Army on your back
Military contractors are perfecting exoskeletal technology that will allow soldiers to lift missiles with little work. What happens when armies no longer need young, strong men to go to war?
The exoskeletons that Raytheon and Lockheed-Martin are racing to produce may capture the dreams of costume designers on sci-fi film sets: titanium frames that give wearers the ability to carry up to 90kg with little effort while remaining limber enough to kick a football. The less romantic will imagine the possibility of a powered-up operator who can do the work of three men without the risk of injury that comes with moving around 7,000kg of equipment during a day.
Exoskeletons may not be ready for field use until 2015 but defence ministries may want to start preparing for what their arrival could mean for the army of the future. The sci-fi-worthy contraptions just might be the thing that solves the military planner’s demographic challenge of rousing a volunteer infantry and the difficulty of mobilising enough ground troops for war.
Recruiters may find it a lot easier to fill their ranks: jobs that involve unloading cargo from trucks or placing munitions on aircraft won’t just be for young, strong men any more. “If the technology delivers, it means a wider set of people could take on the tough, rugged jobs that depend on physical heft,” says military technologist Peter Singer of Washington’s Brookings Institution. That means reimagining what it looks like to be war-ready: a middle-aged woman might be a fit replacement for three big guys.
Generals will be able to count on deadlier infantry platoons as exoskeletons help troops carry their own increasingly heavy loads. The infantryman’s typical pack weighs between 45 and 70kg, which – when added to his gun, ammo and helmet – outweighs a medieval knight’s armour. Exoskeletal troops will be able to load on more sensors, communications gear and weaponry (such as anti-tank missiles) and lug them for longer distances through inhospitable conditions. Ground war may get a lot easier.
If big strong men are no longer necessary to fill infantry roles, militaries with single-sex combat units are going to come under a lot of fast pressure to open up. It might also mean we’ll be able to check in heavier luggage as handlers will no longer have the weight excuse.
The newest right
North America editor
Tea Party libertarianism has shoved aside fights over abortion and gun rights. Americans are about to witness the type of stark ideological clash they’ve long left to Europe and Latin America.
The Tea Party conservatives who touch down on Capitol Hill in January are spoiling for a fight with Barack Obama’s Democrats. But they’re unlikely to wage it over the cultural issues that have typically separated right from left. Instead, the new conservative guard seems more excited to argue that bad banks should die than good foetuses should live. Many are honest libertarians on economic issues, with an almost Darwinian approach to the marketplace that falls far outside the usual American two-party consensus. They seem unengaged by foreign policy or sexual politics.
The policy fights that ensue for the next two years at least – over stark differences on the role of government – will be unfamiliar to Americans, who have never witnessed such a pure, principled ideological conflict. Obama will be forced to defend his healthcare law, his financial reforms and possibly the Afghanistan war against Republicans who (unlike George W Bush and John McCain) have no confidence in government ever doing anything right.
The old centrist consensus may be gone for now but we expect it will make a comeback. Americans are still sorting themselves out after the quirks and excesses of the Bush regime.
Estonia gives up its kroons for euros in January, but how quickly will the country come to regret the swap? Perhaps the world needs more central bankers and not fewer.
With politicians’ half-lives diminishing all the time, central bankers are emerging as the new international potentates. The international financial crisis has called the Federal Reserve Board, Bank of England and European Central Bank to new duties as an extended arm of government responsible for restoring growth and beating recession.
In January, Estonia will be the 17th country to trade its own monetary policy for Frankfurt’s when it joins the euro. The Baltic country comes aboard at a particularly disheartening moment for the project of common European identity. The more that countries have fused their money and credit policies, the more they have tried to assert national independence when it comes to taxes, pensions, employment law and social affairs.
No one knows if Europe can stay the course. Amid debt crises in Portugal, Ireland and Greece, richer states led by Germany and France have agreed to bail out weaker ones. But Europe’s creditor nations have demanded an exacting price: errant states on the fringes have to submit to relentlessly stringent austerity policies to repair their spendthrift ways.
We are witnessing a split between northern European countries with satisfactory growth and southern and western ones mired in debt and distress. If that continues, and economic divisions start to have political consequences, even Frankfurt may not be able to stand in the way of Europe’s growing fragmentation. Then the only choice left may be breakup, and new employment opportunities for 17 central bankers.
We’re not sure we want a return to drachmas and lira. But we’re starting to wonder if it’s possible for strong nations and large-scale monetary unions to function together, and when things turn bad, who really is minding the store.
After a high-profile flotilla mishap and bungled Dubai hit job in 2010, Israel’s intelligence and security forces have lost their air of invincibility. Will friends and enemies treat the country differently in the future?
