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Military Diplomacy as a Hybrid Instrument of National Power

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Today’s complex security environment requires the United States to use all of its instruments of power to maintain its status in the world, as well as to protect its own interests and the interests of its allies.  Traditionally, the instruments of power are separated into Diplomacy, Intelligence, Military, Economic, Financial, Information, and Law Enforcement, abbreviated as DIMEFIL in nearly every United States military Professional Military Education (PME) school.  In almost all cases, the Military is considered the strongest of those instruments of power while Diplomacy is too often give short shrift.  However, the continued use of Military Diplomacy offers a hybrid instrument of power to help connect with allies across regions while advancing the interests of the United States. This article will look at military diplomacy as a potential hybrid instrument of national power and how the Office of Security Cooperation-Iraq (OSC-I), under the U.S. Embassy Baghdad and U.S. Central Command utilized military diplomacy to reconnect Iraq with its neighbors in the Middle East. 

The current United States National Security Strategy (December 2017) lays out the importance of continuing to engage with our partners and potential allies.    It states, “Diplomacy catalyzes the political, economic, and societal connections that create America’s enduring alignments and that build positive networks of relationships with partners.”  The Diplomacy and Statecraft section goes on to identify three different types of diplomacy: Competitive Diplomacy, Tools of Economic Diplomacy and Information Statecraft.

Similarly, the Military instrument of national power is mentioned throughout the 2017 National Security Strategy.  From protecting the American people to defeating Jihadist terrorists, the military instrument of power is weaved throughout the document. However, there is a gap within the 2017 National Security Strategy.  The article attempts to draws a cleaner line between the use of the United States military and its diplomatic efforts.  The use of military diplomacy is an important tool not addressed in the National Security Strategy and one that can help bridge this gap.

What is military diplomacy

There is not a standard definition of military diplomacy.  Erik Pajtinka defines military diplomacy as,

“A set of activities carried out mainly by the representatives of the defense department, as well as other state institutions, aimed at pursuing the forcing policy interests of the state in the field of security and defense policy, and whose actions are based on the use of negations and other diplomatic interests.” He goes on to define military diplomacy as “a specific field of diplomacy which focused primarily on the pursuit of foreign policy interests of the state in the field of security and defense policy.”

Amy Ebitz, in her paper from the Brookings Institute titled, “The Use of Military Diplomacy in Great Power Competition: Lessons Learned from the Marshall Plan,” states Military diplomacy can also be referred to as “defense diplomacy,” soft power,” “military public diplomacy,” and “strategic communication. Her terms of either defense diplomacy or military public diplomacy align well with the above definition of military diplomacy. However, use of soft power and strategic communications do not.  Soft Power, as originally coined by Joseph Nye, refers to, “the ability of a country to persuade others to do what it wants without force or coercion.”   This often is accomplished by projecting soft power through companies, foundations, universities, churches, and other institutions of civil society.  I would argue soft power falls more in the information instrument of national power and not within the military instrument.

Strategic communications is defined in the International Journal of Strategic Communications as,

“The purposeful use of communication by an organization to fulfill its mission.  Six relevant disciplines are involved in the development, implementation, and assessment of communications by organizations: management, marketing, public relations, technical communications, political communication and information/social marketing campaigns.”

Using this definition as a base, military diplomacy does not fit well into these categories of strategic communications.

For the purpose of this paper, Erik Pajtinka’s definition, “A set of activities carried out mainly by the representatives of the defense department, as well as other state institutions, aimed at pursuing the forcing policy interests of the state in the field of security and defense policy, and whose actions are based on the use of negotiations and other diplomatic interests,” will be used to guide this article.

There are three main parts of Pajtinka’s definition of military diplomacy.  First, “The activities are carried out mainly by the representatives of the defense department.”    This is a critical difference between traditional diplomacy.  Rather than traditional diplomats in the lead, different representatives from the Department of Defense are leading these efforts. 

Next, the activities are, “Aimed at pursuing the foreign policy interests of the state in the field of security and defense policy.”   As with most actions at the strategic level, the activities of military diplomacy must focus on the foreign policy interests of the government. However, a key difference is these foreign policy interests are in the fields of security and defense policy.  The focus on these two traditionally military related fields helps clarify where traditional diplomacy ends and military diplomacy begins. 

