Let’s make a folder. What do we know about AUR, the new golden party of the Romanian far right?

The far-right Alliance for the Unity of Romanians (AUR) was the big surprise of the recent Romanian parliamentary elections. Against a background of low turnout (32%) it obtained 9% of the vote. Only two months ago, during the recent local elections, it had only 1%[1].

The increase took pretty much all commentators by surprise. Some were infused with a sense of panic. Where did this party come from and where will it take Romanian politics, they wondered? Others took a more down-to-earth approach. Sociologist Claudiu Tufiș expressed on Facebook the hope that social scientists would now (finally!) make a folder called ‘AUR’ to study the new party [and perhaps provide insight on how its rise can be stopped]. That same hope inspired the title of this article.

In the following piece I have tried to put together what we already know about AUR. Some things I know personally, having looked into the history and activity of the party. Some came from others who share my interest. And, finally, some insight came from a debate hosted by Global Focus Center under Chatham House rules.

The good news is that we know quite a bit. The bad news is that it’s more complicated than first meets the eye.

The party seems to draw from two main ideological groups. One is made of radical unionists gathered around George Simion. The other group is formed by neo-fascists or, to put it more precisely, people who deny the crimes of the interwar far-right.

What does AUR seem to want?

The full name (The Alliance for the Unity of Romanians) itself references nationalist tones and alludes to the possibility of a future union between Romania and the Republic of Moldova. The acronym also means “gold”.

The party seems to draw from two main ideological groups. One is made of radical unionists gathered around George Simion. Mr Simion is a former ultra (radical football fan) and a staunch promoter of unconditional unification between Romania and the Republic of Moldova. For many years his name was associated with the all-present graffiti around the country that said “Bessarabia is Romania”. Bessarabia is the name of the historical region of which the present-day Republic of Moldova is the biggest part. 

His unionist views were so strong and expressed so unwisely that many believed him to be an agent of Moscow sent to give moderate unionism and Romania a bad name. According to at least two sources, this is also an opinion shared at least by some in the Moldovan secret service. In fact, by Mr Simion’s own account, he was once interrogated in Moldova and banned from entering the country for a while.

Another group is formed by neo-fascists or, to put it more precisely, people who deny the crimes of the interwar far-right. They are gathered around Claudiu Târziu, who leads an association called “Rost” (transl. “meaning”) that promotes such ideas. The association runs a publishing house and a website with the same name. Mr Târziu was a leading figure of the Coalition for Family, which advocated changing the Romanian Constitution to prevent any possible legalisation of gay marriage. Rost is the only association known to have been retired from the Coalition due to public outcry.

It is important to know that, in Romania, far-right ideas have been getting traction mostly through the discourse of mainstream parties. Both the liberals and social-democrats, while mostly keeping to a pro-European discourse, have ultra-conservative and nationalist elements among their rank and file and who will frequently voice such convictions freely, and with impunity from the party. Proper far-right movements have been notoriously unable to get traction ever since the dissolution of the much more notorious Greater Romania Party, and used to be a subject of jokes rather than concern. This explains, to some extent, why AUR came as a surprise even though the groups that formed the party have been known for a long time.

At an AUR electoral meeting held indoors nobody keeps the distance or wears a mask. From the party Facebook account.

Also, the party did not run on a maximalist platform but rather on a lower-key, patriotic, pro-family platform. They were staunchly opposed to anti-COVID restrictions and held a sit-in in front of the Government building for days.

Who voted for AUR?

According to exit polls, AUR voters skew younger and less educated than the average. They also tend to live either in rural Romania or in small towns (CURS data, details below).

The electoral map shows four main areas of AUR success. Moldova (East) and particularly Northern Moldova is a known hub for ultra-religious feeling. The constitutional referendum for the (heterosexual only!) family also drew support from here. Even in the urbanised county of Iasi, the AUR vote was significant, possibly due to recent conflict over holding a traditional pilgrimage during the pandemic.

Source: Alexandru F. Ghiță, interim data

The second area is Banat, in the West, where evangelical-inspired Protestant churches have long been proselytising and trying to promote their social agenda. Like Northern Moldova, the area provided support for the referendum ‘for the family’ and continues to be a hotspot for the pro-life movement. The religious agenda is not limited to the protestant churches but it has also spread to the local Orthodox and Greek Catholic clergy.

We can also see a spotty picture of AUR support throughout southern Transylvania (roughly at the centre of the map). There is no obvious explanation for this but it is worth remembering that Transylvania is the home and beacon of anti-Hungarian nationalism[2]

Dobrudja (South-East), long considered a model of multicultural integration due to Orthodox Romanians and Turkish/Tatar Muslims living together ever since Ottoman times, is the new addition to the radicalisation map. The region “hosted” a heated dispute between the local archbishop and the authorities, due to restrictions on religious activities during the pandemics. The dispute recently included a row about holding a pilgrimage to the “cave of Saint Andrew”, the purported founder of Christianity in Romania. The lawyer of the Archbishopric, Diana Şoşoacă, is a COVID-denialist who ran successfully on the AUR electoral lists.

AUR has also made great strides in the Diaspora, where it got roughly a quarter of the vote. Note that the Diaspora includes a significant number of Moldovans with dual citizenship, who live either in the Republic or in Western Europe (thanks to their Romanian passport).

How bad is it?

As AUR was entering Parliament, two other parties found themselves unable to reach the electoral threshold (the Popular Movement and Pro Romania). These parties, while nominally mainstream and, in fact, led by a former president and a former prime minister respectively, have courted nationalist and ultraconservative discourse on several occasions, hoping to compensate for the dwindling popularity of their leaders. Thus, in a sense, wannabe radicals were only replaced with truer ones!

Another result of their demise is that, in the current Parliament, it is close to impossible to build a governing majority without the parties that represent the ethnic minorities in Romania, and in particular the Hungarian minority. For obvious reasons, these minorities are expected to reject any government that would include the radical nationalists of AUR. The presence of minorities in the government could also moderate nationalist tendencies within the government parties.

We must keep in mind that this is not the first time when a brave new party, representing the younger and less educated population takes Parliament by storm. 

Comparative profile of the PP-DD voter in 2016 vs. AUR in 2020 based on exit poll data from the Centre for Urban and Regional Sociology. Note that in 2020 the exit poll underestimates the total result almost by half.

The predecessor is PP-DD (People’s Party – Dan Diaconescu). It was created by… well, Dan Diaconescu; the charismatic owner of a tabloid TV-station and it represented populism in its purest form: it promised people a good life, easily obtained. 

PP-DD got 14% percent of the vote in the 2012 elections, following the global crisis. It is not usually considered far-right as such, since it directly addressed economic hardships and showed far less interest in identity politics. But there is at least a similarity in constituencies.

PP-DD was put together hastily. Reportedly, eligible seats were bought and sold. Most analysts predicted that would impact the cohesion of the party. And indeed, it imploded during its first and only term. 

AUR comes from a stronger organisational base, but needed more than that for a win. One recruitment tool were “mystery” ads that invited citizens to change the local mayor. The link (now leading to the party website) brought the one who clicked it to an anonymous web form where they were invited to leave their data for further contact. 

“Mystery” ads run by AUR. Source: Facebook.

Also, at least one member of the AUR “Senate” (its ‘elders’) claimed that he had never joined the party in the first place. With such improvisations it seems likely that not only true-and-tested hard unionists and defenders of fascism entered Parliament, but also opportunists. Or maybe even well-meaning people who wanted to play politics a bit and were not bothered by pompous nationalist discourse.

Why did people vote for AUR?

This is, if I may, the golden question. Like in other cases of populist/extremist rise, multiple explanations are possible.

Social causes and lack of representation. It is almost a consensus that Romanian parties have lately broken much of the bound that connected them to the electorate. Governance has been negligent under both right- and left-wing parties and the voter hit by the economic downturn associated with the pandemic does not seem to find an interest in their problems from political leaders (for example, the pandemic does not appear in the short version of the electoral program, which the top three parties have been circulating).

Various kinds of dissatisfaction seem to have boiled into a protest vote. If you check out the demographic structure once more, you will see that the younger, less educated people, living in smaller communities that are less connected to prosperity, seem to be more inclined to vote for AUR. Also, it is interesting to see the results in Spain and Italy. It is generally considered that Romanians in Spain are generally better integrated; indeed, the vote for AUR, while still excellent, was 10 percentage points lower there than in Italy.

Ideology / local groups. Narratives about Romanian exceptionalism are commonplace in Romania among both politicians and voters. Going back to the map, we see how all four regions carry histories of fringe ideas and in three out of four cases, these are not recent. This is not to say that these narratives are dominant locally – in fact AUR did not win elections in any county. On the other hand, it remains entirely possible that these regional narratives do not drive the vote directly, but rather that narratives are there because they are pushed by local groups, and it is in fact the local organisers who get out the vote. 

Anti-lockdown feeling. Romanian lockdown was harsh on the economy, somewhat inconsistent, and, some would say, incompetently implemented. One could also argue that the anti-lockdown protest in Romania, though powerful, was severely underrepresented among mainstream parties. If this is the case, then AUR, even without knowing it, is an anti-lockdown party that will disappear once the epidemic is over – just as UKIP waned after Brexit.

Far-right unity. AUR seems to come out of nowhere, but it really does not; there was a nationalist vote in 2016 also[3]. At the time, the top three nationalist / far-right parties totalled ca. 5%. These have neither disappeared, nor massively lost votes. The increase in far-right voting is still worrying, but it seems a bit less incomprehensible now, especially given the factors above.

Naturally, all four hypotheses could be simultaneously true. The pandemic breeds fear. Fear increases the search for simple solutions and authoritarian leaders. Such simple solutions can be taken from the wealth of far-right ideas that are tolerated within Romanian public debate. 

Fear for one’s own health can lead and, in fact, seems to have led, to COVID-denialism as a strategy for mental welfare.

So, a party makes its appearance, bringing together existing groups, but now in better organised form, promising both salvation from exploitation from the outsiders / nefarious elites and a life without masks. Given the high degree of dissatisfaction and low turnout, it more than doubles the share of far-right votes expressed and enters Parliament.

Further analysis will tell us what combination of factors was actually involved. But it is worth noting that some of these factors allow for future growth. COVID cases may still rise after the holidays and a vaccine for the general population will likely not be available until spring at the earliest. The far-right is prone to factionalisation but, once in Parliament, may acquire a taste for unity. More local groups with their own identities could theoretically join. 

It now comes down to the mainstream parties and civil society to not only make a brute cordon sanitaire but also to address legitimate grievances and be seen to care about the will of the electorate; to keep at bay ideas and leaders, but win back the populace. AUR might make us the favour and implode on its own, but we should not count on it. For now, they plan on making a Thank You tour to 43 different places (cities and counties) across the country in their brightly coloured bus (again, not something other parties have done!).


[1] Official data for county council vote. Does not include Bucharest.

[2] Local intellectuals dispute this, saying that opinion polls show less anti-Hungarian feeling in Transylvania than elsewhere in the country. However, at least two nationalist parties – ther National Unity Party of the Romanians and Greater Romania Party – drew votes from there. Also, Cluj, the historic regional capital is home to more insidious nationalists as Ioan Aurel Pop, current president of the Romanian Academy.

[3] https://www.facebook.com/bogdan.t.enache/posts/2787979928111195

Moldova: the first ‘pas’ forward

The acronym for the group led by Maia Sandu – PAS – has a symbolic meaning in the context of the latest elections. This word means ‘step’ in Romanian, and indeed Sandu’s victory, although it was ground-breaking for all the reasons mentioned below, is only the first step on the way towards possible serious changes to the political and social situation in Moldova. On 15 November, Maia Sandu, the former prime minister of Moldova and the leader of the pro-Western Action and Solidarity Party (PAS), won the second round of the presidential elections in Moldova with 57.75%. At the same time her rival Igor Dodon, the outgoing president and the informal leader of the pro-Russian Party of Socialists of the Republic of Moldova (PSRM) won 42.25% of the vote. 

New elites and kingmakers from abroad

November’s elections were ground-breaking in many respects. Never before in the short history of the independent existence of the Republic of Moldova have its citizens chosen for their president a person who did not belong to the former Soviet nomenclature or was not associated with shady local political and business groups. Dodon, for example, is perceived by many as a corrupt representative of the oligarchic elites and the defender of the ‘old order’, in which the state serves primarily as an instrument for the enrichment of a specific group of people. On the other hand, the first three presidents of the republic between 1990 to 2009 had previously held high positions in the Communist Party of Moldova, the local branch of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. 

