Burkina Faso, Blaise Compaoré and the Secret of [Almost] Eternal Rule

My book The Ringtone and the Drum turned two last Sunday. Conveniently, one of the countries it covers, Burkina Faso, promptly had a revolution. Yesterday a great crowd of protesters set fire to parliament, invaded the state television studios, and may have succeeded in dislodging long-serving president Blaise Compaoré. It is still unclear who is in control in the country, with the army announcing the formation of a transitional government and the president inflaming the ire of the protesters and opposition parties by saying he will hang around to oversee it.

I wrote quite a lot about Compaoré and his ill-fated predecessor Thomas Sankara in the book (by this stage of my journey around West Africa I was too busy having a nervous breakdown to do much actual travel writing). Here’s an excerpt analysing how and why Compaoré and dictators like him cling to power for so long:

Our hotel room in Ouagadougou, unlike all the other rooms we have stayed in on our trip, has a television. This allows us to watch the celebrations marking fifty years of Burkina Faso’s independence, which are being held on a football field in Bobo-Dioulasso. Blaise Compaoré is the guest of honour.

Compaoré has ruled his country for much longer than the man he replaced, but he remains a sullen, unloved figure. Sankara has streets named after him in African capitals, with pilgrims trekking to his grave from all corners of the continent. Compaoré, on the other hand, inspires only suspicion and fear; like a stepfather replacing an adored father, he has never gained his people’s affection.

In the first months of his presidency he attempted to mend fences. He disarmed Sankara’s revolutionary committees, legalised political parties, and declared an amnesty for political prisoners. Still he was not trusted, however: he had too much blood on his hands. Realising that he would not win any popularity contests and that holding fair democratic elections would therefore leave him vulnerable, he tightened his grip on power by other means. The media was silenced, rivals locked up or executed, ballots rigged, and opposition parties ground into insignificance. When he stood unopposed for election in 1991, three-quarters of his countrymen abstained from voting.

On the television, a soldier presents his president with the Burkinabe flag – the flag Sankara designed – while the master of ceremonies tells the audience of seated dignitaries that the red half of the flag symbolises the blood spilt for the freedom of the country. Compaoré, balding but still physically robust, looks humble, almost shy as he joins in the singing of the national anthem (which Sankara composed on his guitar). Dressed in a dark suit, crimson tie and polished black shoes, he steps up to a podium to deliver his speech.

 

It is not easy being an African dictator. Attaining and then holding onto power require resourcefulness, cunning, patience and endurance. You can never drop your guard, must never lose sight of your single overriding imperative of clinging to office. All your energies – your entire existence – must be permanently focused on this. It is an exhausting choice of career.

To acquire power, you first need to gather around you a loyal band of supporters. You can start with family members, but as you rise through the ranks in the army or the political party you will need to branch out. Colleagues who admire your charisma and respect your obvious leadership qualities will be your first port of call. You will need to grease their palms from time to time, either with financial rewards or promises of high office when you reach your goal (be especially generous with military officials, whom you will rely on to stage your coup d’état). To obtain the financial rewards and to bolster the long-term solvency of your project, take the time to garner the favour of a handful of wealthy businessmen; you can repay these benefactors with public works contracts once you have your hands on the national purse.

You will need support in the wider population, too. It is possible to lead a country without universal popular backing, but with no support at all from your citizenry you will be defenceless when rivals move to unseat you. You turn, therefore, to the people from your village, your town, your tribe. You promise them that you will give them jobs when you assume power, and in the meantime you must give them sweeteners – food, cash, land or assistance in resolving disputes.

To really make certain that your push for glory will prevail, you must obtain the sponsorship of a Western power, for only they can provide the financial muscle that will guarantee your success. During the Cold War this was easy. However incompetent, corrupt and bloodthirsty you were, however many of your innocent fellow citizens you tortured and murdered, as long as you claimed to be fighting off the communist tide or resisting the capitalist oppressor you could count on financial and military aid from the United States or the Soviet Union. This option is now closed off, although perhaps with the growing presence of the Chinese in Africa it might one day open up again.

