Some colleagues asked that I talk yesterday about outside influences on the Balkans, where things have gotten shaky lately, with a risk that the peace settlements of the 1990s might unravel. Here are the notes I prepared for myself:
- Renewed attention to the Balkans, which has all but dropped off Washington’s priorities in recent years, is most welcome. The region has made a lot of progress, especially in the first ten years after the Bosnian war, but right now it is in trouble.
- I’ve been asked to talk about “outside influences”: Russia, China, Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia.
- It is important at the outset to say that none of these countries would have much influence in the Balkans except for the decline in American engagement and the weakening of the EU.
- The US has tried for a decade now to get the EU to lead, as it has the main carrots for political and economic reform as well as more compelling interests in the region.
- The Europeans have done some good things: the Brussels dialogue has led to real improvements in Belgrade/Pristina relations, even if many specific agreements remain unimplemented.
- The 2014 British-German initiative for economic reform in Bosnia—undertaken to forestall a renewed U.S. initiative to change its constitution—has made little real progress, largely due to European reluctance to stick with its own conditionality.
- The best that can be said for EU efforts in Macedonia is that they have so far avoided the worst, with US support. The EU there seems unable to overcome a monumental level of stubbornness.
- But in the past two years the refugee crisis, Brexit, surging nationalism in many EU countries, and the congenital inability of the EU to speak with one voice has undermined the credibility of EU accession, which in any event won’t happen before 2020 and more likely not before 2025.
- That’s a long time to wait in the Balkans, where we’ve spoiled people with Stabilization and Association, Schengen visas, candidacy for EU accession, pre-accession funds, and other goodies. What we haven’t done is invest: the US and EU have risked little private money in the Balkans.
- Russia and Turkey—whose influence is far greater than others I’ve been asked to discuss—are moving into relative vacuums: the Russians find ethnic Serbs easy pickings and the Turks find Islamists, especially in Bosnia but also in Kosovo, friendly to their interests.
- The Russian influence is overwhelmingly pernicious from a Western perspective. Moscow is doing its best to make NATO and EU membership as slow and as difficult as possible, especially in Montenegro, Macedonia, Bosnia, and Serbia. Its influence in Albania and Kosovo is minimal.
- The attempted coup in Montenegro is just the tip of iceberg. Moscow contributes to ethnic tensions, political polarization, and regional instability in many ways: opaque financing for Republika Srpska, Russia’s so-called humanitarian center, overt military aid and investments in Serbia, support to Russophile politicians as well as media onslaughts throughout the region.
- Quite apart from these Slavic connections, Moscow has strong leverage over Belgrade because its UNSC veto is essential to blocking Kosovo’s General Assembly membership.
- Moscow’s goal is clear: to prevent Balkan countries from entering NATO and even the EU.
- Turkey is a different story.
- For more than twenty years after the Bosnian war the Turks were disciplined Western-oriented contributors to peacekeeping and development in the Balkans, trying to maintain good relations with Serbs and Croats as well as with Balkan Muslims.
- This has been described as a “gentle version” of the Ottoman Empire, one associated with the “no problems with neighbors” policy and aimed at the region’s Christians as well as its Muslims.
- Many Croats and Serbs may have been nervous about Turkish cultural inroads, as parts of the region lived for centuries under Ottoman domination, but most welcomed Turkish investment and contractors, which are evident throughout the region.
- As Erdogan turned in a more authoritarian direction and relations with the US strained, Turkey began a more Islamist push, especially with Bosnian Muslims and President Bakir Izetbegovic.
- The Muslim Brotherhood connection is a more visible and explicit one for Bakir than it was for his father, though it existed for Alija Izetbegovic as well.
- The recent Turkish-Russian rapprochement has had an undesirable impact with some Bosniak leaders in Montenegro. They are taking Erdogan’s hint, viewing Moscow in a more positive light and connecting with the Chechen leadership. That development may warrant monitoring, especially if it spills over to Bosnia.
- Turkey has also had notably good relations with President Thaci in Kosovo, but more based on commercial opportunities than religion.
- Iran and Saudi Arabia both have long histories in the Balkans.
Having won the first round of the French presidential election yesterday, Emanuele Macron will now face Marine Le Pen, President Trump’s favorite, in the second round May 7. France’s political establishment is quickly lining up behind Macron. That doesn’t guarantee he will defeat Le Pen, but it is looking increasingly likely.
