IISS 7th Global Strategic Review: "The New Geopolitics"
This year’s annual gathering of analysts and policy-makers convened by the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) in Geneva had set its sights high: exploring “The New Geopolitics”. Who better to kick-off such an event than one of the most prestigious practitioners and theoreticians of geopolitics, Dr Zbigniew Brzezinski, National Security Advisor under U.S. President Carter and now at the Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).
Keynote Address: US Foreign Policy under President Obama
Extending on his article “An Agenda for NATO – Toward a Global Security Web” in the recent issue of Foreign Affairs, Brzezinski covered the whole spectrum of U.S. foreign policy under President Barack Obama. The new president has put the White House clearly in charge of foreign policy – leaving the State Department under Hillary Clinton to deal with the broad, future global issues.
For current and mid-term foreign policy tasks, Obama has nominated a number of “Special Envoys” like Richard Holbrook for Afghanistan/Pakistan and George Mitchell for Middle East peace. This move has underlined the need for experienced politician concentrating full-time on one specific task and with power and authority to unite the relevant resource from various departments of government.
Brzezinski describes Obama as a “conceptualist” and “initiator” who is dedicated to foreign policy but bogged down by a number of domestic issues such as health care. In the field of foreign affairs, the most pressing issues remaining the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Iran and Afghanistan, followed by a number of additional “hot spots” like North Korea.
In the Israel/Palestine conflict, President Obama clearly favours the “Two-State-Solution” for which the time may be running out due to the reluctance of both sides to come to a compromise.
The former National Security Advisor did not answer the question whether Iran is not willing or not able to respond to Obama’s overtures. The prospect of tougher sanctions is still undecided with Russia and China reluctant to go along, and their uncertain effectiveness. The window of opportunity for resolving the nuclear issue may be closing towards the end of this year.
As to “his” war in Afghanistan, the president appears to understand that it cannot be won militarily alone. Brzezinski sees the need for a comprehensive re-assessment – Brzezinski himself favours another international Afghanistan Conference for a re-launch of the stabilization efforts. In his view there are a number of domestic limiting factors, e.g. the structural weakness of democracy vis-à-vis authoritarian regimes in decision-making, the strong Diaspora lobbies pressuring Congress and the disappearance of bi-partisanship in Washington.
In his reaction to Brzezinski’s comments, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius described Obama’s conundrum as “the limits of charisma”: the president’s “charm offensive” towards Islam and Iran has not yet led to concrete results apart maybe from a more positive opinion of the US abroad. Obama’s popularity has built up high expectations which will be very difficult to meet.
The enduring challenges of Afghanistan
Amongst the panelists Mohammad Masoom Stanekzai, Advisor to the Afghan President for Home Security and Reconciliation, Najmuddin Shaikh, Former Foreign Secretary of Pakistan and the UK’s Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, there was clear unanimity that Washington’s new White Paper for Afghanistan features all the right ingredients: Afghanisation of the security efforts, more civilian reconstruction, reintegration of and reconciliation with insurgents who can be won over, decentralisation of power to regional units and bringing all relevant regional actors including Iran, Pakistan and India into the equation.
Stanekzai cautioned that with this sensible regional approach, successful implementation calls for four features: 1) building consensus among regional powers that stabilization of Afghanistan is superior to running their own agendas of “strategic depth” or favouring local proxies, 2) improved capabilities of Afghan forces, 3) re-integration of insurgents – but only from a position of strength, and 4) economic growth that focuses on local employment – especially of the growing youth population - with agriculture and improved water management as the key ingredients. Given his own job description, Stanekzai sought to convey to the audience the importance of reconciliation for creating greater stability in Afghanistan. He still sees a chance to reach out to the many conservative but non-radical elements of Afghan society and re-integrating them into political and social processes, not least to counter the growing threat posed by the Taliban’s “youth strategy” which is specifically aimed at undermining the authority of the potentially conciliatory elders.
Pakistan’s former foreign minister Shaikh also embraced the Obama White Paper but was highly critical of the many failures of the U.S. and its allies which has led to a deterioration of the security situation over the past few years with recent elections just causing more turmoil rather than leading to greater stability. The alienation of the Pashtun majority which started at the Bonn Conference in 2001, and is reflected in the composition of the Army is a key problem which was further compounded by a lack of civilian post-conflict efforts. Money spent on such civilian measures ($57 per inhabitant) grossly lags the early instances of post conflict scenarios in Bosnia (over 10 times more money spent per inhabitant, i.e. $650) or East Timor (more than 4x, i.e. $250). Shaikh clearly supports a temporary “surge” of more ISAF soldiers to send a signal to both the Taliban and Afghan society that the Alliance is serious about its commitment to the country. He drew a parallel to the recent successful operations of the Pakistani army which gives him confidence about the country, as the public and military now both seem to share a consensus about the threat of terrorism to Pakistan as state and society. For this to gain more momentum within Pakistan’s security establishment, Shaikh called on India’s Prime Minister Singh, strengthened by his recent electoral triumph, to reach out to Pakistan with the objective of demilitarizing the common border.
