The sabre-rattling in Ukraine is heating up the Black Sea

As things heat up between Russia and Ukraine, George Vișan explains the stakes for each player and the strategic landscape in the Black Sea region.

Seven years have passed since Russia annexed Crimea and began a proxy war against Ukraine. These events marked the beginning of the most brutal and serious armed conflict in the Black Sea region since the end of World War II. The advent of war between Russia and Ukraine in 2014 has had a negative impact on the regional security environment. Furthermore, subsequent events have changed the regional balance of force in Russia’s favour. 

Russia: projecting force within the Black Sea region and beyond

Since 2014 the Russian Federation has been engaged in a proxy war against its neighbour Ukraine. The purpose of the Kremlin’s military campaign against Kyiv has been to stop it from joining the West and thus bring Western influence closer to Russia’s border. Russia claims the former republics of the Soviet Union as its own sphere of influence.1Moscow began its aggression against Ukraine in 2014 when it became clear that rather than joining Russia’s Eurasian Union, the country would have preferred to have closer relations with the West, by signing an association and free trade agreement with the European Union. Russian elites construed Ukraine’s option for the EU as a further step towards NATO accession. Despite being a part of NATO’s Partnership for Peace (PfP), Ukraine’s NATO accession was not on the table in 2014 and seemed a very unrealistic possibility. There was no consensus in 2014 within Ukraine in favour of becoming a NATO member, and there was no consensus within the Alliance for Ukraine to join it. 

In February 2014, Russian troops wearing unmarked uniforms took over military installations in Crimea, as well as key civilian infrastructure. On 18 March 2014, Crimea was officially annexed by the Russian Federation after an illegal referendum. In parallel with its actions in Crimea, Russian-sponsored individuals started a breakaway movement in eastern Ukraine, in the coal-rich and mostly Russian-speaking Donbas region. When Ukrainian armed forces decisively beat back the rebels in Donbass, Russian forces intervened on their behalf, decimating the Ukrainian troops with precision fire and armoured assaults.

The annexation of Crimea provided Russia with an important geostrategic asset in the Black Sea region and beyond. The Kremlin can now effectively project force within the Black Sea region, as well as beyond in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Despite the Minsk agreements signed in 2014 and the ongoing Normandy Format talks, fighting continues in eastern Ukraine to this day. Russia is fighting a proxy war of attrition against Ukraine, the goal of which is to compromise Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity in order to turn Kyiv away from its Western path. 

The annexation of Crimea provided Russia with an important geostrategic asset in the Black Sea region and beyond. The Kremlin can now effectively project force within the Black Sea region, as well as beyond in the Eastern Mediterranean. According to the new US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, “Russia’s strategic goals in the Black Sea include maintaining access to the Mediterranean Sea and facilitating the defense of the Russian homeland. In the Eastern Mediterranean Russia seeks to expand power projection capabilities, demonstrate expeditionary reach to potential partners and influence a variety of ongoing diplomatic issues in its favor”2

The value and relevance of the annexation was proven in 2015, when Russia intervened militarily in Syria using Crimea as the main staging ground for the operation. The only limitations regarding the use of Crimea as a power projection asset are geographical and legal: the Straits of Bosporus & the Dardanelles, and the Montreux Convention. In the Black Sea, Russia’s military presence is reinforced by its naval base at Novorossiysk and by the troops deployed in the breakaway ‘republics’ of Abkhazia and Ossetia, in Georgia. 

Over the past seven years Russia has managed to gradually overturn the military balance in the region in its favour. Moreover, the Kremlin has learned how to take advantage of the existing differences between NATO members and use it to its favour. Turkey’s grievances with the US, Greece and France have been exploited and used as a wedge against NATO.

One of the Russian Federation’s main priorities after it took over Crimea from Ukraine has been to revamp the military assets based in the peninsula: the Black Sea Fleet (BSF), air bases for naval aviation and the Russian Air Space Forces, as well as infrastructure for the land forces. 

Since 2014, Russia’s Black Sea Fleet has received six new Kilo class submarines and three new Admiral Grigorovich class guided missile frigates. It should have received six of this new type of guided missile frigate, but Ukraine cut off the supply of turbine engines. Nevertheless, until Russian industry can replace the Ukrainian turbines with similar products, in place of the three frigates, the Black Sea Fleet has received small missile corvettes capable of launching land attack cruise missiles. Moreover, the shipyards in Crimea have started building fast attack craft for the Russian navy. 

The Crimean peninsula has been transformed into a ‘strategic bastion‘ by Russia in order to protect its territorial acquisition as well as to project power. It has also become one of the places where Russia showcases its latest military technology, for both strategic reasons and marketing purposes. In Crimea the Kremlin has deployed S-400 Triumf long-range integrated air defence systems, as well as Bal & Bastion-P coastal defence systems3. It has created an area denial and anti-access (A2/AD) network  which secures the newly acquired territory, provides a good air and maritime picture, increases the cost to outside actors of projecting force, and allows it to blackmail neighbouring countries into submission during a crisis. In the near future Russia will improve its surveillance and awareness of the Black and Mediterranean Seas by deploying the Voronezh-SM long range radar in Sevastopol4.

