This Alliance Is Brought to You by the Letter 'M'

Introducing the world's most unlikely political grouping.

ULAN BATOR, Mongolia — As a basis for an international alliance, a common first letter might not seem as natural as a common language, religion, or geography. But Mongolia needs all the friends it can get.

After all, it's not easy being a landlocked country with global ambitions. This land of a -- widely spaced -- 2.8 million people is undergoing one of the world's great economic booms, recording annual double-digit growth rates over the last two years, thanks largely to a mining windfall.

As fine a circumstance as that may be, it crystallizes the fact that a single economic partner wields tremendous influence over domestic affairs. The Chinese dragon has coiled its tail around Mongolia, accounting for more than 80 percent of Mongolia's exports. Additionally, to the north is Russia, an old but complicated friend with motives of its own. Mongolia imports near all its oil and petroleum from Russia over a domestic railway network still controlled by the Federal Agency for Railway Transport in Moscow -- more than 3,000 miles away.

You can't blame Mongolia for looking farther afield. As the country begins to monetize the trillions of dollars in mineral wealth beneath its soil, the stakes have risen. How can Mongolia leverage the mineral boom while safeguarding against the undue influence of its hungry superpower neighbors? Mongolian leaders are fixated on the limits of their geographical position, China and Russia's stranglehold on trade, and a desire to make lasting economic strides.

Purevsuren Lundeg, the foreign-policy advisor to Mongolian President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj, was brooding over this displeasure one day last August when across his desk came a news release issued by Silk Road Management, an Ulan Bator-based investment company specializing in public equities, money markets, and bonds in out-of-the-way markets. The notice announced the creation of something called the M3 Fund, "the first ever investment fund to be focused on Myanmar, Mongolia and Mozambique, three resource-rich countries which we term as M3." The news release noted that the countries have more in common than the letter M. All three are undergoing post-socialist democratic reforms. Each is experiencing a natural resources boom that will extend for decades. And most importantly, each borders at least one of the BRICS countries (in the cases of Mongolia and Myanmar, two), which are hungry for control of these natural resources. Alisher Ali, Silk Road's managing partner, told me that he thinks, "All three nations will be among the top five fastest-growing economies in the next decade." Mongolia's superheated economy already ranks No. 4.

Purevsuren's interest was piqued. It was the first time he had thought of these three countries in a single grouping, and Mongolia is eager to form new political and economic alliances. "We want to have less dependence on our two neighbors," Purevsuren told me. Could Mongolia, Mozambique, and Myanmar cooperate to the benefit of each individual country, massaging diplomatic, social, and economic growing pains?

This was the beginning of Ulan Bator's attempts to form the M3 cluster, a fledgling political alliance. The goal, vaguely sketched, is to join these three countries in a loose confederation of information, exchange, and advice, with groupings such as the G-20 and the Arab League serving as models. Mongolia is attempting to construct a union of allies that can protect it against the ravenous economies of its BRICS neighbors. "We're looking at the similarities, to bring to the forefront what we have in common and coordinate common goals and interests," Purevsuren says. "This idea is brand-new. Mongolia is going to show leadership on this."

Purevsuren drew up a proposal on President Elbegdorj's stationery. He sent one copy to colleagues in Naypyidaw, Myanmar's capital, which he had recently visited for bilateral talks on democracy. He dispatched another copy to the belly of the beast itself, Beijing, where the Mongolian ambassador to China handed the note to his Mozambican counterpart.

Mongolia is now initiating trilateral talks to be held this June at the World Economic Forum's East Asia summit in Naypyidaw. There are also preliminary plans for the presidents of the three countries to convene for talks in Ulan Bator. "We have a number of issues in common," says Victorino Xavier, the national director of economics at Mozambique's Ministry of Industry and Trade. "That process is welcome in Mozambique. For us, that would be a good initiative. We have a lot to gain from each other."

