In a Nutshell:
Recent research has called into question any major technological, tactical, or organizational advantage of European militaries over the Ottomans until the late seventeenth century.
Instead of focusing on the military superiority of European arms, it is better to consider the reverse proposition: the impact of Ottoman military strength and prowess on developments among the Ottomans’ rivals and contemporaries. Instead of thinking in terms of "decline," it is more useful to re-conceptualize the problem in terms of locating Ottoman capabilities on the scale of the international production hierarchy, which includes arms production, arms transfers, and technological diffusion. In the process of doing so, Ottoman military and naval capabilities shall be compared against the Ottomans' own past accomplishments and the achievements in war technology and production made by the Ottomans' European rivals and neighbors. When placed in the proper context, it becomes apparent that up to the early nineteenth century the “decline” was certainly not inexorable.
The decline of great Empires has always been a subject of fascinated interest, and in our own day has a new poignancy, both for those who rejoice and for those who weep at the passing of Imperial greatness. The decline of the Ottoman Empire has also received its share of attention. For too long historians have focused on the alleged superiority of European arms and tactics over the Ottomans—ostensibly beginning in the late sixteenth century—and on the resulting Ottoman military reforms, which, starting in the late eighteenth century, reshaped the sultan’s armies along European lines.
In general, the advantages of a European Military Revolution against the Ottomans remain highly questionable, at least until the late seventeenth century. Even then, the successes of Habsburg arms against the Ottomans can better be explained by improved capabilities in marshaling troops and resources, and, as a consequence, the ability of the Habsburgs, for the first time, to match Ottoman troop strength and logistical capabilities, rather than by tactical and technological advantages emanating from a European Military Revolution. Even more important was the Habsburgs’ ability to form alliances and wage a coalition war against the Ottomans, which forced their archenemy to fight on four different fronts, an impossible task for all contemporary belligerents.
The expanded Ottomans salaried corps and the household troops of provincial governors and grandees remained surprisingly effective through the early eighteenth century. It was with such forces that the Ottomans nearly captured the capital of the Holy Roman Empire in 1683, defeated Peter the Great in 1711, defeated the Venetians and recaptured the Morea in 1715–1717, and both retook Belgrade from Austria and scored victories against both Austria and Russia in the 1736–1739 war. Therefore, European victories against the Ottomans prior to the Russo-Ottoman war of 1768–1774 should not be overstated. (Gabor Agoston, The Ottomans and the European Military revolution)
Keith Krause model:
Keith Krause has recently put forth a model for the spread of military technology as a diffusion wave that settles into a hierarchy of military producers. Typically a wave begins as a period of rapid innovation, followed by the diffusion of military technology from the first-tier innovators to second-tier exporters, and concludes with attempts by third tier states to create their own indigenous arms industry through technological imports. Accordingly, producers in the first tier innovate at the technological frontier, those in the second tier adapt weapons at the technological frontier, and third-tier producers copy and reproduce existing technologies but do not capture the underlying process of innovation or adaptation.
The first wave was triggered by the gun powder revolution in the early fifteenth century and had largely run its course by the mid-seventeenth century. By that time the centers of first-tier production were England, the Low Countries, and (ephemerally) Sweden. After the initial revolutionary wave came a period of incremental innovation that began in the late seventeenth century and ended in the early nineteenth century. Among the innovations of this secondary wave were the development of boring cannon (rather than casting cannon in a mold), the conversion from matchlock fire arms to flintlocks, and the lightening of field guns and carriages. The second-tier producers were a more fluid group. The Italian states of Milan, Venice, Genoa, and Brescia had been first-tier manufacturers in the first half of the fifteenth century, but gradually declined into the second tier. By 1500 Milan was importing cannon, and by 1606 half the Venetian fleet was built abroad. Although Italian producers had dropped into the second tier, they remained important arms exporters. Migration of skilled workers served as the main mechanism for the technological diffusion into Sweden, Russia, France, Spain, and the Ottoman Empire between 1450 and 1650. Among these newcomers, however, only France, Russia, and Spain successfully reached the second tier. For the Ottomans, Italy proved an important supply source, especially in the early period of Ottoman expansion, 1450-1500. (Keith krause, Arms and the State)
Military diffusion in Ottoman Empire
By employing Krause's model it is possible to reformulate the question of Ottoman decline in a more precise way: Did the Ottomans decline from their initial position in the production hierarchy? Did the ottomans lag behind their European and Russian contemporaries in participating into and adapting the European military revolution? In order to figure this out, one needs to look into the military diffusion of Ottoman Empire.
