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!
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.
Turkey’s President Erdogan won his constitutional referendum Sunday by a narrow margin (more or less 51/49, but the results aren’t official yet). The approved amendments will confirm the power already concentrated in his hands by making Turkey’s government a presidential system: eliminating the office of prime minister, strengthening the president’s hand in judicial appointments, and enabling Erdogan to stay in power for more than another decade.
But while he won the referendum, Erdogan has lost legitimacy. The result was no acclamation. Erdogan lost the vote in Turkey’s three largest cities: Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir. The overall margin was tighter than expected, given the government’s noisy campaign in favor. Since the coup attempt last summer, Erdogan has eviscerated much of the opposition to his rule, especially in the media, universities, schools, and security forces. “No” campaigners were few and far between. There are even reports of ballot-box stuffing, which I am told is not common in Turkish elections.
Erdogan will nevertheless treat the referendum as authorization to do as he likes. In recent years, that has meant cracking down on political opponents, abandoning the hope of EU membership, cozying up to Russia, fighting against Kurds, and intervening in Syria (but accepting a future role there for Bashar al Assad). The crackdown on followers of Erdogan’s erstwhile ally, Fethullah Gulen, has been particularly ferocious, as Erdogan contends Gulen was behind the July 2016 coup attempt. But Erdogan has also targeted secularists and others who have dared express doubt about the benefits of his rule.
In the end Erdogan’s fate may be determined as much by economics as politics. Turkey’s economy is on the skids: growth has slowed, tourism has collapsed, the Turkish lira is devalued, unemployment is up. The economic reforms and rapid growth that generated a good deal of Erdogan’s popularity in the 2000s have stalled. The renewal of hostilities against the Kurdish armed rebellion has roiled large parts of the country and damaged the economy. Erdogan is no longer the crusading Islamist opposed to corruption and ready to make peace with the Kurds. He merits more recognition in the years since he was elected president in 2014 for crony capitalism than for opening up the Turkish economy.
Washington will do little to resist Erdogan’s worst instincts. While it would prefer that Turkey remain on track towards the EU, the Administration needs Ankara to continue to allow use of Turkish bases in support of US operations against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Turkey would also be vital to any eventual military operation against Iran. President Trump may even be inclined to extradite Gulen, though doing so depends on judicial proceedings that have barely begun.
Illiberal democracy has had another win, even if the margin was narrow. Chalk up approval of the referendum with Brexit, the election of Trump, and budding autocrats in Hungary, Poland and elsewhere. The advocates of liberal democracy are going to have to up their game if they are going to stem the illiberal tide, which has lost lately only in the Netherlands. Next stop: first round of the French presidential election, April 23.
It is approaching 100 days since Donald Trump took office. He is getting applause in Washington for a cruise missile attack on a Syrian air base responsible for launching a chemical attack, and I suppose he’ll get some tomorrow for using the biggest conventional bomb ever in Afghanistan, but he has yet to clarify his goals or enunciate strategy for achieving them in either country, or anywhere else.
Here is a summary of the incoherent foreign policy of a president who is playing golf more often than any in recent memory and spending more money on security and travel for himself and his family:
- Threats to do something about North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missiles if China doesn’t, but it is clear what. Promised concessions on trade to China if it will and backed off his pledge to designate Beijing as a currency manipulator, which in any event hasn’t been true for a couple of years. The guy is one tough negotiator: carrots up front.
- Warm greetings to Egyptian autocrat Sisi, who continues to hold US citizens in prison on trumped up charges (pun half-intended) and has vastly increased repression over and above his predecessors’ already draconian measures, not to mention his cozying up to the Russians and making a peace settlement in Libya impossible by supporting a would-be strongman.
- A plea to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to pause settlements, which Netanyahu is pointedly ignoring with the authorization of the first brand-new settlement in many years.
- An unfriendly meeting with Germany’s Chancellor Merkel, during which Trump pointedly refused to shake the hand of Europe’s de facto leader and strong US ally.
- Increased air strikes in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen that have caused a notable bump in civilian deaths, as well as increased (but now unannounced) US deployments to all three.
- Revelations of a web of contacts between the Trump campaign (and eventual appointees) and Russian businesspeople, spies, and government officials. If there is no fire beneath all this smoke, it will be a miracle.
- Delegation of major responsibilities to son-in-law real estate heir Jared Kushner, who at various times has appeared to be entrusted with Israel/Palestine negotiations, China, Iraq, reducing the Federal bureaucracy, and countering the opioid epidemic.
