Commentary on global affairs and where they may be headed

Archive for May, 2015

Britain’s self-defeating approach to EU talks

Fresh from his election victory, Britain’s Prime Minister, David Cameron, has embarked on his tour of EU capitals trying to persuade his counterparts to agree to his ideas for reforming the Union and Britain’s place in it, so he can campaign for a vote to remain a member in the referendum to be held in the next two years.

At the same time, his Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, an overt Eurosceptic, has been telling the UK media that if London does not get what it wants it will vote to leave the EU.

Mr Hammond’s comments reminded me of the scene in Mel Brooks’ western parody “Blazing Saddles” where the sheriff holds himself hostage and threatens to shoot himself to avoid being lynched by the townsfolk. In the movie the trick worked, but Britain’s EU partners won’t be so easily fooled.

The comments also expose the weakness at the heart of the British government’s approach to these negotiations.

In order to get the changes Mr Cameron says he wants involves getting agreement to change some fundamental EU tenets, such as introducing some restriction on freedom of movement, as well as agreement from Britain’s partners to give preferential treatment to key UK interests, such as London’s financial markets.

But by opening the talks by threatening to walk away if you don’t get what you want, the danger is your negotiating partners have no incentive to offer concessions because you are offering none of your own.

You also risk provoking an equally stubborn reaction in return – I can imagine the French for one turning to one another, giving a Gallic shrug and saying if the Brits want to leave, they know where the exit is.

The British government has put itself in a bind with its twin track policy of negotiating changes and holding a referendum because politically the two processes are not hermetically sealed and do not neatly follow one after the other.

Ideally, you would want to negotiate the changes and then present them to the electorate and ask for endorsement, but things do not work like that.

The campaign for the referendum has effectively already started because the Eurosceptics inside and outside the Conservative Party and their cheerleaders in much of the press are watching every move in the negotiations and will portray any concessions Mr Cameron makes as proof of a bad deal which should be rejected on referendum day.

Knowing this and wanting to avoid having to look over its shoulder while it negotiates, the Government has clearly decided it needs to communicate the message to its British audience that it is fighting hard for their interests from the off – hence Mr Hammond coming out of the blocks this week with fighting talk.

But it is not just a British audience that hears this message and the danger is the hard-line bleeds into the negotiations.

While Mr Cameron’s fellow leaders understand political debate in the UK is often more raucous, they may still react to British rhetoric negatively and the response this week of Mr Hammond’s French counterpart, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, is a case in point. He said the referendum is a big risk and, indicating Paris is in no mood for major changes, he said Britain had joined a football club and cannot decide in the middle of the match they want to play rugby.

Even the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, Europe’s most powerful leader and one London sees as a key ally, has said freedom of movement is a “red line”.

Ms Merkel also said she would work with Britain on reform, but it is clear David Cameron will not get a deal without some compromises and it is unwise to use maximalist rhetoric which builds up an expectation back home he will get all the reforms on his wish list.

So if Mr Cameron means what he says and wants Britain to stay in a reformed EU, he needs to find a way of toning down the rhetoric for domestic consumption far enough that he can have constructive talks with the other heads of government, but not so far that the vocal Eurosceptic lobby can portray him as going soft and backtracking.

It is a very difficult balancing act and his track record in EU diplomacy over the past five years does not convince that he has the wherewithal to pull it off.

Does US intervention have a hope of turning the tide against IS?

A week is not only a long time in politics.

Seven days ago the US officer in charge of the military campaign against Islamic State, Brigadier General Weidley, insisted the group had been forced onto the defensive in Syria and Iraq.

Now his words are ringing hollow with IS taking the strategic city of Ramadi less than 100 miles from Baghdad and capturing the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra from government troops – it is estimated Islamic State now controls half of Syria.

The optimism that followed the defeat of IS forces at the Syrian border town of Kobane at the end of January and the Iraqi city of Tikrit two months ago seems to have dissipated with both the Iraqi and Syrian armies unable to withstand new ISIS offensives.

So what now?

Both those IS defeats were eventually achieved by a combination of ground forces and intense air strikes – at Kobane Syrian and Iraqi Kurdish fighters on the ground were supported by more than 700 air strikes while at Tikrit Iraqi forces and Shia militias only turned the tide when the US – and Iran – joined in from the air.

From the beginning of the US-led intervention last summer many analysts have been arguing that to defeat IS, air strikes alone are not enough and ground forces are essential if the organisation’s territorial gains are to be rolled back.

The size of the challenge this presents is made stark by the fact that contrary to what President Obama boasted to Congress in his State of the Union speech in January, since the campaign against IS began last August, the Islamist fighters have expanded the territory they control, especially in eastern Syria.

