2016 State of the Union – Obama’s Foreign Policy: A Patient and Discipline strategy?

Credit: Stephen Crowley/The New York Times
Credit: Stephen Crowley/The New York Times

In his final State of Union, President Obama reflected on his past seven years in office, but most importantly tried to shape the debate on the campaign trail and for the next decades. On the question of foreign policy, President Obama raised two aspects: threats facing the country and his conception of leadership and American’s role in the world. One of his initial questions early in the address was  “How do we keep America safe and lead the world without becoming its policeman?” Such question has driven Obama’s foreign policy choices these last seven years and will continue to live on.

ISIL – The Non-Existential, but Omnipresent Threat

His contextual framework was very narrow and limited. President Obama skipped over most of the regions of the world in order to pinpoint terrorist networks like the Islamic State in Iraq and Levant (ISIL). “In today’s world, we’re threatened less by evil empires and more by failing states.”  Since the implosion of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, the US has evolved in a unipolar and more recently multipolar world order. In this new global order, many states have failed and are now the roots of today’s regional chaos causing civil war, mass murders, fueling mass migration, and hosting terrorist networks.

In addressing the threat represented by ISIL, President Obama underlined that the first priority is protecting American people and going after terrorist networks. American foreign policy makers, as well as European partners, have been using tough rhetoric in order to defend their actions against ISIL, such as “rooted out, hunted down and destroyed.” Such argument fits in the continuous war that the United States has been waging against terrorism since President Bush in 2001. But how constructive have these ‘tough’ rhetorics been in addressing the problem?

A Disciplined Leadership

Once again, President Obama has called for restrain in using extensive military force in fighting ISIL. He recalled the lessons learned in Vietnam and Iraq. And this brought Obama to talk about his vision of leadership and the way the US should be using its power. “There’s a smarter approach, a patient and disciplined strategy” argued Obama “that uses every element of our national power.” Such statement does reflect on the way President Obama has responded to emerging and pressing crises like Ukraine, Syria, Libya, Iraq, and so forth. Many experts and political leaders have compared such reflective type of leadership as a sign of weakness and

Credit: Politico.eu
Credit: Politico.eu

inaction contributing to the decline of American power and grandeur. But this reflective type of leadership ought to be merged with the Obama doctrine, which has been a foundation of his presidency.

Part of Obama’s foreign policy has been to increase cooperation with international partners especially European and some Asian powers. Obama underlined the need for the US of “rallying the world behind causes that are right.” In order to describe – and sale to a skeptical American electorate – the positives of international cooperation, President Obama listed a series of ‘successes’ like international efforts in Syria, the Iran nuclear deal, the fight against Ebola, the Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership (TTP), the re-opening of diplomatic relations with Cuba and so forth (read several analyses on Iran, the TPP, Cuba, and Syria). Each issue, at the exception of the fight against Ebola, is still ongoing and requires legislative approval/support. Interestingly enough, President Obama did not mention one core international partner like the European countries, deeply involved in the fight against terrorist networks, or international organizations and so forth. Obama’s multilateralism was principally an American definition of the term, which could be summed up by his comments about the TPP. “With TPP, China doesn’t set the rules in that region, we do.”

Foreign Policy, or the Impossible Task

Obama’s comments on foreign policy were a long segment of his address. The section illustrated the overall tone of the address: a response to the constant attacks on the campaign trail and an assertion of the results of his strategy and policy choices. For such reason, it was a weak part. Narrowing the foreign threats at ISIL and other terrorist networks, and briefly mentioning climate change, was a disappointment. As mentioned, ISIL does not represent an existential threat to the US. The war on terrorism is seriously affecting and limiting the grand strategy of the US.

On the strategic aspects of the Obama doctrine and the successes of his foreign policy, once again it is difficult to identify any clear successes (as it is for any presidents). The Obama doctrine has permitted the US to use lethal force around the world without waging war on country, while violating core principles of international law. Merging the concept of multilateral successes and the issues from Ukraine, to Syria, to Iraq, to Colombia in the same sentence may be far stretched as well. Historically, this segment of the address has been used in order to comfort the democratic base, infuriate the hawks, and sadden the foreign policy experts.

(Copyright 2016 by Politipond. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission).

2015 in the Rear-view Mirror …

happy-new-year-20152016-with-happy-new-year-compass-images-pictures-photos-hd

Should 2015 be identified as the year of multilateralism? Despite the multitude of crises facing the West throughout 2015, the signature of three major multilateral agreements was not only meaningful, but will contribute to the shaping of world politics well beyond 2016.

2015, or the Year of Multilateralism

Could 2015 be seen as the year of multilateralism? Even if this question seems quite absurd considering the succession of negative news from terrorism, to economic slowdown, racism, populism, so on and so forth. But looking back, 2015 was to some extent the most promising year in recent years in getting regional and global leaders around the table and having them signed important documents. Three highly impactful agreements ought to be reviewed.

World-Climate-Summit-bannerFirst, the Paris Agreement of December 12, 2015 ought to be number one on the list. Yes, climate change is a reality. Yes environmental destruction is the greatest threat facing humanity. If polls, like the recent one produced by the Pew, show that Euro-Atlantic citizens feel that terrorism is the greatest threat to their security, they are certainly looking at it from a narrow angle. If ISIS has demonstrated to be effective at slaughtering unarmed civilians drinking coffee and listening to music, it does not represent the existential threat that climate change presents.

Source: Source: Carle, Jill. 2015. "Climate Change Seen as Top Global Threat Americans, Europeans, Middle Easterners Focus on ISIS as Greatest Danger." Pew Research Center. July 14. Online: http://www.pewglobal.org/files/2015/07/Pew-Research-Center-Global-Threats-Report-FINAL-July-14-2015.pdf [Accessed on September 15, 2015]
Source: Source: Carle, Jill. 2015. “Climate Change Seen as Top Global Threat Americans, Europeans, Middle Easterners Focus on ISIS as Greatest Danger.” Pew Research Center. July 14. Online: http://www.pewglobal.org/files/2015/07/Pew-Research-Center-Global-Threats-Report-FINAL-July-14-2015.pdf [Accessed on September 15, 2015]

The Paris Agreement (which will only come into force once signed by the Parties on April 22, 2016 and ratified by 55 Parties) is more a political victory than a great climate deal. The political victory comes as the developed and developing nations have finally been able to agree on a global agreement. For instance, the World Trade Organization (WTO) is unable to get its Doha Round anywhere and most of the global initiatives are going nowhere. But in Paris, world leaders were able to show unity for a cause. However, the document falls short as there are no enforcement mechanisms in place in order to penalize states that do not comply. The European Union wanted a binding treaty with serious teeth and got instead an Agreement pledging to limit GHG emissions in order to maintain global warming below the 1.5 degrees Celsius target and a 5-year review of national progress and target readjustments. More work needs to be done domestically in order to transform current models of production and ways of living, especially in the US, India, China and the EU, but it is a good starting point.

