What the Gulf War can tell us about what happens next between Israel and Iran

Published by The Global and Mail, 2024-04-15.

Until Saturday, the last time a state unleashed an aerial barrage against Israel was during the Gulf War. In 1991, Iraq, under Saddam Hussein, launched 39 Scud missiles at Israel in the hopes of provoking retaliation that would split the delicate multinational coalition that had amassed to drive his forces out of Kuwait. That coalition included Arab states such as Syria and Saudi Arabia, which he believed would refuse to be seen fighting alongside Israel.

Remarkably, that effort failed. Israel weathered the attack despite prewar pledges to retaliate and its own long-standing policy of swift and decisive response. The coalition held, Iraq was routed, and Kuwait was liberated.

States, however, generally respond when attacked, and so, shortly after the war, I travelled to Israel to find out why it hadn’t. What I learned, through interviews with Israeli cabinet ministers, military commanders, intelligence officers and defence analysts, was this: Israel’s actions, while wise, were not rational, and things could easily have gone the other way.

That bears directly on regional dynamics today – and sheds light on what we might expect next.

There are, of course, important differences between now and then. Most obviously, Iran today sees itself as settling a score, not trying to provoke. And escalation would be in neither country’s interest; Iran has its hands full domestically, while Israel has its hands full with Gaza. If cooler heads prevail, nothing more will happen.

One can argue that Israel had no interest in escalation in 1991, too. U.S. officials launched a full-court press to persuade Israel not to retaliate and promised to do everything in their power to seek and destroy Iraqi Scud missile launchers. They also sent Patriot anti-missile batteries, shared intelligence, enlisted the aid of the Israel Defense Forces in tactical planning and targeting, and kept multiple dedicated channels of communication open between U.S. and Israeli political and military leaders.

All of that worked – but only because of sheer dumb luck. No Israeli directly died from a Scud missile, though three died from heart attacks and one was likely killed by an errant Patriot missile. In the course of my interviews, I learned that Israeli leaders never made a decision in principle not to retaliate; they merely decided, after each attack, not to retaliate yet. They did so not on the basis of a rational cost-benefit analysis, but for largely emotional reasons, judged against Israel’s two operative “red lines.”

To estimate the likely casualties from Iraqi Scud attacks, Israeli intelligence used baseline data from the “War of the Cities” during the Iran-Iraq War, where an Iraqi Scud missile attack killed between nine and 10 people on average. So when Scud missiles regularly killed no one, Israeli leaders could feel that they were doing relatively well, making it easier for them to give the U.S. military more time to do its job. Had Iraqi Scuds killed a “significant” number, however, Israel would have attacked; what constituted a “significant” number, I was never able to determine, but Israeli leaders gave me numbers ranging from 30 to 300. This was Israel’s first red line.

Here is where luck comes in. Just before the war, Israeli civil defence inspectors shuttered a deficient shelter in an apartment building in suburban Tel Aviv and reassigned its 230 residents to another shelter next door. That first shelter took a direct hit early in the conflict.

Israel’s second red line concerned chemical weapons. It would be impossible for a state founded in the wake of the Holocaust to sit idly by if its citizens were gassed. While Iraq did have chemical warheads for Scud missiles, it did not use them against Israel – possibly, I learned, because Israel had signalled that it might respond with nuclear weapons.

Some of the international dynamics today are strikingly similar to 1991. There is no doubt that the U.S. government did all it could behind the scenes to help thwart Iranian attacks and persuade Israel not to respond. And as in 1991, Iran’s attacks caused far less damage than might have been expected.

But given Israel’s long-standing “shadow war” with Tehran, in which both sides see the other as provocateur and themselves as justified in acts of “self-defence,” it would be naive to expect the cycle of violence to end completely.

One can only hope that no future episode crosses anyone’s red lines, whatever they may be at the time, because emotion, not reason, has the final word in international conflict.

What’s really shocking about China’s electoral interference

Originally published in The Globe and Mail, March 8 (online), 9 (print), 2023.

I am not shocked that China has attempted to interfere in our elections –nor should anyone else be.

China is known to do this kind of thing in other countries. Attempting to influence elections is just one strand of a complex policy tapestry by which China attempts to cultivate pro-Beijing sympathies and narratives among governments, opposition figures, bureaucrats, citizens, and scholars in countries large (the United States), medium (Australia), and small (New Zealand). In 2015, I was told that even my name appeared on a list of Canadian academics whom Beijing thought worth trying to cultivate. (Talk about scraping the bottom of the barrel!)

China is not the only perp, either. A 2021 study from Simon Fraser University found that Russian and Iranian actors tried to sow chaos on social media around the 2015 federal election. And former prime minister John Diefenbaker plausibly accused John F. Kennedy’s administration of aiding the Liberals in bringing down his government in 1963. At least we have been spared more overt interference of the kind that succeeded in overthrowing democratically elected governments in Iran in 1953, Guatemala in 1954, and Chile in 1973 – or that has, for more than a year now, failed to overthrow the government of Ukraine.

But there are genuinely shocking aspects about China’s recent attempts to interfere.

One is how artless it was. Leaked CSIS documents paint a picture of amateurish efforts easily traced back to Chinese officials. China’s former consul general in Vancouver, Tong Xiaoling, even reportedly boasted about how she helped defeat two Conservative members of parliament. Whether this is evidence of incompetence or indifference to being discovered hardly matters; either one is frightening enough.

A second is how thin-skinned, haughty, and absurd China’s response has been. Xi Jinping’s public “dressing down” of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Bali last November – for daring to report to the media, as he should, that he raised the topic of Chinese interference in Canadian elections with Mr. Xi – was profoundly paternalistic. Foreign Minister Qin Gang’s subsequent insistence that “China has never meddled” in other countries’ internal affairs was transparently ridiculous. One is reminded of China’s pointless insistence that the purpose of the balloon shot down off the coast of South Carolina last month was merely meteorological even after the United States recovered “priority sensors and electronics.”

The overall impression we are left with is of a Chinese government panicked by bad optics but prone to own-goals. This is precisely how we should understand the impossible position in which Beijing finds itself in the South China Sea. Despite attempts to project confidence, Chinese leaders evidently feel highly vulnerable to domestic disapproval. It appears as though they prefer anything to admitting error to their domestic audience and will act accordingly, no matter how otherwise irrational that action may be.

One thing we need not worry about, however, is the effect this episode will have on the relationship between Canada and China, which is so bad now that there is little that can make it worse, short of something that would trigger an outright rupture – such as a military conflict over Taiwan. At present, both sides seem reasonably committed to keeping channels of communication open, if nothing else; that, at least, is good news.

What should we worry about, then?

One: Why did the Trudeau government fail to take any meaningful action against any Chinese officials after being informed that they were involved in attempts to interfere with our elections? Chinese ambassador Cong Peiwu was summoned by Ottawa over a balloon and reports of illegal police stations on Canadian soil — but not over election interference. Political meddling is more than just a summoning offence. Why were no Chinese diplomats sent packing?

Two: Why is the Prime Minister so reluctant to slake Canadians’ thirst for an independent inquiry, both into China’s efforts and into the apparent close ties between certain Canadian politicians and Chinese officials? It may be, as many knowledgeable commentators have said, that there is little an independent inquiry can accomplish, given the imperatives of protecting intelligence sources and methods. But an accountable leader listens to what citizens want and finds a way to satisfy them. Politics is performance, after all, and performance is something our prime minister is supposed to be good at. It is shocking how miserably he is failing in this case.

How to fix the World Cup, and how to fix soccer

I study international politics for a living, so of course I love the World Cup. It’s a civilized substitute for war and a welcome break from Great Power rivalry and domination. Who could not delight in tiny Wales playing the mighty United States to a draw — and neither China nor Russia even showing up?

But the World Cup has problems, and so does the game itself. What to do, what to do…

Let me deal with the easy one first. The way to fix the World Cup is to disband FIFA, throw everyone associated with it in jail, and ask the Dalai Lama to pick the host countries.

The second problem is that modern soccer is dull. Watching a match is, as Aaron Copland once said of listening to Ralph Vaughan Williams’s 5th Symphony, “like watching a cow eat grass.” It is also fluky. The better team does not win anywhere near reliably enough. One might as well just flip coins and save all the trouble of playing the dull games.

These two issues are intimately related and boil down to one simple fact: soccer is too low scoring. In any sport, the occasional point can occur by fluke. But if points are plentiful, the laws of probability will restrict the number of fluky wins. When was the last time you heard someone say that Serena Williams didn’t deserve to win a tennis tournament, or that the Toronto Maple Leafs were really the best team in hockey in [insert here any given year since Lester Pearson was prime minister]?

So, the way to fix soccer is to make it higher scoring. The question is how. Fortunately, I have the answer. Just make three little adjustments.

First, do away with the offside rule. No, really. It’s gimmicky, pointless, hard to enforce accurately, and slows down the match. Soccer is a game of blissful simplicity where flow and momentum matter, so why gum it up by preventing talented, overpaid players from making the most of their expensive offensive skills? Open up the field. Dare the defence to let attackers outflank them. Incentivize the always-exciting long pass. Keep the whistle out of the referee’s mouth.

Second, make the goal larger. In the 1860s, the English Football Association established a standard goal size of eight yards wide by eight feet tall. This remains unchanged. Meanwhile, the average human has gained almost four inches in height and proportionately more in reach. Throw in the fact that a modern professional goalkeeper works out half the day, has a designer diet, and probably mainlines Red Bull, and the result is, effectively, a much smaller target for the offence.

Third, don’t let goalkeepers grasp the ball outside the crease  (a.k.a. the “goal area”). In the penalty area, let them slap it, whack it, or punch it; but why let them range freely over a zone larger than the average Toronto residential lot immune to the threat of an attacker stealing the ball and burying it behind them in the (now much larger) net?

Together, these three changes would reverse the downward trend in average goals per game that we have seen over the course of World Cup history. Gone are the glory days of 1954 when Austria topped host Switzerland in a 7–5 thriller and in which the average game saw more than five goals. If the current trend continues, in 2094 the average number of goals per World Cup game will hit precisely zero.

And while we are at it, let’s outlaw heading the ball. Not that the header isn’t fun and exciting, mind you, but brains need protecting. God knows the players will need them to remember the new rules.

