Archive for the 'Soft Power' Category

scs_mapThe scale and pace of China’s construction of and on artificial islands in the South China Sea over the past year has been remarkable. In the Paracel Islands, the work of Chinese dredgers has doubled the area of land on Duncan Island, and China has completely rebuilt and extended the runway on Woody Island. In the Spratly Islands, China has built up nearly 3,000 acres of land on seven reefs and has constructed a new 3,300m runway, multi-storey buildings, ship docks, radar towers, and a harbor that can accommodate the Chinese Navy’s largest combat ships. Other claimants to the Spratlys have built on their respective occupied features before, but as a new Department of Defense report indicates, China has created 17 times more land in the past 20 months than that of all the other claimants combined over the past 40 years. Why is China so eager to develop these maritime features now, when the disputes around them have existed for decades? And why is it so deeply concerning to the United States?

I suggest that the construction of and on artificial islands in the South China Sea is one way China is challenging the existing U.S.-led regional order and attempting to shape the rules and norms in its favor. As it is, China’s claims are not recognized by international law, and the legal freedom of the U.S. military to operate in what China considers to be its backyard is constraining China’s power ambitions in the region. With the growing power of the People’s Liberation Army and the maritime law enforcement agencies, China finally feels confident enough to challenge these circumstances. China’s artificial island-building campaign is intended to force acceptance of its territorial claims in the South China Sea and provide logistical support for its increasing maritime operations in the region. These efforts safeguard what China calls its maritime rights and interests in the South China Sea and are critical to the continued domestic legitimacy of the Communist Party, so they cannot and will not be easily abandoned.

China’s Alternative Vision for the Region

This tension can be seen within the broader context of a conflict of interests between a rising power and the dominant power. Indeed, China has a vision for the region to look differently from the current order the U.S. has been upholding since the end of the Second World War. And as China’s capabilities improve, so do its ambitions to shape that order to its liking. The U.S.-led maritime order is based on ensuring both commercial and military freedom of navigation, freedom on which U.S. interests depend. Freedom of navigation is codified in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which the U.S. has acceded to but has not ratified, due in part to concerns over the seabed mining regulations.

China has ratified the convention but is unhappy with several aspects of UNCLOS, like its denial of maritime claims based on historic rights without a formal historic title by Treaty or Act. China is also unhappy that UNCLOS allows any country to carry out military activities within the 200 nm exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of another country. China ‘interprets’ UNCLOS to apply only to commercial activity, so it attempts to inhibit foreign military activity within its EEZ, activity that may be irritating and even threatening, but is legal by current international law. The regional order China seeks to shape instead would restore China to its former position of regional primacy, whereby its relative size and power allow it to dictate the rules of the region without restrictions on or interference with its ambitions. Getting the other regional actors to accept China’s claims, whether by legal or coercive means, is part of China’s attempt to impose this alternative order.

Seeing the Vision Through

The legitimacy of the Communist Party depends in part on its ability to ensure the territorial integrity of what China believes to be its sovereign land and waters, including its claims in the South China Sea. Sovereignty, unity, and territorial integrity of the nation are part of China’s stated “core interests”, matters of the absolute utmost importance to the Chinese leadership. Failing to secure China’s core interests would be political suicide for the Party, as the Party has linked its right to rule with its ability to protect for the people these interests. Furthermore, the nationalism created by the Chinese leadership’s emphasis of national rejuvenation and the so-called China Dream fuels an expectation that the Party will be a strong representative of a China on the rise and not compromise China’s core interests.

Demonstrating Administrative Control

China is rapidly enhancing features (not technically performing land reclamation, as China claims and the media parrots) because it bolsters the claims to sovereignty over the Spratly Islands that China is trying to get others to accept. China does not officially acknowledge that its claims need supporting evidence to back them up; it declares that the entirety of the Spratlys is its own sovereign territory. However, Chinese actions suggest that the leadership recognizes, at least privately, that a more substantial presence on the reefs could help it secure recognition of the legitimacy of its claims by other parties. The Permanent Court of International Justice ruled in the Eastern Greenland case in 1933 that a claim to sovereignty based on continued display of authority rather than by Treaty or Act requires “the intention and will to act as sovereign and some actual exercise or display of such authority”. Demonstrating administrative control in 2015 will not provide evidence of the same during the Xia Dynasty, by which China makes its historic claims in the Spratlys. However, it can strengthen China’s position in a political resolution of the disputes, which may be the only option because historic claims are rendered illegitimate by UNCLOS and international law can only resolve competing claims based on the law.

