March 14, 2019 | By Brian Hanson, Bronwyn Bruton, Paul D. Williams

Deep Dish: Why Is the United States Bombing Somalia?

In recent months, Somalia has seen a surge of airstrikes by the US military as part of an intensifying campaign against al Shabaab, an extremist group affiliated with al Qaeda. Bronwyn Bruton of the Atlantic Council and Paul D. Williams of George Washington University join Deep Dish this week to explain what the United States is doing in Somalia and why al Shabaab is a target.




Brian Hanson: This is Deep Dish On Global Affairs, going beyond the headlines and critical global issues. I'm Brian Hanson and today we're talking about an escalating US military campaign against Islamist insurgents, but not where you might first think. I'm talking about Somalia, where there's been a surge of US airstrikes that have killed hundreds of people. These strikes have been part of a broader and intensifying campaign against al Shabaab, an extremist group affiliated with al Qaeda. Yet our sense is there's little awareness that the US military is active in Somalia, what we're doing there, why we are worried about al Shabaab, and what this means for the long-troubled nation in the Horn of Africa. Joining me to help shed some light on these questions are two distinguished experts. First is Bronwyn Bruton, who is the director of programs and studies and the deputy director of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council. Welcome Bronwyn. It's great to have you on Deep Dish.

Bronwyn Bruton: Thanks for having me.

Brian Hanson: And joining us as well is Paul Williams who is an associate professor of international affairs at George Washington University's Elliott School. His latest book is Fighting For Peace in Somalia. Welcome Paul. Great to have you as well.

Paul Williams: Thanks for the invitation.

Brian Hanson: So Bronwyn, let me start with you to help kick off and frame up this conversation a little bit with the very brief, kind of 60 second overview of what is al Shabaab, why was it formed, how many folks belong to this group, and what are their goals?

Bronwyn Bruton: That's a fantastic question and it's really important I think for the US audience to understand that we describe al Shabaab as a terrorist group in the United States. But primarily, al Shabaab was created to resist the US in position of a government on Somalia. This is a government that wasn't voted for, that was created outside of Somalia's borders, that's never had legitimacy. And al Shabaab's primary goal is to get rid of that government and to fight the African Union peacekeepers who are keeping it alive in Somalia. Al Shabaab has never launched a direct attack on US interests. It is affiliated with al Qaeda, but it has never, for example, sought out an attack on a US embassy and it's never really targeted American journalists in Somalia. It has primarily struck targets in Uganda and Kenya because of those countries' participation in the peacekeeping mission in support of the government. And I think it's an important distinction to draw. I hope during this podcast, we can talk a little bit about the word terrorism and why we're bandying it about so much

Brian Hanson: Great. Lots to unpack there. I really appreciate the succinctness of that overview. So Paul, as Bronwyn mentioned and as I did in my introduction, I said this is an al Qaeda affiliated group. What does that actually mean and what is their relationship? Oftentimes that association is meant to justify a threat versus the United States, right? They're part of that league. So in this case, what does that mean that they're affiliated with al Qaeda?

Paul Williams: Yeah, that's again, a good question that we need to unpack because we need to remember that al Shabaab is an organization with what I would say has many faces to it. It's not a monolithic or homogenous group. And what I mean by al Shabaab having multiple faces is number one a resistance movement, as Bronwyn has mentioned trying to resist foreign interference, domestic corruption and perversion as it sees it. It's also a proto-government in some parts of south central Somalia where it's really running the show in providing basic services. It's also though got a criminal face. As a criminal organization, it demands taxes from people, forcible tributes in terms of coercively recruiting children, it demands protection money in certain areas, that type of thing. It's also got a face as a fighting force, where wages, I would say some conventional attacks against the Amazon and the Somali army spaces, but also mainly asymmetric tactics. And it's also got a face as a sort of wannabe regional caliphate, if you like. And so to understand what it means to say that al Shabaab is sort of affiliated or supports al Qaeda, we've got to take those multiple faces into account. And so what al Shabaab is looking for from al Qaeda primarily I would say are additional resources, sometimes additional expertise and skills, but it's wrong to think of al Qaeda basically creating or establishing al Shabaab. It's really al Shabaab who's formed as a primarily domestic organization and it's reached out for allies around the world that it think can help it in those tasks, and al Qaeda being the main one.

