We are starting a new series of posts that we'll run periodically on the CWCP blog. These posts will consist of links to important world news stories, articles on international events/issues that have flown under the radar, and interesting analytical pieces. We might even throw in links to pop culture or sports articles, particularly if they somehow have a connection to international relations. In general, these links are things that have caught our interest and we would like to share them with you.
The NYT conducted an extensive investigation of the deadly Benghazi attacks. The Times found no al-Qeada link to the attacks. "The only intelligence connecting Al Qaeda to the attack was an intercepted phone call that night from a participant in the first wave of the attack to a friend in another African country who had ties to members of Al Qaeda, according to several officials briefed on the call. But when the friend heard the attacker's boasts, he sounded astonished, the officials said, suggesting he had no prior knowledge of the assault."
What's happening in Egypt? Considering the Egyptian military is tightening its grip on power and silencing opponents and critics, nothing good, that's for sure.
Of course, because two ASEAN states, notably Philippines and Vietnam, are also embroiled in a border dispute with China, Japan's courting of ASEAN has caused some concern in Beijing. Not surprisingly, Sino-Japanese tensions became a major issue when the Chinese Defense Minister visited Jakarta in mid-December.
In the meantime, South Korea's reactions to China's new Air Defense Zone has been more measured, as it doesn't see China much of a threat and is more concerned with what happens in North Korea.
2. Kim Jong Un Executed His Uncle Jang
As I mentioned in previous post on this blog, there are two main implications over Jang Song Thaek's unexpected demise: notably, a strong signal to China and a warning to North Korean elites not to cross the young dictator.
Recent news reports out of North Korea don't inspire much confidence in the North Korean regime. Apparently Kim Jong Un was drunk when he ordered the execution of his uncle. Not to mention his other antics. As B.R.Myers noted:
For the past two years I’ve been marveling at how bad the propaganda has been. I would call it ill-advised if I thought anyone was stupid enough to advise it. From the first few months of the national mourning period, when Kim Jong Un was laughing it up on the evening news, to his allowing an American basketball player to slouch next to him in cap and sunglasses, it’s been one odd move after another. It might have enhanced his overseas image as a reformer, but that can be done in much safer ways. His father cut his teeth in propaganda work, he had a brilliant grasp of it. He took his wife around with him too, but he had the sense not to put her on the evening news. This young man seems to have lived overseas too briefly to learn anything, but long enough to lose touch with his own country, with the myths that keep him in power.
Granted, North Korea might not collapse in 2014, but I'd expect more purges, especially as the elite grows restless. Should North Korea really collapse, both China and South Korea would be put in difficult position. Would China allow South Korea to sweep in and take over the North entirely? Or would China march to Pyongyang, restore order, and impose a new dictatorship under a malleable figure such as Kim Jong nam, Kim Jong Un's brother?
If that's the case, then South Korea's rather quiet response over China's new Air Defense Zone makes sense. It's better to marshal goodwill in China in order to influence Beijing when the Kim Dynasty finally collapses.
3. Syria, Iran, and the Decline of the Obama's Prestige in the Middle East
On Syria, his "red line" statement backfired. It made Obama a figure of ridicule in the Middle East. Moreover, Obama has alienated American partners in the region. After he was unwilling to act on Syria, the Saudis were royally upset with what it saw as "lamentable" policies on Syria.
What's more damaging, however, is that this has happened at a point when the possibility of a breakthrough in negotiation with Iran is encouraging. Sure, not everyone is happy with the flawed deal with Iran, but this is an important first step in which one cannot burden it with too many expectations lest the process break.
Unfortunately, with Israel and Saudi Arabia, both key players in the region, doubtful of the United States' intentions and commitment to their interests in light of Syrian fiasco, Obama and John Kerry are having a really tough time persuading them to give the deal a chance to succeed. And then there's the tough task of persuading Congress, where figures in both parties remain hostile to any "appeasement" to Tehran.
The biggest problem with the Saudis' approach is that the Riyadh does not differentiate between the various groups in Syria -- anyone is good enough as long as they are working to defeat Assad. Inadvertently, however, this may restrengthen the Global Jihad movement.
Similar to Afghanistan in the 1980s, the current conflict in Syria attracts many Jihadists from all over the world, including my home Indonesia. Already, there are reports of a good number of Indonesians involved in what Abu Bakar Bashir, the jailed leader of Jamaat Ansharut Tauhid, a radical Islamist group, termed "university for Jihad education."
