Who Will Be Europe’s Next Leader?

For the last several decades, ties between France and Germany have been the engine of European integration. After centuries of war on the European continent through which France and Germany were historic rivals and often bitter enemies, culminating in the devastation of World War II, European nations searched for a way to eliminate inter-continental fighting. Many of Europe’s leaders argued that economic integration was the first step and believed it would eventually pave the way for a politically integrated union of European states. Both original signatories of the Treaty of Rome in 1957 – where France and Germany, along with Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg, established the European Economic Community (EEC) –  and proponents of deeper integration, the partnership between Germany and France has been one of the driving forces ever since.

EU Leadership of Yore

Of course, friction continued to exist between the two partners. After World War II and for many years, France feared Germany would again become too economically and politically powerful, eclipsing its own position of power on the continent. Former French President Charles de Gaulle originally envisioned a Europe in which France and Germany would lead, but with France firmly holding the preeminent role. In those early years of the European integration project, Germany did play more of a supporting role to France as the German economy recovered and the country struggled to reconcile its place in Europe.

Today, however, the partnership dynamic changed. Germany now has Europe’s largest economy. In fact, Germany is considered to be the most powerful country in Europe, largely due to the long-serving German chancellor who just stepped down from office. During her 16 years in power, Angela Merkel led Europe, both domestically and on the world stage. And, there is likely to be a shift in the balance of power in Europe with Mrs. Merkel’s departure.

Could the New German Chancellor Fill the Void?

The new German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, took office in early December. This change in leadership comes at a time when analysts believe that Germany and the European Union are facing much uncertainty without the solid and predictable leadership of the former German chancellor. While the incoming German chancellor would certainly wield significant power, remnants of Merkel’s impressive and steady leadership, it will be months before the new chancellor is comfortably leading Germany and likely focusing inwards, before turning his attention to Europe. As a result, many European leaders are now vying to become the next leader of Europe in Mrs. Merkel’s absence.

The French President is in the Mix

Leading the way is France’s President Emmanuel Macron, who, as the Washington Post reported, “has been jockeying for years to be the next leader of Europe.” Many are looking to France to fill the void as France views the recent German elections as a chance to reset since Mr. Macron will seniority over the incoming chancellor. France during the Merkel years may not have been the leading country or leading economy; however,  the role France plays in Europe is crucial. This is true even if Mr. Macron’s central proposals – common European defense, euro zone reform, a common asylum policy, and taxes on U.S. tech companies,  – are not widely supported with in the EU. Mr. Macron faces a presidential election in April 2022 that could limit his influence in Europe, leading to even more questions about who will fill the role of Europe’s leader.

Italy is Also in the Race

Another leader in Europe is proving able to lead Europe after Mrs. Merkel’s departure: Prime Minister Mario Draghi of Italy. The Italian leader – who saved the euro as the former European Central Bank president – has made his voice heard throughout the EU, including in Europe’s reaction to the U.S.-manufactured crisis when withdrawing from Afghanistan. He pushed for an emergency Group of 20 meeting and even reached out to U.S. President Joe Biden during the botched evacuation.

He has also stepped in the EU’s bungled COVID-19 pandemic response. He has spoken publicly about using approximately $235 billion in EU money for pandemic recover. He even halted the export of AstraZeneca vaccine doses from the EU bound for Australia due to a shortage of vaccines inside the union. Dubbed the Australia experiment, observers view this as a turning point for Italian leadership in the EU. Mr. Draghi is becoming increasingly well-known and respected across Europe because he is not just fighting for Italy, but for the entire union. Mr. Draghi has presented himself as a likely contender to become the next leader of Europe.

Two is Better Than One

Yet despite the enthusiasm surrounding Mr. Draghi and the expectations set for Mr. Macron, speculation remains on whether just one leader can fill the void. Analysts say, though, that the likely new leaders of Europe will be both French President Macron and Italian Prime Minister Draghi, working in tandem. Politico ran a story on the two leaders in July, calling them “Europe’s new power couple.” Mr. Marcon and Mr. Draghi have similar backgrounds and values as both are former investment bankers and longtime supporters of EU integration.

Moreover, the relationship between France and Italy seems to be improving by the day. On November 26, both leaders signed a treaty called the Quirinale Treaty – aiming to replicate the 1963 Franco-German Elysée Treaty – to continue to improve bilateral relations. Through recent actions, including the signing of the treaty, it looks as though both leaders are positioning themselves to take on the leading role in Europe together.

Democracy or Allies? Biden Has a Tough Choice to Make

On December 9 and 10, President Biden kicked off a virtual Summit of Democracy, fulfilling one of his signature campaign pledges. The much-vaunted Summit, which focuses on defending against authoritarianism, fighting corruption, and promoting respect for human rights, fits neatly into the Biden administration’s fight against authoritarianism. In fact, Biden’s foreign policy is partly defined by his democracy vs. autocracy dichotomy.

The intention behind the Summit of Democracy – convincing the rest of the world that democracy is still the best form of government – is quite laudable and ambitious. Yet, the Summit highlights the difficulty in balancing democratic ideals with geopolitical interests. Yet, the guest list of over 100 countries from across the world includes many of the United States’ closest allies and partners who hardly quality as democratic due to recent authoritarian trends and persistent democratic backsliding. Mr. Biden, through including some American allies and partners that have questionable democratic records, has highlighted just how difficult it is to balance democratic ideals with geopolitical interests, instead choosing allies and partners over democratic ideals.

Russia Outweighs Democracy in Europe

The Biden administration demonstrated a degree of inconsistency when deciding which European countries to invite. Mr. Biden stood his ground with long-time allies, Hungary, who has openly championed illiberal democracy, and Turkey, who has been taking a more authoritarian approach for years with cozy ties with Russia. Poland, however, was invited to the Summit. Both an EU member and a NATO ally, the Biden administration chose interest over ideal when extending an invitation to Poland, whose Law and Justice Party has been shifting Polish politics further to the right in recent years.

