Red lines

My recent posts and tweets on the hot war with Russia and on the cold war between the US and China (let us see what European governments will say and do about that over the coming weeks and months) attracted some attention. Nothing much: a few hundred views over a couple of days (but, yes, growing). Not going viral. No likes so far. Probably because my comments go against majority viewpoints.

It reminds me of a few other things I did in life, about which I never wrote. They wrecked the career I then had: I was a Belgian diplomat from 1997 to 2009, but went against the flow. I will now write about them because it may help the reader to know where I stand.

1. When I was a diplomat in New Delhi (India), I signed off on end user certificates (EUCs) on Belgian sensitive exports to both India as well as Nepal. The exports to Nepal were most sensitive: machineguns. The exports had always been politically sensitive, with ministers resigning over them and, ultimately, led to the regionalization of decisions to export weapons, ammunition and associated dual-use technology and equipment.

I refused to sign EUCs for the delivery of Belgian combined rocket machine gun pods to India, which would then use these to up-armor and re-export British helicopters to Nepal. [India, the UK and – yes – the US publicly criticized Belgian arms exports to Nepal but, privately, encouraged them (their parliaments had blocked them: Belgium was the only source of arms to Nepal then) because they thought China was supporting the insurgents (an accusation for which there was no evidence whatsoever).] If the sale would have gone through, it would have brought the violence to a whole new level. That did not happen, and it was – to a great extent – because of my refusal. I documented my refusal in a confidential cable, which got leaked to the press (I had nothing to do with that). The leak annoyed then Minister Louis Michel, because he was in charge then, and the defense industry around Liège is/was one of this political constituencies. He made a great career at the European level afterwards: first, European Commissioner for Science and Research and then European Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid and Development. From support to gun exports to aid? I always thought of that as very incongruent.

Belgium was, then, the only country supplying arms to Nepal, and the crisis over this sensitive export brought an end to it. I cannot help thinking the end of all arms supplies to Nepal helped bring the end to the insurgency by making it clear to all parties that a military victory on either side was not possible, and that negotiations were the only way forward. These negotiations ultimately led to the 2006 comprehensive peace accord.

2. While in India also, I reported on the discussions which ultimately led to the nuclear deal between India and the US. How and why did I get involved? My knowledge of all things nuclear is at par with that of specialists (my own independent research on quantum physics got me a RI score in the top 30% bracket of RG members), so I was rather good at identifying what fuel cycles were interesting in terms of proliferation of sensitive technology and what efforts are/were needed to counter it.

Back to the deal. I was against it because it was quite obvious this agreement was part of an overall attempt to better arm India against what both India and the US saw as an increasingly expansive China. I only saw a rapidly growing economy, doing what India did not manage: bring its people – all of them – out of abject poverty. I argued this deal would, therefore, create more regional nuclear arms races.

What happened with Iran, which never got such exception or special treatment, in the years that followed, proved me right. Also, this deal predictably brought all talks on international nuclear disarmament to a completely standstill, which continues till this day: if the US starts making exceptions based on perceived regional power balances, then there is no hope for multilateralism anymore.

3. Ultimately, I went on to become Belgium’s chargé d’affaires in Kabul, Afghanistan from 2007 to 2009. I was there when Belgium expanded its military presence as part of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force. It was because there were few other candidates and, maybe, because people within my ministry did prefer someone who would be fully independent (read: not aligned to any political party or particular point of view). I took a career break after two years of service, as the job was quite exhausting. Another two years later, I could return but I did not want to because the head of personnel would not offer me anything interesting (read: an ambassadorship or, at least, a director-level position within the ministry).

I do not regret that decision. I have done well ever since and, seeing my former colleagues, I think I might be a happier person. I have been working as a consultant on systems, IT and organizational projects since 2009, and I am still in that business. However, memories from the past do come back sharply with all of the international turmoil now. I am not sure why I should feel so concerned or emotional about it. I guess I wanted to tell my children a better story, but they are grown up too now and they will make their way. The only advice I can give them is this: stay on the right side of Sun Tzu’s Moral Law. It made me a happy person. Happiness is more important than wealth or power.

