Weekly Foreign Affairs Roundup

08/10/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Week's Top Stories in Foreign Affairs :

Re-Settling of US-Russia Relations

Facts:US President Barack Obama traveled to Russia this week and met with Russian President Dimitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Beforehand, what was seen as a gesture in good faith, Russia announced that it will allow for the US to use Russian airspace to transport weapons and supplies to Afghanistan. After the meeting, Presidents Medvedev and Obama announced that the framework for further nuclear disarmament had been laid. Despite that just before his trip Obama had criticized PM Putin for having one foot still in the cold war, their meeting was surprisingly cordial and tempered. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will follow-up in September and a thorough assessment of the current state of nuclear weapons in the world will be conducted. This includes Russian and American stockpiles and delivery systems, proliferation efforts of states (including Iran and North Korea) and non-state actors. No concessions were reached on coordination regarding Iran's nuclear program, US Missile Defense plans in Eastern Europe, North Korea and NATO expansion in the former-Soviet area of influence. SI Analysis: Despite former US President George W. Bush's ability to see former Russian President Putin's soul, Russia-US relations have greatly worsened over the past few years. The fact that Obama and Medevedev were able to lay the groundwork for the renewal of the Strategic Arms Reductions Treaty (START II) is greater progress than many realize. In addition, less bellicose language on both sides shows a willingness by the US to provide more deference to Russia with regards to its missile defense plans and NATO expansion. Meanwhile, Russian willingness to play partner rather than foe to the US on some issues is promising for bilateral relations. Obama seemed willing to play to Russia's desire to be considered a great player again on the geopolitical stage without really conceding on any issues. Putin and Medvedev intimated their openness on sticky issues like Iran and North Korea without making any formal statements. What this means is that both parties have shown their cards and that constructive negotiations and concessions could follow (e.g. US scrapping of its missile defense plans and less US vigor with regards to Ukranian and Georgian accession to NATO in exchange for Russian cooperation on Iran and North Korea). Finally, the fact that Obama was not run over by the Medvedev-Putin duad did much to increase his stature at home and abroad, where everyone predicted a disaster tantamount to the first Kruschev-Kennedy meeting in Munich.

Uighurs - China Back in the Spotlight

Facts: This week saw a slew of violent protests in China's far western province of Xinjiang. The protests in the provincial capital Urumqi were led by minorities from the Uighur (pronounced "Wee-gur") community, a Turkic-speaking Muslim population that has caused much headache for authorities in Beijing over the past several years. This week's protests and subsequent ethnic violence between Uighurs and Han Chinese have left at least 156 dead and have brought a massive influx of government forces into Urumqi. Hundreds of Uighur men were placed in custody and several international thought leaders questioned Beijing's ability to control the city. Bracing for Friday's Muslim Sabbath, Beijing has ordered mosques in Urumqi closed to stave off more unrest, even though the violence has died down.

SI Analysis: Though the largest crackdown since Tianamen, the riots in Urumqi are just another event in a string of incidents of unrest and repression in China. The myth of a monolithic China with omnipotent control from Beijing has been continually shattered in recent years after a wave of Tibetan protests and constant low-level unrest in Xinjiang, among other regions. Beijing has tried to cast its quelling of the current protests in Urumqi under the guise of a "war on terror"-like policy. Indeed, Chinese authorities continually state that the Muslim rebels from Xinjiang are affiliated with al-Qaeda. These claims are ungrounded in fact and the line of argument holds less rhetorical power in 2009 than it may have before, for 2 main reasons: 1.) The Obama Administration has dropped the "War on Terror" from its lexicon, and 2.) the release of Uighurs from Guantanamo Prison to relative freedom Bermuda and Palau has futher underscored the lack of association between these Chinese rebels and global terror networks such as al-Qaeda. In any case, China is again in the international spotlight concerning its dealings with its myriad restive ethnic minorities.

The Underwhelming G8

Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the UK and the US meet in Aquila, Italy among the ruins of last year's earthquake and under the mire of Italian PM Berlusconi's most recent sex scandal. Major issues at stake include: the faltering world economy, Iran's nuclear dossier, climate change and aid to the world's poorest countries. Some of the world's largest developing economies, including Brazil, China and India will attend the second day of the meeting on Saturday.

SI Analysis: Little is expected from the G8. The leaders of Canada, Britain, Italy and Japan have very little power in light of their standing at home to broker any kind of major deal. Everyone is eager to see Germany launch its own stimulus program to help with the faltering global economy, which it is loath to do. Russia remains evasive on the Iran issue as it wishes to keep it as leverage over the US. Lastly developing countries will certainly clash with their guests over climate change as development priorities trump environmental concerns. In addition, G8 countries will be pressed to honor their aid commitments to poorer nations even during the tough economic times as the global downturn has disproportianately and greivously affected the world's poorest economies. Lastly, members may clash over trade protectionism and dollar dominance as well. It's not going to be a party.

Who is the Democratic Champion in Honduras?

