A Short Commentary on the Summit of the Americas

By Ana Carolina Aranda-Jan. Ana Carolina Aranda-Jan is a Postgraduate Research Student in Politics and International Relations at University of Southampton.


U.S. loss of hegemony, Venezuela the loser, and the international presence of Latin America.

The 2015 Summit of the Americas (SOA) was an historical event in Latin American history. The Summit was first launched by U.S President Bill Clinton in 1992, as a series of meetings that brings together leaders of countries in Latin America. Historically, characterized of being led by the U.S agenda, the programme was different. This year was the first time in the over 20-year history of the SOA that Cuba was allowed to attend. It may be early to celebrate that the event brought together Cuba and the U.S however, this rapprochement could somehow distracted the purpose of the meeting: pursuing a common quest for regional solutions to its many challenges. It is important that the countries work to make this forum a space of discussion where differences and the show of who will say what and what the reactions might be, are put aside.

While the U.S. domestically beginning an interesting political moment with three strong “Latino” candidates; Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, pursuing the Oval Office in 2016, Obama travelled to Panama with a friendly face and relaxed attitude towards the meeting. By leaving the presidency in 2016, now there is nothing to lose and what happens in Panama is of relatively little importance, right? However, under the regions eyes it is undeniable that the U.S. does not lead the agenda of the summit anymore and debate about this country’s hegemony over the region has increased. 

We will have to see what happens with the U.S. and its relations in the region. Apparently, the U.S. will try to have a more active role in negotiating its economic and development policies with the countries in the region. In fact, we already started to see the first trips of different representatives of the U.S. to Cuba, for example. Let’s follow what happens with the meeting that the governor of NY is set to hold in Cuba.

Evidently the winner of the summit is Cuba. This is not because of the positive opinion of its participation at the summit but because of the presence of the U.S., giving stability to the current political and economic situation in the country.  It seems that Cuba and the U.S. are helping each other in generating stability in both countries. In contrast, the loser of the summit is Venezuela. Has anti-American discourse stopped being important? Without succeeding in lifting the decree of Venezuela as a “threat”, President Maduro’s weakness as a political leader is evidently. Moreover, there was a clear absence of unconditional support from Cuba (see Joaquin Roy).

Finally, the presidents of Mexico, Argentina and Brazil went unnoticed. They are the presentation of the counter-examples in the development models that they are pursing. Brazil and Dilma with the Petrobras scandals and the protests in the streets back home, Mexico with the kidnaping and killing of 43 students in Iguala and a security crisis; and Argentina with the Nisman case. This shows, evidently, that interesting times are coming in Latin-American.

Finally, the presence of Latin America at the international level is growing. Among different things happening in Latin America currently impacting the world, I leave just the ideas of a young Latin American politician that caused commotion in social networks this week, with a video of her participation at the first Ibero-American Youth Parliament held in Zaragoza reproaching populism from left and right-wing governments in Latin American (see Gloria Alvarez).

Hey, the West! Feeling Guilty about the War in Ukraine? That’s OK, Russian Propaganda is World’s Best!

By Dr. Kamil Zwolski, Lecturer in Global Politics and Policy at University of Southampton (Academia.edu). You can find more posts by Kamil here.


Many in the West feel guilty about the war in Ukraine. They think it’s their fault. Well, not literally ‘their’, but the fault of their governments. They believe Russia is merely reacting to American expansive hegemony. Their view is reinforced by the American Realist thinkers, most notably Henry Kissinger and John Mearsheimer. Besides, there were some rumours of fascists in the Ukrainian government. And nobody likes fascists, right? I mean fascists in Ukraine. Fascists in many other countries, including Russia, the UK and other Western European countries are fine. And what is with this Ukrainian state anyway, I mean is that even a real state? There is Russian minority there, so there must be two sides to this story, right? That’s what we value about British public debate – there are two sides to every story.

Now, seriously. A Yale University historian Timothy Snyder sheds some light on the key reasons why Russian propaganda has been so effective in pushing its own narrative about the war it wages against the Ukrainian state.

“There are a lot of things that play here. The first is that everybody was surprised. People were surprised by Crimea and it was a shock to think that the whole European order could be destroyed – which is, in fact, what happened. One European state invading another European state was not something which was expected. Because it was surprising, people were legitimately confused for a while.

The second reason Russian propaganda worked very well is that Russian propaganda is not so much about convincing you of its truth, it’s about preventing you from acting quickly. The idea that what happened in Crimea was some kind of civil conflict or that those soldiers were not Russian soldiers – those were obvious lies. But while people in the West were processing them, the invasion and annexation were completed. And then once it was completed, people felt a little stupid how they have been fooled and then they didn’t really want to return to the whole issue.

The third reason why Russian propaganda works is that it is addressed directly to very sensitive points. The Russians understand us, I think, much better than we understand them. And that’s because they’re so much like us, like the Americans. They understand that we are vulnerable to certain things. One of the things that we are particularly vulnerable to is the idea that this is somehow all our fault. So the Russians will hit over and over again the idea that the Americans are responsible.

And this is confusing for the Americans, but for the Europeans it’s divisive, because many European will think: “Ok. Well, America is responsible. We don’t have to do anything. Maybe we should blame the Americans for the whole thing.”

The fourth reason why Russian propaganda tends to work is the way western journalism works. Western journalists generally think there are two sides to every story. If the Ukrainians are very bad in getting their side across, which they generally are, unfortunately, and the Russians are extremely good at their version, then the Russian version wins even if it’s much further away from reality. And so western journalists sometimes don’t realize how much they are being used.

And the final reason, although this is much weaker now that people went to Kiev, is that people were reporting on the events from Moscow or from far away. In general, journalists and anyone who goes to Kiev or Ukraine in general report extremely well. So really just going there is often enough.”

Emphases added.

Full interview available here.

Haiti’s Revolutionary Past Missing from Post-Earthquake UK News Coverage

By Southampton Media Observatory (@SotonMediaObs).


