All posts tagged United States

Syria, the West, and the incompatibility of military operations with humanitarian action

Posted by / 4th December 2014 / Categories: Analysis / Tags: , , , , / -


A recent report of the UN Secretary-General states that in Syria as many as 4.7 million people are residing in places that are difficult or impossible for humanitarian actors to reach. Of this group, 241,000 are from besieged areas. Reaching local populations in need has been problematic since the beginning of the conflict, but over the past two months it has become even more difficult to deliver aid where the Islamic State (IS) controls the territory – among the provinces of Raqqa, Hasakeh, Aleppo, Deir Ez-Zor.

The involvement of Western states in the war against IS, while being the most important aid providers in Syria, has further complicated the situation and is narrowing the window of humanitarian aid in northern Syria. This brings back the complicated question of the politicisation of humanitarian assistance. The higher the politicisation gets, the more likely it is to have deeply harmful consequences for the populations most in need. The Syrian actual context is another example of the impossibility for humanitarian aid to remain neutral when international actors are simultaneously pursuing a military and a humanitarian agenda. A choice between playing a military or a humanitarian role is essential in order to deliver proper aid to local populations in need.

When IS started consolidating territory in Syria, it allowed aid groups to work in areas under its control with few restrictions. The relationship between aid agencies and IS worsened in September 2014 with the beginning of the air strikes conducted by the United States (U.S.) led-coalition over Syria. Since then, the US and its allies as well as IS encounter problems distinguishing their fight on the one hand and their necessary humanitarian collaboration on the other hand. This complex double role played by Western actors undermines neutrality of humanitarian assistance and as a result has made it even harder for aid agencies to work towards getting aid to the populations in need. Those issues pose a dilemma for aid agencies that have to decide whether to keep providing aid.

In October, the U.S. was believed to carry on delivering aid into Raqqa and Deir Ez-Zor. But by late November, it had been forced to cut back. “We have not avoided an area because IS has taken control of it”, a State Department official said. “But in some areas where IS commanders are in control, they’ve interfered with the way we’ve delivered aid, so we stopped.” Some would argue that the solution to this problem is to keep humanitarian aid clearly separated from military action. This, however, is not a realistic possibility in situations where the same actors play both roles simultaneously. The case of Syria provides further evidence of this insurmountable conflict of interests.

With this double role played by the U.S., IS fighters do not consider American – or western – humanitarian aid as neutral. The organisation is showing ever more reluctance to work with agencies representing the governments involved because they are seen as being part of the American military agenda. It results in flawed humanitarian assistance with high risk for aid workers as well as of aid being misappropriated. Not only the aid about to be delivered is in danger, products and facilities that are already installed suffer from the same problem. A similar situation has been already faced in Somalia with the Al-Shabab group as well as in Afghanistan with the Taliban. In both cases the same actors have been conducting humanitarian and military actions at the same time.

By pursuing both a military and a humanitarian agenda, the U.S. cannot credibly remain neutral as an aid provider. Even if warring factions are genuinely interested in humanitarian concerns, they tend to find that mutual distrust and antagonism makes it impossible to negotiate terms. Moreover, the U.S. has no other priority than to “defeat” IS, and any attempt at humanitarian cooperation is half-hearted at most. Since the summer, IS is indeed perceived as “the enemy” to defeat and it appears then ethically unacceptable for the U.S. and its allies to negotiate with the organisation.

In such a context, local populations cannot see the U.S. as a humanitarian actor either -as long as the state is also engaged in military activities-, leading to mistrust and misunderstanding about who is what. In the US, the population’s perception of the role of the U.S. is very much a military actor to the conflict before it is a humanitarian actor. This explains why even if aid agencies want to engage real humanitarian negotiations with IS, they do not want the population to know about it. In northern Syria, since the air strikes, local populations also principally consider the U.S. as a military actor. It indeed appears to local people that the U.S. priority has shifted from humanitarian assistance to military action.

