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).

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.)

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).

Book Review in The International Spectator

9781472409959.PPC_PPC TemplateIn November 2014, Ashgate published my first single author book reflecting on the Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) of the European Union (here is the link to the page). This book is addressed to an audience in search of understanding the reasons behind the periods of breakthroughs and declines, construction and demise of European defense (review a review here). Debating ESDP is an attempt to breakdown a complex project directly intertwined with the integration evolution of the European Union. The CSDP embodies the complexity of the European Union illustrating the perpetual tensions between European and national interests and between federalism and intergovernmentalism (here is a review on federalism).

The current geopolitical realities facing the Union – domestic, regional, international – are serious and demonstrate to a certain extent why a meaningful, coherent and active CSDP is necessary either as a civilian and/or military instrument. The lingering violence and civil war in Syria are at the roots of one of the largest migration crisis since the end of the World War two. The Syrian crisis requires sound diplomatic, foreign policy and defense policy strategies. Each EU Member State has a different reading of the situation and willingness to participate in direct actions on the ground. But the EU and its Member States may simply be waiting on a clear US position by the Obama administration on addressing the issue in Syria. Will it go through a US-Russian pro-Assad alliance? Or will it be a series of highly disorganized international interventions? Debating ESDP offers the instruments in order to understand the lack of unity of the EU on all the different pressing crises, from the Syrian crisis, to the one in Ukraine.

In the latest issue of the excellent Italian journal The International Spectator, a review of Debating European Security and Defense Policy was published and is copied below.

Debating European security and defense policy : understanding the complexity / Maxime H.A. Larivé. – Aldershot ; Burlington : Ashgate, c2014. – xviii, 262 p. – (Global interdisciplinary studies series). – ISBN 978-1-4724-0995-9 ; 978-1-4724-0996-6 (ebk) ; 978-1-4724-0997-3 (ePUB)

With this book, Maxime H.A. Larivé seeks to clarify the debate on the evolution and probable outcomes of the European Union’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP). In order to provide a comprehensive overview of the subject, the author sets out the different positions, both optimistic and sceptical, that characterise the issue, one of the most controversial of the EU integration process.

The book is broken down into chapters that constitute an articulated answer to ten different questions, in the form of a debate. The debate structure allows the author to provide two different answers to each question: one more optimistic and the other less confident in the progress and outcomes of CSDP. Yet, the work also has a central question to which each single query relates. The author proposes a reflection on why European integration in the field of security and defence always seems to have come up against major hurdles to its definitive completion. The book is structured in a functional way that guides the reader in discovering and examining this crucial subject in depth.

The chapters are organized into three different sections, each bringing together questions on the theoretic background, the historical evolution of CSDP, and the actors, structures and processes engaged in its implementation. The result is an overarching analysis that delves into the most crucial aspects of the subject, including the role of the United States and NATO in the promotion (or obstruction) of CSDP over the decades and the implications of the recent financial crisis on the engagement of EU member states in this field.

Despite its dichotomous structure, the general impression that the book gives of CSDP is of a complex mechanism that is still far from functioning in a proper and effective way. The shortfalls of CSDP become apparent in its practical implementation and the reluctance of member states to move ahead, obstructing the attainment of its objectives.

The argumentation in the various chapters is generally supported by the most relevant IR theories (namely neorealism, neoliberalism and social constructivism) and empirical data on CSDP missions and their legal/institutional instruments (such as the European Security Strategy of 2003). The information thus gathered reveals a shift in the evolution of CSDP towards an ever more bureaucratic body unable to act as a coherent political subject in the most crucial IR matters, for example the upheaval in the MENA region caused by the Arab Spring.

One of the book’s most important contributions to the discussion of CSDP and the debate over European Union foreign policy management is the analysis and comparison of the two High Representatives that were in charge of the Union’s foreign affairs and security policy from 1999 to 2013. The figures and policies of Javier Solana and Catherine Ashton are subjected to a detailed analysis that seeks to highlight their respective strengths and weaknesses in the making and implementation of CSDP.

