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NATO Expansion: Strategic Opportunities and Risks

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When recently appointed Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford, named Russia as the greatest threat to U.S. national security during his confirmation hearing this past July, he caught some by surprise.

Russia’s March 2014 annexation of Crimea represented a disturbing shift in Russian foreign policy that sent shock waves throughout the NATO alliance and until quite recently one could have argued that Dunford’s assessment was unduly alarmist. In March, President Obama referred to Russia as a “regional power that is threatening some of its immediate neighbors, not out of strength but out of weakness…” He also went on to say that Russia is not the United States’ top national security threat and that he was more concerned about a nuclear weapon detonating in New York City. With Russia’s surprise military intervention in Syria, it is now clear that Dunford’s assessment was more accurate than some believed. It may be a regional power acting out of weakness, but Russia has demonstrated that it can profoundly alter the geopolitical status-quo not only in Europe, but in the Middle East, too, having built an “arc of steel” ranging from the Arctic to the Mediterranean Sea.

When superimposing this so-called arc-of-steel over a map of Europe, we find that geography still matters, especially when contemplating strategies to counter the Russian strategy of undermining NATO’s influence and credibility. These air, land and maritime spaces are being increasingly contested as Russia increases its operational tempo with the use of conventional and hybrid capabilities. What is likely already obvious to NATO planners is the fact that there are gaps where controlling, or at the least, influencing these contested spaces, could prove exceedingly difficult by virtue of the fact that they are situated in strategically important non-NATO states. Well to the north are Sweden and Finland, both occupying strategically vital maritime spaces and the latter sharing a large land border with Russia. To the south and southeast of NATO’s flanks are Montenegro and Georgia, respectively, the latter having been invaded by Russia in 2008. These states are considering (Sweden and Finland) or actively seeking (Montenegro and Georgia) NATO membership.

For NATO, the question of further enlargement should largely hinge on three considerations: The strategic value of admitting new members – Russia’s potential reaction – and whether systemic problems within the Alliance undermine the strategic value of expansion.

The Strategic Value of New Members

A logical starting point for evaluating the strategic value of new members is to assess the current military balance between NATO and Russia. In recent years Russia has undertaken comprehensive military reforms which are translating into a more active, more battle-ready, and better suited military to support itsincreasingly assertive foreign policy. Although it is believed that Russia’s military can be checked in certain qualitative terms, these advantages apply to only a few European NATO states. NATO’s largest European members – Germany – the UK and France – have militaries with clear qualitative advantages over Russia, but serious questions surround deployability, preparedness and logistics, which could erase any qualitative advantages.

That said, NATO as a whole maintains a distinct quantitative and qualitative advantage in naval forces. Submarine forces aside, Russia does not possess the ability to seriously challenge NATO naval forces at sea. Russia places great value on its strategic ballistic missile submarines, which would require substantial naval surface forces for protection in any conflict. Similarly, Russia would have little capability to disrupt transatlantic logistical supply lines between the US and Europe, but this could change given that Russia has embarked on an ambitious submarine building program that in 2015 added two nuclear ballistic subs, three nuclear hunter-killer subs and two conventional subs.

Assessing the balance of air and land forces is more difficult, particularly for the latter. The British and French have the only European air forces that have demonstrated the ability to carry-out the full range of combat air missions. Other European air forces suffer from a broad lack of capabilities that limit them to narrow roles. Furthermore, Europe has decommissioned most of its land-based air-defense systems and is phasing out aging aircraft over the next decade with no plans for replacement. Although smaller, the Russian air force is a homogeneous force that is accustomed to acting unitarily. Like the British and French, it iscapable of performing all missions and roles of modern air warfare, with the possible exception of precision and deep strike capability. Russian command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR) is markedly inferior to US capabilities, but without US expertise and support, European air forces (France and UK aside) also lag far behind.