Also for the first time, the Moldovan people, who are quite conservative and have a traditional view of social roles, decided to entrust not simply a woman, but an unmarried and childless one, with the position of head of state. The gender issue, and especially Sandu’s matrimonial status, has been exploited many times in recent years by her political opponents. The absence of spouse or children allowed her political opponents to spread groundless rumours about her sexual orientation. 

Never before in the short history of the independent existence of the Republic of Moldova have its citizens chosen for their president a person who did not belong to the former Soviet nomenclature or was not associated with shady local political and business groups.

Another novelty is the role played by the diaspora. Moldovan emigrants, estimated at up to one million in number, have always shown interest in the elections held in their homeland, but the scale of their participation has never been as massive as it was in November 2020. In the second round of elections, over 260,000 votes were cast in polling stations abroad. This is twice as much as in the first round, and four times more than in the first round of the 2016 elections. Foreign votes accounted for up to 15 percent of all ballots cast. A quarter of the vote for Maia Sandu came from abroad. There is no doubt that one of the important factors that led to such a large mobilisation of the diaspora in the second round was the critical, if not mocking, comment made by President Igor Dodon after the results from the first round were released; he called the Moldovan emigrants a “parallel electorate”, and suggested that they do not fully understand the situation in the country. It is worth noting that this large-scale mobilisation for Sandu almost exclusively applied to Moldovan emigrants living in the West, i.e. the EU, Great Britain and the USA. These countries accounted for over 90% of all the votes cast outside the republic. 

Meanwhile, the Moldovan émigrés in Russia – although estimated at up to half a million – remained very passive. In the second round of elections, fewer than 14,000 of this group went to the polls; their votes accounted for only 5% of all those cast by the diaspora. Moreover, the myth that Moldovans living in Moscow or St. Petersburg are inclined to almost unanimously support pro-Russian candidates was also broken. Although Igor Dodon won in Russia with a total of 75% of the votes, the 25% Sandu won there should be considered a huge success and proof that the views of the local electorate are evolving.

The fragmentation of the left and corruption fatigue

The final result of the elections was an obvious surprise for Dodon. Even though the incumbent president had realised he could lose the race, he did not expect his rival to obtain such a crushing advantage over him. One of the key reasons for the outgoing president’s failure is the widespread accusations of corruption levelled against him. The de facto leader of the PSRM is seen by many as an associate and informal political ally of Vlad Plahotniuc, an ex-oligarch who lost power in June 2019 and fled the country. Plahotniuc is suspected to have been involved in numerous frauds (including the embezzlement of US$1 billion from the Moldovan banking sector in 2014), and he is the virtual embodiment of corruption in the eyes of the Moldovan public. Sandu took advantage of Dodon’s negative image and focused her campaign not on the usual geopolitical issues that divide the nation (the choice between East or West), but on the corruption fatigue that unites people beyond their political differences. 

Romania should therefore focus its political support for Sandu and consider increasing financial assistance to Moldova. It is also important that Bucharest becomes more actively involved in Moldova’s fight against the pandemic.

This was one key to her success, but there were other issues that undermined Dodon’s position. One of the most important was the return of Renato Usatîi, the populist, pro-Russian leader of ‘Our Party’, onto the Moldovan political scene. Six years ago, this politician was the socialists’ main rival on the Moldovan left. In 2014, just a few days before voting, a court (presumably influenced by Plahotniuc) banned Usatîi’s party from participating in the parliamentary elections, which enabled the socialists to achieve a spectacular success. Soon after, Usatîi left Moldova and moved to Russia. He only came back to his homeland in the second half of 2019, after Plahotniuc had fled the country. His return initiated the fragmentation of the Moldovan political left. The leader of ‘Our Party’, who has been highly critical of Dodon’s presidency, managed to rebuild his support in just over a year and win up to 17% of the votes in the first round of the presidential elections. This allowed Sandu to enter the second round in first place, which demobilised the socialist voters. Moreover, Usatîi asked his electorate to vote ‘against Dodon’ in the runoff elections. As a result, many of his supporters decided not to vote in the second round, or to cast their vote for Sandu, which – in both cases – contributed to victory for the leader of PAS.

What can a president do?

The limited prerogatives that the Moldovan constitution gives to the president will not allow Sandu to implement real structural reforms. However, this does not mean that her victory has no political significance. From her new post Sandu will be able to observe more closely what is happening behind the scenes and monitor the government’s actions. She will also gain access to materials prepared by the intelligence services. The office of the presidency will also provide her with greater recognition and access to the media. This in turn will boost the image of the opposition. She will also be able to influence the country’s foreign policy, which would be particularly important, as in the months to come Sandu will surely focus on diplomatic activities and try to improve Moldova’s relations with its Western partners from the EU, as well as its immediate neighbours Romania and Ukraine. 

There is no doubt that Usatîi’s return to the Moldovan political scene will have negative consequences for the situation in Moldova in the long run.

Apart from corruption, Sandu laid the emphasis in her campaign on social issues and improving the citizens’ standard of living. Romania should therefore focus its political support for Sandu and consider increasing financial assistance to Moldova. It is also important that Bucharest becomes more actively involved in Moldova’s fight against the pandemic. Not only will this have a positive effect on the image of Sandu and the opposition (as the electorate will see it as a direct benefit of her victory), but it will also improve the perception of Romania in Moldova, which was damaged by the fact that in recent years Bucharest unofficially but clearly supported Plahotniuc. There is also no doubt that support from the EU (which will help improve the quality of life of the country’s inhabitants) will be of great importance in building confidence in the pro-Western opposition. Relations with Russia are likely to deteriorate, despite the new president’s desire to pursue a balanced foreign policy. Sandu will find it hard to avoid difficult topics such as the issue of Russian troops in Transnistria or the status of this region, as shown also by her recent media statements, which have elicited negative reactions from Moscow.

On the home front

PAS, strengthened by Sandu’s victory, will call for parliamentary elections to be held as soon as possible. To start real reforms and deliver on Sandu’s election promises, the pro-European opposition needs not only the president, but also a parliamentary majority. This will not be an easy task, although the situation in the Moldovan parliament seems to be favourable. The Chicu government does not currently have a majority in the chamber. After Dodon’s dramatic failure, his party is no longer interested in early parliamentary elections, although the incumbent president had supported them just a few months ago. The socialists are not only afraid of the pro-Western electorate motivated by Sandu’s victory; more importantly, they realise that in the next elections they will undoubtedly face ‘Our Party’, which – judging by Usatîi’s result – may take away a lot of votes from PSRM. It is therefore clear that in this situation the socialists will attempt to rebuild their majority and maintain the current composition of parliament, at all costs and for as long as possible. Even though this will be difficult, there has been speculation about alleged agreements between the socialists and representatives of the Şor Party, together with a group of deputies affiliated to Plahotniuc. The true position of the ‘DA’ Platform Party led by Andrei Năstase is also uncertain. This grouping, although nominally pro-Western, has found itself increasingly at odds with PAS. Moreover, given the low support for ‘DA’, early elections could pose a threat to this party’s presence in the parliament. All these factors may foster the establishment of cooperation between ‘DA’ and the Socialists. There is no doubt that Usatîi’s return to the Moldovan political scene will have negative consequences for the situation in Moldova in the long run. This controversial politician, who has strong but very obscure ties to Russia, will probably try to position himself as Sandu’s ally in the fight against corruption and the oligarchy, although in geopolitical terms he is an opponent of PAS. As a result, his actions may compromise the opposition’s pro-reformist efforts. Establishing any cooperation with him or his associates should therefore be undertaken very carefully, if at all. Otherwise, PAS risks a repeat of the scenario from the end of the second half of 2019, when it was pushed out of power after just five months due to an agreement between the Socialists and the Democratic Party, which was previously led and sponsored by Plahotniuc.

SPECIAL BRIEF: Iran’s endgame – between American sanctions and the Covid-19 pandemic

ABSTRACT

COVID-19’s impact on Iran’s already pressured economy is no secret. The pandemic is reducing the government’s income and increasing its expenses. Iran’s fragile economy will endure even more pressure in the coming months, yet the aggressive dialogue between Tehran and Washington is business as usual. Some argue the Iranian regime may not survive the coronavirus crisis. Others are warning that the regime is taking the people of Iran hostage by means of the pandemic. The embargo, put in place by the United States, is only exacerbating the Iranian people’s precarious living conditions. Which are the possible scenarios for US-Iran relations? Escalation, de-escalation or the status quo? This essay aims to present three possible scenarios that could describe the future of the US-Iran relationship and its implication for the European Union. A return to the past – a hypothesis in which the aggressive dialogue would continue without a constructive finality; Iran’s emergence as a regional hegemon; or a Western burst of action – where the European signatories of the JCPOA could decide whether to continue to support the nuclear deal or change the discourse, supporting Washington in its bid to negotiate a new deal.

The impact of the COVID-19

Since announcing its first COVID-19 fatalities, on 19 February 2020, in the holy city of Qom, the Islamic Republic of Iran has been the Middle Eastern country most badly affected by the pandemic, reporting infection and fatality rates among the highest in the world. As this essay is being written, in October 2020, there have been 588,648 coronavirus cases, and the death toll currently stands at 33,714. At the end of the month the numbers reached new heights, with an average of 300 daily deaths. The measures taken have been halting and ineffective, and the response to the pandemic has been a mixture of responsible warnings from public health officials, inconsistent government’ policies and conspiracy theories spread by the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Two days after Iran’s February parliamentary elections – which despite the virus did take place, albeit amid historically low turnout – Imam Khamenei referred to what he called the large-scale propaganda from foreign media calling on the ’people not to participate in the elections, pointing out, “This negative propaganda began a few months ago and increased as the elections approached. In the last two days, the pretext of an illness and virus was used, and their media did not miss the slightest opportunity to discourage people from voting”. 

Restrictions and measures aimed at limiting the virus’ spread were implemented in phases: on 23 February, the government ordered universities to close in some provinces and cancelled all cultural events; on 28 February, it called off Friday prayers and gatherings, followed by the closure of all academic institutions; on 5 March, it shuttered all sports venues, followed by religious shrines on 13 March, and a few days later travel between cities was banned.Moreover, by 17 March , Iran released 85,000 prisoners to prevent outbreaks of the virus in detention centres. Meanwhile, the Iranian government’s judgment continued to be marked by a combination of cynicism and religious ideology. Moreover, beyond the momentum of COVID-19, the theocratic government in Tehran is facing a set of challenges whose simultaneous pressure could, in the foreseeable future, cause a new wave of social movements, which would put Iran in the unprecedented situation of managing the fourth consecutive year marked by revolts of society. Under the weight of severe economic sanctions, unemployment and inflation have been rising while GDP is shrinking by 6% per annum. However, the Iranian regime has proved remarkably stable, at least for the time being, as it continues to strengthen its regional influence and even to expand its nuclear programme.

At first, the spread of COVID-19 seemed to provide an opportunity for Washington and Tehran to move away, at least temporarily, from aggressive dialogue and politics. The United States has provided nearly $274 million in aid to Iran, a sum which the Trump administration set aside for emergency international humanitarian funding. Also, Iran has released the US Army veteran and cancer patient Michael White from prison, who was handed over to Swiss diplomats (over time Switzerland has provided a channel of communication between these longtime foes). Furthermore, some US diplomats have demanded the release of at least four other Americans allegedly detained by Tehran, but Iranian decision-makers rejected Washington’s medical aid and did not respond to its request regarding the alleged American prisoners. The Trump administration responded by increasingsanctions on Iran; Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused the Iranian leadership “trying to avoid responsibility for their grossly incompetent and deadly governance”, alleging that “the Wuhan virus is a killer and the Iranian regime is an accomplice”. However, not only did the economic sanctions fail to bring about the desired outcome – which comes as no surprise – in fact, they have led to the strengthening of the ultra-conservative political faction. It is difficult to draw a clear line between Iranian political leaders, but what is certain is that the current president Hassan Rouhani, along with politicians associated with the foreign minister Javad Zarif, overcame nationalist pride and led Iran to the negotiating table with the West. Even though the mass demonstrations which began during the winter of 2017 and peaked in December 2019 showed that Iranian society is deeply dissatisfied with its government, public opinion of the American administration is even more hostile. In January 2020, hundreds of thousands of Iranians mourned the death of General Qassem Soleimani – killed by an American drone strike – in one of the largest mass demonstrations the country has ever seen. Not everyone venerated Soleimani, who supported a campaign to expand Iranian influence through proxy wars in Lebanon, Syria and Yemen; but his assassination was a blow to national pride.