Finally, those implementing military diplomacy conduct their activities, “Based on the use of negotiations and other diplomatic interests.”   Unlike other traditional military activities to work with partner nations, military diplomacy leads through negotiations and other diplomatic interests before entering back into traditional military endeavors.  This will be explained further in the example of the Office of Security Cooperation-Baghdad’s efforts. 

The Department of Defense has a variety of tools available to promote military diplomacy. First and foremost are the Combatant Commanders themselves. These four-star General Officers are responsible for specified geographic regions across the globe.   Within each combatant command, the leadership interacts with numerous countries across their footprint.  For example, U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) has an area of responsibility of more than 4 million square miles, populated by more than 550 million people from 22 ethnic groups speaking over 18 languages.  Equally important, CENTCOM partners with 20 nations from Kazakhstan to Egypt. Each United States combatant command has similar footprints, getting to interact with nearly every nation on the globe in some capacity. 

The Commander of a combatant command interacts with all of the nations within their footprint.  When visiting one of the countries in their area of operations, they coordinate with both the U.S. Ambassador responsible for the country team and the security cooperation office within the host nation.   The result is a high ranking military diplomat, synchronized with the leading Department of State person in country, and bringing a massive capability to work with partner nation security forces. 

Combatant commands have a large tool kit from which to pull from to help move U.S. interests forward.  This includes all branches of the military (Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines) as well as the ability to serve as a coordinator between nations who may not have the friendliest of histories.  Each branch of the service under the combatant commands carries with it leadership, units and expertise within their respective regions. The result is a massive amount of capability to conduct military diplomacy. 

Military diplomacy in Iraq 2017-2018

As Iraq achieved success against Islamic State (IS) forces in 2017, there was a palpable shift from the use of military power to military diplomacy.  After decades of isolation brought by previous Iraqi actions, United Nations sanctions and violence following the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the Government of Iraq only had one neighbor to turn to for help within the region: Iran.  Sharing a major border of nearly 875 miles, these two countries have always been and will always be neighbors. As a result, there is a massive amount of legal and illegal trade crossing their borders.  Additionally, the commonality of the Shia religion in both countries connects them on another level. The two have been, and will be tied together due to their proximity and shared backgrounds. 

However, Iraq needed other partners in their region besides Iraq.  As a result, the Office of Security Cooperation-Iraq(OSC-I), located within the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, focused on using military diplomacy to help Iraq break out of its isolation. Traditionally, Security Cooperation offices focus on the sale of U.S. military equipment to a host nation.  OSC-I works for both for the U.S. Chief of Mission in Iraq, and for U.S. CENTCOM.  This placed it in a perfect position to facilitate military diplomacy.

In mid-2017, OSC-I had two main lines of effort. The first was traditional security assistance: the sale of equipment and parts to the Iraqi government.  The second, defense institution building, focused on security sector reform and the building of the necessary institutions to sustain their security forces. Eventually, the priority of effort shifted to the important work of ensuring the sustainability of defense institutions.  However, as the ISIS fight within Iraq concluded, senior leadership within both Department of State and Defense realized Iraq needed local partners to break out of its isolation. As a result, OSC-I developed a third line of effort: Regional Engagements (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Office of Security Cooperation-Iraq, Line of Effort #3: Regional Engagements. From OSC-I Command Brief, 28 May 2018.

The regional engagement effort became a classic case of implementing military diplomacy to help a partner nation, Iraq.  Knowing Iraq was isolated with only Iran as a local partner, the use of military diplomacy became a critical component of reconnecting Iraq with their other neighbors more friendly to the United States. The goal was to reconnect Iraq with its neighbors through military-to-military engagements to encourage a confident, independent Iraq and reduce Iraq’s isolation.  As a result, military diplomacy became a major effort between the United States and Iraq. 

OSC-I, working with the Department of State and CENTCOM, reached out to surrounding neighbors and their militaries to increase military-to-military cooperation.  This was the first step of military diplomacy. The initial plan was to engage at the Chief of Defense level between neighbors.  With direct access to the Iraqi Chief of Defense, OSC-I was perfectly positioned to use military diplomacy. 

