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The Neo-Compellence: Is the Diplomacy of Violence a new Reality for International Relations?

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Authors: Orazio Maria Gnerre  and Maxim Sigachev*

From the beginning of the Syrian crisis, one of the most frequent comparisons used for the present situation is the Vietnam War. This is both by Arab government supporters, as a reminder of the most remarkable drubbing in recent history, as well as by US policymakers[i]. The similarities range from the risk of third parties being involved in the conflict to the risk of public support (or dissent). A 2015 Guardian article alerted the American public of how “Syria [would have been] the next Vietnam-style war if Obama [had not] learned from history”. The writers pointed out in the same piece how “Vietnam has shown the failure of an initial limited intervention to create political pressure for more aggressive action” and draws the conclusion that “US military power cannot compel democracy in foreign lands, neither can it force change among foreign populations[ii]”.

In addition to reflecting a primarily isolationist position[iii], typical of a continental political unity like the US with an oscillating international vocation[iv], the profound message of the Guardian article was clearly more evocative to the American reader. The constraint to democracy of which they wrote (literally: compel [to] democracy), as well as the aforementioned limited intervention were a clear reference to the military strategy used by the US during the Cold War and put in place to counter the communist domino effect[v].

The Concept of Compellence

This military strategy, developed as a continuation of the American aviation doctrine of strategic bombing[vi], took the name of compellence[vii]. As Alexey Fenenko mentions, American experts used the term compellence to describe the transition from the old model of purely defensive deterrence to the new concept of offensive deterrence. Also defined as a way to conduct negotiations with arms, the military strategy of compellence is “understood as the art of employing military force in limited doses and in controlled forms in order to mold, through the effectively inflicted and especially the threatened costs, the conduct […] of the other party[viii]”. Like deterrence[ix], compellence represents the strategic key-concept to understand the Cold War, more specifically understood as the bipolar phase of the balance of world powers. Practically, the US military doctrine appealed to these absolutely complementary concepts, practicing them in the world challenge to the Soviet bloc and in pursuing specific regional goals. According to Sergey Minasyan, coercive policy consists of two basic forms: defensive (deterrence) and offensive (compellence)[x].

If deterrence existed in consideration of the universally recognized principle of mutual assured destruction[xi], it expressed itself in the conflictual relationship at very low intensity between the two superpowers. This, as in the case of atoms with a lower state of thermal agitation, produced the cooling of conflict. The deterrence was, and still is, a valid principle in relation to the permanence of the nuclear threat, “characterized by an emphasis on rational decision making by top national leaders who are entrusted with the management of national security in a very dangerous world[xii]”. The only alternative to the rationality of the decision-making processes of the White House and the Soviet Politburo would have been the irrationality of the war fought with the complete mass destruction weaponry. Alexey Arbatov points out that the strategic situation radically changed after 1960, when the Soviet Union achieved parity with the US. In 1967, after this change, Washington officially accepted the idea that any forecasts of a nuclear war should include unprecedented damage and devastation on American soil.

And yet, as we all know, the period of a bipolar world order was one of relative peace and enhanced development. The same goes for the current situation, as well as the Vietnam War, during which the strategy of compellence was developed. This type of strategy, as we have already said, applied to military aviation, provided for progressive dosage of bombardments on carefully selected enemy targets, so as to force them to bend their political will[xiii]. This type of action, however, was possible against those opposing forces which, in the context of the Cold War, were indeed representatives of the Eastern bloc, but not part of the Warsaw Pact. If, as put by Hegel, the world of ideas and doctrines always finds the technical means to develop and vice versa, these two parallel strategies (which in a sense made up the only American military doctrine during the Cold War) existed only as a function of the atomic weapon, which made its real use impracticable, and the greater precision of the bombers, which really permitted the destruction of the objectives necessary to put pressure on the enemy. This is an in the case of the modern concept of war of annihilation and the discovery of the war ends of gunpowder[xiv]. Nuclear deterrence during Cold War historically was closely related to the idea of strategic stability. Alexander Savelyev notes that this principle became the basis for the Treaty between the USA and the USSR on the elimination of their intermediate-range and shorter-range missiles of 1987, as well as the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty of 1991[xv].