Anyone on the receiving end of a new threat or offer of help from Israel may have trouble removing two images from their mind. The first is the closed-circuit camera picture of a team of undisguised Mossad hitmen nonchalantly walking through a Dubai hotel en route to an assassination. The other is a grainy video of Israeli Navy commandos storming a Gaza-bound flotilla, overwhelmed on their arrival by peace activists and aid workers.
These tragicomic episodes revealed a new side of Israel – a country whose ruthless competence long provoked awe from friends and enemies – and it’s easy to fantasise about how they could shift the regional power balance in the year ahead. Mahmoud Abbas approaches the negotiating table with dreams of a Palestinian state stretching from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean. BBC-led Western Europe, long the champions of the Palestinian underdog, switches positions and takes pity on defenceless Israel and its hapless military. US officials find it unwise to invest in debilitated Israeli institutions and cut their aid. Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad accelerates his nuclear plans, confident that even if Israel did launch a pre-emptive strike they’d most likely mess it up. Well, perhaps.
I had grown up with the old myths about the country’s might, hearing stories about an improbable victory in the Six Day War and a daring raid at Entebbe. But when I entered the Israeli Defence Forces, my platoon was filled with 18-year-old mummies’ boys who faked injuries to dodge guard duty and claimed diarrhoea to avoid kitchen work. I watched in horror as my 20-year-old sergeants bungled orders and wasted hours hazing us instead of training for our imminent deployment to Lebanon against Hezbollah.
But few militaries, intelligence services or governments will look invincible in the future if their every weakness can be so easily documented. And no one – not Abbas, not Ahmadinejad, and certainly not the Israelis – will be naïve enough to think that Israel’s clumsy failings mean the region’s most powerful military is suddenly finished.
Besides, for every Israeli blunder there are countless more among its foes. While Abbas fights Hamas for control of the Palestinians, Hamas is at war with its own factions. As my officer, Yaron, said to me at the end of our three months in Lebanon, “It’s true, the Israeli Army is completely disorganised. Thank God the Arabs are more disorganised than we are.”
Israel’s 2010 misadventures might have surprised observers but that probably speaks more to the power of new media than a decay in Israeli might. Which country’s army can show strength with handheld cameras focused on its every move?
A shot in the dark
Former CIA official
Drones are good at picking out enemies in Yemen and Waziristan. So perhaps it is time to use them on one or two people in Iran and North Korea and revive the art of assassination.
The American programme of targeting militants has been so successful that it’s tempting to see it as an easy way to remotely eliminate all of Washington’s most vexing foreign policy conundrums. Why wait for a changing of the guard in Pyongyang when you can dispatch a drone there with Kim Jong-il in its sights? Or another to Tehran, with directions to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s house?
It has been popular to refer to the computer-controlled missile attacks on individual terrorist targets in Waziristan and Yemen as “assassination”. It does not, however, properly describe a necessary method of striking at an enemy who is far from the main battlefield and out of military uniform – but nevertheless engaged in a real, if asymmetrical, war. But the term’s use has also invited a debate with two stark choices: on the one side are those who think the practice should be abandoned and on the other those who think it should be expanded by western democracies to target their political enemies.
Advances in warfare shouldn’t change our basic hesitation to take out our political opponents. Assassination might, as always, be a quick way to destabilise a foreign capital but its use against government figures is useless, not to say immoral. It undermines the basic trust among democracies required to confront global threats. And those well-armed enemies who don’t hide in mountains but may live in our societies, might get the wrong idea. They, too, might look for individual targets: our citizens.
So much has changed since The Hague and Geneva Conventions. Is it time for another international treaty on the rules of war?
Losing the knack for revolution
British and European historian
Europeans are taking to the streets, but they don’t seem ready to threaten the established order. Has Europe lost its revolutionary fervour? Why 2011 won’t look like 1688, 1789, 1871 or 1968.
Europeans are spending a lot of time in their streets. Thousands of French men and women have launched a lively challenge to Nicolas Sarkozy’s call to raise the retirement age. Spaniards mounted debilitating general strikes to challenge Madrid’s austerity measures. The Greek government’s attempts to rescue the country from bankruptcy prompted widespread and occasionally violent rallies. Things have been calmer in the UK but trade unions have warned David Cameron that his public-sector cuts could trigger protests.
But none of these malcontents seem eager to storm Number 10 or wheel a guillotine up to the Elysée’s gates. Austerity measures will make 2011 an unusually painful year for a wide range of people and incumbent governments are being rocked by their anger. But few Europeans are agitating for a wholesale upturning of the political order.