- Initial efforts to build a pointless wall on the Mexican border that would cost many billions the American taxpayer will need to pay, despite the years of decline in illegal immigration from Mexico. I’d guess no more than a few miles of this wasteful project will ever be completed, as Congress will not provide the funding required for more.
- A travel ban that courts are consistently finding violates the US constitution by singling out Muslim countries that have not in fact sent terrorists to the US.
- Decisions on coal that will make it impossible for the US to meet its commitments under the Paris climate change agreement.
I could go on, especially with respect to domestic policy: utter failure so far to “repeal and replace” Obamacare, a Supreme Court nominee so extreme his approval required the Senate to nuke the long-standing requirement for 60 votes in the Senate, and a budget proposal that cuts everything but Defense and Homeland Security, including crippling cuts to the State Department and USAID (not to mention the zeroing out of the UN Population Fund).
There is one reason to hope that things might improve on the international front. National Security Adviser McMaster, who is a serious expert himself, is hiring serious people with real expertise. He has already gotten Trump to reverse direction on NATO, which the President is now praising. But the State Department is still a wasteland, with no appointees to any of the sub-cabinet positions and a Secretary of State who seems not to understand or care for the public affairs part of his job. He was initially laconic to a fault. Now he talks but contradicts himself. I’m not sure which is worse.
Yes, I too would have thought Americans up in arms at this wholesale betrayal of their values, but I’m afraid it is no longer clear what those values are. Are we prepared to play a leadership role in moving the world towards liberal democracy, or are we content to cut deals with the worst autocrats on earth? Are we going to rely on real facts and knowledge, or are we going to try to scam the world, just as Trump has scammed his investors and contractors as well as the students at his “university”? Are we going to pursue a foreign policy that relies at least in part on diplomacy and international assistance, or are we going to use only the military?
Our current course is clear: towards a more militarized, less honest, and more illiberal foreign policy. I’m not seeing anything on the horizon that will turn us in a better direction.
For those who doubt that things are so bad, here is Trump’ April 12 interview with Fox Business, in which he remembered the cake he was eating when he ordered the missile strike but not the country targeted (at 27:30-29:30):
Never mind that he forgets that he opposed an attack on Syria while President Obama was in office and fails to credit his predecessor for the military technology used, not to mention that the meeting with Xi Jinping he claims went well the Chinese think went badly, especially with respect to Syria and North Korea.
- A Panel Discussion on Debating the Merits of the Trump Administration’s New Travel, Immigration, and Refugee Ban | Monday, April 10 | 11-12:30pm | SAIS | Register Here | “Debating the Merits of the Trump Administration’s New Travel, Immigration and Refugee Ban,” will be hosted at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). The panel discussion is a part of the Human Security Forum by the Foreign Policy Institute (FPI) at Johns Hopkins SAIS. Panelists include T. Alex Aleinikoff, Director of The Zolberg Institute of Migration and Mobility at The New School, George Biddle, Chairman of World Connect and former Executive Vice President of the International Peace Committee, James Jay Carafano, Vice President for the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy at the Heritage Foundation, and Danielle Pletka, Senior Vice President for Foreign and Defense Policy Studies at the American Eterprise Institute
- Where Will Turkey’s Referendum Lead? | Tuesday, April 11 | 1-2:30pm | Middle East Institute | Register Here | Turkish voters on April 16, 2017 face a referendum to shift to a presidential system and further empower Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Whether Erdogan succeeds in his long-sought consolidation of authority or suffers a reversal, Turkish policies on the economy, domestic issues, the Kurdish question, regional security, and engagement with the U.S. and NATO are all apt to be affected by the referendum’s outcome. The Middle East Institute (MEI) Center for Turkish Studies is pleased to host Kemal Kirisci (Brookings), Omer Taspinar (Brookings), and Amberin Zaman (Wilson Center) for an analysis of the plebiscite, its political context, and potential consequences of the impending vote. Gonul Tol (MEI) will moderate the discussion.
- Militancy and Conflict in the Sahel and Maghreb | Tuesday, April 12 | 8:30-3pm | Carnegie Endowment | Register Here | Crises and upheaval in the Maghreb and the Sahel have altered the regional security terrain. Security challenges are increasingly becoming entwined, and many are becoming more pronounced amongst at-risk border communities in marginalized peripheries and rural communities. This day-long conference brings together leading scholars from around the world to address the key security and governance challenges in the Maghreb and Sahel. Panelists will examine the interaction of the expanding horizon of insecurity with conflicts, political vacuums, and Western response policy. They will also discuss the broader ramifications of the trends for peace and development in both regions. Panelists include Rasmus Boserup, Dalia Ghanem-Yazbeck, and Claire Spencer to discuss the security complexes in the Maghreb and Sahel; Bruce Whitehouse, Jimam Lar, Joel Nwokeoma, and Amy Niang to discuss violent extremism in West Africa and Sahel; and Frederic Wehrey, Faraj Najem, and Manal Taha to discuss the potential spillover from Libya into the Sahel.
