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...