Macron is a moderate economic reformer and defender of liberal democracy, including its international institutional manifestations NATO and the EU. Claiming to be a patriot, Le Pen opposes both, wants to end immigration, and is virulently anti-Muslim. The choice could not be clearer, but the same was true last November in the US. Americans chose the illiberal option. The French are unlikely to do so. As one of the unsuccessful candidates put it on Twitter:
There is a distinction between a political adversary and the enemy of the Republic.
The Dutch have already showed the way in their mild rejection of the racist Geert Wilders last month. The British will have an opportunity June 8 in their “snap” general election to strengthen the Liberal Democrats and weaken the Brexit hardliners. Germany doesn’t vote until September, but the two leading candidates right now are both supporters of liberal democracy, NATO and the EU. So it is looking as if Europe, so much disdained in America since the 2008 financial crisis and the recession that followed, will save Western institutions and values from the nationalist onslaught Trump wants.
This is good, but it would be a serious mistake to rest on those laurels. The West is in trouble because it has failed to reconcile globalization with the welfare of its least educated white workers. They have lost ground for decades. Across Europe and the US, some are now backing racist white identity politics, hoping that will get them a better deal, or at least less competition from immigrants, more retraining, or a strengthened social safety net.
Trump is offering little. While canceling the negotiations for a Trans Pacific Partnership that would have countered growing Chinese domination of the Asian Pacific economy, he appears to have abandoned any hope of renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement. He is trying to protect domestic steel production, which now employs relatively few people. He is focused on boosting economic growth by cutting government regulations and jobs by limiting immigration. He is particularly energetic in reducing regulations that affect the coal industry, which he promised to restore. But cheap natural gas, not government regulation, is what ails American coal. It is hard to see how anything Trump has done so far will have more than a marginal impact on helping his supporters.
But it is not without an impact. American commitment to the welfare of the liberal democratic order at home and abroad has never been weaker since World War II. Trump is backing autocrats, reducing American assistance to developing democracies, and still playing footsie with Vladimir Putin, even if the rest of the Administration seems to have given up any hope of rapprochement with him. Trump is also making it impossible for the US to meet its climate change commitments, trying to undermine the health care that his predecessor made available to millions of Americans, and raining disdain on the American media, while supporting the misogynist Bill O’Reilly until a few days before his firing.
Liberal democracy merits a better paladin. Europe seems to be readying itself for the role. Merci bien!
- Report Launch: “The Other Side of the World” | Monday, April 24 | 10:30-12 | CSIS | Register Here | China’s growing interests in the Middle East, and the United States’ enduring interests in the Middle East, create challenges for two of the world’s most powerful nations. Should they seek more active collaboration? Are their goals for the future of the Middle East compatible? To discuss the implications of increasingly robust China-Middle East ties for U.S. interests, CSIS invites you to the launch of its new Brzezinski Institute Report: “The Other Side of the World: China, the United States, and the Struggle for Middle East Security,” featuring Anne Gearan, Political Correspondent at the Washington Post; Jon B. Alterman, Senior Vice President and Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and Director of the Middle East Program at CSIS; Michael J. Green, Senior Vice President for Asia and Japan Chair at CSIS; Matthew P. Goodman, William E. Simon Chair in Political Economy and Senior Adviser for Asian Economics at CSIS; and Christopher K. Johnson, Senior Adviser and Freeman Chair in China Studies.
- What is the Future of EU-Turkey Relations? | Monday, April 24 | 2-3:30 | Wilson Center | Register Here | This panel will address a number of questions related to the April 16 Turkish constitutional referendum: Can the European-Turkish migration deal last? How might upcoming national elections in several European countries affect European ties with Turkey? What could cause the EU to freeze or end Turkey’s accession process? Is Erdogan willing to abandon Turkey’s EU membership bid or follow through with his threat to end the migration deal? Can the EU and Turkey find a way forward? Speakers include Michelle Egan, Professor and Jean Monnet Chair ad personam at School of International Service, American University; Aykan Erdemir, Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies; and Constanze Stelzenmueller, Senior Transatlantic Fellow and Director of Transatlantic Trends at the German Marshall Fund, Berlin and Robert Bosch Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution.
- The United Arab Emirates: Power, Politics, and Policy-Making | Tuesday, April 25 | 12-1:30 | AGSIW | Register Here | Led by Dubai and Abu Dhabi, the United Arab Emirates has become deeply embedded in the contemporary system of international power, politics, and policymaking. Only an independent state since 1971, the seven emirates that constitute the UAE represent not only the most successful Arab federal experiment but also the most durable. However, the 2008 financial crisis and its aftermath underscored the continuing imbalance between Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and the five northern emirates. Meanwhile, the post-2011 security crackdown revealed the acute sensitivity of officials in Abu Dhabi to social inequalities and economic disparities across the federation. Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, Baker Institute Fellow for the Middle East at Rice University, charts the various processes of state formation and political and economic development that have enabled the UAE to emerge as a significant regional power and major player in the post-Arab Spring reordering of Middle East and North African politics, as well as the closest partner of the United States in military and security affairs in the region.