Measuring the balance of land forces is much more difficult. Indeed, Europe has far more military personnel than Russia, but this is due largely because of Europe’s generously staffed defense bureaucracy. Questions persist pertaining to training and readiness for both European and Russian land forces. Indeed, despite Russia’s massive efforts to reform its military, European analysts estimate that only 65-percent of their new combat brigades are truly combat-ready. Whatanalysts overlook, however, is that the European Defense Agency rated European land forces as 30.9 percent combat ready and 7.5 percent sustainable deployable. While both European and Russian militaries are beset with numerous challenges, they appear to be moving on opposite trajectories.

For an alliance founded on the core concept of collective defense, the notion that prospective member states should be able to contribute to the overall security of NATO seems rather obvious. Even so, NATO has enlarged itself for purelystrategic and ideological reasons during the Cold War as was the case with Greece and Turkey in 1952 and again with Spain in 1982. Arguably none were in any position to greatly add to NATO’s overall security, but this was an era in which the U.S. was perfectly willing and able to cover Europe with a security (conventional and nuclear) umbrella. Similarly, the more recent rounds of enlargement, which included the Baltic States, Poland and others, was politically driven as there was thought to be no serious security threats to NATO at the time, most notably, from Russia. Clearly times have changed. As NATO’s roster has more than doubled from 12 to 28 countries since its founding in 1949, its military capabilities have slowly atrophied over the past 25 years, while its collective security commitments have steadily increased. Consequently, any discussions within NATO about future enlargement must answer this question affirmatively: Will this new country add to the overall security of the alliance? When posing this question to prospective member states Sweden and Finland, a strong argument can be made for why they should be invited into NATO – assuming membership is what they want.

In this context, admitting Sweden and Finland to NATO would shore up the Alliance’s northern flank. In fact, defending the Baltics against a Russian incursion would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, without significant aid from Sweden and Finland, the latter having been attacked by the Soviet Union at the start of World-War II. Controlling the Baltic Sea, the Gulf of Finland and the large land border between Finland and Russia would be essential to any campaign defending the Baltics. Moreover, as Sweden and Finland lean more toward NATOthey are apparently asking themselves the same question: Will NATO membership add to our overall security? Increasingly the answer appears to be yes. Nevertheless, NATO membership is far from certain as the Alliance seems to be experiencing expansion fatigue and Sweden and Finland remain reluctant to fully embrace membership.

However, the strategic value of admitting Montenegro and, especially Georgia, is even more uncertain. Even though Vice-President Joseph Biden recently voiced support for Montenegro’s admission to NATO, whether it adds to the Alliance’s overall security remains unclear. Despite being a very small country with few resources, what Montenegro’s membership could do is definitively derail Russia’s plans to construct a naval base there – preventing Russia from gaining greater access to the Mediterranean. Does that add to NATO’s overall security? Perhaps. NATO is scheduled to make a decision on Montenegro’s membership this December.

Georgia, however, is altogether different. On the one hand, Georgia has met virtually every requirement for admission into NATO. It has a very capable military and has actively participated in NATO missions, but because of its 2008 war with Russia, several NATO members are concerned that Georgia’s membership could present a serious security risk. As one Eastern European diplomat put it: “If a country such as Georgia joins NATO, we have to be ready to defend it.” In many respects Georgia would be an excellent addition to NATO, but because of its volatile history with Russia and the very real possibility that it could invoke NATO’s Article V in defense against Russia, membership appears unlikely for the foreseeable future.

Russian Potential Reaction to Enlargement

Any further enlargement must consider how Russia would respond. At play is the classic security dilemma – as one party takes steps to make itself more secure (NATO), the other (Russia) interprets those steps as provocative, leading to the possibility of war. Russia has been unequivocal in saying that it opposes any further NATO enlargement. Precisely how it would respond is unclear, however. Responding directly to Sweden’s consideration to joining NATO, Russia’s ambassador to Sweden, Viktor Tatarintsev, said that “Russia would adopt countermeasures … Putin pointed out that there will be consequences, that Russia will have to resort to a response of the military kind and re-orientate our troops and missiles. The country that joins NATO needs to be aware of the risks it is exposing itself to.” Moreover, Russia’s envoy to NATO, Alexander Grushko, expressed the same view with respect to eastward expansion saying there would be “catastrophic consequences” and “[a]ny political game concerning NATO expansion into Georgia and Ukraine is filled with the most serious, most profound geopolitical consequences for all of Europe.” NATO, therefore, faces the extraordinary challenge of shoring-up its security, while avoiding direct military confrontation with Russia.

