Samir Saran is president of Observer Research Foundation (ORF), one of Asia’s most influential think tanks.
Europe is, paradoxically, the single most important geography that will define the future trajectory of the global order, because it has its foundations rooted in democratic principles and is currently the only power that can push the world towards a liberal trajectory, Samir Saran, President of the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), one of Asia’s most influential think tanks, told Eastern Focus in a video interview. We discussed the world’s “silly season”, the emerging global order and how, absent a hegemonic United States, “which has ceased to be a superpower ten years ago, with the financial crisis”, it is up to middle powers, including Central and Eastern Europe or the Asian countries of the Quad (India, Australia, Japan) to put up a united front to defend democracy in the face of a rising China.
Saran curates the Raisina Dialogue, India’s annual flagship platform on geopolitics and geo-economics, and chairs CyFy, India’s annual conference on cyber security and internet governance. He is also a Commissioner of The Global Commission on the Stability of Cyberspace, member of the South Asia advisory board of the World Economic Forum, and a part of its Global Future Council on Cybersecurity. He is also the Director of the Centre for Peace and Security at the Sardar Patel Police University, Jodhpur, India.
He writes frequently on issues of global governance, climate change, energy policy, global development architecture, artificial intelligence, cyber security, internet governance, and India’s foreign policy and authored four books, the latest of which is called ‘The New World Disorder’.
“It’s the do it or lose it moment for Europe”
“For me, the most important unknown unknown is the future of Europe. Will the EU hold?, Saran told Eastern Focus. “Which way will the wind blow in the continent? Will it really be the bastion of the liberal order or will the liberal order be buried?”
He says that Europe is at a crossroads and because it is seen as democratic, liberal, open, pluralist, supporting a transparent and open market economy, defending the rule of law, defending the right of individuals and freedom of speech, Europe can give the world a chance to be liberal. “If the European Union is split between the north and south and east and west, and we see a large part of it give up on the Atlantic project, the liberal project, and align itself with more impressive authoritarian regimes – which is quite tempting these days, there’s a lot of money attached to that choice -, you will see the end of the Atlantic project. An EU that is not united in its ethics is an EU that will eventually write its own demise.
How will Europe swing? Will it be an actor, or will it be acted upon?
I think that a political EU may be born as the pandemic ends. If a political EU is not born, I will see the end of the European Union itself,” Saran says.
He also points out that Europe has made a mistake in thinking that it would change China by engaging with it. “China will change the EU before the EU changes China,” he explained. “Beijing is not interested in politics, it wants your markets. And it will have them, one way or another.”
“Europe needs to see itself as an Indo-Pacific power. The Indo-Pacific is the frontline for European safety,” he insisted. “If China is able to change south-east Asia, don’t be surprised if Europe has the same fate”.
Central and Eastern Europe swinging between the EU and China
Central and East European countries can be decisive and could form a bridge between the EU and Asian players. If only they wanted to take that path, Saran explains. “The choice for CEE is between becoming a bridge between East and West or becoming the venue of conflict.”
Central and Eastern Europe is facing two types of pressures and both are of an economic nature. On the one hand, the CEE countries are struggling to boost their economies and increase their income per capita by finding investment. “[They] will have to meet [their] aspirations while being political about it and worrying about the colour of the money,” he stresses.The second pressure is the nature of economic growth: are CEE countries going to continue to be cheap manufacturing centers for Europe, or will they switch towards becoming advanced technology societies? “Are you going to be the rule-makers of the fourth industrial revolution or the rule-takers?”
India – CEE cooperation “These are the choices you have to make and I think here India becomes an actor. We have experience with these things over the last 20 years. We are also one of the swing states that would decide the new world order, we have lived this and maybe we can share our experiences with you.”GlobalFocus Center, the Observer for Research Foundation (India) and Keynote (Czechia) initiated the Central Europe – India Forum, whose first online meeting took place in June. CEIF will be a forum to explore avenues of cooperation between CEE and India in socio-economic, political and security arenas.
Industrial growth becoming “intimate” “People are going to make far more political decisions going forward. That is one reality the pandemic teaches us. As we become more digital societies, […] your arenas of value creation are going to be your bedrooms. And you wouldn’t like to share those data sets with countries whose systems you do not trust. It’s going to be about the organs inside our bodies, how we eat, how we date, how we elect, whom we elect…”
The first global crisis without Captain America
Saran explains that middle powers from across all regions need to take matters into their own hands if they decide to keep dwelling in a liberal system. “The old power [the US] is absent and engrossed in its own domestic realities, and you have the new power [China] that has been irresponsible and has put us in this position,” he said.
“This tells us that building a coalition of middle powers is absolutely essential. It is not a luxury, it is not a choice. This is something we must invest in for our own existential reasons.”
“So we have a democratic failure at one end, and a despotic emergence at the other end and we need to make sure that democracy survives despite this moment. None of us wants a ‘no China world’ because we all benefit from China’s growth; we want a responsible China world. [we need to] put up a united front and not negotiate individually, but as a group,” he insisted.
“The EU has done this longer than anyone else and that’s why the Chinese don’t like the EU and they want to slice you up”.
Saran also points out that, from an Indian perspective, Russia needs to be given more room in European thinking, so Moscow wouldn’t be pushed into the Chinese corner. “It would be a mistake to leave Russia no option but to partner with the Chinese, even if Russia’s neighbours may not find it palatable,” “We have to understand that Russia is not China, and that China is taking hegemony to a different level. Russia has a small economy and a huge military, there is an imbalance there; so we have to create economic incentives for the Russians, give them a stake in our common economic future.”
The genesis of the book goes back to February 1993 with the confirmation hearing of James Woolsey as director of the CIA. At the time he captured well the strategic Zeitgeist of the emerging unipolar era – “we have slain a large dragon, but we live now in a jungle filled with a bewildering variety of poisonous snakes. And in many ways the dragon was easier to keep track of.” Today, the dragons (Russia and China) are back again.
Robert Kagan was talking about the (geopolitical) jungle that grows back. Your latest book has more of a Game of Thrones (GOT) vibe: the return of the dragons. In short, from GWOT [Global War on Terrorism] to GOT. The emerging changes to the character of war, the ways in which the dragons are practising warfare are at the core of your new book. Based on your observations, how did the character of contemporary war change?
The book is about military adaptation. It’s about how both state and non-state adversaries responded to us in the period since the Cold War. We created the fitness landscape within which all of our adversaries are adapting, and the event that created that was the 1991 Gulf War. It showed everybody how not to fight the US. The next big event was the 2003 invasion of Iraq that showed everybody that you can fight the US and you can succeed, but you need a completely different model – small modular low-profile groups that operate autonomously among people in a protracted conflict. What we’ve seen in the 17 years since we invaded Iraq is that adversaries have learned from each other and also reacted to the environment that we created by avoiding and going around our conventional strength.
Today we live in a security environment where the dragons operate and fight like snakes (embracing non-state types of activities like cyber-militias, subversion, political warfare) and where the snakes have acquired the capabilities of traditional dragons and sometimes fight like a state. That poses for us a dilemma going forward. If we are thinking about the future of war, we can’t just decide to stop worrying about terrorism and to get out of dealing with the snakes, because that threat is real. We can’t just go for great power competition, because we are dealing with hyper-empowered non-state actors that now have access to all kinds of technology and capability that didn’t exist a decade ago. We can’t just ignore that. By the same token we can’t continue to primarily focus on non-state actors, because states have adapted and evolved specifically to exploit our tunnel vision on terrorism since 2003. I emphasise 2003 rather than 2001, because it was the invasion of Iraq that got us bogged down, not so much Afghanistan. The 2003 moment highlighted the limits of the Western way of war – a very high-tech precision-centric approach that emphasizes battlefield dominance and is characterised by a narrow focus on combat.
