2015 in the Rear-view Mirror …

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

2015, or the Year of Multilateralism

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notable European Leaders in 2015

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

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

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

Generated by IJG JPEG Library
Generated by IJG JPEG Library

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

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

Voices from Brussels?

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

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

Interview with O Globo on Russia in Syria

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

 

O Globo

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

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

PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES
PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

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).

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).

 

 

Arming or Not Arming Ukraine?

Photo: Vadim Braydov/Associated Press
Photo: Vadim Braydov/Associated Press

The calls of arming the Ukrainian government in order to respond to Russia clear support of Ukrainian separatists are misguided. It is neither in the interest of the US, NATO, nor the EU and its 28 Member States to start an arm race with Russia over Ukraine. After one year of military combats in Ukraine, leading to the Russian annexation of Crimea, and violent fights in Eastern Ukraine, four-nations peace talks – composed of President of France, German Chancellor, Ukrainian President and Russian President – will be meeting in Minsk, Belarus’ capital (which is the bastion of the last true European dictator) on February 11th. The Minsk Summit, known as the last chance summit, will be trying to solve the Ukrainian conflict and lay the foundation for an eventual future peace in Ukraine.

The peace talks are a continuation of the four-way phone conference held on Sunday between the four leaders in order to implement the Minsk agreements signed on September 4th, 2014. Wednesday talks are supposed to seek for a cease-fire and a settlement for ending the conflict (even though very little has transpired about sunday’s long talks and the approach to Wednesday’s talks). As argued by the Elysée, France’s executive power, there are several points of contention prior tomorrow’s meeting:

  • reaching out a global agreement;
  • the degree of autonomy of territories held by separatists;
  • control of borders wherein Russian military equipments have gone through;
  • removal of heavy weaponry (which could be clearly undermined if the US decides to go on with providing heavy weaponry to the Ukrainian government);
  • about the future of territories conquered by the separatists.

Despite the very localized combat zone, the situation in Eastern Ukraine is worrisome for the overall regional stability of Europe. According to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and a recent UN Report (from BBC News), the war in Ukraine has had serious consequences as illustrated below (see here portraits of the war):

  • 5,358 people killed and 12,235 wounded in eastern Ukraine;
  • Fatalities include 298 people on board flight MH17 shot down on 17 July;
  • 224 civilians killed in three-week period leading up to 1 February;
  • 5.2 million people estimated to be living in conflict areas;
  • 921,640 internally displaced people within Ukraine, including 136,216 children;
  • 600,000 fled to neighboring countries of whom more than 400,000 have gone to Russia.

Lack of Unity in the West

The numbers posted above illustrate the reality of war on the European continent. The strategy to solving the crisis is far from being a demonstration of unity between the members of the Euro-Atlantic community. The 2015 Munich Security conference illustrated the clear divergence of strategic approach to Ukraine between the two sides of the pond. During the 2015

Source: 51st Munich Security Conference
Source: 51st Munich Security Conference

Munich Security Conference, the US and Germany clearly went apart. US Secretary Kerry expressed the US support to arming Ukraine, while Chancellor Merkel expressed her opposition to such strategy and advocated instead for ‘strategic patience.’ Strategic patience is defined as the “capacity to stay united behind a coherent set of principles and, at the same time, back its policies with plenty of diplomatic activism and economic incentives.” Chancellor Merkel said during the Munich conference that “The progress that Ukraine needs cannot be achieved by more weapons.” US Senator McCain, a foreign policy hawk, was caught responding to her comments by saying “Foolishness.” His view represents the vision on the Capitol in Washington D.C. wherein a majority of republican senators as well as the democratic establishment are willing and apparently ready to arm the Ukrainian government. The White House expressed its support to providing Ukraine “lethal defensive weapons” in case of diplomatic failures. Such announcement by the White House may have put the President in the corner once again after the infamous ‘redline’ crossed by Bashar Al-Assad of Syria.

