International Politics Redux
A Plan for a Sustainable World

Sustainable development—balancing resource use and its impact on the environment—is one of the critical global issues today.  The international community has been discussing sustainable business practices and governmental policies for decades, but only recently has the discussion taken centre stage.  Global climate change is one of the processes that have accelerated this transformation.  The stakes are high because there is only one planet Earth.  If decisive and concerted steps are not taken to increase sustainable practices and policies on the world stage, it will become more severe than it already is. 

Sustainability is more than just a buzzword. It is a long-term strategy to reduce, stop and even reverse much of the damage now being done to the global commons by pollution and greenhouse gases.  The nightmare scenario is one in which humanity acts after it is already too late, leading to disastrous shifts in weather, sea levels, vegetation, animal habitats, and so on.  This would in turn influence migratory flows, continental demographics, natural geography, resource distribution, and other factors in ways that will undoubtedly have unforeseen consequences.  The issue deserves some attention.

As with so many other global issues, the United Nations has begun to marshal the resources needed to effectively address this problem.  The United Nations General Assembly is in the midst of inaugurating its 67th session this September in New York City.  The 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development will be one of the major forums in which the debate on sustainable development takes place.  The results of the recent Earth Summit held in Brazil (Rio+20) will be assessed, and a way forward for sustainable development will be charted.  This is the official, institutional response of the global community to climate change, and for that reason alone it is an exceptionally important public policy issue at the global level.

Yet while the UN can serve as a potent symbol of international collaboration, it has no intrinsic power apart from the authority bestowed upon it by its member-states.  What this means is that the best way to achieve results at the UN is if governments take the lead in adopting sustainable development practices and resisting climate change through their own policies.  The European Union has for 15 years been crafting and fine-tuning such a strategy.  Australia is one of the first developed countries to adopt a nationwide carbon tax.  Even China, considered a rising global power but not particularly strong on environmental issues, is reallocating resources for its latest Five-Year Plan from environmentally harmful end-products to building long-term sustainable development infrastructure.  It is vital for the sake of sustainability in general that these governments become part of the solution to climate change, not add to the problem.

But politics and bureaucratic wrangling can stop progress in its tracks. They can oftentimes hinder substantial progress on issues of monumental concern.  Other players, like nongovernmental organizations or civil society, can help them stay on track and achieve their goals.  This statement from the UN Conference on Sustainable Development website sums up this notion well: “From the very beginning of the first Earth Summit in 1992, people realized that sustainable development could not be achieved by governments alone. It would require the active participation of all sectors of society and all types of people - consumers, workers, business persons, farmers, students, teachers, researchers, activists, indigenous communities, and other communities of interest”.  With everybody involved working in diverse ways towards promoting, strengthening and achieving sustainable development objectives, a number of potential solutions are viable.

The cost of instituting sustainability-oriented policies at this stage in the development strategies of national governments worldwide is minimal.  And, while the costs of not doing so are staggering, they grow larger every day that solutions are delayed.  With attention focused on the beginning of the 67th session of the UN General Assembly this month, an open policy window is presenting itself to the countries of the world and their governments.  Either the national representatives of these governments can continue to play politics and conduct business as usual, or they can get serious around the negotiating table during this latest moment of simultaneous crisis and opportunity.  The risks, costs and benefits of their policies will last for generations to come.

Dying to Make a Killing: The Global Arms Trade Treaty

The month of July 2012 saw delegates from more than 150 countries descend on New York City in an attempt to negotiate a global arms trade treaty under the vaunted auspices of the United Nations.  Although regulations govern transactions between states in areas as diverse as agriculture, commerce, manufacturing and travel, no such regulations exist for conventional armaments.  Efforts to regulate the international flow of weaponry can be traced to the early 1990s, but the UN first addressed the issue in 2006 in a General Assembly resolution.  It was hoped that July’s United Nations Conference on an Arms Trade Treaty would end in some form of agreement after the United States, which accounts for 40% of global arms exports, expressed support for the issue back in 2009 after years of Bush Administration opposition to the treaty.  Critically, this support was tempered by the condition that negotiations would be “under the rule of consensus decision-making,” effectively giving any one of the UN’s 193 member-states veto power over treaty agreements.  Nonetheless, this development galvanized the international community’s interest and set the stage for two years of preparatory committees meant to lay the groundwork for a draft treaty that would be ready in time for last month’s summit in New York.

Unfortunately, no final treaty emerged from a month of intense deliberation.  Instead, 90 states seeking to save face contributed to a joint statement: “we are disappointed, but we are not discouraged.”  The Control Arms Campaign – a collaborative project between Amnesty International, Oxfam International and the International Action Network on Small Arms – blames this breakdown in negotiations on the “lack of political courage by major players.”  Essentially, what this means is that the world’s biggest arms producers (the United States, Russia, France, United Kingdom, China, Germany and Italy), which together account for 80% of all sales, refuse to negotiate away one of their countries’ most lucrative export industries.  The executive director of Amnesty International USA, Suzanne Nossel, is much more direct in her condemnation: “This was stunning cowardice by the Obama Administration, which at the last minute did an about-face and scuttled progress toward a global arms treaty, just as it reached the finish line.  It’s a staggering abdication of leadership by the world’s largest exporter of conventional weapons to pull the plug on the talks just as they were nearing an historic breakthrough.” 

While it is a shame and a pity that the collective will of the international community could not agree on the principles and implementation of a treaty for global arms production and distribution, why is this regulation even needed?  The simple argument is that making the global arms trade more open, transparent and accountable will reduce the likelihood that these weapons are used for purposes that contravene international law.  This is because states that openly flaunt these norms would be exposed to the name-and-shame game, which would not only discredit them internationally but would also make them liable for violating existing international law, including human rights and humanitarian law.  In turn, this situation would render the offending government vulnerable to prosecution from national and international courts of justice, thereby providing an enforcement mechanism for the treaty.

But there is also a deeper argument with a more complex logic at play here: as a direct result of the systemic violence and instability engendered by the unregulated flow of conventional arms, socioeconomic development in the poorest countries is negatively affected, and progress towards the UN Millennium Development Goals is hindered significantly.  In addition to the incalculable human losses, armed conflict is estimated to cost the continent of Africa $18 billion per year – more than the amount of official development assistance directed its way per year – in lost foreign direct investment, destruction of property, criminal enterprises, corruption and a whole host of related societal ills.  With nearly 2,000 people dying every day as a result of gun-related violence, the pernicious outcomes of an unregulated global arms trade are becoming more and more difficult to ignore.

And yet, even if such a treaty did exist, illicit arms sales would continue to flourish.  Peter Herby, head of the Arms Unit at the International Committee of the Red Cross, warns that “all the core provisions of this draft treaty still have major loopholes which will simply ratify the status quo, instead of setting a high international standard that will change state practices and save lives on the ground.”  Brian Wood, head of Arms Control and Human Rights at Amnesty International, points out that arms sent abroad as aid or donations would be exempt from the latest treaty draft’s vague definition for arms transfers, meaning that “these loopholes could easily be exploited to allow arms to be supplied to those that intend to use them to commit serious human rights violations, as the world is seeing in Syria.” 

Other practical impediments to the realistic implementation of an arms control regime cannot simply be swept under the proverbial rug either.  Third-party countries and corporations can be used to facilitate the transfer of arms from a supplier-state to an outlawed client-state without attracting any unwanted attention.  National laws can be bypassed by manufacturing the weapons themselves in the blacklisted, recipient country’s sovereign territory.  Corrupt politicians, resource rivalries, fragile state institutions and offshore banking practices all contribute to the difficulty of identifying and impeding the proliferation of these armaments across national borders.  A noteworthy trend also compounding this problem is the increasing privatization of security and military services by governments all over the world, which can lead without much imagination to further exploitation of the treaty’s weaknesses.

In reality, the vested interests in a $60 billion industry would inevitably find and exploit the loopholes in any eventual treaty, but this does not excuse the failure of the world’s major powers to at least agree on a draft resolution of a treaty that would regulate the import, export and distribution of conventional armaments, including everything from tanks and combat aircraft to warships and missile launchers.  At the same time, this is no reason to sound the treaty’s death knell before it has even been given the chance to work in practice.  It is a necessary beginning to a less violent and more prosperous society of states, even if it is also for the time being insufficient.  Any consequent deficiencies in the core principles or implementation procedures of the treaty should be dealt with in a rigorous and systematic manner, but the moral imperative and overwhelming logic behind a regulatory framework for the global arms trade can simply not be disputed and should not be delayed any longer.

Lebanese Tinderbox Smoulders Silently

In the midst of the repressive Syrian regime’s all-out war against rebels and revolutionaries, the strategic Arab state of Lebanon has struggled to maintain its sovereignty and avoid entanglement in neighbouring Syria’s internal crises.  Lebanon has constantly lived in the shadow of Syria’s influence, literally carved out of Greater Syria by the French imperial authorities under a League of Nations Mandate after the First World War.

Nominally independent since the early 1940s, foreign interference has never been far from the surface of internal Lebanese politics.  In the civil war of 1975-1990, rival states fought proxy wars in Lebanon by ruthlessly backing and betraying antagonistic political, economic and sectarian forces within the country.  Two contiguous states, Israel and Syria, intervened with the warring parties and even invaded different areas during this time, occupying significant parts of Lebanon for decades.  While Israel withdrew in 2000 under different conditions from Syria in 2006, the scars of their invasions and occupations have left Lebanon in a perpetually weakened state of sovereignty and independence.

One major impediment to Lebanese national reconciliation and the rebuilding of non-sectarian state institutions is the continued existence of Hezbollah within Lebanon’s borders.  The Taif Agreement of 1989, which signalled the beginning of the end of the civil war, envisioned the dismantling of all militia movements.  Even after all other militant groups were dissolved in 1991, Hezbollah refused to disarm.

Ever since, Hezbollah has rivalled the Lebanese Armed Forces as a ‘state-within-a-state’ with de facto autonomy in the southern regions populated by Shiite Arabs, and has pursued its own interests at the expense of Lebanon’s.  For instance, Lebanon’s only recent international conflict took place in July and August 2006 when Hezbollah fought Israel to a bloody standstill over 34 days in which thousands of Lebanese civilians were killed or injured and Lebanese infrastructure suffered billions of dollars in war-related damage.  Any strategic or symbolic victory won by Hezbollah in this conflict cost the state of Lebanon severely.

Every now and then, news reports filter through of isolated incidents of cross-border violence between the armed forces of Lebanon and Israel; after all, these two countries have technically been in a state of war since 1948.  The most serious confrontation since 2006 occurred in a massive military exchange of gunfire on the border in August 2010, resulting in the deaths of an Israeli colonel, three Lebanese soldiers and a Lebanese journalist.

While the risk of war is omnipresent on the Lebanese-Israeli border, United Nations peacekeepers patrol the area and effectively provide the two states with a buffer zone.  The onset of the 2006 Hezbollah-Israel war was precipitated by violations of that buffer zone and the coordinated attack and kidnapping of Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah on the border with Israel.  As long as similar provocations do not undermine the mutual deterrence between the states of Lebanon and Israel, a tentative yet non-militaristic coexistence is likely to continue to characterize their relationship.

Today, however, the most serious threats to Lebanese security and stability arise from the spillover effects of the Syrian uprising next door.  The Syrian military has recently escalated its strikes against rebel factions seeking refuge in northern Lebanon, reportedly killing five and wounding 10 more in the villages of Wadi Khaled and al-Mahatta as of July 7, 2012.  The northern city of Tripoli is the site of pro-Syrian regime Shiites openly battling pro-Syrian rebel Sunnis in the streets, with over 30 Lebanese citizens killed in these sectarian conflicts since the uprising in Syria began over a year ago in March 2011.

Just two months ago in May 2012, the kidnapping of Shiite Lebanese pilgrims in the Syrian city of Aleppo by sympathizers of the opposition Free Syrian Army – apparently in retaliation for their fellow Shiites’ support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad – nearly led to internecine warfare in Beirut and the Bekaa Valley until Hezbollah-leader Hassan Nasrallah appealed for peaceful protests.  And a mere two weeks ago in late-June 2012, a leading Lebanese television station (al-Jadeed) was attacked after an interview with a Sunni cleric aired which criticized the country’s Shiite leaders for their policies towards Syria.

Lebanon is not the only state bordering Syria which has felt the effects of its civil war. Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has brazenly called for the Syrian president to step down after lambasting the regime’s conduct during this rebellion towards its own people.  Syria’s recent downing of a Turkish fighter jet and the non-stop influx of Syrian refugees into neighbouring countries (more than 100,000 in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq) signal the increasing volatility of Syria’s internal crisis and its nearing a breaking point in which international intervention may finally be warranted to stop the bloodshed and replace the Assad regime.  Aside from refugee inflows, Jordan and Iraq have both felt the consequences of the Syrian government’s crackdown on its people as money and weapons are smuggled in and out by Syrian government supporters and detractors in a push by both sides to defeat the other in combat.

So how does Lebanon fit into the Middle East’s security dilemmas?  Revolutionary movements in the Arab World have so far led to democratically elected governments – albeit with minimal executive and questionable legislative power and authority – in Tunisia and Egypt, with Libya joining the list of post-Arab Spring elected governments in July 2012.  Following a transitional regime change in Yemen, paltry reforms in Jordan and Morocco, the bribing of loyal populations in the Gulf Arab states, the squashing of a popular revolution in Bahrain, and an ongoing civil war in Syria, Lebanon at least boasts a functioning government that grants its citizens basic civil rights and political freedoms.

Lebanese democracy however is neither secure nor sacred, with notable exceptions to its political cohesion, rights, and freedoms apparent when those rights and freedoms contradict Hezbollah’s party line or Lebanese governmental policy towards sectarian affairs, religious matters or its powerful neighbours.  In the meanwhile the Arab Spring – an anti-regime revolutionary movement demanding political reform – has largely bypassed Lebanon. This will surely be a discouraging sign for pro-democracy activists and human rights advocates engaged in the country.

What Next for Iran?

Iran.  The country is without a doubt one of the most geopolitically sensitive states in the international system.  It is also one of the most challenging and chimerical countries for its immediate neighbours, the region’s rising powers, the world’s great powers and the international community as a whole to fathom.  Just this past weekend (April 14, 2012), the first nuclear talks between the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council – China, France, Russia, the U.K., the U.S. – and Germany) and Iran in 15 months took place. During the past decade, subsequent rounds of these talks have led to little or no progress.  The most recent talks in Istanbul have been hailed by the Americans, Europeans and Iranians as ‘constructive and useful’, although nothing of substance was actually achieved at these negotiations.  If the universally positive atmosphere emanating from Istanbul lasts for another month, the real negotiations on Iranian uranium enrichment and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections will begin in earnest on May 23 in Baghdad.

This tenuous breakthrough in Western-Iranian relations is as fragile as it is unexpected.  The West is understandably uneasy with Iran; as a Shiite Islamic fundamentalist theocracy, it is unique in the world and wholly alien to the Westphalian conception of secular politics and sovereign statehood.  Already at odds with traditional Western norms of international order and ideology, Iranians are also wary of foreign interference in their internal affairs after centuries of colonial adventurism and imperial domination from abroad.  The damage done to Iranian-American relations after the 444-day hostage crisis following the 1979 Islamic Revolution certainly did nothing to alter the situation.  As it exists today, Iran is naturally poised to play a role as a regional power at least on par with that of Egypt or Turkey.  All three dwarf their immediate neighbours in size, population, military might, strategic location, systems of alliances, and so on.  This enables them to effectively craft their own spheres of geopolitical influence, and Iran has done an exceptionally good job of manipulating Middle Eastern politics to its advantage.

Take the conflict with Israel as an example.  Opposition to Zionism and any peacemaking or normalization of relations with Israel has been a hallmark of the Iranian regime’s domestic national identity and coloured its foreign policy priorities since the Ayatollahs assumed power in 1979.  This policy has been championed with a renewed urgency since the end of the Cold War in 1991 and the beginning of the Madrid to Oslo Palestinian-Israeli peace process, a fact which has arguably derailed Middle Eastern peace talks for nearly twenty years.  Iranian supreme leaders Khomeini and Khamenei have both prophesied Israel’s impending demise before, but fast forward to the election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005 and the increasingly anti-Israeli genocidal rhetoric coupled with his by now infamous habit of flamboyantly denying the Holocaust and it is easy to see why Israeli security interests would be threatened.  Israel has for its part loudly beaten the drums of a preventative war with Iran if nuclear negotiations with Western countries fail to disarm its potential nuclear arsenal, but Iran has done nothing to assuage Israeli fears or alleviate international concerns about its nuclear program.

Another factor complicating American and Israeli relations with Iran is the so-called Arab Spring.  As the domino-effects of revolutionary upheavals in key Arab states permeate throughout North Africa and the Middle East, geostrategic relationships of power are shifting in similarly revolutionary ways.  Since Ben Ali fled Tunisia in a panic and Mubarak stepped down from the Egyptian leadership over a year ago, the Arab World has witnessed unprecedented institutional pressures.  Libya has inaugurated a new chapter in its history with the elimination of Qaddafi while Yemen has initiated a transitional period of governmental change without Saleh in power.  Some Arab monarchies like Morocco and Jordan have ushered in constitutional reforms and allowed for modest political democratization while oil-rich Gulf sheikhdoms spend their way to security.

But the most delicate power play of all is materializing in Syria, where the Assad government is a critical component of the Tehran-Damascus-Beirut-Gaza link.  The Palestinian militant resistance group Hamas has even pulled its headquarters out of Syria’s capital, evidently finding it no longer defensible given its vocal support for popular revolutions elsewhere in the Arab world.  Despite repeated rounds of sanctions and diplomacy from the Arab League and the United Nations, including Kofi Annan’s latest 6-point plan and the inbound monitors meant to stabilize a days-old and already faltering ceasefire, conflict between the Syrian opposition movement based in Turkey and the Damascus-based Assad government will persist because the fundamental issues at the core of it remain unresolved.

Clearly, Iran’s unfaltering support for Assad in this regard is rooted in its strategic interest in the Syrian government’s survival.  Aside from support among Hamas in Palestine and Hezbollah in Lebanon – which is not representative of the majority of public opinion in either of those countries – Assad’s Syria is Iran’s only lever of influence in the Arab Middle East and represents one of its closest strategic allies in the never-ending hostility against Israel.  The irony is that while Iran originally praised the Arab masses for ousting secular autocrats and facilitating Islamist competition in Tunisian and Egyptian elections, the regime has found itself in an extremely awkward position in Syria by taking the exact opposite approach.

This pragmatic reality has pitted Iran’s interests diametrically opposed to Turkey’s in the Syrian theatre of conflict.  As Turkey shelters tens of thousands of Syrian refugees and protects the military defectors of the Free Syrian Army, Iran has found it doubly awkward to attend the latest round of talks on its nuclear program in Istanbul – the very same city that hosted the ‘Friends of Syria’ conferences attended by dozens of countries’ representatives in support of the opposition Syrian National Council and aimed at ultimately dislodging Syrian President Assad from power.  Iran almost cancelled these talks completely less than two weeks before they were set to begin because of Turkey’s outspoken role in criticizing the Syrian government’s brutality and aiding the opposition’s efforts.  All this merely indicates the unpredictable and counterintuitive nature of the Arab Spring on the Middle East’s balance of power.

One final observation: the next round of nuclear talks will take place in May in Baghdad, an interesting venue given Iraq’s relative isolation from the region for the past two decades.  The recent Arab League Summit hosted by Baghdad in late March was widely seen as a key step for Iraq along the arduous path towards renewed integration into Arab affairs and largely focused on the ongoing crisis in neighbouring Syria.  Given the long-simmering fears of Iranian influence over Iraq, especially with a Shiite-led government in a Shiite-majority country, even the locale for these talks could be explosive.  Only time will tell if the Iranian government will genuinely compromise with Western powers over its nuclear ambitions, but the P5+1 countries will need to accommodate Iran’s legitimate national interests in terms of energy and security as well.  One thing is for sure, though: the Iranian enigma continues to confound and beguile policymakers and pundit machines alike.

Predicting a 2012 War in the Middle East

Like many social phenomena, war is a tricky thing to predict.  The final decision to launch an assault on any enemy is ultimately made by an individual or small group of elite individuals with the power to do so.  This unpredictable human factor means that no mathematical equation will ever be able to model when or where war breaks out in the real world.  Having said that, telltale signs that tensions are rising or militaries are mobilizing typically emerge in the weeks and months prior to combat.  Before the June 1967 Arab-Israeli Six-Day War, for instance, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser signaled his intent to go to war by expelling the United Nations Emergency Force that had been stationed in the Sinai Desert since 1956 as a buffer between hostile Egyptian and Israeli forces.  Similarly, the United States gave the Iraqis plenty of warning and ample opportunity after invading and occupying Kuwait in 1990 to vacate the Gulf Arab country before the Americans forcefully evicted them in 1991 with Operation Desert Storm.  In the modern Middle East, four major trends are contributing to an increased risk of war.

One of the longest festering wounds in the region is the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis, with the lack of progress on 20-year old peace talks only worsening the situation.  Negotiations have been on hold since late 2010, when Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas met with Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu in Washington with high hopes, together with US President Barack Obama, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordanian King Abdullah II.  Shortly after those talks floundered, the Palestinians embarked on a unilateral drive for statehood in the United Nations, failing to rally either Israel or the United States to its cause – which are the only two countries whose collaboration is indispensable to the creation of a Palestinian state – and bankrupting the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in the process.  As of late in January 2012, low-level Palestinian and Israeli representatives hosted by the Jordanian King in Amman have failed to reach any consensus on how to resume actual negotiations.  For additional reasons discussed below and barring any unforeseen developments, deadlock is likely to characterize Palestinian-Israeli peace talks in the near future.  Since this conflict has always been cited by terrorist groups like Palestinian Hamas, Lebanese Hezbollah and al-Qaeda as rationales for their attacks, no progress means more conflict.

The second major indicator of instability is electoral fever.  In the United States, Palestine and Israel, 2012 is shaping up to be a year of contested elections and leadership changes.  The American presidential election is scheduled for November 6, although the primary process to nominate a Republican Party candidate to face off against President Obama will undoubtedly dominate US news coverage and media attention for the rest of the year.  The Palestinian situation is extremely fluid and complex: on top of the May 4 presidential and parliamentary elections for the Palestinian Authority pending successful reconciliatory efforts between the rival Fatah and Hamas national movements, the leaders of both groups – President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad of Fatah along with the exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal – are apparently stepping down and leaving ideological vacuums in their wake.  Israeli elections are now slated for late 2013, but the ruling Likud Party’s decision to hold their own primaries more than a year ahead of schedule in late January 2012 signals Prime Minister Netanyahu’s shrewd decision to bolster his own support before calling national elections later in the year and reorganizing the makeup of his own parliamentary coalition.  This preoccupation with domestic political machinations not only distracts these countries from their efforts to make peace but also emboldens extremists to hijack the agenda by acting opportunistically and counterproductively during times of stressful political transitions.

A third trend compounding the first two is the revolutionary dynamism toppling the old guard in North African and Middle Eastern states, the substitution of these dynastic dictatorships with Islamist political parties and the risks of civil, ethnic and international war that these processes invariably bring with them – in other words, the so-called Arab Spring turned Winter turned Spring again.  Already three Arab despots have been deposed by their people in North Africa, with the rulers of Syria and Yemen facing the same fate.  Tribal warfare was necessary in Libya, Syria and Yemen, but international war could just as easily result if border countries become involved – Egypt and Syria border Israel, for example, and could easily scapegoat Israel for their own failings as corrupt, authoritarian governments.  The governing coalitions emerging from recent elections in Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco also portend the rise of Islamic influence in democratizing countries, where previously secular autocrats banned all official Islamist organizations from openly engaging in party politics.  Revolutionary upheavals and the spread of Islamism spell instability and raise the odds of conflict in the region.

Fourthly and finally, Iranian intransigence in the Middle East continues to ratchet up tensions between itself and the United States, its Gulf Arab neighbours and Israel.  Iran’s nuclear program has garnered much of the attention in this regard, and as a new round of nuclear talks coalesce in Turkey, this will remain the focus of major concern for the US and many European countries.  As the US applies more unilateral sanctions on the Iranian economy and the Europeans initiate steps to boycott their oil exports, Iran has responded by threatening to blockade the most vital oil shipping lane in the world, the Strait of Hormuz.  Doubtful as this prospect may seem, the effect of this insecurity on oil prices has already had an effect.  In addition, Iran still exerts enormous influence over Syrian, Lebanese and Palestinian politics thanks to its support for terrorist proxies Hamas, Hezbollah, Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad while simultaneously leading the rejectionist front against any Arab-Israeli peace and inciting anti-regime activities in Shiite pockets throughout the Middle East.  All of this mischievous activity no doubt contributes to rising tensions, growing instability and increased risks of a Middle Eastern war.

The Syrian Kerfuffle

In the discourse of international politics, it is rarely warranted to label a situation a kerfuffle.  Syria is definitely one such kerfuffle.  The international community has failed to broker a solution to what has now become more than a year-long conflict in which the government of Bashar al-Assad is fighting for its very survival against an opposition movement loosely united by the desire to oust him.  Ever since February 2011 when some disenchanted young students in the southern city of Deraa spray painted anti-regime graffiti on the walls of their school, were arrested, and local residents protested against those arrests, the Syrian uprising has escalated to a point beyond any previous predictions.  The international community’s interest in and involvement with Syria’s difficulties has ebbed and flowed in the past year, with very little in terms of results to show for it.

For most of the summer of 2011, the world stood by and refused to engage in any serious action because the Syrian regime looked fairly stable, notwithstanding the demise of local autocrats in Tunisia and Egypt (and soon to be Libya and Yemen).  When the Muslim holy month of Ramadan (which began in August) arrived, the Saudi king symbolically spoke out in defence of the thousands of Sunni Muslims ostensibly being killed, imprisoned and displaced by the Shiite Alawite regime of Bashar al-Assad, followed in turn by several other Gulf Arab states.  Turkey, which had until the fall of 2011 gently prodded the Syrian government towards reforms, began to harden its stance as well, allowing Syrian refugees and opposition dissidents to operate from its territory.  The United Nations (UN) failed to pass any resolutions in the Security Council critical of al-Assad’s Syria because of Russian and Chinese vetoes, as well as Russian political and military support, while the Arab League rallied behind the opposition, albeit hesitantly and haphazardly.  Most recently, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has travelled to Syria, Russia and China to gain support for a new peace initiative, but the bloodshed continues.

It is interesting to note some of the comparisons between Syria in 2012 and similar events in the region.  The civil unrest in Yemen began in earnest in January 2011, but President Ali Abdullah Saleh was ultimately convinced to step down as the country teetered on the brink of civil war and after repeated attempts were derailed by delaying tactics because the Gulf Cooperation Council and the United States (US) were able to negotiate the power transfer from Saleh to the Yemeni ruling class in 2012, which was not so much a revolution as it was an evolution in the political and military elite’s composition.  In Libya, where the unrest began only slightly earlier than in Syria, Muammar Qaddafi was only defeated because a broad coalition of countries was assembled and ultimately enabled by the Arab League’s authorization of military force in the form of a no-fly zone, a UN Security Council resolution allowing for humanitarian protection and the combined military strength of key countries in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) as well as token Arab support from Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.  Finally, in Iraq in 1991, after the US-led coalition forces ousted Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, the southern Shiites and the northern Kurds rose up in revolt as a direct result of US encouragement, but the US was too afraid of the spectre of another fundamentalist Islamic regime neighbouring Iran to allow these revolts to succeed, a dynamic that is all too similar in the way the Syrian crisis is playing itself out.

The great power interests at work were alluded to earlier, but it is worth pausing for a moment and spelling them out in greater detail.  It is clear enough that US interests in the Middle East typically run parallel to those of the Western Europeans, at least in the post-Cold War and post-9/11 era, and are often seen as antithetical to those of Russia and China, the other permanent members and veto-holders of the UN Security Council.  Both Russia and China have saved Syria from condemnation in the UN and strongly defended its sovereign right to conduct its internal affairs with discretion while simultaneously denouncing Western imperialism and contradictory foreign policies.  Without Russian diplomatic cover and military support, it is seriously doubtful that the Syrian regime could have lasted this long, and as the only Mediterranean port in the Middle East friendly to Russian warships, this makes eminent sense from Russia’s geostrategic perspective.  China is also concerned about its long-term influence in the region, which is perhaps why it has thrown its weight behind Syria, but as the oil-rich countries of the Gulf and the collective countries of the Arab League condemn the atrocities in Syria, China’s position remains tenuous at best.  In addition, regional stability and the economical transport of energy supplies through the Middle East are in China’s direct national interest since they keep commodity prices low, something which cannot be said of Russia’s growing status as a petro-state and an energy superpower.

On a deeper level, the regional interests battling for supremacy in the Syrian kerfuffle are also scarcely as evident and troublesome as they are in this particular case.  Backing Syria from day one have been the Iranian government and its Revolutionary Guards Corps, the militant resistance movement Hezbollah in Lebanon, both of which have provided military training and assistance, and tacit support from the Palestinian movement Hamas until early 2012.  Weak neighbours have also tacitly supported the Syrian regime because they have little choice; they are either directly under its sphere of influence (Lebanon), economically tied to it via imports for their own survival (Jordan) or so penetrated by cross-border clandestine activity that their own tenuous domestic stability would be threatened by a rebuke of any kind (Iraq).  Like Hamas, Turkey formerly considered Syria a strategic asset but has come to the eventual conclusion that the regime cannot be permitted to survive in its current form, even going so far as to host Syrian opposition gatherings and international conferences with the goal of supporting these anti-regime rebels and toppling the al-Assad power structure.  The Saudis and the Gulf countries have been calling recently for much more action on the part of the international community in terms of arming and financing the Syrian National Council and the Free Syrian Army, with 70 countries recognizing these groups as the official representatives of the Syrian people and pledging concrete support for them at the most recent ‘Friends of Syria’ conference in Istanbul in April 2012.  Israel has managed to stay out of the fray for the most part, and other countries have treaded very carefully.

And so the bloodshed continues, more than a full year after the Arab Spring-inspired revolts first began.  The lack of a credible response to the Syrian situation is not directly attributable to any group of actors or individuals, nor can it be chalked up to a failure of the international system of states to act in the interests of the international community.  The UN Security Council was designed with vetoes in mind so as to take into account the collective interests of the world’s post-war great powers.  Regional organizations like the Arab League are also powerless to act forcefully since they are just symbolic expressions of the once-revolutionary ideals that pan-Arabism espoused nearly a half-century ago.  Since unilateral interventions would be suicidal for regional countries and downright disastrous for stronger ones like the US, a multilateral option or an internal revolution would seem to be the best solutions.  But as we have seen up until now, these have only been even more spectacular failures.

The Arab League: More than the Sum of its Parts?

Of all the intergovernmental regional groupings, the Arab League is most likely the least effective.  Since the organization was founded in 1945, the League of Arab States has skillfully steered clear of taking any decisive action on virtually every international conflict in the region.  Except for the Arab-Israeli conflict, on which popular opinion in every member-state remains extremely pro-Palestinian and anti-Israeli for obvious reasons, the Arab League has sought to avoid any divisive action within the Arab community.  The League even managed to sit out the ‘Arab Cold War’ of the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s, an international struggle between nationalist republics and Islamist monarchies in the region that paralleled to some degree the bipolar Cold War between the world’s two superpowers.  In this sense, the Arab League’s institutional weakness was its strength: irrelevance ensured survival.

Fast forward nearly 70 years to the ongoing Arab revolutions reshaping the modern Middle East.  It is ironic that in spite of being composed almost exclusively of autocratic and dictatorial regimes, the Arab League has taken bold and courageous steps in support of mass protests and popular uprisings against unpopular leaders and their governments in the Arab World.  Even more, the Arab League may finally be playing a positive role after decades of irrelevance.  In fact, one key sign that the League is acting in the collective interest of the public rather than in the much narrower self-interest of its member-states’ ruling elites is when the state threatened by internal upheaval lashes out at the Arab League, usually for criticizing the troubled state in the first place.

In Libya Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi described the no-fly zone eventually passed by the Arab League in March 2011 as a ‘colonialist plot’ by the West – in concert with the League, of course – to steal Libya’s oil.  His son and once heir-apparent Seif al-Islam strangely dismissed both ‘Arabs’ and the Arab League, mentioning that Libya would rather rely on African and Asian migrant workers than fellow Arabs.  The League had suspended Libya’s membership earlier in February, laying the groundwork for a more robust United Nations (UN) involvement in the pariah state’s increasingly bloody crackdown and authorization of NATO intervention in the eventual ouster of Qaddafi.  Arab League action in Libya was arguably made easier by its geographical location, sandwiched between two post-revolutionary states, Tunisia and Egypt, and relatively isolated from the rest of the Arab World in the sweeping deserts of North Africa.

The situation in Syria has garnered the most headlines in recent months for President Bashar al-Assad’s handling of an even more deadly and destabilizing civil revolt now approaching a year in duration.  Here the Arab League has waffled considerably more than in Libya, which is understandable given Syria’s traditional role as the lynchpin in an intricate web of Middle Eastern alliances and a frontline state in the never-ending war against Israel.  After a UN Security Council resolution condemning Syria was vetoed by Russia and China in October 2011, the Arab League in November suspended Syria’s membership and imposed sanctions on the regime, but stopped short of calling for foreign intervention.  All along, Assad had accused the League of promoting an international (Western-led, lest we forget) conspiracy against his regime, repeating that the Arab states were mere stooges and that the League was just a platform in this foreign-led, foreign-funded effort to undermine Syrian sovereignty and diminish Arab pride.

In late December, after months of diplomatic wrangling, Syria agreed to allow League monitors into the country to monitor its implementation of an Arab League peace plan to resolve the crisis, an ambitious move for the regional organization that ultimately failed and unfortunately served only to prolong the bloodshed.  The monitoring effort and peace plan fell apart in late January 2012 after several Arab Gulf states pulled out of the mission and recalled their ambassadors from Damascus.  A second UN Security Council resolution critical of Assad, this one explicitly backed by the Arab League, was also vetoed by the Russian and Chinese delegations in early February.  Meanwhile, Assad continued to lambast the League by dismissing its oil-rich Arab Gulf members as countries lacking culture, scoffing that they could “rent and import some history with their money, but money does not make nations and cultures.”  The Arab League has recently called for a joint Arab-UN peacekeeping mission, but few are predicting its success.

More recently, the Syrian civil war has accelerated in scope and severity.  The Arab League and many of its member-states attended the Friends of Syria conference in Tunisia last February, along with representatives from dozens of Western and otherwise interested countries, in an attempt to boost the Syrian National Council’s status and effectiveness as the officially recognized opposition.  Amid Western fears of al-Qaeda infiltration into the Syrian rebel movement, the rebellion’s own inability to crystallize behind a solid front and the risks inherent in arming an unidentified group of anti-regime dissidents, no major breakthroughs occurred at the first Friends of Syria conference.  The Saudi representative made an especially public spectacle of walking out in disgust at its inaction while at the same time calling for arming the Syrian opposition.  As the second such conference approaches this March in Turkey and the man-made humanitarian disasters in Syria become more widely known to the world, one can only hope for progress in terms of uniting the opposition and ending Bashar al-Assad’s iron grip on power.

The Arab states of the Gulf have their own regional grouping, a more exclusive club known as the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).  Composed of oil-rich sheikhdoms (except for Yemen), this organization has a mixed record as a positive player in the region and has acted more in the collective interest of regional stability and Sunni Arab dominance.  For example, the GCC mediated the transfer of power in Yemen to promote stability in the Gulf from 2011–2012 as President Ali Abdullah Saleh faced overwhelming opposition in the streets, insurgencies in the North, secession in the South, and several other threats to the state’s unity.  On the other hand, several Gulf Arab states effectively invaded Shiite-majority Bahrain in March 2011 in a blatantly anti-democratic operation to clamp down on widespread protests and ensure the survival of the fellow Sunni al-Khalifa monarchy.

Though the GCC clearly has a mixed record on its own turf, its key member-states (mainly Saudi Arabia and Qatar) are today the leading forces in the Arab League for orderly resolutions of Arab revolutions.  Tunisia and Egypt transitioned to post-dictatorial regimes with little to no external influence.  Libya and Yemen, however, necessitated prolonged intervention by the Arab League (and GCC, respectively).  As populist movements in the Middle East topple authoritarian governments like dominoes, and the Syrian crisis drags on despite Arab League efforts, this regional organization’s next challenge is imminent.  Whether the Arab League continues its proactive policies or reverts to the irrelevance of the past remains to be seen.

Prying Eye: Putin’s Return to the Presidency

“Most of the violations we see happen at the local level.”  Liliya Shibanova, director of the independent election-observer group Golos (Voice), led the charge within Russia condemning the parliamentary elections of December 4, 2011 as anything but free and fair.

In the days and weeks following the vote, mass protests the likes of which Russia has not seen since the fall of the Soviet Union materialized in no fewer than 60 cities across the country, from Vladivostok in the East to St. Petersburg in the West.

At least 50,000 police and riot troops were deployed in Moscow alone ahead of one “For Fair Elections” rally on December 10, of which several such rallies – some bigger, some smaller – followed.

Turnout for this particular rally ranged from a government-sanctioned figure of 25,000 (meaning 2 riot police for every 1 protestor) to what protest organizers have pegged as high as 150,000.  These events are organized by a coalition of opposition parties and activists to protest ballot stuffing and vote rigging in Russia.

Popular dissatisfaction with what many perceive to be a growing tendency towards autocratic rule and endemic corruption in Russia – combined with the parliamentary election’s actual results – could boil over after presidential elections scheduled for March 4, 2012.

These elections saw the dominant United Russia party’s percentage of the popular vote fall from 64% to 50%.  Numbers like these would still be grossly inflated when considering the rampant reports of voter fraud by independent elections monitors both within and outside of Russia, but the numbers would still grant Vladimir Putin a solid majority in parliament with 238 seats in the 450-member legislative body, or 53% of them.

Gennady Zyukanov’s Communist party is the second-largest,and is clearly Putin’s favoured political partner among the parties, jumping from 12% to 19% in support since the 2007 parliamentary elections and carrying 92 seats in all.

Ever since assuming power in 2000, Putin has engineered his way to ever-increasing power over the domestic political environment and control of key officials at all levels of government, military and security services, media networks and propaganda, state-owned enterprises, and so on.

After handing the reins of the presidency in 2008 to his self-appointed successor, Dmitry Medvedev, and orchestrating the machinations of political life in Russia behind the scenes as prime minister (a post created by Putin and for Putin to circumvent constitutional limits on consecutive presidential terms), the former KGB officer announced his intention to run for a third term as president on September 24, 2011.

Although plotting a ‘constitutional’ return to power since 2008, this September pronouncement marked the official beginning of Putin’s return to the presidency and a decade of increasingly authoritarian rule.

Perhaps even more scandalous than Putin’s inevitable transition from prime minister to president is the manner in which the electoral process itself is already skewed in his favour.

News coverage routinely parades Putin’s accomplishments over the past 12 years and fosters a personality cult around him while simultaneously slandering his presidential opponents in the process, all of whom have struggled to top 10% in recent opinion polls (as opposed to Putin, who comfortably maintains 50–60% approval ratings).

Added to that is the pervasive anti-American tone and Cold War-style rhetoric at the heart of Putin’s campaign, where opposition candidates are portrayed as nothing more than lackeys of the United States and Russia’s societal ills are blamed on the American desire to “weaken Russia and push it back into the chaos that followed the Soviet collapse.”

Putin has even used foreign policy issues as political leverage for the domestic elections by insinuating that the U.S.-led ballistic missile shield in Eastern Europe is an attempt to make vassals, not partners, out of the Russians.

The foreign policy card, in fact, is being played by Putin in many ways to signal his unabashed certainty in victory at the polls on March 4.  Apart from the ballistic missile row with the United States, Russia has been flexing its foreign policy muscles in Europe, Asia and the Middle East in a way that is almost never seen in countries unsure of their next governing party – in other words, in multiparty democracies with competitive, free and fair elections.

Cold spells in Eastern Europe and sanctions on Iranian energy exports to Europe have increased demand (and consequently, price) for Russian oil and gas to Europe, a reality readily exploited by Russia as their pipeline networks stand poised to transport these supplies from their vast reserves to the European states that need them most.

Russia continues to jockey for power with China in the Central Asian republics while ramping up operations on the Eastern Siberia-Pacific Ocean pipeline, a conduit that increases Russia’s leverage with energy-hungry East Asian states as state-run corporations manipulate the flow of oil in an easterly or westerly direction to maximize raw profits.

And in the Middle East, Russia stymies Western progress on nuclear negotiations with Iran and vetoes any prospect of Arab League-United Nations intervention in a brutal Syrian crackdown.

These foreign policy adventures are undertaken with a bravado that reinforces the impression that Putin will easily win the presidency and carry the policies of the past 12 years forward into the next 12.  It is precisely this air of smugness on the part of Putin and the United Russia party that betrays any sense of democratic governance in Russia.

Dissent manifests itself in many ways, with online activism rising in intensity as activist bloggers and social media sites express their frustration with the current system.

Already, some of the 200,000 cameras installed in 90,000 polling stations across the country to monitor the March 4 elections have been hacked in distributed denial of service attacks.

If this is any indication of the population’s growing discontent with Putin’s authoritarian style, expect this election to be the catalyst for an ever-more broad-based, ever-more technologically-savvy opposition politics in Russia.

Imagine a World with no United Nations

It isn’t hard to do, is it?  This international, intergovernmental organization is the butt of many jokes, countless criticisms and far too many polemical diatribes to even begin to count.  It’s ineffective.  It’s overly bureaucratized.  It spends money irresponsibly.  It’s a safe haven for tyrannical dictators.  And the list goes on.  So let’s devise a little thought experiment: imagine a world with no United Nations (UN), and think about what would happen.  Would democracy and human rights more easily triumph abroad?  Would international hostilities subside long enough for warring neighbours to finally make peace with one another?  And what about famine, disease, poverty, development, and the laundry list of related issues that continue to plague this planet?  Wouldn’t exactly disappear, now would they?

But this hypothetical scenario goes too far, you might be thinking.  Just because these problems would still exist in our imaginary world doesn’t mean that the UN actually helps to solve any of them in the real world.  Right?  Wrong.  Complaints against the 193-member body often emphasize the shortcomings of the international system at the structural level, not the weaknesses of this particular organization.  When the UN fails to deliver results or provide services in any particular situation, the root causes for these failures are almost always found outside of the UN framework.  To see how, just ask yourself what you would have changed within the United Nations and why in order to solve the many problems of the world.  If your answer requires that states surrender their sovereignty, try again.  If self-interest can no longer motivate human behaviour, think twice.  If you think that inherently evil forces like capitalism, nationalism and imperialism must all be abolished in order for the UN to function properly, good luck!

The point is simply that an organization like the UN can provide plenty of easily overlooked public goods while simultaneously being blamed for faults not of its own making.  We’ll consider these in turn, but not before laying out the historical rationale for the UN’s creation.  Most people know that the UN was preceded by the League of Nations after World War I and that it was abandoned on the eve of World War II as a fiasco of epic proportions, but not as many know why the League failed so spectacularly.  Of the many reasons, perhaps three are the most important: membership was not universal (an idealistic America, Communist Russia and defeated Germany all remained outside of the League for different reasons while European colonialism made a mockery of the notion of sovereign equality among nations), violations of international law by member-states were not punished (imperial Japan invaded Manchuria, Fascist Italy invaded Abyssinia, and Nazi Germany invaded the Rhineland with no significant opposition), and as a result of these first two conditions, the League of Nations’ legitimacy, authority and coercive capabilities gradually eroded as well.  

In 1945 the victorious Allied Powers devised and implemented several organizations designed to bolster the liberal democratic postwar order: the Bretton Woods institutions facilitated economic cooperation (through the IMF or International Monetary Fund, the World Bank Group and later of course through the Marshall Plan) while the United Nations aimed to achieve political cooperation in the realms of international peace and security.  To avoid the mistakes of the past, decolonization was encouraged and membership was granted to every independent country in the General Assembly.  In addition to this forum, a Security Council composed of the Second World War’s surviving great powers was inaugurated that wielded supreme legislative and executive powers to act authoritatively and resolve international disputes between them.  Consequently, the legitimacy and coercive authority so clearly lacking in the League of Nations finds expression in the UN Security Council.  While this UN system has its own disadvantages to be sure and reforms are urgently needed after nearly 70 years of existence, it is nonetheless a qualitative improvement over its defunct predecessor.

So the United Nations is an improvement, but is it still better than nothing?  This brings us to the many positive contributions of the UN to the international system today.  First of all, the spread of democratic governance structures and human rights norms throughout the modern state system must in part be attributable to the United Nations’ liberalizing influence on the values inculcated in its members.  Then there is the indisputable reduction of and mitigation in the number of international conflicts worldwide, thanks to the UN’s peacekeeping troops, peacemaking efforts and peace building activities.  Add to that all of the developmental work and technological assistance that the United Nations furnishes to still developing countries through its programmes (like the UN Development Programme and the UN World Food Programme), its funds (UNICEF, the UN Children’s Fund and UNFPA, the UN Population Fund), its specialized agencies (UNESCO, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and WHO, the World Health Organization) and its related organizations (IAEA, the International Atomic Energy Agency and WTO, the World Trade Organization).  If all of this hasn’t yet convinced you, consider the benefits of liberal institutionalism as a theory of international relations: lower transaction costs, fewer barriers to communication, higher levels of trust and policy coordination between state actors, routine exchanges of information, regularized forums for the airing of grievances, possible spill over into parallel realms of cooperation, the progressive liberalization of repressive regimes, and so on.

Having said all that, any economist will tell you that there is no such thing as a free lunch.  The United Nations does actually cost a lot – and it’s not even edible.  As in any bureaucracy, some waste and some inefficiency is ultimately inevitable, but this does not discount the benefits mentioned above nor does it invalidate the liberal idealist vision at the core of this organization.  Issues are far too easily politicized, especially in the Security Council, with Russia and China refusing to intervene in friendly dictatorships like Syria where human rights are egregiously violated and democratic uprisings ruthlessly suppressed.  And as a tool of its biggest, richest and most powerful member-states (a necessary condition for an organization funded by and dependent on these countries for its existence), the UN remains far less formidable than the total sum of its parts.  Be that as it may, it is the most visible manifestation of the liberal democratic international order that we have today, and barring the problems of international anarchical relations, national irrational hostilities and individual self-interested behaviour, the United Nations organization is doing one hell of a job. 

Are Palestinians and Israelis Still Fighting?

While much of the international media’s limited attention span has focused almost exclusively on the popular uprisings in the Middle East and the pro-democracy protests on the Arab street, another longstanding problem in the region has been overshadowed and overlooked.  With roots going arguably as far back as the First World War, the nearly century-long conflict between Palestinians and Israelis has typically dominated the discourse on security and stability in the Middle East.  Recent developments on the Palestinian-Israeli front have made it increasingly likely that a fresh wave of conflict is likely to erupt in the near future, an eventuality that needs to be considered seriously and addressed responsibly if needless bloodshed is to be spared and a long-sought peace is to be achieved.

What follows is a brief analysis of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, along with its main actors and central issues.   The purpose of this exposition is to inform and educate, not to persuade or proselytize.  Naturally, a piece of this length will neglect some salient aspects of the conflict, but a brief introduction to the topic is necessarily truncated.  While recognizing that human beings are fallible creatures whose written works are naturally hampered by their uniquely subjective perspectives, this article still strives to be as objective, unbiased and neutral as possible.  With those caveats in mind, the problem of peace between Palestinians and Israelis can be explored and the possibilities for progress between these two intransigent protagonists can be examined.

Perhaps it is best to begin in the present day and with the main actors on the Palestinian side.  As it stands, the Palestinians are largely divided between two opposing camps: Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Fatah in the West Bank.  While dozens of peripheral players are involved, these two are paramount.  Hamas won legislative elections in the Palestinian Territories in 2006, but international donors withdrew funding for the Palestinian Authority (the government) because of Hamas’ refusal to renounce violence and recognize Israel.  In a bloody 5-day civil war the following year, Hamas seized Gaza and expelled Fatah forces to the West Bank where they remain today.  Hamas and other Islamic radical movements in Gaza adhere to a religious fundamentalist worldview while Fatah and other secular nationalist groups in the West Bank have adopted a more Western-friendly policy orientation.  Since 2007, Fatah has regained control of the Palestinian Authority and wavered between engaging in peace talks with Israel and reconciliation talks with Hamas but to no avail on either front.

Divisions in Israeli society are no less pronounced than with the Palestinians.  While Israel is a thriving democracy, the most recent configuration in its steady stream of coalition governments can explain much of its recent behaviour.  In 2009, the Likud Party returned to power after a decade in the opposition by courting right-wing political parties.  With its hawkish, messianic and jingoistic worldview, the settler movement has found ample support on the ideological right of the Israeli political spectrum.  When the Israeli government is dependent on courting favour from pro-settler political parties for its survival, peace overtures to the Palestinians become increasingly complex and convoluted.  Israel has been forced to choose either domestic political stability or progress in peace talks with Palestinians.  Palestinians, for their part, have elevated the issue of settlements to one of primary importance in setting preconditions for further talks, an equally detrimental move towards peace which neglects other critical issues like borders, refugees, Jerusalem, water rights, economic arrangements, and so on.

In addition, the role of external actors cannot realistically be ignored.  The United States, the principal benefactor for both the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli government, exercises influence for better or worse disproportionate to its direct involvement in the conflict.  Other great powers like Great Britain, France and Russia, and international organizations like the United Nations, the European Union and the Quartet on the Middle East, have also weighed in on the conflict’s dynamics with pomp and circumstance unheard of in any other ongoing conflict anywhere else in the world.  Even regional powers have begun to play bigger and more relevant roles, with Egypt being central ever since it signed the first Arab-Israeli peace treaty in 1979, Turkey maintaining elite-level military and diplomatic ties, and Iran cultivating ever more strategic relationships with fellow rejectionists Hamas, Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Syrian state.  While these actors fall outside the scope of this brief overview, they are nevertheless extremely important since any sustainable peace process needs their involvement.

With President Obama coming to office in January 2009, renewed emphasis was placed on resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.  Although the Palestinian Authority and Israel began talks shortly thereafter aimed at establishing a viable Palestinian state living in peaceful coexistence beside a secure Israel, both sides made excruciatingly little progress.  The Israeli government remains unable to compromise on the conflicting demands of Palestinian negotiators and Jewish settlers, and Hamas continues to use violence against Israeli civilians and delay reconciliation with Fatah, both of which remain inimical to the faltering peace process.  Problems internal to the political processes of both actors are unavoidable issues that will only increase in difficulty and complexity as time goes on, whether it be among Palestinians living under the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank or Hamas rule in the Gaza Strip, or even among Israelis living within the state’s June 1967 borders or in East Jerusalem and the settlements in the West Bank.  The sooner this problem is resolved, the better.

Recent events have only served to heighten tension and mistrust between Palestinians and Israelis.  A Palestinian terrorist’s cold-blooded murder of a Jewish family in the West Bank settlement of Itamar, increased rocket and mortar salvos from Gaza landing in southern Israeli cities accompanied by retaliatory missile strikes by the Israeli Air Force, and an explosive device detonated at a busy bus stop in Jerusalem that killed at least one person and injured dozens more.  These localized events have only added more intensity to the increasingly globalized diplomatic contest that Palestinians have been waging for international recognition.  With several Latin American countries recognizing Palestinian statehood in the past few months, and President Obama expressing his hopes to the United Nations in September of 2010 that an independent Palestine would emerge in a year’s time, the political pressure is building for concerted diplomatic action.  By September of 2011, political and economic institutions gradually assembled by the Palestinian Authority over the past few years with the help of international donors will be complete, and an opportunity for international legitimacy of the Palestinian cause will present itself.  Unfortunately, peace talks between Palestinians and Israelis show no signs of resuming.  If Palestinians achieve international recognition without a simultaneous reconciliation with Hamas and resolution of the conflict with Israel, the consequences may not be self-determination and statehood, but a resumption of conflict with a high probability of violence, bloodshed, and possibly all-out war.

Referendums and Secessions in World Politics

As recent events in Sudan have shown, internationally endorsed referendums can be powerful political tools for achieving sovereign statehood and national self-determination.  Just over a month ago from January 9 – 15, 2011, southern Sudanese citizens flocked to polling stations all over the country to cast their ballots in support of a referendum advocating secession from the North and the creation of what is likely to become the newest member of the United Nations, the Republic of South Sudan.  This referendum should be seen as a long overdue policy solution for one of the most dysfunctional states ever seen on the world stage.  Ruled by colonial administrators for centuries, Sudan officially achieved independence in 1956 but has been at war with itself for nearly five out of the six decades it has existed.  Millions have died as a result of fighting, starvation and illness, and millions more have been displaced and made refugees in the process.  According to the terms of a peace treaty struck between the North and South of the country in 2005, as well as the results of the referendum which that very same treaty enabled, secession will ideally start a new chapter in the blood-soaked, conflict-ridden history of Sudan.

The basic idea behind the use of referendums to decide whether or not the people of a certain territory wish to govern themselves and become an independent political entity goes back to the heyday of World War I and the emergence of Wilsonian Liberalism in the United States.  American President Woodrow Wilson declared in his now famous ‘Fourteen Points’ that the defeated European empires were morally obligated to grant the nations within their imperial domains the right to determine their own destinies, a principle also known as national self-determination.  While the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires gave way to many newly sovereign states, the Western European imperial machines maintained their overseas domains for decades more.  This concept was not then as closely linked to democracy and popular participation as it is today, especially outside of the West.  It was only with the end of the Cold War, when liberal democracy seemed set to devour all other ideological orientations and Francis Fukuyama famously proclaimed that ‘The End of History’ had arrived, that referendums were given directly to the people to democratically legitimize the doctrine of self-determination.

Self-determination is the freedom of the people of a given area to determine their own political status, but what exactly is a referendum?  Simply put, it is the process of referring a political question to the general electorate.  When this political question involves national self-determination and secession, international politics can become very interesting indeed.  The Republic of South Sudan is just the latest case in which an organized political community invoked their right to self-determination via referendum to peacefully and legitimately secede from a country without the need to wage a bloody and costly war for independence.  More than 30 new countries have been recognized since 1990 at a rate of 3 every 2 years, most of which owe their existence to the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the Balkanization of Yugoslavia.  Of the remaining dozen-or-so, only a handful achieved independence by using national referendums, but the trend is clearly growing.  The degree of news media saturation, the ease with which graphic imagery and sensitive information travels the world’s telecommunications networks, and the moderating influence of international public opinion makes violence an increasingly untenable tool for achieving political sympathy or sovereignty in today’s day and age.

Even when referendums were not used, it was either the support of the mobilized masses or the acceptance of top-down political processes initiated by national leaders which legitimized secessionist tendencies.  Popular protests in support of German unity following the Berlin Wall’s fall led invariably to the reunification of East and West in 1990, but no referendum was needed.  Decades of destabilization and conflict pushed the North and South Yemeni governments toward unification in 1990 as well, but no referendum was used here either.  Czechoslovakia’s fragmentation in 1993 into the Czech and Slovak Republics was made possible via parliamentary procedure amid fairly divided public opinion, but again, no referendum.  In an interesting counter-example, the Québécois held two referendums to secede from Canada, both of which failed to achieve independence in 1980 and 1995 – although 49.42% voted in favour in 1995, a result which could have created a new North American country if tens of thousands more votes out of millions would have gone the other way.

The first successful use of the national referendum to attain secession and sovereignty occurred not in Europe or the Americas, as some may have expected, but in Africa.  After warring for 30 years with Ethiopian forces, separatists held a national referendum in 1993 to establish the new state of Eritrea.  Another long-running quest for independence is that of East Timor, a Southeast Asian country which declared independence from Portugal in 1975 only to be annexed immediately by Indonesia.  Decades later, in an internationally recognized referendum sponsored by the United Nations, East Timor voted for and gained sovereign state status in 2002.  Even Montenegro – a state with less than 700,000 people – held a national referendum in 2006 to officially secede from Serbia, but Kosovo – a state with almost 2 million people – passed multiple referendums since the 1990s on top of unilaterally declaring statehood before it achieved comparable results.  The fact that more than 100 countries still refuse to recognize Kosovo testifies to the highly political and overly politicized nature of national referendums on secession and independence.

Long gone are the days of imperial adventurism and colonial conquest, but so too are the more recent days when these empires collapsed and waves of decolonization spawned new states all over the world.  In this imperfect world, some states are created more dysfunctionally than others.  Rather than resorting to the use or threat of force, civilized political discourse provides for the option of ‘referring a political question to the general electorate’ – also known as holding a referendum.  For now the results of Sudan’s referendum are unknown, but most analysts concur that its future effects are likely to be greater tolerance for minorities and greater cooperation between rival factions in the region.  Other countries in conflict-prone areas with secessionist movements will no doubt be watching unfolding events as a result of this most recent referendum closely and carefully.  If needless bloodshed can be avoided and democratic aspirations fulfilled, more referendums may be in store for 2011 after all.

Unreal States

192 countries are formally recognized by the United Nations as member-states while dozens more continue to struggle for sovereignty, self-determination and independence to this very day.  These quasi-states, illegal breakaway states or ‘unreal’ states are in many respects fully functioning countries with relatively autonomous populations, territories and governments.  Some wave their own flags, issue their own passports, print their own currencies, and arm their own militaries in the complete confidence that the international community will sooner or later finally recognize and legitimize them.  Until that fateful day arrives, these unreal states continue to wage their wars for recognition and legitimacy through less peaceful means.  The fabled homeland, or motherland, has become so deeply ingrained in their national psyches that many are willing to die struggling to liberate it for their children than to live complacently without achieving national statehood.  This phenomenon of unreal states threatens to undo the status quo in many conflict-ridden countries and challenges the increasingly fragile foundation of peace and stability in the modern world of the 21st century.

No continent on Earth wields a monopoly over secessionist movements or breakaway states.  A case in point is Canada, where the province of Québec nearly passed a referendum on secession in 1995.  Even the United States of America can boast its own fringe movements, ideologues calling for secession of some states from the federal government and invoking the ‘true ideals’ of the American Revolution.  Mainly, though, our attention is drawn to those lines haphazardly drawn on a map, those more-or-less arbitrary borders resulting from age-old ceasefires in parts of Europe, Africa, Asia and the Middle East.  Many of these borders, the results of imperial adventurism, were designed to be dysfunctional in order to promote structural inequalities and bolster colonial authorities.  Most importantly, however, many of the underlying causes of conflict in these regions remain unresolved.  If the inherent instability created by this state of affairs is allowed to persist, needless violence and bloodshed are virtually guaranteed.

If the discussion so far has been too abstract, here are some concrete cases to make the point much more clearly.  Ever since Spain relinquished colonial control of the Western Sahara in 1975, the Sahrawi Arabs (now in exile in Algeria) have been fighting for independence from Morocco.  Paradoxically, both sides in this conflict have received recognition from dozens of other Arab, Islamic and African states in favour of their own respective claims to this territory.  Sudan, a country known for the decade-long tragedy in Darfur and the International Criminal Court’s issuing of an arrest warrant for President Omar al-Bashir, is gearing up for two referendums in early 2011.  One will attempt to resolve the longest-running African civil war by allowing the South to decide to secede from the North, and the other will determine which side the oil-rich Abyei province, a historic gateway between North and South, will join.  In conflict-torn Somalia, a country where tribal warlords run rampant and African Union and United Nations peacekeepers struggle to hold onto a few city blocks in the capital of Mogadishu, Somaliland lies forgotten and ignored.  Having nominally declared independence for a few days in 1960 and once again in 1991, Somaliland considers itself completely autonomous from the rest of Somalia and can boast a functioning albeit fragile government to prove it.

Africa is not alone in dealing with this problem of unreal states.  In the north of Spain and southwest of France, Basque nationalists have been agitating for independence since the late-19th century.  After al-Qaeda’s train bombs exploded in Madrid in 2004 just days before national elections, killing 200 and wounding 2 000, the Spanish Prime Minister immediately suspected Basque separatists.  Transnistria, a Soviet-era relic of a republic less than 1 million people strong that ekes out its existence on Moldova’s eastern border by trafficking illegal drugs and weaponry, can raise a superbly equipped army 20 000 soldiers strong in a matter of weeks.  It also fought a war of independence with Moldova in 1992 and has since operated as an autonomous entity.  The Balkan Wars of the 1990s similarly followed the breakup of the Soviet Union and led to the dissolution of Yugoslavia into half a dozen successor states.  Kosovo, a secessionist state within the Yugoslav successor state of Serbia, recently made a declaration of independence in 2008 which was upheld by the International Court of Justice in 2010.

Continuing eastwards, Turkey has its own problems in Northern Cyprus – a virtual annexation in 1974 unrecognized by any state besides for itself – and with its sizeable Kurdish minority in the East.  Tens of millions of Kurds dispersed throughout the border regions of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran dream of an independent Kurdistan.  The problem of unreal states emboldened by the Cold War’s termination is especially acute in the Caucasus region.  Armenia and Azerbaijan remain in a technical state of war over Nagorno-Karabakh, which is practically an Armenian exclave in Azeri territory, while Georgia tries to reassert control over its own breakaway provinces of South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Adjara.  Georgia managed to rein the Adjarans in as of 2005, but fought a nasty border war with Russian forces over the status of the remaining two in 2008 which has failed to lead to a change in their status.  Russia itself wages war of a different kind – often bloody repression – against Muslim separatists in its southern regions of Ingushetiya, Chechnya and Dagestan.

The list goes on, from Palestine in Israel to Baluchistan in Pakistan and Iran, from Kashmir in India and Pakistan to the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka, from the Tibetan, Taiwanese and Muslim Uyghur nationalist groups in China to others unfortunately not covered in this short article.  The bigger point is this: the potential for conflict exists, and the consequences of that conflict once triggered are dire.  The problems of secessionist nationalism and unreal states are not epiphenomenal; they are here to stay.  The solution to these problems, however, is simple: say goodbye to unreal states by making them real.