Anyway, this approach was soon surpassed both by the strong defeat in Indochina, after which the US visibly retreated to their home garden, and which led them to a rediscovery of the terricolous conceptions of the Clausewitzian polemological theories, making it lose sight of the independence of the aerial weapon, both by the implosion of the Soviet Union and the loss of the other great challenger of bipolarism, with the consequent transition to Western unipolarism (more or less perfect[xvi]). After the end of Cold War, the main threat to the survival of mankind, represented by an opportunity of the global nuclear war between the USSR and the USA, was practically overcome.

A New Era of US Domination

With this transition, the face of the war changed completely, and the new American strategies revolved more or less around the realization that the US had become an actor without real adversaries. We have been able to observe it in the two conflicts against Iraq. And although the game in Afghanistan remains open, the rediscovery of the invincibility of the partisans of the Earth[xvii] is not accompanied by their concrete possibility of victory. The military doctrine of unipolarism is therefore that that of the Overwhelming Force[xviii] (which in the name already seems to be an awareness of the world role of the US nowadays), where the extensive deployment of means is no longer a real problem.

Yet the events following the Ukrainian crisis have reintroduced an already creeping question in public debate about the reemergence of a bipolar conflict, like a second or never-ending Cold War[xix]. Although, for example, Feodor Voitolovsky suggests that the term New Cold War is a figure of speech and a significant exaggeration, since the current confrontation is a ‘vegetarian form’ of the original Cold War. If it is true that, apart from the unipolarity set by the US, the emerging players of the world economy and new political and strategic platforms are trying to ferry the world towards a multipolar structure, effectively exploiting a growing polycentricity also due to greater capital mobility and to the post-colonial phase of world history, it is also true that a strategic challenge between Russia-China (understood jointly within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization) and the United States is still in place[xx], easily readable under the spectrum of a new kind of bipolarity. According to the global forecast, published by Russian International Affairs Council in 2019, there is an opportunity for both scenarios of new multipolarity or new bipolarity. Multipolar scenario implies more independent role of Russia and China, as well as the growing independence of the European Union and the autonomy of India. Whereas neo-bipolar scenario implies intensification of China-US contradictions.

It is this kind of international scenario that can explain to us today the events of the last years on the Syrian chessboard of what is already, before everyone’s eyes, a new way of setting the competition between states and political entities. If a multi-dimensional war is waged in Syria, what this means in concrete terms should be understood for good. More specifically, on the remains of the Arab country, in addition to (and above) different types of political and national interests and regional and ideological forces, these two major world forces are confronting, and this is demonstrated already by the joint Russian-Chinese involvement[xxi] in support of the Ba’athist government. While the Russian newscasts were preparing people for the possibility of a nuclear conflict[xxii], the world has radically changed the way war is waged. If the Syrian conflict was born as the most typical moment of the continuum of the fourth generation war[xxiii], with all its most evident elements, including the use of proxies and precisely multidimensionality[xxiv], the events of the night between 13th and 14th of April 2018 created a dialectical synthesis of the bipolar thesis and the unipolar antithesis of waging war, laying the foundations for a military doctrine not yet codified that we could call neo-compellence. According to Andrey Kokoshin, military strikes of the US and their allies against Syria on the 14th of April 2018 led to the conclusion that continuation of such actions would destabilize international relations. Negotiations on arms control, which previously were intensive, came to an end. This situation jeopardized the INF Treaty. It also made very unclear the perspectives of a prolongation of the New START Treaty after 2021[xxv].The bombings of US-led Western countries on alleged Syrian strategic objectives, carried out after an unnerving tug of war with the real competitor, i.e. the Russian Federation, and unexpectedly continued in the following days, without hitting the Russian armed forces, can be considered the manifesto of this new type of war, which precedes the eventual multi-polar transition. By and large, the Russian scientific community agrees with the thesis that the world order is in process of transformation from unipolar moment to the post-unipolar condition, but the terms to describe this new condition can be used different. For example, Alexander Dynkin prefers the discourse of polycentric world rather than multi-polar as more precise[xxvi].

