Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Russian Gambit

As we soon enter the fall season, the talk of a strike, a conflict, even a war against Iran grows louder and louder.

While Israel is extremely worried and increases its military readiness and the United States timidly drag their feet into uncertainty, Iran keeps a steady course and presses on the accelerator.

In the past weeks stories have surfaced that Israel could launch a preemptive strike in September or October, ahead of the US election. This time, it might be for real, as the increase in intensity of the covert operations against Iranian nuclear interests in the past year might indicate.

It is clear now that the US and the EU are not capable of deescalating the tensions, and the UN Security Council resolutions are not diminishing Iranian resolve. Further attempts on their behalf at this point would likely be futile.

What can the world do to deescalate the conflict?

In my opinion there is one but option left: to call on Russia. Give Putin, Medvedev and Lavrov all the tools, the leverage, the latitude and the trust that is necessary to try and turn down the dial through the political back channels, for the sake of avoiding another bloody conflict in the Middle East.

Russia is a historical behemoth that has known all the plagues. Russians are no strangers to the ugliness of war, the fear of terrorism and political instability. It is a nation in which might is right, for better or for worse, but that can be an effective game changer if treated with respect and truly empowered to make a difference.

While some could argue that Russia’s efforts towards Iran have been counterproductive in the past, insisting with their diplomatic authorities that the last thing the world’s largest nation needs is a war over nuclear matters on its southern front, not too far from the Caucasus, could be a simple yet effective incentive.

Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency, his will to assert Russia’s presence on the international stage and to restore the nation’s glory might worry some; however the West playing its cards right with Russia, with whom it shares a considerable culture, could help steer the country into becoming a proud yet truly responsible international actor, while bolstering their pride and help the West achieve is foreign policy goals.

It is time to give Russia an opportunity to shine, for all our sakes, before we venture past the point of no return. It is time to let Moscow lead one last diplomatic ballet, in order to avoid a belligerent mosh pit.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

The Great Game

The hot-zones today. How many G20 countries can you count in their vicinity?

The current state of relations between the American and Russian governments will no doubt remind some of the Cold War. Sharp tongues, covert operations, proxy wars, threats of using force – it’s all there, albeit, in a much less intense fashion. It is also a complete waste of time.

Last June, when it hosted the G20 summit in Los Cabos, the Mexican government did not convene a follow-up meeting of the G20 Foreign Ministers, even though it had been tentatively put forward after their first informal gathering last February. It is unfortunate because it could have been used to discuss frankly, openly and face to face the current challenges to international security that are posed by North Korea, Iran and most recently, Syria.

While hoping for some kind of major agreement on upcoming steps in all three scenarios might have been far-fetched, the world could have used some sense of unity in the broadest sense from the G20 nations’ chief diplomats. Instead, we are privy to yet another “Great Game” between the US-Russia and China troika, played out in diplomatic circles, through covert operations, weapons shipments and UN Security Council vetoes, while our world becomes increasingly dangerous.

Syria is the last remaining “active” fire of the Arab Spring and is quickly catching up to Libya in terms of bloodbath. However, because of the country’s strategic location – at the very heart of the least stable region of the globe – the conflict has been at the very centre of a tug o’ war between the US and Western nations and the Russia/China strategic alliance.

Certainly, Bashar Al-Assad bears most of the blame for the extreme escalation of the conflict. But Russia and China, fearing a repeat of the “over-interpretation” of UNSC resolution 1970 on Libya have consistently vetoed any bold proposal against Syria. Russians went as far as attempting to deliver Mi25 attack helicopters and missiles to Al-Assad’s regime earlier this summer, and are likely politically flexing their muscles by deploying amphibious assault ships and hundreds of marines in their naval base at Tartus shortly.

On the other hand, news broke this past week that the US President Barack Obama authorized clandestine support to the rebels by the CIA through humanitarian, logistical, communications and financial help which likely explains the growing progress they have made in the recent weeks. Official sources claim no arms are being sent by the US; this may or may not be true. And of course, financial help begs the question: what is stopping the recipients of US funds from acquiring weapons with that money? What is truly worrying about the Syrian rebels is the growing legions of foreign fighters affiliated to Al-Qaeda joining their side. In the advent of a rebel victory, what will happen to them? Could US help be in fact diverted to help a new generation of Al-Qaeda terrorists?

