Tag Archives: international relations

Stealing history

Historical Revisionism is a fascinating topic. And for us folks in the Balkans, the most obvious example that instantly comes to mind is probably the way the new nation of Macedonia has been crafting its new identity where none existed: by stealing history from neighboring nations. We’ve all heard of Skopje 2014, the huge, majestic, ultra-megalomaniac re-doing of the city center of the Macedonian capital. They put a huge golden statue of Alexander the Great on a horse – so huge that when you stand on this huge square and look to the statue, the only thing you’d see is the horse’s golden balls. And that’s just the centerpiece of a much larger complex of buildings that look as if they’re in the capital of the Roman empire at its zenith. All the while, the rest of the country sinking in squalor and being torn to pieces by lingering ethnic tensions.

It’s a mess. But I digress. This is just a symptom, the tip of the iceberg. It’s a sign of something bigger, deeper about the Macedonians that’s troubling. And it’s not just the fact that the Macedonians have struggled to find their identity ever after the artificial creation of their nation back in the early 20th century at the behest of the Soviets who wanted to split a nation (the Bulgarian one) into pieces to rule the region more easily, and favor their buddies the Serbs. Geopolitical games have such consequences, you know – they pull people apart, often even people of the same nation. The Macedonians have gone to tremendous lengths since that time – they’ve turned a certain variety of the Bulgarian language into a new language that they call Macedonian (the joke goes that it’s Bulgarian, written on a Serbian typing machine); they named their territory after a province in Greece which is traditionally associated with an ancient Greek group called Macedon (Greece has blocked their EU integration because of that, which has forced Macedonia to name itself FYROM); and they’ve completely re-written all their history books, and indoctrinated their children for a couple generations now, to believe that today’s Macedonians (predominantly Slavic people with quite a bit of Thracian DNA in them, just like the rest of the peoples living around these regions) are somehow the direct descendants of Philip and Alexander. They’ve even claimed many great historical personalities and current celebrities have some Macedonian ancestry – hell, even a Macedonian discovered America while sailing alongside Columbus! (Except, that sailor never called himself Macedonian). What’s next, we often joke here – claiming the Moon is Macedonian territory as well? (“Oh Moon, you Macedonian land! Are we gonna fight over you too?“)

If that’s not an example of historical revisionism in desperate search of a non-existent identity, I don’t know what is. It’s all a consequence of the many complexes and frustrations that the Macedonian people have had through the centuries. A small country, squeezed between several larger ones, always kicked and moved around, always used as a pawn, and cannon-fodder in someone else’s wars. I understand them. WE ALL understand them. Which is why we’ve given up trying to argue with them. We’ve stopped trying to convince them that they’re not what they claim they are. It’s not worth it. We gain nothing from it. We’ve thrown our hands in the air, and decided on a different approach. Which is why my country was the first to recognize Macedonia’s independence when they split away from Yugoslavia. We accepted the name Macedonia (unlike the Greeks, who’ve had their reasons to vehemently oppose it). We recognized their language, although we all know too well that it’s just a dialect of ours. Even most Macedonians, when you ask them off-camera, would say they feel Bulgarian. But don’t tell that to their leaders and politicians, it’s a different story there.

Who cares. It’s all in the past. They can define themselves as they wish. They can claim all the great glory of the world if they like. The rest of us know the truth. Let them think of themselves as they wish. We should be looking to the future now. Together. Which is why our governments signed an agreement for neighborly cooperation just yesterday. It was carefully crafted in a way not to insult anyone’s sensibilities. Because there are lots of sensitive questions surrounding Macedonia. Yet, some in Macedonia still opposed this large step toward regional peace and harmony. There’ll always be those who’d want to draw political benefits even from the most noble of occasions. Anyway. We’ve done a big step into the right direction, and the process now looks irreversible. Because the Balkans have always been a powder keg, split up and divided and kicked around and used and abused by various “Big Powers”. And if there’s one solution to all that, it’s to take matters in our own hands, forget our differences, and walk together in the same direction. Hopefully, that step will be followed by many more. And hopefully, the Macedonians will stop living in the past, and finally look forward from now on. Because the alternative is quite disastrous. And to all big players in the West I must say: hands off from the Balkans!

Reality check

Yes indeed, these posts will keep coming at a thick rate. It’s inevitable.