Lacking new large surface combatants, the Russian navy has been forced to deploy Kalibr cruise missile on every newly commissioned submarine and surface combatant.5 This tendency towards ‘Kalibri-sation’, as the Military Balance has called it, is being used to compensate for the newer and larger surface ships which are now beyond the capabilities of the Russian shipyards, as well as for the cost of such vessels. It represents a trend for escalation dominance and operational flexibility, as the Kalibr missile in its land attack variant is capable of hitting targets as far as 2000 km away. 

Of particular note for the Black Sea region is the development and deployment of the Kinzhal air-launched ballistic missile. This is likely an Iskander-M tactical ballistic missile adapted for launch from MiG-31K long-range interceptors6. Its stated purpose is to take out ballistic missile defence interceptor bases, such as the one at Deveselu in Romania. This particular combination of missile and aircraft was first deployed in the Southern Military District which encompasses the Black Sea region. This is a very potent combination of carrier and vector: the MiG-31 is a high-speed long-range interceptor designed at the height of the Cold War to deal with US SR-71 supersonic reconnaissance aircraft. The Iskander-M is equipped with an electro-optical guidance system which allows is to make terminal manoeuvres before hitting its target. The MiG-31K and the Kinzhal could be used to strike time-sensitive targets in the region such as air bases, naval bases and reinforced command centres. 

Russia plans to further escalate the arms race in the Black Sea region by deploying the first hypersonic anti-ship cruise missile in the world, the 3M22 Zirconwhich is currently undergoing operational testing. If the system works as advertised by Kremlin propaganda, it will provide the Russian Navy with a capability without parallel in NATO navies. Moscow considers hypersonic weapon systems as a major component of its conventional deterrence. 

Of particular concern for US planners is the so-called ‘escalate to deescalate’ strategy, which is defined as “a strategy that purportedly seeks to deescalate a conventional conflict through coercive threats, including limited nuclear use”. The Kremlin could use this strategy in a potential conventional war against NATO to secure territory Russia seizes by threatening and even using tactical nuclear weapons. However, it must be noted that this strategy has not been mentioned in any Russian policy-planning document, but has been inferred by US military and nuclear weapons experts.

Although Russia seems to have achieved some sort of local military superiority, it has by no means overtaken NATO. Overall the Alliance, and the United States in particular, still have the lead. However, Russia is trying to use some of its few competitive advantages in missile technology to offset NATO’s military preponderance by trying to exploit its dependence on follow-on reinforcements.19 The process of modernising the Russian armed forces began in 2011, but has not yet been completed. Russia’s armed forces still depend on battalion tactical groups (BTGs, similar to Western battle groups) rather than standing operational military formations. Russian forces now have around 136 battalion tactical groups made up exclusively of professional soldiers; the target is 200 such groups20

Russia’s military posture may not be sustainable in the future for a multitude of overlapping reasons. First, Russia has overextended itself militarily over the past seven years: it has been involved in conflicts or has deployed troops to Ukraine, Syria and Libya. It maintains a significant naval presence in the Mediterranean Sea, and has plans to build bases in the region. Losses from these conflicts have mounted over the years, sapping political support at home. Second, its economy has been affected by the cumulative effects of the sanctions imposed after 2014, the drop in oil prices and the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. More importantly, with access to Western technology being curtailed, Russian defence programs have stalled or been delayed7. Third, the pandemic is forcing the Kremlin to pay attention to domestic developments. The handling of the SARS-CoV 2 pandemic has not been stellar, Russian authorities being forced to acknowledge at the start of 2021 that more Russians have died of the pandemic than previously announced. Finally, the protests that have developed following the poisoning of Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny and his subsequent arrest is forcing the Kremlin to prioritise the survival of the regime, rather than force projection.

In the ex-Soviet space, Russia’s reputation as an ally and security provider has taken a serious hit after Azerbaijan’s success in reclaiming some of its territory in the Nagorno Karabakh region, following a short but highly sophisticated war in 2020. Moreover, an outside power (Turkey) has been allowed to give military support to a client state (Azerbaijan) in Moscow’s ‘backyard’ (Central Asia) without visible consequences. The security guarantees provided by the CSTO and Russia’s claim to a sphere of influence in its near aboard have been called into question. In the case of Armenia, the Kremlin has sacrificed strategic credibility for dubious local political gains.

Russia presents a complex strategic picture of military and diplomatic prowess, but also of political fragility. This situation defines Moscow more as a regional actor, with some limited capabilities of power projection, than as a global player which could keep up with the US or China. However, this disparity between capabilities and status should not lead to underestimating Moscow’s will to generate instability in its near abroad. 

