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Russian Diplomacy: Trying to go from the Small Stage to the Big Screen

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One of the Russian government’s worries that propelled it to face the conflict in Syria against DAESH was the probability of it morphing into issues within the Nagorno-Karabakh region.

The role that Russia has been increasingly playing as a diplomatic partner in the region is entrenching Russia and President Vladimir Putin as the go-to players for security concerns. It was not that long ago though that Russia was in the Western limelight because of its own involvement with Ukraine over the Crimean peninsula, cast as the villain. Is Russia trying to recast its role in Syria, shifting from villain to diplomatic envoy? Some think that Putin is trying to affirm the military’s glory to the Russian people and show the world that Russia cannot be pushed into the background. This strategy, though, is continually stretching the limits of the Russian military, its economic burdens, and the lines of acceptance from the international community.

One region potentially impacted by this is Nagorno-Karabakh, the self-proclaimed autonomous region between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Russia has been trying to find a diplomatic solution to the dispute, but has been largely unsuccessful in its attempts. Overall, Russia has always remained somewhat closer to Armenia, with Armenia hosting a Russian base within its borders. The contract for that base was recently renewed until 2044. Russia also invited Armenia to be a part of the Eurasian Union. Russia has also started to shift closer to Azerbaijan too, however, selling heavy weapons that it can use to fortify and strengthen its military. The presence of a Russian military base on one side of the conflict and the sale of weapons from Russia to the other side of the conflict is not, however, creating momentum for solving the region’s dilemma. More likely it is further exacerbating the issues of insecurity between the two old rivals in the Caucasus.  

While Russia has tried to play a part in the diplomatic process between Armenia and Azerbaijan regarding the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict it also has given contradictory support (to Armenia by placing troops within the country and to Azerbaijan by selling weapons to the Azeri government), leading to an increase in the spread of violence and discord. The violence is spreading beyond the Nagorno-Karabakh region and is now travelling along the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Where skirmishes previously consisted only of small-arms fire, today it is more common that exchanges consist of larger-arms fire and rockets.

There are six main obstacles to overcome in the Nagorno-Karabakh region and they all give Russia tremendous difficulty in proving its diplomatic strength. The first is the deep rooted mutual distrust between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The second is that the Azeris and the Armenians think that the conflict should not involve outside forces: they actually believe that outside forces are doing nothing more than aggravating old tensions. The issue of refugees from the region is a third obstacle that must be addressed. Without having a settlement in the near future it will be near impossible to repatriate any of the 800,000 to1,000,000 refugees spread across the region. Fourth, deep mistrust creates security issues between the two countries that extend far beyond the single disputed region. Azerbaijan is incensed that Armenia is ‘occupying’ nearly six of its provinces, but any move to retake those provinces would provoke further feelings of insecurity for Armenia and could be the spark to set off a full-blown war. Trying to get the two sides to release their claims on various parcels of land has been futile. This deep sense of insecurity and impending dread of renewed militia engagement is keeping hundreds of thousands of refugees from returning to their homes.

This leads to the fifth complication: getting either side to agree to a deal or to at least agree to a timeline for renewed diplomatic engagement based on substantive promises and negotiations. The problems in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict are deep-rooted. All sides request concessions that must be in place before they will move forward with any plans to reengage. The concessions are not unreasonable, but the timelines in which they are requested cause continuous issues and arguments. Armenia requests that the Nagorno-Karabakh region is left solely in its care, the Azeris request that the Armenians withdraw from the region and return it to Azerbaijan’s control, and the Nagorno-Karabakh region itself will not concede anything unless it is recognized as an autonomous state. These issues continue to boil under the surface, waiting to erupt.

The last and final obstacle that must be overcome in order to find peace in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is that the parties represented in the negotiating process must come to an agreement on being equal participants at the table. This may seem simple but is in fact arguably the most problematic. There are three parties concerned in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict: the Armenians, the Azeris, and the Karabakh Armenians. Even though the region has declared itself an autonomous state, the reality is that such declarations are not recognized by the Armenians or the Azeris. This has subsequently left the self-installed government of Nagorno-Karabakh out of the negotiations entirely. Russia has also shown little support for the autonomous government of Nagorno-Karabakh, further excluding it from the negotiations. This likely has to change if real progress is to be made.