Cowper-Coles seconded him in stating that Pakistan is now a “proud, Muslim democracy” doing the right things and deserving Western support in its efforts. Therefore, his assessment of the situation in the “Af-Pak” region was in contrast to the picture often represented in Western media: “serious, but not hopeless.” Claims for a “cut and run”-strategy disguised as “withdraw in honour” were therefore rejected as the consequences would be more dire than continued commitment.
The respective break-out group on the region, which deepened the analysis in terms of “Institutionalising Dialogue Mechanisms” shared this assessment. Accordingly, the area where the Afghani and Pakistani participants agreed Western commitment would be required and welcome in the long-term was not the deployment of force but civil reconstruction and pacification of society.
Middle East: Iran takes center stage
In the first plenary session on the “United States and Conflict Resolution in the Middle East”, the focus was squarely on the long-running conflict over the Holy Land, with Dr. Riad Malki, Foreign Minister of the Palestinian National Authority and Dan Meridor, Deputy to Benjamin Netanyahu and Minister of Intelligence espousing the “Two State Solution” as only viable solution for peace and stability among the two people. Both sides, though, quickly retreated to ritually pushing responsibility for the current deadlock on the other side with Israeli settlements, the status of Jerusalem and the question of return of refugees as important points for the Palestinians while Israelis request the unequivocal recognition of Israel as Jewish State – a position shared by 80% of Israel’s population according to Meridor. Israel’s willingness to work towards peace, he pleaded, was evident in past agreements with Egypt and Jordan.
Dr Malki asserted that unless Israel finally drops the pretense to dictate terms to any agreements the Palestinian seek in terms of economic cooperation and security guarantee, the occupation status cannot be overcome and a viable two-state solution remains beyond reach. Real sovereignty and a viable Palestinian state would require external support for reconstruction, massive investments in infrastructures, a fixed and equitable border regulations, and economic development.
Iran was this year’s dominating issue in terms of Middle Eastern security, outshining the usually central Israel/Palestine conflict. One panel attempted to spell out the “consequences of Iran's election drama”, and a break-out group with Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution, Mamoun Fandy, Senior Fellow for Gulf Security at the IISS as well as Mahmood Sariolghalam of Tehran’s Shahid Beheshti University discussed “regional security architecture in the Persian Gulf”.
How exactly one envisages such regional security architecture depends, of course, chiefly on how one conceives of the conflicts in the region and Iran’s foreign policy objectives. The panel’s thesis was that Iran’s foreign policy is mainly a reflection and continuation of the country’s domestic politics, with a tremendous underlying degree of continuity. This stability across administrations from Rafsanjani to Khatami and Ahmadinejad is ensured by the entrenched conservative bureaucracy in the foreign ministry, and predicated on their assessment that any offer of engagement by the US is eventually targeting regime change just like the US approach to the USSR in the 1980s.
Economically relatively comfortable on the base of oil-revenues and with an economy that is not tied into the world market, the Iranian conservative elite sees such engagement as offering too little of value to them for the threat of internal catalytic processes that such an opening may trigger. At the same time, policy makers in Iran are acutely aware of the difference in power between the Islamic Republic and the US. The resulting foreign policy posture vis-à-vis the U.S. therefore is one of eventual appeasement while avoiding full confrontation just like full normalization. Foreign commitments like support for Hamas and Hezbollah, involvement in Afghanistan, Iraq and now even Latin America are therefore both means of raising Iran’s profile as important actor in the region as well as bargaining chips for accommodating pressure from the US.
What kind of security structure for the Middle East?
As the view expanded onto the US’ role in the region, the Obama administration’s new approach came under criticism. Fully focused on reaching out and engagement, and allegedly without any Plan B, their assumptions are now crumbling down. It was argued that despite the enduring commitment to Iraq that Obama publicly states, the Department of State is implementing a policy of “walking away”. As Iraq is left without a forceful external arbiter, the risk of a power vacuum emerging and the country falling back into civil war is mounting.
Iraq is not alone in facing threats to its stability. More than any alleged “Middle Eastern Cold War” between Iran and its Arab neighbours, political movements such as Hamas, Hezbollah or most recently the Houthis in Yemen are undermining their respective states. As a consequence, the influence of Arab players has diminished vis-à-vis regional players such as Turkey or Iran and global players, mainly the United States.
