May 26, 2014
A Time to Rescue Europe’s Values

European Elections on May 25th have offered a chilling perspective on where Europe stands. It is divided and lost. Despite its economic prospects being positive it is pessimistic and bitter. It lacks the coherence required to provide a strong answer to the crisis in Ukraine. Germany is de facto the leading power but it is neither fully committed to do so nor prepared to assume the task alone. Anti-European, xenophobic and sometimes racist forces have taken a lead in France and UK. Blaming the financial crisis is a dangerous illusion.

This is the price for a decade of pragmatic mainstream populism. Europe’s citizens have slammed the door on the hands of centrist politicians. Mislead not by extremists but by mainstream forces that have too often crossed lines in discourse and action, European citizens have expressed their anger falling back on the fear mongering forces of the extreme right and anti-European nationalist populists. Many of the right wing parties’ voters are below 35. Many citizens have simply stayed home. The wave goes from UK to Hungary. The results are indeed chilling.

One after another mainstream populists in government - both the left and the right - have come out to deplore the results. Opposition leaders have done the same. Nobody assumes any responsibility. With the same speeches they continued the unchanged dangerous populist rhetoric that has confused Europeans. They paid token tributes to European values and continued with narcoleptic messages. Wooden tongued references to competitiveness, fiscal discipline, the need to put Europeans in the driving seat, returning the confidence to European business to ensure employment! All this while for two decades leaders right and left were busy dismantling Europe’s social model. This is not just about how much Europe spends on social programs but an inverted logic where profit has displaced growth both economic and social.

Europe has both sluggish growth and gapping income and quality of life disparities both inside and between member states. While banks are bailed out without much of a question, citizens are not. They are also told austerity is the price for, guess what: a united and strong Europe. And this is true Europe is a huge economic powerhouse and a leading world economy only too many of its citizens feel left out. Europe is not just about profits and short-term competitiveness. This is why Europe needs to refocus its model and address the fundamental challenges: demographic, technological educational. This can only work if we keep in mind and in sight our values. As soon as mainstream pragmatic politicians are prepared to bend them for a few votes (even if only in discourse) they become populists that open the door for what we have seen on May 25th. Manuel Valls is as guilty in his positions as is Nicolas Sarkozy in his Le Point OpEd. We point our finger to Marine Le Pen but we forget that it was the mainstream’s discourse that accepted and legitimized these themes instead of real issues. It is telling that less than a week away from this national routing of centrist forces by extreme populist and rabid nationalists in France an ex-president is calling for less Europe, an Europe a la carte, a stop to Schengen and a tight control of immigration.

At both national level and at the EU level it is time for a credible return to policies leading to inclusive development for communities and cohesive projects for a shared European future. The time has gone for bashing “socially assisted parasites”, dividing Europeans in “hard working north and partying south” and scapegoating Brussels for all the failures of national politics. Two decades of putting profits and corporate gains as well as elections in front of inclusive economic development have led to increasing social and economic divides and diverging trends in EU’s nations.

The writing was on the wall. Still, not even after the catastrophic European election do mainstream leaders appear to be cognizant of their role in this debacle. Neither do most commentators appear to grasp the real implications of this sea change in what is tolerable in European politics. Extreme nationalism, factionalism, separatism, xenophobic sentiment and anti-European mantras are all shaking Europe at a time when the opposite is needed.

In fact one can see leaders like Putin being quite pleased with their investment in anti-democratic parties like FN, Jobbik etc. We are undermining Europe solidarity via mercantilism on one side and revival of toxic nationalism on the other. This is a sweet deal for the enemies of open society inside and around Europe.

This is just one of the aspects showing why Europe needs to be coherent in both its domestic and foreign policy. The challenge of a rapidly changing world economy and growing global competition also adds to the need and so do conflicts in regions adjacent to Europe. Europe needs one strong, credible and respected voice. That can only be based on values.

In turn such coherence requires a new European narrative. It is going to be extremely difficult to achieve that with mainstream pragmatic populist leaders blind to the fundamental problems of Europe. And for the first time in almost 70 years the problem appears to be at the level of values. Europe has become bureaucratic, pompous and blind to the suffering of the many of globalization’s losers. Also it has become comfortable in the illusory reality that conflicts only happened to other people, poverty is for the south (including its own) that profits matter more than values. Europe was created to deliver peace, prosperity and stability. It did so for decades. The financial crises shattered this credo but only for some. Profits still went up. Some countries were fed the illusion that they are somehow better and morally so. Others bought the lie that Brussels is the source of all the evils. Too many in the elites and too many mainstream populist stopped caring about values. The public followed suit. Who can blame them? Their leading politicians have been doing it for quite some time.

