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.

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Russia and China Set Out to Change the World Order As We Know It

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Russia and China’s developing alliance was in the news last week as Vladimir Putin signed two agreements while visiting Shanghai.  The first brings $450 billion worth of Russian natural gas to China over 30 years, in a demonstration to the West that Russia still has friends in the midst of growing political isolation.  Experts caution that this move is largely symbolic.  For the moment, Russia still needs Europe to buy its gas.  China, welcomes any natural resources it can access.

The minimal American media coverage focused on whether this deal threatens the United States, with US officials responding that not much should be made of this deal since there is nothing special about Russia and China having bilateral relations with each other.  Perhaps there is nothing special about a deal that is largely symbolic for now anyway.

The same cannot be said about the second agreement however.  Russia and China also agreed to bypass the US dollar in bilateral trade.  America’s financial hegemony partly comes from the American currency being the reserve currency in international trade.  This allows the US to spend beyond its means and have a significant influence abroad.  As the world becomes more multi-polar, there is a strong desire among the BRICS nations to change the status quo.  Russia and China agreeing to do just that is a first step, especially if more BRICS follow suit.

Russia is pushing this relationship as a show of power in the face of Western condemnation, but China can be described as a benevolent opportunist.  Its leaders appreciate the access to raw materials and a chance to challenge the US while at the same time not going beyond certain limits.  Russia-China’s combined strength is already felt in international diplomacy, as both countries use their veto power on the United Nations Security Council to stop resolutions proposed by other members of the P5.

Whether American leaders are willing to admit it or not, Russia-China’s new friendship is one to watch.  No it is not an ideological friendship but a marriage of mutual interests, which might be more effective than a union of affection.  The closer these countries become, the more they will resist US actions in the East and elsewhere, and be invulnerable to American retaliation.  Russian and Chinese leaders have come together for one common goal: to change the world order as it currently exists.

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.

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.

Just Because Putin’s a Hypocrite Doesn’t Mean He’s Wrong

I finally got around to reading Vladimir Putin’s opinion piece in the New York Times.  It caused quite a commotion in the United States and around the world, with many resonating with Putin’s words.  Within the United States it’s obvious the Russian president struck a nerve.  Putin spoke truth and both the American people and our leaders would be smart to listen to his message, no matter how dubious the messenger.

Putin brought up an excellent point about the League of Nations, and how it fell apart because it had no real power.  The same can happen to the United Nations if we are not careful.  What Putin doesn’t acknowledge is that the UN was created to prevent interstate conflict.  However since 1945, the majority of the world’s conflicts are intrastate.  The difference between the two types is what drives a lot of the discord in the United Nations today.

President Putin is right on many points, including the history of American military action in intrastate conflicts.  The Russian president is correct that an American strike on Syria would further destabilize the Middle East and negatively impact international law.  Because the bottom line is that without UN Security Council approval, any use of force in Syria would be against international law.  However Putin’s motive must be examined thoroughly also.  This is the perfect opportunity for him to step back onto the world stage and he has milked for all it’s worth.  Putin’s relationship with Assad brings over $5 billion to Russia so it makes sense he does not want Assad to go, despite his insistence that he is not trying to protect Assad and that international law must be upheld.

But Putin is also correct that the battle for Syria is not a battle for democracy.  Some people want democracy in Syria but many in the opposition are linked with al-Qaida and other groups seeking to harm the US as well as other western countries.  The US looks arrogant for insisting we can pinpoint the ‘moderate’ factions and help them overpower those who would do the US and the West harm.

None of this is to say Putin is an angel and the US is the devil.  I thought the last paragraph of his piece was paradoxical because it was hypocritical and correct at the same time.  However controversial, I agree with him that American exceptionalism, exceptionalism from any nationality is dangerous.  History has proven that.  From the British empire controlling 25% of the world’s population at its peak, to Nazi Germany seizing German-speaking lands prior to the start of World War II and Japan seeking to control all of Asia.  However Putin looks hypocritical talking about God creating everyone equal after he passed laws clearly saying he does not think gays and lesbians were created equal.

Obama’s Case for Military Action in Syria

Obama’s made his case last night for military action in Syria but given the recent developments with Putin and Assad, I’m sure it changed what Obama originally planned to say.  I don’t know if Putin’s efforts will be successful but the Russian leader is right that the world cannot sustain a war right now. Obama is smart to give diplomacy a chance. He had no choice really.  The president was facing an uphill battle trying to convince Congress and the American people that using force is the only option in Syria, or that we should even involve ourselves in yet another foreign conflict.  Putin’s given him an out.  If these efforts are successful, Obama won’t have to convince anyone to go to war.  If diplomacy fails, no one can say the president didn’t try to avoid using violence.

Where Obama went wrong was how he distorted what we think we know about the conflict.  In some parts he didn’t even make sense, which is dangerous in a high-stakes situation such as this.  Although the report from the United Nations has yet to come back few dispute that chemical weapons were used in Syria.  The burning question is by whom?  The US insists circumstantial evidence implicates Assad since he has chemical weapons and there’s no indication the opposition has them.  It’s widely known the US wants Assad out.  I’m not saying I like Assad or that he’s innocent but this conflict is more complicated than we know.  Assad is no angel, but those who oppose him aren’t innocent either.  The reality is we don’t know if Assad used chemical weapons.  He denies it, and even German intelligence is saying there’s no evidence he did.  I’m not saying whether he did or didn’t use them, but the fact that we cannot prove he did undermines any argument that he should be punished militarily.  We’ve been wrong before and it was catastrophic.

Last week pictures and video footage surfaced of the rebels lining up soldiers fighting for Assad and executing them with a machete.  In response the US said saying the same as it always says, that although there are extremist elements of the opposition, the US is confident that our government can make sure we are only helping those who want a moderate democracy that respects all its citizens.  The reality is that many Syrians like Assad.  The people are very much divided.  The thought that we can go into a country, facilitate in removing its leader and bolster the faction we like to control the country is a narcissistic conjecture, and very dangerous for international security.  We did this in Africa, Latin America and Asia during the Cold War, and more recently in Iraq and Afghanistan.  It’s hasn’t worked.  It never works.  This is why America has a bad reputation in many parts of the world.

If Assad is to be removed, it has to come from the Syrians own hand.  They have to work this out for themselves and whether Obama wants to admit this or not, this is just like Iraq in the sense that if we strike militarily and things get worse we will not be able to just leave.  As Fareed Zakaria said on GPS last Sunday, “you break it, you bought it.”