Sunday, October 6, 2013

The African Winter

These days, eyes are focused on the Middle East. Iran. Syria. Egypt. Old structures crumble, new orders painstakingly attempt to take hold, counter-revolutions erupt. To external witnesses and people living in those conflict zones, it often seems a lost cause, like the myth of Sisyphus.

To them I say: patience. In forty odd years, things will be much more stable, as the dust will have settled, a new generation of leaders will be able to assert itself, and many conflicts will have died down.

Why I am so confident about some upcoming perpetual peace in the Middle East? There are a few factors that come into play: the geographical proximity with Europe, being located alongside critical trade routes, the societal foundations provided by Islam, the back and forth movement of peoples – migrants, businessmen, workers – between the West and the Middle East, the prosperous Middle Eastern diasporas living abroad, the rise of green energy technologies for starters. Mix it all together and leave it to sit for a certain time, and I am convinced that in proper time, the Middle East will become fairly stable.

In 2050, at this rate, the source of global instability will not be Middle East. It will be Africa, which will by then be home to roughly a billion people and the youngest population on the planet.

Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb, Boko Haram, the LRA, M-23 and Al-Shabaab do not result from the aftershocks of a post-colonial Africa. They are fillers to a vacuum left by weak, failing and failed states. As the governmental power subsides because of mismanagement, incessant warfare and corruption, militias and other illegal groupings reap the spoils, feed on them and grow without limits. Based in hard-to-reach locales, their local influence grows – they provide an alternative to the young and the disenfranchised. Weak African governments find them embarrassing and they dismiss them, while Western powers largely ignore them because they are not a strategic threat to their current wants or needs. Somehow, the near takeover of Mali in late 2012 by terrorist militias, only stopped by a French military intervention, was not a strong enough signal that the current system is not working.

By 2050 the world will fully turn to Africa, the largest reservoir of untapped resources – be it oil, gold, medicinal plants or precious minerals. In that field, China has a massive head start and has long been exchanging its expertise and engineering teams in exchange for unsustainable, bargain-priced resource concessions. All the while, Western powers are notoriously complicit to similar schemes in the mining sector in sub-Saharan Africa.

What does Africa need then? It needs a middle class.

What struck me the most in my trips to sub-Saharan Africa is the ridiculous disparity between the rich and the poor. It’s not just a gap, it’s a massive canyon. The business and political elites maintain themselves in power for decades on end, ensuring a backyard playground for big powers – most notably France. This is all tied up nicely by big foreign aid packages which land in the pockets of the same old people, sweet business deals benefitting politicians that have been in power for decades. All the while deals are sealed in villa-fortresses of African leaders, far away from the eyes of an uneducated populace being lead on, year after year.

Such a system cannot carry on forever. You cannot say you love your country and agree to such bad terms. You cannot say you uphold a constitution when most of your people are illiterate. You cannot expect people to become rich when resources are practically given away and sent off as soon as they are extracted. Someday, there will be consequence.

Some day, this will backfire badly. Then we will see some of the most vicious militias in History, some of the most violent acts performed on human beings, all the while migrations flows will explode, states will become utterly chaotic, and the resources we need will become the poker chips of groups who want to harm us.

This will happen, unless we help to build a viable, strong middle class. A group in the citizenry who are literate, who can innovate, who can be taxed and participate in a healthy democracy.

African diasporas living abroad must be involved in developing their home countries. African populations themselves must be involved in this effort so that a middle class can emerge which is tailored to their realities and needs. Businesses must agree to give workers better pay and better living conditions. International help should be focused on developing infrastructures like roads, train tracks, airports, seaports, hydroelectric dams, solar farms, power grids. Big businesses should be given tax incentives by big powers to encourage training, mentorship, research and development in Africa so that they can reap even greater benefits down the road, in a sustainable way.

While all wonder what the fate of the Arab Spring will be, let us not forget that we must do all we can to avoid an African Winter down the road.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

A time of transitions

The climate in international relations often shifts faster than weather patterns in Iceland. What has transpired earlier this month at the G20 gathering in St. Petersburg was nothing short of exceptional. I have waited this long to blog about it because I wanted to be sure that the promises that had been made and the decisions that had been taken were not just spur of the moment, Machiavellian distractions destined to save face and preserve the status quo.

