In this first part of 2018, there remain, as I argued in a post in 2017, three principal theatres of strategic (system-threatening) contest in the world today: the Russia-Western conflict, with Ukraine remaining both the original source and nucleus of the conflict; the Middle East or Western Asian space; and, finally, China-US competition, sharpened by the largely unexpected intensification (radicalization?) of US-North Korean nuclear posturing.
What are the exits from these conflicts? And what should the Canadian position be, besides?
The Russia-Western (Ukrainian and Eurasian) Theatre
On the Russia-Western conflict, 21CQ has been, through track 1.5 work in key capitals around the world (from Kiev and Moscow, to Baku, New Delhi, Washington D.C., Berlin, Paris, Berlin and Ottawa), at the heart of the UN peacekeeping proposal for the Donbass for the last 3.5 years, almost immediately following the Ukrainian revolution, the Crimean annexation and the start of hostilities in Ukraine’s southeast. Variations of the peacekeeping proposal became highly topical among key parties to the conflict following Russia formally mooting the idea in the fall of last year on the outskirts of the BRICS summit in China. However, the proposal first gained traction with the Ukrainians and then the French, and only finally with the Russians – in all cases with leadership from 21CQ via quiet, methodical track 1.5 work.
Unfortunately, the window for any ‘elegant’ exit from the conflict via a peacekeeping contingent may have passed. If Ukraine is today interested almost exclusively in the peacekeeping aspect of the solution tout court, then Russia, which at the time of this writing appears to have psychologically moved on from any belief in any near-term exit, would require it to be packaged more comprehensively with certain conspicuous economic and possibly geopolitical guarantees. The Americans, while likely by now understanding the purpose of the peacekeeping device and the need to package it more broadly in order to attract Russian agreement (and indeed to restabilize Ukraine), are, because of Congressional action, not politically able to provide Russia with the requisite non-Crimean sanctions relief. If the Americans are critical to the deal in terms of their present leverage over Kiev, then their primary guarantees to Russia can only be geopolitical and, for all practical intents and purposes, not economic. And yet such geopolitical guarantees – for instance, in respect of NATO non-membership for Ukraine – go against the grain of conventional security thinking in the American strategic establishment at the time of this writing, even if this White House may be positively disposed to such concessions (perhaps in exchange for Russian concessions in one or both of the other two major global theatres of contest).
The Europeans, for their part, while minor players vis-à-vis the Americans in respect of geopolitical concessions, could presumably provide at least part of the sanctions relief that interests Moscow, with the peacekeeping contingent removing all essential non-Crimea-related objections from the table (and assuming, perhaps none too easily, that the EU-27/28 can be united in this regard).
If I understood the Russian move to the peacekeeping proposal as an opening volley in a larger negotiation with Washington, Brussels and Kiev that would have ended the Donbass war (the primary Western and Ukrainian interest) and provided sanctions relief (the primary Russian interest), then the timing of President Putin’s proposal suggested an interest in doing this ‘deal’, as it were, in time for the presidential election in March of this year and, not to be underestimated, in order minimize the likelihood of any political boycott of the upcoming football World Cup (a subject I have raised in past writing).
The most profound obstacle to any peacekeeping-led exit from the conflict is, to be clear, the political instability in post-revolutionary Ukraine (including the failure of deep consolidation of the Ukrainian revolution over the entire Ukrainian territory and political-administrative apparatus). Indeed, this political instability, which was at the heart of the 2014 revolution, threatens to lead to hot confrontation between Russia and Western countries, and with this a larger structural collapse of Ukraine and risks to the larger European project, over the coming year. The low popularity of the Ukrainian president and the erosion of central government prestige and legitimacy, post-revolution, via, among myriad others factors, the protests led by former Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili, mean that analysts cannot exclude the possibility of governmental collapse or overthrow in Kiev. Beyond the obvious catastrophic consequences for the already-weak Ukrainian state, such collapse would make it nearly impossible for Russia and NATO countries to remain passive. (In the worst case, Ukrainian collapse could lead to a kinetic clash between Russia and NATO countries.) However, short of collapse, the fundamental weakness of the government in Kiev means that, apart from an interest in a peacekeeping contingent for the Donbass, Ukraine is generally unable to make any concessions or major political-constitutional moves that would be necessary, under the dominant Minsk framework or logic, for any broader deal to exit the crisis.
If Russia has already gamed these scenarios and decided that it is unlikely that any exit from crisis is possible given the present weakness of the Ukrainian centre (not to mention U.S. Congressional radicalization) – a weakness that also mitigates any geopolitical concessions that the U.S. can grant to Russia in the context of a broader deal on Ukraine – then the prospects of any exit deal seem bleak indeed at the time of this writing.
