Commentary on global affairs and where they may be headed

Archive for June, 2015

Iran nuclear talks: at the Rubicon

Most eyes seem to be focussed on Brussels and the clock counting down to the impending deadline on June 30th to avoid a Greek default and possible exit from the Euro.

But there is another clock – this one in Vienna – that should be holding our attention too.

The Iran nuclear talks also have until the last day of June – this coming Tuesday – to reach a final deal on the how the framework agreement reached in early April will be implemented and verified.

The talks have made more progress than sceptics expected when they began in earnest after the election of President Rouhani two years ago. The framework deal envisages Iran restraining its ability to develop nuclear weapons for ten to fifteen years in exchange for the suspension of economic sanctions imposed both unilaterally by the US and its western allies and the United Nations over the past decade that have hit the Iranian economy badly.

Back in April, the two sides – Iran and the P5+1 i.e. the US, China, Russia, France and Britain plus Germany – agreed that by June 30th they would agree the technical details of how Tehran would cap its programme, how that would be verified and how the sanctions would be lifted, including how they would be re-imposed in the event of a breach by Tehran.

The American Secretary of State, John Kerry, and his Iranian counterpart, Javad Zarif, who have been the key drivers of the talks arrive in Vienna tomorrow to add their weight to the final push to overcome the remaining hurdles

According to media reports these include a demand Tehran open up its non-nuclear military sites, including its missile production facilities, to inspection, and an American idea – unlikely to get Moscow’s approval – for the mechanism for re-introducing sanctions to by-pass the UN Security Council where of course Russia and China have a veto.

Both the US and Iran seem to genuinely want to do a deal, but not at any price.

There have been hints the talks, like those for the framework deal, could continue a few days past their deadline, but the possibility of failure is real and the cost of that in a region already beset by open conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Yemen – all of which are partly driven by a proxy war between Shia Iran and its Sunni Arab rival Saudi Arabia – and the simmering tension between Israel and the Palestinians could be exorbitant.

President Obama has taken a high stakes gamble to try to reach a diplomatic solution to the stand-off over Iran’s nuclear programme. But in so doing he has stoked up already heightened/exaggerated (delete as appropriate) fears in the US over the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear programme – despite US intelligence concluding an attempt to develop nuclear weapons ended over a decade ago.

So if the talks fail, the political pressure on the Obama Administration from both Republicans and Democrats – watch presidential candidate, Hilary Clinton – to take alternative “tough” action will mount.

And if it is the demands of the western countries at the table that are seen to be the main cause of breakdown, Russia and China may break ranks preventing further constructive action by the UN.

This would increase the pressure on the White House still further by narrowing its options, especially its ability to emphasise the need for building consensus for a unified international response before taking unilateral action.

Then there is Israel.

Prime Minister Netanyahu, recently re-elected and heading a new right-wing coalition, is a possible wildcard. He has made no secret of his intention to take pre-emptive action to stop Iran acquiring nuclear weapons which would challenge Tel Aviv’s own arsenal.

Military strategists debate whether Israel has the capability to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities effectively without support from the US. But Tehran would undoubtedly respond, either directly or via its allies such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, so even an abortive Israeli attack would have unpredictable consequences in a region already wracked by war.

Talk of a widespread conflagration in the Middle East has such a long pedigree the danger now is a complacent attitude that things there will not get much worse.

But with the US moving towards a policy of confronting growing Chinese assertiveness in the South and East China Seas, if the Iran talks fail there will be voices inside the White House arguing it would be dangerous to risk escalation with Tehran as well, so it would be best to restrain Israel and stick to sanctions.

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The Pope and climate change – a pivotal intervention?

Pope Francis may not be infallible in many people’s eyes, but he is indefatigable when it comes to provoking debate on global issues that matter.

This week it has been climate change.

The Vatican has published the papal encyclical “Laudato Si” on the impact of human activity on the environment and especially the threat of climate change.

By doing so the Pope has got the world’s media talking about the single biggest challenge facing the human race – one that puts the crises in the Middle East or Ukraine in their proper context as serious geopolitical issues but not existential threats.

The letter sends a powerful message to the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics – as well as Francis’s 6.3 million followers on Twitter, not all of who will be of the same faith.

That message is simple: the world faces catastrophic climate change and we need to take urgent action to prevent further global warming.

The letter is perfectly timed to raise awareness of the issue and increase pressure on political leaders as governments prepare for two landmark global conferences later in the year.

