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andrew mueller on...

Morality in global conflict

Every nation that has waged war and every non-state militia that has sallied similarly forth has done so advertising its virtuousness. To illustrate the same point from the other direction: nobody has marched into battle declaring that their cause is ridiculous, their motives mendacious and that their victory would be an atrocious travesty against sense and justice. But the two conflicts attracting most of the world’s attention – in Ukraine and the Middle East – both appear to demonstrate a growing belief that the moral high ground has become redundant real estate. Russia’s assault upon Ukraine is as open-and-shut a case as has been brought before the court of global opinion. Russia attacked a sovereign state that had done it no harm and posed it no threat. Russia was widely and correctly condemned. Russia simply does not care.

Israel was certainly within its rights to respond forcefully to Hamas’s murderous assault last October: indeed, it would have been derelict not to. Though Israel has shrouded its punishment of Gaza in self-congratulatory praise for the Israel Defence Forces as the world’s “most moral army”, its indifference to Palestinian casualties has incurred the opprobrium not only of the usual suspects but also its staunchest allies. About all of which Israel has appeared serenely unbothered. Both countries might have calculated that in a polarised world, there is simply no point in trying to win anyone over. It may be tempting, therefore, for those nations that – for all their own manifold failings – do still hope to uphold some notion of a global order underpinned by elementary decency, to conclude that the world has descended into a conscienceless, Hobbesian free-for-all and that there is no point in even pretending to look like the good guys.

Any such inclinations should be resisted. There is an argument that the current global precariousness is actually a consequence of amorality. It has been plausibly suggested that the US’s flight from Afghanistan in 2021 was interpreted in Moscow and Tehran as a signal that the forceful export of American values had been superseded by a creed of ruthless self-interest, encouraging Russia to believe that there would be no consequences to a move on Ukraine and Iran to accelerate its regional pot-stirring – very much including the encouragement of Hamas. It is arguable that the most urgent reasons for any state – but especially the US – to maintain its idealism are in fact cynical: that while doing the right thing is the right thing to do, it might also be the best means of discouraging others from doing the wrong. — L

Andrew Mueller is host of ‘The Foreign Desk’ on Monocle Radio. Listen live at or download as a podcast.

Weapons ––– iran


Cheap shots

Shahed drones made up much of the airborne armada that Iran flung at Israel in April. Its most notorious model, the Shahed-136, isn’t the swiftest or most sophisticated unmanned aerial vehicle but it doesn’t need to be. Shaheds are designed to be sent on one-way missions, carrying up to 40kg of explosives to targets within a 1,500km range of their launch site. They are also relatively inexpensive, perhaps as little as €20,000 a unit. Even if all that a Shahed does is draw a single $450,000 (€420,000) Sidewinder missile from an enemy f-35, it has put its operator comfortably in front.

The Shahed drone is a product of scarcity. Western-led sanctions meant that Iran had to build it using commonplace technology and it’s guided by components that can be sourced online. It became well known in 2019, when Iran’s Houthi proxies in Yemen launched them at Saudi oil refineries, causing severe damage. The drones have since been employed by Iranian allies across the Middle East and by Russia against Ukraine (Russia calls the Shahed-136 the Geran-2). In February leaked documents from an Iranian company linked to the country’s defence ministry suggested that Russia had bought thousands of Shaheds, plus the right and means to manufacture them domestically in a facility in Tartarstan. Russia paid in gold – nearly four tonnes of it.

“The Shahed isn’t very different to other loitering munitions and one-way attack drones in terms of its airframe, propulsion, configuration and warhead options,” Justin Bronk, senior research fellow for airpower and technology at the Royal United Services Institute, tells monocle. “Where it does differ is its resistance to gps jamming and the large scale of production.” Expect to see more of this deadly drone in conflicts present and future.

tourism ––– asia

Walking the line

Decades-long efforts to thaw relations on the Korean peninsula were scuppered in December when Kim Jong-un declared that North Korea and South Korea were, in fact, “hostile to each other”. Since then the North has reportedly rebuilt its dismantled guard posts within the demilitarised zone on the border and, in April, its troops were spotted laying mines within the area.

