Attempts to render terror suspects stateless, represent a dangerous step towards revoking the citizenship of anyone who dissents, and highlight a shift in the meaning of citizenship from emancipation to conformity.
Stories emerged earlier this week about Home Secretary Theresa May’s plans to make terror suspects stateless by revoking their UK citizenship. The Government is already able to revoke UK citizenship from those with a dual citizenship, however according to these reports options are being explored to overturn international human rights conventions in order to strip citizenship from those with only a UK passport – rendering them stateless.
Not really British
It is interesting that the powers are intended to remove citizenship from ‘terror suspects’ and not ‘convicted terrorists’, implying that judgments over whether or not suspects are involved in types of behaviour that are ‘seriously prejudicial to the UK’ could be made outside of a formal legal proceeding.
Furthermore, the UK legal system – while it does not allow convicted criminals to vote – does not strip citizenship from those criminals. Could this power be extended to others, or is there a working assumption here that all terror suspects are ‘not really British’, and therefore can have their citizenship removed at the discretion of the state?
Discipline or dissent?
This points to a wider shift in the meaning we attribute to citizenship today. Traditionally, citizenship has been defined as a set of civil, social and political rights, and as such was conceptualised as emancipatory: the right to vote, the provision of basic social rights, the right to be treated equally, and so forth.
However, increasingly that meaning is changing, and particularly this has been in relation to how citizenship is gained. As May has continually commented, citizenship is now understood as a ‘privilege’ not a right, and it is something that is ‘earned’ through ‘good character’, citizenship testing and pledging allegiance.
All of this implies the requirement to conform to the state in order to gain citizenship. The citizenship test itself has been revised to include more content on history and culture, something which – as I have argued elsewhere – implies a greater demand for conformity to a specific type of state-sanctioned British identity.
The idea that citizenship can be revoked is dangerous no matter what the alleged crime, because it implies the ability of the state not only to demand conformity in gaining citizenship, but also that the state can revoke that citizenship at any time if someone is judged to have dissented. This is not the ideal of citizenship that lies at the heart of liberal democracy.
Dr Katherine Tonkiss is a Research Fellow in the School of Government and Society, University of Birmingham. She is interested in migration, citizenship and post-nationalism – particularly in relation to policy-making in the UK and the EU. Her book, Migration and Identity in a Post-National World, has recently been published by Palgrave Macmillan.
POLSIS Senior Lecturer Dr Adam Quinn examines U.S. soft power in light of the recent revelations regarding the National Security Agency’s controversial surveillance activities.
For presidents, like sports team managers, the tough weeks tend to outnumber the jubilant. But even by the standards of an unforgiving job, Barack Obama could be forgiven for feeling unusually buffeted of late. Many of the blows have come on the domestic front, with the all-consuming stand off of the government shutdown segueing into frantic efforts to defend and repair the roll-out of Obamacare amid charges of fatal technological incompetence. But if he were tempted to seek solace in the autonomy of foreign policy – as modern presidents have been wont to do – there has been little consolatory triumph to be found.
In August and September, he was caught in a mighty tangle over Syria, threatening military strikes over its chemical weapons use before being hamstrung first by Britain’s refusal to join the charge and then by the reluctance of his own Congress. The legacy of that mess continues to work itself out in unpredictable ways, such as increasingly public tensions between the US and Saudi Arabia, hitherto one of its more solid allies. Though the eventual Russian-orchestrated deal to remove Syria’s chemical weapons was a respectable one given the circumstances, the episode as a whole spoke of an America straining to translate its power into influence, or to maintain a united front among its friends.
Now the rolling scandal over National Security Agency surveillance, triggered by the mass leak of secrets by Edward Snowden, has entered another phase of intensity, this time centred on Europe. Revelations that the US tapped the phone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, operated numerous “listening posts” on European soil, and sucked up vast quantities of communications data from millions of citizens across Europe have broken in the press. Public expressions of displeasure have been forthcoming, including a European Union statement. Taken together, these vignettes of public dissention will be enough to make many ask the question: is the US losing its influence even over its allies? Is this just a tricky moment for a particular president, or harbinger of a broader trend?