Facts: News from Honduras continued to reach internationally after June 28th's military coup that ousted President Manuel Zelaya. After an initial rejection of the coup by the US and other Western allies, the interim Honduran government sought to improve its image and justify the coup. Following Zelaya's aborted attempt to return, coup instigator General Romeo Vasquez Velasquez, leader of the joint chiefs of staff, provided the argument that the coup "saved democracy" in Honduras by preventing President Zelaya from destroying the nascent democracy's fragile institutions. Other concerns about Zelaya related to his closeness to Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, his acceptance of massively subsidized Venezuelan oil, and his bid to extend his presidency beyond 2010 by changing the nation's laws. Finally on Thursday Costa Rican President Oscar Arias attempted to hold US-encouraged talks between Zelaya and Honduran interim President Roberto Micheletti to resolve the crisis. The talks were inconclusive.

SI Analysis: Ironically, the crisis over Honduras has put the US and Venezuela on the same side. Both Washington and Caracas want Zelaya reinstated as president. Washington is mainly concerned with stability in Latin America and wishes to maintain positive relationships with governments that are sympathetic to American interests. Meanwhile, Caracas is preoccupied with the influence it wielded under Zelaya's leftist policies that relied heavily on Venezuelan assistance and trade. Although no nations have recognized the new Honduran government (OAS leaders including Brazilian President Lula joined US President Obama in supporting Zelaya on Thursday), a more conservative and anti-left government in Honduras, as has been provided by the coup, might better serve US interests. What is curious is that some analysts contend that Zelaya was actually trying to strengthen popular democracy by making amendments to the constitution, as the present one tends to favor a conservative and entitled elite (while at the same time trying to extend his term limit). Others make the case that under Honduras' law, the coup was completely legal. No matter what happens, the Honduran coup is the largest challenge thus far for Obama's foreign policy in Latin America. Washington's best idea has been to get behind Costa Rica's Arias, so as to avoid the appearance of meddling in the resolution of the conflict.


Obama in Africa

SI Analysis: After traveling to Russia and Italy, US President Obama will make his first visit in office to the African continent by visiting Ghana. His choice of a stable, democratic and growing economy have been duly noted (in opposition to Kenya, the birthplace of his father). Issues to be addressed include: combating poverty and disease in Africa (hopefully Obama will scrape American policies that exclude the promotion of condoms and birth-control as an effective means to fight disease); American aid policies and strategies that link development aid to standards in good governance, anti-corruption, health and education investment and sound economic policies. Other issues will include the crisis in Darfur and the ongoing conflict in the Horn of Africa, as well as the role of AfriCom.

Ban in and on Burma

SI Analysis: United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon visited Myanmar at the end of last week and over the weekend. Many analysts warned that his visit could end in failure. In the end, Ban held lengthy meetings with junta leader General Than Shwe. Although Ban was not allowed to meet with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi who is currently on trial for breaking her house arrest, and although he was unable to gain any success in getting the government to release its 2,000-plus political prisoners, he did announce that Than Shwe promised to hold free general elections in 2010. Given the repressive government's record, we expect no such elections to take place. As Ban was in Burma, the American Apparel & Footwear Association sought to renew America's ban on Burmese exports.

This Week's Elections

3 important elections took place this week:

1.) Mexico. Midterm elections resulted in massive losses for the ruling National Action Party of President Felipe Calderon. With economic crises abounding and drug-related violence in full swing, voters returned to the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which ruled consistently for 70 years during the 20th century. All told, the Institutional Revolutionary Party won 5 of 6 governorships and a majority in the lower house of parliament. This development spells a crisis for Calderon's reelection hopes in 2012.

2.) Bulgaria. In national parliamentary elections, Mayor Boyko Borisov of Sofia led his center-right opposition party to victory over the socialist coalition. Factors were the economic crisis, perceived corruption, and a very poor financial relationship with the European Union. The election secured Borisov the position of Prime Minister. But more than that, it showed the effect of the economic crisis on Bulgaria's populace and brings the country perhaps closer to the EU.

3.) Indonesia. In the national presidential election, the incumbent Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono won by a landslide. Now that SBY (as Yudhoyono is often called) has a firm mandate, many expect him to attempt to implement a host of reforms. Although former President Megawati Sukarnoputri announced that she contests the election, international observers voiced that the voting was transparent.

War Reports:

SI Analysis on Afghanistan and Pakistan: The US pressed forward with its action in Helmand province in Afghanistan, where it indicated that it intended to clear the area of Taliban and then in a change in strategy leave small units behind to protect the areas; Pakistan continued its effort to rout the Taliban in Waziristan and FATA, after making significant yet perhaps unlasting gains in the Swat Valley. The Pakistani Army suffered setbacks with a helicopter crash near a Taliban stronghold in Chapri Ferozkhel as well as suicide attack on a bus near a Pakistani nuclear facility in Rawalpindi.

SI Analysis on Iraq: After the formal US withdrawal from Iraqi cities, a series of bombings in and Baghdad and also in the restive northern Nineveh region were reported. In the north, a conflict between Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen is heating up over the oil-rich area. Furthermore the autonomous Kurdish Regional Government appeared to press ahead with efforts to write its own constitution and oil laws, a signal that it may be seeking more autonomy from the rest of Iraq.

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