Thura Ko Ko, the managing director of YGA Capital Limited, a Naypyidaw-based firm investing in regional and international funds, also sees potential. "One of the interesting things that we could learn is if Mongolia takes control of its natural resources, instead of handing out concessions left, right, and center to the Chinese or the Russians," he said. "Maybe that's part of the reform process you'll see in Myanmar, whereby we no longer want to have to turn to our neighboring markets. We would like to have a wider frame in terms of our natural resources and reach out to the West, perhaps."

In March, Purevsuren and Mongolia's deputy minister of foreign affairs, Damba Gankhuyag, made an official visit to Myanmar. They discussed cooperative initiatives with the head of Myanmar's presidential administration, the deputy speaker of the parliament, and the chief of the committee on foreign affairs. The government of Myanmar announced that several of its representatives, along with Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and chair of the opposition National League for Democracy, would take part in the ministerial conference of the Community of Democracies, which was held at the end of April in Ulan Bator.

Gunaajav Batjargal, director of the Mongolian Foreign Ministry's department of policy planning and research, discussed his hopes for the alliance with me. "We have similarities. Why not get together and share our experiences?" he said. "We are close to the demand houses of the world. We have to prevent the complete rip-off of our natural resources. We'd like to cooperate to achieve a possibly unified position. It's a very ambitious task, and daunting. It's game-theory stuff." (One U.S. Embassy official was less charitable, quipping that the new collective would be the "mortar between the BRICS.")

So what are these countries actually going to work on? One convenient starting point might be the new mining law that officials in Myanmar are drafting, scheduled for a final debate in early 2014. In December, Mongolia published draft revisions to its own mining law. The changes would appear to steer Mongolia away from the free market practices that have underpinned its recent economic growth by granting the government free stakes in numerous mining developments. This sort of resource nationalism may not win Mongolia plaudits at Davos, but it's the kind of measure that the guardians of small, yet growing economies like those of the M3 believe may be necessary to avert domination at the hands of their stronger neighbors. Of the more than 4,000 mining licenses in Mongolia, more than half are already in Chinese hands.

As for Mozambique, though it may neighbor South Africa, the most relevant BRICS country for its future may be Brazil, with which it shares a language, colonial history, and deepening economic ties. The Brazilian mining company Vale plans to mine 4.5 million tons of Mozambican coal this year. Eletrobras, Latin America's largest utility, is considering building a $6 billion project in the capital, Maputo. In addition, India and China are among the potential developers of the recently discovered gas off its coast, which promises to make Mozambique the world's third-largest exporter of liquefied natural gas in the coming years.

Myanmar is looking to diversify its partners as well. Due to lengthy Western sanctions against the military junta running the country, China long ago established its primacy in Myanmar, taking strong positions in jade, timber, teak, real estate, and other industries. In the 2011-2012 fiscal year, trade between the two countries totaled $3.6 billion. China is Myanmar's No. 1 trading partner. However, domestic frustrations over perceived Chinese environmental indiscretions, underlined by a protest that halted the development of a multibillion-dollar hydroelectric dam in Myanmar, have boiled over.

The concern over Chinese dominance was likely one major factor behind Myanmar's recent moves to liberalize the country's political system, including allowing Aung San Suu Kyi to run for office. But though its emergence from pariah status may one day lead to fully normalized relations with the United States and Europe, Myanmar's leaders are also interested in friends closer to their own situation.

"Myanmar is very sensitive," says Murray Hiebert, Sumitro chair for Southeast Asia studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "There's certainly a concern. The goal is to open up the economy. They are strenuously looking for alternatives to China. They want to create models for good business practices."

While the governments move to formalize the alliance, the concept's originator, Silk Road, continues with plans of its own. The M3 fund is currently valued at $25 million. Ali, Silk Road's managing partner, recently established an NGO in Ulan Bator, the Mongolia-Myanmar Business Council, that fosters connections between those in the financial sectors in the two countries, though the organization has broader goals. "We would like to encourage political links," Ali says. "These countries should definitely get together and form policy. Hopefully, this will result in an effective response to the dark side of physical proximity to these BRICS countries."

