Tag: United Nations

The world in 2394 words

I spoke this afternoon at the 10th Summer School for Young Diplomats in Kolasin, Montenegro. Here are the speaking notes I prepared on “Global Security Challenges: New Developments and Future Trends.”


  1. It’s a pleasure to be here, especially in these beautiful mountains. While I’ve been to Montenegro a few times in the past, this is my first visit since it became a NATO ally. That betokens enormous progress. I can only wish all your countries as much success as Montenegro has had over the past twenty years or so.
  1. That teaches an important lesson in international affairs: if you keep going in the right direction, you will eventually get there.
  1. I’ve been asked to talk about geopolitical challenges. I’ve got my own ideas about what they are, but I’d like your ideas as well. So let me ask you to write one on each stickie—no more than a phrase is needed.
  1. My own list of current geopolitical challenges from a Washington perspective is this: the United States, the Middle East, Islamist extremism, Russia, and China as well as nuclear nonproliferation and climate change. That should keep us busy for the next hour and a half.


  1. First Washington. It is a geopolitical challenge for many countries, because of its global political and economic influence, its enormous capacity for power projection and because of its still ongoing political transition.
  1. Many of you will wonder how the new Administration will affect your country’s interests. I can’t hope to cover the entire world, but let me say a few things that may help you to work out the implications for your own country.
  1. President Trump was elected on an explicit promise to “make America great again,” which implies greater attention to American interests in dealing with the rest of the world.
  1. It also implies reduced attention to American values, especially democracy and human rights. The Administration appears to be applying a double standard: if you are America’s friend, you need not fear Washington will criticize your internal political behavior.
  1. Presidents Erdogan, Sisi, and Duterte can testify to that, as can Kings Salman of Saudi Arabia and Abdullah of Jordan.
  1. But if you are President Castro of Cuba or Supreme Leader Khamenei, you can anticipate sharp rebukes from the U.S., and possibly sanctions or other restrictive measures.
  1. The new Administration has also prioritized the use of military instruments over diplomacy and international aid. While its budget proposal was dead on arrival in Congress, where at least some aspects of diplomacy and aid have strong supporters, you can still expect less diplomacy and less money.
  1. The only exceptions to this rule so far have been North Korea, where the conventional artillery threat to Seoul and much of South Korea makes American military action unlikely, and the Middle East, where the president has committed his son-in-law and two of his personal lawyers to negotiating peace. I don’t know anyone in Washington who thinks they will be successful, but they may make some progress on confidence-building measures. I’ll return to North Korea later.

Middle East

  1. As I am already wandering into the Middle East, let me go there. It has been clear for some time, though few will say it out loud, that American interests there are declining. We need less oil from the Middle East while other countries are taking more, the top non-proliferation issue there is under control for a decade or more, and our allies there want military assistance but not much more.
  1. By far the most important interest the U.S. has today in the Middle East is terrorism. The current Administration wants to deal with it as a military problem: the objective is to kill Al Qaeda and the Islamic State and get out.
  1. This was precisely the approach intended by George W. Bush in Afghanistan: kill Al Qaeda and get out. It failed because we couldn’t find all of Al Qaeda. The President changed his mind because we were sure it would return if we left.
  1. In Syria, this approach faces the same difficulty, as it virtually guarantees that there will be a continuing Sunni insurgency, not to mention its metastases elsewhere in the world.
  1. That’s where all of you come in: with ISIS on the verge of defeat in Iraq and Syria, it is not attracting so many foreign fighters, who were the focus of much attention in recent years. Nor is the question of terrorist financing as important as once it was.
  1. The bigger issue is now home-grown terrorism, perhaps inspired or encouraged by fighters returning from Iraq or Syria. In the Balkans, for example, I would now regard this as a big problem, as it is in Europe and the U.S. as well.
  1. There are two important strategies in dealing with homegrown terrorism: making sure that people are not marginalized but rather have a stake in their own governance and society; and not overreacting to terrorist threats or attacks, as overreaction is precisely what they intend to provoke.
  1. Right-wing terrorism kills more Americans than Islamic extremism, even counting 9/11.
  1. We need to avoid the kind of overreaction that the Administration’s travel ban on 6 Muslim countries represents.


