Tuesday, May 26, 2009

In Damascus

Hey all!

I have finished my academic exchange semester in Turkey, and I am currently travelling around Syria. Blogging will naturally be much slower and could stop for the next few weeks.

I'll have much to write about as soon as I am back in Canada, that's for sure.


Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Snacks for Thought: May 20, 2009

Snacks for thought is a weekly round-up of thought-provoking stories, commentaries and interviews from around the world.

  1. When visiting Caesar; how diplomatic visits to the White House work - http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/1086070.html
  2. Great lecture by a world class mind on political violence. You will end this lecture with much to think about, I promise - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Vgl9S3hpbc&feature=player_embed
  3. Regional and country-specific assessments of the global crisis by Nouriel Roubini's RGE Monitor - http://www.rgemonitor.com/roubini-monitor/256736/green_shoots_or_yellow_weeds
  4. Not as big, not as small as we thought? Martin Wolf assesses how influential to world history the global economic crisis will be - http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/beb9b7e8-449f-11de-82d6-00144feabdc0.html

Monday, May 18, 2009

Kosovo: what after independence?

(this article has been translated from its original french version and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Editor or anyone else associated with this blog. The original article can be emailed on request)

The Parliament of Kosovo declared its independence over one year ago, in February 2008. Supported by the United States, France, Germany, and Turkey, among others, the tiny Kosovar state seeks to emancipate itself from the yoke of its obstructive Serbian neighbour, and establish itself as an independent and viable state. Serbia on the hand, considers Kosovo to be an integral part of its historic territory.

Yet Kosovo’s current situation as an enclave does not make things easy, especially for the transit of goods and energy through its territory. I vividly remember the horrendously long lines of trucks trying to cross over from Macedonia. On the security front, the presence of foreign European troops on its territory (French, German, Italian, Swiss…) provides it with a temporary security umbrella meant to deter Serbia from trying to recapture its ‘lost province’ by force.

But for the time being, and for the foreseeable future, Kosovo will remain a ‘protectorate’ of the European Union. Lets look at the case of Bosnia-Herzegovina, almost 14 years after the signing of the Dayton Accords : the country remains administered by the United Nations and without a clear future. The worst-case scenario would be for Kosovo to become another Bosnia – a puppet state who’s structures only stand thanks to UN support.

So what does the future hold for Kosovo ? Is it possible to reconcile Kosovars and Serbs ? Certain voices argue that granting entry to ex-Yugoslavia into the EU would serve to diminish tensions in the Balkans. Nothing could be less sure. While an integrated EU-led approach targeting enhanced socio-economic cooperation could certainly bring about rapprochement between the states, expecting Serbia’s grievances towards Kosovo to diminish is a giant leap of logic.

A war, even if unthinkable at the moment, cannot be ruled out in the long-run. Serbia certainly has ambitions to join the EU, but it has also made it irrevocably clear that Kosovo’s independence is impossible for it to accept. However, Serbia’s only source of support at the moment, Russia, is insufficient to push Serbia into a military confrontation: images of NATO bombardments in Belgrade vividly remain in the minds of Serbs. Kosovars on the other hand, are baskiing in their newly-gained independence and would want nothing less than to rejoin Serbia, where they felt oppressed and discriminated against by the Serbian government.

So what then ? A union with Albania perhaps ? For Albania, this would be a golden opportunity to create a ‘Greater Albania’ and reunite Albanian speakers in the region. However, as one of my Kosovar friends put it to me, Kosovars fear such a union would simply replace Serbian tutelage with an Albanian one. Instead, Kosovo banks on rapid economic development and a privileged partnership with the EU to solidify its independence.

Having said this, turning our backs on Serbia by failing to reach a regional politico-economic solution to the problem would be a grave mistake in the long-run - the wounds of the past would remain dangerously open…

Mathieu Lepaon is an international relations student and reservist in the French Army.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Hats off to India!

With the Congress-led alliance now sure to win a majority in the Indian elections, India is close to wrapping up the largest display of democratic participation the world has ever seen. Approximately 400 million Indians are estimated to have cast their ballots in this crucial election for the country and the region.

In voting for the Congress-led coalition, the Indian electorate sent a firm signal that it does not wish to follow in America's footsteps following its own terrorist outrage in Mumbai. On the heels of the attacks of November 2008 that killed 185 Indian and foreign citizens, the B.J.P-led opposition appealed to national security in its campaign efforts. Yet it did not pay political dividends. Voters understood full-well the political implications of voting for the Hindu nationalists who, in a time when neighbouring Pakistan is in flames, would have played into the extremists' hands and further destabilized the region.

