Promoting World Affairs

Archive for the ‘Russia’ Category

Enough Project and a great Fareed Zakaria interview

In Africa, Russia on September 22, 2009 at 6:50 am

I actually have a lot to discuss today regarding access to good material.

The main theme of this web-site is to promote interest in world affairs. One essential tool for achieving this is to expose relevant web-sites and good sources of information to our readers. Enough is one of those web-sites.

The Enough Project is a project that conducts research in areas of conflict in Africa. From Somalia, Sudan, to Uguanda, the organization provides access to strategy and research papers and general overviews of the conflicts that its researching team has conducted. It’s an excellent way to understand the conflicts in Africa and is a must read for anyone who has been curious or confused by what exactly is happening in the region.

I used the web-site extensively when I conducted my research regarding Somalia and the concept of humanitarianism. The web-site really is a great resource, and what’s better is that they regularly offer assistant Research internships and full time positions. It’s a great way to study where Somalia is at the moment in terms of striving for peace, the origins of the Sudan crisis, and current news regarding decisions in Zimbabwe. What’s even better is that all their publications are free and they’re very well written and really do achieve a good, concise analysis, based of course on my own personal experience when I was conducting my research.

Second, be sure to check out Fareed Zakaria’s GPS podcast for last Sunday. He interviewed Russian President Medvedev and it’s really informative. The President really composes himself well and balked at critics who charge that the real holder of power is Prime Minister Putin. He simply pointed to the constitution and observed that for anything to be official, the President has to sign it. Though there are doubts whether or not this is true, take a look at Gorbachev’s interview with the BBC where he expresses worry regarding Putin’s comment that he’ll have a discussion with the President to determine whether or not he will run for another term as President. Another interesting tidbit came out in the interview regarding a secret meeting between Medvedev and Israeli Prime Minster Netanyahu. The discussion probably had something to do with Iran, and it was interesting that the rhetoric used by Medvedev regarding Iran was much harsher.

Fareed essentially outlines these points during some pauses in the interview. He’s a great interviewer, albeit a bit diplomatic but still isn’t afraid to really ask some tough questions. What I found the most interesting was that he provided a link to Medvedev’s paper that severely criticizes the state that Russia is in right now. He expresses the danger of having rambid corruption, a state owned press, over-reliance on raw materials and the dire need to modernize the Russian economy. It’s a great article and you can find the link here. Watch the interview. Russia to the “West” is perceived as being a very mysterious country that makes the news by flexing its muscle. It’s refreshing to get a good insight into pertinent questions of how Russia is perceived to be behaving and seeing the “head” of state answer some tough questions. Medvedev has always advocated an independent press and has in the past encouraged the media to put more pressure on the government. The debate is whether or not that is possible under current conditions. Regardless, what was the most revealing was seeing or hearing where Medvedev believes Russia should be in terms of its own development. The tragedy is that it’s a far cry from where it actually is.

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Just bad timing

In Foreign Policy, Russia, The United States, Uncategorized on September 17, 2009 at 11:34 am

The big news of the day is that that United States abandoned its plans for establishing a missile defense shield in Europe. The change was expected but the timing was not. Obama is facing a lot of criticism at home for moving to the left, especially regarding health care reform. He has made concessions with the public option, but the Republicans are in full swing and are not shy about rallying the general public and portraying him in a very evil light. We’ve all seen the news footage of the townhall meetings and people screaming at their politicians, even of posters depicting Obama as a Nazi. This will undoubtedly add more fuel to this fire.

Regardless, the abandonment is not entirely a bad idea. Obama has made very clear that his adminsitration has three distinct foreign policy goals. The first is to increase U.S. activity in Afghanistan, as he believes, rightly, that Afghanistan directly threatens U.S. national security. The second is Iran and its nuclear program and the third is the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. We have established on this forum that the last two are directly linked. Apathy against the United States in the Middle East has more to do with the U.S. failure in pushing Israel to acknowledge an independent Palestinian state than the war in Iraq. If this can be resolved, he can put influential countries, such as Syria, Jordan and Egypt firmly on his side and put more regional pressure on Iran. Regarding Iran, the major stumbling block is of course Russia, who has been very adamant in viewing any attempts by the U.S. to start a Missile Defense program in Europe as a direct threat to its natural security. Therefore, the move to forgo any plans at such a shield has more to do with woing Russia than believing that such a system cannot work.

