“We didn’t think it was going to be a peaceful world:” Brent Scowcroft & the world he helped fashion

Almost exactly thirty years ago, on August 2, 1990, Brent Scowcroft sat on a small airplane. Crammed in the seat in front of him, their knees touching, sat George H.W. Bush, the President of the United States. Bush spent the flight on the phone, calling up leaders around the world.

Scowcroft, who was the American President’s principal foreign policy advisor, was madly revising the speech Bush was going to give at their destination in Colorado – he had to make it compatible with the things that had happened the day before. Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s dictator, had sent his troops to invade neighboring Kuwait. The entire world was now watching the United States. The Cold War was almost over. The Berlin wall had fallen. Two Germanies would soon become one. Faced with naked aggression in a somewhat less-than-crucial context, would American leaders look the other way? Or would they conclude that it was in their country’s interest to intervene?

He had had “absolutely no doubt” about Bush’s determination, Scowcroft subsequently recalled (1). A few days later, after landing back at the White House, Bush told journalists that “this will not stand, this aggression against Kuwait.” And another few months later, an international coalition led by US military forces defeated Iraq’s army, with broad reverberations throughout the international system (2). Brent Scowcroft died a few weeks ago, on 6 August 2020. He was 95. Today, the question on many an analyst’s mind is whether America was very much a different country three decades ago, or whether Washington’s key policymakers back then were a different type of people.

Despite Bush’s clear words and Scowcroft apparent lack of doubt, the decision to intervene had not come easy. “Yours is a society which cannot accept [ten thousand] dead in one battle,” Iraq’s dictator had told the US envoy in Baghdad before his daring move. He was implying that Americans had no stomach for long wars in far-away places. For as long as America’s capitalist democracy had been engaged in a deadly battle with Soviet totalitarian communism, leaders in both Washington and Moscow had had little choice but to intervene. But now the Soviets were down and the Americans were surprised by their sudden success, the Iraqis reasoned. The world seemed remarkably unrestrained. These circumstances “will not happen again for fifty years,” an adviser told the Iraqi dictator. It was the “opportunity of a lifetime.” Moscow had its own fish to fry and Washington would swallow his land grabbing, Saddam concluded (3).

“We were trying to set up a method of behavior for the post-Cold War world,” Scowcroft later remembered, and this was the key moment where Washington needed to set the tone for the future.

The Iraqi despot was not alone with his assumption. Before boarding for Colorado, Bush and Scowcroft had attended a meeting that seemed to reach that very conclusion. The US government’s key policymakers had congregated for an hour at the White House. “There was sort of a fait acompli atmosphere,” Scowcroft later recalled (4). All gathered had agreed that they had to protect Saudi Arabia – it was inimical to US interests to permit any power to “gain dominance over Gulf oil supplies,” Pentagon planners had argued before. But the world needed oil, and Saddam would provide it, the officials at the meeting had concluded. Liberating Kuwait was “not viable,” budget officials concerned with the costs of a potential deployment had opined. Military leaders doubted whether their political masters possessed the resolve to go to war over Kuwait. Some had even argued that the crisis offered an “interesting opportunity” to boost production and drive down the global price of oil – to the benefit of US consumers. Dick Cheney, Bush’s Secretary of Defense at the time, later remembered that the general feeling had been that most citizens of Kuwait lived “in the south of France anyway.” (5)

Mere hours later, jam-packed on their small plane, Scowcroft told Bush that he was very disturbed at the tone of the morning meeting. It had skipped over “the enormous stake the United States had in the situation, or the ramification of the aggression on the emerging post-Cold War world.” (6) First, there was a regional dimension. Washington wanted to stabilize the Gulf, and Saddam’s actions were reinforcing old antagonisms. Also, neither Iraq nor Iran could be allowed to dominate the region, and Saddam’s incursion was threatening to start tilting the balance in his direction. However, the second – the global order – dimension was dominating. “We were trying to set up a method of behavior for the post-Cold War world,” Scowcroft later remembered, and this was the key moment where Washington needed to set the tone for the future. (7)

In other words, had the remaining superpower allowed a rogue dictator to do what he wanted, others would have registered the message. Scowcroft, together with his principal White House staffers, worked in the background. Luckily, upon further consideration, various other decisionmakers throughout the US government came to the same conclusion. By the time of the next meeting on the crisis, the tenor had changed. “This is the first test of the postwar system,” Larry Eagleburger, the Deputy Secretary of State, underlined. If Saddam succeeded, “others may try the same thing.” This would be a “bad lesson.” The world would become a more dangerous place – with long-term negative consequences for America’s goals of constructing a liberal and democratic global order. Both US security and prosperity would suffer (8). The bottom line was that the US leadership had to accept the costs of intervention now in order to prevent larger future threats to the national interest.

And yet, Bush’s choice – as preordained as it appears in the rearview mirror – was anything but easy (9). For instance, US military leaders were aware that high losses would once again damage their reputation and, hence, their position within the American society. Scarred by the war in Vietnam a few decades prior, military commanders wanted the armed forces to have the support of the population. Their “number one priority was to rearrange the relation with the American people,” a former official told me a few years ago. Thus, military leaders pushed the President to authorize an overpowering but very expensive deployment – they believed that decisive force would end the war quickly and save (American) lives. (10)

This type of military expedition ultimately delivered a crushing victory, but significantly increased Bush’s political costs in case of defeat. Towards the end of August 1990, Bush met Secretary of State James Baker – who was also his best friend – at the White House. Baker cautioned that the Iraq crisis had “all the ingredients that brought down three of the last five Presidents: A hostage crisis, body bags, and a full-fledged economic recession caused by [expensive] oil.” Bush replied: “I know that, Jimmy, I know that. But we’re doing what’s right; we’re doing what is clearly in the national interest of the United States. Whatever else happens, so be it.” (11) Thus, when the military leadership asked for very large forces to be dispatched to the Gulf, Bush – at Scowcroft’s advice – listened carefully and then stood up and said, “You’ve got it. Let me know if you need more.” He then promptly walked out of the room, leaving everyone stunned. (12)

Bush, Scowcroft, and many of their advisers believed that the international arena remained a highly competitive environment. Thus, they thought it was “romantic” and “wrong” to imagine that history could have ended.

Ultimately, Bush and Scowcroft’s choices were grounded in a particular reading of international affairs and, implicitly, of the post-Cold War era. “We didn’t think it was going to be a peaceful world,” Scowcroft later remembered his and the President’s thinking. “We thought it was going to be a messy world.” (13) Francis Fukuyama, who was at that point the deputy director of the State Department’s policy planning staff, had just advanced his famous and popular end-of-history thesis: With communism dead, nations would converge, and conflict would be avoided. But Bush, Scowcroft, and many of their advisers believed that the international arena remained a highly competitive environment. Thus, they thought it was “romantic” and “wrong” to imagine that history could have ended. Regional disputes, long suppressed by the US-Soviet competition, would be reawakened, and new “political and economic” forces would be “unleashed.” Without the US global engagement, Washington’s international politico-economic designs would be imperiled.(14)

Today, we face a chicken and the egg problem. We see how Donald Trump, the current US President, is abandoning long-held American responsibilities. Was America so different three decades ago that it brough people like Scowcroft and Bush to power to served its interests at that point in time? If this is the case, we should brace ourselves – any American President will be transactional, less interested in global order and stability, and more likely to question the utility of the transatlantic alliance. Conversely, maybe the United States did not change that much, but the people who governed it three decades ago were different individuals, with different priorities and different ideas. Should this be the case, there is hope. Maybe the next President will be able to go back on some of the steps this Administration has taken, especially towards mending Washington’s relationship to Western Europe. In any case, the future remains interesting and uncertain. What is certain is that Scowcroft wisdom will be sorely missed.

References:

  1. Philip Zelikow and James H. McCall, “Interview #2 with Brent Scowcroft,” August 10, 2000, 61, University of Virginia, Miller Center, George H.W. Bush Oral History Project, released August 2020.
  2. The best overview is Richard N. Haass, War of Necessity, War of Choice: A Memoir of Two Iraq Wars (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010). For a more recent narrative, John Gans, White House Warriors (New York: Norton & Co, 2019), 89-114.
  3. Cited in Jeffrey A. Engel, When the World Seemed New: George H. W. Bush and the End of the Cold War (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017), 381 and 388.
  4. Zelikow and McCall, “Interview #2 with Brent Scowcroft,” August 10, 2000, 59.
  5. Sandra Charles, “Memo for Haass: Minutes from NSC/DCM, August 2, 1990, on Iraqi Invasion of Kuwait,” January 22, 1991, Bush Library, Richard N. Haass Presidential Meeting File CF0118-019, NSC Meeting – August 2, 1990 Re: Iraqi Invasion of Kuwait; Philip Zelikow, “Interview with Dick Cheney,” March 16, 2000, 55, University of Virginia, Miller Center, George H.W. Bush Oral History Project; and Norman Schwarzkopf, It Doesn’t Take a Hero: The Autobiography of General H. Norman Schwarzkopf (New York: Bantam, 1993), 297.
  6. George Bush and Brent Scowcroft, A World Transformed (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998), 317–18; and Richard Haass, A World in Disarray: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis of the Old Order (New York, New York: Penguin Press, 2017). Also, Derek Chollet and James Goldgeier, America Between the Wars: From 11/9 to 9/11 (New York: Public Affairs, 2009), 9.
  7. Zelikow and McCall, “Interview #2 with Brent Scowcroft,” August 10, 2000, 61 and 72–73.
  8. John Meacham, Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush (New York: Random House, 2015), 426; and Andrea Mitchell, “Interview with Brent Scowcroft,” November 7, 2007, Princeton University Library, James A. Baker Oral History Project.
  9. For the same conclusion, see Stephen Knott, “Interview with Richard Haass,” May 27, 2004, University of Virginia, Miller Center, George H.W. Bush Oral History Project.
  10. Interview with Joint Chiefs of Staff official, March 2018, Washington D.C. See also Schwarzkopf, It Doesn’t Take a Hero.
  11. James A. Baker and Thomas DeFrank, The Politics of Diplomacy (New York: Putnam, 1995), 277.
  12. Robert M. Gates, “The Scowcroft Model,” Foreign Affairs, August 13, 2020.
  13. Philip Zelikow, “Interview #1 with Brent Scowcroft,” November 12, 1999, 52, University of Virginia, Miller Center, George H.W. Bush Oral History Project.
  14. Brent Scowcroft, “Memo for Bush: US Diplomacy for the New Europe,” December 22, 1989, Bush Library, Scowcroft Collection, 91116 German Unification (December 1989). Also, “Memo for Bush: Your Meetings in Brussels with NATO Leaders,” November 29, 1989, and “US Policy in Eastern Europe in 1990,” January 1990, Bush Library, Scowcroft Collection, 91116 German Unification (November 1989) and NSC Collection, Robert D. Blackwill Chronological Files 30547-010, January 1990. For Francis Fukuyama’s essay, “The End of History?,” The National Interest, no. 16 (Summer 1989): 3–18.

Turkey and the quest for limited autonomy from the West

By over-projecting its power potential, Ankara finds itself on a conflictual trajectory, on a case-by-case basis, with the interests of other major or regional powers such as the US, Russia, France, Italy, Israel, Egypt, and Germany.

The summer of 2020 has been unlike any summer in recent history. Usually, during the long summer months, a sort of informal moratorium appears between Greece and Turkey so that there would be no particular spike in tensions between them, as the inflow of ever-growing number of tourists with their greenbacks on both sides of the Aegean was deemed too important for the economies of both countries. This summer, when the coronavirus has been wreaking havoc and tourist revenues have been negligible, the action has shifted to gunboat diplomacy and the search for leverage in an increasingly complex and unsteady European security architecture. Yet there is no novelty here, as this has been the state of relations between the two countries – both NATO members since 1952 while Turkey is still formally negotiating its accession to the European Union since 2003 – for a long time. It reflects the surreal pragmatism in both Turkey’s relationship with the West, to which it still belongs but doubts whether it does, as well as the transactional reflexes of both Greece and Turkey regarding their relations with each other, given the ambiguous positions of their partners and allies. Should there have been no NATO or EU, a good argument could be made that relations between the two countries would mirror Turkey’s relations with some of its other neighbours, such as Iraq or Syria, or even Iran and Armenia. 

Yet apart from this surreal state of play between Greece and Turkey, which most of their western allies do not understand or do not want to understand or pretend does not exist, this summer has been different because a number of other paradoxes are coming to the fore. Most stem from ideological imperatives and domestic cleavages within Turkey proper that have rapidly acquired an external or foreign policy dimension. Here the broader implications of the reconversion of the Hagia Sophia into a mosque come into play, although barely six weeks after the 10 July decision to do so, the issue no longer seems to dominate the headlines anymore. 

‘It’s the domestic politics, stupid’

The decision to reconvert the Hagia Sophia into a mosque was primarily motivated by domestic considerations and the deep dividing lines within Turkish society, which undoubtedly have political characteristics. The current Turkish government and its leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, seem to favour the implementation of a civilisational discourse into a civilisational state reality, primarily for reasons of political expediency. This is particularly relevant in the perennial battle between Kemalists and Islamists that has shaped Turkish politics for decades. This does not imply that the emergence of a ‘clash of civilisation’ discourse does not have deep seated roots within both the governing party and its electorate, in particular as a revindication of the Kemalist turn toward modernisation, Westernisation and secularism upon the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, away from the virtues of Islam as the dominant ideology of the Empire. Nevertheless, a level of political expediency is very much in evidence, especially since the 2010s when the synthesis between the instrumentalisation of religion, nationalism, and anti-western Kemalism or Eurasianism has been shaping the direction of Erdoğan’s Turkey today. According to political scientist Ahmet Erdi Öztürk, the decision represents an example of the assumption of moral superiority over Kemalism without necessarily impacting upon the nature of the relationship between the state and religion since Turkish secularism or “laicism, as the continuation of a Byzantine-era practice, is inherently dependent upon the state’s control and guidance of religion in line with the state’s interests and objectives.” As to the effect on Turkish multiculturalism, its practice is already problematic, as the inherent and privileged correlation between Turkishness and Sunni Islam has been a way of life throughout the 97 years of the existence of the Turkish Republic. The troubled history of the country’s Greek orthodox minority, as well as that of its Armenian, Kurdish, and Alevi populations, among others, are a testament to this sad state of affairs. Though successive polls since the reconversion of the Hagia Sophia do no show that it has had a significant impact in the government’s sagging poll numbers, the mitigated reaction by the Kemalist opposition reflects an acceptance that its ability to influence the country’s ideological direction has been further limited. What emerges is a very real existential dilemma for the country’s secular population as to what this gradual, overt promotion of political Islam means for their way of life. 

The synthesis between the instrumentalisation of religion, nationalism, and anti-western Kemalism or Eurasianism has been shaping the direction of Erdoğan’s Turkey since the 2010s.

For the Greek Orthodox minority and Bartholomew I, the embattled Ecumenical Patriarchate and spiritual leader of 300 million Orthodox Christian worldwide, the reaction of the Patriarch encapsulates the reality: “What can I say as a Christian clergyman and the Greek patriarch in Istanbul? Instead of uniting, a 1500-year-old heritage is dividing us. I am saddened and shaken.” As his close associates have told me, the Ecumenical Patriarchate has survived 567 years without the Hagia Sophia, which was converted into a mosque in 1453 and then into a museum in 1935, and can continue to do so.

Promoting an Islamic agenda

A second dimension has to do with the perception within the Muslim world as to which leader is defending or promoting an Islamic agenda. Although many predominantly Muslim states, such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, are at odds with Turkey’s perceived infringement upon the global Islamic discourse (and their geopolitical interests), the battle is actually for the hearts and minds of Sunnis around the world. Erdoğan’s reference on 10 July that the “resurrection of the Hagia Sophia heralds the liberation of the Al-Aqsa Mosque” in Jerusalem is a case in point.

An increasingly coercive posture

The third facet linked to the conversion of Hagia Sophia is the wider geopolitical and geo-economic context which capitals around the world have been grappling with, given the consensus that the regional and global security architecture, and as a consequence the international liberal multilateral order in place since the end of the Second World War, has been faltering. With the United States – the crucial link holding the order in place – doubting both its role in the world as well as what its priorities should be, regional states have been scrambling to reconsider their priorities. While for the European Union and its member states, this implies a painful conceptual and material transition into a more geopolitical union, Turkey’s methodology has involved the promotion and implementation of a more transactional approach where assertive and coercive diplomacy predominates. Here the attempt is both to rationalise the vacuum that a less strategic United States leaves both within the wider European space and in the Mediterranean, and to ensure that consensual national strategies – such as the country’s place as a regional energy transit hub, and, by extension, as a regional power with global reach – do not get sidetracked. While for the European Union and its member states, some form of multilateralism and its normative framework are a sine qua non for addressing regional and global challenges, for Turkey the militarisation of foreign policy instruments as evidenced in the tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean, as well as the challenge to international forums and institutions and their norms and rules to which Turkey is a party to, will be an acceptable means of conduct if these limit its ability to extend its Lebensraum and its ability to manifest itself as an indispensable regional actor. For example, the Hagia Sophia reconversion is a case in point, as Turkey went through the process without prior consultation, for example with UNESCO, as it was bound to do given the monument’s World Heritage Site status. 

The instrumentalisation of religion as a foreign policy tool, in this case, promotes the simplistic perception of a ‘Neo-Ottomanist’ turn in Turkish foreign policy where Ankara leads the fight against the West. In other words, as Nicholas Danforth notes, “[w]hen it serves their purposes, Turkey’s leaders will undoubtedly continue to dress their foreign policies in neo-Ottoman garb.”

More of a disruptor rather than a pole of stability 

Despite the aforementioned instrumentalisation of religion and the militarisation of foreign policy, Ankara has not made a move to either withdraw from the Atlantic Alliance or to break totally with the European Union. Yet the tell-tale signs are many, starting in particular with the overt attempt to couple greater strategic autonomy from the West with its growing relationship with the Russian Federation since 2016. Alarm bells were raised by the 2019 purchase of the Russian-made S-400 missile system and its implications for Ankara’s relations with Washington as well as NATO as a whole. Its recent and ongoing strong-arm tactics against Greece and France, among others, have led many to suggest willy-nilly that Turkey has become the Alliance’s ‘elephant in the room’ with a proliferation of strategic divides on a variety of fronts, with implications regarding NATO’s already problematic reach in the Black Sea region and the Middle East. 

