I Have Joined Future Foreign Policy!

I have joined the volunteer board of Future Foreign Policy (FFP), a student and graduate led International Affairs Think Tank that was set up to engage young people in a fresh and innovative forum for progressive policies, and allow them to promote their ideas on the future direction of foreign affairs. As an editorial volunteer I report to FFP’s Editor-in-Chief Katy Ho and help manage members’ policy contributions to the site.

I am looking forward to taking on the role and continuing to develop the skills and experiences I gained in my previous spell as an editorial intern at the Berlin-based think-tank Atlantic Community.


The War on Drugs has Failed…

…and the war on terror will too. Fantastic Guardian article that really lays out the situation in Mexico, although it overstresses the uniqueness of the Zeta Cartel. Most of their original leaders have now been killed off, and the group itself is fragmenting. Where the article really hits the nail on the head is the seemless linkage between the state and the underworld in the global economy, and also how hard it is to end guerrilla wars once they start in the 21st century.

International Law & Ukraine

A fascinating look at the claims and counter-claims by both sides over the Ukraine issue, and one that pulls no punches. Sic Semper Tyrannis is the kind of blog that most policy professionals read when they want to find out what is really going on. Part Two of an on-going series. Part One can be found here.

I don’t always agree with what I read on SST, but I can’t help but chuckle as the matter of legal precedents is raised. Of course as a realist of the E.H. Carr school I believe that international law is simply the tool of the established powers, which use it to create a predictable and stable system that defends their interests (and which they can incur the cost of breaching if they have to. See for example the end of the international convertibility of the dollar to gold by President Nixon when the Bretton Woods system had outlived its purpose). People on the inside take that system for granted but on the outside:

“…the liberal moralistic ideology in which I was brought up was not, as I had always assumed, an Absolute taken for granted by the modern world, but was sharply and convincingly attacked by very intelligent people living outside the charmed circle, who looked at the world through very different eyes…This left me in a very confused state of mind: I reacted more and more sharply against the Western ideology, but still from a point within it.”

E.H. Carr was wrong about a lot of things but very right when he pointed out that liberalism is simply an ideology, not a fact of life. Political arguments that rest upon it may claim they are appealing to a universal unchanging set of global values… but often they mean making commitments that Western electorates aren’t prepared to meet the cost of. That undermines our credibility in the real world.

Islamists Will Be The Future Democrats Of The Middle East

There seems to be an international trend towards less blatant outside interference in the Middle East recently. Last week it was the governments of France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, and the United States (of all people) issuing a joint statement condemning “outside interference” in Libya’s civil war. Prior to that Iran and the US tacitly joined forces behind the new Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, offering a welcome contrast to their past struggles over that country. Even in neighbouring Syria, the Middle East’s quarrelling powers may have temporarily set aside their differences to work together. Coming after the successful removal of Syria’s chemical weapons in June, cooperation seems to be more popular than confrontation this autumn. For this to be more than a short-term trend however, longstanding Western preconceptions blocking reform in the Middle East will have to be overturned.

The first myth that needs to be thrown out is the notion that the West has a better idea of how to design and direct Middle Eastern countries’ political systems and social organisation than the people who live there. Ever since Napoleon marched into Egypt Westerners have had a bad tendency to swallow their own rhetoric about improving Middle Easterners’ lives as a justification for running their countries. The unintended consequences of each round of intervention are then used as a justification for the next one, proving that “they” need “us”. The Middle Easterner is supposedly the perpetual student of the Western tutor.

The second notion needing smashing is that there is something in Islamic, Arabic or Middle Eastern culture that is inimitable to democratic systems of governance. The collapse of Libya and Iraq as functioning states shows that removing the dictator does not change the political calculations or social conditions that led to the original dictatorship. But what escapes the notice of those who use this to paint the Middle East as somehow “different” is how typical the early failure of outwardly imposed electoral systems is. A democracy is ideally an indigenous system of political organisation whose advantages emerge slowly over time as its competitors are tried and fail. Historically the Western world’s political turn to it happened violently and inconsistently. Our democracies emerged only after the alternatives slowly lost their credibility over time. Most of today’s Western European ones are less than a hundred years old; at two hundred and thirty-eight America’s system is their venerable patriarch.