Brian Hanson: So one of the pieces that's reported in the news when al Shabaab is in the news in the United States anyway, it's usually with respect to an attack usually in Kenya on targets like hotels, business centers, malls. If this is about a reaction to an imposed government in Somalia, help us understand why Kenya is the target of these activities and attacks? What are they trying to do with this?

Bronwyn Bruton: Yeah, I mean, it's a complicated question. The easy answer is that it's because Kenya is participating in the African Union peacekeeping mission, which is not really a peacekeeping mission as the average person would understand it. It's primarily a protection mission to keep the government alive, the government offices and government officials alive.

Brian Hanson: So this is the Somalia government that you're talking about. So we've got, if I understand this, African Union troops who are in Somalia, protecting that government, is that right?

Bronwyn Bruton: That's right. There were approximately 22,000, 22 and a half thousand troops there currently. And their mission is primarily to protect the government and also to fight al Shabaab. And that is to ... it basically to conduct assaults on al Shabaab positions. Kenya is one of the countries that has the capability of launching air strikes as far as I understand it. Is that right Paul?

Paul Williams: Yeah. And so I would say, Kenya has provided a number of airstrikes with jets and helicopter gunships and the like. I'd also add one of the reasons why I think al Shabaab is particularly active in Kenya and hence is a target is also to do with the recruitment. As I mentioned before, al Shabaab is primarily a Somali organization, but it's extended its reach into different parts of the Horn of Africa, and Kenya is actually one of the areas where it's recruited from quite extensively from about the sort of 2011 period onward. So it's had the ability to move across the very porous border between Somalia and Kenya for a number of years, and that has facilitated its ability to make attacks in Kenya, which it hasn't been able to necessarily do in some of the other neighbors.

Brian Hanson: So one of the dimensions which can get overemphasized, but I'm wondering if it exists here, is is there a religious dimension to the conflict between al Shabaab and Kenya?

Bronwyn Bruton: I would say no. There is not. There's not a religious dimension in the conflict between al Shabaab and Kenya, and there is not a religious dimension in the conflict between the Somali government and al Shabaab. Somalia is a Muslim country and al Shabaab is a Muslim and Islamist organization. But I think that it is one of the primary problems with US policy that we look at al Shabaab and we look at al Shabaab's violence, and we attribute it to the fact that it's an Islamist group. Al Shabaab is an African rebel movement and all African rebel movements are violent, and the Somali government is violent. Every actor in Somalia has killed civilians with abandon, from the peacekeepers to the government to the Kenyans to al Shabaab. Unfortunately now it's appearing even to American Special Forces. Civilians have been killed with impunity in Somalia. Going back to the warlords in the 1990s, it is a violent country and al Shabaab is reflecting that. But I think that it's really wrong for the United States to attribute that violence to its religion and I think that it's probably preventing us from finding solutions in Somalia that might otherwise feel very obvious.

Paul Williams: I'd agree with one caveat. I mean, I think there are some sort of, let's say theological and intellectual and even societal debates about the best version of Islam that should work in Somalia. And there we do see disagreements in Somalia like we would in any other country over how to interpret the authentic version of Islamist theology here, but I think Bronwyn's absolutely right that the primary reason why there's war and conflict and turbulence in Somalia is really about governance, and the key issue here is not religion. It's about the fact really that Somalis themselves disagree over how this country should be governed and what makes this a particularly difficult and complicated set of issues to deal with is that since the civil war in the late 1980s and the collapse of the central government in 1991, we've had essentially two and a half decades where Somalia had to function without a central government. And as a result, debates, arguments, war and conflict has really been fueled in the absence of a central government by these debates about who should rule and with what rules should they rule and how should we change and think about governments. And as Bronwyn mentioned earlier, the fact that Ethiopian soldiers brought a transitional government that was established in Kenya into Mogadishu in late 2006 was the primary spark that turned al Shabaab from a very small sort of fringe extremist movement to a large domestic resistance movement against the Ethiopian forces and the legitimacy of the transitional government.

Brian Hanson: Which is a great launching point for me to turn our discussion toward you as policy. As I listen to you all describe the dynamics in the region, I don't hear either of you really seeing al Shabaab as a direct threat to the United States. And yet one of the reasons for this particular episode of the podcast was recent reporting of increased US military activity against al Shabaab in the region. What is your sense of ... is al Shabaab a threat to the United States and if not, or if so, what's motivating US policy and US military involvement?