The author does not present the book as an essay on the history and evolution of CSDP (for that purpose Larivé refers to the work of Jolyon Howorth – who also authored the Foreword), but rather as a contribution and tool for all those who want to form a personal opinion on the issue. Moreover, the plain language and schematic structure make the book suitable for students aiming to acquire a critical awareness of the subject. Larivé succeeds in putting readers in an active position, challenging their opinions and knowledge of the subject. (Laura De Marchi)

Politipond wants to thank The International Spectator for authorizing to copy the review, which figures on the Volume 50, Issue 3, p. 135-6 (here is the link to the latest issue and the link to the book review)

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

RIP Cold War – Cuba, Diplomacy and the Miamian Emotional Distress

Kerry

 

Listening on the radio John Kerry’ speech and the sounds of the trumpets and drums accompanying the rise of the American flag in Havana from Miami was an historical moment. It marks the end of the Cold War politics thanks to a sound diplomatic move by the Obama administration under a complex emotional cloud in the mind of some American policy-makers and Cuban-American citizens. Cuba and its authoritarian regime are the reminiscence of the “amber of Cold War politics” that technically ended with the implosion of the Soviet Union in 1991. If the ceremony led by the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, symbolizes in some regards the last days of Cold War politics, it can be perceived from Miami as some sort of treason.

The US Mission in Havana

Kerry’s visit and remarks in the Cuban capital of Havana is historical as it is the first US Secretary of State to visit Cuba since 1945. The ceremony comported of Kerry’s remarks, the rise of the US flag by the three marines that brought it down for a last time in 1961, and a poem read by Cuban-American poet, Richard Blanco. The opening of the diplomatic relations with Cuba should not be framed as an Obama gamble, but rather as a sound diplomatic move by the Executive Branch (read here a previous analysis on the concept of diplomatic victories regarding Cuba and Iran). However, the opening of the US embassy, which officially took place on July 20th, does not mean that the embargo on Cuba has been lifted. Only Congress can decide and vote on the future of the embargo. Even if travel to Cuba has increased since January, travel restrictions for American citizens are still in place. In addition, American and Cuban diplomats are still confined to the capitals in terms of movements. They both require authorization in order to travel outside of the capitals.

So far, the leadership of the US mission in Cuba will be in the hands of long-time diplomat Jeffrey DeLaurentis. The Obama administration is waiting on the nomination of an Ambassador for Cuba. Such nomination will have to go through the confirmation by the Congress and will most likely translate into a deep ideological fight between the Democrats and the Republicans. In addition the nominee could become a hot-potato for both Democrats and Republicans currently seeking for the nomination of their respective parties for the 2016 presidential elections.

The Power of Diplomacy

The diplomatic opening between the US and Cuba is in many instances a textbook case of the diplomatic literature. The traditional definition of diplomacy implies that diplomacy is an act of negotiation processes between states. Diplomacy permits to inform the foreign policy making of states. Such diplomatic opening seeks to normalize US-Cuban relations by advancing American interests despite the ideological foundation of the Castro regime. Based on such assumption that Obama should not interact with the Castro regime because of the authoritarian nature of the Cuban regime, the US should in fact cancel most of its diplomatic missions and rethink some of its most important ones like the ones in Russia (a ‘managed democracy’), China (Communist regime), Pakistan (authoritarian), Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and so forth. For the US not to be diplomatically engaged with such powerful and relevant state would be a serious strategic error.

The diplomatic smoothing of the US-Cuban relations demonstrates a certain strategic rationality by the Obama administration informed by fact rather than political ideologies. “We [the United States and Cuba] are separated by just over 90 miles” said President Obama in his speech in December 2014 announcing the opening of the relations. “But year after year, an ideological and economic barrier hardened between our two countries.” President Obama underlined that the opening of the relations marked a policy turn and “will end an outdated approach that, for decades, has failed to advance our interests.” If the embargo’s primary goal was to contain Cuba leading to the survival of the Castro regime for over five decades, then it has succeeded. However, if the embargo was implemented in order to lead to political change and transition in the long term, then it has failed. August 14th ceremony was “a day for pushing aside old barriers” said John Kerry “and exploring new possibilities.”

The Emotional Embargo

Naturally, some American policy-makers, like two senators and presidential hopefuls, Senators Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas, former Governor of Florida, Jeb Bush, are all in favor of maintaining the embargo. In a speech last week at the Foreign Policy Initiative in New York City, Senator Marco Rubio argued: “President Obama has rewarded the Castro regime for its repressive tactics and persistent, patient opposition to American interests.” He went on denouncing the fact that the Obama administration has offered “legitimacy to a state sponsor of terror.” If all three are seeking for the support of the powerful Cuban leadership in Miami and South Florida, the case of Marco Rubio may be a little different as he in fact illustrates the general feeling of the Cuban-American community of absolute opposition to interact and deal with the Castro regime. In some level Kerry responded in his address to such concern by arguing that “we [the United States] will continue to urge the Cuban Government to fulfill its obligations under the UN and inter-American human rights covenants – obligations shared by the United States and every other country in the Americas.”