Of the strategy of compellence one can say that the “strategic code […] is the anxiety for a feared damage, but which can still be avoided, as well as the temptation to escape from it when it is still possible to do so, the true ‘solvent’ of moral and political determination of the adversary to insist in his conduct[xxvii]”. A sequence of punctual, targeted, painful but not in itself decisive damages are those that, under the umbrella of nuclear danger, can be inflicted on the small ally of the major nuclear opponent. And the attacks on Syria, defined by Trump as a “mission accomplished“, are exactly that. Of course, this change preserves the technological and substantial advancement in the military field of the unipolar era, including high precision weapons (which can lead to a higher application level of this type of strategy), but the basic approach has changed. What we have followed with apprehension in those days is the putting into practice of the contemporary diplomacy of violence[xxviii] exposed by the theorists of compellence. Those who had thought that a world challenge through proxy wars and the use of non-military means of war could have lasted forever did not realistically consider the instinct of self-preservation of the great political agglomerations. When the giants descend on the battlefields, and moreover they do so with the arsenals of mass destruction forged in the catastrophe of the Second World War, this means that we have gone too far. So long as the Western actor does not withdraw from his ambitions of international supremacy, or the Eastern one does not lay down his will to subsist (which is almost impossible given the aforementioned basic organic but also civilizational instinct of self-preservation), this is the conflictual model that we will see developing.

*Maxim Sigachev, Ph.D. of Political Science, Junior Research Fellow, IMEMO RAS

[i] As in the case of the statement of the former Air Force Colonel and CNN military analyst C. Leighton, according to whom the Syrian conflict exceeds exponentially the one in Vietnam, evidently placing the two military crises on the same scale of intensity.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] It was the epoch (on the rhetorical level, but today on the implementation level, USA willy-nilly) of America in retreat [cf. B. Stephens, America in Retreat. The New Isolationism and the Coming Global Disorder, Sentinel Books, 2014].

[iv] The geopolitical duplicity of the US according to Carlo Santoro [cfr. C. M. Santoro, La perla e l’ostrica. Alle fonti della politica globale degli Stati Uniti, Franco Angeli, 1986].

[v] Theory set out in 1954 by President Eisenhower [cf. E. E. Moise, The Domino Theory, in Encyclopedia of America Foreign Policy, Scribner’s, 2002].

[vi] That modality of the Douhettian independent aerial strategy developed later by the school of thought of the US aviation and applied specifically in the Second World War [cfr. B. Liddell Hart, A History of the Second World War, Cassel and Co. Ltd., 1970]. The strategy, devised with the intent to limit the damage of the war, culminated however, coherently with the application premises, in the two atomic bombings on Japan.

[vii] T. Schelling, Arms and Influence, Yale University Press, 1966.

[viii] C. Stefanachi, ‘Guerra Indolore’. Dottrine, illusioni e retoriche della guerra limitata, Vita & Pensiero, 2016, p. 163 (translated).

[ix] T. Schelling, op. cit.

[x] Минасян Сергей, «Силовая политика» в Карабахском конфликте: дихотомия сдерживания и принуждения // 21-й ВЕК, № 3 (23), 2012. С. 28.

[xi] But there were also those who, on the basis of the scientific studies in this regard, as Castro in his interventions for CubaDebate, stressed that in a nuclear conflict the assured destruction would not only be mutual, but absolute, planetary, of the species [cfr. Fidel Castro Ruz, L’inverno nucleare. Riflessioni sui rischi di una guerra atomica, Nemesis Edizioni, 2012].

[xii] R. Kolkowicz [edited by], Dilemmas of Nuclear Strategy, Frank Cass, 1987.

[xiii] R. A. Pape, Bombing to Win. Air Power and Coercion in War, Cornell University Press, 1996.

[xiv] Affirmation that shocked Popper so much [K. Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies, Princeton University Press, 2013].