On the other side of the debate is the belief that in forgoing such a system is to alienate further our key Central European allies, Poland and the Czech Republic, in the face of an aggressive Russia. Admittedly, public support for such a system in these countries has been extremely low, and the European Union has always been very weary at any attempts by the U.S. in having such an influence in these countries, as their relations with Russia would be in jeopardy, a vital source for their vital energy resources.

This is a very bold move by the Obama administration considering the timing. Public support has been waning due to health care reform, and Democrats are putting up a fight concerning Obama’s plans in Afghanistan. It’s the right move to be sure, but it’s just very bad timing.

Lessons learned from the past

In Democracy, Europe, NATO, Russia on September 14, 2009 at 8:02 am

A friend of mine passed along a link to The Iron Curtain Diaries, a project undertaken by journalists, photographers, and a cartoonist who travelled along the former “iron curtain,” interviewing people about their feelings of the past and their prospects for the future. I’m usually not a big fan of flash sites, but this one is well designed and very informative. Plus it’s very easy to access media content, such as interviews, video and text and it’s all streamlined. It’s definitely worth a look and a showcase in how the internet can create an interactive experience and give museums a run for their money.

But bouncing on that, it seems academia has been in an old “Eastern Europe” kick. It probably has something to do with the fact that the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall is right around the corner, but regardless it’s useful to point out a few articles to spark your interest, in case any of you has or wish to have some knowledge on the subject.

The first is an article straight out of Foreign Policy by Edward Lucas. Edward Lucas is one, if not the lead scholar of the region formerly known as the Soviet Union, which is illustrated by the fact that he’s a regular contributer to the Economist. He has a new book out called The New Cold War, which seems to be getting some good reviews and I did put it on my “to-read” list. The article outlines many of the problems that the Baltic states, (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) are facing in terms of large amount of government debt, corruption, and a tourist industry that is nearly collapsing. The article is very informative, and goes beyond politics and economics and brings to light some interesting cultural tidbits about the countries. First, these states were considered to be the “winners” of the post-Cold War who were able to quickly transform their economies from one driven by a strong, central government to a market economy. This was no easy task, and, as Lucas outlines, some of the Baltic countries were more successful than the others. Unfortunately they were hit very hard by the financial crisis, exposing their high government debt and had to quickly rely on a partial bailout from the European Union. The second point is that with their collapse and fear of them becoming failed states, it would be quite easy for Russia to regain a strong foothold in the region and bully them away from the West. Yes they are in NATO and the European Union, but, here my last point, it surprises me that more attention hasn’t being given to the state of affairs in the Baltic states, as they not only have a high strategic geopolitical importance, but could serve a precedent of a country, or countries, failing in the EU. If they do fall and are gobbled up by an aggressive Russia, what message could this send to other states who view the European Union as a given to ensure their national security? What about new states that are currently entering the mix, like Croatia (Slovenia has finally dropped its stance of blocking any chance of it entering) or the rest of the former Yugoslavia who view the road to the EU as a guarantee for prolonged peace? Second, the thesis of the article seems to be that these countries are disappearing. Not literally of course, but no-one seems to be paying any attention to them or taking into account the seriousness of the situation. Whether it’s NATO who, Lucas argues, never really took to providing the Baltic states a competent military presence in face of a Russian threat or tourists who seem to have abandoned the region (apparently it’s so bad, that employees in the service industry decided not to show up for work), it seems as if the region is in danger of disappearing.

To be sure, the old Eastern bloc has come a very long way since 1989. Many have transitioned to market led economies, are democracies, follow (more or less) the rule of law, and are success stories. However, it is a fickle thing as the financial crisis has demonstrated and it is easier to destroy than to create. The EU has its hands full to be sure. Hungary has proven to be very insolvent and is in deep financial trouble. The Czech Republic and Poland have their troubles, but from the material I’ve read and at least from what I’ve seen, it doesn’t seem to be as dire as what Lucas portrays in the Baltic region.