New recruits are trained and new strategists are educated. In essence, the broken links between al-Qaeda and its decimated affiliates around the world are being renewed in Syria and this will have major long term implications.
That, sadly, might be Obama's legacy.
4. The Fall of Erdogan?
This is a terrible year for Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. First, his image as a strong democratic leader got hit badly when 50 environmentalists began protesting on May 28, 2013, to prevent the demolition of the Gezi Park in Istanbul, a very small park which was to be turned into a shopping mall.
It was supposed to be a non-issue, but the police overreacted, severely cracked down on the protesters, triggering a popular uproar. The next day, the size of protesters grew and following more missteps by Erdogan (such as calling the protesters "looters" (capulcu)), the originally small protest turned into a huge headache for the government.
While there has been some discontent against Erdogan in the past several years, the Gezi Park protest was the breaking point, completely alienating the liberals, secularists and nationalists from Erdogan, who could then only rely on the Islamists for support.
While France might maintain status quo for a while due to the overall global economic recovery, this situation can't continue indefinitely. French might have to face the music with massive implications to the European Union as a whole.
6. The Snowden Affair
Honestly, the Snowden Affairs is here on the list mostly because this has been such a huge news in 2013, with diplomatic spats and embarrassments as a result of the leak. But overall, the significance of the Snowden affair has been overstated, in my view.
In 1929, US Secretary of State Henry L. Stimson might have declared that "Gentlemen do not read each other's mail." In today's world, however, this would border between naivety and incompetence by the state's intelligence agency.
While there has been some short-term backlash from aggrieved states--such as Indonesia halting military cooperation with Australia, Brazilian President snubbing Obama, and Angela Merkel berating Obama and comparing NSA with Stasi--in the long run, however, this will just be a small bump on the road, as states on all sides (both the spied and those doing the spying) will surely weigh what will fit their interests and behave accordingly.
Moreover, with Snowden behaving more like Carmen Sandiego than a real whistle-blower, the debate has shifted, no longer focused on how to reform an out-of-control agency, but on how do you solve a problem like the prima-donna Snowden, who jumped first to Hong Kong and then Russiain order to defend freedom.
As the result, Snowden's revelations may keep coming and keep embarrassing the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, etc., but the long term impact will likely be limited, not unlike the Wikileaks fiasco.
In essence, the Middle East is well aware that, unlike Obama, Putin's actions are louder than his words. As long as Putin wants, Assad will remain the dictator in Syria, and with the Syrian opposition disunited and in shambles, there's no way Assad will agree to hold an election (unless he can manipulate it) or give any concessions of consequence to his opponents.
While Russia will not be able to supplant the United States due to the United States' massive economic and military power advantage, Obama's prestige and credibility problems mean that there is an opportunity that Russia can exploit, and Putin has exploited it masterfully.
If the United States does withdraw from Afghanistan, I expect to see Karzai, should he fail to decamp, to face the fate of his predecessor, Muhammad Najibullah.
9. The Revenge of Qaddafi: the Libyan Arms
In the past couple months, violence has re-emerged in Africa and struck many weak states such as Mali, Central African Republic, and South Sudan. There are many reasons, such as inequality, weak state bureaucracy, etc. Most importantly, however, is the role that Libyan arms are playing throughout Africa.
After the fall of Qaddafi, the new Libyan government was unable to maintain control over the entire country, as the formerly rebel movement splintered into local warlords. In the meantime, the huge stockpile of Qaddafi's weapons were looted. The government tried to get them back, but in general was powerless to disarm the entire population.
In the past 12 months, the proliferation of weapons from Libya has continued at a worrying rate and has spread into new territory: West Africa, the Levant and, potentially, even the Horn of Africa," the panel said. Illicit flows from the country are fueling existing conflicts in Africa and the Levant and enriching the arsenals of a range of non-state actors, including terrorist groups.
In the past few years, conflicts in Africa have subsided due to the weaknesses of both the government and rebel forces. But with the huge influx of cheap Libyan weapons now coming into the equation, rebel groups have been strengthened. They have managed to launch attacks that threatened or even deposed some weak governments.
Expect more bad news coming from Africa in the next few years.