The second major success for multilateralism is the Nuclear deal with Iran. After almost a GTY_iran_world_leaders_ml_150402_16x9_992decade of negotiations initiated by the EU (remember the EU3+1?), the US under the leadership of its Secretary of State, John Kerry, was able to come to an agreement on the nuclear negotiations with Iran. If the US and European nations were quick on framing it as a political victory, such deal would not have been possible without China and Russia. Both nations were central in order to have Iran signed the deal.  If the Europeans were on the side of the Americans, it was quite uncertain throughout the process to count the Russians and Chinese in. But Russia has appeared as an important partner. For instance, on December 29, Iran shipped more than 11 tonnes of low-enriched uranium to Russia. But the deal came through and is, as the Paris Agreement, imperfect. At least, it permits to relaunch diplomatic relations with Tehran and re-includes Iran as a member of the international community. Some of the sanctions will be lifted, permitting Iran to sale its crude oil starting next year, in exchange for a discontinuation of the nuclear program.

The third major agreement is the signature of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Since the collapse of the financial markets in 2008, which have caused an economic decline of the US and its allies and seen the rise of China, the US has initiated two major trade agreements: one with its Pacific partners (Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, United States, and Vietnam), the TPP, and one with its European allies, the Transatlantic Trade and Investmenttpp eng Partnership (TTIP). If the negotiations with European partners on the TTIP are still ongoing (read here a book on the topic), a result for TPP was finally reached in October 2015. In a document released by the Office of US Trade Representative, it is argued that “The result is a high-standard, ambitious, comprehensive, and balanced agreement that will promote economic growth; support the creation and retention of jobs; enhance innovation, productivity and competitiveness; raise living standards; reduce poverty in our countries; and promote transparency, good governance, and enhanced labor and environmental protections.” Regardless of the supports for such trade agreement, the TPP will have undeniably major impacts on regional and global economic and political relations. The US is solidifying its position in Asia and diplomacy is playing a big role in promoting cooperation. However, one question clearly remains: should have China been included in such deal?

Notable European Leaders in 2015

A paragraph could have been written on each of the 28 European leaders. But this piece focuses only on three EU leaders.

François Hollande, President of France, could very well be at the top of European leadership by the way he has maintained his position at the helm of France under such 98cebbe6a5319916285991f0e66baa545b8bf9bddegree of threats and instabilities. Economically, the French economy is not picking up. The French GDP growth is of 0.3% in the last quarter of 2015 with an unemployment rate of 10.6% illustrating a situation of stagnation and difficulties to draft and implement meaningful structural reforms. In addition, his approval rating in 2014 and early 2015 was around 13%, the lowest for all Presidents of the Fifth Republic. In the middle of these domestic turmoils and failed reforms, Paris was struck twice by terrorist attacks, once in January targeting Charlie Hebdo, and nine months later against civilians in a hipster arrondissement of the capital. Despite all these crises, François Hollande has been able to see an increase of his approval rating, avoid the take-over of regions by the Front National at the regional elections, and host one of the most welcomed global summits in Paris. 2015 was quite a year for François Hollande, whom has demonstrated serious skills of leadership against adversity. However, this is coming at a cost as he has taken a securitarian approach and is now passing laws, like the removal of citizenship, that are in complete opposition with the philosophical roots of his party (and arguably his own).

Angela Merkel, or the Emotional Leader of Europe. If François Hollande is shifting towards the right in order to make the homeland more secure undermining French

Generated by IJG JPEG Library
Generated by IJG JPEG Library

republican values, Angela Merkel has managed to maintain Germany in a sound economic direction (even though German economy is showing some signs of weakness), while becoming the emotional leader of Europe. Germany’s friendly policy of welcoming refugees was in some degree one of the most positive policies of 2015 in Europe. If EU Member States were calling for the construction of walls, use of army and other aberrations (Denmark planning to confiscate refugees’ jewelry) in order to stop the flow of refugees, Germany instead welcomed them. Angela Merkel’s decision to go against her political allies and political foundation illustrates one of the most human moves in Europe (read a recent piece here published in the New York Times). Chancellor Merkel may very well paying the cost of her actions if Germany is the target of a terrorist attack later on and struggle in integrating all these refugees.

David Cameron – The British Prime Minister was reelected in late Spring 2016 on an ultra-David-Cameron-Europenationalist and anti-european platform. Since his reelection, he has now identified himself as the British leader fighting for Britain’s national interests and integrity against the European Union. The publication of his demands to Brussels initiating negotiations in light of a future referendum about the membership of the UK solely responded to a national agenda without any clear vision for Britain’s future. Cameron is another European head of government with no long-term vision for his country and the Union. He embodies the shift of the past rights moving to the extreme without a clear political philosophy. Cameron’s polices have proven to be more based on ideology than facts.

Voices from Brussels?

What about HR Mogherini, President Tusk, President Schulz, and President Juncker? The heads of the largest EU institutions – EEAS, Commission, Parliament, and European Council – have not been that vocal at the exception of President Juncker at the ‘beginning’ of the migration crisis. The European leadership was pretty quiet throughout the year (at the exception of Commissionner Vestager going after the largest global corporations one after the other). Eventually 2016 could be the year for Federica Mogherini, whom is scheduled to release the new European Security Strategy in mid-Spring (read here an analysis on the current strategic thinking). 2016 could be as well the year for Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, as Warsaw will be hosting the 2016 NATO Summit. Such meeting in Poland will be important for two reasons: first, promote European principles and values in a country moving away from Europe’s ideals; second, it should address the ongoing regional crises from Ukraine, to Syria, to Iraq, Afghanistan and think seriously on how to engage with President Putin.

(Copyright 2016 by Politipond. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission).

Interview with O’Globo – Russia, France and Syria

The interview was conducted in English for O’Globo, a Brazilian newspaper, over the phone on November 20th and then a written follow-up several days later. Here is a discussion in Portuguese about the intervention of Russia in Syria and its regional consequences. The interview took place before two majors events: the destruction of a Russian fighter jet by Turkey, a NATO member; and the terrorist attacks in Paris at the end of November. Both events have directly affected the situation in Syria by creating serious tensions between NATO and Russia as well as mobilizing European powers in contributing to the war efforts against ISIS.

