Alistair Burnett

About Alistair Burnett

Alistair Burnett is a senior BBC News editor. He was the Editor of 'The World Tonight' on Radio 4 for ten years until 2014. Before that, Alistair was Editor of 'Newshour' on BBC World Service. He has also worked on other leading BBC programmes, including Today. Alistair has a particular interest in international relations and the shifting power relations in the world with the emergence of nations, like Brazil, China, India and Turkey who are challenging the traditional US and European dominance of global affairs.

Is US-led campaign against IS making much progress?

The recent defeat of Islamic State (IS) forces in the Syrian border town of Kobane has been greeted by the US-led coalition fighting the group as a significant victory.

But the killings of two Japanese civilians and a Jordanian pilot held prisoner by IS suggest it shows no sign of backing down in the face of five months of American-led airstrikes in Syria and Iraq.

So how much progress has the military offensive against IS made?

The defeat of IS at Kobane was achieved by a combination of Syrian and Iraqi Kurdish fighters on the ground supported by more than 700 air strikes which have flattened much of the town.

This success supports the view of many analysts that to defeat Islamic State, air strikes alone are not enough and ground forces are essential if the organisation’s territorial gains are to be rolled back.

The size of the challenge this presents is made stark by the assessment of informed observers that contrary to what President Obama told Congress in his State of the Union speech last month, since the campaign against IS began last August, the Islamist fighters have in fact doubled the amount of territory they control, especially in eastern Syria.

IS has also succeeded in gained allies beyond Syria and Iraq. In the past few weeks, Islamists in Egypt and Libya, who have affiliated themselves to Islamic State, have carried out large scale attacks. The group is also reported to be establishing links with the Pakistani Taliban.

Following the taking of Kobane, the US-led coalition, which includes the air forces of several western and Arab states, as well as the Iraqi army and Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, is turning its sights on the Iraqi city of Mosul.

It was the fall of Mosul to IS last June that galvanised Washington to intervene again in the region following the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq at the end of 2011.

If Mosul can be recaptured, it would represent a much bigger blow to IS than Kobane, which it had never fully controlled. But Mosul is a much tougher proposition.

IS has consolidated its control of the city – Iraq’s second largest – and the remaining population is largely Sunni Arab, many of whom may prefer the rule, however harsh, of IS to the return of rule by the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad, despite the efforts of the new Iraqi Prime Minister, Haidar al Abadi, to reach out to disaffected Shias.

It is also unclear whether the Iraqi army, which collapsed in the face of the IS offensive last summer, is yet in a fit state to launch a large-scale ground offensive against Mosul.

The Americans and other western countries, including Britain, have been training and rearming Iraqi forces, but the corruption that is blamed for their cave-in to IS will take time to root out, if indeed it can be.

The lack of an ally with powerful enough ground forces is even more acute in Syria. Continue reading

Has securitising Ebola paid off?

UN officials are expressing cautious optimism that the tide has been turned in the Ebola outbreak in West Africa which has now claimed more than 8,600 lives.

The World Health Organisation, WHO, announced last week that the number of new cases of Ebola in the three countries most affected Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, is falling and declared Mali to be Ebola-free. In addition, the most seriously affected country, Sierra Leone, said it is to reopen its schools after an 8-month closure.

While saying the epidemic has reached a turning point, WHO officials are also warning there is always a risk of resurgence. There is a particular focus on western Sierra Leone which remains the most seriously affected part of the region.

To underline the need to maintain the anti-Ebola momentum, the UN launched an appeal at the World Economic Forum in Davos for an extra $1 billion (£660 million) to deal with Ebola and its impact on the region over the next six months.

The appeal was made jointly by David Nabarro, the UN Special Envoy on Ebola, and the UN’s Emergency Relief Coordinator, Valerie Amos, who cautioned “complacency would be our worst enemy.”

The apparent success of the UN-led fight against Ebola followed what the Director General of the WHO, Dr Margaret Chan, herself has acknowledged was an earlier failure by the world health body.

An internal WHO report, leaked to the media last October, says it failed to respond in time to warnings the disease was spreading and Dr Chan, told Bloomberg last October she was not aware of the scope of the epidemic until she received a memo in June, three months after WHO officials in West Africa had first reported cases of the disease.

The leading medical NGO, MSF, had been warning since April the outbreak in Guinea was unprecedented and accused the WHO of taking the epidemic much too lightly.