Iranian hardliners, the main beneficiaries of the current US administration’s ‘maximum pressure’ strategy, may see this as an unprecedented opportunity to do what the Iranian elite has rejected in the past – leave the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the Non-Proliferation Treaty Nuclear (NPT), and then resume the nuclear programme. For the European Union this scenario means that its worst prediction –several European leaders have warned the Trump administration that withdrawing from the JCPOA would trigger a chain of escalation with Iran – are becoming reality. The nuclear deal remains at the heart of EU policy toward Iran; however, if Tehran takes further drastic steps in violation of the agreement terms, this scenario could mark the total collapse of the agreement. The EU and its former member, the United Kingdom, have so far resisted joining Washington’s calls for ‘maximum pressure’, and will need to prepare for a worse security dynamic across the Middle East if Tehran decides to escalate. However, given the latest events in France and the series of statement on the terrorist attacks made by the French President, Emmanuel Macron, Tehran – even though President Macron has not named the Islamic Republic as a perpetrator of extreme religious manifestation – has added its voice to the choir of Macron’s critics (UK, Kuwait, Qatar, Palestine, Egypt, Algeria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey). Such a gesture has the potential to distance France from the group of states that advocate the preservation of the nuclear agreement, and may create the preconditions for Paris to align itself with the US stance in future.

The American ‘maximum pressure’ approach encountered maximum resistance from Tehran, which has led to an escalation of repressive or aggressive actions on both sides.

The pandemic is having its geopolitical impact against the backdrop of the wider US-Iran animosity that has grown steadily since president Donald Trump decided to unilaterally withdraw the US from the JCPOA on 8 May 2018. The American ‘maximum pressure’ approach encountered maximum resistance from Tehran, which has led to an escalation of repressive or aggressive actions on both sides. General Soleimani’s killing was followed by a rocket attack in Iraq, claimed by an Iran-backed paramilitary group, against Camp Taji on March 2020, when three members of the US-led counter-ISIS coalition were killed and twelve were injured; another barrage upon the same facility three days later injured three US troops. While escalatory dynamics have so far been kept in check, the equilibrium is fragile and often broken by continuous escalations and counter-escalations from both Washington and Tehran – and their proxies. Normally, whenever adversaries are confronted with common transnational threats, their propensity to adopt flexible and cooperative behaviours to protect themselves increases. Even staunch adversaries like the US and Iran have had a history of cooperation against common threats in the post-1979 period. Historical cases include the early years of the war in Afghanistan (1), the toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003 and the recent fight against ISIS. On these occasions, both sides have temporarily de-escalated tensions, or have at least refrained from embarking on major confrontations. In addition, the emergence of common threats sets new limits to the continuation of regular policies. For example, during the Iraqi war, the US military’s operational need to safely escape Iraqi air defence by traversing into western Iranian airspace forced politicians in Washington to tone down their anti-Iranian rhetoric

Nevertheless, not much has changed in the US-Iran conflict since the pandemic’s outbreak. Despite expert advices and international calls, the US administration has refused to temporarily ease the sanctions regime and facilitate Iran’s purchase of much-needed medical equipment on the international market. At the same time, Iran has not shown any intention to revisit its offensive strategy against the US forces in Iraq. Both the US and Iran appear to be continuing their collision course. If anything, both parties seem to view Covid-19 as an opportunity to force the other party to change policy or surrender. They seem to have a worrying determination to use the pandemic to reinforce old strategies and narratives.

One might ask why so much is written about Iran-US relations, when in fact the central, and to a lesser extent the eastern European countries, are the ones struggling to save the nuclear deal? And how, exactly, can such heated rhetoric between Washington and Tehran affect Europe or its transatlantic relationship? The current trajectory not only endangers Europe’s non-proliferation goals, but it also heightens the risk of a nuclear arms race and a further military escalation in Europe’s backyard. Direct or indirect confrontation between American- and Iranian-backed forces across the Middle East will further fuel the regional conflicts (2), particularly in Iraq and Syria, that have already taken a heavy toll on Europe. While European leaders do share many of the US’s concerns regarding Iran, some European officials privately say that isolating Iran and excluding it from the international community may lead to a new ascent for the Iranian hardliners, politicians who would not back down from taking action “that [will] further fuel regional instability”(3). A regional escalation could appeal to the Iranian leadership for several reasons: it could divert attention from the mounting economic troubles and popular dissatisfaction at home, and achieve the long-sought goal of pushing the US out of Iraq with perceived lower risks of backlash, given President Trump’s desire to contain China and the need to address internal problems caused by the pandemic. Some officials in the Trump administration apparently hope that the compounded effects of COVID-19 and US sanctions will bring Tehran to the negotiation table: “There may be a window in the spring and summer for a negotiated ceasefire that puts us into a holding pattern until the November [US presidential] elections. A combination of pressures on the Iranian leadership … would leave the regime needing relief for limited stability”. However, signals from Tehran indicate that Iran is not interested in negotiations from a position of weakness. 

Against this background the only safe assumption is that Tehran will not re-engage in any constructive dialogue with Washington before the US elections in November. Moreover, even this scenario will be influenced by the presidential elections in Iran in May 2021. Given the fact that the Iranian moderates are in freefall (as seen from the elections to the Majlis earlier this year) and Ayatollah Khamenei is preparing his successor, or his legacy, the next American administration will encounter a leadership in Tehran that is very much aggrieved, prideful, risk-averse and hyper-sensitive about appearing weak, domestically, in the Mid-East region, and on the global stage. But even so, given their economic situation, the sharp global decline in demand for oil and crude prices, and the severe pandemic, the Iranians might be convinced to come back to the negotiation table, to back down from violating the provisions of the JCPOA and return to its full compliance. This might be a very good window of opportunity for Europe, which, if it hits the right notes both privately and publicly, will have the chance to de-escalate tensions, to revitalise its diplomacy and to re-establish economic ties. The most important question that arises here – and possibly the only one – is whether Europe is indeed prepared for an open diplomatic confrontation with its natural ally regarding the Iranian issue. Escalation, de-escalation or status quo? this might be a motto for the near future, on this particular international dossier. This essay aims to present three possible scenarios that could describe the future of the US-Iran relationship and its implication for Europe. A return to the past – a hypothesis in which the aggressive dialogue would continue without a constructive finality; Iran’s emergence as regional hegemon; and a Western burst of action – where the European signatories of the JCPOA could decide whether to continue to support the nuclear deal or change the discourse, supporting Washington in its bid to negotiate a new deal.

The first scenario: return to the past

In May 2021, Hassan Rouhani’s term will come to an end, and it is widely believed that a hardliner will come into office, just as the parliamentary elections showed this past February. In short, 2020 has so far been a litany of disasters for the Iranian people. To compound their misery, crisis after crisis has given conservatives and Iran’s unelected institutions the perfect opportunity to sideline voices of dissent, paving a path forward for conservatives to take power in the 2021 presidential election, and control the succession of Iran’s next Supreme Leader. Therefore, the best approach would likely be a return to the JCPOA, on a ‘compliance for compliance’ basis, and build up from there. Rouhani will hand over power in August next year, so there is still a time window of one year to open talks with those moderate politicians who brought  Iran to the negotiations table in the first place. Ali Larijani, a former military officer in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps who served as the Speaker of the Parliament of Iran from 2008 to 2020, Saeed Jalili, a former secretary of the Supreme National Security Council from 2007 to 2013 and Iran’s nuclear negotiator, and Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, a former military officer who held office as the Mayor of Tehran from 2005 to 2017, are probably three of the potential conservative candidates who could become president of the Islamic Republic. Such a scenario could take us back in time to June 2005, when the hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, newly elected as president of the Islamic Republic, driven by a new form of Iranian nationalism fundamentally tied to the nuclear programme, caused the Iranian government to resume the enrichment process at the plant in Isfahan. At the time, the EU-3 (France, Germany and the United Kingdom, then still an EU member) reaffirmed its unilateral security guarantees and offered long-time cooperation, but Iranian policymakers rejected the proposal. Throughout 2006 and 2007, the EU negotiators were largely caught between Iran – which was not interested in a compromise, but rather felt emboldened regarding its rising clout in the Middle East – and the US, which saw the referral to the United Nations Security Council as the means to legitimise the containment of Iran (4). 

Engagement with Iran has had three distinct periods: the Critical Dialogue (1992-1997) and Comprehensive Dialogue (1998-2003, under presidents Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami); the period from 2003 until 2005, when engagement was championed by the EU-3 and represented the effort to avoid another US-led war in the Middle East; and the period of coercive diplomacy (2005-2012). It was only during the period of coercive diplomacy that the US government participated – both passively and actively – in the P5+1 (US, UK, France, Russian Federation, China and Germany) framework. The Critical Dialogue pursued by the EU between 1992 and 1997 represented the Common Foreign and Security Policy in its infancy, and failed (5) to make any linkages between areas of concern and relations with the EU. 

In July 2012, former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told an audience in Iran that the government would not “retreat even one iota from their rights, principles and values against the declining materialistic powers. The enemy strikes at the Iranian nation step by step; but, in return, it receives a stronger, heavier blow”.

History looks set to repeat itself. The newly-elected conservative parliament will most likely bolster hardliners in the 2021 presidential contest and sway public policy debates away from engagement with the US.

History looks set to repeat itself. In 2004, when many reformist voters stayed at home amidst the internal repression of the reformist movement, a weakened reformist president, and also in disappointment at the aggressive speech coming from Washington – the famous collocation “axis of evil” coined by George W. Bush –conservatives were handed a sizable majority in parliament, easing the way into office for Mahmoud Ahamadinejad. The newly-elected conservative parliament will most likely bolster hardliners in the 2021 presidential contest and sway public policy debates away from engagement with the US. If the country’s economic issues and political stagnation continue, Iranians will feel justified in their abstention from the elections, solidifying the notion that the system no longer works for them.

The key problem for Europe in this perspective is perhaps not so much related to the re-emergence of a conservative political elite, but how it will use its power diplomatically, tactically and strategically. While the Iranian market has been reopened for European companies and investments after 2015, and EU trade with Iran reached a total of €21 billion in 2017, the most important companies that had started investing in Iran withdrew after the re-imposition of American sanctions.

Biggest European deals announced in 2017 (Source: The New York Times)

Apart from the economic aspect, a regional incident can always escalate into a more general conflict, just in Europe’s backyard. And in the present circumstances, when Europeans are fighting the next wave of the pandemic and the associated economic crisis, a spillover effect would be more than difficult to manage. The best option would be for EU officials and other European leaders to try to identify convergent interests with the US in the Middle East and do their best to focus on substance, rather than wasting time commenting on Trump’s tweets. They could also try to bring Iranian and American diplomats to the negotiation table before another crisis arises – and before the Russians or the Chinese do so first.

The second scenario: Iran’s emergence as regional hegemon

Ever since 1973 and the first oil shock, the centre of gravity of Middle Eastern politics has been gradually shifting from the eastern Mediterranean and the Arab-Israeli conflict toward the Persian Gulf, where Iran has long harboured ambitions to become a regional power, despite recent escalations in the Eastern Mediterranean. The process was accelerated in 1979 by the signing of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, which dramatically reduced the likelihood of another Arab-Israeli war, and the peak of the Islamic Revolution, which replaced the government of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi with a radical theocratic regime under the leadership of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. In recent years, despite severe regime sanctions, Iran has managed a complex set of regional relations and a considerable measure of success. Just mentioning the connections and proxies Iran has in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen or even Afghanistan, it can be seen that Tehran can wield influence, according to its own needs, over about half of the Middle East region. Therefore, it is no surprise that the nuclear file has two components: a formal one – limiting, even stopping the proliferation process – and an informal one, for which the nuclear issue is the means of pursuing the goal of containing Iran’s regional emergence. Saudi Arabia and Israel – two of Washington’s most important allies in the region – are the main opponents of both Iran and the nuclear deal.

Iran’s regional policy has undergone changes due to a number of internal and external factors. The external factors have mainly followed regional trends and have often been triggered by external powers’ military interventions in the neighbouring countries and/or occupation of those countries. Through a combination of regional trends, often triggered by external powers’ strategies, and Tehran’s definition of national expediency, Iran has become one of the most significant and influential states in the region, and has tailored its foreign policy based on the sovereignty factor (as mentioned in Article 9 of the Iranian Constitution), the influence factor – seeking to maintain strong influence in post-occupation or newly-formed governments in neighbouring countries (such as Iraq, Lebanon and Afghanistan) – and the ‘balance of power’ factor – concentrating on both international and regional powers (Iran has put a great deal of effort into defying the US’s influence (6) in the region, and has shown a strong degree of aspiration to maintain its leading position as the region’s largest Shia majority country in order to cross-regionally offset the Saudi influence). (7)

The dynamics of the Iran-Syria alliance have become more evident since the crisis in Syria began; both countries have a higher chance of surviving, as well as achieving their long-term goals, through their strategic, military, and economic ties. The relations between the two countries have attracted more headlines since the beginning of the Syrian crisis, but they actually date back to the early stages of the inception of the revolutionary government in Tehran, when Syria was the first Arab country to recognise the provisional government after the Shah’s ouster. The mutually beneficial relations between the two countries have provided Iran with opportunities to use Syria as a guaranteed lifeline supporting Hezbollah in Lebanon, and as a safe channel (8) for shipping undisclosed commercial and military goods, something which became particularly important after the sanctions on Iran were tightened in 2011. 