NATO’s Systemic Problems

As the Alliance contemplates further enlargement it must view the strategic value of doing so, along with Russia’s possible responses, through the prism of its existing systemic problems. Simply stated – there are serious questions surrounding NATO’s ability to provide collective defense for its existing 28 members. Spending has fallen to dangerous levels as only 5 members are reaching the 2% of GDP spending target on defense. This does not portray a complete picture, however. Belgium spends about 1.1% of GDP on defense, with nearly three-quarters going to personnel costs, a quarter going to operating expenses and barely 1% to acquiring new equipment and modernization. Elsewhere in NATO, whole divisions and weapons systems have been eliminated over the past few decades. This has led to serious interoperability problems as many NATO members are increasingly unable to operate with U.S. forces, the latter being decades ahead of many European counterparts in defense technology.

Additionally, there is perhaps no greater fundamental problem besetting NATO than a lack of common vision among its members and a lack of consensus on how to address the threats confronting the Alliance. Instead, there is a growing consensus within some member states that is deeply troubling. A recent Pew study exposed potentially deep fissures within NATO. It revealed that “at least half of Germans, French and Italians say their country should not use military force to defend a NATO ally if attacked by Russia.” This is arguably the root cause of NATO’s systemic problems and the reason why the Alliance should not undertake further enlargement for the foreseeable future. Admitting new members to an alliance lacking a common vision and anything less than a full commitment to collective defense would further weaken an increasingly overstretched NATO.

 

This analysis was originally posted on the Streit Council’s blog

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Urgency of Reviewing India-Pakistan’s CBMs & Risk Reduction Measures

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In an unprecedented event on March 9, 2022, India launched a missile, reportedly identified as the BrahMos supersonic cruise missile, which landed in Pakistan. After crossing the international border, the missile travelled 124 kilometres at an altitude of 40,000 feet into Pakistani airspace before impacting near the city of Mian Channu, Khanewal District. Following the incident, India started issuing clarification statements only after Pakistan reported the matter. In its first statement, India noted that the missile was accidently launched owing to a technical malfunction. Later, the Indian government changed its statement and termed it a human error, involving ‘possible lapses on part a Group Captain and a few others.’ Around six months later, India terminated the services of three Indian Air Force (IAF) officers, after a Court of Inquiry found ‘deviation from the Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs)’ by the officers and held them responsible for misfiring the missile.

Pakistan has rejected the purported closure of the incident and called the findings of the Court of Inquiry unsatisfactory and inadequate. While reiterating its call for a joint probe, Pakistan not only termed Indian clarifications ‘simplistic’ but also criticised the country for failing to immediately inform when the missile was launched. India’s failure to communicate the incident violated the 1991 agreement with Pakistan on preventing air space violations. Under the agreement, both India and Pakistan have to inform and investigate inadvertent violations of airspace promptly. Meanwhile, India also failed to activate the high-level military hotline to inform Pakistan. Both the countries maintain mechanisms of hotline contact between their Director Generals of Military Operations (DGMOs) to resolve misunderstandings.

Fortunately, the missile was unarmed and no lives were lost. Pakistan also responded towards the situation with restraint. However, the incident marks an alarmist event. Whether the incident was an accidental launch, an unauthorised launch, or a simulated exercise, it suggests not only shortcomings in India’s technical and procedural system but also shows its irresponsible behaviour as a nuclear weapon state. The incident also raises numerous questions about the country’s safety protocols, Command and Control (C2) of nuclear weapons and missiles, and communication mechanisms. The situation would have escalated if the accident had led to destruction or loss of lives, since there were several indications that Pakistani authorities had considered retaliation. Second, if the incident had taken place during a crisis, it could have led to inadvertent military escalation owing to miscalculations.

In this regard, there is a great urgency that both India and Pakistan collaborate on Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) to ensure that such accidents or unauthorised launches do not take place in the future. Even if they do, the two countries should be able to inform each other before any military response.