To the extent that personalities matter, it is reassuring that the prime minister Dr. Manmohan Singh will likely remain in his post. His reputation as a wise and intelligent politician did not develop from thin air. His leadership and judiciousness following the terrorist attacks was a testament to his reputation.

Under tremendous pressure to act, the Prime Minister listened to all voices, including the hawkish ones. Yet in the end, he decided to rule out the military option, which would have further destabilized Pakistan and potentially triggered a massive conflict between the two nuclear armed rivals. In an act of diplomatic pressure, he opted to deliver to Pakistan an intelligence dossier with evidence proving the nationality of the assailants (who were all Pakistani), and assertively called on Islamabad to hand over all involved Pakistani citizens to face Indian justice.

Opponents at the time denounced his decision to refrain from attacking Pakistan as proof of his indecisiveness. Yet his decision was a textbook example of how not to give terrorists the attention and political credibility they seek.

The world has much to learn from the Indian governments' response in the face of terrorism and from the Indian electorate's fine display of political consciousness. Hats off to India.

(photo from Getty Images)

Friday, May 15, 2009

Global Think Tank Directory

Here's a useful initiative - a directory of think tanks dealing with international affairs issues from almost every country in the world. Great for research purposes.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

French Military Bases in Africa

French troops patrolling N'Djamena Airport, February 2008

(This article was translated from its original French version and does not necessarily reflect the points of view of the Editor or anyone else associated with this blog. The original article can be emailed on request)

France still has ‘boots on the ground’ in several ex-colonial African states who were once part of its large empire. By establishing mutual cooperation and technical assistance agreements with these newly-independent states in the 1960’s, France has maintained a military presence in Chad, the Central African Republic and Djibouti, among others.

What are France’s interests, both strategic and political in these states? A careful analysis reveals these to be far from negligible, allowing France to exercise considerable influence over the internal affairs of these countries.

Lets take for example the events that unfolded in Chad during February 2008 when the government, under the leadership of President Idriss Deby since 1990, was attacked by a Rebel convoy traveling from Sudan. As the rebels headed straight for the Presidential Palace in Ndjamena (the capital), the situation turned critical for the government and its loyalist forces. The French government began an emergency evacuation of Europeans, especially French citizens. But the French role was far from limited to humanitarian evacuation efforts.

Under the aegis of acting to secure the evacuation of its citizens, French troops immediately took control of the main airport, making sure the government had access to its most effective means of riposte, the air force. As a result, and without ‘official’ French participation, the air force successfully squelched the rebellion and saved the government of President Deby from an imminent death.

In an impressive show of political and military craftsmanship, France was able to both protect the airport for evacuation measures, and safeguard its short-term economic and strategic interests. Strategically, France held its position in the region, which allows it to intervene rapidly in future crisis situations. Economically, the French military protects French firms (Total for example) that operate in the less than favourable security environments of the region – threatening these firms is to threaten the French military itself.

However, in the long-term it was France’s prestige that was on the line: few countries, besides the United States, can boast overseas bases of the kind France has in Africa. From this point of view, we cannot overlook the importance of the desert environment these bases provide for the training of the elite Marine Infantry Regiments. These bases maintain the military readiness of these troops for harsh climate operations.

Nevertheless, it is interesting to note how little the French government communicates regarding its presence in such areas, and how little it is questioned. The transparency that is demanded for operations in Afghanistan, or the reasons for the presence of French troops in Africa, are seldom given. It's as if that presence was self-explanatory.

Mathieu Lepaon is an International Relations student and reserve soldier of the French Army

(Photo from ABC News

Obama and the power of ideas: Part 2

In part one of 'Obama and the Power of Ideas' we laid down our philosophical opinions about what ideas are, and how they may be used for good or evil in the world. As promised, we will now explore how President Obama can put to use the immense political capital he enjoys in America, and the world, to steer the ship of American foreign policy back into calmer waters.

Obama will be speaking next month in Egypt, a country that many Arabs still see as the heart of contemporary Arabic culture and identity. The speech's importance will depend on its content. Foreign public speeches, especially when they are delivered by the President of the United States, are important. They can affect public and elite opinions around the world in serious ways, and what region is more in need of soft-diplomacy than the Middle East today? The Cairo speech will be a chance for Obama to build on the idea upon which he was elected: change.

The speech must therefore inspire the millions of relatively deprived citizens of the region. It must remind the people that while their leaders may not necessarily hear their calls for political freedom, America does. But it will not force it on them or bring about such changes by throwing their societies into further disarray.