Interview - O'globo
O’Globo. Published on November 24, 2015. Section: Mundo. p.25
(Copyright 2015 by Politipond. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Mogherini’s World – Reflecting on the 2016 EU Global Strategy

Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters

The world has changed. Europe’s neighborhoods are going up in flames causing real problems for the stability of the European Union (EU). European Member States have considerably downsized their foreign and defense spendings due to the Eurozone crisis and lingering economic slowdown. The United States is retrenching; Russia is ever-more aggressive; China is getting more comfortable with its role as a regional hegemon. The threats, from climate change, to migration, to nuclear proliferation, to territorial invasion, are becoming more than ever complex requiring regional and international cooperation and emphasizing the decline of the liberal world order.

In the meantime, the EU was evolving without a clear strategic role as its strategic foundations were based on the 2003 European Security Strategy and framed a world order that seems long gone. But experts and European diplomats have been mentioning that a new European Security Strategy  was in the making. This was officially confirmed during the address on December 8th of the HR Representative, Federica Mogherini, calling for a reflection on a new common strategy, the so-called EU Global Strategy on Foreign and Security Policy (here is the link of the EEAS website on the Global Strategy).

The European Strategic Heritage

The 2003 document, which has been extensively analyzed and written about, had several purposes (for more details refer to the following book). First, in 2003, the EU was highly divided due to the invasion of Iraq by the United Solana-fermeture-014States. HR Javier Solana used the document in order to find a new political unity among the ‘old’ and ‘new’ Europes. Second, with the invasion of Iraq, the US violated core international principles and went alone in Iraq on the idea of preemptive actions bypassing the UN Security Council. The EU felt the necessity to emphasize their core principles for foreign actions: ‘effective multilateralism.’ Last but not least, HR Solana saw the importance to frame the security threats facing the European Union as whole, which had never been done at the European level.

Until today, the strategic baseline of the EU remains the 2003 European Security Strategy adopted by the European Council at the 2003 December meeting and its update, the 2008 Report on the Implementation of the European Security Strategy. The 2003 document was deeply influenced by Robert Cooper and politically promoted by the savvy-diplomat, and at the time High Representative, Javier Solana. The rather short but precise 2003 document followed by its update can be summarized as such (see previous analysis here):

ess

The two problems with the 2003 ESS and 2008 RI-ESS are that both documents do not reflect the new nature of the EU and the agency (note it is not an institution) of the European External Action Service (EEAS) since the Treaty of Lisbon (read two reviews on the EEAS here and here); and that EU and its Member States have not only become risk-averse but as well seeking to do foreign policy on the cheap.

Mogherini’s World

In here opening paragraph, HR Mogherini clearly framed ‘her’ world:

“The world has changed so much since our current strategy of 2003. It is an excellent one, but from a completely different world; a world that allowed the European Union to say that it had never lived in such a secure and prosperous environment. Clearly this is not the case today anymore”

Mogherini’s world is far from Solana’s. The degree of interconnection has accelerated in a

crimea169-408x264matter of a decade. In addition, the Europeans and Americans have been reluctant to play the role of regional power by being more proactive and then active in stabilizing the neighborhoods from the South to the East of Europe. The Arab Spring changed the complexity of politics and affected the balance of power around the Mediterranean sea. General Qaddafi and President Mubarak, once powerful Arab leaders, are gone leaving a power vacuum in North Africa. Then Syria is in the middle of a civil war seeing the rise of a powerful terrorist network, the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) and causing Syrians to flee their homeland. The Al-Assad regime, Russia and a multitude of factions are fighting a bloody civil all under the bombs of Western powers. To the East, Russia has simply invaded and acquired Crimea from Ukraine and has fought a war in Eastern Ukraine, while violating European airspace and cyberspace on weekly basis. Ultimately, HR Mogherini is correct when framing the world we live in as such:

And today we clearly see that we cannot run and hide from what is happening around us. Everything that is important to our citizens is influenced by our international environment. And there is actually no distinction, no borders, no line between what happens far away, what happens at our borders, in our region, and what happens inside our European Union. Even these categories are now losing sense. When it comes to the terrorist threats, when it comes to migration, what is far, what is close, what is inside, is getting confused.

Mogherini’s question is based on the fact that the world does not have any longer global rules. By ‘global rules’ she implies the ones implemented and enforced by the ‘liberal world order’ established at the end of World War two and enforced by the US through a complex institutional networks and sticky sets of norms, principles and rules.

I believe that in an age of power shifts as we are living, Europe can be a global power and a force for good. I believe that faced with increasing disorder, Europe must be the driving force pushing for a new global order: a global order based on rules, on cooperation, and on multilateral diplomacy.

HR Mogherini is calling for the design of new global architectures, based on post-World War two structures, in order to foster cooperation and enforce stability. And here is the problem. The old architecture is centered around the US. Today the US needs the collaboration of new powers like China, India, Brazil and Turkey. The liberal world order will have to be first readjusted to today’s world order centered around a multitude of powers.

Complaisant Power

Her address is certainly not the final document and is, as she mentioned, in a mode of

Credit: EEAS
Credit: EEAS

consultation and reflection. Mogherini emphasizes the success of multilateralism and the need to avoid unilateralism. She identified recent success stories of international cooperation such as the nuclear agreement between Iran and powerful actors and the COP-21 with world leaders meeting in Paris under a UN umbrella structure. But her address feels like a déjà-vu due to a lack of creativity in the strategic thinking process. Mogherini wants the EU to be a respected global actor, but there is a serious gap between ‘wanting’ and ‘being.’

The address lacks of teeth by directly underlining how the EU and its Member States will be acting? How much will be invested in the CSDP? Are EU Member States all committed to pool resources at the European level? What are the instruments at the disposition of the EU to deal with the war in Syria? the refugee crisis? Is there such thing as a European interest? Last but not least, what about power projection? Mogherini wants to inject the European citizens in the drafting process, but none of the critical and contentious issues are mentioned, and even less addressed. This address sends the message that the EU is more of a ‘complaisant’ power than a real power. The 90s European belief of a post-power world with the EU at the forefront is deeply engrained in this discussion. Let’s hope that the EU Global Strategy will not be a recycled 2008 RE-ISS.

(Copyright 2015 by Politipond. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Emptying the Spirit of the Union – Cameron’s Wishlist

Photo: Getty
Photo: Getty

British Prime Minister David Cameron finally sent his requests to the European Union in light of the upcoming referendum about the membership of the United Kingdom in the Union. In a letter addressed on November 10, 2015, to the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, PM Cameron laid out the areas wherein the UK will be seeking for reforms in order to satisfy the British demands. In some ways, this letter is the first step in starting officially the discussion between the UK and the EU prior the referendum in 2017.