First, India and Pakistan need to review their joint 2005 Agreement on the Pre-Notification of Flight Testing of Ballistic Missiles. The agreement covers surface-to-surface ballistic missiles only, and each country provides at least three days’ notice for a test launch. Both countries are obligated to not situate test launch sites within 40 kilometres of their shared border nor land a weapon closer than 70 kilometres from the border. However, the agreement has its limitations as it does not cover cruise missiles. In 2005, New Delhi declined to accept Islamabad’s proposal to include launch of cruise missiles in their joint agreement on pre-notification of ballistic missile launches. Currently, Pakistan and India have multiple and diverse types cruise missiles in their arsenal with high ranges. There is an urgency of expanding the pre-notification regime to include cruise missiles, including surface, air or sea-launched versions to avoid misunderstanding. Second, in order to avoid accidents in case of routine maintenance or inspection, India should efficiently and professionally ensure safety precautions regarding its missiles.

Additionally, India and Pakistan could also consider devising new Risk Reduction Measures (RRMs). For example, missiles that are scheduled to be inspected, both countries need to configure their weapons’ guidance systems to unoccupied places such as oceans or deserts where they pose minimum dangers. Moreover, the weapons’ pre-fed adversary target locations need to be removed while used for inspection, training, or simulated exercises. The maintenance of actual coordinates of adversary targets could lead to unintended escalation in accidental launches. These measures would not only help avoid accidents, they could also serve as an added layer of protocol to minimise the possibility of unauthorised launch.

However, accidents happen despite best safety protocols as there are limits of safety procedures. In such a possibility, there is a need of haste to communicate accidental launches. India needs to make use of existing channels of communication to avoid miscalculations in times of crises. The BrahMos missile incident indicates that crisis could erupt quite quickly between India and Pakistan. Unless the two countries adhere to their existing CBMs and establish new measures, mitigating such incidents and preventing risk of escalation could become a Gordian knot.

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Why Parties to Russia Ukraine War Prolonging it?

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Image source: kremlin.ru

Russia Ukraine War seems to be entering a deadly phase after seven months, witnessing significant twist in the form of Kremlin’s declaring victory in hasty referendum in four regions of occupied territory to join Russia, poising itself for complete annexation of occupied areas, having announced partial mobilization calling up 3,00,000 reservists for frontline duties. The recent successes of Ukrainian counteroffensive, as the cumulative military aid over $60 billion poured into Ukraine from US led NATO, seems to have emboldened Zelensky to talk of defeating Russia and getting back his entire territory. Angered NATO, left out of battle by nuclear threat, calling out sham referendum, is looking to table new resolution against it, knowing fully well that it will be vetoed by Russia.

Why No Party to the war is thinking of conflict termination?

This prolonged war is making everyone in the world vulnerable to inflationary pressures, triggering an unprecedented energy crisis and acute food shortages. In view of that, diplomacy and talks for conflict termination should have been the logical option long back, but no party to the war seems to be thinking about it due to own strategic interest, wanting to make more gains before getting back to negotiation table. All parties know that they can’t be outright winners in this war, but all are prolonging their agony to avoid being an outright loser.

Russian Stakes

Russia is yet to achieve its strategic aim of liberating complete Donbass Region and remaining southern Ukraine to landlock it, to join up with Transnistria. It has suffered heavy casualties and reverses in many regions like Kharkiv. It has received no worthwhile military material support from anyone in the prolonged war; hence consolidating its gains, redeployment of troops in Russian friendly areas by pulling back from unfriendly ones, along with regrouping and rejig in military hierarchy is a sensible option from military perspective.

The awkward thinly veiled threat by President Putin to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine, if Russian “territorial integrity” is threatened has put NATO on notice as to how it would respond. The expected annexation post referendum complicates the nuclear threat, as attack on annexed territory may invite nuclear response as per Russian nuclear policy.

Putin may not be encouraged with meek support from China, its ‘strategic partner with no limit’ seemingly responding within careful limits, and comments like ‘Not an era of war’ from otherwise impartial India. Russia might end up with extension of direct land border with NATO by over 1000 Km in terms of Finland joining it. It also continues to suffer standoff attacks from Ukraine’s recently acquired long range capabilities including drones and clandestine raids of special forces and non-state actors like blasts in Crimea.

