Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Friday, June 24, 2016

Brexit: What Happened and What's Next?

Photo: Alamy

So what happened? Honestly, I am still digesting the Brexit vote myself. On one hand, I don't want to be seen as saying "this was predictable" since this wasn't -- I am as surprised as everyone else. On the other hand, I do think that this phenomenon is not that dissimilar to the rise of Trump in the US: a major silent majority, comprised of whites, old people, people who've lost out against globalization, people living in "rust belt," all voting with  emotion to make Britain great again. They are the left-behinds of this globally interconnected world that has created a huge inequality gap among the rich and the poor. They are the ones who resent Brussels' red tape and do not feel that European Union really reflects their political preferences and attitudes. 

Are the voters racist? I doubt it. I'd suspect really few of them are racist. Yes, immigration is one of the top British concerns, but fearing job theft or incoming radicals doesn't make them goose-stepping totalitarians. In fact, branding the pro-Brexit voters all as racist is the easiest way to cop out, to avoid asking the real tough question of what went wrong. Why is there a disconnect between these people and the political/economic elites/experts, in London as well as in the EU home offices.

Considering that most of the experts were pro-Remain, I think there's a significant undercurrent now against this "educated class," that many people no longer trust so-called experts, seeing them as just tools for corporation interests.

And it is interesting that instead of asking what went wrong, why this identity of being European only germinates among the rich and political elite and does not trickle down to the lower class -- leading to the rise of right wing parties all over Europe -- the overwhelming reaction, from pundits, analysts and politicians, simply blamed the voters. In fact, with the aid of hindsight of course, there were warning signs about the continued viability of the entire European project. After all, some European Union countries only ratified treaties after major concessions, and some didn't even hold a referendum for fear of rejection at the ballot. I mean, if the EU is so popular, brings so many tangible political and economic benefits, then why all the political gimmicks?

What's next?

One answer is heightened uncertainty, which leads to turmoil in the market--something that has already started today. Britain has to renegotiate a lot of treaties, and with the feeling against Britain in Continental Europe, plus the prospect of seeking their own exit, it's unlikely the EU will grant London many, if any, concessions. Moreover, US economic stagnation combined with the rise of populist sentiments within America means that Washington probably won't help the Brits much at all--either now, under Obama, or under his successor, Trump or Clinton. So Britain is basically alone. Expect at least short-term, if not long-term, economic pain.

And then there are questions about Scotland. As expected, the Scots are already pushing for second referendum, which may be successful this time. But whether that would benefit the Scots is doubtful -- the Scots won't add much to the European Union, and with the price of oil at $50/barrel, they would be another weak economy country begging to get in the European Union. Keep in mind that England actually subsidized the Scots, not the reverse. And while many European countries would love to see Britain get its comeuppance, it is doubtful that they'd actually risk invigorating secessionist movements in Spain and Italy and even in Belgium, outcomes which would only add more headaches to the region and to the EU itself.

We may see more backlash against immigrants, particularly in the form of a political crackdown against them, so as to dampen the apparent right-wing awakening across Europe.

In terms of security, I doubt we'll see much change. Regardless of how much everyone is hating the Brits right now, England is one of vital elements within NATO and the entire European security architecture. There's no way Continental Europe is going to kick the Britain out or to modify the extant security arrangement. Frankly, those agreements and institutions have never been a problem and won't be in the future.

Lastly, in terms of international relations scholarship, there will be a lot of rewriting on the institutions literature. What seemed to be irreversible before is now actually reversible. And the case of Brexit/EU may be relevant to other cases, especially ASEAN, where the current model is closely hewing to the European Union model. With ASEAN currently in mess, it is possible that there will be rethinking of ASEAN in near future.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

A CWCP Conversation: The State Department 51

Over the past two days, CWCP President Dr. Brad Nelson and CWCP Vice President Dr. Yohanes Sulaiman conducted a conversation over email on the recent revelations about the "State Department 51". In short, 51 State Department officials signed an internal memo criticizing America's current Syria policy and arguing for airstrikes against the Assad regime. Because of the number of officials who signed on to the memo, and because of the apparent sharp divisions within the State Department and between the State Department and the White House, this memo has been characterized as "unprecedented."

Brad Nelson: So what do you think about the news reports that 51 State Department officials--in a clear dissent against existing US policy--want the Obama administration to up its game in Syria by militarily targeting the Assad government?

