Xiaomi’s Expansion and the Test of Chinese Soft Power

Xiaomi is outselling Apple in the Chinese smartphone market, and recently announced its plans to expand globally. You may be asking: “Xiao-who?” Well, here is an introduction to the hottest tech company in China, their blueprint for expansion, and what this means for China’s growing “soft power” – a construct that emphasizes a state’s economic and cultural influence.

Xiaomi Founder at the Fortune Global Forum 2013. (via flickr: Fortune Live Media/ Creative Commons some rights reserved)

Xiaomi Founder at the Fortune Global Forum 2013. (via flickr: Fortune Live Media/ Creative Commons some rights reserved)

Ascent to Stardom

Xiaomi Inc. is an Internet service and consumer electronics company founded in April 2010 by Steve Job’s Asian twin, Lei Jun (see photo). Selling high-end smartphones at near production costs, Xiaomi has challenged Asia’s top smartphone providers in the Chinese, Taiwanese, and Hong Kong markets. In the second quarter of 2013, Xiaomi became the fifth-largest supplier of handsets in Mainland China. In August, Lei poached top Google executive Hugo Barra to orchestrate Xiaomi’s global expansion. And shortly thereafter, a “flash sale” of 100,000 Hongmi-model smartphones ($135 compared to the $750+ iPhone) sold out in 90 seconds. In October, Xiaomi sold 100,000 of the luxury Mi3-model smartphones ($327 for 16GB or $410 for 32GB) in 83 seconds. Less than four years after incorporation, Xiaomi has gained Apple-like popularity and a market valuation at $10 billion (equal to Lenovo or double that of Blackberry). Xiaomi executives project smartphone sales in the neighborhood of 20 million units by year’s end.

International Expansion

But they aren’t satisfied. At a recent media event in Taiwan, Lei and Barra announced their expansion into the Southeast Asian market, specifically Singapore and Malaysia. Why? Singapore and Malaysia have the necessary technological (network coverage) and regulatory (welcoming governmental and legal institutions) infrastructure for Xiaomi’s entry. Further, the people of Singapore and Malaysia are smartphone fanatics. Smartphone penetration in Singapore and Malaysia is at 87% and 80% respectively. Comparatively, the United States is at 60%.

Xiaomi may succeed in its initial expansion—despite entering a saturated market—for four reasons:

  1. Fandom: “Flash sales,” and the social media blitzkrieg surrounding these events, have generated frenzy among middle-class shoppers eager for the newest smartphone. Further, Xiaomi allows its customers to actively shape its software platform. Miui, a spinoff of Google Android software, is updated nearly every week based on the suggestions of its 5.1 million members. Client-customer collaboration has boosted Xiaomi’s popularity in China and promises to do the same in Southeast Asia.
  2. Increased competition: Samsung has run a near monopoly in the Southeast Asian smartphone market. But three Asian companies, Huawei, Lenovo and LG, are challenging its dominance and eating away at its market share each successive quarter. Xiaomi could benefit from an increasingly diverse market.
  3. Subsidies: Singaporean and Malaysian telecom operators offer smartphone subsidies. Thus, Xiaomi phones could be free with the purchase of a contract—an enticing offer for those who disheartened by the larger sticker price of a Samsung or Apple handset.
  4.  Apps: Singaporeans and Malaysians love apps. In fact, they score highly (Singapore at number one) in the World Mobile Readiness Index, a metric that calculates a population’s willingness to pay for mobile apps. Singaporeans’ and Malaysians’ willingness to pay for apps perfectly accommodates Xiaomi’s business model. Xiaomi has razor-thin profits on smartphones (compared to a company like Apple that has a 55% profit margin on the iPhone) and therefore relies on apps and accessories to generate profit.

Litmus Test

Xiaomi’s success in Singapore and Malaysia will be indicative of its potential success outside the Chinese mainland. Xiaomi has thrived in the Chinese market where Apple holds less than 5% market share and Google Play (Google’s “App Store”) is not officially available. How Xiaomi competes in areas where Apple and Google have a stronger grip will be telling. If unsuccessful, Xiaomi will likely retreat to China. If successful, look for Lei and Barra to deepen expansion in Southeast Asia, particularly in the Philippines—a country with a higher Mobile Readiness score than Malaysia and Hong Kong yet with only 15% smartphone penetration. The Filipino market would be wide open to an injection of Xiaomi products.

China’s difficulty in accumulating soft power has been well documented. However, much to the chagrin of some Americans, China’s soft power, particularly its global economic influence, is on the rise. A burgeoning tech market has begun to stimulate international growth for a number of Chinese companies (think Lenovo, Baidu, and Haier). Xiaomi’s success in Southeast Asia could demonstrate or precipitate greater success of Chinese companies in foreign markets. As a result, Chinese communication technology may attain the “cool factor” of Apple or Samsung products—which are widely regarded as fashionable and reliable. In short, Xiaomi may trigger consumers of Chinese tech products around the world to begin prizing the “Made in China” tag rather than associating it with mediocrity. And such a rise in economic influence is a necessary characteristic of any great power.

The Handshake Heard Round The World

The Obama-Castro handshake at Nelson Mandela’s Johannesburg memorial signified no shift in relations between the U.S. and Cuba. It was merely a handshake.

On December 5th, a chilling announcement made by South African President Jacob Zuma was quickly heard worldwide: Nelson Mandela (95 years old) had died.

The former revolutionary in the movement against South Africa’s National Party’s apartheid regime, and later President of South Africa left behind a legacy that will likely remain unparalleled by other world leaders for some time to come. While some mourned the loss of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning global icon who committed his life to peace, compassion and forgiveness, others snubbed the passing of a coldblooded ‘communist’ murderer who was imprisoned for 28 years and was considered a ‘terrorist’ by the United States until only five years because of his anti-apartheid involvement.

Regardless of whether you’re on the cheering side or on the jeering side, the fact stands that Mandela’s leadership had a global impact making him one of the most influential world leaders to date. But it seems that even in light of his recent death, our own leaders cannot look beyond partisan divides and quarreling. Consider the Obama-Castro handshake at the memorial; a civil and brief greeting between the two leaders led right-wing conservatives to label the gesture as despicable, traitorous conductwhile liberals dubbed it a thawing of tensions.

Despite the geographic proximity, the United States maintains a distant relationship with Cuba having severed diplomatic relations over fifty years ago when Raul’s brother Fidel assumed power. Contrary to the imagination of those lambasting the handshake, there was no political game at play – the handshake was merely a handshake. Period. What else was Obama supposed to do? Completely ignore Castro’s presence and rebuke him? It was appropriate for Obama to shake hands with another world leader while attending the memorial of the world’s greatest symbol for peace.

