Advice from the classics for Washington, Beijing, and Moscow

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Alexandros P. Mallias, Ambassador of Greece to the United States ( 2005-2009) writes:

Secretary of State Tony Blinken, a fine diplomat and a seasoned top national security official, followed the footsteps of several American Presidents. During his first trip in Europe, he paid an important and much anticipated visit to NATO’s Headquarters in Brussels. The top American diplomat reiterated the Biden’s Administration strong commitment to NATO, while expressing  the expectation that the allies will remain committed to cope with the three main challenges/threats  as reflected in NATO’s reports and joint declarations. Is that so?

The response is neither easy nor linear. Let’s elaborate:

  1. The unprecedented though foreseeable rise of China’s capabilities. China is a privileged commercial, economic, trade, shipping, financial, and investment partner for NATO’s European allies. She is also an indispensable enabler in addressing climate change and the COVID pandemic. A Permanent Member of the UN Security Council, swiftful rising China is a global antagonist and potentially a strategic challenge for American interests. China has been a major concern issue for Congress and the top foreign policy priority, with important domestic parameters, for the Obama, Trump, and Biden Administrations.
    China’s Asian-Pacific claims and interests as well as its global designs are supported by political, economic and increasing military capabilities, yet under a “soft power” cover. It is increasingly difficult to draw a clear line among cooperation, engagement and deterrence. Economic, energy, trade, and financial interdependence are the basic characteristics of China’s bonds with her leading global partners. It is now more difficult for the United States alone to prevent by coercive measures China’s ascent to primacy.
    The 2500 years old “Thucydides trap” syndrome is now becoming a useful tool of analysis when examining US-China relations. Washington runs the risk of eventually projecting the image of a hegemon, like the city of Athens. But America’s soft power is colossal and global, much stronger than coercion. If hard power towards China and pressure on allies are the best policy option, then the probable product is a brotherhood of non-willing allies. A third powerful pole has already taken shape opposing US policies, including politico-military rapprochement among China, Russia and others .
    2. Russia’s assertiveness and come-back policy under President Vladimir Putin, which includes prestige, self-confident power politics, and territorial ambitions. Russia, a big power, is today an important energy, trade, tourism and economic partner for many NATO allies, with whom it sided in the fight against international terrorism. Russia is also a key player albeit a hard power antagonist in Eurasian affairs.
    The Russian Federation, also a Permanent Member of the UN Security Council, is focusing on the European theater of energy, political, and military operations as well as on the greater Middle East (MENA).
    Notwithstanding justified and legitimate opposition and apprehension among NATO allies and the European Union, Russia considers itself a shareholder of European cultural heritage, from the Atlantic to the Urals. But Russia’s invasion, occupation and annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the ongoing aggressive moves against Ukraine , in violation of the UN Charter, the Helsinki Final Act, and the Paris Charter for a New Europe are illegal. The status quo in Crimea cannot be tolerated. Russia has undermined its own role as an important stakeholder in European security and cooperation. US, NATO policies and EU sanctions are justified.
    Notwithstanding the Russian Federation’s important fossil fuel resources, its economic and military capabilities at this stage may not sustain its superpower aspirations. A framework of a “principled (value based) cooperative engagement” is possible. Russia’s desire to become a big power player in Eurasia, MENA, and beyond should be matched by the Kremlin’s attachment to the principles and purposes of the UN Charter and the fundamental principles and values of the European legal, political and security post cold-war commitments and architecture.
    There is a basic prerequisite before engaging with Russia. It pertains to NATO’s credibility, cohesion, and deterrence capability. Russia has managed to establish–against NATO’s interests–strategic defense procurement agreements and unprecedented confidential bonds with Turkey, a NATO member. The S-400 issue is a serious “intra muros” challenge undermining NATO diplomatically and politically. It is not an issue to be dealt with simply between Washington and Ankara. Further to  Turkey’s  provocative and aggressive  policies against Greece and Cyprus, it poses a credibility problem for NATO as a whole and seriously affects Alliance security. It has to be addressed as a priority issue in order to preserve NATO’s credibility, restore intra-Alliance confidence, and revive the indivisible collective security axiom.
    3. Preventing, countering and deterring hybrid threats. Often, the sources of these attacks directed against NATO members and institutions are also related or correlated to Moscow and Beijing. But it would be naive to attribute them solely to NATO’s two global antagonists. Cyberspace is the most difficult theater of operations for an undeclared global confrontation. More so, if associated with the possibility of rogue or failed states, authoritarian leaders, and non-state actors (terrorists, secessionist groups, etc.) getting access to nuclear weapons systems and/or long range ballistic capabilities. This is the 21st century nightmare scenario.

“Reset” global politics, starting with the UN Security Council

There is nothing new in stating that the world is characterized by power politics, rivalry between states and the promotion of state interests. Synergy is partial, alliances challenged, while the ecumenic symmetry is rather elliptic. The bipolar world order collapsed \; today, superpower monopoly is challenged. We should be in search of a new world order.
The Biden-Harris Administration’s much anticipated “reset” of multilateral diplomacy has a name: international cooperation, in particular within the United Nations and the Security Council. Multilateralism is the prerequisite for restoring the efficacy of the collective international security system: securing, shaping and reshaping the problematic world order.
It is a common secret that the United Nations is today unable to discharge its mission; synergy is missing among the five Permanent Members (P5) of the Security Council. The antagonism and conflict among the five stem both from a different hierarchy of values, attachment to human rights issues included, mostly though for geopolitical and economic reasons.

Attachment to the principles and purposes enshrined in the United Nations Charter has eroded. As long as the Security Council is unable to operate and act as mandated by the Charter, it will be impossible to reach the necessary consensus to prevent and counter threats against peace, stability, and security. The “veto” power prerogative should not be synonymous with idleness and inertia. The “zero sum game” equilibrium point cannot become the world order power equilibrium.
At times the United Nations Security Council was considered to be the refuge of the weak or the haven for weaker UN members. Now it is the indispensable condition for the P5 in resetting and restoring the much wanted world order.
In their legitimate search for common ground, the United States may wish to test the waters by hosting a ‘closed door retreat” of the P5 at Ministerial or Head of State level. Such a move could display of the American “smart power” (hard+ soft + principles and values) in reshaping the world order. Coping with the pandemic, climate change, and unity in fighting against terrorism could figure as the starting point of the agenda.

Engagement, negotiation, leadership: get advice from the Classics

What lessons can we draw from the ancient Greek classics that are relevant today? I refer to war and peace prototypes: Athens, Sparta, and Corinth were the three key city-states at the origins of the Peloponnesian War. Thucydides’ History of that War remains by far the most complete handbook on strategy and tactics, on peace and war, on alliances and hegemony, on the cleavage between principles and interests, might and right, on negotiating of truces and treaties and definitely on leadership. We often use a famous quote from the Melian Dialogue:

…since you know as well as we do that right is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.

Thucydides refers also to the argument used by the Athenian ambassadors warning the Spartans not to start the war by saying:

….Consider the vast influence of accident in war before you start it. For a long war as it continues for the most part ends in catastrophe… It is a common mistake in going to war to begin at the wrong end, to act first and wait for disaster to negotiate…

Many scholars argue that we already move in the footsteps of the Peloponnesian War. I earnestly hope that the Athenian message will not be ignored by Moscow, Beijing or Washington.



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