First and foremost, this effort was coordinated through and approved by both the U.S. Ambassador and the CENTCOM Commander.  The coordination between the two leads for both the diplomacy and military instruments of national power already had a solid relationship OSC-I was able to benefit from. 

Getting the process started was not as easy as a phone call.  The military diplomacy process began by coordinating invitations through the Department of State and the Iraqi’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  Additionally, CENTCOM was able to leverage its “power to convene” through its Commander at the time, General Joseph Votel.  He and his staff served as the coordination link between the U.S. Embassy, OSC-I and the Iraqi Chief of Defense.   Once coordinated, formal invitations were sent from the Iraqi Ministry of Foreign Affairs to their corresponding Ministries of Foreign Affairs in both Jordan and Saudi Arabia.  Once the invitations were received, and confirmed by the Security Cooperation offices in both Jordan and Saudi Arabia, CENTCOM contacted both Chiefs of Defense to emphasize the importance of the upcoming meeting, and added the CENTCOM Commander would serve as the host. 

The first result of this military diplomacy effort was a tri-lateral engagement in July 2017. The Chiefs of Defense of both Jordan and Saudi Arabia met with the Iraqi Chief of Defense in Baghdad.  This initial meeting set the groundwork for future bi-lateral meetings between the Chiefs of Defense, and their respective staffs to improve communications and coordination between the neighboring countries.  For OSC-I, this successful tri-lateral engagement demonstrated the power of military diplomacy when properly coordinated and supported by both Department of State and Department of Defense.

Another meeting rapidly followed, this time a bi-lateral between the Iraqi and Jordanian Chiefs of Defense. Discussion focused on the reopening of the Treybil border crossing between Iraq and Jordan. Closed during the Iraq War in 2003, the Treybil Highway served as a main trading route between Baghdad and Amman. A similar process occurred: coordination between embassies, the security cooperation offices and CENTCOM.  Invitations were coordinated through the U.S. Embassy then the Iraqi Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  The invitation went to the Jordanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and once the Security Cooperation office confirmed receipt, CENTCOM connected with the Jordanian Ministry of Defense to offer their support for the conference.  A meeting soon followed.  As a result of this meeting between the Jordanian and Iraqi Chiefs of Defense, staff working groups were established. Their work resulted in the Treybil border crossing reopened in August 2017, serving as a main trade route between the two nations and taking a major step towards normalizing relations. 

Next, the Saudi Arabian and Iraqi Chiefs of Defense met in a bi-lateral engagement hosted by CENTCOM and coordinated by the Office of Security Cooperation-Iraq.  The result of this military diplomacy effort was the reopening of the Arar border crossing for the first time in 27 years. This key border crossing was closed in 1990 after the countries cut ties following Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait.  The reopening assisted Iraqi religious pilgrims headed to Mecca during the Haj season.  The governor of Anbar province, Sohaib al-Rawi said, “This is a great start for further future cooperation between Iraq and Saudi Arabia.” Again, coordination occurred between both U.S. embassies in Iraq and Saudi Arabia, between the Security Cooperation offices overseen by CENTCOM made this important military diplomacy success story a reality.  

After the September 2017 Kurdish referendum, tensions between Iraq and Turkey were extremely high.  Turkey moved additional forces to the Iraqi border in response to the Kurdish vote for independence.  Conflicts flared up between Iraqi troops and Kurdish fighters.  The need for military diplomacy was needed more than ever. 

Again, through military diplomacy, a tri-lateral discussion between the Iraq, Turkey and the United States was set up.  Senior leaders in attendance included European Commander, General Curtis Scaparrotti, Turkish Chief of Defense General Hulusi Akar, Iraqi Chief of Defense, General Othman al-Ghanimi and U.S. Central Command Commander General Joseph Votel.  The meeting occurred in Ankara, Turkey on December 14, 2017.   This was again coordinated across both U.S. embassies, and in this case, two Combatant Commands to make this example of military diplomacy occur. 

The result of this meeting was the reopening of communications between the Turkish and Iraqi Chiefs of Defense. This was both extremely important and timely as Iraqi and Turkish troops faced off against one another on their border. The two Chiefs of Defense, shepherded by their U.S. combatant command counterparts, were able to meet face-to-face and reestablish a civil dialogue. The result was an increase in positive communications between the two military Chiefs and a reduction in tensions between the two neighboring militaries.

