Fidel Castro was a controversial figure and raises heated discussions whenever people of different ideological leanings discuss his influence on the world. A key element of this controversy is his role on the world stage and how he is seen by people around the world. While strong opinions abound, an interesting part of the discussion is this: Why do we care?
In conventional power terms, Fidel Castro was just another dictator in just another small, poor state. His regime was brutal in its repression of dissidents and it forced over a million Cubans into exile. But he replaced a brutal dictator of the right and his regime was not any more brutal than dozens of others from across the political spectrum. His country remained impoverished, but dictatorships of left and right have economic records just as bad. In material terms, Fidel Castro is nothing special and yet his death is a major global event.
The answer is that Fidel Castro was a master of soft power before we had coined that term. He correctly saw his place in a changing world and positioned himself to use the tools that he had to preserve his government in the face of opposition from a much more powerful adversary.
Love him or hate him, Castro was good at political survival. He used this to lead a successful leftist revolution against an unpopular and brutal government. This victory came at a critical time in the twentieth century: the period of decolonization that followed the collapse of European imperialism. This meant that the Cuban revolution was not an isolated event, but just one of many revolutions against governments that were seen as relics of colonialism, in Cuba’s case, colonialism by the United States.
The Cuban Revolution included a strong propaganda effort designed to highlight the economic and social changes that followed. A true revolution, the result overturned the economic and social order in the country. The stated goal was a more equal society, one in which central planning and a command economy would promote development and improve the lives of the average Cubans. While typical of revolutions of the left, Castro was a charismatic and capable propagandist and his revolution was portrayed as an ideal of colonial resistance.
The United States had become the leader in the Western block of nations during the Cold War and had taken on the role of leading the managed decline of the colonial system. Wars of national liberation fought against both colonial masters and the governments they put in place where they withdrew voluntarily were common. The Cuban revolution took place at the height of these conflicts and was seen as a victory against Western imperialism.
Castro was well aware that the United States had the material capability to invade Cuba and remove him from power if they chose to do so. Castro’s revolutionary reordering of the economy significantly damaged American interests. Given the nature of the Cold War and America’s history of intervention in the Caribbean, Castro had good reason to fear American action against him even before the failed invasion at the Bay of Pigs.
To respond to the potential threat from a much stronger enemy, Castro sought ties to the only other global superpower: the Soviet Union (USSR). Castro’s ideology was already consistent with the authoritarian communism of the USSR and the Soviets longed for a secure base in the Western Hemisphere. Mutual interest made the alliance a sensible one and it was this alliance that preserved Cuba against American intervention.
The Soviet alliance did not come without dangers, as the Cuban Missile Crisis very nearly led to a nuclear war between the superpowers, but the result of that miscalculation was to move the superpowers into an accommodation. Following the Crisis, the US pledged not to invade Cuba in exchange for the Soviets pledging not to move nuclear weapons to the island.
The result of this was the preservation of the Castro government, although at the cost of US economic sanctions. In a world where anti-colonialism was at its peak, this was seen as a victory of a revolutionary power against a much larger foe. For the USSR this narrative aided their appeal to other newly independent states. For Cuba, this was a chance to be seen as a leader in the growing movement of former colonies to chart their own path in the world.
The Cuban Revolution became a symbol of victory against oppression. Real gains in education and healthcare were highlighted while economic stagnation was hidden by huge subsidies from the USSR. The brutal repression of dissidents was largely ignored by intellectuals in the West and seen as a necessary evil in most anticolonial movements. The result was the development of an image of Cuba as an ideal to be emulated around the world.
This reputation was boosted with the use of Cuban troops and training in support of revolutionary movements around the world, especially in Latin America. Cuba intervened in African conflicts, including sending troops to support left-leaning governments in Africa, most notably in Angola. Cuban-trained doctors were sent around the world to provide aid in countries around the world.
The end of the Cold War put a significant dent in Cuba’s reputation. Anti-colonialism had waned as a force in international politics. The USSR’s demise led to the end of subsidies and a significant decline in the national economy. A temporary reprieve came with the rise of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and a series of exchanges where Cuban doctors and internal security advisors were sent to Venezuela in exchange for hard currency and deeply discounted oil sales.
