Monday, April 10, 2017

A Waltz on the Red Line : Will the G20 Call the Tune Again?

On April 4, 2017, the town of Khan Shaykhun in Syria was hit by a chemical attack resulting in the deaths of 75 to 100 people. The use of sarin gas is suspected. The Syrian opposition claims that government aircraft delivered the payload, while the Assad regime claims its airstrike hit a rebel stockpile of the deadly gas.

In response, on April 6, 2017, U.S. president Donald Trump authorized the use of force against the Shayrat Air Base from where the strike on Khan Shaykhun was launched. The U.S. Navy fired 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles, damaging the base and killing 7 to 15 people.

President Trump, who campaigned on non-engagement with the Assad regime, changed his position after seeing the images of children affected by the chemical attack. He then said the Obama administration bore responsibility for this latest attack, because it had refused to enforce its own "red line" policy, when that line was crossed in the chemical attack in Goutha on August 21, 2013.

The problem with that statement is that it is simply not true. In late summer 2013 after the Goutha attack, U.S. and UK forces in the Mediterranean were on a war footing and just about to launch strikes against regime forces in Syria. The war drums were beating loudly at the G20 leaders' summit in St. Petersburg that year where its host, President Vladimir Putin, was under severe international pressure to rein in its Syrian protégé. At the very last minute, the G20's foreign ministers were convened for an emergency meeting in the Russian city. A combination of coercive and quiet diplomacy led Assad's Syria to get rid of its chemical weapons under the auspices of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

As I described in my blog in 2013, the shocker during the St. Petersburg Summit came when Putin suggested to U.S. president Barack Obama that Syria 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 have failed to do so, Russia suggested it might even join the military effort against Damascus. The U.S. government responded with very guarded optimism about the Russian initiative. But after positive signals came from Damascus, topped off by a meeting in Geneva between foreign ministers John Kerry from the United States and Sergei Lavrov from Russia a few days later, a satisfactory agreement was concluded.

By striking at regime targets in Syria on April 6, 2017, the United States has dramatically raised the stakes as well as the risk of direct confrontation with Assad's chief ally, Russia. The last four years have been a dangerous waltz on the red line, but Trump's actions in the last days signal a new dance, whose steps are unknown. The way from here is not only unclear, but also extremely dangerous for the region and the international community.

This uncertainty adds to the fact that the G20 foreign ministers did not produce a communiqué at their meeting on February 16-17, 2017. This was perhaps because big and regional powers are at odds over the political and military fault line running from the Baltic Sea to the Persian Gulf.

The fault line, at the right of your screen.
On July 7-8, 2017, G20 leaders will meet in Hamburg, Germany, for their annual summit. It will be the first encounter between Presidents Trump and Putin. It will be the biggest showdown the international community has seen in decades. The once economically focused forum will take on the mantle of global security matters by default.

Behind the scenes, the leaders' sherpas will likely be working around the clock to try to align their respective countries' increasingly irreconcilable positions on Syria. However, if their work fails, a worst-case scenario could look like this:

It is in keeping with Trump's nature that he could attempt to build a big and bold coalition supporting strikes against Syria in order to intimidate Putin in front of his peers. As a first test on the world stage, his goal could be to corner the Russian leader and get him to diminish, if not drop, his support for Assad.

On the other hand, Putin could look to outsmart the U.S. and its allies, by stoking tensions with China and Iran, by dividing Europe further over Eastern Ukraine, and by showcasing the result of the indirect support to the so-called Islamic State by the U.S. in its attempts at weakening the Assad government.

The only thing that is certain is that the following weeks will tell us if we are heading for a great collaboration or confrontation in Germany this summer. The stage is set for one of the most important encounters in modern times and until then, the world should expect the unexpected.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

A Brave New World Order: Germany Hosts the G20 Foreign Ministers’ Meeting

When I first wrote about the possible creation of G20 Foreign Ministers’ group in back 2009 and 2010 in my thesis Pre-Emptive Peace: Collective Security and Rogue States in the 21st Century, the world was a very different place.

People were coming together to find a common way out of the 2008 economic crisis. The G20 Leaders met for the first time and expanded upon their Finance Ministers’ work. The BRICs were starting to counter-balance the G7 countries with their enormous populations, important industrial outputs and distinct foreign policies. Brazil and Turkey were UN Security Council Members and were working with Iran to try and find a way out of the nuclear deadlock. The United States and Russia were resetting their relationship, while North Korea’s threats were becoming increasingly serious, with its atomic tests and the sinking of a South Korean warship. Last but not least, the pre-Arab Spring Middle East was relatively stable.

The conditions were favorable for the creation of a G20 Foreign Ministers’ track that would handle building consensus and showing leadership over international security matters, namely in matters of nuclear proliferation. Looking at a map, it is obvious Russia, China, Turkey and India were in fact better positioned to deal with Iran and North Korea than the United States or France could be. The G20 could therefore signal intent of constructive engagement and dispatch regional powers to engage with rogue states’ leadership in search of solutions. After all, the economic and security fates of G20 countries were and still are so intertwined that the victories and defeats of one can be the victories and defeats of all.