- New Approaches to Israel-Palestine Peace Efforts: Can Regional Powers Make a Difference? | Wednesday, April 26 | 1-3:30 | MEPC | Register Here | Panelists will discuss whether there are new opportunities to work with regional powers to realize a peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians. Speakers include Chas W. Freeman Jr., Chairman of Projects International Inc., Former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Former US Assistant Secretary of Defense, and Former President, MEPC; Hady Amr, Nonresident Senior Fellow at Brookings, Former Deputy Special Envoy, Israeli-Palestinian Relations at the Department of State; and Former Deputy Assistant Administrator, Middle East at USAID; Ian Lustick, Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Former President of Politics and History Section of the American Poltical Science Association, and Member of the Council on Foreign Relations; and Riad Khawaji, Founder and CEO of INEGMA, Middle East Bureau Chief at Defense News, and Middle East Correspondent at Jane’s Defense Weekly.
- The Syrian Crisis: What Lies Ahead on the Battlefield and in Diplomacy | Wednesday, April 26 | 1:30-5 | MEI | Register Here | The Middle East Institute (MEI) Track II Dialogues Initiative and the National Defense University Near East South Asia (NESA) Center for Strategic Studies have convened three rounds of private consultations with Russian counterparts about the Syrian conflict, most recently in February 2017. Participants from those and parallel MEI Track II encounters with Middle Eastern leaders will join with other experts on the military and diplomatic aspects of the conflict in two panel discussions to consider possible ways forward. These panelists include Jennifer Cafarella, Lead Intelligence Planner at the Institute for the Study of War, Charles Lister, Senior Fellow at MEI, Andrew J. Tabler, Martin J. Gross Fellow at WINEP, LTG (ret) Terry A Wolf, Deputy Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS at the Department of State, Wa’el Alzayat, CEO at Emerge USA, (ret) Robert S. Ford, Senior Fellow at MEI, Roger Kangas, Academic Dean and Professor, NESA Center for Strategic Studies at the National Defense University, and Randa Slim, Director of Track II Dialogues at MEI.
- A Story to Tell: Changing the Narrative of American Muslims with Hena Khan | Wednesday, April 26 | 6-8pm | The Elliott School | Register Here | Join us for a conversation with Elliott School alumna and children’s author Hena Khan about her experiences writing books that represent American Muslims, promote understanding, and build tolerance and compassion. She will share her newest novel, Amina’s Voice, the first publication of Simon & Schuster’s groundbreaking new imprint Salaam Reads, which focuses on books about Muslims. Amina’s Voice recounts the story of a Pakistani-American Muslim girl who struggles to stay true to her family’s vibrant culture while simultaneously blending in at school after tragedy strikes her community.
- Tunisia in Transition: Challenges and Prospects | Thursday, April 27 | 2-3:30 | POMED and the Arab Center Washington | Register Here | Tunisia, the birthplace of the “Arab Spring” uprisings of 2011, stands today as the only country undertaking a democratic transition. But despite the historic progress, daunting challenges remain, including confronting corruption, bolstering the economy, and reforming the justice sector. What are the most important steps in confronting these challenges? And what role can international actors, including the United States, play in supporting Tunisia’s fragile democracy? Speakers include Amine Ghali, Program Director at Al Kawakibi Democracy Transition Center in Tunis, Leila Hilal, Senior Fellow, International Security Program at New America, Chawki Tabib, President of Tunisia’s National Authority for the Fight Against Corruption, and Sarah Yerkes, Fellow, Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment.
Military colleagues (same ones who produced this fine piece) recently asked some good questions. I replied:
- How could DoD and DoS be better postured to address regional and world conflicts to ensure a whole of government approach to identify and synchronize lines of effort in both planning and execution?
While intellectually DoD and DoS are more in agreement on a whole of government approach than any other time I can remember in the past 20 years, there is a gigantic imbalance in the capacities and cultures of the two institutions. State persists with a “sink or swim” culture fundamentally opposed to planning, which is still honored more in the breach than the observance. It also lacks appropriate personnel and resources. That is about to get worse, not better, due to budget cuts.
