The Battle Between International Law and National Interests, Part I

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With Russia-Ukraine and Israel’s military assault on Gaza, 2014 seems to be the year of international crises.  Beginning in late 2013 with chemical weapons used in Syria, global crises seem to arise routinely lately.  This is nothing new, international crises have existed since even before the establishment of the nation-state.  However what is different about this current series of crises is the lack of an international response.

This is comparable to western Europe’s appeasement of Hitler before World War II. The world was recovering from the Great Depression and the United States was apathetic to Europe’s troubles, having embraced isolationism.  The burden fell to the western democracies of Britain and France who were weary of reliving another world war, and thus did nothing.

80 years later, the world is recovering from the Great Recession in a highly globalized and interconnected world.  The world is in a phase where countries largely keep to their own borders and are reluctant to act outside them.  This is why despite Europe’s outrage with Russia going back to Putin’s annexation of Crimea, the continent’s response has been lukewarm at best.  As with Syria, the US is trying to muster international engagement in a community of nations that currently pursues national interests above international norms.

But what distinguishes this situation from previous crises is the shifting balance of power.  This trend of globalization and ‘geopolitical isolationism’ is happening against a backdrop of changing polarity.  Which leads me to conclude the world is in a unique situation–a composite akin to pre-WWI and pre-WWII.

Part of the US’ difficulty in mobilizing an international response to global crises is the rise of other powers challenging American hegemony.  Russia, India, China are rising powers who not only want a ‘piece of the power-pie’ but whose national interests lead them away from the West.  The US does not agree with their actions, but cannot intimidate them either.  Despite Britain controlling 25% of the world’s population, in 1914 Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia, France and the Ottoman Empire shared power.  The fear of losing power and the desire to gain power caused the tensions that resulted in World War I.  A century later the US is trying to maintain its influence as other countries such as the BRICS demand shared power.

 The world before WWII was one where countries largely kept to themselves, so fearful of another global conflict and out of economic self-interest.  Likewise the world today is jaded by the international interventions that dominated the 1990s and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan but is also still recovering from the Great Recession.

The Geopolitical Fall Out Over Malaysian Airlines Flight 17

I was shocked and saddened when I heard about the crash of Malaysian Airlines flight 17.  First and foremost my heart goes out to those who lost family members and friends.  It is also unfortunate that the AIDS research community lost 100 of its scientists ahead of the World AIDS conference.

When I first heard the passenger jet had been shot down, I actually thought about the assassination of Franz Ferdinand.  As discussed in an earlier post it was a minor incident that occurred in a volatile area set off a chain reaction that led to war and changed the world forever. The conflict between Ukraine and Russia has been out of the news recently but reports say that the conflict had escalated leading up to the crash, and that Putin resisted new American sanctions.  Ukraine and Russia are now playing the blame game as Ukraine hopes to finally rally the world to put real pressure on Putin to stop the violence and Putin blames Ukraine, claiming its efforts against the separatists lead to the plane being shot down.

Although leaders insist on a fair and objective investigation into who is responsible, the implied assumption is that Russia is responsible and should be punished.  Whether or not Putin is actually guilty is not my concern because he already is in the eyes of the international community.  My concern is what happens now?

A lot depends on Europe.  This is a moment of truth for the European Union and European countries, whether they can take a stand when their own citizens are at stake.  I appreciate the reality that the eurozone and Russian economy are very much dependent on each other–not just for gas, but business and trade.  Europe is still recovering from the recession and are wary about any possible upset that could jeopardize that.

But what about the precedent it sets for Russia or anyone to whatever it pleases and Europe’s silence?  When I interned at the European Parliament in 2010, I sat in Committee of Foreign Affairs meetings and the number one concern for the organization is to be a force on human rights and to have a voice the world pays attention to.  How is the EU going to gain the very credibility it wants when it won’t even speak to violence happening in it’s own backyard?

Narendra Modi gets to work cultivating alliances that could prove pivotal for India and international relations

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India’s new prime minister Narendra Modi is not wasting any time toward improving the economic situation in his country. The West (which previously shunned Modi) is not hesitating to embrace Modi as he seeks to make India a lucrative place to do business and for foreign investment.