Reforming the Union – Cameron’s Demands

In a letter titled, “A new settlement for the United Kingdom in a Reformed European Union,” PM Cameron identified four main areas where the UK is seeking for reforms.

The first area is Economic Governance. In this section, PM Cameron addresses the problem of a two-speed Europe caused by the Euro. On the one hand, there are the Eurozone members, and on the other the non-Eurozone members. Britain is concerned about “the integrity of the Single Market, and the legitimate interests of non-Euro members.” In other words, Cameron wants to avoid a power grab by the Eurozone members over the others. Cameron wants to see a discussion among the 28 Member States on issues related to the Eurozone that affect the Union as a whole.

The second area is Competitiveness. The UK wants to scale back the number of regulations limiting trade and ultimately the competitiveness of European products. In addition, Cameron wants to initiate “massive trade deals with America, China, Japan and ASEAN.” Ultimately, Cameron wants to lower the number of existing regulations and their ‘burden’ in order to boost productivity and competitiveness.

The third area is Sovereignty. On this particular theme, highly cherished by extreme right and right parties accross the Union, Cameron wants to bring several proposals. The first one, Britain does not want to be part of ‘an ever-closer union.’ So no political union for Britain. Second, Cameron wants to empower national parliaments, which could stop ‘unwanted legislative proposals’ taken at the European level.

The fourth area, and the longest of all, is Immigration. On the point, Cameron wants to limit movement of people as it creates too much pressures on British public services. If Cameron mentions the mass movement of people from outside to inside, he underlines that “we need to be able to exert greater control on arrivals from inside the EU too.” In addition, Cameron is asking for a restriction on distributing social benefits to individuals leaving on British soil.

In order to feel comfortable, Cameron is asking for reaching “an agreement that would, of course, need to be legally-binding and irreversible.” Even if the 27 EU Member States were to agree of these point, they would have to go through national discussion in order to accept a treaty change. This could increase the pressure on each Member States.

Cherry-picking, and Removing the Essence of the Union

In his daily chronicle on France Inter, David Guetta, underlined that the initial response from Europe to Cameron should be ‘best of luck in your new adventure outside the Union.” The UK since his entrance in the Union has not always been a Member State pushing for the deepening and widening of the EU. But as Guetta expressed “irritation is not a policy.” The Financial Times reports that “One European minister involved in the talks described the ‘British question’ as not addressing what the UK or Europe needs, but what Cameron requires ‘to successfully campaign’.” The 28 heads of states and governments will be meeting in December in order to address the British case and see where to start. However, it is quite difficult to sideline some irritation.

The initial response from Brussels was that finally the UK has clarified its positions and demands. European diplomats feel that with this exhaustive wishlist “they will not be ambushed at the last moment with fresh UK demands.” Many experts are arguing that the only major point of contention may be the fourth point on ‘immigration.’ Eastern European members, like Poland, would undeniably reject such point. But it should be a redflag in Paris and Berlin as movement of people is one of the most fundamental freedoms offered and guaranteed by the EU to European citizens. Once citizens are confined to their national territories, the spirit of the Union disappears.

Cameron’s overall plan – which could be conscious or not – is to remove the human and ideational components of the European project in order to transform it into an advanced trade agreement. PM Cameron’s vision of the future of the EU and UK is quite dramatic. The fact that Cameron wants to maintain three freedoms (capital, goods and services) but wants to limit the fourth one (labor) is quite dramatic. The Common Market was set up around the respect of the four freedoms. Cameron political vision is directly aligned with the ultra conservative British view of the world and understanding of the UK.

To some extent Cameron demonstrates that the British conservative political class has not evolved since the entry of the UK in the Union. Cameron’s vision of the European Union is simply a space of trade and transaction without any European identity. His vision and understanding of the European Union are too simplistic and dangerous to be left unanswered. European capitals will have to find the political courage to address London respectfully and highlight the added value of the UK in the Union. But European capitals should not play this dangerous game of emptying the essence of the Union.

(Copyright 2015 by Politipond. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission).

Film Review – An Artistic Window into the Horror of Islamic Fundamentalism

imagesCitizens and leaders of the Euro-Atlantic community are scared, and to some degree fascinated, by the rise, power and influence of fundamentalist islamic movements such Al-Qaeda, AQIM, and most recently with the notorious Islamic State in Iraq and Levant (ISIL). These powerful networks are attracting Westerners, especially their young adults, to either join the fight in Syria, Mali, Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan or even taking it to their homelands, like in Paris, Toulouse, Brussels, and in the Thalys. Westerners are trying to understand the logics and thought process of these networks. So far the narratives have been engrained in the traditional framework of us versus them, Christian versus Muslims, and the inevitable clash of civilization. The recent picture Timbuktu offers us an artistic look into one of these islamic networks, their ideologies, their contradictions, and the horrors perpetuated in the name of bigotry and oppression.

Aside from traditional hollywood mainstream pictures, Abderrahmane Sissako dug deep, his powerful Timbuktu (2014), into the darkness of an fundamentalist islamic movement ruling over Timbuktu, the historical Malian city and a scholarly centre in Africa. Sissako, a Mauritanian-born film-maker, decided to make this movie after hearing about a story of a unmarried couple being stoned to death by a fundamentalist islamists for having children outside of the sacred bound of marriage. This movie is, as titled by a Guardian’s article, ‘a cry from the heart,’ which shows the horror, stupidity, ignorance of radical islamists over the inhabitants of Timbuktu. However, the picture is much more than a basic criticism as it  confronts the viewers to a complex conundrum. Sissako is very careful in maintaining the humanity of these men fighting the jihad.

One of the most beautiful scenes of the movie is a group of young Malian playing soccer on a soccer field without a soccer ball. On a previous scene, a young Malian is being physically punished by the newly-established Islamic tribunal enforcing the Sharia law for owningTimbuktu 5 and playing with a soccer ball. The scene of soccer game, so well choreographed playing with a red sunset light and the yellow dust of the sand, offers one of the most stunning moments of the picture. While the youngsters are playing ‘virtual’ soccer, which includes corner kick, penalty kick and counter-attacks, two jihadists are riding in circle around the field on their motorcycle in order to assure that no soccer ball is being used. In some way, the game illustrates the limits of oppression and Sharia law. The soccer match offers a powerful moment demonstrating the power of the mind and the desire for freedom under oppression. One can compare this scene as one of the many examples written in Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning.