Israeli Settlements ‘May Not Be Helpful’ for Middle East Peace, Trump Administration Says

UN Ambassador Haley hits Russia hard on Ukraine

So what happens in week two of Trump’s term? He warns Israel that building more settlements isn’t going to be helping. Which is essentially the line Obama kept for 8 years. While he eases some sanctions on Russia, Trump refuses to unblock Russian assets in the US until Russia removes its paramilitary troops from Crimea and returns Crimea to Ukraine. Which is the line Obama kept for 8 years. And finally, Trump continues to shift America’s focus to the Pacific, particularly towards efforts to counter China’s expansionist aspirations. Which is the line Obama kept for 8 years (the Pivot to Asia).

I’d say spending some time in office tends to temper even the fringest of people, and get them back in line with the mainstream realities, at least as far as foreign policy is concerned.

There are differences, for sure. And significant ones, at that. The sharp tone he has taken towards China and Mexico, to begin with. It’s part of his “tough guy” and “business approach to diplomacy” image that he has crafted for himself (there was an insightful piece about this at CNN). The demand that Europe should contribute more fairly to its own security (fair point, by the way), and the insistance that America shouldn’t be funding everyone else’s defense (NATO) – which is an argument I’ve been hearing from left and right all over the place long before Trump appeared. The scrapping of the TTP, and possibly the blocking of TTIP until fairer deals are struck – which is what many people from both the left and right demanded for years. And then there’s that pipeline of course. Still, the overall trend points to something very different from what some alarmists are, well, alarming about, namely an almost-World-War-Three state of affairs, and the end of the world as we know it, to use that worn-out cliche.

Now, as for domestic policy, there’s no argument there – I’m afraid America is truly fucked.

Another terrible year

Even George R.R. Martin Thinks 2016 Was ‘Too Much to Bear’

“Please, let this wretched year come to an end!”

I don’t know what it was for you like, personally. But 2016 was quite a horrible year for the world, overall. Even despite the statistical fact that we currently live in the most peaceful and least bloody times in recorded history, 2016 presented us with plenty of reasons to think that the world was going crazy.

Ceaseless bloodshed in the Middle East: Syria, Yemen, Libya, and to some degree Iraq. The international community still hasn’t managed to break ISIS, or find a way to counter the rising terrorist threat. The first signs of the Arab Spring were brutally stomped upon by various autocrats, despots and dictators. This will bring serious consequences. The whole region will become a source of political and societal explosion that will rock the world. A decades long war is very likely to loom ahead, with a nightmarish maze of tribes, clans and religions fighting each other to no end.

Europe is shaking as well. Waves of refugees and economic migrants keep washing ashore. The migrant crisis has shown that the words “European solidarity” is but a mere slogan, empty of meaning. The Brexit has started a chain reaction of accelerating dismantling of the very idea of a united Europe. The very core of the European project is now in question, and its main purpose, shared peace and prosperity. Europe feels like it doesn’t know where to go next.

What’s more, the former Soviet satellites are making a U-turn back to the nation-state, re-asserting their own identity in reaction to having been treated as second-rate citizens. Now that the balance of powers in West Europe will change from now on (what with the UK exiting the equation and leaving a void behind), some of the newer EU members will be asserting ever more influential positions, and largely setting the tone of the discourse, and influencing the new rules.

This process is being coupled with the ascent of populists virtually everywhere: Wilders is likely to take over in Holland, France is at the threshold of a revolution, either embodied by Fillon the Catholic and outright Thatcherite, or worse, Le Pen the quasi-fascist. There are elections coming up in Germany as well, although Merkel still looks like the front-runner (the Germans are still betting on stability). She’s likely to retain her position at the helm, but with significantly weakened influence, and probably at the cost of a tough coalition. The populists are also advancing in Germany, and they’ll be a big factor from now on. The swing to the far-right is felt ever more strongly there, and this could ultimately bring to a change of the guard in the longer run. For the time being though, that remains one of the few islands of stability. But for how long – no one can say. The Germans are already pretty angry with the whole migrant thing, especially after the outrageous behavior of some of those it had voluntarily chosen to welcome.

