Opinion

Compass

Putin’s action is no surprise

Nader Mousavizadeh
Mar 28, 2014 18:08 UTC

Surprise is the least forgivable sin of statecraft. Yet nothing has so characterized the Ukraine crisis as the West’s continuing surprise at Russia’s behavior.

The past 30 days have provided almost daily reminders of the deep disconnect between Western expectations of what statecraft would — and ought to — look like in the 21st century, and the reality of how the Kremlin seeks to assert its interests in the world.

From the outset of this crisis, the West consistently underestimated the strategic significance of Ukraine, and Crimea, to Russia. The West also assumed that the threat, and subsequent reality, of economic sanctions would alter Russian President Vladimir Putin’s strategic calculus. One month later, Russia has irreversibly annexed a region of Ukraine and left the West divided and floundering in its response.

That Putin may have won a short-term victory at the cost of a long-term defeat by setting every European country on a path to energy independence from Russia should be small comfort to the United States and European leaders meeting in Brussels this week.

If this were merely a matter of misreading the moves and motivations of a declining great power whose economic vulnerabilities are as severe as they are structural, the annexation of Crimea could be considered a mere geopolitical nuisance. At its root, however, this failure is rooted in a dangerous vanity about the West’s inevitable dominance — and an illusion about a global acceptance of its norms and forms of economic and political governance.

How to win the vote — and the war — on Syria

Nader Mousavizadeh
Sep 3, 2013 21:00 UTC

President Barack Obama’s surprise decision to seek congressional authorization for punitive cruise missile strikes against Syrian government targets presents the West with a perhaps final opportunity to align rhetoric with reality, and policy with purpose, in its response to the Syrian civil war.

The bad news is that the White House, by gambling on its ability to convince a recalcitrant Congress to go against an isolationist public mood, has opened itself up to the very real possibility of defeat as its opponents will seek to embarrass what they consider a reluctant, irresolute Commander-in-Chief. The good news is that that path to winning the vote in Washington is paved with setting out a new and credible course for a diplomatic solution to the crisis that can justify an act of war.

This is not the contradiction in terms that the debates in Western capitals to date might suggest. If anything, the complete absence of a definition of strategic success is the single most important source of the disarray that defines the status quo. The schizophrenia at the heart of Western policy to date was on full display throughout the shambolic events in Westminster and Washington over the past week. The failure of David Cameron’s government to win a parliamentary mandate for action, and of the Obama White House to carry through promptly on its red line rhetoric was, in truth, far less about the poisonous legacy of the Iraq war than about the lack of answers to the most basic questions regarding the use of force in Syria.

Turkey’s crisis is not about Erdogan

Nader Mousavizadeh
Jun 14, 2013 19:29 UTC

The decision by Turkish authorities to send the riot police in to clear Taksim Square — while expressing a more conciliatory tone in a meeting between the prime minister and a delegation of Taksim activists — is a high-stakes gamble at a moment of genuine vulnerability for the country. However, the thinly disguised glee with which the protests against the prime minister’s domineering rule have been met by observers in the West is as politically shortsighted as it is strategically misguided. That Recep Tayyip Erdogan has brought much of his recent troubles on himself — with his imperial manner and his government’s creeping encroachment on the civil and political liberties of his citizens — is evident even to many of his supporters. He and his thrice-victorious party now have an essential task of dialogue and engagement ahead of them, in order to ensure that what remains a fairly limited protest movement does not escalate further and undermine the momentum enjoyed by the Turkish republic.

For the West, however, two equally important tests have presented themselves: can it calibrate its concern for domestic political liberties in Turkey with an adequate appreciation of the economic and geopolitical value that the country provides? And is it willing to accommodate more generally — and more lastingly — an alternative model of a globalized, economically thriving democracy that nevertheless ascribes profound value to its religious and cultural heritage?

For all his success and standing, Erdogan was never, in the minds of most Westerners, “our kind of leader.” Proudly Muslim; resentful of the casual and damaging racism long directed at his country and his people by a standoffish Europe; and fiercely nationalistic in his attempt to carve out a Third Way of Islamist capitalist democracy, Erdogan’s success was often seen more as a rebuke to the West than a welcome demonstration of a Muslim society’s ability to combine modernity with national identity, religious devotion with commercial vibrancy, NATO membership with an independent foreign policy.

