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)

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: [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.


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).

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



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
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).


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).

Greece – Failure of Leadership with Global Consequences

Photo: EPA
Photo: EPA

“Le drame grec n’est pas et ne sera pas seulement national : il a et il aura des effets sur l’ensemble de l’Europe, dont la Grèce fait partie intégrante par son histoire et sa géographie” – Jacques Delors, Pascal Lamy et Antonio Vitorino in Le Monde of July 4th.

Greece and the European Union have their backs against the wall. Greece faces two deadlines, June 30th repayment of €1.6bn to the International Monetary Fund (which remains unpaid until the results of the referendum), and the July 20th of €3.5bn to the European Central Bank (ECB). Even if Greece were to repay the first bill, it would be unable to do so on July 20th.

So far, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and his finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, feel that the terms of the new bailouts are too destructive and would require more cuts on Greek social programs that they have asked Greek citizens to vote on their futures (the referendum is currently taking place in Greece). Without an extension of his first debt, Greece has no chance of receiving the remaining of the credit of €7.2 billion and would ultimately default. So, how has a crisis starting in October 2009 been so poorly managed and is putting at risk the stability of Europe and global markets?

A Call for Democracy?

On the night of Saturday  27th, Prime Minister Tsipras announced on television, at the great surprise of his European counterparts, that he would be holding a referendum on July 5th asking the Greek citizens to decide on the future of Greece, either by accepting the deal and the ensuing austerity measures, or by rejecting the deal and ultimately having to default. In order to hold the referendum, Tsipras asked his creditors to postpone the June 30th deadline by five days, which has been rejected. For instance, the leader of the Eurogroup of Eurozone finance ministers, Jeroen Dijsselbloem, said at a news conference that “The Greek government has broken off the process. However regrettable, the program will expire on Tuesday night.”

International public opinions have been deeply divided when reflecting on Tsipras’ call. On the one hand, some have argued that Tsipras is gambling with the future of Greece and ultimately the Eurozone and the stability of global market. While others have talked of a smart political move by Tsipras. On the question of the referendum, Prime Minister Tsipras has already expressed that he will be campaigning for a ‘no’ vote (read here Varoufakis’ recommendation for a no vote). Two of the top American economists, Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman, announced in separate editorials that they would vote ‘No’ at the referendum. Joseph Stiglitz said clearly in his op-ed that the tension between Greece and its creditors (troika) is about power and democracy rather than economics. Yet, many media outlets have been very critical towards Tsipras as one can see the recent cartoon published by the Economist:

The Economist - July 4th
The Economist – July 4th

Merkel & Hollande, European Leaders? Think again…

The current crisis is more of a political failure than an economic/monetary one. It is the failure of Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and François Hollande of France to recognize that saving Greece is more important than letting a Eurozone member


defaulting on its payments and obligations. Chancellor Merkel has been portrayed as the leader of Europe, which seems to be a wrong assessment in retrospective. A leader is not an individual working on protecting solely the interest of his/her country, but in the interest of the system as whole. In addition, one needs to recognize that Merkel rejected a last minute call by Tsipras to redefine the terms of the agreement. She reiterated that there was no point in holding talks with Greece before the July 5th referendum. Her finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, was more critical, saying, “Greece is in a difficult situation, but purely because of the behaviour of the Greek government … Seeking the blame outside Greece might be helpful in Greece, but it has nothing to do with reality.” As hard it may be to justify another rescue of Greece to her electorate, Angela Merkel needs to recognize that a Greek default would endanger Germany, the Eurozone, the EU and global financial markets as a whole.

In the case of François Hollande, he has been too quiet and distant on the question of the Greek default. François Hollande, a socialist by political affiliation, missed a strategic moment in establishing himself as the axiom between the members of the South with the ones of the North. François Hollande’s gamble has been to bandwagon with Germany rather than positioning himself with a clear strategy and eventually offering alternative options in favor of Southern members. Hollande’s gamble is not only failing, but he has become irrelevant on the Greek dossier (not what French finance minister, Michel Sapin, would claim). Such strategic absence by France is regrettable, as the country economic base is so fragile that a Greek default would certainly put a halt to the more than timid recovery if one considers the degree of involvement of French banks in the Greek economy. It is difficult to imagine France striving through another Eurozone crisis with GDP growth rate of 0.6% and an unemployment level at 10.5%.

