It is 20 years since the Cold War ended in Europe with the total collapse of the Soviet Union. Since then, high-level relations between the United States of America and Russia have eased considerably. In a situation that was unthinkable only 30 years ago, the United States is currently completely reliant upon the Russian Space Program to resupply the International Space Station with American personnel and equipment. However, with the imminent re-election of the political dinosaur Vladimir Putin and deep divisions within the United Nations Security Council over Syria and Iran, is the world sleepwalking into a Middle East centred superpower showdown?
British Foreign Secretary William Hague certainly thinks so. In a recent interview with the Daily Telegraph, Hague spoke of his fears that Iranian nuclear proliferation will lead to ‘the threat of a new Cold War in the Middle East.’ Political scaremongering aside, it is highly unlikely that long-standing enemies of Iran such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Israel would allow Iran to be the sole confirmed nuclear power in the region. Indeed, there has been frenzied speculation within the Western press that Israel is set to launch a pre-emptive attack on Iranian nuclear facilities this summer. Worryingly, American intelligence chiefs have only been able to announce that ‘to the best of their knowledge’ Israel is not poised to launch an attack. For a country that values Israel as a close ally in the Middle East and has such an extensive intelligence network the world over, such statements are hardly reassuring.
It is also true that there is no love lost between the East and West. From the early 20th Century Russia has been a constant threat to Western prosperity and European ambitions, famously signing the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact with Nazi Germany during Europe’s darkest hour which among other things divided Poland and much of Eastern Europe into German and Soviet spheres of influence. However, recently it is the assumed international political unification of China and Russia which is giving commentators cause for concern.
For the people of Syria Russian and Chinese unity in opposing Western backed international action has had devastating repercussions. Despite evidence from the United Nations showing that an estimated 7500 civilians have been killed as a result of shelling and violence in key Syrian cities such as Homs, both Russia and China were the only two members of the United Nations Security Council to veto a watered-down resolution condemning President Assad and calling for him stand to stand down.
This lack of action has had dire consequences, and not just for the Syrian people who are now at the mercy of a reinvigorated and fearless President Assad. Already, political commentators are talking of a ‘proxy’ war; one in which Russia and China are supportive of President Assad’s regime on one side and the United States, European Union and Arab Nations (bar Iran) supportive of the breakaway Syrian National Council on the other.
Indeed, at the Friends of Syria Conference in Tunisia, William Hague confirmed that the United Kingdom was to officially recognise the Syrian National Council as a legitimate representative of the country. Furthermore, he promised that Britain would ‘intensify’ links with the Council – which at the moment is Syria’s largest and most developed opposition group. For weeks now, there have been rumours that foreign nations are interfering in Syria by supplying the opposition forces with weapons, training and in some cases men. Finally, Hague also fired a warning shot towards Russia and China by declaring that “”those who back the Syrian regime from now on will find themselves in an even more isolated and indefensible minority.” As any amateur historian will confirm, such ‘wars by proxy’ are typical of a ‘Cold War’ and indirect superpower showdown.
Additionally, aside from confrontation over Syria it is the recent actions of the Kremlin which has added to the speculation on whether we are sleepwalking into another superpower showdown. Despite repeated denials by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, a meeting with security analysts and Putin near a nuclear weapons research centre was most revealing. When speaking, Putin stated that he did not see a ‘chill’ in relations with the United States. Somewhat paradoxically, he then went on to explain how Russia aims to increase defence spending and refrain from further nuclear missile reductions until conventional weapons can do comparable damage in a bid to compete with the United States.
So, is the world sleepwalking into a superpower showdown, centred on the Middle East? As has been stated before in this blog, the sphere of international politics is almost impossible to predict and to go any further than analysing the current trends and trajectories of possible outcomes would be foolish. However, what is certain is that the United States and Europe have been battered by an economic debt crisis, two exhausting wars and a ten year obsession with confronting Islamic radicalism. The political desire for any prolonged confrontation with a potentially formidable enemy is simply not present.
On the other hand, unlike the United States and European Union both Russia and China are awash with money. Possessing mammoth foreign currency reserves, Chinese investment is increasingly being sought to bail out a cash-strapped European Union. The political bargaining this brings should not be underestimated. Within Russia, high oil prices are being used to fund the renewal and expansion of the previously neglected Russian military, designed solely to offer an alternative to American influence around the globe.