Today marks the five year anniversary of the Haitian earthquake that killed an estimated 230,000 people. The 7.0 magnitude quake struck close to the Haitian capital Port au Prince on the afternoon of Tuesday 12th January, 2010, triggering an unprecedented social disaster. Yet January also holds an older historical significance for the people of Haiti, with the celebration of their Independence on New Year’s Day. In 1804, Haiti freed itself from French colonial rule, ending slavery and becoming the only country in history to be born from a successful slave revolt. However, this unique history is one that is often forgotten and its significance is underplayed.

In fact, the principle reason why the death toll following the earthquake was so high was because of systemic problems within Haiti’s developmental path that are inextricably linked to its fight for independence. However, this relationship is for the most part ignored in UK media coverage. Out of 1363 articles in UK national newspapers in the year following the earthquake (13th January 2010 to 12th January 2011) featuring the keyword ‘Haiti’, only 63 made reference to Haiti’s struggle for independence (Table 1) and only 15 mentioned the indemnity Haiti was subsequently forced to pay to France (Table 2).

Whilst 335 of the 1363 articles mentioned the impoverished nature of Haiti, making it a key frame of reporting (Table 1), only 41 also included a historical reference, with only 24 of these explicitly linking this historical context to poverty in Haiti. (Table 1)

Therefore, despite the direct linkage between disaster scale and poverty, and the readiness to acknowledge Haiti’s poverty in news coverage, UK national newspapers rarely made the connection between the social conditions in which the earthquake struck and Haiti’s historical experience since independence.

This omission is important not only because it makes the explanatory framework of the social disaster incomplete but also because it has potentially negative implications towards public perceptions about Haiti. Indeed, this exclusion is a substantial issue: Paul Farmer (2006, 191-192) notes that Haiti’s “bad press” is problematic “because it obscures Haiti’s real problems, their causes and their possible cures”.

Table 1: Poverty Key Words

Key Word Mentions Articles
Poverty 164 115
Poor 154 133
Poorest 153 137
Impoverished 58 55
Bankrupt 6 6
$2 (a day) 24 22
Western hemisphere 86 80
Unique Articles 335
History Mentions 41
Explicit Links 24

Table 2: Independence and Indemnity Key Words

Key Word Mentions Articles   Key Word Mentions Articles
Indemnity 3 1 1804 35 34
Reparation(s) 16 10 (1st/oldest) Black Republic 23 19
Compensation 4 3 Slave Rebellion 5 5
Restitution 2 1 Slave Revolt 13 13
Pay for lost colony 1 1 Slave colony 2 2
1825 6 5 Revolt (against slavery) 1 1
1947 9 8 Overthrew (slavery) 4 4
Independence debt 3 1 Independence 39 30
Compensate 2 2 Louverture/L’Ouverture 10 7
Unique Articles 15 Unique Articles 63

In Haiti, a continued lack of development and investment has led to widespread poverty, which is predominantly the result of an extended historical sequence of external and internal exploitation by unaccountable elites, relating back to the country’s very origins as a sovereign state.

The success of Haiti’s slave revolt was deeply troubling for the European powers and the USA who had slave-based colonies and populations. They feared the “contagion of rebellion” spreading and saw Haiti as a dramatic challenge to the prevailing world order that needed to be actively countered. One dramatic consequence of this was the USA’s refusal to recognise Haiti’s independence, thus limiting its access to international markets. Haiti thereby found itself in an international context of isolation with aggressive moves against it that “aggravated its internal problems and precipitated its economic decline.” In 1825 a massive French armada set out to retake the country; the invasion was only averted by Haitian acceptance to pay a vast indemnity to compensate France for the loss of its slave colony and incomes. By 1900, Haiti was spending 80% of its national budget on repayments for crippling loans borrowed to pay this indemnity. It was not paid off until 1947, which left Haiti “destitute, corrupt, disastrously lacking in investment and politically volatile.

The lack of historical context in UK national newspaper reporting on this key issue means that not only is a major part of the explanation of Haiti’s current plight missing from the narrative, but it also removes the crucial element of the role the world’s major powers have played in undermining Haiti’s development. This omission helps perpetuate an inaccurate public perception of the causes of Haiti’s social vulnerabilities that contributed to the exceedingly high death toll after the 2010 earthquake. This is problematic because an insufficient understanding of the causes inhibits the finding of successful, long-term solutions.


Cuba, the US, and Post-Hegemonic Inter-American Relations

By Pia Riggirozzi and Diana Tussie. Pia Riggirozzi is Associate Professor in Global Politics at University of Southampton (@PRiggirozziAcademia.edu) and Diana Tussie is Director of the Department of International Relations at the Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales (FLACSO) in Argentina. You can find more posts by Pia here.


Normative and geopolitical conditions that for decades secured United States (US) and US-sponsored institutions’ influential position in Inter-American governance have changed. Since the early 2000s ideological polarisation and different approaches to hemispheric governance meant that new regional institutions are reclaiming the region and rebuilding Inter-American relations while forcing the Washington based Organisation of American States (OAS) to redefine its position. The challenge is not merely one of symbolic politics led by left-leaning presidents railing against US domination. US-Latin American relations face a profound change in the coordinates of regional power, diplomacy and cooperation.

For more than a decade now Latin American left-leaning governments have been reworking spaces and institutions that govern Inter-American affairs. Various efforts have been made to create organizations to act as alternatives to Washington-based institutions. The creation of the Bolivarian Alliance of the Americas (ALBA) in 2004 led by Venezuela and Cuba, the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) in 2008, including the 12 South American nations; or the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), including all of the nations of Latin America and the Caribbean, should be seen as manifestations in this direction. Both organisations exclude the US or Canada, and are another manifestation of increasingly diversified global engagement of Latin American and Caribbean countries with countries outside the region, particularly China, and growing diplomatic importance of alternative regional bodies fostering new compromises, institutions, funding mechanisms, policies and practices within the region in areas such as security, (political) rights, development, energy, infrastructure and security.