Some surmise that the Biden administration included Poland not because of its stellar democratic record, but to show solidarity as Poland faces aggression from Belarus, a Russian ally. This is true for Ukraine’s inclusion in the Summit as well. Though Ukraine is not considered to be a full-fledged democracy, it is a strategic partner vulnerable to invasion by Russia, and plays a key part in the Biden administration’s clash with Ukraine’s authoritarian neighbor. Once again, interests eclipse ideals in the Biden administration’s choice to invite allies and partners with questionable democratic records because those partnership are key to the Biden administration’s clash with Russia.

China Outweighs Democracy in Asia

Geopolitics played a significant role in deciding who in Asia to invite to the summit. The United States invited India, the world’s largest democracy, to the Summit. However, India has not been immune to criticism over its democratic record, particularly due to the poor treatment of Muslims by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist party. Despite U.S. criticism on these human rights issues, the partnership between India, who is also a member of the Quad, and the United States proved more important than holding India accountable since the U.S. sees India as a key partner in its rivalry with China.

And, then there is Pakistan. Since India was invited, the Biden administration was almost obligated to invite Pakistan to avoid a geopolitical meltdown. Even though the State Department warns of the problematic degree to which Pakistan’s military plays a role in governing among other troubling criticisms, the U.S. invited Pakistan to the Summit anyway. This is likely because the United States needs Pakistan’s cooperation in working with the Taliban in the aftermath of the United States’ disastrous withdrawal in Afghanistan. In both cases, interests surpass ideals.

Taiwan is another example. Taiwan, a vibrant democracy, is caught in the rivalry between the United States, where the line between supporting Taiwan with rhetoric and defending Taiwan in the event of an invasion from China is admittedly blurry, and China, which claims Taiwan as part of its territory. Taiwan’s inclusion in the Summit seems almost like a no-brainer based on democratic records alone. However, the U.S. extended an invitation to Taiwan to attend at the risk of drawing further ire from China as Taiwan is an important component in both the rivalry with China and his pledge to confront authoritarianism. Once again, the United States chose relationships with allies and partners at the expense of furthering democratic ideals.

Interests Trump (No Pun Intended) Ideals Once Again in Latin America

In Latin America, one country that has constantly flouted democratic traditions in the last few years was invited: Brazil. President Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right, populist, Trump-like figure leading Brazil, has shown his true authoritarian colors, speaking nostalgically about the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964-1985 and joining a rally calling for a military intervention into Brazil’s Congress and Supreme Court in 2020. Perhaps one of his most egregious authoritarian displays yet occurred when he insinuated that he would not accept the 2022 presidential election results.

Under Mr. Bolsonaro, there is a great deal of concern for the state of Brazil’s democracy. Yet, the Biden administration seems reticent to confront Bolsonaro over his antidemocratic rhetoric and policies, as was evidenced by National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan’s trip to Brazil in August. While Mr. Sullivan pushed back against claims that Brazil’s electronic voting system was rigged, it became evident that the Biden administration is not pushing Bolsonaro too much in hope of his cooperation on climate change and China. In this case, the Biden administration’s partnership with Brazil in its fight against climate change and China superseded a promise to further democracy throughout the world.

EU Membership is the Solution to U.S. and EU Concerns in the Western Balkans

On October 6, the 27 European Union (EU) member states met with their counterparts in the Western Balkans – Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia – at a summit in Slovenia to discuss the Western Balkans nations joining the EU. However, many dismissed the summit as a perfunctory effort by Slovenia, who currently holds the EU’s rotating presidency, as the possibility of membership in the bloc seems to be slipping further away. 

Today, entho-nationalism and tribalism are on the rise in the region. Bosnia looks to be on the verge of possible civil war. EU leaders are increasingly worried that Serbia is again showing authoritarian tendencies. Moreover, the United States, which has historical and strategic interests in this region, continues to warn its European allies that Western adversaries like Russia and China are gaining influence. As the EU and the United States continue to grapple with these internal and external threats to regional stability, the worse the situation becomes. The longer the EU holds out on extending EU membership to the Western Balkan nations, the more likely the region is to descend into chaos. The solution is for the EU, with U.S. support, to push the accession process in earnest to ensure the region’s guaranteed chance at stability.

EU Enlargement

When the Cold War ended in 1991, the former Soviet states in Central and Eastern Europe began integrating with the EU, seeing Western institutions – like the EU and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) – as the keys to more stable and prosperous futures. Soon they began pursuing membership in these Western institutions. As a result, ten former Soviet republics joined the EU in 2004 – the Visegrad Four of Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia; the three Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania; and Slovenia, a former member of Yugoslavia. Three years later, Bulgaria and Romania joined, as well as Croatia, another former Yugoslav republic, in 2013. It seemed almost certain that EU would next expand into the Western Balkans.

The Western Balkans After the Cold War

That was not necessarily the case. After the Cold War, Yugoslavia took a bit of a different path than Central and Eastern Europe nations. While never part of the Soviet empire, Yugoslavia was a socialist state, comprised of six republics and run by its own dictator, Josep Broz Tito. Soon after the end of the Cold War, a strong sense of nationalism quickly replaced communism in the Western Balkans. 

Yugoslavia collapsed, descending into war in the early 1990s along those same ethnic and tribal lines suppressed under Tito’s rule. After Slovenia and Croatia declared independence in 1991, war broke out in Croatia where Serbs tried to create their own state. By 1992, the conflict spilled over into Bosnia, where its Bosnian Serbs, backed by Serbia, drove Bosnian Muslims from their homes in what has been labeled an ethnic cleansing campaign. Then, in 1999, ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, a Serbian province, fought another brutal war of independence against Serbia.

Europe turned to its American allies to end the conflicts. The war in Bosnia ended only after the United States brokered a peace deal with the warring parties. In 1999, NATO stepped in with a US-led bombing campaign in Serbia in an effort to halt the violence against the ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. The decades-long bloody wars left those countries war-torn and devastated. Yet, the possibility of EU membership served as a catalyst for reform in the Western Balkans. 

EU Enlargement into the Western Balkans? Not So Fast

Since 2003, the EU, supported by the United States, has essentially promised the remaining Western Balkan nations the prospect of membership in the bloc, assuring them that their future lies with Europe. Today, the remaining Western Balkan nations – minus Slovenia and Croatia, which declared independence in 1991 and are already members of the EU – are at various stages in the membership process. 

