

*Common elements* *where UN diplomacy played a positive role in preventing conflict.* We found four common factors: (1) *consent*—the willingness of parties to accept a role for the UN; (2) *timing*—engagement at a moment when parties are receptive to engagement, but haven’t made an irrevocable decision toward violence; (3) *knowledge and relationships*—UN diplomacy tends to do better where the envoy is both deeply knowledgeable, well-known, and has strong connections; and (4) *leverage*—the ability of the UN to influence decisions, or offer space to the parties to walk away from violence.

The most difficult variable was leverage: The UN seldom has hard leverage, and almost never uses coercive strength. Across all successful cases, we saw that the UN gained leverage through a united Security Council and almost always benefited from regional unity as well, often using its relatively new regionally based offices. But at a time of deep polarization among key regional and international actors, leverage through unity has proven a major challenge.

The *fifth element*
There are widely different views as to why a short-term diplomatic effort will or will not stick. *Preventive diplomacy* is sometimes a poorly adhered Band-aid, obscuring the deeper problems of the context; often a negotiated settlement breaks down after only a short time. But if done effectively, an intervention can halt a descent into violence and offer breathing space for longer-term solutions to emerge. We found that a crucial fifth element of successful preventive diplomacy was both its sustainability and the answer to the question, “How well was the intervention linked to longer-term conflict drivers such as inequality, relative poverty, and exclusion?” This offers a new lens through which to understand preventive diplomacy and demands that envoys think more holistically about their interventions.

Recommendations for effective preventive diplomacy
Our first recommendation is to take strategic planning seriously. Preventive diplomacy may appear like the magic touch of an envoy, but we found that most successful interventions followed from a strategy focused on the key success variables above. Giving UN diplomacy greater resources would also allow it to build on recent successes and be more effective.

The UN should also build flexible diplomatic platforms to resolve crises. In today’s complex conflict terrain, the UN must be able to draw together regional and international actors in creative and unusual ways, using so-called “framework diplomacy” more effectively. Though their role remains crucial, we can’t just rely on the big superpowers to resolve crises.

We also recommend that the UN engage with a broader range of actors in a conflict setting. Drawing on the views of people beyond the immediate conflict actors will help give the UN legitimacy, build a stronger picture of conflict, and help the solution stick.

Finally, the UN should build prevention on trust, not threats. Rather than looking to scale sovereignty barriers, the UN could “repackage” prevention, focusing more on positive support to at-risk countries earlier, rather than jumping in when a crisis hits. It is therefore important to link diplomacy to programmatic interventions aimed at longer-term structural issues like inequality, poverty, and exclusion.

May 13, 2018

Freedom: The God of Modern War?

Youri Cormier 

 May 1, 2018

Freedom. The term is so ubiquitous in its application to war we tend not to ask why that is. We take it as a given. Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom are two good examples of how the concept seems encoded into American strategic objectives, yet it is not limited to countries like the U.S. where this idea is so culturally (and constitutionally) central. Crimea was not conquered by Russia, according to Russian claims, but rather the minority Russian population of Ukraine was liberated and given the opportunity for self-determination and to vote in a referendum about their collective future. While this essay will attempt to uncover why freedom appears to stoke the warrior instinct inside of us, doing so would only lead to an impasse, were it not considered within a larger set of questions. As a systematized justification for political violence, freedom was not always so predominant as it is today. Assuming human nature didn’t change over the past few decades, we then need to uncover what did.

Before the twentieth century, wars fought by modern republics might have been deemed legitimate for a variety of reasons, including indeed freedom from foreign occupation or local oppression, but also other reasons that might make us cringe today: colonization, evangelization, debt collection, monarchical successions, glory, plunder, vengeance, territorial conquest, and many more. As the bulk of these other justifications receded in history, freedom remained.

Though it may appear the central role it plays today was achieved by default, because the other reasons lost their appeal or legitimacy in the republican ethos, a better question to ask is why, unlike the others, freedom did not end up equally relegated to obsolescence. What differentiated it from the reasons above, or even for that matter other secular ethical concepts on which our societies are constituted?

"Give me liberty, or give me death!" (Library of Congress/Wikimedia)

The modern republic is built on a secular idea of the greater good, best expressed in the French devise (motto)—"liberté, égalité, fraternité"—which is so much more than a mere slogan. It encompasses a system of interrelated syllogisms that gives life to the ethical system within the republic’s borders and institutions. None of the three could be built into society were it not for the other two. The very act of mutual recognition of one another’s liberties and equality as co-citizens makes us brothers, even with perfect strangers. Liberty would be meaningless if it wasn’t equal for all and mutually recognized as such. Equality only makes sense if we allow one another the freedom to enjoy it. And yet, in the famous Delacroix painting, we don’t see an allegorical representation of equality or fraternity guiding the people in arms: that job is for Liberty. In the American Revolution, no one declared, “Give me equality and fraternity or give me death!” Neither of the two had such a heroic connotation.