The international effort to help the West African countries tackle Ebola only really got going in September after the UN elevated it from an international public health emergency to a threat to international peace and security.

The UN Security Council was convened for the first time ever over a public health crisis in September and passed the resolution establishing of UNMEER – the UN Mission for Emergency Ebola Response – to lead and coordinate the efforts to eradicate the outbreak by the three countries, UN agencies and member states, and NGOs.

The three worst affected countries, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea are among the world’s poorest and have rudimentary health care systems. In order to kick start the UN’s anti-Ebola efforts, the United States pledged $1 billion (£660 million) and deployed 3,000 troops to Liberia to build field hospitals. Britain pledged £230 million and took the lead in its former colony Sierra Leone, deploying 750 military personnel to build five treatment centres and France sent troops to its former colony Guinea to build a field hospital there.

In the US particularly there was criticism of the use of the military against Ebola. One retired army officer, Lt General William Boykin, said it was a misuse of the army arguing it was inappropriate because soldiers are trained to fight wars not disease.

So why did Ebola come to be seen as a security threat meriting a Security Council resolution and the deployment of troops? Continue reading

Wishful Thinking and Great Power Politics

Today, President Petro Poroshenko signed the EU Association Agreement and Russia has warned of grave consequences. Of course, it was the refusal of Poroshenko’s predeccesor Victor Yanukovich to sign this Agreement last November that triggered the protests that led to his overthrow and Russia’s annexation of Crimea in February.

Since then, the veering from angry stand-off to telephone diplomacy and back again between the West and Russia over the future of Ukraine resembles a dialogue of the deaf.

This was underlined this week at an on-the-record debate on the Ukraine dispute at the foreign affairs think tank, Chatham House, in London.

The Russian strategic analyst and former Red Army Colonel, Dmitri Trenin – with more than a hint of irony – bemoaned a surfeit of ideology in western foreign policy. He made this observation in relation to a discussion over whether Russia would ‘allow’ Ukraine to join the EU and/or NATO.

The Canadian Liberal MP, Chrystia Feeland, had argued that Ukraine is in the throes of a democratic revolution and the Ukrainian people have the right to decide if they want to join either of the western clubs. The American Realist international relations professor, John Mearsheimer, insisted, bluntly, rights don’t come into it – Russia is the great power in the region and will wreck Ukraine rather than allow it to make that choice.

The former US Ambassador to Russia, Mike McFaul, the other participant in the debate, and Ms Freeland were visibly bemused by this argument which was indicative of what I think Trenin was getting at.

Western foreign policy makers seem to be prone to wishful thinking – that the rest of the international community shares their worldview and that values should outweigh core national interests.

This means, for instance, that what Washington sees as its ‘rebalance’ or ‘pivot’ to Asia, which, it asserts, will benefit Asia and the US economically and help ensure peace and stability in the region, is seen very differently in Beijing. It is clear that China is suspicious of the ‘pivot’ and many there regard it as an attempt to contain them and stifle growing Chinese power and influence in its own backyard. American policymakers insist this is not the case and express surprise their Chinese counterparts could possibly think such a thing.

In the case of Russia, the Americans and Europeans insist Russia has nothing to fear from a Ukraine that chooses to be in the western camp and that it can be a win-win for all, and this is sometimes expressed as incredulity that Moscow can’t see this.

Cynics may argue that this attitude is feigned given the Americans know they would not accept a country like Mexico allying itself with another great power, but in many cases it isn’t – reflecting what appears to be an assumption in US circles, perhaps resulting from the post-Cold War period of American global dominance, that what is in its national interests is in everyone else’s too.

If you add to this that Washington is also having to adjust to the shift in the global balance of power, which has seen the return of what commentators like Professor Mearsheimer see as great power politics,  when countries like Russia and China assert their interests, it often meets with incomprehension in the US.

As for the Europeans who have spent the last sixty years trying to shed the great power mindset that fuelled two world wars which killed tens of millions, and have concentrated on enlarging the EU by acquiring new members by using the attraction of its economic and democratic values, they are also finding it difficult to adapt to the return to a world of competing powers.

On the Russian side, Moscow doesn’t see the current situation in Ukraine as a potential win-win; in the eyes of the Kremlin it is a zero-sum game. For Russia, a neighbouring Ukraine in the western camp would be a threat, hence its destabilisation of the country since the overthrow of the pro-Russian President Yanukovich.