First, the necessary caveats: enduring alliance relationships resemble long marriages, in that the mere presence of moments of strain, or even audible arguments, cannot be taken as evidence of imminent separation. Looking back over the longer-term history of America’s relations with its allies, episodes such as the Vietnam War, the “Euromissile” crisis of the 1980s, and the controversial interventions in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, demonstrate that sharp differences of opinion and conflicting priorities are no radical new state of affairs.
And however unhappy they may be with their recent treatment, it is not obvious that countries such as Germany, France or Saudi Arabia have anywhere to go if they did decide the time had come to tout for alternative alliance partners. It is not entirely clear how European annoyance might manifest in ways that have practical importance. It is true they have it in their power to threaten progress on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership process, but it is not clear that such an action would harm the US more than Europe itself. In short, even if they are disgruntled, necessity may ultimately prove a sufficient force to help them get over it.
The reason present friction between the US and its allies carries greater weight, however, is that it arises in the context of a global shift in power away from the US and its established allies and towards new powers. The prospect of “American decline” in terms of relative international power is the focus of a great deal of debate over both substance and semantics. But the central fact is that even the part of the US’s own intelligence apparatus charged with long-term foresight regards it as established that within 20 years the world will have transitioned from the “unipolar” American dominance of the first post-Cold War decades to a world in which multiple centres of power must coexist. The centre of economic gravity has already shifted markedly towards Asia during the last decade.
This certainly does not mean any single new power is about to rise to replace the US as a hegemonic force. Nor does it mean the US will be going anywhere: the scale of its existing advantages across a range of fronts – military, economic, institutional – is sufficiently great that it is assured a prominent place at the table of whatever order may come. What it does mean is that Americans must presently be engaged in thinking carefully about how best to leverage their advantages to retain the maximum possible influence into the future. If they cannot continue to be first among equals in managing the world order, they will wish at least to ensure that order is one that runs in line with their own established preferences.
Many of those who are optimistic about the ability of the US to pull off this project of declining power without declining influence place emphasis on two things: the extent to which the US has soft power due to widespread admiration for its political and cultural values, and the extent to which it has locked in influence through the extent of its existing networks of friends and allies. Even if these advantages cannot arrest America’s decline on harder metrics, if played properly they can mitigate its consequences and secure an acceptable future. Shoring up support from like-minded countries such as those of Europe ought to be the low-hanging fruit of such an effort.
So the current problems do harm on both fronts. It will be difficult to maintain the allure of soft power if global opinion settles on the view that American political discord has rendered its democracy dysfunctional at home, or that its surveillance practices have given rein to the mores of a police state. And it will be harder to preserve American status through the force of its alliances if its politicians’ economic irresponsibility (for example, publicly contemplating a default on American national debt) or scandals over surveillance or drone strikes alienate their public or cause their leaders to question the extent to which they really are on the same side as the US.
Obama’s day-to-day foreign policy struggles should not be simplistically taken as signs of collapsing American influence. But if the long-term plan is to carefully manage relative decline so as to preserves maximum influence, episodes such as those his country has faced since August do nothing to boost the prospects of success.
After 16 days of anxiety, grandstanding and acrimonious finger-pointing, the experiment in American democracy that was the government shutdown has been run, and for the Republicans, the results were devastating.
With the immediate crisis over, amid a prevailing mood of exhaustion and contempt for those who precipitated it, Republican minds now turn to question of long-term electoral fallout. Immediate polling has suggested that association with the shutdown debacle has the potential to do damage to Republican hopes of winning a Senate majority, and some have even argued that it may lead them to lose the House of Representatives.
How realistic is the prospect of a Republican electoral blowout in 2014 as a legacy of recent events? Well, if it does happen, or even if the House numbers swing substantially towards the Democrats, it will certainly be because of recent missteps. The polling makes clear that an incumbent’s association with the shutdown can nudge voters to vote against them, making the strategic play during the campaigns a no-brainer for Democrats. A Republican loss of the House was considered a pipe dream only a few weeks ago, so the very existence of the debate suggests the severity of the recent error.
The path of moderation
Two points should be borne in mind, however. The first is that election day is more than a year away, meaning that much depends on what happens between now and then. Given that they were unconvinced of its wisdom in the first place, and it has now ended in ignominy, it might seem a reasonable prediction that the (relatively) moderate leaders of the Republican caucus will refuse to countenance any re-run of recent brinkmanship when the next set of budget and debt deadlines arrive.