The Middle East is simply acting as a proving ground for a rejuvenated East and a tired, moralistic West. Much like post-war Europe, two opposing ideologies wish to control a region which is currently experiencing a generational upheaval. With Syria currently in a state of unofficial civil war, political instability in newly formed Arab nations and an increasingly isolationist Iran in continued pursuit of nuclear technology the pickings are potentially very rich for the victor. A similar situation in postwar Europe created a 40 year conflict, fought through proxy wars and an ever increasing nuclear arsenal.
Maybe the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists were right to move the doomsday clock closer to midnight after all.
There is a good chance that until Wikipedia and thousands of other affiliated sites held a one day ‘blackout’ on the 18th January not many people had heard of the controversial American bills SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (Protect Intellectual Property Act). Designed to do exactly what it says on the tin, the two acts are supported by a wealthy and increasingly politically influential Hollywood which appears to be unwavering in its desire to maximise profit and unwilling to alter its approach and embrace the benefits of the internet. Although now temporarily postponed, what exactly is all the fuss about?
Designed to combat copyright infringement and piracy, PIPA and SOPA would allow any American company, group or wealthy citizen the ability to shut down a website without due process when suspected of hosting copyrighted material.
It does not take a genius to work out that this would be bad news for the much vaunted Western guarantee; ‘freedom of speech.’ Whilst the acts have undoubtedly been introduced with the best of intentions in a bid to combat the estimated 95% of illegally downloaded music, the approach would be akin to cracking a nut with a sledgehammer. Or, as Neelie Kroes, Vice President of the European Digital Agenda Commission said on Twitter: ‘Speeding is illegal too, but you don’t put speed bumps on the motorway.’ In other words, the collateral damage for any action taken against a website would be enormous and out of proportion.
As a legal and technical nightmare for many large websites the proposed legislation is so unworkable in practice that it could force internet favourites such as Facebook, YouTube, Wikipedia and WordPress offline. Required to monitor every posted link and upload, American companies would be responsible for essentially policing the internet and all their users.
Within dominant and largely uncensored search engines such as Google, PIPA and SOPA have not been well received. In protest at the prospect having to regulate search results and remove links to foreign websites suspected of distributing copyrighted information, Google openly supported the thousands of websites that were ‘dark’ on the 18th January. Although still available, the Google logo was ‘redacted’ and links were given to users urging them to contact their local political representative to make their objections known.
Likewise, Wikipedia caused momentary panic to thousands of students through being one of the most popular websites to ‘go dark’ in protest at PIPA and SOPA. Whilst there were ways around this blockade, all java-enabled desktop users were greeted with a black imagine entitled ‘Imagine a World Without Free Knowledge.’ In a related message, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales explained that Wikipedia was against the proposed legislation because it was ‘badly drafted’ and would be ineffective at preventing copyright infringement. Instead, Wales believes it would damage ‘the free and open internet’ as there was a possibility that SOPA and PIPA could be used as a stepping stone towards more repressive and controlling legislation.
It should be remembered that the World Wide Web is undoubtedly unique. Free from the control of any one nation, the internet is a lively area where any information, pictures and media can be shared seamlessly around the globe. Although daunting, this modern deluge of information has been invaluable to humanity. From enabling people to find the best car insurance deal to ensuring the survival of the Arab Spring protest movement through the use of social media, the internet serves as a tool of progression for mankind.
An attempt by the United States to enforce PIPA and SOPA would severely hamper this. Forced into a regulatory role, American companies would be required to censor the internet and as the world’s sole technological superpower this would naturally impact upon all other countries. For instance, France already has the Creation and Internet Bill whereby users are given a ‘three strikes’ policy when suspected of downloading copyrighted content before their internet connection is disconnected and disabled. Likewise, the United Kingdom has the largely hated Digital Economy Act, although this has yet to be passed into law due to a series of legal challenges.