Now it is time for politicians and citizens to come up with a plan to rescue Europe’s values not just its profits and coffers.


May 7, 2014
Russia and the Silk Road Approach

An interesting perspective on the New Silk Road from the former Spanish foreign minister Ana Palacio. Very well argued, the project syndicate article puts the NSR in the context of solving the conundrum created by the Ukrainian crisis in the relationship between Russia and the West. In many ways it follows the same East-West logic I used in the Aspenia piece last December:


MADRID – The unraveling of Ukraine has brought to the fore three major foreign policy challenges for the West: the danger of isolating Russia, the conundrum of China’s aloofness, and the pervasive lack of fresh ideas. Surmounting them will require a concerted drive to enhance cooperation and build trust among countries with disparate political systems and national interests. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Silk Road economic belt could contribute to such an effort.
Europe and the United States’ response to the crisis in Ukraine has failed in two respects. First and foremost, it has been anemic, projecting an image of weakness that undermines its ability to reverse Russia’s annexation of Crimea, which has been tacitly accepted, or counter its aggressive behavior toward eastern Ukraine. At the same time, the use of targeted sanctions and diplomatic snubs has contributed to Russia’s international isolation, undercutting the long-term goal of building a functional relationship.
While it is critical for the West to stand by its principles, including by imposing biting sanctions, pragmatism is equally important. After all, a weak, isolated Russia is far more dangerous than a strong, internationally integrated one. And yet there can be no denying that the relationship with Russia is now broken, with mutual trust having reached its lowest point since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
In this context, bringing Russia back into the international fold will require the involvement of China. But, for China, the Ukraine issue is complex, owing to its interest in fostering closer ties with Russia and, to some degree, the parallels with its own actions in places like Tibet. Given this – and China’s general reticence to assume a global leadership position – direct Chinese engagement is likely to come only through targeted initiatives with concrete goals.


March 11, 2014
Ukraine – A Case for Chinese Involvement

A most interesting perspective to the crisis in Ukraine in an article published in “the Diplomat” by Andong Peng, a researcher at Tsinghua University’s School of Public Policy and Management. His area of focus includes Chinese foreign policy and communications.

The situation in the Ukraine is delicate, to say the least. On balance, Russia is probably where it wants to be given its inability to prevent the initial ouster of Yanukovych: it controls a region over which it has a strong historical claim, and has managed to do this without creating any antagonism in the rest of the Ukraine that did not already exist. This has been done without fatalities, and Russia remains a potential “friend.” Having said that, with every passing day it is Russia rather than the West that will be under increasing pressure to come up a resolution to the impasse, especially given the U.S. position.

China has, as usual, sat on the sidelines without getting even remotely involved. And why should it? Neville Chamberlain’s description of conflict in “a far away country between people of whom we know nothing” was never more apt than in understanding China’s view of Eastern Europe, which holds little in the way of natural resources and for the moment does not represent a significant export market. True, the Chinese own 9 percent of Ukrainian farmland now; but the crisis has probably been welcomed insofar as it has relegated deeper analysis of the recent Kunming terrorist attack and the broader Xinjiang problem to the back pages.

Yet China is mistaken to sit back and do nothing on Ukraine, because there is something at stake. Strategically, Beijing may calculate that letting the Americans become “involved” in the Ukraine means a further weakening of Obama’s already rudderless efforts in the Pacific. But this is only half the story: if this involvement went on to constitute a “defeat” (any scenario where Russia ends up with a more secure border than before) it would help weaken the strongest weapon in the U.S. arsenal: the soft power effect. This would further dent belief across the world in the efficacy of American action, helping China in its own Asian strategy. Moreover, China has no interest in helping legitimize public protests as a form of sociopolitical reform and development. In Kiev, just as in comparable situations such as Istanbul, Cairo and Bangkok, there is an ongoing battle over the question of whether mass urban protest is justifiable and productive, and how outside powers should intervene with support or otherwise. China clearly is not incentivized to see the overthrow of incumbent regimes.