The Syrian crisis was inevitably going to be the elephant in the room at the G20 summit. While it was likely to be discussed, chances were that no matter of substance would be agreed to, and that we would see a classic clash between the “pro-Imperialists” versus the “pro-rogue states”, defeating the opportunity to find some kind of middle ground amongst a series of terrible options.

It was announced on September 3 that “key” G20 Foreign Ministers would attend the summit in Russia, from the usual Western bunch but also, most interestingly, Brazil, China and Turkey, in an ad-hoc manner.

Stewart Patrick, of the Council for Foreign Relations, then published a blog post reiterating the relevance of the G20 creating a Foreign Ministers’ track, especially in the light of the events unfolding in Syria, which he had elaborated on earlier this year in a memo to the Russian government.

Tensions were high going into St. Petersburg and divisions appeared to make positions between East and West rather irreconcilable at first.

But as time went by, interesting developments occurred, as wrote Professor John Kirton:

Syria dominated the St. Petersburg Summit, both in the discussions among the leaders and their delegations on the first day, and in the attention of the media and citizens around the world for a longer time. 

The leaders showed that the G20 summit, initially designed as an economic institution, was now a full-strength centre of global governance, able and willing to address not just newer security threats such as corruption and terrorism but also more classic ones such as the use of chemical weapons by a government against its own people. Following the August chemical weapons attack in Syria, and the denials and divisions among major powers in the following two weeks, Russia's Vladimir Putin as summit host suddenly invited G20 foreign ministers to St. Petersburg and then added to the leaders' opening dinner at the summit a three-hour discussion dedicated to Syria where every leader had a say. 

This allowed about half the leaders an opportunity to express strong support for the approach of "deter and deny" through limited missile strikes led by the presidents of the United States and France. Support came from the leaders of a domestically constrained United Kingdom, an instinctively reticent Japan, a long cautious Germany facing an election on September 22, a long reluctant Canada and an initially doubtful Italy, as well as Turkey as an ally in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and a front-line state, and Saudi Arabia as a leading regional power. 

There seemed to be slight accommodating shifts in Putin's behaviour and position, as he suspended deliveries of Russia's sophisticated S-300 missile to Syria and did not deny that chemical weapons had been used there. There further emerged a common condemnation of the use of chemical weapons and consensus that they should not be used again by anyone, and not become a regular weapon of war. Should these advances politically deter and degrade Assad regime even before U.S. missiles fly or speed a transition to a less violent Syria, the St. Petersburg Summit will prove to be a striking substantive as well as institution-strengthening success.

However, the shocker during the G20 summit came when Russia’s Vladimir Putin made a suggestion to US President Barack Obama for Syria to cede control of its chemical weapons stockpile to international authorities in exchange for the informal coalition not to launch air strikes against Syria. Should Syria fail to do so, Russia might even join the military effort against Damascus. It was reported on a few days later, and the US government responded with very guarded optimism at the Russian initiative, but after positive signals coming from Damascus topped off by a meeting between John Kerry and Sergei Lavrov in Geneva a few days later, a satisfactory agreement was concluded.

Al-Assad’s regime suddenly fell in line, expediently joined the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, and complied over all the initial demands and promised to destroy its entire chemical weapon stockpile by mid-2014. The rules of the game were just agreed to unanimously by the UN Security Council Resolution 2118.

While the current standing does not solve the Syrian conflict in itself, it averted another war in the Middle East. It has bolstered US-Russia relations, the relevance of the G20, the relevance of the UN Security Council, diplomacy and international law.

Moreover, the peaceful settlement of differences has helped to bring Iran’s new moderate president Hassan Rouhani to have a direct contact with Barack Obama, the first such Iran-US exchange in 30 years, leading to the exchange of messages of good will in terms of promptly solving the nuclear issue in the Islamic Republic.

We must hope that this climate holds. We must hope that diplomacy prevails over the use of force. We must hope that Russia (and BRICSAM nations alike) realizes it can use its power and influence for good. But we must also hope that the G20 gains a permanent diplomatic track to help find solutions to global security matters which cannot be found anywhere else.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The Uninvited Guest

As world leaders gather in St. Petersburg to discuss the fragile global economic recovery, one uninvited guest is poised to crash the party and make a whole lot of noise: the Syrian crisis. As proof of the use of chemical weapons is gathered, dead bodies continue to pile up and the threat of a regional conflagration involving Israel, Iran and Iraq rises, the Syrian civil war will be the elephant in the room at the Russian G20 Summit and might very well overtake the economy as the focal point of discussions, thereby changing the nature of the organization by osmosis.

