Does the World Hate Russia?

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

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

Russia-Image-World Opinion

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

Transatlantic Perceptions of Russia and Putin

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

Russia-Image-US-Russia

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

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

Vladimir Putin, Global Villain?

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

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

Russia-Image-Putin & US

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

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

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

HR Mogherini – A Foreign Policy Leader à la Clinton?

Photograph: Chatham House
Photograph: Chatham House

Even with an absent United Kingdom in European foreign and security policy, the excellent British think tank Chatham House has been the center of the euro-atlantic foreign policy world. Candidates for the 2016 US Presidential race are passing by as well as some high-level EU officials. If Scott Walker, Republican Governor of Wisconsin, did not want to talk foreign policy in a foreign policy think tank (read here the Q&A focusing on cheese and Wisconsin), the High Representative Federica Mogherini did not shy away from such exercise with a solid speech (read her speech here).

HR/VP Mogherini took office in November 2014 (read here a previous analysis on the transition of power from Ashton to Mogherini) and has taken full control of her role and position. The transition between her predecessor, Catherine Ashton, has been immediate and flawless. Both HR have their own strategy, personality, and leadership style. Ashton was much more of a bureaucrat and a shy foreign policy leader, while Mogherini is clearly at the forefront of the EU by always being present and visible, a little bit like former US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. It seems that the EU has its chief foreign policy following the steps of Clinton. As Hillary Clinton, HR Mogherini has been using her voyages to put the EU on the map as a global power, launched reflections for an overarching strategy, and addressed each crisis facing the bloc. Both foreign ministers have been relentless in their missions.

Pressing Issues Confronting the EU

As expected, HR Mogherini highlighted during her speech at the Chatham House the most pressing issues threatening the stability of the Union and its Member States. “I [Mogherini] believe that there is no better way for the EU to have a global influence than to be a responsible power in our immediate neighborhood.” As she argued the challenges and threats at the doors of Europe affect directly the “vital national interests of our member states.” All of them are surrounding the EU on every front, East, South, and South-East. Eastern Europe is on the verge of a war, as reports continue to demonstrate that Russia continues to send heavy-weapons and soldiers, and the Mediterranean periphery is in flame (read here the very informative Q&A led by Quentin Peel of the Financial Times tackling additional topics like Turkey, UK declining foreign policy, and eurozone crisis).

  • Ukraine – Mogherini argues that the EU deeply believes that Russia should be a partner rather than a foe. But the evolution of the conflict in Ukraine does not allow such belief, but instead calls for European actions in order to assure the transition towards a peaceful resolution of the conflict. The EU is concerned about the consequences of the war in Ukraine on the stability of the continent.
  • Libya – the instability in Libya, Southern border of the EU, represents a similar challenge to the security of the EU and its Member States. The challenges in Libya are serious, complex and intertwined counting issues such as appearance of the Islamic State (IS), human trafficking, exit point for massive illegal migration in direction to Europe, and no state-authority over the territory. The power vacuum in Libya ought to be addressed.
  • Syria – the war in Syria has lasted long enough for seeing the rise of IS, many international failures to solving the crisis, a serious humanitarian crisis and a complex sectarian war with no end in sight. Without solving Syria, the threat of IS will only continue to grow.
  • Tensions in the Middle-East – seeking for a lasting peace process between the Palestinian authorities and Israel.
  • Iran – the nuclear negotiations with Iran are an important piece of the Middle-East puzzle. As argued by Mogherini, “for too long we thought of the Iranian issue as a zero-sum game.” In fact, she claims that “a comprehensive agreement would be hugely beneficial for both sides.” In the case of the negotiations, the EU is the leader in the negotiations.

HR Mogherini concentrated her analyses on the neighborhoods. But other issues and crises are affecting the stability of the Union, especially with the rise of instabilities in Africa and the region of the Sahel.

Mogherini’s Call for a New European Security Strategy

By the end of her speech, HR Mogherini finally introduced the fact that she initiated a work to reflect on a new European Security Strategy. “Our European Security Strategy, on which Javier Solana did a wonderful work, is also 11 years old. At that time, no one could imagine how fast the world and our neighbourhood would change in the coming years.” The 2003 version was an important document in identifying the European way for global actions and addressing the threats facing the Union as a whole. But in over a decade, the EU only produced one additional document the 2008 Report on the Implementation of the ESS simply adjusting the 2003 version, without any deep strategic changes and rethinking. The world in 2003 was certainly very different to the one facing the EU in 2015. Global politics shifted from a unipolar to a multipolar system. “Everything is changed,” argued Mogherini “we have changed.”