Move ahead one hundred years. We might have expected that anarchist and communist revolutionaries, fighting in the name of an egalitarian society without borders, might have found their courage in the ethical construct of total fraternity or total equality, but this did not really carry the fight. The enemy being the capitalist state, freeing the proletariat from the owning class oppression became the true call to arms. In a speech to the Tribunal of Lyon in 1883, a group of accused anarchists proclaimed their resolve in a most concise manner: they were fighting as and for “workers who demand all of freedom, nothing but freedom, absolute freedom!”[1]


If the state-building objectives of revolutionaries are generally guided by a will to establish a variety of ethical tenets into the structure of society that would undo and replace the ones already in place, why then is their fight so detached from the larger scope of their intentions? And why does freedom apparently take center stage as the other justifications are relegated to the sidelines? The phenomenon seems almost universal in scope. It includes both ends of the right/left spectrum, but also applies to groups that position themselves completely outside of it. Al Qaeda and Islamic State speeches regularly call upon the grace of God and their agenda is to serve as a constitutive vehicle for the implementation of Sharia law, but in the fighting aspect or call to arms aspect of it propaganda is fundamentally a liberation narrative involving the exclusion of the Western influence, and putting an end to its imperialism, oppression, and military presence in the Holy Land.

Answering why modern war seems to require freedom to claim its legitimacy is no small task. In fact, it takes on mythical proportions. This article argues the rise of freedom as the last or eternal principle of justification for war can be explained by the fact that freedom shares highly distinctive cognitive constructs with religion and ultimately both justify war the very same way. This explains why, among the secular ethical concepts at the heart of the modern republic, freedom is the one evoked to justify war. Interestingly, it also provides a parallel insight into why religion can equally generate this fighting instinct, and why a particularly virulent form of political violence can emerge when both justifications are amalgamated into a single call to arms as we currently see among jihadist groups. Luckily, though, despite the apparently irreconcilable chasm between the two world views—secular and religious—the two are not condemned to perpetual war. Their violent confrontation is tied to a single justification process, while beneath it lies far more compatible, complementary, and common ethical objectives that can be unearthed.


Hannah Arendt, a pillar of twentieth century political philosophy, provides us with a useful starting point to launch this exploration. Lost in a sea of other incredible insights, we find a short, lesser known paragraph that provides us with a thought-provoking link between war and the concept of freedom:

Hannah Arendt (Jewish Chronicle Archive/Heritage-Images)

Freedom was introduced into the debate of the war question only after it had become quite obvious that we had reached a stage of technical development where the means of destruction were such as to exclude their rational use. In other words, freedom has appeared into this debate like a deus ex machina to justify what on rational grounds has become unjustifiable.[2]

There is something curious to the idea of a deus ex machina. What exactly is this external phenomenon operating the justification process behind the scene? Perhaps there is afterall something godlike. However, before we get to that point, we must note there is something missing: freedom did not merely take center stage, it literally cleared the podium. Historically, humanity had no problem being upfront and even proud of fighting for these many other reasons.


Of course, we may be candid and accept that aspects of these darker raisons d’État may continue to exist at sub-levels of war planning, consciously or not, but they are never admitted, let alone publicly proclaimed. The military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan were not called Operation Hang Hussein or Operation Taliban Vengeance, regardless of whether those thoughts were on the mind of certain individuals in the population, or even decision makers. These ideas could not have been validated as a generalized consensus in the population nor even a smaller consensus in the halls of power. It is not merely a question of better labeling. Democracies are ethically constructed in a way that makes such propositions not merely reprehensible, but impossible to rationalize in the very public discourse that generates and legitimizes the republic’s power to act in the world.

Part of the answer to the demise or obsolescence of the other reasons for war is connected to the heightened cost of warfare since the industrial revolution. Not so much the cost of waging it per se, though it is indeed high, but the cost of rebuilding all that it destroys, and more importantly, the cost in human lives and devastation. Destructive technology pushed us to the brink during the world wars, and towards caution ever since. It forced nations to consider and build structural non-coercive tools of international relations that would serve as a buffer to limit causes of war such as open markets instead of colonial monopolies, facilitated foreign direct investment and enhanced economical interdependency, and finally harmonization of domestic laws through a vast project of international lawmaking that has been decades in the making, ranging from trade deals to international tribunals and tackling climate change.


Non-violent coercive tools were also enhanced, including various features of the Chapter VI and Chapter VII mandates of the UN Security Council that range from mediation to economic sanctions. As a result, even cases of aggression, annexation, and failure to respect international law have also been somewhat subdued in their ability to legitimize a counter-attack. Given that the escalation of war among great powers would be too risky, non-violent tools of coercion become all the more attractive. The modernization of weapons explains why the reasons for waging war might become fewer, and why war might be replaced with other solutions whenever possible. Otherwise, we might imagine absurd propositions of violence. Strategic nuclear weapons to stop a genocide in Rwanda? Carpet bombing Shanghai in retaliation for currency manipulation? The potency of war is such that the limited aims that led to minor conflicts, occasionally escalating to major conflicts during pre-industrial times, are no longer matters for war to settle. We have added new tools into the world’s tool shed, in order to salvage the concept of proportionality in the use of force.

But is there really anything that would in fact be proportional to our modern capacity to kill and destroy? There are likely as many answers to this question as there are people who would answer it. But, according to Arendt, there is nothing that could be rationally justified. The rationalization process needs to happen externally to the concept of war, thus her reference to a deus ex machina. We understand why there would be much fewer reasons to fight, when the tool’s power becomes analogous to swatting a fly with a rocket propelled grenade, but it does not explain why this would not undermine the role of freedom in the equation as well, just like all the others. Arendt was right to look to the role of modern weapons, but she stopped short explaining the underlying phenomenon at play.

