Opinion

Mark Leonard

Decline of U.S. influence means Iran and Saudi Arabia may just have to get along — eventually

Mark Leonard
Jun 25, 2014 15:34 UTC

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Thirty-five years ago Iranian students stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran chanting “death to America.” But today Iran wants to work with the United States to stabilize Iraq while negotiating a deal on its nuclear program. The journey from death threats to diplomacy is both a triumph of U.S. statecraft and a symbol of its declining power.

When I spoke to thinkers, politicians and business people on a recent trip to Tehran, I was struck by the strong consensus that America’s hegemony in the Middle East and in global affairs is giving way to a multipolar order in which power is more widely shared and where its nature is changing. Not long ago, they said, the United States bestrode the Middle East as a unipolar power, the main source of order and disorder, the biggest consumer of hydrocarbons and the most active military power. It was not for nothing that it was nicknamed the “Great Satan.” But today the United States is but one of many players in the region’s security struggles, and its purchases of oil are eclipsed by China’s.

The real Great Satan for today’s Iran is Saudi Arabia. As Nasser Hadian, a professor at Tehran University, explained to me in an interview last week: “It is the Saudis who are challenging us almost everywhere – increasing their oil output and bringing down the prices; forming a GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) oriented against Iran; challenging us in Iraq, in Pakistan, in Afghanistan, in Lebanon, in Syria and building infrastructure inside Iran.”

When I travelled to Riyadh a few weeks ago, I found that Iranian suspicions of Saudi interference are more than reciprocated, with a litany of complaints about Iranian activism in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Bahrain.

This geopolitical struggle shows the extent to which the dynamics of the region are now set within it. The United States is no longer the main definer of order but rather a resource that Iran and Saudi can use in their struggle against one another – with Saudis encouraging the United States to conduct military strikes in Syria, while some in Tehran may secretly be hoping for them in Iraq.

Does Europe have a hero waiting in the wings?

Mark Leonard
May 27, 2014 20:19 UTC

Italy's PM Renzi arrives at an informal summit of European Union leaders in Brussels

What Europe needs now is a hero.

Before the European elections, many predicted a political earthquake. Now it has struck, leaving the mainstream parties of Europe battered, bloodied and in disarray.

As it so often is, the most eloquent signal was the number of European citizens who chose to sit out the elections altogether (almost 60 percent). And those who did vote could not have been clearer in their rejection of the political mainstream — both right and left.

As predicted in the polls, Euro-phobic parties dominated the poll in two of Europe’s most populous and influential countries, France and the UK, and they exerted a strong influence in many others. In France, the National Front leader Marine Le Pen topped the poll with a record 25 percent of the vote.  And in the UK, the insurgent Nigel Farage was the first political leader in 100 years who did not come from the Labour or Conservative parties to top a national poll.

The revolution in Putin’s head

Mark Leonard
Apr 24, 2014 20:37 UTC

When Ukrainians took to the streets to protest their government in late November, they hoped to launch a revolution. What they didn’t realize when they toppled President Viktor Yanukovich in February is that a larger revolution would be in Vladimir Putin’s head.

While the president of Ukraine has been replaced, most of the people running the country are part of the permanent political class. The chances of a major break with the past are small. In Moscow, in contrast, the ideological, geopolitical and economic rule book is being rewritten.

Former Kremlin operatives, serving officials, diplomats and dissidents that I recently spoke to in Moscow all agreed that Putin, who is a pragmatic leader, has been reborn as a true revolutionary who will challenge the West in the following ways.

Why Crimea matters

Mark Leonard
Apr 9, 2014 15:30 UTC

 

“We have spent thirty years trying to integrate Russia into the international system, and now we are trying to kick it out again.”

These words — from a senior British official — sum up the disappointment and bewilderment of western diplomats struggling to handle Russia. They face two imperfect options: inaction in the face of Russia’s territorial aggression, and reacting so strongly that they unravel the international system that has sustained order for the last five decades.

As pro-Russian protesters declare a “people’s republic” in the Ukrainian city of Donetsk, Western leaders are smart to focus on deterring Putin from expanding beyond Crimea. But the West needs to think more about how its actions are seen beyond the Kremlin. The consequences of Crimea could be even more dramatic at a global level than within the post-Soviet countries.

How to help Ukraine help itself

Mark Leonard
Feb 26, 2014 19:31 UTC

According to Arseniy Yatsenyuk, the front-runner to be Ukraine’s acting prime minister, there is a simple way for the country to avoid the fate of a failed revolution without a leader: “take responsibility.”

But, though Ukrainian leaders like talking about it, taking responsibility is not something they are fond of doing. In fact, they have built an entire political and foreign policy machine to avoid it.

The courage of Ukrainian citizens must be met with generosity from the West in the form of open markets, visa-free travel and help in reforming a broken system. But Westerners must do it in a way that empowers Ukrainian citizens. The key to a successful Ukraine government now is for responsibility to become a reality — particularly among the political and business elite.

