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.

The paranoids versus the Pollyannas: what is driving Labour’s foreign policy?

The Fabian Society has a new pamphlet out this week which lays bare some of the big strategic fights underlying Labour’s emerging foreign policy. I’ve attempted to summarise them here.

Labour politics has taken an inwards-looking turn since 2010 but a new pamphlet, published by the Fabian Society this week, sees the party’s internationalists limbering up for a ruck with the opposition, the leadership and each other all at once. If the IPPR’s Influencing Tomorrow was a genteel debate in the officers’ mess, the Fabians’ collection is a squaddies’ bar room brawl between, in Mark Leonard’s words, “the New Labour tribes of globalisers, liberal interventionists and pro-Europeans and the Blue Labour apostles of localism and disengagement”.

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.

Turkey – turning away from the West or rebalancing its priorities?

Turkish voters approved a new constitution this weekend, greeted in Brussels – if not Paris and Berlin – as a key step on the road to EU membership.

But recent commentary and headlines – particularly in the US – have claimed Turkey is turning its back on the West as the rift between Turkey and Israel deepened following the killing of 9 Turkish citizens by Israeli forces when they raided a Turkish ship trying to run the blockade of Gaza in May.

Turkey is an ally of the US and a staunch member of NATO, it has also been trying to get into the EU for more than twenty years, so why are some commentators saying Ankara is turning away from the West? Continue reading

On the web: China at home and abroad, Cameron’s foreign policy, and sustainable development…

– Over at The Diplomat, Thomas Wright explores how China’s self-confidence in initial relations with the Obama administration may prove the “catalyst for a more competitive – and geopolitically savvy – US multilateralism.” Der Spiegel, meanwhile, highlights the extent of Chinese soft power, while Charles Grant sees a chance to enhance the EU’s relations with the emerging superpower.

– Focusing on Chinese domestic society, the Economist highlights the growing activism and changing dynamics of the country’s vast labour force, with its associated implications for the global economy. Analysis over at VoxEU, meanwhile, assesses evidence of a potential Chinese property bubble.

– Elsewhere, with David Cameron back from his visit to India, Adrian Hamilton and Geoffrey Wheatcroft offer their views on his approach to international affairs. Kim Sengupta meanwhile remarks that the new Prime Minister “has started his foreign policy journey with a series of very deliberate steps”.

– Finally, Sir John Sulston talks to the New Scientist about the implications of global population change for sustainable development – the subject of a new initiative that he’s leading for The Royal Society.  Prospect Magazine‘s blog, meanwhile, highlights favourable demographic trends in the developing world, while figures this week confirm that the EU’s population has now passed the 500 million mark.

US and EU: Others must fail

When I took part in a wash-up after Copenhagen with a group  of American policy makers, I was struck by the sense that, although the summit had been tough for the United States, they took great consolation that the Europeans had had a much worse time of it during the climate talks.

It all made me think of a quip attributed to Gore Vidal: “It’s not enough to succeed. Others must fail.”

Today, Richard posts the following digest of Hillary Clinton’s meeting with the UK’s new Foreign Secretary, William Hague (a man she is yet to grow as fond of as she was of his predecessor):

If you want to boil all this down to essentials, I’d suggest the following: (i) Mrs Clinton effectively said, “you’d better show discipline when it comes to the EU”; and (ii) Mr Hague basically said “OK”.

I’d parse the ‘better show discipline’ line in two ways. First, the US wants the UK to play an active role in Europe. Second, it needs the Europeans to respond with one voice to a growing roster of global problems.

Fine.

But to take this beyond complacent lecturing (“we may have a lamentable recent foreign policy record, but at least we’re not as shambolic as those awful old worlders”), the Obama administration needs to do what it can to create an incentive for European cooperation.

When it (i) starts listening to Europeans when they have caucused and arrived at a joint position; (ii) continues to listen, even if it doesn’t agree 100% with the European position; and (iii) foregoes the temptation to divide and conquer by playing favourites among European nations for short term tactical advantage – then, and only then, will I believe that the US is serious once again about the transatlantic relationship.

If Obama’s team wants a ‘disciplined Europe’, good. But it should back this up with its actions. Reward Europe with access when it’s united (as it was, more or less, on climate incidentally). Sideline it when it’s divided. And see the extent to which that makes Europeans pull together in the face of transnational challenges…