What impresses me the most and makes me very hopeful for the current state of the world, is that if one lesson I have learned from these accounts of success and stories form the Iron Curtain Diaries, it is that there exists a possibility to put aside differences and high points of tension that are historic and culturally deep. The Economist singles out the relations between the Ukraine and Poland being very close and productive, despite both of their turbulent histories and the autocracies they have committed against each other. They managed to create a dialogue, acknowledge what happened, and are moving forward together.

This proves that it’s worth being hopeful and something we should think about as the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall approaches. Despite war or societies being cut off by oppressive regimes, there is still hope. Not for it to end, but for the time afterwards, when all is said and done and the smoke has been cleared from the battlefield. It is possible to rebuild and heal any scars.

Russia’s most dangerous threat

In Civil Society, Europe, European Union, Foreign Policy, International Organizations, Russia, The United States on September 1, 2009 at 3:23 am

The BBC titled article, Africans ‘under siege’ in Moscow, reflects a grave problem that Russia is experiencing at the moment, such a degree of gravity in fact that this issue has surprisingly garnered very little international attention.

I remember being exposed to the problem through a New York Times article I read in 2004 or so. I remember a picture of an African, his head resting in his hands, while the article described his struggle for survival, or having to deal with constant death threats of being lynched, as well as witnessing his friends being brutally attacked openly in the streets. The police just ignored it.

Working in the study abroad office, we were delicately trained to warn African-Americans, or even students of a dark skin color, who were interested in studying abroad in Russia of the consequences they may face. I remember one such encounter of complete disbelief. His interest in Russian history spurred his interest to learn the language. The natural next step was to study abroad. I remember feeling as if I were transported back in time, and having to tell him that we only had one position for a man of his stature on the collegiate basketball team, and it was already filled.

The situation in Russia cannot be termed ‘latent’ racism, rather it is violent, bloody, and anyone that appears to be ‘non-Russian’ is susceptible. I found a two year old Times Magazine article, depicting how college students placed a bomb in a small café, and killed many “non-white foreigners.”

Surprisingly, even with the new Obama administration, there has been little, if hardly any, condemnation by a President of the United States on levels of racism that are happening right now. Instead, dialogue is focused on realist, or geopolitical concerns, such as the Missile Defense Shield, NATO’s expansion, Iran acquiring nuclear arms, and decreasing the number of nuclear arms between the two countries. Though all these issues are important, the United States however has a great opportunity to control the rising of a dangerous form of nationalism, which is even more important. Though Georgia was swiftly defeated by Russian forces last year, the conflict however revealed the poor shape Russia’s military is in. Its weapons systems are outdated, and despite talks from Medvedev on Russia’s desire to further modernize its forces, it will take decades, not to mention large amounts of cash to be on the same par as the United States or even Europe. Thus, if history has taught us anything in the past 100 years, it is that nationalism can be an even more dangerous force than any military or weapon. Just as Nazism transformed the most democratic regime that Europe ever had into a militant, racist regime that systematically murdered ethnic minorities, if Russia does not put a stop to these violent acts of racism, nationalism could once again acquire a stranglehold in the region and change the nature of the continent.

Europe is also in a good position, if not better, to influence Russia positively. Russia is already a member country of the Council of Europe, an organization that promotes human rights and the rule of law and from which the European Union took its flag. Unfortunately, just as is the case with the U.S., the EU’s major efforts with Russia are in terms of securing its energy, and dissuading Russia from “turning the valve,” just as it has done in the past with Ukraine, a major transit country of natural gas into the rest of Europe. With the United Kingdom being the obvious exception, as well as some of the former Eastern European countries, continental Europe only resorts to crude language and warnings that are not usually followed. Instead, politicians seem more willing to accommodate Russia out of fear of waking up the next morning and not having any hot water.

