Two days in Paris between friends?

FRANCE-US-POLITICS-DIPLOMACY

Donald Trump, President of the US, responded positively weeks ago to the invitation of the newly elected French president, Emmanuel Macron, to assist at the military parade of the 14 of July. French public opinion, as well as experts, were certainly divided concerning such invitation and the presence of the American president at this national celebration. Politipond argues that such invitation was aligned with France-US interests and US-Europe interests regardless of the domestic turmoils of Donald Trump and his cabinet. Furthermore, this official visit highlighted a complex divide between the perceptions of the US, as an ally, and the perceptions of the US through the representation of his president. This subtlety was lost in translation.

Logics and reasons

Macron’s invitation has divided experts, public opinion and the media. Politico Europe probably published the article with the most telling title, Trump and Macron go from mano a mano to tête-à-tête  referencing the evolving tone of the relationship between the two men. If Macron demonstrated toughness during their first meetings at the NATO and G-7 summits in May, their third meeting on July 13-14 seemed much warmer. The claim is that Macron strategized his interaction with his American homologue in order to foster respect. Candidate and then President Trump have been consistent, as he has continuously demonstrated considerable respect to strongmen such as Russian president, Vladimir Putin, Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte, and apparently Emmanuel Macron.

Some have compared Macron and Trump as they share some similitudes. Both won outside the party system; Macron created a movement Onward! a year prior the election and managed to undermine the historical supremacy of the right and left by winning the presidential and legislative elections, while Trump running as a republican candidate certainly does not fit within the conventional ideological lines of the party. Both are framed as non-politicians, as having never ran for office. If it is true for Trump, it is not the fully the case for Macron having evolved in the highest political spheres during the Hollande presidency. But the comparison cannot go furthermore. Macron has a certain understanding of politics and the history of the French Fifth Republic as designed and envisioned by Charles de Gaulle in 1958. Macron is carefully crafting a presidential image, under the Jupiterian president aura, through a demonstration of strengthen as he is oftentimes represented surrounded by French military might. If President Sarkozy was seen as the hyperactive president, François Hollande, the ‘normal’ president, Macron is concerned about displaying and embodying French grandeur.

From Paris, especially the Elysée, the message behind this invitation was to commemorate the entry of the US in 1917 in World War one, which plays against the isolationist narrative emanating from the White House. 1917 symbolizes American engagement in the world, while 2017 may illustrate the beginning of a potential American isolationism. The relationship between the two countries is over 200 years old. The French monarchy played an important role in assisting the patriots against the British crown. Benjamin Franklin played a considerable role starting in 1776 in engaging with France, while serving from 1776 to 1778 in a commission in France in charge of getting French support for American independence. France not only recognized American’s independence but as well concluded an alliance with the 13 colonies in 1778. Skipping one century, in 1917 when the Americans joined the war on the European continent, Colonel C. E. Stanton, General John J. Pershing’s aide, famously declared before the tomb of the Marquis Lafayette, ‘Lafayette, we are here!’ This brief historical anecdotes illustrate the deep ties and historical connections between the two countries. The ties go beyond the leader at the time.

Points of Convergence?

The intervention of the two presidents in front of the press lists the series of issues wherein the US and France have shared interests: the Ukrainian crisis, the war in Syria, counter-terrorism, free and ‘fair’ trade, and the sanctity of national sovereignty. Two additional items were on the agenda of the French president. The first one concerned the COP-21 or Paris agreement entered into force Fall 2016 ratified by 153 nations. President Trump announced early on his presidency that the US would withdraw from the binding deal. European leaders, in particular Chancellor Merkel and President Macron, have been adamant about the necessity to meet the goals set-up in order to address the root causes of climate change.