Despite the challenges of the post-Cold War period, the legend of Fidel Castro remained a powerful symbol for left-leaning leaders around the world. The image of the charismatic leader standing up against a superpower and winning remained strong right up to the end. Castro was among the last of his generation still alive. Among his fellow revolutionary leaders, only a few remain to attend his funeral and none even come close to matching Castro’s global stature. Until the end, the soft power of the legend of Fidel retained its potency.
A controversial figure, Castro showed how deft diplomacy and careful image-building combined with effective management of alliances can build and maintain national power far outside of what its material capabilities would seem to allow. Love him or hate him, he died as one of the best known figures of his generation.
This blog has noted the threat to the international system of legal responsibility for crimes against humanity from the withdrawal of countries from the International Criminal Court (ICC). The ICC was created to provide international accountability for those who would otherwise escape justice for the worst crimes under international law. The withdrawal from the Rome Statute that created the ICC by a handful of African states has weakened the system and raised the prospect of a return to impunity.
Now the first of the major powers has joined the move to the door. Russia has formally withdrawn from the ICC treaty and declared the ICC a failed institution. The impact of this is mixed. Russia was not a participant in the ICC. The Russian government had signed the treaty but never ratified it. Discussions of ratifications had come in fits and starts over the years, but there was no expectation that Russia was about to formally join. Formal withdrawal of its signature is thus a mainly symbolic gesture: Russia is rejecting the system of international accountability designed to bring justice to those who are guilty of crimes against humanity.
If Russia had no obligations under a treaty that it had signed, but not ratified, why did they make the effort to withdraw? On Monday, the ICC issued its report on Crimea, the Ukrainian territory annexed by Russia in 2014. In this report, the ICC gave the stamp of formality to what everyone already knew: the 2014 conflict that ended with the annexation of Crimea was an international armed conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Russia has consistently claimed that they did not invade Crimea. They argue that Crimean separatists rose up and threw out the Ukrainians and Russia only annexed the country at the request of these separatists. Most of the rest of the world saw the conflict as an effort by Russia to regain the old imperial territory. The ICC report gives formal, legal backing to the Ukrainian argument that the invasion and annexation was Russian revanchism.
The symbol of withdrawal from the ICC is a signal to other nation-states of Russian seriousness about their actions within their sphere of influence. Russia continues to support pro-Russian separatist movements in the eastern regions of Ukraine. Russia continues to occupy a large part of the Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia following the 2008 Russo-Georgian war. Russia also occupies the Transnistria region of Moldova. Many of the smaller states in what Russia refers to as its “near abroad” have to balance a fear of resurgent Russian territorial claims with a desire for economic and political links with Europe. Withdrawing from the ICC sends a signal to these states that Russia will not be slowed down by the niceties of international law. It also signals the EU that Russia is not afraid of the reputational costs of rejecting one of their favorite international legal institutions.
While the symbolic power is important, there is little practical impact. Russia had not ratified the Rome Statute, so it did not participate in the ICC. Russia was just one among several of the major powers to refuse to ratify the treaty. The United States, China, and India all remain outside the ICC system. Russia is also not the only one to have signed the treaty only to withdraw before ratification. The United States signed the treaty in 1998 under President Bill Clinton, but the signature was withdrawn by President George W. Bush in 2002 after the start of the War on Terror.
The impact of Russian actions is probably minor, but coming after announcements of withdrawal by several African states, the move signals a potential shift in global opinion against the ICC. Other African states are considering withdrawal and the President of the Philippines has indicated a desire to withdraw from the treaty following the Russian announcement.
International law depends on the willingness of states to enforce it. The rule of law at the international level depends heavily on the symbolic power of the law, rather than on an enforcer. The gradual erosion of the support for the ICC matters, and will continue to matter if the trend towards withdrawal continues. In a world of growing conflict, where we see violations of human rights in Syria, Iraq, South Sudan, and other states with growing frequency, the erosion of a system of accountability for perpetrators raises serious concerns about the protection of basic human rights.