Bronwyn Bruton: Unfortunately, I think a lot of what the United States is doing in Somalia currently has to do what happened in 1993 with the Black Hawk Down incident in which American soldiers were mutilated by a Somali mob. Since that time, the United States has had what I would call an irrational fear of Somalia and has believed that because it's been an anarchy, that it would inevitably provide a home for al Qaeda and a launching pad for terror assults on American interest in the region. And that has been the driving force behind US policy. The single greatest driving force behind US policy is the American conviction that Somalia is a threat. And it's become a self fulfilling prophecy as Paul was mentioning. But I don't think that it is one that is particularly grounded in reality. I don't believe that al Shabaab poses a threat to US interests except in the most abstract sense. And I doubt very much that if the US were not in Somalia and were not so engaged as a combatant in Somali political affairs, that al Shabaab would be very much interested in the US at all.

Brian Hanson: Do you agree with that Paul?

Paul Williams: Yeah, I think the lens if you like, through which the American government has looked at Somalia and designed Somali policy is as Bronwyn said primarily that of counterterrorism, and it's I think inflated, al Shabaab if you like, which is really, as I said, the sort of symptom of the governance problems in the country and the conflicts over governance. US policy has been primarily designed and resourced around that counterterrorism issue. But if you look at US policy slightly more broadly, you will see that it's not just about al Shabaab and the new US ambassador, Yamamoto, who arrived in Somalia last year outlined that there was sort of four planks if you like, of US engagement with Somalia. One was about trying to build democratic and accountable institutions, a second aim was to try and build up effective Somali security forces, third was to try and build greater degrees of stabilization and bring economic recovery programs into the country, and the fourth one was about delivering humanitarian assistance. So there is a sort of broader set of interests involved here, but the majority of the resources as Bronwyn mentioned has been plowed into the military and the counterterrorism side and focused highly, I would say sort of unhelpfully on al Shabaab.

Bronwyn Bruton: I have to disagree with Paul a little bit in that I think the US likes to pretend that we have different interests in Somalia, but I think it would be fair to call it one plank and three toothpicks. With the Somali government that the US has created and backed is unquestionably the most corrupt in the world. It is the most corrupt government in the world according to Transparency International. So for the US to claim that governance is a plank of our engagement is fairly fanciful. What do we mean by that? I personally think a lot of what the US government is doing when it says that we care about governance and when it says that we care about stability is really trying to put a more palatable facade on what is almost 100% a counter-terror driven mission.

Brian Hanson: So I want to pick up on this point because I think it's fascinating and Paul, I think you were articulating what the US stated its goals are in the region. And Bronwyn you very colorfully characterize those goals. As I hear this, I think about recent US experience in trying to both fight terrorism as well as doing kind of state building projects, and of course the vivid examples of the recent past are Afghanistan and Iraq. And one of the challenges in those situations has been, is there a governant partner who has the credibility and the ability to actually stand up, a government that can function and create security, create economic development, build a democratic society? And we've seen, to put it mildly, great challenges with those two cases. And my sense is in listening to you that the Somali government is even more fragile and perhaps even has less potential to be able to achieve those goals. So how's the United States, if this is what they're trying to do, how are we even trying to go about doing that in a context with such a problematic government?

Bronwyn Bruton: I think the tragedy of Somalia is that there is potentially an effective governance partner there. It's just al Shabaab.

Brian Hanson: That's pretty provocative. You want to jump in, Paul?