The second item, an unconfirmed point, may be regarding  potential American support to the initiative of the G5 Sahel bloc – Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad -, planning on launching a new multinational military force led by African powers. France has been militarily involved in the Sahel region since 2013 in order to limit the regional influence of Islamist militant group. This new force will operate in coordination with French troops and MINUSMA, Mali’s struggling U.N. peacekeeping mission. Financially, the European Union has pledged around 50 million euros, while France would contribute around 8 million euros by the end of the year. The US have played a role in providing equipments, information and military support to the French. This military effort aligns with the transatlantic counter-terrorist strategy. However, no comments on this point emerged.

Beyond the 14 of July – Perceptions matter

The Franco-American relationship has not deteriorated, but the French positive perception of the US as embodied by President Trump have collapsed over night. The recent Pew research center’s report on global perceptions illustrates clearly the instant changes of attitudes towards the US at the critical juncture of November 2016, the election of Donald Trump.

Global perceptions-1

The graph tells a compelling story of an immediate decline in the positive views of the US in a period of four months dropping by 15 percentage points (pp). The most damaging decline illustrates the confidence in the US presidency, wherein 74% expressed no confidence in President Trump, as opposed to 23% for President Obama.

Global perceptions2

 

This graph provides a global snapshot of the shifting perceptions between Presidents Obama and Trump. The only two countries with positive perceptions are Israel (+7pp) and Russia (+42pp). The rest of the world tends to share a lack of confidence in the American presidency held by Trump. The most critical are Sweden (-83), the Netherlands (-75pp), Germany (-75pp), South Korea (-71pp), and France (-70pp). Concerning the list of European countries above, President Obama had received strong support and a total admiration by Europeans. And this despite serious crises occurring during his mandate such as the Snowden revelations.

The last graph provides a snapshot over a longer period of time of the level of confidence in Western Europe (UK, Germany, France and Spain) in the American leader in power.Global perceptions3

President Bush never received considerable positive reviews from Europe. But the most damaging moment of his presidency, from European point of view, was the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The UK and Spain joined the coalition of the willing, which was not the case for France and Germany. The confidence in the US grew overnight ensuing the election of President Obama in 2008. The Snowden revelations were the lowest point for President Obama and the EU-US relationship during his two mandates. But the persona of Obama was sufficient in maintaining positive perceptions and confidence in the US in Europe. As the confidence ratings climbed overnight in 2008 by ~+60 pp, they dropped by ~60pp.

Trump or Not, the US Remains Central

As advanced in the report, President Trump is perceived, especially in France and Europe, as arrogant, intolerant and dangerous. The data proves that the US-Franco/Europe relations continues to remain strong despite the occasional disagreements. Regardless of the tenant of the White House, the United States remains the indispensable nation figuring at the heart of world affairs and geopolitics. In the case of Europe, the United States is a major contributor and guarantor of European security, through NATO and parallel transatlantic defense and intelligence ties. President of France positions himself as a pragmatist, as declared during his meeting with Vladimir Putin in June. It is in the interest of both countries to maintain strong political, diplomatic and cultural ties. France has a card to play with at this time considering the fraught relationship between the German and American leaders and the ongoing turmoils in the UK. The key for the French leader is to keep a balance between cooperation and independence.

(Copyright 2017 by Politipond. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission).

Deep Transatlantic Commonalities under Attack?

38992692_401

The transatlantic forces at play are under stress. The domestic forces in the United States (US), the United Kingdom (UK) and most part of Europe need to be reckoned with. The two players of the special relationship are embroiled in domestic turmoil between the Brexit negotiations and major rebuttal of long-standing policies in the US, which could have considerable impacts on the structure of Euro-Atlantic community.

The situation in France seems to be relatively stable since the election of President Macron and his victory in the ensuing legislative elections mid-June. If President Macron has demonstrated being a savvy political tactician, far from the neophyte status he received, he now needs to revitalize the French economy, reform the labor laws, reinvigorate the European agenda and integration process all under the threat of terrorism. But Macron’s election was framed as a blockade against the growth of populist forces in the Euro-Atlantic community. A return of France on the European and global stage certainly plays in favor of transatlantic relations. Now, the next chapter will certainly be the German elections in September.