It was supposed to be a simple conference that focused on beginning the implementation of the Paris Agreement that emerged from the COP21 conference last year. One hundred and ninety-three countries signed the agreement and over a hundred have ratified it. In theory this paves the way for the implementation of the agreement and moves towards tighter global governance of greenhouse gas emissions.
And then the United States elected a guy named Trump. The American election results raised serious questions about the commitment of the United States to the Paris Agreement.
Global governance is always hard. Nation-states are sovereign and they exist in an anarchic international system in which no outside power can legitimately coerce them. At the same time, there are many problems which cannot be resolved by any single nation-state acting alone. Environmental issues are among the most obvious examples of problems that require international cooperation in order to offer a chance at resolution.
Climate disruption by human activity takes place at a global level. While there are debates about the extent and impact of this, the dominant position among nation-state governments is that human activity is creating disruptions to the climate. This is the source of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and its annual Conference of the Parties (COP) meetings. In the face of a perceived global challenge, the only answer is global governance.
And that is where the agreement stops. There are vast differences of opinion among nation-states about how to respond to climate disruption. Developing states seek substantial transfers of wealth from developed countries to support sustainable development efforts. Developed countries seek concrete limits on greenhouse gas emissions. While a general framework exists, the details are complex and often murky. Further, there is no concrete mechanism for enforcing the agreements under the UNFCCC such as the Paris Agreement. The costs for failing to honor commitments are only reputational.
Environmental global governance is thus a giant collective action problem. You cannot deny the promised benefits to all of the world’s nation-states if you reduce climate disruption. So each state has an incentive to defect from its commitments as long as it will receive the benefits regardless of what it does. Skip the costs, but get the benefits. It is hard to resist that logic.
The Paris Agreement reflected widespread recognition that climate disruption was caused by the actions of human beings and that the best way to minimize the damage it causes is to reduce greenhouse gasses. By signing the Paris Agreement at COP21, 193 nations agreed that this was the best approach available.
Included in the signatories was the United States. Under Barak Obama, the United States has largely pursued a policy that supported the UNFCCC, including the signing of the Paris Agreement in 2015. The challenge is that the United States did not ratify the Agreement and implementation has begun only through executive action. When Donald Trump was elected president, the United States chose a candidate that has denied the basic assumptions of the UNFCCC and promised to withdraw from the Paris Agreement.
As the world’s largest economy and one of a handful of global powers, the United States is a significant player in greenhouse gas emissions and a critical source of funds for the sustainable development aid promised to developing states. It appears unlikely that a Trump Administration will honor these commitments.
Does this mean that the Paris Agreement is doomed to fail? Not at all. Global governance does not depend on any single state, not even the biggest economic power. The US has sat out climate agreements before. The Kyoto Agreement was signed, but never ratified and the US never carried out its commitments. Despite this, the UNFCCC kept meeting and continued to act to provide global governance of climate disruption. The United States is important, but the climate regime carries on without it.
As the COP22 meeting carries on, we see that most parties carry on with implementation efforts in spite of the potential challenges of a changed US position. Whether this commitment translates to actual reductions in greenhouse gasses and whether this will have any impact on climate disruption will be seen over the course of the coming decades. Meanwhile, global governance efforts carry on.
The people of the United States generally care about who wins their elections. It makes sense, they are choosing their leaders. But the relative power and global role of the United States makes American elections something that the rest of the world pays attention to as well. And when Americans deliver a shocker, the rest of the world does worry about what that might mean for global politics.
American elections are weird. We brag about being a leader among democratic nations, but our institutions include some unusual elements. Our single-member, plurality districts make it possible for candidates to win with less than half of the vote and push us into a system dominated by two large parties. Our electoral college allows for the potential that a candidate can win even if they finish second in the popular vote. Our First Amendment guarantees of free speech and our long primary cycle mean that our campaign season takes forever compared to most other democracies. Finally, many Americans choose not to vote at all.
