Category Archives: WMD

The International Relations of Blockchain

The soaring earnings and dramatic fall of Bitcoin late last to early this year has catapulted the very nascent technology of blockchain to the forefront of news media. It has been met with polarizing speculation from the public and various news outlets, but John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight — a comedy news show, articulated the topic quite well:

While the show did very lightly touch on Blockchain – the backbone technology of Bitcoin, a digital currency – it primarily the use of blockchain technology as a cryptocurrency. The reality is that blockchain technology has far reaching implications and is the key reason why companies across an array of industries are pouring into its research and development.

To dive a little deeper into blockchain, IBM’s Think Academy put together a three and a half minute video succinctly describing the technology’s main advantages:

  1. Transparent transactions
  2. Decentralized ledger
  3. Increased security

These three components, from a telecommunications/information technology standpoint, fundamentally harden the security of information systems in the following ways:

  1. Decentralized Ledger
    As the IBM video points out, blockchain relies on a network of computers across the globe that contribute (or mine) “blocks” of information and attach it together in a sequential chain. Think of it kind of like the game of “snake” on an old-school Nokia phone (I really hope that doesn’t date me…) and the snake itself is comprised of the very same blocks of information linked together. Each block has an “index number”, which puts the blocks in order and when a new block is produced, it is added to the front of the chain. This is why the technology is called what it is – “block-chain”  – or blockchain.

    What does this have to do with a ledger?

    Along with an index number, each block has other pieces of information in it. It can have information that includes, for example, the timestamp, sales amount, and item of a transaction that took place when a block was created. Such a block becomes the equivalent to a digital receipt or invoice that, chained together, evolves into a digital ledger.

    Why decentralize a ledger?

    Each computer on the blockchain network keeps a local copy of the blockchain. As each block gets added to the chain, the same block gets added to every single chain across all computers in the blockchain network. With each computer on the blockchain network updated in real time, the blockchain network effectively becomes a super redundant chain of information that is nearly impossible to manipulate.

    How so?

  2. Increased Security
    Blockchain has a series of quality control mechanisms that keep it from becoming manipulated. One feature is that every block has a full history of every block that came before it. If, for example, transaction information were included in previous blocks, that history is also written in the latest block that’s added to the chain. If someone were to try to game the system by trying to produce a block that has different or conflicting historical data (or a different historical blockchain), that block is rejected as the majority of devices with matching blockchains would override that fallacious block. This feature, in conjunction with a handful of other security mechanisms and designs, makes the ledger, in a sense, immutable: “unchanging over time or unable to be changed.” This immutability ensures accuracy and trust of data that’s included in the blockchain.

    What makes this significant?

  3. Transparent Transactions
    With an immutable and decentralized blockchain ledger, transactions, currency serial numbers, or any type of record the ledger contains can be considered trusted and accurate. Since anyone can confirm a blockchain history, the blockchain (if public, which most are) can be considered transparent. This transparency of the blockchain helps prevent censure, corruption, or fraud.

With these three features of blockchain, the IBM video concludes, “blockchain will do for business as the internet did for communication.” As catchy as the conclusion is, it falls considerably short on the potential of blockchain technology improving other industries and the public sector. A slew of use cases for blockchain technology have been proposed for the medical industry, census, and a whole slew of other sectors, but of interest is its potential for international relations and governance.

New Voting Systems
For the last decade and a half, attempts at introducing technology in the electoral process has been historically marred with skepticism and failure. With the magnum opus that is the Russia probe investigation, it is a tough sell to introduce new technology in the electoral process.

Blockchain’s capability as a decentralized ledger is not just limited to a sales or currency capacity. Ledgers can be kept for all kinds of things, including votes. For example, a block that is generated can include the unique index number of the block, the timestamp of its generation, the vote recording of a specific candidate, and an encrypted unique identifier of an eligible voter. With the immutability and decentralization of a blockchain voting ledger, the final result can be considered accurate and trusted with verification being able to occur in milliseconds.

A number of proposals and pilots have already been rolled out. In Sierra Leone, populous districts and cities have used a blockchain voting system to audit election results. The efficacy of blockchain’s use for transparent and fair elections is still pending study, but certainly the use case, application, and execution of a blockchain voting system is well under way.