So far, this year has been critical for transatlantic relations. A series of issues, from climate change to trade and defense, excluding the current Brexit negotiations, allow the world to reflect on the current challenges and potential ensuing consequences of such radical shift by Washington.

First, climate change is a priority considering global reach and impacts of a degrading environment. The US and its European partners are some of the largest emitters of greenhouse gases requiring them to lead the way in addressing environmental challenges. The 2015 Paris deal, formally known as the COP-21, sets out a global action place by limiting global warming to below 2°C and is the first legally binding climate deal. The agreement came into force on 4 November 2016 with at least 55 countries ratifying it. But on 1 June 2016, President Trump announced that the US would withdrawal from the agreement. In his address in the Rose Garden, he claimed that ‘the Paris Climate Accord is simply the latest example of Washington entering into an agreement that disadvantages the United States to the exclusive benefit of other countries.” The global reaction and especially from European counterparts was negative and critical. The issue of climate change will be back on the table for upcoming G-20 meeting.

Second, tree-trade has become a dirty word. In the European context, free and regulated trade among the 28 member states has permitted an unprecedented growth first contributing to the growth the 28 national economies. The world led by the US since the end of World War two was very much regulated around the notion that free-trade among states advantaged the US and the world, even though it certainly creates winners and losers. Aside from economic arguments, trade is one element of a state’s foreign policy arsenal, especially for an economic power like the US. The unplugging of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) with 12 pacific nations, which never counted China, in the very early days of the Trump administration is playing in favor of Beijing. By this decision, the US is playing in the hands of China. In a recent op-ed, Thomas Friedman wrote that “Beijing is now quietly encouraging everyone in the neighborhood to join the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, China’s free-trade competitor to TPP, which, unlike TPP, lacks environmental or labor standards; China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank; and its One Belt, One Road development project.” With regards to Europe, the future of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) is uncertain.

The last aspect to be highlighted is the question of defense and security. Historically the pillar of this realm at the transatlantic level has been the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Again, the narratives on the campaign trail were that NATO was an ‘obsolete’ organization costing money to American taxpayers to finance the security and defense of free-riding European nations. Such narrative has remained in the US since Trump’s election. President Trump’s address at the NATO Summit in May, which was supposed to confirm his support and clarify his views of the alliance, failed to address the concerns of his European counterparts. The questions of free-riding and underspending by Europeans is not new and have been a frustration for past administrations. For instance, Secretary Gates’ comments in 2011 were deeply critical of the lack of political and financial willingness by his European partners.

These issues are central considering a series of factors. First, historically, the members of the Euro-Atlantic community, have agreed on shared values, institutions and norms making the liberal world order. A rebuttal of the Paris deal, the TPP (free-trade overall) and the defense alliance sends a message to the world that American longstanding commitment to global agreements is not reliable any longer. Second, the short-termism and transactional view of the foreign affairs demonstrate a total lack of overall strategy. The current administration seems to hide this lacuna by hiding behind the word of isolationism, which is not the case. Third, the Europeans, especially the Mercron couple (Merkel-Macron) between Berlin and Paris, ought to continue engaging Washington and pushing ahead long-established agenda and common policies. The responses in the US by major states, cities, universities and the public at large, regarding the withdrawal by the Trump administration from the Paris deal, illustrate deep transatlantic commonalities that need to be protected and deepened regardless of the rhetorics.

(Copyright 2017 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).

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).

Juncker’s Trinity – Honesty, Unity and Solidarity

Source: The Parliament Magazine
Source: The Parliament Magazine

Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, made his first State of the Union before the European Parliament in Strasburg (read his address here). As he recalled in the early part of his address, the State of the Union is an important institutional exercise solidifying the relationship between the Commission and Parliament. In the State of the Union, the President addresses the overview of the past year, and identifies the priorities for the coming year. The title of his address is State of the Union 2015: Time for Honesty, Unity and Solidarity. Juncker wants to take a hard look at the way the EU and Europeans behave, which has been quite disastrous these last years, and the types of solutions that could be implemented in order to solve the many crises facing the Union.