If US political leaders – Republican or Democrat – and diplomats and other foreign service staff want to preserve (moral) legitimacy abroad, they should act fast. Anti-US protests in Korea, new or old anti-US peace movements growing stronger in Europe (both independent, as well as left- and right-wing EU MPs counter the NATO discourse strongly and reasonably), in Australia (the anti-AUKUS) and in Africa (here is a CSIS article on that which predates current international developments), are real. Very real. I hope they tilt the current balance. More than that: I hope they finally turn the tide, towards world peace and true security rooted in acceptance of multipolarity (many countries, different systems), stronger multilateralism and true multiculturality again.

Many EU countries will face elections over the coming years, and I do not think the current anti-Russia or anti-China rhetoric strikes a chord with true Europeans. I am not talking about conversion to this or that camp here: that is (probably) futile. Social media campaigns do not make people switch opinion or change their deep-rooted convictions. That will not happen. What has happened, however, is that the symbolism of Pelosi’s visit displayed an American arrogance that does not go down very well here in Europe and, surely, not in Asia. Koreans and Japanese may not like the Chinese but when it comes to sympathy for an Asian neighbor who loses face for no reason whatsoever, I think Asian wisdom wins from modern antagonism. And Europe does look East, if only because of its geography: it has to.

One more personal note: back in March, I went spontaneously to Ukraine to join the volunteer International Legion. That is documented into several news reels, including this one made by one of the most prominent news channels: I am the not-so-anonymous Belgian in the video. I mean it: the US should not have taken over from the EU or NATO here. Yankee, go home! Please.

Post scriptum: Looking back and reflecting on what triggered the hot war with Russia, and the new cold war with China, I have come to the conclusion it is the need of weak leaders to shore up domestic credibility by provoking adversaries. Mr. Zelensky is guilty of that too. It was not right to go to Washington DC in September last year: it was clear he was pushing for Ukraine to join NATO and, in the absence of such membership, to secure a military commitment from the US, which he got (the war in Ukraine is, to a large extent, not a war between Europe and Russia, but a war between Russia, Ukraine and the US). We should remind ourselves of the fact that Mr. Zelensky approval ratings were extremely poor before all this talk about a war started to dominate (barely 30% in December 2021, when the Russian threat was already clear).

To put it bluntly, in the mind of Mr. Putin, this state visit of Zelensky in early September last year, is the symbolic equivalent of Ms. Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, and its repercussions are of the same nature as the now very frosty relations between the US and China (not a hot war but a cold war that is, possibly, even more damaging to the world economy). It was provocative, and it definitely changed the geopolitical status quo: in just one or two days, Ukraine was part of the Western sphere of influence – politically and militarily.

It was this new alliance between Biden and Zelensky which led to Mr. Putin to build up troops at Ukraine’s borders and, after getting some kind of reassurance from Beijing just before his invasion, to become the war president that he is now. Hence, looking back, one might look at all this as something that could be foreseen: it was written, plain for all to see, in the psychology of Mr. Zelensky, Mr. Putin, and Mr. Biden. When domestic support is low or drops sharply, these leaders turn to war by creating new or reinventing old enemies. It is a sad thing, especially because European leaders – all those calling for further destroying Russia’s economy and antagonizing the Russian people with visa bans and all that – seem to fall into the same trap now. No matter whether or not you trust or distrust China, one thing that stands out about Mr. Xi Jinping is that he does not need an external enemy to appease criticism or look strong in the eyes of his own people.

Mr. Xi Jinping is apparently to go to Riyadh, and part of the discussions are, apparently, on ending the preeminence of the dollar as the preferred international currency for trade. That would not be bad: the US has abused its historical seigniorage rights for much too long now. China could easily sink the dollar by selling its US Treasury debt, which adds up to close to one trillion US$ ($967.8 billion in June, to be precise), but that would leave China a lot poorer too, so the new scheme – a gradual switch rather than an outright dump – sounds more logical and, therefore (one of the advantages of the Chinese system is that, unlike US foreign policy, it is quite predictable), much more likely. 

Afghanistan: another post-mortem analysis

The row between President Karzai and the US which accompanied the much-delayed opening of a ‘political office’ by the Taliban in Doha a few days ago, the continued attacks on Afghan and international security forces in Afghanistan, the Taliban’s immediate focus on an exchange of prisoners as talks between the US and the Taliban seem to be getting underway (five Taliban leaders held in Guantanamo Bay in exchange for one US ‘prisoner of war’ held who knows where) all show that the Taliban have no intention of yielding any concessions: not to the US, and surely not to the current Afghan regime.