It’s never been a crisis itself that’s triggered revolutions but national leaders seeking a radical break with their country’s traditions of governance. England’s Glorious Revolution was prompted by King James II’s decision to create a modern bureaucratic state, with political agents and centrally appointed tax collectors intruding in local lives in unprecedented ways. The American Revolution started when later governments in London attempted to make the colonies pay for themselves for the first time. The French Revolution was largely a reaction to Louis XVI’s attempt to create a French fiscal state that could compete with Britain’s efficient tax-generating machine. The Mexican and Russian ones began in response to the ambitious machinations of modernising rulers.
Europe’s leaders have been too timid in their post-crisis policy prescriptions to properly agitate the masses. Sarkozy may enjoy baiting his socialist opponents with the claim that he has a monopoly of ideas but those ideas all sit well within an established political paradigm. Unlike Louis XVI, Sarkozy is not trying to create a new kind of state, just a leaner and meaner one. Europe’s 21st-century governors are state reformers, not state modernisers. They may lose their posts, but through elections not guillotines. Sarkozy, Zapatero and Cameron should beware – but shouldn’t lose their heads over it.
Historical perspective from Pincus, author of ‘1688: The First Modern Revolution’, should give us pause. The scale of the financial crisis could still generate policies innovative enough to spawn revolutionary opposition.
Ten years after its most devastating attack, al-Qaeda has turned into a franchiser, publisher, and occasional climate-change activist. Can the world’s most deadly terrorist group go mainstream and keep its edge?
As its enemies solemnly prepare to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks in the US, al-Qaeda faces an unusual predicament for a terrorist network: a brand crisis. The al-Qaeda name is being used by organisations from Yemen to Tunisia who embrace the group’s narrative of Muslim oppression at the hands of Western powers since the Crusades. Everyone in the wired world has access to Osama bin Laden’s message – but with user-generated content the al-Qaeda brand can be turned into anything anyone with a computer wants it to be. How much longer can an ideology claim to be extremist when it seems to offer something for everyone?
As it begins its second decade after September 11, is it time for al-Qaeda to rebrand, or even reinvent itself as a mainstream party that can play directly to a new broader base?
Like many successful brands, al-Qaeda has adapted to changing circumstances while staying true to its core. Even in a decade in which its operatives have failed to pull off another attack as spectacular as 9/11, the flops reinforced the brand. Blown plots, often by individuals born in western societies, have strengthened the idea of al-Qaeda as an omnipresent threat and fed its mystique of a heroic grassroots resistance against the West’s corrupted societies.
For a group with a pre-modern ideology, al-Qaeda has adjusted nimbly to 21st-century opportunities. It has used online channels and built media agencies such as As-Sahab, redirecting its propaganda from threads in obscure chatrooms to YouTube and even a slick online magazine in English, Inspire. Through those media, al-Qaeda has looked beyond merely recruiting radical individuals to resonating with wider audiences. Talking about oil contracts in the aftermath of the Iraq War was designed to appeal to the anti-global movement. Following the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit, bin Laden expressed environmental concerns.
That strategy may be creating a lot of sympathisers but not many terrorists. The next natural step for bin Laden – establishing al-Qaeda as a mainstream political movement – doesn’t seem to be available to him. The group’s ultimate objective is the establishment of a caliphate based on a strict interpretation of Sharia law. Few of the ordinary people who might sympathise with the group, for its anti-Americanism or emphasis on the West’s moral double standards, are ready to radically change their way of life. And there could not be a greater contradiction for al-Qaeda than turning into a political party, which would seem to embrace its opponents’ rhetoric about democracy. Al-Qaeda's brand can thrive only at the margins.
Al-Qaeda’s brand may face a potential crisis, but for liberal western countries the only strategy is to stay true to themselves. They might not be perfect but a vigorous debate over mistakes can reaffirm their greatest strengths.
It’s a golden age of first lady-dom but as more women become heads of state, their significant others are in need of a role and an identity.
The role of first lady is by now well-defined. She plays hostess, picks a cause, dresses fashionably and keeps her thoughts on controversial matters under wraps. However, as another woman ascends to power – Dilma Rousseff will be inaugurated as Brazil’s president on 1 January – the first man’s place seems ever more elusive. Chile’s Michelle Bachelet was separated from her husband. Angela Merkel’s quantum chemist spouse, Joachim Sauer, avoids the limelight. Denis Thatcher did the same. Rousseff will enter office twice-divorced and reportedly single, but the timing may be right to coin a term – First husband? First consort? – and outline its attendant duties.