Hopes for Territorial Sea and EEZ Claims

China also hopes its enhancement of the features will improve its case in claiming the corresponding maritime zones – territorial sea, contiguous zone, and even exclusive economic zone. These zones would allow China to enhance its sea control and access to resources in the South China Sea. Unfortunately for China, this could only happen extra-legally because UNCLOS considers eligibility for maritime zones based on the naturally-formed state of the features. By these classifications, most of the features are ineligible for any maritime zones at all, much less a full 200nm EEZ. And turning them into artificial islands does not grant them further maritime entitlements.

Most Chinese-occupied features are considered “low-tide elevations” by UNCLOS because, before they were artificially enhanced, they were submerged at high tide. “Low-tide elevations” are not entitled to any maritime zones when they are outside an existing territorial sea (especially not when they are nearly 600 miles from China’s territorial seas, as the Spratly features are).

Three of the Chinese-occupied Spratly features are considered “rocks” because they are permanently above water but unable to sustain human or economic life on their own. “Rocks” are entitled to a 12nm territorial sea and contiguous zone, but not an exclusive economic zone. China’s construction on these features to allow them to accommodate inhabitants does not change the rocks’ inability to sustain life naturally.

China feels deeply constrained by UNCLOS, in part because UNCLOS cannot be interpreted to entitle China to the maritime zones it desires. Its assertiveness in the South China can be seen as the use of power politics to achieve its goals where international law is unfavorable to China’s vision for its future.

Support for Increased Civilian and Paramilitary Operations

China needs logistical support for its fishing fleets, oil and gas exploration vessels, and maritime law enforcement vessels in the South China Sea. The increasing scope and frequency of maritime law enforcement patrols in disputed waters requires refueling stations and safe harbors farther south than the naval base on Hainan Island can provide. Not only do these patrols assert China’s rights over its claimed territory, but they are also part of a broader initiative to expand the scope of China’s maritime operations to increase China’s sea power. The 2015 Defense White Paper on Military Strategy, the first of its kind, directs the People’s Liberation Army to safeguard China’s expanding overseas interests and to defend its maritime territorial claims. China’s military and paramilitary forces are being used as an effective tool in coercing China’s neighbors to acquiesce to its ambitions for greater sea control.

China’s Challenge to the Existing Order

There is a struggle for power and influence playing out in the South China Sea. The United States continues to enforce the freedom of navigation guaranteed by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and seeks to maintain the regional maritime order on which its interests rely. China is working to reshape that regional order by consolidating its territorial interests and expanding its power projection capabilities. China’s construction of artificial islands is an attempt to consolidate its claims to the Paracel and the Spratly Islands, as well as an indication of its intention to use the reefs to support future military and paramilitary activity in the South China Sea. The sheer pace of the efforts and the increasing power projection capabilities to defend such efforts makes this past year’s events of particular concern for the United States. China is challenging the prevailing regional order whereby the equality of international law trumps exploitation of relative power, and the result is acute tensions between the rising and the existing regional power.

 Please join us on Sunday, 13 September 2015 at 5pm (EDT) for Midrats Episode 297: The Outlaw Ocean with Ian Urbina

Stowaways, poaching, piracy, smuggling, and murder – the global commons of the open ocean is as wild of a place as it is vast.

Using as a baseline his series on lawlessness on the high seas in the New York Times, The Outlaw Ocean, our guest for the full hour to discuss the anarchy of crime and violence on the high seas in the 21st Century will be Ian Ubina.

Ian is a reporter for The New York Times, based in the paper’s Washington bureau. He has degrees in history from Georgetown University and the University of Chicago, and his writings, which range from domestic and foreign policy to commentary on everyday life, have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, The Guardian, Harper’s, and elsewhere.

Join us live if you can or pick the show up for later listening by clicking here or (also for later listening) by visiting our iTunes page

This week, the Wall Street Journal and several other news outlets reported that a small Chinese naval flotilla was operating off the Alaskan coast in the Bering Sea. Some reports have indicated that the flotilla includes three frigate/destroyer platforms, an oiler and an amphib. Although their impromptu visit coincides with President Obama’s trip to Alaska, the timing and presence of the Chinese navy in the Bering has raised a lot of questions.

Xue LongFor one thing, China and Alaska are not very close to each other. Dutch Harbor, in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands, is approximately 3,800 miles northeast of Shanghai, in another hemisphere, and across the international dateline. Additionally, China has no historic claim or significant cultural interest in Alaska. Unlike Russia, which once colonized Alaska, or Japan, which is in close proximity to Alaska and fought over parts of it with the United States during the Second World War, China has had no significant history or interest in America’s 49th state. Thus, one must ask why China has sent warships to a distant land it has no ties or apparent interest in.