Amid the backdrop of pandemic, sanctions and economic recession, the power of Iran’s conservative establishment has dramatically increased, setting the course for a new era of hardline politics.

Iran has pursued a multifaceted strategic alliance (9) with Syria, in line with the three main pillars of its foreign policy. In line with the sovereignty factor and with keeping Damascus close to Tehran, Iran has retained strategic grounds for retaliating to potential Israeli military aggression. Moreover, in keeping close to the Assad regime, Iran, unlike other regional and international players who have largely alienated Assad since the crisis, has maintained a great deal of influence in the Syrian government. Such influence does not necessarily mean that Iran’s green light would guarantee Assad’s exit, but broadly speaking, Iran is perhaps the only regional player that the Assad government trusts so far. Finally, since the beginning of the Syrian crisis Iran has been the only regional player willing to and capable of putting boots on the ground (10). This kind of strategy has maintained the ‘balance of power factor’, which is a key concern in Iran’s foreign policy.

Iran is not expected to cede its consolidation in Syria, despite its economic difficulties and the danger of extensive popular protests related to the coronavirus pandemic. Moreover, Iran has been assisting Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad in retaking Idlib province and encircling the Kurdish areas

Iraq, the former foe and current ally, is an important pillar of the Iranian foreign policy; since as far back as 2003, the influence factor has been translated into control of the post-Saddam Iraqi governments. From that time, Iran has supported, either directly or through proxies, the creation of a Shia-dominated government in Baghdad. Another major goal of Iranian foreign policy in Iraq is to win the competition with other players involved in the region. The military campaign against ISIS in Iraq has triggered a more pragmatic Iranian approach towards the West, somewhat similar to their tactical cooperation in defeating al-Qaeda and the Taliban after the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan. Some European states, such as France, Germany, Italy and the UK, have joined the US-led anti-ISIS air coalition, while others have provided training and arms to Iraq’s central army and to Kurdish Peshmerga forces. In private, Western officials say that Iran has been the most willing and effective force (11) in coordinating ground troops with the coalition’s air campaign against ISIS. Europeans would have preferred a strong Iraqi security force that could act independently of Iran, but they recognise that no Iraqi or foreign actor has the appetite or ability to replace Iran (12). Moreover, maintaining influence in Iraqi politics has become more crucial to the Islamic Republic as Iraq’s large market provides an accommodating environment for Iran’s licit and illicit trade (13). Europe can tolerate, and to a degree even welcome Iran’s operations against ISIS, as long as they do not weaken Iraq’s central government or reignite sectarian divisions. In addition, Europe will want to see Iran taking a more active part in tackling the actual and perceived sectarian tensions associated with its role in Iraq. One way that might be acceptable to Iran would be for its high-ranking political, military, and religious figures to follow the example set by Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in condemning sectarian acts (14) and working with Baghdad to shape inclusive political representation for Sunnis and other minorities.

Even amidst the pandemic crisis, the ‘maximum pressure’ strategy imposed by Washington and the large number of victims caused by COVID-19, Tehran is continuing its strategic approach to Iraq. In April 2020, 11 Iranian naval vessels aggressively veered close to five American military vessels transiting the Persian Gulf. This clearly shows that the regime in Tehran has no intention of surrendering, and is carefully planning and executing a strategy based on calculated and calibrated actions.

The Hezbollah model was the most effective way to spread the ideology of the Islamic Revolution, and Lebanon was the right environment to implement this strategy. Iran’s financing of Hezbollah’s military and social services enables the group to solidify its role as the protector and provider of Lebanon’s Shia community. This core constituencyprovides the base for Hezbollah and Iran to fight for dominance throughout the Middle East. With Iranian support, Hezbollah has emerged as the most powerful military and political force in Lebanon. 

Iran’s ambitions in Afghanistan are not necessarily hegemonic. Tehran knows that it cannot dominate its neighbour completely, yet it has certain interests to protect, such as securing its eastern border, preserving the flow of water from Afghanistan, countering drugs trafficking and dealing with the large Afghan refugee population on its soil. Also, Iran is particularly anxious to prevent a total Taliban victory in Afghanistan and the expansion of Pakistani power. The Iranian government has attempted to achieve its objectives through a variety of means, such as cultural and religious bounds, economic tools and even supporting various militias and armed groups (15). Iran’s activities in Afghanistan have not drawn the same attention as its operations in the rest of the region, but it still remains an important and often difficult arena of Iranian foreign policy – meaning, above all, to see stability in Afghanistan.

Furthermore, Iran recently sent five oil tankers to Venezuela, violating that country’s embargo, and thus crossing the regional border of its desire for influence. In doing so, Iran escalated its activities in the western hemisphere, even if it is not the first time Tehran has meddled in South American affairs: relations between Tehran and Caracas go back as far as the 1960s, when both countries were founding members of OPEC; Iran’s proxy Hezbollah has also been sending mercenaries to the tri-border region of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay. 

Amid the backdrop of pandemic, sanctions and economic recession, the power of Iran’s conservative establishment has dramatically increased, setting the course for a new era of hardline politics. Conservatives politicians and critics – the very people whom campaigned against Rouhani’s administration and his platform of external engagement and internal moderation – are more likely to continue, or in some cases to resume, the policy of regional influence from where they left off. In this scenario, Europe needs to institute a paradigm shift in its relations with Iran.The European Union needs to move from a country-specific policy focused on non-proliferation toward a Gulf strategy that accounts for the Islamic Republic’s ties with its littoral neighbours. As it happens, the promotion of intraregional cooperation is part of the EU’s history and continuing success – despite current shortcomings in handling migration, stabilising national debts and fighting the coronavirus pandemic.

In institutional terms, the timing on the EU side is good now. The European Commission that took office in December 2019 aims to be “more strategic, more assertive and more united” in its foreign policy, in the words of its president, Ursula von der Leyen. After the US-Iranian escalation in Iraq in January 2020, the EU’s Council of Ministersmandated the union’s foreign policy chief to talk to all parties to help de-escalate tensions in the region, support political dialogue, and promote a political regional solution. Europe can now move beyond its exclusive nuclear focus with Iran, and shift to a relationship based on engagement, not containment. This would allow the EU to pursue its interests with Iran across a range of issues, in particular on de-escalating those conflicts in the Middle East in which Iran is involved. Despite the regional disorder, Iran is one of the few countries in the region that has a fully functioning state, security, and intelligence apparatus. Relations with Iran matter to Europe, in particular because of Iran’s deep footprint in almost every crisis that is currently unfolding in this region of strategic importance. Europeans have to deal with the repercussions of the Iraqi state’s disintegration after the US-led invasion in 2003, their incorrect calculations on how quickly Bashar al-Assad would fall in Syria, and the rising extremism across the region. The surge of ISIS has further underscored the volatile nature of the threats to Europe from internal radicalisation and the backlash in the form of Islamophobia, the potential return to Europe of citizens now fighting in Syria, terrorism, and the human cost of the regional crises.

Although focusing on either Iran as a country or the nuclear deal as an issue is too narrow an approach in and of itself, the JCPOA should still be the EU’s point of departure. Even if Iran’s successive steps to reduce its commitments endanger what is left of nuclear cooperation under the deal, the coronavirus pandemic provides an additional reason to open a humanitarian channel that allows for regular trade in medical products and food staples with Iran, and from there to build a way to the negotiations table.

The third scenario: a Western burst of action

It is almost certain that in a year from now, Iran’s foreign policy will take on a new dimension, and the issue of the nuclear agreement will be more likely one of the main points on the next Iranian government agenda. Yet this scenario involves two ramifications, conditional upon the US presidential elections in November 2020, and those in Iran in May 2021. Whether Donald Trump or Joe Biden wins, the next American president will have about seven months to deal with the ongoing administration regarding the future of the nuclear deal and, in consequence, with Iran’s ambition in the region. Hassan Rouhani will end his second term, and he will hand over office to the next administration in August 2021, so there is a window of opportunity to negotiate with the moderates who brought Iran to the negotiations table in the first place. 

If Trump is re-elected it is more likely that the ‘maximum pressure’ strategy will continue. However, there is a chance to open up to an overture from Tehran, given the fact that the country’s economic and health conditions are such a precarious state. So, in order to avoid further mass uprisings, whose effects could be more profound than the previous ones, the current moderate regime in Tehran could take at least a minimal reconciliation with Washington into account. In spite of his aggressive rhetoric, some analysts have argued that President Trump’s reluctance to launch a military strike against Iran is proof of his prudence and restraint. Starting a war with Iran might lead to bloody retaliations against US’s regional allies; moreover, it would require a new military involvement in the Middle East, in addition to those in Iraq and Afghanistan. Such a scenario would be inconsistent with the Trump campaign’s slogan of ‘America First’. The fact that President Rouhani has just listed a set of conditions under which Iran would resume dialogue with the United States – even if Mike Pompeo has dismissed them – could send a message to the US administration that Iran is not completely closed to negotiations. However, it is equally clear that Washington will have to make certain concessions, otherwise any such zero-sum game will be completely rejected by Tehran.

Biden’s election to the White House presents fewer and more accessible variables than the previous scenario regarding Iran. Even though the remarks made by Antony Blinken, a former Deputy Secretary of State with the Obama administration – “Iran would have to come back into full compliance and unless and until it did, obviously, all sanctions would remain in place” – sparked a backlash in Iran, and Fars News, a conservative outlet affiliated with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, seized on Blinken’s remarks to say that Biden’s approach to Iran will not differ drastically from that of the Trump administration, it is more likely that the Democratic Party’s candidate will try to save some parts of Barack Obama’s legacy, including the JCPOA.

Regardless of who the new US president is as of January 2021, one thing is certain: Europeans will have to make a decision on Iran, either trying to save the nuclear deal or rallying behind Washington if the new administration decides otherwise.

Regardless of who the new US president is as of January 2021, one thing is certain: Europeans will have to make a decision on Iran, either trying to save the nuclear deal or rallying behind Washington if the new administration decides otherwise. “Europeans view the nuclear deal as a significant foreign policy achievement”, analyst Kelsey Davenport has said; yet at the same time, the EU could come to rethink their stance if Iran continues to test the limits imposed by the JCPOA. However, at least for now, the EU (together with the United Kingdom, China and the Russian Federation) seems willing to do its best to save the deal, to continue to use INSTEX – the EU-Iran trading mechanism designed to allow Europeans to bypass US sanctions and continue trade with Tehran – which just has concluded its first transaction (facilitating the export of medical goods), and to cooperate with Tehran on several issues affecting the Middle East. France and Germany, signatories of the JCPOA, could force the pace of the EU’s involvement in the Iranian issue, especially as the Europeans begin to lose visibility on an international stage which is now occupied, and will probably remain so in the near future, by the new type of cold confrontation between US and China. The rest of the Central and Eastern European member states will most likely follow the approach of Paris and Berlin; the only visible exception could be Poland, whose opinion in the aftermath after the US unilateral withdrawal from JCPOA in May 2018 was that the “EU needs more empathy toward the US over the Iran deal”. But this stance did not come as a surprise, as Warsaw is keen for security assurances from the US as a deterrence policy against Russia. Nevertheless, the Polish minister of foreign affairs, Jacek Krzysztof Czaputowicz, implied that Poland had not yet made a final decision: “We need to think, there is still time. This doesn’t mean we don’t feel part of the EU community in these discussions … We will see what other EU members think”. On the other hand, some US observers believe that, when faced with a choice of doing business with Iran or facing economic secondary sanctions, European governments will opt to preserve their ties with the US. They also tend to believe that, by threatening to adopt a confrontational position toward Iran – dismantling the nuclear deal, pushing for regime change, or even conducting limited military strikes against Iran – the US will coerce (16) Europeans to jump onboard with less extreme policies, such as the renegotiation of the JCPOA or demanding that Iran change its behaviour on regional issues. In opposing the current administration in Washington policy toward Iran, European governments – especially Paris and Berlin – find themselves in the unusual position of being closer to Russia and China than to their traditional transatlantic partner (17). Even if the EU’s leaders do share many of the concerns of the US with regard to Iran, they have consistently voiced unanimous support for the JCPOA, and have broadly favoured similar multilateral engagements to address outstanding issues regarding the Islamic Republic. 