Industrialization, she explains, caused wars to become far too destabilizing to political regimes, and she offers the examples of the Franco-Prussian War and the Russo-Japanese War, which were immediately followed by the overthrow of the Second Empire and the Revolution of 1905 on the defeated sides.[3] There was apparently a connection between the modernity of weapons and political collapse operating in a single direction: defeat in modern war leads quickly to absolute political annihilation if not because of the war itself, then because of its denouement.

Carl von Clausewitz painted by Karl Wilhelm Wach (Wikimedia)

We must turn to Clausewitz and Fichte to uncover the solution to the problem raised by Arendt. Fichte came up with the term absolute war to explain why a people in revolution against a tyrant will not be stopped by a compromise. Their objective is non-negotiable, because the demand is total: to annihilate the existing political hierarchy—something a political hierarchy is necessarily unwilling to give up.[4] Clausewitz, who read and commented on Fichte, further developed absolute war to create a totally conceptual term meant as an imagined ideal of what a war could be if it were freed of all possible limitations such as limited objectives, the fog of war, friction, etc.[5.6]

The goal here was to imagine the limitless nightmare of pure, unimpeded escalation. This ultimately allowed Clausewitz to objectively demonstrate war’s political element, since he could show the tendency of wars towards such extremes, or away from them and towards standstills, was in either case the result of an act of policy.[7] By encompassing all possible variants of war that exist between these two poles, Clausewitz could validly claim all wars are the continuation of policy by other means. More importantly for our subject at hand, what remains of both versions of the concept absolute war is its revolutionary aspect. Clausewitz was using his version to try to understand why the French Revolution so destabilized Europe and why Napoleon rose to become a God of War, suggesting at times that Napoleon embodied the closest thing the world had ever seen to this absolute—though he hesitated in making the point.[8,9]


The difference between these wars and those since the industrial revolution was that to become extreme in the time of Clausewitz and Fichte, a war had to be revolutionary in scope, it had to mobilize mass armies, and eventually inch its way in the direction of absolute war. Extremes were achieved through escalation and the political will to do so as a reciprocation of action between two opponents. The development of the modern war machine, however, meant the extremes would hereafter become the starting point, not the end point or the direction of war. After the industrial revolution, and all the more so since the Second World War, war contains an absolute element the very moment it is waged because the power of destruction invested in the military apparatus is revolutionary in scope—the destructiveness is too great for any government to withstand.

This complete turnaround, far from undermining Clausewitz’s conclusions, actually reaffirmed them all the more vehemently. After the First World War, three Great Powers collapsed and faded away from history. The fourth was so crushed, though not extinguished, that it came back with a vengeance. After the Second World War, the losing side was occupied and imposed new constitutions to avoid any such resurgence. The entire world map was redrawn within a decade or two, and the international diplomatic and economic systems were founded (and we are after all still living in 1945 in some ways). The First World War revolutionized Europe. The Second World War revolutionized the world. Modern war is revolution.

This is the key. Revolution is at the root a quest for freedom—it binds and unites people and generates their sense of collectivity and expression. “I revolt, therefore we are,” wrote the existentialist Albert Camus, paraphrasing Descartes’ metaphysical starting point.[10] Revolt does indeed generate something higher than ourselves in our mind. Once war becomes a revolutionary tool—one that makes or breaks governments, like Gaddafi, Hussein, or the Taliban, because of the sheer disproportionate firepower of it—then it should not come as a surprise that, as Arendt stated, freedom stands out as a deus ex machina that gives meaning to it all. It is a reciprocal relationship. Modern war’s revolutionary and absolute character seems to require the concept of freedom to be intelligible, because otherwise, the means and the ends would be impossible to connect in a way that we could rationalize...which is not to say it is rational in itself, but rather that we can wrap our minds around it if we so choose.

Whether we look to South Sudan or Crimea, the action of separating the former or annexing the latter, both were equally proclaimed in the name of the right to self-government and the freedom of minorities from the oppression of the majority. Even the currently popular principle of Responsibility to Protect is nothing more than a new branding on an old concept: freedom from oppression. We may question the validity of the claims all we want, but the fact remains that the claim is the tool of legitimization, because it is the only publicly acceptable and rationally arguable stance that can be taken in implementing the destructive violence that technology has unleashed. No other reason would fly.


Freedom is akin to a space one is attempting to occupy. It has an inherently military aspect to it: set conceptual borders; limit incursions into them. To claim freedom for yourself or for your group implies that you already perceive someone else in the equation from which you will take it. It brings us back to the popular adage: your right to swing your fists ends where my nose begins. It is a very thin red line. There are as a result strategic benefits to fighting for freedom as opposed to fighting for a system of laws or a larger vision of society, be it liberal, communist, or Sharia. This alone explains at least part of its universal uptake.

Once harm is identified, or even just a hypothetical harm, freedom from it will serve a double purpose. The first is that it identifies the enemy or the target. Your demand to be free from a nosebleed clarifies in your mind who you suspect is trying to give you one, but more importantly, it liberates your conscience from a passive reaction to it. Suddenly, you allow your mind to identify the other not as your comrade or brother. They are not your equal. They are not a holder of rights. They are the enemy and this jump in the thought process allows you in turn to claim and enact your right to raise a fist and aim squarely for their nose.

The labeling effect of freedom can equally be found in the name Boko Haram, the jihadist insurgency in Nigeria responsible for kidnapping hundreds of girls from their school dormitory. The words boko haram roughly translate to western and non-Islamic education is a sin. The potency of their call to arms is derived from their attempt to legitimize the existence of a space or territory where this external influence is extinguished, but also it identifies the enemies outside the territory as well as enemies within.