To see Obama’s legacy, look to Europe

Mark Leonard
Feb 19, 2014 17:04 UTC

This week the 39-year-old former mayor of Florence, Matteo Renzi, was invited by his party to form a government in Rome. If he succeeds, he will be Italy’s youngest-ever prime minister. Renzi has never had a job in central government or even been a member of parliament. His governing record in Florence is paper-thin. But lack of experience was not a setback in his quest for the top job in Italian politics. It was, in fact, his main qualification.

Renzi’s rapid ascent shows how completely Barack Obama has changed the global political playbook. Although the U.S. president is often accused by his detractors of being European in style, the reality is that it is European politics that are being “Obamafied.” In the UK, and you can see the youthful Labour Party leader Ed Miliband painstakingly mirroring Obama’s campaign tactics. A new generation of center-left leaders in Europe is trying to replicate Obama’s three laws of politics.

The starting point is Obama’s first law: Have no political past. It’s not just that every first-term senator thinks he can be president. Now that senator realizes that in this anti-elitist age his chances of success will diminish in line with his growing experience. Part of Miliband’s appeal to his party was that he was not his more experienced brother, the former Foreign Secretary David Miliband, whose closeness to Prime Minister Tony Blair and refusal to disavow the Iraq war cost him crucial votes in the leadership election.

The revenge of the German elite

Mark Leonard
Feb 4, 2014 15:38 UTC

This week, Germany’s foreign policy establishment struck back against a public they say has become increasingly insular, self-satisfied and pacifist. In surprisingly blunt language, German President Joachim Gauck took to the stage last Friday at the Munich Security Conference to declare: “While there are genuine pacifists in Germany, there are also people who use Germany’s guilt for its past as a shield for laziness or a desire to disengage from the world.”

Gauck asked if Germany’s historical sins mean that it has more, rather than less, responsibility to defend the fragile foundations of an economy and a peaceful world order from which it has disproportionately benefited. In the speech, Gauck was attacking without naming the former Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, whose talk of a “culture of restraint” and strong opposition to euro zone bailouts were attempts to channel Germany’s public mood of disengagement.

Westerwelle’s doctrine reached its apotheosis in March 2011, when he stood in the U.N. Security Council with Brazil, Russia, India and China to oppose an intervention in Libya that was being pursued by the United States and its European allies.

Seven reasons why the Arab uprisings are eclipsing western values

Mark Leonard
Jan 21, 2014 20:31 UTC

This year marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the collapse of the Berlin Wall — an event that led Francis Fukuyama to predict the end of history and the beginning of universal western liberal values. It is three years since the Arab uprisings threatened to upend the Middle East and North Africa. Many at that time predicted that the region would embrace liberal democracy and human rights.

Ewan Harrison and Sara McLaughlin Mitchell argue in a new book — “The Triumph of Democracy and the Eclipse of the West” — that the spread of democracy has come at the very moment that the West is experiencing decline — and that the future will see a “clash of democratizations” rather than a westernization of the world.

Harrison and Mitchell argue that the Arab Spring should be seen as a “second struggle for independence” — throwing off the shackles of western-backed dictators in the same way that earlier generations rebelled against direct rule by the West. But the paradox is that these protesters are increasingly using western-style freedoms and technologies to reject the liberal tenets of the West. From the muddled reaction of western governments to the uprisings in the Middle East, we can already begin to see that this awakening is leading to an eclipse of the West. Here are seven reasons why:

Europe’s self-hating parliament

Mark Leonard
Nov 19, 2013 16:24 UTC

Some are talking about the alliance last week of France’s national front leader Marine Le Pen and the Dutch populist Geert Wilders as a European Tea Party. Whether or not these two are functioning as Europe’s answer to Sarah Palin and Ted Cruz, their anti-EU policies are aimed at forming a broader alliance with parties in other member states.

The Euroskeptic bloc could be more damaging than the Tea Party. Tea Partiers are keen to get government out of peoples’ lives, but they don’t oppose the very existence of the union or of U.S. Congress. The Euroskeptics do not support the existence of the EU and by extension they oppose the European Parliament, into which they are seeking election. If, as polls predict, Euroskeptics emerge with strong support, we may see a “self-hating Parliament” that ultimately wants to secure its own abolition.

Le Pen and Wilders describe the alliance as the “start of the liberation of Europe from the monster of Brussels”. The European Parliament has the power to block the appointment of the European Commission (the EU’s main executive body), to veto the majority of European legislation, to block the signature of international treaties and trade agreements and even to hold up the EU’s annual budget.

The NSA and the weakness of American power

Mark Leonard
Oct 31, 2013 20:38 UTC

The NSA scandal over phone tapping in Europe will soon blow over, conventional wisdom says. Jack Shafer has argued that, although allied leaders such as Angela Merkel are upset, they will (and have to) get over it.

Don’t believe a word of it. The public outrage that the NSA has spawned could be more damaging to the transatlantic relationship than the Iraq war was a decade ago.

If it was all up to leaders, Shafer might be right. But governments — along with their intelligence services — are increasingly boxed in by public opinion. It’s not the spying or the lying that European citizens find more hurtful. It is the perception that U.S. agencies are as oblivious to the rights of allies as they are scrupulous at upholding the rights of their own citizens.

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