With a taste of success, the Iraqi Chief of Defense then asked through the Office of Security Cooperation-Iraq to meet with his Kuwaiti counterpart, a meeting that had not happened between the two countries since the invasion of Kuwait in 1990.  Again, coordination between the Iraq and Kuwait embassies started the process. Invitations followed and the meeting was set up.  

The meeting between the Kuwaiti Defense Minister and the Iraqi Chief of Defense occurred on January 23, 2018. U.S. Central Command Commander, General Votel hosted the historic meeting, helping to reopen the lines of communication between these two former enemies.  The result was an agreement for both militaries to continue to work together and begin developing longer-term security cooperation arrangements, an important step to normalizing relationships between two former enemies.  This and the other examples demonstrate what can be accomplished by military diplomacy when coordinated properly. 

Key to these military diplomacy successes was ensuring the Department of State Chief of Mission was tied into all discussions and approved of these efforts. In Iraq, there were weekly video teleconferences between the CENTCOM Commander and the U.S. Ambassador where current issues were discussed. Prior to any visit to Iraq, the CENTCOM Commander coordinated with the Ambassador to better, understand the priorities of the Department of State, and ensure CENTCOM was on the same message as the Chief of Mission. 

Combatant Commands also have the ability to host regional ambassador conferences, such as the one hosted in Qatar by CENTCOM on October 19, 2018.  The conference included chiefs of defense from the Gulf Cooperation Council for the Arabian States of the Gulf Region Countries: Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia ad United Arab Emirates, as well as Jordan and Egypt. The respective U.S. Ambassadors from each country attended and the U.S. CENTCOM forward headquarters in Qatar was a perfect spot to host the meeting.  These conferences are another great example of military diplomacy in action. 

Principles of Military Diplomacy

The examples above highlight the capabilities of using military diplomacy to further the interests of a country, in these cases the United States.  Based on the previous definition of military diplomacy and the actions of the Office of Security Cooperation-Iraq, this article recommends four principles of Military Diplomacy.

First, the Chief of Mission/U.S. Ambassador/Chief Diplomat is in the lead.  Within a host nation, it is the Chief of Mission responsible for all U.S. actions.  Coordination through the Embassy is a necessity and must be paramount for any military diplomacy effort to be successful. Efforts at military diplomacy without this coordination at the highest levels will not only result in failure, but also sour the critical relationship between State and Defense elements on the ground. 

Second, military diplomacy requires the support of the military. While this may sound like an obvious principle, military diplomacy requires elements of the Department of Defense to be involved, and to have something to offer.  As mentioned earlier, Defense elements have a large toolkit to tap into. From traditional security cooperation efforts to hosting military to military engagements, military diplomacy requires the military. Militaries throughout the world have common experiences and shared languages.  They are most adept at working with fellow militaries. 

Third, any military diplomacy efforts must work through the host nation process.  In the case of Iraq, invitations to bring in senior ranking military members from neighboring countries required an invitation from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It was the same for when the Iraqi Chief of Defense was invited to other nations:  the inviting nation would send an invitation through its Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the Iraqi MFA.  These efforts took time, and sometimes resulted in frustration on the American side as invitations were lost, or caught up in bureaucracy.  That being said, the U.S. State and military members were able to keep tabs on the status of the invitations and query to the status. 

Fourth and finally, set small goals.  Sometimes just having the two senior leaders meet is an accomplishment in itself.  Many involved in military diplomacy expected rapid results from all the coordination efforts. However, this often is not the case.  Goals are not often met in the first or second meeting of these senior leaders. However, as demonstrated above, sometimes just having those two senior military leaders meet results in positive press, increased dialogue and the thawing of long cold relationships.   

When properly coordinated with the Chief of Mission, military diplomacy is an effective instrument of national power.  The combatant commands have the leadership, the staff, and resources to enforce their “power to convene” utilizing military diplomacy. Bringing key military leadership from different nations together is one of the important components of military diplomacy.  This is not limited to the United States. Recent tensions between North Macedonia and Greece were reduced by military diplomacy between the two nations.  Most militaries have the capacity, with the support from their diplomatic branches, to successful utilize military diplomacy.  