NATO: a two-speed approach for the eastern flank 

Seven years after the annexation of Crimea and five years after NATO’s Warsaw Summit, the alliance is maintaining a two-speed approach for the eastern flank: Poland and the three Baltic states are recipients of the Enhanced Forward Presence force-posture approach, while Romania and Bulgaria have to make do with the Tailored Forward Presence. A two-speed approach regarding the security and defence of the eastern flank is not conducive to a coherent deterrence posture. The Trump administration exacerbated this issue with a schizoid policy regarding NATO and a Janus-faced approach to Russia. Despite deploying more troops on the eastern flank and allocating more funds to the European Deterrence Initiative, the Trump administration did not fundamentally alter NATO’s military posture on the eastern flank.8 Moreover, it failed to articulate a new NATO strategic concept; also, President Trump’s instinctive distrust of multilateral alliances dealt a severe blow to the Alliance’s cohesion. The decision taken in July 2020 to withdraw troops from Germany, because Berlin was not meeting its 2% of GDP spending target and for supporting the ill-conceived North Stream 2 gas pipeline, has needlessly exacerbated relations with one of Washington’s most important allies in Europe and has called its commitment to Europe’s security into question.9 Overall, the American attitude towards NATO in the past four years has had a negative impact on the Alliance’s cohesion, and has contributed to what President Emmanuel Macron has termed NATO’s ‘brain death‘. 

If Washington exposed profound divisions between the president and the deep
administration over strategic directions and tactical execution, some Western European members have sent mixed signals that have negatively impacted NATO’s posture on the eastern flank. Germany and France have indeed deployed troops in the Baltic states and Poland; however, Berlin is still underinvesting in defence and cooperating with Russia in building the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. Paris considers terrorism to be the greatest security threat it faces, and is mainly focused on the Middle East, North Africa, the Sahel and the Indo-Pacific.10 The eastern flank is merely an afterthought on the Élysée and the Quai d’Orsay – or even a source of irritation, when the countries in the region acquire US military equipment11

Turkey: NATO’s linchpin in the Black Sea region

Turkey’s control of the Bosphorus and Dardanelles Straits combined with its military prowess, make it the most important alliance member in the Black Sea region. However, most of Turkey’s strategic attention has been focused on the Mediterranean Sea, Central Asia, North Africa and the Middle East as far as the Indian Ocean. However, the main issue with Turkish foreign policy is not necessarily its reach, but its predictability. 

Over the past two years Ankara has successfully confronted Russia in the Eastern Mediterranean as well as in its own backyard, in the Caucasus. Most debates concerning Turkey right now concentrate on its dispute with Greece over maritime exclusive economic zones in the Eastern Mediterranean, the procurement of the S-400 Triumf integrated air defence system and its descent into authoritarianism. Turkey has a complex relationship with Russia, characterised both by competition and cooperation. The Kremlin did indeed exacerbate the tensions existing between Ankara and its western allies over Syria, Iraq and the attempted coup in 2016 in order to separate it from the Western alliance. However, Turkey proved to be a genuine competitor to Russia in Syria, Libya and in the South Caucasus. Ankara was instrumental in Azerbaijan’s successful campaign in Nagorno Karabakh and deployed advisors, foreign fighters and state-of-the-art military equipment in support of the Azeri forces. In Libya in 2020, Turkish equipment and military advisors helped the GNA to stem the attacks launched by the forces of Marshal Khalifa Haftar, whose main supporter is Russia12

Over the past two years Ankara has successfully confronted Russia in the Eastern Mediterranean as well as in its own backyard, in the Caucasus.

Turkey’s procurement of the S-400 missile system is both a cautionary tale of political hubris and diplomatic brinkmanship as well as a lesson to the rest of the Alliance. Turkey was not entirely satisfied with the military assistance it received in protecting its territory from ballistic missile attacks and air raids during the Syrian civil war. Moreover, Ankara has technical and technological ambitions that the Western allies have not taken seriously, as they have not offered a level of technological cooperation commensurate with Turkey’s expectations. The Turkish defence industry has progressed a great deal, and the Turkish authorities want to cash in by creating lucrative partnerships with large Western manufacturers. Technical cooperation concerning the development of an integrated air defence system would represent a high-tech prestige project for Turkey which would emphasise the advancements in science, technology and military power Ankara has made over the past 100 years in general, and under the leadership of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in particular. In the case of the S-400 procurement, Erdoğan felt that his country was not being taken seriously and needed to send a signal to its allies in NATO. However, his brinkmanship may have not paid off, as the United States has eliminated Turkey from the F-35 Lightning II multirole fighter programme and has imposed a number of sanctions against it. The F-35 programme is far more lucrative in financial terms, and has more cutting-edge technology than what the Russian Federation may offer in the long run. 

The Kremlin may have overplayed its hand when it comes to separating Ankara from the US and its NATO allies. Despite the ongoing controversies regarding the Erdoğan regime, Ankara’s disputes with Athens in the Eastern Mediterranean, tensions with Paris over Libya and Syria and with Washington over the S-400 procurement and Syria, Turkey remains anchored within the Western camp and disapproves of Moscow’s policies in the Black Sea. Turkey is helping Ukraine rebuild its navy and its shipbuilding industry by selling its latest type of multirole corvette. In 2020, Turkey discovered a rich gas field in the Black Sea13. This discovery may help resolve some of the disputes in the Eastern Mediterranean with Greece, France, Cyprus, Israel and Egypt, while at the same time focusing Ankara’s attention on the Black Sea. 