The elites in the region will gradually embrace democracy as they stop being able to mobilise political support any other way. The Middle East has been through a whirlwind of political ferment since decolonisation a mere five or six decades ago and the states in it are undergoing a century of nation-building akin to the German or Italian unifications in Europe. This is hardly evidence for stagnant medieval backwardness. Pessimists should ask Qatari pensioners if nothing has changed in their lifetimes. The tragic partial collapse of the Arab state system in the Levant and Mesopotamia should be a warning against the dangerous consequences of outside military action; but we should not distort the rise of hate groups like the Islamic State (IS) movement as being somehow an inevitable consequence of the end of secular dictatorship in the Arab world. That simply plays into the hands of old-school autocrats like Bashar al-Assad of Syria, who use violence to repress all opposition to their rule.

What is inevitable is that almost any political group that attains significant popularity in the Arab world and the wider region will be influenced by Islam, in much the same way as Western ones are affected by Christian frameworks and assumptions. Often even secular Middle Eastern political movements will have observant memberships. Just as Western politicians have to be in favour of things like “freedom” and “the right to bear arms”, leaders in Muslim-majority countries have to appeal to the core values of their societies. Often most of the political activism in the Middle East gets tabled under the catch-all term “Islamist”, despite it covering a wide spectrum of conflicting outlooks. This is a bit like taking the range of views represented in a typical Western country’s parliament and labelling them all “democrats”. It is technically true but vague to the point of meaninglessness.

Western paranoia about Islamists is therefore hard to completely understand. Certainly political Islam in power in such places as Sudan, Iran or Afghanistan has been nasty. But has it been any harder to co-exist with than the old Soviet Union or today’s Chinese Communist Party? Has its track record on human rights been any worse than Western allies in Central Asia or the Gulf monarchies? When the overthrow of elected Islamist political movements has been tolerated by the West (most recently in Palestine in 2007 and in Egypt in 2013) we simply look like hypocrites.

What should be clear for Western leaders is that fundamentalist movements like the Muslim Brotherhood or even Hamas show clear ideological divergences with anti-Western groups like IS or Al-Qaida franchises such as Jabhat al-Nusra. Repressing them is a bit like banning the Tea Party to fight the Ku Klux Klan. It just causes people to rally behind extremists. Secondly collusion in the suppression of Islamist movements in general is a mistake because it retards progress towards politically stable representative systems. An Islamist movement in power inevitably needs to learn compromise if it is to survive (as happened in Tunisia or Turkey). If the West had weighed in against Tunisia’s Islamist al-Nahda party could the Tunisian elite have negotiated the successful transition to democracy that has eluded its North African neighbours? When such indigenous Islamist parties have to focus on the practical problems of governing such as economic growth they lose much of their crusading zeal about regulating their citizen’s private lives. The Turkish Islamist AKP government has not secured itself in power since 2002 because it focused on controlling Turkish people’s social life. Instead it delivered sustained economic growth to Turkey.

Accountable movements tackling real social problems are desperately needed in the Middle East today. When that comes it will be a grassroots phenomenon built on the increased awareness that new communications technology brings and the spread of higher education today’s regimes have been responsible for. Foreigners removing an Assad or a Maliki will not bring it about. As democracy takes root in the Middle East parties with religious values will eventually come to power. Once there they will either break into left and right-wing factions, or have to make a common cause with secular groups in order to govern. Either way Western governments need to get out of the way and stop assuming that they need to be on hand to stage mange events. Their failures in Libya and Iraq show that they can’t hold Middle Eastern countries together or build them functional political systems. Only Middle Easterners can manage that.

“Mowing the Grass” Will Lead Likud Into Historical Oblivion

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has announced that the Israeli offensive against Gaza will continue. The target is now the destruction of Palestinian tunnels into Israel from the Strip rather than Hamas missiles. We have of course been here before, in ‘Operation Cast Lead’ (2009) and Operations ‘Returning Echo’ and ‘Pillar of Defence’ (2012). The Israeli strategy of regularly collectively battering the Gaza Strip to check Hamas, without seeking to quite remove its rule over the territory, is charmingly referred to as “mowing the grass”. The lofty condescension of the phrasing speaks volumes about how Israeli officialdom really perceives the threat of militants from Gaza, despite their rhetoric to foreign journalists about the mortal threat to Israel from the governing Hamas movement and others. Palestinian armed factions operating out of Gaza are a containable menace to be penned up in the Strip until such time as political conditions change. In the meantime they are a useful propaganda tool to shield Israel from international criticism as it tries to achieve its long-term goals in the region.