An argument could be made that Turkish actions imply the implementation of a security doctrine based on the concepts of forward defence and self help, given its assessment of the regional security concept as well as the synthesis domestically of political Islam, nationalism, and anti-Westernism. Yet the contradictions of Turkish foreign policy, and its possible self-entrapment due to an overestimation of its influence or an acceptance of the manner in which it tries to enforce it, make it more of a disruptor rather than a pole of stability in the wider European, Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and Eurasian spaces. In other words, by over-projecting its power potential, Ankara finds itself heading for a conflictual trajectory, on a case-by-case basis, with the interests of other major or regional powers such as the US, Russia, France, Italy, Israel, Egypt, and Germany.

With the United States – the crucial link holding the order in place – doubting both its role in the world as well as what its priorities should be, regional states have been scrambling to reconsider their priorities.

As long as Turkey’s break with the West does not become more permanent and the transition away from Kemalist tenets is slow and contained, the wider European regional context implies one of balancing and rebalancing, action and reaction between the region’s powers. The US’s ambivalence and ambiguities have led regional states to seek different ways to augment their security, many (especially the European countries) within the confines of international law and multilateral institutions, while others test the system’s limits. The pace of change is rapid, with the verdict still out as to whether the frayed relationship between Turkey and its partners and allies does remain a Gordian knot. The options on the table now are between limited strategic autonomy for Ankara or strategic independence. Both of these choices or developments can be managed, provided the methodology Ankara uses to promote either choice does not become excessively heavy-handed, putting at risk the interests, sovereignty and sovereign rights of EU and NATO member states, and by extension, the organisations they belong to. Although there is not much room for optimism at this point in time, a more permanent, long-lasting, value-laden binding agreement with Turkey is necessary. There is a need to move beyond the stopgap triptych of ‘solidarity, de-escalation, and dialogue’ as Josep Borrell, the EU High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, suggested after the video conference meeting of the Ministers of Foreign Affairs of the EU Member States on 14 August. Whether this is possible remains to be seen.

This is Sparta! Insights from international relations theory into what the post-Covid world might look like

2500 years ago, in his account of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, the Athenian historian and general Thucydides made the ravages of the plague affecting Greece a central feature of the tragic decline and fall of the Athenian Empire. The plague ravaging the many territories that Athens had dominion over, at the time of a desperate struggle against its arch-enemy Sparta, undermined its power and hastened its demise. 

Today’s great pandemic consuming the world has produced similar reactions among some commentators. The trade and security struggles between the United States, as the receding hegemon, and a resurgent China have been interpreted by scholars and commentators as a reiteration of the ancient theory of power transition that defines Thucydides’ history. However, IR theory has more to say about the world of tomorrow than the dramatic effects that, according to Thucydides’ followers, the pandemic could have on security and trade relations between the U.S. and China. This piece seeks to offer a brief but comprehensive overview of the major approaches in IR theory, what they may say about the world after the end of this pandemic, and how it will affect global politics.

IR scholars are often criticised for their engagement in what seems a purely academic exercise centred on an obsession with theory and abstract debates. And, true enough, IR theory is ill-suited to providing pre-packaged solutions to current problems, but many scholars will argue that that is not their business. IR theory can provide insights into international behaviour, and may provide informed predictions about how international affairs may evolve and how states may react to shocks, but it cannot prescribe a course of action. Moreover, IR theory is not in fact a homogenous, coherent‘theory’, but a divergent set of theories and approaches which look at different problems and phenomena in world affairs from different ontological and epistemological positions. No one theory can provide a comprehensive interpretation or predictions of world politics. However, taken together, these theories can help decision makers and the public fill the gaps in the puzzle we call ‘International Relations’. The aim of this essay is exactly that: to suggest a way we can integrate various pieces of the puzzle in a comprehensible way that makes the most of what we know from IR theory. IR scholars produce knowledge, not ‘solutions’ˋ to policy problems; nevertheless, this knowledge can become a tool for devising fruitful solutions.

IR theory can provide insights into international behaviour, and may provide informed predictions about how international affairs may evolve and how states may react to shocks, but it cannot prescribe a course of action.

This essay is divided into three parts. First, it discusses the current pandemic through the lenses of the ‘agency-vs-structure’ debate in International Relations. Second, it uses the three mainstream approaches in IR to interpret and predict the effects of the pandemic on the development of the international system. Finally, it discusses what insights we can gain from other, more critical approaches in IR and their importance for understanding world events.

Changing the structure of world politics

International Relations is a discipline defined by structural theorising. Each of the three major schools of thought in the discipline, neorealism, neoliberalism, and constructivism, are theoretically dominated by a structural understanding of world politics. What makes them different is their assumptions about these structures and state behaviour. Neorealism and neoliberalism share a materialist understanding of structures, arguing that all that matters is the distribution of capabilities under anarchy. How wealthy you are (in weapons, natural resources, GDP, technology) defines your status and behaviour in the international system, which is taken as inherently anarchical and competitive. Where they differ is in their assumption about what drives state behaviour: relative gains, as neorealists argue, or absolute gains, as neoliberals suggest.

Constructivists criticise this materialist understanding of structure and argue that we should conceive structures as inherently social, as the product of social interaction. Structures are, therefore, the product of what we do and how we do it. This means that anarchy is neither pre-given, as the other two schools assume, nor exclusively based on material capabilities, but very much on ideas which give meaning to those capabilities. When the ideas actors have change, then their behaviour changes, and that produces a change in the structure of the international system.

Why does this matter in respect to the effects of the global pandemic in world politics? It matters because change in much of IR theory translates into changes in the structure of the international system. On the one hand, if the structure of the international system is material – defined by how wealthy you are – then change can happen only when the distribution of material capabilities (i.e. wealth) changes. Therefore, according to a materialist ontology, the global pandemic will produce change in the international system if it alters the distribution of material capabilities. On the other hand, if the structure of the international system is ideational, defined by shared ideas and norms, then change can happen whenever the overreaching ideas held by states change. It is thus apparent that the global pandemic can effect change in world politics if it produces changes in the way states (i.e. politicians) understand the world and their role in it.

How does this work in practice? From a materialist perspective, actual changes in the distribution of resources must happen in order for change in world politics to take place. This could happen due to the economic consequences of the pandemic, which may destroy economic capacity in some countries, decreasing their relative material capabilities and therefore shifting the relative distribution of capabilities. If, for example, the United States and Europe are substantially more affected economically than China because of the crisis in the medium and long term, and will experience lower rates of growth with higher rates of public debt, then China becomes relatively more powerful (i.e. it gains more assets than Europe and the US). Conversely, if the pandemic forces a reconfiguration of value chains in world trade, then the United States and Europe may benefit because of what economists call on-shoring, near-shoring, and shortening of value chains.

The global pandemic can effect change in world politics if it produces changes in the way states (i.e. politicians) understand the world and their role in it.

However, from an ideational perspective, constructivists would argue that in order for shifts in material capabilities to happen, changes in ideas need to happen first. The economic ideas dominating the economic models currently operating around the world will define the level of growth, depending on how successful their growth models will prove to be. At the same time, constructivists stress that the international structure is ideational in nature and a product of social interaction. How political leaders decide to act during the pandemic and afterwards will affect how the structure evolves. If decision-makers choose a confrontational approach, then the world of tomorrow will be confrontational. If they decide to cooperate, then the future will be cooperative. In the end, the world is what states make of it.

The distinction between material and ideational structure is important not only because it emphasises different factors that affect change, but especially because it delineates the importance of actors as producers of change. For neorealists, for example, history is deterministic, and agency has almost no role in it. In the great scheme of things, neorealists believe that what matters is how material power shifts, not what people do or believe. For constructivists, human agency is at the centre of structure, defining and re-defining it constantly. Human action determines the future of the international structure, not simply how material resources are allocated. However, this structural perspective of change in world affairs is not all that IR theory has to offer.

Power, institution, and ideas in times of global pandemic

Neorealism as a structural theory of international relations is informed by the political theory of classical realism. Therefore, neorealists conceive the world as a dangerous, anarchic world inhabited by egoistic states that seek either their own survival (defensive realists) or to maximise their power (offensive realists) and use any tool at their disposal to achieve these goals. In a world where survival is the main goal and the survival of the fittest is the main mechanism of ‘natural’ selection, states can only rely on their own strength and cannot trust other states. According to this view, international organisations such as the World Health Organisation or historical phenomena such as globalisation are devised and used by great powers to further their power and enhance their control over less powerful states. This is one of the reasons why neorealists dismiss the role of international organisations as venues of cooperation, together with the assumption that all states seek relative gains, making cooperation difficult.