Global Earthquake, and American Powerlessness

A Greek default would have serious global consequences causing contagion throughout the world. Since Monday morning, global stock markets have been declining and are waiting on the eventual repercussions of a Greek default as many unpredictable consequences could occur considering the complex interconnection of world financial system.

The United States has been following the European drama very closely and powerlessly from the other side of the pond. Even though the US economy is slowly picking up, it has remained very timid with strong quarters and weaker ones. President Obama has been in directly contact (and through his Jack Lew, his Secretary of Treasury) with his European counterparts, Ms. Merkel and M. Hollande, expressing his concerns about the eventual consequences on the global finance and calling for a resolution. Speaking at a news conference, the Chairman of the Federal Reserve, Janet Yellen, said that “To the extent that there are impacts on the euro-area economy or on global financial markets, there would undoubtedly be spillovers to the United States that would affect our outlook as well.” The US have been very worried about the course of actions taken by the Europeans and has urged Greece and the Europeans to reach a deal in order to avoid a default.

A second reality, beside economics, is pure geopolitics and security. With a Greek default, the country would become unable to secure its borders, a real problem with the current migration crisis in the Mediterranean – wherein the EU and its Member States are failing to address – (read previous analyses here and here). Even if most of the coverage has focused on Italy, Greece is the second entry point to Europe by the sea and land. The second geopolitical reality is the rapprochement of Athens with Moscow. This rapprochement is taking place at a time


wherein the EU is extending its economic sanctions against Russia (so much for European unity vis-à-vis Russia). Greece and Russia are working on an deepening energy and agricultural ties. “Russia wants to build a pipeline through the Balkans, and Greece wants it, too” said Dimitris Vitsas, a ruling leftist Syriza party lawmaker, “We can develop a common enterprise not only in this, but for agricultural products and so on.” From Moscow’ standpoint, the gas deal with Athens is an important entrypoint into European politics. Moscow has been financing European radical parties and worked on transforming its image from within (read here a previous analysis on Russia in Europe).

Geopolitics highly matter in the Greek dossier and seem to have been sidelined for obvious economical and financial realities. With or without a Greek collapse, geopolitics will remain and affect the stability of Europe.

A New Meaning of Europe?

The European project is based on core principles, norms and values: solidarity, peace, democracy and respect. At several occasions, German Chancellor Angela Merkel used the phrase, “If the euro fails, Europe fails,” in order to talk about the need to save Greece. With the Greek fiasco, it seems that each normative dimension has been violated by all European parties. The concept of European solidarity is not embedded in punishing but assistance.

Greece is so indebted with a debt representing 183.2% of the GDP with an unemployment rate above 25% that its future can only be with a serious assistance by its European counterparts. Even if Greek debt is abysmal, Greece’s economy only represents 2% of the eurozone. In order to make Greece stable and functional, it will need to go through serious structural reforms and clean up the high level of corruption. Certainly some Eastern, Central and Baltic Member States, like Lithuania and Bulgaria, feel that Greece should implement the necessary reforms as the quality of life in Greece, especially the level of pensions in Greece, are much higher than in poorer EU Member States. But this could be adjusted once Greece is under European protection. Can these take place under additional austerity measures?

Last but not least, the European political narratives have evolved these last five years. Back in 2009, the concept of Grexit was not an option, just a concept describing an unthinkable future (read an interview on the topic here). Today, a Grexit appears as an option and eventually a reality. On the verge of a default, it seems that the EU project may be endangered because of lack of flexibility and lack of understanding of its heritage. Letting Greece default would be a failure of leadership and failure of strategic thinking.