For the last few decades, and since the 1995-1996 Taiwan Strait crisis in particular, China has embarked on an ambitious program of modernization and growth for the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). This has included the development and implementation of the PLAN’s first aircraft carrier battle group to support an eventual natively designed/home-grown carrier program, investment in new anti-ship cruise and ballistic missile technology, construction of new naval bases, and a ramp-up of domestic warship construction.

For most of the history of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), their surface fleet has primarily served a local, littoral role. Over the last decade, the PLAN has become increasingly involved in overseas exercises and efforts, and this confidence building has made it more comfortable with flexing its muscle and increasing its visibility abroad. In 2009 the PLAN began a more proactive role in patrolling the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden for Somali pirates, and has successfully intercepted multiple pirate vessels since then. In 2011 a Chinese guided missile frigate sailed into the Mediterranean and evacuated Chinese citizens from Libya. This past April, the PLAN sailed into Aden and evacuated Chinese and foreign citizens during the ongoing conflict in Yemen.

China’s recent chain of successful humanitarian and maritime security deployments has occurred simultaneously with several aggressive and unprovoked actions as well. In 2014, the PLAN was invited to participate in RIMPAC for the first time; it sent its newest and most advanced guided missile destroyer to participate, but it also sent a Dongdiao-class intel ship to spy on the exercise participants. For the last few years, China’s military has built artificial islands in the South China Sea to assert a claim to the area. During this time, the navy has significantly increased its presence in this region and has been in an increasingly aggressive series of standoffs with other regional navies over disputed territory, such as Scarborough Shoal, which both China and the Philippines claim.

According to the Office of Naval Intelligence, China currently has the largest and most ambitious naval warship construction program in the world. With yearly increases in defense spending, the PLAN is on track to become the strongest naval power in Asia and one of the most powerful in the world. China’s military, and the PLAN in particular, is growing exponentially. It is not surprising, then, that the PLAN is continuously endeavoring to increase their visibility and presence in naval deployments all over the world as they transition from a regional to a global navy. More than this, however, is China’s need to project power and portray itself as unhindered by the United states Navy’s global reach

The PLAN’s presence off Alaska’s coast during President Obama’s visit is meant to be a clear message to the world that China’s navy can sail off the coast of America’s largest state during a presidential visit in the very same way that the U.S. Navy sailed off China’s coast in 1996 during the last Taiwan Strait crisis. As China’s military continues to grow and increase in confidence and ability, expect these types of activities to continue.


Aviation Week. “Why Did China Participate in RIMPAC With One Ship And Spy On It With Another?” Accessed on September 2, 2015.

BBC. “Yemen crisis: China evacuates citizens and foreigners from Aden.” Accessed on September 2, 2015.

CNN.”China, Philippines locked in naval standoff.” Accessed on September 2, 2015.

Time.”How China Is Battling Its Pirate Problem.” Accessed on September 2, 2015.,8599,1932402,00.html

The Washington Post. “China sends navy ship to protect Libya evacuees.” Accessed on September 2, 2015.

The Washington Post. “See China’s rapid island-building strategy in action.” Accessed on September 2, 2015.

James Foley in Aleppo, Syria, in September 2012.

James Foley in Aleppo, Syria, in September 2012.

Every foreign hostage killed or executed by ISIL since August 2014 shared something in common: they were marginal figures operating in the precarious environment faced by aid workers and journalists working in Syria.

Just over one year ago, the first Western hostage, James Foley, was executed by ISIL. The American journalist was executed on 19 August 2014, the very day designated[i] by the General Assembly to recognize those who face danger and adversity in order to help others. The date coincides with the anniversary of the 2003 bombing of the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad, Iraq.

These hostages fit a broader, shared profile. Universally described by their families, friends, and in their own words as giant-hearted and tireless in their commitment they sought to “show the world how bad it is” for the Syrian people enduring their fourth year of a devastating civil war. This war has now become a regional conflict with far-reaching impacts. Most immediately the humanitarian crisis emboldens desperate refugees and those who exploit them alike, and as autocratic governments target their own citizens they empower their opposition: chaotic, reactionary, anti-establishment groups seeking to impose their own extreme rule.

All three journalists executed by ISIL were freelance. Translation: All worked on shoestring budgets largely personally funded up front. They operated without the preapproved expense accounts from the larger media outlets to hire the serious fixers who are the most well-connected and best guarantee of their safety. This is the sad reality and result of foreign news bureaus being drastically cut over the past several years. Warzones that are fundamentally critical to Western national security interests are now perennially under-reported due to fact that mainstream news outlets have cut budgets for forward deployed journalists. Coverage is now largely dependent on freelance journalists whose security is individually negotiated. This grievous vacuum daily feeds the mainstream US news sources’ dependence on domestically sourced, too often self-appointed, so-called “authorities.” Meanwhile, the freelance journalists with the courage to uphold the principles of their profession, have to rely on individual instincts, relative experience, relationships formed on the ground and most of all, sheer luck.