More studies and research needs to look at the advantages and disadvantages of utilizing military diplomacy to help the United States achieve its stated policy goals, especially as we move back into an era of great power competition.  The use of military diplomacy as a hybrid instrument of national power for the United States has provided tangible achievements in achieving foreign policy goals in the past.  It must continue to do so in the future. 

Michael D. Sullivan, a colonel in the U.S. Army, served five tours in Iraq between 2004 and 2018. He holds a doctorate in international relations from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and currently works at the College of International Security Affairs at National Defense University. His views are his own and do not represent the National Defense University, U.S. Department of Defense or any other government agency.

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Relevance of the Soft Power in Modern World

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In modern days, the relevance of Soft Power has increased manifolds. At times, the COIVD-19 has hooked the whole human race; this concept has further come into the limelight. The term, Soft Power was coined by the American Scientist Joseph Nye. Soft Power is the ability of a country to get what it wants through attraction rather than coercion. By tapping the tool of Soft Power, a country can earn respect and elevate its global position. Hard Power cannot be exercised exceeding a territory, and if any country follows this suit, its image is tarnished globally. However, it is Soft Power that can boost the perception and create a niche of a nation. Soft Power is regarded as the essential factor of the overall strength of a country. It can increase the adhesion and the determination of the people in a realm to shape the foreign relations of any nation. Nye held that the Soft Power arsenal would include culture, political values, and foreign policy.

After the Cold War, many nations pumped billions of dollars into Soft Power initiatives, and the US mastered this concept. The US has sailed on the waters of Soft Power by harnessing the tool of media, politics, and economic aid. The US boasts globally recognized brands and companies, Hollywood, and its quest for democratic evangelization. Through movies, the US has disseminated its culture worldwide. American movies are viewed by a massive audience worldwide. The promotion of the US culture through films is a phenomenon (culture imperialism) where the US subtly wants to dominate the world by spreading its culture. Through Hollywood films, the US has an aspiration to influence the world by using Soft Power tools. Hollywood is considered as the pioneer of fashion, and people across the globe imitate and adopt things from Hollywood to their daily life. Such cultural export lure foreign nations to fantasize about the US as a pillar of Soft Power. Educational exchange programs, earthquake relief in Japan and Haiti, famine relief in Africa stand as the best example of the US initiatives of Soft Power. Now, the American political and cultural appeal is so extensive that the majority of international institutions reflect US interests. The US, however, witnessed a drop from 1st place to 6th on the Global Soft Power Index. This wane can be attributed to the attack on the US Capitol Hill sparked by former US President Donald Trump. In addition, his dubious decisions also hold responsibilities that curtailed the US soft power image, that is, particularly the US withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement.

Beijing is leaving no stone unturned to ace this area. China, rich in culture and traditional philosophy, boasts abundant sources of Soft Power. China is contemplating and exploring an innovative strategy in its rise in international politics. There have been notable elements in the Chinese diplomatic practice, including softer rhetoric, promotion of its culture abroad, economic diplomacy, and image building. Beijing, amid an ongoing pandemic, has extended vaccine help to 80 countries. Such initiative taken by China has elevated its worth globally during difficult times of the pandemic. According to the Global Soft Power index 2021, China stands in the 8th slot. China is an old civilization with a rich culture. China has stressed culture as a crucial source of Soft Power. In a bid to enhance its cultural dominance, Beijing has built many Confucius Institutes overseas. However, this has not been whole-heartedly embraced by the Chinese neighbors due to territorial disputes on the South China Sea. Moreover, International Order, dominated by the West, is wary of Beijing. China’s authoritarian political system is not welcomed in Western democracies. Therefore, China finds it hard to generate Soft Power in democracies. In recent times, Beijing has witnessed tremendous extension in its economy; thus, it focuses on harnessing economic tools to advance its Soft Power. Consequently, Beijing has driven its focus on geoeconomics to accelerate its Soft Power.

