The main foreign policy topics of the past decade have been China’s ascendancy, relations between the West and a resurgent Russia, the rise of authoritarianism, democracy’s decline, the failure of multilateralism and climate change. With the Trump White House, most of the questions raised in recent years focused on Washington. People started asking “what went wrong?” to use the title of Bernard Lewis’s remarkable book on the clash between Islam and modernity in the Middle East. Pundits in the West, including the US, started talking about Washington’s external military interventions and their political/diplomatic/economic cost, racism, gridlock. Some of the questions raised went beyond the Trump years. With major foreign and security policy challenges and 251,000 new coronavirus cases recorded last Friday, Mr. Biden will not be moving to a dream house on January 20.
With the signing, by President Aliyev and Prime Minister Pashinyan, of the Russian-brokered statement on a complete ceasefire and the termination of hostilities in Nagorno-Karabakh the conflict has entered a new phase.
The last round of fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan started on July 12, 2020. During the war between 1988-1994, Armenian forces had occupied not only Nagorno-Karabakh but also the seven surrounding districts of Azerbaijan before a Russian-brokered ceasefire was declared. Thereafter peace talks were mediated by the OSCE Minsk Group co-chaired by France, Russia, and the United States. Since all three co-chairs are long-time supporters of Armenia, the Group only served to preserve the status quo. i.e. continued occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh, and the seven Azerbaijani districts.
Four years ago, in a post titled “Middle East in the Grip of Polarization” I said:
“The Middle East, in the grip of polarization, is going through a most violent period… Throughout the region the mentality continues to be “winner-take-all. This is what we witness in Syria where coming to the table to stop the bloodshed is seen as a concession whereas it should be clear to all the parties, at least by now, that there is not going to be a military solution to the conflict. Differences are of course diverse and extreme. They extend from religion, ethnicity, world outlook and politics to culture. Furthermore, they are increasingly characterized by an element of hate. Worst of all, Syrians seem to have lost sense of direction. The silent or silenced majority may regret what they have been going through but those who appear to be in charge see no further than the tip of the gun barrel… Some Syrians may think it is too late; that they would not be allowed to change course even if they wanted to. Others may still be determined to fight to the bitter end. And sadly, the latter may prove to be right because there is little hope of a happy end to this tragedy. Such is the disease of polarization. If it does not kill you, it leaves you maimed…”
On 7 January 2015, two brothers, French citizens born in Paris to Algerian immigrants, forced their way into the offices Charlie Hebdo where they killed 12 people and injured 11 others. Al-Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula claimed responsibility. The attack was called the 9/11 of France. Four days later the Unity Rally, a remarkable display of national and international solidarity was held in Paris.
On October 16, 2020 Samuel Paty, a French middle-school teacher, was beheaded a suburb of Paris. The perpetrator of this atrocious crime was an 18-year-old Russian immigrant of Chechen origin, born in Moscow. A tide of outrage swept through France.
As the US braces for November 3 presidential election, countries remain divided in their expectations. Europe having enjoyed excellent relations with the Obama White House no doubt wishes to see Mr. Biden there. Because, although this would not be a replica of the Obama White House there would be parallels. The same goes for Iran, whereas Gulf states have been getting along extremely well with Mr. Trump. Israel would probably prefer a Trump victory but move on regardless of who is in the White House, happy with the balance sheet of the past four years.
The fundamental reality of foreign relations is that a country’s international standing is largely a reflection of its internal strength. And this invariably depends on respect for the rule of law, strong institutions, and national consensus on where the country should be heading. And geographic location largely impacts a country’s foreign policy. This is a given which can constitute a challenge.
Last week, fires destroyed Greece’s largest migrant camp on the island of Lesbos, leaving more than 12,000 people without shelter. It was a tragedy, a stark reminder of West’s misguided interventions in Libya and Syria, and Europe’s second major problem after Covid-19, the refugee issue.