Angela Merkel’s nuclear folly fuelled Putin’s ambitions in Ukraine

Originally published in The Globe and Mail, April 28, 2002, p. A13.

For every euro of military aid that Germany has given to Ukraine in the wake of Russia’s invasion, it has paid €200 for Russian energy imports. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has called this “blood money.” Polish Deputy Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski recently declared it “inadmissible from a political and moral point of view.”

It is also tragic and unnecessary. For this, we can blame former German chancellor Angela Merkel.

Germany finds itself in an awkward position because of its heavy dependence on Russian coal, oil, and natural gas. While it has done an impressive job in recent years of shifting to renewable energy sources, fossil fuels still account for 77 per cent of Germany’s total consumption, and Russia is by far its single largest source (34 per cent in 2021). Berlin has managed to cut almost a third of its Russian energy imports since the invasion began on Feb. 24, but officials say that it could take two years to wean the country off the source completely.

Berlin’s dependence on Russian fossil fuels is the result of a conscious policy decision over a decade ago to abandon its domestic nuclear-energy supply. In the aftermath of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan, resulting from an earthquake and tsunami that devastated the Tohoku region on March 11, 2011 (colloquially known as “3/11″), Ms. Merkel abruptly decided to close eight of Germany’s nuclear plants and to phase out the rest by 2022. According to The New York Times, she reached this “momentous” decision “after discussing it one night over red wine with her husband.”

In so doing, of course, she was in sync with the global anti-nuclear zeitgeist of the day, which was fuelled by horrific images of destruction and stories of radioactive contamination emerging from Japan. Ms. Merkel was all the more in sync with German voters, whose anti-nuclear attitudes had for decades fuelled the rise of the Green Party. But for her, it represented an about-face.

The decision was also a failure of leadership. As a trained scientist, Ms. Merkel’s response to 3/11 should have been to follow the evidence and to use that evidence to educate her citizenry about the viability of nuclear power.

The Fukushima disaster was certainly an odd impetus for shuttering nuclear plants in Germany, where earthquakes are rare and weak and where tsunamis are non-existent. More importantly, however, the Fukushima disaster should not have happened in the first place. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency’s official disaster report, if the reactors at Fukushima had been decommissioned on schedule, if the plant had been built at its recommended elevation (rather than moved closer to sea level for operational ease) or – perhaps most significantly – if it had a fully Japanese (rather than partial American) design, the whole incident would have been avoided.

In the United States, where hurricanes and tornados are major threats, backup nuclear-power systems are placed underground. Japanese designs place them on high ground – precisely because of the danger of tsunamis. With vulnerable backup generators placed too close to sea level, one researcher noted, Fukushima Daiichi was a “sitting duck.” Even so, disaster could have also been averted had workers managed to jury-rig an emergency-power supply in time, as they did at Fukushima Daiichi’s near-twin Fukushima Daini plant down the coast, whose backup generators also flooded.

In sum, if any one of four perfectly plausible things had been different in the case of Fukushima, there would have been no nuclear disaster, and the global narrative would have been very different. Politicians would have been singing the praises of nuclear energy for its resilience.

Had Ms. Merkel stayed the course and kept Germany’s remaining nuclear plants in operation, they would be generating 208 terawatt-hours of electricity per year today, enough to replace two-thirds of the country’s current Russian gas imports. If Germany hadn’t ramped down its nuclear-power output from its peak output in 1997, that figure would be 96 per cent. Not only would far less blood money be flowing into Moscow’s coffers today, far less would have been fueling Russia’s corruption, military modernization and geopolitical ambitions over the past decade.

Hindsight is golden, of course. Ms. Merkel did not have the benefit of it while sipping wine with her husband 11 years ago. But one hopes, at least, that she now regrets a decision that was, for her, uncharacteristically unscientific.

Of Nails on Chalkboards

I first learned about fingernails on a chalkboard in elementary school. I had a friend who was fond of dragging his across one at random intervals, just to drive us (his friends) crazy. Since then I have used the expression “like nails on a chalkboard” from time to time, in two specific ways: either semi-literally (i.e., to describe an intensely irritating sound), or purely figuratively (to describe someone who, or something that … well … drives me crazy). I have used the expression, for example, with reference to the badly-tuned piano at summer camp, the squeak of wet shoes on the polished concrete floor at work, the guy upstairs who does carpentry all day long with what sounds like a dental drill for a whale, Linkin Park, Jared Kushner, and—most recently—Ben Shapiro.

But I have never, to the best of my recollection, ever used it with reference to a woman. Not on principle, mind you. I could probably come up with some apt exemplars if given some time to think. I just don’t think I’ve ever had the occasion.

So I was immediately struck by the outraged reaction to Ontario Premier Doug Ford when he recently said to NDP leader Andrea Horvath, “It’s like nails on a chalkboard, listening to you,” as reported by the CBC:

“We need to address the misogynistic, sexist attitude of this Premier and his government,” NDP education critic Marit Stiles tweeted in part.

Ontario Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca also weighed in on Twitter, stating: “Misogynistic rhetoric like this has no place in the Ontario Legislature. For it to be hurled by a Premier is unthinkable,” he said, adding that Ford should apologize immediately.

Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner agreed, saying: “I thought the premier’s language was misogynistic and unacceptable and he should unequivocally apologize.”

Regular folks lit up Twitter, too:


There are some interestingly different hermeneutical principles at work in these responses. @KellB_M says that if you would only ever say “It’s like nails on a chalkboard, listening to you” to a woman, then the expression is sexist and misogynist. That sounds plausible to me. I don’t know if Doug Ford has ever said (or would ever say) this to a man, but if not, then he was probably being sexist and misogynist to Andrea Horvath when he said it. However, I have said it to (or at least of) men, so on the @KellB_M principle, the term itself is not inherently sexist or misogynist.

@Mikegibbs appears to be working with two different hermeneutical principles. The first is encapsulated in the locution, “Dear other men, ‘Nails on a chalkboard’ is absolutely misogynist and sexist.” This would seem to imply that the expression itself is inherently—and thus always—misogynist and sexist. It would imply that I was being misogynist and sexist when I used it to describe Linkin Park. This is patently ridiculous. The origin of the expression is—wait for it—the grating sound of nails on a chalkboard, which is ungendered, both literally and etymologically. Contrast this with the word “hysterical.” One can describe a woman (or a man) as hysterical without any sexist intent at all, but if you know your history of the English language, you will know that the word was originally inherently misogynistic, coming as it did from the Latin for “of the womb.” One could argue that using the word perpetuates the sexist trope that only women are crazy. More on this in a minute.

@Mikegibbs’s second hermeneutical principle is more interesting: “When women say it is sexist and misogynist IT IS SEXIST AND MISOGYNIST.” (He then spices this up with the chaser, “Your *opinion* is worth NOTHING.”) This principle establishes a class of people as authoritative arbiters of meaning. It is not entirely clear how one determines in any particular case who the authoritative arbiters of meaning would be, but the idea strikes me as problematic, paying as it does not the slightest attention to intent, etymology, context, or anything else that we ordinarily use as interpretive aids. It also generates the paradox that if one woman says the expression is sexist and misogynist but another says it is not, then it is both sexist and misogynist and not sexist and not misogynist at the same time and in the same respect, violating Aristotle’s law of contradiction.

@ColleenDerkatch’s principle is an appeal to authority. “As a communications expert,” she confidently says, “I can confirm: referring to a woman leader’s criticism as like ‘nails on a chalkboard’ is indeed misogynist.” Perhaps there is scholarly literature on this topic backing up this claim to authoritative expertise. If so, I would very much like to see it. But my online queries of scholarly journal databases turned up nothing.

I am not trying to defend Doug Ford here. At the very least, he was rude. To quote @Mikegibbs, “It would be nice if you could learn some f-ing decency.” But I just don’t see that the expression itself signifies what Horvath’s supporters and Ford’s critics seem to think it does.

Here I am heartened by the social media responses of people who agree with me. So far I have not yet seen much sign of the anti-woke/PC pile-on that we saw in response to horrified reactions to the use of the word “niggardly,” which sounds terrible but actually isn’t. Mostly I have only seen respectful challenge, puzzlement, or, at most, exasperation.


Now, the day may come when “like nails on a chalkboard” is only ever used in a transparently sexist or misogynistic way (though I suspect it will die off before then, killed by whiteboards and PowerPoint). English is a living language, and if this is the fate of the expression, I will readily concede that it has come to have that meaning. I have long since abandoned my quixotic tendency to resist usage-driven changes in the meanings of words such as “decimate” and “literally,” though both literally still grate like nails on a chalkboard. For this reason I myself now freely use the word “hysterical.” Nobody knows where it came from, so nobody cares. The last time I heard someone object was in 1979, and that fellow was a professional pedant, not an actual human being.

As for Doug Ford, neither I nor anyone else–probably not even he himself–knows whether he uttered the words with sexist or misogynistic intent. So never mind. If you really want to know what he thinks of women, look at his policies.

Recognize Taiwan

Originally published as “The world must embrace Taiwan before it’s too late,” The Globe and Mail, February 6, 2021, p. O4 (published online February 4, 2012, as “Who rules Taiwan? Not Xi Jinping.”)

Because I teach international politics, I meet a lot of Chinese students. Whenever I get the chance to speak to them privately, I ask them what they think about Taiwan. “Taiwan is an inherent part of China,” they invariably reply. But today’s students are no longer strident and emotional about it, in contrast to 30 years ago when I first asked the question. Now they tell me they don’t have strong feelings about Taiwan personally. When I ask them what they do have strong feelings about, they talk about finding a good job, getting a nice apartment, buying a car, and so on.

One person who evidently does have strong feelings about Taiwan is Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has abandoned the cautious rhetoric of his predecessors and now speaks openly of waging war to prevent Taiwanese independence. China has recently been flexing its muscles, modernizing its military, making plans to invade, and laying the groundwork for cyberattack and fifth column operations. Most worryingly, Mr. Xi has begun to signal that his patience is limited. It looks increasingly like he wants “reunification” to be part of his legacy.

But Taiwan is not an “inherent part of China.” For all but two centuries—during the Qing Dynasty—it has not been subject to mainland authority at all. It certainly isn’t today. Taiwan is a modern, wealthy, self-governing democracy whose citizens reject Beijing’s claims and merely wish to be left to live in peace.