There is also a longer term calculation. China is in many ways an imperialistic power utilizing a “big country” approach towards diplomacy. It has demonstrated a reluctance to engage in diplomacy as viewed through the Westphalian paradigm, and its insensitivity constantly surprises Western observers. But there is one issue which it cares deeply about: Taiwan. And the Russian seizure of the Crimea provides an interesting template for China as to how eventual reunification might take place in the “worst case” scenario, namely through force. What the Russians have managed on their peninsula is to act quickly and decisively, presenting the world with a fait accompli. It has done so with very little violence, and through the mobilization of insiders supportive to the region, whether or not they are in the majority, it can present photogenic welcoming parties to the arriving forces. At the very least, the situation is not (even in the Western media) a black-and-white case of aggression. That is all that Russia needed; it is difficult to envisage any outcome of the crisis now which does not see Russia with a strengthened position in the Crimea, irrespective of what happens with the rest of the Ukraine. A corresponding outcome with Taiwan would suit China nicely. To continue reading the article click the title link.

March 4, 2014
Putin’s error in Ukraine is the kind that leads to catastrophe

David Ignatius is right in many ways except in his central idea that the Crimean invasion was somehow a mistake and we have a reading that Putin does not grasp. This was also voiced by German officials after the Putin-Merkel phone call yesterday. On the contrary, I believe these actions are constructed not only to wrestle some control back but in Russia’s near abroad, but also (an maybe more importantly) to send a message to the Russian public at large. Yes Russia’s citizens would like to have a more western lifestyle but not sure if they are so keen about those western political values Ignatius talks about. Those include a stricter separation of church and state, free speech, racial, ethnic and gender tolerance etc. Unfortunately, many of these are not ranking too high in contemporary Russia. The country is becoming more intolerant, more conservative and more nationalistic than it was in Soviet times - communist internationalist and humanist education had perverse effects. Instead they may want some of the pride of being citizens of a great power. Nothing signals that as the images of your own forces occupying foreign held land. Ask most US citizens about US tanks in Iraq. This is even more so if you rightly or wrongly consider that you have rights to it - as most Russians think about Crimea. If one is to believe polls presented by the media, most Russians approve Putin’s decisions and the actions of the country’s military in Ukraine/Crimea. A catastrophe may well be in the making but I do not believe that for now Putin has made many “mistakes”. I do not believe this is at all in the best interest of Russian citizens. Neither do I accept the idea that this will somehow accelerate the changes in Russia and herald, or even catalyze, a new pro western plurality in the country. The consolidation of Putin’s regime can be hardly construed as a mistake, even if it will prove costly in the long run. In that respect, it is hardly the only mistake the regime has made. Some Russian analysts even seem to think that Russia needs to be a again great power first and only then revert to a democracy. And that great power status necessarily requires an assertive military might. Putin for one appears convinced of this. Herein lies the greatest challenge for the West. In reacting to the neo-imperial folly of Russia we need to find space for a message to the Russians not only the regime. We need to convince Russians that the problem is not only with the methods but also the idea that somehow imposing your will and preferences onto your historical neighbors is somehow related to greatness. Influence is one thing an automatic sphere of influence is another. Ignatius is correct in the fact that the choice is whether in Moscow the second most spoken language will be English (or German) or Chinese. He does not actually say that, but he does talk about competing social and economic models. This is something Russians understand. Most do not want to be lumped together with Kazakhstan and this is why Ukraine is critical for the image of a great Russia. The real problem is that the model we present to them as a competitor for Putin’s own vision of Russia is broken. The EU in particular appears as prosperous but also as terribly unequal and pessimistic and more importantly utterly irrelevant in foreign policy. This is why Russians expect Obama and the US to react to the Ukrainian crisis. This is something for the “real powers”. For Putin the actual threat was the EU’s economic and social pull in Ukraine. Fore the new stage, the one he set after Crimea, Europe is no match. Partly because it is devoid of actual means and partly because mercantilistic EU members states lack the real political will to absorb costly sanctions and countermeasures. This is why this is a test but not for Obama, or NATO, or the EU, or Merkel but for the West. As before Vilnius the mistakes are all ours to make when playing for these stakes. AT

March 2, 2014
Why Russia No Longer Fears the West

Ben Judah’s scathing criticism of the West’s stance on Russia in POLITICO. He makes a very clear and morally unambiguous case for the Wests failures when it comest to credibility in front of Russia’s leaders. Ben Judah does not mumble his words to lay blame and shame a culture of realist corporate profit that is sinking Europe. Here is what he has to say: “All this has made Putin confident, very confident – confident that European elites are more concerned about making money than standing up to him.” Also “Europe is really run by an elite with the morality of the hedge fund: Make money at all costs and move it offshore.”The same pragmatic populism as I call it that dominates domestic politics and effectively paralyzed Europe socially has infected Europe’s strategic interests. AT