Paul Williams: I mean, I would agree with the basic point that the all international engagement in Somalia has basically lacked an effective and legitimate government partner to work with. I would say that level of legitimacy has changed slightly over the years. If you go back to 2006, I agree with Bronwyn, that the transitional federal government that was brought in to Mogadishu on the back of Ethiopian troops was highly illegitimate with local society. I would say then if you fast forward to where we are now, 2017, 2018 time, I would say there's a bit more legitimacy to the government than we saw back in 2006. But in terms of capacity and effectiveness, it's still way, way short of what we would ideally like. And that's not just a problem for US policy, that's a problem as we mentioned before for the African Union mission and the other international partners. I mean, the basic issue here is I think two fold. One is that after a long period of state collapse, the governments have really been no more than sort of paper governments. They've not been able to do concrete things like deliver services and real peace dividends to populations, certainly not beyond the Benadir region, which is around Mogadishu so there's that basic issue of capacity. And secondly, there's a issue about clan politics where the governments that we've seen in Somalia or over the last 13 years, have been heavily composed of particular types of clans, and as a result, clan politics has meant that that government in Mogadishu, although it's called the federal government of Somalia now, is not necessarily seen as legitimate out in the regions because it's seen as being captured by certain clan interests. And so, when any international partners work with what they call the sovereign and the federal government of Somalia, that doesn't mean that necessarily a lot of local Somalis feel the same way about those institutions.

Bronwyn Bruton: If you don't mind, I'm going to jump in. One of the most interesting things about the situation in Somalia is that it is yet another attempt by Western institutions to create a government that is modeled on Western democratic norms. And there's not much evidence that those will work well in Somalia. What is potentially very interesting about al Shabaab is its flexibility and fluidity. There isn't, although we think of it as a very harsh institution that cuts off hands, and cuts off heads, and stones people, the reality is that it's very different from village to village, and from region to region in Somalia. It is an organization that has wound its way within and around the clan system, co-opting clan leaders, coordinating with them, leaving them alone when it's necessary to do so. Al Shabaab has created a governance structure that is as authentically Somali and fluid as the clan system itself. And, in my opinion, as somebody who spent many years promoting democracy, that's what you need in Somalia. And I wonder a lot if there were not a government, a Western government in place in Somalia that was keeping Somalis on the fence, because we've created a very bipolar situation where a not very liked al Shabaab is battling a not very liked government. If people didn't feel that they were empowering this government by resisting al Shabaab, I think they would resist al Shabaab a lot more. And I have a lot of confidence in the Somali people's ability to make al Shabaab more moderate. And I wish that policymakers, US policymakers, would spend more time considering the Somali people as an ally because they're not particularly extreme. They are a moderate culture, they're capitalists, they're entrepreneurs, and they mostly want to get on with business. And I have a feeling that if al Shabaab didn't support that goal, that they wouldn't survive very long in Somalia because no other governing entity has. My bet would be that if the US government would put their money on the Somali people instead of their own imported institutions, we'd be doing a lot better in the fight against al Shabaab and in the fight for stability.

Brian Hanson: So I want to build on that and bring you into this discussion, Paul. Again, knowing the limitations of analogies, but one of the things that strikes me listening to this conversation is the pivot that the US has made in some ways in Afghanistan where now we're seeing a separation of the way that US policy makers are thinking about the Taliban as a local actor, and al Qaeda, and starting negotiations directly with the Taliban. Is this part of a path forward, I mean, Brian wasn't laid out an implicit direction for US policy to go do we see ... we've got an increase in bombing, so we probably don't see this yet, but are there lessons to be learned and as a similar pivot part of the political solution in Somalia?

Paul Williams: Yeah. I definitely think there are lessons to be learned and I think it's very clear that you can't bomb your way to military victory over a group like al Shabaab for the reasons that Bronwyn has mentioned, I mean military power, a military force alone are not going to be able to defeat an organization like al Shabaab. And so we've seen, from the US side, that military power has been occasional special forces operations and now, as you mentioned, the uptick in the number of airstrikes, but the military power on the ground for the last 12 years or international military power on the ground for the last 12 years have been mainly through the African Union mission in Somalia. And then we've got all sorts of different armed actors, the Somalia National Army, various regional and clan militias and the sort of a Darwish paramilitary police groups -- all have been using force for well over a decade now and it's not defeated al Shabaab. So I think the lesson number one is that we have to think beyond military attempts to try and engage with al Shabaab. And then therefore, lesson number two is what would an end to this war look like and what role would political dialogue play? And I think the most obvious conclusion here to draw is that some form of negotiated settlement is probably the way that this conflict is going to end. Now, what are the dynamics of that type of political dialogue? How should it start up? What should the the terms be, who should be the main participants? That I would say is primarily for Somalis to decide for themselves. It's not a set of issues that I would say its been very useful to have the US government out in front of, taking the public initiative maybe in the way that we've seen in Afghanistan. But I think the second big lesson is crucially that there has to some negotiated deal to end this war.