Throughout the movie, one cannot stop making connection with any authoritarian regimes, from the Nazis to the Soviets and so forth, about the basic concept of power and authority (reference to Foucault, Freud and other great thinkers can be undeniably made throughout the picture). Even though scenes of oppression and injustice are ever-present and make the movie difficult to watch at times, Sissako wanted to give humanity to the fundamentalist fighters, the jihadists, by showing their doubts, lack of convictions of their actions and beliefs, and their violations of their bans on the inhabitants. For instance, one leader continues smoking even though it’s forbidden; another one, in a moving scene, is dancing ballet-like; others are continuously talking about the best soccer players being Zidane, so on and so forth.

A large part of the success of ISIL and other group has been to attract muslims in joining the jihad either at home or abroad. A lot of emphasis in Western media has been done on the successful PR campaign of these groups recruiting in US, France, Britain either in person (in prisons and/or in mosques) or through social media (facebook, youtube, twitter and so forth). Sissako spends a look moment filming the making a video for recruitment, wherein the speaker, a young fighter, talks with a real lack of conviction about his past ‘sins’ being a smoker and a rap singer. The man, behind the camera whom is much older and clearly not from Mali (as it has been the case in most of these terrorist networks), is desperate by the lack of conviction of the young jihadist.

1214559_Abderrahmane-SissakoTimbuktu whom was nominated for an Academy Awards for Best Foreign Picture and for a New Regards at the Cannes Film Festival, was celebrated by receiving Césars Awards, the French equivalent of the Oscars, for Best Picture and Best Director in February 2015. This movie offers the only artistic look into the horror of oppression, violence, power, and morality. It does respond to the growing interest, fear and fascination of Westerners about ISIS and alike networks.

For instance, a recent study produced by the Pew Research Center looking at the perceptions of global threats by citizens of the world demonstrates that ISIS is considered as the greatest threat in every members of the Euro-Atlantic community. ISIS is perceived as more dangerous than global economic instability and climate change.

Source: Source: Carle, Jill. 2015. "Climate Change Seen as Top Global Threat Americans, Europeans, Middle Easterners Focus on ISIS as Greatest Danger." Pew Research Center. July 14. Online: http://www.pewglobal.org/files/2015/07/Pew-Research-Center-Global-Threats-Report-FINAL-July-14-2015.pdf [Accessed on September 15, 2015]
Source: Carle, Jill. 2015. “Climate Change Seen as Top Global Threat Americans, Europeans, Middle Easterners Focus on ISIS as Greatest Danger.” Pew Research Center. July 14. Online: http://www.pewglobal.org/files/2015/07/Pew-Research-Center-Global-Threats-Report-FINAL-July-14-2015.pdf [Accessed on September 15, 2015]

Interestingly enough, if climate change has been considered as a direct threat to humanity as whole for decades, ISIS was a non-factor two years ago. Al-Qaeda was the principal network since 2001. It is quite interesting to see that Westerners consider ISIS as a greater threat than climate change.

In the case of Mali, the French have been the only Western power to use their military2_TIMBUKTU force in order to protect Timbuktu and block the progression of the radical islamists. At the time of the 2012 American Presidential campaign, between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, only Mitt Romney acknowledged the growing threat taking place in Mali. When François Hollande launched Operation Serval 63% of the French citizens were in favor of the use of military force in order to maintain order in Mali, block the progression of radical islamists in Mali and throughout the Sahel region (read a previous analysis on Operation Serval here). A little later, President Obama provided assistance to the French army through transports and through intelligence gathering.

Timbuktu offers Westerners a needed look into the reality of oppression in the case of Mali. It falls in the same category of great movies looking at bigotry, power, oppression, violence, injustice and stupidity like Path of Glory and Dr. Strangelove. It confronts the viewer with contradictory emotions of anger and amazement. Dark as it is, Sissako’s core message of the unbreakable human spirit is an ode to hope.

(Copyright 2014 by Politipond. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission).

Interview with O Globo on Russia in Syria

Earlier this week, Henrique Gomes Batista, the foreign correspondent of the O Globo in Washington D.C., a daily major national newspaper in Brazil, wanted to talk about Syria, Russia and the West. Politipond previously posted an analysis on the Russian incursion in Syria and what it means for the West. Here is the interview below (in Portuguese):

 

O Globo

(Copyright 2015 by Politipond. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission).

Syria – Russia Returns to the Table of Great Powers

Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters

Russia just started its airstrike campaign in Syria after approval by the upper house of the Parliament. “We [Russia] ’re talking exclusively about operations of Russia’s Air Force,” announced Mr. Ivanov, Mr. Putin’s chief of staff, “as our president has already said, the use of armed forces on the ground theater of military operations is excluded.” The airstrikes have for objectives to assist the Bashar al-Assad regime in his war against the Islamic State.

After more than four and half years of war, Syria is the home of a complex crisis seeing a war between the Bashar al-Assad regime, Syrian militias, and many terrorist networks. The Syrian war has permitted the rise of the Islamic State in Syria and Levant (ISIS), and has been costing the lives of 250,000 civilians and a million injured, displaced millions displaced, and put million refugees on the road. The Syrian civil war is taking a new turn with the direct military involvement of Russia. A simple, but yet complex question, ought to be raised: Does Russia dictate global politics in the European sphere of influence?

The Syrian Civil War

In Syria, Bashar al-Assad never lost his power. Even though the country is highly divided among a multitude of militias, terrorist networks and the al-Assad forces. The interesting case of Syria is that the West did not see coming the fall of Mubarak and Qaddafi and wanted to be proactive in the fall of al-Assad. In September 2013, the West was trying to build a coalition in order to start bombing Syria and the al-Assad forces after he was found guilty of having used sarin gas against civilians. Two forces played in favor of al-Assad, and

Photo: AHMAD ABOUD/AFP/Getty Images
Photo: AHMAD ABOUD/AFP/Getty Images

still are, avoiding the launch of airstrike against Syria’s al-Assad: Russia and Western public opinion.

Vladimir Putin has played an important role in sponsoring the al-Assad regime through military and financial assistance. Putin’s rationale is that the Assad regime is a better alternative and protection against radical Islamic groups than rebels. In the case of western public opinions, they had grown war-worn especially for the Americans and Brits both involved in Iraq and Afghanistan for over a decade. British citizens, through the UK House of Commons rejected to grant authorization to Prime Minister Cameron to participate in military airstrikes in Syria. The British aversion to use force in Syria was a powerful signal for the Obama administration, whom refused to intervene despite the fact that al-Assad had crossed the ‘redline’ in using sarin gas. Ultimately since 2013, the war in Syria has seen the rise of refugees, displaced individuals, rise of ISIS and a continuation of war without any direct role being played by the West to stop the conflict.