March 2, 2014
John Kerry warns of consequences for Russia after Ukraine invasion

The sanctions need to have some bite. Let’s look a bit at the simplified picture. It is clear by now that Moscow has figured in some “consequences” and decided the cost is worth it. This includes the strategic and actual operational costs as well as long tail effects like those of economic sanctions, loss of business etc. One expects that they believe the increase in energy prices will offset some of these costs. The political ones are relative. Sochi showed us Moscow is still much interested in status but the primary target for the show was domestic not international. Not inviting Russia at G8 is a step but Russia and its partners in the fast emerging economies have already set up a similar BRICS meeting to hollow this option out. NATO Russia and NATO EU councils have been essentially meaningless lately. With president Obama having shunned away from a meeting with Putin this is not an option either. In both Syria and Iran the US and the West need Russia … That leaves precious few options. There will be no UN sanctions so these will be unilateral and decided by the West. So it will look like a new Cold War but so does what’s going on in Ukraine. Depending on who you ask it resembles Cyprus in 1974 or Czechoslovakia in 1968. One practical option increased NATO presence in the Black Sea at the limit of what current treaties allow. The US NATO Anti Missile Shield that Moscow is adamant about being a threat to its interests needs to be accelerated and extended. While having absolutely no impact on the strategic and military balance between Russia and the West it is symbolically an area that Russia appears sensitive too. Freezing military sales to Russia will also be a strong signal and it depends on countries like France stoping the delivery of Mistral class costal warfare ships. Complicated given the importance of those jobs in the French economy right now! The final packet of possible sanctions is largely economic and needs to include individuals, businesses and institutions. Economic sanctions will hurt Western businesses too but it appears the only way. It will all come down to the EU’s ability to drastically reduce its energy imports form Russia. Together with positive signals like a visa facilitation agreement for Ukraine and a string financial package for Kiev these will have an effect not only on Moscow’s policies but also how these are perceived by the Russian public. Today Russian citizens are not isolated Soviet subjects they travel! Again we are looking at Germany to see if the West and the EU is able to operate in sync and create a common position that is backed by coherent and sustained policies. And watching the US to see if it can help the EU make those decisions. Lately it was not the case and we got bogged down in this mess that is to a large degree a self made predicament. Russia bets this has not changed! AT

February 25, 2014
Monnet's Brandy and Europe's Fate

A great text, visual and audio essay by Strobe Talbott the president of Brookings Institutions

February 23, 2014
Ukraine Teeters on Brink of Bankruptcy

Ukraine is bankrupt! And here is where the EU’s vision needs to play in solving the difficult long term issues in Ukraine. It will not be easy and will require a perfect and lasting coordination between the EU and the US and to some degree an open channel with Moscow. Ukraine’s economic needs are dire and immediate. The EU needs to come up with a significant aid package and a plan for a long term shoring up of Ukraine. This needs to be a tool to support a democratic and effective transition in Ukraine. The resistance will be fierce. In the name of independence, dignity and the “heroes of the Miadan” the new power will do anything to access help while making no or very limited concessions. This is a trap. Not only prior mistakes that followed the Orange Revolution need to be avoided but a clear message is needed. No pussyfooting and soft language but a stark message: the old style power politics using nationalism as a forint to oligarchs and politicians fighting for trophies will not receive Western carte blanche backing. This also needs to send Moscow a clear message that the alternative narrative and its propaganda and separatism discourse is going to backfire. A democratic and reformed Ukraine is going to be a difficult and long term process. The first day of the new regime does not bid well. The new president Turchynov is a former secret service head close to Tymoshenko and her oligarchic business empire and also known for shady dealings with thugs in Ukraine and Russia. Among the first laws voted by the new Parliamentary majority in Kiev was one abolishing minority languages in contradiction not only with European standards but also prior practice. The game of nationalism and mythical hero worshiping has started and it does not signal good things. Again the EU and the West has a powerful tool to quell these reflexes and influence the process. The conditionality should be less about EU business in Ukraine and more about Ukrainian political, legal and governance standards. Just a final note that the article linked here contains a significant mistake. It claims Ukraine’s industrial and mining hub lies in the west and it agricultural heartland in the east. It is quite the opposite.

February 22, 2014


Are People More Open About Life When Running?

In a park in downtown London, directors Matan Rochlitz and Ivo Gormley set out to ask the most intimate questions of unsuspecting joggers. With the idea that the unconventional interview location would drop the runners’ guards, the filmmakers were able to elicit candid, funny, and oftentimes moving responses.

