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Saudi Arabia: first leg of Trump’s international trip

Policy/Politics di

Yesterday Donald Trump opened his first international trip as US President. The busy agenda includes The Vatican, Israel and Brussels, for a nine-day tour around Europe and the Middle East.  He chose Saudi Arabia for the inaugural meeting, a well-calculated choice that clearly marks the new administration’s approach toward one of the US historic and most strategic allies.

This international trip is a crucial political moment, especially for a newly elected president. Especially for a newly elected president that is already having political scandals back home. Indeed, it represents an excellent opportunity to meet several heads of states and government representatives all over the world, as well as a key moment to strengthen US alliances and to give a new breath to the nation posture in the international political arena.

The choice of Saudi Arabia as the first meeting is, therefore, a first quite unequivocal sign of the path President Trump wants to undertake. Saudi Arabia has always been one of the most important US allies in the region and the two countries share economic, political and strategic interests. Relations have been very close and friendly, showing a strong mutual understanding and the willingness to cooperate in several areas. However, under Obama’s administration, the happy marriage went through a very hard time, often referred by Saudi representatives as the worst in the US-Saudi history. Trump’s decision seems to be a smart move to show Saudi Arabia and the entire world the administration intention to go back to the strong and loyal relationship between the countries, after the challenging times of Mr Obama.

Several reasons stand behind this strategic choice, which can be read within the US-Saudi Arabia partnership’s framework, but also within the broader context of the US strategy in the Middle East.

Regarding US-Saudi relations, economic and security interests are the main issues on the table. Deals on weapons and defence systems are back on track after Obama stopped selling arms to the monarchy, worried about its possible influence –better said military support- in Yemen’s war (Saudi Arabia leads an international coalition supporting the government against the Houthi rebels). Trump seems not be sharing these concerns: the deals include, indeed, a Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) missile defence system, a C2BMC software system for battle command and control and communications as well as a package of satellite capabilities, all provided by Lockheed. Under consideration also combat vehicles made by BAE Systems PLC, including the Bradley Fighting Vehicle and M109 artillery vehicle. Contrary to the previous administration, the US appears to be supporting a more interventionist Saudi role in the region. Along the commercial agreements, Washington and Riyadh are also enhancing best practices in maritime, aviation and border security.

Looking at the broader US strategy in the Middle East, the visit in Saudi Arabia makes even more sense.

Since taking office, fighting the Islamic State (ISIS) has been Trump’s top national security priority. As the president made clear, ISIS -and terrorism in general- is not a regional problem, but one that affects the all international community, harming, therefore, also US interests back home and abroad. Similar consideration for the security conditions in the Middle East, which are essential to protect US economic and strategic interests in the region. These reasons made Trump reconsidering the US role in the Middle East. If Obama tried to step back and put some distance between the US politics and Middle Eastern affairs, giving the impression that the American power was turning the back to its allies in the region, Mr Trump has clearly shown different intentions.

The US is to re-take its posture in the Middle East, perhaps that security guarantor role that used to play in the past, willing to bring safety and stability in the region and, therefore, at the global level. Hence, the strong position taken by Iran’s antagonist behaviour and the attempt to reassure the US allies in the Gulf can be easily related to this new approach.

So, what does that mean in terms of regional security and international political games?

–    With the US support in fighting terrorism, the Gulf monarchies will be able to strengthen their positions against the Islamic State and terrorist groups. ISIS and other terrorist groups, indeed, have been trying to destabilise the Gulf monarchies. On the one hand, they took advantages of religious minorities and social differences in the countries. On the other, they benefited from an inconsistent European strategy in the region and a US administration probably more focused on domestic authoritarian issues and human rights records in its ISIS-fight partners than on the actual final goal. Trump seems to be setting priorities and boundaries: ISIS and terrorism come first; democracy and authoritarian tendency are a domestic issue that the US does not have to deal with now. To fight ISIS we need stable countries: simple as that. As the Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said “When everything is a priority, nothing is a priority. We must continue to keep our focus on the most urgent matter at hand.”

–    A new challenging US-Iran relation. If Obama’s era will be remembered in all history books for the multilateral nuclear deal with the Islamic Republic, Trump administration will unlikely follow the same path. As initial steps, Trump tightened sanctions against Iran, thus sending the message that time had changed and Iran must better behave. Several press statements denounced Iran’s antagonistic behaviour and defined the country as a plague for the Middle East and US interests there. No surprise, then, if engagement and accommodation of Obama’s office will be replaced by confrontation and hostility, a move very welcomed by the Arab countries.

