Tag Archives: US

Western Asia in 2020s: risk of major war or opportunity of Regional Integration?


The biggest opportunity in this decade for Western Asia (WA), the crucial area for the stability of the world, is a great bargain between Shia crescent and the Sunni world, for a WA integration based on a Collective Security Community and a Free Trade Integration. The region has homogeneity in religion even if heterogeneity in ethnicity, but also Europe has the same characteristics. The area has also a history of wars, mostly proxy wars recently, and great power influence and invasions (again similarly to Europe). Finally, this part of the world is economically similar with natural resources, first of all oil, and economic stable growth. Therefore is not unthinkable that Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the rest of Arab States in the region (with the presence of Israel as a pivot state) might decide for a gradual regional integration, like Europe, but also Africa, Americas and Southeast Asia decided to do in the past.

There are two issues and two possible inputs for this path. The two issues are:

-In the last two decades the regional powers (first of all Iran, but also Turkey and Saudi Arabia) supported by global ones, competed for influence over the region, creating constant violence and instability, and there seems no to be a new strategic vision for a great bargain at the horizon.

-This great bargain can be possible only with an Iranian regime change (as no Ayatollah regime will accept Israel and a regional system without Israel, even if with a special status, will not be sustainable) and this could take more than one decade to happen.

The possible inputs toward this path are:

-An Israeli-Palestinian settlement (but the recent one proposed by US and Israel has not been accepted and the solution could be postponed for long time, until “facts on the ground” are reached)

-A EU/NATO[1] support after the Iraqi/Syrian proxy wars (but the recent Middle East Strategic Alliance, an “Arab NATO”, didn’t work out and EU and NATO will be busy crafting their new relationship this decade)

The biggest risk, on the opposite, is a great war during this decade between Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon on one side and Israel and the Arab world on the other (Turkey will try to stay out,  because of NATO alliance and Iranian border, but if will enter could probably stay with the Sunni side). This risk is high in this decade, given the increased elements that point towards an escalation, and the acceleration because of three more urgent threats at global level that should be treated soon (nuclear, climate and technological). These are the 4 crucial factors that support this risk:

-End of Iranian Nuclear Deal with the real concrete possibility that Iran gets nuclear power in the next couple of years. The Iran nuclear crisis of the early 2000s will be back, pushing military urgency.

-US Peace Plan for Israel-Palestine (rejected by Palestine, Iran but also Arab league) with consequent Israeli annexation of occupied territories inside West Bank after March elections.

-Recent escalation in violence between Iran and US, with the killing of Suleimani and the prospect of more hybrid[2] warfare against Al-Quds and other Iranian militias.

-West Asia never ending proxy wars (Syria, Iraq, Yemen, may be later also Lebanon) with interventions from Iran and Russia on one side and US and allies on the other, and Turkey moving between the two, with no sign to end soon this decade.

The two possibilities don’t exclude each other, actually a major war could precede the regional integration (as it has been in the past for Europe) and the current trends seem to show a path that points towards this risk. The role of US and Russia will be also determinant to push towards one of these paths, without excluding the Chinese alignments. As a recent Stratfor report argues, the 2020s will be a Multipolar decade, with shifting and fluid alliances. So, we’ll see what happens, as Trump always says.

[1] NATO should close its Mediterranean Dialogue after 26 years and create two new partnerships: North African Dialogue (with Maghreb region) and West Asia dialogue (with Levant region). NATO Istanbul Cooperation Initiative should be expanded to all countries of GCC.

[2] Hybrid warfare blends conventional warfare, irregular warfare (among state and non-state actors with proxies, militias etc.) and cyberwarfare with other methods, at economic level (with embargos) political level (with diplomatic tools, like proposing peace plans take it or leave it) and social level (with informational warfare, lawfare etc.)



The US and Iran: a peace to end all wars?


The next few years will be of fundamental importance to the future of the Middle East, the ‘pivotal region’ for the US and world order in the XXI century, but this month could be the turning point. At the beginning of XX century nobody would have thought that Europe was going to have the worst first half century of its history, even if followed by probably the best second half century. Today it is difficult to imagine how will be the XXI century for the Middle East: could be catastrophic or surprisingly idyllic, but probably will be neither of one. Both historian and political scientists have difficulty to predict the future everywhere and in the Middle East even more: while the firsts today need to avoid easy analogies the latters need to build a new paradigm for understanding the current international system. In our era of globalization, complexity and constant mutation of the international system it is difficult to reach the goal of reducing the uncertainty of the future, and the Middle East is one of the most difficult regions for such objective.

