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Hard truths about Europe’s soft power

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In the run-up to last December’s EU summit on defence, Britain’s top general publicly warned that the UK risks being left with “hollowed out” armed forces. He said too little of the much-reduced British defence budget is being spent on personnel, too much on “exquisite” equipment bought for the wrong reasons. “We must be careful” he commented “that the defence budget is not disproportionately used to support the British defence industry.”

We in Britain have of course heard of that sort of thing happening on the Continent. Spanish and Italian defence programmes, for example, have long been significantly funded, and therefore shaped, by industry and technology ministries. But in the UK we have always prided ourselves on being rather more serious about defence, believing that every pound of our national defence budget is spent simply and solely to achieve maximum ‘bang for the buck’. So General Sir Nick Houghton’s ruminations were unsettling.

We Britons are also keen to dissociate ourselves from the prevalent European cast of mind that a U.S. Defense Secretary identified in 2010 as one of “demilitarisation”. But here again, General Houghton’s remarks were disquieting, as he mused about risk-aversion in wider society and how this could affect the British armed forces’ “courageous instinct”. It was certainly a shock when last summer the British Parliament voted against a government plan to bomb Syria. And though the UK cannot, given its euroscepticism, be expected to throw its troops into EU operations, it still felt a bit odd to watch the French sending military units first to Mali, and then the Central African Republic, whilst British soldiers sat at home. Can it be that the spores of German pacifism are floating across the North Sea, like so much Dutch Elm disease?

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We in Europe may be post-modern, but the rest of the world is not – including all those ‘swing voters’ whose preferences will determine which of the new contenders for global leadership carries most weight

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So Britain, it seems, is not that different from almost everyone else in Europe in having rather lost its way on defence. The transition from ‘keeping the Soviet Union at bay’ to ‘contributing to global security and tackling new threats at source’, as set out in the EU’s 2003 European Security Strategy, was easy enough. But after Iraq and Afghanistan, the ‘liberal interventionism’ rationale for our armed forces no longer works. Russian re-armament (and Vladimir Putin’s belligerence) hardly provide a satisfying alternative narrative, given the continuing one-to-three disparity between Russian defence spending and that of the EU states taken together, and the derelict state into which Russia’s military has fallen over two decades of neglect. So just what, the question nags with increasing insistence, are European armed forces actually for?

Not that EU national leaders, tackling defence for the first time in five years at last December’s European Council meeting, betrayed much uncertainty. “Defence matters” they insisted in the opening lines of their Conclusions. But beyond pro forma references to the “security of European citizens” and the need for the EU and member states to “exercise greater responsibilities… if they want to contribute to maintaining peace and security”, no clues were offered as to why it matters.

This is not a trivial point, in light of all the evidence (unused battlegroups, under-staffed training missions, unaddressed capability gaps) that most of the EU’s member states really don’t much want to contribute to maintaining peace and security – or even to maintaining effective armed forces. Using the defence budget to support industrial or regional jobs, or straightforwardly political rather than military objectives seems increasingly to be the European norm.

The temptation to misapply defence budgets in these ways is understandable, especially in the midst of recession. But it cannot be healthy in democracies to assert one thing and practice another; and such oblique methods of funding economic objectives are unlikely to be the most efficient. Implicit in this behaviour, moreover, is a set of assumptions about the world around us, and our position in it, which when unpacked should give us pause. This general European lack of seriousness about defence pre-supposes that we can rest easy in the apparent absence of military threat for the foreseeable future. It further pre-supposes either that the notions of European ‘power and influence’ on the global stage are irrelevant/distasteful/outdated, or that in the modern age effective armed forces have no part to play in maintaining such power.

None of this looks safe. Time and again, as when we have found ourselves astonished by invasions of the Falkland Islands or Kuwait, or by the Arab Spring, we discover that the ‘foreseeable future’ can amount to as little as a few days. Worse, an attitude of ‘no threats, so no defence needed’ overlooks the vital deterrent purpose of armed forces. Threats are not like weather events – they are backed by human calculation (something we almost wilfully obscure by broadening our concept of ‘security’ to include pandemics and climate change). And human calculation is crucially affected by perceptions of the other party’s will to resist, or at any rate stand up to bullying. In short, an evident lack of seriousness about defence risks turning the potential threat into actuality.