They are seasoned enough operators to know the difference between tough negotiating and self-immolation, even if not all of their colleagues are. During some of the arguments to come – on the role of government, “entitlement” (health and welfare) spending and taxation – the GOP may be able to retain greater party unity and win more favour with the median voter, so long as they steer clear of flirting with nuclear options.
A successful Republican regrouping may rely, however, on the radical right being more chastened than they appear to have been by recent events, and accepting the need to rein in their more outlandish instincts, as opposed to mounting a renewed assault on the moderates in their own party. If, on the other hand, the radicals choose to interpret this latest defeat as a stab in the back by their own side and become even less controllable by the party leadership, all bets are off. We may yet find out where the party’s rock bottom ultimately lies.
Lest we forget, even when staring down the barrel of the gun on Wednesday night, a majority of Republican members of the House – 144, or 62% – voted against the deal which ultimately won the day. The difficulty involved in steering the Republican house majority onto the path of moderation should not be underestimated.
Saved by the gerrymander
Bleak as that may sound for the party’s electoral prospects, it is important to remember a second point: there is a structural safety net limiting how far the party can fall, least in the short term. If the Republican goal is ultimately to reclaim national power, then the shutdown circus may well have done them grievous harm, since the electorates for marginal Senate seats have tended to punish extremist candidates in the general election. Those voters show all the signs of responding badly to the recent burst of radicalism.
In the House, however, where the drawing of constituency boundaries usually lies in the hands of partisan state legislatures, dislodging the Republicans in 2014 will be a far taller order. Because they won big in 2010, Republicans were able to lock in advantageous boundaries for themselves for the next decade. Combined with other factors, such as the increasing geographical clustering of like-minded voters and the tendency of Democrat voters to be concentrated in urban districts, this helps explain why Democrats failed to win a majority of seats in the house in 2012 even though they won 1.4 million more votes nationwide.
The number of uncompetitive seats that this creates also helps explain why Congressmen fear a primary challenge from their own extreme flank as punishment for compromise far more than a backlash from the general electorate for adhering to doctrinaire positions.
Plumbing the depths
The story is more complicated than gerrymandering alone, but it is evident that the problem is real. Current arrangements make it unduly difficult for Democrats to translate national victory with the voters into a House majority.
Unless the misjudgements of both leadership and radical fringe continue to mount such that the Republican party plumbs catastrophic new depths of unpopularity, it seems highly likely the party will remain entrenched in their majority position in the House, even as their Senate and presidential aspirations falter.
President Obama will no doubt seek to press his advantage to maximum effect in the weeks ahead, as any politician worth his salt should. But so long as the electoral system remains as dysfunctional as it presently is, and so many of the participants within it so averse to the very idea of compromise, divided government seems all-too likely to continue after 2014. Sadly, with that comes the sort of government-by-crisis that has embarrassed America and horrified the world over recent months
This week EDL leader Tommy Robinson quit from the English Defence League and began collaborating with the counter extremist Quilliam Foundation, however, POLSIS researcher Alex Oaten argues that there is little for us to be positive about.
Yesterday’s breaking news that the well known and controversial EDL leader Tommy Robinson and his cousin and co-leader Kevin Carroll, have quit the movement following an intervention by the ‘counter extremist’ organisation the Quilliam Foundation, has left commentators and researchers stunned. As Robinson made a press statement explaining his desire to move away from street demonstrations flanked by two former Jihadists turned counter extremist experts, one could be forgiven for feeling pangs of optimism but did this represent a true Damascene conversion or simply a cynical tactic for Robinson to achieve greater respectability for his Islamophobic views?
Since the murder of a British soldier in Woolwich in May this year the EDL had claimed to have gained thousands of new supporters and Robinson had been invited onto the BBC’s flagship Sunday Politics show to be interviewed by Andrew Neil. When seen through these recent gains in publicity and support for the EDL, Robinson’s resignation seems somewhat surprising. Since 2009 Robinson has led the movement that formed in response to an abusive protest by a handful of radical Islamists against British troops parading through Luton. A recent EDL demonstration in Birmingham was attended by 1500 EDL supporters plus counter demonstrators and was the largest policing operation ever undertaken by West Midlands’ Police. The controversial message of the EDL was being made and was getting through to the public, so why would Robinson, whose slogan has always been ‘No Surrender’, choose to resign?