During the current pandemic, a neorealist will ask: how does the pandemic affects the distribution of power in the international system? As mentioned previously, power is understood here in terms of the material capabilities that states have at their disposal. Here, the economic component becomes particularly interesting for neorealists. If the pandemic affects the US economy much more than that of China, for example, then this increases the relative power of China, which over the medium to long term may build an economy which is substantially stronger than the American economy. In the short to medium term, a weak American economy may create opportunities for China to acquire US assets or push to ‘reform’ US-sponsored international institutions, increasing its global influence. The Chinese takeover of Western assets is perceived as a real danger in several Western nations, with Germany taking active measures to prevent Chinese takeovers of strategic companies. The United States may seek to do the same. At the same time, a neorealist would predict that the US will react by counterbalancing China, seeking to preempt or block Chinese takeovers of US-sponsored international organisations, and perhaps impose new economic protectionist measures and create incentives to near-shore or reshore the American manufacturing capabilities currently abroad. In the neorealist playbook, the pandemic will produce increased international tensions, a struggle for power and diminishing opportunities for cooperation.

In the neorealist playbook, the pandemic will produce increased international tensions, a struggle for power and diminishing opportunities for cooperation.

Reversely, neoliberalism suggests that the outcome of the pandemic will be the opposite of what neorealists foresee. Neoliberals assume that states seek absolute gains, not relative gains as neorealists do, and states have a tendency towards cooperation in order to reduce transaction costs and the negative effects of unwanted events, and to enhance the benefits from deeper and denser ties. This means that when faced with a pandemic of global proportions, states have a powerful incentive to cooperate. For neoliberals, international institutions reflect the desire of selfish states to cooperate in order to reduce costs and maximise benefits. Institutions such as the World Health Organisation exist to allow coordination between national health authorities, as a channel for knowledge exchange, and as a forum for deliberation.

Therefore, the question that neoliberals ask is: how does the pandemic affect incentives for states to cooperate internationally? If the pandemic reduces the incentives for cooperation, then a more neorealist logic will dominate world politics. But if the human and economic costs of the pandemic as foreseen prove to be substantial and able to be managed more effectively through global coordination, than the pandemic may increase cooperation and may enhance the importance of international organisations such as the WHO. Signs of increased coordination and cooperation, particularly on economic matters, are already visible. The leading central banks (the FED, the BCE, the CBJ, the BoE) have already signed swap and repo agreements that will provide almost unlimited liquidity in the currency of each party, and the FED is playing its role as the lender of last resort for the world economy. In healthcare we can observe some signs of regional cooperation in Europe, among Latin American countries and, to a lesser degree, in North America and Asia.

Neoliberals would predict the emergence of cooperation frameworks for pooling expertise, sharing knowledge about the virus and how to fight it better. This is visible in the quest to develop a vaccine, even if the Trump administration has been acting in a less cooperative way than the rest of the world. At the same time, the crisis is forcing states to reassess the limits of their cooperation, and to consider why certain cooperative frameworks such as the WHO have not lived up to their expectations by pushing forward reforms. But all these are defined by what ideas are circulating in the national capitals.

Neorealism and neoliberalism presuppose that the way the world works and what interests states have as pre-givens are objective facts which can be taken for granted. Constructivists dismiss this as a lack of sophistication, and even an outright misunderstanding of how world politics works. Instead, constructivists such as Alexander Wendt argue that world politics is “what states make of it”. The beliefs and identities of political leaders define how the world is and how it will evolve. National identity, culture, political interactions play a substantial role in making sense of the world and constructing it as it is. The choice between competition or cooperation results, not from changes in the distribution of power or the incentives states have, but from their identities and beliefs. A state may exhibit bellicose or friendly behaviour in international politics depending on the ideas and identity defining its society and political elite. But these ideas and identities change over time, especially because of crises which force people to reassess their beliefs and who they are.

Therefore, a constructivist would ask: how does the pandemic change shared beliefs and identities, and what effect would these changes have on world affairs? If the pandemic produces new ideas and identities that promote competition and conflict, then international relations will be defined by conflict. Conversely, if the pandemic produces solidaristic and cooperative ideas and identities, then world affairs will be characterised by increased cooperation and harmony. The world is what we make of it; it is constructed by us according to our beliefs about what is appropriate.

A neorealist or neoliberal would find it hard to answer why states would build air bridges to transport COVID-19 patients from Italy to Germany, for example. Constructivists, instead, would say that this sign of solidarity is the result of the beliefs dominating the public debate in the societies of Italy and Germany and among the political elites of those two countries. Another example is the reappearance of policy debates about resilience, ideas about the need for strategic autonomy in the production of vital products such as medicine, or the need for European solidarity.

Malign actors may seek to produce bellicose beliefs and identities by promoting polarising ideas, or fake news which provokes anger and fear, or reframes truthful news in ways that promote conflict and social tensions. The world is what we make of it, as constructivists say.

At the same time, constructivists would caution about the impact of misinformation and information warfare on which ideas and identities become dominant. Malign actors may seek to produce bellicose beliefs and identities by promoting polarising ideas, or fake news which provokes anger and fear, or reframes truthful news in ways that promote conflict and social tensions. The world is what we make of it, as constructivists say.

Who is right? None of them and all of them. While these three major approaches to international relations are often framed in opposition to each other, they illuminate various parts of international politics. Practitioners and policy elites should use them together to make sense of the world and to build better calibrated and critically informed policy responses to global challenges such as the current pandemic.

Society, discourse, and security in the world of tomorrow

IR theory may be dominated by neorealism, neoliberalism, and constructivism as the three major approaches to the study of world politics, but they are not alone, and several other theories and approaches can fill other gaps in the puzzle. Among them, new liberalism and the critical approaches to IR and security studies are frequently mentioned in disciplinary debates.

New liberalism is a contemporary reformulation of interwar liberalism, and was proposed primarily by Andrew Moravcsik. New liberal theory looks at domestic dynamics to explain foreign policy. In its most common formulation, new liberalism argues that the most important actors in world politics are not the states, but the domestic groups and actors which define state policy and thus influence world politics. Adopting a bottom-up approach to foreign policy analysis, liberals assume that domestic actors have different interests and are in a constant struggle to shape state policy. Therefore, foreign policy is defined by this confrontation between various groups seeking to influence foreign policy. As a result, the question asked by new liberals is: how does the pandemic reshuffle or reinforce the configuration of power and influence between domestic groups?

In Europe, the economic consequences of the lockdown and the pandemic have the potential to increase the power of those social and political groups which seek a more solidaristic European Union, pressing for more social transfers at the European level and more integration, especially with regards to monetary and fiscal issues. This may overcome the long dominance of austerity- driven fiscal hawks that have ruled the higher echelons of power in Berlin, Frankfurt, Paris and Brussels. If that happens, the configuration of power between these groups will change, and consequently it will shift the policies adopted at national and European level.

In other parts of the world, such as in the United States, the effects of the pandemic are harder to discern, but they seem to be producing a new wave of social unrest which may or may not unravel the current political configuration, and with it the American foreign policy. In an increasingly dangerous world, ‘America First’ could become an even more persuasive idea, and the US may seek to shore up its current unilateralist and isolationist foreign policy. In totalitarian or authoritarian regimes faced with increased death tolls, such as Russia or Belarus, the regimes may seek to enhance their power over society by increasing the levels of oppression and intrusion, as well as the elimination of political opponents.

Finally, another perspective comes from the Copenhagen School’s ‘theory of securitisation’, which argues that security is intersubjective and socially constructed. This means that there are no inherent security threats, and that all threats are defined socially through processes of persuasion by powerful actors, which seek to securitise – to take outside the sphere of normal politics and life – certain issues. The pandemic itself has been securitised in much of the world, as an existential threat to life and our societies, with leaders such as Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel using a martial language, talking about a ‘state of war’ in relation to the pandemic and the imposition of exceptional measures (i.e. lockdown).

In Europe, the economic consequences of the lockdown and the pandemic have the potential to increase the power of those social and political groups which seek a more solidaristic European Union, pressing for more social transfers at the European level and more integration, especially with regards to monetary and fiscal issues.

If issues related to the pandemic or its aftermath are subjected to further processes of securitisation, this may further impact world politics. If the virus continues to be an existential threat, social, economic, and political links may be distorted by the perception of danger. If travel between countries becomes impossible, as the risk of infection during transit appears too great, then trade routes will be cut and investment and tourism will be imperiled. This, in turn, could escalate into political and diplomatic tensions and conflict between countries who ban travel to certain countries and those who are thus affected.

Conclusions

IR theory cannot provide prepackaged forecasts or solutions about and for the world after the pandemic, but it can suggest further possible trends in world politics, depending on the theoretical assumptions each approach supports. Neorealism assumes conflict as the natural state of the world, and therefore predicts more conflict. Neoliberalism presupposes cooperation and foresees as much. Constructivism tells us that it is what we make of it, that nothing is predetermined, and what matters is the ideas and identities that come out of this pandemic. New liberals look inside the state and tell us that what matters is how domestic groups will be affected by the pandemic, while the Copenhagen School argues that the socially constructed understanding of threats will define much of the world after the pandemic. Who is right? Again, none and all at the same time. Every one of these theories provides a piece in the larger puzzle we know as world politics. Understanding what each of them has to offer and what its limits are can help practitioners to better understand what is happening and prepare better for tomorrow.