The tone of his address was quite dark and accusative. At several occasions, Juncker was very critical, and pretty much started his address by saying that “our European Union is not in a good state.” In order to change the current path, Juncker urged to re-find a common European ground and solidarity among the 28 nations.

Source: European Commission. 2015
Source: European Commission. 2015

Five key priorities were identified by President Juncker: the refugee crisis; the euro area and the Greek future; the Brexit; the instability of Ukraine; and, climate change. They can be grouped into three categories: internal/institutional, regional and global.

Internal/Institutional Priorities

The first priority for the Europe as a whole is finding solutions for the refugee crisis. Juncker spent a considerable amount of time talking about the crisis and the solutions that can be implemented. Before talking cooperation and coordination, Juncker underlined the shared historical heritage of Europeans and the fact that migrations caused by political persecutions and oppressions have occurred at many occasions on the European continent. Juncker implied that forgetting our European past, or simply selecting moments of history, is not an acceptable approach. Juncker addressed the question of numbers of asylum seekers and correctly put it in perspective saying that they simply represents 0.11% of the overall EU population of 500 millions, when they are representing 25% of the Lebanese population (read

Source: New York Times
Source: New York Times

a previous piece on the topic here).

Juncker underlined that the Commission has been advocating for more integration on immigration policies in order to create a Common European Asylum System. If Juncker reminded the positive actions implemented by the EU like Frontex, foreign aid to Syria and so forth, he said that “Where Europe has clearly under-delivered, is on common solidarity with regard to the refugees who have arrived on our territory.”

In dealing with rising numbers of refugees arriving in Italy, Greece and Hungary, the Commission is pushing for the adoption by the EU meeting of ministers of September 14th of the “Commission proposals on the emergency relocation of altogether 160,000 refugees.”

The last sentences of his part on the refugee crisis was quite a powerful statement as it clearly illustrates Juncker’s vision of what Europe is and should be:

I do not want to create any illusions that the refugee crisis will be over any time soon. It will not. But pushing back boats from piers, setting fire to refugee camps, or turning a blind eye to poor and helpless people: that is not Europe.

Europe is the baker in Kos who gives away his bread to hungry and weary souls. Europe is the students in Munich and in Passau who bring clothes for the new arrivals at the train station. Europe is the policeman in Austria who welcomes exhausted refugees upon crossing the border. This is the Europe I want to live in.

The crisis is stark and the journey is still long. I am counting on you, in this House, and on all Member States to show European courage going forward, in line with our common values and our history.

Source: Politico. 2015
Source: Politico. 2015

 

The second priority concerns the Euro area, Greece and the European social model. The third priority consists in maintaining the unity of the Union by keeping Britain inside the EU. Juncker has always been clear on the fact that the UK ought to remain a core member of the Union.

Regional Priority – Ukraine

The fourth priority identified by Juncker deals directly with the stability of the European continent, and especially with the lingering military and political crises in Ukraine. Juncker’s view on the Ukrainian crisis is that the EU “will need more Europe and more Union in our foreign policy.” Juncker underlined that the 28 nations must show more unity in confronting Russia and demonstrating to Russia that it will have to pay a high cost in maintaining the regional instabilities in Eastern Ukraine. Interestingly enough, Juncker did not mention Crimea and its annexation by Russia.