In an interview with The Atlantic, Rochlitz talks about the impetus for the film, and how they captured the runners in motion.

Read more.

December 2, 2013
Commission regrets Băsescu’s ‘bigger Romania’ statements | EurActiv

Staying at the core of Europe and doing what it takes to become fully part of the EU economically, politically and strategically is the priority for Romania. In this respect Romania should not sacrifice its European position, however desirable this would be for shady business and political interests tired of the “yoke” represented by the CVM. A distancing from the European core is incompatible with the Romania’s long term national interest. If a “greater Romania” comes about this would be with Moscow’s approval. This could entail a rapprochement or at least a certain extension of Russia’s economic and political interest. It would not be a union where Moldova re-joins Romania but rather Romania being absorbed into a different sphere of influence. Romania would play an automatic role in the economic and strategic puzzle that connects Russia to the Adriatic. This is not a negligible probability outcome in the context of event transitory EU strategic and political weakness. Romania’s European anchors may be stronger than they appear but they are not set in stone and the sands are shifting. Romania is not part of the Euro-zone, its entry in the Schengen area is long overdue and with the continued CVM all are signs of vulnerability. These tie into Romania’s reputation but also its ability to function as a core EU country. This should be the focus of both the EU and Romania. In turn Romania’s neighborhood policy should be a part of this. this includes a new set of policies and initiatives vis a vis Russia. It needs to be carefully and convincingly crafted jointly with the EU partners. A noisy unionist project runs the risk of covering other critically important subjects for Romania and the EU and in fact lead to a widening of teh distamce between Romania and EU’s core. This would serve a lot of interests but neither Romania’s nor Moldova’s Here is what the EU Commission says on the issue. AT

November 6, 2013
Russia’s Foreign Policy Is Nearing Complete Failure

A compact critical review of Russian foreign policy situation by : Stephen Sestanovich

It seems only yesterday that President Vladimir Putin seized the world’s attention with his proposal to put Syria’s chemical weapons under international control. To many, the fancy footwork had a clear message: Russia was back in the diplomatic big league at last.

We can see now what all the headlines briefly obscured. Since Mr Putin regained the presidency last year, his foreign policy has foundered. Russia has not faced such a serious need to rethink its role in the world for more than a quarter century.

Start with Europe. For the past decade, Moscow avoided conflict in relations with the EU by staying on good terms with Germany. No more. Whether the issue is energy pricing or gay rights, Berlin is now one of Mr Putin’s foremost critics. Russian trade tactics – such as a recent threat to ban Dutch tulips as unsafe – make enemies across the continent.

Belligerence has antagonised former Soviet neighbours, too. To thwart Ukraine's and Moldova's interest in closer ties with the EU, Moscow has warned that it may block their goods from entering Russia. In September it started a similar quarrel with Belarus; last month, with Lithuania. Mr Putin, it seems, will pick a fight with anyone.

Russia’s influence in the Middle East is also declining. Almost three years into the Arab spring, it is on worse terms with nearly all the region’s states. Seen from Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, Jordan, Israel and Egypt, Moscow’s support for Iran promotes instability. And Russian backing for Syria’s regime evokes genuine anger.

Relations with the US show the same pattern. President Barack Obama cancelled his Labor day summit with Mr Putin because it promised no results. Yes, Russia’s granting of asylum to Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency contractor turned whistleblower, annoyed the US. But the summit was scratched because there was so little to justify it.

Some experts point out that Mr Putin has at least improved ties with China. This achievement is far less significant than it should be, however. Imagine how the US would feel in the same position. When you have good relations only with China, you have nowhere else to turn. Russians are as uneasy about China’s rise as Americans – maybe more so. But they are facing it alone.

Mr Putin may reckon others will eventually yield to his pressure. But his strategy is clearly not working. The response of most governments is outrage and resistance. Many think they can stand up to Moscow because its leverage is declining. Upheaval in global energy markets – especially the shale gas revolution – is one reason. The dramatic drop in Russian economic growth this year further saps Russian influence.

And although it threatens a trade war, Moscow ignores the fact that many of its neighbours have already redirected their exports to the EU. Russia’s diplomatic tools are weaker in other areas, too. For years, Moscow found a middle route in the stand-off between the US and Iran. Now, with Washington and Tehran in wary contact, Russia’s influence with both will decline.