Uncertainty is not going away

Nader Mousavizadeh
Nov 8, 2012 17:51 UTC

This week, within the space of 48 hours, the United States elected its next president and the Chinese Communist Party will convene in Beijing to begin the formal handover of power to the next generation of its leadership. To many, this pivotal transition point for the world’s two largest economies holds out the promise of deliverance from the specter that’s been haunting decision-making ever since the collapse of Lehman Brothers four years ago: the specter of “uncertainty.” If there is a phrase that CEOs, politicians and investors use more often to explain everything from poor performance to halting growth to lack of investment and a reluctance to boost hiring, it might just be its near-cousin, “volatility.”

The reality, however, is that the long-awaited, much-desired “certainty” is a mirage. Uncertainty and volatility, in economics and politics, are now as permanent to the macro landscape as competition, resource scarcity, disruptive technology and the race for talent. Leave aside the false nostalgia for a certainty of outlook that never quite was – or, rather, for a kind of uncertainty that only seemed to surprise on the upside during the years of the great moderation. Ignore as well the fact that uncertainty and volatility too often are used as synonyms for the structural challenge of the long period of deleveraging still facing major Western economies. No election in the United States, and no leadership change in China – however orderly, pro-growth, or politically decisive they may be – can reverse the structural shift towards uncertainty in the global macro environment.

It is a shift that is defined not just by a range of geopolitical tail risks as diverse as they are potentially consequential: a war between Israel and Iran over Tehran’s suspected nuclear weapons program; the deepening radicalization of nuclear-weapons-armed Pakistan at every level of its pulverized society; the rising tide of nationalism in East Asia threatening conflicts across multiple boundaries; the danger of far more paralyzing cyber-attacks on state and private sector organizations; the as-yet-to-drop second shoe of the Arab Awakening in the Gulf states (including Saudi Arabia) pivotal to global energy markets.

Let’s end the empty talk about Syria

Nader Mousavizadeh
Jun 5, 2012 19:00 UTC

In every conflict, there are clarifying moments of horror, episodes that cast into stark relief the reality of the forces at work and the complex obstacles to peace. The massacre of Al Houla, where more than a hundred civilians were murdered with savage intimacy, is such a moment in the Syria crisis – but not for the reason that you may think. It will not trigger an air war or an invasion; it will not lead to the forcible removal of the Assad regime by Western troops; and it will not tip the balance of choices among the regime’s supporters. Syria has now entered a cavern of civil conflict from which there is only the slightest of hope of escape – and achieving it requires a far more honest reckoning with the realities of power, and the West’s strategic priorities, than is currently on display in the Western debate over intervention in that country.

The Assad regime is a predatory, deeply illegitimate entity that will stop at nothing to retain power. It needs to go, one way or the other, sooner rather than later. To say this, however, is the easy part. There is little moral or strategic accomplishment in such a declaration – though you’d imagine otherwise from the bombast and bluster with which the end of the regime has been urged by Western politicians, diplomats and commentators. Far more difficult – and therefore carefully and comprehensively dodged by the self-appointed avatars of Western conscience – is constructing a credible way to transition power in Damascus to a broad-based government in the absence of the use of force.

From the criticism of Kofi Annan’s mission expressed by some commentators – and the damning with faint and cowardly praise heard from the very Security Council members who pleaded with him to take on the role as envoy – you’d imagine that the former United Nations Secretary-General and Nobel Peace Prize winner is the only thing that stands in the way of a blossoming democracy in Damascus. The truth is almost certainly the opposite. When the Security Council went to Annan 14 weeks ago and asked him to set aside his philanthropic activities in Africa to take on this perilous mission, nearly a year had gone by with the world condemning the crackdown in Syria – all to no effect. The world, including the United States, was out of options – and out of ideas – when it turned to Annan to create a process that would seek an end to the killing in Syria.

China’s war of the oligarchs

Nader Mousavizadeh
Apr 23, 2012 19:30 UTC

The death of an Englishman in Chongqing has acquired all the intrigue of a John le Carré novel with none of its charms. Despite the occasionally romantic descriptions of the disgraced leader Bo Xilai as a charismatic man of the people challenging the prerogatives of Beijing’s bureaucratic leadership, this is a story without heroes, in which no one’s hands are clean. For all the elements of murder, mystery and missing fortunes occupying the Western press, in China today the focus of the country’s political and economic leaders is on the cascading power struggle that is in progress and what it holds for the future management of the world’s second-largest economy.