Yohanes Sulaiman: Well, I have a mixed feeling about this. On the one hand, I do believe that they are right, that without any military pressure on Assad, the US is basically giving up the game, in the sense that there's no way Assad is going to step down or make a political compromise. There won't be any reconciliation at all. The country will remain divided along ethnic and religious lines, with the Sunnis basically giving up the political process and ending up radicalized in the long run, setting up the country for future troubles.  Another potential problem is that Hezbollah, which, already a major player in region, will take a much stronger role in both Syria and Lebanon. This in turn will have regional impacts, especially on Lebanon and Israel.

On the other hand, this is already way late in the game, where the position of Assad has already been solidified thanks to Russia, Iran, and aforementioned Hezbollah's assistance. The rebels are in disarray, and hate each other. And some are discredited due to their linkage with the Islamic State (and don't make me start on Al Nusra!) Besides, Obama has lost every shred of credibility on Syria. Remember that notorious "Red Line"? And that's before the Russians put their boots on the ground. The US is basically expected to start a conflict against a well-entrenched Russian force and risk breaking the nuclear deal with Iran? There's no way the Obama administration is going to do that.
In essence, Syria will be another headache in a long run for another administration.

BN: I can understand the frustration that government officials have with Obama's policy toward Syria and ISIS. The Syrian civil war continues, the refugee problem only worsens, the genocidal Assad is still in power, and ISIS headquarters (in Iraq and Syria), despite territorial setbacks, is still alive and its supporters/sympathizers are launching violent attacks globally. And this status quo has held for years now. It's indeed a troubling situation.

That said, in my view, militarily targeting Assad, at this point, probably isn't a good idea. It likely won't force Assad to hold to extant cease-fires and it likely won't bring him to the negotiating table. As long as Assad has Russia in his back pocket, he's mostly free to do as he wishes. The plan of the State Department dissenters will only reinvigorate Russia's backing for Assad, which really has never wavered (it's still attacking pro-US rebels) despite pledges to the contrary, and risk a direct deadly military conflict between Washington and Moscow. If the critics want to get to Assad, then they have to think of creative ways to get Russia--or more specifically, Putin--to change its view and policy on the continuation of Assad in power. 

YS: I think we both agree on the futility of the demands of the rogue State Department officials. But at the same time, the question is: What’s next? As far as I see, Obama has—rightly or wrongly, depending on your view—abdicated America’s interest in the region, giving Assad (and Russia and Iran) free hands, allowing them to do whatever they wish, thereby degrading America’s influence in deciding the ultimate outcome in Syria—and simply training a rag-tag bunch of rebels that the Hezbollah, al-Nusra, and ISIS have bulldozed does not count!

And at the same time, this policy inadvertently gives Turkey a lot of power on the refugees. Just witness European Union's impotence over all human rights abuses in Turkey, and even the Germans have simply rolled over when Erdogan has told them to do so (e.g. squelching the criticism to Turkey).  And the Saudis are doing whatever they want the region, with the United States playing the second fiddle (e.g., see Yemen). No wonder Netanyahu isn’t even giving any lip service to Obama.
I don't have any faith at all that Obama is going to do anything in his remaining months in office. Russia doesn’t care about Obama’s views. And there won't be any concession at all from Tehran, since for that regime, "giving up" their nukes has already been a huge concession anyway (I put that scare quote on purpose).

I would think that Trump administration would actually be in a marginally better position vis-a-vis Russia, simply because it looks to me that Putin likes and prefers Trump and probably wants to build better relations. I think Putin genuinely likes him -- quite similar to Silvio Berlusconi, an infamous wheeler and dealer type of guy. While on the other hand, Putin would see Hillary as a continuation of Obama, whom I don't think Putin respects at all. But regardless of whomever is in command in Washington, the Syrians are screwed anyway.

BN: Obama made the gamble that the Syrian civil war would end fairly quickly, with Assad toppled, pro-reform rebels in power, and little collateral damage. Team Obama never recovered from that wrong bet. He's floundered since then, completely unprepared for what did happen in reality. His best move would've been to try to contain the instability and violence, once Assad steadied himself and the rebels were infiltrated by extremists, both of which occurred in 2012. By that I mean Team Obama, among other things, should've moved quickly on establishing safe zones inside Syria, refrained from calling for Assad's ouster, and put together a robust anti-terror coalition. Of course, none of things happened. Absent a strategy for dealing with Syria, and later ISIS, Obama simply went with his default policy, which is to find ways to minimize the military and economic costs of US involvement in overseas missions and interventions. In practice, then, the America's Syria policy has consisted of minimal cost, low effort, and absent leadership.