The big uncertainty comes from the Big Bro. Where exactly US president-elect Trump is going to steer international politics, remains a mystery. Will he be predictable? Can America’s allies rely on him? Or are international relations mere “business”, a “deal” in his eyes? Or maybe he would turn out a capable diplomat? Does the US still see itself as a leader in global politics, or it’ll continue the process of withdrawing from international matters and losing influence, but this time willingly? And who would fill that void, and how? Wouldn’t that be a retreat of democracy, and a chance for various despotic systems to assert themselves? And most importantly, will America continue to consider itself part of an alliance, of the Western world, or it would choose to shut itself from the rest of the world, close itself within, look inside, and focus on “making itself great again”? In any case, 2017 is going to be a transition year. Transition to what, though – that’s the big question. And transitions are tough.

2016 also saw the revival of Putin’s Russia, despite the economic obstacles put by her rivals and the inherent structural disadvantages that define its economy and society. Russia is asserting its positions again, growing from a mere regional power (as Obama used to disparagingly characterize it), to a global player. Putin is actively meddling in the Middle East gambit, he’s also pressuring a number of European countries as well. The bad thing is, Russia doesn’t usually have the habit of using diplomatic means to meet its objectives – they’re too quick to resort to military solutions.

Russia is methodically and willingly, cynically practicing a sort of brutal violence that cannot be met with diplomacy – in Syria actively, and in frozen conflicts like Ukraine passively. Russia’s return to the world scene means a return of military interventions, proxy wars, regime change, and nation-building all across the world. The West has no other choice but to respond in kind, if it is to survive as a bloc. Again, Trump’s ambiguous position regarding America’s allies, is emboldening Putin, while causing concerns in the West.

Let’s not forget China, either. Their economic growth may’ve slowed down from its previous bombastic levels, but the thing is, China has matured, and set the stage for jumping to the big stage as well. They’re amping up their military presence in territories that they consider crucial for their geopolitical goals – and they’ll stop at nothing; they’ll gradually and methodically work to achieve them. This will cause another zone of geopolitical clashes, and a dangerous stand-off with other regional and global players.

Again, Germany remains one of the few bastions of stability and sanity (to some extent; though some might disagree, especially given the way they’ve handled the migrant issue) – and they might be compelled to take a more active role in settling things down, even if they don’t necessarily like this. On the other hand, such a more assertive Germany would inevitably cause other EU members to protest, and possibly react. All in all, it’s unlikely that we could find a single area in the world, which would boast of a more stable situation at the end of 2017 than the end of 2016. And the peaceful solutions to the problems seem to be slipping away at an alarming rate already.

The Madman approach re-visited

Some are arguing that Trump’s unconventional and unpredictable, Twitter-enhanced behaviour regarding international affairs in the early stages of his ascent to the presidency, is not the workings of a madman, or more precisely, not just some random emoting of a spoiled teenage kid who has somehow incidentally found himself at the political scene and doesn’t know what to do with his position. They are arguing that it’s a well-calculated tactic called the Madman approach, previously employed by Nixon, where he is trying to make himself look dangerously unpredictable in the eyes of America’s adversaries (and even the allies).

The purpose is to intimidate everybody into making concessions they wouldn’t have made in more “normal” circumstances. Latest example: his reaction about that stolen naval drone, which the Chinese were prompt to return after he tweeted some passive-aggressive remarks that they should “keep it”.

It’s a risky tactic, granted – especially at a moment when the world has become increasingly volatile, and even the slightest spark could ignite one powder keg or another. And especially given the fact that the US has at least nominally tried to present itself as a balancing factor, a peace-bringer, the one who settles conflicts rather than inflaming them. But I suppose that is not a very sexy way to Make America Great Again, right? I suppose it makes America look meek and cowardly in the eyes of the ultra-patriotic wing, and frankly, a bit boring in its predictability. The revamped Nixon approach, now turned Trump approach of the Madman, might be viewed by some as one that brings a refreshing change of pace, a more direct (and honest?) approach to international relations – as opposed to the more covert, more professional way Obama (and many of his predecessors) conducted their geopolitical games: covert spec ops, relentless nation-building, subtle regime change, influencing foreign societies in a political and economic way, blackmailing world leaders, using corporations as Economic Hit-men to bring lesser countries into submission, and fighting limited-scope undeclared wars (drone strikes, etc).