Soon after taking office, HR Mogherini initiated a process of strategic reflection to ‘reform’ EU foreign and security policy. A new strategy ought to be designed and implemented in order to address the new regional and global realities. ‘Effective multilateralism,’ the core of the EU strategy in 2003, may not be as effective in 2015 as it was in 2003 (thus, Mogherini does not have to seek for building unity among the Member States as it was required by Javier Solana in the aftermath of the 2003 war in Iraq causing great disunity at the time). The 2015 version will require to address the new global environment (multipolar world order and the rise of new powers), new security challenges (traditional ones: territorial security in the neighborhoods, nuclear proliferation; new ones: domestic and international terrorism (IS and Boko Haram), environmental threats, cyber threats), and the instruments required for the best response (hard power: through the use of the CSDP, NATO, CSDP/NATO, or by the Member States like France has done in Africa; soft power: institutions, partnerships, cooperation, negotiations, and diplomacy).

“But our foreign policy can sometimes be disconnected” argued HR Mogherini. “We need to connect the dots. And we need a true sense of ownership. A common vision. A common European interest. Our identity in the world. That’s why I’m starting from member states.” HR Mogherini responded to the criticism that there is no common EU foreign policy if one takes in consideration the latest actions by France and Germany to solve the Ukrainian crisis during the Minsk Protocol II. She claims that “a European common foreign policy does not call for Member States to give up their own foreign policies. On the contrary, each country can reinforce our common action with its own strength and expertise. But we see Europe at its best only when all the Twenty-eight push in the same direction.”

HR Mogherini is correct in seeking for the development of a comprehensive European Security Strategy. “There is no contradiction between an eastward looking and a southward looking EU. Only a comprehensive approach to our foreign policy can protect our values and interests in the long run. Events in North Africa, the Middle East and Eastern Europe affect the whole of us. No one can expect to close their eyes.” The new Security Strategy will permit the EU and the EU-28 to reflect on the threats the EU should address, the type of power the EU wants to be and play, and the way the EU should conduct itself in its neighborhoods and global arena.

Mogherini’s 100 Days in Office

With Mogherini at the helm of European foreign policy, the difference between her and her predecessor, Catherine Ashton, is undeniable. Ashton seemed uncomfortable, where HR Mogherini is being over-present and very much at her ease in facing the media. She travels the world from meeting to meeting. She understands the need to be present, even if it is for a 30 minutes handshake, in order to build relationship and put the EEAS and the EU on the map. If Ashton was not as visible as her predecessor, she was respected in closed-meeting with her foreign counterparts. It is not surprising that HR Mogherini kept her at the helm of the European negotiations with Iran.

In her first 100 days, HR Mogherini has done quite a lot as illustrated by the infographic created by the EEAS (see below).

Source: EEAS
Source: EEAS

Considering her relentless rhythm, some diplomats wonder about her longevity, but as well the type of foreign policy being shaped by HR Mogherini. As analyzed in an excellent article by Bruxelles 2, an experienced European diplomat confides that leaders do not have the time anymore to reflect as they constantly runs from one place to another. One of the core problems faced by current political leaders is their dependence on the agenda and the need to constantly respond immediately to new issues. Foreign policy in some ways has been hijacked by the immediacy of information, when in fact reflection and thinking are core requirements.

Last but not least, HR Mogherini argued when discussing the threats facing the EU that “this is why I believe any narrative of a clash among national interests and European interests is flawed. We hold a ‘joint place in the world’, and it very much depends on the unity and the effectiveness of the European Union’s international projection. It should be clear to everyone that we, the Europeans, are much better when we are together. It is a matter not of European interest but of national interest, for all.” The consolidation of a common vision by merging national and European interests under a common umbrella could be Mogherini’s landmark.

(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).