Therefore, governments in the region generally are more afraid of internal subversion (possibly with an external component) than classic external threats to territorial sovereignty. As a result, in surveying the spectrum of possible regional security structures - from an Sunni-U.S. alliance against Shi’a Iran akin to NATO in the Cold War (and in the wilder ideas even drawing in Israel) to a more OSCE-inspired regional forum for conflict resolution and diplomacy, the latter was deemed a better template. Such a less confrontational structure should encompasses all countries of the region including Turkey, Iran and the U.S. as outside power and also provide the basis for confidence building an working together in areas other than security. The group agreed that more than any of the larger states, the smaller Gulf Cooperation Council members currently are the chief stumbling blocks for such a regional security arrangement.
Russia and European Security
The working group on Russia stated that after the troubles over the war in Georgia last year abated, there was no hot crisis currently between the West and but more generally, the Euro-Atlantic strategic spaces remains fragmented, and continues to lack uniform principles of arms control. At least since the frank and assertive speech at the Munich Security Conference it is undeniable that (now Prime Minister) Putin aims at reconstructing Russia for the 21st century with a focus on the outward projection of (the appearance of) military strength. While Moscow is set to modernize and strengthen the capability of the Russian armed forces, many of the key strategic questions for Russia remain unresolved: its status as a European power, its claims to a sort of “Monroe Doctrine in the East” for the post-Soviet space, the use of force in resolving conflicts and a web of strategic partnerships.
The remembering act for the beginning of the Second World War in Europe a few weeks ago gave hints that in terms of public diplomacy, Russia is now willing to talk about issues that were taboo in the past. But among Eastern European NATO and EU members, this did not serve to build much confidence. Memories of the “cyberwar” against Estonia, the interventions into Ukrainian politics and the war in Georgia are still very fresh and suspicions of Russia’s strategic goals continue to run high. This includes Russia’s close relationship with Germany – seen by Moscow as a key strategic lever in the West.
But here too, the relationship is complex. While economic interests clearly bind the two countries together and as the Russian investment in Opel has evidenced, this relationship is no one-way street. But Berlin is far from being an uncritical cheerleader for Moscow as criticism of Chancellor Merkel and Foreign Minister Steinmeier of Russia’s destabilising meddling in its “near abroad”, the power politics of gas and domestic insecurity and political murder illustrate. In the best case, Germany may be a catalyst for Russia’s economic and political transformation.
Indeed, the question is whether and who in the West has anything of relevance to offer to Moscow. And certainly with NATO and EU security sliced into groups of members with diverging interests, the West’s ability to respond to Russian ambitions jointly is severely hampered. This lack of purpose, cohesion and trust was sorely noted in this working group, and identified as a key weakness in achieving a relationship with Russia that is as productive as possible and safeguards European security interests as best as possible. In any case, the participants agreed that fresh ideas on both sides is the most important ingredient lacking. For, pushing a “reset” button is no good if you start the same program all over again.
What price for good intelligence?
The working group “Intelligence and Security” squarely focused on the role of secret activities in open societies. Prominently staffed with former director of the NSA and CIA, General (rtd.) Michael Hayden, and Sir David Omand, former UK Security and Intelligence Coordinator, the panel recognized that there was an unavoidable tension between the protection of individual liberties and collective security. In times of crisis the danger of an extended quest for security threatening to compromise the civil liberties at the heart of Western liberal democracies. Panelists emphasized that the work of intelligence agencies must take this challenge serious but that intelligence at home and espionage abroad remain a necessity for informed security policy-making. Based on democratic oversight and transparency the public should be able to accept “secret areas” and confidence in their intelligence services.
9/11 has triggered a paradigm shift towards the protection of citizens – their lives rather than their rights – as first priority. “Pre-emptive intelligence” is the new focus to reduce the risks to the lowest possible level. In this apparent dilemma, “Risk management” may be the answer to modern threats: while seeking to detect and avert risks early, there will always remain a residual risk which can be mitigated, reducing the impact of possible disasters by preparing for them, but never fully abolished. In this context, any incidents that do occur would have to be accepted not as failure but merely as accidents and – unfortunately – inevitable part of the work of intelligence agencies. Their work itself is undergoing changes with Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) gaining significance in comparison with “old” tools like Signal Intelligence (SIGINT). OSINT serves for scanning the horizon of threats and feeding into an early-warning system for other branches of intelligence.