The re-politicisation of the Inter-American order governed at the margins of US power put pressure on Washington and Washington-led institutions, such as the OAS which from being a core institutional disciplinary mechanism is now fighting a place to remain relevant as new rules are being reasserted by CELAC and UNASUR. Diplomacy is being played at its highest stake. While the sixth Summit of the Americas, a process affiliated with the OAS, held in Colombia in April 2012, displayed U.S. divergence from the region in terms of policy toward Cuba and anti-drug strategy, the second CELAC Summit, celebrated last February in Havana, was attended by the OAS General Secretary, José Miguel Insulza.

And the OAS is losing grounds on signature issue-areas. UNASUR has effectively displaced the OAS as the preferred institution for conflict resolution and mediation in the region (Bolivia in 2008, Ecuador in 2010, Honduras in 2009, Paraguay in 2012, and Venezuela in 2013) and is engaged in innovative forms of ‘niche diplomacy’ representing South America as a whole within the World Health Organisation and vis-à-vis international pharmaceutical corporations. CELAC for its part has entangled the US in a process of ‘unsociable sociability’ with Cuba as the latter hosted the most recent CELAC Summit, one attended by UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, and OAS Secretary-General, José Miguel Insulza. Cuba is also likely to attend the 2015 Summit of the Americas, hosted by Panama, despite US Members of Congress opposition but a condition of other countries´ attendance. This is even more likely as US and Cuba entered a process of diplomatic rapprochement.

The importance of this diplomatic coexistence is to be understood as a recognition of Cuba as an integrated member of the Inter-American system, whether Washington en toute likes it or not. The space for new regional policies and a fresh balance of interests has become manifest, as we indicated when furthering the notion of ‘post-hegemonic regionalism’. Our argument then and now is that differences and disagreements are no longer just a question for “take it or leave it, my friend” but can be accommodated in more equitable ways than hard-line hegemonic diplomacy ever accepted.

Health for All on Human Rights Day: A Pro-Poor Approach

By Pia Riggirozzi and Erica Penfold. Pia Riggirozzi is Senior Lecturer in Global Politics at University of Southampton (@PRiggirozziAcademia.edu) and Erica Penfold is Research Officer at the South African Institute of International Affairs. Both are partners at the ESRC-DFID funded project ‘Poverty Reduction and Regional Integration: SADC and Unasur Health Policies’ (@PRARIRepir). You can find more posts by Pia here.


In recent years there has been growing global awareness of the interplay between rights and the development process and a generalised recognition of social determinants of health connecting poverty, equality and health. Yet, for millions of people throughout the world, the full enjoyment of the right to health still remains a distant goal. Poverty remains one of the driving forces behind ill health, a lack of access to healthcare and medicines and consistent underdevelopment. The World Bank shows that 700 million fewer people live in conditions of extreme poverty in 2010 than in 1990 across developing regions. However, the Global South is still struggling, everyday thousands of children, women and men die silently from preventable diseases associated with poverty.

The United Nations acknowledges these issues as it continues to produce a stream of further guidance in the form of General Comments, such as the General Comment 14, while sponsoring global Declarations and Commissions on Social Determinants of Health. Human Rights Day observed by the international community on 10th December since 1950 acts as a reminder of the importance of recognition and advancement of rights and the human right to health. But the current high-level focus on health by the international community while recognising the strong relationship between poverty and health, in practice, has been quite conservative in turning the rhetoric into practice. Translating normative principles into politics of compliance and practices for policy implementation remains uneven across the wide spectrum of human rights issues, acknowledging and affecting bearers of rights in different ways. For William Easterly this is clear, ‘which rights to health are realised is a political battle’ contingent on a political and economic reality that profits on the margins of (poor) health. He is right, we can’t downplay politics. Think of a funder – whether the Gates Foundation, Welcome Trust, private charity or government programme – their agenda may well spend a great deal of resources (financial and human) on dealing with one disease. Or programmes advanced by the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), the Global Fund, or the Gates Foundation; despite having the best intentions, they may be guided by their own views, agendas and objectives. Undoubtedly, diseases like HIV, malaria and tuberculosis account for over 90 per cent of the global disease burden, yet the millions of dollars poured into programmes to tackle these diseases have done little to tackle weak healthcare systems which are in many cases unreachable or distrusted by the people they are designed to help. Equally critical, other peoples’ rights could be neglacted if diseases like dengue, leishmaniasis, Chagas and Chikungunya that also add to the increasing toll of human life and to the poverty-disease burden receive little attention. The risk is that what is visible and urgent leads over what is marginal and that actions targeted to the poor, yet ignoring the social factors that cause poverty and exclusion, discriminate positively, normalising and even reproducing inequities. The Ebola outbreak in West Africa is another reminder of these risks.

The realisation of people’s rights, entitlements, and obligations, is largely determined by the nature of the state and its capacity to respond to internal public demands, interests, and pressures. Philanthropists in rich countries and the global aid community more generally can mainstream and support national strategies. But we believe there is a role to pay by the neglected partners in development: regional organisations. Regional organisations can be key engines in the development of progressive social policies and advocacy of rights. For example, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has established a regional court of justice adjudicating on national labour rights, while the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) is now driving initiatives to expand entitlements to health care and social security within member states and it is shaping policies around disability all over the world, negotiating with one voice at the World Health Organisation. This makes sense because some social harms and epidemics are inherently cross-border, and are exacerbated or facilitated by regional developments.

Regional organisations that were built for other reasons are now becoming much more important for health and will be particularly important if we look at the Post-2015 Agenda. Organisations such as UNASUR and ECOWAS can provide donors and partners with a single point of contact for discussions and implementation of poverty reduction programmes in member countries. They are close to their populations and can develop technical cooperation, building infrastructure and strengthening capacity between the member states, rescaling practices to reduce socio-economic disparities.

