Archive for the ‘Diplomacy’ Category

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We’d like to help, really we would, but…

In Diplomacy on July 9, 2010 by AEG Tagged: , ,

Recent candid comments by the Ambassador of the United Arab Emirates to the United States first reported by the Washington Times have shown that the problem of a nuclear-armed Iran is very much on the minds of other nations in the region, backpedaling and official “clarifying” statements to the contrary notwithstanding. The ambassador’s statement was not formal, which explains its unusual clarity and directness. Simply put, he indicated that a military strike might be necessary in order to halt Iranian nuclear development. In no uncertain terms that he recognized that there would be blowback in the form of economic, social and political pressure, but that all of these short-term issues were less dangerous than the long-term threat posed by a nuclear Iran, calling it the result of a “cost-benefit analysis.”

The problem here is not support for a strike from Persian Gulf nations; it is quite likely that, behind closed doors, there are few leaders in the region who would be even remotely troubled by a strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities. The calculus is the same: Which is more dangerous in the long-term – a strike against Iran, or a nuclear-armed Iran? No country in the Gulf region wants to see Iran take such an enormous step toward becoming a hegemonic power, and they are likely to accept that there is little that can stop them short of a military strike or sanctions so onerous that they would probably provoke an Iranian military response.

The real difficulty is that there are very few countries capable of conducting such a strike, no matter how necessary it is deemed. The United States and Israel would have the best chances, as each has a modern air force in the region capable of conducting a complex attack under difficult conditions. The Russians might be able to pull it off but have virtually no motivation to do so, and the British, French and Germans have the technology but not the numbers, regional presence or political will. The firestorm created by an Israeli strike would be tremendous, and would very likely cause Israel to face a major increase in terrorist activity from Iran’s Hamas and Hezbollah proxies in Gaza and Lebanon respectively. The simple fact is that, should the U.N. Security Council resolve tomorrow to destroy Iran’s nuclear program by force, everyone at the table would turn to the U.S. Ambassador.

Thus the U.S. seems once again to be the first, last and only resort. Most of the leaders in the Persian Gulf probably secretly hope the U.S. will simply do the deed and get it over with. This is their ideal set of circumstances: Iran’s power is diminished, the regional balance is restored, and the U.S. gets blamed for everything, allowing them the flexibility to manage popular discontent in their own countries. One hopes that American policy-makers are cognizant of how this scenario would play out; their reluctance to act more directly suggests that they are.

Yet American reticence and the inability of virtually every other interested country to carry out their own attack means that the Iranian program is able to continue. Increasingly strict financial sanctions against Iran and companies that deal with it will no doubt complicate Iranian planning, but as long as the world petroleum market provides an outlet for Iranian oil, resources to continue will be available. American efforts to build support in the U.N. are doomed to limited success, as the Russians and particularly the Chinese have too much to gain by staying on Iran’s good side; attempts to build a formal regional coalition to oppose Iran seem to be non-existent. Time is on the side of the Iranians, and the longer the crisis builds without strong direct opposition, the greater the chance that Iran will be able to successfully construct a weapon before the U.S. can move to stop it.

That leaves the Israelis, who are truly the wild card in this situation. There is little doubt that Israel regards a nuclear-armed Iran as nothing short of a mortal threat. How far are the Israelis willing to let Iran progress before they determine that they can wait no longer? One suspects that the Mossad is funneling support to the Iranian opposition movement, the Kurds, and any other group that might create trouble for the Iranian government, but suggesting that this alone could forestall the nuclear program smacks of desperation and wishful thinking of the first order. If Israel strikes, it will do so because it is doing the same exact calculations that led to the conclusions mentioned by the U.A.E. ambassador; the only difference being that Israel, unlike every other country in the region, can actually do something about threat posed by Iran.

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Reading Between the Lines in Asia

In Diplomacy on June 30, 2010 by AEG Tagged: , ,

Asia represents perhaps the best current example of a region in which rising powers are competing with each other as well as the existing powers for increased influence and power in a convoluted web of diplomacy. This behavior is not at all unfamiliar to those who have studied diplomatic history, but for those uninitiated in the twists and turns of competitive peacetime diplomacy in an anarchic world system it might seem that the countries involved were trying to make things as confusing (and thus unstable) as possible. Further, the dots of individual policies might seem so diffuse and without clear direction as to be impossible to connect. Yet connections may be inferred; it is these first threads of linkage between behavior and possible outcome that underpin the development of long-range strategic policy. While strategy always relies upon prediction and speculation, these are not applied without basis, at least by responsible practitioners.

