Scotland’s bid for independence and what it means for international relations

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The results have just been announced, that Scotland will not become an independent country and end a 300 plus year union. Even so, this vote will have profound effects for the UK and the international community.

Scotland’s bid for independence was fought hard on both sides. British politicians like Prime Minister David Cameron emphasized Scotland’s increased economic and political strength as a part of the UK. First Minister Alex Salmon highlighted the differences between Scotland and the rest of the union. In short Scots in favor of independence felt and still feel different, separate from the rest of the UK.

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 If Scotland seceded, the UK would’ve lost one-third of it’s land mass and 8% of it’s population. A Scotland-less UK would also be more likely to leave the European Union, which has always had an ambivalent relationship with the supranational organization.  The Conservatives have vowed to have a referendum on EU membership if they win next year’s general election.  As Scots are more left leaning, the UK would be more likely to leave without Scotland’s votes.

Also, the UK’s underwater nuclear weapons are in Scotland. Some have raised the issue if the UK lost possession of its nukes, would it continue to be a world power? Would it still be deserving of veto power on the United Nations Security Council? Nations such as India, Japan and Germany have openly declared they want “permanent member” status, making the argument that it no longer makes sense for the concentration of power in the international organization to be confined to five countries. A UK without Scotland would’ve further illustrate this argument.

However even though Scotland remains part of the UK, there will be consequences for Britain.  David Cameron has promised increased powers for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland if Scotland voted “NO” on independence but it remains to be seen what he or any of the other party leaders can feasibly do.

The ethnic nationalism that pushed the UK to the brink of national divorce is not confined to the island nation. Separatist and regional movements in Spain, Germany, Italy and Belgium watched the results of this vote very carefully. Whether Scotland became independent or not, Europe is at a critical moment in its history.  Groups all over the continent are challenging the modern definition of the nation-state.  Beyond Europe, in China, Canada and the Middle East, Scotland’s bid for independence motivated other ethnic groups to examine what ties them to the nation-state.

Just like the Global Recession has forced nations to turn inward, as seen in the recent elections in the European Parliament, so now too are groups within nations.  In a post-modern international system, the concept of the nation-state is slowly eroding as individuals groups, ethnic, religious and linguistic groups challenge globalization and centralization in the nation-state.

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.

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.

American Foreign Policy in 1914 and 100 years later

An eternal historian, my mind instinctually looks to the past to analyze global affairs in the present.  As President Obama walks a fine line between pursuing American interests abroad and tending to domestic issues, it is becoming clear that Americans have little interest in foreign affairs.  For one between the economy, voting rights and other issues, many Americans feel there is enough going on at home that needs attention.  But also, after more than a decade of two fruitless wars abroad that did nothing except damage the United States’ image, many Americans have simply lost the desire to use American power to solve the world’s problems.  In December 2013 the Pew Research Center reported that 52% of Americans believed the country should remain out of global affairs.

Yet international crises keep manifesting themselves.  Tensions between Russia and Ukraine still has Europe on edge over what Vladimir Putin will do next and China’s continued rise has its neighbors apprehensive, particularly over the disputed islands in the South China Sea, and the list goes on. But that does not change American apathy toward events outside our borders.  In March of this year, at the height of the Crimea-Ukraine-Russia crisis, Pew reported that while 29% of Americans thought the government should take a hard stance on Russia, 56% did not want the United States to get too involved in the situation.

This is eerily similar to American foreign policy a century ago in 1914.  After a brief attempt early in the 20th century to create an overseas American empire similar to the empires of Europe, the United States retreated inward and remained so when the Hapsburg heir was assassinated.  In fact, most Americans had no idea of the tensions in Europe at the time.  In both world wars, the United States refused to involve itself until American lives were at stake.

A century later, talks of a third world war slowly grow with every new crisis.  But Americans remain focused internally while other countries fear the future of international relations if America removes itself from the global stage.  In its May 3rd issue, the Economist highlighted that American hesitance to intervene militarily has our allies on edge amid fear that American enemies are emboldened.  The United States is no longer the world’s policemen as it was in the 1990s after the Soviet Union collapsed.  But Americans not caring about the world’s affairs unless it directly threatens us is nothing new.  Even in the beginning years of American nationhood, there was no foreign appetite.