Romania: the fulcrum of NATO in the Black Sea region

The importance of Romania for the Western alliance has steadily grown since it became a member of NATO in 2004. Bucharest’s strategic partnership with Washington its and support during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have enhanced Romania’s strategic profile. In 2011, Romania along with Poland became the host nations for the US ballistic defence system in Europe. Romania’s main interest in the Black Sea is to balance Russian power by means of integrating the region into what is broadly termed the Western Alliance, that is NATO and the European Union. A defining feature of Romania’s strategic posture is the large popular support enjoyed by NATO and the EU in the country, as well as the general consensus of its political elites concerning the benefits of being a member of these two organisations. 

The Russo-Georgian war of 2008 and Russia’s proxy war in Ukraine began in 2014 have greatly affected Romania’s security posture in the Black Sea. For the first time since World War II the region has become a theatre of war. The main threat in Bucharest’s perception is the re-emergence of the use of force as the primary means of resolving disputes between states and territorial revisionism.14

After 2014 Romania’s diplomatic and military efforts concentrated on improving its defence posture by allocating 2% of its GDP to defence, securing the deployment of NATO and US troops on its territory in order to deter any potential aggression, and promoting a Black Sea agenda in NATO and the EU, in order to maintain the international diplomatic focus on the region. Bucharest has been moderately successful in its efforts to improve its strategic posture in the face of the Russian challenge.

Romania’s main interest in the Black Sea is to balance Russian power by means of integrating the region into what is broadly termed the Western Alliance.

Largely neglected until 2014, defence procurement plays an important role in counterbalancing Russia. In 2017 Bucharest began an ambitious defence acquisition programme worth €9.3 billion in order to revamp its military. However, after four years most of Romania’s procurement programmes are suffering from delays due to litigation, and have been implemented later than originally planned15. The branch of the Romanian armed forces most affected is the Romanian Naval Forces, which have seen all of their procurement programmes delayed. Without a modern navy, Romania cannot be a credible actor in the Black Sea region.

After 2014, the US and NATO deployed troops on the eastern flank of the alliance on a rotational basis. Ever since becoming a member of NATO, one of Romania’s main aims within the Alliance has been to host US or allied troops on its territory on a permanent basis. The rotational nature of the US and allied forces deployed in Romania is suboptimal, and not conducive to a coherent deterrence posture on the eastern flank. This is made worse by the alliance not treating the eastern flank as a single, coherent space. The distinction made between Enhanced Forward Presence status for Poland and the Baltic states on one hand, and Tailored Forward Presence for Romania and Bulgaria on the other, translates into a less credible deterrence posture on the southern tip of the flank. Although Bucharest has been lobbying to have this status changed, it has so far failed to achieve a change of policy. 

The Trump administration, despite improving the US presence on the eastern flank, also introduced an element of unpredictability, as was demonstrated by the ill-conceived decision taken in July 2020 to withdraw US troops from Germany.16 Most of those troops would have been sent back to the US, while the rest would have been deployed on the eastern flank and in Italy. Worse, the 2nd Cavalry Regiment, a unit originally deployed to Romania and Poland in 2015, would have been sent back to the US. Besides the political hurdles Romania faces concerning the deployment of Alliance troops on its territory, the country’s poor infrastructure hinders the deployment, mobility and re-enforcement of US and NATO forces.

Nevertheless, despite Romania’s misgivings regarding the status of US and NATO troops on its territory, there have been some palpable benefits for Bucharest. The US has pre-positioned heavy equipment in Romania and is investing in modernising Romanian military bases. Recently the US has deployed unmanned Predator aerial vehicles at the Câmpia Turzii air base in order to improve the Alliance’s naval command over the Black Sea. Moreover, Bucharest is hosting a NATO Force Integration Unit (NFIU), the Headquarters Multinational Division South-East, East, the Multinational Brigade South-East, and is also investing in modernising its basesespecially Mihail Kogălniceanu near Constanța. 

Romania is promoting a Black Sea agenda within NATO and the EU. The most successful diplomatic projects so far have been the Bucharest Nine forum (B9) and the Three Seas Initiative (3SI). The B9 is an intra-alliance forum which promotes the issues of eastern flank, while the Three Seas Initiative promotes economic development for the member states in the EU adjoining the Black, Baltic and Adriatic Seas. 

Bulgaria – the ‘soft underbelly’ of NATO on the eastern flank?

Bulgaria has a complex relationship with Russia. On one hand there is the cultural and historic relationship between Bulgaria and Russia; on the other, Sofia is a member of both NATO and the EU. Bulgaria’s security dilemma in the Black Sea is further complicated by its fraught relationship with Turkey. Sofia is concerned at Turkey expanding its influence into the Western Balkans. Moreover, Bulgaria wants to leverage its geographic position in order to become an energy hub in the region. Consequently, Sofia’s policy is oriented towards avoiding direct confrontation with Russia, but also maintaining and benefitting from its status as NATO and EU member.