Conclusions

The COVID-19 crisis comes at a particularly difficult political moment for the Iranian government. In November 2019, its decision to abruptly raise fuel prices triggered widespread protests, the latest and most significant bout of unrest due to economic discontent and political stagnation. Security forces brutally suppressed the uprising, killing hundreds and imprisoning thousands. In January, Iran downed a Ukrainian civilian airliner, having purportedly confused it for an incoming US missile at a time of heightened bilateral tensions following the US killing of General Qassem Soleimani. All these events have eroded public confidence in the current government in Tehran, and with the 2021 presidential elections looming, hardliners are seizing the opportunity to promise a more effective leadership. But given the history of ultra-conservative governments, the likelihood of negotiations with Iran will be much lower, even for Europe, which has managed, at least for now, to keep the door open to diplomacy with Tehran. 

While the ‘maximum pressure’ strategy has not tempered Iran’s policies in the region, the Europeans should attempt to de-escalate the situation. Even if the ‘New Europe’ – namely Central and Eastern European countries – tends to support US foreign policy on most Middle East issues, the Iranian question seems to be its Achilles heel, as all European states, including the CEE, could feel the effect of a possible escalation of events in the Middle East region.       

The first two scenarios described above would set back the confidence and rapprochement already built between EU and Iran by at least a decade. European countries should now prepare to minimise the damage and preserve their strategic interests on non-proliferation, pursue stability in the Middle East, and keep an eye on the on economic and energy strategy. The question arises: Does the EU want to be a global power or not? However, the reality on the ground is that Europe does not have the tools – or possibly even the will – to project its power. Europe’s financial resources cannot match those of the US, and more fundamentally, deep divisions remain within Europe over whether it should even seek power, with or without the UK. Yet, the Iranian issue is far greater than Iran – in reality it epitomises a structural turning point in the transatlantic relationship. 

Nevertheless, as cynical it might sound, the ongoing pandemic crisis could be an opportunity for Europe. While the US has to manage a set of internal crises – pandemic, rising unemployment, and possibly further riots across the country – the EU can step up, and as a starter, protect its important humanitarian connection with Iran. Given that the country continues to be the epicentre of the pandemic in a fragile Middle East, the coronavirus is likely to lead to increased refugee flows to Europe. Building from here, the EU should form a coalition on non-nuclear issues, focused on freedom of navigation in the Persian Gulf, and the conflicts in Yemen and Iraq (18). Also, the European governments will need to push back against the US-led sanction regime so that their companies will not be penalised by the US for undertaking legal business with Iran. Should Europe (and the US fail) to provide relief to Iran in such grave circumstances, this would turn the Iranian public against them for generations. Moreover, it would give ammunition to those in Iran who favour confrontation with the West. To devise smart contingency plans, it will be imperative for European governments to increase their coordination with China, Russia, and the other Asian economic giants such as India, South Korea and Japan (19). Not only do their interests align with respect to the JCPOA, they also share a more general concern about the use of secondary US sanctions.

Europeans see the nuclear deal as a key pillar of regional and world security, and have struggled to keep the agreement alive, despite US pressure. It might be the time now for a more assertive approach, one that will add to Europe’s credibility and strengthen its position. It will increase the likelihood that Iran will take steps to return to full compliance with its nuclear commitments, because Tehran’s endgame is to restart oil exports, to enter the international finance system, and to overcome the pandemic crisis.

At the same time, a principled stance by Europe would pay off regardless of the outcome of the US presidential elections. If Joe Biden wins the election, Europeans will have kept the door open for a US return to the nuclear deal. If, however, Trump is re-elected, Europe will have taken a long overdue step towards protecting itself from further coercive action.

NOTES

(1). Mir. H. Sadat, James P. Hughes (2006), ‘US-Iran Engagement Through Afghanistan’, Middle East Policy, 17(1).
(2). Ellie Geranmayeh (2017), ‘The Coming Clash: Why Iran will Divide Europe from the United States’, ECFR, October 2017.
(3). Ibid.
(4). Bernd Kaussler (2014) Iran’s Nuclear Diplomacy. Power politics and conflict resolution, New York: Routledge, pp. 36-37.
(5). Bernd Kaussler (2014), op. cit., p. 94.
(6). Sara Bazoobandi (2014), ‘Iran’s Regional Policy: Interests, Challenges and Ambitions’, ISPI, Analysis no. 275, November 2014.
(7). Ibid.
(8). Ibid.
(9). Sara Bazoobandi (2014), op. cit., pp. 4-5.
(10). Ibid.
(11).Ellie Geranmayeh (2017), op. cit., p. 4.
(12). Ibid.
(13). Sara Bazoobandi (2014), op. cit., p. 6.
(14). Ellie Geranmayeh (2017), op. cit., pp. 5-6.
(15). Alireza Nader et. al. (2014), ‘Iran’s Influence in Afghanistan. Implications for the U. S. Drawdown’, RAND, pp. 1-74.
(16). Ellie Geranmayeh (2017), op. cit., p. 4.
(17). Ibid.
(18). Ellie Geranmayeh (2017), op. cit., p. 1.
(19). Ibid.

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Neumann, P. R. (2015), ‘Foreign fighter total in Syria / Iraq now exceeds 20,000; surpasses Afghanistan conflict in the 1980s’, ICSR, 26 January 2015. Available at https://icsr.info/2015/01/26/foreign-fighter-total-syriairaq-now-exceeds-20000-surpasses-afghanistan-conflict-1980s/. [Accessed 26 July 2020].
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“Europe has no interest in decoupling from Asia” – interview with Parag Khanna

Dr. Parag Khanna is a leading global strategy advisor, world traveller, and best-selling author.

Sometimes crises put history on fast forward. What would you expect to be the geopolitical fallout/aftershocks that will shape the post-coronavirus world? To what extent is Covid-19 accelerating some of the trends that were discernible even before the pandemic? 

For me the biggest geopolitical and geoeconomic trend under way for quite a few years is regionalisation. It is an organic process given the growth of the Asian regional environment, given the renegotiation of the North American trade relationships, but also because of the US-China trade war. In the post-COVID world regionalism will accelerate because it is very difficult to travel outside of one’s region for an indefinite period of time, as the supply chains are going to be more entrenched within the regions; it will accelerate because of the growing suspicion of outsourcing to China across long distances. In short, there are many reasons why we will see this emphasis on the region, instead of the global. This is a very significant geopolitical trend that began before the pandemic.

There is no West…

You are a researcher of globalisation and connectivity. What will change in the pattern of globalisation? How will globalisation be restructured and recalibrated? Especially in a context shaped by pressures for decoupling and fears of deglobalisation.

It is very important to emphasise that decoupling and deglobalisation are different things. Deglobalisation is if all globalisation stops. But Europe and China are both trading more with Asia, therefore you do not have deglobalisation. Decoupling simply means that the US might invest less in China, it might buy less from China and the reverse. Some connections are weaker and some connections are getting stronger. But when it comes to trade, the United States is not nearly as important as Asia. We should be looking at the globalisation of trade from the Asian standpoint, not the American standpoint. Trade between Europe and Asia is much larger than trade with America. There is not necessarily deglobalisation, but we can identify sectorial decoupling. 

In the post-COVID world regionalism will accelerate because it is very difficult to travel outside of one’s region for an indefinite period of time, as the supply chains are going to be more entrenched within the regions; it will accelerate because of the growing suspicion of outsourcing to China across long distances.

We can talk about increasing globalisation or decreasing globalisation by sector. In the energy sector, you have deglobalisation because oil is abundant, but consumption is down, so you have less trade in oil. You have some slight deglobalisation of finance, as some portfolio capital has been removed from some emerging markets. In digital services there is an increase of globalisation – everyone is using Skype, Zoom and Netflix. We have an increase in trade in digital services, which is a very high value-added component of globalisation. It is more important and more valuable than oil. We usually see the oil tankers as the embodiment of globalisation, but they are not. Internet is a better embodiment of globalisation.

To what extent is this phenomenon of decoupling reinforcing the trend of regionalisation? In both United States and Europe we can hear calls for reshoring some strategic industries and creating some sort of Western resilience from this perspective. Should we expect massive shifts in this direction? 

When we talk about infrastructure, supply chains and resilience we should not be talking about the West. The West is a cultural concept and it has nothing to do with supply chains and resilience, which are essentially geographical concepts. We must focus on North America and Europe completely separately. For example, Europe is moving towards some degree of decreasing the dependence on fossil fuels, therefore it is not competing for global oil supply. When you look to North America – United States, Canada and Mexico, all are major energy powers. North America has energy self-sufficiency, a large labour force, it has industrial potential, it has technology, labour, land. All of these potential inputs for self-sufficiency and resiliency are present in North America. Europe does not have its big software companies, but it has more people than North America, it has enough land, it has renewable energy, it has financial capital. It still needs to import some energy, it is still importing food from different parts of the world, but it is trying to be more self-sufficient. If Google were to stop Internet access for Google in Europe, that would be a problem for Europe. But there is no particular technology where you would say that if Europe switches off that access to America, then America is in trouble.

Time for Europe to take itself seriously

I also want to discuss a bit the dynamic that you see inside the Atlantic system. The COVID crisis that started in China hit the West dramatically, right at its core. Is COVID an opportunity for the Atlantic system, for reinventing the strategic unity & solidarity of the Atlantic system? We see a lot of calls from the other side of the Atlantic trying to persuade Europe to align with the U.S. in the broader great-power competition.

Europe has no interest in decoupling from Asia. Europe is much more export-dependent than America is. Europe still needs to trade and export to Asia. That is why you can see that while the US is trying to block the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), the Europeans were joining the AIIB. There are different perspectives on this issue. In terms of a strategic community, you can still argue that there is a cultural West, but in terms of geo-economics, you cannot argue that there is a common West. America’s geopolitical allies are also its geo-economic rivals. They are competing with each other to gain market share in Asia.

How would you see the EU faring in a post-COVID international system where we see so much internal fragmentation, between North and South, Old Europe and New Europe, but at the same time a world in which the “return of history” and Machtpolitik, not multilateralism define the new normal? 

I don’t believe in the language of Robert Kagan. It is reflective of a trend focused on measuring capabilities in a way that is very different from the way sophisticated people measure capabilities today. In the XXI century, there is no particular reason to privilege the size of a nuclear arsenal over market access. Europe’s strength derives from areas where a) it acts coherently, and b) where it demands reciprocity and where it insists on high standards. This is a very important source of European influence. Europe has to actually act on these capabilities in trade, in regulations, in human rights. What we are seeing over the last couple of years is Europe trying to be tougher on China in terms of reciprocity, demanding to have a greater share in the BRI projects, demanding reciprocal market access, it has declared China as a strategic competitor, it is working to develop a big fund to support strategic industries. All of these are indications that Europe does want to be a more coherent strategic player, but this will require of course that Europe evolves towards a common fiscal policy as well.

When we talk about infrastructure, supply chains and resilience we should not be talking about the West. The West is a cultural concept and it has nothing to do with supply chains and resilience, which are essentially geographical concepts. We must focus on North America and Europe completely separately.

Balancing China

In the recent past, the way China has been rising has created a lot of resentment in Japan, in Australia (as we’ve seen in the last few weeks) in the whole East Asia, because of Beijing’s aggressive push in the South China Sea. Does the US have the ability to create a balancing coalition to check China’s strategic ambitions there? Or is that a role to be played first and foremost by local countries (like the TPP-11)?

The answer is definitely both. The most important thing to remember is that Japanese, Indian, Korean and Australian interests have been aligned for a very long time. As neighbours of China, they’ve been concerned about China’s rise for much longer than anyone else. It is important not to argue that the United States are leading the effort to balance China. That is not true. Japan and India really are leading the effort. America has the most powerful capabilities and it is wisely supporting efforts like the Quad arrangement (Australia, India, Japan and United States). The four navies are working together to maintain a free and open Indo-Pacific region. The aim is to prevent China from dominating the South China Sea, from dominating the Indian Ocean. This is going to shape Chinese behaviour. It is not a formal alliance, as in Asia alliances are very rare. It is a coalition of countries based on a very strong structural agreement on the desire to contain China.

In the book (“The Future is Asian: Commerce, Conflict & Culture in the 21st Century”) published last year you point out that “Russia and China are today closer than at any point since the heyday of their 1950s Communist alliance”. Do they learn from each other in challenging the status quo? Are they coordinating their movements?

It is more an axis of convenience than a real alliance. Russia remains very suspicious of China, but Russia is also accepting a lot of investment from China. What will happen over time is a China that is being very careful not to alienate Russia, as it could potentially cut down on the amount of the Chinese investments in the country, even though it needs it desperately. In the long term, China has significant interests in using Russia for access to Europe and the Arctic, but it has to be careful not to appear too dominant. I can see that right now Russia is the country that is most compliant with the Chinese interests, but in the medium term it could be the country where there is a substantial backlash against China.