Most importantly, not only aid coming from the United States Agency for International Development and other governmental agencies is at risk, the whole humanitarian assistance to those in needs is endangered by the double role-play. The politicisation of the humanitarian aid goes indeed beyond the actors directly involved. When governmental actors are simultaneously pursuing a military and a humanitarian agenda, humanitarian actors which are not engaged in the fight and intrinsically neutral suffer from similar consequences: they have difficulties reaching people in need. In the Syrian case, the same behaviour is adopted by IS towards all aid providers which means that aid is hardly delivered to people living in the areas controlled by IS. This is the most dangerous consequence of the politicisation of aid because it endangers people’s lives whose most basic needs cannot be met.

Lessons from Somalia but also from Afghanistan must be taken into consideration. In order to avoid reaching such situations, international actors like the U.S. cannot carry out a military and humanitarian action on the same soil if they want any of their activities to be effective.


The Islamic State and the West: the dangers of having a “non – strategy”

Posted by / 22nd September 2014 / Categories: Analysis / Tags: , , , / -

On Friday 19 September, France launched its first air strikes on the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq. The latest advances of IS have led many Western governments to change policy with respect to the Middle-East. Some governments have delivered weapons to the Peshmergas, others announced their willingness to back Syrian rebels, while aerial strikes continue in Iraq and might start in Syria as well.  This lack of direction, or “non – strategy”, of the international community in the Middle East is likely to have deeply harmful regional as well as international consequences in the long-run.

Since 2013, the Islamic State is fighting for the establishment of an Islamic Caliphate. Formed in April 2013, IS has become one of the main jihadist groups fighting government forces in Syria and Iraq. Following IS successes, the United Nations Security Council has adopted a resolution in August strongly condemning its acts. This resolution was aimed at weakening the organisation by blacklisting six people, including the group’s spokesman, and threatening sanctions against its financiers and weapons suppliers. And the tools of the United Nations are not the only weapons countries are using in their battle against IS.

Although the United States (U.S.) has been launching air strikes against IS in Iraq since the beginning of August, the beheading of the American journalist James Fooley in August appears to have reinforced the will of the international community to defeat the organisation. Since then, many countries are considering all possible means to overthrow the jihadist group. According to the states involved in the fight, the legitimacy of fighting IS lays in the atrocity of the crimes committed by the organisation, on the one hand, and in the threat it could pose to the whole region and to Western countries, on the other. Unfortunately, this reaction is without considering the long-term consequences it might have in the region. Once again, the international community seems to be only “reacting” rather than thinking about actions included in a real strategy.

Many governments (U.S., Germany, France, Canada, Australia) have provided – or will provide – Peshmergas weapons to fight IS. Delivering Kurdish fighters weapons to combat the organisation can have positive short consequences, i.e. containing IS and yet, it will also most likely destabilise the region in the longer term by empowering Peshmergas, which aims to establish a Kurdish sovereign state. These issues are not sufficiently raised, however essential they are. To reflect on the possible impact that the delivery of weapons to Kurdish fighters could have in longer term is an obvious necessity for any responsible policy.

Arming the Peshmergas is not the only concern the “fight against IS” raises. On Thursday 18 August, U.S. Congress gave final approval to President Barack Obama’s plan for training and arming moderate Syrian rebels to battle the joint enemy, as part of the U.S military plan to “degrade and destroy IS”. The White House – in collaboration with Saudi Arabia – believes that backing the Syrian rebels will be effective in doing so. But Washington and Ryiadh should not forget that rebel groups, by definition, do not answer to authority: they cannot be used as a “low (human) cost – army”. Indeed, if Syrian rebels and the U.S. have a common interest in defeating IS, Syrian rebels will continue to pursue their own goals while working with them. Yet, such a back up could lead to destabilising the region even further: with more than fifty rebel groups operating in Syria and in Iraq, the backing of some and not the others might reinforce the lack of unity, and disorganisation and animosity between them.