Up to this point, global security matters have been the “jurisdiction” of the G8, not the G20. Aside from an informal meeting of the G20’s Foreign Ministers in Mexico in February 2012, the organization has refrained from expanding its mandate. But the ongoing war in Syria, the East versus West deadlock over rogue states and the threat they pose as well the economic disruptions coming from the Middle East make it now painfully obvious that the world’s great powers, some of which have been playing the Cold War game in the past three years, must now come together, agree to a solution and carry it out.

Russia’s reluctance to play the new multipolar game and its bad habit of falling back to Soviet-style foreign policy of Western fear-mongering, UN vetoes and arming rogue regimes has been ridiculously puzzling. In fact, if there was a country which could have made a strong and swift difference and increased its standing through a proactive role, it would have been Russia.

Obama’s scheduled one-on-one meeting with the new Chinese leader Xi Jinping will certainly aim at finding common ground with China for them to at least abstain vetoing a UN Security Council resolution, and its secondary aim is certainly to make Vladimir Putin isolated – the Snowden affair being a convenient excuse to avoid a larger discussion on foreign policy.

In the past 24 hours however, Putin has changed his tune to something more reasonable and pragmatic, echoing the United Nations’ Ban Ki Moon, shifting from drastically opposing any action on Syria to possibly endorsing a strike at the Security Council if the proof is made public and actually adds up – which is balanced position, all things considered. The pressures from the diplomatic back channels must have been intense.

Hosting the G20 is a moment for prestige for a country, a moment to shine. But for Vladimir Putin, it is his last window of opportunity for a certain time as a global statesman, to build bridges and play a constructive game and get Russia to step out of the shadow of the USSR, embrace multilateralism and play a meaningful role in the global community.

Stay tuned and watch how the US, Russian and Chinese discourses on Syria change in the coming days - it might just herald the changing nature of the G20.

*** 15:30 EDT UPDATE ***

I have just received this Google Alert out of Reuters:

G20 foreign ministers to attend Russia summit to discuss Syria
Source: Reuters - Tue, 3 Sep 2013 02:59 PM

PARIS, Sept 3 (Reuters) - Foreign ministers from key G20 member states will convene on the sidelines of this week's meeting in St Petersburg to discuss Syria, France said on Tuesday.

"(French) Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius will travel on Sept. 5 and 6 to meet foreign ministers present at the G20 summit, notably those of the United States, Brazil, China, Russia and Turkey," Foreign Ministry spokesman Philippe Lalliot told reporters.

A French diplomatic source said the ministers, who do not usually attend G20 summits, would meet to specifically talk about the Syria crisis and discuss political perspectives. (Reporting By John Irish, editing by Mike Peacock).


Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Battleground Syria

Yesterday, US State Secretary John Kerry dramatically rose the tone towards Syria. His declaration to the press was but an inch short of a declaration of war towards the Assad regime, in the light of last week’s alleged chemical attack on civilians outside Damascus.

As US Navy ships and British air forces take position in the Mediterranean, it is rather clear that as soon as chemical attacks are indeed confirmed, the responsibility for them assigned, the airstrikes from a limited, US-led coalition will strike at Syrian governmental and military targets, first with cruise missiles to take out the anti-air and Syrian Air Force targets (roughly 500 combat aircraft), then likely mop up the remaining targets with coalition aircraft.

A just war?

The conflict, which started in March 2011, has caused at least 100,000 deaths and through it all, Syria has become an abysmally failed state. Once responsibility for the chemical attacks is proven, it will strengthen an already strong case for an international military intervention under the norm of the responsibility to protect which three pillars state that:

1. A state has a responsibility to protect its population from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing. 

2. The international community has a responsibility to assist the state to fulfill its primary responsibility. 

3. If the state manifestly fails to protect its citizens from the four above mass atrocities and peaceful measures have failed, the international community has the responsibility to intervene through coercive measures such as economic sanctions. Military intervention is considered the last resort.

