Iran Nuclear Deal & What It Means for the Future of International Security Part I: On the Brink of a Diplomatic Breakthrough?

P5+1 Talks With Iran in Geneva, Switzerland

Last Thursday was a historic day for world diplomacy as the P5+1 (US, UK, France, China, Russia + Germany) announced a framework for a deal with Iran over it’s nuclear program. Terms will not become final until June 30 but the key points are: 1) Iran dramatically reduces its enriched uranium to 3.67% (uranium needs to be enriched to 90% to make a bomb); 2) Iran’s centrifuges are reduced to 6,104; 3) Iran reduces its uranium stockpile from 10,000kg to 300kg; 4) IAEA has access to all of Iran’s nuclear facilities; 5) IF Iran keeps its word, sanctions will be lifted very gradually–some will remain in place still for over 20 years.

Reactions are wide-ranging. Iranians celebrated the possible end to sanctions that prevent them from accessing basic necessities for life–food, medicine, electricity etc. Saudi King Salman, who is fighting a proxy war with Iran in Yemen expressed cautious hope that this leads to increased peace & stability in the region. French president Francois Hollande points out that sanctions can be reinstated if Iran does not fully comply. Unsurprisingly, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is not happy, insisting any deal must include Iran’s recognition of Israel’s right to exist, that the deal endangers the survival of the state of Israel and that his country will not accept it when the terms become final.

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Israel would appear to have little pull in stopping this deal as it is not part of the P5+1. Well, except for the catch. UN and EU sanctions are relatively easy to lift but easing US sanctions require Congressional approval. Hence when President Obama spoke about the framework he began making his case to Congress.

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The president’s foreign policy usually leaves much to be desired but he is absolutely right that “should negotiations collapse because we, the United States, rejected what the majority of the world considers a fair deal, what our scientists and nuclear experts suggest would give us confidence that they are not developing a nuclear weapon, it’s doubtful that we could even keep our current international sanctions in place…”

Despite their skepticism, neither Congress or Netanyahu mention any viable alternatives. If there is no deal, there are only two: 1) continuation of the status quo or, 2) war.

Congress would do well to heed the president’s words and remember that the US and Iran were not the only parties at the negotiating table.This is a multilateral deal and countries are eager to do business with Iran; China and India for starters. Assuming Iran complies, the rest of the P5+1 have agreed to lift the EU and UN sanctions. We can refuse to lift ours, but the world may not follow us. Iran may even start to look like a victim. This is just one more confirmation that the US is not ‘indispensible’ anymore. The world is not afraid to oppose us like in years past as seen with the AIIB. If we push too hard we may find ourselves isolated while the world moves on. If that happens, American power really will be in decline.

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 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.

 

 

Russia invades Crimea–Is WWIII on the horizon?

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The US and Europe are on edge right now as Russia has taken Crimea, an semi-autonomous region of Ukraine whose population is 60% ethnic Russian.  Early yesterday Russia’s legislature, the Duma approved military force in Ukraine.  Since Crimea is recognized as part of Ukraine, for Russia to take it by force is a violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and international law.  The Ukrainian military is on full alert, however Ukraine’s military is much smaller than Russia’s military and Ukrainian economy is in shambles.

This situation comes on the heels of an uprising in the Ukraine that forced its president into exile and left a very divided country.  The western part of the country leans towards the West, the European Union and wants more integration in the EU.  However eastern Ukraine is more aligned to Russia.

On Saturday the United Nations Security Council called an emergency meeting in New York where UN Ambassadors from the US, UK, France and the Ukraine condemned Russia’s action, while Russia’s UN Ambassador defended it.  Obviously nothing substantial came of it, not even a resolution since Russia has veto power.  President Obama had a 90 minute phone conversation with President Putin and again nothing substantial came of it other than Obama asking Putin to pull back his forces, and notifying Putin that the US would suspend its participation in the G8 summit scheduled for June in Sochi.  David Cameron, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom later withdrew his country’s participation from the G8 summit, as well as leaders from France, Germany and Canada.  The question for the US and Europe is what do they do now?

A war is the last thing the international community wants or needs.  However there was a treaty in 1994 between Ukraine, the US and UK.  In exchange for Ukraine relinquishing it’s chemical weapons, the US and UK guaranteed Ukraine’s borders.   Crimea itself is autonomous, and until 1954 was part of Russia.  But if Putin moves his forces beyond Crimea into mainland Ukraine, would the US and UK be dragged into war with Russia?

As a historian, my immediate reaction was this is eerily similar to Hitler annexing the German-speaking Sudetenland, which was part of then-Czechoslovakia.  Putin’s reasoning to sending troops to Crimea is to protect the ethnic Russians who live on the island.  In 1938, Britain and France were traumatized by WWI and fearful of starting another war so they did little to stop Hitler.  Similarly, the US is war weary after Iraq and Afghanistan.  Also as the UK greatly downsized it’s military to a mere police force for its empire after WWI, just last week US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced the US military would be downsizing to pre-WWII levels.

If the West wishes to prevent this situation from de-escalating, diplomacy must prevail.  Economic and diplomatic sanctions are a good start.  Russia should be isolated as much as possible starting with the G8 summit in Sochi.  The problem is that Ukraine is a very divided country, among its leaders and its people.