Witness the developments of the last few days in East and Central Asia. The Economist reports that China has agreed to supply Pakistan with two additional nuclear reactors for its existing Chasma facility. (The Economist, The Power of Nightmares, 24 Jun 2010) With Pakistan being a non-signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and already possessing nuclear weapons, as well as having an extensive history of proliferation and significant links to radical Islam, this is obviously of concern, particularly to India, Pakistan’s major regional rival. India, also a nuclear-armed power outside the NPT, is now engaged in preliminary discussions with both Japan and South Korea to expand its nuclear facilities, according to the Wall Street Journal. (The Wall Street Journal, Japan and India Launch Talks on Civilian Nuclear Pact, 29 Jun 2010) While there are legitimate energy needs to be met by nuclear power in both countries, these moves come too close together and raise too many questions to be simple coincidence.

China’s willingness to assist Pakistan is nothing new – it has provided arms in the past, as well as nuclear technology and even a nuclear warhead design. China views Pakistan as a useful client state that helps to balance India (China’s biggest regional rival in South Asia) and, indirectly, the United States (China’s biggest global rival). China is not particularly concerned about nuclear proliferation among Middle Eastern states or even Islamic radicals, as it appears to operate on the Machiavellian assumption that there are other powers that will suffer more from these developments, perhaps allowing China room to maneuver diplomatically.

Japan’s possession of peaceful nuclear technology has long been considered not only safe from domestic weaponization (opposition to nuclear weapons is understandably high among the Japanese people), but also from proliferation beyond its borders. Japan has had a strict policy of refusing to export nuclear technology to non-signatories to the NPT; the discussions with India vigorously cast aside that policy. Not only is India not a member of the NPT, but it has produced and tested nuclear weapons outside of it. Why has Japan suddenly altered its position, and why is it choosing to help India?

Part of the answer is mundane: the Indian market for energy is lucrative and growing, and the Japanese see opportunity. The willingness of South Korea to assist the Indians has only increased the market pressures on Japan to relax its nuclear policies. This alone, however, seems rather weak as the sole explanation for such a radical ideological shift.

The strategic calculus involved is somewhat complex, but when considered it provides a stronger rationale for Japan’s rather sudden change of heart. Both Japan and South Korea are very concerned by China’s rise. Neither is capable of containing China on their own; China’s population is too big and its economy and military too large for either to confront directly. The United States has taken a very weak position on China’s growing power, accepting it in no small part due to the huge amount of U.S. debt that China buys; Japan and South Korea rightly fear that the U.S. may not be willing (or in fact able) to act assertively to protect their interests when they come into conflict with those of the Chinese. Thus both recognize that they must seek to protect their own interests and balance China by cultivating additional strategic alliances: India is the obvious choice for such a relationship.

India and China are major rivals in Southeast Asia, economically and diplomatically. While China’s industrialization and economic development is more advanced than India’s, India has made considerable strides and looks poised to continue, particularly in the information technology field. In current policy as much as reputation, India’s democratic government is considered less threatening than totalitarian China’s, affording India some advantage in dealing with other governments. Both compete for influence in such economically and strategically important countries as Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Vietnam. China’s aggressive attempts to penetrate these markets are increasingly seen as economic imperialism, while the region’s policymakers are all too aware that China’s military could easily dominate the region if the U.S. Navy’s presence were reduced.

China’s naval build-up has been going on for some time, but India too has been attempting to increase its naval power, most notably by developing a useful aircraft carrier force, the centerpiece of a blue-water navy capable of conventional power projection ever since the Second World War. While there is no joy at the prospect of India eventually becoming a regional hegemon or any sort of major armed conflict breaking out in the region, the idea of India rising to meet the primary challenge of the moment – a hegemonic China – is likely to be quietly welcomed in capitals from Tokyo and Seoul to Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.

The nuclear deals with Pakistan and India are all part of the ongoing diplomatic maneuvering. Selective nuclear proliferation has long been used as a tool to bind alliances together more tightly, and to offset the rising power of rivals both directly and indirectly. China is trying to maintain its advantage over India, Japan and South Korea; Japan and South Korea are trying to balance China; Pakistan and India are seeking advantage in their own more localized rivalry, and are happy for the possibilities offered by the broader regional situation. Nuclear technology is one of the few things that the more developed powers can offer those nations whose assistance they seek; as noted, Pakistan and India both have burgeoning energy needs, and China, Japan, and South Korea otherwise have little to offer in this regard. The secondary possibilities – in this case, weapons falling into the hands of Islamic terrorists or technology into the hands of other states that seek nuclear capabilities outside the region – are too vague and too remote to receive significant value in the calculation.