Still, these talks are barely progressing. Montenegro and Serbia are the furthest into the process, already having opened formal accession talks several years ago. Albania and North Macedonia – whose membership bids are linked – are awaiting official negotiations to commence. Lastly, Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina remain potential candidates for membership, yet are nowhere near actually starting the negotiations. Yet, admitting new members from the Western Balkans is no longer as popular as it was nearly 20 years ago. But, that is exactly what the EU and the United States need to be pursuing.

Political Fault Lines Rumble Once Again

Just over a quarter of a century after the end of the war in Bosnia, the country is again facing renewed threats to political stability (Lowy). The 1995 Dayton Accords eventually brought peace to Bosnia, a country comprised of several ethnic groups including including the Eastern Orthodox Serbs, Muslim Bosniaks, and Catholic Croats, after several years of bloody, ethnically driven war.

The Accords implemented a government under which one Bosnian Serb, one Bosniak, and one Bosnian Croat share power. There is now speculation over whether the Dayton Accords may no longer be able to hold Bosnia together. In early October, the Bosnian Serb leader, part of the tripartite presidency, announced plans that amount to secession to build up a Serb-dominated state. Just as it did in the early 1990s, Bosnia once again finds itself on the verge of civil war.

A Turn Toward Authoritarianism

The EU and the United States are concerned that Serbia is growing more authoritarian under President Aleksander Vucic. This is a threat to the stability of the Western Balkans region as well as the larger EU given that Serbia – the prevailing republic in the former Yugoslavia under former President Slobodan Milosevic – spent much of the 1990s clashing with the other former republics. Mr. Vucic is a reformed ultranationalist who, in the waning days of the Yugoslav wars, interestingly served as Milosevic’s information minister. 

Under Mr. Vucic, Serbia has turned toward authoritarianism as the ruling party, the Serbian Progressive Party, controls the government, judiciary, and security services and limits the local media. Moreover, Serbia has undergone a democratic backslide of sorts, filled with allegations of corruption, cronyism, and voter intimidation in what Foreign Policy politely describes as soft autocracy. To make matters worse, Serbia is ramping up its defense spending to “unite Serbs wherever they live.” While Serbia is nominally democratic, deeper engagement with the EU and a push for reforms would do a lot to help Europe extinguish the growing authoritarianism on its southeastern flank.

Outside Influence 

Further compounding Western concerns that Serbia is developing closer ties with China and Russia. Western officials fear that Russia, who regularly provides arms to its Slavic ally, is encouraging Mr. Vucic to destabilize the Western Balkans. Beyond Serbia, Russia has increased diplomatic interactions with several countries along tribal and religious lines to hinder the region’s integration into the EU and NATO. This, however, is the West’s fault as the EU and the United States have neglected the region for decades, laying the groundwork for China and Russia to fill the vacuum. 

China now has economic ambitions and ties in the region, including the extension of its Belt and Road Strategy. The nations in the Western Balkans, as a result, are looking to China for trade and investment. Delaying EU membership to the Western Balkans only opens the region up to the EU and United States’ adversaries filling the void left by Western institutions. Deeper engagement and progressing accession talks would help the EU and the United States more efficiently and effectively battle growing Russian and Chinese influence in the region. 

Ukraine Is Unlikely To Become a NATO Member Any Time Soon

On December 3, the Washington Post reported that U.S. intelligence indicated that Russia was planning a potential military invasion of Ukraine as soon as early 2022. This intelligence report came after a buildup of Russian troops on its border with Ukraine over the past month. Relations between the Russia and the United States and its European allies continue to deteriorate because of Western concerns that Russia will invade Ukraine and Russian demands that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) not expand eastward.

Max Boot, in a recent Council on Foreign Relations op -ed, wrote that “the most powerful deterrent in the West’s arsenal is NATO membership.” In 2008, NATO stated that Ukraine would become a member. However, Ukraine is no closer to joining the alliance today than it was in 2008.

In The Past

Ukraine has long been a sticking point between Russia and the West. After independence in 1991, Ukraine attempted to forge its own independent path, separate from Russia and its Soviet past. As part of its independent path, Ukraine looked to the West, with goals of joining the European Union and, specifically, NATO. In 2008, NATO essentially promised membership to Ukraine and Georgia, another country that Russia wants to keep away from the West. Russia, which shares deep cultural, historic, and political ties to Ukraine, has done what it can over the past three decades to thwart Ukraine’s Western ambitions, as Russia sees Ukraine as “central to [its] identity” and feels threatened when Ukraine expressed interest in joining Western institutions.

In 2014, Russian invaded Ukraine, annexing Crimea, a province coveted as an important part of the Russian empire, and arming separatist in the Donbas region in southeastern Ukraine. Some analysts believe that it was NATO’s post-Cold War enlargement that pushed Russia to invade, fearing its former satellite might be the next candidate for membership. Others posit that the most significant factor behind Russia’s invasion was Putin’s apprehension of losing power domestically. Whatever the reason, Russia’s intervention raised the alarm in Washington and in capitals across Europe.

Russian Demands

Russian leaders, including Mr. Putin, made no efforts to hide their disgust for NATO expansion into the former Soviet Union satellite states. In the 1990s, after the end of the Cold War, many of the former Soviet satellite states in Central and Eastern Europe were eager to join the West, viewing NATO as a way toward democratization, stability, and prosperity. In 1999, NATO welcomed three former Soviet states: Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic. A few short years later, seven other former Soviet states joined the alliance, including the three Baltic countries of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. The expansion drew Russia’s ire, cementing its hatred of future NATO expansion into the region Russia sees as its sphere of influence.

This frustration came to a head over the course of the past week. Mr. Putin demanded that the United States and the rest of its NATO allies guarantee that the that any further expansion will not include Ukraine or Georgia. For months, Mr. Putin has railed against U.S. and allied military activities in Ukraine, labeling them as crossing a red line. Mr. Putting went as far in trying to secure “legal guarantees” that the NATO alliance would not expand eastward.