Admittedly, the Middle East has always been one of the world’s crucial regions and, for the past several decades, for the United States as well. Notwithstanding a reported US “pivot” to Asia, the Obama administration has recently been pulled back into the Middle Eastern quagmire. This was already true after the dramatic events of 9/11 and the subsequent Iraq war; but it is even clearer today, in the context of the civil wars and the new terrorist groups that have been born since the Arab Spring. Faced with lesser domestic and political pressures during the last two years of his second administration, Obama is at a crossroad: will he end his mandate with some positive achievement that would confirm he deserved the Nobel peace prize and that his new approach to American foreign policy, based on dialogue and non-intervention, was real and not a rhetoric proposition? Will the Middle East be the region where he will show his skills of a transformational leader?

I think that even in a so called ‘post-American/post-Western’ world, the United States will still play a fundamental role as the ‘international leader’ in the Middle East. The future of the Middle East (as the future of the world) may well be post-American and post-Western but it will not become non-American and non-Western as the United States remains a crucial actor. But I also think that the US will not be able to play their role effectively without the support of new regional powers. This means that Israel and Saudi Arabia cannot remain the only countries that the US feel comfortable to cooperate with, and more partners and allies will be needed for the United States to recuperate the efficacy and legitimacy lost in Iraq, to help solve the Middle Eastern conflicts. More specifically, two other regional powers should be included by the US in the Middle East chessboard, in order to build in the future a ‘peace to end all wars’, to paraphrase the sentence of Wilson one century ago — two non-Arab Muslim countries that have millenary civilizations and recently re-emerged as significant regional powers: Iran and Turkey.

While the US and Iran have been bitter rivals in the Middle East for 34 years, their conflictual relationship is increasingly difficult to sustain. A possible rapprochement, announced with the recently-launched nuclear talks will not be easy, but will be possible. It will require, among other things, also to convince Israel that a deal will be sooner or later make, and that the case of a future nuclear Iran would be manageable, allowing Iran’s return to the international community but at the same time guaranteeing the protection of Israel. In order to reach this goal the US might need the support of other regional powers, including one – Turkey – that is a NATO ally and could become the second stronger US ally in the Middle East after Israel. Six years after Obama entered the White House he does not seem to have a clear strategy yet, not only because of the chaos in the Middle East but because the US finds it difficult to deal with a multipolar world, being much more at ease with the bipolar world of the Cold War. But if the US wants to retain its leadership and ‘soft power’ in the world needs to have a clear strategy and efficacy in implementing it, and the last two years of the Obama administration (with a majority of the Congress in the hand of Republican opposition) could force the President to take bold actions in this direction. The first of this bold actions should be a nuclear deal with Iran at the end of this month.

The nuclear issue is first, to be sure, but there are other issues too, related to stability and peace in the Middle East, which cannot be postponed much longer as time is running out, from the ISIS war to the Arab-Israeli conflict. The factors of mistrust have not changed between the US and Iran for 34 years, but Obama seemed to wish to abandon this road to nowhere. From his speeches in Cairo and Oslo (where he received the Nobel Peace Prize) in 2009 it took 5 years to arrive to the ‘Geneva interim agreement on the Iranian nuclear program’ in 2013, the first treaty between US and Iran in 34 years. But diplomacy needs time and patience. Will Obama be able to become the transformational leader that he wanted to be with the Iranian détente? Or will he fail to bend Iran allowing the crossing of the red line? This is the test for America in the nuclear deal with Iran. That is why a deal at the end of November is a must, as it could really start a positive rapprochement with spillover effects for the stability of the region, in the long term, that we cannot even imagine right now.

Money in politics, is there a way to deal with it between extremes?


“We must make our choice. We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we cannot have both.” –Louis D. Brandeis

I just finished my summer program at Carter Center few days ago, where I was working as research assistant on how to improve democracy in Latin America. In particular I studied the relation between media, money and political campaign according to the electoral laws in eleven countries. Perfection doesn’t exist unfortunately in the mix of these elements to help create real democratic regimes, but we all understand that “Equal time rule”, “Network neutrality” and “Fairness doctrine” (recently eliminated in the US) are important tools to guarantee the so called “par condicio” (in Latin words “equal treatment”) in the use of media during campaign. At the same time the relation between money and politics is a delicate issue given that both public and private funds are potential improvements and potential limits to democratic systems. Public financing and party subsides (that should aim to equality and pluralism) tend to create corruption (as the disastrous Italian example shows) while private funds (that should aim to meritocracy and popular support) tend to create extremely powerful lobbies and so the problem of unbalanced lobbying (like in America) and the corruption of the crony capitalism (all around the world).