  1. In the Middle East, the Americans will focus next on the Iranian threat.
  1. That threat is real. Iran has vastly expanded its influence in the region, not so much because of the nuclear agreement but rather due to its support for proxy forces, which long predates the nuclear deal: Hizbollah in Syria as well as Lebanon, Hashd al Shaabi in Iraq, the Houthis in Yemen, Hamas in Palestine.
  1. The reaction, led by the Saudis, has also been vigorous, making much of the Middle East a battleground for sectarian conflict and even splitting the Gulf Cooperation Council. Qatar just won’t give up the good relations with Iran that enable both countries to exploit the largest natural gas field in the Middle East.
  1. Turkey’s Muslim Brotherhood leadership has chosen to side with Qatar and Iran, undermining the American effort to construct an anti-Iran alliance that includes the majority Sunni states of the Middle East as well as Israel.
  1. To sum up on Iran: it has gained a lot of ground in recent years, not least due to the American invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the civil wars it has exploited in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. The Americans have not yet figured out what they want to do about it, though my best guess is that they will in due course want to confront Iranian ambitions.


  1. Russia is another geopolitical challenge, not only in the Middle East.
  1. Putin’s Russia is using all the instruments of national power at its disposal to challenge the Americans and re-assert its status as a superpower, except for a direct force-on-force military clash that Moscow knows it would lose.
  1. The Russians are sending ships and planes to provoke NATO allies and sympathetic neutrals, they have invaded Ukraine with only a thin veneer of deniability, they are bombing Syrian moderate opposition, they are selling weapons to Egypt, supporting General Haftar in Libya, and using Sputnik News and Russia Today as propaganda tools.
  1. They are also interfering in elections, conducting cyberattacks, and plotting and conducting assassinations.
  1. None of this has provoked much reaction yet from either the Americans or Europeans, apart from Ukraine-related sanctions and a few tit-for-tat aircraft incidents.
  1. Inexplicably to me, Putin has a lot of admirers in the US, especially among the Republicans and certainly in the Trump Administration, which has made no secret of its desire to get along better with Moscow.
  1. We’ll have to wait and see what comes of the first Trump/Putin meeting on the margins of the G20 Summit tomorrow and Saturday in Hamburg.
  1. The American receptiveness to Putin may surprise many of you. It surprises me. I can’t really explain it in conventional national interest terms.
  1. I think it is related to ethnic nationalism: Trump is what we are calling these days “white nationalist”; Putin is a Russian nationalist. The two admire each other.
  1. But Russia is a declining regional power with an economy no larger than Spain’s and based largely on energy resources whose value has declined dramatically. It’s only real international capability is to make life difficult for people who want to run serious democracies.
  1. We are going to need to learn to live with that, responding to it in ways that block the worst consequences and nudge Moscow in more productive directions, but at the same time not accepting the Russian claim to superpower status.

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Military escalation is happening in several places these days:

  1. Syria:  in addition to the March cruise missile strike on a Syrian base in retaliation for the use of chemical weapons, we’ve seen in the past couple of weeks US attacks on Iranian-backed forces approaching US-backed forces, downing of at least two Iranian-built drones, and downing of a Syrian warplane. Tehran and Damascus are pressing hard in eastern Syria, in an effort to deny the US and its allies post-war dominance there.
  2. Yemen: the Saudis and Emirates are continuing their campaign against the Houthis while the Americans amp up their campaign against Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. Today’s promotion of Mohammed bin Salman, the architect of the Saudi intervention in Yemen, to Crown Prince of the Kingdom presages more rather than less war there.
  3. Somalia: the Administration has expanded AFRICOM’s latitude in attacking al Shabaab militants, who are proving more resilient than many anticipated.
  4. Afghanistan: the White House has delegated authority to increase US forces to the military, which intends to deploy several thousand more Americans to help the Afghans counter the Taliban.
  5. Russia: Moscow’s warplanes have been conducting provocative maneuvers against NATO for some time, and yesterday a NATO F-16 allegedly approached a Russian plane carrying the Defense Minister.