Vinyl Diplomacy – A refreshing look at US Diplomacy

Source: UN Photo (14 October 1952)
Source: UN Photo (14 October 1952)

Diplomacy is more than high-level meetings behind closed-doors. Diplomacy is primarily the art of building relationship between humans. However, it seems that this core component has been lost leading to a decline of Diplomacy in its role, perceptions and successes, at least since the end of the Cold War. Even though American diplomacy seems to have failed on many levels, as demonstrated in this piece, there are still some glimpses of successful use of diplomatic instruments, like music, in order to deepen ties between nations and individuals. The rise of ‘vinyl diplomacy’ in an over militarized diplomacy can speak volumes about American soft power.

The Militarization of Diplomacy and its Demise

With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the beginning of the American hegemony, diplomacy has been confused between foreign policy and defense policy. How many times since 9/11 has the Secretary of Defense taken the lead on issues that should be first undertaken and/or overtaken by diplomats? In the US, the Department of Defense, in charged of military affairs and the use of force, tend to have too much power over the decision-making processes in diplomatic affairs and the solution implemented. Diplomacy should always be first, followed by military power, in the last resort.

The most obvious case was the race to the Iraq war in 2002-03 when diplomacy was sidelined, and even diminished/discredited, by the Bush administration in order to use the ‘almighty’ american power against Saddam Hussein and Iraq. Diplomacy, at least the American and British, was irrelevant and to some degree useless. The Anglo-American couple undermined the primacy of international law, diplomacy and international organizations like the United Nations. One of the most memorable moments on the road to Iraq was the speech made by Colin Powell, at the time US Secretary of State, before the

Photograph: Timothy A Clary/EPA
Photograph: Timothy A Clary/EPA

United Nations Security Council demonstrating that Iraq had in its possession weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). The fact that Powell was a four-star general leading the American diplomatic service demonstrated the militarization of American diplomacy. In the last decade, the US has not conducted proper diplomacy where it should have been; military power has been now framed as part of diplomacy. Well it should be the other way around: first, diplomacy (but credible policies with a ‘real’ support at home) and then the threat of military power in order to provide the stick. In the post-9/11 world, diplomacy is now perceived as a sign of weakness from the highest-elected officials and large segment of population.

One of the most interesting case is the nuclear negotiations with Iran. The current negotiations are complex, difficult, and lengthy. Diplomacy is and should be all of the above. The fact that the legislature, and especially the Republican party, continuously threaten to deepen sanctions against Iran and even use force affect the credibility of the American diplomatic machine. This raises important questions: Can diplomacy bring everything wished for the two negotiating parties? No and it has never been the case. Now, is the use of force against Iran a credible scenario? No. Americans are not ready to start a war requiring at least 100,000 soldiers on the ground with an endless war in sight. Americans have grown war-weary since the failures in Iraq and Afghanistan. One of the fascinating components behind the lack of trust in diplomacy and negotiation lays in the polarization of domestic debates. How can a country show unity and trust in its diplomatic body when domestically the different political forces are unable to communicate, interact, negotiate, and compromise? Once again the failure of American diplomacy is not caused by the complexity of the current global issues and/or the inability by American diplomats to do their jobs, but in fact by the degree of incoherence and cacophony in domestic political debates.

Vinyl diplomacy

Photograph: State Department
Photograph: State Department

So how can American diplomacy address these problems? What elements could be integrated in order to do diplomacy? In a recent interview for PRI’s the World, Matthew Barzun, US Ambassador to the United Kingdom has been working on his ‘vinyl diplomacy’ (listen to the interview here). In this enlightening and refreshing interview, Matthew Barzun talks about his love for music and how the US embassy has become a concert hall featuring bands like the National and Belle and Sebastian with spectators counting Prime Minister David Cameron and his spouse among others. As he argues in this interview, “Diplomacy at its fundamental level is about connecting with people. And it’s not just elected or official government-to-government relationships. … We actually do get the government leaders but in a different context. all together in one place, united by a love of music and the particular band we’re featuring that night.”

The ‘vinyl diplomacy’ is a wonderful initiative with most likely real success in building human relations outside of closed-meetings. It is a trademark of the diplomat in charged and demonstrate one of the many ways to strengthen ties between countries. Certainly, doing ‘vinyl diplomacy’ in the UK could seem routine in between two close-partners and among anglo-saxon countries. The ‘vinyl diplomacy’ falls directly under the broad umbrella of American soft power. Would any other world ambassadors initiate such type of diplomacy?