Boko Haram (Africa Express)

To understand why the labeling effect is not as strong in the case of fraternity and equality for example, we must dive a bit deeper into the distinction between the three parts of the French devise. This comes down to our intuition in the face of subjective concepts and objective concepts, or the difference between our reactions towards feeling something and knowing something. When I recognize that something is subjective, but undoubtable, because it is entirely within me, I know it to be true. The purest feeling of fraternity would be the love I feel for my immediate family. There is no doubt in my mind and I can be content just knowing it. In the case of equality, it is the exact opposite. It is totally objective and measurable: I don’t feel it, I experience it as fact. One man is rich, the other is poor. If I can count it I can know it. One man has the right to a fair trial by a jury of his peers as well as a lawyer, while the other is sentenced without a hearing and without an ounce of proof. Though I arrive at it for completely opposite reasons, one purely subjective, the other purely objective, my knowledge of equality and fraternity concludes itself in an intuitive kind of certainty. And certainty calms rather than excites the mind.

Sketch of Søren Kierkegaard (Wikimedia)

Unlike the first two, freedom has a specific feature to it that is analogous to how the theologian Kierkegaard described the existence of God, which is objectively uncertain.[11] Both are relational concepts instead of being purely internally subjective or purely externally objective. Both require a leap of faith in order to achieve a certainty that, while it is not necessarily true, is nonetheless true to me. One must believe the other intends on punching their face, because until the action is done, there will always be doubt regarding the intention. And even if the action were done, the intention could remain challengeable: it was an accident, I thought you were someone else.

But there is more to it. Freeing a people or a territory also demands a belief in the fact that things will be better once this action has been successful. The allegorical freedom we channel and incarnate is a sort of ghost, it is a promise regarding the future, a spirit that one can attach themselves to and die for heroically and selflessly, because there is some promised land ahead. The willingness in modern republics to wage war, despite the damages it may inflict, occurs because we believe in and elevate freedom as a greater good that is conceptually detached from the material world, and therefore justifies harm and destruction within the material world. This, however, only becomes real or materialized when we take it upon ourselves to incarnate this pseudo-divinity.[12]

In religion or freedom, our objective uncertainty encourages us to seek out solace in the certainty of others through consensus—we evangelize others to feel less alone in our beliefs. We propagate our ideas to strengthen their validity in our minds and those of our followers and brothers in arms. That is why a quest for freedom, much like a crusade, can spread and ignite an entire population, because it thrives on propaganda.

When modern secular republics are fighting religious extremists, both may have a thoroughly distinct idea regarding what constitution will best serve the people’s interest and the likelihood of a sustainable peace, but ultimately this question is not at the forefront of the fight. The legitimation processes built on religion are in fact very similarly constructed in our minds as those built on freedom. Jihadist groups are simply building on both simultaneously, thus superimposing their legitimation effects. An important reflection that must be had in order to break the two apart is how the international community can successfully offer an alternative promise of freedom that will be as compelling as it is credible and concrete, so as to compete with the allegorical figures leading the insurgency.

The difficulty is that freedom is not a singular concept. It is fraught with paradox. When do claims for collective freedom become threats to individual freedoms? What good is political freedom on paper if human security and access to basic requirements of life are such that there would be no way to make any use of it as a tool for improving one’s situation? Freedom can easily become a senseless abstraction if it is not built into societal structures that generate human development.


And then there are chimerical concepts of freedom, like the anarchist demand—for all of freedom, nothing but freedom, absolute freedom—which are not only emboldened, but also void of any applicable, measurable, physical delivery mode. When objectives are immaterial, where does the fight end? Quests for irrational or limitless concepts of freedom lead to equally irrational and limitless concepts of war. They defined “what” freedom they wanted—an abstract question that leads to abstract answers—but actually, the only questions regarding freedoms we should ask are which freedoms and how?


Freedom remains a ghost insofar as it is used merely as an ectoplasm attached to war superficially, to justify actions that may not in fact be justifiable at the core, to shout a mere slogan in the hope it may silence other interests a state may have in waging it, but would prefer no one noticed. Freedom only becomes material, real, and rational when it goes beyond a mere promise for the future, and becomes something we can actually grasp, enjoy and most of all, use as a tool of self and collective betterment. The thing to remember is that while freedom has all the attributes of a god of war, it also has all those of a creator, a builder, and an enabler. It becomes a matter of choice to which of these incarnations we pray.

Youri Cormier currently teaches international security courses in the Joint Command Staff Programme of the Canadian Forces College and is Adjunct Professor with Royal Military College of Canada. He is the author of War as Paradox: Clausewitz and Hegel on Fighting Doctrines and Ethics.

#Reviewing Taliban Narratives

Omar Sadr 

 May 7, 2018

Taliban Narratives: The Use and Power of Stories in the Afghanistan Conflict. Thomas H. Johnson. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2018.

Taliban Narratives, by Professor Thomas Johnson, explores Taliban and U.S. communication cultures by analyzing narratives, propaganda, and stories between 2001-2011. Johnson decodes the Taliban’s master narrative, information operations, target audience, and their propaganda tools such as circulars, shabnamahs (night letters), internet accounts, graffiti, poetry, and chants, which he refers to as cultural artifacts. He argues the Taliban, unlike the U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan, have culturally relevant information closer to the values held by the local population. Aiming at changing the emotions and perception of people, Taliban campaigns target rural Afghans by focusing on local issues.