International Agreements with Teeth
There is plenty of debate in the world of international relations on the efficacy of international agreements and/or sanctions, but one of its biggest criticisms is the lack of “teeth”. Whether it’s related to a climate accord or sanctions, there is a dearth in mechanisms that can actually impose the terms of an international agreement without the explicit and active participation of all governments in uniform agreement. However, an international banking (wire) mechanism that sits on a blockchain network might solve that problem.

Ethereum is a blockchain technology that is programmable. Unlike it’s cousin Bitcoin, Ethereum doesn’t keep a record of serial numbers, inventory information, or casual data. Ethereum’s blocks contain code known as “smart contracts” that execute a process if certain conditions are met. A bank wiring system on an Ethereum blockchain platform can provide the necessary components of a trusted international platform: decentralized, programmable to automate governance and enforcement, and transparent to prevent fraud at the digital layer.

For example, in the wake of the Russian ex-pat assassinations in London, the UK is flirting with a range of economic sanctions to leverage, but it is already agreed this is difficult to enforce. However, if Europe’s WMD agreements were to be codified into a hypothetical “Euro-zone blockchain banking network”, it could be possible that sanction conditions be programmed into the network and enforce its governance when requirements are met. In this case, the discovery of a nerve agent would automate the enforcement of economic sanctions on those determined to be involved in the assassination.

However, there should be no confusion that the blockchain is just a potential tool of enforcement. Its “teeth” are only as strong as what is coded into it.  That is determined at the treaty or bill negotiation table.

Bridge the Digital Gap of the Developing World
Rural areas in the developing world are notoriously “underbanked” where there are too few or no banking facilities. This missing basic necessity effectively shuts out these communities from participating in the world economy. Underbanking exacerbates poverty by time lost due to travel for trade/transactions or the high cost of urban-to-rural middlemen. 

Blockchain as a cryptocurrency, like Bitcoin, can provide direct-to-consumer interaction on the world stage. Mobile wallets – think of bank accounts attached to your smart phone – can provide a direct avenue of exchange to the most rural of communities with the use of a smart phone and a USB. Through cryptocurrency, rural communities can become more competitive in the world marketplace.

Cryptocurrencies have also been proven to be in high demand in developing countries with volatile market places and currency. Countries like Venezuela, Greece, and Turkey have all seen a dramatic rise in the demand of cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin. The reason for the demand is that it is used to mitigate risk if a currency is experiencing hyperinflation. While cryptocurrencies are also known for their volatile value, it can often be less volatile than the currency of a local country experiencing financial crisis and more readily available than more stable currencies — especially for those in the rural communities.

…Cool Your Jets…
There are numerous other possibilities that blockchain technology can help improve or revolutionize international relations, but it is important to remember that the technology is very, very new. It is safe to say that the technology is here to stay, but how to use it is a completely different matter. There are too few experts, proven use cases, and general products for the technology to be whole sale adopted just yet. It is also an open debate which version or maturation of the technology will become wildly adopted.

All that being said, the serious considerations being brought by industries and the public sectors alike should give the international relations/affairs enthusiasts to take serious notice.

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Damascus is Burning


Click here for more pictures of the Syrian Civil War. Warning: Graphic.

About a couple of months back, I had the opportunity to meet former CNN reporter Rudi Bakhtiar. She had returned from the Syrian-Turkish border region doing an investigation on the Syrian Civil War’s effect on Syrian children. She happened to be already speaking to my cousin when I had arrived, and when I came to introduce myself, my cousin casually mentioned my background in conflict analysis and resolution. She asked me what I thought about the civil war and what could be done about. I replied, “Nothing,” which seemed to startle the group that was presently speaking with her.

She responded, “Why?”

I answered, “It’s an election year.”

She smiled her million-dollar smile and she agreed, “Precisely.”

While the cute little exchange holds truth, it is only one factor that contributed (temporarily) to the U.S. government doing “little” to actively stop the conflict. Even with the elections out of the way, the United States is (and will be) quite hesitant in raising the Syrian government as a top foreign policy issue. Why? Because Syria isn’t Libya and, more importantly, al-Assad isn’t Ghaddafi.