I’ll admit Trump is more calculating than people give him credit for, but he is probably more P.T.Barnum than Nixon. As controversial and hated as he was, it is undeniable that Nixon was also quite brilliant. He had a very high IQ, was well-read, and was an intellectual in his own twisted sort of way (he still was a bastard, granted). Trump is the guy who bullied and manipulated the academic system into passing him along because of who his father was and how much money he had. He has said it outright that with guys like him anything goes, just because they are famous and rich. And now he might take a play or two from the Nixon handbook, but to compare the two would be to compare an intellectual giant and an intellectual midget.

That still doesn’t mean he won’t excel at copy-pasting Nixon’s tactics. It yet remains to be seen how that would work out, of course, but the first signs are already there.

Sovereignty Redefined, pt.2: New Players, New Rules

In the conditions of a transitional “monopolar” age in international relations which emerged at the end of the 20th and the beginning of this century, the Western states, just like one or two centuries ago within the framework of the so called Westphalian system, have tried to assume the role of vanguard, projecting (including through force) their own preferred values and institutions (free market, human rights, liberal democracy) upon other societies, regardless of their local cultural and historic specifics and peculiarities. In return, the latter (although to a varying extent) have shown a tendency to oppose this process and, and as paradoxical as that may seem, many of them have tried to uphold the integrity of the very institutions and norms previously imposed upon them by the West itself (like national sovereignty, territorial integrity, diplomacy as a primary tool at the international stage, etc). In this sense, the system of international relations continues to be based on the relations between center and periphery, where the role of generator and distributor of new values belongs to the West almost exceptionally.

Now, as for the proneness of imposing values through force, the last fifteen years have seen the emergence of a doctrine designed by the American political class which employs the imposition of simple (and by definition, forceful) solutions to international problems, and has thus become the core of the US political discourse. And though America has promoted terms like “soft” and “smart force”, that hardly means Washington would somehow magically relinquish its attachment to the traditional instrumentarium of hard force any time soon. The US continues to conduct policies based on their global military presence and projection of their own influence in the key regions of the world. In the conditions when the formation of a monopolar tendency in world politics was considered almost self-evident and natural, that may’ve made a lot of sense. But the situation is changing very fast now. If until 10-15 years ago the notion of a “multipolar” world order looked extravagant and fictitious, in more recent times the tendency toward polycentrism, redistribution of weight and influence of the separate states in world economics and politics has become ever more plausible, changing the picture that we got used to at the turn of the century.

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As some US experts point out, the US should rather be supporting diversity not just within their own borders but around the whole world, and accept that liberal democracy ought to be in an open competition at the market of ideas with other types of political system, without presuming to underestimate their value or assume the moral high ground in relation to them. Because in reality, tolerance to various types of political systems matches the US interests to a much greater extent than the arrogance that we’ve seen from the Neo-cons, or the short-sighted idealism of today’s US liberals. The respectful attitude to responsible governments, tolerance to political and cultural diversity, the balance between global rule and the transferring of prerogatives to the regional powers, as well as the more moderate approach to globalization, are the principles that should probably be at the core of a future world order.

We’ve been hearing calls for sparing resources, limiting the scope of international activity, or cooperation with other states and transferring of prerogatives to them for problem-solving within the framework of their respective regional sub-systems. I.e., a more frugal approach to world politics, which would be less exhausting economically and less damaging morally to the global cop itself. On the other hand though, we can hardly rely on the US adopting self-control, a more regionalized approach, or embracing a well thought-out cooperative culture among the US political elite any time soon. Almost no high-rofile US politician (maybe save for Ron Paul, who’s got a number of other shortcomings, unfortunately) has openly called for America to limit its own role of global arbiter and regulator, or to relinquish its plans of forming a politically homogeneous “democratic world” under its sceptre (which is basically what defines this constant drive for “spreading democracy”, and explains the effort to change regimes in sovereign countries around the world).

The problem is not solely being viewed through the prism of looking for effective instruments and relevant ideas that could consolidate the America- and Western-dominated world order. For the ruling Democrats, the main goals for guaranteeing the US global leadership have boiled down to guaranteeing a prosperous economy, untouchable military power, and attachment to the policy of imposing “universal values“. Having in mind the financial problems, in the mid-term perspective, America’s goal is to make other countries contribute more for creating “global public goods”, to support the new international norms and institutions, and to cooperate for regulating the conflicts in various regions by the Western terms.