The book draws heavily on culture to interpret and decode Taliban stories and information operations. This has led to what Mahmood Mamdani calls culture talk, as “predilection to define cultures according to their presumed essential characteristic, especially as regards politics.”[1] For instance, Johnson argues, “an insurgency is the product of its own culture, with the Taliban being very much part of the Afghan and especially Pashtun, culture.”[2] While the author subscribes to the definition of culture given by Franz Boas, the father of modern anthropology“the system of shared belief, values...artifacts that the members of society use to cope with their world and with one another”he does not endorse the fact that Boas’ understanding of culture is pluralistic. Boas believed that, unlike race, culture does not have a fixed attribute. Johnson conflates Pashtunwali with a generalized Afghan culture and overlooks the multiplicity of values, culture, and subcultures in Afghanistan. It also locks Pashtuns in predetermined, fixed, and unchallenged tribal code. While doing so, the book has forcefully interpreted some policies of Taliban as being based on Pashtunwali, though they are not. For instance, the Taliban information operations examples on the issue of the searching of women for weapons or contraband has been interpreted within the Pashtun tribal code of conduct. But the rhetoric used in the specific leaflet Johnson cites does not refer to these codes; rather, the phrase "defiling our Muslim sisters" in their information operations refers to Islamic values.[3] However, this does not mean we should deny the Pashtunwalicomponent of Taliban information operations.

After a theoretical discussion in chapter one, chapter two turns to an analysis of Taliban master narratives which Johnson categorizes into religious, cultural, and political concepts. Under the religious concepts used by Taliban, Johnson identifies six themes: jihad, Islamism, shaheed (martyrdom), shar’iah, and Islam. Johnson’s conceptualization of these themes is vague and intermingled at times. For instance, he does not make clear the difference between Islamism and Islam. In both these themes, Johnson argues the Taliban use the notion of Islam under threat to mobilize people. Unlike Johnson’s understanding, Islamism indicates an ideology that projects Islam as a socio-political system. He also conceives Taliban as a Deobandi movement that follows a Salafist egalitarian model. While it is correct the Taliban is Deobandi, it is problematic to call them Salafi. Salafis are the neo-fundamentalist movements mainly following Wahhabism.

In the cultural concepts, Johnson introduces five themes: Pashtunwali, pride and honor, resistance and independence, justice, and victimization. Similarly, two themes, nationalism and collective memory, are presented in political concepts. Again the main problem here is the concepts are not mutually exclusive. Nationalism is very much connected to the issue of collective memory and independence, for example, yet these are categorized separately. Chapter three distinguishes five different Taliban audiences and provides an analysis of the context, aim, and effectiveness/ineffectiveness of  Taliban messages. These five target audiences, according to Johnson, are the local but neutral population, local sympathizers, local people who are against them, the neighboring countries, and the international community. Chapter four provides a detailed bibliography of the magazines, circulars, and newsletters of the Taliban and Hizb Islami Gulbudin.

Chapter five, six, and seven look at the Taliban’s means of communication and propaganda. According to Johnson, shabnamah are simple, cost-effective, time-tested, traditional means of communication, deeply rooted in the history and society of Afghanistan. Their link to society is through the notion of folklore. It not only has a utilitarian usage, such as social control, intimidation, persuasion, and instruction of local people, but also has symbolic importance. It indicates the presence of Taliban in an area or testifies to their ability to immerse themselves within the community. While the chapter provides a narrative of different forms of shabnamahthrough textual analysis, it incorrectly takes it as a timeless and universal practice of Afghanistan’s culture. For instance, it does not tell us how the mujahideen use of shabnamahwas different from that of Taliban.


Perhaps more successfully, Johnson shows how the Taliban adopted modern communication technology and skillfully used the internet, social networking pages, graffiti, and audio-visual methods to transmit their message to their Pakistani and Arab constituencies, as well as the international community. Regular web-based updates and multilingual communication have been characteristic of Taliban propaganda. Johnson argues, “Taliban messaging spectrum and narrative universe is finite, but their information tools are numerous.”[4] Johnson’s study shows that modern communication technology enables these  groups to establish direct communication with their audience without intermediaries who might moderate their messages.

The Taliban (Zee News Network)

Johnson makes an important distinction between the literary discourse in the West and Afghanistan. Johnson asserts that just, as literature has played a crucial role in developing Western thoughts, poetry has filled this role in Afghanistan. His notion that poetry plays a role in the political leadership in Afghanistan is novel. He notes that a lack of understanding of Afghanistan society and culture has been the main factor behind the West’s inability to understand how the Taliban uses cultural tools like poetry and chants. Johnson’s research identifies three broad themes in Taliban poetry: defense of the homeland from foreigners, defense of Islam against the crusaders, and appeal to personal gains such as honor and esteem. Furthermore, the author provides an analysis of Taliban policy on music and the importance of their differentiation between chants and music. Knowing how embedded poetry and chants are in the culture of Afghanistan, Johnson argues the Taliban use these tools specifically because of their cultural impacts. Comparatively, the government of Afghanistan and the countries involved in the mission of the International Security Assistance Force not only failed to employ these tools in their information operations efforts (if, indeed, they could have done so), but they also remained largely unaware of the importance of Taliban’s chants.