With all the major diplomatic/military operations and maneuvers that Russia has become a part of in the last year, it leaves one to wonder how it will continue to spread resources so thin and still hope to find success. Putin is playing a strategic but potentially risky game in his effort to reestablish the power and glory of Russian international significance.   Indeed, the effects of the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh reigniting have implications that would affect not just Russia but also Turkey, Iran, and Syria. The conflict needs a great deal of time and attention to stop festering problems from erupting into an all-out war that would devastate the region far beyond the Caspian. The Russian government needs to seek solutions that would aid in keeping peace, repatriating refugees, and providing relief for the diverse security issues at hand. If it does manage this incredible feat, then it may just be successful in its impassioned desire to be seen as a force for diplomatic good on the world stage. That may seem far-fetched at the moment, but they are still the largest stakes at play.

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Diplomacy

Multilateralism Without the USA

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Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

It has already done so for a long time. As I have described earlier: “Nobody waits for Biden” (or the USA). The World is everywhere moving fast around the USA – leaving an ever more bewildered USA behind. US President Biden doesn’t get it. Biden still lives in his inner past experiences of the Cold War and the subsequent American World Order – both gone worlds.

Developments of the past three years

Here are some recent events, which highlight this strategic development:

1. The CPTPP was driven through by the other countries in 2018, after Trump putting “America First” jumped it. This now leaves Biden in a dilemma with his Trump mimic of Buy American (first).

2. The EU-MERCOSUR trade agreement was agreed in June 2019. A true multilateral agreement, not between countries, but between blocks of countries, two of the World’s Mega-Regions.

3. The Brazil-China trade pact in 2019, a result of over 10 years of strategic partnership. Brazil-China is an indicative case of a growing Mega-Region to Mega-Region multilateral cooperation as it involves most of South America. For example, it drives ambitious transcontinental South American infrastructure plans, which include to connect Brazil, Paraguay, and Bolivia with the growing Pacific shipping between Peru and China. Speak of “BRI Latino”.

4. The RCEP was initiated and in 2020 driven to conclusion by the ASEAN – not by China. The US is out. RCEP unites a complex of relationships between ASEAN, China, Japan, Korea, and Australia.

5. The Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) was driven through by the EU with China in the very last days of 2020, on 28 December – directly against the USA. China opens opportunities with the CAI agreement, while the USA diminishes with “Buy American”. Cars are a good illustration. China is a far bigger car market than the USA. With 25 million cars sold in 2019, China’s car market is nearly 50% bigger than the US car market. This perfectly illustrates China’s trade potential vs. the USA. China’s car market is not only so much bigger – China may double. In contrast, the USA car market completely stagnates. No, China did not just “drive a wedge” between the EU and the USA with the CAI agreement – the EU wants it. To be competitive in products like cars, the EU needs to be in China. The US loses out by staying out. The EU wants factories in China.

6. China, Russia, and Turkey make big agreements without the USA. Russia and Turkey decide on peace and the whole future of places like Syria and Nagorno-Karabakh, leaving the USA in the cold. They deal with Iran very much as they want.

7. India this year presses harder for an EU trade agreement. That the EU recently made the CAI agreement with China does not keep India away from seeking business with the EU. We see complex multilateral relations develop, not involving the USA.

8. The EU just decided (with China surely agreeing) to make the Euro a world-currency everywhere outside the USA. Here, the EU acts in direct contradiction to the American “Longer Telegram” which is clearly US President Biden’s China strategy. In Biden’s “Longer Telegram” China strategy, Biden wants a supreme dollar hegemony. Biden also wants dollar hegemony to run mammoth US deficits. Nobody else needs that. The EU wants to protect itself financially against the USA, including the possible US takeovers of leading EU tech companies. China is on – USA falls off.