In a shifting global landscape where we will see a change in supply chain patterns, will the Belt and Road Initiative remain a comparative advantage for China or could it become a liability?

The Belt and Road Initiative is an integral part of China’s grand strategy. A lot of people are discussing whether China is going to speak less about BRI or de-emphasise it. We should focus less on what they say in speeches and more on following the money. This is the bigger issue. What we will see is that China will talk less about BRI as it has become controversial, but I think it is still a strategic priority to achieve the supply chain diversification, to build these infrastructure corridors, to access West Asia and access Europe through infrastructure. There will still be BRI, but China will talk less, it will try to multilateralise more and it will have to make concessions on issues of debt relief in the wake of the pandemic.

In terms of a strategic community, you can still argue that there is a cultural West, but in terms of geo-economics, you cannot argue that there is a common West. America’s geopolitical allies are also its geo-economic rivals. They are competing with each other to gain market share in Asia.

Lessons from Asia in managing COVID-19 

South Korea and Taiwan were at the forefront in managing the pandemic. What lessons in terms of resilience and effective governance should be learned from their example, including by the West?What is crucial to remember is that these are democratic states (South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Japan) that performed very well during the pandemic. The key aspect is that they are democracies, but they are also technocracies. They have democratic elections, independent branches of government and separation of powers, but they have a very strong civil service, really competent and professional bureaucracies that know how to get things done to meet the basic needs of the people to deliver high quality medical care. It is very important to appreciate that countries can be democratic and technocratic at the same time. Very often that is something that we ignore.

The experience of Singapore

Singapore is a country that embodies a lot of hesitation and concern about China, even if it is a majority Chinese country. You have Chinese people in a country that is not China, but they are very worried about China. In a way, the more Chinese Singapore has become demographically, the less comfortable it has become with China geopolitically. I believe there have been times when, even though Singapore was suspicious about China, it was also naïve, as they hoped that China would have a peaceful rise. That has not been the case. Now, Singapore has been very clever to make sure to emphasise to China that it will maintain its strategic relationship with the United States, that it will not back down from allowing American naval forces to have a presence on its territory. It is a strong sign of Singapore’s independence and neutrality. When it comes to the US and China it is much more of a binary. But countries like South Korea, Thailand and Singapore have been very good at maintaining good relations with both. This is tricky because there is very strong US pressure on one side and very strong pressure on the other side.

Short-term vs. long-term trends

“The Second World: How Emerging Powers Are Redefining Global Competition in the Twenty-first Century” is about the competing efforts of the United States, of Europe and of China to develop spheres of influence in emerging regions and ‘swing-state’ sort of areas like Eastern Europe, Arab world, Latin America, Central Asia or Southeast Asia. In each of those regions you see a very different landscape of influence. In the short term you hear people saying that Russia calls the shots in Syria, that it is very influential in the Middle East. In the long term that is nonsense, because Russia cannot be influential in those regions. Through the 2000s we thought about Central Asia as part of the American dominion because U.S. invaded Iraq and Afghanistan and had a very large military presence there. In 2020, American presence has declined to almost a symbolic one and American influence is almost zero. Geopolitically we have to make a distinction between a very artificial and short-term situation like the occupation of Afghanistan, versus the long-term reality that countries like China and Iran will be much more influential in countries like Afghanistan.


Parag Khanna is Founder & Managing Partner of FutureMap, a data and scenario-based strategic advisory firm. Parag’s newest book is The Future is Asian: Commerce, Conflict & Culture in the 21st Century(2019). He holds a PhD from the London School of Economics.

Pandemic of discord: Will the EU allow Kosovo – Serbia peace to slip through its fingers?

The COVID-19 pandemic has engendered  an opportunity to reinitiate discussions regarding the controversial redrawing of borders along ethnic lines between Kosovo and Serbia.

Right when the COVID-19 crisis reached Kosovo, its government fell.

The Parliament ousted Prime Minister Albin Kurti in a vote of no confidence. The pretext was that he refused to enact a state of emergency that would legally justify the restrictive measures he had put in place in order to curb the Coronavirus outbreak.

Kurti claims he was concerned about transferring the government powers to the Security Council chaired by President Hashim Thaci. Yet Kurti added that his concern was less about the coronavirus threat, and more about his fear that Thaci would use the powers given by the new act to conclude a controversial deal with Serbia to redraw Kosovo’s borders along ethnic lines. In the weeks that followed, the deal seemed set to become reality.

There is reason for Europe to take this seriously, as it may well become a defining moment for nation-states in Europe. The question of redrawing borders underlines a larger crisis of the nation-state in which ethnic minorities play a key role. In some cases, the presence of large ethnic minorities has been perceived as a legitimate factor in the demarcation of borders. Yet it has also been used as a claim to legitimise ethno-territorial fantasies that brought the Western Balkans to war in the 1990s.

Although governments aim to present their borders as stable, the ideological nation-state is in flux, and nationalism is swiftly evolving across Europe. Amidst rising populist sentiment and ensuing xenophobia, ethnic difference is increasingly presented as a problem for the nation-state. If the fall of the nation-state has been predicted already, the pandemic crisis has only served to highlight and amplify its centrality in debates over the future of Europe by now rendering it a crucial component of public discourse. While the grave health and economic consequences of the Pandemic persist, the rapid political shifts that resulted from it can bring about structural changes that will be felt for decades to come, and have implications for Europe as a whole.

The pandemic crisis has only served to highlight and amplify the centrality of the nation-state in debates over the future of Europe by now rendering it a crucial component of public discourse.

The Kosovo-Serbia dialogue has remained in a stalemate for quite some time, with Brussels hesitating to take any decisive action. However, to address lingering tensions in the Kosovo-Serbia relationship, Europe must also look at its own complex history in relation to ethnic minorities and nationalism. Moreover, it also needs to learn from recent history in order to keep a very volatile situation under control.

Pandemic of discord: could it bring about ethnic borders in Europe?

Prime Minister Kurti and President Thaci had long disagreed on a proposal for territorial exchange as part of a potential Kosovo-Serbia final peace settlement. Kurti was worried Thaci would seize the opportunities offered by the COVID-19 Pandemic to move forward with this deal.

While the specifics of such a land swap are largely unknown, Thaci’s statement in 2018 announcing the proposal suggested it would unify Albanian majority areas in southern Serbia with Kosovo. In return, Serb majority areas in northern Kosovo would be united with Serbia.

The thought of redrawing borders along ethnic lines led thousands to protest in Kosovo’s capital Prishtina. Given the EU’s acquiescence on the matter, several civil society groups in Kosovo and Serbia, as well as former highrepresentatives to Bosnia sent open letters to then-EU High Commissioner Federica Mogherini, urging her to oppose the deal. For the past two years, the issue has galvanised intense public debate, particularly after it was revealed that the Kosovo government had in 2019 commissioned a Paris-based company to lobby in favour of a land swap.

Given the controversy, President Thaci later reframed his proposal with the more palatable framing of “border correction” (supposedly modeled on similar agreements between Belgium and the Netherlands) and promised that there would be no demarcation along ethnic lines. In promoting the proposal, he adopted a language grounded in liberal democratic values, speaking of normalization, reconciliation and the “preservation of a multiethnic spirit,” in line with EU aspirations. However, the ambiguity and complete lack of transparency of the proposal’s contents, as well as lack of concerted efforts to consult public opinion, has done little to diminish concerns.

The EU, given its prominence in the process, needs to be particularly wary of the risks of setting an ethnopolitical precedent in the Western Balkans.

The prospect of a final settlement between Kosovo and Serbia looks to be dictated by circumstance. The Trump-administration, eager for a foreign policy win, offered to host talks between Thaci and President of Serbia Aleksandar Vucic in the White House on June 27th.

That is, until June 24th when Thaci was indicted for war crimes by the Special Prosecutor’s Office in the Hague, prompting the cancellation of the talks.

The timing was not an accident. The Court stated that Thaci was suspected to have made efforts to obstruct the work of the Kosovo Specialist Chambers, and feared Thaci would attempt to negotiate amnesty for himself as part of a settlement with Serbia, as well as to overturn the law establishing the Court.

The EU now looks set to once again take charge of the dialogue, and has announced it will host a series of talks beginning with its Paris Summit in July 2020. To ensure that the Pandemic is not used as a pretext to rapidly conclude a final settlement between Kosovo and Serbia, it is imperative to critically address the EUs approach to peace and state building in line with its perspective on multiethnic states and minority rights. This is particularly urgent given its acquiescence to border change, and in light of what appears to be a race towards a final settlement for Kosovo and Serbia.

The Pandemic has facilitated conditions in which a democratically elected prime minister could be ousted, without proper opportunity for the governing party to elect a new prime minister. Social distancing measures complicated the opportunity to hold a snap general election and limited protests. This has not gone unnoticed in Europe. 15 European MPs signed an open letter urgently warning against “using the extraordinary situation caused by the Pandemic for political maneuvers that can damage the country, its reputation and the path to democracy and freedom.” It specifically called on political leaders to “waive the rapid signing of an agreement between Serbia and Kosovo if it threatens to risk the stability of the region (…) especially the case if the agreement provides for ethnic-geographical exchange of land between countries.” It concluded that any agreement must have public support and strengthen rule of law and democracy “beyond ethnic borders.”

Now is the time for the EU to take decisive action. Changes brought on by emergency measures enacted during the Pandemic may well affect the political landscape of Europe for years to come.

History has shown there are reasons to take this moment seriously. A state of emergency in the Western Balkans has through its history been used for political purposes. At times this has had dire consequences. Former Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic, who initiated a campaign of ethnic cleansing in the Western Balkans in the 1990s seized on the opportunity of a state of emergency, and under the authority of the latter, captured power legally. When protests had erupted over proposed amendments to strip Kosovo of its autonomy, Milosevic declared a state of emergency. This allowed him exceptional authority to amend the Yugoslav constitution and return governing power over Kosovo to Belgrade. Amidst the Pandemic, governments in Russia, Poland and Hungary have all taken advantage of the current state of emergency to acquire greater powers internally.

The EU, given its prominence in the process, needs to be particularly wary of the risks of setting an ethnopolitical precedent in the Western Balkans. This extends beyond the Balkans – given Russia’s assertion of its right and obligationto protect Russian ethnic minorities everywhere, the EU may find itself inadvertently endorsing ethno-territorial claimssuch as that of Russia to parts of Ukraine, Moldova, The Baltics and Central Asia.

A future for the (multiethnic) state?

EU officials and academics have warned that redrawing borders along ethnic lines may open old wounds and cause ripple-effects across the Western Balkans and the EU itself. Ethnic tensions are not solely a Balkan issue. Underlying the rise of far-right nationalism in Europe today is fear, anger and hatred of a particularly ethnic character: grounded in xenophobia and a belief that ethnically different groups cannot coexist in peace. Despite efforts to foster diverse and multi-ethnic identities across the European Union, large ethnic minorities continue to be perceived as threats to the nation-state.

Even the more moderate of views tend to consider mono-ethnic groups as politically and culturally homogeneous, as if in a natural and inherent manner. Ethnic homogeneity, thus, is believed to ensure higher levels of social and political trust and thereby easier to govern within the framework of a nation-state.

Preached in this belief, tangible solutions to disentangle Kosovo’s ethnic apartheid system have been sparse and uncreative. Establishing concrete benchmarks and demonstrating tangible progress on minority rights is a precondition for EU membership. However, proposals for Kosovo’s Serbian minority have fallen little short of segregation. Addressing the internal biases that may be leading all parties into a stalemate on this issue is indispensable, as lack of progress in this field has been the major cause of dialogue impasse.

Despite efforts to promote civic identities that embrace ethnic diversity, the EU has tended to accept that ethnicity has clear borders and boundaries.

The EU’s approach in the Western Balkans tends to see ethnic identities as inherently problematic. This is consistent with theories of ethnic nationalism that characterise ethnic identities as intolerant, irrational and xenophobic.

The EU’s Enlargement process attempts to make ethnic identities less salient, for instance by encouraging ethnically inclusive national symbols: a multi-ethnic flag asserting its EU-future and a national anthem called “Europa” without any lyrics – so as to respect Kosovo’s multiethnic nature. Across Europe and its neighbourhood, the EU has sought to promote civic national identities, considered liberal and inclusive, based on solidarity, democracy and political legitimacy.

Concurrently, ethnic identities are protected and empowered under universal values that lay the foundations for minority rights, as set forth in the EU’s accession criteria. While civic identities, in theory, should be permissive of ethnic identities, the result is an, at times, confused and contradictory approach: striving simultaneously for multiethnic coexistence that promotes and preserves ethnic identities, and for a unified civic national identity that attempts to make ethnic identities less salient.