If we are to believe Robinson, his resignation was decided in February after having had chance to think long and hard about the EDL during his recent incarceration in Britain for entering the USA on someone else’s passport last year. Whilst he was imprisoned he claims that “fringe elements…racists, Nazis, extremists…were invited back” (Newsnight 08/10/13) into the EDL and Robinson was forced to make this oh so principled stand against the extremist insurgency into the EDL by walking out. He has thus decided to take his fight against ‘radical Islam’ and ‘Islamist ideology’ in a new direction working with the former Islamist extremists who have set up the Quilliam Foundation that opposes ‘radicalisation’ and ‘Islamist ideology’. So far, so implausible.
Robinson’s conscience led to him renouncing the EDL as “part of the problem” and vowing to work with Muslims and non-Muslims alike. For its part the Quilliam Foundation took credit for helping Robinson make his “transition” (http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2013/oct/08/tommy-robinson-english-defence-league). Robinson has now pledged to “counter Islamist Ideology not with violence but with better, democratic ideas”- the Damascene conversion complete he declared that he does not “hate Muslims”.
Presumably, Tommy the democrat will still remain committed to, as he once said at an EDL demo in Leicester, “combat[ing] militant Islam, wherever it raises its ugly, paedophilic, disturbed, mediaeval fucking head” but will now do it via round table discussions at the Quilliam Foundation rather than screaming from a megaphone in a city centre near you. On Newsnight yesterday evening, he called for Mosques to be regulated, which seems like an idea that Orwell’s Big Brother State would be proud to call its own. Robinson’s new reasonable attitude to democracy will no doubt resonate well with the Quilliam Foundation whose co-director Ed Husain urged the government back in 2009 to use data collected through the ‘Prevent’ programme to effectively spy on Muslims who may or may not be ‘extremists’. Husain also argued that Muslims who “articulate extremist views” that provide the “mood music to which suicide bombers dance…should be handed over to the authorities”. Exactly what counts as an ‘extremist view’ is not articulated but as Shami Chakrabarti from the pressure group Liberty warned, it amounted to a “domestic population being spied upon by its neighbours and community groups” and would “turn neighbours on neighbours” (http://www.theguardian.com/politics/video/2009/oct/16/prevent-spying-muslims-mi5).
So it may just be the case that Robinson’s flash exit from the EDL is not so much a conversion, but the pursuance of a new strategy in which he attempts to gain a veneer of respectability for his views, whilst being championed by the Quilliam Foundation who seem to share elements of his general distrust of British Muslims. Quilliam will no doubt see his presumed ‘conversion’ as somewhat of a pleasing coup d’etat, but ordinary Muslims living in Britain may not be as pleased. His desire for the ‘regulation’ of mosques demonstrates his fundamental views have not changed. Rather, his embracement of Quilliam represents a cynical change of tactic. Just three days ago, Robinson took to twitter to say that “Muslims created Islamophobia themselves…They don’t challenge the extremists so we will” and five days ago, he mused about the “Global war/holocaust on Christians…We all know it’s #Islam fueling [sic] it”. Now Robinson is off the streets and pursuing ‘democracy’ which he sees as a “progress forward” (Newsnight, 08/12/13), a definite tactical change which is certainly cynical but which is sadly not the Damascene conversion that he and Quilliam would like us to believe. It is not yet possible to determine who will gain the most from this new alliance, Quilliam or Robinson, but it is clear that Robinson’s views remain unchanged even though his tactics have changed.
NSS scores across disciplines and universities consistently show that feedback-related questions receive the poorest scores from students. Besides poor general feelings about the feedback they have received, there is a stark gap between students’ estimations of the level of detail and promptness of the feedback compared to their ability to implement the feedback: there are large, persistent gaps between responses to ‘I have received detailed comments on my work’ and ‘Feedback on my work has helped me clarify things I did not understand’. This indicates that, while students recognise that they are receiving feedback, they don’t understand it well enough to use it as a tool for learning and thereby don’t understand how to implement it to improve future results.
At the same time, lecturers are frustrated by increasing workloads and frustrations about communication and uptake of feedback. All of us are left with stacks of uncollected essays at the end of each term that represent our time and effort to provide feedback, seemingly carelessly rejected by students. Yet how can we improve the uptake of feedback whilst working within the severe constraints on time and resources, especially in large modules?