In 2016 the world got a heavy dose of American strangeness. The nominee of one of the parties was a trash-talking reality TV star. The nominee of the other had a long career in politics, but was generally un-liked and dogged by issues of corruption. Donald Trump, the reality star, campaigned as an agent of change. Radical change. Questioning free trade deals, globalization of production, and the impact of competition on American workers is standard populism of the type heard on a regular basis around the world, and fairly familiar ground. Abandoning treaty commitments, encouraging nuclear proliferation, and violating the laws of war to kill the families of terrorists were all sharp deviations from normal political discourse.
With the Trump victory, world leaders are worried. The entire global economic and security order rests on the idea that nation-states will honor their commitments. America designed this system. To have a candidate, especially the winning one, argue for tearing it down raises serious questions about the stability of global politics.
The leader of the United States matters. America plays a major role in international politics. The person who is in the most powerful position does set the agenda for America’s foreign policy. At the same time, the world often misjudges new presidents. Barack Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize only to end up disappointing many world leaders as time passed.
In the end, democracy can be messy. The United States is hardly alone in having unexpected electoral outcomes. For European leaders, the election of President Trump is worrying as much for the boost it gives to far right movements as it is for any likely policies of Trump himself. The vote for Brexit, the growing power of far right nationalists, a general tide of xenophobia and anti-Muslim sentiment among EU members have all raised the specter of a new direction in the politics of the world’s oldest democracies.
In the cosmopolitan world of the global power elite, these ideas were supposed to be remnants of the past: ideas for the fringe. Voters seem to see this differently. But do these voters see the potential damage these ideas pose to the postwar international system?
Time will tell what President Trump’s foreign policy legacy will be. It will be shaped as much by the will of other voters in other countries, with their own votes for or against the populism of the far right and left, as by his own desire to move politics in a new direction. The same ties that make America’s election matter to others, makes the elections of others matter to America.
The Mongols are reputed to have used a system of colored tents to warn the people of cities they were besieging of their fate. They began with a white tent, offering passage out of the city if the city surrendered. Then they erected a red tent, indicating that if the city surrendered, only the men would be killed. In the end, the black tent would be set up and this meant that no one in the city would receive mercy.
As fighting increases around Aleppo, the international community fears that we may be seeing the setup of the black tent. The Russian and Syrian governments have stated that the cease-fire of last week was the last chance for civilians and rebel fighters to leave the city and pass through safe corridors to other parts of the country. As fighting resumed this week, we have seen intensified attacks by all parties to the conflict, with the pace of fighting growing.
No one knows for sure how many civilians remain in Aleppo. Scattered reports indicate that there was little trust of the Syrian government offer of safe corridors. Those with a will to leave have also largely left a city that is gradually being reduced to the world’s largest pile of rubble. As the fighting increases and presses further into the city, civilians continue to die.
The international community continues to make all of the appropriate noises about international law. The United Nations continues to provide statements and press releases. World leaders condemn the danger to civilians and call for a return to negotiations. To little avail. Civilians continue to die. The parties to the conflict continue to fight on with virtually no effort at negotiations. Russia has escalated its military presence in the region, sending a naval flotilla to the region that includes their only operational aircraft carrier. Rebel fighters have continued to fight to regain lost ground and to hold off the government forces.
And thus the Syrian Civil War drags on. As the death toll grinds on towards half a million people and nearly two-thirds of the population is now displaced, the conflict shows no signs of ending.
While this is a terrible human tragedy, a question that is rarely asked should occur to any student of international relations: Does the international community have a place in ending this conflict? Should the international community just let the war play out, in spite of the horrors it creates?
On one hand, there are international humanitarian treaties that protect human rights. In some cases, there is an international responsibility, but these focus primarily on genocide and the deliberate killing of civilians. The problem in Syria is that there is a war going on and war kills many more civilians than it does soldiers. It also changes the rules a state must follow. The United States and the allies firebombed the German city of Dresden in order to clearly demonstrate to the German population that they had lost the war, not because it was militarily necessary. The United States dropped two atomic bombs on Japanese cities to send a clear message to Japan that it had no hope of winning the war. History is replete with horrible things done in wartime by good guys as well as bad guys. So, if war is hell, there is little that the international community can do, short of ending the war.