While some governments are backing the Peshmergas and the Syrian rebels, the U.S. and France are conducting air strikes in Iraq within the framework of the so-called “broad” international coalition. So far only those two countries are military involved, and is led by Washington. Here again, there is no global strategy, no real view of long-term consequences in the region as well as in the involved countries. Just a common goal shared by some countries: “destroying IS”. Each player is moving his pawns according to its own strategy. For those involved, the thinking seems to be that air strikes do not require a plan, and no global or regional strategy. In reality, however, air strikes do mean the country is involved in a specific armed conflict much in the same way it is engaged with ground forces: with many of the same risks and consequences, including revenge and retaliation.

Last but not least in this disorganised reaction come the future potential air strikes on IS in Syria. In august, the US began surveillance flights over rebel-controlled parts of Syria after presidential authorisation and on 11 September; Barack Obama announced for the first time that air strikes would be extended into Syria. The Syrian government declared it was ready to work with the West to fight IS but will not allow air strikes on its territory without its consent. Supporting Syria, Russia warned the U.S. that any such unilateral action in Syria would be “an act of aggression”. And so the U.S. is facing a dilemma: it clearly wants to “destroy IS”, but it does not want to collaborate with Assad because it has been condemning the regime since the very beginning of the conflict. The Pentagon said it has everything it needs to strike targets in Syria but is still waiting on Obama’s signoff. Obama deciding to launch air strikes in Syria without collaborating with Assad will be in breach of international law. More importantly, it might lead the U.S. to a broader conflict by fighting both enemies: IS on the one hand, and Assad’s regime and its allies on the other.

Even if the short-term consequences can be foreseen, the international community needs to be aware of the longer-term outcomes that its fight against IS might have in the Middle East as well as in the countries involved in the fight: empowering Peshmergas, strengthening disorganisation with the Syrian opposition, facing retaliation and revenge and broadening the conflict.  A viable strategy in defeating IS cannot exclude acting within a long-term strategy. IS will surely be weakened by the international community reaction in the short-term, but the region and the countries involved are likely to suffer from this “non – strategy”.



U.S. Self-Perception and Foreign Policy

Posted by / 5th May 2014 / Categories: Analysis / Tags: , , , , / -

If one thing were ever true about America’s own interpretation of its foreign policy and role in the global arena, it is that it is unapologetic. The American public’s worldview is shaped and informed by selective historical memory that is perpetuated in classrooms nationwide. Such memorializing of particular events fuels an almost messianic national psyche, which provides a basis of popular support for often self-defeating foreign policy initiatives. The disastrous campaign to defend U.S. interests in Afghanistan and ensuing damage caused by drone strikes throughout the Middle East are two prominent illustrations of such failures. This in turn, calls for the diversification of competing historical narratives in America’s public education in order to prevent its population from holding a limited understanding of the past and allowing unreasonable ideology to propel overseas ventures. A more comprehensive understanding of past events may not change the outcome of certain policy measures per se, but it will at minimum provide a more receptive space for debate and thus allow for a diverse range of opinions to weigh in on detrimental policy proposals.

The American National Psyche

Whether it results in a well rounded or even restricted understanding of the past, history is continuously filtered for contemporary interpretation for which may be called selective historical memory. It is the strategic remembering and convenient forgetting of prior events that make societies contextualize the past as if it were a present reality. By strategically selecting interpretations, there are many truths to a single event but never a single truth, therefore designating it the creation of a common history. In the case of nation states like America, it is capturing the trials and tribulations of past events that most vividly contextualize the meaning behind possessing U.S. citizenship. Consequently, the selectivity of events in U.S. history have created a mentality that often fails to take many diverse and often competing narratives into account, which impact the creation of and support for self-defeating policy initiatives abroad.