In spite of being raised by their parents to always shake hands when meeting or greeting someone, Republicans felt the urge to immediately slap a partisan sticker on the situation. Senator John McCain even likened the handshake to that between British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and German Third Reich leader Adolf Hitler in the lead up to WWII – a completely inappropriate and exaggerated analogy. McCain even dared to note that the leader of the freest country in the world has no business shaking the bloodstained hand of a ruthless oppressor who is “keeping Americans in prison.” Well, Senator, there are just two minor faults in your statements. First, have you ever heard of the Gitmo? Second, may we remind you that you not only shook hands with, but also spent a ‘late evening’ with, the late dictator Muammar Gaddafi at his ranch in Libya. You then tweetedabout it. Apparently Obama’s courteous handshake with Castro was more deserving of condemnation than McCain’s play-date with Gaddafi.

Bundesarchiv Bild 146-1976-063-32, Bad Godesberg, Münchener Abkommen, Vorbereitung

British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain shakes hands with Adolf Hitler. This image, coupled with Chamberlain’s words, would become the gold standard for appeasement. Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1976-063-32 / CC-BY-SA [CC-BY-SA-3.0-de (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons

But the liberal left has also mistreated this handshake. The first U.S.-Cuba handshake in over a decade is now being perceived as a signal of improving relations between the two states. It seems that this event – a brief, non-orchestrated six-second greeting – constitutes an instantaneous 180º shift in foreign policy and diplomatic relations.

Let’s consider three more historic presidential handshakes with other less tans savory leaders. The handshake between British Prime Minster Winston Churchill, U.S. President Harry Truman and Soviet Communist Party General Secretary Joseph Stalin at the 1945 Potsdam Conference was designed to symbolize that communist and non-communist interests could be set aside in the wake of Nazi Germany’s collapse. The image was supposed to capture an alliance determined to move forward.

Triple handshake, with, from left to right, Winston Churchill, President Harry S. Truman, and Generalissimo Josef Stalin at the Potsdam Conference. (via Wikimedia Commons/Truman Library)

And then there’s the Reagan-Gorbachev handshake. In 1998 at St. Catherine’s Hall at the Kremlin, President Ronald Reagan shook hands with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev before their final summit meeting. The planned handshake symbolized the first meeting between the U.S. and USSR in six years and marked the start of a thawing in bilateral relations.

Gorbachev and Reagan 1985-9

Reagan and Gorbachev at Geneva Summit. By Fed Govt [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Most importantly, let’s not forget the orchestrated 1959 Washington press reception that hosted then-Vice President Richard Nixon’s and Cuba’s new revolutionary leader Fidel Castro. The two men shook hands and that was that.

All three of these handshakes between American Presidents and foreign strongmen were carefully constructed to convey a specific message in a specific context. On the contrary, Obama’s handshake with Castro was unplanned; it was simply a display of courtesy and nothing more. There was no predetermined plan for the two to encounter each other and shake hands in front of the camera and we are unlikely to witness any change in bilateral relations with Cuba. In fact, it would have been extremely inappropriate had Obama not greeted Castro at Mandela’s memorial; Obama shook hands with each leader he encountered which was the appropriate, civil thing for a world leader to do while honoring a man who stood for peace and compassion. It is inappropriate for certain individuals in the media and Congress to be spinning the memorial of the South African leader into a groundless and ludicrous controversy over a non-event between two men with hands. Those shouting at the gesture need to get a handle on the broader message before us all, that being Mandela’s legacy.

A Look Back at Snowden in the Press

National Security Agency headquarters, Fort Meade, Maryland

NSA HQ, Fort Meade, Maryland. NSA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Here’s a worthwhile thought exercise: considering China and the United States only, which state’s media would be the most aggressive in criticizing a foreign government for suppressing individual liberty and stifling free domestic press coverage? Before the Edward Snowden case, the United States would likely be the answer. Interestingly when articles from China Daily, People’s Daily, and New York Times are examined, a distinctly different narrative emerges. The Snowden Case has provided the Chinese media with a golden opportunity to champion individual liberties and criticize US surveillance policies. Conversely, the US press coverage has been more reactionary, framing the Snowden case as a statist US-China confrontation rather than a domestic political debate gone global.

The reaction of the Chinese press has focused on the controversial NSA policies illuminated by the Snowden files; US press coverage instead covered the reactions of the Chinese and Hong Kong governments’. “Surveillance programs reveal U.S. hypocrisy,” reads the headline of a June 14, 2013 article from the People’s Daily – the word “hypocrisy” is borrowed from a Snowden quote referenced in the article. Calling for a “serious self-examination” of US government policies vis-à-vis the NSA, the article deftly uses American voices to construct its argument citing comments from The New Yorker and USA Today. This stands in diametric opposition to comments from the American press that automatically regard Chinese press criticisms of American policies as party-line rhetoric, or as New York Times columnist Joe Nocera writes “another classic response.”

The dichotomy should be clear; Chinese media emphasizes the theme of liberty and ethics while US coverage of Snowden attempts to shift the debate to one of security. Nocera’s piece addresses the problem of US cyber espionage policy linking it to China’s own cyber espionage programs noting that the Snowden scandal will make it “far more difficult to force the Chinese to get serious about sopping their own hacking.” This commentary remains firmly grounded in the ideological camp which condones hacking behavior. Chen Wiehua of the China Daily takes a far more comprehensive view asking:

In the US, (…), the discussion in the mainstream media is often limited to whether the surveillance program has violated US citizen’s rights. Very few seem to question whether such invasive surveillance programs on governments, institutions and citizens of other countries are legal or, for that matter, ethical.

Mr. Wiehua’s article presents solid evidence to back this claim; evidence that is noticeably absent in Nocera’s discussion. Meanwhile, the US media response underscores the vast gulf in tone and substance between Chinese and American reporting surrounding the Snowden case. Indeed, rather than addressing the criticisms raised by their Chinese press, an article in the New York Times simply dismissed the Chinese media response as “snide.”

While both the US and Chinese press considered the Snowden imbroglio within the US-China diplomatic frame, US commentary has consistently played up a confrontational tone between the two states. The Chinese media response has not been beyond reproach in all areas. In fact, the Chinese have overlooked their cyber espionage capabilities by waving the bloody shirt noting, “the United States has a matchless superiority and ability to launch cyber attacks around the globe.” Fact: the United States has met its cyber match with China. Regardless, press coverage on both sides viewed the governments as having a monopoly on decision-making power.

The Snowden Case has provided the Chinese media with the rare opportunity to levy ethical, moral, and policy criticisms against the United States. It is disheartening to see that the Snowden coverage in major American newspapers lacks the moment of national self-reflection that Snowden likely hoped to unleash by releasing the NSA files. Both China and the United States carry a clear policy bias, however, coverage of the Snowden case gets at the broader theme of how globalization does guarantee that no two international takes on one story are the same.