The point is that democracy is always struggling to find the right equilibrium between these two possibilities of financing its politics. Both the Italian and American examples demonstrate how more often democracies chose the extreme solutions that are not very much beneficial to the functioning of their systems. Italy for example now is choosing to eliminate the public funds after having them dominating the public policy through corrupted parties since the born of the Italian Republic (as a too angry and embittered population cannot accept any more the idea of public support to politicians). While in the US public funds can be received only if the candidate refuse the private ones (the last two Presidents opted for the private funding as it was much more than the public) and this system gives money too much power in influencing politics of the government (often blocked because of lobby power) with the risk of creating the “tyranny of the wealthy” instead of the “tyranny of the majority”. Actually, as an interesting recent study by Princeton University Prof Martin Gilens and Northwestern University Prof Benjamin I Page argues (1) in the US economic elites and interest groups representing business have an enormous influence in policy, respect to average citizens and mass-based interest groups. This is not exactly healthy for a democracy, being in reality more comparable to an oligarchy.

But there are countries that have in their laws norms that require a strict and limited use of funding in politics, and from these best practices we can learn to improve our democracies around the world, like in the case of Italy and the US. The problem is that as usual laws are not sufficient to guarantee a real democratic functioning of the party system (otherwise Latin American countries like Brazil, Colombia or Mexico, that have very good electoral laws would have uncontested political campaign and level of democracies higher than what in reality have). Constitutions and electoral laws can help to control the power of money in politics, however we need strong political, judicial and social systems in order to guarantee that laws are applied and used in a proper manner.

Besides this the issue of the role of money in politics has an equal opposite and broader question that is related to it: the one of the role of government in the economy of a country. As a matter of fact if the money doesn’t have to influence too much politics than politics has to regulate money or otherwise it will become sooner or later conditioned by it. But in our capitalist democracies the role of government in the regulation of money is not very much accepted (and actually created the level of inequality and the power of the banks that we have today).  A couple of interesting recent books (A commercial republic, O’Connor, Capital in the twenty-first century, Piketty, and Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism, Harvey (2)) show how today capitalism is at a crossroads with this dilemma: how much a democracy needs to control the inequality created by capital for its own survival? Again as Italian poet Manzoni said: “Ai posteri l’ardua sentenza” (posterity will judge) but in the meantime we need creative, constructive and concrete solutions to cure our sick capitalist democracies before is too late.

(1) http://www.economist.com/news/finance-and-economics/21602250-when-it-comes-setting-policy-views-businesses-and-rich-seem-count?fsrc=scn%2Ftw%2Fte%2Fpe%2Fed%2Fonedollaronevote, http://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-echochambers-27074746
(2) http://www.kansaspress.ku.edu/ococom.html

Are democracies and autocracies around the world experiencing a rapprochement in terms of length of governments?

jokowi modi

Indonesian and Indian most populated democracies, Russian and Chinese widest autocracies, European and American oldest democracies: is the ‘shadow of the future’ making them more similar in terms of duration of government?

I have been working as researcher at the Carter Center in Atlanta for almost two months now, during my summer program, on issues regarding democracy in Latin America, and in specific about the electoral reforms in 11 Latin American countries. But besides Latin America other continents new experiments with democracy are also worth to be analyzed, in particular in the Asian continent. In Asia there are the two biggest democracies of the world, India and Indonesia, but also two of the three biggest countries of the planet, Russia and China. So it worth to have some periodic reflections on democracy looking not only to the so called “Western” hemisphere but also to the “Eastern” one (even if as I wrote in the page “Geographical and mental maps” all is relative and we should start to call the “emerged land surface” with different words to overcome our ethnocentrism, so let’s call them “American hemisphere” and “Asian hemisphere”).