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Ottoman Redux

In Diplomacy on June 11, 2010 by AEG Tagged: , ,

Recent events suggest that Turkey’s government has determined that the country’s future lies not with Europe, but in the Middle East. This is a major change in strategic direction, one which marks a return to the nation’s traditional orientation after an interlude of almost a century begun by the Western-leaning Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1922. When one considers how much the political geography surrounding Turkey has changed in those years, and the conditions it currently faces, this change is perhaps less the result of obvious popular pressures than it is a tacit acknowledgment that the nation now has more to gain from a return to a traditional eastward policy focus.

Consider the situation facing Turkey at the time of the formation of the modern republic: after over a century as the “sick man of Europe,” the Ottoman Empire had been slowly shedding the territory accumulated in the wake of its explosive 15th and 16th Century growth. Pressured from all sides, the Ottomans had surrendered control of Egypt to the British, Libya to the Italians, and much of the Balkans to the Austro-Hungarian Empire and numerous smaller claimants. It was very much an empire in the final throes of its decline; the disastrous experience of the First World War simply hastened its demise. The end of the war brought further turmoil, as Turkey itself was invaded by nations seeking to expand their reach into the eastern Mediterranean at her expense, most notably Greece. It was not until 1922, and not without significant foreign intervention, that Turkey proper was once again under its own control.

Yet the war also fundamentally altered the strategic situation in which Turkey found itself. Prior to the war, the Ottoman government was unable to focus on any one strategic direction, as it was pressed on all sides: the Russian Czar was her traditional rival to the north, always pushing toward the vital straits; to the east and south, the needs of empire demanded constant attention as the Sultan tried to maintain control of his crumbling domains; to the west, small states motivated to conquest by the rising tide of nationalism in Europe only added to the threat posed by the powerful empires that pressed incessantly against Ottoman borders.

While defeat in the war caused the final collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the new state that rose from its ashes found itself the beneficiary of circumstances that facilitated a new, far more focused political direction. Gone were many of the traditional concerns that plagued sultan after sultan: the empire, much of which was both indefensible and unprofitable, had been forcibly taken by the war’s victors; the Middle East was divided up by the British and the French, while the Balkan territories of both Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires were cobbled together into a new state – Yugoslavia. Russia was convulsed by revolution and civil war beginning in 1917, with the Bolsheviks only consolidating power fully in 1922, and even then commanding a backward and broken state that would take decades to regain its influence beyond its own borders. In other words, Turkey was free to choose her political and strategic orientation for the first time since the Ottomans conquered the unconquerable city of Constantinople in 1453.

Under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the new state looked west. It was perfectly logical in light of the circumstances: Who had won the war? The British, and the French, and the Americans. Which powers were able to control their own vast empires in ways the Ottomans could only have dreamed about, and to project their influence anywhere they chose? The empires that had at their hearts great industrial strength. Even before the war, the Turks had looked enviously west – they brought in first French and later German military advisors, and purchased rifles and artillery from the Germans and battleships from the British – but saddled with the baggage of empire, they were forced to look from afar. With this crushing weight removed decisively, the new Turkish state would be able to reform itself using the most successful of the Great Powers as her models.

The problem inherent in this conception was simple: even as the Turks sought to embrace the West, the West looked askance at the upstart Turks, thinking it virtually impossible that a nation born of an empire that could be argued to have had decline as its single most defining characteristic was now going to become a modern state. Further, regardless of Ataturk’s secularizing efforts, Turkey remained a Muslim nation, and in a world still dominated by self-consciously Christian powers, Turkey would always be too exotic, too foreign, and too archaic to be considered a part of the modern world by those who defined it.

This conception of Turkey is little changed today. Turkish efforts to join the European Union have been stalled for years as Europe tries to reconcile its public pronouncements on the value of diversity with the idea of including a state that is, perhaps, a bit “too diverse” for European tastes. Recent controversies over the wearing of Islamic headscarves (France) and the building of minarets (Switzerland) further illustrate that Europe’s willingness to accept Muslim influences into its ostensibly open society is still far from absolute (politically correct protestations notwithstanding).

