Sunday 27 July 2014

Diplomatic Chess

Diplomatic Chess

Some find it offensive when the goings on in Syria and Ukraine are likened to a game of chess, a statement that I agree with to some extent. Some estimate that up to a hundred and fifty thousand people have been killed during the fighting in Syria. And, as ever, although the majority of the combatants are young men, the majority of the suffering has been borne by those with no cause for quarrel - mothers, families, children, the old and the infirm. Yet precisely because the only possible solution lies within the realm of cold, impersonal diplomatic liaison I feel justified in analysing the moves and actions of the key protagonists in the same detached manner.

I liked 2004 Obama, I liked 2008 Obama - even in 2014 there are things that I admire about the man. However, when it comes to foreign policy he has been outplayed in every possible way and at every turn by his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin over the past two years. Many leaders ride to office on a wave of euphoria that they can´t possible satisfy, although most of them are aware of how fickle public opinion can be. However, with Obama, I will always suspect that he truly believed in the power of words to conquer all. He believed that rhetoric could heal the suspicion with which numerous countries around the world regard the State Department; that it could conquer Bush-era mistrust; and that through rhetoric America would once again be regarded as the defender abroad of the principles that it espouses at home. Yet, a change of government only ever changes half a dozen people at the top, and the state machinery has rolled inexorably on - most notably in the NSA/ Snowden revelations.    

Theodore Roosevelt once claimed that the secret to foreign policy was to "speak softly, and carry a big stick." He furthermore described his style of foreign policy as "the exercise of intelligent forethought and of decisive action sufficiently far in advance of any likely crisis". Obama has fallen short on both accounts. He sits wedged between a public uninterested in further foreign intervention and a political establishment obsessed with the US´s self-importance and global role. Yet he also holds in one hand a $750 billion defence budget and in the other the Sixth Fleet based in the Mediterranean. It is not that the stick isn´t still big, more that it is dwarfed by the shrill ejaculations of its wielder. During the last two years he has trodden the awkward path of attempting to maintain American primacy in the Middle East and Eastern Europe without being committing either effort or resources to the cause, leaving his words looking increasingly feeble. I wish that the business of the state was entirely encapsulated within the art of public speaking, that the breathtaking eloquence that we are treated to each time Obama takes to the podium did inspire America and the world to greater humility, generosity and eloquence. However, this is not the case, and his indecisive actions appear to be presaging the self-fulfilling prophecy of American decline. 

What makes this all even more stark is that Putin has played the average hand of cards that he has been dealt extraordinarily well. He has trod the fine line of appearing to give the EU and the USA what they are demanding without really giving them anything at all; precisely because he senses that they lack the will to carry out their threats. And each time he offers a morsel he increases the conviction in Washington that he really is the master puppeteer. I can´t see any way in which air strikes against the Assad regime in Syria would have solved what is increasingly looking like a festering sore of hatred as old as life itself. One needs to look no further than Libya, or indeed Iraq, to appreciate that it is not a simple case of regime change from autocracy to liberal democracy. But I am no expert on Arab nation building so I will not attempt to prescribe any sort of solution. The point is merely that Obama had no desire to go ahead with air strikes and probably thought that his red line sounded like the sort of thing a statesman would say if he or she actually meant business. Putin called his bluff. 

And then came Crimea and the civil war in eastern Ukraine. I firmly believed that Putin has no desire to annex eastern Ukraine. I believe that by arming the rebels his aim is to destabilise Ukraine and to neutralise the possibility of a hostile, economically resurgent and pro-EU neighbour. Russia was forced to pour $7bn to prop up the Crimean economy after annexing it in March; the damaged eastern Ukrainian economy would need a far bigger stimulus. Nor does he desire to provoke the sort of sanctions that would send the Russian economy into freefall and vastly outweigh any benefit to Russian influence to be gained by destabilising Ukraine. He was been willing to supply, train and support the rebels, but has not attempted to invade without an appropriate casus belli. On the rare occasions when he has been called to account, he has been willing to agree frameworks, dialogues and joint statements on the phone to his European counterparts, but has not altered covert Russian support for the rebels - after all Putin is very much aware that the Italians, Dutch and Germans are extremely reluctant to impose sanctions on Russia.    

But has he overplayed his hand? Russia supplied the missile system (and other heavy weapons) that shot down Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 on 17 July 2014 without apparently monitoring exactly what they rebels were doing with it. Surely this would finally unite the EU against Russia? Apparently not: EU foreign ministers failed to agree on broad economic sanctions on the 22nd of July, instead kicking the issue into the long grass by asking the Commission to draw such measures up and agreeing to debate them later. Despite a push by a group of nations including Poland, the UK and Sweden, the Germans and the Italians have been especially lukewarm on the possibility of imposing sanctions. The Dutch and the Germans do a great deal of trade with the Russians and the Italians remain reticent to harm the Russian interests of oil giant Eni. Furthermore the French, wary of contractual penalties and happy to see the STX shipyards back at work, remain determined to push on with the sale of two Mistral class Helicopter assault ships to Russia. Understandable as that decision might appear, it must be remembered that a Russian naval commander commented at the time that the ships were ordered that had they had such vessels during the 2008 war with Georgia, the operation would have taken "40 minutes, instead of 26 hours". Thus, it appears that the initial clamour for action is fading - amongst other developments UK and US officials are backtracking from initial claims that Russian personnel may have been operating the Buk missile system responsible for bringing down MH17. 

Once again Putin has given the EU and the US just enough - the crash dead and the black boxes - to stymie concerted action; he might be on the backfoot for the moment, but he never was and never will be a fool.

No comments:

Post a Comment