The  unique character of Taliban Narratives is the book’s analysis of the Taliban Layeha(code of conduct). Johnson not only provides interpretation of each article of code of conduct, but also provides a comparative analysis of the three codes of conduct from 2006, 2009, and 2010. Importantly, the author depicts the provincial organizational structure of Taliban based on signifiers mentioned in the Taliban Layeha. One other nuance of the book is that it does not paint all the terrorist groups in Afghanistan with the same brush. The author’s analysis of Hizb Islami Gulbuddin information operations and propaganda, and its differences from that of the Taliban, shows the depth of author’s knowledge of the insurgent groups, their techniques, and their motivations. While both Taliban and Hizb Islami Gulbuddin use the same tools and artifacts for their information operations, their operational strategies, goals, and methods of usage differ. Johnson argues the information campaigns of Hizb Islami Gulbuddin were more sophisticated and informed compared to those of the Taliban.

Johnson’s conclusions on the failure of the coalition forces, particularly the United States, to defeat the Taliban’s narrative echoes Joseph Nye’s argument that power is not just material distribution of resources but also the ability to co-opt and attract people. As “terrorists depend crucially on soft power for its ultimate victory,” the Taliban has been very effective in this battle of narratives.[5] Johnson characterizes the U.S. campaign as passive, ill-informed, problematic, and culturally insensitive or insufficient.[6] The U.S. campaigns failed to resonate with Afghans primarily because of the lack of information on culture, society, and politics of Afghanistan.[7] ]

It is important to note that Johnson confirms Islam is not a monolithic entity. On the contrary, he sees the Taliban as manifestation of “the bastardization of Islam.”[8] For Johnson, the Taliban represent a conflict within Islam rather than an exclusive clash between Islam and the West. However, the book does not touch upon how the West and the government of Afghanistan should use the indigenous, progressive, and moderate interpretation of Islam as information operations to counter Taliban narratives.


Taliban Narratives is valuable as it enriches our knowledge about the Taliban’s information operations, code of conduct, and communication strategies. At the same time, it is a good anthropological study of Pashtuns. Johnson frequently references Pashtunwali as a signifier to analyze the behavior of Taliban and draws on an extensive list of anthropological sources to do so. Out of thirty historical and anthropological books on Afghanistan in the bibliography of the book, almost half of them are anthropological studies on Pashtuns. Similarly, the book is critical in analyzing the contemporary conflict in Afghanistan as it provides an in-depth perspective on the strategic culture and information operations of the Taliban. It also implicitly presents a gap in the literature and hence potential areas for future research. These could include the strategic culture of Northern Alliance, particularly Ahmad Shah Massoud, who resisted the Taliban for almost six years, as well as the Post-Bonn Government of Afghanistan.

Omar Sadr is a Research Associate at the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies. He has submitted his PhD thesis on ‘Negotiating Cultural Diversity in Afghanistan at South Asian University. His primary research interests are laid in the intersection of culture and politics


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MAY 10, 2018

From a Nobel Laureate on the MIT faculty: “Intuition, insight, and learning are no longer exclusive possessions of human beings: any large high-speed computer can be programed to exhibit them also.”

Herbert Simon wrote this in 1958. Could it have been last week?

Today, the defense community is considering artificial intelligence as a possible solution for an array of problems. The Pentagon is accelerating its artificial intelligenceefforts (nearly 600 Pentagon projects include an AI component) following on the visible success of the Project Maven initiative. Others are concerned that adversaries investing heavily in these technologies will produce highly autonomous and adaptive weapons that might overmatch U.S. defenses. After all, data analytics, deep learning, and deep neural network technologies have achieved some remarkable successes in recent years.

However, both historical evidence and the known limits of these technologies argue for a more conservative estimate of their general potential. Those in the national security community championing artificial intelligence should be aware of the discipline’s history of boom and bust periods. This awareness should help the community to avoid treating artificial intelligence as an all-encompassing solution that can replace human endeavors in every realm and instead force a more sophisticated understanding of when, how, and how quickly this technology can be used to solve national security problems.

Initial Success and Failure

The first boom period followed the 1956 Dartmouth Conference, where the term artificial intelligence was first applied to the discipline. During that period, machines independently proved theorems in mathematics, provided plausible English-language responses during teletype interchanges with humans, and even bested humans at the game of checkers. The first instances of neural networktechnologies were used to filter noise from telephone lines. These accomplishments contributed to the notion that machines were on the brink of achieving human levels of intelligence. Governments and industry believed and invested heavily in the technologies, and the media played a role as well, publicizing overstated predictionsthat machines would surpass human intelligence by the turn of the century.

By the mid-1970s, it became obvious that the extreme optimism was unfounded. The techniques underlying early successes could not be generalized. As an example, early efforts to translate Russian documents into English found only limited success despite considerable government funding. After 10 years of effort and approximately $20 million in funding, the Automatic Language Processing Advisory Committee reported to the National Academy of Sciences, “we do not have useful machine translation [and] there is no immediate or predictable prospect of useful machine translation.” The committee’s report ended government funding of machine translation efforts for more than 10 years, and by some estimates, twice as long.

Research programs in neural network development were nearly killed when MIT professors proved that even though the technology had been used to filter noise from telephone lines, it could only solve a simple class of “linearly separable” problems. Other efforts in artificial research were also being questioned. The British Parliament commissioned Cambridge professor James Lighthill to assess the general progress of artificial intelligence in the United Kingdom. The Lighthill Report concluded that British artificial intelligence had achieved very little, and what had been achieved was really due to using more traditional disciplines. In the United States, DARPA cut back its support for artificial intelligence research following years of program failures. The first “AI Winter” began.