Earlier this month, top British leaders met with Modi and his Foreign Minister and Indian business leaders in Mumbai for two days as they discussed expanding bilateral trade (already up to $15.8 million) and foreign investment from Britain into India. The talks included the sale of arms as India, already the world’s biggest arm importer seeks to build up its defense.

The United States announced Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel travel to India in late July-early August to discuss expanding India and the US’s bilateral relationship.

The relationship between the world’s largest democracies has been testy at best under the Obama Administration after being strong during the Clinton and Bush Administrations. Frank Wisner, the US ambassador to India under Clinton told the Express Tribune that as Obama has focused on China’s rise, India has trouble seeing where it fits in to Obama’s policy. As Modi is likely to be in power for foreseeable future, the time to cultivate a viable US-India relationship is now. Especially if Modi succeeds in replicating the economic success he oversaw in Gujarat, in the rest of India.

But India is not just looking to the West for alliances.

Despite tensions over border clashes, Modi met with Chinese leader Xi Jinping earlier this week in Brazil, days ahead of the BRICS summit.  Modi wants to resolve conflicts with China, emphasizing their shared similarities in an attempt to invite Chinese investment in Indian infrastructure.  In turn Xi Jinping invited Modi to Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting in November.

If these former rivals could manage to put aside their differences for a mutually beneficial partnership, it would be an amazing example in international politics.  More than that India and China make up 40% of the world’s population on the continent to where power is shifting.  India seeks for the world to take it seriously and China seeks to undermine US hegemony in Asia.  India and China working together could prove consequential for the world.

So far Modi appears to be pragmatic, and it’s working.

BRICS come together in Brazil as they seek to challenge the West

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Just days after the end of the World Cup, Brazil was the gathering place for another international meeting: the annual BRICS summit.  BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) is an association of five emerging national economies.  It represents 3 billion people around the world, 21 percent of global economic output, and has contributed more than 50% of the world’s economic growth in the past decade.

However, it remains to be seen whether it can be a real force on the world stage or whether it will remain a nominal association without any real clout.  The West remains critical.  Nevertheless the BRICS remain determined to change the world order as it exists under American financial hegemony.  Their 3-day summit came with the announcement of the creation of a New Development Bank, to challenge the World Bank (WB) and the Contingent Reserve Fund, to challenge the International Monetary Fund (IMF).  India stressed they want to make sure all members (which could eventually include non-BRICS nations) have equal voting rights unlike in the Western-run WB and IMF.

The question I have is will the BRICS always be an economic association?  Or will it become a political one as well?  It is telling that these five nations with different political systems could come together, recognizing they have a lot to gain from each other, knowing they could change the world.  But if they gain economic clout, given 3 of the 5 BRICS are countries that have historically challenged the status quo, adding a political element to their association could add a further challenge to the US and the West that is neither hostile nor belligerent, but that simply tells the US, that it is not calling the shots anymore.

However plausible this is, it is a long ways off.  For one, it remains to be seen if the BRICS can be an economic force.  Second the BRICS focusing on economics effectively allows them to focus on what can benefit their national economic needs, and avoid political differences that could tear them apart.

Although China and Russia are getting close, it is not a marriage of love.  Russia needs allies and China wants to buy Russia’s gas.  China’s foreign policy is based on noninterventionism for its own self-interest.  India’s foreign policy under Narendra Modi remains to be seen but he is pragmatic like Xi Jinping and is focused on improving India’s economic situation.  Historically India has been non-aligned, thus it would not be surprising for India to have a similar foreign policy to China’s.

On the other hand, Russia could give them no choice.  The BRICS have been largely silent during the Ukraine-Russia conflict but the recent plane crash of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 could force them to step away from Russia.  India wants more responsibility on the world stage and is making a case to be a permanent member on the United Nations Security Council. However lukewarm Britain and France’s political response is, it is unlikely they will allow India veto power if it seems ‘too close’ to Russia.