What Taiwan does not have is a lot of international support. Only 15 countries—mostly small island states—have full diplomatic relations with Taipei. Many others have the functional equivalent, however, dressed up in euphemistic garb. Taiwan’s embassy in Ottawa, for instance, is called the “Taipei Economic and Cultural Office.” The ambassador is called a “Representative.” Ottawa’s embassy in Taipei is the “Canadian Trade Office” headed by an “Executive Director.” This kind of thing made sense when the regime in Beijing and the regime in Taipei both insisted that they were China’s sole rightful rulers. You can’t formally recognize two governments of one state. But Taiwan lost interest in governing the mainland long ago, so the only question left on the table is, “Who rightfully rules Taiwan?”

On this point there is no room for debate. The people of Taiwan have spoken, and the answer is not Mr. Xi. Most countries realize this, but are either too frightened of Beijing’s wrath or too tempted by Beijing’s largesse to say so.

There are, unfortunately, real costs to euphemisms. First, they enable China to block Taiwan’s international participation when it is sorely needed. Few countries have handled the COVID-19 pandemic as effectively as Taiwan, for example, and yet China has prevented it from attending the World Health Assembly. Taiwan lies on one of the world’s most heavily travelled air corridors, and yet China blocks it from participating in the International Civil Aviation Organization. And so forth and so on. By systematically excluding Taiwan from the world stage, China silences a vibrant democratic voice respectful of human rights and the rule of law, weakening both.

Second, euphemisms confuse. When violence flared in 2014 in response to China exploring for oil in waters claimed by Vietnam, rioters destroyed Taiwanese factories by mistake.

Third, euphemisms encourage China to interfere in other countries’ affairs. Confucius Institutes, for example—ostensibly intended to promote international educational partnerships—have censored academic material relating to Taiwan. Last year, in Fiji, Chinese diplomats violently crashed Taiwan National Day celebrations.

Fourth, and most importantly, euphemisms fan the flames of Chinese delusions. Waffling on Taiwan’s status connotes irresolution and, in turn, risks encouraging reckless Chinese behaviour.

The international commitment to Taiwanese self-rule is almost certainly stronger than Beijing thinks, for both moral and prudential reasons. No self-respecting liberal democracy could stand idly by and watch another be devoured by an illiberal authoritarian state. Taiwan also has enormous strategic value and plays a vital role in global supply chains, including in the critical semiconductor sector. Taiwan is too important to abandon.

Some countries are finally beginning to signal their support more clearly. Japan, for example, recently called Taiwan a red line. There is also a (rare) bipartisan pro-Taiwan consensus in Washington.

But more is needed. Democratic countries such as Canada should, in concert, act to bring Taiwan in from the diplomatic cold so that Beijing could have no illusions about the cost of adventurism. Nothing signals this more clearly than full diplomatic recognition—accompanied, of course, with appropriate security commitments.

Naysayers will react with horror. A furious Beijing, they will say, would surely punish countries that recognize Taiwan with every economic lever at its disposal, and possibly also lash out militarily at Taiwan.

This is certainly a risk. But inaction has its risks as well, particularly if Mr. Xi is playing the long game. The military balance is starting to tip in Beijing’s favour. The longer the world has to get used to Taiwan as a full member of the international community, the higher the cost to leaders in Beijing—whose younger subjects now, at least, are more likely to blame them for disruption than applaud them for action.

The fate of Taiwan hangs in the balance

Canada must stand up for Taiwan if (when?) Beijing brings the hammer down

[Originally published in The Globe and Mail, January 2, 2020]

Events in Hong Kong have dominated the news recently, but roughly 700 kilometres to the east lies a much more serious problem: the smouldering geopolitical volcano that is Taiwan. On Jan. 11, voters will go to the polls and are almost certain to re-elect President Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party, a strong proponent of Taiwanese independence. China considers Taiwan a wayward province, and Beijing has been working feverishly behind the scenes to bolster Ms. Tsai’s chief opponent, Han Kuo-yu of the Kuomintang, a status-quo candidate. ‘All manoeuvres and tricks to split the motherland are sure to fail,’ Chinese President Xi Jinping has said. ‘Not one inch of the territory of the great motherland can be carved off from China.’ On another occasion he warned: ‘We make no promise to abandon the use of force.’

Ever since Mao Zedong drove Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists offshore to Taiwan in 1949, the Communist Party of China has insisted that it must eventually return to the fold. But for decades Beijing lacked the capacity to act. This is rapidly changing. Now the world’s second-largest economy, China is modernizing its military specifically to prevail in the Taiwan Strait. And for the first time, China has an impatient leader. Mao, Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin never spoke of a deadline for reunification, but Mr. Xi has said that the task ‘cannot be passed on from generation to generation.’ Many analysts believe he is keen to go down in history as the one who finally made it happen.

The problem is that Taiwan is not going back. Not voluntarily, anyway. In 1992, more people in Taiwan saw themselves as both Taiwanese and Chinese (46 per cent) than Chinese-only (26 per cent) or Taiwanese-only (18 per cent). Today an outright majority (57 per cent) identify solely as Taiwanese, and only 4 per cent solely as Chinese. This tendency is strongest among the young, indicating that the trend will continue. This is perfectly natural. Throughout history, geographic distance and self-rule have led to distinct political identities. It is for these reasons that Americans, Canadians and Australians no longer consider themselves British. Throw in the fact that the Taiwanese enjoy wealth and freedoms that Mainlanders can only dream of and it is no surprise that they have lost whatever appetite for reunification they might once have had.

Beijing insists that after reunification Taiwan can continue to enjoy its political freedoms under a ‘one country, two systems’ formula. But the people of Taiwan have always been skeptical of this, and recent events in Hong Kong have only deepened their doubts. Even a formal treaty obligation to respect Hong Kong’s autonomy until 2047 has not prevented Beijing from vetting and disqualifying local political candidates, jailing democracy advocates, disappearing booksellers and reducing Hong Kong’s Chief Executive to a puppet. Why would Beijing treat Taiwan any differently?

China’s claim

With Taiwan as with Hong Kong, Beijing routinely blasts foreign powers for ‘meddling’ in China’s ‘internal affairs’ and warns them against ‘hurting the feelings of the Chinese people‘ through actions that materially or symbolically violate China’s ‘sovereignty’ over its ‘inherent’ and ‘inalienable’ territory. No one doubts that when leaders in Beijing make such statements they are both impassioned and sincere. But are they also on solid ground?

There is no such thing as inalienable territory. The state is a social construct, and so are its rightful borders. States come and go, grow and shrink, split or join. China has experienced all of these. The Zhou Dynasty (circa 1046–256 BC) – the longest-lived Chinese state – was a fraction of the size of the current People’s Republic of China (PRC) and did not include Shanghai, Guangzhou and Hong Kong, let alone Taiwan. The Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368) also excluded Taiwan but was much bigger than modern-day China and included large swaths of what is now Siberian Russia. Established by Kublai Khan, it was arguably more Mongolian than Chinese.

For most of human history, political borders were defined vaguely if at all, advancing and retreating with the flow of peoples and the outcomes of battles. What we now think of as the sovereign state – a political unit with well-defined borders answerable to no higher or outside authority – only dates from the Peace of Westphalia at the end of the Thirty Years’ War (1648), and for much of its history was largely a European thing. It swept the globe as a political form only in the wake of postwar decolonization. China began to acquire the trappings of modern Westphalian statehood late in the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911), but its adjustment was slow and painful, and in the process it fell prey to fully functioning states that saw it as hopelessly backward. This ‘century of humiliation’ at the hands of European and Japanese imperialism remains an open wound today.

Which leads to the key point about modern sovereign statehood: It depends upon external recognition. Being a sovereign state is like belonging to a club. Other members must acknowledge your membership. But they may not agree with you about your borders. Ukraine and Russia are both universally recognized sovereign states, but only 17 countries recognize Moscow’s sovereignty over Crimea, while 114 do not.

What do other states look to when trying to decide which borders to recognize? Broadly speaking, there are two main considerations: history and self-determination. Authoritarian states tend to prefer the former, liberal democracies the latter – but with one very modern twist: Since the Second World War, a strong norm has developed against changing borders forcibly. Had Russia and Ukraine negotiated a transfer of sovereignty over Crimea, no other state would have objected.

Beijing’s claim to Taiwan rests squarely on history (were it to endorse the principle of self-determination, it would have no objection to Taiwanese independence). The historical claim is plausible but not watertight – and certainly weaker than the self-determination argument. Taiwan only experienced mainland rule for slightly more than 200 years – a small fraction of China’s history. China ruled Vietnam for more than 1,000 years but asserts no similar claim to the country today. Taiwan has experienced Dutch rule, Japanese rule and self-rule. Arguably, it is now ruled by one side in an unfinished civil war – the Republic of China (ROC), which for now remains Taiwan’s official name.

Beijing’s strongest argument is that most states acknowledge the ‘One China’ principle and have formal relations with the PRC, not the ROC. This is certainly true. Only 15 sovereign states have formal relations with Taiwan, a number that has been steadily shrinking as Beijing picks them off one by one with a combination of carrots and sticks. But it is important to reflect on the word ‘acknowledge.’ Most countries treat Taiwan as an independent state and maintain the functional equivalent of full formal diplomatic ties. When Canada officially recognized the PRC in 1970, for instance, it carefully ‘took note‘ of Beijing’s claim to Taiwan. It did not endorse it. All of which is to say that whether Taiwan is rightfully part of the PRC depends entirely upon whether the international community says it is, and the international community is hedging. There is nothing ‘inherent’ or ‘inalienable’ about it.

The psychology of irredentism

And yet leaders in Beijing – and no doubt the vast majority of mainland Chinese – fervently believe that Taiwan is an integral part of the PRC. What explains both their certainty and their passion?

The answers lie in cognitive and moral psychology. Cognitive psychology seeks to help us understand how we interpret the world; moral psychology seeks to help us understand how we judge it.

Among the most powerful insights from cognitive psychology is that we form beliefs quickly, often on the basis of very little information, but once we have formed them, we resist changing them. We have, as it were, a cognitive double standard. A classic illustration is Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, in which Elizabeth Bennet decides that Mr. Darcy is an odious, insufferable popinjay early in the novel on the basis of a single two-minute encounter and only changes her mind at the very end, after a mountain of discrepant information. So it is with territorial claims. Chinese citizens believe Taiwan is rightfully theirs because their textbooks and their government told them so. Small wonder that they have not changed their minds; the Great Firewall of China filters out alternative narratives.