Renewed focus on health, as a basic human right, is a poverty issue. It demands thinking about the deep determinants of (under)development and social exclusion and national, regional and global commitments to enhance access to health care, to medicines, to opportunities. Neglecting this will be a tragedy of aid assistance and possibly of the Sustainable Development Goals.

 

England’s Great Illusion (about the EU)

By Dr Kamil Zwolski, Lecturer in Global Politics and Policy at University of Southampton (Academia.edu). You can find more posts by Kamil here.


On Monday, 20 October, the outgoing European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso responded to English nationalists in a speech delivered at the Chatham House think tank in London. Here is the part of this speech directly countering some Europhobe arguments.

That is why I do not underestimate the very real concerns UK citizens are expressing about Europe. These merit a substantive response.

You don’t like the idea of a huge EU budget. I get that. By the way, it’s not – and with just 1% of Europe’s GDP we will need to fully use the agreed flexibility if we are pay our bills to those we are committed to invest in. Like Cambridge University for example, which consistently tops the tables for winning EU research funding.

But it’s a shame that the political debate here focuses only on absolute figures, when quality of spending is so much more important. This Commission has reformed the budget to focus on providing funding in countries and regions for the things that really matter – investment in research, in young people, in a more connected Europe.

You don’t want to be paying for armies of Eurocrats. I get that. We are cutting one in twenty staff across all EU institutions and agencies. The reforms we have introduced will save €2.7 billion by 2020 and €1.5 billion per year in the long run.

Personally I support the government’s aim to get more of Britain’s best and brightest to work in our institutions. The number of British officials is less than half of what it should be and falling quickly. Constant criticism and a pending existentialist debate do not make us the most attractive employer for young British graduates.

You don’t want Europe to meddle where it should not. I get that. Since 2004, the Commission has cut red tape worth €41 billion to European business. We have not interfered with the height of hairdressers’ heels, or the ergonomic design of office chairs.

We have scrapped legislation on bendy cucumbers – although the supermarkets were the first to complain. We have introduced evidence-based policy-making, consultation and impact assessment as the norm.

There are wide-spread concerns in the UK and elsewhere about abuse of free movement rights. I get that. Already in 2011, after constructive dialogue with the British Government, the Commission took forward changes to the way income support is dealt with under European social security rules. This benefit is now only due to those who have already worked and paid into the UK system. Since then we have undertaken concrete actions to support Member States as they apply the anti-abuse rules, for example on sham marriages.

I believe that any further changes to address some of the concerns raised should not put into question this basic right, which cannot be decoupled from other single market freedoms.

The Commission has always been ready to engage constructively in this discussion. But changes to these rules need all countries to agree.

And it is an illusion to believe that space for dialogue can be created if the tone and substance of the arguments you put forward question the very principle at stake and offend fellow Member States. It would be an historic mistake if on these issues Britain were to continue to alienate its natural allies in Central and Eastern Europe, when you were one of the strongest advocates for their accession.

[Emphases added]. Full speech available here.

Calling Russia’s Bluff: How to Analyse and Finalise the Conflict in Ukraine

By Dr Kamil Zwolski, Lecturer in Global Politics and Policy at University of Southampton (Academia.edu). You can find more posts by Kamil here.


Take any analysis of the war in Ukraine and it is likely to be limited in the following one or two ways. Firstly, it will probably be heavily biased. Commentators often tend to unreflectively follow the official narrative of Washington and NATO, or completely buy into the Russian propaganda. Secondly, most analyses simplify what is a complex problem, looking for explanations exclusively at the international level (the enlargement of NATO) or within countries’ political systems (autocratic Russia). We need a more systematic approach.

In this contribution I borrow from the late American political scientist Kenneth Waltz. In his book Man, the State and War, he proposed to look for the causes of war at three different levels: individual, state and international. Aware of space limitations, I narrow down my analysis to the last two levels. Such framework, while seemingly less exciting than simplistic finger-pointing, may lead to more insightful conclusions and, in turn, better inform any recommendations we may suggest.

Ukraine in the international system

It is a truism to say that states have the ultimate authority in international relations. In contrast to domestic affairs, there is no international police or a court. Everything that exists in international relations is a result of agreements between sovereign states. This simple fact, however, does not mean that states must fight with each other. They can be friends or neutral towards one another. What did go wrong between Ukraine and Russia? There are two competing narratives which seek to explain the conflict at the level of the so-called international system. The first one has been most forcefully advanced by Professor John Mearsheimer from the University of Chicago in Foreign Affairs. We can call it a realist explanation.

In short, Mearsheimer argues that the West is to blame for the conflict in Ukraine. The West, and mainly the United States, has provoked Russia by pushing for the enlargement of NATO and constantly trying to extend the Western sphere of influence. While this strategy may have worked with relatively weak President Boris Yeltsin, it has met with inevitable resistance from President Vladimir Putin, whom Mearsheimer calls ‘first-class strategist’.

The second narrative comes from the capitals of many of the Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries, some Western European countries, from NATO and from Washington. We can call it a liberalist narrative. In this interpretation, Russia is becoming increasingly delusional about restoring its position as the world superpower. This camp likes to remind Putin’s words about the collapse of the Soviet Union being the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the last century. They point to the wars in Georgia and Ukraine as evidence that Russia is increasingly dangerous and not to be trusted. Ukraine, for its part, should be supported in choosing its own future, preferably as a liberal democracy.

Both sides of this debate present enough empirical evidence to make their case. Ultimately, where one stands in this discussion depends on where one sits geographically and economically. Poland, for example, wants to have a stable, pro-Western democracy on its eastern border. Being a frontline EU and NATO country is not optimal for its security. Germany, France and Italy have a slightly different take; because of their location further away from the Russian borders and different historical experience, they feel more secure. Thus, they are more relaxed to focus on bilateral trade with Russia.

US policy seems to reflect the advice of Zbigniew Brzezinski, a National Security Advisor to President Carter. In his book The Grand Chessboard, Brzezinski calls for the strong American endorsement of the newly-independent CEE states. Russia’s intentions are hotly debated, but all the evidence suggests that Moscow will be persistent in preventing Ukraine from strengthening its ties with the EU.