Meanwhile Iraq’s disparate security forces are closing in on Mosul, civil wars continue in Libya and Mali, and North Korea continues to test its increasingly long-range missiles.

This military escalation is occurring in a vacuum of diplomatic and civilian efforts. Syria talks sponsored by Turkey, Iran and Russia are slated to reconvene soon in Astana, but prospects for serious progress there on military de-escalation are poor. The UN-sponsored political talks in Geneva are stalled. Planning for governance of Raqqa after the defeat of the Islamic State there is unclear.

The UN has announced a new Yemen Special Representative of the Secretary General, but it will be some time before he can relaunch its efforts. The UN-backed government in Libya is still unable to exert authority, especially over the eastern part of the country. The UN’s Mali mission has been suffering casualties, inhibiting any civilian efforts there. President Trump has tweeted the failure of Chinese diplomacy (more accurately, his diplomacy with China) to produce results with North Korea.

None of this should surprise. Apart from North Korea, the Americans are committed to not relying on diplomacy (in particular through the UN) and to avoiding anything resembling state-building. While they may sometimes think about financing removal of rubble or mines in newly liberated areas of Syria, they are determined to avoid any responsibility for governance or law and order. The Trump Administration wants to follow the formula Bush 43 tried in Afghanistan: kill the Islamic State and Al Qaeda enemies and get out. The failure of that approach has apparently been forgotten.

The only substantial diplomatic effort the Trump Administration has been pursuing is with Israel and Palestine, where there is an almost 70-year record of failures, with only occasional, if important, moments of partial success (I am thinking of the peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, not the Oslo accords). No one is taking bets that Jason Greenblatt’s efforts will succeed, though they may restrain the Israelis a bit and produce some modest improvements in the conditions under which Palestinians live. The two-state solution is, however, as far off as it has ever been.

The worst may be yet to come. The Trump Administration has aligned itself firmly with Israel, the Saudis, and the UAE against Iran. The Iranians seem increasingly determined to carve out their Shia crescent from Iraq through Syria and Lebanon all the way to the Mediterranean. We are on a collision course with Tehran, even if the nuclear deal hold for now

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Outside influences in the Balkans

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: 

  1. 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.
  1. I’ve been asked to talk about “outside influences”: Russia, China, Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. Moscow’s goal is clear: to prevent Balkan countries from entering NATO and even the EU.
  1. Turkey is a different story.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. Turkey has also had notably good relations with President Thaci in Kosovo, but more based on commercial opportunities than religion.
  1. Iran and Saudi Arabia both have long histories in the Balkans.

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Tillerson’s tilt

In Moscow today, Secretary of State Tillerson will try to convince the Russians to abandon President Assad and opt instead for a political process that would replace him and begin the transition away from the Ba’athist dictatorship that has governed Syria since 1963. Tillerson will argue that Assad’s April 4 use of chemical weapons against his opponents de-legitimates his rule and embarrasses Russia, which helped negotiate the 2013 UN Security Council agreement under which Syria was to surrender or destroy its chemical weapons and its capacity to make them.

It isn’t going to work. Russia is still denying that Assad was responsible for last week’s attack, which the Americans claim was launched from an air base at which Russian forces were present. President Putin has declined to see Tillerson, a clear indication that Russia is not planning to change its tune. Moscow wants an international investigation of the chemical incident, which it claims may have been caused by a conventional bomb falling on an opposition chemical weapons depot. The publicly available information contradicts that hypothesis.

