31/03/2011

The Libyan Crisis and the European Union as a Major Actor in the World

As an American-Swiss, I usually refrain from making comments about Europe, and certainly about the European Union. The great experiment begun after the Second World War has certainly created peace among the European nations, especially between France and Germany. Even a brief glance at the number of casualties in the two World Wars near Switzerland's border shows the horrific loss of lives. If the European Union has contributed to peace and stability on the Continent so much the better.

However, to talk of the European Union as a major actor on the world stage is very far from a reality. At the same time deep divisions within Europe were shown during the financial crisis, Europe was supposed to be moving forward with a common foreign and security policy. The selection of Lady Ashton to head foreign affairs activities, the beginning of the establishment of a common diplomatic corps were supposed to demonstrate how the customs union was developing into a political reality.

The current crisis in Libya has demonstrated the weakness of European unity. While France and England moved swiftly to push for a United Nations Security Council Resolution for intervention, Germany abstained along with Brazil, China, India and Russia. (It is very difficult to imagine a commonality between the 4 emerging powers and Germany. In addition, Germany's chances for a permanent seat on the Security Council were definitely not improved. Internal politics were primary for Germany, as they probably were for France and England as well.)

Where is a common European position? The President of the European Commission, José Barroso, correctly noted in Geneva last week that Europe is an evolving structure. But, even he had to admit that the lack of cooperation among the European powers in the Libyan crisis is worrying.

I am writing these thoughts from the old town of Dubrovnik in Croatia. It is here that the fighting began which cascaded into the terrible Balkan wars. There is now great hope in the region that membership in the European Union will bring stability and economic prosperity. There have been too many wars, too much bloodshed. Perhaps, just as with France and Germany, the European Union can serve as a "gentle pacifier".

But, my concern for the moment is with Europe as an external political actor. After all, it was the United States and NATO which finally intervened to stop the Balkan bloodshed. And people look to the United States to solve the conflict between Palestine and Israel. Where is Tony Blair? Where is Javier Solana? The United States is often criticized for its numerous interventions. I am certain that President Obama and his aides would like nothing better than to have a unified Europe as a partner throughout the world.

March 31, 2011

 

27/03/2011

Perspectives on Human Security

This Saturday afternoon and evening I attended a joyous wedding ceremony of a member of my wife's family. Bride and groom were splendid, the planning impressive, the atmosphere congenial and properly festive. Given that the bride and groom come from different backgrounds - countries, cultures and language - attention was given to the smallest detail to include both sides. A truly cosmopolitan celebration right up to translation of the priest's sermon that showed the marvelous international character of Geneva at its best.

At the end of the ceremony, the priest announced that a collection would be taken at the exit of the church. Rather than mentioning the church or some local charity, he indicated that the couple wished those in attendance to contribute funds to specific friends of theirs who had been left homeless by the recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan. The bride, you see, is Japanese and lives in Okinawa. In fact, the couple and the bride's family were preparing to return to Japan soon after the wedding.

I mention this personal item because with the recent rash of events in the Arab spring and Ivory Coast, it is easy to lose track of the catastrophic events in Japan, if not the continuing misery resulting from the global financial crisis. 24 hour news cycles push for spectacular headlines. Today's front page is often forgotten tomorrow, or pushed to the back of the news. Do we remember the devastating floods in Pakistan and the millions displaced? Can we follow what has happened in Haiti after the earthquake?

These questions of memory are not meant to overwhelm, although for those in the humanitarian field such as the ICRC, Swiss Development Office or NGO's these are certainly trying days. No, what I would like to emphasize is that discussions such as those about the validity of intervention in Libya often miss the main and basic point of human security. The point of the intervention is to protect civilian lives.  During the Cold War, much attention was given to defense, by individual countries or blocs like NATO and the Warsaw Pact. Recently, more thought has been given to human security, including shelter, food, and health. This is not to say that violence is not often the cause of insecurity, but to point to basic needs that are often missing for most of the world's population.

The earthquake, tsunami and radioactivity in Japan are extraordinary reminders of how precarious life can be. We can hardly imagine the suffering of those affected or the fears of those living in the ever expanding zones of danger. We can and should, obviously, be thankful for our very privileged situation in Switzerland. The review of the nuclear power plants here is long overdue, as is a thorough examination of what would happen, for example, if the dams burst in Valais. Security demands vigilance and sacrifice; it does not come cheaply and is often overlooked by politicians looking to cut costs. "What if?" is not a popular question.

The bride and groom were radiant. May their optimism and that of her family be lessons for us all. The people of Japan have succeeded before. But somehow, beyond today's headlines about the Swiss-Bulgaria football match, there are realities of people's                           daily lives that should not be pushed off the front pages or our minds.

March 27, 2011

 

 

 

23/03/2011

The Art of the Possible or Choosing Between Bad Choices

The bombing of Libya has started. For those who are against any form of violence as well as for those dedicated to protecting civilians and overthrowing dictators, you have had your say. Absolutes are always easy to defend. For those who believe in real politics, that is the agonizing choices involving ambiguity, tradeoffs and unforeseen consequences, the unfolding bombing is not simple to defend or condemn.

