Alistair Burnett

About Alistair Burnett

Alistair Burnett is the Editor of BBC News' The World Tonight programme. Alistair has worked on many of the BBC' leading programmes - after beginning his BBC career at World Service, he spent three years at the The World Tonight in the mid 1990s, before moving to the Today programme for a couple of years and then back to the World Service where he became Editor of Newshour, Europe Today and World Update. 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 beginning to challenge the American and European dominance of global affairs.

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.

 

Is Hollande discovering it IS easier to get in than out?

France’s beleaguered President Francois Hollande has had some good news.

He may have fallen out of the public’s affection faster than any previous French leader, but last Wednesday the United Nations gave Mr Hollande UNICEF’s Felix Houphouet-Boigny Prize for his contribution to peace and stability.

The award is recognition for France’s intervention in Mali earlier this year which staved off the advance of Islamist rebels, some with alleged links to al Qaeda, who threatened a take-over of the country.

Meanwhile in Mali – as the cliché goes – at the same time as the President was being honoured by UNICEF in Paris, news came that the Malian army had clashed with rebels in the north of country for the first time since the French entered the conflict back in January.

Mali may no longer feature much in the papers or on the news, but that doesn’t mean the conflict is over and the situation there is sorted out.  It also goes to illustrate what western countries must have learned about military intervention since the violent collapse of Yugoslavia in the 1990s – it is much easier to get in than it is to get out – to this day there are thousands of European troops in Kosovo and Bosnia.

To his credit, Mr Hollande seemed to recognise this could be a problem again in Mali quite quickly. When first announcing he was sending troops, he emphasised the emergency nature of the intervention with the Malian army in rapid retreat and a rebel victory looking imminent. He said France would stay until African troops and the UN could get organised to support Mali’s government, but within days French officials were saying the troops would stay “as long as necessary”.

In the event, the arrival of the French – and troops from neighbouring Chad – changed the course of the conflict. The rebels were pushed back quickly and the main towns in the sparsely populated north of the country were retaken, as, by and large, the rebels chose not to stand and fight and returned to insurgent tactics of ambush and bombings.

But in order to bring as quick an end to the intervention as possible, the French also attempted to split the rebels – which were made up of an alliance of various fractious groups. Some were Islamist, such as Ansar Dine, and some secular nationalists, such as the Natonal Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, or MNLA,  fighting for more autonomy or independence for the Arab Tuareg people of northern Mali from the black African majority of the south.

Paris had some success in this strategy. As French troops advanced towards a key northern town called Kidal at the end of January, MNLA forces there turned on their Islamist allies and drove them out of the town. In exchange, it seems, the French promised the MNLA could run the town and the Malian army would not return.

At the time, the move helped accelerate the French advance, but it may have complicated the longer term aim of stabilising Mali and ensuring the withdrawal of all French troops.

Although the UN has agreed to send a new stabilisation mission to Mali, called MINUSMA, backed by a military force from neighbouring countries such as Nigeria and Chad, France still has about 2,000 troops there – half the number they had at the height of the fighting, but still a considerable deployment .

The recent clashes between the Malian army and the MNLA were near Kidal, which is still held by the rebel group. The stabilisation plan for Mali involves holding elections next month and the MNLA says it will not return the town to Malian government control before those elections. The army seems to be intent of taking it back before then.

So what will the French do?

The original intervention was justified on political and humanitarian grounds – to save Mali from collapse and the people from human rights abuses by the Islamist fighters. But six months on, the Malian army still seems incapable of defeating the rebels on its own, and human rights groups accuse government troops themselves of abusing civilians in the areas where it has managed to re-establish control.

So far Paris has not said much about the new outbreak of fighting, but if it escalates, it is likely the French will have to delay the withdrawal of the troops still in Mali.

So despite his awareness of the risks of getting sucked into a long term involvement, President Hollande, could still struggle to find the way out of his first foreign intervention.

Brazil – can she be everybody’s friend?

Brazil’s diplomats must be quietly pleased with their week’s work.

Last weekend, the country’s President, Dilma Rousseff, fresh from being named the world’s second most powerful woman (after Chancellor Merkel of Germany) by Forbes magazine, was one of the guests of honour at the 50th anniversary summit of the African Union in Ethiopia. A few days later she was playing host to the American Vice-President, Joe Biden, who confirmed Ms Rousseff has been invited to Washington on a state visit in October.

This one week in President Rousseff’s diary demonstrates something significant that has changed without much coverage in the western media – the unique role Brazil has been carving out for itself in world affairs. Brasilia sees itself as the emerging power  that’s uniquely placed to be the intermediary between the established powers in the global North and the global South.

So far, Brazil has played this role with some success in international trade talks and climate change negotiations, but has had less success persuading other countries to support its bid for a permanent seat on a reformed UN Security Council or its ill-fated attempt – along with Turkey – in 2010 to broker a deal between Iran and the West over Tehran’s nuclear programme.

What lies behind this ambition? Continue reading