Today your best hope is the former colonial power. France in particular is happy to support dictators in return for influence, business contracts, and access to your country’s natural resources. The Ministère des Affaires Etrangères has been a steadfast ally to a panoply of West African dictators, from the mad cannibal Jean-Bédel Bokassa to the kleptocratic Omar Bongo and Félix Houphouet-Boigny. France has even supported dictators whose countries it never colonised, propping up ruthless tyrants like Teodoro Obiang of Equatorial Guinea and the doyen of all despots, Mobutu Sese Seko, who while appropriating two-thirds of Zaire’s national budget for his “discretionary spending” openly advised members of his party not to steal too much at once but to ‘steal cleverly, little by little.’ Most of these men (including Blaise Compaoré, who quickly turned his back on the austerity of the Sankara years) have villas in the south of France, palaces in the Parisian suburbs, and penthouse apartments in the City of Light itself. They have fleets of Mercedes and Bugattis to ferry them around when they visit the metropolis. As a budding dictator you have all this to look forward to, and you can count on the French to assist your rise with money and arms, confer legitimacy by recognising your government, and help you quash opposition once you have attained the presidency.

Now that you have the French, your tribe, a few wealthy businessmen and a cadre of military and party colleagues onside, you are ready to make your push for power. In West Africa coups d’état are often bloody. Your opponent will not go down without a fight, so you must be ready to use extreme violence. If you do not eliminate him outright, you must at least force him into exile, preferably after seizing his assets (while Charles Taylor’s rebel soldiers were relieving Samuel Doe of his ears, they yelled at him to give them his bank account numbers). When he is gone, to nullify the risk of a counter-coup you must immediately purge his followers. Siaka Stevens executed dozens of potential rivals during his first few years in power, and Nino Vieira and Compaoré himself were quick to do likewise whenever they smelt a conspiracy brewing.

Once you are ensconced in office, your travails intensify, for you must always be alert to the threat of sedition. This danger is real, your paranoia fully justified. From the 1960s to the turn of the millennium, three in five African leaders ended their rule in a coffin or in exile. ‘I expected a coup any day,’ said the former Nigerian dictator Ibrahim Babangida. ‘From day one I was there, I knew that somehow, some day there would be a coup. Because we took it by force, somebody is going to try and take by force.’ You will need eyes everywhere – in the villages, in the cities, among your friends and close colleagues, even within your own family – to protect you against usurpers.

While you are watching your back, you must not take your eye off your supporters. Now that you are president, their expectations skyrocket, and you must continue to slake their thirst. The French demand mining contracts and free rein for their businesses. Your military colleagues expect promotion and power (you will have to create new positions, new battalions, to give each of them the status and access to national funds he requires). Nor must you forget your tribe and your village. They are your rock, the critical mass which will give you the numbers you need to fend off rebellions or popular revolt. You need them to love you, everybody else to fear you.

To satisfy these grassroots followers you must first provide them with a source of income. This is likely to mean expanding the government bureaucracy to create jobs. This makes your administration less efficient, but by increasing the number of hoops citizens and businesses must go through to accomplish anything, it also multiplies the opportunities for your supporters to extract bribes. Further demonstrations of your largesse will come in the shape of grand projects in your home community. The Ivory Coast dictator Houphouet-Boigny built the world’s largest cathedral in his provincial hometown of Yamoussoukro. Compaoré has opened a wildlife park in the grounds of his palace in the dusty backwater of Ziniaré, and has drawn up plans to relocate the country’s main airport there from Ouagadougou. The town, unlike those around it, has schools, a hospital, and numerous development projects, all in the service of cementing its inhabitants’ loyalty to their leader.

Although your task as a dictator is never straightforward, however, neither, as many of your predecessors have shown, is it impossible. There are a number of advantages to pursuing your choice of career in Africa as opposed to a less benighted part of the world. Chief among them is the weakness of your subjects. The masses are too poor, too hungry and too busy finding food to eat each day to plot rebellion; they are uneducated, and therefore easy to manipulate once you gain control of the media (Compaoré’s first act after dispatching Sankara was to take over state radio); and they are accustomed to repression – to them, one despotic leader resembles another (Western governments take a similar view, and exert only half-hearted pressure for you to step down).

The weakness of your country’s economic and political institutions is another blessing. The business sector, for example, is undeveloped, and laws to protect its assets nonexistent – this makes it easy for you to appropriate your nation’s natural resources to enrich yourself and your cronies. The authority of chiefs was hollowed out by colonialism, making it easier for you to centralise power in the capital. And political parties, if they exist at all, are often mere husks, vehicles for their leaders to amass wealth and furnish the demands of their supporters; they are in no position to stop you plundering state finances and siphoning off foreign aid. You can use the fruits of your pillage, indeed, to guarantee their silence. They will happily comply, for their people must eat too: Compaoré’s own coalition contains more than thirty other parties.