A Response to the Pentagon’s Arctic Strategy

Last month, the Department of Defense (DOD) issued an “Arctic Strategy” white paper along with a positioning statement by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel. Major newspapers such as the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times ran stories summarizing the strategy, but the authors of this response feel that those analyses lacked context and stake. The Pentagon release on an Arctic strategy is not a hot news item, and the terms “Arctic security” do not figure much in public discourse. Arctic security encompasses the international agreements for search and rescue, environmental and ecological security, international agreements on border delimitation, Arctic military capability, as well as the economics resource extraction and the potential for trans-Arctic maritime trade. While a good start, the policy paper produced by the Pentagon is lacking substance. The authors of this piece seek to apply our diversity of knowledge studying Arctic politics – in the field – to provide context and recommendations in response to the Department of Defense. While we will discuss the politics of political and military security, the other issues of ecological security and Arctic governance will be addressed in kind.

International Security Cooperation Forum Proposal:

Although the Pentagon emphasizes the need for greater international cooperation as a way to prevent the Arctic from becoming a militarized zone, it falls short in identifying effective means of multilateral security cooperation. The Pentagon’s Arctic strategy document supports cooperative efforts via the Arctic Council as well as regional military training exercises as ways to maintain peace. However, there still does not exist a multilateral forum for the five Arctic littoral states to discuss hard security issues. The Arctic Council is prohibited from engaging in security discussions, and Arctic nations seem reticent to mention these sensitive issues. Given the fact that each littoral Arctic state is gradually increasing its military presence in the region, it is crucial for the U.S. to engage Arctic nations on hard security issues to prevent a conflagration that could result in an arms race – one the public would likely not notice. Although conversations on hard security issues have occurred bilaterally, it is time to discuss these issues multilaterally. A potential forum could be a recurring Arctic security summit where both civilian and military representatives from each Arctic state meet to discuss the role of each nations’ military in the Arctic. This summit would be a step toward preserving the Arctic as a peaceful zone through meaningful dialogue and addressing the sensitive issues head-on. Without an honest and recurring dialogue on both hard and soft security issues, the possibility of the Arctic becoming further militarized would increase dramatically.

The Arctic, a region that has only recently seen a spike in interest and development, requires fresh governing structures. The proposed security summit and other potential means of hard security cooperation could serve as models for existing international security governance structures that do not function as effectively. In this regard, the Arctic represents an opportunity for the international community to explore more effective and transparent ways to conduct international security cooperation.

UNCLOS and Arctic Governance

The decision by the US Congress to postpone, delay, and ignore the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS) is beyond counterproductive. UNCLOS is de facto law in the Arctic Ocean since the US is the only state in the region that has yet to ratify the law. Ratifying UNCLOS will allow the US to make larger maritime claims in the Arctic. It will also allow the US to contest and petition Article 76, which allows nations to extend their maritime borders on the basis of how far their continental shelf extends. The Russian Federation currently has an outlying claim that would extend their claims as far as the North Pole. Considering an estimated 15% of the world’s oil and 30% of the world’s natural gas is in the Arctic region, it would be wise for the US to join other states in signing on to this international law. Furthermore, the potential opening of the Northern sea route to shipping means that the designation of Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) now has expanded political-economic significance.

Arctic Claims

This map shows current borders in the Arctic as well as claims made by Russia. Recently, Canada made claims that extend as far as the North Pole. Map by Ahnode (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Ecological Security and why it should matter to the Pentagon:

In the twentieth century, global air temperatures rose an average 1-2°C. This is nothing compared to the Arctic where temperatures rose 5°C. This comparison illustrates the importance of the Arctic environment as a climate change barometer. In 2012, scientists measured a 97% surface melt of Greenland’s ice sheet. This exceeded most accepted models and scientists are re-evaluating at what point in this century we may expect no summer Arctic ice. The questions of whether we will witness the disappearance of the polar caps is not one of ‘if,’ but ‘when.’ Since Arctic ecosystems are impacted more rapidly by climate change, understanding these changes is crucial to managing the effects on the world’s interdependent ecosystems. While climate change might not affect the DoDs daily operations, a dialogue between scientific research and political-military objectives should inform the overall strategy. The Arctic Council is an institution that already seeks to bring dialogue to the vast array of information, scientific or otherwise, relevant to the Arctic region and climate change discussions in general. Heightened dialogue between the Department of State and the Arctic Council would be a good place to start.

Need for Investment in Arctic Capabilities:

Although the Pentagon states its intention of increasing its presence in the Arctic, it also makes clear that the current fiscal environment may stunt further investment. Not asserting American interests would be a mistake insofar as an image of disinterest will be perceived as American weakness in the Arctic. Indeed, other Arctic nations already perceive a strong US disinterest in the region. The lack of an American presence in the region would also prevent US military and law enforcement entities such as the Navy and Coast Guard from protecting the integrity of territorial claims, carrying out search and rescue missions, executing law enforcement functions, and responding to environmental disasters. As of now, the US lacks sufficient dedicated Arctic resources for security and humanitarian purposes. While other US military equipment, such as nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers, have the capability of traversing the Arctic, the US does not have Arctic-specific resources to effectively respond to a disaster or other threats.For example, the US possesses only 5 icebreakers in its fleet and has had to lease icebreakers from Russia and Sweden in the past.This small number of icebreakers stands in stark contrast to Russia’s 37 vessels. Even small Sweden outdoes the US with 7 icebreakers. Due to climate change, the region will likely see increases in resource extraction, shipping, fishing, and tourism. This increase in activity in the Arctic would likely be accompanied by an increase in emergency situations. The US currently lacks effective Arctic capabilities severely limiting the ability to respond to emergency situations or security threats.

In order to mitigate these threats and to enhance US military and rescue personnel in the region, the US needs to invest more in developing Arctic-specific technology and infrastructure. For starters, the US should build a dedicated Arctic icebreaker fleet to better navigate the frigid terrain. Additionally, the US should explore the option of pursuing joint search and rescue exercises with all of the littoral Arctic states, especially Russia. These search and rescue and/or environmental disaster relief exercises would not be as controversial as conventional military exercises and would allow each nation’s military/law enforcement services to become more familiar with one another. Actively working to break the divisions of yesterday by building collaborative relationships today could ameliorate the potential for conflict in the Arctic.

Concluding Remarks:

The US is faced with the enormous challenge of increasing its Arctic presence while convincing other Arctic states that its intentions are peaceful. The US cannot afford to see the Arctic escalate into a zone of conflict and thus must handle this situation very delicately. The DoD’s Arctic strategy is a welcome policy document to a country that has historically lacked a significant interest in the region when compared to the other littoral Arctic states. However, the Pentagon’s strategy needs to incorporate more pragmatic and effective means of international cooperation to accomplish its objectives. In addition, the current fiscal environment should not influence the US’ ability to help secure and develop a region that will likely see a heavy increase in activity due to climate change. Both US military and civilian units need to invest more resources into developing superior Arctic capabilities to better respond to disasters while protecting American interests in a region that is growing in significance and accessibility.