In December, the next UN climate change summit takes place in Paris and the pressure is on to agree legally-binding limits to carbon emissions to prevent average global temperatures rising more by than 2 degrees Celsius – the level above which scientists agree climate change will have a disastrous effect.

Before that in September, world leaders will gather at the UN in New York to agree on new Sustainable Development Goals, which are intended to ensure the eradication of poverty through equitable economic development, but in a way that does not damage the environment.

Climate scientists and environmental activists have been sinking into despair at their seeming inability to get across to the world’s politicians and public the scale of the threat from climate change and the need to take urgent action to reduce carbon emissions.

The message from the Pope should help raise their morale. Although, it calls for urgent action, it is clear from the encyclical the Pope believes there is still time to avert the worst effects of global warming and also – critically – that the solution lies in humanity’s hands.

So the Pope’s intervention in the climate change debate has come at a critical moment and will increase pressure on climate negotiators and their political masters to make the necessary compromises and commitments at the coming global summits to ensure action is taken to prevent catastrophic global warming.

It is no accident this Pope has gone further than his predecessors in raising the alarm about the impact of economic development on the environment. On his election by his fellow cardinals in 2013, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, chose the name Francis to acknowledge the importance to him of St Francis of Assisi, patron saint of ecology, who taught about the importance of the natural world and the need to respect it like a sister or mother.

In line with the social teachings of his namesake, Pope Francis is also alive to the need to ensure that when taking action to ensure the wellbeing of the environment, the impact does not fall disproportionately on the poor and he seems to be on the side of the developing countries which are pushing the richer, developed nations to make proportionately deeper cuts in carbon emissions and provide greater financial support to help poorer countries leapfrog to clean technologies as they develop.

The papal encyclical also notably bases its argument in the latest science on climate change demonstrating how religion and science can work hand in hand and need not be anathema to one another, as some atheists, like Richard Dawkins, argue.

It is doubtful the Pope’s intervention in the debate will prove decisive on its own, but it adds a powerful voice in favour of concerted action on climate change and should influence not only public opinion and governments, but also that other pivotal constituency – the people running carbon-emitting businesses.

 

Ukraine – the crisis that hasn’t gone away

In case you had forgotten about it, the Ukraine conflict and the rift between Russia and the West are set to return to the headlines in the coming weeks.

A recent upsurge in fighting between pro-Russian rebels and Ukrainian government forces with their associated nationalist militia along with the looming deadline for renewal of EU sanctions on Russia guarantee the conflict will be taking column inches from the on-going battles in different parts of the Middle East and the tensions in the South China Sea.

Overall, the conflict has been in stalemate for the past few months.

But February’s Minsk 2 agreement between Kiev, Moscow, Berlin and Paris which called for a ceasefire, withdrawal of heavy weapons, prisoner releases and constitutional reform in Ukraine is now under increasing strain after rebels tried to push into territory west of their Donetsk stronghold.

The insurgents continue to receive support from Russia – both supplies and manpower. The status of the fighters may be disputed, with Moscow calling them volunteers and Kiev claiming Russian regulars are also involved, but there is no doubt Russia shows no sign of withdrawing its backing.

For its part, Kiev continues to get western backing – with American and British forces training Ukrainian troops and the EU and US maintaining their sanctions on Russia.

The sanctions have increased the pressure on the Russian economy, which has been hard hit by the fall in oil prices, but they have not had any appreciable impact on Moscow’s approach to the conflict.

Russia has returned the favour with bans on food imports from the EU and increased air and naval probing along some NATO states’ borders.

At this week’s G7 summit in Germany, there was agreement to maintain sanctions on Russia until Moscow ends its backing for the rebels, which makes it almost inevitable the EU will renew its sanctions before they expire at the end of next month despite some members showing interest in getting back to business as usual with Russia.

In Washington, there is growing pressure for the US to tighten its sanctions and start supplying weapons to Kiev – something the Europeans have opposed in the past as they believe the only difference it would make would be a worsening of the fighting.

In the event that the US does take this course, expect to hear more accusations from American officials that Moscow has returned to its old expansionist ways and breached the post 1945 consensus that European borders should not be changed by force.

But, as I wrote in March last year, the fact that NATO military action Serbia in 1999 led nine years later to major western powers engineering and recognising the secession of Kosovo had already effectively breached the 1975 Helsinki Accords.

As for Moscow, its loud condemnation of the western support for Kosovo secession looks less principled following its stance on Ukraine and support for Georgia’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

So once you strip away the hypocritical political and moralistic rhetoric, you are left with an old-fashioned power play where the West – without really knowing President Putin’s true objective – seeks to deny Russia a strategic victory in Ukraine and – in the absence of the rebels being able to carve out an economically or strategically viable territory – Moscow seems happy to keep its neighbour destabilised to prevent it restoring its economy to a semblance of health or eventually joining the EU and NATO.