Unfortunately, Pakistan, in this sphere, finds itself in a very infirm position -securing 63rd position in the Global Soft Power Index. In comparison with Pakistan, India boasts a lot of Soft Power by achieving the 36th position in the Global Soft Power Index. Its movies, yoga, and classical and popular dance and music have uplifted the Indian soft image. In the promotion of the Indian Soft Power Image, Bollywood plays a leading role and it stretches beyond India. Bollywood has been projected as a great Soft Power tool for India. Bollywood stars are admired globally. For instance, Shahrukh Khan, known as Baadshah of Bollywood, has a fan following across the world. Through its Cinema, India has attracted the attention of the world. Indian movies have recognition in the world and helped India earn billions of dollars. However, the Modi government has curtailed the freedom of Bollywood. Filmmakers claim that their movies are victim of censorship. Moreover, the anti-Muslim narrative has triggered in India, which has tarnished the Indian image of secular country and eventually splashing the Indian Soft image. Protests of farmers, revocation of article 370 in Kashmir, and the controversial Citizen Amendment Act (CAA) have degraded the Indian Soft Power.

Pakistan is not in the tier of the countries acing the Soft Power notion. In Pakistan, expressions of Soft Power, like spiritualism, tourism, cinema, literature, cricket, and handicrafts, are untapped. Pakistan is on the list of those countries having immense tourism potential and its culture is its strength. Unfortunately, no concrete steps are taken to promote the Pakistani culture and tourism. The Pakistani movies are stuck in advancing Pakistan’s narrative worldwide due to lack of the interest of successive governments in this sphere. In addition, these movies lack suitable content, that’s why people prefer watching Bollywood or Hollywood movies. It is the job of the government to harness the expressions of Soft Power. Through movies and soap operas, we can disseminate our culture, push our narrative, and promote our tourism. Government-sponsored campaigns on electronic media can help greatly in this sphere. Apart from the role of government, this necessitates the involvement of all stakeholders, including artists, entrepreneurs, academics, policymakers, and civil society.

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Planetary Drought of Leadership

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The Tokyo Olympic Games, just concluded, were a spectacular success and grateful thanks are owed to our Japanese hosts to make this event so, at a time when we were in the middle of a global pandemic. There were many doubts expressed beforehand by many people over the Games going ahead during the pandemic, but the precautionary measures put in place were well handled and not obtrusive. 

For anyone who had the opportunity to watch the Games via TV they must have been struck by the wonderful sportsmanship and friendship shown by the competitors of all nations taking part, whatever race and ethnicity. It prompted me to think and ask why the countries of the world cannot exercise some of the same degree of friendship when dealing with one another rather than push forward with agendas that are antagonistic. The world holds a number of dysfunctional states as well as oppressive dictatorships where the resident population is subjected to mental as well as physical torture. Belarus is a typical example, where the leader of the country stole the election to give himself yet another term, and quashes any dissent, with some paying the ultimate price. He has the arrogance to divert a commercial flight so that he can arrest someone who opposes him and then beats him up, before parading him in front of the cameras to say an apology, which everyone can see was forced out of him. 

The Middle East is a complex problem and has been for centuries, the home of some of the oldest civilisations and the divergent monotheistic religions, which add a complicating factor. It surprisingly has been relatively quiet for the last period. Until the next flare up.

Myanmar has also been quiet, or so it seems. The military patrols across the country, particularly in states that offer some resistance and tough guerrilla opposition. The military behave badly, continuing the practice of killing, rape and pillage if not total destruction of small communities which cannot offer any resistance. Corruption is thriving. The military government have ‘promised’ fresh elections next February, 6 months hence, but it is most unlikely that these will be ‘fair and free’. The troubled conditions will continue. It will be an issue of continuing concern for ASEAN and more widely. A recent visit for a documentary had to be carried out illegally in case the military had discovered that the local people had been welcoming and helpful. The repercussions would have been appalling.

The latest situation that has arisen is the Afghanistan blitz takeover by the Taliban, a medieval group promoting the fundamental sharia doctrine, which is out of date and treats women as ‘non-persons’. They have also harboured terrorists, one group pulling off the infamous 2001, 9/11 strike on the NY Twin Towers, which awakened the US to take strong retaliatory action in Afghanistan, and forcing the Taliban out for 20 years. Their 5-year, 1996-2001, rule of Afghanistan was brought to a close after the NY happening, when the US with Allied forces took charge and ousted them. 