NATO Says No Way

The United States reacted with strong rhetoric but also a degree of ambiguity. U.S. officials stress that Mr. Putin’s intentions are murky, and that an attack is not imminent. Yet, Secretary Blinken, who traveled to Latvia and Sweden for to attend NATO and Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) meetings promised “severe consequences” should Russia indeed invade.

Limiting the further expansion of NATO is a non-starter for the alliance. In response to Mr. Putin’s absurd request, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg confirmed that “Russia has no veto, Russia has no say…” He continued, “It’s only Ukraine and the 30 NATO allies that decide when Ukraine is ready to join NATO.” While the United States and its European allies within NATO continue to assert that it is up to Ukraine and NATO, not Russia, to decide if and when Ukraine joins NATO, the question then becomes whether it will actually happen?

Ukraine Is Not Likely to Join NATO Any Time Soon

In June, the NATO summit ended with the alliance signing a joint communique that reaffirmed Ukraine’s potential membership. Ukraine, however, wishes that its membership was in the near future. As a result of Russia’s recent military buildup along its border, Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky is pushing both the Biden administration and NATO to specify a timeline for membership. He has been met with tentative statements, which only further empowers Russia’s claims over Ukraine.

While accession in NATO is at the top of Zelensky’s political to do list, encouraged by NATO’s public but elusive promises of membership, Western officials admit that the likelihood of Ukraine joining NATO in the foreseeable future is quite improbable. For one, there is no consensus among alliance members about the severity of confrontation with Russia. Mr. Putin’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014 dampened any excitement of NATO members to welcome Ukraine into the fold, not wanting to admit a country already locked into a fight with Russia since they too would be drawn in.

Beyond NATO’s concerns about Russia, NATO members also agree that Ukraine is not ready to join. When asked over the summer about when Ukraine might expect to join NATO, President Biden noted that the former Soviet state still needed to root out corruption before it could become a full member. Ukraine is no closer to becoming a NATO member now than it was in 2008 and likely will not become a member any time soon.

Iran Nuclear Deal Talks Are at an Impasse

In the first round of negotiations since last parting in June, Iran and the other signatories of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia and China – met in Vienna, Austria to resume talks in hopes of reviving the 2015 nuclear deal. Under a new regime led by hardline cleric Ebrahim Raisi, Iran struck a uncompromising tone with negotiators while the remaining signatories fought to keep negotiations running.

In 2015, the United States, along with other members of the P5+1, and Iran agreed to a deal, which limited its nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of crippling sanctions. However, the Trump administration withdrew the United States from the deal in 2018 in an effort to launch a lackluster maximum pressure campaign against Tehran and ramped up economic sanctions on the Islamic Republic.

Initially, Iran complied with the agreement after the U.S. withdrawal. After a year, though, Tehran became impatient and building up its nuclear program in breach of the agreement. The Biden administration came into office with the goal of reviving the deal. While negotiators, minus the United States upon Iranian refusal to negotiate directly with the Americans, are back at the table, it appears as though the nuclear deal talks are at an impasse.

Iran’s Demands Are Out of the Question

Iranian negotiators came in on the offensive for the seventh round of talks. Under its recently elected yet hardline regime, Iran is making nearly impossible demands, arguing, not without merit, that the United States is at fault for the current situation. For one, Iran demands the removal of all economic sanctions – not just the ones imposed on its nuclear program, but also those targeting Iran’s human rights, terror, and ballistic missile activities.

Iran is also seeking guarantees that the United States will never back out of the deal again, a promise that is impossible to make because of the nature of the United States’ political system. Only then will Iran come back into compliance with the nuclear deal. The Iranians have stated firmly that they want to revive the nuclear deal – even though it is not a priority for the Raisi regime – but contend that the United States must take the first step. The Iranians are unlikely to budge given their current demands, leaving the nuclear talks at an impasse.

Trying to Keep the Lights On

European diplomats walked away from last week’s negotiations with a more pessimistic view. A joint statement issued by British, French, and German negotiators noted that “Tehran is walking back almost all of the difficult compromises crafted after many months of hard work, and demands major changes to the text.” From their perspective, the future of the talks are not promising.

The United States’ European partners have been instrumental in the meetings with Iranian officials, as the United States, while maintaining diplomatic staff in Vienna as the talks resume, are not taking part in the talks as Iran refused to negotiate with the Americans. However, as the European diplomats observed, unless Tehran’s position changes, the talks have little chance in succeeding.

Not Even at the Table

The Biden administration came into office willing to re-enter the JCPOA. However, it is evident that American patience with Iran is beginning to wear thin. Secretary of State Antony Blinken summarized American feelings toward the talks: “What we’ve seen in the last couple of days is that Iran right now does not seem to be serious about doing what’s needed to return to compliance, which is why we ended this round of talks in Vienna,” he commented on Thursday.

U.S. and European officials have been warning for a while that time is running out. Biden administration has noted that diplomacy, though the preferred method, is not the United States’ option for preventing Iran from getting nuclear weapons. As American and likely European patience runs out the more Iran balks, the more the talks will remain at an impasse.

No Right to Exist?

A complicating factor for the United States in reviving the Iran nuclear deal is its strong partnership with Israel. Israel is increasingly concerned about the advances Iran has made on its nuclear program and regional activity. Israel, a nuclear-armed country, and Iran are mortal enemies as Israel views Iran’s nuclear program as an existential threat sine Iran does not recognize Israel’s right to exist.

Israel has reacted strongly to the news of a potentially revived deal, imploring its partners in the United States and Europe to halt negotiations. Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett stated emphatically that Israel is not part of the negotiations and, therefore, not bound by the deal and stressed that Iran doe not deserve the diplomatic option. Without the Israel’s support – arguably the country with the most to lose if Iran does acquire nuclear weapons – the talks will remain at an impasse.

Charting Our Own Course

The United States’ Gulf Arab allies, much like Israel, are also concerned about Iran’s nuclear activities over recent months, and are frustrated over feeling caught in the middle in the United States’ conflict with Iran. At the same time, they worry about a return to the 2015 nuclear deal, observing that the deal is not sufficient enough to stop Iran from actually developing nuclear weapons.

