The Battle Between International Law and National Interests, Part I

UN_General_Assembly_hall

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.

Advertisements

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?

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

BRICS_leaders_in_Brazil

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.

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.

Europe_1914

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.

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

Image

iytm2ujtirks

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.