In the 19th century, the established nations of Europe met in Berlin to carve up Africa with the intent of extracting from it resources and riches upon which empires were built. The social, political, and human costs of this are still being felt today. In the 21st century, the established nations of the Europe, Asia, and North America are prepared to, and in certain instances already have, descended upon the Arctic for similar motivations: resource wealth, trade, and power. It would be foolish to think that because Arctic states are politically stable or economically developed that somehow this translates into regional stability. If history is any indication of what is to come, we should actually be all the more alarmed that “established” states are scrambling for the Arctic. Granted, the “Scramble for Africa” involved a large landmass and the intent of colonizing large populations, thus the forthcoming “Scramble for the Arctic” will not be a carbon copy of the past. In sum, there is an opportunity for the Arctic to be used to and for the benefit of all nations, and this begins with a sustainable governance regime.

Brandian Revolution: Productive or Irresponsible?

Recently, unpredictable comedian Russell Brand sat down with BBC icon Jeremy Paxman to discuss Brand’s stint as editor-in-chief of the liberal British magazine The New Statesman and his 4,500-word editorial/manifesto on revolution. Brand, known for his lewd and disarming sense of humor, was eloquent and passionate speaking about the failures of democracy. Paxman, keen on trivializing Brand’s political opinion, was stunned as Brand called for a revolution to end a broken British-American political system that serves only the privileged and destroys the natural environment. Brand voiced a growing feeling among British-American youth, who—especially after the US government shutdown—“feel disenfranchised, disenchanted, disengaged, and, most important, disinterested in the idea that politics can change the world.” Brand argued that voting is a futile exercise, and only perpetuates a political paradigm that sacrifices the planet and the ‘99%’ in order to shelter the economic prosperity of the ‘1%’.

Brand’s political commentary was startling, and I often found myself nodding in agreement—perhaps due to Brand’s verbal magnetism rather than the merit of his arguments. So were Brand’s statements accurate? And is voting “tacit complicity” in the current system? Below, I will run through a fact check of a few of Brand’s points before debating whether Brand’s advice and vision for the future is productive or irresponsible.

Fact check:

…[the poor] don’t feel like they want to engage with the current political system because they see that it doesn’t work for them, they see that it makes no difference, they see that they’re not served…(2:45)

Brand’s message is correct: the poor are, due to personal and societal factors, disenfranchised. According to the US Census Bureau, in the 2008 presidential election, under 42% of adults with incomes less than $15,000 voted. Voter turnout steadily increased in proportion to income to more than 78% of adults earning more than $150,000. What causes this phenomenon among America’s poor? A multitude of factors: decreased civic engagement, workday voting, felony disenfranchisement, voter identification rules and the belief that voting will not bring instant change to the system. Unfortunately, low voter participation in protest of a broken democratic system only leads to greater marginalization. The poor don’t vote and, in turn, politicians make little effort to appeal to the underprivileged majority. While the privileged minority thrives, the poor only grow more pessimistic. As the old adage goes, ‘the rich get richer and the poor get poorer’.

…300 Americans have the same amount of wealth as their 85 million poorest Americans… (4:05)

This figure goes uncited in Brand’s article and video interview and is difficult to verify when compared alongside federal census data. However, Brand’s observation of a massive income gap in America is accurate. In fact, it is worse than Brand states. The richest 400 Americans have the same amount of wealth as the poorest 157 million Americans (50% of total population). And America is not alone. Almost universally, the gap between the ‘have’ and the ‘have-nots’ is widening. Some may argue that modest income inequality is a healthy symptom of capitalism, but a system that celebrates billionaires as 46.5 million Americans live below the poverty line is clearly broken.

No one is doing anything about tax havens… (9:04)

Here Brand is mistaken, as politicians around the world are clamping down on tax evasion in the wake of the ‘Great Recession’. British politicians have launched a campaign against tax havens in the Commonwealth, such as Bermuda and the Isle of Man. American and German politicians have publicly criticized Irish banks for allowing companies like Facebook and Google to escape millions in taxes, and the US Justice Department has filed lawsuits against Swiss banks that knowingly shelter the money of US citizens and corporations. Whether a moral awakening or domestic financial and political pressure inspired this recent initiative is immaterial, as politicians are taking a stand against tax havens.

…stop voting, stop pretending. Wake up. Be in reality now—time to be in reality now. Why vote? We know it’s not going to make any difference. We know that already…” (5:50)

The question of whether “my vote counts” appears every election season; journalists write articles about the statistical value of each vote. For instance, statements like “your vote has a 1:10,000,000 chance of determining who is elected president” deter the average American from casting a ballot. One may be left thinking that their vote will be inconsequential in choosing elected officials or changing the current political paradigm. Yes, the political system might be broken, but not participating in the electoral system is an ineffective and irresponsible method of protest. This fact impels me to criticize Brand’s argument below.

Debate:

I have three rebuttals to the idea that “voting is tacit complicity” and “voting makes no difference.” First, if Brand’s vision were to become reality, then the electoral system would come to a standstill. However, a more likely scenario is one in which those moved by Brand’s manifesto abstain from voting and those content with the status quo continue to vote. Thus, the influence of those who Brand despises is inflated. As David Foster Wallace wrote: “In reality, there is no such thing as not voting: you either vote by voting, or you vote by staying home and tacitly doubling the value of some Diehard’s vote.” How can those hoping for change endorse an emboldening of the diehards’ policies? Second, voting can have dramatic effects on policy at the local level. State propositions and local laws can determine whether contentious policies, such as the status of undocumented California residents or Colorado’s policy on marijuana, can come to pass. Third, a democracy, by definition, operates via civic participation. One could argue that a democracy that privileges certain socioeconomic groups over others is not a true democracy, but one should argue that a democracy absent of voting is no democracy at all. Rather, such a state becomes an autonomous government that has fully robbed the people of their sovereignty.

Brand argues for revolution—a cultural awakening acknowledging the ill effects of capitalist democracies and favoring a socialist utopia that will equality redistribute national wealth and eliminate profit. The issue with Brand’s vision, as Paxman notes, is that a governmental body is required to redistribute national wealth. And a government of unelected officials in complete command of national wealth – without accountability – is a terrifying prospect. One only needs to look at the Soviet, Chinese, Cuban, Laotian models, to name a few, to see that a government’s adoption of socialism is easier said than done.