On the positive side, obviously, is the United Nations Resolution and the fact that there is a legitimized multilateral force. This is neither a unilateral action nor merely a Western one. If Russia were displeased it could have vetoed the Resolution; if the Arab League were displeased it could have condemned any intervention. And, the Resolution is clear; permission has been given to take out air defense systems and establish a no-fly zone. No foreign occupation or soldiers on the ground are permitted. All of this in the name of protecting civilians, not regime change. The people of Benghazi asked for help.

On the other hand, the Russian Prime Minister has said that the military action reminds him of a "medieval crusade". Why intervene in Libya and not Yemen or the Ivory Coast? The Congress in the United States is complaining that they were not consulted about sending troops or declaring war. There is the inevitable collateral damage to civilians. And many are saying that the United States is too far in front, and that the bombing has already gone beyond what was permitted. Mission creep appears to be setting in.

The United States military has said that the basic objectives are close to being met. President Obama has also stated that the United States will not be in the frontline for the long haul; it will turn over leadership to others. The French are certainly looking for a greater role.

What will happen? As in any military activity, the fog of war will settle in. Even if there is a cessation of the bombing, violence will continue in Libya. Colonel Qaddafi, we imagine, is not ready to retire. Deep divisions between the clans in Libya will not disappear. And the international community appears unprepared to send thousands of troops as peacemakers or a peacekeeping force.

Officials and observers will continue to monitor events. Decisions will be made and analyzed. But, for those who have already decided, or who decided even before the bombing started, there can be no discussion. That is the benefit of simplistic absolutes. Real politics is much more difficult to live and explain; deciding between bad choices is what real politics is all about.

March 22, 2011

 

 

 

 

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18/03/2011

Accelerated Time and Pregnant Moments

As I type these words from a conference in Montreal, I am impressed by the rapid changes going on in Japan and Libya. We are all trying to understand the implications of the earthquake disaster, tsunami and now the potential for nuclear disaster. Japan had certainly made efforts to protect its nuclear facilities, but they are proving insufficient. Is the same potential disaster possible in other locations? Are we in Geneva safe from a spread of nuclear material?

The United Nations has voted to allow measures to be taken against Libyan forces killing civilians in the civil war. Although Russia, China, Germany and Brazil abstained, legitimate authority has been given to establish a no-fly zone at minimum to protect civilians. Who will carry out these military operations and what they will do remains unclear at this point.

Changes are taking place rapidly in both locations. There is an acceleration of time. While the United States State Department has presented a quadrennial report on foreign policy for the next four years, these two situations point to however thoughtful planning may be, situations occur which are obviously outside predictions or preparations.

This does not mean we should not plan. What it does mean is that imagining potential scenarios will require greater levels of creativity. We are all influenced by the past. "Generals always plan for the last war," is a banality that holds some truth.

Given that unforeseen scenarios are unfolding, the need to react is nonetheless present. There is no blueprint for what is to be done. Whether or not intervention in Libya is too late will be debated for years to come. On the other hand, the implications and consequences of intervention will have immediate as well as long term effects.

Given the immediacy of the situations in Japan and Libya and the lack of clear blueprints of what to do, those in power do not have the luxury of measuring cost/benefit analyses of what is to be done. Today is the moment, a clear case of the acceleration of time and the importance of seizing the moment.

The study of geopolitics dates from the beginning of the 20th century. It is based primarily on territory. What it does not consider is time. Although Einstein showed the relation of space to time, those who deal with policy are now stretched in a situation of accelerated time. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, problems of deficit and local politics fade to the back of the radar screen. This is our modern situation and part of the consequences of our technological advancements. We know what is going on around the world and we are called upon to react now.

And by the time I write these words and they are sent out, the situations will have already changed.

 

March 18, 2011

 

14/03/2011

The Arab Spring and Libya

The Arab Spring has given enormous impetus to democratic reforms. Autocratic rulers have been ousted from Tunisia and Egypt; street demonstrations have pressured governments for more transparency and human rights in many other countries.  A wind of change has swept through a large part of the Middle East.

And Libya?

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09/03/2011

What has happened to the audacity of hope? Mr. President, tear down that prison

obama ap.jpgAs debates rage about what to do to stop the bombing of civilians in Libya - not just whether or not to intervene, but also what kind of intervention would be legally and politically acceptable - President Obama this week signed an order to resume military tribunals against suspected terrorists being held in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Two years after his order to halt new military charges against detainees, and after his early pledge to close the controversial facility, the President set out new procedures for the re-activated military commissions.

Without clearly admitting that he had failed on his pledge, the President said, "the United States has worked to bring terrorists to justice consistent with our commitment to protect the American people and uphold our values".

Civil liberties defenders were not impressed. "People in the Mideast are looking to establish new rules for their societies, and this sends a mixed message at best," said the President of Human Rights First.

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03/03/2011

Do Something and The Responsibility to Protect

As the Western world cries out to stop the bloodshed in Libya and the autocratic if not bizarre rule of Colonel Qaddafi and US warships move closer to the shores of Tripoli, calls for intervention are once more juxtaposed against the sovereign rights of states. Countries such as Russia and China will probably veto any UN Security Council Resolution for intervention in the name of non-interference in the internal affairs of Libya while Western countries will condemn the human rights violations and the humanitarian catastrophe affecting those within the country as well as those fleeing.

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