US-Russia Divergences

Mr. Putin has been very clear. Russia uses military force in order to fight ISIS and support the al-Assad regime. Vladimir Putin does not want to see his regional ally go and wants to maintain Russia’s influence in the region. Putin sees Russian intervention in order to stop the expansion and rise of ISIS in the region. If attention has been raised about radical islamists trying to conduct terrorist acts in Western Europe (like in Toulouse, Charlie Hebdo, the Thalys) and the US, Russia has as well been dealing with radical islamic terrorism for decades. Since being in power, Vladimir Putin has been fighting a lengthy war in Chechenya. Major Russian cities have been the targets of acts of terrorism over the years. In Syria, President Putin has played his game carefully by first bringing military capabilities, like fighter jets, in Syria at the airbase base of Latakia, in Western Syria.

In the case of the US, President Obama is neither interested in protecting al-Assad nor keeping him in power. As demonstrated by his two mandates, President Obama has been150928153854-barack-obama-vladimir-putin-toast-exlarge-169 trying to leave the Middle East and readjust American power towards Asia. Obama’s presidential promises were to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which he has done even though some military forces are still on the ground. During the Arab spring, the US with his European allies missed the moment. The US was leading from behind in 2011 in the implementation of a no-fly zone in Libya. The mission was led by France and the UK, under the UN Security Council Resolution 1973 (2011), which facilitated the fall of the Qaddafi regime. Since 2011, and especially after the killing of US ambassador in Benghazi, the Americans have been extremely reluctant in playing an active role on the ground and rather remain in the sky. But ISIS has brought back the US in the region. As demonstrated in recent polls, Americans consider ISIS as the greatest threat to the US.

Chart: Global Perceptions of Major Threats (Only the ‘Very Concerned about’ are being represented here)

Threats
Source: Carle, Jill. 2015. “Climate Change Seen as Top Global Threat Americans, Europeans, Middle Easterners Focus on ISIS as Greatest Danger.” Pew Research Center. July 14. Online: http://www.pewglobal.org/files/2015/07/Pew-Research-Center-Global-Threats-Report-FINAL-July-14-2015.pdf [Accessed on September 15, 2015]

With the rise of ISIS over the region, President Obama was obliged to send some hundreds of military advisors in Iraq in order assist the Iraqi army and leadership. Since then, the US with France have conducted airstrikes over Iraq in order to limit the rise of ISIS.

Even within the US team, there is a certain division as reported by the New York Times between President Obama and his Secretary of State, John Kerry. “Obama seems to approach Syria with a professor’s detachment”said David Schenker, the director of the Program on Arab Politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, “while Kerry — perhaps because of his high regard for his own diplomatic acuity — sees it as something he can solve.” President Obama deeply distrusts President Putin, while Kerry feels that he can work on a deal with the Russians in order to bring in the long-term Bashar al-Assad down from his leadership position.

But the tension between the US and Russia can be sensed. During his address before the UN General Assembly, Russian President underlined that the US air campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria were illegal and a violation of international law. Putin claimed that the US used military force with neither a UN Security Council Resolution nor with the consent of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Now it will be interesting to see if the UN Security Council agree on a resolution in order to fight ISIS in Syria.

Europeans, Russians and Americans

The Syrian crisis is, and ought to be perceived by the Europeans, as the top priority. From Europe, the civil war in Syria is causing regional instabilities all around the Mediterranean front, is at the origins of the worst migration crisis since World War two, and is exposing the failures of Europeans address a direct security threat to its continent. The massive number of migrants seeking for refuge in Western Europe is exposing the weaknesses of European cohesion and solidarity, European integration (see the failure of the Schengen agreement and Dublin rules), and is destroying the myth of Europe as a civilian/normative power.

The only power in Western Europe to be military active is France. Under Presidents Sarkozy and Hollande, France has sought to maintain its global and regional influence and interests. France has been flexing its muscles in Central African Republic (CAR), Mali, Iraq, Libya and now Syria. Back in 2013, France was waiting on the Americans in order to start airstrikes against the al-Assad forces after he was proven to have used sarin gas against civilians. If French air power has been used as part of the coalition with the US over Iraq in order to fight ISIS, but it started its bombing campaign over Syria several days ago. However, François Hollande has maintained the fact that a solution in Syria cannot exist with Bashar al-Assad. As demonstrated during the nuclear talks with Iran, French diplomacy has been one of the toughest in order to assure that French and Western interests would be protected and enforced. On the Syrian case, Laurent Fabius is keeping the similar cap.

_85593741_iraq_syria_air_strikes_624_v45

The United Kingdom has expressed a less clear position. British Prime Minister Cameron said “I know there are people who think Isis is even worse than Assad, so shouldn’t we somehow cut a deal with Assad to team up and tackle Isis.” But the Brits, in order to show support to their American partners, underlined that a long-term solution cannot include Bashar al-Assad remaining in power. The French and Americans have been clear on the fact that any peace deals cannot include Bashar al-Assad.

Prime Minister Matteo Renzi of Italy said that Russia was a central actor in the fight against ISIS in the region. His tone towards Moscow is much softer than his European partners, as Italy and Russia have always had deep relationship, especially in recent times. For instance, Italy has been the least supportive of European sanctions against Russia.

Russia, The Return of the Global Power?

Since the arrival of Putin to power in 2000, his priority has been to make Russia a great power once again. He has demonstrated that Russia not only plays an important role, but can shape global events. If Putin put himself in a corner after the annexation of Crimea and lingering war in Eastern Ukraine, he has brought Russia back at the table of great powers with his actions in the Middle East. If this aspect has been lost in translation as the world is more concerned about the approval of the deal by the US Congress, Russia played an important role on bringing a deal for the Iranian nuclear program. In the case of Syria, most powers have been reluctant to act aside from airstrike bombings over Syria and Iraq. Now Russia is actually forcing the West to act and do something about the vicious war in Syria.

Europeans have been inactive on dealing with Syria and have struggled on welcoming Syrian migrants. Aside from boosting border patrols in the Mediterranean and increasing financial assistances to countries hosting Syrian refugees, Europeans were unable to agree on a clear military operation in order to address the root causes of the migration crisis. The Americans, under Obama, have been much more reluctant to start another military mission in the Middle East. Obama promised in 2008 to quit the greater Middle East, he certainly does not want to leave office in 2016 with another war in Middle East.

