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The rise of Eurasia: Geopolitical advantages and historic pitfalls

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Asian players are proving to be conceptually and bureaucratically better positioned in the 21st century’s Great Game that involves tectonic geopolitical shifts with the emergence of what former Portuguese Europe minister Bruno Macaes terms the fusion of Europe and Asia into a “supercontinent.”

Yet, in contrast to the United States, Asian players despite approaching Europe and Asia as one political, albeit polarized and disorganized entity populated by widely differing and competing visions, may find that their historic legacies work against them.

Writing in The National Interest, US Naval College national security scholar Nikolas K. Gvosdev argued that the United States, for example, was blinded to the shifts by the State Department’s classification of Russia as part of Europe, its lumping of Central Asia together with Pakistan and India and the Pentagon’s association of the region with the Arab world and Iran.

“The (State Department’s) continued inclusion of Russia within the diplomatic confines of a larger European bureau has intellectually limited assessments about Russia’s position in the world by framing Russian action primarily through a European lens. Not only does this undercount Russia’s ability to be a major player in the Middle East, South Asia and East Asia, it has also, in my view, tended to overweight the importance of the Baltic littoral to Russian policy,” Mr. Gvosdev said.

He warned that the US government’s geographical classification of Central Asia, Eurasia’s heartland has “relegated it to second-tier status in terms of U.S. attention and priorities.”

US failure to get ahead of the tectonic shifts in global geopolitics contrasts starkly with the understanding of Central Asian nations that they increasingly exist in an integrated, interconnected region that cannot isolate itself from changes enveloping it.

That understanding is reflected in a report by the Astana Club that brings together prominent political figures, diplomats, and experts from the Great Game’s various players under the auspices of Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev.

Entitled, ‘Toward a Greater Eurasia: How to Build a Common Future?,’ the report warns that the Eurasian supercontinent needs to anticipate the Great Game’s risks that include mounting tensions between the United States and China; global trade wars; arms races; escalating conflict in the greater Middle East; deteriorating relations between Russia and the West; a heating up of contained European conflicts such as former Yugoslavia; rising chances of separatism and ethnic/religious conflict; and environmental degradation as well as technological advances.

The report suggested that the risks were enhanced by the fragility of the global system with the weakening of multilateral institutions such as the United Nations, the World Trade Organization and NATO.

Messrs. Nazarbayev, Russian president Vladimir Putin and Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan may be better positioned to understand the shifts given that they govern territories at the heart of the emerging Eurasian supercontinent and see it as an integral development rooted in their countries’ histories.

Then Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu made as much clear in 2013. “The last century was only a parenthesis for us. We will close that parenthesis. We will do so without going to war, or calling anyone an enemy, without being disrespectful to any border; we will again tie Sarajevo to Damascus, Benghazi to Erzurum to Batumi. This is the core of our power. These may look like different countries to you, but Yemen and Skopje were part of the same country a hundred and ten years ago as were Erzurum and Benghazi,” Mr.Davutoglu said drawing a picture of a modern day revival of the Ottoman empire.

Mr. Erdogan has taken that ambition a step further by increasingly expanding it to the Turkic and Muslim world.

At its core, Erdogan’s vision, according to Eurasia scholar Igor Torbakov, is built on the notion that the world is divided into distinct civilizations. And upon that foundation rise three pillars: 1) a just world order can only be a multipolar one; 2) no civilization has the right to claim a hegemonic position in the international system; and 3) non-Western civilizations (including those in Turkey and Russia) are in the ascendant. In addition, anti-Western sentiment and self-assertiveness are crucial elements of this outlook.

Expressing that sentiment, Turkish bestselling author and Erdogan supporter Alev Alati quipped: “We are the ones who have adopted Islam as an identity but have become so competent in playing chess with Westerners that we can beat them. We made this country that lacked oil, gold and gas what it is now. It was not easy, and we won’t give it up so quickly.”

The Achilles Heel, however, of Mr. Putin and Mr. Erdogan’s Eurasianism is the fact that its geographies are populated by former empires like the Ottomans and Russia whose post-imperial notions of national identity remain contested and drive its leaders to define national unity as state unity, control the flow of information, and repress alternative views expressions of dissent.