ASEAN has long been modeled after the European Union (EU),
the most successful regional bloc in existence. Like its European mentors,
ASEAN countries have made it a priority to remain autonomous and independent,
continually aligned and linked, and a constructive force in regional and world
politics, bolstering cooperation between southeast Asian countries and
fostering linkages between Southeast Asia and other parts of the world.
Moreover, much like the EU, ASEAN strives for close regional
coop and integration. ASEAN is a bloc that pools its power, enabling it to be a
major player in world politics. And like the EU, ASEAN aspires to speak with
one voice on a wide range of issues. Of course, with the ASEAN Economic
Community (AEC) set to take the stage in 2015, ASEAN leaders are also
positioning the bloc as an economic powerhouse, potentially a rival to the EU
down the line.
Keep in mind, though, the EU has accomplished quite a bit
since the days of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) in the 1950s. It
is a relatively cohesive entity on economic and legal affairs. The European
Commission has substantial political power. ASEAN has far to go to reach these
levels of regional integration. Indeed, within ASEAN, concerns about
sovereignty, lingering bad feelings about colonialism, varied political
systems, manifold conceptions of identity and self-interests, along with
deficiencies in the rules and structure of ASEAN--the institution itself--create
massive roadblocks to regional unity.
Despite all that, the respect for and standing of ASEAN has
arguably equaled if not surpassed that of the EU. The flow of power from west
to east, the rise of China, the maritime disputes in the South and East China
Seas, and Southeast Asia's massive economic growth has all enhanced ASEAN’s
standing in foreign capitals. Southeast Asia is where it's at in the 21st
century. Russia, India, Japan, China, and the U.S. have invested considerable
time, effort, resources, and energy in cultivating strong ties to ASEAN
members. By contrast, the EU feels old, retrograde, unwieldy, and in decline,
its best years in the past. The future is Asia, and Southeast Asia, represented
by ASEAN, is an essential reason for all the optimism.
I get a sense that ASEAN leaders and diplomats, in some
respects, would like the bloc to be a supercharged version of the EU. This is
particularly the case on foreign policy and security issues. The EU has been a
nice consultative body, a good tool to create connections to other states and
international organizations, and a powerful economic community, which are good
contributions to international relations. And recently, Foreign Policy Chief
Catherine Ashton did a nice job in helping to push through the interim nuclear
deal with Iran. But overall, it has been a failure on defense and security
affairs. In particular, over the last twenty years, the EU has struggled with
ethnic conflict, extremism, terrorism, and other security threats on its
doorstep and inside member countries. Instead, ASEAN wants to move and operate
like a well-oiled machine on foreign policy matters.
As an example, earlier this year, Indonesian Foreign
Minister Natalegawa proposed the idea of an Indo-Pacific
Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation. It’s an idea that builds off and
arguably improves a previous
proposal by former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, namely because it
emphasizes open communications and confidence and trust building. Natalegawa
believes that while Indonesia and the rest of Southeast Asia and Pacific-Asia
has benefited from regional peace and stability, those things should not be
taken for granted, particularly given the fluctuating power trends between
China and the U.S., the ongoing violence in Myanmar, and the maritime disputes
in the East and South China seas. In his words, the region needs “a preemptive
mechanism for conflict prevention and resolution.” In essence, Natalegawa wants
to replicate the model of ASEAN over a wider swath of area in Asia by including
not only ASEAN members but also external powers like China, Japan, India, and
But there are complications. As I’ve
already written, ASEAN is a bloc of middle powers that lacks a clear
leader. of all ASEAN members, Indonesia—with its large population, rising
economic base, strong military, and functioning and stable democracy—is best
suited to be the leader of the bloc, but is unwilling to strongly and
consistently assert itself. And even if Indonesia did make a bid for the
leadership mantle, there is no guarantee it would go over well. Other ASEAN
members could very well reject such moves and push back against them.
Additionally, there are divisions within ASEAN on foreign
and security policy. At this point, ASEAN members are still competing with each
other on security, as the rapid rise in military budgets and acquisitions
across ASEAN attests. There are competing visions on how the bloc should cope
with the maritime disputes, nuclear proliferation, and China and the U.S.
Moreover, I'm not certain that ASEAN members walk lock-step on how the bloc
should look and act like in the future.