The diffusion of firearms in the Ottoman realms:
The bulk of the Ottoman army (infantry azabs, cavalry timariots, and akıncıs) used swords and bows. The Ottomans adopted firearms in the latter part of the fourteenth century, and established a separate artillery corps as part of the sultan’s standing army in the early fifteenth century, well before their European opponents. Initially, the Janissaries were equipped with their formidable recurved bow, saber, shield, and light coat of mail, while other units used crossbows, javelins, and war-axes. Under Murad II (r. 1421–1444, 1446– 1451), they began to use matchlock arquebuses, called tufek in Ottoman sources. The fact that fortress inventories of the mid-fifteenth century listed tufeks alongside cannons suggests that by this time the tufek had evolved into hand-held firearms of the arquebus type.
Sieges and defenses where Ottoman troops are known to have employed cannons include those of Byzantine Constantinople (between 1394 and 1402, 1422, 1453), Salonica (1422, 1430), Antalya (1424), Novo Brdo (1427, 1441), Smederevo (1439), Belgrade (1440), and the Hexamilion (six-mile-wall) fortified wall across the Gulf of Corinth that guarded the only land route between mainland Greece and the Peloponnese peninsula. Considering that cannons became common in European sieges only from the 1420s on, the above examples suggest that the Ottomans were on par with developments occurring elsewhere in Europe.
By 1444, the Ottomans were using cannons in their Balkan castles, aboard their river flotillas on the Danube and its tributaries, and in field battles. They employed cannons against both fixed and moving targets—such as castles and enemy ships. (Djurdjica Petrovic, Firearms)
By the mid of sixteenth century most Janissaries carried firearms. Murad III (r. 1574–1595) equipped his Janissaries with the more advanced matchlock musket, although flintlock muskets with the Spanish miquelet-lock were also manufactured in the empire from the late sixteenth century. The Janissaries were firing their weapons row-by-row from the early sixteenth century, but it seems that they started to use volley fire of the West European type only in the 1590s.
A miniature of the battle from 1558 shows the janissaries firing in two rows: Soldiers in the first row are in a kneeling position reloading their weapons, while those standing behind them in the second row firing their guns. The janissaries are depicted as being behind light field pieces, chained together, a well-known arrangement from earlier and later battles. “And in the middle of the field, the janissaries stood in three ranks, each musketeer (tüfekendaz) with matches ready (to fire), and they lined up the bigger darbzens (şahi darbuzanlar), chained one another, in front of the janissaries. Then, after the first rank of the janissaries fires their muskets, the second rank fires, too. Afterward, the rank that fired first bends double (kneels) and begins to reload their muskets. And as the third rank fires, the second rank in front (of them) bends and prepares their muskets. Then, the first rank again stands up and fires their muskets.” (Abdulkadir, A contribution)
The above reference to the janissaries’ volley practice can be seen as proof for their participation in the “European Military Revolution”; though a different explanation is also possible. It might, at least partly, be explained by the swelling of the corps and the resulting decline of the janissaries’ fighting skills and discipline, which in turn required constant drills to keep their skills up to date and to enhance corps coherence. One should also be careful not to overstate the importance of the janissaries’ volleys and consider the destructiveness of archers, whose arrows could cause more damage among the enemy than musket fire—as was the case in the first phase of the battle of Mezőkeresztes (26 October 1596), the main battle of the Long War of 1593–1606. This is a reminder of the skills of the janissaries in archery and the enduring effectiveness of non-gunpowder weapons at the end of the sixteenth century.
Hungarian Wagenburg and Ottoman Tabur:
During the Hungarian-Ottoman wars of the 1440s the Ottomans acquainted themselves with the Hussite Wagenburgtactic. The Wagenburg, or wagon fortress, perfected by the Hussites in Bohemia during the Hussite wars (1419–1436), was a defensive arrangement of war wagons chained together. The Hussites manned their wagons with some twenty crossbowmen and gunners per wagon, and also protected them against cavalry assault by heavy wooden shielding and light artillery. The Ottomans first encountered the Wagenburgin their fight against János Hunyadi’s troops in 1442.