Sovereignty argues against international intervention. All nation-states are sovereign. No outside country can intervene in the internal affairs of other states, and no state can legitimately coerce other states. The Syrian Civil War is a war within the Syrian nation-state for control of that nation-state. Outsiders are obliged to leave the internal issues to the Syrians unless the Syrians ask for help.
The issues are more complex than those two arguments suggest, but they show how even simple concepts can lead to very different answers to the question of the appropriate role of the international community. And I haven’t even mentioned costs and benefits of acting yet.
The Syrian Civil War is an especially hard problem, but it illustrates one of the most basic tensions in international relations. The international system is an anarchic system of sovereign nation-states. Nation-states jealously guard that sovereignty. This creates a powerful pressure to avoid interfering in other states, lest your own state be on the receiving end of intervention by others.
The problem is that a strict adherence to sovereignty means we have to stand by and watch the kind of horrors that we see in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, South Sudan, Myanmar, and so many more places. As the world becomes more globalized, with information flowing more freely, it is harder to ignore the horrors in other parts of the world without willful ignorance. Only time will tell if this changes how we see the balance between sovereignty and human rights in the future, but it is a question that we cannot ignore indefinitely.
International trade agreements are always difficult to negotiate. While most countries at least pay lip service to the idea that free trade is a good thing, very few actually seek to put this into practice. After years of negotiation, the Canada-EU trade pact (called the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, or CETA) was nearly blocked by the Belgian region of Wallonia, highlighting why trade is a difficult subject for negotiation.
The European Union (EU) acts as single entity in most trade negotiations, representing all of its member states. But the EU is an intergovernmental organization and cannot bind its sovereign members without their consent. This means that each member state must ratify the agreement through its own domestic political institutions.
That is where Wallonia comes in. Belgium is a federal state, with the French-speaking southern region of Wallonia being one of the two main regions. The other region is Flanders, the Dutch-speaking northern region of the country. In Belgium’s federal system, each region has a say in international agreements.
And that is where things got messy for CETA.
Trade is an especially complicated political issue. Markets work, in part, through creative destruction. The efficient and innovative win out, in part by out-competing weaker firms. In the long run, this tends to make markets more efficient, produce innovative goods and services, and make everyone better off. The problem is that the short run can be messy. The losers in the market go out of business, wiping out jobs and often creating disruption in the process. Those who are on the losing end of the disruption (or who don’t like disruption) can use the political system to protect their interests.
Political leaders, especially leaders of democracies, have a hard time refusing the demands of groups that prefer protection and closed markets. The costs of closed markets are diffuse and show up largely in invisible things: higher prices and reduced consumer choice over time. The benefits of closed markets are easy to see: the factory down the street stays open.
The Walloons feared that CETA would open the EU market to Canadian goods and services that might compete with companies based in Wallonia. This might undermine the policies of the regional government that are designed to protect local industries. So, the Walloons moved to block CETA. They had the institutional power to do it, and they used it to negotiate concessions from the national government in Belgium.
Wallonia agreed to accept CETA, but they extracted concessions in exchange.
Before you get mad at tiny Wallonia for gumming up the works just to get a special deal, remember that this is exactly how international negotiating works. Sovereign states cannot be coerced into compliance with agreements they make. They must voluntarily go along, so you have to negotiate until a mutually acceptable solution is reached. Weak states have to leverage their positions as best they can. And that is what Wallonia did. They leveraged their power in the domestic political institutions of Belgium to get the best deal they could. The EU institutions that require ratification by all member states gave Wallonia power (through those Belgian institutions) over the whole EU, if only briefly.
The perils of CETA show us that institutions can matter in complicated ways in international relations. The domestic political institutions of the EU member states (Belgium in this case) mixed with the institutions of the EU to create a specific set of conditions to give one particular group power over the whole. These kinds of institutional combinations happen frequently in international relations, and are part of why global governance is difficult to achieve.