Turkey and Russia still “see themselves as empires, and, as a general rule, an empire’s political philosophy is one of universalism and exceptionalism. In other words, empires don’t have friends – they have either enemies or dependencies,” said Mr. Torbakov, the Eurasia scholar, or exist in what Russian strategists term “imperial or geopolitical solitude.”

Mr. Erdogan’s vision of a modern-day Ottoman empire encompasses the Turkic and Muslim world. Different groups of Russian strategists promote concepts of Russia as a state that has to continuously act as an empire or as a unique “state civilization” devoid of expansionist ambition despite its premise of a Russian World that embraces the primacy of Russian culture as well as tolerance for non-Russian cultures. Both notions highlight the pitfalls of their nations’ history and Eurasianism.

Both Mr. Erdogan and Russia’s vision remain controversial. In Mr. Erdogan’s case it is the Muslim more than the Turkic world that is unwilling to accept Turkish leadership unchallenged with Saudi Arabia leading the charge and Turkish-Iranian relations defined by immediate common interests rather than shared strategic thinking.

Similarly, post-Soviet states take issue with Russia’s notion of the primacy of its culture. Beyond the Russian-Ukrainian conflict over the annexation of Crimea and Moscow’s support for Russian-speaking rebels in the east of the country, Ukraine emphasized its rejection of Russian cultural primacy with this month’s creation of a Ukrainian Orthodox Church independent of its Russian counterpart.

Earlier, Ukraine’s parliament passed a law in September 2017 establishing Ukrainian rather than Russian as the language of instruction in schools and colleges. The law stipulated that educational institutions could teach courses in a second language, provided it was an official language of the European Union. National minorities were guaranteed the right to study in Ukrainian as well as their minority language.

Similarly, Kazakhstan, the Eurasian nation par excellence, shifted from Cyrillic to Latin script.

“Russia’s influence (in Central Asia) has been largely mythologized, and its role in both national and regional security has not been properly and honestly discussed. Different fears and phobias still influence the decision-making process, including those over Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, its annexation of Crimea, the concept of the ‘Russian World’ as a pillar of its national identity, and its soft power,” said Kazakh Central Asia scholar Anna Gussarova.

Ukraine may put a dent in the Russian World’s attractivity, but it does not amount to a body blow.

Ms. Gussarova cautioned that while Central Asian elites may recognize the risks involved in embracing Russian primacy, the region’s public remains far more aligned with Russian culture, at least linguistically.

“Whereas the expert community, which is supposed to shape public opinion, uses the English-language platforms Facebook and Twitter, the general public relies on Russian-language social media. This dichotomy underscores the limitations of any effort by the government and affiliated experts to shape public perceptions. At the same time, this gap shows greater public support for Russia and its activities, which makes nation building and language issues difficult and sensitive,” Ms. Gussarova said.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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The Digital Diplomacy Revolution

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The way people communicate with one another has changed dramatically. The term “networked society” is used to describe how society has developed, where data is freely transmitted. Knowledge is obtained, contained, interpreted, controlled, and exchanged in almost entirely different ways than previously done. The use of technology, especially the internet and other ICT-based technologies, in the conduct of diplomacy is referred to as digital diplomacy. Covid-19 has ushered in a new age of digital diplomacy, also known as e-diplomacy. It has evolved as one of the instruments for advancing foreign policy. The days of strict government oversight are long gone. Information has a greater impact in today’s “networked” society because it can spread in a matter of seconds or minutes.

For many people, Twitter has been the go-to platform for modern diplomacy. We’ve seen how social media helped the Arab Spring revolution in countries like Tunisia, Yemen, and Egypt. The word “Twiplomacy” was coined to describe diplomacy conducted through Twitter. There are close to 300 Twitter accounts dedicated to heads of state. More recently, during the populist boom, we’ve seen how leaders like Modi and Trump’s Twitter presence aided their electoral performance. Not only governments but also non-state actors, such as terrorists, have used social media to further their goals.

The Rise of Digital Diplomacy

Between March 2020 and the end of 2020, the United Nations headquarters in Geneva hosted 1,200 important international conferences online. The UN has been able to continue its operations on the ground as a result of this. In terms of digital diplomacy, the United States now leads the way. Since 2003, the US State Department has had an e-diplomacy branch, but it was Hillary Clinton who brought it to a whole new dimension. She introduced “21st Century Statecraft,” in 2009, a program aimed at complementing conventional foreign policy techniques with statecraft technologies that completely harness the network and technologies of an interconnected world. The US State Department employs 150 full-time social media workers in the e-diplomacy office.