Whilst there is undoubtedly a need to act against people who repeatedly distribute and download copyrighted content, the current brutal Hollywood-backed approach is not the correct course. In addition to charging a fair price to reflect the fact that consumers are no longer receiving a physical product when digitally purchasing media, governments around the world should begin to make better use of existing laws before bringing in draconian and overpowered measures such as PIPA, SOPA and the Digital Economy Act. As the world’s technological superpower and alleged guarantor of freedom, the United States must take the lead.
However, this does not mean to say that other countries should be afraid to act and seek a solution. Whilst usually lamented for being nothing more than a place for endless discussion, the European Union has been surprisingly decisive when the freedom of the internet is discussed. In a recent resolution that was almost certainly aimed at the United States, the EU stressed a ‘need to protect the integrity of the global Internet and freedom of communication by refraining from unilateral measures to revoke IP addresses or domain names.’
In response to this resolution and a tidal-wave of public anger since January 18th, the United States Congress announced on January 21st that both PIPA and SOPA were to be suspended, pending further investigations. It seemed like the world finally had something to thank the European Union for. And then the secretive global ACTA (Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement) was signed in Tokyo only five days later by the very same European Union.
Let round two begin.
Largely ignored by the mainstream media, a recent Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) report has shown that in terms of the world economic league table rankings, Brazil overtook the UK in 2011 to become the world’s sixth largest economy. Whilst disappointing for Britain, other key European countries suffered a similar fate. By 2020 Germany, Italy and France are also expected to slide significantly down the league table, having been overtaken by the rapidly emerging Asian ‘tigers’ and BRIC countries. Aside from the obvious dent to national pride and international economic influence, what does the report mean for the future of the United Kingdom, Europe and the Western world?
When considering Western decline, most concerning for Europe, America and Japan is the spectacular rise of two BRIC countries; Russia and China. Largely reliant on natural resource exploitation for predicted future growth, Russia is both a past adversary of the West and a likely future one. Recent Russian defence spending has focused on enlarging the armed forces to cope with high unemployment, joint military manoeuvres with China and an increasingly bombastic international role culminating in the now largely forgotten 2008 invasion of Georgia.
Unlike Russia, China is not particularly resource rich. Despite this, the official Chinese military budget has increased by nearly 200% since 2001; this being fuelled by exceptional double-digit economic growth throughout the decade. Unofficially, the budget is rumoured to have increased by an even larger amount. This budget amplification has enabled the Chinese to design and produce advanced stealth fighters, create a naval base in the Seychelles to directly threaten India and purchase rusting Russian aircraft carriers. Again, similar to Russia, China has become increasingly vocal within international politics by peddling ludicrous territorial water claims and adopting an ever more offensive posture with regards to Taiwan.
When Russian and Chinese investment is contrasted with severe Western military budget cuts (including those recently announced by the United States) and combined with increased international posturing, commentators are rightfully concerned that the West faces a tough choice; to either submit to the new economic powerhouses or invest in the military and suffer from increased debts and economic stagnation. Furthermore, it is a certainty that at some point this century the United Nations Security Council will have to be overhauled to reflect modern day politics; this likely costing the West dear in terms of their previously almost unrivalled control of international affairs.
Faced with the CEBR report, continued Chinese and Russian intransigence combined with military expansion, a stubborn economic financial crisis and a continuous slew of disappointing economic data it would be rational for Western politicians to panic at the prospect of a century increasingly dominated by a series of unstable, unmanageable and untested countries. Especially countries ever more flush with cash and lacking a fondness for quaint European traditions, American excess or Japanese electronic domination.
However, this predictable panic is often unnecessary. Since 1945, the UK has been suffering from a slow international decline as the Empire has been gradually disbanded; a direct result of having fought and shouldering the burden of two devastating world wars. Despite such decline, this has not meant an end to peace and prosperity for the British people. Instead, decline has been ‘managed’ to ensure that aside from brief periods in history, British military power and influence around the globe has remained constant, national security has not been threatened and living standards have generally increased, decade after decade.
If managed correctly, many commentators are confident that gradual Western economic decline is not necessarily the doomsday scenario that scaremongers predict. Whilst international politics and conflict is inherently difficult to predict, unbiased observers are able to see that economic decline does not always correlate with a demise in international influence, foreign policy or military power. Provided that investment is made in the right areas, the British – and in some respects, Western – role in the world as nations of highly educated and skilled designers, service sector workers, high-end manufacturers and engineers can only complement non-Western economic growth. Indeed, the rapidly growing countries of Asia and Latin America need our skills and expertise as much as we need their natural resources and mass produced factory goods.