That you are not alone is a further advantage bestowed on you by your continent. Once you have established a reputation as an effective custodian of power, your fellow dictators will rally to your cause. Charles Taylor gave Compaoré conflict diamonds from Sierra Leone, and received weapons and men for the RUF invasion in return. Compaoré also befriended Libya’s Gaddafi and Gambia’s Jammeh, who claims to be able to cure AIDS (but only on Thursdays). The late Houphouet-Boigny gave the Burkinabe leader his daughter’s hand in marriage. If a rebel group somehow manages to elude your all-seeing eye and make a grab for power, you can usually count on your neighbouring despots to help you extinguish the threat.

Solidarity with your peers is essential, for like them you are in this for the long haul. This job, once embarked upon, is for life. Even if you weary of spending all your time smoking out opponents and attending to supporters’ needs, even if all the extrajudicial executions and betrayals of close friends finally breach your psychological defences and envelop you in guilt, it will be impossible for you to step down. Your power is a prison. If you allow someone else to take the reins, your life will be at his mercy – in the unlikely event that he does not send you to the gallows or the firing squad, at the very least he will target the assets you have so patiently accumulated.

But let us imagine that you can be sure of your survival, perhaps after reaching an agreement with your successor to stand down in return for being left alone. Maybe then you can fade peacefully from the political scene and slip into a quiet retirement. But wait! You cannot! You have forgotten the most important thing! If you step aside, what will become of your villagers, your tribespeople, your long-standing political and military allies? They will all be cast out onto the street, penniless. You cannot do this to us, they will say, an appalled look on their faces, their palms upturned in a pleading gesture. After all we have done for you! This is Africa – you have obligations. You cannot just turn your back on your people! Did your venerable ancestors bring you into the world for this? To spit on us, to betray those who gave you everything? No, you must stay the course, they agree, nodding sagely, the wisdom of generations on their side. We are in this together. You have no choice. You wanted power, we put you in power, and in power you must remain.

The French anthropologist Emmanuel Terray, drawing on his experience in the Ivory Coast, identified two distinct but parallel systems of government in Africa. The first is the world of the air-conditioner. This system, which is inspired by the Western style of government, gives off an impression of bureaucratic and technocratic efficiency. It is a world of presidents, constitutions, parliaments and laws, and speaks the language of democracy, development and modernisation. It pertains to certain places and certain hours of the day, to ‘office hours (as long as one defines these relatively flexibly),’ to government buildings made of cement and steel and glass, to presidential palaces and airports with VIP lounges, to ‘glorious official soirées in illuminated gardens.’ While the air-conditioner hums in the background, the leader, in his three-piece suit and tie and speaking in fluent metropolitan French or the smooth American burr favoured by Charles Taylor, announces grand development plans to his spellbound foreign backers: hydroelectric dams, a new motorway, airports, universities – the appurtenances of a modern state. He promises elections free and fair, and looks businesslike, not awestruck, when he takes his seat at the United Nations.

But much of this is display. As Terray observed, the principal function of the world of the air-conditioner is not to govern, but ‘to show, particularly to the outside, that the country works, that it holds rank in the concert of nations’ (recall the Sierra Leone government’s gift to Haiti’s earthquake victims, and its explanation that the country needed to play its part as a member of the international community). The serious business takes place not here, but amid a second world, the world of the veranda. This is a world of palavers under baobab trees, of sharing what you have, of the impenetrable African night, of obligations – personal, not bureaucratic, obligations – to your ancestors and your community; a world, at its most extreme, of human sacrifices in sacred forests. For our leader’s real concern is not democracy, nor the provision of services to his nation, nor that nation’s prosperous future. His real concern is in meeting his obligations to his narrow band of supporters, in feeding them in the here and now so that they will sustain him in power. This second system acts as a brake on the pride and greed of the Big Men, who are allowed to enrich themselves only if part of the material and political booty they accrue is generously redistributed. Like Gulliver tied down by the Lilliputians, Terray noted, the Big Man is ‘far from being entirely the master of his choices.’ As long as he produces the goods, the little people will sing his praises, vote for him, pass on rumours and render him other services. But if he fails to deliver, and to keep delivering throughout his time in power, they will jump ship. It is a tit for tat relationship, which requires the leader to be permanently on his toes.