Moral psychology teaches us that we constantly scan the world for evidence of injustice and, when we perceive it, we react with a distinctive passion that increases our stridency, inhibits our willingness to compromise, desensitizes us to reason and offers of side payments and increases our propensity to violence. Most violent crimes are crimes of passion, and in most cases the passions are aroused by the perception that we have been wronged. But those perceptions can be incorrect.

History is full of these dynamics in the relations between states. Czar Nicholas I, for example, led Russia into the Crimean War in defence of rights he sincerely but wrongly thought he had as a result of the hasty reading of a treaty. Argentina’s last junta led the country into a disastrous war with Britain in 1982 over sparsely populated islands in the South Atlantic that their boyhood textbooks had only recently insisted ought to be theirs. ‘My son is ready to die for the Malvinas,’ Admiral Jorge Isaac Anaya told U.S. Secretary of State Alexander Haig at the time, ‘and it is my family’s point of view that we would be proud to know his blood had mingled with this sacred soil.’ Such is the emotional power of the justice motive.

At the end of the day, it matters less whether Beijing’s claim to Taiwan is well-founded than whether it is earnest. Misperceptions of injustice are just as powerful as accurate ones. And unending patience is rare. A regime that has staked much of its legitimacy on defending China’s ‘core interests’ in sovereignty and territorial integrity is particularly likely to lash out as the other pillar of its legitimacy – high annual GDP growth rates – begins to crumble under demographic, environmental and other pressures.

What should Canada do?

There is great danger that Beijing will attempt what Buenos Aires tried and failed to do in 1982. In both cases, we see in the claimant state a powerful, unquestioned belief in an unresolved historical injustice. In both cases, we see claimant state patience wearing thin. In both cases, we see that efforts to enhance economic ties not only failed to cultivate we-feeling with the target population but aroused their suspicions.

The question for Canada and other like-minded countries, quite simply, is what to do if Beijing loses patience in ‘recovering’ Taiwan. Narrow economic interests might suggest that we should turn a blind eye – after all, Beijing is Canada’s second-largest trading partner while Taiwan is only 19th.

But this would be to sell out every value that Canada holds dear. Canadians care deeply about self-determination. Canada has always resisted aggression. Canada has always stood up for liberal democracy. More than 100,000 Canadians have given their lives in defence of these principles. We would dishonour their memory by standing idly by.

The best course of action, obviously, is to work hard to ensure that the predicament never arises. Canada’s current policy on cross-strait relations is essentially ‘Don’t rock the boat.’ This policy made sense and worked well when Beijing had neither the capability nor the immediate intention to alter the status quo. But the capability is rapidly coming, and the intention may not be far behind. In this context, ‘Don’t rock the boat’ looks very much like weakness and irresolution. We know how that played out in Europe in 1939 and in Kuwait in 1990. Canada can do nothing alone, but in concert with like-minded countries it can begin laying the groundwork for more robust deterrence diplomatically, economically and perhaps ultimately even militarily. There is no guarantee that strong international signals would deter Beijing if China ran out of patience, but the consequences should clearly be put on the table. At present the international community’s studied ambiguity about the status of Taiwan is matched only by anachronistic ambiguity about how the world would react to Chinese aggression. This serves no one’s interest, least of all those who stand to suffer the most: our good friends in Taiwan.

It’s time to slam the brakes on Brexit

As the runaway train that is Brexit hurtles toward what appears to be imminent catastrophe, the question arises whether there is anything an embattled British Prime Minister Theresa May can do to save the day. The answer is yes: She can rescind Article 50 notification.

She should do so. Now.

The countdown to Brexit began precisely when Mrs. May notified Brussels almost two years ago of the United Kingdom’s intention to withdraw from the EU under Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union (TEU), which states that ‘Any Member State may decide to withdraw from the Union in accordance with its own constitutional requirements.’ She did so on the authority of parliament following a narrow victory for the Leave side in the national referendum of June 23, 2016.

Since then, the British government has been unable to negotiate a deal providing for an orderly Brexit that will satisfy both Brussels and the British parliament. As a result, the UK stands ready to crash out of the EU without any arrangements in place to avoid massive economic disruption, chaos at British ports, and—perhaps most importantly—a return to sectarian violence in Northern Ireland.

The UK could request an extension of the March 29 deadline, but the EU may only grant a short one, perhaps until the elections for the European parliament at the end of May. Given the current gridlock, there is no prospect of reaching an agreement by then if one has not been reached by now.

Calls from the Remain side are growing for a second referendum, or for cancelling Brexit altogether. Leavers call this a betrayal of the democratic will and hint ominously at civil unrest.

By rescinding Article 50, Mrs. May would not be cancelling Brexit, merely cancelling Brexit right now.

One can imagine two objections to this move, one legal and one political. The legal argument would be that she has no authority to do it. The political argument would be that it would be unacceptable to the British public. Neither argument holds water.

Legally speaking, the only thing compelling Britain’s exit from the EU on March 29, 2019 is Mrs. May March 29, 2017 Article 50 notification, which was indeed ‘in accordance with [British] constitutional requirements.’ In the Westminster system, parliament is supreme; the 2016 referendum was merely advisory. That the May government has thus far chosen to treat it as binding was a political decision, not a legal or constitutional obligation.

Parliament authorized Mrs. May to invoke Article 50 in the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Act 2017 of March 16, 2017—formally known as An Act to confer power on the Prime Minister to notify, under Article 50(2) of the Treaty on European Union, the United Kingdom’s intention to withdraw from the EU—which simply states, ‘The Prime Minister may notify, under Article 50(2) of the Treaty on European Union, the United Kingdom’s intention to withdraw from the EU.’ Notice that it said ‘may’; it did not say ‘must’ or ‘shall.’ Notice also that it ‘conferred power’—it did not ‘direct.’

Mrs. May did not invoke Article 50 right away. She waited more than two weeks. She might have waited a month. Or two. Or twelve. Or left the task to a future prime minister. So she would be well within her legal rights to rescind her earlier notification, on the ground that intervening events have proven it premature. The EU has already said it would allow this.

Politically, revocation would be the least explosive of all the available options. The majority of British voters—who would now almost certainly choose Remain if given a second chance—would likely be ecstatic. Leavers would predictably howl, but they would not be able to claim that she had subverted the democratic will. Neither the 2016 referendum nor the Notification of Withdrawal Act called for Britain to leave the EU precisely on March 29, or on any other particular date.

Mrs. May could rightly claim that many Leave supporters, and possibly most, had not voted for a disorderly exit, and she could rightly insist that it would be irresponsible for her to proceed without an orderly one in sight.

By revoking Article 50 notification, in short, Mrs. May would simply stop the clock. This would allow time for passions to cool and open space for rational deliberation about which option is best for Britain in the long run—taking the best exit deal the EU will offer, holding a second referendum, or simply staying in the EU.

In the short run, the pound would soar, markets would rise, and the entire world minus the likes of Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, Jacob Rees-Mogg, and Vladimir Putin would heave an enormous sigh of relief.

Revoking Article 50 notification would give Mrs. May an opportunity to demonstrate some judgment, courage, and leadership. Sadly, her track record to date provides little ground for optimism.

Leaving America

“Trump or taxes?” That is the question people inevitably ask when I say that I relinquished my U.S. citizenship. The answer is neither.

[This piece was originally published in The Globe and Mail, November 25, 2018.]

I was born in the United States, which, according to the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, automatically made me an American citizen. My mother was from Canada, however, and shortly after my American father died, she moved us back to Canada. I was 11 years old.

One day the following year my mother came home and said, “Congratulations, David, you’re a Canadian now! Here’s your new passport.” I did not know why I was suddenly Canadian. Did my mother go through some kind of naturalization process on my behalf, because I was a legal minor? Was I always entitled to Canadian citizenship because she was Canadian? I had no idea.[1] All I know is that at that time I believed that getting a Canadian passport meant that I was no longer a U.S. citizen.

Apparently, a lot of American officials agreed. After I completed my bachelor’s degree at the University of Toronto, I applied to graduate school at Harvard as a foreign student. I crossed the U.S. border on my Canadian passport with an F1 International Student Visa. I remember the immigration officer giving me a stern lecture. “Don’t even think of working off campus,” he said. “For that, foreigners need a Green Card.” (Shortly after I arrived at Harvard, I approached the International Students’ Society to inquire about joining. They looked at me, dumbfounded. “Where are you from?” they asked. “I’m from Canada,” I said. They burst out laughing: “This is the international students’ society!” But that is a subject for a different essay.)

I had been at Harvard for four years when one day my mother rang me on the telephone:


“Sit down, David.”


“I have some news.”


“You’re still an American.”

I was gobsmacked. How could I possibly be an American? I had an F1 International Student Visa—issued by the U.S. Department of State, no less.

It turns out that my mother had learned through a friend that several years earlier a U.S. Supreme Court decision held that acquiring a second citizenship was, by itself, insufficient for expatriation.[2] “In establishing loss of citizenship,” the Court declared, “the Government must prove an intent to surrender United States citizenship, not just the voluntary commission of an expatriating act such as swearing allegiance to a foreign nation.”[3] Put another way: if you wanted to give up your American citizenship, you had to make that absolutely clear through an official act of renunciation—which I had not done.

I went home to Ottawa for the holidays shortly thereafter, and on my way back to Cambridge, I stopped in the office at the U.S. border crossing and asked whether I was, in fact, still an American. The desk officer said he did not know, so he called over some colleagues. They scratched their heads; they did not know either. They called their supervisor. He pondered for a while and said, “Why not apply for a U.S. passport? If you get one, that must mean you’re an American.”

I did, and I did. I felt a little thrill, like I had beaten the system. I now had the right to come and go at will. I had the right to live and work in the United States if I so chose. I had the right to vote in two countries. It was a bit like suddenly having twice as many perks. But something wasn’t right: if I was still an American, why didn’t I feel like an American?

As I child, I had felt very much like an American. I had had the proverbial full patriotic education. Every morning in elementary school we pledged allegiance to the wall. Every day our teachers told us that we were the Luckiest People on Earth to be citizens of the Greatest Country on Earth. I had Canadian relatives, of course, and I loved them dearly, but Canada was strangely different—particularly Montreal, where my grandparents lived. I couldn’t understand what half the people there said. Once, when I was six years old, I made the mistake of turning to my mother in a crowded restaurant filled with francophones and asking in an overly-loud voice, “Why aren’t these people speaking properly?”