India’s Use of Social Media in Public Diplomacy

The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) sent out its first tweet in 2010, managed by Ambassador Navdeep Suri, then joint secretary and head of the public diplomacy section. Many distressed Indians stuck abroad found Twitter to be a helpful crisis management tool, facilitating the safe evacuation of over 18,000 Indian people from Libya during the civil war in 2011. India aspires to be a trailblazer and is working hard to pave the way for itself to become a global leader. For a nation like India, social media allows for constructive communication about the country’s coming of age as a result of scientific progress, technical advancements, and new ideas advanced by initiatives like digital India. The government should take advantage and expand their public diplomacy agenda more engagingly. The government can intensify its initiatives – even on the foreign policy agenda – in a perfect digital diplomacy setting, and the public can have a more direct channel to communicate with their government. In the age of digital diplomacy, it is critical to address policy context relevant to a world where political views are developed based on knowledge from tweets and social media accounts. As, Heraclitus, a Greek philosopher, put it: “The only thing that is constant is change”. Countries must take advantage of the latest digital diplomacy framework to develop the skills needed for the future and to create stable digital channels for future diplomats.

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Ramifications of The Pandemic In International Relations

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Ever since the global spread of the COVID-19 virus, claims have been made of the pandemic causing a massive impact in global politics and international relations. In the pre-pandemic era, international relations were defined by increasing bipolarity, greater isolationism, greater trade protectionism and increasing nationalism. While the West led by the US was gradually adopting a protectionist attitude, the East led by China in particular, was looking towards increasing multilateral cooperation. Alongside this, international organizations were seeing their roles diminishing. Moreover, populist leaders and authoritarian governments were gradually gathering influence globally, in stark contrast to a decline in democracy and neo-liberalism. These trends could be seen most clearly in the US/China conflict that has dominated most international relations rhetoric of the 21st century.

Although China had been hit with the pandemic first, through extreme lockdown measures, quick responses, mass screenings, targeted monitoring and an effective socio-political response, the country quickly reversed course and had flattened its curve by March, depicting the resilience of the country. With a mere 87,000 cases as of December 2020 in a country of 1.4 billion people, China’s effective policies to deal with the pandemic can hardly be sidelined. Nevertheless, as the virus had been identified in China first, this triggered a massive backlash from the West, particularly the US, where President Trump blasted China for covering-up details about the virus. Rumors were spread by the White House itself about the virus originating from a Wuhan lab, and the virus was labeled the Wuhan Virus – a move discouraged by the WHO. This inflammatory language worsened relations between the two countries. Going even further, President Trump terminated US involvement in the World Health Organization, claiming it to be controlled by Chinese authorities.

With this move the influence of the world’s most important health organization was weakened, further showcasing the decline of the liberal international world order, due to a diminishing trust in international organizations. Thus, the pre-Covid trend of a lack of trust in international organizations, continued during the COVID-19 pandemic as well. With Trump advocating for closed borders with his “We need the wall more than ever” expressions  on Twitter, and similar far-right leaders like France’s Le Pen ruing the “religion of borderless-ness” for the pandemic, the West’s protectionist, nationalistic ideas showed no signs of abating even during a global crisis.

In stark contrast, the East led by China continued on its path of greater cooperation and interdependence, through bilateral and multilateral engagements. With the US leaving a void in the global leadership spot for handling the pandemic, China stepped in and offered to assist other countries in handling the outbreaks in their respective countries. China’s foreign ministry’s spokesperson,  Hua Chunying, even stated that they would like to share China’s good practice and experience.

Furthering its charm offensive, China started shipping out masks and ventilators to countries that were very badly hit by the pandemic, like Italy, Spain and Serbia. With the countries of the European Union shutting down their borders and hoarding domestic supplies, despite Italy’s pleas for help, Italy turned to China for aid in fighting the coronavirus pandemic. This “mask diplomacy” along with China’s Health Silk Road has served to strengthen global public health governance, as envisioned by China.