The concept got a further vote of confidence recently when Supachai Panitchpakdi, secretary-general of the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development said in a speech in Ulan Bator, "The 3Ms -- Mozambique, Myanmar, and Mongolia -- are on the map and are raising investors' interest worldwide. There are many obstacles to climb, but they are in your hands." Less than a year old, the M3 idea is on the global agenda.

It may seem ironic that a political union dedicated to protecting against dangers of foreign investment was inspired by a foreign investor. Then again, the BRICS, now a formal political grouping with regular summit meetings, started out as a cheeky acronym in a Goldman Sachs report. And Mongolia, eager for solutions to its geographical challenges, will take inspiration where it can find it.

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National Security

A Liberal Case for Drones

Why human rights advocates should stop worrying about the phantom fear of autonomy.

In a press conference on Tuesday, Attorney General Eric Holder was asked what he planned to do to increase the Obama administration's transparency with regard to the drones program. "We are in the process of speaking to that," Holder said. "We have a roll-out that will be happening relatively soon."

Due to the program's excessive secrecy, few solid details are available to the public. Yet, as new technologies come online -- on Tuesday, the Navy launched an unmanned stealth jet from an aircraft carrier -- new concerns are emerging about how the U.S. government may use drones.

The X-47B, which can fly without human input, is a harbinger of what's to come. A growing number of international human rights organizations are concerned about the development of lethal autonomy -- that is, drones that can select and fire on people without human intervention. But as the outcry over this still-hypothetical technology grows, it's worth asking: might the opposite be true? Could autonomous drones actually better safeguard human rights?

Last month, Christof Heyns, the U.N. special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions, released a major report calling for a pause in developing autonomous weapons and for the creation of a new international legal regime governing future development and use. Heyns asked whether this technology can comply with human rights law and whether it introduces unacceptable risk into combat.

The U.N. report is joined by a similar report, issued last year by Human Rights Watch. HRW argues that autonomous weapons take humanity out of conflict, creating a future of immoral killing and increased hardship to civilians. HRW calls for a categorical ban on all development of lethal autonomy in robotics. HRW is also spearheading a new global campaign to forbid the development of lethal autonomy.

That is not as simple a task as it sounds. "Completely banning autonomous weapons would be extremely difficult," Armin Krishnan, a political scientist at the University of Texas at El Paso who studies technology and warfare, told me. "Autonomy exists on a spectrum."

If it's unclear where to draw the line on autonomy, then maybe intent is a better way to think about such systems. Lethally autonomous defensive weapons, such as the Phalanx missile defense gun, decide on their own to fire. Dodaam Systems, a South Korean company, even manufactures a machine gun that can automatically track and kill a person from two miles away. These stationary, defensive systems have not sparked the outcry autonomous drones have. "Offensive systems, which actively seek out targets to kill, are a different moral category," Krishnan explains.

Yet many experts are uncertain whether autonomous attack weapons are necessarily a bad thing, either. "Can we program drones well? I'm not sure if we can trust the software or not," Samuel Liles, a Purdue professor specializing in transnational cyberthreats and cyberforensics, wrote in an email. "We trust software with less rigor to fly airliners all the time."

The judgment and morality of individual humans certainly isn't perfect. Human decision-making is responsible for some of the worst atrocities of recent conflicts. Just on the American side, massacres -- like when Marines killed 24 unarmed civilians in Haditha or Marine special forces shot 19 unarmed civilians in the back in Jalalabad -- speak to the fragility of human judgment about using force. Despite decades of effort to make soldiers less likely to commit atrocities, it still happens with alarming regularity.

Yet, machines are not given the same leeway: Rights groups want either perfect performance from machines or a total ban on them.