Not surprisingly, as a good little American, my sense of existential dislocation was overwhelming when we first moved to Canada. To some extent I brought this upon myself.

I vividly remember opening day of Grade 6 history class in my new school. The teacher began by asking, “Does anyone know who won the War of 1812?” That was easy, I thought. That was the last topic we had covered in Grade 5 history back home.

“The Americans won,” I said.

Stunned silence. Then mayhem.

“You idiot!” my classmates roared; “CANADA won the War of 1812!”

I tried to defend myself. My Grade 5 teacher had taught us that the British had never reconciled themselves to U.S. independence and were trying to strangle the new country economically, but American troops marched on Canada and forced Britain to back down. My Canadian classmates countered that the Americans were trying to conquer Canada and were bravely thrown back. My Grade 6 teacher sat back and watched—smiling—as a beautiful, utterly unplanned lesson in historical relativism unfolded before his very eyes. He and I eventually became good friends.

For two years, I was mocked and bullied, not only for my historical heresy, but also for my strange accent. Every time I said “AD-ver-tise-ment,” my classmates would pounce: “It’s ‘ad-VER-tise-ment,’ you bloody Yankee!” They laughed when my writing assignments came back covered with red ink for misspelling “labour” as “labor,” or “centre” as “center.” Even my Headmaster mocked me. He would go out of his way to make me say the word “falcon” just so that he could correct me: “It’s FAWL-con, not FAAL-con!” He always giggled. We eventually became good friends, too.

The turning point came in 1972, during the Summit Series between the Soviet men’s national hockey team and Team Canada. The series was, of course, a proxy for the Cold War, and global bragging rights for moral and athletic superiority were on the line.[4] When the Soviets trounced Canada 7–3 in Game One in Montreal, the entire school—nay, the entire country—went into shock. Canada came back to win Game Two in Toronto, and the two teams tied Game Three in Winnipeg, but the Soviets handily won Game Four in Vancouver, and it was with the weight of the country’s pride on their shoulders that Team Canada boarded the plane for the final four games in Moscow, down two games to one.

The Soviets won Game Five, but Canada stormed back to win the next two games. With overall victory on the line in Game Eight, our Headmaster cancelled classes, and we all huddled around the television set in the common room in trepidation. The game was tight. For two periods the Soviets dominated, but in the third period Team Canada tied the score, and with 34 seconds left, Paul Henderson buried the winner behind Soviet goalkeeper Vladislav Tretiak. The room exploded with euphoria, everyone sang O Canada!, and I knew for the first time that I. Was. Canadian.

Stockholm Syndrome may be an inauspicious beginning for a new national identity, but I never looked back. I have felt Canadian—and only Canadian—since that day. By that point my mother had already told me that I had Canadian citizenship, so that was the first moment since moving to Canada that I felt the universe properly ordered. When I learned 15 years later that I had actually been an American all along, something seemed off.

The three elements of citizenship

I spent quite a lot of time trying to understand my discomfort with my dual citizenship. I am ashamed to say that the convenience of having two passports kept my introspection in check. But to some extent the thought that I was technically a dual citizen inclined me to try to overcome my unease. So it was with relatively little discomfort that I took on greater civic engagement in my latter years at Harvard. I became actively involved, for example, in Michael Dukakis’s 1988 presidential campaign, where my role was to teach Mike everything he would ever know—and never need to know—about nuclear weapons.

I moved back to Canada in July 1990, when I took up a teaching position at my alma mater. Civic engagement now meant Canadian civic engagement, so my latent angst about having dual citizenship largely faded. Identities are only activated when they are salient, and most of the time my American citizenship was simply irrelevant. When I traveled abroad, for example, I would always travel on my Canadian passport.

The angst only surfaced when I travelled to the United States, because, under U.S. law, if you have an American passport, you must use it to enter the country. I got into the habit, however, of writing “Canada/USA” on the U.S. customs and immigration form where it asked for my citizenship.

One day I encountered a particularly nasty U.S. immigration official who looked at my form and snarled, “Which citizenship are you claiming today?”

“I have two citizenships,” I replied.

“No, you don’t,” he said, taking a red marker and striking “Canada” from my form. “I bet you’ve been to Cuba, too!”[5]

I knew he was wrong. At that time, the United States did not acknowledge dual citizenship, but neither did it care if one had it. All Washington cared about was whether you were a U.S. citizen. But I could tell that this was an argument I was not going to win. I also had enough sense not to say, “Yes, in fact, I have been to Cuba, several times. I even spent four days in the same room with Fidel in Havana, twice.” I simply said nothing and moved along. But there are no words to describe the anger and disgust I felt at this petty authoritarian bureaucrat denying my identity and treating me like some kind of traitor for deigning to affirm my Canadian citizenship.

This unsettling experience concentrated my mind anew. Here was an official from one of the two countries to which I ostensibly belonged essentially treating me as an outlaw and moral inferior simply for having two passports. He was ignorant and hateful and I wanted to smite him. And yet I shared his discomfort with dual citizenship.

Ultimately, I realized that my discomfort lay in my understanding of citizenship as such—as a form of membership in a political community that carries with it three distinct sets of things: (1) rights; (2) benefits; and (3) obligations. Rights include, for example, entry and domicile, and, in a liberal democratic country, to vote, to run for political office, and not to be incarcerated without due process of law. Benefits might include such things as preferential access to government services, dedicated international arrivals screening counters at airports, and eligibility for national grants, fellowships, or loans. Obligations would include loyalty, obeying the law, paying taxes, and—if called upon—service in defence of the state.

Dual citizenship poses no difficulty to the enjoyment of rights and benefits. The more, the better. If citizenship were only about rights and benefits, we would all be foolish not to collect as many passports as we possibly can.

The difficulty is with obligations. It is here that citizens must seriously entertain the idea that they must make efforts—and occasionally make sacrifices—for the countries to which they belong. On rare occasions, these obligations might include putting one’s life on the line. Obligations are the quid pro quo for rights and benefits. Having dual citizenship means that you could, in principle, be called upon to serve in the armed forces of both of your countries at the same time. They might even go to war with one another. In such a case, you would have no choice but to be a traitor to at least one of your countries. This is exactly what happened in 1812. In the early 19th century, Britain did not recognize naturalized U.S. citizenship and considered anyone born a British subject to be a British subject for life. Accordingly, it felt no compunction against boarding American ships and “impressing” some 9,000 American sailors into service with the Royal Navy.

Whatever else citizenship means, it means owing primary political loyalty to the state to which you belong. You cannot owe primary political loyalty to two or more states. This is the essence of the paradox of dual citizenship.

When I first began articulating this view, there was more than one awkward moment with family or friends who also had two passports and clearly had no intention of giving one of them up. No one challenged the paradox directly. Some simply said honestly that the convenience of having two passports was irresistible. Others objected that the idea of their two countries going to war was preposterous. This is certainly true in the case of the United States and Canada today, but it is also beside the point: something being empirically unlikely does not make it logically impossible. The paradox is a matter of principle, not (necessarily) empirics. In any case, the United States and Canada may not go to war again, but they are constantly facing off for Olympic hockey gold. There is something profoundly wrong about cheering against your own country’s national team. Call it postmodern treason.

Interestingly, philosophical debates about citizenship essentially ignore the paradox. They focus on the one-to-one relationship between the citizen and the state. They shine the spotlight on such issues as the legal rights attending citizenship, the participatory requirements of citizenship, the challenges that globalization and mobility pose to some ideal “fit” between citizenship and territoriality, the gendered construction of citizenship and its supposed reliance on a stark public/private distinction, or the tension between a cosmopolitan conception of human rights and the exclusive claims of states to regulate their own affairs according to their own values, norms, and traditions. These are all interesting issues, but they dodge the central question here: What should someone do when their countries make conflicting claims upon them?

Practical problems for both citizens and states

Logical paradox is not the only problem with dual citizenship. It poses a range of practical problems for individuals and states alike. For example, American citizens abroad must file U.S. income tax returns. While the United States has treaties with many countries to prevent double taxation, American tax forms are extremely complicated and most dual citizens pay exorbitant fees to accountants or lawyers every year simply to file them—even if they owe no tax. Moreover, differences between (for example) U.S. and Canadian tax codes mean that Canadian citizens who also have U.S. citizenship are exposed to certain liabilities that their non-hyphenated Canadian compatriots do not have—for example, estate taxes and taxes on lottery winnings. Recent changes in U.S. tax law have put at risk the retirement plans of thousands of Canadians who incorporated under Canadian law to benefit from lower tax rates, only now to find themselves exposed to new, draconian American taxes. In fact, escaping onerous tax-related liabilities is the number one reason more and more Canadians are renouncing their U.S. citizenship every year. I am a rare exception: I am not wealthy enough for this to be a problem, and I always file my own taxes.

Dual citizens can also find themselves in jeopardy unexpectedly. Once upon a time, I narrowly escaped a Turkish prison. When I was 16, I signed up for an educational cruise to the eastern Mediterranean. We docked in the port of Izmir, where I was listed on the ship’s manifest as “D. Welch.” The Turkish military police marched aboard and demanded that I be handed over for military service. I was a Turkish citizen, they insisted, and had missed my reporting deadline. It turned out to be a case of mistaken identity: my elder brother—also a “D. Welch”—was born in Turkey, on a U.S. Air Force base. He had no idea that Turkey considered him a citizen. It was sheer good luck that I, rather than he, had signed up for the cruise.

States, too, can find themselves in difficult situations because of dual citizenship. A rather infamous case concerns Zahra Kazemi, an Iranian-Canadian freelance photographer who travelled to Iran in 2003 on her Iranian passport, was wrongly arrested for spying, jailed, tortured, sexually assaulted, and beaten to death by Iranian authorities. The Iranian government, not recognizing dual citizenship, refused Kazemi Canadian consular assistance, causing a major rift in Canada-Iran relations. Another Canadian citizen, Huseyin Celil, an ethnic Uyghur from Xinjiang, languishes today in a Chinese jail without access to consular assistance because China does not recognize his Canadian citizenship. The case continues to strain Sino-Canadian relations.