What we’ve got to do is cover a much broader range of threats with a much more agile approach, which suggests to me a lighter footprint, with greater emphasis on agile responses to a wider variety of threats in a wider variety of places. We have to become more capable of dealing with both state and non-state threats at the same time and in many of the same places. In Syria, for example, we have significant non-state threats but also state adversaries that are playing a multi-level game. That is actually pretty typical and is happening in many of today’s operating environments. The traditionally neat distinction between conventional and unconventional warfare is breaking down and we are going to need forces that are cheaper, more agile, more modular and are able to respond in a seamless fashion to a wider variety of threats. We need to be swing-role: a multi-role aircraft can do multiple missions but can do only one mission at a time, while swing-role aircraft can seamlessly shift in mid-mission to a different type of task. That is the kind of mindset that we need to be emphasising – forces that can do not only multiple things, but can transition seamlessly among tasks in the middle of a mission.
Chinahas dramatically broadened its definition of warfare beyond what we consider to be war.
Is this more along the lines of what general Charles Krulak was arguing in the 1990s with his three-block war concept (humanitarian, peacekeeping, high intensity), shifting from one to another, but with a new dimension – great power competition?
It is beyond the three-block war. It is more like 16-block war with multiple domains – cyber, space, political and economic warfare, alongside the physical and electromagnetic domains. One of the points I make about China is that we are dealing with an adversary that has dramatically broadened its definition of warfare beyond what we consider to be war. In fact, what they do in practice is to mobilise multiple dimensions of national power that are way beyond our traditional military domains. Even if we could conceive of a lot of what the Chinese are doing as warlike, it is not clear that the Ministry of Defence of any Western country would be in charge of the response. We need to think carefully about reconceptualising what we mean by war.
Russian way of warfare
I think one important question that should be raised is what did the dragons learn from the snakes of the post 9/11? I mean the attacks on cohesiveness and legitimacy, subverting the rules of the road, shaping hearts and minds, the grievances they are cultivating and exploiting – all are features reminding of an insurgent repertoire. To me the dragons of the day behave like insurgents, they are really insurgent powers trying to overhaul a certain type of international order.
The clearest example here are the Russians that in the Western Military District have actively copied ISIS models of warfare to create super-light brigades that operate in a distributed fashion with small combat teams and a weapons mix similar to what we’ve seen from ISIS [Islamic State of Iraq and Syria]. They have directly copied the ISIS manoeuvre model in the way they are operating. Another example is also Russian: Moscow fielded a wide array of autonomous and new armoured systems into the Syrian campaign, learned important lessons and triggered a series of adaptations based on that operational experience.
In the book, following Stephen Rosen, I draw a distinction between wartime and peacetime adaptation. When you are in wartime adaptation mode, it’s a process of unconscious evolution (and actually co-evolution) between you and the adversary. Wartime adaptation is a direct response to enemy action and one result is that over time you come to resemble your adversaries. The process works both ways: states are borrowing non-state techniques and applying them in their own ways as an enabler to conventional military operations, while non-state groups are borrowing from states. One example is the way that Hezbollah evolved from a classical resistance movement to a regional actor that operates more like a state (both in the 2006 war against Israel, and later in Syria supporting Assad), combining conventional and irregular methodologies. Another example is the way we operate now in Afghanistan with CT [counterterrorism] pursuit teams that work on the ground in ways that are very similar to how the Taliban operate. It is one example of us evolving to look like the adversary. The flip side of this is that the modern Taliban, and in fact ISIS during the fighting in Iraq and Syria look a lot like us – the way they operate with artillery, tanks and vehicles in a light cavalry swarm. They are adapting to look like us. In a co-evolution environment we are in a tit-for-tat adaptive process with adversaries.
By contrast, in a peacetime environment – and this applies to all the countries that haven’t been so heavily involved in the War on Terrorism: Russia, China, North Korea and Iran – they were free to sit back, watch us struggle, identify strengths and weaknesses in our approach, come up with concepts to enable them to improve and build capabilities that would counteract Western dominance. In the case of Russia it’s a bit of a combination – they watched us struggle in 2003 and learned a lot from that, but they also had their own adaptive learning curve from the internal conflicts in Georgia, North Caucasus or Ukraine.
Is fighting at the edges – a new type of out-manoeuvring and out-competing the West?What does a liminal warfare playbook like the one practised by Russia entail in a frontline ecosystem?
Liminal means threshold. Liminal warfare is about threshold manipulation. It is a style of warfare that the Russians in particular have perfected, which is about riding the edge of observability, surfing the threshold of detectability so a lot of their activity is literally sub-liminal (“below the threshold” of perception), and we don’t even notice what is happening. They manipulate their signature so as to only pop up into the ambiguous zone of operations long enough to achieve very specific short term goals and then to drop back down into the sub-liminal environment before we can respond. It is about manipulating their own signature, it’s about creative ambiguity and it’s about time – operating in the blur of the “gray zone” and surging rapidly to achieve key objectives and quickly getting back below the threshold of response before we can react.
There a few techniques that they apply. For example, reflexive control, a theory with a long history in the Russian political warfare. Another is decisive shaping, where the decisive phase of operation is not the manoeuvre phase, but the pre-manoeuvre shaping phase. Some Russian strategists want to win the operation before the first tank rolls or before the first airstrike goes in. If they don’t believe they already won, the tanks will never roll. That means that a lot of liminal warfare is political warfare, economic warfare, weaponisation of oil and gas, the use of special forces in very small numbers to work with local groups, and then rapid strike ops.
At the core of liminal warfare is the integration of political, economic, legal, military, intelligence, cyber into a single seamless mix of activity emphasising the shaping before the operation.
In the lead-up to the Georgian campaign in 2008, the Russians engaged in a “passportisation” program where they offered any Russian-speaking Georgian citizen a Russian passport. They did that for months before the operation. By the time the operation began they had a very large number of newly-created Russian citizens inside Georgia and were able to invoke the responsibility to protect their own citizens. This whole shaping phase happened before the operation began. When we think about the manipulation of oil and gas in the Crimea operation in February 2014, mid-winter, Russian political warfare was heavily focused on targeting Germany to prevent NATO from reacting. A big part of that campaign was to say to the Germans, do you really want to pick a fight with Russia in the middle of winter, when you depend on Russian oil and gas to provide heating to a majority of German population? At the core of liminal warfare is the integration of political, economic, legal, military, intelligence, cyber into a single seamless mix of activity emphasising the shaping before the operation. All built on the idea of escalating to de-escalate: they move quickly to seize a key objective early on, presenting an enemy with a fait accompli and later de-escalate their rhetoric in order to negotiate from a position of strength. Crimea is the perfect example of this. While “escalate to de-escalate” is an idea that originally came from Russian nuclear strategy (although Russia watchers disagree whether a formal doctrine in this sense ever existed), they’ve applied it in many other fields of activity since then.
Chinese way of warfare
So South China Sea, maritime and land Silk Roads, key strategic acquisitions in the West, A2/AD posture, 5G – what is the essence of the Chinese way of warfare?
The Chinese way of war is about “conceptual envelopment”, expanding the concept of war to the point where they are able to manoeuvre in a space that is outside of our definition of conflict. In contrast with the Russians, who favour a more vertical type of escalation, the Chinese embrace horizontal escalation by expanding the spectrum of competition and confrontation to the point that battlefield is everywhere and warfare is everything. In this sense, controlling the means of technology – 5G systems, strategic real estate purchases, ports and harbours all over the world, controlling certain kinds of supply-chain and critical infrastructure investments, these are all described in the 1999 Unrestricted Warfare (written by Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui) as non-military war operations. The two colonels dramatically broaden the definition of war going beyond battlefield dominance, emphasising “trans-military” and “non-military war operations” by leveraging society and the international system to achieve a military goal with non-military means. The authors of that document talk about combination strategies that mix lethal and non-lethal, military and non-military means (including criminal networks or civil organisations) bringing into play a whole variety of competitions and combining them in a seamless architecture, similarly to what we’ve been talking about with the Russians.
In contrast with the Russians, who favour a more vertical type of escalation, the Chinese embrace horizontal escalation by expanding the spectrum of competition and confrontation to the point that battlefield is everywhere and warfare is everything.