More than that, America can no longer get away with what it did before.  Not only are other countries rising for their share of the geopolitical pie but America simply does not have the money to fund a long-term military campaign.  American military might is still at the top but even that is slipping albeit slowly and other countries are catching up.

American leaders will deny the country is in decline but as a historian, I will not ignore the parallels.  In the early 20th century, Britain, which controlled 25% of the world’s population and the world’s most powerful navy, was insecure of its status as a global power after Queen Victoria’s death and an unsuccessful South African war which left it politically isolated in Europe.  Similarly, in late 2013 Pew reported that 53% of Americans see the country less powerful and less important than it was 10 years ago.  In truth, the world is becoming more multipolar, also similar to 1914.

Indeed this is the cycle of history.  World powers never remain world powers forever.

Is Asia like pre-World War I Europe?

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Between the international headlines about the East China Sea and comments made at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland this week, it is very clear that China and Japan are not getting along.  The two countries have a history, which leaves many wondering if the two are on a collision course yet again.  China and Japan seem to disagree on everything, from the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, to each country’s investment in Africa, to both countries investing more in their respective militaries, the list goes on.

At the World Economic Forum, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe compared the testy relationship between China and Japan to that between Britain and Germany which in part, led to the outbreak of World War I.  As someone endlessly fascinated with the Great War, I agree that the geopolitics of Asia is looking startlingly similar to that of Europe 100 years ago, but I disagree with the Japanese leader that China-Japan of today is Britain-Germany in 1914.

1002px-Map_Europe_alliances_1914-en.svgBritain’s inability to handle Germany’s rise was one of the major issues that resulted in World War I.  Beginning in the 19th century, Britain was the preeminent power in the world and controlled 25% of the world’s population with its superior navy.  Yet with the unpopular Boer war, Queen Victoria’s death and Kaiser Wilhelm’s no-so-hidden desire to establish a German Empire on par with the British Empire, Britain was insecure of its status. The fear of Germany overtaking them led British leaders to seek out an alliance with France, it’s 1000 year rival; and Russia, which was largely seen as a backward autocracy.

China’s_Critical_Sea_Lines_of_CommunicationA century later the world is in the same situation.  The United States, after being world’s preeminent power in the 20th century, in the 21st century faces losing that status.  At the moment China leads the way with an economy that is estimated to become the world’s largest before 2020, and other BRICS nations vying for power on the international stage.  However China’s rise has been met with skepticism, not just from the United States but from its neighbors.  Although its leaders insist on a peaceful rise, many argue its actions say otherwise, case in point being the dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands.  China recently set up a defense zone around the islands, leaving Japan and South Korea anxious.  Although Japan has shaky relationships with its neighbors in its own right, many are putting that aside to counter-balance China.

Recently PM Abe was a guest of honor in New Delhi on India’s Republic Day on Saturday. This after Japan’s defense minister was in New Delhi for talks on expanding bilateral defense ties.  The Japanese leader has long felt that India can provide a crucial counter-weight to China and so seeks to expand Japan-India ties.  India and China have a rivalry also, dating back to 1962 over a shared border.  Japan (and India) are also expanding their relationships with African countries, with both attempting to distinguish themselves from China’s widespread influence on the continent.

PM Abe is right that a war in Asia would spell disaster for the world. The rivalry between Britain and Germany was that between a longtime empire and an rising power–just as the tension between the US and China is today.  However as much as I understand PM Abe’s fear, I can see the seeds of war being planted already.  Japan is investing more into its military, solidifying alliances with other countries in the region and seeking to outdo China in Africa.  What is more startling is that Japan is not alone.

History has a way of repeating itself but never in the exact way.  So although there are some differences between Europe a hundred years ago and Asia today, the major themes remain the same.  The leaders of today will face the same decisions as leaders a century ago.  That leaves the question, can the world avoid making the same mistakes of the past?