With the escalation of its military intervention, Russia is bringing itself outside of the corner and rejoining the table of great powers. This last decade, Putin has demonstrated his ability to promote Russian influence and interests where and when desired. By using realpolitik, Putin has been able to promote Russia’s interests without any moral dilemmas, while the West is trying to act morally (which is highly debatable) and is actually limiting its flexibility and interests. Russia is back and the West needs to work with a complex partner.

(Copyright 2015 by Politipond. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission).

Once upon a time, the EU was a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate

 

europee-crisis_0

Three years ago I wrote a piece beginning by: “It all started in the aftermath of World War II and in the emotional and material rumbles of Europe. The visionary great men of Europe — Jean Monnet, Robert Schuman and Konrad Adenauer —understood that peace in Europe would only be possible through deep economic integration, strengthening an irreversible degree of cooperation between Western European powers.” This was in mid-October of 2012, when the Norwegian Nobel Committee gave the Nobel Peace Prize to the European Union (EU). The rationale behind the prize was that the EU was a process permitting to make war unthinkable and allow for economic growth. This was a proud moment for Europeans, even though most of them did not pay much attention, and for Europeanists.

Radicalization of Domestic Politics

Today it is with real sadness to realize that in less than three years the survival of the EU appears in direct jeopardy and on the brink of implosion. Domestically, nationalism is ramping through either the rise of extreme-right wing parties, like the Front National in France, UKIP in Britain, Golden Dawn in Greece, or more recently through the

Image: AFP/Getty Image
Image: AFP/Getty Image

reemergence of extreme leftist parties like Podemos in Spain, Syriza in Greece, and the newly elected Jeremy Corbyn in Britain. In addition, the narratives and actions demonstrated by the Obrán government in Hungary talking of a Christian Europe is affecting the overall normative message of EU (read a previous analysis here). These movements demonstrate a radicalization of the political debate directly informed by a highly emotional and confused electorate witnessing a continuous and unstoppable decline of their socio-economic condition.

Directly related to the rise of European nationalism is the financial crisis, which has spilled over to the Eurozone. The euro crisis has left the 17 Eurozone economies, at the exception of Germany, into a state of economic lethargy. In the case of Greece, the country has been on the brink of default for years and its future does not look promising based on the reports produced by the International Monetary Fund, a member of the Troika. In the case of France, still an economic pillar of the Eurozone, the succession from right to left has demonstrated the inabilities of traditional political parties to build confidence, implement meaningful structural reform, and lower inequalities. Part of the problem is the divide between a common currency and national fiscal policies.

Regional Inefficiencies

Regionally, the lingering war in Ukraine is a direct illustration that war on the European continent continues to live on. A last minute cancelation by Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych of a bilateral agreement between Ukraine and the EU in November 2013 sent off Ukraine into one of its darkest periods. Two years later, Ukraine lost a piece of its territory, Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in spring 2014 after a quickly organized referendum (read here an analysis on Russian influence over Europe). Since the annexation of Crimea, not only as Ukraine lost the peninsula, which is never mentioned by

Photo: Kremlin.ru [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Photo: Kremlin.ru [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

the 28 EU Member States, but the war in the Eastern border of Ukraine has severely affected the political, economic and stability of Ukraine. The only instrument implemented by the EU, which has been very successful, is a series of sanctions against Russia. But unity among the 28 on keeping and deepening the sanctions is slowly disappearing in favor of national gains.

The second serious regional crisis is the current migration crisis. After the 2007 Arab Spring, many in the West and the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) were hopeful for a democratic transition of many countries under long-term dictatorships like in Egypt, Syria, Tunisia and Libya. The time of euphoria quickly turned sour for Arabs and Westerners, witnessing either the reemergence of authoritarian regimes (Egypt), their survival (Syria) or simply collapse of the state (Libya). Since then, the EU, which has not done enough with its American counterparts in assisting in the transition of these states, is seeing an unprecedented number of refugees fleeing their homes, which have become war zones like in Syria, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Somalia and so forth. The mass of refugees seeking for asylum in the richest EU countries is not new, but the current mass of refugees is unprecedented and is underlining the weaknesses of the EU (institutional) and dismantling European solidarity.

A Crisis for Ages – The Migration Nightmare

If the Eurozone crisis, or at least a Greek default, were framed as the event that could kill the Euro and ultimately the Union as whole, these were the good old days. The migration crisis is directly threatening the future of the Union. If Germany and Sweden have been the good Samaritans in welcoming refugees (in 2015, it is estimated that Germany could welcome between 800,000 and 1,000,000 asylum seekers), Chancellor Merkel with her Minister of Interior, Thomas de Maizière, have reinstalled border control at the frontier with Austria. This move by Germany has started a snowball effects with other EU Member States implementing similar measures. The closing of borders to control the movement of people is a direct violation of the Treaties. The border-free Schengen agreement is one of the most successful and visible symbols of the European Union. It is too some extent a sacrosanct dimension of the EU.

European Integration in Danger?

The European integration process is a complex story of crises and adequate responses through policy changes and bargaining power. The period of the empty chair, the end of european_crisisthe Cold War and the reunification of Germany, the war in Kosovo, the divide between old and new Europe around the Iraq crisis, the no to the 2007 Constitutional Treaty and the Eurozone crisis have all been serious crises, but yet manageable for the European leaders. It appeared that European actors understood the need to solidify the Union and put aside differences in order to solve a crisis. The migration crisis is showing the worst of Europeans and their leaders, and European solidarity remains to be seen. Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the Commission, called for courage in remaining altogether and implementing meaningful measures like quotas. With a weakening Euro, as the Eurozone crisis has yet to be solved, the Schengen agreement under attack, a possible Brexit in 2016/17, the EU appears to move towards an ‘ever-lesser Europe.’ Yes, once upon a time, the EU was a Nobel Peace Prize laureate.

(Copyright 2014 by Politipond. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission).

 

VW-Google – Forget about Ethics and Think Transatlantic Retaliations

Credit: AP
Credit: AP

The recent allegations against Volkswagen (VW) for installing a devise allowing the company to have its 1.6 and 2.0 liters diesel models cheat test are scandalous. The VW case is nothing new in an highly competitive sector with extreme global competition. However, the turn of the debate in the United States about VW and its violations of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) testing these last five years do not tell the whole story about transatlantic trade competition. Interestingly enough, diesel cars only represent less than 1% of passenger vehicles in US, when it is more than 50% in Europe, and the EPA is the enemy number one of the Republicans and a large segment of American population distrust the agency. So based on the fact that all three elements, corporate ethics, environmental concerns, and small market share, rank low in the US, why would the US be so offended about VW cheating of EPA tests?