History Repeats

In the late 1970s, a new artificial intelligence technology, known as expert systems, showed some remarkable progress at automating human expertise. These were symbolic reasoning systems that relied on extracting and representing knowledge from human experts to duplicate their judgements and conclusions in specific problem areas. The symbolic, rule-based nature (“if (X) then (Y)”) of expert systems also enabled them to explain chains of reasoning, which was useful not only for decision-makers but for system developers as well. Again, tremendous optimism ensued, and governments and industry invested heavily. New industries sprang up to facilitate expert system construction and use. The U.S. government responded in 1983 with the DARPA Strategic Computing Initiative:

As a result of a series of advances in artificial intelligence, computer science, and microelectronics, we stand at the threshold of a new generation of computing technology having unprecedented capabilities…. For example, instead of fielding simple guided missiles or remotely piloted vehicles, we might launch completely autonomous land, sea, and air vehicles capable of complex, far-ranging reconnaissance and attack missions. [emphasis added]

This statement was made 35 years ago.

By the late 1980s, the bloom was off the rose once again. Expert system technology proved difficult to maintain and even less promising to apply to new areas. The U.S. government curtailed new spending on its ambitious Strategic Computing Initiative. The Japanese government revised its futuristic 5thgeneration computing project to remove artificial intelligence-based goals. Industries that had grown out of the expert system enthusiasm to construct special-purpose and highly profitable computing machinery failed when the machines were largely abandoned because the return on investment for many of those using them was incredibly poor. Other industries that provided expert system-building environments and tools failed or moved into other areas such as object-oriented technology development. The artificial intelligence discipline entered its second winter.

There is considerable debate about the reason for the disappearance of expert systems. Although a few will claim that they were just subsumed into standard decision-support technologies, many others feel there were more fundamental problems. Some feel that any expert system was much like an idiot savant, excelling in one niche but basically useless in a broader context. Others note the great difficulty and expense of creating the knowledge bases (the set of facts and rules that provided human expertise). Still others argue that not all forms of expertise can be quantified; there is an intuitive and creative basis that is not expressible in simple rules and facts. All these reasons relate to the difficulty of creating the information necessary to support the expert system: The information was often not expansive enough, too difficult to obtain, or not quantifiable.

So, artificial intelligence has seen two great boom periods, both brought on by impressive (for the period) advances. The researchers believed their achievements would lead to the creation of a more general machine intelligence. Governments and industry signed on, providing major funding for new programs and rolling out new tools. The media joined in, providing both sensational predictions and dire warnings for the future. Eventually, the expectations were not realizable. Machines were neither able to display “intuition and insight” nor were they capable of autonomous, “complex reconnaissance and attack missions.” Advances were made by focusing more narrowly on specific problems, but these are far from the original quest for fully human-like artificial intelligence. The term “AI Winter” was coined, used, and used again.

During these winters, the number of researchers in the field was sharply reduced. The reduction is exemplified by the changing numbers of submitted papers and number of attendees at major artificial intelligence conferences. Work did continue, but at greatly reduced scale and pace, and often under the banner of “computer science” since describing the work as part of an artificial intelligence effort carried a stigma of failure.

The Third Boom

Today, we are in a third boom period for artificial intelligence, this time fueled by some spectacular results from deep learning capabilities and architectural improvements in neural network technologies (the sharp rise in attendees at the Neural Information Processing Systems conference is one measure). Venture capital and private equity investment in artificial intelligence-focused companies was between $1 and 2 billion in 2010, increasing to $5 to 8 billion just six years later, and projections for annual global revenue for AI products are as high as $35 billion by 2025. Much of the recent success is enabled by two key developments. First, vastly more and higher-quality data are available (e.g., ImageNet and Project Mavento train neural networks to solve specific problems. Second, advances in computer processing power have allowed use and construction of very large networks. Reactions to these achievements are quite similar to those that occurred in past booms: Governments are investing heavily in the technologies; industries are rolling out hardware and software designed to make neural networks more powerful, accessible, and usable; the media is sensationalizing already sensational achievements like Watson winning on Jeopardy! or AlphaGo defeating an international Go human champion. And again, it is not difficult to find predictions that artificial intelligence will overtake and perhaps destroy human society.

However, history reminds us that when something seems too good to be true, that might be the case. In addition to the lessons of history, we also need to be aware of chinks in the deep-learning technological armor.

Google is a leader in the deep learning effort. One of its artificial intelligence researchers, Francois Chollet, recently made some succinct observations about the limits of deep learning technologies: “Current supervised perception and reinforcement learning algorithms require lots of data, are terrible at planning, and are only doing straightforward pattern recognition.”

Chollet’s comments are an important reminder that neural network systems are, at their core, greatly improved pattern recognition systems. Problem solving with a neural network requires the problem to be formulated as a numeric pattern-matching problem, which is often difficult. This isn’t unique to deep learning: In other established and powerful problem-solving technologies, problem representation can be the most important, difficult, and time-consuming requirement. Linear programming, for instance, is an excellent method for solving some optimization problems, but a difficulty of using it lies in the art of problem formulation: Not every problem is an optimization problem, and not every optimization problem can be correctly formulated for the method.