If most of the United States does not take heart at the opening with Cuba, for Cuban-Americans, whom are making of a powerful lobby in Washington D.C. in influencing Congress, it is a different narrative. A recent poll produced by Bendixen & Amandi illustrates such argument. 69% of Americans living outside Miami support the normalization of relations with Cuba against 41% in favor living in Miami. In addition, 60% of Americans born in the US support the end of the embargo.

Source: Bendixen&Amandi. 2015.p.9
Source: Bendixen&Amandi. 2015. p.9
image2
Source: Bendixen&Amandi. 2015. p.24

The Cuban file illustrates a generational gap between the elder generations – born before 1980 – and the younger ones (as well called ABC, American-Born Cubans) – born after 1980 – maintaining the status-quo. The concept of ‘emotional embargo’ is very much present in the mind of the Cuban-American community creating an emotional reaction to the policy-change of the Obama administration, which has been perceived as a betrayal from the leadership. The opening of the US embassy in Havana is principally a symbolic move because most of the work remains to be done. Obama is in fact dealing with a complex situation of working with an authoritarian regime on the one hand, and seeking to assist Cuban dissidents and civil society on the other.

A Timely Opening

The diplomatic relations with Cuba is a fascinating foreign policy case for several reasons. First, it holds a strong emotional and human dimension upheld within the mind and heart of many Cuban-American citizens. Some have accepted the situation, others are still,

Photo: AP
Photo: AP

understandingly, opposed to any relations with the Castro regime. Second, diplomatic relations are not about approval of ideologies and political regimes, they are about ‘government to government’ relations. “The establishment of normal diplomatic relations” argued John Kerry “is not something that one government does as a favor to another.” Nixon did it with China as part of the ping-pong diplomacy in the early 1970s and he was certainly not trying to empower Mao Zedong. Third, diplomatic opening is not an illustration of weakness but rather of character. Diplomacy was not designed to maintain relations with ‘friends’ but rather with ‘foes’ and ‘enemies.’ Opening relations with Cuba will allow both countries to turn the page of the Cold War and move on into the 21st century.

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

 

Does the World Hate Russia?

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

A large segment of the academic literature reflects on the power of attraction, known as well as soft power, of the European Union and the United States. But what about Russia? and Putin? What are the global perceptions of Putin’s Russia since the turn of the century? In a recent survey produced by the Pew Research Center, most of the world – aside from China, India, Ghana and Vietnam – has a largely unfavorable opinions of Russia and Putin (see below).

Russia-Image-World Opinion

The concept of soft power is a very theoretical concept famously developed by Joseph Nye in his book ‘Soft Power: The Mean to Succeed in World Politics’ (1998). His argument is directly connected with the earlier work produced by Antonio Gramsci. But Nye was able to take the core of Gramsci’s argument and bring it at the global level in order to talk about foreign policy. Gramsci was mostly concerned about domestic Italian politics and non-change in the 30s. When talking about opinions and perceptions, the concept of soft power is certainly directly connected as it does influence state’s foreign policy. But let’s take a look at the way the transatlantic community see and perceive Russia and Putin.

Transatlantic Perceptions of Russia and Putin

The US-Russian perceptions are very much aligned with change of leadership in the US (from Bush to Obama), policy change (failed 2009 reset policy and the pivot), and the regional crises (Ukraine, Syria) and domestic narratives controlled by Putin. The graph below claims that the opinions have worsened on both sides of the Altantic. The last two years of the Bush administration were a period little more stable between the two superpowers despite the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia. With the election of President Obama and his tentative to soften and deepen the relationship with Russia, the opinions of one another become more favorable in Russia (+13 point of %) than in the US (+6 point of %) though. From 2010 to the invasion of Crimea, the options were pretty stable. The lowest point was in 2014 with the annexation of Crimea and the beginning of the war in Eastern Ukraine.

Russia-Image-US-Russia

Considering the European views and opinions of Russia, the Pew did not produce a graph, but included a set of numbers at the end of the survey. The transatlantic opinion is very homogenous since 2007 (since chart below). Not surprisingly France and the United Kingdom have had the most favorable opinion of Russia, and Poland the lowest in recent years. The US is in the mix of the transatlantic opinion. However, it would have been interesting to see how the Baltic and Nordic EU Member States (Finland, Sweden, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Denmark) and Eastern EU Member States (Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Austria) perceive Russia over the years. The survey failed in providing the data for these states.

Source: Pew Research Center. 2015. p.11
Source: Pew Research Center. 2015. p.11 / Data compiled by Politipond

Vladimir Putin, Global Villain?