However, despite their own concerns over the nuclear deal, most Gulf Arab allies admit that a flawed deal is better than no deal as a deal at least puts some guardrails on Iran’s nuclear activities. With little enthusiasm coming from its Gulf Arab allies – who are trying to chart their own diplomatic courses with Iran to deescalate tensions that have plagued the region for nearly 50 years – the Iran nuclear talks in Vienna will likely remain at an impasse.

The Recent Skirmishes Between the United Kingdom and France Go Beyond Just Fishing and Submarines

The United Kingdom and France, two of the United States’ closest allies, have been at odds lately, more so than usual. In May, the two countries sparred over fishing rights in the English Channel, setting off a short-lived naval clash. Then, in August, relations between the two countries took another hit when the United Kingdom, the United States, and Australia announced the establishment of a trilateral security partnership to support Australia’s acquisition of nuclear submarines, leaving France blindsided by the announcement. Then, in late October – just before the G-20 meeting in Rome – tempers flared over fishing rights once again. The recent rows between France and the United Kingdom are not over fishing rights and AUKUS. The fight goes much deeper than these skirmishes with roots in hurt feelings on both sides over Brexit.

To Fish or Not to Fish?

Over the last six months or so, the French and British governments have disagreed vehemently over fishing rights in the English Channel. The latest tiff centers on French boats fishing in waters in the English coast, something French fisherman have done for hundreds of years. When the United Kingdom officially left the European Union, the two parties hammered out a deal which governed fishing in the disputed waters, stating that European fishers may continue to fish in some British waters if they are able to prove that they were already fishing there prior to Brexit.

Yet, both sides interpret the agreement differently. The French believe, as the agreement states, that there fishman are allowed to continue fishing in the English Channel as long as they can prove that they fished there before Brexit. The British contend that the French fisherman must provide positional data to show their fishing activity as well as a record of the catches. France has threatened to escalate the agreement further unless the United Kingdom issues the necessary licenses to operate in British waters. While France and the United Kingdom may be tussling over fishing, the root of the disagreement goes much deeper than fishing.

The Blindside

Relations between the United Kingdom and France soured over the past few months, especially after the September announcement. The AUKUS announcement, causing Australia to cancel a $37 billion contract with France to provide diesel submarines, left France outraged. France felt blindsided by the AUKUS alliance announcement. For one, some of its closest allies excluded France from a lucrative deal that further cemented the bonds of the Anglo alliance. France also viewed the announcement as a rebuff of its aspirations in the Asia-Pacific.

The United Kingdom, on the other hand, viewed the deal as way to strengthen its ties in the Indo-Pacific region as a part of its Global Britain strategic vision. Publicly, the United Kingdom has tried to smooth over the tensions that arose with France as a result of AUKUS. Privately, however, it has been a different story as British officials have largely dismissed French complaints. Once again, the two countries find themselves in a squabble, but the roots of the disagreement go much deeper than submarines.

A Power Imbalance

The recent skirmishes between the United Kingdom and France – fishing rights and AUKUS – go much deeper than the surface level disagreements. At its heart, these scuffles are fundamentally about Brexit. France, for its part, wants to prove that Brexit has not worked. The United Kingdom’s official departure from the European Union in 2020 – with the United Kingdom and European Union still arguing over what the post-Brexit relationship would look like – left France in a precarious position. It upset the delicate balance of power that existed between the union’s three most powerful states: the United Kingdom, France, and Germany.

French President Emmanuel Macron is now struggling to “assert France’s leadership in a Europe dominated by Germany.” In short, France saw the United Kingdom as a favorable counterbalance to Germany’s continued dominance in European affairs. Beyond the power imbalance, France perceived Brexit as the United Kingdom’s confirmation that its special relationship with the United States outweighed the importance of the United Kingdom’s relationship with Europe. The AUKUS announcement further compounded this insecurity.

The Restoration of Sovereignty, or Not?

Moreover, the United Kingdom is trying to prove that Brexit did work. The fight over fishing rights and AUKUS represent a much larger battle, one over its damaged relationship with the European Union. The United Kingdom has had a rocky relationship with the European Union since it first entered the union in 1973. In an effort to convince voters to vote to leave the European Union, Brexiteers often provided contradictory messaging on Brexit, promising voters before the referendum in 2016 that the United Kingdom would restore the sovereignty lost to the European Union. For example, without the regulations of the single market, the United Kingdom is free to set its own rules. Without participation in the customs union, the United Kingdom is free to pursue trade deals with any country it chooses without needing EU buy in.

Now, Brexit supporters are trying to prove, through its Global Britain strategy, that the United Kingdom can indeed flourish outside of the European Union. However, the British are now finding that life outside the European Union is not as great as originally advertised by those in favor of Brexit.

A U.S.-Brokered Peace Deal is the Only Way to Stop Ethiopia’s Civil War

Ethiopia’s civil war has reached a turning point. The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) is making inroads to Addis Ababa, the capital, ready to face off against the federal military forces. The United States fears that the ethnic violence enveloping Ethiopia will plunge the country into civil war, a possibility that is more and more likely every day.

Yet, beyond a few nominal efforts, the United States has not taken any decisive actions to deter fighting or encourage negotiations. The threat of economic sanctions and withdrawal of security aid are not enough; the United States needs to bring the warring parties and their allies to the negotiating table to hammer out a peace deal to end the civil war for good.

A Year into the Conflict and No End in Sight

Just over a year ago, Ethiopia’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, deployed federal forces against the TPLF, the ruling party of the Tigray region in the north of the country after alleging that the rebel forces attacked a military base where federal forces were stationed. Fighting alongside Ethiopian forces are paramilitary fighters from the Amhara region south of Tigray. Eritrea – who fought a border war against Ethiopia from 1998 to 2000 when the TPLF governed Ethiopia– sent troops shortly after the war started to fight on the side of the Ethiopian forces. In less than a month, Ethiopian forces and its allies captured a majority of Tigray. Abiy declared victory.

However, in recent months, the fight shifted heavily in favor of the TPLF. The Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) joined forces with the Tigrayan forces, and these two groups scored a strategic victory by driving federal forces out of Tigray in June. As the rebel fighters make their way to the capital, Mr. Abiy declared a state of emergency and called for ordinary citizens to take up arms should Addis Ababa fall under attack. The ethnic tensions bubbling over have left Ethiopia on the precipice of a potentially ruinous civil war, causing the State Department to urge all Americans to leave the country while also scaling back embassy staff.

