All eyes on the Shangri-La Dialogue

The annual Shangri-La Dialogue is due to kick off today in Singapore. Hosted by London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), this is one of the most important security fora in the calendar and this year it is bound to have some heated discussions.

As media coverage, live feeds, and commentaries start rushing out of the hotel that gives the forum its name, here are a few polemics to keep a close eye on:

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Military exercises in strategic context

Amphibious assault during exercise “Cobra Gold 2014” . Courtesy: Cpl. Zachary W. Scanlon/USMC

There is a conspicuous absence of strategic reflection on the role of military exercises in the conduct of foreign policy. Unlike other military activities, such as defence spending, weapons procurement and acquisition, and research and development, there is no sustained tradition of enquiry into the strategic relevance of military exercises.

The existing literature in military studies focusing on exercises pays overwhelming attention to the value of wargames as learning tools in the military profession. In this field one can find studies on the role of exercises in perfecting tactics, fostering interoperability, improving integration of equipment into the force structure, developing and implementing new doctrines, and even in educating the officer corps in leadership skills. Consequently, the broader policy relevance of such exercises is either assumed away or promptly discarded.

More importantly, there is a divide amongst those authors that admit some strategic significance to military exercises. The first group believes that exercises are largely confidence and security building measures capable of stabilising a given security environment. Conversely, the second group posits that military exercises are destabilising because they constitute a show of force and improve military readiness.

Whichever the case may be, there is no consensus on the features that distinguish one exercise from the other, and thus no contemplation of the conditions in which exercises can contribute to one outcome and not the other. Examples abound, especially in the Asia-Pacific region. For instance, authors that see growing Chinese military capabilities and assertiveness in the region point to its combined exercises with Russia in the “Joint Sea” exercises as supporting evidence. On the other hand, those defending the need for greater allied cooperation between the United States and Japan (p. 6)[pdf], or United States and South Korea, point to military exercises as part of the solution.

But what exactly is the strategic relevance of military exercises? How can it be observed and categorised? Which factors influence its impact on the security environment? How can exercises be tailored to best meet their intended goals whilst reducing the probability of unintended consequences? These questions, in short, address the need for a study of military exercises not merely as training instruments but as tools of foreign policy.

This puzzle presents a promising avenue for academic- and policy-oriented research. Considering the growing number and scope of military exercises held around the world, this empirical wealth provides exciting hypotheses for us to explore.

Religion and the Ukrainian Crisis

View of St. Michael's Golden-Domed Monastery in Kiev, where many injured from the riots took shelter during the Euromaidan protests.

View of St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery in Kiev, where many injured protesters took shelter during the Euromaidan riots and police clashes. (Copyright: Tiago Alexandre Fernandes Mauricio)

Seldom have we read accounts detailing the significance of religion in the Ukrainian crisis. This fact is in stark contrast with analyses reflecting other dimensions of the crisis. The most recurrent ones focus on the role of Russian ethno-linguistics, the power of oligarchs in Ukrainian politics, the consequences for US-Russian relations, and the conduct of asymmetric warfare. Unlike previous crises, events in Ukraine have even been explained through the prism of philosophy as many struggle to understand Putin’s motives.

Most of the reports on religion came from Russia. Moscow was prompt to denounce alleged Ukrainian violence against the Jewish community in Crimea, as “little green men” raided, besieged, occupied, and patrolled key military and civilian installations in the peninsula. This was largely part of a broader misinformation campaign aimed at undermining the legitimacy and power of the new government in Kiev. The campaign was based on accusations that elements from the Right Sector (Pravy Sektor), Banderas, and neo-nazis were conducting reprisals against pro-Yanukovich and pro-Russian supporters in Crimea and in some eastern provinces.

This story, as well as the larger role of religion in the crisis deserves further enquiry.

In a flight from Kiev to Moscow I had the pleasure to sit beside a Catholic vicar from a Moscow parish (whose order will remain unnamed). His accounts shed light in this much neglected aspect of the political turmoil in the country. There are two main points I would like to emphasise. First, the said vicar referred to an ecumenical consensus that is seeking to unite the Orthodox patriarchates of Moscow and Kiev, supposedly to promote a pan-slavic dialogue less conditioned by the diktats from the Kremlin.

Second, since the beginning of the Euromaidan movement there have been efforts to foster an inter-religious consensus in support of the many faiths in Ukraine and thus promote religious dialogue and tolerance. Extremism and violence is to be averted at all costs.

If true, this struggle to bridge the religious divide that is often summoned as supporting evidence in the fight between Kiev and Moscow is welcomed. Considering the religiosity and fervor of the Ukrainian people, this ecumenical undercurrent must not be sidestepped by the political process.