Given all this, as long as the two sides remain unable and apparently unwilling to see the world from each other’s perspective, whatever resolution is reached in Ukraine, further confrontation between the West and Russia is almost inevitable.

Brazil fluffing its lines?

The World Cup in Brazil is less than a month away and the bad publicity is mounting with the news that the coach of the national team is being charged with tax evasion in Portugal.

When the country won the right to hold the World Cup back in 2007, it was intended as a coming out party for the country which was riding a wave of economic growth and optimism as a new player on the global stage under its charismatic President, Luis Inacio ‘Lula’ da Silva.

But as the delays to World Cup linked projects become more apparent and some are even abandoned, there have also been accusations that Lula’s successor, Dilma Rousseff, has blown his legacy and is retreating from his global ambitions. So what’s going on? Here’s a piece I’ve done for Yale Global

Ukraine: the corrosive effect of hypocrisy?

Much western commentary about the Ukraine crisis has asserted that Russian intervention in Crimea has undermined the post-Cold War order based on the inviolability of borders and respect for the rules-based international system developed after the world wars of the last century and founded on respect for the United Nations’ Charter and other international agreements.

But if this order is being undermined, critics would argue the rot set in some years ago and the hypocrisy of both the western powers and Russia, which has been on full display in recent days, has played a role in its decline.

Since the occupation of Crimea by thinly disguised Russian forces began, the American Secretary of State, John Kerry, has declared publicly on several occasions that in the 21st century countries should not invade others for trumped up reasons and dictate what should happen from the barrel of a gun. In late 2002, John Kerry was a senior United States’ Senator and he voted for the invasion of Iraq, which after the failure to find any chemical, biological or nuclear weapons, was justified post-facto by the US administration as a war to bring democracy to the country.

In another critique of Russia’s actions, President Obama, echoing comments by leading European Union politicians, said countries should not be dismembered over the heads of their elected leaders. Yet, in 2008, in a choreographed sequence of events, the US, Germany, Britain, France and Italy first encouraged Kosovo to unilaterally secede from a Serbia, which had been democratic since the overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic in 2000, and then recognised its independence. Of course, the context is different from what is happening in Ukraine today, but the principles of the inviolability of borders in Europe agreed between the West and the old Soviet Union at Helsinki in 1975, part of the rules based international order, was breached.

Russia refused to recognise Kosovo’s independence. At the time, Moscow  argued it was a violation of Serbia’s territorial integrity, which it clearly was, and that other states should not recognise a secession that was not mutually agreed – as for example the split between the Slovaks and Czechs in 1993 had been. The Russians also argued it would open Pandora’s Box by setting a precedent that other separatists would follow. The western countries that recognised Kosovo – and not all did – argued Kosovo was unique, sui generis.

Since then, Russia has changed its tune and ensured the precedent it warned of then was followed – by Moscow.

Crimea is internationally recognised as part of Ukraine and Russia specifically guaranteed Ukraine’s territorial integrity in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, but Foreign Minister Lavrov is now indicating that if Crimea wants to secede from Ukraine and even become part of Russia that is fine,  showing Moscow’s commitment to its publicly stated principles can be as elastic as that of its western critics.

Russia had already shown its less than firm commitment to the principle it stood by over Kosovo when it recognised the declarations of independence by South Ossetia and Abkhazia from Georgia, after the short military conflict between Tbilisi and Moscow which broke out when Georgia took military action against separatist Ossetians in August 2008.

Some commentators shrug this off. They say what do you expect? Might is right and  ‘twas ever thus with the way great powers behave.

But if the world’s leading states, some of which have permanent seats on the UN Security Council, which is the body meant to ensure global peace and stability, come to be widely perceived as cynically using and discarding the principles of a rules-based international system when it suits them, then that system, which is intended to protect both the strong and the weak, will be eroded further, and that is not in anybody’s interest in an increasingly contested and unstable world.

It may be that Russia would have intervened in Ukraine anyway given what it sees as its key national interest there, but the shifting standards of those western powers opposing its actions means diplomatic efforts to contain the crisis have been made more difficult and the case against Moscow in the court of global public opinion weakened.