All in all it is a nasty deadlock that is set to continue for the foreseeable future with the people of south-eastern Ukraine continuing to pay the price.

 

 

On global leadership – or the lack thereof

The world’s major powers are failing when it comes to providing global leadership.

That was the refrain running through this week’s annual Chatham House London Conference where the US, China, Russia and the UK came in for varying degrees of criticism from panellists and participants.

To the apparent surprise and irritation of some Americans present, there were constant references to the 2003 US invasion of Iraq and how damaging it had been, not just to the Iraqi victims, but also to the global order and the legitimacy of the US as a global leader.

I was not sure why this should have come as a surprise at a conference dedicated to discussing the crisis in global order and challenges to a rules-based international system, but there you are.

Many Americans may want to draw a line under it and move on, but despite the twelve years that have passed since the invasion, the consequences are still unfolding. Other countries committing acts of aggression use it to justify their own actions and in the region itself the political and military challenge of ISIS amply demonstrates how it remains at the root of contemporary events.

There was also criticism of the Obama Administration for overcompensating for Iraq and failing to provide leadership when it is needed– leading some to complain Washington can’t win and to cite the “damned if you, damned if you don’t” syndrome.

Russia also came in for castigation with Moscow characterised as having gone rogue in the international system. American and European participants made constant passing references to “Russian aggression” and there was no doubt whose side they are on in the Ukraine conflict.

The criticism of Britain was of a gentler sort with many wondering whether London is disengaging from the world as it debates its future in – or out of – the European Union and cuts its defence budget to such an extent the US government, in the words of the British Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, has started openly lobbying London to boost its military spending.

Then there is China. The Chinese panellists were pushed on several occasions by Japanese and other participants to justify Beijing’s assertiveness in the South China Sea where tensions have risen in recent weeks following the US decision to challenge China’s territorial claims by sailing and flying close to the artificial islands China has been constructing in disputed waters.

What stood out was the way the Chinese responded.

Ambassador Wu Jianmin robustly defended his country’s conduct in the South China Sea by pointing out freedom of navigation is essential for China as well as other countries given how much if its trade passes through it. He said the installations being created would also serve a humanitarian purpose for disaster relief operations and pointed out that other countries had started building artificial islands before China without attracting any criticism, so, he asked, why is Beijing being singled out.

But Ambassador Wu was also on a mission to explain what his government calls its “win-win” approach to international relations. He pointed to the newly established and China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, AIIB, which the US unsuccessfully tried to persuade its allies not to join, as an example of this approach. He emphasised how Chinese investment abroad benefits both China and countries where it is investing. And indeed a World Bank official, Dr Vera Songwe, endorsed this argument by pointing to Africa where Chinese infrastructure investment has helped the continent grow and become more integrated into the global economy.

Responding to complaints that China’s extraordinary economic growth and its re-emergence as a great power had taken advantage of the rules-based international system put in place by the US in the wake of the Second World War – the term “free-rider” was used – Professor Wu Xinbo argued that China is now providing international public goods, such as the AIIB.

He was sitting next to Professor Joe Nye who was arguing the US will remain the predominant power in the world for the foreseeable future and will not be overtaken by China, and at one point it seemed the two were almost competing to show which country does the most for the international community.

A far cry from Deng Xiaoping’s foreign policy maxim of “keep a low profile and try to accomplish something”.

We have also come a long way from a decade ago when the then US Deputy Secretary of State, Robert Zoellick, called on China – in somewhat patronising language – to be a “responsible stakeholder” in the international system.

The consensus among conference participants seemed to be that despite current turbulence in the South China Sea, Beijing does not want to undermine the established global order, but it does want to be accorded its due weight in that order.

This means the US and the Europeans will have to accede to such things as greater Chinese clout in international bodies such as the IMF. If they don’t, the former Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd pointed out, China’s creation of the AIIB shows Beijing will go round the system if it thinks it is being blocked.

So paradoxically, if the rules-based system with the UN and the growing canon of international conventions and law at its heart is to be maintained and strengthened, the leadership required of the US at this point is to truly accept it is no longer the paramount leader.

The key to a stable world is for the West to make good on its rhetoric and make room at the top table for China – and other emerging powers such as India and Brazil – or we could well be in for a bleak beggar-thy-neighbour future.

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