The United States Needs More than Rhetoric and Threats

The United States is becoming increasingly alarmed over the prospect of Ethiopia devolving into a civil war. The unrest in Ethiopia – once thought of as a close U.S. strategic and counterterrorism partner – is a central theme, as well as the recent coup in Sudan, in Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s trip to Africa, where he is making stops in Kenya, Nigeria, and Senegal. Speaking from Narobi, Kenay’s capital, on November 17, Blinken noted that the United States is “deeply concerned about escalating violence, the expansion of fighting throughout the country and what we see as a growing risk to the unity of and integrity of the state.” The Biden administration maintains a position of opposing any action by the TPLF on Addis Ababa and imploring Prime Minister Abiy to halt violence against civilians that have been likened to ethnic cleansing.

Yet, the United States has done little more than take minor against Ethiopia and apply rhetoric to the situation. Blinken has imposed sanctions against some Ethiopian officials. In May, the State Department announced visas bans on specific individuals believed to be involved in the crisis. Yet, these efforts have had little to no impact on the Ethiopian government to end the conflict. Over the summer, the administration imposed economic sanctions on an Eritrean military official for his role in the conflict. In September, President Biden took a more concrete step in issuing an executive order that authorized an array of economic sanctions; however, the United States haven’t imposed any sanction under that order that in the hopes that the threats alone would be enough.

In early November, Biden suspended Ethiopia from the African Growth and Opportunity Act, a program that gives African nations duty-free access to the United States in return for meeting certain conditions. State Department officials are also pushing for the accounts of ethnic cleansing in Ethiopia to be recognized as genocide, while no final determination has been made as the United States is still reportedly reviewing the matter. On top of sanctions, the United States announced in March its decision not to lift the pause in assistance imposed by the last administration, another critical step. While the actions already taken are moving in the right direction to defusing the civil war, the United States needs to step up its diplomatic pressure if it is serious about ending this conflict and ensuring the stability of the fragile Horn of Africa region.

A Deal to Bring Peace

The Biden administration is reportedly calling for peace talks. Despite reports that both sides, according to the U.S. special envoy to the Hortn of Africa, Jeffrey Feltman, that a “ceasefire doesn’t seem anywhere near,” the United States needs to take matters into its own hands and to start pressing the warring parties harder through diplomatic channels, and this encouragement should start at the top. The United States should leverage its once close ties with Ethiopia to encourage the government to come to the negotiating table. The United Nations is noticeably absent from any true effort to forge peace talks, and the United States should work closely through its U.N. Security Council allies.

A regional approach could also garner some success by getting the African Union – which maintains its headquarters in Addis Ababa – involved in securing a peace deal. Beyond the African Union, appealing to Ethiopia’s neighbors that share close partnerships with the United States, including Kenya and Uganda, to help solve the crisis. Only an enduring peace deal that keeps the players accountable will truly end the threat of civil war in Ethiopia. And it is too important for the United States to not try to bring all parties to the negotiating table.

Is American Really Back? That’s What America’s European Allies Would Like to Know

America is back,” claimed U.S. President Joe Biden in his first foreign policy speech after taking office after four tumultuous years of a Trump presidency. “We will repair our alliances and engage with the world once again,” he pledged in his inaugural address in January. Secretary of State Antony Blinken echoed these promises in a speech in March, noting that the United States was working tirelessly to “reconnect with our friends and allies, and to reinvent partnerships.” Based on rhetoric alone, the Biden administration’s intentions to repair the damaged relationships with its allies, particularly those in Europe, were unmistakable.

While the United States reasserts its return to diplomacy and reiterates the importance of its alliances, it is unclear whether these laudable yet ambitious pieces of rhetoric are actionable or only a pipe dream. In Europe’s eyes, the Biden administration got a lot right at the beginning of his presidency. Yet, in a year that seems to involve crisis after crisis in trans-Atlantic relations – including the messy U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the inept handling of the AUKUS announcement –America’s European allies are questioning the United States’ sincerity. In the eyes of its European allies, is America indeed back? That still remains to be seen.

Is Europe Getting Left Behind?

The United States’ messy withdrawal from Afghanistan and the subsequent collapse of the Afghan government to the Taliban in August is one example of why Europe is questioning whether America is actually back. With little consultation or communication, the United States “dragged its NATO allies into an embarrassing mess that they had warned against,” one that likely could have been avoided. The withdrawal triggered an age-old insecurity for Europe – wondering whether the United States was leaving Europe behind. This has led Europe to ponder whether it should invoke a strategic autonomy tactic most often championed by France. Mr. Biden, who promised to reset relations with American allies, came close to squandering the excitement and relief felt by European allies after he won the 2020 election as Europe is now coming to terms with the fact that they may never truly be able to rely on the United States for its security.

Is Washington Retreating from Europe?

The United States blindsided its European allies with the announcement of a formal alliance between the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia in September. To the United States, this was simply about deepening relationships with allies in its effort to counter China, a lynchpin of the Biden administration’s foreign policy. The announcement of the nuclear submarine pact caused confusion and disappointment in Europe. This is particularly true for France, the one European nation most directly impacted by the pact as Australia cancelled a $66 million submarine deal with France. France, naturally, reacted in anger, temporarily withdrawing its ambassadors from both Washington and Canberra, and cancelling a gala in Washington to celebrate the friendship between the U.S. and France. While France and the United States have largely reconciled, the abrupt nature of the AUKUS deal – which President Biden acknowledged was “clumsy” – caused some concern for America’s European allies since the root of Europe’s disappointment about the AUKUS deal is the fear that the United States is retreating from Europe – the central focus of U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War – in favor for the Indo-Pacific region.

Great Power Rivalry Rears Its Ugly Head

The United States and its allies in Europe perceive the threats posed by China and Russia differently. President Biden has labeled China as the world’s “greatest geopolitical threat” of this century. As a result, he has re-shifted U.S. foreign policy toward the Indo-Pacific with the aim of countering China. The United States would prefer its European partners be part of its. Yet, Europe does not view China with the same level of alarm. Europe, as the French Finance Minister recently noted, wants to engage China as Europe is weary about of damaging the continent’s economic ties to the growing economic giant, though European sentiment may be changing.