If it is proven that it has used chemical weapons against civilians, the Syrian state will have crossed a point of no return in international law. While tens of thousands of innocent civilians have already died throughout the civil war, many of these deaths are perhaps considered “normal” in a state consumed by intense, violent internal strife and utter chaos. However – and perhaps unfortunately – the deliberate use of weapons of mass destruction on civilians constitutes that “red line” which call for a swift international intervention, because the Syrian regime might have confirmed its predatory intentions towards its own populace and that world powers cannot let the use of those weapons be without severe repercussions.

Opening up Pandora’s box

While on paper, the Syrian situation does seem to justify an intervention in accordance to international norms and international law, the devil, as always, is in the details.

First off, we must consider the unintended consequences of our actions. For nearly three years now, the Greater Middle East has been in a state of flux, instability or revolution. Bring down a dictator and you bring up the Islamists, destroy the devil you know and then deal with the devil you don’t know. In the West, we looked at Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen with great hope, only to find out it was more like 1848 and not 1989. Even if the Assad regime was to be obliterated, the thought of a continuing civil war, renewed sectarian violence and an altogether worse fate for Syria can’t be too far in the minds of the Western decision makers, which stretch far beyond the impact of the usage of chemical weapons.

Secondly, there is the danger of regional escalation, or spillover, because of Syria’s geopolitical situation. With the conflict between Shia and Sunni Islam militias and splinter groups kicking in ever high gear throughout the Middle East, the Israel-Palestine deadlock, the Egyptian counter-revolution, the instability in Turkey, the Kurdish independence movement, the renewed strife in Iraq, the tensions over the Iran nuclear program, the Western pullout from Afghanistan, the potential for one explosive situation to set another one ablaze is very high. The question then, is not so much “should we intervene?” but rather “do we dare to intervene?”

Knock, knock, who’s there?

“Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster, and if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.” - Friedrich Nietzsche

Who exactly would benefit from a Western military intervention in Syria?

If it is decided that Western powers must strike at Syria, they must accept that they are directly providing help to Al-Qaeda affiliates fighting Assad’s regime, and that in the medium to long run, military support combined with the weapons which have been delivered to rebels in the past months will benefit the dreaded groupings whose philosophy brought down the World Trade Center and caused the Western powers to occupy Afghanistan for more than a decade. In short, helping topple Assad now might help global terrorism grow in the years to come.

Perhaps this commenter on the Toronto Star’s webpage put it better than I could:

“There is little to choose between the Baathist butchers of the Assad regime and the Islamist fanatics of the "rebels". Syria has became a proxy for the war between the Shiites of Iran and Hezbollah and the Sunnis of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Wahhabis and the world has a choice of horrible or terrible, and the poor Syrians and Lebanese caught in the middle lose whatever happens.”

Russia on the defensive

In conclusion, aside from President Assad, the person who stands to lose the most in the Syrian crisis is Vladimir Putin. While the Russian president has always been fairly nationalist, skeptic of Western intentions and longing for the good old Soviet influence days, ever since his return to office for a third term, he has squandered many opportunities for Russia to play an influential and helpful role in shaping international events, the pinnacle being the Syrian crisis. By playing the ying to the US’s yang whatever the conflict, his attempts at asserting Russian independence have come across as pandering to his home audience. A Western strike without the approval of UN Security Council on Syria would likely be the most serious political rebuff to Russia, and could possibly send the nation in a period of reevaluation of its foreign policy.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

In praise of the BBC World Service

In the past year, I have acquired an iPad mini, and it is frankly one of the most fun and practical tools I have ever owned. Being a peace and conflict, political news junkie, I installed a bunch of news applications - France 24, CBC/Radio-Canada, Russia Today (RT), but the one which stands out the most is the BBC World Service.

I spend a lot of time exercising and stretching every day so I figured while I'm doing that, I might as well tune in to a channel or programming which teaches me something or updates me on global stories which fall within my field of interest. There is certainly no shortage of coverage for the Middle East, Iran and North Korea, Russia, China and Africa. 

The depth and quality of the BBC World Service productions is truly outstanding. Whether it's reporting from lesser known corners of the world, debating a global hot topic, interviewing established authorities on certain matters or up-and-comers in others, I find that the work the reporters carry out is fair, balanced and educating. It has certainly reconciled me with the world of radio in the digital age. If you read this blog, you will likely enjoying tuning in to the BBC World Service.

While to the untrained ear it might sound like this... :

... the BBC World Service is something that grows on you, proves that radio is ever-relevant and that we never know everything!