Relocating production from China to Central Europe? Not so fast!

Western European imports from central Europe have fallen dramatically, while imports from China fell much less, and had already recovered to pre-COVID level by April 2020. Central European governments should instigate new measures to foster the transition towards knowledge-intensive economic activities.

The COVID crisis caused a major setback to global trade and disrupted the functioning of global production networks. From the perspective of Central, Eastern and South Eastern European (CESEE) countries, this has raised the hope that Western European manufacturers will bring their suppliers from East Asia closer, potentially boosting investment in CESEE.

The volume of merchandise trade is expected to drop by almost 20% in the second quarter of 2020 compared to the same quarter of the previous year, the steepest decline on record according to the World Trade Organisation. Almost half of global trade is composed of intermediate goods for production, and there were companies in Europe and elsewhere which did not receive essential intermediate inputs for production during the height of the COVID crisis. Such disruptions to global trade and global production networks, or global value chains (GVCs), can call the benefits of globalisation into question, and might prompt companies to bring their suppliers closer. For Western European producers, the CESEE region would be a natural place to relocate their suppliers due to its geographical closeness. Relocation would boost investment in CESEE, which in turn could speed up the recovery from the corona-recession and support medium-term growth and jobs.

Foreign trade facts disappoint relocation hopes

However, recent trade data paint a sobering picture of such hopes: the imports of the first fifteen European Union member countries (EU15) declined the most from the CESEE region, while imports from China had reverted back to their 2019 level by April 2020, the latest available data at the time of writing (Figure 1). Imports from CESEE declined by a shocking 35%, while within the EU15 imports (such as German import from France and French import from Germany) declined by 30% on average by April. EU15 imports from the United States and Japan declined by about a quarter. The decline of EU15 imports from China had already started in February 2020, earlier than from the rest of the world, given that COVID-19 hit China first. Yet even at the lowest point in March 2020, the EU15’s imports from China was ‘just’ 16% lower than on average in 2019, while in April 2020 it had returned to the same level as in 2019. 

Figure 1: EU15 imports from different regions, euro billions at current prices, seasonally adjusted, 2019 average = 100

Source: author’s calculation, using bilateral trade data from the IMF’s Direction of Trade Statistics dataset (accessed on 6 August 2020), which includes US dollar values. Average euro/US dollar exchange rates from Eurostat were used to convert USD figures to euros. The euro values were seasonally adjusted using the X12 method. 

Note: EU15: first 15 members of the European Union. CESEE13: the 13 countries that joined the EU in 2004-2013.

Among the 13 CESEE countries, Slovakia was hit the hardest by its exports to the EU15 almost halving. Romania was the second hardest hit, followed by Hungary and the Czech Republic with about 40% export losses. At the other end, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania suffered from ‘just’ about 15% trade losses. 

Relocation would boost investment in CESEE, which in turn could speed up the recovery from the corona-recession and support medium-term growth and jobs.

The composition of EU imports from China shows that some product categories saw major increases, while others declined; however, several intermediate goods categories gained or did not suffer much from April 2019 to April 2020. The highest increases in April 2020 compared with the same month last year were recorded for automatic data processing machines (+€884 million, +33%), articles of apparel of textile fabrics (+€129 million, +36%) and electronic tubes, valves and related articles (+€92 million, +12%). (Textile articles include COVID-19 related products, such as textile face masks, surgical masks, disposable face masks and single use drapes). The largest decreases in absolute terms were observed for imports of footwear (-€254 million, -52%), telecommunications equipment (-€232 million, -6%) and baby carriages, toys, games and sporting goods (-€225 million, -28%). Other intermediate production inputs such as pumps, compressors, fans, electric power machinery and parts, motor vehicle parts fell less.

What can we make of these developments?

First, the limited fall and the quick rebound of EU15 imports from China is really remarkable, given that the economic activity and total imports of the EU15 was much lower in April 2020 than on average in 2019. Perhaps imports from China in April 2020 partially replaced imports from other countries suffering from COVID-related lockdowns. The rebound of imports from China suggests that East Asian supplier problems were short-lived; and from the perspective of disrupted supply chains, there is not much justification to relocate suppliers from East Asia to Europe. The adverse public health situation due to COVID-19 was addressed quickly in China, allowing suspended production and shipments to restart – and faster than in Europe. Such rapid control of the epidemic in China might even reinforce the reliability of Chinese suppliers.

The rebound of imports from China suggests that East Asian supplier problems were short-lived; and from the perspective of disrupted supply chains, there is not much justification to relocate suppliers from East Asia to Europe.

Second, while the CESEE countries are geographically close to consumer markets in the EU, they are still very far away for the value chains of some goods that are produced in China. For instance in ICT goods, the value chain is predominantly East Asian, so moving certain intermediate inputs from China to Europe would mean getting closer to the consumer but farther away from other suppliers. Replicating whole value chains in Europe seems to be a difficult and costly task.

Third, the lower decline of EU15 imports from the United States and Japan than from CESEE suggests that distance to Western Europe is not the primary determinant of trade flows, even in times of lockdowns and trade disruptions. The product composition of trade seems to be a more important factor. This again highlights that the geographic proximity of CESEE to Western Europe should not be overrated.

Fourth, the extent of trade losses depends on the sectoral and product composition of exports to EU15, including the mix of intermediate and final products. It seems that CESEE countries which are more integrated into Western European production networks, such as Slovakia, Romania and Hungary, suffered from larger declines in exports. Since the bulk of exports includes manufacturing products, export decline should coincide with industrial production decline. Indeed, industrial production fell the most (by about one third) from May 2019 to May 2020 in Slovakia, Hungary and Romania among EU member states, according to Eurostat. This suggests that greater participation in European value chains exposes an economy to greater variation in production, with associated consequences for employment and GDP growth.

Fifth, as industrial production recovers, so does trade. Eurostat data shows that industrial production started to recover from April to May 2020 since lockdowns were eased, and is expected to recover further in subsequent months. At the time of writing, the latest bilateral foreign trade data available is for April 2020. Hence the large drop in intra-EU trade by April is expected to correct itself, at least to some extent, over the coming months. It will be interesting to analyse whether intra-EU trade will recover as fast as EU15 imports from China, or whether it does so at a slower pace.

Greater participation in European value chains exposes an economy to greater variation in production, with associated consequences for employment and GDP growth.

And sixth, GVC-related trade also suffered much more in the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis than traditional trade, but it also recovered faster after 2009 (see Figure 1 here).

Thus, greater participation in GVCs exposes trade and production to greater variation, which can have adverse consequences for output, employment, government budget balances and many other indicators in times of economic shocks. Such adverse variation should certainly make CESEE policymakers think about their industrial policy strategies, although shorter-run (or cyclical risks) and longer-run structural impacts should also be jointly analysed.

Global value chain participation has longer-term benefits

Participation in GVCs has a number of longer-term benefits. As Richard Baldwin argues, emerging and developing countries with less developed industrial structures and smaller domestic markets can join the supply chains of firms from high-tech nations, instead of building such supply chains as Korea and Taiwan had to do over a long period of time, since these countries developed themselves before the GVC era. Joining GVCs since the mid-1980s has allowed less developed countries to embark on a faster-track development, specialising in certain tasks. 

A recent IMF study concludes that it is GVC-related trade, rather than conventional trade, which has a positive impact on income per capita and productivity, even though such gains appear more significant for upper-middle and high-income countries.

Such longer-term benefits have likely induced CESEE governments to attract as much foreign direct investment (FDI) as they can by offering the maximum amount of state aid which is possible in the EU, such as tax exemption for a decade, or financial support to train employees and reduce labour costs. FDI can foster participation in GVCs by local suppliers. The recent races between CESEE countries to attract prominent foreign manufacturers seem to suggests that this development strategy is set to continue. 

Most CEESEs have not moved up in the value chain

An important aspect of development is whether companies participating in GVCs gradually move up in the value chain: that is, whether the initial contributions to low-wage sectors are gradually replaced by higher value-added and higher technological-level production. The IMF study mentioned above finds unfavourable results for most CESEE countries, by analysing Germany’s auto supply chain: for the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia, the contributions of high and low technological-level sectors remained broadly the same between 2000 and 2013, suggesting there had been no moving up on the value chain. For Romania, in contrast, there has been a shift away from low-tech to more high-tech manufacturing. As regards non-EU countries, the study finds that China’s contribution to the German auto supply chain is showing a shift towards more high-tech services, while Russia’s contribution became more intensive in low-tech manufacturing due to the mining and quarrying sector.

The region’s advantage as a low-wage supplier of western European manufacturing networks is gradually diminishing.

Related indicators suggest similarly unsatisfactory progress for most CESEE countries. The European Union’s innovation scoreboard, which is measured using 27 performance indicators distinguishing between ten innovation dimensions in four main categories, concludes that with the sole exception of Estonia, CESEE countries rank well below the EU average in 2019. Moreover, the improvement in innovation performance from 2012 to 2019 in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Bulgaria and Slovakia was below the average improvement in the EU, and there was even a setback in innovation performance in Romania and Slovenia. CESEE countries do not rank highly in the World Economic Forum’s Innovation capability component of the Global Competitiveness Index either. Slovenia (28th), the Czech Republic (29th) and Estonia (34th) have the highest rankings in the CESEE out of 155 countries, while the lowest rankings in the CESEE region belong to Latvia (54th), Romania (55th) and Croatia (73rd). 