Prospects for progress are not helped by the EU’s chronic lack of enthusiasm for the Western Balkans. Despite efforts to promote civic identities that embrace ethnic diversity, the EU has tended to accept that ethnicity has clear borders and boundaries. From this view, the conclusion is that ethnic relations need to be managed in a way that assumes the permanence of ethnic identities. A reading of Kosovo’s history, as presented by historian Noel Malcolm (who explores myths and facts of both Kosovo Albanian and Serbian histories), demonstrates that culture has been in constant flux since records began.

Instead of building resilient structures to protect against government neglect and mismanagement; instead of empowering civil society to come up with sustainable solutions permissive of multiple and transcendent identities and the evolution of these over time- such as desegregating the school system, facilitating multiethnic history exchanges, or to question how minority communities may have come to shape their own distinct culture- institutionalizing a framework for minority rights has failed to surpass ethnic segregation.

Transforming the process

The EU holds a key responsibility in supporting Kosovo to develop an approach to minority rights that avoids entrenching ethnic divides into its political system. Abandoning the all-stakes, high level, trickle-down approach of the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue in place of a transformative multi-level and bottom-up approach that makes governing officials accountable to their citizens- would make Kosovo more resilient against circumstantial political disruption and vigilant against officials using their positions to ensure their own impunity over people’s interests.

If the EU remains uninterested and inactive, it may end up with an unprecedented problem on its borders and, if a land swap is agreed to, risk endorsing a precedent with dire consequences.

Commissioning an expert group of local and international academics, researchers, EU officials, politicians and policy-makers, students and civil society groups to develop a comprehensive, sustainable, and resilient framework for minority rights that holds governments accountable to the protection of rights and interests, and ensures minority representation in political institutions – could pave the way for sustainable peace and resilient, democratic institutions. The EU can do this by also opening up its own preconceptions of ethnic difference for debate.When it looked as if the US would take over the dialogue and negotiate a final settlement, it was a wake-up call for the EU. Now that the EU is back in the driver seat, it can use the opportunity of the talks to transform the dialogue’s format and put agency back in the hands of citizens, as well as to begin the process of putting options on the table that are centred on citizens’ interests. This is even more important given the risk of rapid political shifts spurred on by emergency measures enacted under the guise of the Pandemic. The EU needs to ensure that the dialogue is accountable to citizen interest by complimenting the high-level talks with formal and informal dialogues with mid-level leaders and civil society. The EU needs to establish guidelines and evaluate emergency measures on a case-by-case basis, and keep in mind its history in the Western Balkans. If the EU remains uninterested and inactive, it may end up with an unprecedented problem on its borders and, if a land swap is agreed to, risk endorsing a precedent with dire consequences.

Will computers decide who lives and who dies? Ethics, Health, and AI in a COVID-19 world

“Brother! You doubting Thomases get in the way of more scientific advances with your stupid ethical questions! This is a brilliant idea! Hit the button, will ya?”

Calvin addressing Hobbes regarding the ‘Duplicator‘ (Waterson, 1990)

While talk about a post-COVID-19 world is ripe, reflecting more the desire for an economic relaunch than the medical reality of the moment, we are still struggling to understand the effects that the pandemic is having on our societies. Those ripple effects are likely both to outlive the pandemic, and even to make themselves visible after the pandemic has hopefully been eradicated. 

One of the conversations that has emerged most clearly is linked to the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in healthcare, and concerns both its effectiveness and its ethics. This article will follow two major ethical questions that have dominated the public sphere up to now: the use of data tracking systems for forecasting viral spread, and the possible use of AI as decision support for the allocation of medical resources in emergency situations. The main question underpinning this article is: how will our approach to these challenges impact our future?

Exploring the possible answers to this question will lead us to analyse the impact of the dynamic socio-cultural environment on the predictive capacities of algorithm-based AI models. The article will emphasise the importance of integrating culturally specific dimensions in developing and deploying AIs, and discuss how to approach ethics as applied to AI in a culturally aware manner. 

COVID-19

The pandemic we are living through has generated a series of unforeseen effects on local, regional and global scales. From raising instances of racism and subsequent domestic violence in conjunction with the lockdown measures, to major disruptions in human activities that may generate the biggest economic contraction since World War II, we are experiencing a combination of phenomena that reminds us of the interconnectedness of our world. 

The SARS-COV2 virus appeared in a context of decreased trust in public institutions and in scientific expertise at a global level, against a background of the increased dominance of social media in spreading fake news and pseudo-scientific theories. This was a perfect storm, which has allowed not only the weakening of democratic institutions and the rise of authoritarian leadership, but also the rapid spread of the virus itself. 

At the global level all efforts are geared towards controlling the spread of the virus, creating a vaccine, and treating those affected. Naturally, eyes turned to Artificial Intelligence and to the possibility of using it as a tool to help in these efforts. This process has revealed, and continues to reveal, complex and rather problematic interactions between AI models and the reality in which they are deployed, as well as the conflict between competing AI ethical principles.

Ethics: principles versus practices

In a lecture at Tübingen University, the former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said: “One thing that should be clear is that the validity of universal values does not depend on their being universally obeyed or applied. Ethical codes are always the expression of an ideal and an aspiration, a standard by which moral failings can be judged, rather than a prescription for ensuring that they never occur.” 

This is a powerful statement, touching at the core of the ethical challenges of leadership. However, it may also contain a major flaw: while ethical codes can be framed as an expression of universal aspirations, the standards by which we may judge moral failings cannot equally be universal. Whether we like it or not, morality is culturally dependent – and moral failings may certainly fall into a cultural blind-spot for many of us. Yet this does not mean that we can advocate abdicating universal ethical codes in the name of ‘cultural particularities’ (although this is a current practice among authoritarian figures, particularly regarding respect for human rights). It merely means that we need to be aware of how these aspirational universal codes are expressed in daily practices, and how the transformation of these practices can (and does) generate new moral norms that in their turn shed light on those very cultural blind-spots. 

Let’s take an example: Valuing human life is a universal ethical code. But what type of human life is more ‘valued‘ than others in different societies? And how do these societies make decisions on that basis? Is a young life more valuable than an old one? How is this valuing expressed in daily practices? Is life at any cost more valuable than an individual choice to ‘not resuscitate‘, or to retain dignity in dying? Is it possible to have an ‘equally valuable‘ approach to human life even in moments of scarcity? Is collective survival more important than individual well-being – and can these even be separated? 

These types of questions have emerged forcefully during the current COVID-19 pandemic crisis, and scientists, ethicists, and politicians are tackling the answers – or acting as if they knew them already. 

To continue, let’s follow two major conversations that have dominated the public sphere lately: the use of data tracking systems for forecasting viral spread, and the possible use of AI as decision support for the allocation of medical resources in emergency situations. By analysing the conversations and practices around this topic, this text will advocate a bottom-up approach towards the use of AI. The main arguments are that sometimes ethical codes may compete among themselves, and that trying to codify them in universally applicable AI algorithms would probably lead to the emergence of new types of biases instead of eliminating the existing ones. Thus, both deciding on the instances of using AI, and designing & relying on AI as decision-making mechanisms need to have the practices that embody moral norms as their starting points, and not universal ethical codes and their presumed possible codification in AI algorithms. The immateriality of AI models has received a reality check, and the same is about to happen to AI ethics.

A material world

At a higher level of analysis, the pandemic is a reminder that our world is material, despite a discourse that everything has now been virtualised, from markets to life itself. All of a sudden COVID-19 has forced us to experience at least three major types of materialisations: 

Materialisation of borders. While borders have not always been easy to cross, and some frontiers have been more material than others, in the past three months the transboundary movement has come to almost a complete halt. Most countries in the world have become inaccessible to those who are not their citizens or residents, and repatriation has more often than not been the only type of existing international travel. As I write this text the lockdown is easing in the European Union, but many other countries around the world remain closed to foreigners. 

In parallel, extraordinary forms of collaboration at regional and global levels have shown that only the continuation of an open type of approach may offer long-term solutions, for example the German hospitals taking in French patients at frontier regions in order to relieve the over-stretched French hospitals. At the same time, displays of solidarity have also been received with suspicion, raising questions about the use of solidarity as a mechanism of soft power, particularly in the case of China. 

(De-)Materialisation of movement. Movement has become at once materialised and virtual. Movement has entered a controlled phase at all levels during lockdown, with much of the workforce entering a mass experiment of working from home. Many who perceived the ability to move as ‘natural‘ are now experiencing it for the first time as a privilege. And movement has been displaced onto online platforms, dematerialising itself into bits and pieces of data (more on this later).

Materialisation of our bodies. Most importantly, we have been called upon to acknowledge the full extent of the importance of our bodies. We, individually and collectively, have dramatically come to realise that our lives are very real and unequivocally linked to our material bodies. The variations of the abstract indicators of the economy show that the entire global complex system is not separated from, but is in fact heavily dependent on our human bodies, their health and their movement (see above). This will contribute to the gradual dismantling of the illusion that we may have had that we live in a virtual world in which the body is only an instrument among others, a tool to be refined in gyms and yoga sessions, or a resource to overstretch during long, caffeine-fuelled working hours. Somehow our bodies have become ourselves again.

Tracking

The data tracking systems (DTS) are not a novelty, and their use by the police is quite widespread in the US. So is their use by marketing companies that rely on ’data from individual users to push products through targeted advertising. As early as 2012 the question of data tracking while surfing the internet was brought to the public’s attention’. The generalisation of the use of smartphones has made possible the extension of tracking from virtual movement to material movement in space and time. Apps, which use the phones’ GPS system and a scantily disguised but default option for the user (‘allow the app to access your location’), track, store, and sell movement data to third parties for the purpose of marketing and targeted publicity. In some instances police forces can use the same data to track movements and ‘prevent crime’ – a contested practice that is not yet fully understood, let alone regulated. 

The European Union (EU) enacted a data protection act (the General Data Protection Regulation 2016/679, implemented as of May 2018) that obliges developers to allow for security protection, pseudonymisation and/or anonymisation of users in designing their products, and to fully inform and obtain consent from the consumers regarding their use of data. This regulation impacts the use of data tracking systems (DTSs), and makes it more difficult to apply it indiscriminately or sell it to third parties (as US-based corporations tend to do). More recently the EU has adopted a series of white papers regarding the more general use of AI, to which I will return. 

DTSs combine borders, movements and bodies, and recreate them in the immaterial world of algorithms, while juxtaposing them with pre-designed models, assigning the individual user to typologies within the models. It does not matter if the models are of consumer habits, potential delinquency, or the likelihood of paying off one’s mortgage. The trouble with models in AI has largely been discussed in the literature (O’Neil, 2019; Broussard, 2018; Galison, 2019), and it emerges from a few major sources: 

  1. The models are based on previous behaviour and aggregated data, and have a probability rate of correct identification. This means that they are not 100% accurate. While this may not be a major problem in cases in which we have models of success for an athlete’s performance, it is highly problematic if they are used to decide upon the finances of or the delivery of justice to individuals. It also means that they function as long as the reality matches the conditions within which the data has been collected, and they are highly dependent on the data quality and accuracy. Under normal circumstances (read long periods of status quo), the models more or less function as designed (my emphasis). But as the COVID-19 crisis has shown, any sudden disruption causes ‘model drift’: that is, the models no longer correspond to reality, and they need to be redesigned. This was first signalledin Amazon’s use of AI, and then spotted in all the major industries that use Artificial Intelligence.
  2. The use of proxy measurements in order to decide the value attributed to a typology. For example, in order to decide if one is a good educator, a model may use the measurement of children’s performance in a specific exam. However, that in itself depends on a series of other factors that have nothing to do with the educator’s qualities and qualifications. At the same time, performance scores may be tackled if an educator feels threatened in her livelihood, giving birth to further distortions (see O’Neil).
  3. Models are designed by humans, and more often than not they embed the biases held by their designers and developers. This is also a frequently discussed topic in AI ethics. The solutions offered range from increasing the diversity in designer and product development teams to renouncing the use of the tool itself altogether. 

With the COVID-19 pandemic, eyes have turned towards the possibility of using DTSs in order to predict and prevent the rapid spread of the virus by creating early warning mechanisms. The idea is relatively simple: once downloaded, the DTS apps track the user’s movements using their phones, and identify whether the user has been in the vicinity of someone who is already registered as being COVID-19 positive. The app would then alert the user, and also create an anonymous map of possible viral spread.