IS has also succeeded in gained allies beyond Syria and Iraq. Islamists in Egypt and Libya who have affiliated themselves to Islamic State have carried out large-scale attacks. The group is also reported to have established links with the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban. And in Nigeria, the Islamist militants of Boko Haram have also pledged allegiance to the State but there is little evidence this has moved beyond rhetoric.

Following the taking of Kobane, the US-led coalition, which includes the air forces of several western and Arab states, as well as the Iraqi army and Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, said it was turning its sights on Mosul.

It was the fall of Mosul almost a year ago that galvanised Washington to intervene again in the region following the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq at the end of 2011.

If the city could be recaptured, it would represent a much bigger blow to IS than Tikrit or Kobane. But Mosul is a much tougher proposition and since the fall of Kobane talk of an assault on Mosel has faded.

IS has consolidated its control of the city – Iraq’s second largest – and the remaining population is largely Sunni Arab, many of whom may prefer the rule, however harsh, of IS to the return of rule by the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad.

It is also doubtful the Iraqi army, which collapsed in the face of the IS offensive last summer, is yet in a fit state to launch a large-scale ground offensive against Mosul – as the apparently chaotic retreat from Ramadi shows all too clearly.

The Americans and other western countries have been training and rearming Iraqi forces, but the corruption that is blamed for their cave-in to IS will take time to root out, if indeed it can be.

The lack of an ally with powerful enough ground forces is even more acute in Syria. Since the uprising against President Assad began four years ago, IS and the al Qaeda-associated al Nusra Front, have come to dominate the rebel forces.

American efforts to train rebel bands fighting with the Free Syrian Army, which the US regard as moderate, have been beset with difficulties.

Many rebel commanders have been deemed unreliable by the CIA and have reportedly had their training terminated. Some rebels have returned to Syria only to defect to the Islamist forces which are better financed and armed.

The most powerful potential ally in Syria is of course the government of President Assad and some prominent voices, including Ryan Crocker, former US Ambassador to Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, have long called on Washington to re-engage with Damascus.

In Iraq, the US is tacitly allied with its long time enemy Iran, which has also sent arms, trainers and special forces and launched air strikes to support the fight against IS. But working openly with the Syrian armed forces would be much more fraught with political difficulty.

The US, its western and Arab allies, have long been saying Mr Assad must stand down, so they would have to eat a lot of very public humble pie if they were to work openly with him now.

The Syrian armed forces have also been accused by western states and human rights organisations of committing war crimes, including the indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas and the continued use of chemical weapons.

There has been speculation that there is a tacit alliance in Syria between President Assad’s forces and the anti-IS coalition.

But just to show how complex the situation is, there have also been allegations, especially in Sunni Arab capitals, that Mr Assad has concentrated his forces against so- called moderate rebels, rather than his Islamist opponents, in order to allow the latter to appear more of threat so he can present himself to the world as a bulwark against extremism.

Mr Obama’s critics say the reliance on air strikes and refusal to send American combat troops into action shows the president is half-hearted.

The air campaign, known as Operation Inherent Resolve, has now lasted longer than the operation to topple the Taliban in Kabul following the September 11th attacks and the air strikes against Serbia in 1999 that forced its withdrawal from Kosovo.

But there is another example from the Balkan wars of the 1990s supporters of the current campaign could point to as evidence that a strategy of air strikes plus training and arming allies to fight a ground war can work – even if it takes time.

That is the successful Croatian army campaign in 1995 which destroyed the Croatian Serb statelet of Krajina, drove on into Bosnia and, in combination with NATO air strikes, brought the Serbs to the negotiating table at Dayton and ended the Bosnian war.

In the year before the Croatian offensive, its armed forces were re-organised and trained by former American military personnel working for a private security subcontractor. It is thought a proxy was used to get round a UN arms embargo on the former Yugoslav states that was still in effect. When that embargo was lifted in late 1994, US support for Zagreb became more open and arms supplies flowed in.

In Iraq and Syria, the search for such allies has yielded mixed results so far. At Kobane, Syrian and Iraqi Kurds showed they could succeed on Kurdish territory, but to roll IS back, the most eligible ground ally, the Iraqi army, will need to be reformed and reorganised, a task which could well take many more months, if not years.

And even military success will not guarantee a return to stability in either Iraq or Syria – that will require a long-term political solution and progress on that remains as elusive as ever.