- Russia’s Gambit: Moscow’s Plans and the Trump Administration | Tuesday, April 11 | 4-5:30pm | The Institute of World Politics | Register Here | You are cordially invited to a lecture on the topic of “Russia’s Gambit: Assessing Moscow’s Plans in the First Months of the Trump Administration” with Nikolas K. Gvosdev, Professor of National Security Affairs, Captain Jerome E. Levy Chair in Economic Geography and National Security at the U.S. Naval War College and Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.
- Book Launch: Al-Qaeda’s Revenge: The 2004 Madrid Train Bombings | Wednesday, April 12 | 10-11:15pm | Wilson Center | Register Here | Al-Qaeda’s Revenge: The 2004 Madrid Train Bombings tells the story of “3/11”—the March 11, 2004 bombings of commuter trains in Madrid, which killed 191 people and injured more than 1,800. It runs from the development of an al-Qaeda conspiracy in Spain in the 1990s through the formation of the 3/11 bombing network beginning in March 2002, and on through the fallout of the attacks. Fernando Reinares’s account draws on judicial, police, and intelligence documents to which he had privileged access, as well as on personal interviews with officials in Spain and elsewhere. The book’s full analysis links the Madrid bombing to al-Qaeda’s senior leadership and unveils connections between 3/11 and 9/11. Speakers will also include Bruce Hoffman, Professor at the Georgetown School of Foreign Service, Jytte Klausen, Lawrence A. Wien Professor of International Cooperation at Brandeis University, and Bruce Riedel, Senior Fellow and Director of the Brookings Intelligence Project at the Brookings Institution.
- What’s Next for Afghanistan-Pakistan Relations? | Wednesday, April 12 | 10:30-12pm | Wilson Center | Register Here | The fragile Afghanistan-Pakistan relationship is in crisis. Each country has accused the other of harboring terrorists, and border closures have caused hardship for people on both sides. A recent British-led mediation has defused some of these tensions. However, the relationship remains troubled, and longstanding irritants—such as a disputed border and the treatment of Afghan refugees in Pakistan—continue to fester. What is next for Afghanistan-Pakistan relations? Will the new détente be sustained or short-lived? Additionally, what are the implications of all this for U.S. policy? Can or should Washington play a role in trying to help ease these bilateral tensions? This event, which is co-hosted by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, will address these questions and others. Panelists include Daud Khattak, Senior Editor at Radio Mashaal, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Omar Samad, Former Afghan Ambassador to France, and Joshua White, Associate Professor of Practice and Fellow at SAIS.
- 2017 IMES Annual Conference: Restless Matters: the Socio-Political Lives of Historical Sites and Objects in the Middle East | Friday, April 14 | 9am-3pm | Elliott School | Register Here | Historical sites and objects are a focal point of socio-political contestation in the Middle East today. Whether it be the destruction and looting of the Egyptian Museum, Palmyra, or the Buddhas of Bamyan, or it be the renovation and rebuilding of Mecca, the Eyup Sultan complex, or heritage districts in Doha, Cairo or Beirut, the ways in which these historical sites and objects are intertwined with political projects and political-economic processes have drawn increasing scrutiny in recent years. While popular discourses and news media accounts often portray these matters in terms of the actions of religious zealots, crass developers, or enlightened preservationists, this glosses over a far more textured socio-political terrain this conference seeks to explore. A day-long event that brings together an interdisciplinary group of scholars who focus on the Middle East and the region’s past and present connections to other parts of the world, this conference explores the myriad socio-political work historical sites and objects do. Speakers include Esra Akcan, Associate Profess in the Department of Archaeology at Cornell University, Azra Aksamija, Associate Professor in the Art, Culture, and Technology Program at MIT, Farah Al-Nakib, Director of the Center for Gulf Studies at American University of Kuwait, Amin Alsaden, PhD Candidate at Harvard University Graduate School of Design, Luna Khirfan, Associate Professor at University of Waterloo School of Planning, Michele Lamprakos, Assistant Professor at University of Maryland School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, and Amal Sachedina, Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Institute for Middle East Studies, George Washington University.