April 18, 2022
A country’s foreign policy is shaped by its identity, sense of belonging, world outlook, and geographic location. This last one is a constant, others are subject to evolution, change, and definition/redefinition within the limits of reason. The task of governments is to merge these with national power into policies designed to maximize national interest. Domestic politics and foreign policy are intimately linked. Sometimes governments and political leaders seize on opportunities offered by international developments. They launch initiatives to “promote national interests”, “reinforce the rules-based international order”, and “ensure respect for international law”. However, such initiatives almost always have a domestic politics dimension. Sometimes they pay off, sometimes they fail.
On June 12, 2018, President Trump met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore. After the summit, President Trump held an hour-long press conference which attracted more attention than the Joint Statement the two leaders had signed. He heaped words of praise on Chairman Kim. He said, “Chairman Kim has told me that North Korea is already destroying a major missile engine testing site. That’s not in your signed document … I got that after we signed the agreement. I said, ‘Do me a favor. You’ve got this missile engine testing site. We know where it is because of the heat. It’s incredible the equipment we have, to be honest with you.’ I said, ‘Can you close it up?’ He’s going to close it up.”
On March 24, 2022, North Korea tested its most powerful ICBM to date.
President Trump, throughout his four years in office, put the emphasis on his personal relations with foreign leaders and his dealmaking capacity and had little respect for institutional wisdom. His erratic foreign policy stunts failed to win him another four years at the White House.
In November 2019 President Emmanuel Macron of France described NATO as “brain dead” urging Europe to start thinking of itself as a geopolitical power to ensure it remained in charge of its destiny.
On August 4, 2020, Beirut experienced its own Hiroshima. Two days after the blast, President Macron flew to Beirut. France is the former colonial power in Lebanon and the visit was seen as another attempt by Mr. Macron to score domestic political points and enhance his claim to European leadership.
In November 2021, a Russian-brokered ceasefire between Armenia and Azerbaijan ended the 44-day war in and around Nagorno-Karabakh. President Macron looked for a role in ending the conflict but President Putin would have none of that. All they had was phone calls, usually “at the initiative of the French side” according to the Kremlin.
February 6, 2022, on his way to Moscow, President Macron downplayed the likelihood of a Russian invasion of Ukraine and said this was the likely part of a wider Kremlin strategy to secure Western concessions rather than a prelude to a full-scale offensive. Before and after his visit he had numerous telephone calls with President Putin but to no avail.
France had the first round of presidential elections on April 10. Some analysts say that President Macron’s foreign policy initiatives may have helped him somewhat. Others think that foreign policy does not have much of a role in the country’s political campaigns and presidential elections.
Since the beginning of the Russian onslaught, the UK government has provided significant economic, humanitarian, and defensive military assistance to Ukraine, including 4,000 anti-tank weapons. Moreover, it has imposed additional sanctions on Russia and Belarus. Prime Minister Johnson has been at the forefront of Western leaders calling for action against Russia. Thus, Russia has banned Mr. Johnson and four other senior ministers from entering Russia. UK’s reaction to the Russian invasion reflects a principled stand. But, has Prime Minister seized on the war in Ukraine to put his domestic woes behind him? It seems so.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s foreign and security policy achievements were more than diplomatic stunts. He convinced President Trump to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem. He signed the Abraham Accords with Bahrain and the UAE. In October 2020 Sudan and in December 2020 Morocco established diplomatic relations with Israel. Yet in June 2021, Mr. Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving leader, was ousted from office by a coalition of rivals from across the political spectrum. However, the possibility of his return to power cannot be dismissed.
Turkey is in economic dire straits and foreign policy stunts are unlikely to pay high domestic dividends. However, they may at least help the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) faithful to close ranks before next year’s presidential election. And the AKP hopes that any role in bringing peace to Ukraine would help accomplish that.
Unfortunately for the people of Ukraine, the war is now entering a more deadly phase. Despite the absence of US and NATO troops on the ground, this is now a war between the West and Russia. The emphasis is not on peace-making but on war-making. In a recent CNN interview, President Zelensky said, “I don’t believe the world. After we have seen what’s going on in Ukraine, we’ve — I mean that I don’t believe to this feeling that we should believe to the — to the — some countries or some leaders.” Beyond the battlefield, an unprecedented information war is going on. The impact of Western sanctions has started to impact the lives of people across the world.
In a recent commentary, the International Crisis Group said:
“The war in Ukraine that followed the Russian invasion is still in its early stages. While it is too soon to measure the war’s full impact on crises in the Middle East and North Africa, it is clear that the repercussions will be multidimensional. For now, its effects are limited in the military sphere, but noticeable in the political realm as conflict actors reposition themselves vis-à-vis one another and the outside world. For the region’s economies and its already strained social contracts, the consequences may be devastating.” [i]
And the Washington Post reported on Sunday that the “U.S., allies plan for long-term isolation of Russia”.[ii]
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a violation of international law and a huge miscalculation by President Putin. He must now regret having presented the West with a golden opportunity to confront him. But as the Ukrainian leadership knows, the war is being fought on their territory, leading to the loss of Ukrainian lives and the devastation of their country. While supporting Ukraine the West should also encourage Kyiv to re-energize the ceasefire talks.