Undeniably, the pandemic’s effects in the short-term have been wide-reaching, especially in the social and technological domain. However, expecting global politics and international relations to undergo a transformational change in the long-term, solely due to the COVID-19 pandemic is relatively far-fetched, especially if current global trends are assessed.

The virus may or may not have taken its toll on international diplomacy in the traditional context, but it has certainly shaken many things if not stirred them completely.

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Diplomatic Fiasco: PTI Government’s Failure on the Climate Diplomacy Front

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“Think about this: terrorism, epidemics, poverty, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction – all challenges that know no borders – the reality is that climate change ranks right up there with every single one of them”.– John F. Kerry

The United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) and United Nations Security Council (UNSC) have both declared that unrestrained climate change poses a threat to international peace and security. Presently, climate change is the biggest threat facing humanity. We all will witness its impacts, making it a critical foreign policy and diplomatic issue. Climate change will overturn the 21st century world order and characterize how we live and work. Even so, in the midst  of a global pandemic, it is evident that climate change will be the major issue of this century. As countries will move toward rebuilding their economies after COVID-19, recovery plans will shape the 21st century economy in ways that are clean and green, safe and healthy, and more resilient. Over the last decade, foreign policymakers have taken measures to better understand climate risks. To date, foreign policy responses to climate change have primarily centered on the security repercussions of climate change.

To chart a fresh course ahead, in order to initiate a global fight against climate change, President Joe Biden welcomed a diverse set of leaders from around the globe to explicate the connections between climate security, climate change and broader foreign policy objectives. The list of invitee included world leaders like President Xi Jinping of China and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, PM Modi of India, Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh to attend the two-days meeting to mark Washington’s return to the visible lines of the fight against climate risks. Though, Pakistan have its place in the same region, and fifth-most vulnerable country to climate change, it has been disqualified from the summit. Likewise,  Biden dispatched his climate envoy, former secretary of state John Kerry, to prepare the ground for the summit in meetings with global leaders. The U.S. invited the leaders of the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate, which includes the 17 countries responsible for about 80-percent of global emissions and GDP, along with, heads of countries that are unambiguously vulnerable to climate impacts or are representing robust climate leadership.

The current global efforts towards mainstreaming of climate change in development policies and programs are getting more traction due to expanding avenues of domestic and international climate diplomacy. For developing countries, climate diplomacy is undoubtedly becoming a key incentive to integrate climate change issues into their foreign policy. Pakistan is also a relatively new player in the climate diplomacy arena with a nascent institutional setup. The climate diplomacy adaption experience of Pakistan is still at the embryonic stage. The main problem is the gradual decline in the aptitude and capacity of institution to develop a clear policy route. The policy decline is much more rapid under the PTI government. Pakistan’s ambassadorial clout has eroded over the years due to political unpredictability and economic timidity. Similarly, the government has failed even to built a national narrative on climate change issue. Imran Khan has been warning the world of catastrophe if the climate problem is not addressed, but has failed to come out with a clear policy direction on the issue.

Among the many challenges fronting the Imran Khan government will be tackling the notoriously dysfunctional U.S. – Pakistan relationship. The Biden presidency has designated climate change as a critical theme of its foreign policy, and indeed aware of Pakistan’s deep climate vulnerability. For the first time since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Pakistan is not a foreign policy priority for U.S. administration. Many high-ranking Biden government officials, including climate change envoy John Kerry, know Pakistan well. When Kerry was Obama’s secretary of state, co-chaired US-Pakistan Strategic Dialogue that counted renewable energy. Anybody familiar with how Islamabad and Washington have interacted over the last 74 years will resort to weary metaphors: a roller-coaster ride, the dynamic between an overbearing mother-in-law and daughter-in-law. Biden and his experienced team of ex-Obama administration officials are likely to press Pakistan – for Islamabad, it is a catch-22 situation. In the indigenous context, internal political strife in Pakistan and economic dependency on other countries have raised questions about our ability to effectively fight our case in international arena. The latest diplomatic fiasco speaks very loud and clear about the government’s inability to deal with fast-changing geopolitics. Washington’s broader interests in Asia, including relationships with China and India, will determine its policy at the Leaders’ Summit on Climate. It seems, Pakistan has no friends in the Biden administration. Thus, out-of-the-box thinking is required for Pakistan’s foreign policy decision makers.

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