What’s to be done, and what should be the Canadian position? Canada’s dominant interest should be in a systemic solution that ensures Ukrainian, Russian and European stability as a whole (read my writings on Canada’s Four-Point Game in GB). To this end, if a first-order deal on the Ukraine conflict is by now improbable, a de minimis deal, which Canada should aggressively support, could look as follows: Canada should push for a peacekeeping contingent for the Donbass (including along the Russo-Ukrainian border) comprised, as I have recommended for the last 3.5 years, primarily of peacekeepers from neutral (non-NATO, non-CSTO) Asian countries – ideally led by India, but possibly China and also Indonesia. This would end definitively the bloodshed in the Donbass, but would not be sufficient to stabilize Ukraine or, to be sure, Russia (and therefore Europe) over the long run. Canada should press for a package that, along with peacekeepers, include sanctions removal not related to Crimea (which is a problem that cannot be solved within the next decade) and, just as importantly, a very large economic package, led by Canada in concert with other countries and institutions (with Asian institutions like AIIB and the BRICS Bank not be excluded, given possible Asian participation in the peacekeeping continent), in order to help stabilize Ukraine globally (and, to be sure, Russia) and rebuild the Donbass region. Guarantees in respect of non-NATO membership for Ukraine could also be made with relative ease, still, but Canada could play a leadership role in providing Ukraine with massive assistance in constitutional and public sector decentralization (moving toward federalization – an area in which Canada has world-leading expertise but in which, ideology oblige, the country has to date been surprisingly passive).
Finally, as part of this larger economic package, Canada can play a key role in supporting, if not pioneering, what I would call the “interstitial” ties between the Eurasian Union and the European Union through Ukraine, allowing Ukraine to meaningfully pivot economically (if not politically or strategically) between the two blocs, without being boxed into one or out of the other (a dynamic that was also one of the key causes of the 2014 revolution and subsequent wars). If it is clever, Canada will use the experiment of Ukrainian interstitiality to inform its own key interest in eventually creating such ties with Russia and the Eurasian Union across the Arctic space – a key strategic theatre for Canada this century. Of course, all of these moves turn on Canada having the right mental map in respect of its strategic game (with Ukraine properly to the east of Europe, but Russia to the immediate north of Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut).
In the end, the only sustainable exit from the conflict in this theatre must be one that simultaneously restabilizes the three micro-systems or spaces that were radicalized and destabilized in the aftermath of the events of 2014. Except, given the amount of time that has passed and the present instability at the heart of the Ukrainian space, this triple stabilization must occur with great rapidity and urgency. If not, all three spaces could be brought asunder soon.
The Middle Eastern Theatre
In the Middle Eastern Theatre, 21CQ has been leading the international charge, led by our co-founder and vice-president, Sam Sasan Shoamanesh, in promoting a Western Asian security framework – starting, in the first instance, with confidence-building measures and a regional security dialogue-cum-forum, en route to a possible ‘thicker’ regional framework, with thicker institutions beyond simple security-based mechanisms. 21CQ track 1.5 work and Shoamanesh’s writings in GB have resonated with leadership cadres and thought leaders in a number of key states in the region, even as the stability of the region has deteriorated markedly over the several years during which 21CQ has been leading this work. One need only read the recent Financial Times op-ed by Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Zarif, in which the idea of a regional security dialogue is floated, working from Shoamanesh’s very words.
Of course, as mentioned in previous blog posts, Russia’s Syrian push in 2015 led to a decisive overlap or merger, arguably for the first time since the end of the Cold War, between the contests and conflicts in the Eurasian Theatre and those in the Mideastern theatre – even if, to this date, the Mideast theatre does not overlap as meaningfully with the East Asian or Sino-American theatre I discuss below. This could well change before long – especially in the event of a worsening of the security situation in the East Asian theatre (e.g. the start of hot conflict on the Korean Peninsula or in the South China Sea). Moreover, while it is not clear that a deterioration of the security situation in the Mideast theatre would necessarily worsen the stability or prospects for any exit from conflict in the Eurasian theatre, it is very likely that a worsening of tensions in the Eurasian theatre – for instance, through any collapse of government or state institutions in Ukraine – would cripple any prospects of meaningful improvement of stability in the Mideastern theatre (or in the East Asian theatre, for that matter).
What of Canada’s position here? To be clear, the Mideast theatre is not and should not be considered a primary theatre of action or interest for Canada. As per the ACRE or four-point strategic framework I’ve commended for Canada in several GB articles (and in formal advice), the Mideast theatre has no existential import for Canada – that is, it is necessarily secondary or ancillary to the America, China, Russia and Europe vectors. In other words still, it is important only insofar as it impacts Canadian interests in its primary four theatres or indeed in the interrelationships between those theatres – for instance, in respect of the RE (Russia-Europe) vector (i.e. the Eurasian theatre) or, say, the AE theatre.
As in the Eurasian theatre, however, Canada can play an important role in nudging different states and parties to a common understanding of the need for, and utility of, a long-term security framework for the region – one that binds key regional states like Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel – starting perhaps with the Gulf Cooperation Council network as the nucleus of an eventual larger group. To do this, Canada evidently must have strong, pragmatic, differentiated relations with each and every one of these countries. The relationship with Iran is, in this respect, highly underserviced (as is the in situ bilateral relationship with Oman, Bahrain, Syria, Yemen and, in North Africa, Libya), meaning that Canada would need to reinvest in neglected or poorly managed bilateral relationships in order to play a material role in pushing the various parties to dialogue in the first instance (my colleague Shoamanesh has, as mentioned, recommended various permutations of security dialogue form for starters), and possibly formalization of some species of preliminary framework thereafter (hopefully before the various micro-wars in the region worsen or before a more general conflict materializes).