I still think Obama--and if not him, then his successor--should set up safe zones. Yes, these would have to be administered and protected. I don't think this would be a big a problem as Obama thinks. In fact, I think the Russians could be persuaded to leave these safe zones alone, as long as Obama toned down any talk of Assad leaving power. Sure, ISIS is trouble, and safe zones would serve as a magnet for Jihadis. But a multinational force, perhaps headed by the US, could keep these zones relatively safe. And if these zones are safe and secure, more than enough international organizations would be willing to pitch in to deal with food, water, shelter, health care, and the like.

I think my recommendation is the moral thing to do so. It would also help neighboring countries and Europe, which are struggling mightily with the in-flux of refugees. It might defuse a bit the highly politicized talk in the US about bringing in Syrian refugees. It would go some way toward reestablishing a sense of American leadership in the world. And most importantly, it would help to keep alive people who desperately need external assistance and support.

YS: The problem with "safe zones," especially under Obama, is that I doubt the Russians/Syrians/Iranians would believe that it is simply a safe zone. They looked at what happened in Yugoslavia, Iraq, and Libya, and saw that as the first step for regime change/partition. Especially the Libyan case. I suspect that the US/France/Britain had secretly promised not to get rid of Qaddafi in order to secure both Russia and China's agreements not to veto any UN resolution. Putin saw himself being played for a fool and thus will seek to prevent a second serving -- which explains why Russia is placing the notorious Buk missile system in both Ukraine and Syria – by blocking the emergence of these safe-zones in Syria. There is no way Russia would allow the establishment of any kind of pro-US enclave that could be used as springboard against Assad. I doubt Putin believes that Obama is uninterested in getting rid of Assad.

Thus my mixed feeling about the demands from the 51 State Department folks. I recognize the downsides, but there's simply no other credible option for Obama to deal with this knotty situation except through the credible escalation of force that could push Assad to the negotiating table. Yet at the same time, given the calendar, there are also electoral considerations. Any escalation of tensions (and risk) would probably benefit Trump in the polls/vote. So in addition to his foreign policy views and inclinations, Obama has an extra incentive to play it safe in international affairs. As long as he manages to keep things quiet on both domestic and foreign policy, Hillary will sail through the election.

BN: You've pointed out one of Obama's sins of commission: that Obama called for Assad's ouster, and that Obama probably shouldn't have done so. His anti-Assad stance has made it more difficult to get Assad to the negotiating table and to get Russia on board with the US. Unfortunately, Assad and Putin very likely believe that the US has maximal demands and interests: a pro-reform government in Damascus, the elimination of terrorists, and the reduction of Russia's influence in Syria.

Nevertheless, I still think the safe zones idea could work and is the morally right thing for the US to implement. At this point, it would take some work for Obama and John Kerry to credibly signal that the US is only interested in protecting the lives of innocent civilians caught in the crossfire and doesn't have expansionist aims. But it doesn't seem like Obama is willing to put in the effort--despite that, I don't doubt, John Kerry and Samantha Power, among others, would be willing to the requisite legwork.

In the end, you're probably right that a new US administration, with a blank slate, would be in a better position to help on humanitarian and conflict resolution aspects of the war. If for no other reason, Hillary and Trump don't have the political baggage (the global perception of weakness, lack of credibility internationally, etc.) that the Obama administration currently has, especially with the major actors in the Syrian civil war.

I suspect that of the two remaining candidates for president, Hillary is the one who will likely press the issue on Syria, and do so right away. So on this point, I do disagree with you. She's more hawkish than Trump, at least based on their policy speeches (though not based on Rhetoric, certainly). After all, Clinton has a history of advocating for US military intervention (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, etc.), whereas Trump embraces a narrow "America First" conception of American national interests. Moreover, Clinton has in the past called for the implementation of safe zones, protected by airstrikes. Back in April Hillary argued, "I do still support a no-fly zone because I think we need to put in safe havens for those poor Syrians who are fleeing both Assad and ISIS and so they have some place they can be safe."

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

New CWCP Blog Series: Dispatches from the Far East

For nearly two years, I have enjoyed the amazing privilege to live and work in South Korea. I took this opportunity somewhat on chance, and it may seem counterintuitive that a Russia specialist such as myself would move to an area outside of his/her expertise. Yet the privilege to experience this region from square one with a fresh set of eyes and insatiable curiosity has been a magnificent experience.