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



Mr. Renzi Goes to Washington

Photo by Olivier Douliery/UPI
Photo by Olivier Douliery/UPI

A year ago, President Obama and Matteo Renzi were meeting in Rome. On Friday, April 17, Matteo Renzi, Italian Prime Minister, was in Washington D.C. meeting President Obama in his first trip to the United States as the head of the Italian government. In the statement delivered by the White House’s Press Secretary on March 17 announcing the visit a series of issues were highlighted such as “support for Ukraine and continued U.S.-EU unity on pressuring Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine to adhere to the Minsk agreements; the situation in Libya; and the need for the international community to continue efforts to counter ISIL and other extremists throughout the Middle East.” Even though the issues on the table are the same ones discussed last year in Rome, Matteo Renzi came to D.C. with a very different aura considering the results already obtained thanks to his policies.

Matteo Renzi – Changing Italy’s Future

Matteo Renzi came to D.C. at the right time considering the solidification of his power at home and in Europe. Renzi has worked on rebuilding domestic trust and in reestablishing Italy as a core and central country of the European Union. The years under Silvio Berlusconi contributed to the decline of Italy from what used to be an axiomatic EU Member State. So far it seems that Matteo Renzi is succeeding on both fronts. Domestically, he has established himself as the man of the situation by ending years of political instabilities. Politically, Forza Italia, right wing political party, has been kept under control after the disastrous years under Silvio Berlusconi. Economically and fiscally, yes the Italian overall debt remains massive representing 126% of the GDP. But on the bright side, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) project that the Italian economic outlook should be promising for 2015 with an expected growth of 0.6%. Even though the growth seems at homeopathic dosage, it would be the first time since mid-2011 that Italy would see some types of economic growth. Italy has been in recession for over three years now. All the cuts possible won’t be enough in order to lower the overall debt without growth; Italy must re-familiarized itself with economic growth.

At the European level, Italy is becoming relevant and an active member once again. The federicamogherinimatteorenzigovernmentyf0fx-kziyglmost obvious example was the appointment of Federica Mogherini at the helm of European foreign affairs. In less than a year, she has already demonstrated her commitment to her mission and has represented the EU where needed. Her short tenure at the EEAS has offered the EU and its Member States a new dynamism and presence on the regional and international platforms (read here a previous analysis on Mogherini’s 100 days). However, Matteo Renzi seems to be too close, for many Europeans and Americans, to Russia. The relationship between Italy and Russia is certainly long, but for many it seems that Renzi needs to be stronger in his opposition to Putin’s actions in Europe.

For both reasons, Mr. Renzi went to Washington with a certain aura and credibility. The economic engine is on and Italy matters once again in Europe.

Solving Libya and Ukraine

Ahead of this high level meeting at the White House, two issues are extremely important for the transatlantic community: Libya and Ukraine. From Rome, the crises in Libya and Ukraine are affecting directly the national security of Italy as well as the EU as a whole, while from Washington, President Obama would rather lead from behind with the help of core Atlantic partners, Italy for instance, than having to be directly involved on the ground. For one it is about security and survival, for the other it is about influence.

The crisis in Libya is serious for two reasons. Since the fall of the Qaddafi regime in 2011, led by an euro-atlantic coalition, the country has spiraled into a civil war. The civil war has created a power vacuum in the middle of North Africa offering the exit point for many Northern and Central Africans leaving their home countries because of political violence, war, dire economic conditions, terrorism with the hope to reach the European continent for a better life. The point of exit of Africa is Libya. Libya has become the transit country for most of illegal migration. In addition to unchecked migration, the civil war and lack of government have offered a new ground to the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL). ISIL has emerged in the country directly threatening neighboring countries, which includes Europe.