Of the individuals taken while supporting humanitarian aid, only David Haines from the UK had a professional record as an aid worker beyond Syria. Haines was abducted just ten days after he arrived, having made the risky decision to live with another aid worker in the Syrian village of Atmeh where no other aid workers were based. Alan Henning, unwilling to stay home and not respond to the crisis, was a taxi-driver unaffiliated with a professional aid organization and was kidnapped while travelling with an informal convoy supported by fellow British citizens. Peter Kassig was equally unwilling to stand by, and had formed his own charity funded by his personal savings and the donations of family and friends. Kayla Mueller had worked for a few different aid organizations in Turkey and was taken after crossing the border into Syria, accompanying a technician friend who had been contracted for repairs in a clinic.[ii]

By their affiliation or personal decisions, none had the benefit of the political and security analysts employed by the professional humanitarian and media organizations. Or they chose to disregard this information. Their security was ultimately up to them. Haruna Yakawa fits neither category of journalist or aid worker, but his own tragically misguided presence proves the marginalized, ill-connected and poor decision-making point in the extreme.

The case for what unites these foreign hostages as naïve is sound, but not yet the complete picture. Significantly, all hostages identified here apart from Kenji Goto, were in ISIL custody prior to the first execution video of James Foley on 19 August 2015. The security situation had rapidly changed in the months preceding Foley’s execution as ISIL consolidated its leadership structure and published its case for establishing a Caliphate. By June, ISIL surged out of Anbar Province and seized control of Mosul, Iraq’s second city. By September, the United Nations estimated that ISIL controlled up to a one-third of Iraq, and up to 40% of the country’s annual production of wheat.[iii]

As security and policy analysts, family members and friends of the victims, it is important to acknowledge that the accusation of the victims as naïve civilian operators in a well-established warzone is relative to the fact that the operational environment had completely changed in a short amount of time.

Each of the foreign hostages took tremendous personal risk in responding to the humanitarian crisis. Their deaths at the hands of ISIL are a tragedy to be mourned and their humanitarian spirit should never be forgotten. It is equally important to accord them the dignity they deserve. None were conscripted into their service, they all volunteered to go. If they disregarded their personal safety, it was for their personal ideals. In the words of James Foley, “I believe that frontline journalism is important. Without these photos and videos and first-hand experience, we can’t really tell the world how bad it might be.”

[i] Resolution adopted by the General Assembly on 11 December 2008 63/139. Strengthening of the coordination of emergency humanitarian assistance of the United Nations.




Good Sunday morning of Women in Writing Week! This article originally appeared at CIMSEC. It is cross-posted here with the author’s permission.

On August 4th, the Russian Federation’s Foreign Ministry reported that it had resubmitted its claim to a vast swath (more than 1.2 million square kilometers, including the North Pole) of the rapidly changing and potentially lucrative Arctic to the United Nations. In 2002, Russia put forth a similar claim, but it was rejected based on lack of sufficient support. This latest petition, however, is supported by “ample scientific data collected in years of arctic research,” according to Moscow. Russia’s latest submission for the United Nation’s Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf’s (CLCS) consideration coincides with increased Russian activity in the High North, both of a military and economic nature. Recent years have seen Russia re-open a Soviet-era military base in the remote Novosibirsk Islands (2013), with intentions to restore a collocated airfield as well as emergency services and scientific facilities. According to a 2015 statement by Russian Deputy PM Dmitry Rogozin, the curiously named Academic Lomonsov, a floating nuclear power plant built to provide sustained operating power to Arctic drilling platforms and refineries, will be operational by 2016. Though surely the most prolific in terms of drilling and military activity, Russia is far from the only Arctic actor staking their claim beyond traditional EEZs in the High North. Given the increased activity, overlapping claims, and dynamic nature of Arctic environment as a whole, Russia’s latest claim has tremendous implications, whether or not the United Nations CLCS provides a recommendation in favor of Moscow’s assertions.

Academic Lomonsov under construction. Please click on the image for its source.






The Claim:

Russia’s August 2015 claim encompasses an area of more than 463,000 square miles of Arctic sea shelf extending more than 350 nautical miles from the shore. If recognized, the claim would afford Russia control over and exclusive rights to the economic resources of part of the Arctic Ocean’s so-called “Donut Hole.” As the New

A depiction of the "Donut Hole."
A depiction of the “Donut Hole.”