There are three broad strands in the Chinese way of war. One is Unrestricted Warfare, which later became the Three Warfares doctrine in 2006 – cyber warfare, public opinion/information warfare and lawfare. The second is the change of China from being a land-based power (which it has been since the middle of the 16th century) to being both a maritime and land power. This is a gigantic transformation. When Xi Jinping came to power, one of his first military announcements talked about the imperative to move away from the idea that the land is more important than the sea and become a real maritime power. It’s incredibly important to understand the geopolitical implications for the global security environment of China going from being a land power to now challenging the US at sea in the Western Pacific, building a militarised archipelago of islands in the South China Sea and bases elsewhere, toward being able to project power globally. The third is the conventional modernisation of Chinese land forces, which goes along cyber, space, and long-range precision fires, as well as advanced manoeuvre forces and special forces, and “informationalisation” of battle networks. If you contrast Russian with Chinese developments, Russia has a small, but very capable set of niche assets at the high end of the technology spectrum. The Chinese, in contrast, are doing high-tech at scale.
There is a sense of overlapping, in both theory and practice, between the Chinese URW [Unrestricted Warfare] and how Gerasimov is framing warfare. Do the dragons learn from each other? In the end, both are building A2/AD [Anti Access/Area Denial] zones in their immediate proximity or creating new facts on the ground (the bridge linking Russia with Crimea, the artificial islands) that give them the opportunity to claim entire regions (Azov Sea or the South China Sea).
We know that the Russians and the Chinese have exercised together, jointly, over the past few years, that they share information and compare notes. I don’t think it is clear that they are consciously collaborating, but I do think that like every other adversary that we have, they are all responding to a similar set of circumstances that we created, and even if they are coming from different starting points, they are co-evolving in a way that makes them to begin looking increasingly similar to each other. Yes, there is some collaboration, but in some ways it is more interesting than that conceptually, because they are independently co-evolving towards similar solutions, with a similar set of challenges. There is also a very significant element of territorial/spatial expansion in the way that both Russia and China think about what they are trying to do. We tend to think in a very manoeuvre-centric way, they tend to think in terms of shaping and in a spatial control way.
Obviously, China and Russia have a very different set of strategic circumstances. China is a rising power that is trying to cement its role as a major global player, whereas Russia is a power that is in a long-term decline. What the Russians are trying to do is create a sort of trade space, where they can expand their capabilities now while they still can, so that they have something to trade later, when China in particular becomes a major threat to them. One of the paradoxes here is that China and Russia are currently cooperating with each other against the West, but in the long term they are actually potential adversaries and geopolitical rivals. This is where any Western retreat is not going to result in peace and harmony, but in a new Cold War between China and Russia, rather than China, Russia and the West.
Professor Hew Strachan talked extensively in his writings about the danger of the strategic influence of operational level solutions. Is the failure to convert battlefield victory into strategic success and into a better peace the main lesson of the post 9/11 era?
I make the point in the book that we are extraordinarily good at achieving particular battlefield results, but extraordinarily bad at translating those battlefield results into long-term political outcomes. We’ve seen this in Afghanistan and Iraq, of course. The repeated failure to convert battlefield victory into a better peace remains a key reason for these inconclusive wars that ultimately contribute to internal unrest across the world.
The rise of populism in the West and the collapse of confidence in elites and establishments of all kinds are in some ways connected to the failure of our military models to deliver what they claimed. We told people for 25 years that they’ve got the best military in the world and yet they can see with their own eyes that that military isn’t delivering on the ground. So, this leads to a cognitive dissonance that results in a collapse of confidence.
There is a dynamic interaction between strategy, technology and tactics. You have a particular strategy, which leads you to develop particular kinds of tactics and particular kinds of technologies. Once you have those technologies and capabilities in place, they actually limit your choices of strategy. You are not able to just choose any strategy, but you are channelled by the kinds of capabilities that you have. Then you start adopting strategies that privilege and optimise the effect of your existing organisation, concepts and technologies and that is what we’ve been doing really since the Cold War. We have to step back a little bit from that dynamic interaction between operations, tactics, strategy and technology, to think about adaptation as a separate thing, consider how our adversaries are adapting, consider if it is possible to shape their adaptation in ways that favour us.
A key component of the security environment that you are describing are the dragons that learned to fight like the insurgents and embraced an insurgent toolkit to fight the West – competing and subverting the Western minds for example. In this sense, shouldn’t we act more like a counterinsurgent in our response? As a former COIN [counterinsurgency] practitioner, what do you think we should preserve from the COIN portfolio? A civil-military fusion maybe?
I think there is a lot of value in our Iraq/Afghanistan experience that translates directly to dealing with today’s environment: the need for integrated civil-military effects, the requirement for robust and properly-resourced civilian agencies to partner with the military, the need for political leaders to fully engage in the problem-set, and the importance of narrative. That said, one of my key points at the end of the book is that we need to get out of the business of occupying and attempting to govern remote places over the long term in a large-scale way: we can go long, or we can go big, but we shouldn’t try to do both. So, in that sense our approach should perhaps draw more from Unconventional Warfare and Foreign Internal Defense, rather than large-scale neoclassical COIN.
How should the Western way of warfare change in order to respond effectively to the adaptations and variations in the operational environment?
There are broadly three potential courses of action.
The first is doubling-down: keep doing what we are doing now, just do it harder, spend more money on the same kind of capabilities we are building now. That is not going to work because our adversaries have already adapted, so to continue what we’ve been doing is not going to change the environment.
Secondly is to embrace the suck – accept that our primacy will decline and just try to manage that in a way that achieves a soft landing. That is not going to work either, because for a soft landing to work you need a successor that is capable enough or willing to do the job of stabilisation and friendly enough to the US and the West that it wouldn’t be a total disaster for us to allow a handover. We don’t have any such successor.
Third is some sort of a Byzantine strategy – a holding strategy to enable a potentially acceptable successor to emerge. The Western Roman Empire collapsed in the 4th century AD, while the Byzantine Empire survived for another 1100 years until the fall of Constantinople. So how did they manage to achieve another 1100 years of primacy in the Eastern Mediterranean after the collapse of the Roman Empire? In the book I describe a number of things about how they operated. They were very capable of selectively copying from adversaries in terms of technologies, techniques, ways of operating, they learned from their wide range of enemies and incorporated those lessons into their own very adaptive, flexible way of operating.
Secondly, they got out of the business of occupying and governing entire provinces as the Romans had done, and focused instead on agile mobile forces that could react at long distances to a wide variety of threats, stabilise the environment and step back. They were also able to build constellations of capable local allies that could do a lot of the work in-between interventions. They maintained a selective edge and mastered some key technologies that other people couldn’t master, such as Greek Fire, a high-tech defensive tool. Most importantly, they focused very heavily on resilience at home, on building an effective civil and military and economic system that was resilient to shock, that was not optimised for efficiency in the absence of shock, but optimised for resilience to shock. We just need to look at what is happening to COVID-19 to realise that the modern world we’ve created with Western military systems since the Cold War is hyper-efficient but at the same time is also very fragile because it relies on efficiency in the absence of shock. A Byzantine model would ask how would we make all our systems more resilient to shock? This would possibly mean decentralisation, lower tech, more play space in our systems so they don’t rely on very precise integration of multiple moving parts. An urbanised world depends on very complex interlocking systems and when one part collapses, it all collapses. We are living and watching that happen.
In a world in which the West is no longer militarily dominant, a Byzantine approach would suggest ways to hold the line – in their case for more than a millennium – in order to allow the world to change, so that there is a viable successor and the adaptive approach of our adversaries becomes less threatening.
Lastly, we need to move away from a solely battlefield-centric conception of war and embrace a more holistic approach that broadens the notion of successful strategy beyond battlefield dominance, and adopt a more flexible model of statecraft. In short, as JFC Fuller would say, the object of war is not victory, but a better peace.
War in the modern world is fought simultaneously across all domains — air, space, sea, land, cyber and the electromagnetic spectrum. It includes elements of economic warfare, political warfare and narrative manoeuvre and involves cyber-kinetic operations (cyber-ops with lethal effects and kinetic ops with cyber effects) that favour forces which manoeuvre simultaneously in cyberspace and physical space.
Please describe the contours of a reconceptualised and expanded notion of war that should become the new normal for any Western strategist.