In the case of Ukraine, President Obama wants to assure the guarantee of unity of Europe


in facing Russia. Crimea seems to belong to Russia and Ukraine should accept it, now the fights in Eastern Ukraine need to be solved. The Minsk agreement of February 2015 for a cease-fire was not enough, and the Euro-Atlantic community needs to be on the same page when addressing Russia. The economic sanctions implemented last summer by the EU are due to expire in late July 2015. So far there is no unity in the EU to extend them. A year ago, Italy was called on for trying to block the implementation of the economic sanctions against Russia. One reason is that Italy is the second largest trading partner with Russia after Germany. Russia has been strongly lobbying Italy in softening the sanctions against them. President Obama may want to avoid a situation wherein Italy limits the reach of the sanctions against Moscow.

In a matter of a year, Matteo Renzi seems to have delivered on many of his domestic promises and came with a certain aura to Washington. Matteo Renzi was hoping for some financial assistance in dealing with Libya (why not a NATO mission?) and in toughening his voice against Russia. Additionally, President Obama might have asked for some Italian support in order to try to finalize the massive T-TIP, which is lingering and creating strong discords in Europe. For what has been a very opaque meeting, due to the superficiality of Obama and Renzi’s comments (read here the joint press conference), Obama and Renzi wanted to solidify the ties and bring Italy back on the center stage.

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

Little Big Power – France’ Strategic Objectives


In a recent intervention before the press, Jean-Yves le Drian, French Minister of Defense, laid out the revised strategic and defense goals for France for 2015. This plan was supposed to be exposed early January, but the terrorist attacks against Charlie Hebdo changed the policy and ultimately the strategic agenda of France. In his introduction the Minister claimed that “never, in its recent history, France has known such a deep connection between the direct threats on its homeland and the ones multiplying outside of its borders.” Despite its economic difficulties, France has demonstrated this last decade its commitment to assuring the security of its territory and interests of the Nation, as well as projecting its military power in its perceived sphere of influence.

Threats and Challenges to France and Strategic Reactions

In his intervention, Jean-Yves le Drian underscored the threat represented by the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) and Boko Haram. In the case of ISIL, it menace can be felt in Syria, Iraq and Libya and in Western homelands. Territories under control of terrorist networks form an ‘arc’ circling Europe. Their presence can be felt on the European continent considering their degree of attractivity for many European citizens as illustrated by the terrorist attacks conducted in France and Denmark.

In addition to the real menace of radical islamic terrorist networks, the war in Ukraine on463833570 the European continent completes the circle around Europe. War on the European continent has fostered serious fears in most European capitals. “War in Europe,” argued le Drian, “it is what everyone of us must fear when borders are being changed and when international law is being trampled.”

In order to address the challenges and threats confronting France and its interests, France has defined its national security and defense framework in the famous Livre Blanc. In the last decade, France saw the production of two Livres Blancs, one in 2008 under President Sarkozy and recently in 2013 under President Hollande. Historically, France has produced four Livres Blancs. The first one in 1972 looked at the strategic independence of France offered by the possession of its nuclear capabilities. The second one in 1994 sought to address the radical shifting regional and global order ensuing the collapse of the Soviet Union. The third one, in 2008, incorporates the lessons learned after 2001, the new world order, and the new threats facing the Nation.

The last one, produced in 2013, incorporates the new realities facing France such as the economic crisis and the financial constraints, the Arab Spring and the rising instabilities in European neighborhoods, the rise of new powers especially in Asia and cyberthreats. In this 160-page strategic document produced soon after the election of François Hollande, French defense experts laid out three strategic lines of conduct: protection, deterrence, and intervention.

French Foreign Hyper-Activity

Historically, France has always been an independent global actor. Its global rank ensuing World War two was boosted by General de Gaulle developing a maximalist and exceptionalist dimensions to France’s foreign and defense policies. France has been for several decades a second-rank superpower with its large standing army, nuclear weapons, and active military-industrial complex. France has been a reliable US partner even though it remained independent from NATO until 2009 when it rejoined NATO’s integrated military command structure.

In order to compete with NATO, France was favorable to the creation of an independent European military force. The most serious and effective decision took place in 1998 in Saint-Malo during a bilateral agreement with British Prime Minister Tony Blair. This agreement established the European Security and Defense Policy, becoming the Common Security and Defense Policy with the 2009 Treaty of Lisbon. France has been an active participant of CSDP missions, civilian and military combined, when it favored its national interests and usually when CSDP missions were deployed in its sphere of influence, Africa and the Middle East.

