Alistair Burnett

About Alistair Burnett

Alistair Burnett is Director of News for Sightsavers, the NGO that works around the world to eliminate avoidable blindness and promote equality for people with visual impairments and other disabilities. Before that he spent 26 years with BBC News where he was the Editor of 'The World Tonight' on Radio 4 for ten years and before that Editor of 'Newshour' on BBC World Service. Alistair has a particular interest in international relations and the shifting power relations in the world challenging the traditional US and European dominance of global affairs.

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

Are India & China really destined to rivalry?

China and India are the two giants of what are called the emerging powers – they are the ’I’ and ‘C’ in the BRICS  – but despite their membership of that grouping, relations between them have long been uneasy.

They fought a brief war in 1962 high in the Himalayas over their disputed border. It ended with India humiliated and to this day anti-Chinese rhetoric is commonly heard at demonstrations and in the Indian media. For their part, the Chinese resent that India has hosted the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, and the Tibetan government in exile, since they fled after the failed Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule in 1959.

I wrote last week that China’s maritime borders remain tense and a possible flashpoint. But this week, there is potentially better news from China’s south western border where Beijing has taken a significant step to improving relations with India with a visit to Delhi by the new Chinese Prime Minister, Li Keqiang.

The visit followed a month when tensions had been running high after soldiers from the two sides moved into an area on the disputed border and faced off. This ended when ahead of Mr Li’s scheduled visit, senior officials from both sides picked up the phone and agreed to pull their troops back.

There had been pressure on the Indian government not to back down with anti-Chinese protests in several parts of the country and expressions of outrage in mainstream and social media. In China, there was little public and media reaction as the incident went largely unreported, although past studies of how India is viewed on Chinese social media suggest a none too flattering opinion – more condescending than hostile.

So why did both governments decide compromise was better than confrontation?

You won’t be surprised to hear that part of the answer is economics. As both countries have grown rapidly over the past decade, trade between them has shot up from $2 billion to $75 billion a year and China is now India’s largest trading partner. Although, there are concerns in Delhi about the size of the trade deficit, both sides are keen to see this grow further and during this week’s talks Li Keqiang told his counterpart, Manmohan Singh, that Beijing would address the trade deficit.

China has clearly decided that better relations with India are a priority. The official media made much of the fact this was Mr Li’s first official trip abroad since taking office in March and has talked  up the visit. On arriving in Delhi, Li said the fact it was his first foreign trip showed “the great importance Beijing attaches to its relations with Delhi”.

What he didn’t explicitly say was why. And, in addition to trade, the answer there seems to be the United States.

Washington has made a huge effort to improve its relations with India over the past few years, even going as far as to sign an agreement on civil nuclear cooperation in 2008 despite the fact India never signed the nuclear non-proliferation  treaty and has developed its own nuclear weapons arsenal.

Many in Beijing have interpreted this as part of an American attempt to contain China.  The Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia”, which has seen the US boost its military and diplomatic focus on China’s neighbourhood, has intensified Beijing’s concerns. Some China-watchers have dubbed this the “go west” strategy – facing containment on its eastern seaboard where it is ringed with allies and friends of the US like Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines, Beijing has decided to give itself options to its west.

This may lead to better relations between China and India which makes for a more stable world, but not everyone gets to benefit.

This week, my programme, The World Tonight, heard from some of the people who are losing out in a rare report from Nepal. Traditionally, India has had the greatest influence over Kathmandu, but in recent years China has become more influential. Many Tibetans fleeing Chinese rule of their homeland end up in neighbouring Nepal, but the Nepalese government, allegedly out of deference to China, is restricting their entry and making life difficult for those who get across the border.

A reminder of the human cost of great power politics which remains as much a factor of today’s world as it has throughout history.

Nuclear war called off in Korea – time to relax?

Something quite significant happened this week– though you may have missed it.

It seems the US military doesn’t think there will be nuclear war with North Korea.

A few weeks ago, you could have been forgiven for thinking we were on the brink of something similar to the Cuban Missile crisis of 1962. Pyongyang was threatening a nuclear strike on America and the US – in an unusual move – publicly announced nuclear-capable stealth bombers were taking part in joint military exercises with South Korea.

But then this Monday, unreported by most media, the US Army commander in the Pacific, Lt. Gen. Francis Wiercinski, said he thought ‘the current cycle of provocation (by the North) has come to its end point’.

Things have probably quietened down because the joint exercises are over and the leadership in the North feel they’ve achieved whatever it is they set out to do.

For instance, also this week, the North Korean Defence Minister was replaced . Although we don’t know for sure why he was given the push, there‘s speculation it’s part of efforts by the isolated communist state’s young leader, Kim Jong-Un, to consolidate his hold on power.  Kim is the grandson of the North Korea’s founder, Kim Il-sung; but at only 30 he’d had very little time to build a power base of his own when he inherited the leadership on the sudden death of his father, Kim Jong Il, 18 months ago. Indeed, many North Korea watchers attribute the recent nuclear sabre-rattling to Kim’s attempt to build support inside the corridors of power in Pyongyang by appearing strong and martial.

