Upon Reflection (2 October-6 October)

Time to consider weekly global headlines in an ever-changing world

Selected News Headlines

for the
Working Week
2 October-6 October 2017


For E.U., Catalonia Pits Democratic Rights Against Sovereignty

2 October 2017 Brussels, Belgium – The New York Times – The effects of the Catalan independence referendum (01/10/17) reached the international headlines this week, sharing the spotlight with the mass shooting in Las Vegas by a lone gunman (01/10/17) whose motives are still being investigated.

In terms of international relations and security, however, it was the potential for Spain’s division that focused the minds of policy makers in Madrid and throughout the capitals of Europe where the problem of minority rights, along with the rise of the political right, seem to be reshaping the map of Europe, and not necessarily in a stable or welcome way.

Barcelona is arguably the richest of Spain’s provinces.

Catalonia’s cultural autonomy was effectively wiped out by the Franco Dictatorship (1939-75), and gradually reintroduced after the fall of Franco.

Coupled to Barcelona’s growing economic importance to the Spanish economy and the fact that Madrid was using Catalan wealth for national redistribution following the country’s 2008 Debt Crisis, resentment has been building steadily between Madrid and Barcelona. With the referendum, this issue has now reached flashpoint. In Spain, its 1978 constitution is ‘indivisible’.

Of the 7.5 million Catalans, only some 2.2 million, or 43 percent of the population of Catalonia turned out to vote. But of this number, it is estimated that 90 percent voted in favour of independence. This is not an insignificant number, but neither was it overwhelmingly decisive for the pro-independence vote. The Spanish King Felipe VI was not conciliatory; he said that the referendum and those behind it were “irresponsible”. Madrid has refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the vote, saying that the referendum was unconstitutional and therefore illegal.

While this is not the first time that Catalonian leaders have pressed Madrid for more autonomy, it is the first time the region has officially made a claim to break away from Spain since the imposition of the post-Franco 1978 Constitution.

It is expected that sometime during the week October 9-13, provincial leaders in Barcelona will declare the region’s independence. If this is to happen, it is likely that Madrid will use all its power to stop Catalonia from breaking away. For Madrid, having fought and ‘won’ a long-standing conflict to keep control over its Basque lands to the northeast, it is unlikely that the Spanish government would tolerate Catalonian independence. Furthermore, there are other independence movements within Spain that will be watching Madrid’s moves carefully.

Rex Tillerson Must Go

2 October 2017, Washington D.C., United States – The Atlantic –  In an incredibly scathing story written by Eliot A. Cohen for The Atlantic, Cohen argues that US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson should resign after Trump’s public lambasting of Tillerson for suggesting to use diplomacy on ‘Little Rocket Man’ (24/09/17); Trump’s term of endearment of North Korean Dear Leader Kim Jong-un.

According to Cohen, President Trump’s sneering at his most senior cabinet figure has called Tillerson’s capacity into question.

Trump’s own language toward Pyongyang has distinctly warlike overtones, suggesting that his previous three predecessors, Clinton, Bush and Obama failed to denuclearise North Korea, something that his administration ‘will not fail to do’. This is either a threat he intends to carry out with military force, or, as with Obama over Syria, this is bluster that will not be carried out. If that is the case that will haunt Trump’s presidency just as Obama’s foreign policy never recovered after failing to act on his ‘red line’ rhetoric.

But as the US’ primary diplomatic envoy to have his mandate to act sensibly on one of the world’s most difficult hotspots publicly undermined, Tillerson is in a very unenviable position. Unfortunately in many ways, he’s as much a victim of the US President’s Twitter tirades as he is of his own hand.

To be sure, the US State Department might have needed a little pruning around the edges as any bureaucracy does from time to time to prevent unnecessary bloating and complacency, but what Tillerson did under Trump was not pruning. The cuts to the State Department were harsh and arguably did not just trim the organisation’s fat, but its muscle as well.

As Cohen rightly stated, Tillerson is now surrounded by a very small ‘coterie of aides’, and together they do not form the required centre of gravity to hold down the more extreme language of President Trump. So, if Tillerson is no longer in Trump’s favour and therefore does not speak either for the administration or the country on matters of high diplomacy, why is he holding on to his position?

Cohen believes that should Tillerson remain as Secretary of State, it would be yet another sign that there is a lack of self-respect among those who serve at the president’s pleasure. Indeed, a sadomasochistic streak seems to linger within the White House among its main players, between the White House, Congress and the various arms of the US government. In many ways, this looks as though it is the ‘Paul Kennedy’ moment (author of the 1987 tome, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers), the moment when American power, long on the ascendancy, is finally on the way out.

How Russia Got Away With Masking A War Game Of ‘More Than 40,000’ Troops

3 October 2017, Brussels, Belgium – Newsweek –  In a disturbing trend of big powers flouting international norms, Russia was accused of having breached international regulations regarding wargames.

At the latest ZAPAD military exercise where Moscow declared some 13,000 troops were participating, a number well within the legal limits set for such manoeuvres, US Army General Ben Hodges, commander of US ground forces in Europe, suggested that the Russians deployed some 40,000 troops.

Under military exercise rules, any exercise over 13,000-strong needs to have international observers present.

Russia got around this regulation by conducting simultaneous ‘whole-of-government’ exercises under the ZAPAD badge. While a clever ruse, the fact that the fictional states Russia was exercising against were close to the borders of Ukraine and three other NATO members, gave rise to speculation by NATO commanders that the Russian military was practicing an ‘invasion’ scenario.

In the increased climate of anxiety within NATO about Vladimir Putin’s ultimate objectives for Russian power in Europe, this military exercise was not in any way a confidence-building measure by Moscow.

US halts military exercises over Qatar crisis

6 October 2017, Abu Dhabi, UAE – The National – In an effort to regain the initiative over the diplomatic crisis in the Arabian Gulf between Qatar and the other states of the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC), the United States has chosen not to participate in scheduled military exercises with its Gulf ‘allies’ in an effort to bring the parties to this conflict together.

It is hoped by Washington that the GCC and Qatar realise that the United States holds the whip hand strategically in the region and should the US pull out of scheduled exercises it will weaken their collective and individual defence efforts – especially at a time of heightened tensions with Iran and at the same time, on the cusp of victory against Islamic State.

The problem with this is not that the United States is wrong in its assessment of its importance to the whole Arabian Gulf collective, but that the Trump administration is inept at using American power in a clear and decisive fashion. Weakness and confusion in Washington will only drag out the GCC-Qatar Crisis, leaving it to the local contestants to fight it out among themselves in the diplomatic arena, a singularly unappealing prospect.

The Qataris have been under a GCC blockade since June which in many ways has only hardened Doha’s resolve to maintain its position on its alleged support of the Muslim Brotherhood and other terrorist groups, as well as its outreach to Iran and Turkey.

What is needed is strong American leadership to break this impasse. This unfortunately is still a long way off.



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