More recently, dual citizenship caused a major political crisis in Australia, whose constitution provides that anyone “under any acknowledgement of allegiance, obedience, or adherence to a foreign power,” or who is “a subject or a citizen or entitled to the rights or privileges of a subject or citizen of a foreign power… shall be incapable of being chosen or of sitting as a senator or a member of the House of Representatives.” It turns out that several sitting Australian parliamentarians had dual citizenship either by birth or descent, five of whom claimed to be unaware of it. The courts ruled ten ineligible, briefly causing Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to lose his lower house majority.

Dual citizenship has benefits, of course, including consular protection when states recognize it. But in cases where dual citizenship causes people or states trouble, the root cause is the simple fact that sovereign states determine their own citizenship rules and decide for themselves whether to acknowledge dual (or multiple) nationality. It stands to reason that in a globalizing world where mobility is on the increase, we should expect this cacophony of citizenship rules to cause more and more problems.

There are two possible solutions.

First, the international community could ban dual citizenship. Everyone would be expected to have one and only one. It is difficult to imagine how this could be done without convincing all states to agree to a single overarching eligibility rule to avoid conflicting claims on people’s loyalty. The simplest and least complicated would be jus soli, the principle of determining citizenship by place of birth. Alternatively, states might agree to allow people to decide for themselves to which state they will owe primary political allegiance. Since many people today carry two passports without the knowledge of at least one of the issuing countries, this would also require establishing an international registry in which to record, and against which to check, everyone’s citizenship.

It is difficult to imagine states being enthusiastic about this. Forcing states to agree to a shared citizenship criterion would represent an unprecedented qualification of sovereign prerogative. Allowing people to choose their own citizenship willy-nilly would also undermine states’ abilities to redeem citizens’ obligations in time of need. In many cultures, both options would run against the grain of deeply-entrenched views of political community as founded on blood ties (jus sanguinis).

It is difficult to imagine many current dual nationals agreeing to this, either. Few people voluntarily give up rights and benefits. Those who would like to give up one of their citizenships can usually do it if they feel strongly enough, though, in some cases—most notoriously, in the case of the United States—the process is time-consuming and fantastically expensive. Certainly the idea of an internationally-accessible citizenship register would also raise privacy alarms. It would almost certainly be inconsistent with current European Union privacy laws, for example.

A second possible solution is for states to agree on an internationally recognized second-tier affiliation status. Everyone would be expected to owe primary allegiance to one state, but could enjoy another state’s rights and benefits, and be subject to its obligations, except when they conflict with first-tier citizenship obligations. The obstacles to this arrangement are precisely of the same kind as to the first, though perhaps of lesser magnitude.

It is difficult to see a path forward. With states jealously guarding their sovereign prerogatives and people increasingly keen to secure more than one passport, either for reasons of convenience or because they feel a genuine attachment to more than one country, we are likely stuck with the current cacophony of citizenship rules, and without some arrangement addressing the problem of double jeopardy, painful conflicts will be inevitable.

Citizenship, attachment, and identity

Some will object that my own tale betrays a glaring gap in my argument against dual citizenship: namely, its failure to take into consideration the powerful role that citizenship plays in shaping one’s identity. A sense of belonging to community is, for most people, a basic psychological need, and disrupting the bonds between a citizen and his or her state comes only at high emotional cost. I experienced this myself. My first two years in Canada were extremely painful. I was plucked from my country of origin, forcibly exiled to another, and summarily informed that I was no longer who I was but was now someone else instead.

In the ideal world, there would be no misfit between citizenship and affective attachment. It is perfectly possible for someone to identify with two countries and to feel a powerful sense of belonging to both. What is wrong with dual citizenship, in such a case?

Part of my response would be that even a sincere and powerful sense of attachment does not eliminate the paradox. One could still in principle be forced to be a traitor to at least one of one’s countries. But more fundamentally: people don’t get to choose their citizenship(s). States decide. That’s simply how it works. From a liberal, cosmopolitan perspective, this may seem arbitrary and unjust—but we do not live in a cosmopolis. For better or worse, the world is carved up into sovereign, territorial communities akin to clubs. States themselves are members of a club: to be recognized as a state, a state must be acknowledged to be one by other members. Similarly, to be a citizen, one must be acknowledged to be a citizen by a state. No one has a right to be a member of a political community just because they feel a strong attachment to it. Were it to be otherwise, I would have a right to demand Japanese citizenship.

Still, affective attachment can be powerfully diagnostic. It can help guide you when you have political choices to make. I expect that if I still felt after all these years that being American was central to my sense of self, I would have had a much harder time deciding whether to give up my U.S. citizenship. In conflicts between the heart and the head, the head does not always win. But neither should the head refuse to acknowledge a paradox just because the heart does not wish to confront it.

[1] I have since learned that, under Canadian law at the time, my mother was entitled to register my Canadian citizenship because she herself was Canadian—but only because my father had died, making her the “responsible parent.”

[2] Vance v. Terrazas, 444 U.S. 252 (1980).

[3] Id. at 252.

[4] See, e.g., https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WPzaVDilFEI.

[5] U.S. border officials commonly mistakenly believe that U.S. citizens are prohibited from visiting Cuba. This is incorrect. Under the terms of the U.S. embargo, they are not allowed to spend U.S. dollars in Cuba—and even here there are six categories of exemptions, one of which is academic research.

It’s time to drum Turkey out of NATO

This is the original, correct version of the piece that appeared in the print edition of The Globe and Mail missing a paragraph.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization—better known as NATO—was originally founded in 1949, as the first Secretary General Lord Ismay famously put it, “to keep the Soviet Union out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.” Since then it has grown from 12 to 29 members and is universally considered the most successful military alliance in history.

What makes NATO so successful is that it is much more than a military alliance. It is a club of like-minded states, as the preamble to the North Atlantic Treaty puts it, “determined to safeguard the freedom, common heritage and civilisation of their peoples, founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law.” These shared commitments have socialized its members profoundly over the years to identify with each other, cementing bonds of solidarity and reinforcing what are, historically speaking, unusually robust norms of peaceful dispute resolution. Together with the European Union, NATO must get credit for solving “the Franco-German problem,” eliminating war in most of Europe, and creating what political scientists call a “security community”—a region in which the threat or use of force has truly become unthinkable.

But there is an odd man out.

In its latest “Freedom in the World” report, Freedom House dropped Turkey from the “partly free” to the “not free” category, citing President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s “growing contempt for political rights and civil liberties in recent years” and “serious abuses in areas including minority rights, free expression, associational rights, corruption, and the rule of law.” With an aggregate score of 32/100, Turkey is a stark outlier in NATO, well behind second-last Montenegro (67) and the overall NATO average (87). Moreover, the trend is bad. Turkey dropped 6 points from 2017, more than any other NATO member, only three of which dropped 3 points or more (Hungary, Poland, and the United States).

While Turkey’s deepening authoritarianism alone should be enough to disqualify it from NATO, its recent behavior is of at least equal concern. While perhaps not overtly complicit with the so-called Islamic State (ISIL) as some have charged, it passively enabled it by failing to seal off the flow of jihadists to, and oil from, ISIL-controlled territory. More recently, it has intervened militarily in Syria for the sole purpose of preventing the most effective anti-ISIL fighting force—the Kurdish YPG, armed and trained by the United States—from consolidating territory along its southern border. Far from contributing to a peaceful solution to the tragic situation in Syria, Ankara is inflaming it.

In 2017, Turkey also broke ranks by purchasing an advanced Russian surface-to-air missile system, the S‑400, over strong objections from fellow NATO countries. The deal not only benefits NATO’s chief strategic competitor but threatens to undermine the interoperability on which NATO’s military effectiveness depends.

It is possible, of course, that a future Turkish leader will right the ship and bring Turkey back to the fold. Erdogan himself is entirely to blame. Fifteen years of increasingly authoritarian rule have shown once again the wisdom of Lord Acton, who wrote, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” But apparently healthy, only 64, and through his own political machinations essentially President for Life, Erdogan could be around for a long while yet.

There are two practical obstacles to pushing Turkey out of NATO. One is the North Atlantic Treaty itself, which provides for accession but not expulsion. All decisions of the NATO Council are by unanimous consent, so Turkey wields a veto. One would have to rely upon Erdogan’s sense of shame to induce him to withdraw.

The other is that Turkey holds a metaphorical gun to Europe’s head. In 2016, Turkey and the EU concluded an agreement by which Ankara agreed to take in “irregular migrants” trying to make their way from Syria to Europe in return for material and financial support for resettling them in Turkey and liberalized visa processing for Turkish nationals. With more than 3 million refugees in Turkey, Erdogan could conceivably, in a fit of pique, unleash a human torrent upon Europe that would make the 1980 Mariel Boatlift look like child’s play.

At the end of the day, Turkey’s fellow NATO members may not—probably will not—bite the bullet and try to maintain the integrity of the club. But they should at least make clear that Turkey is now a member only by forbearance, not by desert.


Birding with the Zeiss Milvus 2/135

American Redstart

Any bird photographer will tell you that there is no perfect lens for all situations, but very few would even imagine using a 135mm lens for birding at all. The longer the lens, the easier to draw in a small, skittish subject. Fewer still would dream of using a manual focus lens without image stabilization. And yet three months with the Zeiss Milvus 2/135 taught me that there is a lot about this lens for a birder to love.

The best feature of the Milvus 2/135 is what bird photographers care most about: image quality. Razor-sharp and virtually distortion-free from f/2 to f/14, it controls flaring and minimizes chromatic aberration edge-to-edge better than any long lens I have ever used, even wide open. Bokeh that can only be described as luscious frames and highlights the subject, giving it truly dramatic impact. Many lenses will enable you to capture a nice image of a bird, but it takes a lens with exceptional optical qualities to give you a work of art.

Yellow-rumped (Myrtle) Warbler

This is not a lens, however, that you could pair with just any camera body. My body of choice was the Canon EOS 7D Mk II, for two main reasons. First, with an APS-C sensor, the 7D Mk II gives you an effective 1.6x crop factor, allowing you to put more pixels on the bird than a full-frame camera of similar resolution. Second, the 7D Mk II’s burst rate of up to 10 fps gives you a lot of kicks at the can. This is particularly important when using a manual-focus lens, because one will want to do micro-focus bracketing whenever possible to maximize the chance of nailing the shot. Mastering manual micro-focus bracketing takes a little practice, but after just a few outings I was able to boost my yield rate to a level comparable to that of my autofocus lenses. With a tight, firm focus ring, the Milvus 2/135 is highly responsive to the tiny adjustments required.