The Ottomans quickly realized the usefulness of the wagon laager and also determined how to overcome it—namely, by surrounding the laager out of range of the guns and forcing the enemy to give up its positions, a tactic they successfully employed at the battles of Varna (1444) and Kosovo (1448).
Despite allegations to the contrary in the literature, the Ottomans managed to keep pace with Europe regarding weapons technology. More importantly, their military- industrial complex in the capital, supplemented by smaller provincial cannon foundries and gunpowder workshops, enabled the Ottomans to establish long lasting firepower superiority in eastern and central Europe, the Mediterranean, and the Middle East. While factors such as numerical superiority, cavalry charge, and better logistics and tactics were important in the Ottoman victories at Chaldiran (1514), Marj-i Dabiq (1516), Raydaniyya (1517), and Mohacs (1526) against the Safavids, Mamluks, and Hungarians respectively, Ottoman firepower superiority played a crucial role in all these field battles. In siege warfare, Ottoman firepower superiority remained the Ottomans’ strength throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. (Gabor Agoston, Firearms)
Weapons production and firepower superiority:
The adoption and adaptation of firearms by the Ottomans significantly enhanced their military capabilities. However, these weapons had to be manufactured and deployed in large enough numbers to have an impact. This required the establishment of considerable weapons and ammunition manufacturing capabilities as well as an effective transportation system and logistics. The Ottomans proved successful in these areas as well.
Some Europeanist historians and Middle East generalists continue to repeat the old myth that the Ottomans were unable to manufacture their own cannons and thus relied on European weapons, which they either confiscated from their rivals or imported from Europe. When they managed to manufacture their own weapons, it was only with the help of European renegades. (Davis Hanson, Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power)
Alas, claim yet others, Ottoman cannons remained obsolete—huge and unwieldy pieces in a time when European powers were casting smaller, mobile pieces. According to this narrative, Ottoman technological backwardness and dependence on foreign military know-how and hardware eventually led to their defeat at the hands of technologically and tactically superior European rivals. (Carlo M. Cipolla, Guns, Sails and Empires)
These narratives, indeed are not true. In fact, the Ottomans were self-sufficient in the manufacturing of cannons and powder well into the eighteenth century, and the majority of the cannons that they cast and deployed were similar to those used by their European rivals.
The Ottomans were fortunate to have abundant ore deposits (copper, iron, and lead) needed for cannon casting, and raw materials (saltpeter, sulfur, charcoal, and fuel wood) necessary for powder manufacturing. The only metal they lacked was tin. However, the alloy of the Ottoman bronze cannons usually contained only about 10 percent tin, and Istanbul managed to obtain the needed amount from import, mainly from England. The rest of the ore came from the empire’s copper and iron mines. The amount of copper received by the Imperial Cannon Foundry from the Balkan and Anatolian mines was substantial: in 1684–1685, for example, almost 850 metric tons, sufficient to cast hundreds of field pieces and siege cannons. At the same time the iron mines in the Balkans and Anatolia cast hundreds of thousands of iron shots annually, the total weight of which varied, according to demands, from one hundred to eight hundred metric tons in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
The Ottomans also established cannon foundries and gunpowder works throughout their empire. Major foundries operated along the Adriatic (Avlonya and Prevesa), in Hungary (Buda and Temesvar), the Balkans (Rudnik, Semendire, Iskenderiye, Novaberda, Pravis¸te, and Belgrade), Anatolia (Diyarbekir, Erzurum, Birecik, Mardin, and Van), Iraq (Baghdad and Basra), and Egypt (Cairo). The center of cannon casting, however, was the Imperial Cannon Foundry in Istanbul, which was established by Mehmed II after the capture of the city. It was one of the first arsenals in late medieval Europe that was built, operated, and financed by a central government, at a time when most of Europe’s monarchs acquired their cannons from smaller artisan workshops. The Istanbul foundry could easily multiply its capacity before and during major wars, casting several hundreds of cannon before the campaign season. (Gabor Agoston, Ottoman military organization)