The spark for this episode of “grass mowing” was the abduction and murder of three settler youths by kidnappers suspected to be members a Hamas cell of the Hebron-based Qawasameh clan. Hebron is of course a West Bank city, inside the territory of the rival Palestinian Fatah party, not at all under the Gaza-based Hamas leadership’s control. The Qawasameh dominate the Hamas cadres in Hebron and were prominent militants in the second intifada. They are also notorious for repeatedly sabotaging Hamas ceasefires and political pacts with freelance terrorist attacks. These facts are also well-known to the Israeli government but it is too politically useful an opportunity to go after Hamas again to acknowledge that “logically” it is the occupied West Bank that Israel should be bombing.

The fact is that Israel has never reconciled itself to the emergence of Hamas as a serious political force following the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in 2005. Israel has refused to acknowledge the Palestinian elections of 2006 that brought Hamas to power and helped plan a coup against the Hamas government in the West Bank (which succeeded) and Gaza (where it did not). With Hamas entrenched in Gaza, the Israelis imposed a collective blockade on the territory in 2007 as punishment, and the grass mowing strategy was adopted instead. The status quo has served Israel well for the past seven years but came under threat recently when a weakened Hamas agreed to form a unity government with the usually supine Palestinian Authority (PA). The idea of a united Palestinian government was a direct threat to Netanyahu and Likud’s visions of a colonised West Bank carved up into so many Palestinian Bantustans. The excuse to stop it was swiftly seized on.

Ironically from the realist point of view if there was ever a time that the Israelis could exert maximum pressure on the Palestinian leadership for a deal weighed unprecedentedly in its favour it would be now. All the factors are in their favour. In America the strongest candidate to take the Democratic nomination for the 2016 Presidential elections looks to be the unabashedly pro-Israeli Hillary Clinton. The Republican Party, dependent as it is upon the Religious Right, can be counted upon to pick a reflexively hard-line Zionist. Internationally the Europeans are preoccupied with the Ukraine crisis. The Arab and Islamic world is weak, preoccupied with other matters and divided amongst themselves. Netanyahu’s bête noir Iran finds itself cut off from its allies and proxies in Lebanon and Syria by events in Iraq. Tehran’s “Shi’a Crescent” is mired in civil war even as it’s liberal (by Iranian standards!) President is engaged with a delicate domestic struggle with conservatives over the economy and the nuclear question. Egypt’s new military government is vehemently anti-Hamas, as it pursues political Islamists within its own borders and beyond.

Conditions amongst the Palestinians also could favour a peace treaty. Hamas had already alienated its former patrons in Syria and Iran by abandoning them after the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011. With the reassertion of the deep state in Cairo it lost any outside sponsors and became totally strategically encircled. A major motivation for the unity deal was the fact that it could no longer pay its own members’ salaries. Fatah’s aging Mahmoud Abbas has completely failed as PA leader to reverse the Israeli colonisation of the West Bank. His term as President ran out years ago, and he mainly continues to operate because there is no-one to replace him as a figurehead with. Alternative Fatah leaders like Marwan Barghouti remain in Israeli jails. In fact the inter-Palestinian accord was worked out inside the Israeli prison system. Fatah and Hamas are struggling to remain relevant at this time and a peace treaty that offered even a shred of dignity to Palestinian aspirations would have a good chance of passing.

Only a hard-right ideologue like Netanyahu could miss the point that this is the moment when Israel’s political capital is at its highest and seek to cement the strongest possible gains for the settler movement that elected him. However both they and he would treat any such proposal with scorn and will continue struggling to uphold the status quo until the moment Israel’s political capital is exhausted and the settler enterprise collapses on its own contradictions. That is unfortunate if you have to pay the human cost as Gaza does now, but it will probably buy the Palestinians a fairer deal in the longer run. Imagine if Apartheid South Africa had struck a deal with the African National Congress, when things were running overwhelmingly in its favour, to partition South Africa into black and white republics back in the 1960s. It might have ended Apartheid sooner, but it would not have been as just the eventual outcome. The Apartheid government instead fought to the bitter end to preserve white rule in as much of southern Africa as it could. Exhausted, it delegitimized itself into oblivion. With his refusal to negotiate when Israel is strong and its enemies are weak, and by his continual sabotaging of trends towards any kind of peace, Netanyahu is leading his base of ultra-nationalists and religious extremists down the same road. Future history will not regret his movement’s political passing and neither should we.