Brand cites Scottish comedian Billy Connolly as inspiration: “the desire to be a politician should bar you for life from ever being one.” I disagree. The desire to change, and hopefully better, the community through civil service is honorable, not incriminating. Closing the political door to a future generation of leaders who may have undergone Brand’s “cultural awakening” because of the failures of current leaders is downright irresponsible. The current British-American political paradigm is wrought with problems, but socio-political activism is not one of them. Of all people, Brand should recognize this reality.

A Call for National Unity

Nick Kosturos at West Point

The author pauses for a photo while attending the Student Conference on U.S. Affairs at West Point. The topic for this year’s conference was “Navigating Demographic Flows: Populations, Power, and Policy”

Two weeks ago, I had the honor of attending the 65th Annual Student Conference on U.S. Affairs (SCUSA) at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. In addition to allowing students and cadets to explore various topics regarding the theme of “Navigating Demographic Flows: Populations, Power, and Policy,” the primary purpose of this conference was to foster a better mutual understanding between cadets and civilian students, also known as a “Civ-Mil Relations.” The idea behind these exchanges is that in the future participants may find themselves working in government or business together, and this program would afford all participants at the conference a better understanding of military and civilian lifestyles. Indeed, healthy civilian-military relations are essential for a well-functioning civilian-led democracy, which is why these types of programs exist and receive government funding. For four days, I was granted a fascinating peek into West Point life, including living in the barracks with cadets, studying in the library, and dining in the mess hall. I became very close to my cadet hosts and other students attending the conference. I was deeply affected by the cadet lifestyle and the unique shared experience offered by the Academy. West Point, while certainly not a place for everyone, offers our generation many lessons about the importance of shared experience in the development of a strong national identity.

 

West Point is composed of a diverse set of cadets from all walks of life. They differ in socioeconomic status, gender, race, creed, age, professional/academic backgrounds, and many other factors. While some cadets had already served in the military as enlisted members, most cadets came to the Academy straight out of high school. I recall a conversation with one cadet where he noted the variety of backgrounds and personal beliefs found amongst Cadets at West Point, but that amidst this diversity there was a common denominator uniting all: a desire to serve. I did not realize how strong this common bond was until I witnessed day-to-day operations of the Academy and personal stories of many cadets.

Unlike students at a normal university, cadets at West Point are subject to a daily, rigorous training schedule that makes college final exam season look like a cake walk. Cadets must participate in an average of 6 classes per term – including mandatory athletics, be subject to daily inspections, and march to and eat meals together. And these are just a few components of regular term schedule. As each cadet enters West Point, he or she must survive “Beast,” a summer-long basic training program employing mental and physical stress tests to effectively weed out those candidates who are not fully dedicated to the Academy’s mission. Throughout their time at West Point, cadets who do not perform adequately or break the rules must endure severe reprimands. A common punishment is called “Hours,” which entails walking back and forth in the public square while holding a rifle or sabre for hours at a time (only “Firstie” cadets or seniors are allowed to enjoy the lightness of a sabre while completing their hours). I spoke with a cadet who had to make up 120 hours because of, in my view, a slight deviation from the rules! However, other cadets assured me that there exists a purpose to these seemingly mind-numbing tasks. At West Point, there is little oversight by commissioned officers or other professional staff. The hierarchical nature of West Point teaches cadets to first follow and then lead, with senior cadets or “Firsties” responsible for management tasks such as conducting inspections and running summer “Beast” training for new cadets. Freshmen cadets, or “Plebes,” complete the less glorious tasks, such as taking out the barracks’ trash or escorting civilians, like me, around Academy grounds.

Understandably, some cadets expressed their desire to experience a traditional college lifestyle. When I mentioned I was from USC in Los Angeles, a lot of the cadets humorously grumbled about the weather and college parties, and it became clear to me that some wanted a break from the strenuous life of a cadet at a military academy. However, I was equally, if not more, envious of the West Point experience. The unmatched traditions, dedication to a sense of duty and common purpose (including at least five years of mandatory service upon graduation), the stringent Cadet Honor Code, and perhaps most significantly, the incredibly strong bonds between cadets struck a deep chord with me. This unity and cohesion is something that I feel is missing from political culture and American society in general, especially among my peers.

At a time when U.S. demographics are rapidly shifting, the wealth gap continues to widen, and Congress and our political culture are seeing historic divisions, the importance of fostering a national identity has become ever the more critical to sustaining a strong societal fabric. It is important to understand what I mean by “national identity.” I firmly believe that America’s strength is drawn from the diversity of its citizenry, but this diversity must be woven together by a common thread if our strengths are to be channeled in the most productive manner possible. National identity is developed through actions such as teaching a national history and common language, developing national institutions and symbols like monuments in the Capitol region, and, most importantly, allowing for some type of a shared national experience.

In 2013, there does not seem to exist a shared national experience for my generation. The educational system in our country is very fractured, with some students attending charter schools, public schools, private schools, community college, universities, or no school at all. Unlike our parents and grandparents, there is no World War that must be fought and no common threat like the Soviet Union’s “Evil Empire” that must be defeated. Indeed, it seems as if major bipolar conflicts and common enemies have brought Americans together in the past. Abstract issues such as climate change and the Global War on Terror have not mustered nearly as much national unity when compared to previous historical events. While the information age and social media may prove to be more conducive to greater unity, these technological tools have proven to be both uniting and divisive on a global scale. Therefore, in the absence of a shared national experience, I believe it would be prudent for U.S. policymakers to entertain discussions exploring ways to develop a stronger national identity. Programs such as AmeriCorps, the Peace Corps, or mandatory military service could be used as inspiration for possible public service options. In addition, a thorough and long-needed re-haul of the public education system would also do wonders for shaping a meaningful national experience for youth. Regardless of the policy proposal, U.S. policymakers should always keep the issue of national identity and the utility of shared experiences in mind when developing civic policy, especially for legislation that impacts American youth.

There may be some who question the significance of national unity as the world becomes a small place through the auspices of globalization. However, as long as the nation-state remains the dominant unit of analysis on our planet, America’s national identity is critical to retaining a competitive edge in the international system. The West Point experience, while certainly singular in the sense of its rigor and military culture, reveals the benefits to be had from shared national experiences. This institution accepts youth from all backgrounds and transforms each class of cadets into a united group of individuals willing to serve for a cause greater than themselves. I have no doubt that some of the individuals I met at the conference are going to be leading this country in both the military and civilian realms in the near future, which comes as a comforting thought. The cadets’ shared experiences, sense of brotherhood, and devotion to service distinguishes them from other youth in an American society largely defined by apathy. My generation desperately needs a shared national experience to foster unity, patriotism, and a sense of civic duty. This unity will strengthen our national fabric while unlocking the full potential of the nation.

America’s Reign of Terror?

Victims of drone attacks readied for burial in Miranshah, North Waziristan.

