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The urgent trumps the important

A striking aspect of a three-day conference last week in Brussels was the virtual absence of Afghanistan from its agenda and discussions. Not surprisingly, Ukraine dominated the Brussels Forum, convened annually by the German Marshall Fund of the United States, to assess issues of importance for trans-Atlantic policymakers.

Attended by heads of state, officials, corporate leaders and scholars from the US, Europe and many other countries, the theme of this year’s conference was ‘A world in transition’. Much discussion revolved around the future of Nato and the European Union, especially in confronting the Ukraine crisis. This was punctuated by questions about the appropriate response to what was exaggeratedly described as the “most decisive moment” and challenge to the world order since the fall of the cold war.

That Afghanistan is on the cusp of critical transitions, with presidential elections less than two weeks away, did not merit attention in any plenary. Not even a passing mention in a speech on the alliance’s future by Nato Secretary General, Anders Rasmussen. A video shown at this session just noted that with its combat mission in Afghanistan ending, Nato, will for the first time in 20 years, not be engaged in any major out-of-area operation.

Afghanistan also did not figure in a long, cliché-ridden address by Robert Menendez, chairman of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Menendez thundered about Vladimir Putin’s “aggression”, condemned Iran’s “nuclear ambitions” and assailed Syria’s leader, but failed to utter a word about what, if anything, had been accomplished by America’s longest war.

A European participant explained why Afghanistan was missing in the discussions: “If America loses interest, so does Europe because European involvement in Afghanistan was about America, not Afghanistan.” A former US official also told me on the conference sidelines that the world had moved on – Washington’s waning interest in Afghanistan was further diminished by President Karzai’s wayward conduct and refusal to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement. All of this only reinforced my impression that Western powers had mentally checked out of Afghanistan, well ahead of the combat pullout later this year.

The only session where Afghanistan was discussed was in the context of ‘Beijing’s March West’. This examined relations between Pakistan, Afghanistan and China from the perspective of Beijing’s higher profile regional diplomacy and economic engagement. The consensus that emerged from a session in which I also participated was that Beijing and Washington had convergent interests west of China, unlike in China’s east, where America’s ‘pivot’ strategy was playing out.

The discussion evinced much interest in the nature of Pakistan’s relations with China, which I had a chance to elaborate. The other speaker, Andrew Small and moderator David Ignatius added their perspective to a discussion that saw little disagreement about the security and economic imperatives driving China’s more active diplomacy in southwest Asia.

Phillip Stephens of the Financial Times made a thoughtful start to the conference. Speaking about a changing world he said while “we celebrate globalisation”, we also “worry whether we have the rules, governance systems and the cooperation” to preserve peace and security in this new era. History often revisits us, as recent events in Ukraine indicate. This is a reminder that “at times of great upheaval, the danger often comes from a declining rather than the rising power”.

Was there anything past transitions could teach us about how to negotiate present ones? The start of the twentieth century marked three big transitions, according to Stephens. The first was the shift in power from Europe to the US; the second was the collapse of empires and emergence of many fractured states. The third was the transition from the globalisation that yielded much prosperity in the second half of the 19th century to economic competition, protectionism and what he called “dangerous nationalism”.

Today, he suggested, the world is seeing another three big transitions. The first is a power shift from the West to East, from north to south. This obliges the transatlantic community to learn to share power. The second transition is the dispersal of power from the state to the individual, which is challenging traditional assumptions about the relationship between governments and citizens. A new balance will have to be found. As the mass protests from Venezuela to Turkey show, citizens are now demanding, not “western-style democracy” but “human dignity, accountable government and the rule of law”.

For Stephens the third transition was the riskiest – from a predictable global order to one without a single power or system of power. This closely resembled the second halves of the 19th and 20th centuries. The theme of a disordered world in need of leadership and a rules-based system resonated in other sessions.

Several speakers called for a common vision among the Atlantic community to deal with a fragile global system. Yet as one speaker pointed out, from Ukraine to Syria, Iran and the Middle East, the US and Europe had not always acted in sync. Another speaker referred to the impact of the 2008 financial crisis in sapping the trans-Atlantic community’s confidence to play an effective global role. There was also the sobering impact of a rising Asia.

In discussions of Putin’s annexation of Crimea, few speakers acknowledged the consequences of Western actions that pushed Europe and Nato’s influence eastwards up to Russia’s borders or to Western backing for a revolt against the Ukrainian president, which eventually provoked a fierce Russian response. One plenary produced a lively exchange on Ukraine between Rasmussen and Alexander Grushko, Russia’s ambassador to Nato. Rasmussen stated the Western position, invoking the 1999 charter for European security to assert that every nation had an inherent right to freely choose its alliances.

Gruskko retorted that the security of one state cannot be achieved at the expense of another and recalled Russian’s repeated warnings that Nato enlargement would produce “new clients” and push them towards Russia’s borders. Nato, he said is free to take any decision, but Russia too is free to protect its security.

It was apparent from the discussions that beyond soaring rhetoric about evolving a firm and unified response to Russia, European nations were divided by the extent of their economic exposure and reliance on Russian oil and gas. So some speakers urged caution while others called for harsher sanctions and punitive measures against Russia.

On the forum’s sidelines, many Western participants accepted that Crimea’s annexation could not be rolled back now. The question for them was how Russia could be prevented from further intrusions into eastern and southern Ukraine. Few acknowledged that Russia’s interest in maintaining control of Ukraine was stronger than the West’s ability to enforce sanctions that could really hurt Moscow.

This focus made it certain that a major Nato Summit scheduled this September in Wales would be dominated by Russia and Ukraine, and not be the ‘mission accomplished in Afghanistan’ summit, which was once envisaged.

The session on ‘the fate of Syria’ laid bare very divided views among speakers as well as the audience. Opinion ranged from lets-bomb-Assad’s-military assets to the cautionary arguments of others who pointed to the fractured opposition and its extremist elements to stress the need for greater diplomacy. A poll conducted among participants about the likely scenario in Syria showed that the majority saw the unresolved crisis contributing to contagious instability in the region. A significant number saw the stalemate continuing.

If there was agreement it was on the assessment that Syria’s crisis was not so much a battle between a dictator and his people as a geopolitical and regional power game and sectarian war of proxies in which many regional states and other international actors were involved. The outlook was bleak, especially with the Geneva process going nowhere and other, more pressing issues now emerging on the international agenda.

Like the rest of conference deliberations, this served as a reminder that in global, as in national politics, the urgent often prevails over the important – with ‘the important’ usually left to fester until it snowballs into a bigger crisis.

The writer is special adviser to the Jang Group/Geo and a former envoy to the US and the UK. Twitter: @LodhiMaleeha

Dr. Maleeha Lodhi, "The urgent trumps the important," The News. 2014-03-25.
Keywords: Political science , Political relations , International relations , International issues , Policy making , Security policy , Cold war , Elections , Robert Menendez , President Putin , President Karzai , Afghanistan , United States , Washington , Pakistan , Germany , Syria , China , NATO