Ideally, State Department officers should train with military units with which they might deploy in the future. That would vastly increase mutual esteem and communication. But it is mostly impossible today. The best that can be hoped for is some commonality in the training materials for both, though State is likely to be doing precious little training for stabilization operations in the next few years. I fear we are back to where we were 20 years ago: our military instrument is far more potent than our civilian instruments, and there is a yawning gap between them.
2. What does a successfully concluded campaign against ISIS look like? Considering costs, reputation, and balance of influence, how should the U.S./Coalition define success? Is the defeat of ISIS a success if it causes the balance of power in the region to shift towards Iran, Assad, or Russia?
Success in Syria should be defined in terms of sustainable peace and security. That won’t be possible under Assad or with the Russians and Iranians playing the roles they play today in propping up a minority dictator and repressing the majority Sunni population. So long as Assad is there, Syrians will be fighting him. The longer it lasts, the more those Syrians will be extremist.
After a successful campaign against ISIS, Syrians in different parts of the country should be able to govern themselves, repress terrorist activity with forces that do not oppress or attack the rest of the population, begin to return economic activity to prewar levels, and return to their homes or resettle freely without fear of persecution. We are a very long way from that, even in the most stable parts of the country (some Kurdish-controlled areas and parts of the south).
3. Does U.S. foreign policy strike the right balance in supporting U.S. interests and its role as a global power? Or, should the U.S. consider a more isolationist approach to foreign policy? What impact could an isolationist policy have on Middle East security and stability, balance of influence by regional and world actors, and U.S. national interests?
It is a mistake to ask foreign policy experts about isolationism, which they will all condemn, but I’ll go this far: U.S. interests in the Middle East are not as salient as they once were and we should be thinking and planning about reducing our commitments and burdens there.
The main U.S. interests in the region apart from counter-terrorism are generally defined as these: non-proliferation, oil, maintenance of alliances, and human rights/democracy. The only significant proliferation risk in the region (Iran) is on hold for 10-15 years or so, the U.S. is far less dependent on Middle East oil than once it was, our allies are mostly interested in military assistance, and we appear to have mostly given up on human rights and democracy in the region.
I think it is arguable that a) deterring Iran could be (maybe better be) accomplished with a much reduced U.S. presence in the Gulf, b) we should not be spending as much American treasure as in the past or risking American lives for oil flowing out of the Gulf to China and Japan (which should share that burden more than in the past), c) our allies should be taking on more of the burden of defending themselves with the enormous amount of kit we’ve sold them, and d) human rights and democracy will gain traction in the region better with less U.S. military presence.
4. What are the competing national interests of the U.S. and Iran in the Middle East and what are the options for alleviating U.S. / Iranian tensions to mutual satisfaction and improved regional stability?
Iran is a revolutionary power looking to extend its security perimeter into neighboring states and to burnish its Islamist credentials by resistance to Israel. It will be impossible to overcome these problems exclusively in a bilateral U.S./Iran context, though increased communication between Tehran and Washington (including diplomatic representatives at some level in each of their capitals) is highly desirable.
Regional stability would also benefit from some sort of regional security architecture—think OSCE in Europe or ASEAN in Asia. This would aim at de-escalating Sunni/Shia, Saudi/Iranian, Turkish/Iranian, and other regional conflicts and tensions. There are few places on earth today with less regional cooperation and connectivity than the Middle East and North Africa.
5. What are the respective national interests of the U.S. and Russia in the Middle East and what are the options for alleviating U.S./Russian tensions to mutual satisfaction and improved regional stability?
After a rough start, the Trump Administration has gotten more plaudits lately: the cruise missile attack on a Syrian airfield and the Mother of All Bombs used in Afghanistan pleased those who wanted the United States to show more “resolve.” Vice President Pence then used those two attacks to suggest that North Korea should not try to test the President, all but laying down a new red line. The US would react, he suggested, if Pyongyang tested missiles or a nuclear weapon.
Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Mattis is rallying allies in the Middle East and National Security Adviser McMaster has been in Afghanistan and India. The President has met with the NATO Secretary General, signed on to Montenegrin accession to the Alliance, endorsed the Export-Import Bank, and certified that Iran is complying with the nuclear deal.
That is all good. It is starting to look like a more or less normal American administration, even if it is using force with more abandon than its predecessor.
It’s not, mainly because of Trump himself. His congratulatory phone call to Turkey’s President Erdogan was the tip-off, as it ignored the obvious problem of a popular referendum used to establish autocratic powers. While Mattis and McMaster are adults who will try to do things right and steer Trump in productive directions, the President’s instincts and mode of operation still raise serious questions. No clear strategy has followed up either the Syrian or the Afghanistan attack. President Assad is still killing civilians with abandon, with help from the Russians and Iranians. The Taliban are still making progress in Afghanistan, perhaps more than ever before. Unless something changes, both American attacks will soon be seen as one-offs that presage no serious plan in either country.