Saturday, August 3, 2013

The second Egyptian revolution

In the past month, the world's attention has turned towards Egypt. The struggling country has experienced its second revolution in two years, bringing hope to many and worries to a lot more.

While the situation remains tense, unpredictable and dangerous, I nevertheless wanted to weigh in on it, in particular with regards to Egypt's new interim Vice-President, former IAEA Director and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Mohamed ElBaradei.

There are moments in life where you encounter an exceptional individual which gives you that one piece of advice, that one revolutionary idea, that one pat on the back and that one mentor's blessing, giving you the confidence to go all the way and changes your life. That's how I would describe my encounter with Mr. Elbaradei.

When I met him in Port-Louis, Mauritius, in November 2010 at a conference organized by the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, I felt very intimidated at first. How could I, a recent Master's degree recipient with an "extended" diplomatic experience as a 25 year-old, could hold my ground against the former director of a massive supranational organization who was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize, holding credentials I could only dream of having?

Well, perhaps the alcohol helped. After a beer or two, I noticed he was sitting by himself in the gazebo of the resort we were staying at, by the Indian Ocean. I thought to myself, what the hell, let's just go for it. I had met him briefly earlier in the day and we had been briefly introduced. But I decided to try and push it further and engage him on my recently published thesis on the need to expand the G20's mandate to Foreign Ministers and for them to handle global security matters, especially when it came to fighting nuclear proliferation in rogue states.

A good talk with Mohamed ElBaradei

Within the first ten seconds of our talk, I could feel he was genuinely interested in the idea, engaged in the discussion and wanting to share his thoughts. He listened carefully with an open mind, and we then went back and forth for a good thirty minutes, as equals, as people who believe in peaceful resolution of conflicts. It was nothing short of the most inspiring, most uplifting and most motivating discussion I have ever had over a political or academic concept, and it gave me the courage and the confidence to continue to push for the creation of a G20 Foreign Ministers' group.

My point is that there are understandable worries about the political situation in Egypt at the moment, with the interim government backed by the military. But I think that with a liberal, intellectual, open-minded man like Mohamed ElBaradei in the upper echelons of power, we should be comfortable to trust that it will do good and deliver on its promise to hold democratic elections in 2014. If anything, it is time to build new bridges between the West and the Middle East so that we can all enjoy a safer, more prosperous future, and deliver on the promises on the Arab Spring.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Please give a damn about foreign policy

It’s the economy, stupid.

James Carville’s catchphrase for Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential run, meant to score a win in the US has since then become an excuse not to do things everywhere else.

In the global age, where the great ideological divide is no more, where people and goods flow from country to country without hindrance, it’s all about trade, jobs and the bottom-line.

While this is generally a good thing for democracy, for the well-being of people, for freedom, for growth, the great casualty of this age is a domain which has been practically relinquished to the department of afterthoughts in many Western states: foreign policy.

In electoral races, especially in the aftermath of the 2008 economic crisis, campaigning has been dumbed down to verbal jousting between parties bragging as to which political banner will create more jobs in a 4-year mandate, a catchphrase-hammering strategy that is presumptuous and will likely be erroneous when the end of the term comes 1460 days later.

We have not yet reached the end of History, yet many administrations act like we have. It is a depressing time for Political Science/International Relations majors, as nations recruit economic technocrats to lead their countries’ diplomatic services and to conduct foreign policy on the basis of what can be traded rather than who they are.

Don’t get me wrong. Without the economy going well, decent and influential foreign policy cannot happen. However, the point I am making is that economic benefits should not be the target of all foreign policy decisions, that the greater strategy should involve different values, morals, identities (isn’t that what political parties are supposed to be about anyway?). Perhaps Francis Underwood’s suggested term from the US remake of House of Cards can apply here: trickle-down diplomacy.

For instance, just imagine the economic benefits of peace between Israel and Palestine if the US was going for it full-throttle with partners. Political stability, economic growth, regional cooperation, diminishing foreign aid and military aid to refocus at home, loss of influence of terrorist networks, liberalization of the Middle East, new trade routes and tourism, just to name a few. There are massive economic incentives for a thought-through, strong, coherent, yet open-minded and empathic diplomacy.