A record this poor ought to be a problem for Mr Putin. Yet it is rarely criticised. The public seems to like his bristly nationalism. The president has mounted an intense domestic propaganda campaign to portray his Syria moves as a huge success. Disputing this claim – much less suggesting that the rest of his policy is going nowhere – only invites retribution.

Even many of Mr Putin’s critics seem to think that attacking his international record is not the best way to challenge him. Better to focus on economic, political or legal reform – issues on which he may be more vulnerable. When Russia starts to change, I have been told, foreign policy will take care of itself.

Right or wrong, these answers testify to the timidity of Russia’s foreign policy establishment, its intellectual and business elite and its political opposition. Yet it is hard to believe the nation will long be satisfied with the path he has put it on. Current policy produces too little benefit for anyone. A more fundamental course correction – no easy undertaking in any country – is inevitable.

Can the rest of us do anything to hasten a Russian reassessment? Anti-Putin crusading will not help much; to many Russians, it simply confirms he is doing the right thing. But conciliation is not the right response either; it too suggests he is getting results. What Russian policy makers and experts alike should hear from Europe and the US – a message delivered more in sorrow than in anger – is that their foreign policy has gone way off track. Until it rights itself, Russia will have less and less global influence.

The old remark about Britain in the 1960s – that it had lost an empire but not yet found a role – captures Moscow’s predicament exactly. More than 20 years after the Soviet collapse, Russians have to think this problem through for themselves. Mr Putin, unfortunately, keeps putting the answer out of reach.

This article appears in full on by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

October 1, 2013
The time America’s political class chose ultra partisan politicking over politics. The timing couldn’t be worse.

The time America’s political class chose ultra partisan politicking over politics. The timing couldn’t be worse.

(Source: soupsoup)

October 1, 2013
Ed Miliband: My Dad Was A Man Who Loved Britain

I am linking a published letter by Ed Miliband not only because it is personally relevant to me but also because the letter correctly challenges the abysmal ethical standards of contemporary media. AT 


Ed Miliband MP, Leader of the Labour Party, writes in Tuesday’s edition of the Daily Mail:

It was June 1944 and the Allies were landing in Normandy. A 20-year old man, who had arrived in Britain as a refugee just four years earlier, was part of that fight. He was my father. Fighting the Nazis and…

(Source: labourpress)

September 22, 2013
There's Something to Be Said for the Peacemaker

A link to an exceptional analysis in FP by DAVID ROTHKOPF on the complexity that drives president Obama’s decision-making:

 ”…”The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function,” wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Crack-Up. When he first set these words to paper in 1936, it’s pretty certain that he did not imagine they would one day become the core foreign-policy principle of a 21st-century president. Yet because they have, we have been reminded of another important lesson about first-rate minds, second-rate ones, and minds of every quality: Character trumps intellectual ambivalence every time. 

It is no doubt simpler for leaders who see things plainly and without nuance. Indeed, doubt is perhaps the most dangerous and relentless enemy of those whose decisions carry great weight. But as we saw in the Iraq war, “slam-dunk” certainty is no guarantee of either success or good judgment. In the early years of George W. Bush’s presidency, in my view, a lack of critical second-guessing among policymakers undermined what were the president’s fundamentally good intentions.

Barack Obama has been afflicted by the ability to see multiple sides of any issue since he took office. His Afghanistan policy initiative was, until recently, the outstanding example of this characteristic. After a lengthy internal debate, he presented in one speech both the decision to escalate U.S. involvement in that country and the announcement that the United States would be leaving on a certain date. It was the first illustration of what I described at the time as the Groucho Marx approach to foreign policy, referring to the comic icon’s signature song, “Hello, I Must Be Going.” But we have since seen other examples of Obama’s ambivalence — opposing the Bush administration’s abuses of international law, yet violating sovereignty countless times with expanded drone attacks; standing up for civil liberties, yet overseeing the greatest expansion of our intrusive surveillance state ever; pivoting to Asia, but still regularly being drawn back to the Middle East; going to Congress to get approval for action in Syria and then reserving the right to take action on his own.”

September 13, 2013
Russia will succeed in Syria if it wants to be exceptional not equal

Russia will succeed in Syria if it wants to be exceptional not equal – what an Op Ed and a speech by two presidents tell us about the Syrian predicament

Besides a few platitudes on International Law, the OpEd president Putin has penned in the NYT has parts that are interesting and parts that are truly scary. In responding to the speech made by the US president in Congress, he claimed equal treatment for Russia and denounced the US president’s claim to American exceptionalism. There is a deeply flawed logic there that influences the Syrian predicament.