Global Priority – Climate Change

In December, Paris will host the COP-21 meeting, which Europeans would like to be the meeting that brought global unity and commitment to addressing climate change. “Europe’s priority,” underlined Juncker “is to adopt an ambitious, robust and binding global climate deal.” The ultimate objective for the Europeans is quite grandiose as they hope to achieve the creation of an “international regime to efficiently combat climate change.” The creation of an international regime would be a fantastic first step, but having a regime without clear powers, independent enforcement mechanisms, and a fund would be meaningless. Then, each signatory of the regime will have to ratify it back home. If Europe can offer credible influence, it is uncertain that the United States, in period of presidential campaign until November 2016, would ratify it.

Juncker’s approach, which is in fact a Commission’s approach, to addressing the problem of climate change is a market-oriented strategy based on two aspects. The first one is the EU Emissions Trading System, which consists in trading quotas of emissions, and the second one is the development of the Energy Union, which is as well focused on innovations and on the interconnection with the markets.

Despite Being Political, the State of the Union Falls Short

Jean-Claude Juncker’s address is interesting as he, early on, underlined his legitimacy as President of the Commission as he was appointed directly after the elections of the European Parliament. Certainly, the President of the Commission is not directly elected by the European citizens, but for the first time ever the different candidates for his posts were semi-campaigning. Ultimately, he claimed that he has had “the opportunity to be a more

 Photo: REUTERS Italian Member of the European Parliament Gianluca Buonanno (L) wears a mask depicting German Chancellor Angela Merkel
Photo: REUTERS Italian Member of the European Parliament Gianluca Buonanno (L) wears a mask depicting German Chancellor Angela Merkel

political President” and he told the Parliament that he “wanted to lead a political Commission. A very political Commission.”

The Commission is the executive body of the European Union as its role is to enforce and advance the interests of the Union. In short, the Commission is the guardian of the Treaties. Even though President Juncker appears to be frustrated about the direction of the EU, the lack of solidarity and unity among the Member States, his first State of the Union falls short for several reasons (read here a piece by Tim King of Politico arguing that Juncker lacked in persuasive explanation):

First, the address is too complex and tends to go back to the legal texts at too many occasions in order to validate and justify the power and legitimacy of the Commission. The address could have been much shorter and direct without all these legal justification. It is not certain that Juncker needed to offer some lecturing about the institutional design and functioning of the EU. In addition, this quest by Juncker for legitimacy and perpetual justification of his power is quite interesting and may underline some complex tensions at the European level.

Second, if Juncker’s plan on reforming the asylum model in Europe is well thought out, the solutions for Greece are not present at all. The part on the Greek crisis reinforces the sentiment that the EU is unable to merge the gap between a common currency and national fiscal policies and most importantly find a solution in re-launching the European economic engine.

Last but not least, if the five issues identified are right on the approach to solving them is the traditional one coming from the Commission and can be summed up by “more Europe.” This motto advanced the Commission of “more Europe” in order to solve all internal, regional and global problems is for many the cause of the disconnect between Brussels and the European nations. In his first address, Juncker failed in connecting with European citizens.

To end on a positive note, one of the most meaningful statements made by Juncker, which was lost in the length of text, appears in the conclusion. He said “While I am a strong defender of the Community method in normal times, I am not a purist in crisis times – I do not mind how we cope with a crisis, be it by intergovernmental solutions or community-led processes. As long as we find a solution and get things done in the interest of Europe’s citizens.” Such statement shows the true colors, meaning political philosophy, of Juncker and the desire to find the most appropriate solutions to solving serious crises. This should have been the core argument of his address.

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

SOTU – A US Foreign Policy à la carte

Photo by Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images
Photo by Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Prior the 2015 edition of the State of the Union (SOTU), the Republican party was presenting it as the ‘final act’ of the Obama presidency. But with the rapidity of the world events, the domestic debate and so forth, it could be, according to David Brooks, in fact the ‘beginning of the final act.’ As demonstrated throughout his address, he talked about the values at stakes rather than laying out a list of proposals – as in previous SOTU -.