For reasons mentioned above, internal reform—either within
ASEAN countries or the institution—is probably an unlikely source of foreign
policy change. Instead, security exigencies within Asia are what will likely
drive ASEAN countries closer together. That’s only thing that, in my view, will
stimulate better unity and cohesion on ASEAN foreign policy. Currently, ASEAN
countries, for the most part, are fairly content with their place in the world
and the overall progress the bloc has made. And I don’t see ASEAN citizens and
governments loudly clamoring for their home states to harmonize more
effectively their foreign policies across Southeast Asia. National politics,
and national interests, still rule the day.
It’s possible that the maritime issues in the East and South
China Seas are the external security shocks that ultimately engender greater
uniformity in ASEAN foreign policy. It seems pretty clear that all ASEAN
countries are aware of the seriousness the various maritime disputes throughout
Asia, and there is a sincere desire to develop and implement a code of conduct
to manage relations on the high seas. A growing number of countries have
emphasized to China that the maritime disputes ought to be settled
diplomatically and free from coercion and the use of force.
Indeed, one element of last
weekend’s joint ASEAN-Japan statement expressed support for “Free and safe
maritime navigation and aviation.” Although the statement didn’t specifically
mention China, it’s obvious that certain passages of the statement were crafted
with China in mind. It’s possible that these parts were mentioned only at
Japan’s insistence. Still, even if that’s the case, the basic point is that
maybe ASEAN members are staring to view what’s happening in their backyard in increasingly
similar terms. It's possible.
Of course, even if all of this turns out to be something
significant, there’s another set of obstacles: the ever difficult step of
translating common interests and ideas into concrete actions. Such actions are
the product of tough negotiations, persuasion, and political will, among many
other things. This part is much harder than finding consensus on foreign
policy, and that’s already a difficult endeavor. The reason?
Here are a few things to consider: implementing and
executing new actions means that individual countries, as well as the entire
bloc, necessarily move from the status quo, which can bring discomfort as
countries head into the unknown. There is the risk of domestic political
backlash from internal opportunists. Making a commitment means ASEAN members
and the institution itself put their reputations on the line, which, if things
go badly, could leave them weakened and vulnerable. There is the prospect of
international costs as a result of responses from foreign groups/countries.
Plus, are ASEAN countries motivated enough to act? Are there sufficient
benefits to executing specific regional policies.
Of course, the question now is: what are the implications for North Korea, its neighbors and the United States? Below is my take.
I really doubt that Jang Song Thaek really wanted to stage a coup. I might be wrong here, but that's just not in the psychology of a regime survivor like Jang. The majority of coup-plotters are people outside the inner circle of the regime. Why bring down a regime from which he benefitted? Granted that North Korea is different, but had Jang really wanted to bring down the regime and become the new dictator, he should have done it right after Kim Jong Un's ascension, when Kim was still seen as new and untested and Jang's position was strong -- or when Kim made a really bad mistake, giving Jang a pretext to strike.
Rather, I think, based on all the supposed crimes that Jang did, this is a very strong signal to the Chinese. While one could say that this is somewhat akin to "cutting off one's nose to spite the face," it looks to me that Kim Jong Un really despises what he saw as Chinese interventions on North Korean politics, or maybe that he just didn't welcome the Chinese embargo in light of North Korean nuclear test.
Moreover, Jang and China are basically nice scapegoats for all the shortages in North Korea. By denouncing Jang for selling resources cheaply, Kim basically blamed Jang for North Korea's economic mess.
Does this show weaknesses in Kim's regime? Yes and no. Yes, in that it is a very strong signal to North Korean elites that nobody is safe anymore, thereby notching up the fear factor significantly. Should the elite really able to settle on one person to succeed Kim, then Kim's regime is numbered. But then again, Stalin literally almost eradicated the entire Soviet elite and he died naturally on his bed, still holding his power. Thus it depends on Kim's ability to play political elites against each other. In this case, though, I really doubt that Kim Jong Un is as adept in politics as either Stalin or even his father, Kim Jong Il. In fact, the execution of Jang could be the fatal mistake that Kim made, the straw that break the camel back. I'd expect some regime disturbances in near future.
Does this mean that the regime might launch provocations to rally everyone around the flag? I expect to see a nuclear or missile test next year, but I really doubt that Kim would send his troops to provoke or even invade South Korea. You never to go war bringing people you don't trust.
What about China? China will seethe, but as long as it doesn't find any political elite to co-op, it can't do anything short of widening the embargo. In any case, after the Jang episode, it's probably impossible for China to find anyone in North Korea willing to cooperate. This, then, shows the limitations of China's supposed "levers" on North Korea.