Let’s start with the good part. President Putin makes a few convincing statements. Yes one should always prefer diplomacy to force. Yes, the use of force in Syria may create more problems than solve. Yes there are recent blatant examples of just how wrong the use of force can go. And yes, international cooperation, particularly between permanent members of the SC is a good tool to solve breaches of peace and threats to regional and global security. When it works!

President Putin is also right to be worried that the UN may become as irrelevant as the League of Nations. He is also right (though he does not mention this in the OpEd) to think that the League of Nations was made so by the lack of real interest of the world’s great powers in using it as a tool to prevent war. While the League of Nations was made irrelevant by not using its (weak) peace preserving instruments, the UN risks being made irrelevant by blockage. It constantly suffered from partisan driven paralysis during the Cold War too. Ultimately, during all those years, it worked (as a place to settle conflict and de-escalate risks to global peace and security) because the game was taking place under MAD rules of engagement.

Today none of the classical great powers is contemplating gowning to war against the others. They still plan for this but in a halfhearted way.  But the competition remains fierce if terribly unequal. Also the competition is less existential that during the Cold War and hence countries holding opposing views in the UN SC have less to lose if they play a blocking game.

Russia itself broke international law several times and it was repeatedly in breach of UN Charter provisions. This includes massive and disproportionate use of military forces against its own citizens as well those of at least one other country. When it comes to the UN, it was Russia that blocked repeatedly UN SC resolutions on Syria. Not just a resolution to open the way for use of force but resolutions with enough teeth to impact the Assad regime. At the time the issue was more about finding a way to first avoid the continuous bloodshed and second avoid a spiral that would destabilize the entire region. Because of UN SC blockage we are way past that point. And indeed there are few viable solutions, military or diplomatic. The scenario we contemplate is Lebanon’s civil war but on a much larger scale and with more terrible ideological elements. But the question is not about use of force designed to stop the civil war in Syria. It is probably much too late for that or too early however fraught with moral traps this statement may be. The question regards the use of force to insure the Assad regime, or anybody else in Syria or the region for that matter, will not today or ever contemplate that it can use weapons of mass destruction with impunity. This is important for the region and the world’s security. In fact this may be critically important for Russia too.

While confounding the issue of who used chemical weapons on a large scale in Syria president Putin makes a very dangerous and cynical calculation. While the UN report will probably point a finger to the Assad government it will lack the clear cut absolute evidence the Russia claims is needed to assert it was the “government side”. And here lies the biggest part of the problem. Russia and its diplomats and soldiers now the risks of not acting on a use of WMDs. The problem is that the Putin administration cares very little about that. Neither it cares about the civilian suffering in Syria. In fact, and despite what the NYT piece says, it is Russia that offers support (and today some claim to legitimacy) to the Assad regime that is guilty of massacring civilian population on a large scale. In this respect I do not see how Russia can be seen as the constructive party president Putin claims it is.

Now that may change. It is true that Russia’s credibility as an honest broker is low but I believe the world (and the US) is ready to concede that it can play a major role. That by the way would be the only added value for Russia’s proximity to the inner circle of the Assad regime.

Aside Russian calculation regarding regional balance of power, access to lucrative weapons deals, control of Syrian coast in the proximity of Israeli and Cypriot gas fields etc. its role there may prove to be much more of a nightmare that president Putin has bargained for. Stepping in as a successful broker will get Russia major points in terms of international clout and credibility.

Any negotiated peace in Syria would be better than external military involvement. Also a credible, non-military solution for the chemical weapons issue would also highly desirable. This is unfortunately highly unlikely. The problem is that rouge regimes like Assad’s Syria, North Korea and to some extent Iran use diplomatic process as an escape for making any real concession. This in part because any real concession is a weakness they cannot afford. And they get away with it despite of what that does to their own citizens and the world’s security. This in part would not be so without Russian support. This is the catch 22 for Russia. The problem is that the same problem is faced by the US, the region and the international community too.

Now I get to what I meant in the beginning of this peace when I said the president’s OpEd is also scary. To believe what the OpEd piece claims is beyond cynicism and more in the realm of delusion. It does take a certain amount of arrogance to claming equality, because this is how God wishes! As an agnostic that knows a few things about religion I can confidently say that it is individuals that are equal and not countries and certainly not regimes.