More examples – a long-term trend

On top of the recent eight examples above, there is a range of multilateral developments which for several years have been running, fully independently of the USA. A good example is the complex EU-Russia-China cooperation the past decade which has created an exceptionally efficient railroad corridor of over 11,000 km from Chongqing to Duisburg. Not just without the US – even against the US. The Eurasian Landbridge railroad system is a great example of the emerging new multilateralism not involving the USA. It started in the early 2010’s and a decade later, it now involves more than the Mega-Region to Mega-Region level of EU, Eurasia, and China. It spreads out to individual EU and Central Asian countries. It furthers sprawling public as well as private business. And it is increasingly multitiered, involving Mega-Regional, Regional, national, and subnational authorities like Chinese province governments. We also have the Nord Stream gas cooperation Germany-Russia. Even against US sanctions. Imagine US reactions, if the EU for “climate-security” had tried to sanction against the US-Canada Keystone XL pipeline. Coming up, we have the strategic multilateral Africa-Europe partnership between the EU and the African Union (the AU). This is a growing multi-sectoral Mega-Regional cooperation involving trade, jobs, security, immigration, digital development, green transition etc. The USA is not involved. These examples all confirm the fast proliferation of successful multilateral agreements, cooperation, and understandings actively involving several of the World’s Regions – except the USA.

North American developments

The deepening of Canada’s multilateral cooperation to EU with the CETA trade deal in 2017 is also indicative of global cooperations increasing all the way round the USA – leaving the US rather alone. Instead of strengthening North American relations, the USA repeatedly sinks relations with its only two neighbors. The new North American free trade agreement USMCA has harder “local content” requirements and is thus substantially less favorable to Canada and Mexico than the NAFTA which is replaced. For instance, auto parts must now have 75% North American content. The USMCA also widely mandates a minimum wage in Mexico and Canada of 16 dollars/hour – the current US minimum wage is only 7.25 dollars. Even President Biden’s proposed minimum wage of 15 dollars/hour will still be one dollar less than what the USMCA mandates US neighbors – making unskilled Mexican workers uncompetitive. Canada’s steel exports are the biggest victim of US steel-sanctions aimed at China, ostensibly for “security reasons”. A hard hit on Canadian (and S.Korean) steel workers, which are military partners with the USA. And there is no sign that President Biden will reverse US protectionism. Recently, US President Biden with the stroke of his pen on a presidential order, unilaterally makes lost money out of 30 billions which Canada has at stake in the Keystone XL pipeline to the USA. Biden delivers a gut punch to Canada. President Biden’s “Buy America” order forbids not only allied EU, Japanese and Korean suppliers, but also Canadian and Mexican companies to supply the US government. Biden breaks multilateral commitments to the Government Procurement Agreement (GPA) under the WTO. Canada and Mexico are consistently being alienated by the USA and will increasingly need multilateral ties with others: The EU – and China.

Theoretical underpinnings

Multilateralism without a hegemonic power (USA) has not only been happening for a long time – it even accelerates enormously, independently of the USA. The World is NOT waiting for newly elected US President Biden and his national security advisor Jake Sullivan with his “Longer Telegram” misconceptions. We see the emergence of the Mega-Regions, which I identified and described last year.

The World’s Mega-Regions integrate internally – and they make deals with each other externally. The USA is a single exemption to the development of Mega-Regions. Instead of integrating North America into a Mega-Region of shared governance, a “Buy America First” USA continues to consistently split itself from its two neighbors Mexico and Canada. The World of Regions is much-much more geopolitically complex than the bipolar or unipolar World ever were. The rules have changed – again. It is an entirely different reality from the obsolete imaginations of US President Biden and his team. As I stated in an interview of 7 January, published 21 January 2021 – Biden and the USA have much narrower space for maneuver than Biden and his team understand. The previous examples demonstrate how the new Regional World structure is radically more composite and multitiered than the bipolar or unipolar worlds were. Inside Mega-Regions you have other Regions. And in them even smaller Regions (sometimes criss-crossing). It is like the dolls inside dolls of the smiling Babushka nesting dolls, which I used in the picture with the USA marching off to its own perfect storm. (correctly, Matryoshka dolls, see picture below).

Africa, for example, is a Mega-Region. But inside, Africa’s Mega-Region is organized into 8 official Regional Economic Communities (RECs), generally with regional parliaments under the Africa Union (AU) Parliament. And most of these 8 African Regions are criss-crossing each other. Africa illustrates the fractal World structure (regions-within-and-across-regions) which we see today. In the Mega-Region of the EU, Spain with its own internal Regions is also an example of fractal geopolitical structures of regions-within-regions.

Expect to see a growth in multilateralism not only between Mega-Regions (ref. above) but also inside Mega-Regions and across tiers (levels of authority).