Auditing past feedback to identify common themes raised by lecturers across years, grade boundaries, and departments. The themes identified will then be used to create draft feedback to be tested in the second stage.
Testing draft feedback in student-run focus groups. Do students understand what the feedback says? If not, how could it be improved? What are common points of confusion from the students’ perspective? How would they best like to receive feedback, e.g. in one long explanation; in shorter explanations with links for further information; in another form? The findings from the first two stages will then be combined to produce the project outputs in the third stage.
Creating a series of electronic resources with pre-programmed, student-tested feedback. Following the students’ insights, we will package the final versions of the feedback as Open Educational Resources. This means that they will be freely available and customisable. They will be packaged in the first instance as GradeMark QuickMarks, Adobe pdf forms, Word macro-enabled documents, and plain-text documents. A user guide will be available, and we will also run a series of training workshops.
Interested? Want to know more? Want to participate? The following opportunities are available:
We will be recruiting undergraduate research assistants from the two politics departments to run and transcribe the focus groups and to code and analyse the results. Paid positions are available.
We are looking for students considering becoming a teacher after graduation who would be interested in working on the project for their dissertations.
We will be recruiting focus group participants. Participation will have a guarantee of anonymity and will be paid.
We’d love to hear your feedback about the project. What do you have to tell us about our feedback? What do you think of our materials? What have we missed?
We are happy to receive input at any stage of the project. What are common frustrations you face in giving assessment feedback? What kind of materials could support you without adding to your burdens?
We will offer a series of training workshops in which staff members from any subject are welcome to try out the materials.
Any interested parties can request to be added to our e-mail list. We will keep you informed of findings, outputs, training, and dissemination activities.
In the midst of a budget deadlock in the US and a partial government shutdown, Dr Adam Quinn, Senior Lecturer in International Politics, discusses the reputational risk that Boehner has put his party under. Also published in The Conversation
Republican Speaker John Boehner faced a choice between two unappetising gambles on Monday night. One option was to cut a deal with Democrats to continue federal government spending at present levels, and in so doing trigger a revolt from the radical wing of his own party that might end his speakership. The other was to dig in, precipitate a partial shut-down of the government, and risk the public assigning the blame to congressional Republicans.
Caught between grim and grimmer as far as political prospects were concerned, he has gone for option two, and the government shutdown has begun.
While the sudden reality of the derailing of the US government may come as a surprise to some, for regular viewers this represents the feared collision at the end of a long series of games of chicken between the president Barack Obama (and the Democrat-controlled senate) on one side and the Republican House on the other. Since the Republican victory in the 2010 congressional elections, which gave them control of the House, power and influence has steadily accrued in the hands of the radical wing of the party, elected from safe Republican constituencies on the back of a wave of anti-tax, anti-government fundamentalism among the base of primary voters.
Fervent in their ideological antipathy to the president, averse in principle to compromise, and with the only threat to their re-election coming from still-more extreme forces to their right through a primary challenge, the resulting caucus of conservative hardliners has turned the budget process into a series of crises and ultimatums.
Over the past three years there have been several moments of last-minute bullet-dodging, when Congress has threatened to shut down the government or – worse still – refuse to raise the debt ceiling and thus precipitate default on US debts already acquired, with these outcomes only being avoided through compromise at the death.
In this, the radicals have been aided by Speaker Boehner’s efforts to abide by the so-called Hastert rule, whereby legislation should only be allowed to come up for a vote when it can be passed with a majority consisting entirely of Republican votes.
A battle for the Republican soul
The present impasse over spending could be resolved swiftly if Democrats and moderate Republicans were permitted to combine their vote through a continuing resolution extending current spending. But to do so would enrage the radicals in and outside Congress and thus put Boehner’s leadership at risk. In that sense, what is playing out at present represents not a stand-off between the two parties, but rather a battle within the Republican Party between those who consider compromise with the other side an inherent evil and those who regard it as the inevitable price of keeping government functional.
The specific ground on which the radicals have chosen to make their stand this time is Obamacare, the large healthcare reform voted through by Democratic majorities during Obama’s first term and due to take effect this year. Unless its implementation is suspended for a year (by which time Republicans hope to have won the votes in the senate for its full repeal), the House refuses to approve any further government spending.