To briefly analyze some recent news about the two biggest world democracies we have to say first of all that there have been elections recently in both of them. India voted between April and May this year with the largest-ever election (more than 800 million people eligible to vote with a turnout of 2/3). The first party was the Bharatiya Janata Party, the right-wing and Hindu nationalist party, social conservative and economic neoliberal, with Narendra Modi nominated as the new Prime Minister (after ten years of Manmohan Singh with the Indian National Congress, the other traditional big party in India). Indonesia few days ago, the 9th of July, went to vote for its third presidential election since the birth of democracy with the fall of Suharto in 1998. Joko Widodo, the ‘young’ ex-mayor of Jakarta, seems to have won, even if his opponent, the ex-general Prabowo Subianto, declared also victory. If the results will be confirmed in few weeks (the count is long for such a big population living in 17 thousand islands!) the Indonesian Democratic Party, the party of the ex-Indonesian president Megawati Sukarnoputri, will go back to power after ten years of government of the Democratic Party of Indonesia (with Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono). So the democratic need for the turnover will be guaranteed.


But here more than the turnover I want to take a look at the duration of the governments in these two democracies and in general in the democracies around the world. Democratic governments have always had the problem of not enough long  policies, because of short duration of governments, or not enough efficient policies, because of the need of being reelected. But taking these two countries and many others as example it seems that all over the planet big or old democracies and big or old autocracies appear to get closer to each other with respect to the duration of their leaders (and may be not only in that). In fact if in China the president, that is also the secretary of the communist party, last 10 years, in democratic countries like India, Indonesia, but also the US and in many European countries(1), more and more in the last decades the Presidents or Prime Ministers managed to win two or three mandates, lasting also at least a decade (or 8 year in the case of the US). And after that usually there is the alternation of power with the opposite party. This might be a contingency but it could also mean that democracies and autocracies likewise might see the importance of political stability, in particular in the continuous changing world of our globalization era, knowing that to have effective policies with lasting outcomes we need more than just 4 or 5 years. Differently from each other obviously the democracies have after a period the change of the party in power while the autocracies change the person but not the party (like in China) or just shift the leadership between presidency and head of government (like in Russia). But still the similarity in a ‘stability need’ could be a real presence. Obviously in democracies you still have to respond to your constituencies but the people seem to understand this need of longer governments and seem to give a second support and chance to their leaders. The biggest risk for the democracies though, in the case when the governments manage to remain in power around a decade, is if the leaders push for indefinite reelections and so indefinite governments. In this case, in particular if there is not an efficient system of check and balances that guarantee a real democratic competition, the risk is to get closer to autocracies than remain real democracies. This is what seems to happen actually in countries like Venezuela or Nicaragua for example, that created recently the possibility of infinite reelection and don’t have a system that guarantee free and fair elections and an inclusive democratic system.


Let’s see what the future will bring us but for the time being this is the reflection we can do regarding the length of governments around the world. Besides the fact that Asian democracies may be new but appear already quite strong, if we consider that they seems to overcome two of the major risks of other fledgling democracies: sectarianism and totalitarianism. The first is related with the desire of mixing religion and politics, as happened in some of the Arab countries after revolutions. In this sense both India and Indonesia give some example of more maturity: India, even if has the Hindu nationalist party in power now, has no state religion and has in the constitution the division between state and religion. And Indonesia, even if is the biggest Muslim country in the world, never had the idea of Islamic parties in the government, as the constitution guarantee the freedom of religion (with six official faiths) and also the division between state and religion. The second risk, totalitarianism, starts often with the desire to mix the need for strong and stable governments with the craving for despotic or political-military leadership (like the desire of caudillismo in some Latin American countries is showing). And also here India and Indonesia have better scores, even if Indonesia still struggle on this, being Subianto an ex general. But if Jokowi will bring home the victory Indonesia will have given a good record of a quite healthy system, just 15 years since the beginning of his democratization process.


So for now we can say W India and Indonesia. At least their example is giving us hope for the future of democracy in the world. And may be could also help old democracies to renew their identity with new perspectives, in particular on how to deal and manage campaigns, money and media (but we will talk about this in future posts).


(1) Just to cite few examples: Angela Merkel is German chancellor since 2005, Silvio Berlusconi has been Italian Prime Minister since 2001 to 2011 (with an interruption between 2006 and 2008), Jacques Chirac was president of France since 1995 to 2007 and Mitterand since 1981 to 1995, Gonzalez was Spanish Prime Minister between 1982 and 1996 and Jean-Claude Juncker has been the longest-serving head of government of any European Union country, being Prime Minister of Luxembourg since 1995 to 2013.