War in the modern world is fought simultaneously across all domains — air, space, sea, land, cyber and the electromagnetic spectrum. It includes elements of economic warfare, political warfare and narrative manoeuvre and involves cyber-kinetic operations (cyber-ops with lethal effects and kinetic ops with cyber effects) that favour forces which manoeuvre simultaneously in cyberspace and physical space. Modern war is fought in a crowded, cluttered, electronically connected, mostly urban and coastal environment, against a complex mix of adaptive state and non-state adversaries who copy each other’s techniques, and are often seeking to overwhelm us through a large number of small simultaneous challenges, rather than a single big threat. They tend to prefer decisive shaping (winning the conflict before the first shot is fired) and creative ambiguity (rather than fully covert or clandestine operations) as a way to avoid our conventional strength. The most important thing we can do to adapt to this kind of war is to get out of our defensive crouch, and begin operating aggressively to shape them rather than wait to be shaped ourselves.
When discussing a future posture of the West, I am wondering if you take into consideration the idea of a concert of democracies able and willing to defend the legacy and the Western order?
The transition from US primacy might be to another leading power, but it might also be to a concert of powers and ideally a concert of democracies, involving India, Europe, Latin America and Asian democracies. I don’t think this path is particularly likely, primarily because Europe and other countries (Australia is a good example) are so dependent on US security guarantees that these actually undermine their ability to fulfil that role. In some ways president Trump’s approach in forcing European allies to do more and withdrawing blanket American security guarantees, while unpleasant and done in a very vulgar way, actually is pointing to something important, which is that we have to have countries stepping forward and taking responsibility for their own resilience and their own defence.
Firstly, the US will not be able to carry the burden forever and secondly, the American people have signalled now in multiple elections that they don’t want to do it anymore. In many ways the coronavirus shows the equally dangerous risk of being so dependent on China economically, and you could argue that in the military sphere there is a similar risk – which is allies’ dependence on the US. Our countries are so dependent on China economically and so dependent on America militarily: the coronavirus teaches us that we need to break out of our dependence on China in the economic sphere, while in the military sphere the last 20 years teach us that we need to break out of our dependence on the US. This will be good for everyone – it will allow the US to be more agile and responsive. Small allies are never going to compete with the US-led way of war but they can specialise in other forms of war that the US doesn’t have a good understanding of. The classic example would be Estonia, which is not a major player in the system-of-systems Gulf War-type warfare, but is leading the way in creating “defensive cyber home guards” within local defense associations or preparing a defensive guerrilla warfare/resistance warfare model. If we want to broaden the alliance response, we have to focus on our comparative advantages, with different nations doing different things.
Are you worried about the domestic resilience of the West? Are we already too far in this process of polarising ourselves and becoming more like Sunni vs. Shia/Hutu vs. Tutsi? Can we come back? Our internal cohesion seems to be an easy prey for the insurgent outside powers. General Mattis warned in the last chapter of his memoirs: ”What concerns me most as a military man is…our internal divisiveness…we are dividing into hostile tribes cheering against each other, fuelled by emotion and a mutual disdain”.
The short answer is I don’t know if it is possible to recreate that sense of unity and move past the polarising divisions that have really crippled our ability to respond to the current crisis. But it is imperative to do that. Otherwise we are going to be destroyed.
Dr. David Kilcullen is a professor of practice in the School of Politics and Global Studies at Arizona State University and a professor in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences of the University of New South Wales. He served 24 years as an army officer, diplomat and policy advisor for the Australian and United States governments. In the United States he served on the writing team for the 2006 Quadrennial Defence Review, then as Chief Strategist in the State Department’s Counterterrorism Bureau, where he designed the Regional Security Initiative and served in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Southeast Asia and the Horn of Africa. He served in Iraq as a member of the Joint Strategic Assessment Team, and as Senior Counterinsurgency Advisor to Multinational Force—Iraq through 2007, before becoming Special Advisor for Counterinsurgency to the Secretary of State in 2008-2009. He was lead author for the U.S. Government Counterinsurgency Handbook, and founded the ISAF Counterinsurgency Advisory Assistance Team in 2009. Dr Kilcullen was named one of the Foreign Policy Top 100 Global Thinkers in 2009.
In your latest book – To Dare More Boldly; The Audacious Story of Political Risk – you talk about the ‘butterfly effect’ (where random events have outsized consequences), and quote the British prime minister Macmillan – “Events, dear boy, events.” Do you see COVID-19 in such a disruptive manner for the international order? What trends, new or old, would you expect to accelerate?
Going into COVID-19, there was a 20-year pattern, a generational pattern of a poker game between the Europeans, the Chinese and the Americans. The Americans were the richest people at the poker table, the Europeans were the oldest player, while the Chinese were the up-and-comer. And every year in the game the Chinese tended to win, the Americans broke even and the Europeans lost for a variety of reasons. Now with COVID-19 you see all the cards thrown up in the air. The question is who plays them fastest and best. COVID-19 was a disruptive event to a very routinised and predictable pattern.
Crises don’t tend to make things new; they tend to clarify things that are already going on.China has already been rising, but now that it’s getting through COVID-19 quicker, it has a first-mover advantage. It got hammered in the first quarter but it’s coming out now, whereas the Americans and the Europeans are going to be hammered in the second quarter. So in the short run, the Chinese have the freedom to act while all their enemies are preoccupied. So what do the Chinese do? They are going to settle their unfinished business, because no one is going to stop them. China is on the march. They crack down on Hong Kong, they bully the Indian army along its shared Himalayan border, they cause trouble in Vietnam and the South China Sea. All these moves suggest that they know that in the short run they have an advantage. Everyone is going to be preoccupied so they are going to be aggressive. The problem with being aggressive is that doesn’t change the longer-term problem that they have. The Chinese economy is 14 trillion dollars, while the American one is 22 trillion dollars. The US is still by far the dominant economy in the world, while China is clearly second. By bullying all the neighbours, the Chinese are giving the United States a tremendous opportunity to gather allies both in Europe and in Asia, NATO plus the Quad basically, and a League of Democracies in the long run. If the United States can husband together the resources of NATO and the Quad-plus (Australia, India above all, Japan plus the ASEAN countries) in a global League of Democracies, the US will be in a perfectly good position. The Chinese have an immediate, fantastical advantage, but they are overplaying that, because they don’t see the strategy behind things.
“Events, dear boy, events.”
Harold Macmillan and John Kennedy had totally different histories, and that explains their different points of view. I have a historical approach to political risk, as opposed to most of my competitors that have a more political science approach. History is the experience of lived life, the way we’ve lived in society since time began, meaning it’s empirically based on how humans actually behave. So here is a man whose entire cast of life was shaped by Balliol College, Oxford and WWI (of the 28 students who were in his year at Balliol, only one other classmate survived the Great War), and he has this gloomy view of human affairs; Kennedy, on the other hand, has this WWII rationalist can-do kind of mind-set. They got along really well: they were both intellectuals, both had a sense of humour, had fairly decent lives, but when Macmillan says to Kennedy, what do you worry about, Kennedy the rationalist said he worried about the deficit and nuclear weapons – things with numbers, political science stuff. Kennedy was scared of the known. Macmillan, on the other side, is a historian and says, “I worry about the events, I worry about the things I don’t know are coming, I worry about the unknown.” COVID-19 is the greatest example of that.
Is Donald Trump the right steward and the ideal builder of a League of Democracy? The concept is an old one – it was used by John McCain in his 2008 campaign, now it’s being embraced by Joe Biden as a core concept of his foreign policy.
The easy answer is that he is not the right guy. I am unique among the people you are going to interview. I neither love or hate Trump. Most analysts love or hate Trump. It gets in the way of their analysis. I don’t love or hate the people I analyse. I analyse. As a disruptive force, Trump has done some good things. It has forced the Europeans to pay more money for NATO. I was polite to Europeans for 20 years. How much progress did I make? Thank you for laughing. Zero. Trump made good inroads in Central and Eastern Europe. That’s a good thing. Trump got most of the Americans to see China as the next Cold War enemy. That’s an incredibly important historical thing. When I left Washington everybody was pro-Chinese. When I go back everyone is a hawk. Trump is the catalyst in that change. All that is to the good.