That is not much of a concern for the current US administration as Barack Obama had made it clear, even before his first term as US President, that he just wanted the US to cut the losses – in lives and in treasure – and disengage as soon as the Taliban could offer reasonable assurances that they would not abet international terrorism. Hence, as soon as they’ll do that (and, of course, we’ll trust their word – even if there’s no ground whatsoever for doing so), the US will be happy to cut a deal.

As for national terrorism, well… Who cares? It is obvious for all those who want to see (but then many do not) that since the worldwide War on Terrorism started, US interventionism – or international interventionism in general – has not much to show for in this regard. Libya, Egypt and Tunisia are hardly stable, with hard-line Islamic groups threatening whatever improvement was made in terms of political and civil rights as the Arab Spring fanned out. As for Syria, well… As much as I deplore the bloodshed there (the conflict in Afghanistan looks pretty insignificant in comparison), Barack Obama is right in not committing to a military intervention. [If the EU thinks it can help by arming the rebels, let them do so – even if it is not a wise move in my view.] The fight in Syria is a full-blown Islamic war between Sunni and Shia Muslims – and Syria’s minorities, Christian or other, are being crushed in the event. Nevertheless, Barack Obama’s gut feeling about the conflict is correct: stay out! If the West would truly care about human rights and democracy, it should intervene in Saudi Arabia.

That being said, the Taliban’s ambivalence about negotiations – or its outright inflexibility I should say – should obviously worry Karzai, as well as his family and friends and supporters. Let me be straight: I have some sympathy for him. In fact, I admire him – but to some extent only. We should all admire him, if only because Afghan kings and presidents usually end up murdered. More importantly, Hamid Karzai’s personal history is full of bravery and sacrifices – although I do agree that does not justify his erratic behavior.

So what is my prognosis as to Afghanistan’s future? I doubt Afghanistan will hold presidential elections next year. I think President Karzai – who cannot be elected for yet another term according to Afghanistan’s Constitution – will just say it’s too costly and too dangerous for people to vote, and so he will just call it a Loya Jirga – as he did before – and ask the carefully selected ‘elders’ to confirm he can continue without going through the trouble of national elections. And then he’ll preside over another phase of gradual disintegration – one of the many which have marked Afghanistan’s history. Or he might be murdered. Or, else, perhaps I am wrong and there will actually be some kind of elections through which Afghanistan would get another leader – an outcome which the US would surely like to see. Would it make any difference? I don’t think so. Under Afghanistan’s constitutional system, the President is both Head of State as well as Head of Government – which is just one of the many flaws in the current set-up which ensures its non-sustainability – and so that’s a sure recipe for disaster in my view.

The truth is that the Bonn settlement did not integrate the losers of the US-led War in Afghanistan – and now that this War is obviously over (the US got tired of fighting it) – these losers are back with a vengeance. So we’re in for another decade of trouble there. But, again, I think it’s clear to all now that Washington does not look at that as much of a concern anymore: it’s of concern to the Afghans only.

So what went wrong? Well… Washington finally got it: Afghanistan requires a political solution. The problem is: Washington’s decision-makers understood this way too late and so, yes, Washington’s negotiators are basically negotiating the terms of retreat now – if not surrender – and there’s nothing honorable about it.

As I spent more than four years in that country, I pity my Afghan friends. They do have the right to feel betrayed. I also pity those families who have lost relatives there, and those who lost limbs or got permanent trauma – physical or psychological. We all fought an impossible battle there (I myself spent more than four years there)… And that’s the only thing we can be proud of. It’s not a lot, but it’s something.

As for Karzai, perhaps he can find himself some safe place to go to. His family got rich enough and so money is not an issue. But perhaps he’ll prefer harakiri. Or perhaps he’ll get murdered. Or perhaps he’ll clear the way for a successor. All of that would be honorable – or, at the very least, more honorable than what the West is currently trying to do – and that is to just get out – regardless of the loss of face and lack of morality it implies. […] But then honor is not something that matters in the post-modern world we’re living in, is it?