For certainty, when I say ‘differentiated’ relationship, the utility of Canadian action can only really come if it engages with other countries and parties with conscientious differentiation vis-à-vis Canadian allies (if not non-allies also) – that is, engaging with, say, Iran or Yemen or Syria with greater intensity specifically because key allies like the U.S. (the ‘A’ vector in Canada’s four-point ACRE game) are under-engaged in these countries. The same logic applies – arguably with even great immediacy, given the primacy of the ‘C’ vector to Canadian interests – to Canadian bilateral engagement with North Korea.
Let me also add that, conceptually and diplomatically, Canada can play a key role in generalizing international appreciation of the import of the aforementioned interstitial bridges, tendons and mechanisms that will need to be invented and implemented in order to connect the future Middle Eastern framework (whatever its eventual look) with both the EU and Eurasian Union, not to mention emerging East Asian frameworks. These inter-bloc interstitial mechanisms, after all, may be some of the most underappreciated assets in 21st century diplomacy – that is, if bloc-building is intellectually plain and strategically coherent (in many cases), then what of the links between the blocs, or the tendons across spaces not included in the various blocs?
East Asian Theatre
As mentioned, prior to the commencement of the Trump presidency, the East Asian strategic theatre had little connection to the Eurasian and Middle Eastern theatres. If the junction or partial overlap between the Eurasian and Middle Eastern theatres occurred in 2015, then the East Asian theatre merged partially with the Eurasian theatre by 2017 – that is, with the intensification of strategic pressure in relation to North Korea.
While increased destabilization in one or both of the Mideast and East Asian theatres could well make it more difficult to exit, or even deepen, the Eurasian conflict, then exit from the present and growing tensions in the Mideast and East Asian theatres will be impossible if the Eurasian theatre is further destabilized. (For now, there is no direct overlap between the East Asian and Mideast theatres – that is, their linkages are largely mediated by the Eurasian theatre and conflict.)
Bilahari Kausikan properly points out, in his interview in GB’s Winter 2018 issue, that there is no serious talk about an Asian-wide security framework these days – East Asian or otherwise (contrast, for interest, this with previous remarks made by former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd in GB in 2014 in respect of the potential for such a framework in the region). For one thing, the region already has several subsets of security frameworks, treaties and fora covering its geography. While 21CQ is actively interested in Asian security at large and actively works on this challenge in a track 1.5 capacity, it does so with great humility – principally in recognition of the complexity and scale of the theatre, and also conceding that we do not yet know what the ‘exits’ from the potential conflicts look like at this stage. This work is therefore principally relationship-based at the moment, working out evolving approaches and algorithms for parties in the region. It also comes, as suggested above, with a deep 21CQ interest in the interstitial mechanisms linking East Asian security, economic and regional legal frameworks with those of other theatres and spaces.
What should be the Canadian position? Canada must avoid war in the East Asian theatre – and specifically over and against North Korea (by no means an enemy of Canada) – at all costs, and use all the instruments at its disposal to push the various parties to reduce tensions to a manageable level, even if short of an exit (the form of which is not obvious at the time of this writing). On this logic, the January summit in Vancouver on North Korea, co-hosted by Canada and the U.S., mistakenly put Canada in the camp of war. Not only did the summit exclude North Korea (the very subject of the summit) and pivotal regional countries like China and Russia, but the public language issuing from the summit adopted the logic of the American side in framing the sources of the conflict and the logic of any apparent exit. Whether the Canadian agreement to use American language, including in respect of war options (“on the table”, as it were) and in respect of North Korea as the sole causal force of the present escalation and explicit nuclear posturing, was made in the expectation of some diplomatic ‘linkage’ in the NAFTA negotiations or indeed unconsciously, for lack of any independent Canadian theory of the world, is not obvious. Nevertheless, the summit succeeded in marginalizing Canada in terms of any leverage in engineering a peaceful exit from the present military-nuclear logic that appears to have been consolidating over the last half year. It also puts exaggerated Canadian attachment to the ‘A’ vector at the expense of the ‘C’ and ‘R’ vectors that will also be pivotal to Canadian strategy over the coming decades – not just economically, but indeed for purposes of survival.
Can Canada escape the path dependence it has set for itself via the logic suggested by the Vancouver summit – that is, the path of a globally destructive war, quite possibly in the nuclear form? Answer: Yes, but it will take a degree of strategic chutzpah that is, for the time being, not on offer in the imaginary of official Ottawa: first, establish immediately a Canadian embassy in Pyongyang (positioning Canada as a friend of peace and a very reasonable intermediary between North Korea and the U.S.); second, reframe decisively the desired end-state of the U.S.-led bloc of states away from the stated “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula to the reunification of the Koreas – a longstanding goal of Seoul and, if one remains porous in one’s analysis, something intimated by Pyongyang in recent public statements as a possible exit from the present mania of mutual nuclear threats.