But now the Taliban are back following a direct meeting with the then president Trump in 2017, no Afghan government present, and they saw him coming! Shades of North Korea. He said he would withdraw completely without proper assurances, leaving the country’s development less than half finished. President Joseph Biden completed the task of withdrawal, somewhat hasty, upsetting nearly all Americans in the process. The British were caught flat-footed and there is considerable anger expressed by MPs, not least because they realise that they no longer have the ability to resolve such issues themselves. They feel embarrassed and rightly so.

As one of the Afghan luminaries and most quoted intellectuals, prof. Djawed Sangdel, reminds us: “Afghanistan is a graveyard of empires. Even Alexander the Macedonian realised – 2,300 years ago – ‘it is easy to enter the country, but lethal when exiting it’. This especially if you do not respect domestic realities.” Indeed, the situation on the ground is chaotic.

The leader, Ashraf Ghani, of the weak ‘legal’ government has fled, not without rumours about bags full of cash, and that is one reason that the country has not progressed as well as it should, endemic corruption. Women, quite rightly, are fearful, as to what lies in store, as the Taliban’s record on treatment of them is brutal. They have promised to give emancipation within sharia law – which in their case was the combination of twisted and oversimplified Islamic teachings with the tribal nomadic pre-Islamic culture of the central Asian hights.

Looking at the country as a whole, one worries about its future; the Taliban have no track record of governing a country, particularly not one as complex as Afghanistan. They would have to greatly modify their approach to life, separate religion from state (affairs). However, there are credible doubts; once more the Northern Alliance will get together and the country will lapse into civil war. Will the Chinese see an opportunity and risk what others have failed to do? My heart goes out to the people of Afghanistan.

In reviewing the past few decades, it would seem that western led democracies, when they have engaged with a country, which is in trouble, have only entered it without full humanitarian understanding of the problems and not sought a proper sustainable solution. Inevitably it takes longer than one thinks, and there are not strong enough safeguards put in to avoid financial losses to development projects, sometimes major.

The UN has a major part to play, but one must ask if today’s remit is fit for purpose, or should they be reviewed, and the countries that make up the UN should look at and ask themselves if they are fair in what they give and expect, not just monetarily.

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From Proxy Wars to Proxy Diplomacy

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The beginning of August was marked by two events that, in the absence of their fundamental significance for the global agenda, are essential for understanding what international politics may look like in the future. First, there was a de facto rupture of relations between China and the small Baltic state of Lithuania after the authorities of the latter made a decision to de facto recognise the sovereignty of Taiwan, which Beijing considers part of the People’s Republic of China. Second, this is the first anniversary of the stormy internal political events in Belarus that followed presidential elections which were not recognised by the United States or the European Union and caused discontent among a significant part of Belarusian society.

In the first case, we see how the behaviour of a formally independent state is completely subordinate to the decisions of one of the great powers. Protection by the United States is the most important national interest of Lithuania, since Lithuania itself cannot ensure its own survival due to its lack of potential. In essence, China is now dealing with the implementation of one of the tactical tasks within the framework of the US survival strategy, although formally we are talking about the decision of a sovereign member of the international community. In the case of Belarus, the survival of the state in August – September 2020 was also provided by the full support from Russia, for which the collapse of the Belarusian statehood would mean the emergence of a security threat. At the same time, unlike Lithuania, we cannot say that even now that all decisions made by Minsk correlate with the development of the situation that is optimal for Moscow.

At the same time, Lithuania and Belarus are themselves in a state of acute conflict. It began exactly a year ago, when Lithuania’s authorities decided to start an active struggle against their neighbour. During the course of this struggle, Lithuania acted as a proxy for the United States and the leading states of Europe, while Belarus, in turn, is only marginally controlled by Russia, at least from the point of view of most knowledgeable Russian observers. But the survival of this country is in Russia’s national interest.

As we can see, in this case, the great powers – Russia, China and the United States – are not interacting directly, but with those who by themselves cannot bear full responsibility for their actions. This raises the question of how, in modern conditions, great powers should act and can, in principle, build relationships with partners who have UN-recognised sovereignty, but do not have the ability to pursue their own foreign policy? This question seems important because the choice of diplomatic or power instruments depends on the answer.