A year of leadership change that should have been defined by a smooth, almost seamless transition is instead shaping up to be a turning point in the direction – and ownership – of the political economy of China. Two years of plotting, positioning and maneuvering on the part of tens of thousands of party officials have been thrown into disarray by Bo’s fall, with few now confident of where their allies and masters will find themselves at the conclusion of this upheaval. Combine this with the unresolved elite debate about the cause of China’s economic miracle – the process of reform and liberalization, on the one hand; or, on the other, the still-powerful grip of the state on the means of production – and what you have are all the elements of a perfect storm for the Chinese Communist Party.

Beneath the past month’s surface impression of a resilient party able to manage with speed – and unprecedented candor – the exit of one of its princelings, two visions of China’s future are battling it out more fiercely than ever, in Beijing and throughout the provincial capitals. On one side is a movement, often but inaccurately described as “neo-Maoist,” led by Bo Xilai’s faction and dedicated to maintaining the dominance of the party in the service of the masses left behind by the rapid growth in the major cities. On the other, closely identified with outgoing Premier Wen Jiabao, is the faction dedicated to accelerating economic and political reform designed to ensure long-term sustainable growth. What they share, rhetorically, is a commitment to addressing rapidly widening income inequality. What the factions share, equally, is a reputation for corruption and family privilege of immense proportions at their leadership levels.

In the Middle East, a bonfire of alibis

Nader Mousavizadeh
Feb 27, 2012 19:45 UTC

Syria can set fire to Lebanon at the wave of a hand. Hezbollah can be ordered into battle with Israel at the command of a call from Tehran. Lebanon’s sectarian politics are a plaything of outsiders whose every whim determines the fate of the country. These are among the conventional wisdoms that have long held the fate of Lebanon hostage — assumptions as widely held within the country as outside it. But a closer look suggests that it is high time these preconceived notions are challenged — not because they lack a basis in reality, but because they are rooted as much in what the country’s enemies, from Damascus to Tehran, wish to be the dominant narrative as what the far more complex conditions on the ground merit.

Today, as Syria’s civil war gains speed and severity, and the crisis of Iran’s nuclear program escalates by the day, Beirut is holding its breath — too fearful and too scarred by a war-torn history to imagine anything but the worst-case scenario. And yet, the reality as acknowledged by a growing number of Lebanese observers is more complex. If Assad really could create the distraction he needs from renewed conflict in Lebanon with such ease, would he not already have done so? If Hezbollah is nothing but an arm of Iran’s forward defense, would it not have been the first agent called into action, as opposed to Tehran’s other alleged responses — from the plot to assassinate the Saudi envoy to Washington to the recent attacks on Israeli diplomats in Delhi, Bangkok and Tbilisi? As Tom Fletcher, the British ambassador to Lebanon, pointed out to me on a recent visit to Beirut, just as Sinn Fein and Hamas discovered in their time, Hezbollah’s role in the current government means that it is having to make compromises and shift from the comfortable politics of opposition.

What is true of Lebanon is true too — and far more consequentially so — when the conventional wisdom about the aims and motivations of the region’s other players are examined. At this moment of looming conflict with worldwide implications, it is time to give far greater scrutiny to the claims made by the principal protagonists about the merits of their policies — and the ways they diverge from the global interest in the security and stability of the region. This is most evidently the case with the threat of Iran’s nuclear program and the trade-off between war and containment that ultimately faces the international community.

The elephants in the Davos ski lodge

Nader Mousavizadeh
Jan 24, 2012 16:53 UTC

The epic global shifts of 2011 transformed the political, economic, and social landscape from Shanghai to Sao Paolo, Washington to Cairo. No leader (not even Vladimir Putin) is safe from the vagaries of social unrest; no economy (not even China’s) is unaffected by contagion from an over-leveraged, under-managed euro zone. No country (not even the United States) is immune from the threat of asymmetric attacks—anything from a terrorist bomb to cyber-warfare.

Volatility will be the rule, not the exception in 2012. What I call the emerging Archipelago World of fragmenting power, capital, and ideas is inherently unstable— as vulnerable to old conflicts and new threats as it is open to the dynamic entrepreneurship of rising powers and corporations remaking the map of the world.