Since the turn of the century, France has stood against the US because of the 2003 war in Iraq and was vocal against the neo-conservative agenda of the Bush administration. The relations with the US changed with the arrival to power of President Obama in 2008, even though some warming up occurred in the last years of President Bush. In parallel of Obama’s arrival, the world and especially the European neighborhoods have developed new dynamics. Once elected in 2008, President Obama wanted to disengage the US from its Bushian wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and pivot to Asia. The US pivot was engaged leaving a certain power vacuum in the Mediterranean region and the Middle East. During the pivot, the Arab world faced a radical and quick transition caused by the Arab Spring, which no Western leaders saw coming and knew how to handle.

To some extent, France under the presidency of M. Sarkozy took the lead and initiated a period of hyper-activity starting with the 2011 mission against Libya sanctioned by the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973 (2011) implementing a no-fly zone over Libya. This UNSCR was pushed to the limits by Western actors, France, Britain and the US, leading to the fall of the Gaddafi regime. Since the war in Libya, France is currently fighting battles on three exterior fronts and one interior front:

  • foreign theaters: in Central African Republic (CAR) with Operation Sangaris; in the Sahel region counting Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad under Operation Barkhane; in Mali with Operation Serval; and in Iraq with Operation Chammal fighting ISIL.
  • domestic theater: France has launched Operation Sentinelle in January 2015 until a scheduled review in June counting 10,000 soldiers to protect France’s homeland – public and religious sites – against possible attacks.
Operation Barkhane - Source: France24
Operation Barkhane – Source: France24

 Reactualization of the 2015 Objectives

In his speech, Jean-Yves le Drian announced five broad orientations for 2015. These orientations are made in accordance with the Military Programming Law (la loi de programmation militaire) from 2014-2019. Due to the terrorist attacks of January 2015, the Ministry of Defense is seeking to addressing some adjustments in the Military Programming Law (MPL), which holds two dispositions: first, material provisions such finance, equipments and budgets; second, normative provisions.

The new orientations for 2015 are as follow:

  1. review of the military effectives;
  2. reforming some of the priorities established in 2013 by developing special forces, a new cyber strategy, increasing the domain of intelligence (human and material capabilities);
  3. military-industrial complex, addressing some capabilities shortfalls of the French army (in drones, helicopters, arial transportation), while increasing the sale of French military equipments, namely the Rafale;
  4. financial resources for the MPL by guaranteeing the funding to the Ministry of Defense;
  5. a new relationship between the Army and the Nation.

A Call for More Europe

During the two-day informal Defense ministers meeting in Riga in February 2015, Jean-Yves le Drian underlined the importance for EU Member States to increase their commitments and support towards European security and defense. A month later, he continued his call for more European participation to the protection of Europe. In his march intervention, he said “we are 28 Member States in the EU, but how many are we to French-Security_reutersreally participate in the resolution of crises in our neighborhood?” He claimed that the distribution of labor is not evenly distributed, even though the threats directly threaten the EU and its 28 Member States as a whole. The attacks in Paris, Copenhagen and Tunis and the Russian expansionist war in Eastern Europe are a clear illustration.

The Defense Minister underlined the fact that European financial contributions to NATO (fixed at 2% of the GDP) are not met by most European members and in the case of the EU, the financial burden on common operations (under the CSDP, read here an article on the financing of CSDP missions) is not evenly distributed. “When France fight in the Sahel, Levant,” he said “she intervenes for the benefits of the security of all Europeans.”

Between the Le Drian’s comments, Juncker’s proposal for a EU army, and Solana’s call for a European Defense Union (EDU), the question of the Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) is an important one of the many current European agendas. The global and regional realities with the ‘arc of fire’ all around the EU has caused great concerns to all EU-28. If Southern Members are more inclined to see the instabilities in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) as a direct threat to their homelands, Eastern Members are feeling the heat from the war led by Russia on the Eastern front, and all Member States are seeing the rise of radical islamic terrorist activities domestically. The EU and the EU-28 are confronting serious external and internal threats requiring more cooperation and ultimately deeper integration. These threats are so diverse in their origins and nature that they cannot be solved independently. They require a united front.