The New Geopolitics: new topics join the fray
The program of the conference’s panels and “break-out sessions” illustrated how far security studies and policy have come over the past few years, expanding its terms of geographical and functional areas: alongside more traditional topics such as Afghanistan, transatlantic relations, nuclear non-proliferation or Russia’s impact on European security, new issues have moved to centre-stage.
Analysing geopolitics now necessarily entails an inclusion of formerly marginalized issues such as the security implications of climate change on resource competition in the Arctic (and Antarctic), the risk of conflict over ever more scarce water resources, particularly in Africa and Central Asia, as well as the growing influence of often ignored emerging economies such as Malaysia and Brazil.
This reflects the trend towards an extended notion of security that had been noticeably within the EU over the past decade and with the new tenants at the White House seems to finally have taken root in the US. The Obama Administration, universally credited with having brought a new style to US foreign policy and a new approach to opponents and allies alike, was the implicit and explicit backdrop to all topics covered at this year’s conference, prominently so, of course, in the sessions covering the Middle East and the challenges of stabilizing Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The Arctic: a new theatre of conflict?
The discussions on the Arctic focused on the renewed attention of bordering states (Denmark, Canada, USA, Russia, and Norway) on the resources and (perceived) balance of power in the region. Interestingly the security implications, as opposed to the environmental and scientific impact of climate change and receding ice coverage were considered negligible. The hype about the opening of the North-West passage (cutting the shipping time between Hong Kong and Antwerp by 40 percent) was perceived as premature given the fact that the passage remains covered by ice 90 percent of the year and is not suitable for large transport shipping anyway. Much more important security challenges are competing resource claims and the remilitarization of the Artic circle as the five states vie for influence. Other issues of relevance include the possible NATO membership of Sweden and Finland and the Russian offer of security talks to Iceland, something that would not have been thought possible a couple of years ago.
Water: no wars but many challenges
In the media, heated discussions over water scarcity and possible “wars for water” continue to feature prominently. The IISS’ panel on this topic weighed an emphasis on the urgency of the problem with pragmatic suggestions for resolving these issues and the hopeful prospect that technological solutions paired with political willingness can achieve the required results. The problem is actually composed of two issues: one of quality, i.e. the contamination of water resources (e.g. 80% of Chinese rivers are no longer save for fisheries), and one of quantity, i.e. the depletion of water sources required for human use. At the heart of both problems is demographic growth and the emergence of urban consumer societies across the world producing waste water on an unprecedented scale as well as the “green revolution” which facilitated the population explosion of the last 50 years by focusing on high-yield, high water-use crops. While global trade in agricultural products and processed food products enables societies to consume “virtual water” from areas where it is less scarce, they are at best a part of the solution. The livelihoods of the populations of vast rural areas in Southeast Asia, India and China continue to depend on agriculture and therefore the availability of sufficient and clean water. Last year’s food price spikes and the resultant riots, this year’s severe droughts in India and the quality of the Mekong’s waters rapidly deteriorating are a reminder that more than “wars over water”, massive social unrest and “environmental refugees” are the more immediate risks calling governments to action.
Remedies are at hand, though, like drip-irrigation replacing flood irrigation (which wastes some 70% of available water) and new less water-intensive crops. As these issues often present a collective action problem, government initiatives, financing, economic incentive setting (which often means giving water a price) and education will be crucial to achieving success.
In terms of international politics, existing UN framework agreements and regional treaties present best practices of how to deal with issues of water. Central Asia, where 50 million inhabitants across two upstream (Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan) and three downstream countries (Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan) are dependent on two rivers delivering less and less water into the Aral Sea. After the central management of Soviet times broke down, quarrels have become more and more frequent as hydropower use upstream and agricultural uses downstream have conflicting interests. The EU has entered the framework as expert mediator and arbiter, and is now facilitating renewed cooperation. The Central Asian neighbours could be convinced that via negotiations and joint projects, agricultural yields can be secured, salination can be halted and via a grid that reaches as far as Russia and Pakistan a larger and more stable electricity supply can be achieved together. This evolving project bodes well for other international water hot-spots like the Euphrates and Tigris, the Nile and the Mekong.
Asia’s dynamic balance of power
On Sunday, the conference returned to big power politics by surveying the shifts in relative power currently underway in Asia. Former Indian Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon offered informative insights into the region’s power balance. He stressed that the present situation is unique and does not find easy comparison in the present or the past of other regions. Asia’s power balance is undergoing very change. The rise of China, the transformation of India, Indonesia, South Korea and other states have brought a dynamism and complexity to the region where Russia, Japan and the United States considered themselves established powers. This development has only been accelerated and exacerbated by the economic crisis. Asia’s integration and significance to the world economy is set to grow further.