[xv] Савельев А.Г., Стратегическая стабильность и ядерное сдерживание: уроки истории // Вестн. Моск. ун-та. Сер. 25: Международные отношения и мировая политика. 2015. № 3. С. 58.

[xvi] Cf. Kenneth Waltz’s theories.

[xvii] To put it with Carl Schmitt [cf. C. Schmitt, Theory of the Partisan. Immediate Commentary on the Concept of the Political, Telos Press Pub., 2007].

[xviii] L. Middup, The Powell Doctrine and US Foreign Policy, Military Strategy and Operational Art, 2015.

[xix] Just google “new cold war” to get a general idea of the spread of this concept.

[xx] Z. Brzezinski, The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and its Geostrategic Imperatives, Basic Books, 1997.

[xxi] In the case of China, its involvement was already evident in the role of obstruction to the Western intervention in the UN Security Council during the first accusations against President Assad, but it evidently materialized in the threatening movements of its naval units in April towards the theater of conflict and the public declaration of military support to Russia, already present in the territory, boot on the ground.

[xxii] I refer to the famous viral news of those days relaunched by all the agencies with the video of the TV show of Russian television that explained to citizens what food to bring in anti-atomic shelters in case of nuclear apocalypse.

[xxiii] L. Quiao and X. Wang, Guerra senza limiti. L’arte della guerra asimmetrica tra terrorismo e globalizzazione, Libreria Editrice Goriziana, 2016.

[xxiv] Which is more a broader perception of the phenomenon due to the more powerful means of information than a true result of post-modernity.

[xxv] Кокошин А.А., Стратегическая стабильность в условиях критического обострения международной обстановки // Полис. Политические исследования. 2018. № 4. С. 9.

[xxvi] Russia in Polycentric World (перевод с русск.) Eds. A.A. Dynkin and N.I. Ivanova. M., Ves Mir Publishers, 2012.

[xxvii] C. Stefanachi, op. cit., p. 164 (translation).

[xxviii] T. Schelling, op. cit.

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Graduated in Political Science to the Catholic University of the Sacread Heart (Milan), Expert of international relations and geopolitics

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Diplomacy

International Relations Amid the Pandemic

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We could rest assured that COVID-19 will be defeated, sooner rather than later. The excessive angst and fear we currently feel will gradually subside, while our science will find effective antidotes so that people could look back on the pandemic years as a ghastly dream.

At the same time, it is also clear that a post-pandemic world will be quite different to the world we knew before. The argument that the world needs a massive shake-up to move to the next stage of its development has been quite popular ever since the end of the Cold War. Some prophesied that this would come as a result of a profound economic crisis, while others argued that a large-scale war may well be on the cards. As often happens, though, what turned the world on its head came as if out of nowhere. Within a short span of just a few months, the COVID-19 pandemic shed a light on all the many contradictions and setbacks of our age. It went on to outline the trajectory for economic prosperity, scientific breakthroughs and technological advancements going forward, opening up new opportunities for self-realization and fulfilment. The question pertinent today is: Who will be able to best exploit the new reality and take advantage of the opportunities that are opening up? And how?

COVID-19 has also left its mark on the current architecture of international relations.

At the turn of the century, it was mired in crisis. The end of the Cold War towards the late 20th century effectively signaled the beginning of the transition from the bipolar world order established in the wake of the Second World War to a model that had yet to be created. A bitter struggle would unfold as to what the new world order had to be, with the issue still unsettled today. A number of states, as well as non-state actors, willing to take advantage of this uncertainty in global affairs and redistribute the spheres of influence in the world is what it ultimately boils down to. In a sense, such a scenario should have come as no surprise since the contradictions between the profound changes encompassing the public domain and the rigid model of international relations established in the mid-20th century by the powers victorious in the Second World War had continued to grow in recent decades.

The COVID-19 pandemic has proved to be a stern and unprecedented test of strength that has revealed the limits of the current architecture of international relations. Previous crises—be they financial turmoil, struggle against terrorism, regional conflicts or something else—were, in fact, temporary and rather limited in their implications, however severe they were. The COVID-19 pandemic has affected each and every country in the world, regardless of their political regimes and social conventions, economic prosperity and military might. The pandemic has exposed the fragility of the modern world as well as the growing risks and challenges; and if ignored, they could plunge the world into a descending spiral of self-destruction.