In the past, I have worked with a political party in Canada, which I have since left, because they did not take foreign policy seriously. While Canada is not a great power, it can punch above its weight. It only needs to look at Sweden or Norway. It is a member of the G8, and is the founder of the G20 and until recently was a true, reliable ally of the United Nations. But under Prime Minister Stephen Harper, just like my former party, foreign policy is seen as icing on the cake, top-of-the-Maslow-pyramid, would-be-nice-but-we-are-not-important, it-does-not-win-votes concept, which is in fact fueling our “polite and unimportant” image abroad, when in fact, we would have a lot to say, and even more to do.

Having worked in international relations and international development before, I was arguing for the expansion of the G20 to include a foreign ministers’ branch dedicated to working on global security matters. While commuting to work I had often wondered if people knew the things that were going on in the world’s backstage. My answer was: probably not.

Not because they don’t care, but because information is everything, and what is not in front of your eyes does not exist. Foreign policy, conducting war and peace the oldest function of the state, is often guarded jealously by people who seem to stick around forever and are immune to calls for change or scrutiny. They decide how your tax dollars are spent, in foreign aid for economic kickbacks, to sign treaties which will affect how your small businesses work, in propping up governments overseas and conducting covert operations to make other regimes collapse, to equip the military with state-of-the-art tools, and decide who lives and who dies. All of this, millions and billions of dollars in spending, is on your tab. Don’t you think you have the right to have a say?

In order to do so, you have to start giving a damn.

Read. Investigate. Analyze. Organize. Gather the numbers. Petition your government. Demand answers. Hold your elected official’s feet to the flames.

Fascism has been defeated, communism has collapsed, and terrorists are on the run. Yet our world is going through uncharted waters, as East and West look each other in the eye, sometimes still itching to press the big red button. But if you do act, if you start giving a damn, then we might have foreign policies that truly reflect the nature of our world: that most people just want to go on with their lives and have a decent existence.

When you will decide to do so, when you will give a damn, we can let the end of History have its day.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Reading suggestions

To understand foreign policy and international relations, to truly grasp the forces, actors and dynamics that make our world move, I found that the best solution is to read a lot.

Through reading news from different sources, nations and point of views – even those you do not agree with at all – over time, one might just begin to decipher something akin to the true nature of power on the world stage, simply for what it is.

On the press side of things, I quite obviously recommend frequently reading the Financial Times as well as The Economist.

There also are countless books that could be recommended. When I wrote my thesis three years ago, I went through many of them, most of them dealing with international relations from a very theoretical, intellectual level which was to me (and a lot of other people I would suppose) rather dull and lacking on the relatable side, as great as these academic works might be.

As a side note, when I was a university student (while at the same time being active in a political party in Canada), I often clashed and butted heads with teachers over real-life, practical application of the theories they presented to us, trying to bridge the gap between academics and politicians, to the annoyance of the first and the indifference of the latter.

It is this “bridging” attempt that shaped my approach in discussing international relations while at the same time trying to do something about it. Beyond a hypothesis, beyond a four-fielder diagram, I fundamentally believe the worth of a theory is directly linked to the potential it has for immediate, real-life use.

In that sense, perhaps it is my penchant for good stories which made me very much enjoy the following two books, which taught me more than all the other theoretical works combined and which hold lessons about the nature of power on the world stage that remain true to this day, and which match Game of Thrones in terms intrigue, warfare and drama.

The first is former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s doctoral thesis entitled A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh and the Problems of Peace 1812-1822.

This book discusses the establishment of the Concert of Europe. This “council” composed of Prussia, Austria, Britain, Russia, and later France did its best to keep all member powers in check for the first part of the 19th century and was surprisingly successful its task at first. In fact, one might even say it looked like a draft version of the United Nations Security Council. The book chronicles the Congress of Vienna and following meetings of the European powers, in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, mainly through the eyes of Austria’s Metternich and Britain’s Castlereagh. Both statesmen struggle to make sense of a continent shaken up by conflicts and new orders, and explores the way Austria and Britain struggled to establish their own visions of a balance of power, whilst attempting to keep an ace up their sleeves, through shifting alliances and policies, threats and secret treaties, navigating a tumultuous world in a time of great societal changes. The book is extremely dense but will please any History aficionados.

