The US Needs to Change the Way it Deals With the Rest of the World–or it Risks Being Left Behind

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On March 17 the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) received a significant boost in international credibility when European nations, France, Germany and Italy followed the United Kingdom in joining the AIIB, despite stern criticism from the United States. These four countries are not only leading players in the European Union, but they comprise the 4th, 5th & 6th largest economies in the world (Italy is ranked 8th) and are among the US’ closest allies. More European countries are likely to follow suit as Switzerland and Luxembourg are preparing to do. Asian countries such as New Zealand, Thailand and Singapore have already joined, and staunch US allies South Korea and Australia seem likely also. The AIIB is a China-led international infrastructure bank, part of China’s challenge to the global financial monopoly enjoyed by the US, since the dollar is its reserve currency.

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China’s reasons for creating it’s own version of the World Bank (WB) are straight forward. The BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) have long resented the financial monopoly that western countries, particularly the US have in the WB and International Monetary Fund (IMF). The status quo was birthed by Bretton Woods system established in 1944. Critics point out it is no longer the 1940s and the system needs to reflect the changing balance of power in the 21st century.

Before the creation of AIIB the BRICS tried to work within the system by demanding a greater say in the IMF. In 2010 a deal was introduced to give emerging economies more power. But the US is the largest IMF stakeholder and US lawmakers must approve any such deal. Republicans consistently block its approval. American reluctance to reform led China to attempt to create a financial system not dominated by the West.

American criticism against the AIIB are concerns that the institution will not meet western standards on transparency, the environment and other issues. However BRICS leaders fire back that the US and Europe no longer have credibility to dictate such standards given their mishandling of the 2008 global financial crisis which caused economic chaos throughout the entire world.

In hindsight this development could prove pivotal for the future of the global economic system not only because it evidences China’s commitment to dismantle the dollar as the reserve currency, but given United States Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew’s public criticism of European countries joining the AIIB, it is increasingly evident, that the world is changing. Non-western countries are increasingly vying for a share of the geopolitical pie. If the world’s lone superpower wishes to retain considerable influence, American leaders would do well to recognize this and act accordingly. The longer it takes for the US to wake up to this new reality, the harder the fall will be and the less influence the US will be able to retain as global power continues to shift Eastward.

china_papersover_us If the US continues to block necessary reforms to the IMF and WB while criticizing European allies who join (for their own financial self-preservation), the fallout could potentially be momentous. At worst, the US creates a new layer to the developing geopolitical rivalry between the US-China and forces even the closest American allies to choose sides against the US. At best, the US jeopardizes the strength of the Trans-Atlantic alliance and being left behind as a new international system emerges, trapped in its web of denial.

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.

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?

The Event That Started It All

Postcard_for_the_assassination_of_Archduke_Franz_Ferdinand_in_SarajevoToday is the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and his wife that set off the chain reaction of alliances that led to the outbreak of World War One.  On the evening of June 28, 1914, 19-year Gavrilo Princip, unknowingly changed the course of history that is responsible for the world order in which we live today.  If World War One did not happen, World War Two would not have happened.  The aftermath of World War Two resulted in the world order that we live in today.  From London, to Moscow, to Nairobi, to New Delhi, to Tokyo, to Tel Aviv to New York City, nearly every part of the world was somehow shaped into what it is today because of an assassination in Sarajevo that most Europeans did not care about, and hardly anyone outside of Europe even knew about.

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In 1914, Europe dominated the world with its overseas empires.  The present-day countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America were the colonial properties of Europe.  World War One lessened Europe’s hold on its colonies and planted the seeds for the independence movements that came in the years following World War Two.

The European continent was torn apart by World War One, and historians today continue to debate whether it was inevitable or could have been prevented.  Although the period between 1875-1914 is called ‘la belle epoque’ for its relative peace, this was largely confined to the upper classes of society.  Elsewhere, tensions in Europe were building over nationalism, colonial possessions, and monarchy vs democracy.  As World War One caused the demise many monarchies, which were replaced by dictatorships in a psuedo peace in a world economy battered by an economic depression.  World War Two would become the war between democracy and dictatorship.

Before World War One, the British Empire was at its peak, controlling 25% of the world’s population.  However its leaders worried about a rising Germany, whose leader Kaiser Wilhelm II wanted to supplant the British.  Rulers of the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires were fearful of losing their great power status after a demoralizing loss to a nation presumed inferior, and centuries of domination, respectively.  France, having been humiliated in the Franco-Prussian war wanted a chance to redeem itself in on the world stage.

World War One is my favorite war but it does not get a lot of attention in the United States.  The little attention it does receive focuses on how they shaped the leading figures in World War Two and American intervention in 1917.  World War Two gets most of the attention in our classroom textbooks, movies and political discussions.  But being a European history nerd, I cannot help but delve into the root causes of the war that supposed “To End All Wars.”  Especially as the same themes and dynamics repeat themselves today.

The World Failing to Rally With the United States Against Russia is Proof That America is Losing it’s Global Dominance

On it’s face, Russia annexing Crimea seems like an issue the world would be completely united on, with the United States leading the way.  But in fact the voices opposing Russia and insisting something be done have been few.  For starters, although Europe was outraged and horrified by Vladimir Putin’s actions, western European leaders such as Prime Minister David Cameron of the United Kingdom and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany offered very little other than strong condemnation and concern.  The European Union also approached the situation tentatively.

The answer to this was not difficult to figure out.  Germany, as well as much of central-eastern Europe receives at least 40% of it’s gas from Russia.  All three Baltic states and most of Scandinavia are completely dependent on Russia for their gas.  The EU itself receives a third of its gas from Russia.  Under Conservative David Cameron’s premiership, the UK and Russia have expanded their business and commercial ties.  So at the outset the America was the lone voice against Russia frankly because Europe had too much to lose, either by disrupting their gas supply or jeopardizing their already fragile economic recovery.  When Crimea was formally annexed to Russia, that became the jolt that made European leaders realize 1) Putin is not playing and 2) this sets a dangerous precedent for international relations in the 21st century.  Europe is now working with the US to impose sanctions on Russia, if nothing else to send a message that the West at least strongly opposes their actions.

But what about nations outside America and Europe, particularly the BRICs?  China keeping silent is not much of a surprise as their foreign policy is largely based on nonintervention.  One could argue there are parallels between Russia-Crimea and China situation with Taiwan, or even Tibet.  China’s foreign policy is principled on nonintervention because it does not want another country intervening in it’s own affairs.  Also, both China and Russia see themselves as a counter-balance to the US.  This situation is the perfect opportunity for them to draw closer together while exerting their influence.   But India, the world’s largest democracy has kept silent to the surprise of some.  Russia and India are historical geopolitical allies.  Understandably India is hesitant to disrupt them.

On his CNN program the Global Public Square Fareed Zakaria mentioned that there’s a growing tension in the international system between established norms and national interests, and how this tension resolves itself may determine whether the 21st century is one of peace or war.  I do not disagree with him but I think this tension is part of a greater reality that the world is no longer going to go with what the US wants simply because the US wants it, either because American objectives contradict their own national interests, or they simply do not want to be bound to us.  Perhaps both.  As other nations such as the BRICs rise and seek global influence, the political dominance the US had after 1945 through the collapse of the Soviet Union will inevitably lessen.  It is happening now.

Which brings me to my larger argument that we are in a global system similar to that just before the outbreak of World War I.  Globalization is already at levels on par with Europe in 1914, but the hesitancy of the world powers to rally behind the US evidences that we are living in a more multi-polar world, also like early 20th century Europe.

 

 

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?