Since it is the president’s signature legislative achievement, and since acquiescence would in effect mean granting the House the right to dictate terms to the rest of the government through the power of budgetary blackmail, there is near zero possibility of presidential or senatorial assent to these demands. Indeed, since Republicans’ list of demands for raising the debt limit in effect amount to implementing the manifesto of Mitt Romney, there is good reason for other branches of government to see the current row as one part of an outlandish power-grab on the part of an extreme group within one half of the legislature.
Closed for business
What does the “shutdown” of the federal government mean in the immediate term? In practice, it doesn’t mean we should expect planes to start colliding in the skies or unmanned border posts to be overrun. “Essential” workers can legally be retained in service with the hope of back pay when the crisis is resolved. But as this chart illustrates it does mean hundreds of thousands of government staff parked at home indefinitely without pay, many government offices shuttered, and millions of dollars of government spending and contracting cancelled or suspended.
This is bad for many reasons, but two have particular weight. While some activities may be “non-essential” in the very short term, many of these government activities provide services which over time the public will increasingly miss. The military may remain in place and welfare administration may not have stopped dead, but as time goes on the closure of permit offices, national parks and parts of the justice system, to name but a few examples, will begin to be felt by more and more of the population as they try and fail to access them.
Second, government spending is a vital component in the overall US economy, and has been even more so in recent years as the financial crisis and recession brought the private sector to its knees. While there have been tentative signs of recovery, the sudden withdrawal of huge tranches of government spending from circulation – both from the pockets of direct employees and from the vast number of individuals and businesses who rely on government contracts for their living – will deliver a major shock to the economy. The precise consequences are unknowable, but the short and definite version of what consequences it implies is: nothing good.
The great gamble
A key component in conventional thinking about the prospect of government shutdown until this moment has been the memory that last time it occurred. In 1995, congressional Republicans under the leadership of Newt Gingrich were blamed by the public for unreasonable behaviour, providing Bill Clinton with the opportunity to rebuild his own agenda and popularity.
The assumption has been that Republicans today would wish to avoid a shutdown for fear of a repeat of the same outcome. As it transpires, they have proven prepared to take their chances. That may be because they have reached an informed view that this time they can pass the blame to the president more successfully. Or it may be because radicals Republicans are sufficiently ideologically adamant, and have sufficiently little to lose personally by taking a hard-line posture, that they simply don’t care about the consequences and have drawn a line on principle.
Boehner, at least, and his Republican leadership counterpart in the senate Mitch McConnell, will be painfully aware of the risk they are taking with the party’s image. If the public shows signs of being as unforgiving in its assessment of Republican actions as some have foretold, then he will be forced to revisit his bleak choice between the radicals whose support he relies upon, and the centre-ground of public opinion his party needs if it aspires to future electoral victories at the national level.
In a discussion published in The Conversation ,Dr Adam Quinn, Senior Lecturer in International Politics, examines the politics surrounding Syria during the G20 negotiations.
The G20 begins today and whether this is the best or the worst of times depends on how important one considers Syria to be. Because the manoeuvring and diplomacy surrounding the increasingly vicious civil war – and the prospect of international intervention – is likely to consume a good deal of the oxygen in the environs of St Petersburg.
Oxygen that might otherwise have been spent on discussing other urgent issues. The founding raison d’être of the G20 was to bring together the leaders of the world’s largest economies for the purpose of managing and securing the global economic system, and the in-tray for those devoted to that task in 2013 is not light.
Growth, financial regulation, tax avoidance, public spending levels and development investment represent just a sampler of the urgent issues awaiting deliberation by those charged with keeping the global economy alive amid the rolling aftermath of the financial crisis.
But the summit also brings together several of the main players in the stand-off over Syria at the very moment that the United States is readying itself to deliver air strikes against the Assad regime.
So there’s no doubt that there will be intense wrangling over the geopolitics of the Levant. The only question is how thoroughly the spectre of Middle East conflict will subvert the original agenda.
Red line fever
Barack Obama goes into the gathering publicly committed to military action, but uncertain of the necessary support for it either at home or abroad. Having drawn a “red line” – perhaps deliberately, perhaps with inadvertent firmness – against the use of chemical weapons by the Assad government, he now argues that the credibility of the US, and of the international community’s prohibition of the use of poison gas, is on the line.