Perhaps Margaret MacMillan’s Paris 1919: Six months that changed the world could be considered the sequel to Kissinger’s book. Even though it had not been very active for years, officially, the Concert of Europe died in 1914 with the outbreak of the First World War. Paris 1919 chronicles the negotiations surrounding the treaty of Versailles, where the United States’ Wilson, Britain’s George and France’s Clémenceau, the “Big Three”, set out to establish a lasting peace in Europe, to create a new world order and to punish the parties responsible for the war. Hopes were high that this truly was the solution to la der des ders. Through vivid, intricately detailed storytelling, MacMillan describes the pitfalls of the negotiations which lead to its less-than-perfect treaty: the gigantic egos of men of the 19th century, the disproportionate fear of bolshevism rising to the East and workers’ revolts internally, the rise of nationalist movements in the ruins of crumbling empires on life support, the anachronistic imperial duel between France and Britain (with consequences lasting to this day) and the American naïveté and selectiveness when it came to movements of national, ethnic or linguistic self-determination. There is a 90-minute video adaptation available to watch online for free on TVOntario's website

These two books hold so many lessons which transcend time and space, about the nature of national power, a leader’s character, the resentment born from terrible wars and a bad peaces, on the communication gaps between cultures, and so much more. They are, in their own right, the equivalent of a specialized academic course on the matter, and are a cornerstone of learning for anyone wanting to deepen their knowledge of how our world works.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

What is up with Russia?

With the Syrian conflict deepening and becoming more and more brutal by the day, while the Central African Republic holds its breath hoping for political solution out of the rebellion and Mali, along with France, fights its Islamist, Al-Qaeda aligned insurgents that have carried retaliation strikes in Algeria, 2013 certainly opened up with a bang, quite literally.

If anything, the common thread in all three examples above is the very point made by Lord Paddy Ashdown in this blog’s previous post: that the state of peace and war are no longer decided by two warring nations alone. They are decided by an interlocked combination of the foreign policies of big powers, the attitudes of neighboring states, the economic resources at stake, the countries’ economic situations as well as the state and strength of the civil society, resistance and terrorist networks alike in the concerned states.

In short, no state can decide to act alone, whether it is an island or a behemoth. If it does, it is doomed to fail and pay a harsh price, making the world a less safe place for all nations.

Unsurprisingly, we saw the return of Vladimir Putin to the presidency of Russia in 2012. While internally, the returning strongman forged himself a reputation for control in many aspects of his nation’s institutions, making him a target for reformer’s criticisms, externally he has promoted himself as a nostalgic of the Soviet superpower times. A lot of his foreign policy actions, just as well as non-actions since the year 2000 bore the stamp of this psyche, often acting as a counterweight to the United States, especially under the Bush presidency.

However, there has been a global power shift since the early days of the first Putin presidency which can be basically summed by two items: the waning of American power and the continual transfer of this said power to the East, where prosperity grows but uncertainty looms.  In this new universe, a Soviet-inspired foreign policy is not only inappropriate, it is inadequate, insufficient and above all, counterproductive.

Perhaps the best real life example is Russia’s reluctance to join other UN Security Council members in taking hard measures against Bashar Al-Assad’s regime in Syria, which is one of its long-standing partners. While initial reservations on Western or international meddling were understandable and even welcomed, Syria has since then turned from an autocratic regime violently repressing a rebellion to an outright murderous, war-crime committing, morally bankrupt state long past the point of no return. While the barbaric attacks continue on civilians to this day, Russia drags its feet.

Countries like the United States and Canada have expressed their frustration with Russia, begging them to come out of their shell and play a more constructive role on the international stage rather than isolating itself from the realities of the new multipolar world. In fact, Russia would likely benefit politically and economically from shifting its foreign policy towards rogue states from mild annoyance to true, multilateral engagement.

However, at this time, the former position seems to remain Putin’s preference, as there seems to be no plans for a follow-up meeting of the G20 Foreign Ministers in Russia this year. That is what the official program suggests. Nevertheless, it is to be hoped Putin will heed the call of Council of Councils, an initiative of the Council on Foreign Relations, whose own Stewart M. Patrick recommends the following in a memo to the Russian leadership:

[The G20] should create a permanent foreign ministers’ track to complement the finance ministers’ track. Here, Russia can build on the “informal” meeting of G20 foreign ministers hosted by Mexico in February 2012. Potential agenda items would include climate change, development cooperation, nuclear non-proliferation, counterterrorism, cybersecurity, and efforts to combat transnational crime. (Read more here).