As the anniversary celebrations in Bobo reach their climax, Blaise Compaoré concludes his speech. It is possible that my imagination is deceiving me after spending the past few days thinking about Sankara, but I detect in his successor a great, crushing sadness. His eyes, sloping down at the outer edges, look careworn, lacklustre. His shoulders are slumped, his brow furrowed. His speech, fluent but turgid, has merely gone through the motions, its repeated references to ‘solidarity’ and the Revolution containing none of the vigour and excitement that filled his predecessor’s proclamations. Compaoré is in the process of amending the constitution to allow himself to stand for yet another five-year term in office. If he finishes that term, he will have ruled Burkina Faso for thirty-three years. Thirty-three years of looking over his shoulder, fielding demands, nurturing loyalty – thirty-three years in a jail of his own making. As I sit there watching the speech in my new Thomas Sankara T-shirt, I cannot suppress a pang of sympathy for the late revolutionary’s nemesis.

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In post-2015, as in life – it’s safety first

Nobel Peace Prize winner, Malala Yousafzai is exceptional. She fearlessly brought the campaign for girls’ education to the centre of the world stage. There is a UN global initiative, former Prime Ministers are taking up the cause and it is an uncontested fact amongst policy makers, academics and practitioners alike that we cannot ‘do development’ unless boys and girls have equal and universal access to a quality education.

But, how do you teach a girl to read and write if she’s too scared to go to school for fear of being raped; or shot in the head for simply trying to claim the education she is due? How do you teach a boy the social and emotional skills he needs if the only lesson he learns is violent discipline and the streets are too dangerous for him to play?

Whilst Malala is unique, the violence committed against her is certainly not. Millions of children have suffered physical abuse in, or on route to, school. But it doesn’t end there. The places children should feel most safe are often the most dangerous. In the home and community children are being subjected to violence which impacts their physical and mental health with often permanent effects.

The problem is not limited to the Swat Valley or the gang ridden streets of San Salvador. The epidemic of violence against children is global and it thrives off inequality. No matter where you are in the world, if you are poor, marginalised or young, your vulnerability to violence is increased and your power to seek justice is reduced. In Nairobi’s largest informal settlement, Kibera, last week, I heard stories from children about unimaginable abuse and violence – like nine year old ‘Charles’, repeatedly raped by a neighbour who has evaded justice because of his influence in the community and with local officials, who he is able to pay off. Whilst each trauma was different, the common theme of impunity for the richer, older, more powerful perpetrators was common. Children in particular have limited access to and voice within justice systems, and their abuse and exploitation often goes unreported or is not investigated, leaving those who need most protection receiving the least. This cycle must be broken.

That every five minutes a child will die because of violence, as a new report from Unicef UK shows, is intolerable. The fact that this this has the potential to undo the vast progress we have seen in child survival in the last 20 years is inexcusable. Huge gains have been made since 2000 in keeping children alive to their fifth birthday, but these risk being offset by stubbornly high murder rates in adolescence. For example, in Brazil nearly 35,000 under-fives have been saved, but over the same period, more than 12,000 lives of adolescents were lost to homicide. Furthermore, child victims and survivors of violence have been left behind by global social and economic progress, with violence creating barriers to economic development. A survivor of violence in childhood is 60% more likely to be living in poverty than a neighbour who was not victimised.

As member states negotiate the successor to the Millennium Development Goals, we have an opportunity to redress this. Violence was not tackled by the MDGs and the most vulnerable, at highest risk, were left behind. In the post-2015 framework, a target to end abuse, exploitation, trafficking and all forms of violence and torture against children, with accompanying targets of access to justice and the rule of law, will help ensure we can finish the job of the MDGs and eliminate preventable child mortality and extreme poverty for good. In post-2015, as in life, we can follow the mantra of safety first.

But we don’t have to wait for the negotiations to finish before we act to end violence. The experience of Unicef’s work in many countries shows that there are effective strategies to prevent it – including providing support and services for children and their families, changing social norms through education and enforcing laws to keep children safe – that can be scaled up now. We need leaders to commit to doing this and to demonstrate the political will is there to facilitate the practical solutions. A global partnership of governments, international institutions and civil society, to build momentum on this crucial issue will help ensure the opportunity the post-2015 framework presents to turn the tide against violence isn’t lost.