Despite sharing the same security dilemma in the Black Sea, Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey have not agreed on a strategic agenda for the region.

Compared with the eastern flank’s northern tip, the southern tip has not agreed on a particular strategic assessment regarding the threat posed by the Kremlin. Despite sharing the same security dilemma in the Black Sea, Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey have not agreed on a strategic agenda for the region. When Romania proposed in 2016 the creation of a Black Sea flotilla to train and patrol in the region, Bulgaria initially agreed to the Romanian project, but then withdrew its support for the project before NATO’s Warsaw Summit. Prime Minister Boyko Borisov then stated that he wants to see “sailboats, yachts, large boats with tourists, and not becoming an arena of military action … I do not need a war in the Black Sea.”17

In the Black Sea region Bulgaria, along with Romania, are the only regional states that are both members of the EU and NATO. They are also among the poorest members of these international organisations, which limits their defence capabilities as well as their regional influence. Sofia has started to modernise its air force and its navy, after a long period of time in which it had underinvested in defence. Bulgaria has bought 8 F-16 Block 70 multirole fighters, and it is likely to buy 8 more in the near future in order to have an operational squadron. Lürsen has won a tender to build two multirole patrol ships, roughly equivalent to multirole corvettes. Bulgarian is participating in the Multi-National Brigade South East, based in Romania. The United States uses four Bulgarian bases and training facilities in Bulgaria, and will deploy 2500 troops in the country over the next 10 years.

In Russia’s assessment Bulgaria may be the ‘soft underbelly’ of NATO on the eastern flank. This is proven by the latest espionage scandal that has affected Bulgarian-Russian relations and has cast doubt over Sofia’s credibility as a NATO ally. A network of six Bulgarian active and retired military personnel has been caught spying for Russia. What made matters worse is that some of its members were officers in the military intelligence service of the Bulgarian armed forces. 

Ukraine needs to maintain diplomatic momentum on Crimea and the Donbas

Kyiv is currently facing a triple challenge. First, there is the conflict in the Donbas that has yet to be resolved. Second, the pandemic has affected Ukraine quite hard, and the government has had trouble finding vaccines for inoculating its citizens. Third, it has been difficult to continue the democratic upgrade of Ukraine’s institutions while fighting a war. 

Russia failed spectacularly in 2014 when it decided to use force against Ukraine in order to support its proxies in the east of the country. The Kremlin’s main aim was to undermine and irreparably damage Ukrainian sovereignty; but despite this, Ukraine managed to survive the Russian armed onslaught. Ukraine’s resilience in the face of territorial losses and aggression proved the Russian narratives about the artificial nature of Ukrainian statehood to be entirely wrong. It reconfirmed the old political science adage that ‘states make war and war makes the state’18; Ukrainian statehood has been consolidated by the conflict. The election of Volodymyr Zelensky in 2019 as Ukraine’s president demonstrated both the country’s capacity to resist prolonged aggression, as well as the need for structural reforms in order to make the state more accountable to its citizens.

Ukraine is trying to build up its civilian and military institutions with the help of the West. Nevertheless, the help that has come from Europe and the US has not come without controversies. Germany and France insist that the conflict in Ukraine is civilian in nature and does not represent an instance of foreign aggression. The Minsk and Normandy negotiation formats are premised on this notion, and consequently favour Russia. The Kremlin has consistently ignored the Minsk agreements, despite Kyiv adhering to them. The lack of US participation in both formats further tips the scale in Moscow’s favour. 

Although NATO has no plans to admit Ukraine within its ranks in the near future, it has helped the Ukrainian military deal with the Russian threat. Advisers and trainers from NATO countries helped the Ukrainian armed forces get back on their feet after the initial defeats at Donețsk and Ilovaysk. The US, Turkey and the UK are providing training and are selling naval vessels to Ukraine to rebuild its navy. Non-lethal and lethal equipment has been donated or sold to the Ukrainian military; most importantly Washington has provided Kyiv with Javelin anti-tank missiles to deal with advanced Russian armour. Unfortunately, in the case of US military aid this has been entangled in American partisan politics. As the 2020 elections approached the Trump administration conditioned US military aid on Kyiv providing incriminating evidence on Donald Trump’s political rival Joe Biden. When the information was leaked to the press it led to Trump’s first impeachment trial; the scandal came close to compromising US-Ukrainian relations.

Kyiv has also invested its limited resources in modernising the Ukrainian armed forces. Leveraging its existing industrial base, Ukraine is developing locally designed anti-ship missiles, anti-tank missiles and armoured vehicles. Ukraine is forging industrial partnerships with Turkey and Poland to build tactical UAVs, multirole corvettes and advanced anti-tank missiles

Ukraine’s resilience in the face of territorial losses and aggression proved the Russian narratives about the artificial nature of Ukrainian statehood to be entirely wrong.

On the diplomatic front, Ukraine is trying to put Crimea on the front burner of international diplomacy by promoting the Crimea Platform project. If the fighting in eastern Ukraine still catches the eye of the international community, Crimea is being treated as de facto Russian territory. In Western chancelleries the prevailing wisdom is that Ukraine has no chance of taking back Crimea, either by peaceful means or through force. However, it is diplomatically important to keep Crimea on the international agenda, especially now that it has become an asset for Russian power projection. 