–    By signing new weapon deals with Saudi Arabia, the US indirectly supports the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, a conflict that involves Iran too. The Islamic Republic, indeed, militarily support the Houthi rebels against the government. As mentioned above, Iran is considered a real threat to Middle East stability.

–    A stronger commitment to the Middle East stability cannot overlook the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Trump is pursuing peace talks between Israel and Palestine to set a lasting agreement. The two-state solution has been a core pillar of US foreign policies for decades -an independent state of Palestine in West Bank and Gaza in return for Israel’s safety and security. However, Trump affirms to be also opened to a one-state solution, where Israel will be the only state and Palestinians will either become citizens of Israel or else live under permanent occupation without voting rights. As the president said, “I’m happy with the one they [Israelis and Palestinians] like the best”. Not easy to understand, though, how Palestinians could like the second one.

–    Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia, a Muslim country but also the home of the most significant Islamic religious sites, can be read as a strategic move to achieve the role the US would like to play in the Middle East. With the implementation of the immigration policies in the States and several statements against the Muslims, President Trump has attracted severe criticisms, describing him and his policies as anti-Muslim. Not the best precondition for someone that aims at playing a greater security role in the region. Hence, visiting the Saudi monarchy shows that the US and Arab Muslims can actually form a partnership and cooperate on some issues.

–    At first glance, it is understandable to think that a more interventionist US role in the Middle East could upset Russia. On several capillary topics -such as Syria and Yemen- Russia and the US have quite divergent views and stand on the opposite sides of the fight. A US administration willing to play the police role in the region and -possibly- put feet on the ground is not exactly what the Kremlin would like to see. However, the scandal that has recently hit the White House- regarding Trump sharing highly classified information with the Russians-questions the real relationship between Washington and Moscow.

In conclusion, Trump’s meeting with Saudi Arabia’s leaders goes beyond the routine diplomatic visits, as it also entails powerful political messages to the Arab countries and the entire world. A new page for the US foreign policy that aims to bring the old glory and its leader role in the Middle East. It looks like the new administration is backed by a crispy and definite strategy; however, on some topics it seems like Trump is proceeding blindly, just reacting to whatever it happens. The question is: does he have a strategy in mind? The US is a very powerful nation and -willing or not- its actions have a substantial impact worldwide. Hopefully, there will be some still unrevealed aces in the hole: the last thing that the world would like to see is the US wandering around without knowing what to do. It is time to take sides, it is time to make decisions, and Trump seems to be quite confident in doing so. However, to be effective, those decisions need directions, need a strategy, a smart long term project aiming at a specific goal. Let’s hope the current US administration truly has one.

Paola Fratantoni

Focus on Estonia: Chapter 3

Europe/Policy/Politics di

The celebrations of the 60th Anniversary of the EU foundation held in Rome during the last weekend, gives us the opportunity to talk about Estonia, as we promised in our previous articles, from an european point of view.  

As we mentioned, Estonia is holding the Presidency of the Council of the EU in the second half of 2017, starting from july, and taking over this job from Malta. This means that Estonia will be responsible for defining the Council’s positions, while taking into account the interests of all member States and remaining neutral at the same time.

Estonia will act as the first country of its &trio&, in partnership in the next 2018, with Bulgaria and Austria. We described what the &trio& in other previous occasions. This estonian &european& task will end while the country will start its centennial anniversary in the mentioned 2018 (in effects, Estonian consider the period under the Soviet Union like a military occupation; and also a good part of the international community recognizes that their history, as an indipendent State, never stopped during that period).The Estonian Permanent Representation to EU

While new legislation is normally initiated by the European Commission, it is negotiated and adopted by the Council of the European Union, which represents the governments of member states, and the European Parliament: national ministers from each country meet at Council meetings to take decisions at the political level. The most important rule is that the meetings are chaired by the Minister of the country holding the EU presidency, and this procedure also works at the strategical groups level and at the techinical subgroups level (the so called working parties).

During the presidency, Estonia will be responsible for leading the work of nearly 200 working parties in both Brussels and Tallinn, organizing the work of the Council and working parties, developing agendas for meetings, trying to achieve common positions trough the single different opinions, while chairing the meetings and negotiating. As leader of the Council, Estonia will have to face the Commission and the Parliament in negotiations.

All the issues which the Presidency will focus on comes from the past; but each Presidency generally tries to add something more, something specific that should be remembered at the political and legislative level.

From official sources, we read that the Baltic republic will focus on the single and digital markets, the energy union and the closer integration of the Eastern partners into Europe. They also want to promote and disseminate e-solutions across the Union and support the information society in EU policy areas (as we said, in our first intervention, Estonia is the most “e-educated” country in Europe).