Tell me your form of government, and I will tell you who you are

To explain the conflict at the level of the international system is different from looking for the causes of states’ behaviour in their domestic political systems. Unsurprisingly, commentators are similarly divided in how much emphasis they put on the characteristics of the main actors involved in the Ukrainian war, depending on their values and sympathies.

On the one hand, the liberalist camp draws on the old argument that liberal democracies are less prone to go to war with each other and to pose danger for their neighbours. This is why, in this narrative, Russia’s domestic political system is closely scrutinised. Interestingly, there is little disagreement between liberalists and realists that Russia, under President Putin, has become an autocratic state. Hardly anyone attempts to defend Russia as a democratic country.

While consolidating his power, Putin has practically eliminated any political opposition. He has also been consistent in limiting democratic freedoms in Russia. Admittedly, the majority of Russians do not appear to be concerned with this process, which is unsurprising considering the decades of Soviet social engineering. The problem is, according to external critiques, that increasingly autocratic Russia is a threat to its neighbours. Putin has created a socio-political system in which he can do what he wants abroad. In this context, it is understandable that many analyses intend to expose Putin’s intentions.

On the other hand, some realists, together with Marxist intellectuals and far-right parties in Europe, do not perceive Russian autocracy as a problem, at least not in relation to the war in Ukraine. Rather, they point their fingers at the American political system, which, so they say, is dominated by the neoconservative agenda. It is this neoconservative element in American foreign policy which drives this country to expand its spheres of influence around the world. This, inevitably, results in Washington interfering in other countries’ affairs. Russia is a victim in the Ukrainian conflict. It merely responds to the neo-onservative expansion of American alliances and spheres of influence. The closer ‘the West’ moves to the Russian borders, the more reaction we must expect from Putin.

Again, both sides have ample evidence to advance their case. Putin, without a question, has made Russia more autocratic. The Russian army did advance into Ukraine to support pro-Russian rebels in the south-eastern parts of the country. The annexation of Crimea was illegal by any standards. Russia is putting a lot of pressure, including hardly concealed blackmail, to force Ukraine into its pet project of the Eurasian Customs Union.

To this, the opposite side will respond that American foreign policy is no better. They will remind about an unauthorised invasion of Iraq in 2003, which was conducted under the pretext of the ‘war on terror’, but in reality was driven by the neoconservative, expansionist agenda. They will also, as Mearsheimer did in his contribution, criticise the enlargement of NATO in the 1990s and 2000s.

Inside Ukraine

Even when the discussion zooms in on the domestic situation in Ukraine, the arguments remain ideologically-driven and rather simplistic. On the one side, we hear that the people of Ukraine have chosen Europe through mass protests in Kiev, the so-called Euromaidan. On the other side, we hear that those people are fascists.

The truth is that many in Ukraine are tired and angry about the cancer of corruption and nepotism which eat up the country’s fragile institutions. They see how the CEE countries have transformed after the Cold War and want the same path for Ukraine. There are also large numbers of ethnic Russians and many Ukrainians, particularly in south-eastern parts of the country, who believe their future is with Russia, preferably as part of the Russian Federation. This brings me to recommendations.

Recommendations

Based on this short analysis, I reject the idea advanced by John Mearsheimer to transform Ukraine into ‘a neutral buffer between NATO and Russia’. To be more specific, I don’t think it is a bad option for Ukraine, but I believe it is for Ukrainians to decide. If Ukrainians, in their majority, choose to join the Eurasian Customs Union, the West must respect that. Angela Merkel already hinted that she would have no problem with such an outcome. On the other hand, however, if Ukraine chooses to deepen its ties with, and eventually join the EU, Russia must respect that and stop terrorising Kiev.

The sceptics will be quick to point out that Ukraine is, and always will be ethnically and ideologically divided – thus, the buffer country idea. As a result, the outcome preferred in the south-eastern Donbas region will be rejected by the rest of Ukraine and vice-versa. Here comes my second recommendation: If Moscow wants Kiev to offer the Donbas region more autonomy, Kiev should call Russia’s bluff and do just that.

In fact, Kiev should allow the Donbas region as much autonomy as it wants, and preferably allow it to become fully independent. As a Ukrainian-American writer Alexander Motyl points out in Foreign Affairs, this would allow the rest of Ukraine to speed up the necessary reforms and tighten its relationship with the EU. It would also help to develop healthier relations with Russia, which would have no choice but to finally respect Ukraine’s sovereignty.

[This article was also published in Diplomatist – India’s magazine on diplomacy and international affairs.]

How Argentina’s Government Has Drawn New Energy from the Vulture Fund Crisis

By Pia Riggirozzi, Senior Lecturer in Global Politics at University of Southampton (@PRiggirozziAcademia.edu). You can find more posts by Pia here.


Sovereign debt, crises and default have been regular features of the Argentine economy for years – but the latest debt crisis, involving the government and the so-called “vulture funds”, has thrown up new questions about the state’s capacity versus the ethics of capitalism.

Vulture funds are private creditors who deliberately took up cut-price Argentine bonds after the 2002 collapse, then refused to renegotiate their terms in 2005 and 2010 when the country entered a process of debt restructuring – all with the aim of eventually litigating against default and reaping exorbitant profits.

Accordingly, these creditors had been demanding the full value of the debt on which they had originally speculated. At the end of July this year, in the latest twist in its fiscal saga, Argentina was declared to be in default for the second time in 12 years.

Defaults are always economically damaging and politically destabilising, particularly in a context of inflation and growing political and social malaise. But the irony this year is that, unlike December 2001, today’s markets seem relatively untroubled by the event – and that rather than putting the government on the ropes, the current financial crisis is apparently shoring up the dominance of the Kirchnerist project.

imagesThe bad old days

The background to all this is Argentina’s financial crisis of 2001-2002, precipitated by what was then the biggest sovereign debt default in history.