For Ukraine, maintaining diplomatic momentum on Crimea and the Donbas in the near and medium term is important. Crimea may be drowned out by other issues on the international agenda such as the pandemic, strategic arms limitations and climate change. Faced with internal pressure and the socio-economic impact of the pandemic, Russia in the near future may be tempted to ‘freeze’ the conflict in eastern Ukraine. Such a development would have a negative impact on Ukraine, which would find itself in a strategic limbo. 

Georgia: resisting creeping annexation 

‘Creeping annexation’ is how Georgian officials are describing the process through which gradually Russia is annexing the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The 2008 Russo-Georgian war was the first instance of military aggression in the Black Sea region and showed that ‘frozen conflicts’ in the former Soviet space can be rekindled. In 2021 Tbilisi obtained a symbolic but significant victory at the European Court of Human Rights, which acknowledged that Abkhazia and South Ossetia are under occupation and that Russia committed war crimes during the 2008 conflict. Nevertheless, this decision changes very few things on the ground. Russia’s military presence in the breakaway territories has increased, while Georgia is facing a troubling political crisis. Before the 2008 war, Georgia was described as a post-Soviet success story; now it looks more like a ‘frozen conflict success story’ for the Kremlin. 

Conclusions

The Black Sea region is going through its greatest period of instability since the end of World War II. Control of the region is being disputed between NATO and Russia, as the Black Sea offers access to other geopolitical relevant regions: the Mediterranean Sea, the Middle East and Central Asia. Russia has obtained a certain military advantage at the regional level, but it is not clear whether this is sustainable over the long run. NATO and the US need to have a coherent approach to the eastern flank in order to deter Russia and secure the Black Sea. This approach should consist in viewing the eastern flank as a single and integrated military space. A unified Alliance military posture should be applied to the entire eastern flank. The U.S. should increase its presence on the eastern flank while maintaining an adequate response force in Germany. Paris and Berlin should also increase their military presence on the eastern flank: this will improve the case for European strategic autonomy. Key infrastructure for military mobility should be improved as soon as possible to improve the deployment of follow-on forces.

The Black Sea region is going through its greatest period of instability since the end of World War II. Control of the region is being disputed between NATO and Russia, as the Black Sea offers access to other geopolitical relevant regions: the Mediterranean Sea, the Middle East and Central Asia.

NOTES

1 Richard Sakwa, Frontline Ukraine: Crisis in the Borderlands, (London: I.B. Tauris, 2016)

2 Senate Armed Service Committee Advance Policy Questions for Lloyd J. Austin Nominee for Appointment to be Secretary of Defense, p. 39

3 International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), ‘The Military Balance 2020’, (Routledge: London, 2020), p. 170

4 Ibid., p. 170

5 International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), op. cit, p. 6

6 International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), ‘The Military Balance 2020’, (Routledge: London, 2019), p. 169

7 Overall some of the comparative advantages of NATO over Russia are: better and competent command structures; the advantage of ‘home turf’ in defending the eastern flank; better training and a greater pool of experienced troops than Russia’s armed forces; better communications and command facilities; superior ISR capabilities; a more balanced force structure overall.

8 International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), Op. Cit, p. 171

9 Author’s conversation with a Russian defence analyst.

10 The EDI began in 2015 with $985 million in funding. The effort peaked at $6.5 billion in FY2019, while in FY2020 it was reduced to $5.91 billion. Source: Congressional Research Service, ‘The European Deterrence Initiative: A Budgetary Overview’, 16 June 2020, pp. 1-3, available at https://crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/IF/IF10946

11 Heinrich Brauß, ‘The US Troop Withdrawal Plan: Bogus Strategic Claims and a Warning Signal for Europe’, DGAP, pp. 1-3, available at https://dgap.org/sites/default/files/article_pdfs/dgap-commentary-2020-24-en.pdf

12 Interview du Président Emmanuel Macron au think tank américain Atlantic Council, Élysée, February 5, 2021, available at https://www.elysee.fr/emmanuel-macron/2021/02/05/interview-du-president-emmanuel-macron-au-think-tank-americain-atlantic-council. See also Le Grand Continent, ‘The Macron Doctrine. A conversation with the French president’, 16 November 2020, available at https://geopolitique.eu/en/macron-grand-continent/

13 Ibid.

14 Jason Pack and Wolfgang Pusztai, ‘Turning the Tide: How Turkey Won the War for Tripoli’, Middle East Institute, pp. 1-22, available at https://www.mei.edu/sites/default/files/2020-11/Turning%20the%20Tide%20-%20How%20Turkey%20Won%20the%20War%20for%20Tripoli.pdf

15 Reuters, ‘Turkey lifts Black Sea gas field estimate after new find: Erdogan’, 17 October 2020, available at https://www.reuters.com/article/turkey-energy-blacksea/turkey-lifts-black-sea-gas-field-estimate-after-new-find-erdogan-idINKBN2720MF

16 Strategia Națională de Apărare a Țării pentru perioada 2020-2024: Împreună pentru o Românie sigură și prosperă într-o lume marcată de noi provocări, available at https://www.presidency.ro/files/userfiles/Documente/Strategia_Nationala_de_Aparare_a_Tarii_2020_2024.pdf

17 George Vișan, ‘The Known Unknowns of Romania’s Defence Modernization Plans’, ROEC, 3 July 2017, available at https://www.roec.biz/project/the-known-unknowns-of-romanias-defence-modernization-plans/

18 Suspended in 2021 by the Biden administration pending a review of the US military global commitments.

19 Reuters, ‘Bulgaria says will not join any NATO Black Sea fleet after Russian warning’, 16 June 2016, available at https://www.reuters.com/article/nato-bulgaria-blacksea-idUSL8N19835X

20 Charles Tilly, Coercion, Capital, and European States, A.D. 990-1990, (Oxford: John Wiley and Sons Ltd, 1993)

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].
Sadat, M. S., Hughes, J. P. (2006), ‘US-Iran Engagement Through Afghanistan’, Middle East Policy, 17(1).
Zamirirad, A., Meier, O., Lohmann, S. (2020), ‘Why Europe needs to push back to save the Iran nuclear deal’, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 30 June 2020. Available at https://thebulletin.org/2020/06/why-europe-needs-to-push-back-to-save-the-iran-nuclear-deal/. [Accessed 10 July 2020].

“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.

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

It’s a tough choice to hold elections during the pandemic

There is little doubt, by now, that the novel coronavirus pandemic is a threat not only to health and the economy, but also to some of our democracies. In order to fight the spread of the virus effectively, governments have to restrict civil rights. Some are becoming excessively good at it.

Emergency powers sometimes fit into the plans and desires of would-be autocrats in search of an opportunity to grow stronger. This is done at a rapid pace and is creating growing concern. To give just one example, calling Mr. Viktor Orban a dictator, once an expression relegated to informal conversation, is now becoming mainstream (see The Economist coverage on April, 2nd vs. April, 23rd).

But there is another problem that plagues even countries that remain committed to liberal democracy: how to hold elections. Elections can be quite robust: polls have taken place during wars, famines and civil unrest. But this kind of crisis is peculiar. Elections bring people together in various ways and bringing people together will surely bring about disease.

Let us walk through the options.

Business as usual

This one is the most clear-cut case. Running elections during a pandemic increases the health risks for participants and society at large. Since people will realise that, they are likely to come to the polls in smaller numbers, undermining to an extent the very legitimacy of the process. France played brave and saw it happen.

Delay the elections

An obvious strategy would be to delay the elections until a better moment arrives. Mostly, such plans suppose that the virus would be less… viral during the summer months. But this is just untested theory yet.

Also, playing with the elections date can be politically and constitutionally complicated.  Some constitutions require elections to happen before a well-defined moment.

Even where it is constitutionally possible, delaying elections at will may still give governments the power to pursue improper political gains. Even when they do not give in to temptation, opposition parties may feel that they do.

Multi-day elections

One easy way to lower the risk posed by elections seems to be to keep the polls open during more than one day. Thus, there will be greater social distancing, especially if people are advised to come to the polls in different days, according to their name or any other random characteristic.

But other problems remain. People will still need to be in close proximity to those who are part of the elections committee, will still use pens and stamps.

Those who handle the pens, stamps and ballot boxes will be particularly vulnerable. Keeping the polls open during more than one day might actually have a discouraging effect on these people, even though, statistically, they are at no greater risk.

Multi-day elections would also be relatively novel since, typically, countries are more than happy to close the polls the same day they open them. Romania has tried this approach a few times, particularly when referenda required a quorum to be considered valid and people were reluctant to meet that quorum.

Vote by (physical) mail

In such a scenario, postal workers would deliver the ballot papers to the citizens, making sure that everybody who has the right to vote gets one authenticated piece/ set. Then, so to speak, the mailbox would become the ballot box. (Multiple similar arrangements are possible)

Mail voting is regularly done in the case of citizens who live abroad, or who are unable or sometimes unwilling to come to the voting booth on election day. It is considered safe in the United States (though president Trump recently disagreed). But in the UK a judge ruled in 2005 that “the system is wide open to fraud and any would-be political fraudster knows that”, adding that he could find “evidence of electoral fraud that would disgrace a banana republic”, according to the BBC.

Scaling up such a system would create major logistical and security problems. Can postal companies and services cope with such pressure? After all, they are continuously losing market share to more agile competitors. Supposing the deed can be done, the mail worker may choose not to deliver the postal sacks from areas where people tend to vote “the wrong way”.

Americans have voted by mail in record number in the recent US elections. The same was also planned to take place in Poland, already arousing suspicions of a familiar combination of authoritarian slide, ill-prepared policies and malevolent intentions. The same was also planned to take place in Poland, already arousing suspicions of a familiar combination of authoritarian slide, ill-prepared policies and malevolent intentions.

However, even if postal voting were possible and secure, it may be unconstitutional in many countries. After all, nobody wrote a constitution with a pandemic in mind.

Even if constitutional, postal voting is not necessarily safe from the coronavirus. Citizens would have to be identified by the postal workers and few institutions in Eastern Europe would accept identification without some form of handwritten signature. That makes postal workers potential super-spreaders. It also makes them potential victims. It is worth remembering that in some East-European countries postal workers are essential for delivering pensions, utility bills, and generally keeping remote places connected to the world.

Voting by Internet

Large scale Internet voting is logistically easier (possibly, maybe, we do not really know). But all the other problems of postal voting come back to us with a vengeance. People would still need to identify themselves when they get some form of “electronic right to vote”. The process would be ripe for spreading the virus. It also could be unconstitutional in many countries.

On top of this, there are a whole host of ways to defraud internet voting. And, very importantly, voting fraud is much easier to scale than in pretty much any reasonable elections scenario.

E-voting may be the future, but, realistically, the technology is not here yet.

Are there any ways out?

Earlier this year Singapore revised electoral districts and promoted measures to ensure that voting was possible during a pandemic. This was read by some as a sign that the government is considering snap elections to capitalise on the success of containing the virus. As the number of infections increased, plans seem to have been abandoned. However, speculation about snap elections were not a cause for public outcry, suggesting that the population is generally willing to trust that the government will be able to organise elections safely (voting is mandatory in Singapore).

Can we, in Eastern Europe, or Europe generally, copy that model? Not really. Singapore is a strong state, some say authoritarian, inhabited by a compliant population that is well familiarised with social distancing from previous epidemics. Europe, and especially Southern and Eastern Europe, are nothing like that. The case of Singapore suggests, nevertheless, that, if the pandemic persists, we might eventually learn to competently live with it to the point where relatively safe elections become possible.

Another theoretical option is sortition, which is randomly selecting people for office. Such means of selecting magistrates was a staple of ancient Athenian democracy and was used later in some Italian Republics. Nowadays it is used sparingly in “citizen juries” selected to advise politicians on issues.

Given a large enough elected body or simple enough responsibilities, it can be argued that sortition ensures representation of relevant opinions at least as accurately as elections, if not better.

However, such a solution precludes the citizens from giving a mandate to elected leaders. It also results, sociologically speaking, in diminished legitimacy and trust. In Romania, for example, after each major election the number of people who believe that the country is heading in the right direction increases. Such moments of optimism would be lost.

Last, but definitely not least, only very few – if any – constitutions in Europe would allow it.

What next?

It may well be that the actual response to the electoral challenges of the virus will come, like the virus itself, in waves.

We experience now a wave of confusion. Governments are under political or constitutional pressure to hold elections. But the science about the coronavirus is in flux and new ideas are untested. So, decision-making will include a certain degree of randomness.

And there is ample room for bad decisions. In Poland voting by mail was deemed impossible at such short notice. So, elections were postponed de facto – but not necessarily de jure, because it was too late in the process (it’s complicated).

Next comes the mix-and-match wave. Various means of voting described in this article could be used simultaneously. And each country might have its own combination. Inclusive electoral democracy will pay off: countries that already have more inclusive voting options will have it easier, both from a legal and a logistical perspective.

At least in summer, good mixes stand a chance to deliver good elections. But it will take a while to get everything in good order. After all, for Singapore, which was first to consider holding elections despite the virus, this is not its first epidemic.

And then we hope for an effective vaccine to come.

*

The considerations above are far from exhaustive. They aim not to be a study in electoral alternatives, but to illustrate the challenges that any such alternative would face.

Not to mince words, we are at a point where democracy kills, because elections kill. When calling an election, governments will know that they are sending people to death just as surely as they know it when they send troops into the fight. But, at least, modern troops are volunteer-based rather than conscripted. Army members choose to risk their lives. But, in an epidemic, citizens who go to vote will implicitly risk the lives of those who do not vote.

This will undoubtedly impact the legitimacy of elections and, by extension, of democracy itself. But resilient democracies can move on. Failed elections are not a proof of failed democracies, but rather of failed public health planning. Once the crisis is gone, democracies can fully recover.

Except where democracy is already plagued by “pre-existing conditions”.

PS When I wrote this article, I said that we were living a period of confusion on what safe alternatives to traditional elections looked like. In a certain sense, we are still there.

According to the Council on Foreign Relations, more than 60 countries have postponed elections from the start of the pandemic. But those who did hold them largely abstained from innovation. Behind the plethora of public health measures the same-old same-old kind of action took place: in-person, single-day, come-when-you-like (exceptions exist).

Did it work? For some countries it did but for some others it did not. As the virus will continue to roam among us for months (at least), the discussion is still valid: are governments doing everything to protect the voters? Or are they trying to make choices that are safe for themselves, adhering to the conventional wisdom more than necessary.

An inflexion point may be brought about by the US elections, where extended mail-in voting seems to be the solution of choice. A successful, reasonably uncontroversial process may give the world a signal that alternatives are possible. Anything less may scare government away from electoral innovation.