Overall, it seems that while participation in global value chains has brought major benefits to CESEE countries in terms of growth and jobs, it has not been associated with improved technological and innovation capabilities. This is a key problem, because with continuing fast wage growth and a deteriorating demographic outlook, the region’s advantage as a low-wage supplier of western European manufacturing networks is gradually diminishing. Most CESEE countries rank disappointingly in the World Economic Forum’s Skills ranking, which considers various indicators related to the current and future workforce, suggesting that the workforce is not up to the challenge of moving away from low-wage activities.

Sustained convergence requires transition towards knowledge-intensive economic activities

Sustained convergence toward western European productivity and living standards will be possible by moving up the value chain towards more knowledge-intensive activities. This, first and foremost, requires better education and research, which in turn necessitates higher public spending. 

For example, public expenditure on tertiary education is below 1% of gross national income in most CESEE countries, but around 1.5% or more in most northern and western European countries. In a forthcoming study we find a statistically significant correlation between public spending on universities and a number of educational result indicators. Primary and secondary education are equally important. As James Heckman argues, in disadvantaged families the highest rate of return in early childhood development comes from investing as early as possible, because skills beget skills in a complementary and dynamic way. There are many poor and disadvantaged families in CESEE. Secondary education, vocational training and lifelong learning are similarly crucial. 

Given the relatively low public debts of CESEE countries and their prospectively faster economic growth than in Western Europe (which will help their fiscal sustainability), it is surprising that these countries do not devote more resources to education and research. The COVID-19 economic shock and the associated collapse in trade should serve as a wake-up call for policymakers in CESEE countries. The existing economic model, which has fostered as much foreign direct investment as possible as well as greater participation in global value chains, has served its purpose, but it will soon run its course. Even a short-term boost cannot be expected from a hypothesised strategic reorganisation of suppliers from East Asia to CESEE. Instead, policies fostering upward movements on the values chain should be significantly stimulated.

Murder, Blackmail and Corruption: Why CEE needs the Magnitsky Act

What action can the CEE countries take against the “bad guys?” How to send out a clear message that political corruption, blackmail, organ trafficking, rape and other crimes have no place in our countries? And how can we protect ourselves from the worst criminals of the world?

The answer has three words: the Magnitsky Law. An unprecedented global initiative to pass legislation that would allow national governments to impose personal sanctions on human rights violators resembles a thriller movie more than anything.

Who was Sergey Magnitsky, the man whose name probably makes Vladimir Putin grind his teeth in anger? Why is there an undeclared hybrid war raging around this piece of legislation? And how can passing the legislation help the CEE region? 

The story of Sergey Magnitsky – an auditor who changed the world

Eleven years ago, in November 2009, Sergey Magnitsky died in a Russian prison. The reason was neither old age, nor an unfortunate deadly disease. He was tortured, denied medical care, eventually dying of a gall bladder infection. Until the very last moment, he did not stop believing in justice and the positive power of rule of law. Each week, he submitted lengthy official complaints about the state of his health and the way he was treated, requesting contact with his family and proper medical care. During 358 days in detention, he wrote over 400 complaints and petitions seeking justice.

His name is often mentioned together with Anna Politkovskaya and Boris Nemtsov, as a straightforward example of  yet another Russian who paid with his own life for fierce criticism of the Russian political regime. Yet Sergey Magnitsky was never a member of the Russian opposition. He was a lawyer and accountant, working for British billionaire businessman Bill Browder and his hedge fund Hermitage Capital Management, which was until 2004 the biggest foreign investor in Russia. Before his arrest, Magnitsky was investigating a 230 million dollar web of financial fraud, allegedly involving Russian government figures misappropriating funds related to companies which were confiscated from Browder by a criminal group with close ties to Kremlin representatives. His investigations were completely apolitical, purely business-motivated.

Yet in November 2008 three representatives from the Russian Interior Ministry arrested Magnitsky. Ironically, the Interior Ministry officials who arrested him worked for the same officer he testified against. A year later, Magnitsky died in prison. His death has become a symbol of the fight against corruption and the oppression of human rights all over the world. Magnitsky was a tax lawyer and auditor who changed the world, and one who may yet change it even more.

Putin’s Biggest Enemy and International Crusade for Passing the Magnitsky Act

Magnitsky’s death set in motion a spiral of events no one could have anticipated. However, if there was ever a man who could make the impossible possible, Magnitsky’s boss – Bill Browder – was a likely candidate. This billionaire with influential connections at the highest levels of global politics turned almost overnight from one of the biggest advocates of appeasement with the Russian regime and the biggest foreign investor in Russia into, as some call him, Putin’s number one enemy.

His motivation was quite straightforward: there were no legislative tools to bring criminals responsible for Magnitsky’s death to justice. So he decided to persuade the British and the American government to change the legal gamefield. Simply, this law imposes visa bans and asset freezes on individual human rights abusers — particularly those who played a role in Magnitsky’s false arrest, torture and death. However, eventually he decided to turn this into a global initiative, with the ultimate goal of persuading governments all over the world to implement their own version of a piece of legislation called the Magnitsky Act. Browder has spent the last nine years fiercely campaigning for the law, and his efforts are bearing fruit.

Explaining the Magnitsky Act

Proponents call it the first solely human rights violations-focused sanction mechanism in the world. The Magnitsky Act, specifically, is a piece of legislation allowing individual countries to impose personalised sanctions on individuals violating human rights anywhere in the world. The measures which can be implemented include the power to freeze bank accounts and other assets, and ban individuals from entering a given country.  As a result, the Magnitsky Act can be perceived as a tool to strengthen the foreign policy toolkit of individual countries. So far, seven countries have implemented the legislation: the US, Canada, the UK, and the three Baltic countries; the newest addition to this group is Kosovo, which passed the Magnitsky Act at the beginning of 2020.

However, it is not always sunny in the realm of human rights protection, and the piece of legislation does have a number of forceful critics too.

One of the strongest arguments against it concerns a fear of unnecessary antagonisation of Russia, while other critics call the legislation superfluous, given that there are already a number of recognised and effective international sanction regimes under the auspices of international organisations such as the European Union and the United Nations.

A final common argument against it is the altogether defeatist retort that “sanctions will not change anything.” Taking each of these in turn however, reveals these concerns as largely misplaced and unfounded.

a) Universal Human Rights Protection Tool

Russian President Vladimir Putin has called the law „a purely political and unfriendly act“. And just days after the US act was passed, Russia retaliated through deploying a number of countermeasures, including barring Americans from adopting Russian orphans.

More importantly however, even though the initiative was originally envisaged as a tool against a criminal group with close connections to Russian police and the ministry of finance, responsible for Magnitsky’s death, it has since developed much beyond that. Currently, sanctions apply to 148 individuals and entities suspected of human rights abuses and corruption worldwide.

The US government, for instance, has unilaterally imposed sanctions on 94 individuals and 102 entities from 24 countries, including South Sudan, Uganda, Iraq and Cambodia. Among the individuals listed, we find Myanmar officials responsible for the genocide of Rohingya; doctors and Chinese officials involved in illegal organ trafficking of Uyghurs; and warlords from Africa.

The most prominent individuals listed on the US Magnitsky sanctions list include: Chechen Leader Ramzan Kadyrov; the daughter of late Uzbek President Islam Karimov, Gulnara Karimova, who is involved in political corruption; 17 individuals involved in the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi; and, billionaire Israeli mining magnate Dan Gertler.

b) Targeted Sanctions Mechanism

To address the second counterargument, unlike many international sanctions regimes, the Magnitsky Act, by targeting individuals rather than entire countries or sectors, avoids ‘broad-brush’ sanctions that can disproportionately affect more vulnerable citizens in target states.

This targeted approach also enables the direct sanctioning of malicious individuals and networks, even from countries that are considered to be allies or crucial for broader foreign policy priorities. For instance, the 2017 and 2018 US Global Magnitsky sanctions listed above involved Saudi and Israeli nationals, individuals from countries which are strategic allies of the US and, thus, unlikely to be the subject of broader international financial sanctions.

It is true that the EU already has the power to impose sanctions to promote international peace and security, prevent conflict, fight terrorism and defend democratic principles and human rights. Sanctions can be imposed upon governments of third countries (as is the case of Iran, Burma, Venezuela and others), or non-state entities and individuals. However, this current mechanism seems to be insufficient in ever changing geopolitical environments, and the context of challenges that democracies must face.

The EEAS has already undertaken steps to prepare a new sanction mechanism based upon the same principle as the Magnitsky Act.

It is very likely though that the EU will decide to omit Magnitsky’s name, to avoid creating an impression that the law is primarily anti-Russian. This would go directly against the main idea behind the new EU sanctions regime proposal, which is to enable the EU to impose visa bans or to freeze the assets of individuals from any country in the world who commit serious human rights violations and abuses.

Among the proposed crimes that would trigger such sanctions are: extrajudicial, arbitrary or summary executions, enforced disappearances, torture and other cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment. If the law passes, this would send a strong message to those who may commit or be complicit in abuses that the financial centres and currencies of the world’s two largest economies (the EU and the US) are off limits.