Chollet also cites the imperative for large amounts of data to train the neural networks. What about the problem domains in which large amounts of appropriately labeled training data are not available? Expert systems floundered when a base of usable problem knowledge could not be provided. Is there a connection between the expert system’s need for specifically encoded problem-solving information (the knowledge base) and the neural network’s need for a large training base (“big data”)? In general, the defense industries are poster children for “tiny data.” The tendency is to keep secret things out of public view, which will make it difficult to obtain suitable data to train a neural network to recognize these systems.

When discussing the quantities of data needed to train a network, Chollet uses the imprecise “lots.” The exact amount of training data needed is rarely known ahead of time (except that more is better). Neural networks can be over- or under-trained, and training usually continues as long as performance improves. Further, engineers face many different design choices when building a neural network, and there are no established guidelines relating choices to specific problem types. The lack of an underpinning theory has dire implications for verification and validation of deep learning systems, since it is very difficult to explain the inner workings of neural networks. This is the “black box” problem. A neural network can assess an image and answer, “at 58 percent confidence, that image is a panda.” But it cannot explain how it arrived at that conclusion. The DARPA Explainable AI effort is attempting improvements, but it is very early in the effort. How would the typical commander react to a recommendation that the system could not explain in familiar terms or recognize the need to begin failure analysis based on a flawed recommendation?

Neural networks also can be fooled by “adversarial examples,” in which minor changes to an input pattern can yield very different results. A well-known example shows that by changing only 0.04 percent of the pixel values in an input image, a neural network changes its solutionfrom the correct classification “Panda with 57.7 percent confidence” to an incorrect “Gibbon with 99.3 percent confidence.” A 0.04 percent change would be 400 pixels out of a million. This change goes undetected by the human eye.

So, neural network technologies have limitations. On the other hand, deep learning has demonstrated some incredible results. Researchers should apply these technologies where appropriate, but enthusiasm should be tempered by healthy skepticism about unproven performance claims. As an example, there have been recent media reports that artificial intelligence research at Facebook resulted in two computers, named Bob and Alice, independently inventing their own, more efficient, language to communicate with each other.

Bob: “I can can I I everything else.”

Alice: “Balls have zero to me to me to me to me to me to me to me to me to.”

HuffPost wrote: “When English wasn’t efficient enough, the robots took matters into their own hands.” Claiming this as a new, more efficient language seems to be an example of the media grasping for the sensational. The researchers involved report that they do not know what the communication actually means, and they do not understand what type of “thinking” goes on inside a neural network to produce this exchange. Given that we don’t understand the meaning of the “conversation” or how it emerged from internal reasoning, the exchange between Bob and Alice seems most likely to be a programming error. In fact, Facebook ultimately changed the software to prevent excursions into language use like the above. The incident should never have been seen as newsworthy, much less reported as an incredible machine performance.

It appears that history is beginning to repeat. Artificial intelligence technology is progressing impressively. Investment is rising apace, if not faster. The media is energized. The Department of Defense is planning and applying resources, and there are thoughts of expanding the use of artificial intelligence into business reform, intelligenceacquisitiontraining, and weapon systems as a few examples. Others talk about an immediate need to respond in the “AI Arms Race.” Will history now repeat full cycle with a third AI Winter? Although there is some debate, a third winter can be avoided if policymakers and researchers adopt a more reasoned approach that recognizes both the capabilities and limitations of these technologies and shores them up when necessary. Neither deep learning nor neural networks are universally applicable, and each has room for improvement. Technologies like modeling and simulation can be layered on top of deep learning capabilities to reduce the likelihood of system error, sidestep the impact of system opaqueness, and help to explain recommendations. The new Air Force “Data to Decision” effort is using this approach.

The Bottom Line

Today’s successful artificial intelligence capabilities are making genuine and impressive strides forward and are likely to continue this performance in specific application areas. However, history shows that overestimated potential has led to the frustration of unmet expectations and investment with little outcome. Past AI Winters reduced interest, funding, and research. Neural network technologies are incredibly valuable in pattern-matching tasks but have little application outside of that problem area and have significant prerequisites for use in that area.

At the same time, there is a widespread sense that the United States must do more with available technologies. The AI arms race pressure is increasing, and the United States may not have even entered the race yet. It still leads, but China is catching up rapidly, and some stress that dominance in AI is “likely to be coupled with a reordering of global power.” It’s clear that the defense budget is rising and will devote more to AI. We have become accustomed to stories like “With a sprinkle of AI dust, Google boosts options for ads in mobile apps.” But there’s a huge difference between choosing advertisements and making military decisions. “Sprinkling AI dust” on national security problems is not a viable option. Arati Prabhakar, former director of DARPA, cautions, “We have to be clear about where we’re going to use the technology and where it’s not ready for prime time… it’s just important to be clear-eyed about what the advances, in for example, machine learning can and can’t do.” The time to pay attention to this warning is now, as America starts responding to this century’s “Sputnik moment.” The limitations of these technologies are common knowledge within the community of artificial intelligence researchers. They need to become more widely understood by those who seek to apply “AI” to solve problems of national security.


Robert Richbourg is a retired army officer and now a Research Staff Member at the Institute for Defense Analyses. He holds a Ph.D. in computer science with a major area of artificial intelligence. He served his last 10 years of active duty as an academy professor of computer science and director of the Office of Artificial Intelligence Analysis and Evaluation at the United States Military Academy, West Point.