York Times’ Andrew Kramer explains, “the Donut Hole is a Texas sized area of international waters encircled by the existing economic-zone boundaries of shoreline countries.” As such, the donut hole is presently considered part of the global commons. Moscow’s claim is also inclusive of the North Pole and the potentially lucrative Northern Sea Route (or Northeast Passage), which provides an increasingly viable shipping artery between Europe and East Asia. With an estimated thirteen percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and thirty percent of its undiscovered natural gas, the Arctic’s value to Russia goes well beyond strategic advantage and shipping lanes. Recognition by the CLCS of Russia’s claim (or any claim, for that matter) would shift the tone of activity in the Arctic from generally cooperative to increasingly competitive, as well as impinge on the larger idea of a free and indisputable global common.

The Law:

As most readers likely already know, the United Nations’ Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) allows claimants 12nm of territorial seas measured from baselines that normally coincide with low-water coastlines and an exclusive economic zone (EEZ)

A depiction of universal claims afforded by UNCLOS
A depiction of universal claims afforded by UNCLOS

extending to 200 nautical miles (inclusive of the territorial sea). Exploitation of the seabed and resources beyond 200nm requires the party to appeal to the International Seabed Authority unless that state can prove that such resources lie within its continental shelf. Marc Sontag and Felix Luth of The Global Journal explain that “under the law, the continental shelf is a maritime area consisting of the seabed and its subsoil attributable to an individual coastal state as a natural prolongation of its land and territory which can, exceptionally, extend a states right to exploitation beyond the 200 nautical miles of its EEZ.” Such exception requires an appeal to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS), a panel of experts and scientists that consider claims and supporting data. Essentially, the burden is on Russia to provide sufficient scientific evidence that its continental shelf (and thus its EEZ) extends underneath the Arctic. In any case, as per UNCLOS Article 76(5), such a continental shelf cannot exceed 350 nm from the established baseline. Russia’s latest claim is well beyond this limit; the Federation has stated that the 350 nm limit does not apply to this case because the seabed and its resources are a “natural components of the continent,” no matter their distance from the shore.

The CLCS will present its findings in the form of recommendations, which are not legally binding to the country seeking the appeal. Though Russia has stated it expects a result by the fall, the commission is not scheduled to convene until Feburary or March of 2016 and, as such, there will be a significant waiting period before any recommendation will be made.

Rival Claimants:

Russia is far from the only Arctic actor making claims beyond the 200 nautical mile EEZ. Denmark, for instance, jointly submitted a claim with the government of Greenland expressing ownership over nearly 900,000 square kilometers of the Arctic (including the North Pole) based on the connection between Greenland’s continental shelf and the Lomonosov Ridge, which spans kontinsokkel_uknearly the entire diameter of the donut hole. This claim clearly overlaps Russia’s latest submission, which is also based on the claim that the ridge represents an extension of Russia’s continental shelf. Though there is no dispute on the ownership of the ridge, both Russia and Denmark claim the North Pole. Both nations have recently expressed a desire to work cooperatively on a resolution, though a Russian Foreign ministry statement did estimate a solution could take up to 10-15 years. Also of note: this has note always been Russia’s tune on the matter (See here and here).

Similarly, Canada is expected to make a bid to extend its Arctic territory. Notably, Canada claims sovereignty over the Northwest Passage, a shipping route connecting the Davis Strait and Baffin Bay based on historical precedent and its orientation to baselines drawn around the Arctic Archipelago. The U.S. maintains that the Northwest Passage should be an international strait. Though they have yet to submit a formal claim to the UN’s CLCS, one has reportedly been in preparation since 2013. According to reports, Canada delayed a last-minute claim at the behest of PM Stephen Harper, who insisted the claim include the North Pole. If this holds true, Canada’s claim will likely overlap both Russia and Denmark’s submissions to the CLCS. If the CLCS were to recognize the legitimacy of two or more states’ overlapping claims, the actors have the option to bilaterally or multilaterally resolve the issue to their satisfaction; developing such a resolution is beyond the scope of the commission.


Likely, Russia’s submission to the United Nations is part of a larger campaign by Moscow to reassert and re-establish its influence in the international order by virtue of its status Arctic influence. Regardless of approval or rejection by the UN, Russia’s expansive claim highlights Moscow’s very serious intention to control and exploit the Arctic. As the Christian Science Monitor’s Denise Ajiri explains, “a win would mean access to sought after resources, but the petition itself underscores Russia’s broader interest in solidifying its footing on the world stage.” With much of Western Europe reliant on Russian oil and natural gas, the Arctic and its resources represent an opportunity for the Kremlin to boost their position in the international order and develop a source of sustained and significant income. Russia may be acting within the letter of the law on the issue of their claim at this time, but it’s hard to separate that compliance from the Federation’s significant investment in the militarization of the Arctic, frequent patrols along the coastline of Arctic neighbors, and expenditure on the economic exploitation of the High North. For now, the donut hole remains part of the global commons and therefore free from direct exploitation or claim of sovereignty. The burden of proof on any one state to claim an extension of their continental shelf is truly enormous, but as experts and lawyers at the CLCS pore over these claims, receding Arctic ice combined with economic and strategic interests of the claimants will likely increase the claimants’ sense of urgency.