From the Russian point of view, this is especially relevant, since it is surrounded by such neighbours, just like the United States is surrounded by oceans.

Moreover, in recent years, it did not express the desire to regain full control over its neighbours in order to conduct a dialogue with its peers directly, as was the case in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the borders of the most important powers of Eurasia were actually aligned.

The emergence of the dialogue problem with countries that do not have the capacity to engage in fully responsible behaviour has become one of the results of international politics in the 20th century. Over the past 100 years, the international system has been filled with a huge number of states that are unable to ensure their survival independently. This process was launched after the First World War, when the victorious powers were interested in creating a significant number of small countries that were absolutely dependent on them. In place of the destroyed Austro-Hungarian, German and Ottoman empires, a large group of state entities arose in Eastern Europe.

None of them could play even an insignificant role during the next big war, in 1939-1945. Even Poland, the largest in terms of population, was vanquished in a manner of weeks and later reborn thanks to the victorious Soviet army. The others may have been more or less successful in developing their own economic base during the 1918-1939 “truce”, but their ability to ensure sovereignty with respect to national defence was immediately disproved. All these countries, except Finland, either fell under the pressure of internal circumstances, or were defeated because they acted as potential or active satellites of the opposing sides.

However, after the end of World War II, the “parade of sovereignties” continued on a global scale. Moreover, after 1945, the great powers acquired exceptional resources to manage international affairs – a colossal power gap that arose as a result of the creation of large arsenals of nuclear weapons. During the 1950-1970 period, the main engine of sovereignty was the desire of the two great powers – the USSR and the United States – to create a network of their own client states on the basis of the European colonial empires, unable to ensure their survival without the help of Washington or Moscow. In fact, the process which took place mirrored what had happened 25 years beforehand in Eastern Europe, only the other empires were divided – the British and French colonies.

Sometime later, albeit on a smaller scale, China also joined this movement. Before that point, Beijing’s funds had been limited enough that it could reliably promote a strategy of “national self-determination” to protect its own interests. China, in fact, found itself lagging behind in this race, and now it can only think about how client states of Russia or the United States can be so insecure about their future that they will transfer external governance into the hands of Beijing. So far, we have not seen convincing examples of such behaviour.

Moreover, after the collapse of their own colonial empires, Britain and France were able to regain control over the foreign policy of some of the entities that arose from their ruins. Now this control is carried out directly in very rare cases and mainly occurs through institutional mechanisms of interaction, with the European Union or other organisations of the community of market democracies.

As a result of the end of the Cold War, a significant number of countries in need of external support for their survival arose not only in Eastern Europe, but also within the territory of the former USSR. Some of the newly independent states have shown compelling evidence of a movement towards more effective sovereignty. The collapse of the USSR, as well as the collapse of the colonial system in previous decades, led to Russia and China being surrounded by a number of neighbours with whom they can build relatively equal relations in the same way that the United States can deal practically on equal terms with Great Britain, Germany or France.

However,a a significant number of these neighbours simply lack the human and geopolitical resources. As a result, both great powers must now move towards the formation of a special foreign policy with a whole group of countries, which would take into account the peculiarities of their situation. But they are not the only ones. The United States and the leading EU countries also form specific policies towards those who entrust their survival to Russia or China, taking into account what role Moscow or Beijing play in their fate. It is the conflict between the United States and Russia that determines the actions Washington or Berlin takes in relation to, for example, Armenia or Belarus, and not the actual bilateral relations.

Russia also cannot proceed from the assumption that fully ordinary bilateral diplomacy exists in relations with Lithuania or Romania. An opposite example is Russia’s policy towards Pakistan, Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan – countries that have the resources necessary for independent survival and responsible foreign policy. China has tried to build traditional relations with the countries of Eastern Europe, but now these efforts are facing noticeable difficulties.

It is very likely that as international politics return to a dynamic balance of power, the leading powers will strive to ensure that their bilateral relations are limited to the circle of those who really have the ability to be responsible in their behaviour. With regard to the rest, one can expect a gradual transformation of the usual diplomatic practice towards a special model that differs in its quality and content. What this new content will be is now no longer a speculative, but a practical task. This new type of relationship can become a kind of proxy diplomacy, which in any case is better than the proxy war that is familiar to all of us.

From our partner RIAC

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