Whilst the CERB report is undoubtedly a blow to British and Western visions of self-importance, I can still see one reason within the report to be cheerful. Apparently, should the predictions turn out to be accurate the British rate of economic decline will not be as quick as that of our closest continental neighbour and age old national adversary, France. By 2020, the United Kingdom will have come from behind to beat the French to eighth in the global pecking order, and by quite a considerable margin too. Now that is a cause for celebration. Someone pass the Chardonnay…
It was back in 1987 that Turkey first applied to become a member of the European Commission. Situated at the fringes of Europe and with a blend of Western and Eastern cultures, Turkey is a cultural melting pot at what is often referred to as the ‘crossroads of the world.’
Whilst much progress towards Turkish European Union membership has been made, a recent diplomatic spat with France has highlighted the problems facing Turkey and a liberal European Union only too well. As reported by BBC News, the French National Assembly passed a bill on the 22nd December 2011 criminalising denial of the 1915 – 1916 Armenian genocide, of which the Ottoman Empire (now Turkey) was the chief protagonist. Whilst the bill is unlikely to be passed by the French Senate, the sabre-rattling has been highly successful in highlighting an issue that EU negotiators would rather ignore, gaining the attention of Ankara and bolstering support for President Sarkozy from the sizeable Armenian population within France.
The Armenian Genocide is not the only historical grievance that European countries have with Turkey. Whilst the Turkish invasion of northern Cyprus occurred over 35 years ago in response to an alleged Greece Cypriot coup, Cyprus is still divided along a United Nations monitored Green Line. Although several solutions have been offered and a recent, high-profile ‘Kofi Annan’ plan endorsed by Turkey, the United Kingdom and United States was produced, an agreement between the Greek and Turkish governments has yet to be reached. For many European countries, Turkey’s history is a sticking point; and unfortunately for Turkey a sticking point that will hinder full European Union membership until errors are recognised and apologies are made.
Although important to some Europeans, history would appear to be irrelevant for a sizeable section of the Turkish population. In 2004, a poll taken among Turks placed support for EU membership at 73%. By 2010, this figure had declined to 38%; interviewees citing growing economic prosperity and hopes of greater Turkish significance in the region as reasons for the lack of support. Whilst support for full membership has undoubtedly declined, it is likely that support will once again increase as the European economy recovers and the current rose-tinted view of the Arab Spring darkens. Similarly, it is predictable that the resulting Turkish advances for a fast-track membership will be welcomed by an EU hoping to use Turkey as a bridge to influencing euphoric and naïve governments set up in the wake of the Arab Spring.
Aside from historical and public support issues, Turkey has primarily been withheld from full EU membership because of the failure to adopt and adhere to the 35 chapters of the ‘acquis communautaire’ – in effect the EU Law which all member states must abide by. For instance, considerable efforts are still required with regards to agricultural and rural development, the environment and ensuring implementation of legislation allowing female equality. Despite the best efforts of negotiators, negotiations have stalled several times due to Turkish intransigence and it is still unclear as to whether these obstacles and other considerable hurdles can be resolved within the next decade.
So, will Turkey ever join the European Union? At present, there is no reason why it should not, and it is highly likely that Turkey will join the EU in the not too distant future as European leaders take measures to maintain political, economic and military influence when faced with the growing might of a resurgent Asia. Likewise, the push from European leaders for diversification of energy suppliers will only become stronger as time progresses and Russia becomes more erratic, this forcing Turkey into the spotlight due to Turkish geographic location and proximity to Middle Eastern oil and gas pipelines.
Additionally, despite tough-talking rhetoric from France and Germany, Turkey enjoys substantial support for integration from the United Kingdom, United States, Spain and Italy. France has also recently watered down amendments to the French constitution that called for a public referendum when Turkey is eligible to succeed to the EU; instead choosing to leave the decision to elected officials.