Bronwyn Bruton: Sometimes Paul is so diplomatic and he is always so intelligent in the way he presents these issues that I wonder if I'm understanding correctly. So Paul, when you say negotiated political settlement, are you referring to US troops pulling out the Somali government collapsing completely and walking away and leaving the Somalis to pick up the pieces?

Paul Williams: No, I wouldn't equate a negotiated settlement with automatic withdraw by the United States or the African Union forces. I would say almost the opposite. If you look at the vast majority of peace operations deployed around the world, they deploy after a peace deal has been signed. Somalia is, I think an almost unique case in a modern peace operations because Amisom has been deployed for over 12 years in Somalia without any form of cease fire or any form of political settlement at all. And that's why it's not right to call it a peacekeeping mission as you mentioned earlier, it's essentially a war fighting or enforcement mission. So when I talk about a negotiated settlement here, I think there's definitely scope for external actors to continue to provide various types of security guarantees. But it would be up to the local belligerents, in this case, al Shabaab and the federal government and the regions to decide the particular terms on which international engagement should take place. And then I think it's a related but distinct issue is what is the, as I would put it, what is the threshold at which point the US military would cease to be engaged and active in Somalia? I think that's a question we really do have to think about because I agree with Bronwyn, that al Shabaab doesn't pose any top-tier national security threats to the United States directly, so we should be considering and thinking explicitly about, what are the levels of threat and risk, if you like, that we would see US military disengage from Somalia but also the African Union?

Bronwyn Bruton: My concern would be that it's not necessarily a question of the US military disengaging because the US is taking direct action in Somalia with drone strikes, airstrikes, and other kinetic activities. Ambassador Bolton, our national security adviser, has laid out the US National Security Strategy for Africa, and he's been witheringly critical of peacekeeping missions. And so, it's a very possible scenario that the US government will cut funding for Amisom and starve it to the point where it's essentially ineffective or is so starved for funding that Uganda, for example, carries out its threat to simply withdraw wholesale because it's offended by the US turns. In which case, the US could very well not have a peacekeeping mission in Somalia but could continue to bombard Somali targets, um, by use of special forces, Central Intelligence and other means.

Paul Williams: All I'm saying is I think the rationale for that type of engagement will be undermined if there was a political deal between the Somalia authorities and al Shabaab. But I think the threats you describe about Amisom and the threats to its funding stream or a real, but what I would say is a couple of things, number one, we've seen for years, diplomatic and rhetorical threats by some of the troop contributing countries to withdraw. But so far the only troop contributing country that's left Amisom was Sierra Leone and that was because it was forced to leave by the Somali government because of the Ebola outbreak back in West Africa. So, Uganda, Burundi, Djibouti, Kenya and Ethiopia have all, at various times, threatened to withdraw because of the lack of financial support and other things, but they've not actually voted with their feet, if you like. Now, that could, as the problems intensify, happen in the future. But I think we need to consider that history as to the reasons why amisom troop contributing countries have stayed there.

Bronwyn Bruton: I absolutely acknowledge that. I do think it's different under the Trump administration. I don't think a US administration is called a troop contributing countries bluff in the past. And I suspect that the Trump administration may.

Paul Williams: Yeah, and it's getting worse. I mean, the funding situation at the moment is actually a very big I would say, depressing factor on the morale of Amisom troops not just because of US policies from the Trump administration, but mainly because of the European Union cutting 20 percent of the allowances that are paid to Amisom troops. It means that since January 2016, Amisom soldiers who have been receiving about $800 a month in allowances, or rather I should say their governments have been receiving about $800 a month in allowances that compares at the moment to UN blue helmet peacekeeping missions, which receive about $1,400 a month. So, if you put it in financial terms an Amisom peacekeeper is receiving about 60 percent of the allowances that the UN blue helmet peacekeeper would receive, and the Amisom mission is by far more deadly and dangerous than any of the UN peacekeeping missions that are going on. So those financial pressures are real and they are having an impact on the morale of the contributing country.

Brian Hanson: So I want to take this conversation and as we close, I want to ask you to do something that's pretty much impossible. I want to ask you both to think forward 10 years, and as we're looking back on what's going on in Somalia, what do you think the most likely place we will be is or maybe there's more than one path, but for each of you, where do you think we'll be in 10 years with this?