To be sure, this is by far not an easy task. Russian politicians are using this emergence of nationalism to further their own domestic goals, as well as promoting an aggressive Russian foreign policy. A desire to return to the days where Russia was the other superpower, a Russia that could act freely in its own spheres of influence, is strong among the Russian public and elite.  However, every country must have some form of immigration. Immigrants are able to fill in certain gaps, by filling jobs that were traditionally occupied by ethnic Russians. Moreover, as the United States is a primary example, if Russia reforms its higher education institutions it will be able to attract highly advanced workers, such as engineers and doctors, and take advantage of its geographic location next to China. If it continues to allow such rampid, horrifying acts of violence against immigrants, it won’t have a chance in this era of globalization, and Russia’s economy will only worsen, as energy prices seem to be stabilizing and may further decrease in the future. Though Russia’s foreign policy seems aggressive if not militant, domestically it faces severe problems that could destabilize the region. Both the Obama administration and the EU need to work together and take a unified stance and work with Russia in combatting violent racism. Most importantly, both actors must put this issue on the table, and acknowledge the threat that nationalism poses, outside of strategic, geopolitical concerns.

A multilateral nightmare

In Afghanistan, European Union, Foreign Policy, NATO, Russia, The United States on August 28, 2009 at 11:10 am

Reading Zbigniew Brzezinski’s new essay from the September/October publication of Foreign Affairs on the future of NATO, inspired me to write my own thoughts regarding this multilateral security organization.

Brzezinski essentially outlines, more or less, the same arguments regarding NATO’s role and future in the post-Cold War era as Henry Kissinger did in his extremely foretelling book, Does America Need a Foreign Policy? They both outline the extreme importance of the Trans-Atlantic relationship, and how global power is slowly shifting away from the Atlantic to the Pacific, which makes NATO extremely important as a security organization. Additionally Kissinger asserts that the great danger lies not in the emergence of a new European identity in the form of the European Union, but rather the cause of this identity acting as a counterweight to American cultural influence. In Uncouth Nation, Andrei Markowitz outlines this same problem, and views an emergence of anti-Americanism to be so prevalent in Europe that a new European identity is emerging to counteract the weight of the United States. He is even as provocative as stating that George W. Bush should take his place among Jean Monnet, Robert Schumann, and Jacques Delors, as nothing before the U.S. led invasion of Iraq has ever produced a unified European identity in direct opposition to the United States. For me, the fate and purpose NATO is based upon four fundamental questions.

1. Need for purpose

First, the question must be asked regarding what NATO is supposed to be in this post-Cold War period. During the Cold War NATO had a distinct purpose; to create an alliance in Europe that would dissuade any military action by the Soviet Union and to stop a third World War coming into being. However, no longer do we live in a balance of power mentality, where wars are fought for the geopolitical advantage of territory, rather conflicts are more complex and predominately internal. Some, such as Mary Kaldor, have termed these New Wars, while others have termed them simply asymmetrical conflicts, pointing towards the way they are fought. Regardless, these wars are not a question of State vs. State, but involve non-State actors, such as warlords, that have emerged and do not respect international institutions, the rule of law, or even international law such as the Geneva Conventions. This has created a complexity that NATO must deal with, but so far has not. Additionally Kissinger views this more as a problem of a mission statement, as well as the multilateral character that NATO has acquired, paving way for the need of a consensus and not leaving room for those States with true hegemonic power, such as the United States, to take a substantial lead.

2. Improvement of the EU/NATO relationship

This leads to the second question: How can NATO play nicely with the EU? Though official rhetoric has been that the EU does not intend to replace NATO nor see the organization’s importance decrease, the way the EU decision making process works as well as NATO’s role in the region, has proved otherwise. It has always been argued that the need for the EU to have a common foreign and security policy is essential, the path toward this goal however is hotly debated and left unanswered. The EU has established European Battlegroups that are meant for rapid deployment and deal mainly with peacekeeping and “humanitarian missions.” Unfortunately with the European countries not having homogeneous weapons systems, the contributions by different countries in terms of forces and weapons have proven to be a logistical nightmare (this has however been identified, and plans to make homogeneous types of weapons as well as the means to transport them are in development). Additionally, the confusing nature of the EU in terms of who has what jurisdiction over which pillar, makes NATO’s ability to combat terrorism, or root out the sources that are funding the Taliban in Afghanistan, that more difficult. Information regarding the movement of peoples, bribery, organized crime, weapon smuggling, fraud, etc, are no longer under the jurisdiction of NATO member countries, but under Brussels. This creates a scenario that slows down the decision making process when a NATO action may be needed. Instead of creating a homogeneous, information sharing network that is used toward the completion of a goal, infighting and sore spots emerge under allegations that a territory has been inappropriately crossed and toes have been stepped on. NATO is no longer able to respond together as one unit, but must now go through unnecessary bureaucratic red tape that make its actions ineffective and has proven to divide the alliance rather than strengthen it.