Russia has yet to prove that it can be considered equal (to any power) in terms of its contributions to peace and security. In fact, one can argue that in many ways Russia is like any other big power in the opposite (when it comes to peace and security). Russia too can ignore interests and rights of others equally well as other powers when it suites it. Yes it did fight and defeated Nazism and it paid a horrible price. Yes its innumerable heroes both on the battlefield and civilians deserve Europe’s eternal gratitude. But let’s not forget that it was also Russia that for many decades enslaved in the name of Soviet Union peoples across Europe. Also let’s not forget that it was Russia that invented and managed the Gulag and exported successfully this type of terror across the vast swaths of the continent it controlled. To claim legal or political equality between nations is one, to claim equality in the sense that all nations are exceptional in their contribution to peace, security and liberty at home and abroad may be quite a different thing. And Putin’s Russia is unfortunately not in a position to legitimately claim so.

The US does have its many mistakes in international affairs that include heavy handedness, abuse of use of force and even war crimes. At the same time, it is clear that such comparisons serve little purpose and are bound to be subjectively interpretable. Let’s be clear, in the speech quoted by president Putin, the US president was referring to a civic call to exceptionalism enshrined in the US legal and political history. A history of defending democracy and liberty by the US at home and abroad. This exceptionalism also contributed to Russia’s people own effort to combat Nazism and ultimately defeat Communism. The fact that some on both sides thought that defeating Communism means defeating Russia remains a problem for both sides. The fact also remains that Barrack Obama has started as a civic activist serving disenfranchised communities in Chicago and Vladimir Putin as a KGB officer serving the Soviet regime. They may both have the well being of their nation at heart but indeed their choice of instruments is strikingly different. The very exceptionalism president Obama was referring to made it in fact possible for a black man named Hussein that had a Muslim step-father to be elected in free and fair elections as the POTUS after September 11. That made it possible for a US president (one that actually has the legal and military means to actually strike Syria) to act with utmost restraint, despite the many voices in his own and its competitor’s camp that blame him for it. Meanwhile in Russia today is one of the worst times to be a member of a political, sexual orientation, ethnic or religious minority. When not legally sanctioned or perpetrated by the authorities these abuses are condoned by them. And in Syria president Putin is the only friend (except Hezbollah and Iran) that the Assad regime can claim.

President Putin was referring to the equality between powers that allows for no exceptionalism in the sense that all are equal in their pursuit of self-interest. That is a deeply twisted understating of the concept as used by the US president. And that is in fact exactly why the exceptionalism president Obama mentioned in his speech is relevant. What American exceptionalism is can be twisted in many ways. Like for example how anti-Semites twist Jewish exceptionalism when they refer to the “chosen people” concept as arrogance instead as a (religious) burden-creating legacy. The American exceptionalism is something for Americans to live with and by. It refers to their own choices rather than to how the world shall treat or see the US. One can accept or not that this exceptionalism stems from classical enlightenment and the republican and democratic values it informed. One may accept or not that those values have helped the US be a leading force in preserving the free world in both world wars, the cold war and ever since. This is between the Americans ant their political conscience and not between them and the world. For Vladimir Putin this is irrelevant. He does not grasp or does not care that this is an inner exceptionalism that may make some Americans proud but it does not in any way reduces Russia’s or any other nation’s claim to equality. It is also the type of voluntary blindness that does not allow Kremlin to se Russia’s own domestic plight.

Both the US and Russia have systematically acted in self interest and addressed international issues exclusively through a great power’s set of preferences and scenarios. But the very nature of the regimes in these two great powers underlines the exceptionality of one and not the other. They may be both popularly elected but we all know that elections are not the only conditions of democracy. By the way, free and fair elections not just polls. It is this essential quality of liberal democracies that is central here. Yes the US may quite often act like a great power and not like a great liberal democracy. That is the price of being a great power and it is mostly paid by the receiving side. This means usually but not always by citizens of other nations. The US exceptionalism does not serve as excuse for these wrong decisions or policies but as a long term and permanent correction instrument available to its leadership, political elites and public.

Both Russia and the US are now attempting to do what is both in their own national interest and just. It will be very hard to establish a universally acceptable moral position when judging the outcome of bloody conflicts that threaten entire regions and potentially the world. President Obama’s temporization of US use of force is creating for Russia the option to choose the role it wants to play in Syria. The two powers are today terribly unequal in terms of the actual power they poses in terms of military and economic capabilities.  One is essentially a great spoiler the other a great potential breaker of things (to quote the excellent article by Rosa Brooks). If Russia will successfully contribute to a negotiated solution to Syria it will be not because it wants to be equal but because it wants to be exceptional!

Andrei Tarnea

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