While East and West throw an encore of the Cold War, Iran coldly calculates its next move with its nuclear program, sending its Basij and financing Hezbollah to support the fledging Al-Assad. When Damascus finally falls, no real distraction will remain in the Middle East, and all eyes will look to Teheran. What some call the “Syrian Uprising” is but a prelude to the next chapter: a confrontation with Iran.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Old problems, new developments

Two months away from a potential follow-up meeting of the G20 Foreign Ministers in Mexico, international security issues are all over the radar.

Iran’s nuclear programme and the heated rhetoric of its leadership continued to heighten the tensions in the past weeks. With increased talk of preventive Israeli strikes on the horizon, naval deployments near Iran’s maritime border, negative feedback from the International Atomic Energy Agency’s reports and potential new Security Council sanctions, it seems that things had reached a significant, perhaps boiling point. However yesterday in Istanbul, the P5+1 (US, UK, France, China, Russia, Germany) and Iran broke a 14-month deadlock and reached an agreement on a framework for talks and a date for upcoming negotiations. It is a positive step, but concrete and measurable results will have to be taken quickly by both sides for a significant de-escalation to bear fruit. Russia’s role in this is key and its bridging approach with Iran must be supported.

Teheran can thank the belligerent and reckless leadership in Pyongyang for diverting international attention from its own nuclear activities. It is now very clear that there will not be any reforms, no glasnost any time soon for the leadership of Kim Jong Un, which is still very much in its assertive phase. The face of the leader may have changed, but the military elitist system remains very much in place and it has taken a life of its own under an inexperienced and untested youth. The senseless and illogical botching of the recent US food aid deal over the failed launch of a long-range missile suggests that there may be trouble in the hermit kingdom. As I elaborated in my paper Pre-Emptive Peace, I fundamentally believe that the top of the pyramid of the leadership in North Korea is akin to the incomplete top floors of Pyongyang’s iconic Ryugyong Hotel: chaotic, incoherent and full of holes. It started in the dawning years of the sickly Kim Jong Il and under Un, it is now practically open season: rival old-timer generals vying for power and position in a decaying nation through various acts of faith in contradiction, try to cater the favour of the Dear Leader. Kim Jong Un’s appointment of 70 new generals and the public admission of the launch failure a few days ago is likely a response to his current advisors’ shortcomings (who will likely be severely punished for the pathetic spectacle of the exploding rocket).

South Korean analysts now believe that a new nuclear test by North Korea is a strong possibility, to rally their wounded pride. Should this occur, the international community should twist in the final screws by imposing the toughest sanctions possible and sever all ties with North Korea. Furthermore, China should be actively talked into getting on board, not only to deter Pyongyang from further provocations, but to remind them that they have crossed the line and that they will no longer be supported as an embarrassing client-state.

Iran is monitoring the North Korean situation very closely, and its choice of whether or not to develop a nuclear arsenal to face off with the international community will depend on how Teheran perceives the risks and gains of a standoff like the one in the Korean peninsula.

All of this being considered, I expect the G20 Foreign Ministers to discuss these pressing international security matters should they decide to meet in Mexico in June. All of the world’s strength, world powers and emerging economies alike must be focused on coordination for global peace and security, and it is nations like Russia, China, Brazil, Turkey and Mexico who will be true game changers. 

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Los Cabos review and the way forward

It has been a month since the first G20 Foreign Ministers meeting in Los Cabos, Mexico. I have been wanting to write a “review” of the informal gathering but due to lack of time, I had to delay it until now. The good thing about this delay is that many articles have been written since late February on this subject, some of which will be referenced here.

A trial run

The gathering in Los Cabos last month was so informal, that the word “informal” had to be part of the official title of the meeting.

There are a few reasons for this, the first being that not all the decision-makers could make it to the meeting, so the crowd was a mix of Ministers, Secretaries and high-level deputies.

As I am unaware of exactly how Mexico managed to convince the bigger powers to attend the meeting and the timeframe related to its organization, I suspect it was short enough notice for some G20 nations to be caught off guard, and it also explains why there was no official communiqué as the meeting was more of a trial run.

Whether some states’ highest diplomats had previous engagements elsewhere, whether they in fact doubted the possibility of positive outcome of a Foreign Ministers gathering or whether they simply wanted to test the waters with through their deputies… these are all possible explanations to this sudden and somewhat low-key expansion of the G20.

However the presence of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle and European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, should be viewed as a sign of genuine interest in broadening the G20’s responsibilities.