3. NATO’s role in Afghanistan

This leads to the third question of whether or not NATO’s role in Afghanistan is politically sustainable in European countries. Thus far, the ability to properly frame the war in Afghanistan by Europe’s politicians as a serious potential threat to Europe has failed. Many argue that Europe is at a dangerous period of insecurity as it fails to properly integrate its large immigration population. Many point to the fact that many of the terrorists responsible for hijacking the planes on 9/11 were schooled and resided in Europe. Others show the growing resentment of Muslim populations in France and the U.K., as a result of large disparities of income and restrictions to education that disallow social mobility that further endanger Europe’s national security. Regardless of the argument, Afghanistan is as much geopolitically important to Europe, if not more so, as it is to the United States. Thus far, the failure to convey this essential fact to the European public has been dismal. In Germany, where even a limited mandate in Afghanistan exists, the upcoming elections and German passivity to anything regarding the notion of war, are making people nervous and questioning whether or not the number one economic power in Europe will have a future presence in the country. Furthermore, the increasing casualties of British soldiers are making many in the United Kingdom vocally question Britain’s engagement in Afghanistan (a situation that is presently occurring in the United States as well), and could danger the future of the NATO alliance if the U.K. decides to withdrawal. Looking at the wording of news web-sites, such as the BBC, there exists a failure to control the flow of information while offering counterpoints and explaining that such sacrifices are needed. I even remember a lecture I attended at the Chatham House in London concerning just this topic, and it was surprising to me how many were in favor of Britain withdrawing.

4. The Russian question

Finally, the question of how NATO should negotiate and act toward Russia should finally be agreed upon. There is a split among European countries regarding this matter. Many, such as the former Eastern European countries, are just as concerned with an emerging, hostile Russia and its current stranglehold on Europe’s energy security as the United States. Others, such as Germany, view Russia to be a key component in its energy security, and sometimes view it politically acceptable to move closer to Russia and act as a counterweight to U.S. influence.

The future is unclear

NATO is in danger of collapsing. Will it collapse with Afghanistan? It is very unsure. What is certain however is that NATO must define its strategic goals more clearly, and the United States must delicately balance its stance toward an emerging European identity without splitting Europe further and pushing some states more to the East. Above all, it is finally time for Europe to take more of an active role in its own external security, which cannot be achieved without a secure, confident Europe that can act as one unit. There does exist presently a tragedy of the commons, especially regarding Afghanistan, where some countries are not sacrificing as much as others. This, unfortunately, is the cause of any form of collective good. It must be combated and NATO member states must be persuaded to engage conflict areas just like everyone else, if and when NATO decides to act. This is the main task of the United States. The U.S. must lead the call that if a country is a member of NATO it must put in as much effort as everyone else based on its military capabilities. One country cannot make the sacrifice of its citizens, while others are allowed to sit up north and enjoy the Afghan countryside drinking a cold beer. Europe must act as one, and it is up to the United States to allow Europe to make important vital decisions, and make more of an impact in the region. The United States must use its soft power through culture, economics and diplomacy, per Joseph Nye, to strengthen the Trans-Atlantic relationship, while developing a clear, concise foreign policy, per Henry Kissinger, that leaves room for no surprises and gives everyone a fair deal. This will result in the United States to further strengthen the NATO relationship, create a solid framework in dealing with Russia’s worry over NATO’s expansion eastward, and create an environment where NATO’s members can define the role of the most powerful security alliance this world has ever seen. This, naturally, is easier said (or written) than done.