A big part of the negative views of Russia in the US and Western Europe is directly connected to the person of Vladimir Putin. The press, academia, and think tank communities (here are some excellent works and examples such as book by Fiona Hill, and a book review of Karen Dawisha’s manuscript) have created some type of admiration/incomprehension around the person of Vladimir Putin. There is a certain fascination about Putin in the US and Western Europe as Vladimir Putin has been framed as either an irrational actor, or a master of realpolitik (read here and here previous analyses). In any case, the US and Americans have never had the highest degree of confidence in Putin.

Even though the impacts of Russian influences on the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine and 2008 war in Georgia were not major, as demonstrated by the data below, in affecting the confidence in Putin, the turning point was the incursion in Crimea and ultimately its annexation. Then with the lingering war in Eastern Ukraine, and even the ‘accidental’ targeting of the civilian Malaysian flight last summer, they have contributed in lowering the confidence and trust in Vladimir Putin. In some ways, the low degree confidence has been materialized in the isolation of Vladimir Putin, whom has been absent (or more accurately kick out of the G-8) of the recent G-7 meeting. In addition, Putin has not demonstrated being serious in trying to solve the Ukrainian crisis, as he was never committed to make the Minsk Protocol II work.

Russia-Image-Putin & US

All these graphs and data provided by the Pew highlight one common trend, most of the world share a common negative perceptions of Russia and his president. In the 21st century, it is quite rare to find such unanimous position on an issue. More seriously these data demonstrate that Putin’s Russia is not concerned about global perceptions. Putin has a vision for Russia and has demonstrated that he can not only remain in power (which he has done since 2000), control the domestic narrative (through playing the nationalist card and  limiting the freedom of press and civil society), and advance Russian interests where and when required.

European and American sanctions are certainly hurting the Russian economy, already weakened by the historically low prices of hydrocarbons, but Putin has been tactical in choosing which issues are important to fight for. For instance Ukraine is, but Iran was not so much as Putin, with his Chinese counterpart, agreed on the Vienna agreement in July. Putin will continue to fascinate and certainly won’t stop in leading Russia where he desires, with or without the approval of global opinions.

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

Cuba and Iran – Obama’s Legacy or Diplomatic Victories?

Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters

President Obama appears to be working on solidifying his legacy in the last years of his second mandate. His two real diplomatic victories are coming at the last mile of his presidency with the closing of the nuclear deal with Iran and the reopening of diplomatic relations with Cuba. Even if the future looks bright for President Obama in starting his last year in office, and especially for his legacy, his administration has been looking for a clear diplomatic identity throughout the reigns of Hillary Clinton and John Kerry at the helm of the US Department of State.

The Cuban-Iranian Files

In a matter of weeks, the US diplomatic body has offered the US two great diplomatic victories starting with the nuclear deal with Iran and the resumption of diplomatic

Photo: U.S. Department of State
Photo: U.S. Department of State

relations between Cuba and the US. In the case of the nuclear deal with Iran, it began in 2003 with a European diplomatic mission, the EU 3+1 (France, the United Kingdom, Germany + the High Representative Javier Solana). In 2003 the US had just waged war against Iraq and was not inclined in participating in the nuclear talks with Tehran (still today the members of the Bush administration are still fighting against a diplomatic deal with Iran as illustrated in the recent piece by John R. Bolton). China, Russia and the US joined the Europeans in 2006 as part of the P5+1 format (5 permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany). In September 2013, the US initiated the first direct talks between Washington and Tehran since 1979. From 2013 to July 2015, both capitals with Paris, London, Moscow and Beijing worked on finding a deal. Even though a large part of the success goes to Kerry and his team, the Europeans, lead by three successive High Representatives with Javier Solana, Catherine Ashton and Federica Mogherini, played a crucial roles throughout the process. At the lowest point of the relations with Iran, the EU was axiomatic in initiating and maintaining the negotiations at least alive. The last two years of negotiations led by John Kerry and the US demonstrated to be essential in the agreement of a deal. Despite missing the original deadline of June, the world powers and Iran finally agreed on the Vienna accord, which now needs to be approved by the US, Iran and other powers.

The re-opening of the relations with Cuba is a second landmark for the Obama administration. If the Iranian file was not certain to translate into an agreement, the

Photo: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
Photo: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

opening of relations with Cuba was only a matter of time. Aside from the powerful Cuban lobby and its two republican spears, Senator and presidential hopeful Marco Rubio and Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, wanting to maintain the 55 year old embargo, the rest of the US does not really feel any emotional connection to this reminiscence of the Cold War (read here an interesting piece by Simon Kuper about the perception of the US policy towards Cuba in Miami). In his December 2014 speech, President Obama announced the change of this “rigid policy” towards Cuba and that “a policy of engagement, we can more effectively stand up for our values and help the Cuban.” On July 20th, the Cuban embassy officially opened in D.C.