The June Defense Summit will be an important moment in European security and defense cooperation. The French will be vocal and will want to increase European cooperation and burden-sharing in addressing the extremely volatile neighborhoods. Other EU Member States ought to join France in seriously addressing these threats.

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


Mr. Tusk Goes to Washington

(AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
(AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

In his first visit to Washington in his capacity as President of the European Council, Donald Tusk met with President Obama and Vice-President Biden today, March 9th, 2015. Over his two-day visit to the American capital, Donald Tusk seeks to solidify the EU’s relationship with the US. In addition, President Tusk will visit the Holocaust museum tomorrow, March 10th, in order to send a message of reconciliation to Europe’s Jewish community after the recent rise of anti-Jewish sentiments.

The agenda discussed between the two transatlantic leaders covered the following issues: Russia and the crisis in Ukraine; the situation around the Mediterranean with Syria, Libya and the consolidation of the Islamic State (IS); and naturally the negotiations over the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). This comprehensive agenda underscores an interesting paradigm: each crisis is regional for the EU with serious international repercussions.

On the case of Ukraine and the role of Russia, the Europeans and Americans share the visions of the problem as it is a direct threat to the old concept of national sovereignty and territorial integrity. However, the Europeans, as expressed by President Tusk prior meeting with President Obama, are not willing to deepen the sanctions against Russia. There is a lack of unity among the EU-28 for domestic political reasons – like in Italy and Greece – and strong lobby groups in France, Britain and Germany – weapons, energy and finance – fearing a deepening in the tensions between the EU and Russia. From a personal standpoint, President Tusk, a former Prime Minister of Poland, has much more hawkish view of the problem and tends to emphasize the role of NATO.

The Mediterranean region is becoming one of the hottest part of the world. Geopolitics are moving fast and looking dire from Europe. The war in Syria seems unattainable, and the consolidation of IS in Syria, Iraq and now Libya is of great concerns for the EU. With a number of failed-states causing a regional vacuum, IS has found its territory to implement its strategy and vision. IS is attracting young Europeans, leading Europeans to conduct terrorist attacks against other Europeans, as well as widening its territorial control in the Middle East. President Tusk told reporters on March 9th, that “We [Europeans] must help because we cannot have a failed state run by warlords and anarchy — sitting in anarchy just 100 miles off the southern coast of Europe.” The power vacuum left after the fall of Gaddafi in 2011 had not been filled until the arrival of IS. Now IS is at the doorstep of Europe.

In the case of the TTIP, the negotiations initiated in 2013, are moving into their their year. It was supposed to be a mega-free trade deal, quickly signed, allowing further harmonization and lowering tariffs, allowing to bail-out the European economies, and ultimately boosting up the transatlantic economy. The TTIP is a way for the US and the EU to compete with the rise of new powers like China, India and Brazil. But instead a quick agreement, the negotiations have become more complex and Europeans have increased a certain numbers of concerns about the consequences of such FTA on their lives. Several issues are of concerns for Europeans: first, the lack of transparency in the negotiation process; second, lowering standards on health and food regulations (on Genetically Modified Food or even chlorine washed chicken); third, investor-state dispute settlement mechanisms (ISDS); and last, a certain opposition to globalization and American capitalism. If Americans and Europeans want to have the TTIP agreed, it will need to take place in 2015 otherwise it could look like the endless WTO’s Doha Round.

The transatlantic relationship is one of the world’ strongest and this high-level visit by President Tusk demonstrates that the EU and the US see eye-to-eye on foreign and economic policies. The degree of interdependence and interconnection between the two sides of the pond is such that the US cannot ignore what is happening at the doorsteps of Europe, and the Europeans have to realize the importance of the alliance with the US in order to assure its security.

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