Victims of the January 23, 2009 American drone strike in Miranshah, Pakistan readied for burial. A recent Amnesty International/Human Rights Watch report criticizes President Obama’s drone policy for killing innocent civilians and under-reporting collateral damage. (Creative Commons/Mohammad Mujitaba)

Between September 1793 and July 1794, the National Convention of France operated a “Reign of Terror” defined by the mass execution of potential counterrevolutionaries in the name of national peace. One of the proponents of governing through terror, Maximilien Robespierre, argued: “terror is nothing else than justice, prompt, severe, inflexible [and that] the government in a revolution is the despotism of liberty against tyranny.” In other words, the government may suspend the inalienable rights of its citizens in times of crisis. The ends (peace) justify the means (terror).

On September 14, 2001, the United States Congress expanded the constitutional powers of the executive branch to include the legal authority “to retaliate against any person, organization, or State suspected of involvement in terrorist attacks on the United States, but also against foreign States suspected of harboring or supporting such organizations. Finally, the President may deploy military force preemptively against terrorist organizations or the States that harbor or support them, whether or not they can be linked to the specific terrorist incidents of September 11.” Post-9/11 national security laws have allowed for a permanent retaliatory war with unclear operational and legal boundaries.

The “Global War on Terror” certainly requires an extraordinary military response; the list of “legal” military responses has grown to include drone strikes and Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) missions on potential terrorists in foreign states, states which Congress has not declared war on. The president may suspend the constitutional rights of citizens (by Amendments V and VI of the US Constitution ) and non-citizens (by Articles 3 and 10 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights), in the name of peace. Once again, the ends justify the means.

Criticism of this “paramilitary arm of the administration” is well publicized. However, a new report released last week by Amnesty International in conjunction with Human Rights Watch has brought the Obama administration’s policy on global terrorism into the spotlight. The organizations claim that several drone strikes have been a “clear violation of international humanitarian law,” citing the failure to apply due process before applying the “capital punishment” administered by a Hellfire missile. Further, “Amnesty International has serious concerns that this attack violated the prohibition of the arbitrary deprivation of life and may constitute war crimes or extrajudicial executions,” and that those responsible for ordering the aforementioned attacks (presumably President Obama and his military-intelligence team) should stand trial. (Note: The White House has challenged Amnesty International’s latest report, reiterating that all counterterrorism operations are “precise, lawful, and effective.”)

Drone strikes and JSOC missions are both morally and legally questionable as evidenced by the intentional killing of American citizen Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, a 16-year old civilian living in Yemen, who was killed as punishment for his father’s (Anwar al-Awlaki) crimes and for who he might become—a terrorist made in his father’s image. Furthermore, these missions have a negative impact on America’s ability to effectively engage in diplomacy because of the anti-American distrust and resentment that grows in targeted regions.

I anticipate three defenses of President Obama’s drone policy and subsequent internal law and human right’s violations: (1) drone and JSOC strikes are effective in eliminating terrorist threats; (2) “terror” implies a murderous policy; and (3) war is ugly and why should the US government be indicted for trying to suppress terrorism? I would respond as follows:

(1) Yes, US drones possess deadly accuracy on selected targets and spare the endangerment of US troops in volatile regions such as the Afghani-Pakistani border. However, despite their precision, drone strikes, night raids, constant aerial surveillance—and most dramatically, the killing of innocent civilians—only fuel greater anti-American sentiment. Terrorism is as rampant and threatening as ever. Al-Qaeda and its global affiliates are expanding in spite of successful US operations to kill top commanders. America needs to “win hearts and minds”—drone strikes do not accomplish this goal.

(2) True, President Obama has never advocated the killing of civilians. In fact, he has publicly expressed regret about civilian causalities in war zones. But as in every conflict, civilians have died and the constant threat of a bellicose America is terrorizing people around the world. Exploded missile fragments can be found near kill sites in Somalia, Yemen, and Pakistan; to those finding these ordinances, the “Made in America” message is clear. Children in Pakistan have grown accustom to drone flyovers and are left wondering “am I next?” The CIA’s East African kill list has been contracted to Somali warlords. Perhaps the mother of all surprises has stemmed from Obama’s willingness to detain foreign journalists who speak out about errant American strikes. This is not a covert “Global War on Terror.” Citizens of Mali, Thailand, Panama, Yemen, and more than 70 other countries know all too well that they may become the next in a long line of unsuspecting victims, and from their perspective, America is to blame.

(3) Yes, war is ugly. Soldiers and civilians die at the hands of Allied and insurgent forces. Millions have been displaced. However, murdering—via drone strikes—over 400 innocent civilians in Pakistan is unacceptable, as is the murdering of American citizens abroad. And committing murder in the name of ending murder is nonsensical. But killing without oversight is undermining the very moral and legal fiber of the United States (not to mention bilateral relations with countries in which drone strikes have occurred) and international institutions such as the United Nations—the very institution established to end unchecked killing.

Civilians in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border refer to American JSOC forces as the “American Taliban.” In their eyes, America has become the very monster they promised to destroy. America has scarred and radicalized an entire generation, and as a result the number of “terrorists” will only grow. America’s “despotism of liberty against tyranny” must end, but how does a war like this end? Perhaps Yemeni political activist Abdul-Ghani Al Iryani’s advice is best: “In the fight against al-Qaeda and the extremism it represents, we can do it the easy way, by killing, and thus have to do it again and again, or the hard way and really solve the problem. To truly fight al-Qaeda and similar groups, we must deal with the root causes of its growth—poverty, injustice, lack of rule of law…and drone strikes.”

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the Glimpse from the Globe staff and editorial board.

Update 11/4/13: correction made to the caption for accompanying photograph.

China’s “Floating Population”

China is faced with an internal migration crisis, the scale of which cannot be ignored. In 2012, China’s internal migratory population (both inter- and intra-provincial) exceeded 250 million people. Within that population, those without household registration—effectively illegal aliens within their own nation—known as China’s “floating population” (流动人口), exceed 160 million. Predominantly rural-to-urban migrants moving to the industrial centers of China’s eastern seaboard, this “floating population” is the disadvantaged lifeblood of the Chinese economy.

Since the explosion of internal migration in the 1980s, China’s economy has triumphed (albeit at the expense of the environment), enjoying GDP growth in excess of 10% a year. The government too has implemented sweeping economic reforms to allow for greater growth of both state and private industries. The rich have gotten richer (China is second only to the US in the number of billionaires), and a substantial middle class has emerged (roughly 300 millions citizens). , Yet little has been done for a migratory population larger than the populations of Germany, UK, France, and Italy – combined! They suffer the highest rates of HIV, illiteracy, and crime in China. Their estimated 37 million children are severely undereducated.