The only certainty with regards to Turkish membership of the European Union is that Turkey will not be fusing with Europe within the next decade. This is due to two reasons – one being that Jose Barroso, President of the European Commission has stated that succession will not be possible until at least 2021 so that differences can be resolved, and two being that the European Commission is currently distracted with the on-going Eurozone economic crisis. Rightfully so, the EU should ensure that the status quo is stable and free from further shocks before adding more strain to an already fragile system with a country such as Turkey that will no doubt require substantial economic, political and agricultural assistance in the early stages of integration.
However, despite this positive outlook it should not be forgotten that the EU is currently in severe trouble. Italy, Spain, Ireland and Portugal are at risk of economic collapse, their political collapse already complete. In the face of economic disintegration intense political negotiation designed to find a solution has only produced bickering and deadlock; this resulting in a failure to produce any long term plan to soothe global financial markets and bring down borrowing costs to a manageable figure.
Such a peculiar political situation begs the question – if European leaders are unable to negotiate constructively and agree over a matter survival now, will they ever be able to agree enough to allow a controversial Turkey to join the EU?
And on the 2nd May, 2011 the people of the United States finally got their wish – the death of Osama Bin Laden, leader of the Taliban and orchestrator of the 9/11 attacks on New York, Virginia and Pennsylvania. Whilst few people are likely to have shed tears over his death, the ‘kill or capture’ orders from President Obama were presumed by many to have only had one outcome in mind from the start, that being the death of Bin Laden. Now the fallout from the daring raid by the US Navy Seals has settled the question can be asked; should the United States have issued orders to kill Bin Laden if he resisted, or should orders to capture and bring to trial have been further encouraged instead?
If Osama Bin Laden had been captured, the United States would have entered into a legal and political minefield. The problems associated with detaining and extracting someone from a sovereign state without prior permission would have no doubt given the United States a headache, although legal fears that Bin Laden would have had to be handed over to the International Criminal Court remain unfounded due to the absence of a US signature at the time of the September 11th attacks.
Additionally, security and impartiality at the trial would have been another troublesome issue. The desire to not only prevent Bin Laden from escaping but also protect him would have required security on a monumental scale. Likewise, all those involved would have needed to ensure that the trial did not descend into a farce similar to that of Saddam Hussein where the trial was seen as an extension of American influence and where sound coverage of Saddam’s rants was often edited.
Finally, when the inevitable and unavoidable conclusion had been reached, would the United States have pursued the death penalty and potentially martyred him to Islamic extremists, or would several life sentences ensuring that Bin Laden was never able to apply for parole have been handed out?
Whilst these questions can never be answered, it is clear that as a result of killing Osama Bin Laden instantly and not bringing him to trial the United States pre-empted the above problems and prevented a costly, problematic and potentially drawn-out trial through the eyes of the international media, organisations and governments.
Overcoming these problems through Bin Laden’s quick death does not however mean that the United States has been vindicated in not taking greater risks to bring the world’s most wanted terrorist to trial. Obviously, events that took place during the operation cannot be trivialised and may never be fully known, although by issuing the order to capture only if there was no threat to the American assault team the Obama administration had effectively ordered his execution due to the likelihood of concealed weapons and explosives. No doubt in an ideal world where morals reign supreme and the desire for revenge was not so profound, capturing and then placing Bin Laden on trial would have been the ideal response.
Assuming that Bin Laden would not offer any substantial information on the Taliban network if captured, by putting him on trial the United States would have had nothing to lose as his ideology and beliefs would have been laid bare for all to see. By allowing him to be properly tried in an open court of law, the myth and legend of the man would have been debunked; he would have been seen as a fragile man who encouraged the killing of innocent civilians through his twisted interpretation of Islam. Such a process has been done before; at the Nuremberg Trials of 1945 – 46 the remaining twenty four high ranking Nazis were placed on trial, their corrupt and racist beliefs being seen by all.
This is not how Bin Laden would have wanted to have been remembered. He no doubt died with a smile on his face as he was killed by a Western ‘infidel’ bullet, not through old age and rotting in an American jail, kept alive in a country which he had frequently referred to as the Great Satan.
After all, had Bin Laden been placed on trial and convicted, what better way for the American public to get ‘justice,’ ‘revenge’ and ‘closure’ than by having Osama Bin Laden locked away in a New York high security jail – the very city his followers attacked in an attempt to bring about the demise of America fittingly being the location of his perpetual detention and demise?