Saying that, given that world I just described, smart realists have always said that institutions can be a force multiplier for power. Hard realists don’t think that. Of course, institutions should be used as power maximisers. NATO and the Quad are two great examples. This nuanced argument is what separates realist internationalism from isolationism and unilateralism. So no. It disturbs me that he spends all his time insulting our friends. It disturbs me that he doesn’t see that it is in America’s interest – if you really are ‘America first’ – to work with as many natural democratic allies as humanly possible. He is very useful on pointing the finger at China, but to best China you need a different kind of leader.
On the other hand let’s not assume that that is a Wilsonian democrat who doesn’t understand the power realities of the world at all. Talking shops are no good if they are talking shops. If they maximise power and reach common decisions that suit people’s interests, then they are good. Joe Biden has his own problems to deal with. More importantly for him, he has a real record of weakness on China. He has been part of the old pro-Chinese consensus, and this is going to come to bite him, and I imagine Trump will spend a lot of energy on that. Frankly neither of them is ideal for the world we are living in. But it is up to those of us across the party lines that see that the League of Democracy is the future to band together for this argument, and take someone who is not a natural ally and convert him to this idea.
How can the West be re-invented as a geopolitical & geo-economical unit for a world shaped by great-power competition? Should we start planning in terms of the resilience of the West? What initiatives should be contemplated for strengthening the West?
That is the question. We have to remember what unites us, and not necessarily the obvious things that divide us. We need to go back to first principles. We are democratic. When we see what the Chinese are doing in Xijiang province with a million people in concentration camps; when we see the door closing on freedom in Hong Kong, where they totally neutralised the agreements made in 1997 to the British and where the ‘two systems, one country’ mantra falls apart; when we see the way they threaten the Taiwanese for nearly having democratic elections; when we see them throwing their weight around in the South China Sea; when they ignore international ruling and treaties that don’t suit them, or trying to bully the democratic Indian state – this is all part of a larger pattern. Yes, I am a realist; there are times when you have to engage authoritarian countries, when you have common interests you have to do things with them. However, values do matter. In the West we share a certain way of looking at the world: individuals matter, the state doesn’t dominate everything, we have free internal elections where people make the decision, when I mention Thomas Jefferson is a common point of reference, when we say democratic, we broadly mean the same thing. This is a tremendous amount in common, and it puts us on the side of the Hong Kong protesters, on the side of the Uighurs, on the side of the Indians, on the side of the Hague Court ruling on the law of the sea. It puts us all on the same side on all these policy issues. Let’s take a deep breath and remember: for as annoying as a NATO meeting can be – and God, they can be annoying – it is better to have friends with disagreements than be surrounded by people who don’t see the world as we do, and normatively are against it.
Second point, the US needs to be agnostic about Europe. Through COVID, Europe has yet another navel-gazing exercise about what it is: is it a Hamiltonian state? (which I think it will never be, given its history) is it a Jeffersonian confederation? (that might be possible) or a free formation of nation states? That isn’t our concern. That’s up for Europeans to decide.
The more the US meddles in that, the worse we will do. Obama overdid it with Brexit by saying we will never support Brexit; that didn’t help the cause. And Donald Trump overdoes it by saying ‘I hate everything the EU does’.
That doesn’t help either. We need to say that because we share democratic norms, that’s up to you. What is up to us is that – whether Hamiltonian, Jeffersonian, or free nation states – we will work with you. We want to work with you: we share interests, we share values.
In Asia it is much easier because the Chinese are throwing their weight around. I would argue that we are in a better strategic position in Asia than Europe because, with the Chinese doing all these things, the outcome is that our new best friends are the old best friends. We are closer to Japan, Australia and India (that is the key to the region) than we have ever been. This happens not because we are nice guys, but because the Chinese are behaving like a neighbourhood bully and an offshore balancing friend is always better than the bully next door. Even the ASEAN countries that are not democratic, like Vietnam, are doing things with us because they are aware they’re next door to a very angry and a very brutal neighbour.
To unite the West we need to find ways to get the Europeans interested in a common position that says, yes, you can commercially do things with China given certain limitations, but let’s be very careful not to sell the strategic silver and pay the butcher. For this reason we need common standards against Huawei. We didn’t let the bloody KGB run the telephone network in the 1980s, why should we let Huawei in the British network now?
Given the Chinese situation, we need Europeans to play a role there. Europe is great with trade. This Cold War will be much more about trade, about standards, things that are European strengths. At the same time, Europe has a tradition of being involved in Asia. We need Europeans to do more in a global way. If we do all these things, and at the same time work on a free trade deal (here Biden would be much better than Trump) – a version of TTIP with Europe uniting Europe and the US at last – this will put the West in a much better position. The worst thing Trump has done was getting rid of TPP. We had a brilliant trade deal with all of Asia who was united in an anti-Chinese, pro-free trade, pro-American position, and we threw it away. Easily the worst thing we’ve done. We need to go back to first principles, and resurrect those alliances and link that world together. We need to remember that we have each other. If we do all those things, that is an agenda for a Harry Truman-style presidency and that is what we need back – a transformative presidency policy that will resurrect the West.
You are always the best in crafting gifted metaphors to explain visually key geopolitical predicaments. So let’s discuss a bit the implications of the Beatles vs. Rolling Stones as alternative futures for the West.
The problem with foreign policy is that you have to know in what system you are – is the system stable, and how is the power working in the system? Rather than talking about what in IR we are calling Waltzian systemic analysis (I am bored even saying that), instead it seemed to me more interesting to talk about the breakup of the Beatles, as a cautionary tale for today’s Western world as a whole, and the rise of the Rolling Stones. We all understand the story and you can visualise it. The basic point is that the Beatles in a very short period of time went from being a very stable, very happy band, and everything was great from about 1965 to 1967, when they did their best work – they do Rubber Soul, Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The reason everything worked so well was that the system was stable. George Harrison got two to three songs, Ringo got one, with everything else being Lennon/McCartney originals. Everybody was happy with that system. That system began to break down because George Harrison got better and better, John Lennon lost interest and Paul McCartney was resentful for being the force holding the band together when it frankly would do other things.
In a very short period of time, between 1967 to 1970, the whole thing breaks up. What makes it a great metaphor is to put geostrategic realities in that. What does the world look like today? If the global ordering system is the Beatles, then John Lennon is Europe utterly preoccupied with himself, with Yoko Ono, with his past, wanting to get out from the tours around the world – neo-isolationist, self-involved, and not very helpful. When I go to Germany I talk to them about China; they are polite, but they are more interested in the future of the EU, how do we get off our knees economically, what we are going to do with the French – that’s what drives them. They are not driven by China, it’s a longer term issue.
Europe is doing a pretty good impersonation of John Lennon.
On the other hand, the US is a harassed Paul McCartney. We keep calling NATO meetings demanding more from people, we keep calling meetings with the Quad in Asia and demanding people work together.
But we are angrier as we do it, hence the Trump phenomenon. We keep grinding everyone up, we are resentful, they are resentful. Eventually this is what happens with Paul McCartney. Increasingly, Paul finally says in 1970 – I’ve had enough, I am going my own way – Make Paul Great Again.
George Harrison is China in this scenario. He can’t understand why, despite his increasingly dominant position, he still was not being given real opportunities to rise in the Beatles’ system. He soon becomes resentful and distrustful, and after a while he says I don’t like the system anymore, it doesn’t give me room to grow so I want out. So by the time we hit the ’70s, they all want out for different reasons, and the system breaks down.
We are at this key moment at about 1968 in this analogy, the system hasn’t broken down yet, but nothing new has taken its place. One of the outcomes is that things break down, and we have naked jungle-living great-power competition. But there is another model, the Rolling Stones – a system that evolves over time to change to the power reality. Originally, under Brian Jones, the founder and original leader of the Rolling Stones, the system was unipolar. He was the manager of the band, he picked the other band members and the profit places. But that didn’t work because he didn’t write the music, and was increasingly incapable of sustaining performances because of alcohol and drug problems. Over time the band evolves into a multipolar power triumvirate of Jones-Jagger-Richards, not much liking each other, but working together. That doesn’t work either, so Jagger and Richards ruthlessly get rid of Jones. A month later, he dies mysteriously in his swimming pool, but now the system has lasted for 50 years as the band was able to adopt a power relationship that mirrors its basic creative forces. Richards and Jagger are the creative powers of the band, and they have been since 1969. The power and the reality of who does what is the same, and when that is the case, the system works. So I would argue that a League of Democracies linking Europe (while in relative decline, still important and viable) to up-and-coming powers like India and the Asian world, to the greatest single power still in the world – the US. That is a strategic threesome that has the dominant power to sustain itself in terms of global governance – if it wants to. It is a duty thing. But if it does that instead of the Beatles’ outcome, we are going to end up like the Rolling Stones.