It has been planned that approximately 20 high-level meetings will be held in Estonia, during the semester (JHA and defense/security events included). In addition, while the majority of meetings and working meetings will take place in Brussels, on the other hand, Estonia is going to host nearly 200 different events, whose scale of levels will be different, with an expected total of 20,000 to 30,000 international guests. So, it’s a fact that this future and temporary leader will increase its visibility in the fields of culture, business, information technology, tourism, education and research, raising in the meanwhile all issues which are important for Estonians.

Organizing the Presidency also means increasing the country’s capacity to have a say and assert its interests and objectives in Europe and elsewhere. The Government already declared that the semester will not be an one-off effort, but the work done and the related investments are supposed to bring long-term benefits for the country.

This strategical work starts from the past. Since 2012, the Government of this smart and high-technological country formed a commission responsible for the preparations for the presidency, chaired by the Secretary of State and started to recruit and train the necessary staff, organizing the above mentioned unofficial ministerial meetings and other high-level events.

c-justus lipsius ilustracka_mensiaTogether with the Committee of Estonia 100, which is not obviously related to the semester, they prepared the political and legislative time table of the Presidency, with the aim to earn time and save money and efforts in order to jointly implement an international programme in foreign countries to introduce Estonia and Estonian culture.

Approximately 100 officials and support staff will supplement the existing staff of the Estonian Permanent Representation to the European Union in Brussels.

This demonstrates that this IT-high-specialized country, formerly governed by the Soviet Union, is now playing an important role in its history and in all the European main issues. What we’ve tried to show in these chapters is that Estonia represents a modern country, available to host international institutions, open to new fundamental political experiences, like the Presidency and the celebrations of its centennial anniversary.

In the next chapter we will focus on the NATO in Estonia, and the “estonian NATO” seen by Russia.

Focus on Estonia

Policy/Politics di

estonia (1)Not everybody knows in a deep manner that lovely and small country settled in the far northeastern corner of Europe, very close to the Russian borders: Estonia. A former soviet baltic Republic, with nothing to do with the marxist or leninist revolution. A country speaking a very poethic language, with finno-ugric roots and balanced vowels in the words. A small country, as mentioned, but with a very large and advanced IT infrastructure, where Skype was born and – also according to Wikipedia – it is very usual to find everywhere free wi-fi hotspots and also aged peolpe is used to buy, to vote (since 2005 they’ve been voting online for their politicians), to live a better and more confortable life using PCs and mobiles. Someone calls it e-Stonia.

estoniaEstonia, which is now celebrating its 99th indipendence anniversary (from Russia). In reality, we know that Russians occupied the estonian territory also after the WWII, after a short period of nazi militay occupation. But they’ve been always celebrating since 1918, because they never felt as part of the Soviet Union. A small country, with a strong patriotic pride – bigger than others – that they defend also from the finnish neighbors: their languages are very similar, but they don’t really like when a finnish guy, moving in Tallinn, wants to talk in finnish and not in estonian. You must speak estonian. If you are not able to, english is an asset.

Finland and Estonian are actually good friends. They are 30 minutes far (by plane). And a ferry boat continuously links Tallinn and Helsinki every single day.

But this european country is not only a technological heaven. It is also the next EU Member State which is holding the Presidency of the Council of the European Union after the current maltese Presidency. As we wrote some time ago on this magazine, the Presidencies are linked in groups of three: this is called Presidency Trio; the Trio is supposed to follow an uniform policy in most of the field of action of the legislative procedures. On the 1st July 2017, Estonia is starting its adventure, leading the executive branch of the EU insitutions, and will be the first of its own “trio” (followed in 2018 by Bulgaria and Austria).

Estonia joined the Euro common currency system in 2011. The general economic and financial asset seems to be very good and the country is open to foreign investments.

Estonia hosts one of the most important european Justice and Home Affairs Agency, called eu-Lisa, founded in 2014. Ten years before, in 2004, it joined the N.A.T.O., and subsequently its soldiers started to work together with their N.A.T.O. colleagues in most of the latest peacekeeping missions (I remember them in Kosovo, in the Multinational Specialized Unit Regiment).  

Last but not least, in Tartu (the second city after the Capital), the government is hosting the Baltic Defence College, whose motto is “Ad Securitatem Patriarum” (“To secure Homelands”): isn’t it a little too much for the closest Russia? will start in the next days to focus on Estonia, its insitutions, its policies announced for the  semester of Presidency. We will also concentrate on the foreign presence in the international instiutions and on the modernity of this country, which actually holds a millenary history.

Stay tuned….