President Obama opened his speech by drawing a dark picture about the turn of the new century caused by terrorism and the financial crisis. But he quickly underlined how the American economic engine is as good as once was in the 1990s with recent growth and a shrinking deficit, that unemployment levels are as low as prior the crisis, and America is energy independent. The tone of the speech was very celebratory in some ways as he directly challenged a divided Republican party. The 2015 SOTU was the moment of turn around, a legacy speech in some ways.

The bulk of his foreign policy section came around the end of his address and consisted in reaffirming America’s commitment to ‘smart power,’ meaning a combination of hard power with ‘strong diplomacy’ – for whatever it means -. According to Obama, the question is not about whether the US acts in the world, but how. In order to illustrate his foreign policy vision, he selected three themes:

  • first, the fight against terrorism. Obama underscored that the US won’t be going to war like it did in Afghanistan and Iraq (as a side note, President Obama highlighted the end of the combat mission in Afghanistan without getting into great details). But instead the US will lead coalitions on case by case basis. Nevertheless, Obama re-stated his call to Congress to authorize the use of force against ISIL. The Congress was very quiet on responding to his call. Aside from this comment, ISIL was not a large part of the speech and it does not appear that the US will be widening its military efforts in the Middle East. Europeans may have to jump in (read here an analysis on the question).
  • second, President Obama took the example of Ukraine, Cuba, and Iran in order to demonstrate American leadership in leading the world. In the case of Ukraine, he claimed that the US is “upholding the principle that bigger nations can’t bully the small.” However, the example of the US standing against Russia in protecting Ukraine seems ill-advised. Russia is still very active in Eastern Ukraine and the war is still going on. The sanctions adopted by the EU and the US may need more meat in order to change radically Russian foreign policy. Certainly Russian economy is showing serious signs of weaknesses, but will it change the way Putin frames Russian national interests and the direction in Russia’s foreign policy? So the link between Western sanctions affecting the Russian economy does not imply that Putin will change his foreign policy anytime soon.
  • third, President Obama addressed several topics affecting American national security such as cyber-security and cyber-threats; public health with the example of Ebola; and climate change. Among this laundry list of topics, President Obama addressed the question of climate change in greater depth. Obama re-called that 2014 was the warmest year on the planet and rejected the arguments raised by climate change deniers in Congress. Even the Pentagon, in an earlier report, wrote that climate change poses a direct threat to national security. The Pentagon wrote that “In our defense strategy, we refer to climate change as a ‘threat multiplier’ because it has the potential to exacerbate many of the challenges we are dealing with today – from infectious disease to terrorism. We are already beginning to see some of these impacts.” However, he did not include a statement calling the Legislature to prepare and think about American strategy prior the December Paris Summit on Climate Change.

Ultimately, the speech was stronger on domestic policies than on foreign policies. Once again, there is a lack of overarching foreign policy strategy aside from the perpetual mention of smart power. The problem is that smart power, like hard and/or soft power, is an instrument of foreign policy not a strategy. One cannot base a foreign policy on ‘smart power’ (even Hillary Clinton underscored such discrepancy). The foreign policy section appeared more like a list of issues and crises without a clear strategic thinking. Such weakness provides a confirmation to the beliefs and perceptions by a majority of Americans that Obama is ‘not tough enough’ on foreign policy. As illustrated in the chart below, his numbers have declined. In a matter of six years, more than 50% of Americans feels that Obama is not tough enough. A lack of direction in Obama’s foreign policy may have contributed to the belief that Obama has not been tough enough in office.

Source: Pew Research. 2014.
Source: Pew Research. 2014.

Since taking office, President Obama was dealing a tough domestic, economic and fiscal situation. But the world has not stopped spinning and the US has been over the last six years in search of a clear strategy going from the pivot to Asia, to retrenchment, to leading to behind, now to strong diplomacy. The feeling from the 2015 edition of the SOTU is that the Obama administration will be dealing with foreign policy on case by case basis. Forget about getting a menu, it will be à la carte from now on.

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