So what is the collective mindset that every patriotic citizen tends to feed off of in support for U.S. foreign policy measures? It is a mentality enshrined in the concept of ‘rally around the flag’. Americans are vulnerable to the call for action in the form of serving the ideas of liberty and freedom, as they are mistakenly told that these concepts hardly exist anywhere else as much as they do within their borders. Historical events that have been convoluted into self-serving nationally recognized and absolute truths fuel this mentality. And so it is through skewed perceptions of U.S. efforts to end the Second World War, its self-congratulatory response to the civil rights movement, erroneous impressions of spearheading woman suffrage, tolerance of dissent over the Vietnam War, and after traumatizing events like 9-11, they see themselves as the ultimate embodiment of democracy, free speech, capitalism, and equality. Therefore, even through their faults they celebrate themselves for being well-rounded and lenient, understanding and charged with a moral imperative to disperse these ideals throughout the world. In this same sense, they personify the biblical injunction to become a ‘city upon a hill’ as called for in Matthew 5:14 and echoed in the words famously used by John F. Kennedy and then later by Ronald Reagan to depict the enormous trust and responsibility placed upon Americans. In being founded by diverse immigrant populations looking for a better future, U.S. citizens best capture the historical image of well-seasoned veterans that have fought, struggled, and found unification amid differences that cannot be located elsewhere, and that supposedly serves as an example for humankind to follow.

These ideals are reinforced in the tolerance of ethnic diversity, religious freedom, strong racial and gender equality standards, and the ongoing desire of so many foreigners that attempt to cross over its borders. Thus, people who have filtered through the education system are parented by the baby boomers and the “American dream(ers),” who see their country as a land of opportunities, where an endless work ethic knows no bounds in the quest for material success and having the mere chance to live free from fear and persecution because you may be different. To this extent, Americans advertise themselves and their resolute frontier as a safe haven. Though undoubtedly well intentioned and honorable in its original quest, these American ideals are often vocalized through a preference for positive historical narratives. The resultant American national psyche has a tendency to overstep the boundary from national pride to idiosyncratic provincialism, exemplifying the hazard in not having competing narratives that better educate the popular public support for foreign policy initiatives.

A downward spiral

With such enamored manifestos being present in most countries, the problem with the American psyche then becomes its tendency to give a false impression of its own importance, dangerously straddling the line between national political self-interest and a moral imperative. We have all heard the “U-S-A” chants and witnessed the on-and-off again preoccupation America has with overseas conflicts, as it curiously self-appoints itself as the globe’s psychiatrist. This Wilsonian diagnosis is not new. What has become a recent trend is how this memorialized psyche has transformed into a militaristic platform for oxymoronic foreign policies that are overly aggressive.

The repercussions stemming from U.S. involvement in Afghanistan are substantial and can be directly tied to the selective historical memory and lack of competing classroom narratives. There is little doubt that the attacks of September 11th, 2001 unsettled every American. And for good reason. The traumatic image of the collapsing twin towers, a lack of information surrounding the emerging Taliban terrorist faction, and a controversial national debate over the urgent need for a proper response presented the American psyche with its first millennial challenge to personify its originally good virtues and properly rehabilitate transgressing neighbors. Yet, what matters is not whether the actions of the U.S. were justified by moral discernment, but rather how this populist mentality harmed its national interests in nation building and seeking security. By targeting the Taliban and its allies, America declared war on a terrorist faction and not even a sovereign state. What’s more, the U.S. neglected the ongoing civil war taking place within Afghanistan, amongst other colossal challenges. But when God is on your side, every adversary can only be the devil. Therefore, a failure to eradicate the region of their Taliban and later Al-Qaeda adversaries, the subsequent substantial loss of military personnel, the generation of anti-Western sentiment in streets across the globe and among foreign elites, and the trillions of tax dollars that went down the drain made the decision to go to war a self-defeating policy – one that could have been more properly calculated had the American historical narrative been more objective in its approach. It is erroneous to claim that the U.S. public would have altogether abstained from the blunders that followed in Afghanistan had they not had such an engrained national psyche, but at least the breadth of opinions leading up to the war would have varied.