Bayezid II (1481-1512) extended this production site, and Suleyman I (1520-66) had it renovated. In addition to the central arsenal at Istanbul, the Ottomans established Belgrade, Buda, Iskodra, Temesvar, Praviste, and Gulamber as important provincial centers of cannon production. Besides these permanent establishments, other locations served as foundries, depending on the needs of the moment. Included in this category were Bilecik, Van, Kigi, Kamengrad, Rudnik, and Novobrdo. The size and quality of Ottoman cannons in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries were quite impressive. Under Selim I, the Ottomans developed grooved cast cannon 425 cm long and 100 cm wide, a feat not matched by the Germans until the nineteenth century. (V.J Parry, Barud)
The Ottomans manufactured gunpowder in the main gunpowder works in Istanbul, as well as in the empire’s provincial centers, including Cairo, Baghdad, Aleppo, and Yemen in the Arab provinces; Buda, Esztergom, Pecs, Temesvar, Belgrade, Salonica, and Gallipoli in the European provinces; and Izmir, Bor, Erzurum, Diyarbakır, and Van in Asia Minor. Provincial powder works usually were able to meet local demands and also helped to ease the logistical burden and costs associated with transporting hundreds of tons of powder to the theaters of war during major campaigns. Moreover, the decentralized Ottoman system of powder production was flexible enough to respond to the exigencies of wars. At time of increased demand the Ottomans reactivated previously disused powder mills or set up new ones closer to the theaters of war. The establishment of the powder works in Egriboz (Negroponte), Hanya (Chania), and Salonica during the Cretan wars (1645–1669) are examples of Ottoman adaptability, as is the ability of the Salonica powder works to double its production in 1716–1718, in a time of renewed wars against the Habsburgs in Hungary and the Venetians in the Morea. Altogether, Ottoman powder works met the demands of the army, the navy, and garrisons well into the eighteenth century, producing an estimated 650–1,000 metric tons annually from the late sixteenth century through the late seventeenth. However, in the 1770s diminishing production forced Istanbul to import substantial qualities of powder from Europe. At the end of the eighteenth century the new Azadlı gunpowder works in Istanbul, modernized with French assistance, were again able to manufacture sufficient quantities of gunpowder— and of a much better quality. (Agoston, Guns)
Among the monstrously huge guns produced by the Ottomans was the balyemez. This term was derived from the Italian word pallamezza and applied to Ottoman guns that fired the biggest shot. The use of an Italian loanword reveals the origins of the technology copied by the Ottomans. The Ottoman preference for the production of siege guns, which were too heavy for use in a war of movement, continued through the seventeenth century. It was precisely at this time that European developments in the manufacture of mobile field artillery moved ahead. Generally, though, Ottoman cannons were still regarded highly in the seventeenth century.
Domestic cannon production remained strong throughout the eighteenth century, but the Ottomans' penchant for big, heavy guns placed them at a disadvantage in mobile field battles against European forces armed with rapid-fire cannons. The Ottomans remained partial to the old balyemez and shaki cannons, and consequently their artillery was no longer comparable to that of European powers. In effect, the empire was manufacturing the wrong type of pieces. During the Ottoman campaign against Ada Kale in 1738, the Austrians captured fifty cannons at Orsovo, but they could only take forty of them due to the weight of the pieces. It was not until 1774 that a train of light field artillery was cast for Ottoman service. (Gabor Agoston, Defending and Administering the Frontier: The Case of Ottoman Hungary)
With the introduction of cannon-boring techniques and the casting of light artillery by Baron de Tott (d.1793) in the early 1770s, the Ottomans became the recipients of two important technological innovations, which constituted part of the second wave of Krause's model. To appreciate the context one should note that Russia had adopted these techniques only a decade before the Ottomans, and that the Russians also had made use of a foreign expert to acquire the knowledge for cannon-boring.