US set to escalate tensions with Beijing in the South China Sea

If reports this week are anything to go by, the US is sending strong signals it is about to take a more aggressive approach to China in the South China Sea – and if it does send its warships and aircraft to challenge China’s maritime claims, it can only mean at best a deterioration in relations and at worst a dangerous escalation of tension with Beijing.

It is probably no coincidence these media reports came just before US Secretary of State, John Kerry, arrives in China for talks with his team promising a tough line over Beijing’s actions in the Sea, though Kerry can also expect intense questioning over his country’s intentions there.

In the past few years, China has upped the assertion of its extensive maritime claims in the South China Sea – defined by the “nine-dash line” first established by Chiang Kai-Shek’s nationalist state in 1947.

Beijing has historical claims to some of the islands and with the growth of the Chinese economy it needs to guarantee the security of its energy imports from the Middle East through the Sea and also has the means to do so as it can afford to build up its navy, coast guard and air force.

This has led to confrontation with the Philippines and Vietnam, which lay claim to some of the same islands and coral reefs.

Since President Obama initiated his pivot – or rebalancing – to Asia in 2011, the focus has seemed to be on ensuring strengthened US economic integration in the world’s most dynamic region with Washington concentrating on expanding and sealing the Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal.

So far the pivot has had a relatively modest military component with plans to establish a base for marines in Australia and the recent agreement to deepen defence cooperation with Japan.

But we have also seen opportunistic diplomatic and military support for Manila and Hanoi who – in what is something of a diplomatic setback to China – have looked to Washington for help in their disputes with Beijing.

These American moves, added to the exclusion of China from the proposed TPP, have led many in China to suspect the US of trying to contain Beijing – much as the US had confronted the Soviet Union with its containment policy during the Cold War.

So if the US does now adopt a more aggressive policy by using its own ships and aircraft to directly challenge Beijing’s claims by sailing or flying right up to the twelve mile nautical limit around Chinese controlled islands, this will confirm those suspicions and strengthen the hand of those Chinese policy-makers who advocate a tougher approach to Washington.

The reports that the US is “considering” using its own military to challenge China’s claims follows a plethora of reports in the media that Beijing is building artificial islands on coral reefs to support airfields and docks in the Spratly Islands near the Philippines.

Importantly, under international maritime law territorial claims can be based on the area around islands but not coral reefs, which are submerged much of the time.

The apparent leaking by the Pentagon of its strategic thinking may in itself be intended to deter China, but if it is, then judging by Beijing’s reaction so far it has been counterproductive.

China’s Foreign Ministry said on Wednesday: “China will stay firm in safeguarding territorial sovereignty. We urge parties concerned to be discreet in words and actions, (and) avoid taking any risky and provocative actions…”

So how will China respond if US does more than say it is considering taking action?

If Beijing’s approach to its dispute with Tokyo over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands is a guide, you can expect to see Chinese ships and aircraft intercepting their American counterparts which will increase the chances of an accidental clash – it has happened before when a US spy plane collided with a Chinese fighter off Hainan in 2001 killing the Chinese pilot and forcing the American plane to land in China where it was dismantled for its secrets before being returned in boxes.

But this is 14 years later and Beijing’s new leadership under President Xi Jinping is much more prepared to assert what they see as China’s key interests – added to which China’s military capabilities are much greater than they were then.

So the Americans would be playing a dangerous game. It is also a puzzling one given the recent US push to improve military to military communication and understanding with Beijing.

With the crises in the Middle East and Ukraine pulling the US back into the regions it was hoping to disengage from, the Obama Administration has struggled to maintain its focus on Asia and how to engage with China. But it now seems the hawks may be winning the argument in Washington, in which case the legacy of Obama’s Asia Pivot may end up being escalating confrontation with Beijing.

Will Cameron mk2 mean a diminished Britain?

Foreign policy received little mention during Britain’s long election campaign, but the surprise victory of David Cameron’s Conservative Party portends lasting significance for the country’s role in the world.

Why this is so lies in the future of two unions – the European Union and the United Kingdom itself.

Cameron’s return to No. 10 Downing Street has increased the odds that the UK could leave the EU, and the landslide victory of the Scottish National Party in Scotland, SNP, means the chances the UK itself could break up have also risen. A country that leaves one of the world’s major economic blocs and cannot hold itself together is not one that will continue to carry the same weight in the world.

The Conservatives went into the election promising to renegotiate Britain’s relationship with the EU and then hold a referendum on continuing membership by the end of 2017.

Cameron has said that if he gets the changes he wants to the EU, especially tightening freedom of movement and the ability of people from other countries to claim welfare benefits in Britain, he will campaign for a vote to stay in.