The pandemic continues, which means we are yet to draw a final conclusion on its consequences for the system of international relations. That being said, a number of tentative conclusions are already taking shape.

Point 1. Globalization, despite its obvious side effects, has already changed the face of our world, irreversibly making it truly interdependent. This has been said before; however, the opponents of globalization have tried—and continue to try—to downplay its consequences for modern society. As it happens, they would like to think of globalization as little more than an episode in international life. Although it has been going on for quite some time now, it is nevertheless incapable of changing the familiar landscape of the world. The pandemic has lifted the curtain on what the modern world truly looks like. Here, state borders are nothing more than an administrative and bureaucratic construct as they are powerless to prevent active communication among people, whether spiritual, scientific, informational or of any other kind. Likewise, official borders are not an obstacle to the modern security threats proliferating among states. The waves of COVID-19 have wreaked havoc on all countries. No nation has been able to escape this fate. The same will also happen time and again with other challenges unless we recognize this obvious reality to start thinking about how states should act amid the new circumstances.

Point 2. The international system withstood the initial onslaught in spite of the incessant fearmongers prophesying its impending collapse. Following a rather brief period of confusion and helplessness, the United Nations, the World Health Organization, the World Bank, G20 and other global and regional organizations got their act together (albeit some better than others), taking urgent action to contain the pandemic. This proves that the system of international relations that was constructed after the Second World War still functions, although it is far from perfect or devoid of shortcomings.

In a similar vein, the fight against the pandemic has demonstrated that many international structures are increasingly out of step with the modern reality, proving incapable of mobilizing quickly enough to make a difference in our ever-changing world. This, once again, pushes to the fore the issue of a reformed United Nations system (and other international institutions), while the issue is progressively getting even more urgent. Moving forward, the international community will likely have to face challenges no less dangerous than the current pandemic. We have to be prepared for this.

Point 3. As the role of international institutions in global affairs weakens, centrifugal tendencies gain momentum, with countries—for the most part, global leaders—starting to put their national interests first. The global information war surrounding various anti-COVID-19 vaccines is a prime example of this. Not only has it seriously upset successes in the fight against the pandemic, but it has also added a new dimension to mutual distrust and rivalry. The world has effectively fallen back to the “rules” of the Cold War era, when countries with different socio-political systems were desperate to prove their superiority, with little regard for common interests such as security and development.

Pursuing such a policy today is fraught with grave consequences for every nation, since new security threats care little for borders. The recent events in Afghanistan should serve as a lesson for us all, showing that any serious regional crisis, even in a most remote corner of the world, will inevitably have global implications. Therefore, we are all facing a stark choice: either unite against these new challenges or become hostage to the various extremists and adventurers.

Point 4. Some political leaders have been quick to use the challenges of the pandemic as a pretext to strengthen the role of the state at the expense of fundamental democratic principles and binding international obligations. This may be justified or even necessitated at a time of the most acute phases of a severe crisis, when all available resources need to be mobilized to repel the threat.

However, one gets the impression that some politicians are increasingly in the groove for these extended powers and would very much like to hold onto them, using the likelihood of new crises as a justification. This line of thinking could prove to be an insurmountable obstacle to a new model of international relations to be established in accordance with the modern reality, where states would be expected to pool their efforts in the interests of global security and development.

Point 5. As always happens in times of profound crises, the international community is looking to major powers and their leadership for guidance. The future course of history in all realms of life, naturally including international relations, will hinge on what these countries choose to do, deciding whether solidarity prevails over national egoism. President Putin’s initiative to hold a meeting of the heads of state of the permanent UN Security Council members could be a good starting point to foster understanding and seek new ways of moving forward. We cannot keep putting off a frank and thorough conversation about the future world order, as the costs of new delays could be too grave for everyone to handle.

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Diplomacy

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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