The thesis I wrote advocated that sociological liberalism would pave the way for a better world. Good relationships between national leaders and ministers in the G20, regardless of their political orientation and developed through the building a common front over nuclear proliferation for instance, would benefit them personally as well as the countries they represent, by providing a safer, more stable world with more economic opportunities for its population.

The birth of the group

In February 2012, Mexico took the lead by inviting the G20’s head diplomats for an informal meeting on global governance – and their communiqué stated that they looked into “how the G20 could more effectively address some of the most pressing challenges in global governance and take action to address not only sporadic crises but also to address the system’s structural needs in order to prevent future crises.” The G20 Foreign Ministers group had finally come to be.

Its usefulness and relevance was demonstrated the next year. It was reconvened at the last minute in September 2013 by Russia over the chemical weapons crisis in Syria, to try and find a way out of the seemingly inevitable conflict that was set to happen between a Western coalition and President Assad’s regime. Days later, Russia brokered a deal with the US involving the handing over and destruction of the Syrian military’s chemical weapons stockpile through the OPCW, which was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize that year in recognition of their work which avoided another war in the Middle East.

Russia rising

A few months later, the fragile balance and relative common front over international security came apart when Russia started intervening in Crimea and supported armed groups in Eastern Ukraine. The move by Putin’s government in asserting its sphere of influence this close to European Union borders did not sit well with the world community and isolated its country. Russia was slapped with tough economic sanctions and suspended from the G8 (which went back to a G7).

Since that point, the G20 Foreign Ministers’ group had no reason to reconvene. Although they met for an informal working lunch in Turkey in November 2015 (which produced no common declaration), its members stand divided on the appropriate and efficient responses to global security issues – like in Ukraine and Syria. Moreover, many states face their own internal divisions at home, which has resulted in patchwork foreign policy with no clear means and no clear goals in recent years.

New world order

We are currently facing an uncertain, uncharted post-liberalism new world order. It is the most significant reconfiguration of power, politics and priorities since the end of the Cold War.

Iran has settled for a deal over its use of nuclear power and has pretty much reintegrated the world community, while North Korea, has waltzed into pathetic irrelevance under a new Kim.

The Arab Spring has turned to Winter and for the most part, it has failed to live up the expectations of those who rose and bled in its name in Egypt and Libya, leaving the Western powers embarrassingly dumbfounded.

Populist movements are in vogue rising throughout the world. They have made the United Kingdom exit the European Union, elected Donald Trump to the US presidency, maintained the ever-assertive Vladimir Putin at the helm of Russia with record approval ratings, and now have set their sights on France. Migrant crises and austerity budgets have damaged confidence in international institutions and have revived old national identities.

Turkey is becoming increasingly autocratic and turning eastwards, NATO has to face how far its members are committed to the defense of the alliance, while the BRICs are generally failing to truly prosper in a sluggish global economy.

The threats to G20 nations are not necessarily existential nowadays, but they are nonetheless deeply philosophical. Their main challenge is represented by a political and military fault line that links the Gulf of Finland to the Persian Gulf - from the Baltic States, through Eastern Ukraine, across the Mediterranean through the heart of Turkey and into the dark blot of ISIS in Syria and Iraq.

It is along that line that 21st century Western political history will be decided. Will there be agreements and peace? Will nations simply let the confrontations turn into frozen conflicts? Or will they actually come to blows with one another?

The case for reconvening

The necessity and urgency of finding ways to mend differences and coordinating responses along the fault line are enough to warrant a reconvening of the G20 Foreign Ministers. Head diplomats from G20 countries will have to be agents of efficiency by smoothing relations and political terrains ahead of their nations’ leaders, which are increasingly defined by their seemingly intransigent attitudes, their go-at-it-alone ways of doing business and their open distrust of the institutions built by the world community over the last 70 years.

Can the last liberals stem the tide?

It came to my attention last week that Germany had decided to host a meeting of G20 Foreign Ministers on February 16 and 17 in Bonn, ahead of the leaders’ meeting in Hamburg this July. The Ministers will have the difficult yet essential task of building common ground over a world increasingly plagued by deadlocked security issues directly involving the G20’s membership.

This is the first test of the reset world order and the communiqué that will be issued (or not) by the representatives at the end of the two-day gathering will send a strong signal as to the state of international relations and the road ahead for managing the plethora of issues across the fault line.

Fortunately, it is not first time the East and West are at each other’s throats – there are precedents and ways out of the darkness.

It provides moments for liberal-minded countries to shine, like Germany, the engine of the European economy, and Canada, a stable, tolerant country keen on defending and getting involved supranational organizations. Germany could try and rebuild the bridges between Russia and Europe, while Canada can help articulate US foreign policy goals in a way that benefits all.

For Canada especially, there’s an opportunity to seize for Minister Chrystia Freeland, of the likes not seen since the days of Pearson and the Suez Canal crisis. For all the talk of Prime Minister Trudeau about his country being back on the world stage, the G20 offers Canada (ideally partnering with Germany) a chance to work at cementing the existence of the G20 Foreign Minsters group as a permanent yet flexible structure to manage the many security issues affecting G20 powers today.

By helping to build a formal rallying point for dialogue and dealmaking on international security, Canada and Germany can carve out their place in the brave new world order. A G20 Foreign Foreign Ministers’ group provides a small yet efficient forum of clear value that can appeal to the various populist movements to which some G20 leaders are accountable.