Migrant workers assemble computer hard drives at the Seagate factory in Wuxi, China, November 6, 2008. In the last thirty years, tens of millions of rural citizens have immigrated to manufacturing centers in eastern China in the hope of earning higher salaries. (Wikimedia Commons/Robert Scoble)

The government’s current system is clearly broken, but why? And why isn’t the government helping?

The migration crisis is exacerbated by an outdated household registration policy, known in Mandarin as hukou (户口). Promulgated in 1958 by Chairman Mao, hukou operated as a method of controlling the labor force of China. Further, like the Soviet propiska system, hukou served as an internal passport, categorizing citizens as ‘rural’ or ‘urban’, ‘farmer’ or ‘intelligentsia’. Mao was keen on tracking potential dissidents, but moreover preventing mass migration of the peasantry to the industrializing cities. Rural citizens who moved and worked in urban neighborhoods were deemed illegal aliens and denied any welfare privileges associated with citizenship.

A household registration identification card, August 2, 2006. The hukou system is effective in establishing a social apartheid between the 90 million migrants who have proper paperwork, and the 160 million who do not. (Creative Commons/Micah Sittig)

Since the era of Deng Xiaoping, the pace of economic liberalization has been brisk, yet liberalization of labor policy has lagged behind. The Politburo rightly feared that if the poor migrated to the cities in droves, civic institutions would be placed under tremendous financial stress—stress to provide adequate health care, education, water, etc. to an increasingly congested urban environment. Several reforms notwithstanding, (such as allowing inheritance of hukou to pass from father and/or mother, as opposed to solely the father, and temporary urban residency permits for migrants), migration policy is remarkably similar to what it was in 1958. The results are catastrophic for the more than 160 million “floating” workers in the urban areas of China. They live without any civil protection from the state, while employers and the state profit from their “illegal” labor.

Why has the government failed to act on the cries of their main labor force? The answer can be divided into two parts.

The first, and most blunt point, is that the People’s Republic of China is an oppressive state. The government frequently incurs human rights violations, including denying migrants health insurance, jailing dissidents, censoring the Internet, and preventing religious freedom. Although the economy has liberalized significantly, much of China’s rule of law remains backward.

The second reason is that the government still shares Mao’s fears from 1958: the abolishment of the hukou system could lead to mass migration from rural areas and strain on urban areas. The sheer cost of providing social services to an additional 160 million people frightens the government from attempting any serious reform. Urban centers like Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen are already suffering from the side effects of overpopulation. From where would the money and space to educate, treat, and train 160 million people come?

So why doesn’t China’s “floating population” protest and demand an end to internationally recognized human rights abuses? In part, because in many cities, migrants have indeed succeeded in acquiring wage increases and safer working conditions. The government continues to provide sufficient improvements to the workers just to prevent a nationwide revolt (e.g., Chengdu has eliminated urban welfare barriers as of 2012). In addition, the workers are terrified that challenging the state could result in physical or financial harm for them and their loved ones.

In an age where an increasing number of Chinese are connected to social media (and able to bypass government controls), will China experience an “Arab Spring”-esque event? Or will the state continue to restrict the benefits to migrants, leaving INGOs (international non-governmental organizations) to provide essential social services to China’s labor force? Unfortunately for those suffering from this crisis, and the estimated 100 million additional rural-to-urban migrants expected by 2020, there is no clear answer.

Islamic Radicalization in Our Own Backyard

The Westgate Mall Attack and What it Means for al-Shabaab Influence Within the United States

Photo by Anne Knight [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Last Monday, a dense plume of smoke could be seen following a loud explosion that erupted in the heart of the Westgate Shopping Mall in Nairobi, Kenya. Al-Shabab militants had held hundreds hostage that day, with at least sixty-two confirmed killed, after storming the mall with guns. Though the grisly attack may seem akin to another terrorism attack in a volatile region, the strike uncovers a few critical considerations regarding the terrorist group responsible and its plans for international expansion.

Al-Shabaab, a Somali militant group (the Arabic name translates to “The Youth”) came into existence in 2006 as the radical youth wing of Somalia’s Union of Islamic Courts. The coalition began as a faction fighting Ethiopian forces who entered Somalia to back the country’s interim government. During this period, foreign jihadists flocked to Somalia to help al-Shabaab in its fight gradually establishing a link between the group and al-Qaeda. Al-Shabaab has seen its influence dwindle in recent years, beginning with its forced-removal from Mogadishu in 2011 and then again its loss of control of the region after leaving the port Kismayo a year later. These losses deprived them of the ability to levy taxes and acquire supplies in areas under their control.

Given its diminishing hold on regional power, it comes as little surprise that al-Shabaab decisively chose to strike beyond its borders and launch a fatal assault on the popular Nairobi mall; Westgate shopping center is a major tourist hub attracting western foreigners and affluent Kenyans. The attack sends a clear message to radicals and other extremist al-Qaeda-linked organizations stating, “We’re still here, and we’re still in serious business.”

But al-Shabaab’s propagandistic attack was not meant to radicalize Islamists exclusively in the region. The group of fighters that day was comprised not only of Somali nationals, but also of international recruits – most significantly at least two fighters have been confirmed to have come from Minnesota and Missouri. In other words, a number of these recruits who were involved in this gruesome Jihadist strike were United States citizens loyal to al-Shabaab.

Why is this significant? Consider the following factors in conjunction with one another: (1) the choice to attack a site of this sort rather than one with government or military affiliation was largely a publicity-driven move, (2) both the targets and the al-Shabab recruits were an amalgamation of foreigners originating from an array of western countries. The attack was more than just another anti-west assault launched by Islamists; it was meant to serve as an initiative in capturing the attention of Somalis and Muslims – specifically within the United States – for recruitment to the group’s militant forces.

The American-Somali population saw a spike in numbers following immigrants escaping the country’s 1991 civil war . An estimated 50,000 to over 150,000 Somali naturalized citizens reside within the United States today, living in concentrated groups, the largest of which is situated in Minnesota. And although the majority of Somalis have assimilated to American culture, the adjustment of the population has been met with interruptions by the Islamic radicalization of its youth that has been occurring since at least 2004. In 2007, al-Shabaab began openly calling for foreign fighters around the world to come join their extremist forces – and a number of American-Somalis began taking heed to their calls, leaving for Somalia to train in the name of jihad.

While there is nothing new about Americans being recruited and trained to fight for Jihadist terrorist organizations, al-Shabaab and its Nairobi propaganda attack not only increased the probable numbers of radicalized Americans migrating to the region but also highlighted an acute new domestic security concern within the United States. Through recruiting, radicalizing and training, al-Shabaab is able to extend its extremist goals directly into the United States through Somali citizens who leave for Somalia as Islamists and return to the States as new Jihadists. U.S. intelligence forces need to begin focusing on al-Shabaab’s recruitment among the swelling American-Somali population, as it will soon prove itself to be among the next major threats to the borders of this nation. If the government is to minimize the effects of al-Shabaab’s recruitment campaign, it must take initiative to locate both the locals responsible for radicalizing these Somali-Americans, as well as those who have left the country to receive training, to ensure that they do not reenter the country equipped with ambitions of Jihadist destruction.