Nevertheless, some EU member states still choose (or have chosen to) pass their own versions of the Magnitsky Act. One of the reasons for this might be that this piece of EU legislation is not without its flaws – the proposal only applies to human rights abuses and doesn’t cover corruption like the US version does.

The original version of the Magnitsky Act in the UK does not cover corruption either. The most likely explanation is that they prefer not to rely solely on the EU’s often slow and cumbersome foreign policy processes. Indeed, the Magnitsky Act can actually strengthen the foreign policy even of the member countries of the EU and make it less dependent on it. The Act enables national countries to pass sanctions more quickly and flexibly or pass them against those individuals whom a majority of EU members might not agree about.

c) Projecting Strong Global Message

It is important to maintain that the Act is not simply a symbolic ‘virtue signal’ of international law. Personalised sanctions are of course only one part of the anti-corruption puzzle, but they are an important tool in the arsenal. Such sanctions make it more difficult for criminals to launder illicit gains or continue to do such business in dollars, pounds or euros, the most common global currencies.

They will enable countries to freeze the bank accounts and assets of individuals within their own territories or local banks. They are a successful example of concrete action being taken against the corrupt and the worst human rights abusers, hitting them where it hurts the most – in their pocket. Indeed, as Browder himself states: “These types of individuals keep their money in the West, where property rights and rule of law exists. This led to the idea of the Magnitsky Act, which freezes assets and bans visas of human rights violators.”

Additionally, the inconvenience of being denied entry to the US, Canada, UK or the EU is also a significant penalty, as is the considerable stigma that comes with being sanctioned. Australia, for instance, is currently considering setting a new precedent in its version of the Magnitsky Act, by also including family members of targeted individuals into travel bans, such as children wanting to study at private schools and universities or parents seeking to go to hospitals.

In the words of Elaine Pearson, director of UN Human right watch: “By joining other countries with similar laws, Australia will be sending a strong message to abusive leaders everywhere that there are far-reaching consequences for their actions.”

Implementation in the CEE space

For Magnitsky-type laws to be effective and to have a meaningful impact, it is crucial that more states join in and introduce an equivalent of the Magnitsky Act. Besides the EU, Australia and Sweden, three countries in the CEE region are currently taking steps to pass the law: the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Romania. What then must these countries do, in order to successfully implement the Magnitsky Act, and ensure that its detractors are proven wrong?

Czech Republic: a one-man crusade

In the Czech Republic, the crusade to get the legislation passed has largely taken the form of a one-man show. The legislation is currently being advocated for by one Member of the Czech Parliament – member of the Czech Pirate Party, vice chairman of the committee on defence and the foreign affairs committee, Jan Lipavský. The Minister of Foreign Affairs, social-democrat Tomáš Petříček, a supporter of the EU version of the Magnitsky Act, seems reluctant to embrace a Czech version of the legislation. This could be, at least in part, a result of political pressure from his own political party and from the Czech president, both of which are known for their closeness to autocratic regimes such as Russia and China.

The Pirate Party is in opposition and therefore has very limited options to get any piece of legislation passed. This means that the chances for passing and implementing the Magnitsky Act by the end of the current political mandate in October 2021 are very slim, to say the least. Similarly to the EU approach, Mr. Lipavský has also decided to omit the name “Magnitsky” in the title and simply name it “The Law on Human Right Protection.” Primarily, because it is against the Czech common practice to name laws after people. Secondly, for reasons akin to the EU’s; to avoid allegations of intentionally targeting only Russian officials.

Slovakia: an outsider agenda

For Slovakia, the Magnitsky Act bears a unique meaning. Until this day, Slovakia is the only country from the CEE region which has a citizen who has been directly targeted by the Magnitsky Act. The US administration has decided to add to its sanction list Marián Kočner, a Slovak oligarch who is directly responsible for the murder of Slovakian investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancee Maria Kušnírová in early 2018. Similarly to the Czech Republic, Slovakia also supported the European version of the Magnitsky Act.

Nevertheless, Slovak political representatives have indicated their interest in the Magnitsky Act before the decision made by Washington. Like in the Czech Republic, the main driving force behind the legislation was a group of MPs led by a member of the Slovak Parliament and leader of the Political Party “Together”, Miroslav Beblavý. One of the promises he made during the political campaign was the promise of passing this legislation if re-elected. During the late February 2020 parliamentary elections, the coalition of liberal parties Together and Progressive Slovakia did not pass the threshold for entering the parliament. With no other political party having the implementation of the Magnitsky Law on its agenda, it is very unlikely that there will be any significant progress on this matter in the foreseeable future.

Romania: a victim of political power play

Out of the three CEE countries in question, the Magnitsky Law proposal got the furthest in Romania, being presented on the floor of the Romanian Senate. The main initiators of this legislation were three members of the Save Romania Union (USR); Adrian Prisnel, Iulian Bulai, and Cristian Ghinea.

Fighting corruption is the most important topic for the third biggest Romanian party and so it made sense for the USR to make this human rights initiative their own. New sanctions were to be made more “flexible” than the older, country-based ones, and were therefore predicted to have a “strong psychological effect” on the abusers. The main punishment was supposed to be the visa ban and asset freeze.

However the proposal was primarily focused on severe human rights abuses. Similarly to the UK and EU Magnitsky Acts, the Romanian proposal did not list corruption as a crime. However, this might come as a surprise for many observers, given that the proposal came from the so-called “anti-corruption” party.

When the three MPs submitted their proposal to the Committee on Foreign Affairs of Romanian Senate in April 2019, they may have expected a positive reaction from fellow MPs. This was partly because, in 2018, 43 Romanian MPs signed a petition urging the government to adopt a ‘Magnitsky Act’, imposing sanctions on human rights abusers. It was also because the draft had been signed as a sign of support by 33 MPs out of 136, most of them from their own faction, but also by three deputies from the ruling Social Democratic Party and two from the National Liberal Party, the second largest party. Thus, there was an indication of broader support. However, the draft was finally declined by the Committee and only members of the USR ended up supporting it.

In the Romanian case, some claim that the Magnitsky Law became a victim of political power play. Indeed, it may well have been viewed by other Romanian political forces as a potential internal political weapon in political battles with the Social Democrat Party and in the ongoing attempt by the USR to take over support from the National Liberal Party, while also reinforcing its position in its tenuous alliance with the PLUS party, another reformist entity led by former European Commissioner and technocrat Prime Minister Dacian Cioloș.

Another possible explanation is that maneuvering against the proposal may also have simply been an attempt to prevent further antagonising Russia, with relations between the two countries at their lowest point in decades and dialogue practically non-existent. However, the USR was not completely discouraged by their loss. In January 2020, the leadership of the USR announced that they would seek to reintroduce a new version of the law.

There has been no progress on this matter ever since. Partially also because according to some, there is a sense that institutions like the DNA (Anti-Corruption Directorate) are strong enough to handle corruption, including transborder.

Also, the state had shown the will in the past to sanction individuals, such as denying Dmitri Rogozin the right to transit Romanian air space. In conclusion, there is very little urgency or impulse to the Magnitsky act and it is very unlikely it will resurface in a foreseeable period of time.

Why it matters

There are also key reasons, specific to the CEE region, for passing this piece of legislation. Primarily, it is about enhancing an international order based on universal values, which is equipped with mechanisms for preventing their extortion.

CEE countries stand to gain from a rules-based order that has powerful enforcement mechanisms, as opposed to a more transactional system, where their negotiating power is likely to be limited. A piece of legislation strengthening their foreign policy in the name of human rights is an epitome of such an order and a logical addition to a national diplomatic toolkit of post-Soviet countries.

At a more profound level, the Magnitsky package, with its both human rights and anti-corruption dimensions, should become part of an expanded arsenal of tools to compete in the 21st century geopolitical arena. Creatively used, it can simultaneously be leveraged for deterrence purposes, but also for lawfare especially against those foreign adversaries that instrumentalise corruption to manoeuvre, exploit and weaponise certain vulnerabilities within the CEE space. The region is particularly prone to malign foreign interference via corruption, clientelism and lack of transparency. The comprehensive Magnitsky legislation could be seen as an important step in enhancing regional resilience to hybrid operations.

CEE: a hybrid target
Recent years have seen frequent hybrid operations intent on meddling in the internal affairs of CEE countries on the part of both Russia and China, clearly indicating that neither of them respects the sovereignty of the CEE region countries. Such influence operations include, but are not limited to, strategic corruption, espionage, blackmail, performed through hacking, as well as other forms of cyber attacks, including the spread of hostile propaganda and disinformation in both the public and virtual space – with a recent spike since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. We can recall attempts of espionage in Poland from Chinese-owned Huawei in 2019, the attempted state coup in Montenegro in 2017, and the attempted assassination of Emilian Gebrev in Bulgaria, to name but a few. Or the very recent “Koněv affair” where the decision of the local government of Prague 6 to remove an old statue of Soviet Marshall Koněv from a square in Prague led to a chain of disinformation campaigns, cyber attacks, and the activation of Czech far-left and far-right civil actors.