As for European aspirations to be a ‘global player’, proactively promoting our interests and distinctive values, the economic crisis has inevitably done great damage. Witness the mercantilisation of our diplomacy, with Europe’s national leaders jostling in Beijing and the Gulf for investment and export orders. The U.S. ‘pivots to Asia’, but Europeans refuse to view the other side of the globe as more than an enormous market. Germany sells arms as though they were nothing but expensive machine tools; British Conservatives evoke Singapore as the model of their national ambition. Yet even ‘realists’ should reflect that simply ceding global leadership to hungrier and more determined new powers is no way, ultimately, to achieve even the most basic aim of enabling our children to make a living – that Europe’s continuing prosperity depends on a continuing ability to demand that trade be fair as well as free, to maintain access to raw materials, and to insist on minimum environmental and social standards in global economic activity.

So power and influence in the wider world are vital if we are adequately to protect our interests, never mind promoting our values, at a time when most of the rest of the world seems more interested in the Chinese model of authoritarian capitalism than in any Western norms. The democracies amongst the new powers may be somewhat more concerned for human rights: but Brazil and India as much as China evince a ‘neo-Westphalian’ view of international affairs, focussing on national sovereignty and non-interference rather than on any ‘rules-based world’.

Which of course is a big part of why military power has an essential part to play if Europe is not to find itself shunted to the margins of global affairs. We in Europe may be post-modern, but the rest of the world is not – including all those ‘swing voters’ whose preferences will determine which of the new contenders for global leadership carries most weight. Across the Middle East, through Africa, to East and South-East Asia, national leaders are either military men, or at least preoccupied on a day-to-day basis with military issues which may well be matters of government or even state survival. They want arms, and they also want training, and advice, and intelligence, and the reassurance that can come from working with partners who understand military affairs, and who will from time to time demonstrate their military reach and presence.

This is not a matter of sending gun-boats, or subscribing to Frederick the Great’s dictum that ‘diplomacy without arms is like music without instruments’. It is a matter of understanding that effective armed forces can and should have a role to play, not just in ‘countering threats’ but as instruments of state-craft. European leaders have had their heads in the sand about this for too long, too ready to hide behind the 2003 Strategy – a triumph in its day, but now the product of a bygone era. It is high time for a first-principles European re-evaluation of how the world has changed, and will continue to change (demographic projections, for example, are both dependable and worrying for Europeans), and to flush out those old assumptions guiding Europe’s foreign policy which no longer hold true. A glance at Europe’s own neighbourhood is enough to explode the notion that ‘soft power’ is all it takes. And what policy should we now substitute for the happy but evaporated hope that new powers could be house-trained to become ‘responsible stakeholders’ in an international system designed by the West?

 

To the credit of the European Council’s president, Herman Van Rompuy, last December’s defence discussion opened the door to this sort of debate when national leaders agreed to ‘assess the impact of changes in the global environment’ and to consider ‘the challenges and opportunities arising for the Union’. It is to be hoped that later this year the successor to Catherine Ashton will choose to exploit this opening to the full. Without a fundamental rethink of Europe’s external strategy it will not just be Europe’s armed forces that can expect to be hollowed out, but Europe’s interests and values too.

 

First published by the Europe’s World, article re-posted per author’s permission

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Indo-European rapprochement and the competing geopolitics of infrastructure

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Current dynamics suggest that the main focus of geopolitics in the coming years will shift towards the Indo-Pacific region. All eyes are on China and its regional initiatives aimed at establishing global dominance. China’s muscle-flexing behavior in the region has taken the form of direct clashes with India along the Line of Actual Control, where India lost at least 20 soldiers last June; interference in Hong Kong’s affairs; an increased presence in the South China Sea; and economic malevolence towards Australia. With this evolving geopolitical complexity, if the EU seeks to keep and increase its global ‘actorness’, it needs to go beyond the initiatives of France and Germany, and to shape its own agenda. At the same time, India is also paying attention to the fact that in today’s fragmented and multipolar world, the power of any aspiring global actor depends on its diversified relationships. In this context, the EU is a useful partner that India can rely on.

Indo-European rapprochement, which attempts to challenge Chinese global expansion, seeks also to enhance multilateral international institutions and to support a rules-based order. Given the fact that India will hold a seat on the UN Security Council in 2021-22 and the G20 presidency in 2022, both parties see an opportunity to move forward on a shared vision of multilateralism. As a normative power, the EU is trying to join forces with New Delhi to promote the rules-based system. Therefore, in order to prevent an ‘all-roads-lead-to-Beijing’ situation and to challenge growing Chinese hegemony, the EU and India need each other.

With this in mind, the EU and India have finally moved towards taking their co-operation to a higher level. Overcoming difficulties in negotiations, which have been suspended since 2013 because of trade-related thorny topics like India’s agricultural protectionism, shows that there is now a different mood in the air.

The Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, had been scheduled to travel to Portugal for  a summit with EU leaders, but the visit cancelled because of the Covid-19 pandemic. As a result, the European Commission and Portugal – in its presidency of the European Council – offered India to hold the summit in a virtual format on 8 May 2021. The talks between these two economic giants were productive and resulted in the Connectivity Partnership, uniting efforts and attention on energy, digital and transportation sectors, offering new opportunities for investors from both sides. Moreover, this new initiative seeks to build joint infrastructure projects around the world mainly investing in third countries. Although both sides have clarified that the new global partnership isn’t designed to compete with China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the joint initiative to build effective projects across Europe, Asia and Africa, will undoubtedly counter Beijing’s agenda.  

The EU and its allies have a common interest in presenting an alternative to the Belt and Road Initiative, which will contain Chinese investment efforts to dominate various regions. Even though the EU is looking to build up its economic ties with China and signed the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investments (CAI) last December, European sanctions imposed on Beijing in response to discrimination against Uighurs and other human rights violations have complicated relations. Moreover, US President Joe Biden has been pushing the EU to take a tougher stance against China and its worldwide initiatives.

This new Indo-European co-operation project, from the point of view of its initiators, will not impose a heavy debt burden on its partners as the Chinese projects do. However, whilst the EU says that both the public and the private sectors will be involved, it’s not clear where the funds will come from for these projects. The US and the EU have consistently been against the Chinese model of providing infrastructure support for developing nations, by which Beijing offers assistance via expensive projects that the host country ends up not being able to afford. India, Australia, the EU, the US and Japan have already started their own initiatives to counterbalance China’s. This includes ‘The Three Seas Initiative’ in the Central and Eastern European region, aimed at reducing its dependence on Chinese investments and Russian gas. Other successful examples are Japan’s ‘Expanded Partnership for Quality Infrastructure’ and its ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy’. One of the joint examples of Indo-Japanese co-operation is the development of infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Bangladesh. The partners had been scheduled to build Colombo’s East Container Terminal but the Sri Lankans suddenly pulled out just before signing last year. Another competing regional strategy is the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC), initiated by India, Japan and a few African countries in 2017. This Indo-Japanese collaboration aims to develop infrastructure in Africa, enhanced by digital connectivity, which would make the Indo-Pacific Region free and open. The AAGC gives priority to development projects in health and pharmaceuticals, agriculture, and disaster management. 

Undoubtably, this evolving infrastructure-building competition may solve the problems of many underdeveloped or developing countries if their leaderships act wisely. The newly adopted Indo-European Connectivity Partnership promises new prospects for Eastern Europe and especially for the fragile democracies of Armenia and Georgia.

The statement of the Indian ambassador to Tehran in March of this year, to connect Eastern and Northern Europe via Armenia and Georgia, paves the way for necessary dialogue on this matter. Being sandwiched between Russia and Turkey and at the same time being ideally located between Europe and India, Armenia and Georgia are well-placed to take advantage of the possible opportunities of the Indo-European Partnership. The involvement of Tbilisi and Yerevan in this project can enhance the economic attractiveness of these countries, which will increase their economic security and will make this region less vulnerable vis-à-vis Russo-Turkish interventions. 

The EU and India need to decide if they want to be decision-makers or decision-takers. Strong co-operation would help both become global agenda shapers. In case these two actors fail to find a common roadmap for promoting rules-based architecture and to become competitive infrastructure providers, it would be to the benefit of the US and China, which would impose their priorities on others, including the EU and India.

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The Leaders of the Western World Meet

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The annual meeting of the G7 comprising the largest western economies plus Japan is being hosted this year by the United Kingdom.  Boris Johnson, the UK Prime Minister has also invited Australia, South Korea, South Africa and India.  There has been talk of including Russia again but Britain threatened a veto.  Russia, which had been a member from 1997, was suspended in 2014 following the Crimea annexation.  

Cornwall in the extreme southwest of England has a rugged beauty enjoyed by tourists, and is a contrast to the green undulating softness of its neighbor Devon.  St. Ives is on Cornwall’s sheltered northern coast and it is the venue for the G7 meeting (August 11-13) this year.  It offers beautiful beaches and ice-cold seas.

France, Germany. Italy, UK, US, Japan and Canada.  What do the rich talk about?  Items on the agenda this year including pandemics (fear thereof) and in particular zoonotic diseases where infection spreads from non-human animals to humans.  Johnson has proposed a network of research labs to deal with the problem.  As a worldwide network it will include the design of a global early-warning system and will also establish protocols to deal with future health emergencies.