In the interest of full disclosure, I, too, have missed a few elections. I was more interested in buying lottery tickets at eighteen than casting a ballot, and I have come up with more than a few ways to justify why I skipped out on my constitutional right to democratic participation. But after less than a year in a job at the intersection of the military and our system of government, I am convinced that missing even a single election is one too many. There are far too many prevailing myths that might explain why service members choose not to vote – and it is a choice. Here are just some of those that I have heard over the past five years – all paraphrased, and some heavily exaggerated to try and draw out the true reasoning (also interpreted by me.) But if you don’t feel like reading the whole list, I can summarize it for you. They predominantly fall into three camps: “it’s too hard,” “all of my options are terrible” and “I’m lazy/I don’t care.”

For your enjoyment (or horror…):

1) I haven’t been keeping up with current events; I would be an uninformed voter. I’m really busy.

2) I don’t even live in the state where I am registered to vote. Haven’t for a decade. Probably won’t even go back either (don’t tell Mom.)

3) I used to vote by absentee ballot, but I stopped dealing with that hassle when I found out my vote wouldn’t count unless there was a less than 1% winning margin. I still tell people I vote though.

4) I don’t want to register to vote in the state where I am stationed, because I will lose XYZ benefits of keeping my home of record. (Usually some form of tax exemption.)

5) I have to work on voting day – I’ll be in the office before the voting stations open and until well after they are closed. It’s just not convenient. I mean maybe if there was a polling station on base? I actually have no idea where the polling station is though. Or –

6) I’ll be in the field/on the ship/on a det(achment) on voting day. Or –

7) Deployed on voting day, and the one after that, and the one after that. I’m really busy.

8) No, but seriously, I don’t even know where my voting station is. I moved here last week. And I’m moving again before the next election, so… I’m really busy.

9) School Board Election? You’re assuming I have kids, or will have the opportunity to have kids one day. I’m not even married, slow your roll.

10) As a member of the Armed Services, I serve at the pleasure of the Commander-in-Chief, the President of the United States, and to cast a vote for his or her opponent, then see my chosen candidate lose, would inspire me with a profound resentment towards the individual who will ultimately (or continue to) lead me. I wouldn’t be able to follow any orders from any authority after that; I couldn’t deem them lawful – I mean, I would have voted for someone else. #notMYpresident

11) General election? Midterm elections? What are those? Oh local stuff – not interested. See 1, 2, and 3.

12) The Presidential race? Now that’s something I can get interested it – I love those debate drinking games! Oh, but I really can’t stand watching the news, I don’t like any of the candidates, all politicians are awful, who’s running this country anyway? I’m really more of an Independent, so I’m just going to abstain, in protest of our dysfunctional political system.

I want to break down a few of these; we’ll call them “justifications.” Because I’ll assume that you might, too, feel guilty after complaining about your local, state, or federal representation, when you realize that you have no idea who they are, nor did you have any say in that – by choice.

Starting on the issue of accessibility – and admittedly at the risk of going down a rabbit hole of absentee balloting issues and assuming you want to play a role in your local or state level government – I’m going to briefly highlight a few things going on in the ever-changing field of voting rights, then we’ll move onto heavier topics.

First off, this is a one-stop shop for the “long distance voter” and (spoiler alert) military members and their spouses meet this criterion (by law) for federal elections, no matter which state you click. Also, you may be registered in Washington, Colorado, or Oregon – which would make you the lucky resident of an “Mail Voting” State, wherein, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, “a ballot is automatically mailed to every eligible voter (no request or application is necessary), and the state does not use traditional precinct poll sites that offer in-person voting on Election Day.” And these states have instituted vote-by-mail procedures for specific types of elections, but even more tremendously, these states (and DC) have “No-Excuse Absentee Voting” which means, you don’t need to have an excuse, but now (I think) you have #noexcuse. Finally, like subscriptions for GNC products, some states have made it possible to opt into a “permanent absentee voter” pool, wherein your ballot will be automatically mailed to you before all elections. Because who has time to order more protein – I mean, another ballot – from the field?

Using the Long Distance Voter tool (thank you, Internet), you won’t be surprised to find that there are specific steps (sometimes several) required to get to the point where you can drop your ballot, and many times, there is an in-advance-of-elections deadline for registration. But these states (and DC!) have online voter registration, and the Federal Voting Assistance Program specifically exists to help you – a member of the Armed Services – with the other 38.