 

China – not yet a global power

China has been taking flak for its relatively small contribution to the international aid effort in the Philippines following Typhoon Haiyan. It’s pledged about $1.7m so far compared to much larger amounts from the US, Japan and European countries. One possible explanation for this is the escalating dispute over maritime borders between Beijing and Manila, although the slow bureaucratic gears in China may also responsible. But if China wants to be seen as a global – or even regional – power, the argument goes, then it should be contributing more to global public goods, such as humanitarian aid.  But does China see itself as a global power and how do the Chinese view their integration into the global economy and their new-found international influence? Here’s a review I’ve written of leading sinologist, David Shambaugh’s latest book which unpacks Beijing’s impact on the world

The right recipe for democracy

“There’s more to democracy than free and fair elections”.

This is a refrain we’ve heard more than once since the anti-government protests broke out in major Turkish cities two weeks ago.

On Wednesday, a Turkish lawyer and university lecturer, Zaynep Ayeata, made this point again on The World Tonight. Former Foreign Minister, and one of the founding fathers of the governing Justice and Development (or AK) Party, Yasar Yakis, responded by telling us Turkey is still developing its democracy and it is not perfect. Remember that until the past decade, the Turkish military played a dominant role in the country’s politics.

Then, look at today’s presidential poll in Iran – does the fact the Islamic Republic hold elections make it democratic? Many would say no, not really. They could point to the fact that the candidates are vetted ahead of the elections, and that this year the two considered to be reformists were barred from standing at all, limiting the choice voters have.  There are also the limited powers of the President in Iran. He – and it has always been a he – does not hold the most important political office in a complex system which is truly presided over by the Supreme- in both a political and religious sense-  leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

But even in the “mature democracies”, we’ve had reminders in the past week that there is more to democracy than voting. An ex CIA whistle-blower,  Edward Snowden, has revealed through the press that the United States Government has been carrying out widespread secret surveillance both of American citizens’ telephone communications, and of internet communications of people all around the world, probably including British citizens.

The US authorities insist this surveillance is aimed at preventing terrorist attacks and few Americans are disputing this kind of activity may be necessary, but there is concern in Congress and civil society about the secrecy and what they see as lack of democratic oversight of government security agencies.

Do these three stories really have much in common?

It seems to me they do and that all of them illustrate there are two other fundamentals needed for effective democratic governance: the separation of powers and accountability.

In Turkey, the Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has won three elections in a row and his AK Party got half of all votes cast in the last one two years ago. He promised then to be a Prime Minister for all Turkish citizens, not just those who voted for him. But, the protesters who’ve been defying the tear gas and water cannon of the police for two weeks think he’s broken his promise and is not listening to them.

Turkish lawyers, who have joined the protests, argue there is still not a clear separation of powers in the country and the judiciary is not sufficiently independent from the government, so it can run roughshod over opposition to its policies.

There has also been criticism of the media in Turkey – much of it controlled by big businesses which benefit from government contracts – for being reluctant to cover the protests when they first started. The government has also fined two smaller TV stations for carrying live coverage of clashes between police and protesters.

There’s another weakness to Turkish democracy and that is the lack of a strong opposition party in parliament to hold the AK government to account, which is another reason opponents of Mr Erdogan may have felt the need to take to the streets to voice their unhappiness at his policies – be it the redevelopment of one of the last remaining parks in Istanbul or restrictions on the sale of alcohol after 10pm, or one of the other grievances raised by protesters.

Neighbouring Iran’s political system – at least on paper – appears to have checks and balances built into it. But, in practice, the political and religious authority of the Supreme Leader means Ayatollah Khamenei, who cannot be removed by the voters, wields huge and largely unaccountable political power.

In the US, the issue thrown up by Mr Snowden’s revelations also revolves around accountability. In Hong Kong, where he’s taken refuge, the former CIA operative told interviewers he took action to defend the basic liberties of people all around the world. But, back in Washington, the debate has been less about the rights and wrongs of such surveillance, and more about the ability of Congress – the people’s elected representatives – to hold the government to account for what it is doing. If the surveillance is taking place in secret, the argument goes, how can legislators do their jobs properly?

Winston Churchill famously said “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”.  So has the past week once again shown that Churchill had a point?

Democracy is far from straightforward and requires much more than elections to deliver legitimate government. Other essential ingredients seem to be a separation of powers between different branches of government, including an independent judiciary that enables the rule of law; and an independent media, an effective elected opposition, and open government to ensure accountability.

The former Turkish Foreign Minister, Yasar Yakis, suggests Turkish democracy is a work in progress, but perhaps that’s the case everywhere – even in countries where it has been established for much longer.