Human Security Carving Itself Out in a (Post)COVID-19 World

States have traditionally dominated the orthodox concept of security. This is not without reason, as history attests to an international community ravaged by deadly wars, with the two World Wars as probably the most infamous examples. Given the ever-present possibility of threats from external aggressors, the notion of (in)security has been heavily associated with states.

But amidst the ongoing health crisis, this pandemic has clearly demonstrated that security is indeed a far more complex notion than nuclear threats and military build-ups. A non-state threat, such as a microscopic virus, can very much threaten and erode a nation’s sense of security.

COVID-19 has taught the world how closely societies are interwoven with one another, and it has highlighted that the international community is only as strong as its weakest link. It is within this context that the world’s great powers will have to play a critical role for the necessary international cooperation that would aid the entire globe and enable other countries to be assisted in a more effective manner.

In fact, the world just might have become aware that its default security paradigm needs to change, and focus more on living human beings rather than states and institutions.

Reshaping the security framework

With the push for a greater understanding of human needs and the emergence of other, equally pressing phenomena such as climate change, migration, health issues and the rise of Information Technology, the concept of security has been expanded and intertwined with the concept of human development. Human development pertains to the broadening of people’s choices, while human security involves protecting people’s freedoms to exercise those choices.

In 1982, the Independent Commission on Disarmament and Security Issues articulated the first stretch of the idea of security beyond a state-centric conceptualisation and military-heavy approach when it proposed to incorporate the well-being of people. The concept of human security, however, was only formally defined and enshrined in 1994 in the United Nations Development Programme’s publication, the Human Development Report, which puts forward a holistic vision of security that incorporates not only state-security and military solutions but also lays emphasis on the forgotten needs of human beings.

Hinged on three pillars – the freedom from fear, freedom from want, and freedom from indignity – human security advocates an expanded notion of security that involves different facets (security, economic, food, environmental, personal, community, political, and health) and fields (security studies, international relations, development studies, human rights, among others), and locates it at all levels (global, regional, national, local).

Expanding the notion of security resonates greatly at the individual level because, after all, a sense of insecurity may easily arise in the face of hunger, disease, or repression, and not necessarily from a war – although these could be tightly interwoven in some occasions.

Security beyond conflicts and weapons

By the end of July, the John Hopkins Corona Virus Resource Center has reported that the outbreak of the coronavirus, known officially as the Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) has already yielded 16,747,268 confirmed infections and claimed 660,593 deaths at the global scale. What started as a pneumonia of unknown cause detected in Wuhan, China, as the World Health Organisation’s Office in China reported on 31 December 2019, rapidly spread across borders in a very short time.

Further still, the consequences of this pandemic extend beyond the boundaries of health. Lockdowns causing a halt to business operations and goods transfers have triggered a global recession. CleverMaps, a spatial data analytics company displaying the number of COVID-19 cases alongside the expected economic impact on GDP, shows that the change over time in terms of economic effect from 22 January to 2 June 2020 is a loss in filtered time of US$152,952,074,798, with the United States of America, the United Kingdom, France, Italy, and Spain as the top five countries incurring economic losses.

In terms of the impact on the labour market, millions of workers have been directly affected by the lockdown. Although some have been able to continue their work through remote working arrangements, many have experienced temporary unemployment, the reduction or total loss of their livelihood. Upon the onset of the spread of COVID-19 at the beginning of this year, around 190 million people across the world were already unemployed, and the lockdowns, whether partial or full, have only intensified these.

At present, the disruption in work has affected 2.7 billion workers, which is equivalent to four out of every five members of the world’s workforce. Those in the informal sector are among the most vulnerable in the labour market, with 1.6 billion being drastically impacted by the lockdowns.

Unemployment is linked to the concept of relative poverty, which the International Labour Organisation defines as “the proportion of workers with monthly earnings that fall below 50 per cent of the median earnings in the population”, a figure that is estimated to increase by almost 34 percentage points globally for informal workers, 21 percentage points for upper-middle-income countries, and 56 percentage points for lower-middle-income countries.

Juxtaposed to the economic woes are mental health issues that have been triggered or magnified by the crisis. As pointed out by the World Health Organisation, past pandemics escalated the number of people dealing with mental health issues, resulting in suicide or substance abuse.

A recent study published in Lancet Psychiatry about the psychiatric consequences of coronavirus infections (including SARS, MERS, and COVID-19) reveals that patients have experienced confusion, depressive moods and insomnia during acute illnesses, and insomnia, anxiety, irritability, traumatic disorders and sleep disorders in the post-illness stage. Other forms of violence have also increased rapidly, including the intensification of domestic abuse. Although there are still no comprehensive reports on intimate partner violence due to the pandemic, there are already reports from the United States, China, Canada and Turkey, among others, pointing to increased rates of domestic violence.

As some groups of people may feel neglected or excluded, this situation could potentially lead to or aggravate ongoing conflicts, whereby the possibilities of such are broader in the poorer and more vulnerable countries in the world.

It is within this context that armed groups, terrorists and organised criminals might take advantage of the pandemic to further their cause.

Another area that the impact of COVID-19 is infiltrating is the political arena. The pandemic has started to incur democracy deficits as government officials politicise the pandemic and government agencies scale down their operations.

In the US, President Donald Trump’s allies have exhibited favouritism by extending coronavirus contracts based partly on personal relationships. In India, Muslim minorities have been scapegoated during the pandemic, as  Muslims have been specifically accused of spreading the virus.

In the Philippines, press freedom has been further curtailed with more restrictive measures imposed during the pandemic such as intimidation, surveillance, red tagging, and restriction of movement for journalists.

Human security first

That being said, this ongoing pandemic has driven home the point of the pressing need to strive for integral human security. The traditional realist concept of security tends to put a premium on military security, which tries to anticipate imminent external threats posed by other states.

It stresses the conflictual and competitive context of the international system, due to an anarchic nature that pushes states to act out of their own self-interest and struggle for power.

The security threat imposed by COVID-19 departs from the orthodox notion of security that heavily locates it at the level of the state and associates it with inter-state conflict.

This pandemic has pushed states to fight a different kind of foe – a plague – whereby large-scale investments in arms and ammunitions are of no use. As weapons lie idle, this lethal pandemic has ‘attacked’  the health sector, which has proven itself to be unprepared as it suffers from shortages of hospital beds, masks and doctors.

This situation has, in turn, rapidly and violently affected economic, political, social and personal aspects of life. Over the past few months, shattering events such as deaths, hunger and economic meltdown have truly tested the state-centric notion of state security.

What started as a health risk has leaked into all other spheres of society, posing threats and disrupting the lives of numerous individuals and communities. 

This crisis has shown that human security is relevant across countries, whether from the so-called North or South, East or West, developed or developing state.

Crises such as this demonstrate that security threats are no longer isolated events cooped up solely within the borders of one country. The impact of this kind of security threat travels around the world and threatens the whole community.

In spite of the coronavirus being an equal threat for everyone, there have been unequal responses from states, highlighting the asymmetrical consequences of the virus.

With rising intra- and inter-national polarisation and power rivalry in the twenty-first century, this has impeded the much-needed close cooperation among states. It has demonstrated that the international community is unprepared to wage this kind of war.

Preparing for other kinds of security threats demands building friendly relations among countries with variegated social systems, as well as investment in the longer term in development support. Short-term and ad hoc humanitarian assistance can never substitute for the development of robust institutions across countries.

Efforts to fortify human security require states to synergise their resources in order to fight off these new threats. Collective problems need a united struggle in order to confront these cross-boundary issues.

Given the devastating impact of this disease that the whole world is grappling with, this current pandemic has drawn attention to the other security frontiers that need attention as well. The crisis has offered ample opportunities to revisit the notion of security in general by focusing on it through the lens of human security.

This pandemic has demonstrated that hinging security on state security alone will leave individual states and the global community in a precarious position if it is not tied to the security of individuals and does not incorporate inter-state cooperation. It regards how other facets of life impinge on the life of an individual person, not just locating it at the state level.

This is not to suggest that national security be brushed aside, but the concept of human security offers us the opportunity to consider all major aspects of security and thereby expand the understanding of security. COVID-19 can help us situate human security in a meaningful context by expanding the discourse on human development, which can only be done through authentic international cooperation.

The integral concept of human security provides both the language and the arena to re-evaluate mankind’s most urgent vulnerabilities and threats to its survival. COVID-19 has shown that health security is a vital area that permeates other facets in society whereby prioritising and putting the needs of people at the heart of discourses and policies serves as a game-changing paradigm.

Maria Pilar Lorenzo is a development professional and researcher based in Belgium. Her research areas focus on governance (regional governance, administration, public sector innovations) and development issues (social (in)equity, human development, higher education). She is currently a fellow of the Regional Academy on the United Nations, a Research Associate of the Philippine Society for Public Administration, and a Research Affiliate of the Asian Society for Public Administration. She is currently completing a Master of Arts in International Politics from the Katholieke Universiteit (KU) Leuven in Belgium, and she holds an Advanced Master of Science in Cultural Anthropology and Development Studies from KU Leuven as a VLIR-UOS scholar, and Master of Public Administration from University of the Philippines (UP).