The important topic of climate change is of particular interest to Boris Johnson because Britain is hosting COP26  in Glasgow later this year in November.  Coal, one of the worst pollutants, has to be phased out and poorer countries will need help to step up and tackle not just the use of cheap coal but climate change and pollution in general.  The G7 countries’ GDP taken together comprises about half of total world output, and climate change has the potential of becoming an existential problem for all on earth.  And help from them to poorer countries is essential for these to be able to increase climate action efforts.

The G7 members are also concerned about large multinationals taking advantage of differing tax laws in the member countries.  Thus the proposal for a uniform 15 percent minimum tax.  There is some dispute as to whether the rate is too low.

America is back according to Joe Biden signalling a shift away from Donald Trump’s unilateralism.  But America is also not the sole driver of the world economy:  China is a real competitor and the European Union in toto is larger.  In a multilateral world, Trump charging ahead on his own made the US risible.  He also got nowhere as the world’s powers one by one distanced themselves.

Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen is also endorsing close coordination in economic policies plus continued support as the world struggles to recover after the corona epidemic.  India for example, has over 27 million confirmed cases, the largest number in Asia.  A dying first wave shattered hopes when a second much larger one hit — its devastation worsened by a shortage of hospital beds, oxygen cylinders and other medicines in the severely hit regions.  On April 30, 2021, India became the first country to report over 400,000 new cases in a single 24 hour period.

It is an interdependent world where atavistic self-interest is no longer a solution to its problems.

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Revisiting the Bosnian War

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Genocide is not an alien concept to the world nowadays. However, while the reality (and the culprit) is not hard to profile today, history is ridden with massacres that were draped and concealed from the world beyond. Genocides that rivaled the great warfares and were so gruesome that the ring of brutality still pulsates in the historical narrative of humanity. We journey back to one such genocide that was named the most brutish mass slaughter after World War II. We revisit the Bosnian War (1992-95) which resulted in the deaths of an estimated 100,000 innocent Bosnian citizens and displaced millions. The savage nature of the war was such that the war crimes committed constituted a whole new definition to how we describe genocide.

The historical backdrop helps us gauge the complex relations and motivations which resulted in such chaotic warfare to follow suit. Post World War II, the then People’s Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina joined the then Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia. Bosnia-Herzegovina became one of the constituent republics of Yugoslavia in 1946 along with other Balkan states including Croatia, Slovenia, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia. As communism pervaded all over Yugoslavia, Bosnia-Herzegovina began losing its religion-cultural identity. Since Bosnia-Herzegovina mainly comprised of a Muslim population, later known as the Bosniaks, the spread of socialism resulted in the abolition of many Muslim institutions and traditions. And while the transition to the reformed Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1963 did ease the ethnic pressure, the underlying radical ideology and sentiments never fully subsided.

The Bosniaks started to emerge as the majority demographic of Bosnia and by 1971, the Bosniaks constituted as the single largest component of the entire Bosnia-Herzegovina population. However, the trend of emigration picked up later in the decades; the Serbs and the Croats adding up to their tally throughout most of the 70s and mid-80s. The Bosnian population was characterized as a tripartite society, that is, comprised of three core ethnicities: Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats. Till  1991, the ethnic majority of the Bosniaks was heavily diluted down to just 44% while the Serbian emigrants concentrated the Serbian influence; making up 31% of the total Bosnian population.

While on one side of the coin, Bosnia-Herzegovina was being flooded with Serbs inching a way to gain dominance, the Yugoslavian economy was consistently perishing on the other side. While the signs of instability were apparent in the early 80s, the decade was not enough for the economy to revive. In the late 80s, therefore, political dissatisfaction started to take over and multiple nationalist parties began setting camps. The sentiments diffused throughout the expanse of Yugoslavia and nationalists sensed an imminent partition. Bosnia-Herzegovina, like Croatia, followed through with an election in 1990 which resulted in an expected tripartite poll roughly similar to the demographic of Bosnia. The representatives resorted to form a coalition government comprising of Bosniak-Serb-Craot regime sharing turns at the premiership. While the ethnic majority Bosniaks enjoyed the first go at the office, the tensions soon erupted around Bosnia-Herzegovina as Serbs turned increasingly hostile.