After banging its collective head into the proverbial wall presented by European intransigence, it should come as no surprise that the Turks have begun to have second thoughts about whether they should be putting all their efforts into joining the West while continuing to turn their backs on the other regions surrounding them. The recent change in Turkish policy focus is not simply based on frustration, however; it is in fact a clear acknowledgement of something the Europeans themselves are not quite ready to accept: the dominance of Europe and the West is ebbing, and Turkey has more strategic options of economic and political alignment than ever before. The end of the Cold War and the relative decline of naval power as the primary measure of national power has reduced the Russian threat to the Straits while opening up the Turkic states of Central Asia to Turkish influence and significantly reducing the need for a Western alliance. The decline in direct Western influence in the Middle East offers Turkey a chance to once again become a dominant force in the region. Even the rise of distant regional powers like China, India, and Brazil creates possibilities for strategic maneuver that would have been utterly unthinkable when the republic was born.

Combined with useful side-effect of reducing domestic Islamist tensions, Turkish leaders have determined that opposing the West may be a more lucrative path that continuing to stand around waiting for it to finally open the gate. Recent events have shown that the Turkish government is becoming more vocal in its attempts to extend its influence in the region. While diminished, Turkey geographic position is still strategically vital with respect to the eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East. While it is not at all likely that Turkey will be able to challenge for regional hegemony (Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Iran are each too strong and willing to resist such a move), its influence will probably continue to increase, while the influence of the West on it will decline. The Ottoman Empire was for at least the last 150 years of its existence reduced to being a small fish in the big pond of the Great Powers; the 20th Century forced the new Turkish state to continue on in this relationship with the West. Now, however, Turkey is recalling fondly that it was once a big fish in a smaller, regional pond, a situation to which – for the first time in several hundred years – it is now poised to return.

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The North Korea Conundrum

In Diplomacy on May 26, 2010 by AEG Tagged: , ,

The rapidly escalating crisis begun by the sinking of the South Korean naval vessel Cheonan on 26 March by a North Korean submarine presents interested powers with a difficult set of choices. It seems increasingly clear that, while there is public agreement that some sort of retaliatory response is necessary, there are few good options for doing so. The announced joint anti-submarine exercises between the U.S. and South Korea offer the prospect for some good news footage, and perhaps a means to move these forces to a higher state of readiness without being overtly aggressive, but do little to resolve the underlying problem. Similarly, cutting economic and diplomatic ties with the North means nothing without the full inclusion of China, which has provided the lifeline by which North Korea has managed to endure for this long.

A closer examination of the objectives of the various involved powers suggests that little will change. It is not in the strategic interests of any of these countries to go to war, the successful prosecution of which is likely the only method by which anything approaching permanent resolution is possible. The continuation of the division of Korea, the tensions between North and South, and the relationship between the two Great Powers most closely involved – China and the United States – preserves the status quo in the region. While this is not desired by the U.S. or the South Koreans, they do not hold the strategic initiative; the North Koreans do, and for them the status quo represents the best of a very poor set of options.

For North Korea, the maintenance of tension with external threats is necessary for the preservation of the regime. Like all totalitarian states, the government identifies the need to protect the nation from such threats as the justification for its unilateral control. Absent such danger, no rationale for the continued dominance of the state over the people would exist, threatening to unravel the regime. The North must therefore foment tension periodically as a means to demonstrate to its own population the reason they are suffering privation and isolation.

China’s interest in the Korean situation is significant but indirect. While there is virtually no chance of a repeat of the experience of the winter of 1950-1, when hundreds of thousands of Chinese “volunteers” were sent to fight on behalf of the North, China recognizes that the collapse of the North Korean regime would result in a Korean state aligned with the U.S. on its border. Given China’s expanding strategic reach as seen in its continued economic and naval expansion, any improvement in the position of the U.S. in the Far East, whether in the growth of its allies or a reduction in tensions that allows it to focus greater attention on China would be most unwelcome.

Recognizing that neither China nor North Korea has any real interest in resolving the situation, the United States and South Korea must accept that their real options are quite limited. Short of war, which is certainly considered the most undesirable outcome, but which is ironically the one that could actually bring the decades-old standoff to a conclusion, there is little to be done. Further isolation and military vigilance plays into the hands of the North Korean regime by reinforcing the security rationale put forward by its leaders. The Chinese will continue to supply the North with as much as it needs to survive, but nothing more, ensuring that attempts at economic isolation will fail while preserving China’s ability to manipulate the situation as its interests dictate.