The destructiveness that followed the 2003 invasion of Iraq reinforced the assumption that the U.S. was peddling global hegemony, but overlooked the subsequent asymmetrical warfare tactics (i.e. the Predator and Reaper drone attacks) as America’s way of projecting its selective historical memory onto the international scene. President Obama’s rhetoric surrounding the 2013 drone attacks in Yemen, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, underscored the fact that these “signature strikes” were targeting adversaries not necessarily for what they had already done, but because they displayed key patterns of terrorist behavior. This sounds an awful lot like the reflection of the American psyche that endorses the saying that, “America does not negotiate with terrorists.” The downward spiral of America’s unchallenged supremacy that it enjoyed following the collapse of the Soviet Union is partly the result of this rather cloudy approach to war that has moved from conquering foreign adversaries to their total obliteration, as they are seemingly attacking America not because of what it does, but rather what it represents. In return, the U.S. has somehow made perfect sense of complicated identity practices surrounding terrorist factions and engaged in the parallel: killing its enemies for who they are and not necessarily for what they do. In a moment of introspection, Obama later observed:

“We cannot use force everywhere that a radical ideology takes root; and in the absence of a strategy that reduces the well-spring of extremism, a perpetual war – through drones or Special Forces or troop deployments – will prove self-defeating, and alter our country in troubling ways.”

This demonstrates how recently, America’s foreign policies that were originally designed to fortify and grow their regional clout have failed partly because of a lack of rational analysis of alternative historical narratives. By demonizing the enemy in such a way, the U.S. has managed to create foreign adversaries all over the Middle East, undermining America’s image as a sincere force for freedom and social justice. So if Obama’s caution is to be realized, Americans must cautiously expand the scope of competing historical narratives in the classroom in order to ‘make decisions based not on fear, but hard-earned wisdom’.

If history can teach us one thing, it is that every state has a pinnacle of success followed by downfall. Being a relatively young country that has yet to experience true national blunder strengthens America’s perpetuated historical narrative as one of dignified successes, supplying the national psyche with evermore justification to buttress foreign policy initiatives that demonstrate the same moral authority and economic power as in the 19th century Manifest Destiny fervor. Reinforced by past triumphs, the collective mindset of the U.S. has moved from a once self-serving yet successful nationalism that suffused the “American dream” to a self-defeating motivation that has generated oxymoronic foreign policy moves.

By diversifying the amount of competing narratives in American history education to include different perspectives on how and if an event actually occurred, pluralism will logically take its course in filtering and often correcting the memories of past events. Furthermore, it will help prevent U.S. public opinion from engulfing itself in a narcissistic view of America’s role in the globalizing world at large. Until that day, past events such as the war against terror in Afghanistan and extensive drone strikes across the Middle East remain tokens of the dangers of U.S. selective historical memory that loom over its foreign relations, undermining the democratic rationale that it traditionally sought to champion.  facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Lessons from the Wild West – the US’s approach to taming the Arctic

Posted by / 13th November 2013 / Categories: Analysis / Tags: , , / -

How is the US psyche holding up to the prospects of a new and wild frontier? Climate-change is melting Arctic sea-ice at an astonishing rate. With it, a new frontier is opening with the prospects of rich rewards for those who access untapped reserves of oil, gas, minerals and green-energy or those who control new fishing, tourism, construction and shipping opportunities. To date the US appears to be a reluctant player in a significant economic and geo-political game, sitting on the bench as Russia, China, Canada and even Denmark steal a march on them. In order for the US to remain relevant, they will need to learn the lessons from their own past.

‘Taming’ the West

The entrance to the Harry S. Truman Library in Missouri is adorned by a vivid mural by Thomas Hart Benton depicting Independence and the Opening of the West. It is an interesting piece in as much as it captures an edgy tension at odds with the more pervasive, rose-tinted, national narrative celebrating the struggle of pioneering families against the odds of a harsh environment and a belligerent indigenous population.