But Pyongyang’s power flex has also left Seoul concerned about its image as a tourism destination. And that might explain why South Korea then launched 10 peace-themed trails across border towns in the Gyeonggi and Gangwon provinces. Here, visitors can take in the region’s remarkably unspoilt nature – or marvel at the security apparatus that surrounds it.

trade ––– oslo


Crown to business

When state-owned enterprise Innovation Norway organises trips for Norwegian companies looking to do business abroad, it sends along a secret weapon: Crown Prince Haakon. The 50-year-old royal is a regular fixture at the head of the country’s trade efforts – and one whose soft-power appeal opens doors. “He’s a very effective magnet,” Håkon Haugli, ceo of Innovation Norway, tells monocle on the sidelines of an April mission to the US’s West Coast. Busy executives at the likes of Amazon, Apple, Google, Microsoft, Nvidia and Salesforce make time in their schedules when a crown prince offers to visit their corporate headquarters – more willing, perhaps, than if it were just a trade minister who came knocking (for the record, Norway’s ministers covering trade, industry and digitalisation were here too).

Beyond hrh’s star power, the heir to the Norwegian throne is a keen participant known to ask probing questions and engage with ceos. It’s a role that helps the businesses behind Brand Norway, eager to sell solutions for electric cars, maritime transport and digital services to friendly powers such as Germany, the US and the UK – all three of these Nato allies have received Norwegian business delegations in the past 18 months. Turning a run-of-the-mill trade delegation into a royal visit, with all the pomp and circumstance it entails, is an effective statecraft for growing gdp. In San Francisco, venture capitalists inked contracts to fund Norwegian start-ups. “This recipe works,” says Haugli. 

Politics ––– Ljubljana
Natasa Pirc Musar
President of Slovenia


Slovenia’s head of state is a lawyer, journalist and former information commissioner. monocle meets her at April’s Delphi Economic Forum.

Slovenia is a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council: what can you do in such a position?
What I am watching at the UN right now hurts me really badly. The UN was supposed to be a beacon of peace and security. When I was a young girl and there was conflict, there were the blue helmets. Today we have 55 armed conflicts going on and the UN is not doing its job.

Is reform possible, given that the Security Council’s permanent members – the US, UK, France, Russia and China – must agree?
Everything is in the hands of the Security Council and the veto power is abused daily. One step could be that the countries whose actions are being debated do not get the right to vote.

Could other former Yugoslav countries play more of a role as mediators between Serbia and Kosovo?
Definitely. The most important part of cohabitation between Serbia and Kosovo is to admit that minorities have rights. Being a lawyer, I believe that the law is always part of the solution.

How optimistic is it possible to be about a long-term settlement between them?
If you stop dialogue, if you stop discussion, the solutions are not going to be there.

environment ––– usa

Polls indicate that environmental issues are low on US voters’ list of priorities in an election likely to be dominated by the economy and immigration. But one group of political scientists begs to differ. An analysis published in January by the University of Colorado Boulder argues that climate change tipped the 2020 election in Joe Biden’s favour.

If history repeats itself, Donald Trump is doomed. He has walked back his declarations that climate change is a “hoax” but a second Trump administration would pull the US out of the Paris Agreement (again). The best glimpse into Trump’s climate policy is Project 2025, a roadmap by the conservative Heritage Foundation think-tank. The document calls for the next Republican president to repeal Biden’s climate initiative, the Inflation Reduction Act, and gut federal regulations on greenhouse gas emissions. The changes would halt the US transition to clean energy in its tracks.

Project 2025 also urges the next gop president to open up federal lands and offshore waters to oil and natural gas, mining and logging, and to weaken conservation protections on national monuments. Biden’s 30 by 30 pledge, part of an international biodiversity pact for every nation to conserve at least 30 per cent of its lands and waters, would fall by the wayside.

Much of the political fight concerns resource-rich Alaska, where the incumbent walks a fine line. In March 2023, Biden approved the Willow Project, one of the largest oil-extraction efforts in decades. He has tacked left as the election approaches, announcing new restrictions in April on oil and gas leases to safeguard habitat for caribou and polar bears. The president remains opposed to drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a long-sought prize for the fossil-fuel industry and its political allies. On Earth Day, he announced $7bn (€6.5bn) in solar-energy grants and the imminent deployment of a 20,000-person American Climate Corps starting in June.

But even as Biden touts his green credentials, he knows that the energy transition will not happen overnight, and back-up sources are needed to avoid straining the electrical grid. The US remains the world’s largest oil producer, an inconvenient truth that also influences petrol prices in a volatile energy market – and the price at the pump is, ultimately, what will sway voters on election day.

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