We can’t rely on all children being heroes, to show remarkable courage, to defy the odds, to take the fight to the perpetrators of violence the way Malala did. They shouldn’t have to. They have a right to grow up free from fear and violence. We need to start planning now for that world.

The six fathers of ISIS

(As defined by Ziad Majed and abridged by Amir Ahmed Nasr in this excellent post):

ISIS is the offspring of more than one father, and the product of more than one longstanding and widespread sickness.
1. ISIS is first the child of despotism in the most heinous form that has plagued the region.
2. ISIS is second the progeny of the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, both the way in which it was initially conducted and the catastrophic mismanagement that followed.
3. ISIS is third the son of Iranian aggressive regional policies that have worsened in recent years.
4. ISIS is fourth the child of some of the Salafist networks in the Gulf (in Saudi Arabia and other states).
5. ISIS is fifth the offspring of a profound crisis, deeply rooted in the thinking of some Islamist groups seeking to escape from their terrible failure to confront the challenges of the present toward a delusional model ostensibly taken from the seventh century, believing that they have found within its imaginary folds the answer to all contemporary or future questions.
6. ISIS is sixth the progeny of violence or of an environment that has been subjected to striking brutality.

Ahmad Nasr also adds the observation that:

With the exception of reason #2, all other factors are local and traceable to the region and its state of affairs – affairs that have yes, been influenced by the legacy of European colonialism, the dynamics of the  Cold War, but lately much more so by the behaviours of local authoritarian actors.

Why the multilateral system is stumbling on conflict prevention

Syria, Ukraine, Iraq, South Sudan – not to mention Afghanistan, Central African Republic, Gaza, or Somalia. None of them is exactly a poster child for the multilateral system’s capacity to address or prevent conflict. Richard Gowan has a great piece in World Politics Review this week (£) that offers a typically pithy (and pitiless) account of why the multilateral security system seems to be stumbling so badly:

It suffers structural weaknesses at three levels. The major powers at the apex of the system are in disarray, as the U.S. tries to limit its global commitments and China and Russia assert themselves. Middle-sized powers that want to undercut the system are exploiting these top-tier tensions: While Moscow and Washington have sparred over Syria at the U.N., for example, Saudi Arabia and Iran have fought a proxy war on the ground.

At the bottom of the global ladder, a mix of predatory governments, rebel movements and terrorists have taken advantage of the troubles higher up. As I noted at the start of this year, embattled and autocratic leaders from Syria’s Bashar al-Assad to South Sudan’s Salva Kiir have concluded that they can have more to gain from using force against their foes than submitting to international mediation. In the Middle East and North Africa, groups such as the Islamic State are profiting from the resulting conflicts.

Richard’s last point, on the opportunism of those at the bottom of the global ladder, certainly chimes with an experience I had a few months ago: sitting in the lobby of the hotel in Addis Ababa where the South Sudan peace negotiations have been taking place, I overheard two negotiators sitting at the next table chuckling gleefully at how the international community’s focus on Ukraine had taken the pressure right off them to reach a deal with their opponents.

All the same, as Richard concludes, it still matters that:

…a mix of international officials and observers, soldiers and governments remain willing to stand up for the vulnerable and do what they can to uphold that system. Perhaps the system hasn’t completely flopped in recent crises. A fairer if less pithy assessment might be that the system is indeed failing, but it still does enough good to be worth fighting for.

 

Patching Up Nigeria’s North-South Divide

In the post-colonial period, African politics has tended to look something like this (as excerpted from my book on West Africa, The Ringtone and the Drum):

The French anthropologist Emmanuel Terray, drawing on his experience in the Ivory Coast, identified two distinct but parallel systems of government in Africa. The first is the world of the air-conditioner. This system, which is inspired by the Western style of government, gives off an impression of bureaucratic and technocratic efficiency. It is a world of presidents, constitutions, parliaments and laws, and speaks the language of democracy, development and modernisation. It pertains to certain places and certain hours of the day, to ‘office hours (as long as one defines these relatively flexibly),’ to government buildings made of cement and steel and glass, to presidential palaces and airports with VIP lounges, to ‘glorious official soirées in illuminated gardens.’ While the air-conditioner hums in the background, the leader, in his three-piece suit and tie and speaking in fluent metropolitan French or the smooth American burr favoured by Charles Taylor, announces grand development plans to his spellbound foreign backers: hydroelectric dams, a new motorway, airports, universities – the appurtenances of a modern state. He promises elections free and fair, and looks businesslike, not awestruck, when he takes his seat at the United Nations.