In terms of hard power, Asia is the most heavily nuclearised region in the world and one where the maritime component is of great importance. So much so, that it may offer the key to future stability in Asia. Three major imperatives: trade, energy flows and security, will determine how this maritime balance evolves in the sub-regions of the Pacific Rim, Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean. Yukio Okamoto from Japan pointed out that China’s blue-water naval strategy at the Pacific Rim contains the seeds of conflicts with its regional neighbors to the East and South as it tries to turn the East and South China Sea into exclusive areas of interest and obtain a “denial capability” – mainly vis-à-vis the US Navy - that reaches all the way to Guam and the Mariannas. Such a set-up could decisively alter the military balance in any future conflict over Taiwan or other regional bones of contention.
Secretary Menon pointed to the threat from local instability and problems at choke-points and certain littorals, particularly the Straits of Hormuz and the Horn of Africa as currently posing a more immediate threat than big powers. He advocated initiating a discussion on collective security arrangements among the powers to whose economic and security interests this poses a common challenge. Such an emerging security architecture should be constructed as open, inclusive and loosely structured to permit flexibility and accommodating the evolving power balance of the region. Just like in the context of the Middle East, regional players continue to want to anchor the United States via such structures in their region rather than see them expelled. In fact, as Okamoto pointed out, having the US at the table drastically improves the direct negotiations between China and Japan which at the bilateral level tend to be seen as zero-sum games.
A big multilateral, collective security organization like NATO, was judged by the respective break-out group on Asia-Pacific as unlikely to emerge, not least because it is alien to the strategic thought of China, still strongly caught up in terms of bilateral relations. Rather than a security architecture, Chinese decision-makers see a need for more mechanisms of stat-to-state interaction. Regional groups that emerge with China as full participant are likely to be threat-based and ad-hoc like the six party talks on North Korea, not least because the attention of China’s leadership is very much occupied by domestic challenges. While this leaves little time for an overly assertive foreign policy or even working towards hegemonic structures abroad, many strategic concepts in China are in flux now due to the highly dynamic nature of its strategic neighbourhood.
The new government about to take office in Japan may further alter the strategic balance in the region as it is likely to be more inclined to working with China, and seeking greater independence from the United States. In general, it is expected to be more introvert, focusing on the economic and social aspects of the party’s program. An expected fresh view on the country’s history, which is expected from Japan’s incoming administration, however may hold the potential for easing and improving relations with its neighbors throughout East Asia.
IISS views on the New Geopolitics
The conference was wrapped up by a IISS’ consultants giving their assessment on US and regional powers, Iraq and Russia. Director General Dr John Chipman urged the USA to work with “coalitions of the relevant” in order to address and solve security issues that are confined to individual regions. Dr Toby Dodge, Senior Fellow on the Middle East and a former political advisor to General Petraeus said that the civil war in Iraq has been brought to an end – but may erupt again in the future, as the fuel of sectarian tensions remains highly combustible. Movements such as the Mahdi Army and Sunni insurgents still possess the potential for serious disruption, as a new swath of urban bombings in August has proved. However, the coalition of Prime Minister Maliki was able to consolidate its power and may emerge strengthened from the elections in January 2010. Oksana Antonenko, Senior Fellow for Russia and Eurasia presented a rather gloomy picture for relations with Russia: the “reset” politics of Washington towards Moscow was met with scepticism in Russia and perceived as naïve and bound to fail, as it has nothing of value to offer. Putin and his entourage seem set to enshrine this worldview into US-Russian relations for the next decade, at least.
This year’s IISS Global Strategic Review was one more example of how geopolitics have evolved under the sign of a more closely interconnected world. Just like the financial and economic crisis has left a global impact, also in the strategic realm the horizons have had to widen. What has become evident is that analysts and decision-makers in established and emerging powers alike have some homework to do. Not only do they need to increasingly look beyond the traditional horizons of their strategic neighbourhoods, they also need to develop a more acute understanding of the differences that the different strategic environments in each region hold. The relative influence of states and sub-state actors, the historic experiences of peaceful or hostile interaction or the constraints of natural endowments and fragile environments present very different strategic settings in the various parts of the world. And for emerging powers, this homework includes a readiness to assume a constructive role in responsibly securing peace and prosperity in their respective regions.
While the Global Strategic Review was again strong on analysis of some of the most pressing issues, one part of such meetings should be dedicated to the presentation of best practice examples that may serve to enhance the transparency and effectiveness of dealing with similar challenges elsewhere. WSN’s own conferences on stabilizing the FATA region in Pakistan have strived to incorporate such a focus on real-world solutions from the outset.