The North Korean situation is similar. While the Americans boast that all means are on the table, Kim Jong-un knows perfectly well that his tens of thousands of conventional artillery pieces targeted on Seoul’s more than 20 million people will deter Washington from serious use of military force. Pence’s bravado was aimed squarely at the American and Chinese audiences. The best he can expect from Pyongyang is a willingness to talk. Kim does not back down on development of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles, because they are the guarantee of his regime’s survival.
Even if the Chinese exert their maximum leverage, Pyongyang is likely to stay adamant. Meanwhile, the Americans made fools of themselves by losing track of the carrier battle group the White House and Pentagon had said was on its way towards the Korean peninsula when in fact it was near Indonesia. I can only guess how much laughter that is causing in Beijing and Pyongyang. They’ve certainly now learned to doubt whatever Trump claims, which would have been wise anyway.
Despite this and other gaffes, there is at least some reversion to a more normal foreign policy direction. Secretary of State Tillerson remains alone at the State Department, with no other presidential appointees. That in a way is good, as it leaves any issues on which the Administration has given no new guidance in the hands of professionals who will continue to do what they were doing before, albeit with a bit less confidence and a bit more hedging of their bets. But any real progress depends on developing strategies for Syria, Afghanistan and North Korea, not to mention Yemen and Libya, that are clear and achievable. In other words, we are still adrift.
On Wednesday April 12, New America hosted a conversation with Ammar Kahf and M. Yaser Tabbara, co-founders of the Omran Center for Strategic Studies, on the role of local councils and security sector reform in shaping the future of Syria.
Kahf began by describing the security landscape in Syria, specifically focusing on restructuring the security architecture given new realities on the ground post-2011. Because scrapping and revamping the entire system is idealistic, the more pragmatic approach is to gradually and systematically change the function of security in Syria, from controlling the population’s actions and solely serving the regime to promoting peace, preserving security, and protecting citizens. Before Arab Spring, the Syrian government functioned through a bureaucratically complex and overwhelming state structure of overlapping agencies designed to remain loyal to the regime, focus on its security, and restrict political activity.
Now, as the country has devolved into zones of control or influence, Kahf sees decentralization as the most effective means of governing the state. Despite its current state of fragmentation, if Syria can plan and coordinate negotiations on how to decentralize, and determine which government functions should be localized and which centralized, it can strengthen its security architecture and successfully reorganize. Security sector reform, aiming to create a professional service that works to preserve state institutions rather than the regime, must go through a legal and structural process that codifies any changes and ensures durability and stability for the long term.
Kahf stressed that it is important not to dismantle entire institutions but rather create changes within the existing frameworks. For peace negotiations, this means relying on those operating on the ground and learning from their lived experiences. He said that these individuals should not be overlooked and can act as reliable interlocutors in developing new state systems. Tabbara also advocated for local governance as a foundation on which to build a new state once the conflict ends.
Tabbara specifically saw local councils as an excellent model for state government at large. Looking at local administrative councils (LACs) across Syria, he highlighted the relative success these councils have achieved absent regime control. In the early stages of the revolution, activists worked together to form coordinating bodies to govern local affairs, developing functional local governance from the bottom up. Responding to a political vacuum in opposition-held territory, LACs work to provide basic services and to a large extent are politically inclusive and democratically run. Indeed, in a report surveying the LACs operating across Syria, 38% of the councils are elected and 57% chosen through consensus, leaving less than 5% established through appointment or individual activist efforts. Tabbara says these councils are far more transparent and accountable (than the regime) to the people they govern, providing a good template for future state governance.
Despite their effectiveness, LACs present a direct threat to the regime. Given the de facto decentralization that is currently dividing Syria, LACs could be a tool to stitch the country back together and strengthen the peace process. But the regime, which wants a more unified governing structure under Assad, stands in opposition to this and continues to prevent the success of the current negotiations. Tabbara argued that LACs form a direct threat to the regime, challenging the state’s entrenched governing philosophy that denies grassroots participation and rejects any manifestation of democracy.
Ultimately, Kahf believes that a paradigm shift, in which LACs are treated as legitimate governing structures, needs to happen in order to change the reality in Syria. Stability from the bottom up is possible, and LACs can provide the ideal building blocks for reconciliation and reform for long-term peace.