But much of this is display. As Terray observed, the principal function of the world of the air-conditioner is not to govern, but ‘to show, particularly to the outside, that the country works, that it holds rank in the concert of nations’ (recall the Sierra Leone government’s gift to Haiti’s earthquake victims, and its explanation that the country needed to play its part as a member of the international community). The serious business takes place not here, but amid a second world, the world of the veranda. This is a world of palavers under baobab trees, of sharing what you have, of the impenetrable African night, of obligations – personal, not bureaucratic, obligations – to your ancestors and your community; a world, at its most extreme, of human sacrifices in sacred forests. For our leader’s real concern is not democracy, nor the provision of services to his nation, nor that nation’s prosperous future. His real concern is in meeting his obligations to his narrow band of supporters, in feeding them in the here and now so that they will sustain him in power. This second system acts as a brake on the pride and greed of the Big Men, who are allowed to enrich themselves only if part of the material and political booty they accrue is generously redistributed. Like Gulliver tied down by the Lilliputians, Terray noted, the Big Man is ‘far from being entirely the master of his choices.’ As long as he produces the goods, the little people will sing his praises, vote for him, pass on rumours and render him other services. But if he fails to deliver, and to keep delivering throughout his time in power, they will jump ship. It is a tit for tat relationship, which requires the leader to be permanently on his toes.

Some countries may have moved away from this model in recent years; a few may even have been blessed with leaders who attempt to govern for all their people. On the ground, however, this is how African governments continue to be perceived – their reputation for cronyism has yet to be shaken off.

And perception is important. In Nigeria, which has been no exception to the above rule, the perception of many people is that the informal system of rotation of the presidency between northerners and southerners that had prevailed since 1963 has been broken. It may or may not be a coincidence that the murderous activities of the northern terrorist group Boko Haram, which some influential figures believe pose an existential threat to the country, ratcheted up after the accession to the presidency of Goodluck Jonathan in 2010. Jonathan, a southerner, succeeded the northerner Umaru Yar’Adua when the latter died after just three years in office. The informal rotation had hitherto seen the eight-year tenure of a northerner followed by a roughly similar period in charge by a southerner, but Jonathan’s victory in the 2011 election meant that by the end of his term southerners would have been in power for thirteen of the previous sixteen years. That he plans to run for re-election in 2015 has exacerbated northerners’ concern.

Northern Nigeria already lags behind the south. All ten of the country’s poorest states are in the north, school attendance is lower, and infant, child and maternal mortality rates are all much higher than in southern states. With a northern president in power in a patrimonial polity, northerners at least had the hope that they would have their “turn to eat” every few years. Without that reassurance, even in the unlikely event that the gulf between north and south does not continue to widen, many northerners’ perception is that they have been cut loose, and that the ‘material and political booty’ accrued by presidents will now be the exclusive preserve of southerners.

There are a number of measures that must be taken to quell the growing anger of the north, but in a country that threatens, as Foreign Policy magazine has recently put it, to ‘come apart at the seams’, political representation is among the most important. While it waits for leaders that govern for the many rather than the few, or for institutions that force them to do so, formalising the regular geographical rotation of presidents by enshrining it in the Constitution (thereby obliging the major parties to abide by it in putting forward candidates) may help narrow Nigeria’s north-south divide. In an ideal world this would not be necessary – leaders would take into account the interests of all their countrymen and distribute resources equally. But Nigeria is not an ideal world. The north-south divide has been accentuated by the long rule of southern presidents, and has helped bring about the emergency the country is facing. Formalising the rotation of the presidency is only a patch on a wound, but it may be a necessary one for northerners again to feel that they have a future as Nigerians.

What’s wrong with Geneva?

The BBC website has a rather breathless piece about the joys of Geneva today, declaring that “a cosmopolitan city known for diplomacy (and watches), is now gathering steam as a business and corporate hub.”  It suggests that the city’s reputation as a diplomatic center, hosting innumerable UN offices, is a big plus for its overall appeal:

“Business travellers like to come to Geneva because of the extensive presence of international organisations,” said Van Beurden, the manager of business development at the Crowne Plaza Geneva hotel. “This brings global movers and shakers, both commercial and political, to one small place. That’s why we see international companies investing in offices and headquarters here to be close to these decision makers and financial institutions.”