A conservative agenda suddenly widened

The topics on the agenda were “green growth, poverty, job creation for people around the world, anti-corruption, global development, and global governance”, writes UK Human Rights Minister Jeremy Browne in the Huffington Post. These are topics related macro-economics, quite in the spirit of the G20’s foundation, but they remain nonetheless quite conservative. While it seemed the G20 would come shy of discussing global security matters, US State Secretary made a bold move when she declared in her opening remarks at the meeting:

I also look forward to speaking with many of you as this conference proceeds about how best to support the legitimate aspirations and humanitarian needs of the Syrian people despite the current deadlock at the United Nations Security Council, and about how the international community can persuade Iran to meet its obligations.”
This was particularly surprising coming from the United States. I absolutely commend Secretary Clinton for broadening the dialogue and hope that progress was made behind the scenes in Los Cabos.

The management of war and peace is one of the oldest functions of the state, and it is one that is jealously guarded by a state’s leaders, and a few close allies. Opening high-level dialogue on war and peace with countries in a different hemisphere, who may not be economic superpowers or shining beacons of democracy is one of the boldest foreign policy moves in recent years, and in my opinion, it is the right one.

Where it needs to go

The G20 Foreign Ministers will reconvene in Mexico on June 19 and 20. I believe this would be a good opportunity to officially make the global security dossier a G20 “jurisdiction”, especially in the light of rising tensions with Iran and the weird waltz with North Korea. The G20’s geographical and geopolitical representation as well as the influence of its emerging powers makes it a more suitable organisation than the G8 to tackle global security matters.

As Stewart Patrick from the Council on Foreign Relations writes:

“The forum provides a chance for the United States to erode the bloc mentalities that often thwart cooperation within the UN, forge new diplomatic alignments spanning developing and developed countries, and negotiate breakthroughs on longstanding global bottlenecks—solutions that can be taken up and implemented by more formal organizations, from the UN to the World Trade Organization to the International Atomic Energy Agency. Of course, the G20 will not provide a magic bullet to solve the most complex challenges, like growing tensions with Iran, for example. Still, the G20 offers a more fluid environment for the United States to seek political buy-in from a more diverse swath of the world’s most important players. Clinton and Espinoza were right to seize this opportunity.”

In that sense, the G20 should be a useful permanent platform for expanded dialogue on nuclear proliferation, as the five permanent members of the UNSC and countries sharing historical, cultural and geographical ties with the Iranian and North Korean nations also constitute the organisation’s membership. Foreign Ministers – having flexibility and authority – could come together on a common approach towards Iran and North Korea. Its high-level environment and its geopolitical representation would make it a potent organisation to address nuclear proliferation.

The Foreign Ministers’ G20 should not intend to be a substitute for the UN Security Council, nor for groups like the Six-Party talks. Its role should be to send the overarching positive signals of political will to technical discussions tables and organisations dealing with nuclear proliferation, or other security matters. That is what I believe the Mexican government should aim to establish come June.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

How did it happen?

So just how did the most significant shift in international relations between states since the end of the Cold War actually occur? In my opinion, it is a perfect storm of four combined elements that helped the G20 Foreign Ministers Group to see the light of day.

First, the massive economic earthquake of 2008 shook every nation of the world, and it reminded nations’ leaders that states today were no longer fortresses, they were instead extremely interdependent villages which needed to build on each others’ strengths if they were to survive, and indeed, thrive. The G20 leaders’ summit came to the fore and helped in stopping the global economic onslaught. While the financial damage was severe, the world had not plunged in utter darkness, and while fundamental differences between powerful states linger still with regards to economics and political systems, the need for greater cooperation between powerful countries is now on every state’s mind, and in everyone’s interest.

Second, the new American foreign policy conducted by US President Barack and State Secretary Hillary Clinton aimed at re-establishing the United States of America’s post-Iraq reputation, through the use of what Clinton called “smart power”, which meant a penchant for multilateralism in America’s international relations. One of the main targets of this “reset” was Russia, which was engaged in a diplomatic barking war with the Bush administration over the European ballistic missile defense project. With Russia being a keystone in the neighbourhood of rogue states like Iran and North Korea, the Obama administration opted to build new bridges between West and East, to tackle paranoid and dangerous nations.