Now, to the “All my options are terrible” camp. I’ve convinced you that it’s possible to participate in the democratic process, but you still don’t want to? You are not alone, but then again, you are EXACTLY who SHOULD be participating at – not avoiding – the polls.

On the issue of a conflict of interest, whoever is elected will be your President and Commander-in-Chief, whether you voted for him or her or not. As a civil servant, you have two responsibilities – albeit sometimes seemingly in contradiction – both in service to national security and as a citizen in your community. Insisting that the elected official in the highest office in the country is #NotMYPresident is inaccurate, and disrespectful to the entire executive administration. And in your case, probably insubordinate. Stop.

On the issue of representative choice and being an “Independent” – great! So you:

  • … have concerns about your options, and you want to influence the process to have better ones – vote! Oh you can’t, because there aren’t any “I’s” running? How about a moderate during the primary season who could potentially unseat someone who could otherwise pull your would-be party (doesn’t matter which one) to an extreme you dislike. Because unless you are registered in a state where you can vote in either party’s federal primary regardless of your party affiliation (known as “open primaries”)[1] registering as an Independent may shut you out of the primary process altogether.
  • … came to the conclusion that you are an Independent because you are legitimately so moderate that you can’t pick a camp – but you swear you’re not just confusing “Independent” with “apathy” – vote anyway! See above. Don’t worry, you can still tell everyone you “identify as politically independent” and join 43% of the United States population who feels the same way.
  • … still hold to “my vote never gets counted anyway” either because it’s an absentee ballot, or I’m a registered X in a predominantly, non-competitively Y state? All I can say is that things change, and while there may be an anticipated election outcome, the unexpected could happen instead. Because demographics change, and redistricting occurs, and most of all, people show up to vote. Even if they think it won’t matter, because that’s what the polls had been saying. But if not to actually have your ballot counted, there’s one more reason to vote…

Credibility. If you are in the “I’m lazy/I don’t care” camp, then you are really saying, I don’t have any opinions about anything except reality television. But as someone who chose to serve, I highly doubt it; in fact, I would bet that you have very strong opinions. And you have opinions about things on which are rarely legislated, and/or that affect you personally, and/or your family, and/or the country at large – you do care! You probably have a thought or two about the way that the military is resourced, or how we take care of veterans – young and old – and which bases are built up and which ones are torn down. Only you will know if you voice those opinions – out loud or on social media – without ever having taken the time to cast a ballot for anyone, anywhere, but you will know. And you will be, literally, incredible.

So, for the first time I will use the word “easy,” to say that I know there is nothing easy about the process, particularly as a member of the military – because you really are busy. It will take time, energy, and thoughtful consideration. You will have episodes of frustration, and you may feel like giving up, (repeatedly, there are many elections) but to do so is only to alienate yourself from the result, and deny yourself the credibility in trying. And there’s no excuse for that.


*Disclaimer: I am not encouraging any activity that would “use official authority or influence to interfere with an election, affect the course or outcome of an election, solicit votes for a particular candidate or issue, or require or solicit political contributions from others.”[2] There is a distinct difference between participation and exhibition. This is a pitch for quiet, thankless civic participation, even when nobody is watching, or even because nobody is watching.


[1] Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Hawaii (Open primary for state, local, and congressional races; caucus system for presidential races), Massachusetts (All races’ primaries open for “unenrolled”/unaffiliated voters only), Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, North Carolina, North Dakota, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, and Wisconsin.


Please join us at 5pm (EDT) on 30 Aug 2015 for Midrats Episode 295: “NATO Goes Back to Fundamentals” With Jorge Benitez:

From the Balitic to the Black Sea, the last year has seen the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) return to its roots – the defense of Europe from Russian aggression.

The names and players have changes significantly since a quarter century ago – but in many ways things look very familar.

To discuss NATO’s challenge in the East in the second decade of the 21st Century for the full hour will be Dr. Jorge Benitez.

Jorge is the Director of NATOSource and a Senior Fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.

He specializes in NATO, European politics, and US national security. and previously served as Assistant for Alliance Issues to the Director of NATO Affairs in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. He has also served as a specialist in international security for the Department of State and the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis.

Dr. Benitez received his BA from the University of Florida, his MPP from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, and his PhD from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

Join us live if you can, or pick the show up later by clicking here. Or you can also find the show later at our iTune page here.

Please join us at 5pm (EDT) on 16 August 2015 for Midrats Episode 293: Russia and the Nuclear Shadow: 2015’s Revivals with Tom Nichols:

They never really went away, but for almost 20 years the world had a holiday from an old challenge and a new one; Russia and the prospect of nuclear war.