While sounding reasonable, an international investigation would tie up the issue of what to do about the incident for months if not years, sowing doubt and allowing other issues to claim priority. The Russians know well who used the chemical weapons. There are even suspicions that they knew in advance. It would be difficult to keep the loading of chemical weapons secret on a base they share with the Syrian Air Force.

There is little likelihood Moscow will abandon its support for Assad. The Russians have had many opportunities to do so during the past six years but have consistently chosen to double, triple and quadruple down to try to ensure he wins, even while claiming not to be wedded to him. With each decision, they have gone deeper into the cul-de-sac. It beggars the imagination to think they might back out now that Assad is beating his more moderate opposition and driving Syrians who oppose him into the arms of extremists. The Russians will argue that there is no viable alternative to Assad, and that he is vital to countering terrorists.

Tillerson, who has only recently found his tongue and begun to speak about international affairs, is holding a bad hand. His denunciation of Assad’s inhumane treatment of Syrians sounds hollow, as until now he has shown indifference to humanitarian concerns. Not much more than a week ago, the Trump Administration was talking about how Assad would unfortunately have to be left in power while Washington focuses on the war against the Islamic State. President Trump has still not said anything different. If he has in mind a strategy for Syria that ends Assad’s rule, he is keeping it a secret.

What looked like a big cruise missile attack last week will be derided as a pin prick next month unless something more is done, either through diplomacy or the use of force. The diplomacy looks as if it is headed for failure in Moscow. America’s G7 partners apparently failed to agree to new sanctions against Russia in their meeting yesterday in Italy. Further military force risks Syrian, Iranian and Russian escalation that Washington won’t want to respond to. Tillerson’s tilt in favor of humanitarian intervention and against Assad is unlikely to produce near-term results that make America look great again.

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Assad’s chemicals

The Trump administration has let it be know it has abandoned hope of removing Bashar al Assad from power in Syria. Assad has responded by testing the limits of Washington’s affections: by using chemical weapons, once again. This occurred as the UN and Europe were considering aid to Syria at a Brussels meeting.

So far, Donald Trump has said this cannot be ignored by the civilized world but has done nothing. He has also tried to blame President Obama for the chemical attack for not having bombed Syria the first time Assad used chemical weapons (even if he at the time he urged Obama not to act).

Trump’s failure to act is a green light for Assad to do as he likes. If Washington continues to talk but not do, no doubt Assad will continue and likely ratchet up his chemical attacks, along with his assault on hospitals and other facilities that enable civilian populations to survive in Syria’s war zones.

What could the US administration do if it wanted? Here are a few options:

  1. Create declared safe areas protected from air and ground attacks, as Trump promised to do during the campaign.
  2. Identify and destroy aircraft or artillery involved in launching chemical weapons.
  3. Attack from the air Syrian and allied ground forces that are advancing on opposition-controlled areas.
  4. Make it clear the US will not provide reconstruction aid to any areas of Syria Assad still controls.
  5. Get Moscow to stop Assad’s use of chemical weapons.

None of these are easy at this point. Number 1 requires a significant deployment of US air as well as allied forces on the ground. Beyond the area of northern Syria controlled either by the Turks or the Kurds, it isn’t likely to happen. Number 2 is technically difficult, though it likely could be done, if Assad is dumb enough to park the planes or helicopters involved within reach of US cruise missiles.

Number 3 would put the US at war with Syria and Hizbollah, if not the Russians and Iranians. Number 4 I presume true already, and I suppose Assad does too, so it won’t affect his behavior. Number 5 is the eternal hope, but not one that has proved in any way justified.

None of the options except 2 seems at all likely at this point. The Administration is far more likely to act on North Korea, which has made clear it intends to gain the capability to attack the US, than on Assad, who avoids direct clashes with the US even if his brutal crackdown feeds the Islamic State and al Qaeda beasts that will eventually threaten the US.