By pure chance, I have also just published something about Geneva for the Politico Magazine:

There are lots of fun things to see in Geneva. There’s the Jet d’Eau, a 140-meter-high waterspout. There are the Alps. And, if you are especially lucky, there is John Kerry.

The U.S. secretary of state has visited the Swiss “city of peace” five times since he took office in February 2013. It’s far from his most frequent destination. His website records 11 trips to Tel Aviv alone in the same period as part of his doomed effort to revivify the Middle East peace process. Yet Kerry’s appearances in Geneva have played an outsized part in his efforts to save Syria, strike a nuclear deal with Iran and forge a strategic partnership with his Russian opposite number, Sergei Lavrov.

The city has thus served as the backdrop to Kerry’s effort to bring to heel an increasingly unruly world through his personal diplomacy. He sometimes seems more at home there—or in other historic centers of European diplomacy, like London and Paris with their ornate foreign ministries—than at the dowdy State Department in Foggy Bottom.

This year, Kerry’s diplomatie genevoise has started to go awry, with talks on Syria and Ukraine flopping. The Swiss backdrop can hardly be blamed for these failures—and the Swiss government has in fact done Kerry a huge service by directing European mediation and monitoring in Ukraine, keeping a lid on the crisis. But the secretary of state’s attachment to Geneva points to deeper flaws in how he views the world.

So what’s wrong with Geneva?  Read the rest of the piece here.

Playing with fire in the Ukraine

Back in 1989, William Lind was one of the team that first coined the term ‘fourth generation warfare’ – referring to low-intensity conflicts involving highly decentralised insurgency tactics, non-state combatants, and strong emphasis on propaganda and psychological warfare.

(In case you’re wondering, first generation warfare was about line and column tactics, as in the Thirty Years War; second generation was more mobile and involved indirect fire but still tended towards pitched battle, as in World War One; third generation was all about manoeuvre warfare that aimed to bypass the enemy’s troops and attack from behind, as well as targeting civil populations, as with blitzkrieg tactics in World War Two.)

Now, Lind observes, it looks as though Russia’s long-disparaged military has learned a few tricks from the 4GW playbook and is using them to considerable effect in Ukraine. Among them: cyberwarfare, strong emphasis on the information campaign, skilful use of special operations troops to grab the initiative (“if an operation fails, Russian prestige is not on the line, because it can deny ownership; if it succeeds, Russia can give the credit to the locals, strengthening the legitimacy of the elements it supports”).

Crucially, Russia’s tactics in Ukraine are also based on “a supportive ethnically Russian population … by leveraging loyalty to ‘Mother Russia’ among ethnically Russian citizens of Ukraine, Russia has been able to maintain a light footprint, reducing the diplomatic and economic price of her actions.”

But, Lind continues, this last tactic is very much a double-edged sword for Russia – and here’s his crucial point (emphasis added at the end):

The Russian Federation includes many peoples who are ethnically non-Russian. Others can use them as the Kremlin has used ethnic Russians.

Here we begin to see a lesson from 4GW which Russia has not yet learned: once the disintegration of a state is set in motion, it is very difficult to halt or reverse. Russian actions are destroying an already fragile state in Ukraine. The Kremlin appears to believe it can spur or reign in state disintegration in eastern Ukraine, pushing it far enough to prevent Ukraine from joining the West but halting before the east becomes anarchic. That may be optimistic.

While the West assumes events in eastern Ukraine are driven by Moscow, just as Moscow says events in Kiev are driven by the West, there is increasing evidence that, green men or no, local Russian separatist forces in eastern Ukraine are not taking orders from anyone. Local struggles for power and loot are becoming more influential than any outside actors. A “Brinton thesis” cascade of small coups, leading ever toward the greatest extreme, may already be underway. If so, chaos will spread, deepen, and defy all efforts at control, regardless of who is behind them. Moscow needs to remember that it can no more order the tide to retreat than can Washington.

For states, playing with 4GW is playing with fire. Some tactics and techniques may be drawn from it and used effectively by states. But states need to remember that those tactics and techniques work best in a weakening state and also contribute to a state’s dissolution. The emergence of new stateless regions is in no state’s interest. However clever its tactics, if Russia finds itself facing prolonged stateless disorder in eastern Ukraine, it will have failed strategically. A higher level of war trumps a lower.