Trump attacks the judiciary: the courts are too politicized

President Trump is back to attack the judiciary today during a meeting with the sheriffs and police chiefs of the largest cities of the country. Trump said that in his view the courts are too politicized and that they should be able to do their job without dealing with policy, in fact, according to Trump’s decision Robarts Judge, who has blocked her travel ban, would be contrary to the principle of separation of powers, the same charges were brought by the Democrats to the President. By next Wednesday we will know the decision of the Court of Appeals of San Francisco that must decide if reinstate the travel ban or confirm his suspension, if there will be a confirmation the government would appeal to the Supreme Court which currently has 8 members (4 Liberals and 4 Conservatives).

The agreement between Gentiloni and al-Sarraj is already null

On Wednesday the Tobruk-based Libyan House of Representatives said that it considers a recent Memorandum of Understanding signed between the Italian prime minister Paolo Gentiloni and Chairman of the Presidential Council of Libya Fayez al-Sarraj to be null and void. The agreement was for cooperation and development and against clandestine migration, human trafficking and smuggling. It also included measures to strengthen border control. The anouncement was made by the Tobruk parliamentary body itself in a statement through the Al-Wasat website, which said that the presidential council and its president did not have jurisdiction to make such choices on the basis of the constitution and judicial sentences. ”An issue like that of clandestine migration, ” the statement said, ”is one of the important issues linked to the choice of the Libyan people through the representatives that they elected democratically through voting, and not the interests of individuals that do not have the trust of the House of Representatives, which is the legitimate power, nor the interests of European countries, and especially the Italian Republic.” Italy, it continued, ”is trying to get rid of the burden and the dangerous problems caused by clandestine migration at the security, economic and social level in exchange for a bit of material support that it is forced to offer to reduce the number of illegal migrants.”

Trump talks about U.S. military policy

BreakingNews @en/Policy di

President elect of the United States, Trump, presented his Defense Secretary Gen. James Mattis, during a rally in Fayetteville. During his speech he reiterated his willingness to withdraw US troops from all fronts, except against ISIS, and invest the money saved to start a modernization program for the country’s infrastructure but also to increase the maximum budget for military spending to make the US Army a formidable weapon to prevent terrorism.

Russian FM and US Secretary of State on the procedure for the withdrawal of rebel forces from Aleppo

Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, revealed a proposal made by US Secretary of State, John Kerry,  to Russia about the procedure for the withdrawal of rebel forces  from the Syrian city of Aleppo. He also said that the two countries will discuss the issue in the coming days.  The Russian Foreign Minister added that any armed group that refuses to leave Aleppo will be treated by Russia as terrorists, adding that Moscow will support the Syrian Army’s operations against them. The proposal by Kerry was handed over on Saturday, after he and Lavrov met in Rome. On Monday, Lavrov said that negotiations on the plan are expected to begin on Tuesday morning. He added that the beginning of the talks had been postponed by a few days at Washington’s request.

UN Security Council resolution on 7-day ceasefire in Aleppo vetoed by Russia and China

Russia and China have vetoed a UN Security Council resolution on immediate seven-day ceasefire in the Syrian city of Aleppo, which was submitted by Egypt, New Zealand and Spain. The document was supported by 11 countries members of the Security Council, while Russia, China and Venezuela voted against it. Angola abstained. Before the vote, Russia’s UN envoy, Vitaly Churkin, said that the country would vote against the document, informing UNSC members of Moscow’s decision. The diplomat also said that Russian and US experts were due to meet in Geneva within the next few days to discuss a plan for the settlement in Aleppo, the major part of it being the withdrawal of gunmen from eastern Aleppo. He said the UN SC should have waited for the result of these consultations before voting on the resolution.

Azerbaijan will request an action plan for a visa-free regime with Europe

BreakingNews @en/Policy di

After the agreement on simplification of visa regime with the EU is successfully implemented, Azerbaijan will request an action plan for a visa-free regime with Europe, Azerbaijan’s Deputy Foreign Minister Mahmud Mammad-Guliyev told Trend. He said that Azerbaijan and the EU are successfully implementing the agreement on simplification of the visa regime. Agreement on simplification of the visa regime between EU and Azerbaijan entered into force Sept. 1, 2014. Mammad-Guliyev went on to add that the Brexit won’t affect future negotiations between the EU and Azerbaijan on a new strategic agreement.

Azerbaijani President hopes the successful co-op with new US administration will continue

President of the Republic of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev received US Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs Bridget Brink on Nov. 22. The head of state recalled broad discussions on bilateral relations and regional issues that they held with Bridget Brink in summer of 2016. President Ilham Aliyev expressed hope that successful cooperation between the two countries will be continued with the new administration of the US. Brink highlighted her country’s strong support for Azerbaijan, as well as for the entire region. She said the US has carried out consistent policy in this regard for a long time.

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