Permitting a broader, multilateral dialogue under its leadership in the G20 and engaging proactively in finding solutions to conflicts within its sphere of influence will not dilute Russia’s power. If anything it will make it stronger and more reliable partner for the world community. That is something that is desirable for all, even Russia’s old foes, no matter what they claim.

Cooperating with other nations to tackle the hard security challenges of our time is not a sign of weakness, but a sign of political maturity; for victories are no longer counted by the armies one nation may muster, but rather by the allies it can gather.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

"The Global Power Shift" by Paddy Ashdown

Today, a reader from Norway, Morten Skandfer has brought this TED lecture by Lord Paddy Ashdown to my attention. Ashdown truly nails a progressive, forward looking vision of the very near future in "The Global Power Shift, very much in line with the spirit of this blog. I highly recommend you watch it.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Communications failure

By a snowy early December afternoon, Mark and Anna, who have been dating for 5 years, take a stroll on Main Street to buy gifts for their parents. It’s a yearly ritual for Anna but for Mark, it is a painful routine. They come across the Guccho & Grimaldi store and in the display window, Anna’s eyes become fixated with the most beautiful pair of shoes she has ever seen. However, they have a hefty price tag. Mark is tapping his feet, hoping Anna won’t make him late to watch the Sunday night football game with his friends.

“They are so beautiful, I wish I could afford them… but I really can’t” she says out loud to herself, hoping that Mark would take notice, not say a thing and surprise her with the pair on Christmas morning.

“Save up every month and you’ll be able to afford them” says Mark, wanting to wrap up the torture session as fast as possible.

Anna turns around, hurt at Mark’s insentitivity, and gives him disappointed glance and walks away. Mark, puzzled and frustrated by her behavior, leaves in the other direction. Five minutes later, she calls him on his mobile. Mark shakes his head and declines to take the call, head to his friend’s place to watch the game, gets drunk and crashes there overnight, ignoring Anna’s multiple attempts to contact him and explain the situation. He definitely gave up on the idea to surprise her with the shoes for Christmas.

In the morning, both Anna and Mark picture themselves at each other’s throat.

There are many approaches, theories and schools of thought in international relations. Here are a few rough examples: realism holds that might is right, liberalism believes that trade and commerce between nations makes the world more free and more peaceful, socialism essentially views the world conflicts as duels between elites in which the common man is the cannon fodder, institutionalism believes that international organizations are key in solving matters which could lead to interstate conflict.

All of them bring a measure of truth to immensely complex issues.

The problem is that many authors, professors, diplomats who hold on to the creed of theory A or theory B will see, interpret and act through that lens only. So what happens if the nation of Pandora, whose leader believes in theory A of international relations, is involved in a tense resource dispute over dilithium with the nation of Absurdistan, whose leader lives and dies by theory B?

Enter my favourite theory: communication failure.

I believe communication failure comes way before all other ideologies in a context of conflict.

In a nutshell, the leader of Pandora will send signals to the nation of Absurdistan in the form of political, diplomatic, trade and military decisions in order to secure the dilithium deposits while try to avert war. Basically, to maximize gains with a minimal cost and deter Absurdistan by showing how far they are willing to go. Absurdistan, feeling entitled to the dilithium deposits also, does the same thing and sends out its signals too. A belligerent waltz ensues, until one sides fires the first shot or “chickens out”.

The problem is that this only works in a vacuum universe where opponents would play their cards with visible hands.

In the real world however, every nation is subject to diversion tactics, time wasting, misinformation, posturing, international pressures, regional realities, economic strength and a plethora of other “signal jammers” which almost always prevents one side from truly understanding the intentions of their opponents.

Between what a leader wants, what he says in public, what is received by other side and what is interpreted (both in terms of language and substance), there is so much room for misinterpretation. Basically, it is playing the “telephone game” in which the distorted message in the end may cause war.

That is why G20 Foreign Ministers’ group should continue meeting under Russian leadership in 2013: to hold informal, face-to-face dialogue to build trust, to coordinate priorities and responses to threatening interstate conflicts and avoid the pitfalls of communications failure. Diplomacy and world peace are best served by cool heads familiar with each other sitting down to discuss a way out, rather than by telegraphing grand threats of obliteration to often desperate states.

A somewhat good example of trying to overcome communication failure to avert war...