Argentina was at a critical juncture; its public debt as a percentage of GDP reached 166%, the nation was facing abrupt pauperisation, road blocks, and factory takeovers; its leaders were struggling to preserve social cohesion. Two months after Argentina defaulted, the value of the peso dropped by more than a third.

Cross-class demands for more inclusive and responsive democracy screamed “¡Que se vayan todos!” (“Out with all of them”), expressing the enormous gap that had opened up between government and society.

As the country’s whole political economic order collapsed, presidents came and went in quick succession – until a temporary parliament-led government under the Peronist former leader of Congress, Eduardo Duhalde, assumed some degree of institutional command. That administration eventually gave way to the elected government of Nestor Kirchner in May 2003.

Fixing it up

The challenges facing the new government were huge. A judicious devaluation of the peso in January 2002, however, led to a considerable expansion of exports, especially agro/industrial ones, greatly boosting state revenues. Systematic renegotiations of the terms of privatised companies and nationalisations followed suit. Negotiations also began with creditors of 152 different bonds series, issued under several jurisdictions.

In 2005 and 2010, a deal brought the country’s default to a successful close, with 93% of creditors accepting new bonds worth 30 cents on the dollar. The remaining 7% of “hold-out” creditors rejected the offer, demanding payment in full. The government also sought independence from the IMF, cancelling off the debt and creating an image of a sovereign state, with greater room for manoeuvre than was possible in the previous decades.

A more confident and better-resourced government was often accompanied by controversial forms of social and political incorporation. Like Menem in the 1990s, the administrations of Nestor Kirchner, followed by Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, concentrated heavily on reinforcing executive authority, took timely yet bold initiatives and advanced controversial forms of government interventionism.

This strategy paid off by doing something to alleviate widespread poverty, inequality and exclusion. But whatever the social gains, the cost has been economic stress, distributional pressures and badly weakened political institutions.

Betting the farm

The political strength of the government has been tested to the extreme by two main forces: farmers and vulture funds.

In 2008, during a state decision to increase agro-export taxes to reflect fluctuating commodity prices, landowners and farm-based groups organised lock-outs, road blocks and the destruction of crops bound for market, until the export tax was settled.

To this day, conservative and reactionary rural factions play a massive and direct role in shaping policy, even while supporting the political opposition. In a flailing economy that has failed to diversify its industrial base and is highly dependent on the primary sector, this is not a minor concern.

Argentina is now stuck with recession, high inflation and, over the past year, the pressure of an unstable peso and the black market for dollars. All this, combined with the gloomy global environment, leaves the country increasingly dependent on foreign capital to maintain growth, employment and price stability.

Under pressure

Factions outside the government have increasingly joined forces in the renewed legal battle being waged on behalf of the vulture funds – and litigation from hold-out creditors, which has persisted for more than a decade, now carries the weight of the US Supreme Court, which in July upheld a decision ruling that Argentina is legally obliged to repay its American hold-out creditors in full.

This took a Kafkaesque turn when the Argentine government deposited the bondholders’ payment into US-based financial intermediaries, only to be blocked by US district judge, Thomas Griesa, alleging that payments could not be processed at all unless settled directly with the vulture funds. As a result, Argentina defaulted.

Legally, Judge Griesa’s sentence is widely believed to be impracticable: agreement with vultures means last-to-come-in creditors get the best deal, which would send Argentina into an economic tailspin based on an contorted interpretation of the legal principle of pari passu.pdf) (equal treatment of creditors).

So, full payment: politically unlikely and economically impossible. The government will need to weigh Argentine laws and citizens versus US laws and investors – a fiendish balancing act for a government that has invested all its political capital in opposing the vultures at all costs.

Paradox

The case against the vulture funds has had a huge impact on the economic agenda not just in Argentina, but also internationally: in early September, the United Nations General Assembly began work to establish a new international convention regulating the restructuring of sovereign debt.

Meanwhile, the political fallout of the crisis at home has paradoxically been largely to the benefit of term-limited president Cristina Kirchner, reasserting her centrality in politics just as she was losing her clout in the run-up to the 2015 elections.

The struggle against the hold-out creditors is being played out electorally through social mobilisation. This is just what happened in the 2008 conflict with the farmers; Cristina Kirchner’s strategy was to appeal to the urban working class. She pointed out farmers’ relative prosperity and stoked fears that popular social programmes would have to be eliminated if they got their way – even publicly calling them “greedy” and “coup-plotters”.

The Kirchner administration is now once again back on its old mettle, appealing to citizens with the slogan “Patria o Buitres” (“homeland or vultures”), a binary definition that suits her barnstorming rhetoric and mocks casino capitalism and those who support it. Her political opposition is back on the defensive – and her government perhaps reinvigorated – even as she grapples with the thorniest crisis of her tenure.

As a New Sanctions Package Hits Russia, Europe Slips Back into Old-Style Geopolitics

By Dr Kamil Zwolski, Lecturer in Global Politics and Policy at University of Southampton (Academia.edu). You can find more posts by Kamil here.


As a fragile ceasefire just about holds in Ukraine, with shelling reported in the pivotal port city of Mariupol, the EU has announced a new round of sanctions against Russia. Targeted at state-owned firms and Russian officials, the package prompted a predictably spiky Russian rejoinder, with Dmitry Medvedev promising an “asymmetric” response – possibly even extending to the closure of airspace.

Custom Union, Ukraine, EU summit in MinskBut whatever the actual impact of the sanctions, and whatever the fate of the ceasefire, one thing is for certain: thanks to the Ukraine crisis, the landscape of conflict in Europe has been transformed for good.

The story of Europe since the fall of the Soviet Union is always told the same way: after the West triumphed over the East at the end of the Cold War, conventional great-power politics on the continent came to a permanent close. And while conflict has hardly disappeared from Europe, the skirmishes that have popped up since 1990 are no longer major inter-state rivalries.