The US and their Western allies (in the most general sense) have continued to act as a generator of international norms and principles even in the conditions of the global financial crisis, which otherwise accelerates the processes of redistribution of influence, and facilitates the increase of potential of a number of non-Western power centers (China, India, Brazil, Russia), each of them having a certain set of positive and negative sides as well as certain amounts of regional and global influence. The crisis has demonstrated the incapability of a limited group of Western countries to bear responsibility for global regulation for the last few decades (and throughout almost the entire 20th century, in a broader sense), and to control and uphold the global order, and overcome the challenges of the epoch.

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So what about these new players on the scene? Well, there sure has emerged a severe need for broadening the circle of countries participating in taking the key decisions. This has become a stimulus for the emergence of new institutions of global regulation (like G-20). In the meantime though, the Western countries have insisted on remaining the main factor for defining the norms and principles of this global regulation, as if that is their given right, granted to them by historical inertia.

This is where the obvious discrepancy in the current transitional situation in global politics emerges from. The monopolar moment remains part of the past, while the norms that were created in its core, previously capable of guaranteeing relative stability, are now having a strongly destabilizing effect in an increasingly polycentric world (namely, the principles of “limited sovereignty”, “selective legitimacy”, interventionism, etc). These still remain in place, and are actively pushed forward by the West, but the situation has changed, and they’ve become a detriment rather than asset.

In other words, when in the framework of a monopolar system of international relations, the Western countries deemed it necessary to start transforming the traditional Westphalian sovereignty, it became clear that it was exactly them who were intending to take benefit of that transformation, in order to project their own influence upon the other participants in international relations, by legitimizing (or, conversely, delegitimizing where appropriate) this or that political practice. The countries that tried to exhibit an “unsystematic” behavior were constantly being threatened with sanctions and even military intervention. Until very recently, this used to discipline most players in world politics (both state and non-governmental players in fact), and create a sense of controllability of the conflict situations, and the presence of “firm rules of the game”. Implicitly, it was self-evident that the limitations (including that of sovereignty) wouldn’t ever affect the leaders in that monopolar system in any way, but that was okay, as long as the rules were clear, and stability was guaranteed.

Thus, the “outsiders” and the marginal countries and “fringe states” were turned into subject of deligitimization of their own sovereign status, and a potential target of foreign intervention, while the US and the West as a whole were playing the role of the arbiter. What’s more, the very idea of a possible conflict between the big players was completely out of question.

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But now the accelerating tendency toward forming a polycentric world order is changing the big picture, and pretty fast. The establishing of the principles of limited sovereignty, preemptive action, unilateralism, selective legitimacy, and interventionism, are not only NOT facilitating the better management of the processes in world politics, in fact they’re breathing new life into the political unpredictability and uncertainty that was forgotten for a while. The until-recently valid norms and principles of international law (including the principle of non-intervention in internal affairs or the threat of use of force, and the principles of internal and external sovereignty and border integrity) were largely designed to minimize international conflicts in a potentially polycentric system. Which is why ignoring or outright disregarding them poses an immediate danger to world order. In the emerging polycentric world, the norms and precedents that are being set by the US and the West, could now be used by other emerging new powers for their goals, and we might not like the results very much. In result, instead of an illusion for manageability and control, the advocates for the active promotion of new norms and principles in modern world politics could soon be faced with a rather chaotic picture, and even the complete destabilization of the world order that they strive so much to control. I.e., yet another case of presumably good intentions backfiring pretty badly.

In this sense, perhaps it’s not too far-fetched if we forecast an exponential rise of the global risks for the system, since the new and fast emerging powers will surely be asserting their claims for a more active participation in defining the rules of the game, and will be drawing their own “red lines” ever more definitely in regards to the various aspects of their internal and external politics.

There is some hope that the current crisis in the relations between Russia and the West could stimulate, if not the respective political elites, at least the expert community in both America and Europe, and prompt them to look for more inclusive strategies, and formulate more balanced approaches to forming and promoting the norms and rules of modern world politics – and I’m not just talking about the problems with sovereignty. It’s becoming ever clearer that there’s no viable alternative to that.

In any case, the increased enthusiasm for setting new precedents, and the drive for imposing one’s own rules of the game upon everyone else (with a back-door option for arbitrary reinterpretation of these rules as a “leadership bonus”), is incapable of creating, in the conditions of an emerging polycentricity, any stable basis for anything resembling a predictable and manageable development of international relations, and would certainly be the cause of many new global crises instead.