What Threat Is Argentina To The Falklands?

Argentina has been making the international news again lately, penalised over the legal terms of a debt-restructuring saga stretching back to 2001, but succeeding in swaying the UN Special Committee On Decolonisation to back its view that the Falkland Islands are occupied Argentinean territory. Economically Argentina cannot support a military invasion of the islands at present, but this does not rule out an aggressive “lawfare” strategy of annexation.

Argentina has recently succeeded in persuading the UN Special Committee on Decolonization to call for negotiations again over the Falkland Islands territorial dispute. It has therefore succeeded in persuading the other nations on the committee to ignore the results of a referendum conducted by the local Falklands population in 2013 that voted overwhelmingly to remain an overseas UK territory. Argentina maintains that the issue is one of UK occupation of sovereign Argentine territory, so the islanders’ opinions are moot under international law.

Since neither Argentina nor Britain are economically or militarily strong enough to afford a war over the islands, the risk of a formal interstate conflict remains low. This does not guarantee the Islands’ future as a British possession however. It ignores the UK’s weakening geopolitical position since 1982 vis-à-vis states which may aid Argentina to further their own policy goals; it also ignores the possibility of an aggressive postmodern “lawfare” campaign of economic, legal and diplomatic sabotage which the Argentine government could conduct to delegitimize the UK administration of the islands. Witness the American effort against Iran over that country’s nuclear programme, or the more violent Russian drive to subvert the territorial integrity of Ukraine for the kind of costs which could be imposed on Britain and the Falklands. Occurring below the level of open war, this nonetheless could result in the end of the Islands’ status as a UK overseas territory.

From the British point of view the UK longer commands the hard and soft power the country had in 1982. Iraq ended a twenty year run of battlefield successes in the Falklands, the Gulf, Kosovo and Sierra Leone. The 2008 financial crisis completed what the war on terror had begun, debilitating Britain’s military machine and undermining the economic engine any modern state needs to project power and influence other actors. Britain is also going through a tense period with its European Union partners at present and faces an uncertain political future as a united political entity. The UK’s ability to shield the islands from the machinations of their giant neighbour is correspondingly diminished.

This is significant because South American states which are friendly towards Argentina’s point of view have gotten stronger. The UK has no real remaining regional allies in South America, a continent with dim views on former European colonial powers. There is also a generational issue; key figures in Latin American states with left-wing governments today, such as current Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, remember when Britain helped to back many of the repressive dictatorships in Latin America they grew up in, for example by helping to train military torturers in interrogation tactics. Relations with the Pinochet regime in Chile were particularly close until the return of democracy there in 1990. The Latin America of today is increasingly integrated economically and run by self-confident democracies, not pliable dictatorships in need of outside support to bolster their rule. Britain is therefore kept isolated in South America by its past associations for Latin Americans.

Presently Buenos Aires does not seem politically in a place where it can take advantage of British weaknesses. Its government is preoccupied by economic difficulties and foreign litigation. Inflation is a growing problem, and a recent ruling by an American court that Argentina must pay a group of “vulture funds” the full amount of their defaulted loans threatens its scare foreign currency reserves. If so, what kind of threat can Argentina pose to the Falklands today?

It must be remembered that the 1982 invasion was sparked in part by the unrest caused by the disastrous economic policies of the country’s then-military government. If Argentinean politics were to again become destabilised by economic difficulties, it is not hard to see a case where a populist government comes to power with a nationalist worldview that is more committed to “recovering” the Falklands. In the same way that Hong Kong was used by Communist China as a bargaining chip before 1997, Britain’s Falkland’s policy could even become hostage to Argentinean political jockeying.