Some thought, and more hoped that with the end of the Cold War, a newer world order would emerge that would enable an era of stability and peace. In a way, it did – but only in spots and for short periods of time.

While for the last 15 years most of the attention was focused on the expansion of radical Islam, two not unrelated events began to wax. From the ashes of the Soviet Union, fed by a charismatic leader and a resource extraction economy, Russian began to reassert itself in a manner consistent with the last 500 years of its history, and in parallel – the boogyman of the second half of the 20th Century began to grow as well; the proliferation and possible use nuclear weapons.

To discuss this and more for the full hour will be Dr. Tom Nichols,

Tom is a professor at the Naval War College and at the Harvard Extension School, as well as a Senior Associate of the Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs in New York City and a Fellow of the International History Institute at Boston University. Previously he was a Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC. Before coming to the War College, he taught international relations and Russian affairs for many years at Dartmouth College and Georgetown University. In Washington, he was personal staff for defense and security affairs in the United States Senate to the late Senator John Heinz of Pennsylvania.

He received his PhD from Georgetown, an MA from Columbia University, and the Certificate of the Harriman Institute at Columbia.

He’s also a five-time undefeated Jeopardy! champion. He played in the 1994 Tournament of Champions, is listed in the Jeopardy! Hall of Fame. He played his final match in the 2005 Ultimate Tournament of Champions.

Join us live if you can or pick the show up later by clicking here. Or you can also pick the show up for later listening at our iTunes page here.

Please join us at 5pm (EDT), 2 August 2015 for Midrats Episode 291: Nashville, Omar, Nigeria and Kurdistan, Long War Hour w/ Bill Roggio

This summer, the terrain shifted in the long war that we thought we needed to bring back one of our regular guests, Bill Roggio, to discuss in detail for the full hour.

Bill is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Bill is also the President of Public Multimedia Inc, a non-profit news organization; and the founder and Editor of The Long War Journal, a news site devoted to covering the war on terror. He has embedded with the US and the Iraqi military six times from 2005-08, and with the Canadian Army in Afghanistan in 2006. Bill served in the US Army and New Jersey National Guard from 1991-97.

Join us live or pick the show up later by clicking here. Or you can get the show later from our iTunes page.

20150718_ASM949_1One of the best panels at a USNI/AFCEA West conference in recent years was the 2014 “What About China” panel that included some folks in my pantheon; VADM Foggo, James Holmes, and CAPT Fanell in the company of CAPT Adams and the duty JAG, CAPT Belt.

Part of the discussion involved using lawfare to gum up the Chinese works, and use this if not to shape developments, then at least to slow down Chinese actions in the western Pacific.

In the July 18th edition of The Economist, they outline a perfect example of lawfare on if not the tactical, then at least the operational level.

On July 13th a tribunal in The Hague concluded a first week of hearings related to its bitter dispute with China over maritime boundaries in the South China Sea. China insists that its claim, which covers most of the vast and strategically vital sea, is not a matter for foreign judges, and was not represented.

Such has been China’s position ever since the Philippines lodged a case in 2013 at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, arguing that the U-shaped, nine-dashed line used by China to define its claim is illegal. But in its anxiety to dismiss the validity of the case, China may have blundered. The tribunal has ruled that documents issued by China to explain its objections “constitute, in effect, a plea”. The tribunal has sent all the relevant papers to the Chinese government and given it time to respond. China has become a participant in the case, despite its absence.

Well played my Philippine friends; well played.

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) sets out how different maritime features generate claims to territorial waters and “exclusive economic zones” (EEZ). A reef submerged at high tide generates nothing, while a rock above water has a 12- nautical-mile (22km) territorial claim around it. A habitable island generates an additional EEZ of up to 200 nautical miles from its shore.

The Philippines argues that none of the features China occupies in the Spratly Islands is an island. At best, it says, each is entitled only to a 12-nautical-mile claim and none generates an EEZ. For almost the past two years China has been frantically reclaiming land around these features and expanding their size, adding buildings and, in some cases, new airstrips and harbours. But UNCLOS is clear: man-made structures do not count.

The tribunal must first decide whether it has the jurisdiction to hear the case at all. If it concludes that it does, which may not be known until late this year, a verdict may take several more months. If the Philippines wins, China will almost certainly refuse to accept the decision. Even the hope that a moral defeat would have a chastening effect on China’s behaviour seems a little tenuous, given the gusto with which it is filling in the sea.

This is worth a try – and is just in line with CAPT Belt’s COA. Very well played.

As for China’s sand castles, I think we are one Bull Halsey memorial super-typhoon away from Mother Nature taking care of that problem – but until then, launch the ready lawyers.

The liberty in The Hague is top notch.

As a final note, if you didn’t catch the panel the first time, here it is.

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