Without falling into conspiracy theory, could the US attacks against VW to be more a case of transatlantic warfare and retaliation against one of the biggest and symbolic European corporation? Could it be a retaliation for the European Commission’s cases against Microsoft and more recently Google?

VW Cheating and Systemic Failure

The VW scandal is based on the fact that VW has repetitively cheated on diesel car emission tests conducted by the EPA in the US and other agencies around the world. The company was selling its diesel models based on the claims that they were cleaner, more reliable, quicker, and greener than its competitions (one of the best discussions on the VWscreen shot 2015-09-18 at 4.55.17 pm case was done on the Diane Rehm’s Show, listen to it here).

The cheating did not only occur in the US. VW executives are saying that “vehicles in Europe with 1.6 and 2.0 litre diesel engines were also affected by the manipulations”. This could affect over 11 millions cars around the world on models of Jetta, Passat, Audi A3, Golf.

The VW group is one of the largest world carmaker counting brands like Volkswagen, Porsche, Audi and Lamborghini. In July the group overtook Toyota for the number one global carmaker. The cheating allegations have already costed the head of its chief executive, Martin Winterkorn, and the VW shares dropped by almost 35% on Monday and Tuesday.

Historically, the United States has not been a large buyer of diesel cars as opposed to its European counterparts. In the US, diesel is more expensive than traditional gasoline because of higher federal tax. However, in Europe it is the opposite for the simple reason that European countries have imposed less taxes on diesel than traditional gasoline. Less than 1% of passenger vehicles in the US are diesel engines, as opposed to over 50% in Europe.

European against the US – Google It…

Credit: Linda Henriksen/European Pressphoto Agency
Credit: Linda Henriksen/European Pressphoto Agency

In a matter of weeks in the month of April, the European Commission went after two global giants, Google and Gazprom, both with antitrust charges. Both cases are being headed by Margrethe Vestager, the E.U. commissioner in charge of competition. She has taken over the question of competition from a different angle than her predecessor Joaquin Almunia by tackling the perceived violators with antitrust charges. Both corporations are very important for the European market. Google controls over 92% of the Search Market Share in Europe, while Russia, through in part Gazprom, provides one third of the gas imported in Europe.

In the case of Google, Vestager is accusing the company of using its dominance in the European market with its search engine in order to advance its interests.

Source: Business Insider. 2015.
Source: Business Insider. 2015.

The accusation claims that Google, through its search engine, can artificially skew results favor its own shopping service at the expense of competitors. This is a direct violation of the core principle of the Single Market and fair competition. “Dominant companies” said Vestager “have a responsibility not to abuse their powerful market position by restricting competition either in the market where they are dominant or in neighboring markets.”

The antitrust case against Google, starting in 2008, illustrates the challenges of guaranteeing fair competition in the new age of the internet era. The case against Google was brought before the Commission by British price comparison site, Foundem. As reported by the Financial Times, “almost 20 complainants against Google want the search engine to abide by strict rules that ensure its formula treats its own services — providing results for travel, shopping and maps — no differently from rivals.”

An added dimension to the Google case is the gap between Europeans and Americans’ concerns and respect about privacy and data protection. The broad American surveillance program, revealed by Edward Snowden, created a serious transatlantic crisis. Interestingly enough, the European case against Google is the only one to stick, even though Google faced charges on three continents. In case of wrongdoing, the Commission has the power to levy fines of up to 10 per cent of Google’s global turnover.

Transatlantic Retaliation or Fair Game?

For the US to go after VW is to go after the powerful ‘Made in Germany’ and German engineering savoir-faire. It is about tackling the competition where it hurts. The US have been tough on foreign competitions with cases against KIA and Hyundai, for lying on fuel efficiency, as well as its own manufacturers with Ford, whom had put defeat devises on its minivans in the late 1990s, and against GM for mechanical defaults costing the lives of more than two dozens individuals.

Ultimately, this piece does not try to lower or even reject the accusations against VW, or even defend VW from any ethical wrongdoing. At the opposite, VW has been caught for cheating by putting a product on the market, which could qualify as an environmental crime. If legally, it will be difficult to trace back the environmental consequences of these cars, it has legal grounds for lying to the costumers on car efficiency and cheating on official tests. But aside blaming one company from wrongdoing, it is interesting to try to put a rational economic look into trade retaliation between two global giants, the EU and the US. Both economic powerhouses are competing on promoting their brands on the global car market, with Ford and GM for the US, and Daimler AG, VW group, BMW AG, PSA Peugeot Citroën, and Renault for the Europeans.

downloadThe Google/VW cases should be analyzed altogether, as there are cases of transatlantic competitions and retaliation. From Europe, the Europeans are demonstrating the lack of willingness and incentives by the US government to go after Google, one of the premium American companies, even though it has used its supremacy in order to promote its interests on the American market. Europeans are claiming that they have to do the job in order to guarantee fairness of competition on the internet market. From the US, the Americans are advancing themselves as the ones that have identified the cheating thanks to the EPA and the Californian authorities, and are denouncing the lack of supervision at the European level. The Americans are talking of environmental wrongdoing and systemic failure within the most powerful auto group in the world.

Interestingly enough, when Commissioner Vestager brought the case against Google in April 2015, she then travelled to Washington D.C. meeting her American counterparts. At the time of the meeting, other American companies were backing the European claims of Google’s violations. These American companies allowed “to head off accusations the action was inspired by German-led anti-Americanism.” In Germany, the VW scandal is shaking up the population and the FT reported in a recent piece that “People will ask why the Americans, who don’t really care about the environment, are attacking a German institution.”

Germany has been the European engine for the last decade and the strongest economic pillar of Europe since the collapse of the world market. Germany economic model is directly based on an export driven economy. The automobile sector represents 2.7% of German GDP. Most car sales are made by the VW group, 70% of them are sold outside of Germany, and the group employs nearly 600,000 people around the world, and more than a third of the 775,000 people who work in the auto industry in Germany (these numbers come from CNN money’s website). Attacking the VW group will have some impact on the German economy and ultimately European economy. “If nobody else has done it, the damage would be limited. If it looks like it’s more companies, not just Volkswagen, it would be a major problem for the German car industry, and the German economy overall,” said Theo Vermaelen, a finance professor at INSEAD.

Are VW/Google cases in order to protect the consumers, data privacy, morality, ethics, and competition? It is difficult to believe it. They seem to simply be transatlantic retaliation in an more than ever-competitive global market.

(Copyright 2014 by Politipond. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission).