Sarkozy wrong

States should only care about the interests of their own citizens

There is much to admire about Nicolas Sarkozy, France’s energetic president. But what he said to the Russian president after ‘mediating’ in Russo-Georgian war was simply wrong:

“It’s perfectly normal that Russia would want to defend the interests both of Russians in Russia and Russophones outside Russia,” Sarkozy said. [AFP, emphasis added]

There is no question that Russia is entitled to defend the interests of its citizens in Russia or anywhere else on and over the planet. But to extend this to Russian-speaking people around the world would be to strike at the fundamentals of the international system. Now France does attach importance to Francophones—allegedly going to the extent of abetting a genocidal regime in Rwanda to keep Anglophones at bay—but that’s no reason for it to become some sort of an international norm.

Would Mr Sarkozy appreciate Saudi Arabia intervening in French riots on behalf of Arabic speakers? Clearly not—during his earlier job as interior minister, he created special institutions to ensure that what happens in France stays in France.

Related Post: French Sikhs are French

American pundits show signs of irony deficiency

No realpolitik please, we’re Americans

Many American geopolitical pundits are behaving just like their economic counterparts. If the latter believed that a long period of growth and low inflation meant the demise of the business cycle, the former convinced themselves that the long period of relative peace between the world’s great powers indicated the “end of history”. Then facts intervened.

In today’s Washington Post, Ronald D. Asmus and Richard Holbrooke argue that “this moment could well mark the end of an era in Europe during which realpolitik and spheres of influence were supposed to be replaced by new cooperative norms and a country’s right to choose its own path.” Perhaps it was the supposition that was wrong. They go on to argue that the US needs “to counter Russian pressure on its neighbors, especially Ukraine—most likely the next target in Moscow’s efforts to create a new sphere of hegemony.” They pull off a remarkable feat—they condemn realpolitik and advocate it. Of course, they only condemn realpolitik when it is practised by the Russians.

And in another essay in the same newspaper, Robert Kagan (John McCain’s foreign policy advisor) writes that “Russia’s attack on sovereign Georgian territory marked the official return of history, indeed to an almost 19th-century style of great-power competition, complete with virulent nationalisms, battles for resources, struggles over spheres of influence and territory, and even — though it shocks our 21st-century sensibilities — the use of military power to obtain geopolitical objectives.” It is, of course, understandable that Mr Kagan should use the phrase “return of history” as that’s the title of his recent book. But it is amusing to note that “the use of military power to obtain geopolitical objectives” in the 21st century should be shocking.

The irony deficiency is bipartisan. The New York Times reports: “Michael McFaul, a Russia expert at Stanford who is advising Barack Obama, also views Russia as a premodern, sphere-of-influence power. He attributes Russia’s hostility to further NATO expansion less to geostrategic calculations than to what he says is Mr. Putin’s cold war mentality. The essential Russian calculus, he says, is, “Anything we can do to weaken the U.S. is good for Russia.”” So what is NATO expansion but the Russian calculus in reverse?

But it is Dick Cheney who takes the cake. “Russian aggression must not go unanswered,” he told Mikheil Saakashvili, Georgia’s president, who had launched the war, “and that its continuation would have serious consequences for its relations with the US.” Surely, Mr Cheney can’t be thinking that the consequences of answering it will be any less serious?

Update: It’s spreading! The FT catches it now.

Russia’s behaviour in the southern Caucasus is a reversion to spheres of influence and balance of power politics. If Moscow really believes the west is behaving the same way, that is the sort of difference a new strategic partnership with the EU would resolve. This way, it will never get one. In fact, Russia will never get to where it wants to be in the 21st century by behaving like a 19th-century power. [FT]

Russia vs Georgia, outside the Olympics

And the dubious wisdom of provoking a stronger, aggressive adversary

A military misadventure under the cover of the Olympics did happen. But in South Ossetia (where?), a Russian majority region in Georgia.

Georgia, more than any other former Soviet republic has been the site of a geopolitical tussle between Russia and the West. In the military space, the Georgian armed forces have, on the one hand, have drawn into a close relationship with the United States. Russian troops, on the other hand, have used their presence in South Ossetia (where they are peacekeepers in the conflict between the South Ossetian rebel militia and the Georgian armed forces) to harass Georgia.

Now, Georgians would rightly have a lot to complain about this unhappy state of affairs. But considering he has at most 30,000 troops and political support from the West, what could have caused Mikhail Saakashvili, the Georgian president, to provoke a war with Russia? The Georgians might have calculated that they would take Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian capital, cut off the tunnel and the sole road link that connects to Russia, under cover of the Olympics before the Russians had a chance to react. There being no airstrips in the region, the Russians would be hard pressed to deploy troops and equipment quickly, buying the Georgians time to secure a favourable diplomatic settlement.

At this time, it looks like the Georgians miscalculated. Georgian troops failed to take Tskhinvali and the Russians escalated sharply in response. President Saakashvili called for the US to intervene—but other than support at the UN, the United States isn’t going to enter into a military conflict against Russia. In any case, assuming that taking Tskhinvali and shutting off the road would end the matter was foolhardy—for Russia might well have decided (and could yet decide) to open a new front wherever it chose to.

However this conflict might end, two things are clear. First, Russia has made its Vladimir Putin’s “this far and no further” warning to NATO’s expansion more credible. If the United States and the European Union do not try to challenge this position, it is possible that Eurasian balance-of-power will move towards a new stability. This need not imply a new “cold war” as some suggest. Second, political risk attached to oil and gas pipelines that bypass Russian control will remain high or increase even further.

As for South Ossetia, the West can hardly raise any issues of principle should Russia go to the extent of annexing it entirely. Prime Minister Putin has only to cite the recent example of the US and EU position on Kosovo. For surely, if the Kosovars had a case to break away from Serbia, South Ossetians should hardly be blamed for breaking away from Georgia? Shoe, other foot, and all that.

Related Links: A number of good posts on this issue in the blogosphere. Starting from Nikolas Gvosdev who has several posts covering the issue. Robert Farley has two detailed ones (via the Duck of Minerva, where Daniel Nexon offers his take). Richard Gowan contemplates international options at Global Dashboard.

Lubricating a US-Iran rapprochement (2)

The geopolitical implications of the new route to Central Asia

Commenting on India-US relations after the UPA government won the vote of confidence last week, Nikolas Gvosdev contends that Iran will remain as the key stumbling block for improved bilateral relations. Well, it doesn’t have to be.

A realist re-appraisal of the geopolitics of Central Asia will indicate that the United States and India are among those who lack good access to the region. China and Russia have an upper hand as they not only have borders with Central Asian states, but have extended their influence over gateways to the region. Once the Iran-Afghanistan corridor becomes operational, India will have an opportunity to improve its access to Central Asia. As Dr Gvosdev points out, the United States could benefit too:

There are even some positives for the US—a new trade route that provides an alternative to Central Asia’s continuing dependence on Russian export routes; a new alternative to China; another “brick” in the stabilization of Afghanistan by opening up trade and providing fees. [The Washington Realist]

Now, access to Central Asia is only one element of in US calculations: but if American policymakers understand that thirty years is long enough a time to be miffed, they will find that better relations with Iran not only solves many of their problems, but also that this has become necessary. The Bush administration’s recent decision to send a diplomat to join the Europe-Iran talks in Geneva and Barack Obama’s willingness to break the ice with Iran are therefore steps in the right direction.

At the very least, to the extent Iran is a ‘stumbling block’, a US-Iran rapprochement is in India’s interests (see previous post). This will require proactive diplomacy on India’s part. But it won’t be difficult to generate domestic support for such a project. And why, it’ll take wind out of the sails of those who are against better relations with the United States.

Saying no to the USS Kitty Hawk

The irony of Gorshkov

The latest angle to the ups and downs of securing a second aircraft carrier for the Indian navy is the speculation that the United States intends to offer the USS Kitty Hawk, a 53-year old vessel that is up for decommissioning from the US Navy.

Image: Stratfor
The American offer is interesting for three reasons: first, it offers India greater bargaining power with Russia in the negotiations over the delivery of Admiral Gorshkov (INS Vikramaditya). Second, it offers the Indian navy capabilities to operate and train its personnel on an American platform. And third, it could improve India’s maritime power projection capabilities to a relatively greater extent.

The integration of this huge American ship into the Indian navy, however, is likely to pose its own set of problems. From the type of aircraft that can fly off it, to operational processes, to the logistics and docking arrangements, there are a whole range of operational issues that need to be addressed. And in addition to all the usual problems related to the purchase of second-hand equipment (the Kitty Hawk was commissioned in 1955), the possibility that the United States might insist upon an “end-user clause”, requiring US clearance before offensive operations seriously undermines the case for its purchase.

But the main reason to reject the American offer may lie elsewhere. The Kitty Hawk at a full displacement load of over 80,000 tons, it is three times larger than Viraat and almost twice as that of Gorshkov. It is also about a third longer than Viraat, but can carry seven times as many aircraft (70 against 12). There is no doubt that the Kitty Hawk is in itself an attractive alternative to Gorshkov or an addition to the fleet. The problem though, lies in the relevance of aircraft carriers in future naval combat. [See this interview with John Arquilla in MIT Technology Review]

China and Pakistan are investing in a submarine based fleet. Iran is investing in small, fast armed vessels. And they are also investing in anti-ship missiles. The latter are improving in range and capability, and are fairly accessible to even smaller states and non-state actors in the region. In naval conflicts of the future, aircraft carriers will need to increasingly stay away from hostile shores, limiting their effectiveness. The other way of looking at it is that the benefits of deploying an aircraft carrier—and the complement of frigates and destroyers that form part of the task force—will diminish over time, while costs will increase or stay the same. A bigger aircraft carrier may pack a bigger punch, but is also more vulnerable in itself, costlier to protect and will cause a greater strategic setback if damaged or destroyed. [Moreover, as India’s missile capabilities have come of age, they can increasingly replace carrier-based aircraft, just as they are replacing land-based ones]

The person who recognised this and developed a naval strategy that put a lot of weight in submarines was, ironically, Admiral of the Fleet of the Soviet Union, Sergei Gorshkov. While India has bought a ship named after him, China and Pakistan have bought his logic.

This is not to say that the Indian navy doesn’t need aircraft carriers—it does. There are conceivable scenarios where aircraft carriers can be decisive, though not all of them involve actual combat. The point is that the role of carriers is diminishing in the 21st century naval battlefield, and hence smaller, perhaps, is better.

(Navy chief Admiral Sureesh Mehta) denied reports that the United States had offered to gift India its Kitty Hawk aircraft carrier, which is due for decommissioning. Even if the offer were made, India would not accept it, he said, because the ship was “too old, too big.” [The Hindu]

Related Link: Information Dissemination on ‘A strange solution for India’s Russia Problem’

Update: A version of this post appears on the South Asia Monitor, an online publication of the Contemporary Studies Society, New Delhi

Parag Khanna welcomes you to the tripolar world

The beginning of history?

Parag Khanna’s attempt to envision the big geopolitical picture for this century is noteworthy. Ahead of his book, he argues his case in a long essay in the New York Times Magazine (linkthanks Pragmatic):

At best, America’s unipolar moment lasted through the 1990s, but that was also a decade adrift. The post-cold-war “peace dividend” was never converted into a global liberal order under American leadership. So now, rather than bestriding the globe, we are competing — and losing — in a geopolitical marketplace alongside the world’s other superpowers: the European Union and China. This is geopolitics in the 21st century: the new Big Three. Not Russia, an increasingly depopulated expanse run by Gazprom.gov; not an incoherent Islam embroiled in internal wars; and not India, lagging decades behind China in both development and strategic appetite. The Big Three make the rules — their own rules — without any one of them dominating. And the others are left to choose their suitors in this post-American world. [NYT]

The main question befuddling students of geopolitics is how are post-Cold War multi-polar cards going to fall? Mr Khanna’s answer is that the United States, the European Union and China will be the three superpowers, and the rest of the big powers will constitute the “second world”.

What we can say about Mr Khanna’s thesis is that he underestimates the United States, overestimates the stability and diplomatic style of China and gives too much credit to Europe. And, in the essay at least, is selective in his analysis of demographic trends. But he makes one important point—that 20th century multi-lateral institutions will be increasingly unable to address the world’s challenges as they become increasingly less reflective of the global balance of power.

Regardless of current events—in Iraq, Afghanistan or in global financial markets—it is too early to write off, or even discount the United States as the pre-eminent global power. In fact, among the Big Three, only the United States is founded on “sound business model”: from democracy and capitalism, to immigration and creativity, it is hard to see how the EU or China could change sufficiently to acquire the necessary genes. Until China demonstrates that it can ride out a domestic economic downturn it is premature to place it in the same league as the United States. And let’s not forget that it too has increasingly acute demographic problems of its own. As for the EU, well, it remains to be seen how much geopolitical power it will have—as an entity—if it is no longer under the security offered by NATO.

Perhaps the book will provide stronger arguments, but there is too little in the article to conclude that the geopolitical configuration of this century will be a Big Three and the second world. US primacy in the coming decades is by no means guaranteed, but it is still harder to prove that any other country can match or overtake the US. Moreover the US will be the only power that is unchallenged in its own geographical sphere. Neither Brazil and certainly not Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela fit the bill of a serious geopolitical challenger. Not so, for the EU and China. The EU faces Russia, and possibly the Arab world, in its own geography. China faces Japan, India and Russia in Asia. In this reading, it is the US that could play a “swing” role in influencing the outcomes of these regional competitions.

Mr Khanna’s goal is to compel the United States to transform its foreign policy institutions and behaviour, which may explain why he has deliberately cast his thesis in this manner. It would be nice if it rankles strategists and policymakers in India as well.

Related Posts: By Daniel Nexon at the Duck of Minerva, by Hari at Thirty letters in my name, and by Ethan Zuckerman in My heart’s in Accra. [30 Jan] And Dan Drezner weighs in too.

Narendra Modi’s foreign affairs

The Gujjus of Astrakhan

Newspaper columns this week are mostly about Narendra Modi, and mostly about domestic issues. Those interested in foreign affairs will find K P Nayar’s piece in The Telegraph of interest:

While India’s strategic community and sections of the media have been obsessed with the India-United States of America nuclear deal, it has largely escaped their attention that Modi travelled twice to Moscow to cash in on traditional Indo-Russian links, going against the recent fashion in New Delhi of running down such commercial-cum-cultural ties with Russia in an eagerness to suck up to Washington. No one should be surprised if it is Modi who has the last laugh at the Americans, who denied him a visa in a moment of extreme bad judgment and short-sightedness in Washington. Continue reading “Narendra Modi’s foreign affairs”

Liberalise the defence industry

And thank Russia for shaking India out of its lazy old ways

What stands in the way of the Indian armed forces using indigenously developed main battle tanks, fighter aircraft and aircraft carriers?

Answer: Cheap Russian imports.

Years of dependence on Russian military hardware—which could be obtained at rather attractive prices—simply meant that the armed forces preferred readymade products they could use, rather than take more risky route of using the gear that the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) was developing. Giving the armed forces roughly what they wanted was a less risky option for the politicians heading the defence ministry. The relative ease with which Russian arms could be imported meant that there was no real incentive for India’s policymakers to think how domestic defence production could be improved. This is an oversimplification, of course, but it is the nub of the issue.

India needs a crisis, it is said, to jolt it out of its ways. Russia’s behaviour over the refitting and delivery of the aircraft carrier should provide one. Not merely because it upsets the navy’s plans to have two carrier groups by the end of this decade, but because the possibility of a Russia-China equation is real. India should develop a reputation for standing up to Russian armtwisting. Reliance on imports from Russia—cheap or otherwise—, however, poses long-term strategic risks.

Now, building main battle tanks, fighter aircraft and aircraft carriers is not trivial. But there is no reason to believe that India can’t develop and build them indigenously. It’s time to liberalise the defence industry. Transforming defence procurement policies to ensure that there are strong domestic manufacturers is not rocket science. It can be done.