The speech must also heavily touch on the number-one problem of the Middle East - the Arab-Israeli conflict. Obama and his speech writers cannot possibly underestimate the importance of this conflict to the region's citizens. He must be steadfast in his support for peace and provide not simply empty rhetoric, but a clear message that peace between Israel and the Arabs will be at the top of his foreign policy agenda. If the message wavers in this regard he will almost instantly turn-off millions of listeners.

With regards to other regions of the world, Obama must continue to send the message that America is listening, not simply pretending too, and contemplating ways to accommodate the multiplicity of voices and interests. This is not an 'apologetic or appeasement' strategy like Obama's critiques claim. It is the smart thing to do in order to tame the surge in anti-Americanism that followed Bush's disastrous eight years in power.

Without softening the almost reflexive resistance to American power and ideals that has spread around the world, Washington will have a much harder time pursuing its interests without relying on 'hard-power'. Soft-power, of which public diplomacy is a crucial pillar, will have to be a cornerstone of his foreign policy strategy, not a by-product.

In this regard, Obama's decision to seek readmission into the United Nations Human Rights Council, after Bush withdrew from it, is a welcome development. After all, we have already seen what over-reliance on military strength and economic sanctions have achieved, do we really want more of the same?

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Snacks for Thought, AfPak version: May 9, 2009

Obama campaigned on the message that Bush "took his eyes off the ball" by going to Iraq when the real threat always came from within Afghanistan. True to his word, upon taking power Obama is revamping U.S. policy towards the Afghan conflict and reevaluating the so-called AfPak strategy.

On this note, this week's Snacks for Thought zeroes in on Afghanistan and Pakistan.
  1. Charlie Rose in an exclusive interview with the Afghan and Pakistani presidents - http://www.charlierose.com/view/interview/10288
  2. Naomi Wolf on Afghanistan's beourgening feminist movement - http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/nwolf11
  3. Take it or leave it! Gideon Rachman on America's loveless relationship with the AfPak Presidents - http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/d9135ad8-398f-11de-b82d-00144feabdc0.html?nclick_check=1
  4. From Taliban to military Junta: Is that really the answer? - http://www.blogger.com/post-create.g?blogID=5453995967470657587

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Obama and the power of ideas: part 1

I once stumbled on a famous quote by the French writer Victor Hugo: 'there is one thing more powerful than all the armies of the world combined, that is an idea who's time has come.'

Since that day, I have been fascinated with the power of ideas. I remember how in first year of university I flirted with the 'idea' of writing a philosophical essay about ideas and their relationship to history, change, enlightenment and morality. Of course, my endeavor went nowhere, mostly due to my very limited understanding of the material and concepts I was flirting with at the time.

Five years later, I believe I am better equipped to commit to writing my inclinations, hunches and intuitions regarding the relationship of ideas to historical change, both in its positive and negative manifestation.

I believe that an idea is qualitatively different from an opinion, argument, statement, thought or belief. In the social world, which includes civil-political and socio-economic struggle, an idea is the spark that puts in motion the inevitable forward march of history - a march that can result in both good and evil, constructive or destructive, emancipating or oppressive change. A historic 'idea' is that seminal moment when the collectivity of thoughts, experiences, intuitions and desires present in the minds of human beings are neatly bundled up and put together in a sophisticated and persuasive manner by the idea's founder.

Of course, the idea will not flourish until it reaches 'critical mass' among its adherent which causes it to snowball and grow. This is perhaps why ideas are useful for historians in their quest to uncover when and how history moves from one point to another - from primitive to feudal to capitalist for example.

Ideas can also come suddenly crashing down when those who purport to represent them stop truly believing in them or cease to understand what they are actually defending. The story of America under George W. Bush represents this phenomenon.

When America - a country founded on the ideas of freedom and liberty - begins to behave like the authoritarian and 'idea fearing' regimes that it so vehemently opposes, it will naturally be more harshly judged by the world.

President Obama has essentially promised his countrymen, and the world at large, to rekindle the flame of freedom and liberty, both at home and abroad - this is an idea that America pioneered, and a big reason for its ability to lead in the world over the past 60 years. If pursued with vigour, Obama can still save this flame from extinguishing in the minds of many in the world.

How this can be done will be discussed in part 2 of this post.

Friday, May 1, 2009

The big debate: does the U.S. need an auto industry?

What should Americans do with regards to their ailing big-3 car manufacturers: bail them out no matter what; completely revamp their management and business models; succumb to the superiority of foreign competition at home and focus on foreign markets; urgently implement a national health care plan to lower labour costs?

You can follow and contribute to this debate here.

(photo from Karry Waghorn caricatures)