What about the North Korean economy? It will remain dysfunctional. Even though Jang's execution means that the regime is getting rid its best financier, as Jang was involved in practically every aspect of North Korean trade with outside world, Kim can still survive and find enough people to do business with, though these deals will be probably be worse than the ones Jang could produce.
What should the United States do? Nothing. It can't do anything anyway. This is a purely internal matter, though the United States should expect some signals from Kim, such as asking for food in exchange for stopping its nuclear development. Meaning, business as usual.
Since we launched CWCP in 2011, I've done quite a bit of research and writing on Indonesia. It's a fascinating country, one that's central to a host of important international relations issues and questions. Along the way, I've noticed something rather puzzling: Indonesia is rarely discussed in America. Sure, Team Obama, with its pivot to Asia, has paid enormous attention to Indonesia. But when we look elsewhere, at American publications, including mainstream news outlets, pundits, and analysts, Indonesia is virtually ignored.
For instance, flip through any number of prominent newspapers and journals, such as the LA Times, NY Times, Washington Post, Foreign Policy Magazine and Foreign Affairs, and you'll find scant attention given to Indonesia. The same goes for the reporting on national and cable "news" networks. When Indonesia is mentioned, it's usually in the context of the latest regional natural disaster or terrorist incident. The recent hubbub over Australia's spying on SBY, his wife, and other Indonesian officials did get some press in America, but, I suspect, that's mostly because there's a U.S. connection to the overall series of events.
In the States, one has to go out of his/her way to find information and/or analysis on Indonesia. Of course, with the Internet, that's not difficult these days. But the point here is that if you're not an expert or have a strong interest in Indonesia, Southeast Asia, or Asia-Pacific, then news on Indonesia will easily elude your attention. That's a shame.
At first thought, it's strange, perhaps more than strange, that Indonesia has been so grossly omitted from American debates and discussion on foreign policy. After all, in terms of population, Indonesia is the fourth largest in the world, the biggest Muslim country, and the third largest democracy. Its democracy, while far from perfect, has come a long way in a relatively short amount of time. Indonesia sits in a major geostrategic area. It has a powerful, emerging economy. It has good ties to the U.S., and cooperates with the America on a raft of issues. Importantly to the U.S., which has been so preoccupied with its war on terror, Indonesia, via its Detachment 88, has made great strides in thwarting and containing Islamic radicalism and terrorism. I could go on, but you get the point: Indonesia is important, to world politics, Asia, and the U.S.
So what's going on? Why don't the chattering classes talk more about Indonesia? After thinking about it, I've come up with several factors. The common thread in these factors is that Indonesia is a complex case that doesn't easily fit into any of the major themes that are often covered by journalists, pundits, and analysts. (In a sense, then, Indonesia is an outlier case, which by itself makes the country interesting and ripe for examination.)
1. Indonesia lacks the negative characteristics that are usually attendant to countries that are often covered in the States. It's not an internally troubled, chaotic country. It is not a regional or world troublemaker. And it isn't currently involved in a major dispute with another foreign country.
2. Indonesia's general foreign policy orientation places a great emphasis on making friends--hence, the slogan "a thousand friends and zero enemies--which is great for cooperation, peace, and stability in Southeast Asia, Asia more broadly, and around the world. The rub, as you might guess, is that nice and friendly is appreciated in Washington and in other foreign capitals, but those things don't make for sexy headlines or news/analytical articles. People like to read and write about drama in IR, and Indonesia--at least under SBY--just doesn't get mixed up in those kinds of situations.
3. Arguably, the most-discussed countries in America are the great powers and aspiring great powers, such as India, China, Russia, Britain, Germany, France, and Japan. Indonesia doesn't fit that profile. It's not a aspiring peer competitor to the U.S., nor is it looking to dethrone the u.s. in Asia. Yes, in part, that's because of Indonesia's benign intentions. But the other part has to do with Indonesia's power capabilities. In short, it lacks the combined military, economic, and soft power heft to compete with the world's big dogs.
4. Lastly, it's not an American ally. Lots of words and ink has been spilled on countries like Britain, Israel, Japan, and South Korea. While Indonesia is friendly with the U.S., it's not a formal, true ally. Actually, it's a non-aligned country that seeks to keep its policies autonomous and free from foreign powers. It avoids tight alliances with the world's powers.