You’ve lived in Europe for the past 15 years. You’ve seen the weaknesses and the strengths, the debates without end, the cleavages between North and South, East and West. Can Europe become structurally ready for a more great power-centric world, and become ready to go beyond a Steven Pinker belief in the ‘Better Angels of Our Nature’ strategic mindset?
The good news is that Europe is kind of the key power, along with a rising Asia. If the US and China are by far the two dominant powers, certainly who scrambles for allies matters immensely. Does the Quad emerge as a Chinese or a pro-American group, or is it neutralist? More importantly, does Europe maintain its pro-Western, pro-American and trans-Atlantic outlook, meaning that it is broadly anti-China and broadly pro-America? If it does that, that’s enough power in the group to dominate. But if it is neutral, which Europe could well be given what’s going on, then we are living in a very different world. Given the structural position, Europe has a real say in what kind of world we are living in.
For the past fourteen years, Dr. John C. Hulsman has been the President and Managing Partner of John C. Hulsman Enterprises (www.john-hulsman.com), a prominent global political risk-consulting firm. Presently, John is also the widely-read senior columnist for City AM, the newspaper for the city of London. Dr. Hulsman is also a life member of the US Council on Foreign Relations, the pre-eminent US foreign policy institution. The author of all or part of 14 books, Hulsman has given over 1540 interviews, written over 790 articles, prepared over 1330 briefings, and delivered more than 540 speeches on global political risk and foreign policy for blue-chip corporations and governments around the world, making a name for himself as an uncannily accurate predictor of global geopolitical risk (and reward) in our new multipolar era. In recognition of this, Hulsman presently sits on the Editorial Board of the prestigious Italian Foreign Affairs Journal, Aspenia. His most recent work, the best-selling To Dare More Boldly; The Audacious Story of Political Risk, was published by Princeton University Press in April 2018, and is available for order on Amazon.
An agenda for reviving the West
“First, it must re-engage the emerging market powers – on new terms that actually reflect today’s changed multipolar global geopolitical and macroeconomic realities. It must forge a new global democratic alliance with rising regional powers, connecting itself more substantially to South Africa, Australia, Canada, Israel, Japan, Indonesia, Brazil, Mexico, and India. The single greatest strategic challenge for the next generation is determining whether the emerging regional democratic powers can be successfully integrated into today’s global order.”
Second, the West itself must be bound together anew; Lennon-McCartney must recommit to the band, in this case the project of serving as the ordering powers in an increasingly factious world. The common grand strategic project of enticing the emerging democratic powers into becoming stakeholders of the present international order can serve as a large portion of the glue that relinks Britain, Europe and America.”
China, Russia and the USA are using the corona pandemic to strengthen their positions in the Balkans, although their divergent interests threaten both the region’s EU perspectives and its long-term stability.
Over the last two months, the corona pandemic has thoroughly changed the world in many different ways, on the global, regional, local and individual levels.
One of those changes has been the accelerated return of geopolitics, as manifested in the Balkans by China, the Gulf states, Russia, Turkey, and the US, who have been using medical assistance, political and PR moves to pursue their interests and strengthen their positions, with the mediation of some of their new (or old) allies in this volatile region.
These geopolitical moves are undermining the Balkans’ EU perspectives, and with it the region’s long-term stability, since for the past two decades hopes of EU membership have been the main, if not the only protection against the potential chaos underlying the region’s unresolved ethno-political issues.
The EU response to this challenge was initially marred by a major blunder, as EU countries blocked exports of their medical equipment to other member and non-member countries, triggering furious criticism, from Italy and Spain, to Albania and Serbia.
Feeling shunned by the EU, in one of the most precarious moments of recent history, may prove to have been the last drop in the Balkans’ overflowing bucket of frustrations and dismay, and the final proof to local leaders that their interests will be better served in alliance with some other foreign actors.
At the end of April, the EU eventually corrected its course and provided a whopping €3.3 billion package for health, economic and social challenges in the Balkans. Yet this intervention may be coming too late for at least a part, if not all of the Balkans, where the EU has lost much – if not all – of its influence.
In recent years, months and weeks, the region has been slipping away from the path towards the EU and its democratic practices, and turned towards autocracy, nationalism, corruption and other foreign influences.
While EU leaders and officials are still pondering what further steps they should take in the region, most of them still do not seem to grasp the urgency or the seriousness of the situation. Even those who are aware of the risks seem to be at a loss as to what to do in the difficult and troubled region where – as some of them believe – they have already tried everything.
Whether because of the EU’s ignorance, its own mounting internal problems, or because of the Balkans’ traditional complexity, the region is still far from the top of the EU agenda. The EU seems to have forgotten how dangerous the Balkans can be – for itself, the continent and the entire world – when divergent foreign influences rekindle the region’s unresolved national, religious and ideological differences.
The most flagrant such example happened more than a century ago, when the Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, which triggered the start of World War I.
The Balkan powder kegs smoulder again
As this anniversary draws near, the geopolitical situation in the Balkans seems to be ever more complicated and dangerous.
In addition to the new health, security, economic and social challenges caused by the pandemic, the region is witnessing a rekindling of many of its old problems, such as rampant corruption and internal ethnic & political divisions. Furthermore, most of the Balkan countries are already gearing up for elections this year, adding yet another flammable ingredient to the volatile concoction.
Many experts and reports have been pointing to the serious democratic downturn in the region.
“The breakdown of the democratic consensus has been most visible in Central Europe and the Balkans, which experienced the greatest gains after the end of the Cold War,” warned the Freedom House’s global ‘Nations in Transit’ report, published on May 6.
The report noted a considerable decline in democratic practices in Montenegro and Serbia, as well as in the EU member Hungary. These three countries were “no longer democracies,” the watchdog organisation concluded, and added them to the group of ‘hybrid regimes’ with the rest of the Balkan countries.
The latest developments across the region have added more reasons for concern.
In recent days alone, Albania has seen clashes between the police and opposition supporters and activists over the disputed demolition of the National Theatre in Tirana. The demolition was carried out overnight, against the advice of EU officials and their efforts to find a compromise solution. The subsequent violent protests reflected growing tensions between the ruling and opposition parties.
Similar tensions are simmering in Montenegro, where the ruling regime of Milo Djukanović has been facing off against the opposition parties and the Serbian Orthodox Church, ahead of the parliamentary elections scheduled for the end of the year. The situation is no better in Serbia, where supporters of the ruling and opposition parties have been holding reality show-style protests against each other, while gearing up for parliamentary elections in June.
In Bosnia & Herzegovina, a complete political deadlock has been blocking the formation of a new government in the BiH Federation entity for some 18 months now, since the 2018 general elections, and is also preventing the adoption of the 2020 state budget. The latter will delay Bosnia’s upcoming local elections, which have currently been postponed until November, but will be delayed even further until the state budget is adopted.
In both Kosovo and North Macedonia, the governments’ efforts to control the coronavirus pandemic have from the very beginning been overshadowed by political and personal battles. North Macedonia is also distracted by the preparations for its general elections, while in Kosovo the Constitutional Court is set to rule on the recent controversial toppling of the government and indicate how a new government should be elected.
The EU is squandering its influence in the region
The local and regional power struggles in the Balkans have been augmented in recent years by various global actors, which have exploited the steady decline of EU interest and influence in the region to strengthen their positions and pursue their individual interests.
Since the early 2000s the Balkans have been yearning to join the EU, which was supposed to provide the region with more job opportunities and better living standards. Yet equally important was the fact that only EU membership could fulfil another Balkan dream; to enable all the region’s ethnic groups to live with their ethnic kin within the same borders.