Third, the rise of Brazil, Russia, China, India, South Africa, Mexico (BRICSAM) and Turkey as economic powerhouses meant that these countries would become surprisingly influential in global diplomacy. One of the most explicit examples of this was the involvement of Brazil and Turkey in the Iranian nuclear crisis Spring 2010. These two countries attempted to establish a nuclear fuel swap agreement with Iran, catching the Americans off guard. The deal did not pan out, and it lead to Brazil and Turkey breaking the consensus that had been building over a new round of sanctions at the United Nations Security Council. What was dismissed as a small tremor in the heart of South America and Asia Minor was in fact the very first chapter of a shift of political epicentres. The next tremor was the very calling of a G20 Foreign Ministers’ meeting by Mexico. The Mexican proposal did not trigger public opposition from any of the G8 members, which is very surprising in itself.

Finally, the Arab Spring injected international relations with a sudden, concentrated and large dose of adrenalin, forcing a tabula rasa in the Middle East and forcing great and emerging powers, East and West, democrats to authoritarians alike to come together in condemning the brutal crackdowns on the civilian populace, for the sake of basic human rights, political stability and economic interests. The Libyan intervention of Spring 2011 that was a textbook case of the “responsibility to protect” had not been vetoed by China and Russia, and gave us a small glimpse of a world of relative cohesion against tyranny of the like we had not seen since the Gulf War.

While China and Russia condemned the extensive NATO operation soon after it began and closed the door to an encore with Syria, at least for the moment, it is my belief that the G20 Foreign Ministers group will help to bridge the differences between states with regards to international security matters, such as Syria, in the medium term. Even though the new branch of the organization has not yet been given a clear mandate to deal with war and peace, it is but a matter of time – a very short time – before its Foreign Ministers realise they have no other choice but to do so.

Thursday, February 23, 2012


Welcome to the G20 Foreign Ministers Monitor! This is the Internet’s first blog dedicated solely to the newly created branch of the Group of 20 chief diplomats. It will provide analysis, commentary, criticism and projections about the meetings and actions of the G20 Foreign Ministers.

A bit about me

My name is Alexandre T. Gingras and I will be writing on here in the coming months and hopefully years. I reside near Ottawa, Canada, and hold a Bachelors’ Degree in Political Science from the University of Ottawa and a Master’s Degree from the University of Uppsala in Sweden.

Discussing with Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei in Mauritius

My Master’s thesis entitled Pre-Emptive Peace: Collective Security and Rogue States in the 21st Century, written and published in 2010, advocated and articulated the need to expand the G20’s responsibilities in the fold of international security through the creation of a Foreign Ministers group, in order to assist the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) in the disarmament talks over nuclear proliferation situations in Iran and North Korea. It was the first extensive discussion on the creation of a G20 Foreign Ministers group, which had been mentioned in passing previously by Professor John Kirton and former Finnish politician Risto Penttilä, and it has received the support of many academics, politicians, and diplomats, including former IAEA Director and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mohamed ElBaradei.

A brief history

With former Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin in Cameroon

Let’s quickly recap the G20’s history. Former Canadian Finance Minister Paul Martin created and presided over the G20 Finance Ministers group, which initially met in Berlin in 1999, in the wake of the Asian financial crisis. When Martin became Prime Minister of Canada, he advocated expanding the G20 to also include the leaders of the nations represented: presidents, prime ministers and kings. However there was resistance from George W. Bush over the Martin plan between 2003 and 2006. Ultimately, because of the global economic crisis of 2008, Bush called for the first G20 leaders’ summit in 2008, which is largely credited with saving the world from an economic disaster of apocalyptic proportions.

A growing role

While its initial leaders’ meetings in Washington, London, Pittsburgh and Toronto initially focused on the global economic security and recovery, in November 2010 at the Seoul Summit, the G20 took on the issue of international development, which had been until then a G8 responsibility.

I proposed that this was the first of many responsibilities that would eventually shift to the G20. Indeed, between 2010 and 2011, the G20 Ministers of International Development, Labour, Energy and Agriculture held their first meetings, and I urged officials in Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia and Korea as well as policy experts in think-tanks advising G20 host nations to push for the same. On February 19 and 20, 2012, the G20 Foreign Ministers met for the first time in Los Cabos, Mexico, for an informal gathering.

The first-ever G20 Foreign Ministers meeting in February 2012

So the story begins…

In my opinion, the biggest shift in international relations in decades just took place in Mexico. That is what this blog will be about. While people might not realize it overnight, the discussions and eventual “alignment” of 20 most powerful countries’ foreign policies and their chief diplomats is likely to change the very nature of peace and conflict as we know them, in building a safer and more secure world.