It is hard to imagine how Iran, which suffered horrendous chemical attacks from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq (which it blames in part on US supplies), justifies its support to a serial chemical weapons abuser. My guess is denial smooths that wrinkle.

Trump may be busy blaming Obama for Assad’s chemical attacks, but the buck has been passed and now stops with Trump. Will he fail to act, like Obama? Or will he plunge the US deeper into the Middle East maelstrom, with unforeseeable consequences?

PS: Here is Trump today on the subject:

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We Exist!

This admirably brief and cogent policy statement by a consortium of 25 Syrian nongovernmental humanitarian and human rights organizations merits consideration, especially in light of the Trump Administration’s acceptance of the continuation of Bashar al Assad in power:

Policy statement for the Brussels Conference on supporting the future of Syria and the region

Brussels 03/04/2017

On 4th and 5th April, the European Union, United Nations, Germany, Kuwait, Norway, Qatar, and UK host the Brussels Conference on Supporting the future of Syria and the region. The Brussels Conference will tackle a range of issues impacting on both immediate life-saving humanitarian priorities as well as longer-term efforts to resolve the conflict. As the violence worsens inside Syria, and political efforts to resolve the conflict prove highly contentious, preparations towards the Conference have been fraught with controversy over if and how ‘reconstruction’ might feature on the agenda, and the political implications of this. The question of how civil society can participate at the Conference, or influence the decisions made, has also been controversial.

In this context, the We Exist! coalition of Syrian civil society organisations makes the following recommendations:

1. Facilitate meaningful participation by independent Syrian civil society groups at the Brussels Conference and follow-up processes – Unfortunately, the experience to date has been that local civil society has generally been the last to get invited into international policy processes on Syria that will impact on their work and the lives of the communities they directly serve. The co-hosts of the Brussels Conference, as well as the preparatory meetings hosted by the UN Office of the Special Envoy Stefan De Mistura and the High Representative Federica Mogherini, ECHO and DG NEAR, should take steps to ensure that diverse Syrian civil society organisations can participate and contribute to the process. In addition, they should ensure effective and inclusive participation in the follow-up process to implement, monitor and evaluate outcomes from the Conference, the Civil Society Chamber meetings and the other side events.

2. Affirm the protection and inclusion of civil society in the substantive commitments and outcomes agreed at the Conference – The Conference should issue a strong call its final declaration as well as in statements by individual governments for the protection and inclusion of independent local civil society organisations in all aspects of the international, national and local response to the Syrian crisis. Attacks on civil society activists and the criminalization of independent civil society groups that has spiraled over the past six years should cease. Respect of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights norms should be strongly reaffirmed and accountability for violations by all parties to the conflict promoted. Parties to the conflict have fostered and manipulated social and other community differences to serve their political and military objectives. As such, support to civil society should embody principles of inclusion, with steps taken to ensure that marginalized groups can engage and diversity in terms of gender, age, political, social and other relevant factors.

3. Rethink Reconstruction – Reconstruction cannot just be about bricks and
concrete, it must address the political, social and economic root causes of the
uprising and subsequent violent conflict. The political transition from violence
towards sustainable peace should be inclusive and representing the aspirations of
the Syrian people for freedom and dignity. Reconstruction should be for all of Syria
and all Syrians, and not determined by the imperatives of conflict or political
violence. As such, it should only start and be funded after credible steps toward a
genuine transition. Accountability and justice are necessary for this to happen –
without these, reconstruction efforts risk becoming new fronts in forced
displacement, the dispossession of property, human rights violations and further
rounds of violence. Donors and the UN should not conflate ‘early recovery’ with
premature involvement without the political conditions for reconstruction being in
place. Furthermore, the important role of independent Syrian civil society
organizations should be affirmed in the political track of negotiations on conflict
resolution inside Syria as well as in any eventual ‘reconstruction’ efforts following a
political settlement. They have a central role to play in promoting human rights,
justice, accountability, peace and reconciliation.

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