Last but not least, Marco Werman, host of PRI’s The World, asked Matthew Barzun about one of his favorite songs. It was difficult to resist and underline a common pleasure for Iron & Wine’s ‘The Trapeze Swinger.’ Let’s finish with one of America’s best dimension of soft power, music.

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

Summer 2014 – The Melting of Western Influence?

Credit: Vieuws.eu
Credit: Vieuws.eu

Summer 2014 has been non-stop, and it is not even over yet. It started on a positive note with the success of European soccer teams in Brazil – and France even displayed a good team and produced creative soccer -. But the summer quickly turned sour for Western powers.

Since June a series of crises broke out. The conflict in Ukraine increased in intensity, while the West remained cautious on sanctioning Russia. At this point, most analysts and reporters thought that Putin had won the war. Putin had already stolen annexed Crimea and the pro-Russian militiamen were solidly backed by Moscow. It was until the pro-Russian militiamen brought down a commercial airplane flying over Ukraine and killing over 290 civilians, most of them being Dutch. Such event was a turning point in the conflict

Credit: European Pressphoto Agency
Credit: European Pressphoto Agency

in Ukraine. EU Member States finally agreed on tougher sanctions against Russia. Weeks later, Moscow responded by banning the imports of EU foods. Since then, Moscow has tried to maintained its support to pro-Russian militiamen with the progression of a ‘civilian convoy’ for humanitarian purposes sent by Moscow. With the progression of the tensions in Ukraine, Germany has progressively shifted its pro-Russian foreign policy and has emerged as a leader against Russia. For instance, as a reaction to the Russian convoy, Berlin has pledged more than $690 million for reconstruction and aid to Ukraine. Moscow may have been able to keep the fight alive in Eastern Ukraine, but seems to have lost an ally in the West.

The second main crisis has been the intensification of the ebola virus disease (EVD) affecting Western African nations. In recent days, reports have emerged underscoring that the outbreak has been underestimated. Even tough, the EVD does not directly threaten the citizens of the Euro-Atlantic community, it has become a serious issue for the West. Starting in Guinea, and then in Liberia and Sierra Leone, it has now spread to Nigeria. The main concern has always been Nigeria, one of the most populous and developed countries in Africa. The recent cases in Nigeria have been a cause of concern for Western powers considering the deep connections between Nigeria and the West. The EVD becomes of global nature due to the complexity of the globalized world we live in. Globalization has made the EVD an eventual threat to most world nations.

The third main crisis has been the solidification of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Iraq. The rise of ISIS, a radical Sunni Muslim terrorist group, has been progressive and it has benefitted from the vicious war taking place in Syria since 2011 (read here a previous analysis on the issue). The civil war in Syria was a piece of the Arab Spring puzzle with popular opposition to the regime of Bashard al-Assad. The members of the Euro-Atlantic community, at the

Credit: Reuters
Credit: Reuters

exception of the French, were reluctant to either arm anti-government groups by fear of arming extremist groups and/or launch airstrikes against Assad’s forces. ISIS has grown and strengthened itself in fighting government forces. Early summer 2014, in June, ISIS started its invasion of Iraq. It has received some assistance by Iraqi sunni, that have felt undermined by the former shiite government of al-Maliki. Since, ISIS has used violent and vicious tactics in order to strengthen its control over its controlled territories. In the past week, the US has re-launch military interventions in Iraq through airstrike bombings, arming Kurdish and Iraqi forces. However, US Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel, underscored that “the defeat of ISIL is not only going to come at the hands of airstrikes. It’s bigger than just a military operation.” He added that in order to defeat ISIS, the US will have to go to Syria. Such vision is increasingly been shared in Washington. For instance, Steven Simon, a former White House adviser to Mr. Obama on the Middle East, argued that “common sense suggests you need to hit them in Syria.”