The Cuban and Iranian openings share one element in common, Obama’ strategic intelligence of cautious diplomatic negotiations. With both countries, the US has some serious concerns about democratic principles and values, the lack of free press, the oppression by the state of individuals and civil societies, their human rights records and so forth. But both countries are important for the US for several reasons: first, they are important regional players. Iran is central for the stability of the Middle East and finalizing wars in Iraq and Lebanon. Cuba is so close from the US southern borders that a failed state could be disastrous in terms of human and drug trafficking. Then, in order to bring ‘change’ or at least transformation in societies that have been locked since the 50s for Cuba and 79 for Iran, it will take time. The best way to open up the countries and permit from a bottom-up transformation is to bring them back into the community of nations.

Now the chances that both countries become allies of the US in the future remain thin. The Ping Pong Diplomacyopening of the US-China relations initiated by Nixon was central for the current relations between both superpowers. There are certainly not always peaceful, but both countries are today so interdependent and intertwined. However, China is not the type of country that the US dreamed of, an open-democracy. With almost five decades of cooperation between China and the US and a clear reflection on the level and depth of the current tensions between both partners, one could imagine how they could have been without the implementation of the ping-pong diplomacy leading to the visit of Nixon to China in 1972. So let’s apply this model on the Iranian and Cuban case.

Diplomacy in the 21st century

Diplomacy in the early 21st century has become a dirty word in American politics. In a field, that is extremely conservative and principally framed and informed by realists, for Obama to have implemented and closed, almost simultaneously, on two diplomatic deals is a real accomplishment in such. However, Obama’s foreign policy has certainly lacked of a clear identity and direction since 2008. For instance, Obama initiated once arriving in power a shift, or pivot, to Asia requiring American’s partners, namely the Europeans, to increase their power and influence in the neighboring regions. Aside from the French, the Europeans were unwilling (look at the Brits) and unable to perform such missions in the Middle East and Eastern Europe. Obama and the US were brought back in the European sphere of influence quickly considering the crises in Eastern Europe, Middle East and North Africa (Syria, Egypt, Libya, Lebanon), Iraq and Yemen. The US foreign policy appears to be, yes successful, but less influential in shaping world events. Obama could not do what he had envisioned and had to instead settle for what was possible/achievable.

Now let’s be clear on the fact that both diplomatic efforts are directly aligned with American interests. In the case of Iran, bringing back Iran into the community of nations is already a positive step. The Obama administration was right on focusing solely about the issue of nuclear production and avoiding Iran to get the bomb, at least in the next decade, instead of trying to include all types of prerogatives requesting for domestic reforms and change. Sticking to the nuclear deal was the main reason for a successful agreement. Certainly the US will have to reassure its regional allies, namely Israel and Saudi Arabia, which will materialize through new arms deal and commitment of eventual engagement in case of serious tension. In the case of Cuba, the US has nothing to lose and will instead gain more. The US has to position itself considering that European governments have been shifting their positions towards the island. Both diplomatic openings with Cuba and Iran are not an approval of the regimes and their ideologies, but simple diplomatic success on important regional and global security matters.

In the 1960s, France and Israel were extremely closed allies. So close that France provided

Photo: Fritz Cohen / GPO
Photo: Fritz Cohen / GPO

the nuclear bomb to Israel. After a long friendly relations between David Ben-Gurion, Israeli Prime Minister and French President Charles de Gaulle, France started to shift from Israel to Arab nations as the country needed gas and oil. After this shift, Ben-Gurion wrote a letter to Charles de Gaulle, saying that he thought that they were friends. To this, de Gaulle responded that people have friends; nations have interests. By working with the Iranians and with the Castro regime, President Obama is not seeking for friendship, he is simply working on advancing American interests. Obama has certainly advanced American interests on both issues, but what about his legacy?

The concept of legacy needs to taken with some lightness for two reasons. First, legacies are made because of time. Historians are more inclined to validate one’s legacy than other social scientists much more focused on the present. A serious historical reading of Obama’s achievements can only take place in several decades (read here a piece by Robert Dalleck in Politico raising some caution about using the concept of legacy too soon). Second, one’s legacy is usually solidified by his/her successor. A continuation of Obama’s foreign policy, most likely with the election of Hillary Clinton, would ultimately play in favor of Obama in engraving his domestic and international landmarks. Until then, President Obama has sealed two diplomatic victories.

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