AI ethicists raised the first concerns, particularly having to do with the tension between two major ethical principles in AI: the autonomy of the user (including rights to privacy) and usage for the common good. First, the DTS cannot offer 100% autonomy, particularly when the GPS system is being used for tracking. When movement data becomes health data (as in this case), anonymity is all the more important. Individual health data is highly sensitive; it is stored in highly secure environments, anonymised and used exclusively by specialists in healthcare. What if movement is health? What if one’s own movement is used in the aggregated data set in order to evaluate, through approximate models, one’s health – and eventually sold to interested third parties? Can we decide based on this data who can and who cannot return to work, travel, or even visit friends? What about getting the treatment one may need?

This dilemma has generated different responses, and the solutions proposed gravitate around a twofold approach: use the device’s Bluetooth systems instead of the GPS to signal proximity only (and not location), and store all the relevant data on the device (and not on third parties’ servers). Downloading and using the app is voluntary. A diversity of apps featuring these solutions are being deployed as I write. 

The US took a fragmented approach, leaving the development and deployment of tracing apps, and the subsequent ethical decisions, to the latitude of private companies. European countries have a more centralised approach, in that the governments are more involved in financing and developing the apps, with features that must meet European privacy standards. Germany has only just started rolling out its 20-million euro app, and is reassuring its users that the data will not be made accessible to the platform provider they use (Android or Apple), but only to public healthcare specialists in the country. At the same time, Norway has decided to withdraw its own app because its reliability was questionable at the very least. Being based on voluntary download and reporting, and built on the assumption that people always carry their smartphones with them, the Norwegian government concluded that the app’s models do not necessarily correspond to human behaviour. 

To the external observer, the situation seems to be completely different in those countries that appear to have a centralised, all-powerful system of data tracking and AI use, such as China. While a European observer may readily conclude that the balance between the common good versus individual anonymity has already tilted towards the former in China’s case, and that China can already use its Social Credit System in order to track and prevent COVID-19 spread, this is not precisely the reality of the situation. The approach in China actually seems to be more fragmented than in some European countries. Some provinces have developed their own DTSs; some of the apps use GPS, while others are based on the user voluntarily inputting their location. Regional governments and cities may use different apps that may result in different ‘health scores’ assigned to the same person. As Ding (2018) observes in his analysis of China’s AI strategy, the Western perception is that AI deployment in China is top-down and monolithic, hypercentralised and controlled, with no room for ethics. But this is far from the truth, as Ding shows in his work. This perception is a common trope of the depiction of the ‘East’ in Western popular thinking. While the doctrine of social peace and its attainment does guide the actions taken in China, ethical debates are still present and are being conducted by private enterprises, such as Tencent’s Research Institute.

In conclusion, the use of DTSs poses ethical dilemmas because they reveal the opposition between individual autonomy and the common good, and they raise practical issues regarding accuracy and efficiency because of the way in which data is collected, stored, and used.

Triage 

The spread of COVID-19 has put serious strain on healthcare systems in many countries, and each of them has had to find a different way of coping with the crisis. From avoiding testing and sending home those patients who were not in a critical state, as happened in the UK in the first phase of the pandemic, to carefully planning the lockdown and the bed allocations in places like Germany, the entire range of systemic behaviour has been displayed during this crisis. Among these, uplifting shows of solidarity between countries have been displayed, for example when border hospitals from Germany accepted patients from neighbouring France in order to help ease congestion in the French system. 

The strain on hospital beds and respiratory units, and the need to allocate scarce resources to an increasing number of patients in critical states have placed a lot of pressure on medical personnel. Ideally every national health system should have guidelines for extreme situations such as pandemics. More often than not, though, these guidelines contain a set of recommendations about triaging the patients and allocating scarce resources, but they do not necessarily describe practical ways in which these recommendations can be implemented. Thus, nurses and doctors are left scrambling to devise their own procedures in this type of emergency. 

The particularity of this pandemic is putting strain on the Intensive Care Units (ICUs) rather than on Emergency Rooms (ER). ERs around the world are currently using a diversity of triage systems, where one usually decides what type of treatment a patient needs, and in what order of emergency. This is different from the pandemic situation in overstretched ICUs, where treatment may not be available for everyone who needs it, and access to it has to be selective. This is an important distinction, and this is what happens today in many ICUs around the world. ER triage procedures do not apply to this situation. So what are the healthcare providers around the world doing? They are trying to follow the recommendations and to devise their own procedures, in order not only to best serve their patients and the common good, but also to reduce their own enormous emotional stress. There are a few criteria they may use, and as Philip Rosoff, ethicist and MD at Duke University explained, we know how not to take a decision of this kind: not in a rush, not at the bedside, and not using judgment based on privilege. In his words, in healthcare, at least in the US, there are ordinary situations in which there is a distinction made between VIPs and VUPs (Very Unfortunate Persons). In the case of the COVID-19 pandemic this distinction is eliminated, and so is the question of age. Age is not a decisive factor in providing treatment in case of scarcity (contrary to what some may believe). 

The only criterion that should play a role, Rosoff explained, is the clinical chances the patient has of surviving. This can be assessed by healthcare professionals based on the healthcare records of the respective patient and on the current clinical state displayed. Here, one can see that AI-powered tools may come into play to a very significant degree. Electronic Health Records (EHR) facilitate the preservation of patients’ medical history and, combined with the data of the current chart of a patient, they could theoretically match the patient’s history and current state with a recommendation regarding a triage decision. This may provide certain relief in high-stress situations, and the decision may be supported by this type of evidence-based approach. 

However, two important factors need to be taken into consideration here: 

  1. The AI models embedded that pass a judgment on the state of health of the patients may themselves be flawed: the use of proxy measures in order to establish the state of a patient’s health (such as the money they have spent in the past x years on health-related issues) can be very misleading: for example, one such AI-powered tool kept showing that black patients’ health is much better that of white ones, and as a result they may receive less medical attention. This was in fact due to a reversed causation: blacks in the US receive less medical attention due to financial hardships and systemic racism, resulting in their spending less money on health. The AI system considered this a sign of good health. If a subsequent decision is taken based on this, it will in fact continue the spiral of inequality (Obermeyer et al., 2019). 
  2. The risk of errors induced by the way in which the humans interact with the machines. One important element in AI as a decision support tool, particularly in healthcare, is that the system should remain a tool for support, and should not be transformed into a decision-maker. However, the high emotional stress combined with the workload experienced by health workers may generate the so-called “suspension of clinical thinking”, that is, taking the AI’s recommendation as the ultimate authoritative decision. In other words, under a variety of circumstances, particularly high stress, humans may be tempted to offload the weight of the decision onto the machine. While this may be possible in a driverless car, it may prove disastrous in medical settings. Ironically, it seems easier (although it is not) to create an algorithm advising doctors (because everything happens between the screen and the health worker) than an integrated AI system that drives a car. 

In conclusion, AI may provide assistance in patient triage for resource allocation in a pandemic situation, but it should not be transformed into an automated decision-making instrument, precisely because previous biases and model dysfunctionalities may create irremediable medical errors. And of course, the question of accountability may have to be considered.

AI ethics and models

Both the instances analysed above (DTSs and the possible use of AIs in triage for medical resource allocation in the ICU) have in common concerns regarding ethics. 

We should distinguish between making an ethical decision and the method with which we arrive at that decision. The methods used to arrive at an ethical decision are the equivalent of ethical codes, or principles. The decisions we take (or which we let the AI take in an automated manner) are the result of choosing the precedence of one principle or code over another. When subsequently analysing the decision under the lenses of a different code, the decision taken may appear unethical.

In ethical decision-making theories, there are five major methods of coming to an ethical decision: the utilitarian approach (make the most good and the least harm), the rights-based approach (what best protects the moral rights of those affected), the fairness and justice approach (whether the decision is fair), the ‘common good’ approach, and the virtue approach (is the decision in accordance with the decision-maker’s values?).These methods are present and expressed as AI ethical codes in most of the approaches.

Currently a series of bodies are devising principles for creating ethical AIs, that is, the things one needs to take into consideration when designing and using AIs. The EU has put forth seven principles for trustworthy AI: Human agency and oversight, Technical robustness and safety, Privacy and data governance, Transparency, Diversity, Non-discrimination and fairness, Societal and environmental well-being, and Accountability. Under each of these principles we can find a list of recommendations meant to explain what they mean. Under privacy and data governance we may find anonymity, respect for individual rights; under Societal and environmental well-being we may find concerns for the common good, and so on. As argued above, these principles may compete in different cases. They are also highly abstract, and they may mean different things in different socio-cultural contexts.

AI models interact with institutional, social and cultural contexts, and may fail if they are not designed for the appropriate context. In fact, this happens in most cases where AIs work directly with humans: a very recent example comes from health again, when a retina scan AI diagnosis system by Google performed perfectly in lab conditions but failed consistently in Thailand. This happened simply because the workflows differed from the lab, the light conditions were variable, and the health technicians understood the deployment of machines as an authoritative measure to which they had to respond perfectly; sometimes they photoshopped the images so that the AI algorithm would accept the quality of the shot.

Ethical models do the same, and in order to avoid drift, we should develop them by starting with observing practices. The ethical codes themselves do not exist in theory, 

despite the fact that some ethicists generate them theoretically first. In fact they are initially expressed in different practices. Their very meaning is translated through practices; but practices vary in time and space. Different practices show the cracks in the models, as in the AI deployment cases. We should look at practices and their variations first in order to make our way back to judgements on values and ethics. Returning to the question of rights and valuing life: how is this expressed in various practices? How can we design decision-making mechanisms (automated or not) that correspond to the variability of practices and their dynamic transformations? 

Matter matters

The major lesson for AI and for ethics which COVID-19 has taught us is that adoption means adaptation in a world in which matter matters. Therefore we must conclude: 

  • AI is a tool: it does not need to be ethical (it’s absurd). It should be designed in accordance with ethical principles understood contextually, leading to it acting ethically within the context. Therefore, we first need to understand the context – ask an anthropologist.
  • Assume that models are always wrong. Models do not drift because people behave weirdly – they drift to begin with because they are models; their accuracy is limited over time, and the faster we change, the faster they drift. Carrying them across contexts will implicitly lead to drift. So first, one needs to study the model’s cultural context (regional, institutional, professional) and to work one’s way back from there into the design of the AI systems. 
  • The design process should start in the field, and not in labs. We need to design for the cultural context: build models starting with reality, and do not try to model reality on abstract models (including ethics) – sooner or later they will drift, and one of the domains in which they fail is ethics. 
  • And last but not least, we need to create constant evaluation feedback loops. Remember, AI is material: it has a material support and it interacts with the material world. That means it is not going to flow smoothly. Be prepared to reassess and adjust based on how the adoption process develops. 

COVID-19 is here to stay. There is no post-COVID world. Even if a vaccine becomes readily available, the virus will only be subdued by its generalised use. Just as with measles or polio, stopping vaccination would mean the return of the virus. The ripple effects of the current pandemic will be felt in economy, culture, and politics. For AI it means both a great opportunity to show where it is really helpful, and a wake-up call to demystify some of the hype around it. One major lesson is that AI not only interacts with a material world in continuous transformation, but that its functioning depends on this very materiality (and material culture). The crisis has also re-emphasised the importance of understanding socio-cultural variations (geographical or institutional) when approaching ethics, and to be more aware of the ethical implications of AI design, deployment and adoption. One major question that was overlooked till recently would be: what domains and instances need the deployment of AI? Is AI as a decision-making support a really good idea in a particular domain or not? Should we automate decision-making support in all domains? Should we optimise everything just because we can? As Rosoff observed in his dialogue with David Remnick, healthcare is a multibillion-dollar business in the US. In this particular context, optimising processes with AI may not always be in the best interest of the patient. So let’s be patient, and instead consider where AI can be useful, and where it has the potential of becoming a ‘weapon of math destruction’. 

References:

Broussard, Meredith (2018). Artificial Unintelligence. How Computers Misunderstand the World. Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England: The MIT Press.

Ding, Jeffrey (2018). Deciphering China’s AI Dream The context, components, capabilities, and consequences of China’s strategy to lead the world in AI. Centre for the Governance of AI, Future of Humanity Institute, University of Oxford.

Galison, Peter, ‘Algorists Dream of Objectivity’, in Brockman, John (ed.) (2019) Possible Minds. 25 Ways of Looking at AI. New York: Penguin Press. pp. 231-240

O’Neil, Cathy (2019). Weapons of Math Destruction. How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy, New York: Broadway Books.

Obermeyer, Ziad, Brian Powers, Christine Vogeli, Sendhil Mullainathan (2019), ‘Dissecting racial bias in an algorithm used to manage the health of populations’, Science, Vol. 366, Issue 6464, pp. 447-453, DOI: 10.1126/science.aax2342

Waterson, Bill (1990). ‘Calvin and Hobbes’, January 9, 10, 11, in The Complete Calvin and Hobbes, Book Three 1990-1992, Kansas City, Sydney, London: Andrew McMeel Publishing, p. 9