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.

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

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…

Todd Stern: what the US wants from China on climate

US climate envoy, Todd Stern has tried to clarify exactly what the Obama administration wants from China on climate at Copenhagen (see post from Leo and me on the confusing signals the US has been sending out).

So here it is:

  • “Very considerable” reductions on China’s business as usual emissions.
  • These reductions to be binding, transparently measured and verifiable.
  • No absolute emissions reductions but (preferably at least) a designated year when China’s emissions should peak.
  • China’s commitment to be consistent with the world stabilising its emissions at around 450 ppm (“we don’t know whether it’s 445 or 460 or… but in that general range”).
  • The package to be backed up by carbon offsets from the US to China – but these offsets should have “real environmental integrity” – and technology cooperation.

Obvious questions to ask Stern –

  1. Do you believe that President Obama’s domestic commitments on climate are consistent with a 450ppm stabilization target?
  2. Will the United States be pushing for a 450ppm target to be enshrined in the Copenhagen agreement?
  3. When does the United States think Chinese emissions should peak to meet 450ppm?
  4. When does the United States expect global emissions to peak?