Instead, the story goes, they result from state collapse, bad governance, transnational crime, or tensions around issues like immigration. We are now more likely to discuss European politics in terms of institutions, integration, transnational actors, norms and values than in terms of the clash of big countries.

In a few short months, Ukraine has changed all that. The debates now raging around Europe’s new geopolitical situation are radically different from the conversation of just a year or so ago.

The West’s fault?

The argument is now not about whether state-versus-state wars will return to Europe, but whether they left in the first place. Some analysts have responded to the Ukrainian fracas by proclaiming that Europe has never really moved on from the drama of the great international face-off.

They point out that, in fact, American and European elites have consistently rolled the EU and NATO eastward towards the Russian border – a process which was always going to lead to a clash of interests.

From this point of view, the West is to blame for the current crisis. The only way out, as some foreign policy “realists” would have it, is to turn Ukraine into a sort of neutral buffer state between NATO and Russia, abandoning all efforts to spread “Western values” and promote democracy in Ukraine.

But over the course of an increasingly fraught summer, this perspective has run up against the mounting evidence of Russia’s very active military engagement in Ukraine, pursued despite protests of innocence.

By the end of August, for instance, evidence had emerged showing that Russian soldiers and various intelligence services have been directly involved in destabilising various parts of Ukraine beyond even the flashpoints in the east.

In fact, recent evidence shows that on August 28, Russian forces invaded and captured the Ukrainian town of Novoazovsk. Ukrainian forces were forced to withdraw, along with Ukrainian border servicemen, who lack any heavy military equipment.

Those developments ended any real debate over whether Russia has been an actor in the war, though the extent and intimacy of its involvement remained subject to heated debate by the time a ceasefire was signed on September 5.

Don’t overestimate the West

But despite all the evidence of Russian involvement, some commentators still hold that all this instability and violence is the fruit of Western policy – what they frame as attempts to “socially engineer” the domestic situation in Ukraine in the years leading up to Euromaidan.

But the fact is that in those years, the West was anything but agreed on Ukraine’s prospects for membership of either NATO or the EU. For example, while Poland had long been strongly advocating EU membership for Ukraine to flatter its own geopolitical ends, the EU as a whole preferred to confine Ukraine to various “cooperation frameworks” rather than hold open, formal membership negotiations.

Meanwhile, the question of the Eurasian Customs Union is still deeply unresolved. Angela Merkel recently stressed that Ukraine is free to join the Union, which also includes Kazakhstan and Belarus. In her words, “the European Union would never make a big conflict out of it, but would insist on a voluntary decision.”

A Ukrainian decision to join the Customs Union would, in fact, be favoured in many European political circles, if only for the stability it might conceivably bring. Still, the Customs Union Summit, which took place in Minsk on August 26, was a key display of how farcically messy European geopolitics have become.

That meeting was formally convened to discuss economic cooperation, but the main hope was that the Russian and Ukrainian presidents would make some kind of effort to resolve the conflict, or at least make some diplomatic progress.

But after a two-hour conversation between the presidents, there was no indication that they had reached any sort of agreement. The participation of a high-level EU delegation, including Catherine Ashton herself, apparently didn’t help either.

It was in further talks in Minsk ten days later that a ceasefire deal was finally agreed – while the EU’s foreign ministers and leaders were occupied at the NATO summit in Wales.

Get it together

Europe is now facing in its deepest geopolitical crisis since 1990, and has a fiendish dilemma on its hands: whether to tighten up security cooperation and risk further isolating Russia (following NATO’s decision to reinforce its eastern flank), or to pragmatically acknowledge that Russia has its own strategic interests – hoping that they remain confined to eastern Ukraine.

Both these approaches are wrong. On the one hand, Russia must be shown in no uncertain terms that what it’s been doing in Ukraine is illegal, ceasefire or no ceasefire, and that it will pay for it in the end. Central and eastern European countries need to be reassured that their larger neighbours actually care about their safety, and can do something real to help shore it up.

But at the same time, political and diplomatic efforts outside of sanctions must be accelerated, not sidelined by military posturing and the wrangling over sanctions. Otherwise the EU will only find itself further sidelined in future negotiations over Ukraine, just as it was in Minsk

In short, the EU urgently needs to get its act together. If it doesn’t, it will have to finally stop pretending it has any sort of common foreign policy, and accept the consequences as they come.

[This article is cross-posted at The Conversation. – Ed.]

Enhancing Rights and Equity in Health: What Difference Can South American Regional Diplomacy Make?

By Pia Riggirozzi, Senior Lecturer in Global Politics at University of Southampton (@PRiggirozziAcademia.edu). You can find more posts by Pia here.


The United Nations Day for South-South Cooperation last Friday must be taken as an opportunity to reflect about the place and opportunities for regional organisations in the South to provide leadership and direction in support of the right to health, equity and alternative practices of global (health) governance.

Back in 2005, during the Fourth Summit of the Americas in Mar del Plata, Buenos Aires, left-leaning Heads of State and anti-globalisation movements expressed their rejection to the US-led Free Trade Agreement of the Americas and brought to a close its negotiations. At the same time, South American leaders sealed a new deal towards alternatives modalities of regional governance. The birth of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) should be seen in this light. UNASUR crystallised as an ambitious integration project with renewed commitments on democratic principles, inclusion and human rights. Health in this context became a ‘locus for integration’ and a new framework to advance the right to health and legal paradigms linking citizenship and health.[1] To varying extents, UNASUR institutionalised regional theme-specific networks and country-based working groups to implement health projects, enabled spaces for knowledge exchange and regional strategies for medicine production and commercialisation, and helped coordinating common positions acting as a global player in the advocacy of health equity.

Nearly a decade after that meeting in Mar del Plata, has UNASUR diplomacy enhanced the right to health? Last June, at a speech for the 35th biannual conference for the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), General Secretary, Alicia Bárcena stated, “cooperation in Latin America and the Caribbean is at a turning point, as the region still needs aid, but is also able to provide aid.”[2] Indeed, better-resourced and more confident Latin American governments are not only recipients and providers of aid but also carving out new spaces in global health diplomacy. 