Why did it seemingly take so long for the Ottomans to accept lighter field artillery? The Ottoman timing was directly connected to Russian tactical developments in the eighteenth century. Sieges were the backbone of military operations in Eastern Europe, and therefore siege and fortress artillery were necessarily vital components. The Turkish fortresses guarding the northern approaches provided formidable defense and set the conditions for the Russo-Turkish struggles. The Turks eschewed field battles and withdrew into their fortresses, thereby forcing the Russians to engage in siege operations. In 1769 the Russians' lack of large guns prevented them from sustaining the siege against the Turkish fort at Hotin, and as a result the Ottomans scored a victory as the Russians were forced to retreat. The Russian tactical innovations of aimed infantry fire, mobile field artillery, the use of infantry squares, and the overall stress on speed and shock grew out of challenges posed by the Turkish campaigns in the eighteenth century. In effect, Russian commanders had changed the rules of engagement by the 1770s, and the Turks had to compensate. The heavy Ottoman guns were still viable in defending their strongholds, but the greater Russian potency in the field now required the adoption of lighter field guns. (Virginia H.Aksan, An Ottoman Statesman)
Ottoman firepower superiority, combined with numerical and logistical superiority, proved to be crucial in mounting a continuous pressure on Europe. Attempts to match Ottoman firepower prompted a series of European countermeasures. These included modernization of fortress systems (the introduction of the star fort or trace italienne into central and Eastern Europe); changing the cavalry–infantry ratio; improving the training and tactics of field armies; increasing the quality and production output of armaments industries; and modernizing state administration and finances. While all these were part of a larger phenomenon, often referred to as the “European military revolution,” and were undoubtedly fostered by the frequency of interstate violence within Europe, in eastern and central Europe; it was Ottoman military superiority that constituted the greatest challenge and required adequate countermeasures.
Ottoman ship-production capabilities increased dramatically from the fifteenth century to the sixteenth. The first Ottoman naval arsenal had been built at Gallipoli under Bayezid I (1389-1402). At this early stage the Ottomans also managed to construct ships on the Sea of Marmara, the Aegean, and the Black Sea. From these limited facilities a small navy emerged, and by the time of Mehmed II (1451-81) the navy consisted of thirty galleys. By the time of Selim I (1512-20) tremendous growth in naval production had taken place. There were 110 naval yards and arsenals distributed among the Golden Horn, Galli poli, Izmit, Gemlik, Sinop, Varna, Selcuk, Bodrum, Antalya, Rhodes, Yalova, Birecik, and other locations. At Birecik in 1565 some 250 war ships were launched, and according to the seventeenth-century Ottoman writer Katip Celebi known as Haji Khalifa, in 1567 a fleet of 550 ships issued forth from the port. (Tuhfetul Kibar Fi Esfaril Bihar)
Under Mehmed II and Bayezid II (r. 1481–1512), the Ottomans acquired the common naval technology of the Mediterranean, adopting the oared galley as their principal vessel. The usual Ottoman galley carried a single mast with a lateen sail and had 24–26 banks of oars on both sides, with three oarsmen to a bench, all pulling separate oars until the mid-sixteenth century. From the 1560s, following their Mediterranean rivals, the Ottomans too adopted the al-scaloccio system, by which all oarsmen on the same bench pulled a single oar. This arrangement helped to increase the number of oarsmen. Ottoman galleys usually carried a center-line cannon and two smaller flanking culverins. However, impressed by the Venetian galleasses, which played an important role in the Christians’ victory at the Battle of Lepanto, the Ottomans were quick to imitate these large and heavily armed galleys that could fire broadsides, as opposed to the traditional galleys, which had guns only on the prow. This battle itself was a decisive defeat for the Ottoman navy. Out of 230 Ottoman galleys, 80 vessels were sunk and 130 captured. Yet Ottoman naval production capabilities were left unaffected. The huge naval arsenal at Kasimpasa was still the largest in the world, and together with the other Ottoman dockyards it could make good the losses real quick. (Paul Rycaut, the Present State of the Ottoman Empire)
During the rebuilding of their fleet, destroyed at Lepanto, the Ottoman shipyards in Sinop and Istanbul constructed some four or five galleasses. These vessels could carry as many as 24 guns and fire them from the stern, bow, and sides. Although the Ottomans’ allies in the Barbary States started to use warships of the Atlantic type from the early seventeenth century and the Algerine war vessels carried as many as 30 to 50 guns and 250–350 men by the last third of the century, the Ottomans were slow to adapt to the shipbuilding revolution. Recognizing the superiority of the Venetian sailing galleons during their attack on Crete in 1645, the Ottomans tried to imitate the Venetians. However, due to the inexperience of their crew, several of these new galleons were either captured or destroyed by the Venetians in the mid- 1650s. In 1662, Istanbul temporarily suspended the building of galleons and returned to the production of galleys.
