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.

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.