Regional health diplomacy: UNASUR as norm-entrepreneur?

Tackling germs, negotiating norms, and securing access to medicines are persistent challenges that disproportionally affect developing countries’ participation in global health governance. Furthermore, over the last two decades, the excessive focus on global pandemics and security in global health diplomacy, rendered peripheral diseases that usually strike the poor and vulnerable, creating situations of marginalisation and inequality across societies. In other words, what is ‘visible’ and ‘urgent’ – what defines risks and ‘high politics’ in health to use the language of International Relations – leads over what is ‘marginal’. Furthermore, who frames what and why depends on how actors, including government officials, non-governmental organisations (e.g. Medicins Sans Frontieres, Oxfam, the Gates Foundations), institutions (e.g. World Health Organisation, World Bank, UNICEF, UNAIDS), public-private partnerships (e.g. GAVI), position and negotiate interests in global health governance.

Since 2010, UNASUR took up this glove acting as a corrective to the side-lining of rights on account of risk/security concerns in international health politics. One of the first positions taken by UNASUR at the WHO was concerning the impact intellectual property rights on access to medicines and the monopolist position of pharmaceutical companies on price setting and generics. Led by Ecuador and Argentina, UNASUR successfully advanced discussions on the role of the WHO in combating counterfeit medical products in partnership with the International Medical Products Anti-Counterfeiting Taskforce (IMPACT), an agency led by Big Pharma and the International Criminal Police Organisation (Interpol) and funded by developed countries engaged in intellectual property rights enforcement. Controversies focused on the legitimacy of IMPACT and its actions seen as led by technical rather than sanitary interests, unfairly restricting the marketing of generic products in the developing world. At the 63rd World Health Assembly in 2010, UNASUR successfully proposed that an intergovernmental group replaced IMPACT to act on, and prevent, counterfeiting of medical products. This resolution was approved at the 65th World Health Assembly in May 2012. In the course of this meeting, UNASUR also lobbied for opening negotiations for a binding agreement on financial support and research enhancing to meet the needs of developing countries.

More recently, led by the Ecuadorian delegation, UNASUR presented to discussion at the WHO an action plan which aims to improve the health and wellbeing of people with disabilities. This action plan was successfully taken up at the 67th session of the World Health Assembly in Geneva, in May 2014, when the WHO’s 2014-2021 Disability Action Plan was approved.[3] This plan focuses on assisting regional WHO member countries with less-advanced disability and rehabilitation programs and will be carried out by the WHO in conjunction with regional organisations such as: Caribbean Community (CARICOM), Central American Integration System (SICA), Southern Common Market (MERCOSUR) and UNASUR. This is not a minor issue as in countries that bear a ‘double burden’ of epidemic communicable diseases and chronic non-transmissible diseases. Supporting these developments, the South American Institute of Health Governance, UNASUR’s health think-tank, provides policy-oriented research, fostering debate and capacity building for policy-makers and negotiators in light of the post-2015 Development Agenda.

The limits of a broker

The presence of UNASUR in this type of health diplomacy, and its coordinated efforts to redefine rules of participation and representation in the governing of global health, are indicative of a new rationale in regional integration and regional policy-making in Latin America. These actions create new spaces for policy coordination and collective action where regional institutions become an opportunity for practitioners, academics and policy makers to collaborate and network in support of better access to healthcare, services and policy-making. For negotiators, UNASUR structures practices to enhance leverage in international negotiations for better access to medicines and research and development funding, as well as better representation of developing countries in international health governance. For advocacy actors, UNASUR represents a new normative platform for claiming and advancing the right to health within the region while at the same time attempting to establish itself as a broker between national needs and global norms, a political pathway that differs from the position held by Latin America in the past.

The experience of UNASUR opens an unprecedented opportunity to evaluate the ways regional organisations address rights-based concerns affecting ordinary people. It also teaches some important lessons while it highlights a troubling paradox. First, region should be seen as a space where politics and policy happens within a geographical space as much as trans-border actor with a unique capacity to rework and contest norms. Second, scholars interested in agenda setting in global politics, who often place attention to the dominance of powerful Northern-based actors, should address new corridors of diffusion and the agency of Southern regional arrangements as norm entrepreneurs advancing (human) rights. Researchers and practitioners interested in rights-based governance and development can’t afford to ignore Southern regional formation ambitions and their attempts rework global norms. Finally, innovative diplomatic intervention and South-South cooperation promoting rights, and the normative agency of regional organisation while must not be romanticised should neither be trivialised.

There however is a paradox at the heart of regional defense of equity. Normative claims about the morality of rights as an overarching approach to governance must not down-play politics. While UNASUR advocates health rights globally, regional frameworks pushing for reforms towards universal health systems are significantly filtered by quite conservative practices at the national level of politics. Translating normative principles into state action in support of better access to health care and medicines across Latin America remains uneven, affecting the bearers of (human) rights in different ways. This is reinforced by the absence of binding institutional mechanisms supporting fluent corridors of regional-national policy making.

Just as in Mar del Plata when the people (pueblos) buried the US-led FTAA ambitions, it is time to rethink not only whether a regional organisation such as UNASUR can itself become an entrepreneur advancing rights to health globally, but also how it can broker the right to, and universalisation of, health addressing the needs of economically and socially vulnerable populations through state action and reforms within the boundaries of member states.

[1] UNASUR Constitutional Treaty, at http://www.comunidadandina.org/unasur/tratado_constitutivo.htm, (3/3/2014)

[2] See http://periododesesiones.cepal.org/en/news/alicia-barcena-cooperation-region-turning-point (11/9/14)

[3] See http://upsidedownworld.org/main/ecuador-archives-49/4875-ecuador-pushes-for-greater-south-south-cooperation-and-stronger-public-disability-assistance-policies (8/9/2014)