Whatever the reason, the North has also removed missiles it had deployed on its east coast near the border with the South.

So we can breathe a sigh of relief then? Continue reading

A Balkan success for EU soft power?

Serbian leaders will make another attempt this week to convince Serbs in northern Kosovo to accept last month’s deal between Belgrade and Pristina to normalise relations between Serbia and its former province.

The April 19th agreement was  hailed in the much of the western media as a great success for the EU’s soft power and its oft-criticised Foreign Policy chief, Catherine Ashton. Veteran Balkan watchers, like Misha Glenny and Tim Judah have both penned pieces lauding the potentially historic deal that took several rounds of tortuous negotiations mediated by Baroness Ashton.

The EU can be forgiven for celebrating a rare success given the unremitting gloom that has enveloped the European project as it struggles to find a way out of economic slump and the financial crisis threatening the Euro.

Furthermore, the agreement is certainly the closest the region has come to a comprehensive settlement of the Kosovo dispute since the violent break-up of Yugoslavia ended with NATO expelling Serbian security  forces from the province in 1999, and it was reached through talks hosted in Brussels, not decided on the battlefield. But was it really a victory for soft power?

True, most Serbian politicians see positive reasons for their country to join the EU. To them it represents a route to prosperity, modernisation and the restoration of the country’s reputation, blackened as it was by the repression and violence that marked the rule of its former leader, Slobodan Milosevic.  So the hope in Belgrade is that the deal will clear the way for Brussels to name a date for the start of full membership talks early next month.

Catherine Ashton and her team appear to have displayed diplomatic skill, tenacity and a good deal of imagination in crafting mutually acceptable wording to the fifteen point agreement .

But it was not skilful diplomacy that persuaded Belgrade to retreat so far from the deal it would have wanted. Before Kosovo unilaterally declared independence five years ago, there was another round of talks between the two sides led by the UN mediator, Martti Ahtisaari. Belgrade rejected the deal on offer then because Mr Ahtisaari never made any attempt to persuade the Kosovo Albanians to remain part of Serbia, instead offering a plan that would give Serbs in an independent Kosovo considerable autonomy with some links with Serbia.  The deal Belgrade has now accepted may not be called the Ahtisaari Plan. but it looks very much like it.

The key to getting Serbia to give so much ground – literally – is the German stick behind the Brussels  diplomats. Berlin has taken an increasingly hard line with Belgrade over the past few years and made it clear to Serbia there would be no EU membership talks if it didn’t normalise relations with Kosovo. Also, it is not lost on Belgrade that there are still more than five thousand NATO-led troops in Kosovo and the German contingent is by the far the largest. Ostensibly, they are there to keep the peace and their presence ensures Serbia hasn’t been able to resort to force to prevent Kosovo’s secession, even if it had had the will to do so. But in 2011 and 2012, these troops were deployed to try to face down resistance by Serbs in north Kosovo to an ultimately failed attempt by Pristina to unilaterally impose its rule there – an action that sent a clear message to Belgrade.

This looks more like the exercise of smart, than purely soft, power; something that may surprise many observers of EU foreign policy. But, as the two sides prepare to start discussing implementation, it is by no means certain the deal will stick.

For starters, it is only an outline and there will be plenty of potential pratfalls when working out the details – as the wrangling over interpreting and implementing a previous limited agreement on joint administration of customs and disputes over details as apparently mundane as car number plates, shows.

Then there are the conflicting meanings the two sides attach to the deal. For Pristina it represents de facto – if not de jure – recognition of its independence by Belgrade, but Belgrade insists it is no such thing, preferring to characterise it as a practical agreement to ensure the interests of Serbs living in Kosovo.

But most importantly, there is the attitude of the Serb majority who live in northern Kosovo. Even during the period of UN rule in Kosovo  from 1999-2008, Pristina’s writ never ran in northern Mitrovica and the three municipalities abutting central Serbia, and there is no sign that is about to change. Since the deal was signed, local Serb leaders who, crucially, were not involved in the talks have refused to accept the agreement, and there have been large protests suggesting most of the Serb population back them and are not reconciled to accepting having to live in an independent Kosovo.

Even if Belgrade withdraws its financial and political support from the Serbs in the north, they may take a leaf out of their opponent’s playbook by boycotting Kosovo’s institutions and looking after their own education and health needs, much as the Albanians did under Milosevic in the 1990s.

None of this is to say that the deal won’t eventually take root and the western Balkans will find the long-term stability it has lacked since the Ottoman Empire went into decline two centuries ago. But, as even Francis Fukuyama now acknowledges, history doesn’t end, and there is no guarantee that this deal marks the final resolution of the struggle between Serbs and Albanians for control of Kosovo.

For now, Kosovo’s Albanians have got their independence and are set to extend their control over all the territory claimed by Pristina, not because they are more powerful than their Serbian rivals, but because they have the support of the United States and the EU’s most influential states; while Serbia’s refusal to recognise Pristina’s UDI has support from Russia and other BRICS.

And, as the global power balance shifts over time, there is no guarantee the new status quo is immutable.