History, it is said, is written by its victors. Having vanquished the indigenous people, global powers such as France and England and its regional competitor Mexico, Americans have a tendency to embroider the historic record of their Western expansion. The bitter plight of the indigenous people and the diverse environmental impacts – ranging from the decimation of 15 million buffalo to a similar fate for ancient hardwood forests – are relegated to footnotes in a story of conquest. For settlers themselves, their heroism is advanced over their plight. Just imagine how it felt for the 30,000 Forty-Niners who managed the long trek to reach California in 1849 from the East – leaving behind them a trail of dead compatriots whose bones liberally littered the unforgiving Nevada Desert – only to find that the gold that had enticed them was not much more than dust.

In comparison, the Arctic exchanges heat for cold and dust for ice, but also holds interesting parallels begging lessons to be learned. Of its many riches, the Artic holds 20% of the world’s undiscovered oil and gas, and its Boreal forests are home to 8% of global wood reserves. The process of determining power and economic gain in the Arctic will have profound consequences for indigenous people, the environment and the course of global development and governance. In this context, the Arctic offers an uncomfortable truth for the US, unpicking the historical thread, revealing an unresolved past.

Old Cabbage or Cabotage?

Two examples seem to best illustrate the confuddled nature of US Arctic policy and languishing pioneer spirit. First is the question of ice-breakers as a barometer for wider investment in innovative Arctic technologies.

It should be remembered that success in the West was as much the outcome of the pioneering spirit as was the investment and application of new technology. Railways enabled Texan cattlemen to supply markets in the East via Chicago – a city of 30,000 people in 1850 having grown from just 12 families in 1831. Farming of the Great Plains was made possible by deep-water wells, the multi-furrow laying gang plough, specialised harrows, steam threshing machines and mechanical reapers and binders. Mining fortunes were rarely made by the early prospectors. It was big business that benefitted through investment in equipment and technologies for deep mining and efficient refining.

Ice-breakers, not tallies of nuclear warheads or naval fleets, are the means of projecting technological and political power in the Arctic. These highly advanced and hardy ships are more than ice-capable, at a cost of around $1 billion each, they are able to break through and navigate Arctic ice flows that lay waste to other vessels. The maritime annals are full of tales of timber vessels being reduced to kindling as a result of being trapped in ice, so too is the wrecking ball effect of ice on standard steel hulled ships. Their value is in their unrivalled versatility: keeping sea routes open, escorting convoys, coast guarding and military patrolling, rescuing ice-grounded vessels, acting as research platforms or as supply boats servicing polar research stations and Arctic rigs, towing weak or damaged vessels, and even iceberg ‘herding’.

The High Latitude Study presented to Congress by the US Coast Guard suggests that to fulfil its statutory missions it requires six icebreakers, but to deliver the continuous presence requirements of the Naval Operations Concept requires ten icebreakers. Currently the US has, almost, three. Of its two heavy ships, the Polar Star and the Polar Sea, both have surpassed their 30-year service lives. Polar Sea is now mothballed and Polar Ice has had its life extended to coincide with the delivery of a new ship planned for around 2023. The third US ice-breaker, Healy, is medium sized which limits it to, primarily, research.

There are three dilemmas for the US in trying to resolve this. First is timing. If the US ramped up their shipbuilding programme, given the ten year lead time, much of the ice will have disappeared by the time they are ready to break it.

Second is cost. During boom times the US chose not to invest in its 5th Ocean capabilities. At the time climate change sceptics had a stronger voice and the scientific community’s projections, when listened to, anticipated a slower rate of Arctic change. Now, in the time of austerity, getting ahead in the Arctic is all about the Benjamins, as U.S. Navy Commander Blake McBride suggests: “If you don’t have the budget or funds to invest in manpower and equipment then you don’t have anything.”