"If programmed with strict criteria, a drone could be more selective than a human," Krishnan explains. "But that could also introduce a vulnerability if an insurgent learns how to circumvent that criteria."

An accounting of how robots currently work is missing from much of the advocacy against drones and autonomy. In a recent article for the United Nations Association, Noel Sharkey, a high-profile critic of drones and a professor of artificial intelligence and robotics at the University of Sheffield, argued forcefully that machines cannot "distinguish between civilians and combatants," apply the Geneva Conventions, or determine proportionate use of force.

It is a curious complaint: A human being did not distinguish between civilians and combatants, apply the Geneva Convention, or determine an appropriate use of force during the infamous 2007 "Collateral Murder" incident in Iraq, when American helicopter pilots mistook a Reuters camera crew for insurgents and fired on them and a civilian van that came to offer medical assistance.

Humans get tired, they miss important information, or they just have a bad day. Without machines making any decisions to fire weapons, humans are shooting missiles into crowds of people they cannot identify in so-called signature strikes. When a drone is used in such a strike, it means an operator has identified some combination of traits -- a "signature" -- that makes a target acceptable to engage. These strikes are arguably the most problematic use of drones, as the U.S. government tightly classifies what these criteria are and has announced it will consider all "military-aged males" that die combatants unless proven otherwise. A machine could, conceivably, do it better.

"If a drones system is sophisticated enough, it could be less emotional, more selective, and able to provide force in a way that achieves a tactical objective with the least harm," Liles says. "A lethal autonomous robot can aim better, target better, select better, and in general be a better asset with the linked ISR [intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance] packages it can run."

In other words, a lethal autonomous drone could actually result in fewer casualties and less harm to civilians.

That doesn't mean machines will always be this way. Machine learning, a branch of artificial intelligence in which computers adapt to new data, poses a challenge if applied to drones. "I'm concerned with the development of self-programming," Krishnan says. "As a self-programming machine learns, it can become unpredictable."

Such a system doesn't exist now and it won't for the foreseeable future. Moreover, the U.S. government isn't looking to develop complex behaviors in drones. A Pentagon directive published last year says, "Autonomous and semi-autonomous weapon systems shall be designed to allow commanders and operators to exercise appropriate levels of human judgment over the use of force."

So, if problematic development of these types of weapons is already off the table, what is driving the outcry over lethal autonomy?

It's difficult to escape the science fiction aspect to this debate. James Cameron's Terminator franchise is a favorite image critics conjure up to illustrate their fears. Moreover, the concern seems rooted in a moral objection to the use of machines per se: that when a machine uses force, it is somehow more horrible, less legitimate, and less ethical than when a human uses force. It isn't a complaint fully grounded in how machines, computers, and robots actually function.

The dangers posed by unpredictable, self-learning robots is very real. But that is only one way that drones would employ autonomy. In many cases, human rights would actually benefit from more autonomy -- fewer mistakes, fewer misfires, and lower casualties overall.

And if something goes wrong, culpability can be more easily established. From a legal standpoint, countries cannot violate international human rights law or the laws of armed conflict, regardless of whether a drone has a human operator or not. But unlike the lengthy investigations, inquests, and trials required to unravel why a human made a bad decision, making that determination for a machine can be as simple as plugging in a black box. If an autonomous drone does something catastrophic or criminal, then there should be a firmly established liability for those responsible.

The issue of blame is the trickiest one in the autonomy debate. Rather than throwing one's hands in the air and demanding a ban, as rights groups have done, why not simply point blame at those who employ them? If an autonomous Reaper fires at a group of civilians, then the blame should start with the policymaker who ordered it deployed and end with the programmer who encoded the rules of engagement.

Making programmers, engineers, and policymakers legally liable for the autonomous weapons they deploy would break new ground in how accountability works in warfare. But it would also create incentives that make firing weapons less likely, rather than more -- surely the end result so many rights groups want to achieve.

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