I saw these tendencies and wrote on them more than 5 years ago – see my 2016 paper The Future of Security

My work-paper 2016 on the Future of Security concludes with a chapter on China. Countries around China must increasingly find their own modus-vivendi with China, as US power there inexorably recedes. President Biden believes he can reverse that long-term trend – he cannot. The Future of Security is a work-paper still in progress. Mega-Regions add to my theory, and the examples in this paper add more pieces for a whole theory. We need that – to manage the World. We must intensely observe structures as the Multilateral Regional World develops – increasingly structures not involving the USA.

From our partner RIAC

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Diplomacy

Chinese-style soft power

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US soft power once meant that the rest of the world dreamt of living like Americans. Recently, soft power is something attributed to China as well, but as much as all of us use Chinese-produced goods, no one really wishes to live in China. Upon closer inspection, China’s soft power is nothing more than lazily hidden strong power, i.e. attempts to achieve economic, political and military dominance through the use of force.

In response to China’s rapid economic growth, the establishment of networks of economic cooperation and its increased role on the global political stage, many political experts are tempted to talk about China’s soft power. However, most often they must talk about aggressive tactics employed by China that has nothing to do with the true meaning of soft power.

The wealth acquired by the Chinese through hard work began to worry the West when it became clear that China has aspirations to become a global superpower. China has the second largest defense budget, although it makes up only a third of that of the US. China has many trade partners, but they often complain that China tries to force unfair rules. Former US president Donald Trump began a trade war with China, and the EU has also accused China of favoring protectionism instead of a competition-based system. When in 2018 Canada, after a request by the US, detained Huawei’s chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou, China responded by detaining several Canadians, although Huawei denied having any ties to the Chinese government.

China has territorial claims in the South China Sea, of which it reminds by holding military exercises and causing tensions in the region.

What concerns China’s soft power, the usual suspects are the Confucius Institutes, which have been established all over the globe, and the Belt and Road Initiative. Another soft outlet of influence is China’s participation in international organization. However, if we look closer at each of them, none can be considered soft power instruments.

The Confucius Institutes teach not only the Chinese language, but also the Chinese government’s worldview. Professors in the US, Canada and Europe have urged to close the Confucius Institutes that operate in their universities, saying that they restrict academic freedom.

There have also been allegations that the Chinese Embassy has attempted to disrupt meetings between Latvian and Tibetan representatives. Former head of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Latvian Saeima (parliament) Ojārs Ēriks Kalniņš revealed that in 2015, after a protest phone call from the Chinese ambassador, he tried to convince his colleagues not to welcome the Tibetan delegation in the Saeima. In 2013, after “instructions from higher authorities” posters advertising Dalai Lama’s lectures were removed from Riga International Airport, and since 2010 Latvia’s highest officials – president and the prime minister – have not officially met with Dalai Lama. The Latvian Ministry of Foreign Affairs advises officials not to meet with Dalai Lama or ministers of the Central Tibetan Administration, as confirmed by Latvian Minister of Foreign Affairs Edgars Rinkēvičs.

Many nations cooperate with China, but quite often they complain about China enforcing unfair conditions. This is a state-level policy – to further economic relations with numerous countries, at the same time imposing different restrictions and obstacles against them in order to tip the scales economic benefit in China’s favor.

Nevertheless, none of this can hide the ugliness of China’s communist regime in the eyes of other nations, especially at a time when China is suspected of withholding information on the true extent of the Covid-19 pandemic in the country, after the outbreak in Wuhan in 2019. Moreover, China is also being accused of Uyghur genocide, with more and more information on this issue coming to light in recent years.

Authoritarian regimes in their essence are incompatible with true soft power, as it’s three main pillars are an attractive culture, political values and a morally just foreign policy, and the only thing China has is an attractive culture. To compensate for the lack of benign political values and foreign policy, China employs means that cannot be considered part of the arsenal of soft power.