The job of any first person is to back his or her partner. But a hyper masculine man may make his wife seem subordinate; if he’s too effeminate, she may come off as castrating. He must be supportive but not too: her success should appear to be entirely her doing. All he can do is recede.
A first lady leaves behind her private life, her job, or, in the case of Carla Bruni, a lot more, to fulfil her public role, but a first man would be advised to continue as a private citizen. If this seems a double standard, that a man need not contort himself into a philanthropist-host-fashion-icon, remember: where there are first men, the women will be presidents and prime ministers.
Iceland has leaped ahead in the game with a gay female prime minister who has her own first lady. But 2010 saw the end of one of the most dynamic presidential acts with the death of Néstor Kirchner in Argentina.
Shutting the gates
Politician and novelist
Are the anti-immigrant attitudes that pervade wealthy countries just a temporary reaction to the recession or are we witnessing the making of new national identities? Have we reached the end of migration?
This was supposed to be a permanent age of international migration, where individuals responded to domestic economic crises by packing up and heading elsewhere in search of better work and living opportunities. Yet any Irish or Greeks looking up at a departure board with bags in hand will have trouble finding a place they should head.
Some of the world’s wealthiest countries – many of which have prided themselves on being open, multicultural societies – inaugurated the recession by shutting the gates through which immigrants once passed.
Austria, Hungary, Denmark, the Netherlands and Germany are turning cold on strangers. Even in Sweden, famous for her hospitality and humanity towards immigrants, the far right won votes this autumn and plans to push its far-right agenda from within parliament. Japan’s ultra-nationalists are more directly targeting foreigners. Arizona, which long embraced its deep Spanish-speaking heritage, has enacted a vicious law targeting Mexican immigrants – and similar laws will likely fill the agendas of other US state capitals throughout 2011.
This anti-immigrant shift does not appear to be temporary. Plans for development are blurry, politicians seem to have no long-term vision to propose. Globalisation has increased the feeling of general confusion and of collective and individual anxiety. Countries whose national identity once revolved around their cosmopolitanism and liberalism are now finding it in closed-minded anger.
In France, President Nicolas Sarkozy has made the motto “a chosen immigration” a major component of his strategy and established the country’s first Ministry of Immigration & National Identity. Now the French police are each year required to track down 25,000 illegal immigrants for deportation to their home countries. These operations of political communication are intended to reassure the people against the so-called “invasion” of France by foreigners.
With such an apparatus in place, it’s no surprise that governments would expand the pool of scapegoats past the Muslim and North African communities that have been targets of most European suspicion. The Italians have forcibly shut gypsy camps outside cities including Rome and Milan, while Sarkozy has deported thousands of his country’s Roma and are paying others to leave.
Such aggression feeds the fear felt by every population group and creates gaps, borders and hatred between different ethnic groups, religions, and even neighbourhoods within a city. What is more frightening is the regression of the people’s capacities to be indignant in view of rising intolerances. Even when the economy does pick up, the war between “them” and “us” may be too far along to be easily stopped.
Canada’s citizenship and immigration minister, Jason Kenney, has adopted a smart but unsentimental approach to the topic that respects conservative talk about national identity but opens the country’s doors to more refugees. Leaders elsewhere might want to pay close attention.
Break it up
Italy’s national leaders don’t seem to do much for their citizens except provide unrivalled farce and vindicate their distrust of government. Could Italy do without Rome?
Italy is preparing to mark 150 years of unification in 2011 but Rome’s political climate is far from celebratory. Silvio Berlusconi’s government is plagued by infighting. His coalition partner, the separatist Northern League, is eager to devolve power to the regions.
Its cantankerous leader, Umberto Bossi, is no lover of national unity: he’s given the middle finger to the country’s anthem and deemed the flag fit for toilet paper.
So would the Bel Paese be stronger in 20 pieces? Should the Italians call it a day after 150 years and go their separate regional ways? Each political entity, from a revived Grand Duchy of Tuscany to the Republic of Genoa, could field a football team and host a beauty pageant. Competitive ministers could slash tax rates to attract investment and promote merit-based reforms in academia to lure back talented emmigrants. Puglia could become a solar-energy hub, the Trieste city-state another Silicon Valley.
At the same time, OECD watchdogs would stand guard against an outbreak of tax havens benefiting organised crime. And Berlusconi might return to his first love (real estate), retiring to Sardinia to govern over a Dubai-like building boom. Come to think of it, in the end, Italians might want to stick with Italy. Happy 150th birthday.
A push to a European superstate might open a Pandora’s box. If Brussels undermines capitals, could separatist-minded groups get lofty ideas?