Not only must it track and locate recruiters and militants who are nationals, but the United States must also keep a close watch as to where in Somalia its dollars are being wired. In addition to the number of recruits the group receives from this country, al-Shabaab’s supporters have maintained direct contact with its leaders; recorded transactions indicate that the group has received at least tens of thousands of American dollars through money transfer businesses over the years to the organization. Since al-Shabaab was added to the State Department’s list of designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations in 2008, the providing of money, communications, weapons, human capital, etc., to the group has been deemed illegal, which has appeared to have had somewhat of a preventative effect with twelve individuals convicted in 2011. Regardless of this initiative and the seemingly negligible reported amount of funds channeled to the organization, there still exists the prominent threat of “under-wraps” al-Shabaab recruitment and funding that occurs entirely undetected within the United States.

Perhaps in spite of all these considerations, al-Shabaab’s horrific, newsworthy assault on the Westgate Mall was a mere cry for attention – an act of desperation to reclaim what little is left of its legitimacy as a serious terrorist organization. After all, the group’s primary aim has always been to maintain ironclad control over Somalia, and with that gone, al-Shabaab has little to its name within the region. Some argue that the attack will fail to create a substantial wave of radicalization and influence potential recruits in such a dramatic manner. However, the truth still indicates that the threat is grave. The attack shows that al-Shabaab is still serious about its exploits, and the Americans involved prove that the group’s recruitment is still effective and in full swing within the States. Moreover, the White House must marshal its intelligence services in cracking down on domestic recruitment, and perhaps most importantly monitoring the reentry of American-Somalis returning from Somalia, in order to ensure that domestic grounds are kept secure from the new security threat posed by al-Shabaab and its terrorist outlets on U.S. soil.

Vladimir Putin: Master of the World’s Greatest Imitation Democracy

Vladimir Putin - World Economic Forum Annual Meeting Davos 2009

Vladimir Putin – World Economic Forum Annual Meeting Davos 2009 (flickr, World Economic Forum)

Vladimir Putin is the most tactful political leader of our time. While some may gawk at his strange leadership style, including a growing string of “Putin Action Man” photos as representative of a clownish leader, Putin’s ability to project a strong foreign policy and maintain control over a great power should be taken very seriously. Most recently, Putin has been able to uphold Russia’s interest in Syria while projecting himself as a world peacemaker as the U.S. recovers from a massive political fumble. This is no easy task, even for a former KGB man. On the home front, he has consistently bent the rules to empower himself – and his regime – at great cost to his own citizenry. Over the past decade, he has purged political opponents, denigrated Russian civil society, and allegedly siphoned off billions of dollars for his own gain, perhaps making him one of the richest men in the world. He accomplished all of these actions while maintaining popular support from Russians. Indeed, reports indicate Putin would have won the previous 2012 election even if the vote had not been rigged. He has also just announced the possibility of running for another 6-year term in 2018, which, if he wins, would make him the longest-serving leader of Russia since Josef Stalin. Even though history has shown that Russians tend to be pre-disposed to accepting authoritarian leaders, Putin’s rise to power in an increasingly democratic world is the mark of a master autocrat.

Unlike many other world leaders who have come to power through familial connections, personal wealth, or coup d’état, Putin’s ascension is unique. As a trained intelligence officer who operated overseas under the KGB, and as the former head of the FSB (Russia’s successor to the KGB), Putin is arguably better prepared to maintain political dominance more than most other world leaders. Putin’s foreign policy machine was able to manipulate world leaders and the UN Security Council into stalling on Syria for over 2 years while continuing to sell advanced weapons to the murderous regime. Russia then proposed a peace deal that overshadowed a flustered and disjointed U.S. Additionally, Putin’s craftiness in foreign policy is alarmingly evident in Russia’s expanding sphere of influence. Putin shunned Western Europe when he forced Armenia and other nations away from the EU and into an exclusive Eurasian economic union that is growing in size and prominence. To accomplish such objectives, Putin is known to use coy power tactics in his diplomatic dealings; one such example is his taking advantage of Angela Merkel’s fear of dogs by bringing his trusted companion to diplomatic negotiations with Germany. Putin truly puts the bite in foreign policy leaving his counterparts flabbergasted at his aggressive wielding of power and influence. This bold leadership style has certainly contributed to the rise of Russia’s global power projection when compared to its status at the beginning of the 21st century.

On the domestic stage, Putin is gradually bringing back a Stalinist-like society, feeding off of growing xenophobic and conservative attitudes held by many Russians. However, Putin dominates political life in a stealthier manner than Stalin. Putin has removed competitors from power under the guise of well-timed, government sponsored anti-corruption campaigns as opposed to mass killings. The removal of Russia’s richest man, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, along with activist Alexei Navalny’s conviction and subsequent temporary release from his prison sentence to compete in a mayoral election, both stand as illustrative examples of Putin’s tactful political purges. Although these men were not taken to a house and shot in the back of the head, both were convicted in blatantly manufactured court rulings, affording the Putin regime solid political victories under the façade of judicial legitimacy.

Proponents of democratic reform in Russia should be particularly alarmed by Putin’s heavy regulation and interference in Russia’s civil society. Indeed, the Russian leader has thoroughly stomped on democratic principles by heavily regulating and restricting budding civil society groups, most notably by branding all NGOs that receive foreign funding as “foreign agents,” which evokes immense suspicion from Russian citizens because of the negative connotation of this label. The jailing of political dissidents such as the “Pussy Riot” band also discourages an atmosphere of protest and certainly prevents a healthy civil society from taking root. Putin’s grip on Russia’s domestic affairs has tightened and appears to be strong-as-ever for the foreseeable future.

Putin’s contradictions are too many to count. He holds elections only to rig them. He praises the impartiality of the Russian judicial system, and then uses it to jail political opponents. He projects himself as a world peacemaker and continues to support murderous regimes. He expresses a desire for public diplomacy but constantly stimulates anti-foreigner sentiments among his people. He worships state sovereignty and then uses obstructionist tactics to bully other nations into economic and military cooperation. Russia, a place former Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov referred to as an “imitative democracy,” will never be able to transform itself into a true democracy as long as a Vladimir Putin is at the helm. So next time you see Putin projecting his dominance while riding a horse in Siberia, avoid labeling his antics as foolish and instead recall his ever-tightening grip as master of the world’s greatest imitation democracy.