Much has been made of the fact that the Ottomans were very slow in making the transition from galleys to galleons. It was only after 1682 that the galleons became standard warships in the Ottoman navy. Explanation can be found in the Porte's long naval rivalry with the Venetians. Ottoman naval developments had always been closely intertwined with those of Venice. Back in its infancy, in 1416, the Ottoman navy had fought its first sea battle against the Venetians. Also, many of the experts who supervised the building of war galleys in the sultan's yards had served as shipwrights in Venice, and the Ottoman methods of construction were therefore largely copied from those of the Venetians. This rivalry had great significance for Ottoman naval development because the Venetians were also reluctant to adopt galleons. Both the Ottomans and Venetians were latecomers to the idea of galleon fleets, and for both the impetus for the adoption of sailing galleons came from the Atlantic powers in the seventeenth century. In the late 1640s and early 1650s the Ottomans made considerable efforts to increase the number of their sailing vessels in response to their defeats by Atlantic sailing vessels operating as auxiliaries for the Venetian fleet. Throughout the first half of eighteenth century the Ottomans maintained a naval balance with the Venetian forces. Henry Grenville still considered the Ottoman fleet comparable to that of Venice from what he observed in 1765. Unfortunately, by merely keeping pace with the Venetians, the Ottomans fell behind the Atlantic maritime powers. The inferiority of Mediterranean naval power to Atlantic power only became clear when the main naval activity in the western Mediterranean passed to Britain and France in the second half of the 1700s. (Jack Beeching, the Galleys at LePanto; Ismail Uzuncarsili, Bahriyya)
The next phase of the modernization of the Ottoman navy took place under Selim III (1761-1808). It was not until Selim III's naval reforms that the Ottoman fleet again became competitive with Atlantic Europe, although the Turkish defeat at Chesme was not due to any technical deficiencies. The Turkish fleet actually had larger vessels than the Russian fleet, and their artillery was comparable.
The naval reforms of Selim III (1789-1807) demonstrated that the empire's domestic production was still capable of rising to the challenge. In 1784 the navy consisted of twenty-two ships of the line and fifteen frigates (of which nine were in poor condition). In the period 1784-88 there were twenty-five vessels carrying over sixty guns within the Ottoman navy. One of these, a seventy-four-gunner, had been built by French engineers. Between 1789 and 1798 some forty-five modern fighting ships were built and launched from the empire's ship yards. (Fernand Braudel, Civilization and Capitalism)
The Ottomans had relied on foreign expertise and had copied foreign technology in their naval construction from the very beginnings of their navy. As the innovations from the first-tier Atlantic producers diffused across the Mediterranean via Spain to Venice, the Ottomans became cognizant of them and incorporated these new types of ships into their own fleet. First galleons and then frigates joined the ranks of Ottoman naval service after neighboring powers had similarly borrowed them.
Based on Krause's schema, it becomes clear by the above elaboration that the Ottomans remained a third-tier producer throughout the period from the fifteenth century to the early nineteenth century. In other words, the Ottomans did not drop a tier in their military technological capabilities, and it is misleading to view them as in decline by comparing them to first-tier producers, such as England and Holland. Furthermore, their immediate rivals in Poland, Hungary, and the Balkans possessed comparable capabilities, while Egypt and Iran were actually below the third tier and were import-dependent.
Djurdjica Petrovic, Firearms
Fernand Braudel, Civilization and Capitalism
Gabor Agoston, Defending and Administering the Frontier: The Case of Ottoman Hungary
Gabor Agoston, Firearms and Military Adaptaion: The Ottomans and the European Military revolution, 1450-1800
Gabor Agoston, Ottoman Military Organization
Haji Khalifa, Tuhfetul Kibar Fi Esfaril Bihar
Jack Beeching, the Galleys at LePanto
Jonathan Grant, Rethinking the Ottoman Decline: Military Technology Diffusion in the Ottoman Empire, Fifteenth to Eighteenth Centuries
Keith krause, Arms and the State
Mesut Uyar & Edward Erickson, A military History of the Ottomans
Paul Rycaut, the Present State of the Ottoman Empire
Virginia H.Aksan, an Ottoman Statesman
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