Credibility Will Survive Washington’s Recent Strategic Retreats

Photo: Joe Crimmings/flickr.

To its critics, the Obama administration’s foreign policy has become one of retreat. The decision not to engage militarily in Syria undermined the United States’ credibility around the world, and now there is the crisis in Ukraine. With Russia in partial control of Crimea, the critics feel further aggrieved. Surely the administration’s passivity and weakness helped provoke the incursion, they now argue.

The critics’ argument rests on the ‘demonstration principle’, i.e. the notion that how a state responds to one event establishes a reputation that others will react to in the future. It’s a principle with a rich history. For instance, historians generally believe that Britain’s willingness to accept Nazi Germany’s occupation of Czechoslovakia 1938 encouraged Hitler to think that there would be few consequences for moving against Poland a year later. In contrast, there is evidence to suggest that the US’ overthrow of Saddam Hussein had positive secondary effects throughout the broader Middle East, with Iran suspending its nuclear weapons program, and Libya abandoning its nuclear activities altogether.

Morgenthau, on Diplomacy

Photo: Pat Guiney/flickr.

Since late January, I’ve had the privilege of teaching the introductory International Politics class at Haverford College just outside of Philadelphia. One of the benefits of teaching bright undergraduates (mainly freshmen and sophomores) is that they come to the study of international relations from such a different perspective than my own that classroom interactions are often interesting and thought-provoking. The other major benefit is the opportunity that it has provided for me to go back and re-read some international relations classics.

As WOTR [War On The Rocks] is a den of realists, I thought I would go back to the roots of modern realism and examine one aspect of Hans J. Morgenthau’s magnum opus Politics Among Nations: diplomacy.  For many, this book encapsulates and defines many of the core premises of realism. While dismissed as being too normatively prescriptive by some, it is still a useful primer. This is a particularly important topic today while the U.S. is recalibrating its instruments of power (mainly by decreasing them) and global commitments and particularly operating in a world that is teeming with geopoliticians such as Vladimir Putin and Bashar Assad who seem quite willing to push back against America’s global interests.

For Morgenthau, diplomacy must:

The 20th OSCE Ministerial Council Meeting in Kyiv: Addressing Persistent Dividing Lines

The 20th OSCE Ministerial Council Meeting in Kyiv
OSCEPA Bureau meeting in Kyiv, 4 December 2013. Photo: OSCE Parliamentary Assembly/flickr.

On 5 and 6 December 2013, Ukraine hosted the 20th OSCE Ministerial Council (MC) meeting in Kyiv. The OSCE MC meets once a year in the country holding the Chairmanship and is the highest OSCE decision-making body. This year, the MC meeting was preceded by an OSCE Parallel Civil Society Conference which was organized by the Civic Solidarity Platform in Kyiv as well as by a panel discussion held by the newly-established network of OSCE think tanks.

The MC meeting was held amid a political crisis in Ukraine which was sparked by the unexpected decision by the Ukrainian government on 21 November to suspend talks with the European Union (EU) on an Association Agreement and a deep free trade agreement, instead ordering to resume “an active dialogue” with the Moscow-led customs union. Tensions increased further when on 30 November Ukrainian riot police violently dispersed peaceful protesters on Maidan Square in Kyiv leaving the international community in a state of disappointment. Although Ukrainian president Yanukovych condemned “the actions that led to forceful confrontation and suffering of people” and Ukrainian foreign minister Leonid Kozhara released a statement prior to the OSCE MC meeting announcing a “thorough investigation” into the violent incidents, the damage had been done. Ukraine – in its capacity as OSCE Chairmanship-in-Office – had clearly breached core OSCE commitments of freedom of assembly and expression.

The OSCE after the Kyiv Ministerial

OSCE Ministerial Council meeting on 5 December in Kyiv
OSCE Ministerial Council meeting on 5 December, 2013, in Kyiv. Photo: OSCE Parliamentary Assembly/flickr.

“Today, the OSCE is not the organization over which foreign ministers are racking their brains when they wake up early in the morning.” This was how Irish Foreign Minister Eamon Gilmore characterized the state of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) at the end of Ireland’s presidency in 2012.  A year later, however, the OSCE for once finds itself in the headlines. Just a few days before a routine meeting of OSCE foreign ministers in Kyiv, the Ukrainian government – which holds the 2013 OSCE presidency – decided to move the country closer to Russia by breaking off trade negotiations with the European Union. In the run-up to the meeting, police violence against peaceful protesters and the biggest street demonstrations since the 2004 “Orange Revolution” dominated the scene in Kyiv.

US Boycott

In response to Ukraine’s actions, only half of the 57 OSCE members sent their top personnel to Kyiv. US Secretary of State John Kerry deliberately boycotted the event, and Britain and France sent deputies in lieu of their foreign ministers. Catherine Ashton, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs, decided to meet with Serbian and Kosovar leaders in Brussels instead. By not attending this year’s ministerial meeting, Kerry and others did the OSCE a disservice. For 40 years the organization has been a powerful symbol of dialogue and the search for consensus and compromise between East and West. Boycotts and deliberate snubs may be useful for alliance-building and zero-sum games, but they are not in keeping with the “spirit of Helsinki” or the principles of cooperative security.

Finding the Urban Crisis Tipping Point

Mukuru, Kenya
Mukuru, Kenya. Photo: SuSanA Secretariat/flickr.

By 2015, three billionpeople will be living in urban slums according to UN Habitat. As the number of vulnerable people living in urban slums rises, aid agencies are struggling to identify the tipping point at which chronic urban vulnerability turns into a humanitarian crisis. IRIN spoke to aid staff to find out what they are doing about it.

Accurately tracking vulnerability is more complex in densely populated towns and cities, particularly in informal neighbourhoods such as slums, than it is in rural areas. Aid agencies and donors have therefore been slow to take on the challenge, inadvertently creating a rural-urban divide.