Russia is aware of its limitations in the areas of economic, diplomatic, information warfare, and political warfare. Russia’s much-criticised partial mobilisation and call for reservists is comparable to Ukraine’s, which carried it out while under Martial Law, seven months ago and was praised by Western media, highlighting information war against Russia. As a result, it will be prone to hold onto its existing territorial gains and prolong the conflict into the winter, which could favor a new offensive to accomplish remaining military objectives to give itself a stronger negotiating position to have the sanctions lifted.

Ukrainian Stakes

Having accepted so much of political, strategic and military investment of NATO in his country and tasted some success in his counteroffensives, President Zelensky, posing to be fighting on behalf of US led NATO to weaken Russia, is not in a position to back out from prolonging the war.

Ukraine cannot overlook the fact that it has lost 15% of its original land since being independent, is left with over 10 million refugees, devastated towns, suffered significant casualties, and its hyped democracy is struggling under martial law and referendum. While US-led NATO’s military assistance and arsenal can increase its combat power to launch standoff attacks, regaining lost ground from the Russians will be very difficult because they will use built-up areas for defending their gains in a manner similar to how Ukrainian troops did, more so under nuclear hangover.

NATO’s military support to pursue war will not bring Ukraine any closer to peace; nevertheless, it may result in long-term changes to its territorial configuration, unending proxy war, and enhance long term Russian threat. President Zelensky is aware that the western narrative and information war that portrays him as a hero and clear victor is unsustainable, yet he will prolong the conflict in order to safeguard his political survival and continued aid.

NATO’s Stakes

NATO may be encouraged by successes of Ukrainian counter-offensives, and its own gains in non-kinetic, non-contact, undeclared war against Russia in economic, information, diplomatic and political domains, but concerned that it can’t take Putin’s nuclear threat lightly, because a tactical nuclear strike from cornered Russia is within the realms of possibility, if Russia declares newly acquired territory as its integral part, post successful referendum and applies the policy of escalate to de-escalate.

The United States may benefit from sales of arms, energy, and post-conflict construction contracts in Ukraine, and it may justify recent increases in aid in order to pursue its goal of weakening Russia in order to fend off potential rivals in Europe, but its biggest strategic loss is bringing Russia, China, and Iran closer than ever before in a strategic partnership. It may be beginning of adoption of alternate global/localised financial systems, undermining its grip on current global financial system.

NATO, encouraged by soft Russian response to the bid of Finland and Sweden to join NATO, is keen to add both with strong militaries, to secure its northern flank for better collective security posture in the long run. It also makes sense in context of Sino-Russian footprints in Arctic region and North Atlantic Ocean.

NATO will continue to urge Russia to end the conflict while supporting Ukraine in its proxy war until last Ukrainian remains because holding negotiations when a sizable portion of the land is in Russian hands will be viewed as NATO’s weakness. With millions of refugees mixed in with activated mercenaries and a longer border with belligerent Russia, which will reorganise itself after learning from its mistakes, the war is undoubtedly not making Europe more peaceful. It has signaled its willingness to sacrifice its energy and economic interests in order to achieve that goal. To effectively combat unfriendly Russia in the long run, the EU will need to increase its defence spending while holding some sovereign decisions hostage to the USA.

Way Ahead

Despite the narrative and rhetoric of the west, Ukraine may not recapture a sizable amount of territory, but standoff strikes, proxy war, clandestine operations, and some ground operations to cause Russian fatalities will continue in the coming days, inviting an equal or stronger Russian reaction.

In the Big powers’ contestation in Ukraine, the global need is that this war should end, but the negotiations are unlikely, because Russia has not yet achieved its strategic objectives on the ground, which is essential to persuade NATO to lift sanctions. On the other side, US led NATO doesn’t have any leverage to restrain Putin, so it finds weakening Russia by ongoing proxy war, without sharing any burden of body bags, as the most convenient option.  This is especially true when Zelensky is prepared to take this move because he understands that without US support, he will lose his position of power.