He is committed to a campaign of limited military strikes, with the intent of sending “a shot across the bow” of the Assad regime.
At home, his administration is engaged in a frantic effort to shore up Congressional support since his unexpected decision to consult the legislature before taking action. This has shown some tentative but erraticsigns of bearing fruit.
Internationally things are less hospitable. A majority of the national leaders among whom he will spend the coming days are leaning with varying degrees of firmness against his planned show of force. Indeed, he is likely to face more than scepticism – but rather outright opposition – to his plan from Russia, the chair and host of the summit.
Even if this week’s gathering were limited to the old G8 – a far cosier gathering dominated by traditional US allies even after extending to include Russia – Obama would have faced an uphill battle to enlist support. Germany has made it quite clear that it will play no part whatever in lending legitimacy to US military action. The UK, first name on the team-sheet when it comes to suppporting the US in its military interventions in recent decades, has ruled itself out of any participation, David Cameron’s initial bullish enthusiasm cut down by a parliamentary vote last week.
Special relationship: Commons voted against UK support for strikes. Stefan Roussseau/PA Wire
Of its traditional European allies, only France – ironically the focus of blistering American ire for its public resistance to the Iraq invasion of 2003 – has thus far offered full support. Even that remains to be tested by a vote of the National Assembly.
At the G20 gathering, those who follow the niceties of transatlantic relations closely can expect to enjoy the sight of British diplomacy straining to shore up what remains of the “special relationship” in the aftermath of the sucker punch delivered by the UK parliament last week. It will also be interesting to watch the French president, François Hollande, making what hay he can of his nation’s restored status as America’s “oldest ally”, at least as long as his own legislators allow him that pleasure.
But this is not the same G-club of two decades, or even one decade, ago. Russia was traditionally the odd-man out at gatherings of the G8 (the G20’s predecessor at the centre of global economic governance) thanks to its insistently explicit embrace of spheres of influence, national sovereignty and realpolitik. But now it finds itself bolstered by solidarity in these views from rising powers by China, India and Brazil.
While Russia’s defence of the Assad regime may represent unashamed self-interest in preserving a long-standing and ever more dependent client, it will not struggle to win supportive noises among the expanded G20 group for opposing the principle of the US as a “global policeman” outside of the UN Security Council framework.
Adding to current strains, Obama called off planned bilateral meetings with Vladimir Putin thanks to arguments over the fate of the leaker Edward Snowden, but it seems unlikely that either side has an interest in giving unrestrained vent in public to the simmering rancour over Syria. To judge by his advance remarks, Putin seems disposed to play this as simply one conflict of interest between the US and Russia, with areas of common interest still open for productive exploration in parallel.
Even if geopolitics must unavoidably intrude, he is unlikely to want to have “his” G20 summit entirely overshadowed by bickering over a sideshow at the expense of the economic agenda over which the event is supposed to preside. The US, meanwhile, while lobbying as best it can to win support in the background, would be foolish to force too explicit a head-count of supporters for its military plans, since such a move would be all too likely to reveal its relative isolation.
St Petersburg: window on the West. Wikimedia Commons
Russia’s behaviour during the Putin era has suggested that one of his chief diplomatic priorities is to manoeuvre into positions that oblige the US to treat Russia as a weighty interlocutor, whose great power interests must be taken into respectful account in calculating American actions. With Russia in the G20 chair and the balance of international opinion against US plans on Syria, he may feel confident enough that he is getting a taste of what he wants for something resembling (slightly complacent?) good cheer to manifest itself on his part.
In any case, those who expect that the summit will produce movement towards either widespread international endorsement of a US military strike of any kind, or the abandonment of Assad by his backers, have a vanishingly small chance of seeing their hopes realised.
Why does this matter? Because whatever Obama does militarily in Syria, he is almost certain to be doing it without authorisation from the UN Security Council, since it is within Russia’s power to block any moves on that front. This places US action outside the mainstream of international law, and leaves the US president reaching for the more nebulous and elusive banners of “legitimacy” and “the international community” to justify his actions.
With an uncooperative Security Council and wobbly NATO allies, a G20 which waves away US protestations that “something must be done” will represent one more multilateral forum in which American pretensions to speak as the representative voice of the management of world order have failed to gain purchase. Whatever America’s next step, it is shaping up to be a lonely one.