At the request of CWCP's president Brad Nelson, I will be publishing a series of blog posts about my adventures in East Asia as related to regional history and security. It is best to think of these as a combination of memoir, political commentary and travelogue. The purpose of these coming blog posts are not to provide rigorous academic or policy analyses (although hopefully readers can glean some interesting lessons/viewpoints from them). Yet in a digital age such as ours, it is easy to view our world exclusively though such resources as Wikipedia or the New York Times.

There is nothing inherently wrong with these valuable resources. As I have learned, however, there are simply too many complexities that cannot be captured or understood by reading words on a screen.

We hope that you enjoy these on-the-ground reports!

Sunday, June 12, 2016

The Orlando Shooting

Given the horrific and consequential news out of Florida today, I thought I'd give our readers my quick reaction. As we know now, 50 people have been killed and another 53 have been wounded as a result of a shooting at a club, by a lone gunman, in Orlando early Sunday morning. This was the deadliest mass shooting in US history.

I'm sure I'm not alone when I say that my first reaction was of shock, disgust, sadness, and anger. And unfortunately, I can also say another response of mine was that this mass attack wasn't entirely unexpected. It simply adds to the list of terrorist violence and "loon wolf" attacks, a term coined by Max Abrahms, perpetrated against Americans on US soil.

But my overriding reaction is this: the shooting is an incredibly complex event that cross-cuts so many issues and debates within American society. In my mind, the shooting bundles together at least six discrete, prominent issues.

First, of course, is the gun issue. The mass killing came as a result of firearms, legally purchased, mind you. One of the weapons was an assault-style weapon, which many in US believe should be banned. Additionally, keep in mind that the shooter acquired his weapons despite being a "red flag" case, as he was previously questioned twice by the FBI. We'll see a ramped-up debate, once again, about the ease of access that Americans have to guns of a variety of shapes, sizes and power. In fact, it’s already started.

Second, we have the possibility of a hate crime. The shooting took place at a purportedly known gay club. Reports indicate that the perpetrator had become upset when seeing two men kissing in public. And the gunman allegedly had made anti-homosexual remarks to a ex-co-worker. Given the venue and his expressed sentiments, it's very likely that this was a purposeful attack against the LGBTQ community. (I'm sure many would go beyond arguing that it's merely "very likely," that it's undoubtedly a targeted attack against LGBTQ; I don't want to go that far yet without knowing more about the shooter and his motives.)

Third, terrorism is in play. The shooter apparently had some kind of ties to extremism/extremists to prompt the FBI to question him twice. As confirmed by law enforcement officials, the shooter called 911 prior to his spree, expressing his allegiance to ISIS and its leader, al-Bagdadi. And we also know that ISIS has taken credit for the Orlando attack, referring to the shooter as an "Islamic State fighter." That said, so far there's no evidence of a direct connection by ISIS to either the shooter or the attack, though that's still possible, pending further investigation. It's also possible that the perpetrator was inspired by ISIS.

Fourth, did intelligence do its job? Put simply, authorities had the shooter in their grasp twice and yet let him slip away. The efficacy of US intelligence has been a question that has dominated foreign policy debate and discussion since 9/11. Intelligence failures have been blamed on 9/11, the invasion of Iraq, the rise of ISIS, and so on. The Orlando attack could very well re-spark Americans' concern about the competency of US intelligence agents and the entire intelligence apparatus.

Fifth, mental health issues might be involved here, too. A growing body of literature on terrorism indicates that quite a few militants have personal crises and are mentally unstable. In line with these findings, according to Reuters, the gunman's ex-wife reports that he beat her and was violent, and was bipolar and mentally ill. The same ex-co-worker mentioned above called the gunman "unhinged" and "unstable." It could conceivably turn out that this was the major driver in the attack—either by itself or along with extremist ideology (support for ISIS, hate for LGBTQ). And indeed, it should be of no surprise if see a revival of past debates about access to and funding for mental health care (evaluations, therapists, medication, etc.).

Sixth, as usual, politics will rear its head, and probably not for good purposes. Don’t expect major policy or legislative changes or innovations in response to the violence. That’s my advice in general, given the polarized electorate and political class, but this moment in US politics is unique, as we're only five months away from the presidential election. The impending election will engender Democrats and Republicans to use the attack to score political points with their bases of support. It’s sad, yes, but also a reality of US politics.

Already, and bizarrely, Donald Trump, the Republican nominee, has claimed credit, asserting that the shooting shows he was right to call for a ban on Muslims entering into the US (note: the shooter was an American citizen) and to label the Obama administration as weak and incompetent on terrorism. Trump has also called for the resignation of Obama. Meantime, Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee, issued a statement that restarted the discussion about stricter gun control legislation.