Russia, Russia, Russia

The Ukrainian dilemma is obviously a serious problem in terms of geopolitical stability, but as well Western unity. For instance as demonstrated by John Lough of the Chattam House:

On the one hand, Ukraine is a victim of aggression and deserves the right to defend itself against separatist forces that Russia is clearly supplying and supporting. On the other hand, the supply of defensive weaponry to Ukraine has the potential to split the West and precipitate a wider war.

Many seem confused behind Putin’s rationale – and called him an irrational actor – to continue pushing the Russian offensive in Ukraine. Why would Putin ‘gamble’ its legitimacy, legacy and even Russian economic prosperity for eastern Ukraine? The response is simple: sphere of influence. As expressed in an excellent op-ed by John J. Mearsheimer in the New York Times:

Great powers react harshly when distant rivals project military power into their neighborhood, much less attempt to make a country on their border an ally. This is why the United States has the Monroe Doctrine, and today no American leader would ever tolerate Canada or Mexico joining a military alliance headed by another great power.

What would Ukraine bring to the EU and/or NATO? Is it an acceptable risk for the euro-atlantic community to bring Ukraine within its institutional, legal, political, economic and military networks? It does not appear that neither Georgia nor Ukraine are strategic benefit for NATO and the EU at this point of time. The Euro-Atlantic community is deeply divided on opening the doors of NATO and the EU to Ukraine and Georgia. Thus, Russia has clearly demonstrated that it cares much more about keeping Ukraine at all cost than the West about loosing it. Powerful member states like France have expressed their opposition to the eventuality to incorporating these states within NATO. For instance, “France is not favorable to Ukraine’s entering the Atlantic alliance,” said President François Hollande. “Let this be absolutely clear.” President Hollande wants to end the violence and war and normalize relations with Putin (the two mistral ships are still waiting in French harbors).

Seeking for Western Strategic Soundness and Patience

If the West is so concerned about creating a clear demarcation between them and Russia, why not using Ukraine as a buffer zone? After all Ukraine has been very divided on picking a side, either the EU or Russia. This was one of the reasons behind the Orange revolution in 2004 and last year manifestations in Kiev snowballing into the current war. For the EU it will be more a matter of developing/strengthening either a bilateral partnership or a loosen commercial agreement with Ukraine than incorporating Ukraine as its 29th Member States. The EU has too many internal tensions, problems and distractions to even consider bringing Ukraine in.

But the real concern from a Western point of view is the degree of confusion and division

Source: 51st Munich Security Conference
Source: 51st Munich Security Conference

within the Euro-Atlantic community. The fact that the US has been relentless in its call to arm Ukraine without forging clear unity between NATO members speaks about the lack of common strategic vision. From a European standpoint, the neighborhoods are so unstable (read previous analyses here, here and here) that it slowly undermined its influence and security. The EU and the EU-28 cannot agree on a common strategy, so let alone the idea of forging one, for each crisis such as the ones raging in Libya, Syria, Ukraine, Iraq (Islamic State (IS)), and Nigeria (Boko Haram). This lack of European soundeness demonstrates several aspects: first, some Member States are completely out of foreign policy due to domestic troubles and do not realize the long-term consequences of their lack of interests and engagement (the United Kingdom is considerably silent on this important regional issue); second, some Member States are cheery-picking which issue to tackle without an overall vision; third, other Member States are simply seeking for going alone at the expense of the unity.

Several options are on the table: a possible Franco-German led cease-fire through diplomatic talks (or ‘strategic patience’); sending or not weapons to support Ukraine despite Germany’s opposition; or continuing the deepening of economic sanctions against Russia. But the talks about arming Ukraine and the eventuality that it could escalate the war with Russia is a reality.

It may seem that the West is miss-reading the Cold War. Yes, nuclear weapons and proxy wars locked the two superpowers in check. No, American hard power was not the only tool in the toolbox. Soft power, and its power of attraction, played an important role. Certainly hard power offers a quick solution; while soft power is much loosen, less precise, and slow. At this point of time, the best bet for the West is serious diplomatic talks in ending the conflict. Tomorrow’s Minsk peace talk between the Franco-German engine, Ukraine and Russia could arrive to possible agreements and redlines. The US should instead seek to work them instead of threatening Russia.

(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).