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Cutting Distances with a Cricket Stump

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Sports are the common threads that bind people and countries together. The interlocking rings of the Olympics rings symbolize the coming together of all nations. The former US President Nixon successfully used “ping-pong diplomacy” to open the US-China relationship leading the US to lift embargo against China on June 10, 1971. Cricket has been used in a similar manner to bring together the people of different countries, especially South Asians. Sport in South Asia is a significant part of culture. For South Asians, it is not only a sport but part of their collective identity. Some legends of Cricket in South Asia like Imran Khan, Sachin Tendulkar, Waseem Akram, Sunil Gavaskar, Kumar Sangakkara, Shahid Afridi, Shakaib Al Hasan, Shoaib Akhtar and Virat Kohli are the household names. Though, Pakistan is known as the manufacturer of the official FIFA World Cup ball, football is not popular in Pakistan. Pakistan has remained world champions in Squash, Hockey, Cricket, Snookers, Kabaddi and many other individual events of athletics, yet cricket is the most sought-after sport in Pakistan despite bottlenecks like terrorism and COVID-19.

While the overall sports spectrum went down, Pakistani cricket maintained its presence in cricketing world. Since last few years, Pakistani cricket team has been able to revive and reinvent itself internationally. I remember one of the slogans during Independence Cup 2017 in Lahore that said “It is not Pakistan vs. World, it is Pakistan vs. Terrorism”. In Pakistan, cricket is also a measure of national strength. Pakistan’s cricket teams take part in domestic competitions such as the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy, the Patron’s Trophy, ABN-AMRO Twenty-20 Cup, and the ABN-AMRO Champions Trophy. In 2015, Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) organized a franchise based T20 cricket league known as the Pakistan Super League (PSL). The two seasons of PSL, 2020 and 2021 are held entirely by PCB. Additionally, Mr. Imran Khan, incumbent Prime Minister of Pakistan has conceived the new basic structure of the game in country.

Pakistan-World Champion

Pakistan has won international cricket events, which include the 1992 Cricket World Cup, the 2009 ICC World Twenty20 and the 2017 ICC Champions Trophy besides finishing as runner-up in the 1999 Cricket World Cup and the 2007 ICC World Twenty20. Women’s cricket is also very popular, with KiranBaluch holding the current record of the highest score in a women’s test match with her innings of 242. Mr. Imran Khan has the honour of leading Pakistan national cricket team which won the 1992 Cricket World Cup. In 2010, he was also inducted into International Cricket Council’s Hall of Fame.

Hitting Balls not Borders

In South Asia, cricket and politics are interwoven. Wars have been fought and conflicts have been de-escalated alongside the bat hitting ball. The history of India-Pakistan relations did not inspire confidence in rebuilding relations through non-political means. However, the cricket matches between them are loaded with deeper political and diplomatic meaning.

From 1947 to 1965 only three test series were played between India and Pakistan. The 1965 and 1971 wars led to complete stoppage of cricket exchanges between two countries and there was a very little window to use cricket as a tool to maintain goodwill. After a gap of 17 years, cricket was resumed between them in 1978. The first instance of cricket diplomacy was in 1987 when General Zia-Ul-Haq visited India to attend a test match in Jaipur, and the resulting diplomatic dialogue cooled relations. In 2004, Prime Minister of India, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, went to Pakistan to attend the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit. He also allowed Indian cricket team to visit Pakistan to play and advised the cricketers to not only win the matches, but also the hearts of Pakistani public. Over the next three years, the two countries played each other three times. Cricket diplomacy again emerged when then-Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his Pakistani counterpart, Yousuf Raza Gilani, met each other for the World Cup 2011 semifinal between India and Pakistan. Peace talks started again and Pakistan toured India in December 2012 for a T20 and three One Day Internationals (ODIs). The efficacy of cricket diplomacy in Indo-Pak relations can also be gauged from the fact that it brought both states to the negotiating table to manage the issue of Jammu & Kashmir (J&K).

All for One and One for All

Any major international sporting event like a World Cup gives one a sense of belonging to a larger global community. Sportsmen have always been successful goodwill ambassadors for any country and have admirers across borders. Fans’ love for cricket break all barriers that is why the peacekeepers see cricket as a tool to bind people together. Despite tensions, Pakistani fans recently celebrated India’s historic win over Australia. Nelson Mandela also believed that “Sport can create hope where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than government in breaking down racial barriers.”In short, a link between international cricket’s revival and national resilience need to be established. Restarting international cricket in South Asia would enhance the opportunity to establish aspired will of peace and prosperity.

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