The key then is China’s strategic interest. It has no desire to see any increase in U.S. power and influence in Asia; resolution of the Korean situation would do just that. For its part, the United States must recognize that China does not wish to resolve the situation in any way that is not explicitly beneficial to its own interests. Reunification and peace may seem universally desirable to many in the U.S. and South Korea, but the views from Pyongyang and Beijing are decidedly less rose-colored.

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The Return of the Great Game in Asia

In Diplomacy on February 15, 2009 by AEG Tagged: , ,

The recent announcement by Kyrgyzstan that it will terminate the agreement with the United States for the use of Manas airbase marks a return to a sort of regional political maneuvering not seen in Central Asia since the Great Game of the 19th Century, when Russia and Britain competed for influence there. While the base closure has immediate implications for the American-led mission in Afghanistan, the much more important point is the willingness of Russia to actively assert itself by leveraging its geographical proximity and sheer size to weaken American influence in Central Asia and American power in general.

Russia recognizes that the U.S. is not in a position to offer the sort of financial incentives to foreign governments that might have been possible when the economy was strong and terrorism seemed a more compelling and immediate danger. Faced with pressure to focus on domestic problems and waning public interest in security issues, the Obama administration will likely have a hard time selling any significant foreign aid package to Congress or the public. Further, the new president is not likely to be willing to confront Russia this early in his administration over an issue that seems more an inconvenience (albeit a large one) than a crisis.

Seizing on this favorable combination of circumstances, Russia has moved to present the U.S. with a fait accompli, providing Kyrgyzstan with substantial financial aid and loan guarantees in what clearly appears to be a direct exchange for the closure of Manas airbase to American forces (claims to the contrary notwithstanding). While its own currency has been weakened by the global economic slump and the fall in oil prices, the Russians recognize that in relative terms they are more capable of making such an investment than the Americans are right now.

The short-term implications are troubling: without a secure line of communication through Kyrgyzstan, the U.S. may be forced to rely upon risky routes through Pakistan to transport military supplies to forces in Afghanistan (Russia has offered to allow non-military supplies to transit on a case-by-case basis, certainly not an adequate substitute for Manas). With the number of troops committed in Afghanistan intended to rise as the force in Iraq is drawn down, supply requirements will only increase.

In the bigger picture, however, things become considerably more difficult. If the U.S. must rely on Pakistani routes, the probability of more cross-border strikes from Afghanistan into Pakistan increases. This, along with any increased U.S. presence in the country, will almost certainly inflame local anti-American opinion further, creating a degree of instability in Pakistan that could lead to a variety of outcomes, none of them good for American interests. In a region with few American allies, any such situation could have dire consequences for the U.S. ability to act effectively.

At the same time, Russia’s recent willingness to play hardball with the United States and Europe (witness the gas dispute that cut off supplies to much of Europe for several days) does not bode well for a rise in international cooperation of the sort envisioned by many with the end of the Bush presidency. For its part, Russia appears far less interested in promoting any sort of broad-based multilateral cooperation, and with good reason; it is much easier and more effective for Russia to work toward fragmenting America’s diplomatic network of allies, and then keeping those countries divided from each other. Russia need not find allies of her own in order to increase her standing in the world and her leverage among the other Great Powers; it is sufficient at this point to simply divide the most dominant competing powers – the United States and the European Union – from their allies and otherwise undermine their security indirectly.

While counter to American stated policy and diplomatic tradition (at least as popularly perceived), Russian efforts must be countered with similarly hard-minded policies. While it may be challenging to find ways to undermine Russian interests and thus weaken its ability to project power into areas important to America, it is something the U.S. must do if it wishes to continue to maintain the diplomatic capability to influence countries in these regions in a sustained and meaningful way. The alternatives are having to resort to unilateral military force or acquiescence to Russian policy, neither of which should be considered desirable, as they will only serve to further the weakening of American power and global standing at this time.

This is likely to be the first of many such situations confronting the new administration. Beyond Russia, China, Iran, North Korea and others will be watching to see how the U.S. reacts. The rhetoric of cooperation and rebuilding American relations abroad suggest a degree of optimism in the administration is events thus far do not appear to warrant. As things stand, many countries have less to gain by cooperating with the U.S. than they do by reducing its power and influence. International cooperation only works when there are compelling reasons for other countries to cooperate; when these do not exist, other methods must be employed to protect American interests. Let’s hope the White House reading list includes some titles about Bismarck and Metternich, and perhaps even Machiavelli.