That seems like a no-brainer, but it is significant in how the international community can approach in dealing with the situation. It only helps the international community to intervene with prejudice if you’re a touch like Dr. Evil. When Ghaddafi’s son,  threatened “rivers of blood would flow with ‘thousands’ of deaths if the uprising does not stop,” — along with Ghaddafi going on Libya’s state television and exclaiming he will hunt down the “rats and cockroaches” (referring to the Libyan rebels) “to purify Libya inch by inch, house by house…street by street, person by person, until the country is clean of the dirt and impurities,” — it evoked memories of Bosnia and Kosovo in the international community to what they perceived would be a certain genocide.

This is politically significant because the fallout from Bosnia and Kosovo changed the UN Charter to include a “Right to Protect” (R2P) clause. The clause states:

“[W]e are prepared to take collective action, in a timely and decisive manner, through the Security Council, in accordance with the Charter, including Chapter VII, on a  case-by-case basis and in cooperation with relevant regional organizations as appropriate, should peaceful means be inadequate and national authorities are manifestly failing to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.”

 The evening of Ghaddafi’s speech, the Arab League suspended Libya’s delegation and called for a no-fly zone to be put in place a few weeks later, which gave the ratification at the UN a significant boost a week later. So significant were these formal announcements of spilling blood that it even caused Russia and China from using their veto (both countries abstained). Russia and China didn’t want to be on the wrong side of history if another Bosnia were to have happened had they vetoed a no-fly zone. This is how Ghaddafi found himself in the firing line of Tomahawk missiles.

The Syrian case is quite different. Assad has a lot of friends. Most notably Iran and Russia. While Iran and Assad’s regime are religiously similar (though not the same), their friendship runs deeper. Most significantly is Syria’s support of Iran during the Iran-Iraq war followed by both countries’ involvement in Lebanon. This is why it should not come to anyone’s surprise that Iran provides not only weapons and supplies, but actual troops in the form of the Revolutionary Guard for Assad’s use. Russian-Syrian relations revolve around long-standing military cooperation and Russia’s only military base outside of the former Soviet bloc, the Tartus naval base located in Tartus, Syria. The latter most likely assures that a no-fly zone would be vetoed if it were to ever reach a vote at the UN. Besides friends, Assad mutes any sort of sabre-rattling from his speeches when it comes to the opposition. Even in the context of the Houla massacre, Assad uses political language to mitigate an international backlash.

A game changer is whether (or when) the Syrian government will use chemical weapons in its civil war. Syria sits on a large stockpile of chemical weapons that has many in the international community very concerned. President Obama has already declared that the use of chemical weapons is the “red line” Assad cannot cross with France and the UK following suit. The Assad government has announced that it will not use chemical weapons in its civil war, but recent events such as chemical weapons testing in August and a defected general having “high-level” discussions on the use of chemical weapons on the rebels prior to his defection have the world on high alert. If the Syrian army decides to use the weapons, it would certainly estrange Russia and China from supporting Assad, and would likely catalyze an R2P intervention.

Another game changer would be whether the Syrian military can keep the weapons secure or if the Assad government is overthrown, what kind of government would take its place. If an unstable or radical government were to take over, the seizure of the weapons can prove to be particularly destabilizing without outside intervention. It is hard to imagine the U.S., Israel, or Russia for that matter not intervening and destroying the weapons in a military strike.

So what will happen or what can be done? It is difficult to say. Syria’s opposition is a far cry from uniformity in comparison to Libya’s opposition, which is an egregiously low standard in and of itself. The U.S. and various Arab nations have just put together a new opposition bloc that they hope can recognized and legitimized by all the different Syrian opposition groups. They have already been recognized by the Arab League, but it remains to be seen if they can get all parties to work with them. If they can secure a majority of oppositional political and paramilitary parties then perhaps they stand a chance at entering negotiations with the Syrian government. However, what unites them is at odds with a segment of the international community. The fundamental question revolves on whether Assad should step down from power. For Russia and Iran, this is a no. For the West and the Syrian opposition, this is a yes.

In the meantime, R2P remains dormant due to Russia, while lives continue to be lost as Syria’s Civil War continues its slow burn.

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