Tree Swallow

The 7D Mk II does not excel, unfortunately, at handling noise above ISO 800, which might tempt you to try the Milvus 2/135 with a higher-end body, such as the full-frame Canon 1DX Mk II, which shines at high-ISO noise processing (and gives you an extra 4-6 fps to boot). But with a short lens, giving up the built-in crop-factor zoom is simply too much of a price to pay. Fortunately, the large aperture of the Zeiss Milvus 2/135 will help you keep ISO down to manageable levels in all but the dimmest lighting conditions.

Bird photographers come in two varieties: those who prefer shutter priority, and those who prefer aperture priority. I have always been in the former category, as I generally find that the odds of shooting a keeper image are higher when one prioritizes focus over depth of field. Shooting with the Milvus 2/135 reinforced my preference. At shutter speeds of 1/500 and higher, the lack of image stabilization was not a factor. Shots requiring 1/250 or less generally call for a steadier hand than mine, and this is the zone where IS really pays off. But I rarely found myself being called upon to drop the shutter speed that far.

Red-eyed Vireo

Red-eyed Vireo (fledgling)

To capture a good image of a bird with a short lens, it is necessary, of course, to get quite close. I found myself practising stealth approaches and doing my best to look inconspicuous (no bright clothing!). But the payoff is that it is possible to get a very close shot—something that one can never do with a long lens—and to do so in places where dense foliage would thwart an autofocus lens even if one could focus on the subject. Warblers are my subjects of choice, because of their personality and stunningly beautiful plumage, but they are difficult to shoot because they usually either linger in the tops of canopies or forage in dense brush. No lens will help with the former, because of bad angles, backlighting, or intervening foliage, but a short lens has a decided advantage with the latter.  Warblers are also quick. A long lens might do better pulling them in, but a shorter lens is better at target acquisition. It is much easier to get the lens on the bird with a 10° rather than 3° field of view.

Northern Cardinal (f.)

Wood Duck (juv.)

Ring-billed Gull

In some respects, birding with the Zeiss Milvus 2/135 is exactly the same as with birding with a longer lens: one will do better with spot focus, center-weighted exposure, stopping down at least 1/3 so as not to blow out highlights, and shooting in RAW to give you maximum postprocessing flexibility. I like to apply a degree of denoising to the background—generally masking the bird itself, to retain detail—and some very subtle color enhancements. But with the Zeiss Milvus 2/135, I never found myself having to fix chromatic aberration or purple fringing.

If birds are not your thing, you will still find that the Zeiss Milvus 2/135 can be rewarding with other outdoor subjects. With it I was able to capture bees, butterflies, dragonflies, and frogs while on my birding outings, something I have rarely been able to do successfully with a longer lens on my camera. Creatures such as these are much more tolerant of photographers, but not just any lens can do them justice: one wants a lens with the detail and accuracy of the Zeiss to make the most of the occasion.

The Zeiss Milvus 2/135 was designed and marketed primarily as a portrait lens for studio work. But as a birding lens, it is surprisingly delightful. It just goes to show that you cannot judge a lens by its brochure.

Monarch Butterfly

Twelve-spotted Skimmer

Leopard Frog



Should Jays Fans Worry about R.A. Dickey?

September is fretting season for Toronto Blue Jays’ fans. If the team is doing badly, the hand-wringing is all about whether the front office will make the off-season moves needed to field a competitor next year. If the team is doing well, it’s all about whether they will choke down the stretch, and who is holding them back.

This September the Jays-fans’-angst gaze has fallen heavily on R.A. Dickey, who was a big part of last year’s pennant run, and who is clearly having one of his rockier seasons, winning only 9 of his 28 starts with an ERA of 4.60. When Dickey is on, he is unhittable. When he is off, he might as well be tossing BP (*batting practice). So far, he has mostly been off.

What makes Dickey unhittable when he is good is his knuckleball, a pitch few use because few can throw it. Under the right circumstances, a knuckleball has a highly unpredictable flight path, which means that when the pitcher releases the ball hitters (as well as catchers!) cannot anticipate where it will cross the plate. A knuckleball literally wobbles en route, bobbing and weaving in a seemingly random manner. To paraphrase Muhammad Ali, Dickey’s knuckleball can float like a butterfly and sting like a bee. You can see this very clearly in this slow-motion .gif.

But what makes knuckleballers unhittable in one context makes them mortal in another. Compared to hard-throwing pitchers with the standard fastball/sinker/changeup repertoire, knuckleballers don’t have anywhere near as much control over where their pitches go. Inconsistency is inherent to the knuckleball-throwing enterprise. This is because the knuckleball is the perfect chaotic system.

In physics, a chaotic system is one that is extremely sensitive to initial conditions and easily perturbed by stochastic (i.e., random) influences. The defining feature of a knuckleball is that it leaves the pitcher’s hand without any rotation whatsoever. As the ball moves toward home plate, ambient turbulence will knock it off course, and perhaps also induce a slow spin in an unpredictable direction. Every other pitch—fastball, forkball, curveball, sinker—leaves the pitcher’s hand with a deliberately-imparted spin that will, as a result of Bernoulli’s principle, decrease air pressure on a specific side of the ball and induce a motion in that direction. Good pitchers can place these pitches very accurately. Good batters can identify them shortly after they leave the pitcher’s hand and anticipate where they will go. With a well-thrown knuckleball under ideal conditions, they have no idea. Throwing a knuckleball is a bit like curling without giving the rock an initial rotation: as it travels down the sheet, it will inevitably pick up a random spin of its own and go somewhere totally unpredictable. In curling, that’s insane. In baseball, it’s brilliant.

The problem is that very minor changes in initial conditions can turn a knuckleball into a big fat grapefruit that screams “Hit me please!” These minor changes can include the roughness of the ball’s surface, the length of the pitcher’s fingernails, the timing of his release, whether the roof of the SkyDome (er, Rogers Centre) is open or closed, atmospheric pressure, wind speed, humidity, and so on.

The fact that a knuckleball is a chaotic system means that, by their very nature, knuckleballs have a relatively high circular error probable, or CEP. Even with perfect initial release (i.e., the pitcher knows exactly where he wants the pitch to cross the plate and releases the ball appropriately), the odds that it will cross the plate at any given distance from the target are significantly greater than with any other pitch, whose tight rotation minimizes mid-flight perturbations. Since knuckleballs are relatively slow pitches, unless circumstances are just right, they will have flight paths that are relatively easy to anticipate and—if their flight path takes them over the plate—relatively easy to hit.

It is no surprise, therefore, that knuckleballers as a group have less impressive records than hard-throwing pitchers. They will be unhittable a smaller proportion of the time. According to the Bleacher Report, the top 10 knuckleballers of all time have net negative win-loss records (49 percent), an average ERA of 3.81, and an average career win total of 180 games. Only one knuckleball pitcher—Phil Niekro—has won more than 300 games. In contrast, the ten best starting pitchers of all time—none of whom threw a knuckleball—won 61 percent of their games, had an average ERA of 2.73, an average career win total of 330, and a dramatically higher total award haul.

Top 10 knuckleballers W% ERA W
1 Phil Niekro 0.535 3.49 318
2 Tim Wakefield 0.527 4.40 200
3 Charlie Hough 0.506 3.77 216
4 Hoyt Wilhelm 0.479 2.67 148
5 Dutch Leonard 0.560 2.99 139
6 Wilbur Wood 0.455 3.60 164
7 Joe Niekro 0.511 3.96 221
8 Tom Candiotti 0.480 3.97 151
9 R.A. Dickey 0.417 5.58 109
10 Bob Purkey 0.451 3.71 129
Top 10 starting pitchers W% ERA W
1 Walter Johnson 0.580 2.35 417
2 Christy Mathewson 0.610 2.37 373
3 Ed Walsh 0.547 2.12 195
4 Mordecai Brown 0.612 2.26 239
5 Grover Alexander 0.605 2.96 373
6 Pedro Martinez 0.649 3.00 219
7 Roger Clemens 0.649 3.22 354
8 Randy Johnson 0.664 3.41 303
9 Cy Young 0.601 2.66 511
10 Tom Seaver 0.595 3.00 311

Why would any manager field a knuckleballer then, you might ask? Because when the knuckleball works, it really, truly, genuinely is unhittable. Even the best power pitcher is hittable when he is throwing his best stuff. The odds are low, but they aren’t negligible. Under the right conditions, the odds of hitting a knuckleball are negligible. And in the average rotation, a good knuckleball pitcher—who will also, of course, have other pitches up his sleeve—is very likely to be one of the top five starters.

All of this is by way of saying that unless Dickey is injured, distracted, or otherwise impaired, there is no reason whatsoever to worry about his having had a bad season thus far. It’s in the nature of the pitch he throws. He could have a stellar October without doing anything different at all.

So, at least, we may reasonably hope. Chaos theory says so.

Blaming for Dummies

Who is responsible for the downing of MH17, and how can we tell?

Almost as soon as it became apparent that someone shot down Malaysia Airlines flight 17, the blame game began.  There are, of course, the usual crazy conspiracy theories.  Then there is the transparently politically motivated finger-pointing.  There are the predictable pundits and armchair experts.  Largely lost in the noise are the cautious few who insist that we don’t have all the relevant facts and have to wait and see.

Actually, we don’t have to wait and see.  There is plenty of information available on the basis of which to start assigning blame.  Most of it, in fact.  You just have to know how.

Let’s begin by noting that apportioning responsibility is a special case of determining causality.  For any event, we can usually distinguish three different kinds of cause.  The proximate cause immediately precedes it.  Intermediate causes set the stage for it.  Deep causes make the stage-setting possible.  Think of an explosive going off: the proximate cause is the completion of the circuit in the detonator; the intermediate cause is the fact that somebody connected the detonator to some explosive material; the deep causes include all of the research and knowledge that went into understanding and designing explosives. You need all three. Without any one, nothing happens.