Bronwyn Bruton: You want to go first, Paul?

Paul Williams: I can try. Yeah, the future is my best subject. So look, I think, if you look at the power dynamics in south central Somalia in particular, and I'm not even going to try and address the Somaliland, that type of issue, but if you look at south central where Amisom is engaged in most of the US activity is going on. And if you look at power dynamics there, what you see is a very decentralized playing field, I think with lots of different regional clan-based centers of power. And what that says to me is that a decade from now you're likely to see a debate about governance issues, which divides up the power broadly along those decentralized terms. So you'll have some sort of federal arrangement or whatever word we use to describe it, but it will be a situation where power is quite I think dispersed across the clans. And then in that scenario, if Somalis themselves can actually agree on the terms of governance, and what a federal system would look like, then I think an organization like al Shabaab might actually diminish in the sense that you may have obviously some of the fringe true believers who would never want to participate in this type of governance, but as Bronwyn mentioned earlier, I think the vast majority would find some way of being brought into this political dispensation, and in that scenario, there wouldn't be a great need for either major US military engagement or African Union troops as we see them today.

Brian Hanson: Bronwyn.

Bronwyn Bruton: I think the challenge for the US is that, once again, we have a stalemate in Somalia. It is, I think, unquestionably clear that the Somali government is not capable of surviving on its own after a decade, after a decade in which the US has poured billions of dollars into the effort to empower this government. After approximately 100,000 troops who have been trained for this government and tens of thousands of peacekeepers deployed for this government, they have not managed to defeat a force of five to 7,000 guys, which is what al Shabaab is. They're not only weaker than al Shabaab, they're weaker than Puntland, they're weaker than Somali land, they're weaker than Juba land, they're not sustainable, the US project has failed. And the question is how the US will react to that. My guess is, and again, you know I'm a cynical person at this point. My guess is that the US will cut and run and will leave the Somalis to pick up the pieces. And the good news is that I'm actually optimistic about the Somalis capabilities when it comes to doing that. I think that Somalia has done best when it's been left alone because at rock bottom what Somalia needs is grassroots reconciliation of the type that the international community has not been able to support. The intrusion of foreign funding and foreign political objectives has been very damaging to Somalia. And I think that if the Somalis can develop new partnerships with the Gulf states and other actors, if it can get away from this artificial conflict between the Shabaab and the Somali government, it is likely to make progress a lot faster than it has over the past decade. So, I'm overall optimistic, and I have to say my optimism is in direct proportion to the likelihood of the US being less involved in the situation.

Paul Williams: I think Bronwyn's mentioned the key word for me, which is reconciliation. I 100 percent agree that what I think would drive the country forward in the most positive sense is if there is real reconciliation that takes place. And just to clarify what I mean by that there I mean both of this elite level in terms of the politicians that lead the federal government and the regional administrations, but also as Bronwyn said that the grass roots level, and I think this goes back to the civil war in the late 1980s and we really have seen an absence of reconciliation since then and we badly need to see it improve as a result.

Brian Hanson: So Bronwyn Bruton of the Atlantic Council and Paul Williams of George Washington University, I just want to thank you both so much for being here. I think this is a part of the world that many people don't understand very well and I have learned a tremendous amount from our conversation and just want to thank you for being on deep dish.

Bronwyn Bruton: Thanks for having us.

Paul Williams: Thanks very much.

Brian Hanson: And thank you for tuning into this episode of deep dish. If you liked the show, do me a favor and tap the subscribe button on your podcast App. You can find our show under deep dish on global affairs, wherever you listen to podcasts. And if you think you know someone who would enjoy today's episode, please take a moment and tap the share button so you can send it to them as well. I'd like to invite you to join our Facebook group, deep dish and global affairs where you can ask our guests follow up questions about anything you heard today or also submit questions for upcoming guests and episodes. That's deep dish on global affairs and Facebook. As a reminder, the opinions you've heard today belong to the people that express them and not the Chicago Council on global affairs. This episode of deep dish was produced by Evan Fazio, our audio engineer is Andy Zerneky, I'm Brian Hanson, and we'll be back soon with another slice of deep dish.


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