It has been this second motive that made the EU the only option able to guarantee the region’s long-term stability and enable the gradual transformation of its nationalist ideals. All other options, meaning the absence of the EU and the presence of divergent foreign influences, would inevitably add fuel to the local ethno-political quarrels, thus destabilising the region in the long run.
Nevertheless, in recent years the enlargement process has gradually screeched to a halt.
The region never fully recuperated from the impact of the 2008-9 global recession, and its readiness and capacity for economic and social reforms weakened as politicians and politics became more and more conservative.
The global recession has strengthened conservatism and undermined internal cohesion within the EU too, which has weakened the Union’s readiness to accept new members.
As a result, the accession process – which was both the EU’s technical toolbox and its only strategy in the Balkans – has become an exercise in bureaucratic procrastination, a game in which the Balkan countries pretended to still be willing to reform while the EU pretended to be ready to accept the new member states.
The Balkan summits in Sofia and London in May and July 2018 were the turning point, as they revealed that enlargement into the Balkans had effectively, albeit not officially, been taken off the table. At those meetings, the EU leaders – increasingly troubled by their problems back home – would not even allow use of the word ‘enlargement’, using terms like ‘connectivity agenda’ instead.
The Balkan leaders got the message loud and clear, and started turning more and more towards their historic allies: the Serbs towards Russia, and the Bosniaks towards Turkey and the Gulf countries – as well as towards the new, wealthy kid on the block – China. The Albanians, on the other hand, had always been linked much more closely to the US over the past two decades, but America’s new, chaotic foreign policy under Donald Trump threatens to change that too.
Global actors use the pandemic to strengthen their Balkan grip
The new European Commission appointed at the end of 2019 seemed to be aware of the growing trouble in the Balkans, and appeared determined to restore at least some of the influence the EU has lost during the time of the previous Commission. Yet its efforts have been interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic, and the EU’s initial abysmal reaction to this difficult challenge made things only worse.
On the other hand, China and Russia proved once again to be better at the game of winning over Balkan hearts, and used the situation to gain additional leverage in the region by sending masks and other medical equipment early on.
Their assistance – in line with their strategic orientation in the Balkans – focused on Serbia, the biggest country and biggest market in the region. Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vučić did not spare the theatrics in thanking China and Russia for their aid, as it helped the country to fight the coronavirus while at the same time boosting his own popularity ahead of the elections.
China and Russia proved once again to be better at the game of winning over Balkan hearts.
With every new planeload, Vučić and other Serbian government officials made major public displays of gratitude, while Russian and Chinese flags, as well as billboards boasting ‘a friendship of steel’ with China and ‘historic relations’ with Russia lined the streets of Belgrade.
On the other hand, this assistance raised many eyebrows. Some experts warned that a significant portion of the Chinese aid deliveries seemed to be of poor quality, or that it was superfluous. Others questioned why the Russian health assistance was being coordinated by the Russian Ministry of Defence, why it includes military personnel, and why these military teams were allowed to move across the country, and even into Bosnia’s Serb-dominated entity of Republika Srpska, without any oversight or control.
In neighbouring Kosovo, meanwhile, America was also using the pandemic to pursue different but equally self-serving and potentially even more detrimental tactics. Thanks to the direct intervention of Richard Grenell, the acting Director of the US National Intelligence, the US Ambassador to Germany, and the Special Presidential Envoy for Serbia and Kosovo Peace Negotiations, the government of Albin Kurti was toppled in Kosovo on March 25.
Grenell pushed for Kurti’s removal as he was standing in the way of a US-sponsored agreement intended to at least nominally resolve the dispute between Serbia and Kosovo. The no-confidence vote in Kurti’s government opened up a new and complicated legal and political crisis in Kosovo, which is threatening to undermine Kosovo’s ability to deal with the health, economic, social and all the other consequences of the pandemic.
Over the last two months Serbia, Kosovo, Bosnia and all the other Balkan countries eagerly awaited and carefully counted the planeloads coming from China, Russia, Turkey and the Gulf states, as they meant not only a difference in fighting the pandemic, but also indicated the status of each country in relation to a different global actor.
The EU comes back strong, but is it too late?
The EU eventually realised that China’s ‘mask diplomacy’ and Russia’s military-driven health assistance was threatening to undo years of the EU’s strong presence in the Balkans.
On March 26 EU leaders finally agreed to set dates for the start of negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia, yet this move was too little and too late to make a major difference.
This step, which for the EU was just a small technical move, but which it nevertheless delayed, had been eagerly awaited by these two countries and the rest of the region for years – but it was almost completely buried under the avalanche of reports related to the fast-spreading pandemic.
At the same time, EU leaders are still withholding the visa-free regime for Kosovo, despite the fact that the European Commission has proposed this already back in 2016, having concluded that Kosovo’s authorities had met all the agreed criteria. People in the Balkans see these and many similar cases as examples of the EU’s own inconsistency, duplicity and constantly changing criteria.
On April 29, the EU came back strong, announcing a massive package of financial assistance for the region. This included €38 million of immediate support to the health sector, as well as exclusive access to EU instruments and medical equipment; almost €1.2 billion euro in aid funding for the region’s social and economic recovery; and almost €2.2 billion to support businesses and public sector investments.
EU officials in Brussels, as well as around the EU and in the Balkan capitals, also stepped up their communication efforts to make sure that the Balkan peoples and their leaders understood that the Union still cared for the region.
The news was welcomed across the Balkans, although in Serbia it was still overshadowed by the Serbian government’s ever more emotional reactions to the much smaller gifts coming from China and Russia.
The fact was not lost on Western officials and local experts. Many of them have expressed concerns that Vučić may have ‘passed the point of no return’ – that he may have concluded that, at least during his reign, Serbia’s future looks brighter in alliance with China and Russia, rather than with the EU.
The EU tried to further restore its position in the Balkans by holding a virtual Balkan summit on May 9, an event that was originally supposed to take place in Zagreb as a part of Croatia’s presidency of the EU.
The joint declaration which the EU and Balkan leaders adopted during the conference reiterated “unequivocal support for the European perspective of the Western Balkans”, and stressed that the EU’s support to the region went “far beyond what any other partner has provided.”
Yet by the end the Balkan leaders and their citizens remained clearly unimpressed by the event, whose biggest achievement seemed to be the fact that it was held in such a difficult situation, and which, once again, deliberately avoided even mentioning the word ‘enlargement’.
As EU leaders and officials now ponder how to move on with the pledged assistance, including the conditionality that will be applied, experts say that the Union is still far from securing its position in the Balkans, warning that they cannot afford to lose it.“The European Commission promises €3.3 billion to help the Western Balkan countries mitigate the impact of the pandemic and bring them closer to the EU. Without a fundamental change of direction, however, this initiative comes too late,” a leading Balkan expert Dušan Reljić said in his analysis published on May 5.
Dr. Mathew J. Burrows, the director of the Atlantic Council’s Foresight, Strategy, and Risks Initiative in the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security
What would you expect to be the possible geopolitical fallout/aftershocks that will shape the post-coronavirus world?
The obvious path that we are on at the moment is a world shaped by bipolarity, in particular by the competition between the U.S. and China. Within the West there are some common concerns about China. The Chinese side seems to feel more and more embattled, becoming more defensive in their diplomacy and announcements. There is very little multilateralism. The US pullout of the WHO, while a terrible idea, is also a leading indicator of the mood inside the Trump administration. There are other measures too: the Trump administration not allowing the US government pension system to invest in Chinese stocks; there is growing support for the repatriation of the supply chains in order to have far less dependence on China (especially for pharmaceutical supplies). If anything, I would say that we are seeing less globalisation (at least in terms of trade and investment flows), more political antagonism between the US and China and very little global cooperation. There will be less economic growth, a downturn in trade and investment across borders, and the movement of people will diminish, but none of all this will disappear unless the US and China get into a conflict which would end this period of globalisation.
There will be less economic growth, a downturn in trade and investment across borders, and the movement of people will diminish, but none of all this will disappear unless the US and China get into a conflict which would end this period of globalisation.