In current phase of offensive, Russia seemed to have reached its culmination point before seizing center of gravity of Ukrainian forces, a situation which is uncomfortable for any attacker in military campaign. The referendum and nuclear threat by Russia have pushed the war into next phase, with NATO yet to work out its responses.

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India overreacted to the US $450 million deal with Pakistan

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India registered a strong protest with the US last week over the latter’s decision to approve a $ 450 million sustainment package for Pakistan’s aging F-16 Fleet. The US Defense Security Cooperation Agency DSCA said in a statement that the sustainment program would assist Pakistan in its campaign against terrorism with a rider that it will not affect the status quo in the region. The Biden administration has ignored the “strong objections” raised by India over the proposed foreign military sale of $450 million to Pakistan in order to sustain the Pakistan Air Force’s F-16 program.

Pakistan’s arch-rival India has voiced “serious objections” to the US plan for Foreign Military Sales (FMS) worth $450 million for hardware, software, and spares for the F-16 fighter jet during official meetings with US Assistant Secretary of State Donald Lu in Delhi.

In widely published comments, Indian External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar said last week that the US was not “fooling anybody” by claiming the equipment was for counterterrorism operations. Recently Indian foreign Minister cut short his trip to the US, and without attending his pre-scheduled meetings and returned back to India in protest. His behavior was unprecedented in the diplomacy world and considered an overreaction.

Prime Minister Modi is upset too and sources close to his are guessing a severe reaction from him. Unconfirmed, but a possible reaction may include cancellation of defense agreements with the US, and exclusion from “Quad” – an anti-China alliance with the US, Japan, and Australia. The Indian ideology of intolerance, extremism, and nationalism is the real threat to the region.

As a matter of fact, India has been hijacked by extremists and any extreme reaction is expected at any moment. There was a time in history when India was known democratic and secular state. But, now, under the leadership of Prime Minister Modi, all extremist political parties and groups under the umbrella of the BJP are ruling India.

The extremist and fanatics are implementing their agenda of eliminating minorities and transforming India into a “Pure Hindu State”. Especially with Pakistan, a traditional rivalry exists and they cannot see any improvement in Pakistan. 

Pakistan was in the American club for almost Seven Decades and enjoyed very cordial relations with the Western world. Whereas India was a close ally with the former USSR. Although Pakistan was a close ally of the West, yet was facing the toughest sanctions too. However, there is a realization in Washington and a visible policy shit was witnessed recently. Pakistan always welcomes and desires the restoration of traditional friendship between the West and Pakistan.

The US claims the proposed sale to Pakistan does not include any new capabilities, weapons, or munitions, but it would be hard for New Delhi to digest such claims and remain complacent. Interestingly, the fleet of F-16s has been part of the Pakistan Air Force since the early 1980s. Pakistan has always used the US-supplied defense systems in its defense only. The F-16s in their arsenals have been no exception. In February 2019, after the Indian Air Force launched its air strike on Balakot, Pakistan came to deploy its F-16s to target Indian military bases close to the Line of Control.

Apart from Pakistan, the US has sold F-16s in many countries like Bahrain, Belgium, Egypt, Taiwan, Denmark, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Thailand, Turkey, etc. However, South Asia remains a highly volatile region. The US has been sitting on the sale of F-16s to Turkey based on security concerns in the Mediterranean region, which makes the Pakistan agreement all the more intriguing.

Department of State spokesperson Ned Price has said the relationship Washington had with Pakistan “stands on its own,” responding to criticism from India over a proposed US sale of F-16 aircraft sustainment and related equipment to Islamabad.

Answering a question about Jaishankar’s comments, the state department spokesperson said on Monday Washington did not view its relations with India or Pakistan “in relation to one another.” “These are both partners of ours with different points of emphasis in each, and we look to both as partners because we do have in many cases shared values, we do have in many cases shared interests,” Price told a briefing. “And the relationship we have with India stands on its own; the relationship we have with Pakistan stands on its own.”

There are positive signals and it seems the traditional relations between the US and Pakistan will be restored soon. Our relations are not any threat to India or any other nation, but, for promoting regional peace, stability and development. We are partners in peace, development, and the total welfare of humankind.

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