Third is US shipbuilding capacity. Even if the US had the appetite and the budget, the final hurdle to jump is the Merchant Marine Act, also known as the Jones Act or Cabotage Law. Protectionist in its purpose, it requires vessels transporting cargo or passengers between US ports to be built in the US and to be owned and crewed by US citizens. Coined the ‘maritime boondoggle’ on debut in 1970 (New York Times) the Act has failed to secure a significant US owned merchant fleet that could be commandeered in a time of national need – over 97% of cargo ships using US ports carry foreign flags. Not surprisingly therefore, US naval shipbuilding capacity is lacklustre, and the pipeline for building new icebreakers, without the option of sourcing elsewhere, is excessively long, not to mention costly.

Russia and China, meanwhile, are far less constrained and with far more of a pioneering spirit, producing ice-breakers like Dime bars. China recently unveiled the Xuě Lóng (Ice Dragon) and Russia has three new heavy nuclear vessels on order for 2017-2020.

To Ratify or not to Ratify?

A second illustration of confuddled US Arctic policy and weakening pioneering resolve concerns the question of territorial rights and whether the US should give primacy to the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas.

Stretching back to the early 17th Century a nation’s rights to seabed minerals were restricted by doctrine to a narrow strip of water tracking the national shoreline. This remained the case until 1945 when the US, under Harry S Truman, announced that it was to assume jurisdiction of all natural resources to the edge of its continental shelf. The US’s move was quickly followed by several other states eager to exploit marine resources. Tension rose quickly over fishing and mineral rights, pollution and competing claims. To deal with this, 150 countries came together over 14 years, with the aid of US leadership, to draft the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea, completing in 1982.

In 2013, the landlocked, desert state Niger was the 166th country to ratify the treaty, but the US with its extensive coastline has still not. As a signatory, the US would have final and binding rights over areas of their continental shelf extending up to a maximum of 350 nautical miles from shore. The convention conveys rights that would provide a more secure basis than resting on the vagaries of customary law. For the US, signing up would mean jurisdiction over around 4 million additional square miles of Ocean –a sizeable portion of this in Arctic waters.

Reagan was the first to hold out on signing up – wanting a better deep-mining settlement that was achieved some time later. Subsequent Presidents have put their weight behind the treaty from Bush junior to Obama, but a minority Republican voice in the Senate has used the tools of filibustering to scupper successive legislative attempts.

These decades of delay provide interesting contrast with the acquisitive approach to land assembly demonstrated by the Founding Fathers. Where would the West be without the Louisiana Purchase that saw Napoleon sell French holdings. War with Mexico liberated vast tracks of land including Texas, California and much of the South West.

For those few but belligerent Republicans bent on abrogating the convention, their arguments boil down to an ideological resistance – not wishing to cede power to transnational bodies. Arguments that suggest that accession is not in the national interests have been dismissed by a wide range of defence planners. Admiral Roughhead, for example, specifically states the Arctic will ‘expose the costs of our national reluctance on the Law of the Sea convention and to test our present understanding of customary legal guarantees to the very freedoms behind our global operations today.’

Second term in office, post-Obamacare and buoyed by Republican meltdown over the fiscal cliff debacle, is this the time for the administration to act again on ratification? If it is not, what does this tell us about American hegemony and the health of the nation’s pioneering spirit? The triple Arctic aims of protecting the environment, upholding indigenous rights whilst ensuring wider economic security is fraught with difficulties. It requires strong political leadership that is prepared to grab the bull by the longhorns, or else, other stronger minded pioneers will get on with the job themselves.  facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Report: The US Withdrawal from Afghanistan

Posted by / 31st July 2013 / Categories: Reports / Tags: , , , , , / -

The withdrawal of most United States combat troops from Afghanistan in 2014 not only is an important symbolic moment for Washington’s foreign policy which will effectively close the book on the post-9/11 “War on Terror”, it will also have major repercussions on Afghanistan and its neighbours in Central Asia. The void that Western forces leave behind is likely to be filled by more local-centred interests and other major international players such as China and Russia. Afghanistan has always been a geopolitical battleground, and the 21st Century will prove no different. The extraction and transport of natural resources, zones of influence, religious and ethnic strife, concerns about local terrorism and its proximity to other geostrategic hot-spots such as Iran and Pakistan- all combined with a lack of internal sovereignty-means that Afghanistan is unlikely to escape the clutches of external meddling.