A 20-year period of one-world, one-way globalization is being replaced by an era of competitive sovereignty. The walls are going back up. Developed and developing states alike are vertically integrating political and economic interests across public and private sectors in a global race for growth, employment and security.

Peril and paranoia in the new Middle East

Nader Mousavizadeh
Nov 28, 2011 17:47 UTC

The year of the Arab Awakening is drawing to a close with an ominous air of peril and paranoia hanging over the Middle East. A movement of genuine promise for more legitimate and accountable government for the peoples of the Arab world is in danger of being overwhelmed by the forces of tyranny, corruption, fundamentalism and conflict. From Syria to Egypt to Libya, Palestine, Israel and Iran, resistance to peaceful change is manifesting itself in ways new and old – and all in the context of a global re-alignment of power that few in the region yet recognize. Preventing the four central challenges of the Middle East – Iran, the Arab Awakening, Energy Security, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – from turning into conflicts with global implications will be a task far more for the countries of the region themselves than at any time in recent memory. For this new reality the parties are almost completely unprepared.

This was confirmed during a visit last week to the Gulf where the collapse of trust between adversaries – as well as allies – was on stark display. Arab leaders expressed as much distrust of each other as they did of their ascendant rivals, the Persians and the Turks. The minimum demands of the Palestinians are as distant as ever from the maximum on offer from the Israeli government. And for a number of regional leaders buffeted by the extraordinary changes forced by popular movements from Syria to Tunisia, a key lesson appears to be lesser, not greater, openness to representative government. The Middle East, more than any other region of the world, gives validity to the old joke that even paranoid schizophrenics have enemies. But to the very real perils arising from deeply divergent interests among Arabs, Turks, Persians and Israelis is now added a degree of heightened paranoia that threatens to multiply the perils with consequences reaching far beyond the region itself.

Critical to understanding the new strategic landscape is an appreciation of the degree to which the United States – since Suez, the arbiter of war and peace in the Middle East – is on course for a long-term disentanglement from the cares and conflicts of the region. While its commitment to Israel certainly – and to its Arab allies less so – long has been more than just a matter of security, it is evident that a Middle East less critical as a source of oil will be one less able to claim the extraordinary expenditure of blood and treasure made by America over the past half-century. As a consequence of technological advances leading to new discoveries and new sources of oil and gas, the next oil shock will likely be one more defined by the growing irrelevance of the Middle East to the United States – however much the region’s ability to disrupt international oil markets will remain.

The big powers need to learn to share

Nader Mousavizadeh
Oct 31, 2011 14:58 UTC

For both leaders and citizens of the G20 countries, this week’s summit in Cannes is about as welcome as a visit to an undertaker. Euro-zoned out, as most of us are by now, seeing presidents and prime ministers assemble at a moment of global crisis to issue bland communiqués and even blander group photos will tempt many to reach for their “Occupy Wall Street” signs and pitch their tents in the nearest town square. This would, however, be a mistake. For all its unwieldiness and amorphous sense of purpose, the G20 represents the beginnings of an understanding – as necessary as it is reluctant – that a global economy with new growth sources must have a new structure of governance.

Founded in the late 1990s in the aftermath of the Asia crisis, the G20 found its purpose at the 2008 Washington Summit when its members had gone through the experience of the Lehman collapse, and feared for their economic lives. Their minds concentrated by the threat of a cascading systemic crisis throughout the global banking system, G20 political and economic leaders coordinated stimulus programs and ensured that central banks injected vast amounts of liquidity into the global economy. Rising out of the ashes of the much-derided G7 meetings, this was a grouping that accounted for more than 80% of global output and two-thirds of the world’s population – and was yet able to take effective economic action.

With the likes of Indonesia, Turkey, South Africa and Saudi Arabia finally joining with China, Brazil and India at the grown-up’s table set by the Americans and the Europeans, this forum for economic cooperation has the potential – uniquely among global gatherings – to harness the power and interests of rising and rich countries alike. What keeps its strength potential rather than actual, however, is a stark fact: in many Western capitals the G20 is still seen more as a symptom of disorder in the global system than a solution entirely fitting for a new world of fragmenting capital, power, and ideas.

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