Last but not least, the war in the Middle East between Israel and Hamas, launched by Israel on July 8th, has already caused high level of destruction in Gaza and heavy civilian casualties with over 2,100 deaths. The war has underscored the diverging strategic positions of the members of the Euro-Atlantic community. In large EU Member States, populations and governments have expressed their concerns regarding Israel’s actions. The US, historically a close ally of Israel, has not budged its position. In recent days, talks have increased in order to agree on a United Nations Security Council Resolutions including the following conditions: “prevent Hamas and other militant groups from rearming, give the Palestinian Authority control, relax the Israeli embargo, reopen all border crossings and expedite reconstruction.” In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, titled Club Med for Terrorists, Israel’s Ambassador to the UN underscores that the problems in the Middle East are all financed by Qatar. He wrote “Given Qatar’s considerable affluence and influence, this is an uncomfortable prospect for many Western nations, yet they must recognize that Qatar is not a part of the solution but a significant part of the problem.” The war between Hamas and Israel is going much further than Gaza.

The end of Western domination?

Let’s be clear, none of the crises analyzed above have suddenly appeared; they have all been slowing progressing and evolving. It is just that Western powers have become some type of risk aversion and have implemented a certain status-quo in avoiding to directly confront complex crises and issues. The US certainly leads the way in its ‘wait and see’ strategy. So, what can be said about the handling of these crises by Western powers? It surely looks like the early 1990s all over again. Even though it is debatable to justify the real control of Western powers on all foreign events, summer 2014 has underscored the inabilities of western powers to shaping and containing them. The US and its European partners – Britain, France, Germany, Poland, Italy among others – have simply been trying to catch up.

In the case of the US, to paraphrase Hillary Clinton, the Obama’s foreign policy approach

Credit: AP
Credit: AP

of ‘don’t do stupid stuff’ may have been a root cause of the limited US influence in shaping events. She has been much more vocal in advocating for a more interventionist foreign policy. She argued during her recent interview with Goldberg of the Atlantic, that “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.”

Summer 2014 could be identified along two lines: either, it is an anomaly, meaning it just happens that crises followed one another; or, is it the continuation of the sliding process of Western grip over the international system? I will tend to go with option 2, Western decline.

In order to look at the question of Western decline, one should look at two dimensions: external and internal dynamics. Externally, the succession of crises and western inabilities to shape the outcomes and/or prevent them are obvious and were analyzed above. Internally, both the US and European powers/and EU have been facing deep political, societal and economical challenges. This accumulation of domestic crises and tensions contribute to affecting the global aura of the West. Even among the Euro-Atlantic community, its members are unable to actually find an agreement on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) (see here a comprehensive book on the topic). This agreement seen as a way to relaunch the transatlantic economy has become a tense political fight between the 29 + 1 actors (28 EU Member States, the US + the European Commission). The difficult negotiations are affecting the global credibility of the Euro-Atlantic community as its members cannot agree on the values, norms and identities supposedly shared and exported. As demonstrated below, the transatlantic soft power is clearly loosing its grip and credibility.

Domestically, the US appears very weak. Between a blocked government, a lame duck president, a weak economic recovery, and tense societal relationships among the different segments of the population, the US is facing serious challenges. The debates of inequalities, minority rights, healthcare, religion, immigration, education and economic changes are slowly affecting the identity of the US. The US, as most European countries, is on the brink of chaos at any moment. The violence in Ferguson, after the death of an African-American man shot by a white cop, have taken the nation by surprise. The emotions around the situation in Ferguson are powerful as such event is underlining a dark reality of inequalities and racial tensions to most Americans. Once again, Richard Haass was correct in claiming that foreign policy starts at home.

Across the pond, the European economic situation is worrisome and has now led to serious internal challenges within each Member State. Experts, like Michael Heise, even wonder if Europe is not entering into its ‘lost decade’ the same way Japan went through the 1990s. European economic growth remains anemic. Germany has maintained its status of the strong man of Europe, but its economy is starting to contract, while the French economy is stagnating (ant the government is unable to govern, read here) and the Italian is in recession. “GDP fell in Germany, the biggest,” according to the Economist, “and Italy, the third largest, by 0.2%; France, the second largest economy, stagnated.” The consequences of this continuous weak economic outlook in Europe, causing high unemployment levels, increasing inequalities and affecting the moral of Europeans, have fostered this ramping euro-skeptic sentiments. Additionally, the message of European unity is not even present in Brussels, as illustrated by the difficulties to select the next top EU leaders. In this context, it is difficult to imagine a strong Europe willing to shape and influence events. The EU has always lacked hard power, but domestic tensions within the EU have affected the credibility of its soft power.

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