ReSeT has written a series of articles by its experts on what the post-withdrawal future will bring for the most important national actors involved, and on how this will affect international relations during the coming decade.Through one article per country, we will analyse the impact that the new Afghan situation will have on:


Afghanistan (Carmen Alonso Villaseñor): The conflict in the Central Asian country is a prime example of the complexities involved in New Wars. The inability of the superpowers to understand and address them has historically led to defeat in the arid mountains of this country. Beyond the particular failed policies of the consecutive invaders, Afghanistan represents the inaptitude of the international system of states to deal with modern challenges.

Pakistan (Balder Hageraats): Afghanistan’s future is intimately linked with that of Pakistan because of cross border identities and interests. Both countries’ complicated and ambiguous relationships with the US will become even more strained after 2014, and Islamabad will shift its focus towards Beijing and other local players. The West is likely to be marginalised in this process, and may need to shift its focus back to India.

Iran (Ricard Boscar): Despite mainstream thought in policy and security circles in the West, Iran could play an important role in the stability of Afghanistan and the region. Teheran has enough resources, ranging from cultural to economic assets, to cast its influence eastwards. How Iran decides to use them is linked to the future arrangement of interests in the region and depends on the US stance towards the ayatollahs’ regime.

Russia (Alberto Pérez Vadillo): The American withdrawal will force Moscow to recalibrate its policy towards Afghanistan and across the region. Much of what Russia can achieve depends on its relations towards the various Central Asian states. Regarding this, Moscow’s room to manouver will be constrained by both the presence Washington chooses to preserve and Beijing’s ambitions.

China (Carmen Alonso Villaseñor): The growing weight of China in international geopolitics has gotten to a point of no return. But the new superpower is still reluctant to assume the responsibility and burden that its position implies. Beijing’s economic diplomacy is already strong, but to secure its interests, China will have to adjust its foreign policy, and Afghanistan after 2014 will be an important thest of this.

The United States (Balder Hageraats): The United States, after licking its wounds from two unwinnable wars and economic crisis, will need to scale back it global ambitions, and particularly those in Central Asia, where it will no longer be able to compete with other more local competitors. Washington policy will focus on specific goals, such as national resources security, rather than maintaining its more expansive agenda of the last decade.

Read the whole report here: ReSeT Report: The US Withdrawal from Afghanistan



Changing Places: Sino-American Rivalry and Cooperation in Central Asia

Posted by / 8th July 2013 / Categories: Reports / Tags: , , , / -

When most United States’ combat troops leave Afghanistan in 2014, it will symbolize the end of a war that has dramatically changed the geopolitical landscape in Central Asia. In particular it will highlight the demise of Western influence over the region, and the rise of Asian players, especially The People’s Republic of China. In this paper we will analyse the main geostrategic shifts that are visible in the area, and how the main global protagonists, namely the United States and China, are likely to adapt to them. Even though the situation clearly requires major changes in policy with respect to Central Asia in both capitals, there are internal obstacles in both countries that will likely weaken their respective positions. Other local players such as Russia, Iran and India are likely to benefit from a failure by the two global rivals to adequately react to the changing circumstances.

The ability, or lack thereof, of China and the U.S. to find and accept this new balance of powers between them will decide the future of the region. Cooperation, rather than confrontation, would benefit both powers as well as enhance local stability. If there is a resurgence of the “Great Game”, with geopolitical competition manifesting itself in Afghanistan and its surroundings, China and the U.S. are both likely to lose terrain to other regional actors. Therefore, their main challenge will be to overcome internal obstacles to clear the way for an effective power balance in the region.

Read more: Changing Places in Central Asia Panorama 2012


This paper was published in Panorama 2012, and written by Balder Hageraats and Carmen Alonso Villaseñor.