There are powerful forces ranged against Britain’s threatened exit from the EU, what the media call “Brexit.” Big business is dead-set against leaving the world’s largest marketplace and has already started to lobby. In parliament, the two next largest parties, Labour and the SNP, need no convincing. Both are strongly pro-EU and despite the anti-EU, United Kingdom Independence Party, UKIP, gaining almost 13 percent of the vote nationally, it only returned one MP to the House of Commons; its public face, Nigel Farage, lost re-election.

So on the face of it, Cameron would have plenty of support if he campaigns to stay in and if his renegotiation is successful and the referendum won, it may well settle the long-running debate in Britain on Europe, and anchor the country in the EU for the foreseeable future.

But, despite opinion polls suggesting more support for staying than leaving, there is no guarantee Britain will vote to stay.

Prime Minister Cameron may well convince Britain’s partners to agree to changes restricting the right of EU citizens to claim welfare benefits in other member states. But on his demand to restrict the right of people from other countries to stay in the UK if they do not have a job, he has little support in other countries, particularly Germany and Poland, which embrace the free movement of people as a keystone of the EU. If the British prime minister must compromise on this, he may find it difficult to argue he has negotiated enough changes to justify campaigning for a vote to stay in.

The other complicating factor is – ironically – the fact the Conservative leader confounded the pollsters, media commentators, and maybe even himself, by winning a narrow overall majority.

This means backbench Conservative MPs will have more influence on the government than during the past five years of coalition. Up to a third of them are strongly Eurosceptic and will keep the pressure on Cameron to drive a hard bargain in negotiations, making the necessary compromises more difficult. They will also make a lot of noise if they think the prime minister has only managed to secure agreement for partial changes.

Indeed, within hours of the election, one of the most influential Eurosceptics, the former cabinet minister John Redwood said “the British people will leave the EU unless there is a sensible offer on the table” and sensible for him includes “the need to regain control of our borders.”

Cameron is also facing a phalanx of right-wing newspapers, implacably hostile to the EU, cheering on the skeptics. And if their track record is anything to go, by these papers will campaign vociferously with scant regard for the facts.

Traditionally, the pro-EU forces have a much lower profile than their opponents and have based their arguments on pragmatic economic arguments, but the stagnation of the eurozone since the economic crisis now makes such a positive case support more difficult.

If the British do vote to leave the EU, it would threaten the future of that other Union – the UK – almost certainly triggering another referendum on Scottish independence with a likely majority willing to quit the United Kingdom this time.

Polls on the EU consistently show more support for membership in Scotland than in England meaning the EU referendum could see a majority of Scots voting to stay in while a majority in the UK votes to leave. And although SNP leader, Nicola Sturgeon, says its landslide win in last week’s election, where it won 50 percent of the vote and 95 percent of the seats in Scotland, is not a mandate to hold another vote on independence, she has vowed to seek another independence referendum so Scotland could remain in the EU in the event of a UK vote to leave the union.

And it’s not just the EU referendum that makes eventual Scottish independence more likely – the way Cameron fought the election also exacerbated the divide between England and Scotland because he used the specter of the Scots calling the shots with a minority Labour government to scare English voters into supporting his party at the election. The tactic may have worked well with English voters, but it was divisive and probably helped boost support for the SNP.

A UK out of the EU, shorn of Scotland, would consolidate the perception in the world’s major capitals that Cameron is taking the country down an isolationist path.

The economic crisis and the austerity of Cameron’s first term have already diminished London’s appetite for international engagement, most notably in 2013 when MPs voted against military intervention in Syria. And the Conservatives are committed to further cuts, some of which will probably fall on the diplomatic service and the armed forces. US officials have already expressed concern Britain will not honor its NATO pledge to spend 2 percent of GDP on defence.

The notable exception to this retrenchment has been foreign aid, which has been protected from cuts with Cameron honoring the commitment to spend 0.7 percent of GDP. This means Britain could end up playing a role more like Japan since 1945 – funding international development, but playing a much less active diplomatic and military role.

This aid has brought Britain a lot of goodwill from around the world.  But the other instruments of British soft power have not fared so well. The BBC World Service, widely seen as key to British influence around the world, is now funded out of the public levy that pays for other BBC services, rather than directly by the government. The Conservatives are likely to freeze the levy or even reduce it when the current agreement on funding comes to end next year – and that will almost certainly mean more cuts to the BBC’s international services.

With the means to project its influence around the world facing straitened times and the increased likelihood it could end up outside the EU without Scotland, the UK’s global significance and authority is set for further decline – a puzzle for a country that still has the world’s fifth largest economy, a nuclear-armed military and a prized seat at the UN Security Council.

Read the original of this article at Yale Global 

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