Similarly, the United States and its European allies maintain disparate views on the threat posed by Russia as some in Europe – especially those in Central and Eastern Europe –believe the U.S. will not support its allies in the region in favor of improved relations with Russia. The United States’ decision not to sanction the German company overseeing the Russian-built Nord Stream 2 pipeline in favor of maintaining good relations with Germany only reinforced this fear. Just this week, Belarus, a Russian ally, weaponized migration by luring desperate Middle Eastern migrants to the Poland-Belarus border in an effort to force the EU to lift sanctions imposed against Belarus. Moreover, the recent buildup of Russian forces along its border with Ukraine has also alarmed the U.S. and its allies in Europe. To Europe, the United States’ myopic view to the threat posed by Russia is quite frustrating, though it seems that the United States may becoming more attuned to the threat.

Europe Is Right to Be Wary of the United States’ Reliability

The Biden administration came into office in January with promises to repair America’s relationships with its allies. However, several events as well as different threat perspectives are causing Europe to question the United States’ sincerity. Whether the U.S. is back remains to be seen, but the time has come for the Biden administration to review its policies toward Europe and assess whether the United States is doing what it can to reassure its European allies that the United States is back after four years of the turbulent Trump administration and an inconsistent first year in office.

Africa Matters to U.S. Foreign Policy…and Deserves More Attention

On November 15, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken set off for Africa on his first trip to the continent as the United States’ top diplomat, with stops in Kenya, Nigeria, and Senegal. This summer, Blinken postponed his visit, originally planned for August, as the United States became engrossed in its messy withdrawal from Afghanistan. Now, Blinken is making the trip this week to convey the Biden administration’s overplayed message that “America is back” as two crises critical to U.S. interests in the strategically important Horn of Africa region rage on.  

What’s on the Agenda?

While not making stops in either country, the crises – Ethiopia and Sudan – will likely top the list when Blinken meets with the Kenyan president. In Nigeria, Blinken will deliver a speech outlining the Biden administration’s Africa strategy and discuss health, energy, and security issues with the Nigerian president. Blinken will close out his trip in Senegal, where he will reiterate the close partnership between the two countries.

In the first ten months of his tenure, Secretary Blinken has traveled to every other region of the world, except Africa, which is often eclipsed by urgent crises in regions considered to be more strategically important to the U.S. In fact, Blinken’s visits to three of the United States’ closest partners in Africa highlights the lack of attention that this region receives in U.S. foreign policy. It took two major crises – a coup and a potential civil war – to entice America’s top diplomat to Africa when there are myriad issues in which the U.S. has interests. Now, it is time for the United States to pay closer attention to Africa.

Multiple Coups and A Civil War

Over the past year, coups and civil wars have shaken the African continent. For one, the Horn of Africa has been a hotbed of activity. Ethiopia, arguably the United States’ closest ally in Africa, is on the precipice of civil war. Ethiopia’s western neighbor, Sudan, suffered a military coup in October when the coup leader reappointed himself as the chairman of the new sovereign council, sparking a political crisis in the country’s nascent and fragile democratic transition. To the east, Somalia has been experiencing its own political crisis for decades. These crises promise to be topics of conversation when Blinken visits Kenya, another member of the volatile neighborhood.

Military takeovers in Africa seem to be in vogue over the past twelve months The coup in Sudan was the fourth this year. Similarly, three countries in West Africa – Mali, Guinea, and Chad – also experienced coups. Moreover, coup attempts occurred in the Central African Republic, Niger, and Madagascar. Yet, those countries were able to fight off the unsuccessful attempts to overthrow the sitting governments. One of the objectives of Blinken’s three-country trip to Africa will focus on defending democracy This is coming at a particularly challenging time given the democratic backsliding in many countries across Africa. The military takeovers and potential civil war have the potential to upset U.S. interests in of the most some strategically important regions in Africa. Encouraging democratic governance across Africa is in the United States’ interest.  

The Terrorist Threat in Africa is Real

Many countries across all regions of sub-Saharan Africa suffer from terrorist groups operating in the vast and often lawless areas. After the end of the Cold War, counterterrorism became central to U.S. policy toward the continent as a result of the rise of international terrorism. Many of the terrorist groups located in Africa maintain ties with U.S. adversaries like al Qaeda and the Islamic State. In in the Sahel region, terrorist groups such as the Group of the Support of Islam and Muslims (JNIM), the Islamic State of the Greater Sahara, and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) plague the vast, instability-ridden region. Boko Haram, a dangerous group in Nigeria, is allied with the Islamic State and is infamous for kidnapping young, school-aged girls.   

In East Africa, al Shabab, once labeled as “the world’s largest, best financed, most kinetically active arm of al-Qaida” by the U.S. commander of U.S. forces in Africa, is based in Somalia with approximately 10,000 fighters and aims of overthrowing the virtually non-existent government. In Uganda, the Lord’s Resistance Army – a fundamentalist Christian group – wages war against the government. Moreover, the Islamic State reaches further south into Africa in the form of an insurgency group in Mozambique, responsible for vicious attacks. These terrorist groups around Africa, many of which espouse anti-American ideology and often target Western citizens, are dangerous and directly pose threats to the United States and its allies.

The Other Global Power

China’s influence in Africa has long agitated the United States. In fact, China has surpassed the United States’ diplomatic, political, and economic influence on the continent. As the second largest economy in the world, China has ample resources to fund development projects in several African countries. Beyond that, Chinese foreign direct investment increased significantly and exceeded the United States’ in 2014. Moreover, China is now Africa’s largest trade partner and largest bilateral lender to many African nations. China’s influence on the African continent cannot be overstated.