Can the COVID crisis become also an opportunity – a change in mindset for a more united West, especially a Europe ready to embrace the great power competition against China?Even the debate inside NATO has lately taken a China angle. Is COVID an opportunity for the Atlantic system, for reinventing the Atlantic strategic unity & solidarity?
I see Europe being ambivalent about going along with the US on all the measures that the Trump administration is taking against China: on tariffs plus a prohibition against Huawei in Western networks. I don’t think many in Europe want to be too closely aligned with the US in such strident attacks against China. They understand the US point of view and share many of the concerns, but they are also fearful of bipolarity, of getting into a world that sends everybody back to a 1950s and 1960s-style Cold War. There is another issue within Europe, a division over China, as some are increasingly economically dependent, reliant on China as an investor: for some countries in the south and east that are already bending towards China, the crisis could accelerate this path even more.Moreover, the EU took a blow in this pandemic, where every member state had to fend for itself. Certainly Italy felt that it didn’t get the support from the other member states that it was entitled to or from the EU as a whole. There is an ongoing debate about the economic recovery: who pays? Many feel that Germany and Nordic countries should be much more generous in terms of the economic recovery support. There is a lot of division, and Europe remains far from speaking with one voice.
For sure, NATO is also split. A key factor on the European side is the distress created by the Trump administration. Germans worry that the Trump administration could impose tariffs on the automobile industry, an export which the entire German economy depends on. Of course, if there would be a sudden Russian move against the Baltic states, I would still see NATO coming together. The problem to me is when there is no major live external threat like that, and given that you have different interests by all the players and a US administration that is disengaged, disintegration has the upper hand.
Europeans are also fearful of bipolarity, of getting into a world that sends everybody back to a 1950s and 1960s-style Cold War. There is another issue within Europe, a division over China, as some are increasingly economically dependent, reliant on China as an investor: for some countries in the south and east that are already bending towards China, the crisis could accelerate this path even more.
How would you see the EU faring in a world in which power politics, not multilateralism is again the new normal?
This is not the world that Europe expected. A decade ago the EU was looking forward to a postmodern world in which there were far fewer conflicts, where European integration would become the model for others. Obviously that world is not happening. What is essential is Europe’s ability to reach or retain a political consensus. In the recent crises (whether the euro-crisis or the migration crisis) the end result has instead been a deepening of the divisions between east and west, north and south. The pandemic looks like that, too, deepening the same cleavages. That is what I worry the most about. Unless Europe finds a way of overcoming these divisions, the EU will gradually disappear or become irrelevant, particularly for younger generations. In general, the EU has a tendency of coming together at the eleventh hour, but in finding a solution at the last minute it allows hard feelings and resentments to accumulate. Trying to speed up some of the solutions will help the process of binding together the community again, necessary for remaining a force on the world stage.
It is said that history rhymes. To some observers the current pandemic brings parallels with the type of world in which Spanish Influenza was spreading after WWI – intense geopolitical competition, inward focus and protectionism, nationalism on steroids and nation-first type of responses, democratic recession, a crisis of international architecture, all wrapped up in a profound economic recession. What can be done to avoid/ tame such an interwar cycle? What lessons should we be reminded of?
We should be very worried about the economic recovery. High unemployment and income stagnation could bolster populism and widespread discontent in those countries where the middle class are already under pressure. If you look at the economic recovery after 2008, it led to more inequality and to a part of society, the lower middle class, feeling its interests were not being looked after, that they were losers.The bankers got bailed out, it was the ordinary guys that paid the price. So if you have another iteration of the same pattern, you will create a class that feels that they have few stakes in society or in a democratic government that doesn’t work for them. This would be a very dangerous turn of events, and we know that part of what happened in the 1920s and 1930s was a middle class which felt dispossessed (by the combined conditions generated by WWI and the economic collapse that followed). Consequently, it didn’t have any particular faith in democracy and saw its salvation in strong leaders. That could happen again, although we are much more sensitive to the signs of that happening. The tendency with many economic crises has been that they do prop up the strong, and those that are weaker pay the biggest price. This has to be our number one concern. Another concern should be not to fall in the trap (which we see the US falling into) of seeking shelter under protectionism, even if the feeling against China is running very high. This is another lesson of the 1920s and 1930s, that protectionism may feel good in the short term, but it will make it harder to recover in the long run.
Unless Europe finds a way of overcoming internal divisions, the EU will gradually disappear or become irrelevant, particularly for younger generations.
These days we see the revival of an old idea meant to fix to some extent the crisis of multilateralism, but also to respond to the new revisionism – a global concert/alliance of democracies (supported in the past by John McCain, embraced today by Joe Biden, promoted in a certain version also by Heiko Maas). Is such an idea feasible and operationalised?
I am not sure that it solves what I think is the real issue. People lost faith in democracies because they don’t seem to be working particularly well for the less skilled or the lower strata of the middle class. There are very few people in the US that think this democracy works. So governments can band together in a fight against China and authoritarianism, but the real threat is more from inside than from the outside.
Are you worried about the domestic resilience of the West? Are we already too far in this process of polarising ourselves and becoming more like Sunni vs. Shia/Hutu vs. Tutsi? Can we come back?
During the pandemic there was an initial period where people were coming together. Congress passed in record time the 3 trillion dollar stimulus and rescue plans. In the recent weeks it has returned to the old pattern of partisanship. The pandemic seems to be reinforcing the division between Blue and Red states. Blue states like New York and California have suffered far more so far than Red ones. At the same time Donald Trump openly tries to deepen these divisions as part of his strategy is to keep his base mobilised. It is very hard for both sides to work across the aisle, because they are stuck in a system in which they derive more advantages from this polarised atmosphere. Partisanship is deeply entrenched. In the long run, you may have more populism on the left, the kind of Bernie Sanders type of socialism focused especially on providing free university tuition and better healthcare to those struggling in the middle class. What certainly will be different for the US is that the state is going to be a lot more powerful as a result of it having to save the economy in this pandemic. In this context, it is very likely that we are going to see a revival too of the Tea Party on the right, opposed to the big government and to moving the US closer to the European model.
Is the West, and especially Europe in danger of over-learning the lessons of the post-9/11 campaigns, in the sense of ‘never again’? Everyone is running away from the liberal interventionism, stabilisation operations or R2P today. But sometimes they might be needed. Can Europe recapture the patience of winning the peace? Especially in a world in which Europe continues to be affected by MENA instabilities that could be even more significant in a post-pandemic world?
High unemployment and income stagnation could bolster populism and widespread discontent in those countries where the middle class are already under pressure.If you look at the economic recovery after 2008, it led to more inequality and to a part of society, the lower middle class, feeling its interests were not being looked after, that they were losers.
I don’t really see anybody prepared to do what the US and NATO did in the Balkans in the 1990s. In Europe the main effort will be to protect itself against huge flows of refugees. The effort will be focused on not allowing the crisis to get to the worst-case scenario. It will be an effort to drive down some of the worst outcomes of conflict, but not to really settle them.
In the 1990s, the West — both the US and Europe — was at the height of its power, which also made it confident of solving others’ problems. Hence the wish to solve the world’s ills, from the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, to the disintegration of Yugoslavia. There are groups today within Western societies — NGOs and civil society — that remain activists. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has done enormous good in combatting disease in Africa and other developing regions. But because of the internal problems, Western governments don’t have the means or bandwidth to solve the world’s big problems. Instead of offense, it’s defence. They get involved if there is the threat of the conflict having the potential to spill over in the form of terrorism, threatening the West. And then the effort is to seal off the problem, not solve it. Syria is a prime example. The US effort was geared to combating ISIS, not supporting the rebels against Assad.
Dr. Mathew J. Burrows serves as the director of the Atlantic Council’s Foresight, Strategy, and Risks Initiative in the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. He was appointed counselor to the National Intelligence Council (NIC) in 2007 and director of the Analysis and Production Staff (APS) in 2010. He was the principal drafter for the NIC publication Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds.
Bobo Lo was previously Head of the Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House and Deputy Head of Mission at the Australian Embassy in Moscow. He has written extensively on Russian foreign and security policy, with a particular focus on Sino-Russian relations.
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