The lava erupted in 1991 as the coalition government of Bosnia withered and the Serbian Democratic Party established its separate assembly in Bosnia known as ‘Serbian National Assembly’.  The move was in line with a growing sentiment of independence that was paving the dismantling of Yugoslavia. The Serbian Democratic Party long envisioned a dominant Serbian state in the Balkans and was not ready to participate in a rotational government when fighting was erupting in the neighboring states. When Croatia started witnessing violence and the rise of rebels in 1992, the separatist vision of the Serbs was further nourished as the Serbian Democratic Party, under the leadership of Serb Leader Radovan Karadžić, established an autonomous government in the Serb Majority areas of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The vision and the actions remained docile until the ring of independence was echoed throughout the region. When the European Commission (EC), now known as the European Union (EU), and the United States recognized the independence of both Croatia and Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina found itself in a precarious position. While a safe bet would have been to undergo talks and diplomatic routes to engage the Serbian Democratic Party, the Bosnian President Alija Izetbegović failed to realize the early warnings of an uprising. Instead of forging negotiations with the Bosnian Serbs, the Bosniak President resorted to mirror Croatia by organizing a referendum of independence bolstered by both the EC and the US. Even as the referendum was blocked in the Serb autonomous regions of Bosnia, Izetbegović chose to pass through and announced the results. As soon as the Bosnian Independence from Yugoslavia was announced and recognized, fighting erupted throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The Bosnian Serbs feared that their long-envisioned plan of establishing the ‘Great Serbia’ in the Balkans was interred which resulted in chaos overtaking most of Bosnia. The blame of the decision, however, was placed largely on the Bosniak president and, by extension, the entire ethnic majority of the Bosniaks. The Bosnian Serbs started to launch attacks in the east of Bosnia; majorly targeting the Bosniak-dominated towns like Foča, Višegrad, and Zvornik. Soon the Bosnian Serb forces were joined by the local paramilitary rebels as well as the Yugoslavian army as the attacks ravaged the towns with large Bosniak populations; swathing the land in the process. The towns were pillaged and pressed into control whilst the local Bosniaks and their Croat counterparts were either displaced, incarcerated, or massacred.

While the frail Bosnian government managed to join hands with the Croatian forces across the border, the resulting offense was not nearly enough as the combination of Serb forces, rebel groups, and the Yugoslavian army took control of almost two-thirds of the Bosnian territory. The Karadžić regime refused to hand over the captured land in the rounds of negotiations. And while the war stagnated, the Bosniak locals left behind in small pockets of war-ravaged areas faced the brunt in the name of revenge and ethnic cleansing.

As Bosniaks and Croats formed a joint federation as the last resort, the Serbian Democratic Party established the Republic Srpska in the captured East, and the military units were given under the command of the Bosnian-Serb General, Ratko Mladic. The notorious general, known as the ‘Butcher of Bosnia’, committed horrifying war crimes including slaughtering the Bosniak locals captured in violence, raping the Bosniak women, and violating the minors in the name of ethnic cleansing exercises. While the United Nations refused to intervene in the war, the plea of the helpless Bosniaks forced the UN to at least deliver humanitarian aid to the oppressed. The most gruesome of all incidents were marked in July 1995, when an UN-declared safe zone, known as Srebrenica, was penetrated by the forces led by Mladic whilst some innocent Bosniaks took refuge. The forces brutally slaughtered the men while raped the women and children. An estimated 7000-8000 Bosniak men were slaughtered in the most grotesque campaign of ethnic cleansing intended to wipe off any trace of Bosniaks from the Serb-controlled territory.

In the aftermath of the barbaric war crimes, NATO undertook airstrikes to target the Bosnian-Serb targets while the Bosniak-Croat offense was launched from the ground. In late 1995, the Bosnian-Serb forces conceded defeat and accepted US-brokered talks. The accords, also known as the ‘Dayton Accords’, resulted in a conclusion to the Bosnian War as international forces were established in the region to enforce compliance. The newly negotiated federalized Bosnia and Herzegovina constituted 51% of the Croat-Bosniak Federation and 49% of the Serb Republic.

The accord, however, was not the end of the unfortunate tale as the trials and international action were soon followed to investigate the crimes against humanity committed during the three-year warfare. While many Serb leaders either died in imprisonment or committed suicide, the malefactor of the Srebrenica Massacre, Ratko Mladic, went into hiding in 2001. However, Mladic was arrested after a decade in 2011 by the Serbian authorities and was tried in the UN-established International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia (ICTY). The investigation revisited the malicious actions of the former general and in 2017, the ICTY found Ratko Mladic guilty of genocide and war crimes and sentenced him to life in prison. While Mladic appealed for acquittal on the inane grounds of innocence since not he but his subordinates committed the crimes, the UN court recently upheld the decision in finality; closing doors on any further appeals. After 26-years, the world saw despair in the eyes of the 78-year-old Mladic as he joined the fate of his bedfellows while the progeny of the victims gained some closure as the last Bosnian trail was cased on a note of justice.

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