As President Biden noted early in his administration, China is the “biggest geopolitical test” of this century. For this reason, Africa is becoming an increasingly important battleground in the growing tensions between the two competitors. China is an attractive option to African nations desperate for economic and development assistance because China, unlike the United States and its Western allies, does not “condition its assistance on political agendas,” including democracy promotion and human rights. Still, this is the primary manner in which China has gained more influence across Africa compared to the United States. As the Biden administration shifts U.S. foreign policy focus toward the Indo-Pacific region, with its eye primarily on China, the United States must step up its engagement with Africa so as not to lose any further ground to China.

In Dire Straits

In early October, China deployed nearly 150 warplanes near Taiwan, breeching its air defense identification zone. Tensions between Beijing and Taipei are ramping up, causing alarm in Taiwan and among its friends, including the United States. But first, a little historical context.

Back in Time

The animosity dates back to the years after World War II. Taiwan, a small, independent, and democratic island separated from China by the Taiwan Strait, came under the control of the Republic of China at this time. The civil war between Mao Zedong’s communist forces and the nationalist forces under the command of Chiang Kai-shek ended with Mao establishing the People’s Republic of China, a communist government based in Beijing.

The nationalist forces then fled to Taiwan, with the Republic of China government under Kai-shek setting up shop in in Taipei. Since then, Taiwan has operated with a degree of autonomy under a one country, two systems principle. In spite of the autonomy, though, China views Taiwan as a renegade province and Beijing’s ultimate goal is Taiwan’s reunification with China – by force, if necessary.

In Comes the United States

The third key actor in this dispute is the United States. After World War II, the Republic of China was a close and important U.S. ally, signing a mutual defense treaty – akin to the ones the U.S. signed with Japan and South Korea during that same decade – in 1954. At this time, the United States recognized Kai-shek’s government in Taipei as the official government of China. Subsequently, in 1979, the U.S. ditched the treaty and established diplomatic ties with Beijing’s Communist government. Since then, the United States has adhered to a One China policy, which recognizes that there is “only one China.” This recognition, however, comes with the understanding that Taiwan’s fate will not be decided by force.

The United States did not cease its diplomatic relationship with Taiwan entirely. Instead, that same year, the U.S. Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act, which governs U.S. relations with Taiwan and ensures that the United States will help the island defend itself against an attack from China. This Act outlines a policy of strategic ambiguity, a policy that essentially allows the United States to “remain deliberately ambiguous” about Taiwan’s defense. As a result, there are no guarantees that the United States will militarily defend Taiwan in the event of an attack from China. Though, the Act authorizes the United States to sell weapons to Taiwan to “maintain a sufficient self-defense capability.”

What Do We Do Now?

The policy of strategic ambiguity became even more ambiguous during what may be considered a presidential gaff. When asked about the rising tensions between China and Taiwan at a recent CNN townhall in Baltimore, President Joe Biden reiterated the United States’ commitment to Taiwan. “Yes, we have a commitment to do that,” he replied. This is not the case. White House staffers quickly raced to clarify that there was no change in U.S. policy despite the president’s statement, which garnered responses from both Beijing and Taipei.

The recent incursion and President Biden’s seemingly erroneous remarks have sparked debate in Washington over the depth of its commitment to Taiwan in the face of a Chinese invasion, raising the question of whether the United States should, in fact, defend Taiwan? If this scenario were to ever occur, the United States should maintain its strategic ambiguity policy as defending Taiwan would inevitably lead to war with China.

War Games

If the United States went to war with China, there is a possibility it could lose. At least according to a recent war games analysis published this week by the Center for a New American Security. According to the report, the United States has “few credible options” in responding to Beijing, as the war games anticipated that China would invade the Pratas islands in the South China Sea and capture the 500 Taiwanese troops stationed there. During the game, the United States and Taiwan were unable to persuade China to withdraw without escalating the crisis. Interestingly, the analysis found that multilateral cooperation – particularly with Japan – could help deter limited Chinese aggression against Taiwan.    

While the United States has arguably the world’s most powerful military, the scenario of defeat is not implausible. In the era of great power competition, China has been rapidly building up its military capabilities over the past few decades. A 2020 Pentagon report concluded that parts of China’s military surpassed that of the U.S. On top of that, China is a nuclear power and retains an expanding cache of nuclear weapons. Beijing is looking to expand its regional footprint by increasing its military capability. This is particularly true in the South China Sea, where Beijing continues to develop its artificial islands in the disputed waters.

Now, China’s latest focus appears to be Taiwan. Moreover, there is little belief in the fact that Taiwan could defeat the Chinese military, especially without the support of the United States. For that reason, the United States needs to maintain its strategic ambiguity policy as a way of helping Taiwan in light of China’s increasing military capabilities.

Thick as Thieves

Through its strategic ambiguity policy, the United States and Taiwan, while not sharing official diplomatic relations, enjoy remarkably close ties. This was further reiterated in a comment from Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who noted in early October that the United States and Taiwan’s relationship is “rock solid.” As part of the Taiwan Relations Act, the United States sells weapons to Taiwan in an effort to help the tiny island ally.

The most important aspects of the U.S-Taiwan relationship is that the United States continue its efforts to ensure that Taiwan is able to properly defend itself without actually coming to Taiwan’s defense. The first part of this effort is the arms sales. For decades, the United States has sold arms to Taiwan, which totaled over $5.1 billion in 2020 alone, to help Taiwan’s ability to defend itself.  

Beyond the arms sales, the U.S. government and military experts believe that deepening ties between the U.S. and Taiwanese militaries is the best course of action to combat any potential Chinese aggression. For the past year, as the Wall Street Journal reported, a U.S. special operations unit and U.S. Marine contingent are secretly operating in Taiwan to train its military forces.

While China reacted angrily, as expected, to the news of the U.S. military forces. Building up Taiwan’s military capabilities in the face of China’s increased military capabilities and the arms sales to Taiwan remain the most efficient and effective ways of ensuring Taiwan’s ability to defend itself in case of an invasion from China. And the only way for the United States to fulfill its promise to Taiwan is through the continuation of strategic ambiguity.  

Conclusion

Needless to say, relations between the United States, Taiwan, and China are complex. Through its policy of strategic ambiguity, the United States has tried to balance its need to balance its strained relationship with Beijing while also honoring its commitment to helping Taiwan defend itself by not really holding a definitive position. And, this is a policy the United States must maintain to avoid falling into war with China over Taiwan.