Coercive gestures towards the islands could easily become a substitute for hard economic reforms or their “price”. Argentina could easily unilaterally escalate the crisis on the ground by, for example, sending an exploratory oil rig with a naval escort to drill inside the Falklands maritime boundary. Alternatively it could try to undermine the Islands economically with a blockade. Given the parlous state of Argentina’s navy this makes no military sense. But as a public relations gesture to rally regional support for itself against Britain, a clash could be easily be spun as a moral victory.

Much still depends on the attitude of the Latin American states and on the UN Decolonisation Committee. While Argentina could make life very difficult for the Falklands, it would still be reliant on its neighbours and international patronage for any future success in getting the islands placed under Argentinean legal jurisdiction. At present these parties make sympathetic noises, but real Latin American support does not extend much beyond symbolic gestures like supporting the UN vote or blocking Falklands-flagged ships from docking at their ports. This could change if, for example, the regional giant Brazil resumed campaigning again for a Security Council seat and opted to use the issue as leverage to put pressure on the UK. In this sense the futures of the islands, Argentina and the UK are hostage to the unpredictable horse-trading of international relations.

The Decolonisation Committee has repeatedly called for negotiations over the Falklands between Britain and Argentina, therefore inferring that the UN already sees the dispute as a colonial one. The committee is an unsympathetic forum for Britain with influential members. It numbers Russia and China as permanent ones; while people might scoff at states with their record calling for decolonisation, they are veto-wielding members of the Security Council. Nonaligned great powers India and Brazil are also represented. The committee therefore contains no allies of Britain, several strategic competitors, and some states whose governments are downright hostile to it, such as Iran. While it has no power to compel the United Kingdom to obey its resolutions (which the UK could veto in any case), the repeatedly ignored injunctions from the committee provide Argentina with a useful symbolic legalistic pretext for any actions short of war that it chooses to take to “enforce its sovereignty”.

I do not believe that a military occupation of the islands is a strategic goal of Buenos Aires in the present political climate. Argentina lacks the advantages of a superior local military presence, a friendly local populace and a disorganised opposing state that allowed Russia to “peacefully” occupy and subsequently annex Crimea earlier this year. In my opinion the real threat Argentina poses today is a legal and moral one; should it lead a successful propaganda campaign to convince the right international actors that they should enforce her claims, Buenos Aires could create a situation where the economic and political burden of maintaining UK control over the Falklands becomes prohibitively costly. Similar “delegitimisation” campaigns have been tried in the past against apartheid South Africa and modern Israel with mixed results.

Under this worst case scenario, a “Diego Garcia” situation could occur where, under the aegis of the UN declarations, the “implanted” British population is removed/evacuated back to the UK by the British government. The administration of the islands would then pass to Buenos Aires. It would be an injustice, but with good diplomacy the operation could acquire the veneer of legalism that state conductors of “lawfare” rely upon to win international acquiescence in their actions. There are plausible modern precedents for the surrender of overseas territories with large citizen populations.

In 1962 then-President Charles De Gaulle gave up the three French overseas territorial “départements” in what is now Algeria. These had been regarded as an integral part of France up to that moment. Almost a million European Algerians (Pied Noirs) fled to mainland France afterwards, and today there is no significant French population in Algeria. The Falkland Islands had no indigenous population for Britain to mistreat the way the French did native Algerians so the parallels here are not exact. But the point I wish to make is this; France did not lose militarily in Algeria, anymore then Britain lost in the Falklands War. Yet legally it could be argued there are similarities between the two situations. When France retreated from Algeria, it did so because it was widely seen as having lost the “battle of ideas” with its nationalist enemies. Britain must not rest on its laurels and allow the same to happen with Argentina.

A Look at a Century of Terrorism

A Look at a Century of Terrorism

Forbes has a really interesting article up looking at the continuing cascade of conflicts stemming from World War I. The writer draws some conclusions that I broadly agree with, particularly the interweaving of violence and liberalism (“make the world a safer place for democracy” wasn’t just a slogan they came up with in the 1990s it seems), the ineffectiveness of global social engineering, and the fact that war often brings unexpected blowback, causing more conflict sometimes decades later.

It reminds me of what I heard at a conference about Syria recently. Many of the leaders of the rebels against the Assad regime were personally tied in some way to the massacre of thousands of anti-regime Islamists in 1982 in the Syrian city of Hama. Syrian Islamists who survived fled to Europe or parts of the Islamic world and would rise to become leading figures in today’s violent jihadi groups.