We don’t bother asking who bears moral responsibility for an explosive going off if no evil comes of it. Nobody points the finger of blame at construction crews who blast rock for a highway. We assign blame when someone did or failed to do something as a matter of choice that resulted in harm.  Naturally, we adjust our assessment of blame depending upon whether the act in question violated some well-established rule or norm, whether it was avoidable, whether it was intentional, and whether the evil that followed from it was (or could have been) foreseen.

Now, with respect to the shooting down of MH17, there is little doubt that it was brought down by a sophisticated surface-to-air missile, and whoever pulled the trigger must clearly bear some of the blame.  At present we do not know who was involved on the ground, and we may never know.  No one wants to own this.  But all signs point toward ethnic Russian separatists acting independently or with the support of the Russian military.

How much blame rests with whoever fired the missile?  Some, but not all.  This was a tragic mistake.  No one had any incentive to bring down a passing civilian airliner.  Almost certainly the SAM crew thought they were shooting at a military target.  They may have thought this because they were insufficiently trained, because they had inadequate information, or because they were not using the equipment properly.  But there is no indication that the resulting harm was deliberate.  In a court of law, they would be found guilty of manslaughter, but not murder.

More to the point, no one would have been shooting SAMs at anything if Ukraine had not been in the throes of a civil war. We know what happens in war: innocent people get killed.  MH17 was one shocking and horrific example, and as far as we know the only one so far involving innocent people from so many far away countries. But whoever set the stage for this tragedy must bear a great deal of the moral responsibility—not only for the loss of these particular lives, but for putting at risk the lives of so many innocent people in Ukraine.

Where else do we look for culpability in addition to those who pulled the trigger?  One possibility is to reach all the way back into the deep causes.  There is a civil war in eastern Ukraine because Russians and Ukrainians have not gotten along very well for much of their deeply entwined histories. (Outsiders may perhaps be forgiven for thinking that this brings to mind once again what Sigmund Freud called the “narcissism of small differences.”)  It would be interesting but for present purposes pointless to ask, “Whose fault is that?” Too much has happened between now and then to draw clear lines of culpability.

In any case, things were actually working fairly well in post-Soviet Ukraine. It may have been corrupt and inefficient, but Ukraine was well on its way to becoming a modern, well-functioning democracy of the kind that could reasonably hope to qualify for admission to the European Union someday.  It was making progress on the checklist of requirements, which included respect for human rights, protections for national minorities, and a uniform standard of good governance.  It was, in short, headed very much in a direction away from civil war.  It’s hardly convincing to blame people who died decades or centuries ago when ethnic Russians and ethnic Ukrainians had already shown that they could get along when left to their own devices.

So we must look to intermediate causes.

Things started to go wrong on November 21 last year when Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych reneged on a commitment to sign a trade deal with the EU, opting instead for closer ties with Russia, triggering a wave of anger and frustration that resulted ultimately in the Maidan rebellion, Yanukovych’s ouster, his eventual replacement as president by Petro Poroshenko, Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and the outbreak of separatist violence in the Donbas region.

Who bears primary responsibility for this sequence of events?

Where you stand on that question depends upon where you sit. There are two main narratives.  The dominant narrative in Russia is that guilt lies with the “fascists” who overthrew a democratically elected government and the Western powers who allegedly encouraged them. This is a tortured tale. Much of what goes into this story is simply false.  Yanukovych was ousted not by fascists but by ordinary people who saw their hopes for a better future being dashed.  Western governments were obviously not particularly happy with Yanukovych and were mostly pleased to see the back of him, but it gives them far too much credit to say that they orchestrated any of the relevant events.

The other main answer lays the blame at the feet of Vladimir Putin, first for pressuring Yanukovych to kill the EU deal, then for engineering the secession of Crimea and its annexation to Russia, and finally for arming, supporting, and tacitly encouraging Russian nationalist separatists.

This answer is much more persuasive.

Ukraine would not be aflame today if Putin had not repeatedly and deliberately meddled in its internal affairs; if he had not blatantly violated a core principle of modern European international relations — namely, the inviolability of national borders; and if he had not treated Ukraine like a pawn in some anachronistic great power game. No one has more clearly or more effectively subverted Ukrainian sovereignty and independence, violated basic international norms, and put innocent lives at risk.  None of this was necessary.  It was all avoidable.  Most of it was intentional.  While the particular tragedy of MH17 might not have been foreseeable, tragedies of one sort or another were inevitable.  No one has more blood on his hands.

Lost in Airspace

MH370’s Humbling Reminder about Technology–and its Operators

This piece originally appeared on www.foreignaffairs.com, March 20, 2014

The evolving tale of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 gets stranger by the minute.  Most likely it will change yet again by the time you finish reading this.  But whatever the ultimate solution to the mystery may be, it is not too early to start asking what it means.

Let’s start with the facts as we think we know them at the moment.  First, there was no outward indication that anything untoward was happening aboard MH370 before it went silent.  Second, shortly after it went silent it began to deviate dramatically from its preprogrammed flight path—again, with no indication of trouble whatsoever.  Third, it managed to cross the Malay Peninsula and head into the Strait of Malacca without attracting any attention or triggering any response before it disappeared from radar.  Fourth, according to the British firm Inmarsat, more than seven hours after departing from Kuala Lumpur it was still airborne somewhere in a giant arc stretching from the southeastern Indian Ocean to Kazakhstan.

One clear lesson here, as Jessica Trisko Darden has recently argued, is that the countries of Southeast Asia are incapable of monitoring, let alone controlling, their airspace.  Nor are they capable of mounting a swift, coordinated search.  They excel, however, at blaming each other.

But there are larger lessons as well—lessons of more than just regional significance.

First, the good news.  There is no evidence, and a rapidly dwindling likelihood, that MH370 vanished as a result of malfunction.  The hardware appears to have worked flawlessly.  There is a reason why modern airliners generally do not fall out of the sky of their own accord: they are marvels of engineering.  The odds of being in a fatal commercial flight are 1 in 3.4 million, and fewer than 1 in 4 of those are the result of mechanical failure.  The only onboard systems whose performance is in question in this case are the transponder, which enables ground operators to identify the aircraft and provides crucial flight information, and the Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS), which monitors system health and automatically relays faults to maintenance bases.  These stopped working within minutes of the crew’s final, perfectly routine radio contact with ground controllers at 01h19 on the morning of March 8.  It seems increasingly certain that they were switched off deliberately.

As far as we can tell, all of the ground-based hardware worked as well.  Primary radars, secondary radars, and radio communications all worked as designed, and held up their end of the bargain insofar as maintaining contact with MH370 is concerned. We are good at technology, and getting better all the time.  The Huffington Post notwithstanding, there is no valid comparison between MH370 and Amelia Earhart.  Not only was MH370 operating in a modern well-monitored environment, a modern Boeing 777’s avionics make her vintage Lockheed Electra’s look like child’s play.

Next, the bad news.  While the mechanical systems worked well, the human systems failed repeatedly, both at the individual and group levels.  If the disappearance of MH370 was deliberate, then someone—crew member or hijacker—was a certifiable sociopath.  Malaysian military radar operators failed to notice, misperceived, or wilfully ignored its radar track as it headed westward.  Thai radar operators noticed it, but failed to report it because no one askedOther countries may have failed to notice or report radar tracks as well because of incompetence, flawed procedures, or fear of embarrassment.  For days after the plane disappeared there was ample information available indicating that the jet had headed toward the Indian Ocean, but Malaysia and an increasing number of other countries continued to look for it in the Gulf of Thailand.  Officials have obviously bungled messaging and communications, and have given scant reason to hope that they haven’t bungled the search and investigation as well.

Now for the even worse news: much of this could have been prevented.  As Gregg Easterbrook has noted, it is almost inconceivable that almost thirteen years after 9/11 pilots can still turn off transponders.  (In those rare circumstances when it might be desirable to turn off a transponder, there is no technical obstacle to requiring a ground-based signal to do it.)  There is an eight-year-old technology available—Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast, or ADS-B—that provides more detailed and more reliable flight and positioning information, but while MH370 had it, and while amateurs on the ground picked up its signal, air traffic controllers did not.  Countries have proven slow to embrace it.  In the United States, the FAA does not expect to adopt it before 2020.  Continuous-broadcast GPS is another readily-available technology that some airlines use to monitor their fleets, but as Peter Parrish, vice-president of operations for Latitude Technologies has lamented, “For some reason, the major carriers continue to rely exclusively on old technology to track their aircraft when one of our boxes could be tucked into an out-of-the-way spot on the aircraft to report location on a continuous basis, including on an accelerated basis right up to the point of impact in the event of a crash.”

In one sense, this worse news is not surprising.  While technology advances by leaps and bounds, improvement in our mental capacity to perceive and analyze the world takes place on an evolutionary timescale.  Cognitive, affective, bureaucratic, social, and cultural barriers to learning are ubiquitous. I have spent most of my professional career trying to understand why national leaders—who are almost always very smart people—make so many mistakes, and the answer is that they are human.  As former Secretary of State Dean Rusk said to me toward the end of his life, “I’ve met and worked with a good many people whose names are in the history books or in the headlines.  I have never met a demigod or a superman.  I have only seen relatively ordinary men and women groping to deal with the problems with which they are faced.”

We have come to appreciate in the nuclear age that our rapidly increasing technological sophistication—which has brought to us benefits such as safe, reliable air travel—carries with it also great potential cost, not only in the form of our ability to destroy, but, as my colleague Thomas Homer-Dixon has pointed out, in the form of vulnerable, tightly-connected, inadequately resilient systems.  What we have great difficulty appreciating, apparently, is that the human element is often the weakest link in those systems.  Academic political science, by and large, has not helped.  To the extent that leaders are trained in or advised on international politics at all, they are generally encouraged to assume that their counterparts elsewhere are fully-informed; that they are “rational”; that they value political survival above all else; and that with enough “credible” threats or incentives they can always be “deterred” or “compelled.”  They are not encouraged to think of them—or of themselves, for that matter—as ill-informed, confused, emotional, fallible, and perhaps even slightly mad some of the time.  Nor are they encouraged to think of the complex departments, ministries, agencies, and militaries over which they have nominal authority as reliably dysfunctional to at least a certain extent one hundred percent of the time.

In a tense, heavily-armed region such as East or Southeast Asia, it would be a good idea for leaders to reflect on the limited capacities of individuals and organizations.  The bizarre story of MH370 should make the importance of that painfully clear.