The Triumph of Putin Is When Good Countries Do Nothing

While Obama focuses on shoring up European support to fend off Russian aggression, it's actually powerful emerging nations that hold the key.

President Barack Obama was shoring up alliances this week with visits to The Hague, Rome, Brussels, and Riyadh -- all trips designed, for the most part, to counterbalance a bellicose Vladimir Putin. But if he really wants his flanks covered, the U.S. president should consider routing Air Force One for stops in New Delhi, Brasilia, Pretoria, and other capitals that may look irrelevant to the crisis, but are anything but.

Obama's March 26 speech in Brussels affirmed the sanctity of the transatlantic alliance but made only passing reference to rising powers elsewhere in the world. While coordinating with Europe over the past few weeks, Obama has managed to hold close America's trusted traditional allies, such as Canada, Australia, and Japan. Meanwhile, the administration has had to keep an eye on Iran, Syria, and other flash points such as Venezuela and the Central African Republic.

But Washington needs eyes in the back of its head to ensure that the world's leading rising powers -- Brazil, Argentina, South Africa, Nigeria, India, and Indonesia -- don't, deliberately or not, stab it in the back by gradually giving Putin the global legitimacy that the Obama administration wants to deny him.

These six countries maintain complex and often strong relationships with an array of powers worldwide. They have built their economies and their regional influence, cultivating ties in Beijing, Washington, Brussels, Moscow, and points in between.

Since entering office, Obama has mounted a charm offensive geared toward key regional leaders, building friendships that serve partly as counterweights to China's and Russia's own voracious networking. Closer cooperation with these countries formed a centerpiece of Obama's 2010 National Security Strategy and then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's 2011 Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review -- both core statements of the administration's strategy and policy direction.

India and Indonesia, respectively, are the world's first and third most populous democracies, and they are centerpieces of Washington's "pivot to Asia" and approach to handling China's rise. Brazil and Argentina are the most influential players in Washington's near abroad, and South Africa and Nigeria are key to countering terrorism and fostering trade and development across Africa. Reflecting their importance, the Obama administration has included these countries in an array of treaties, strategic dialogues, and commissions all aimed at improving relations -- partly as a counterweight to China and Russia.

As for these six countries, their willingness to help solve global problems and conflicts -- as measured by things like their votes as nonpermanent members of the U.N. Security Council -- is monitored not just by Washington and Brussels, but also by Moscow and Beijing. And these capitals all likely judge the results as mixed.

On a tense global rift like the Crimea conflict, most capitals instinctively want to stay out of the way. Ukraine is mercifully distant from most of the developing world. But these countries have long complained that structures like the G-7, G-8, and Security Council are obsolete and ignore today's global power realities. India, Brazil, and South Africa have been among the most vociferous in demanding a seat at the table in global affairs, and they won't be able to hide for long in the face of a prolonged international conflagration.

In the drama over Ukraine and Russia's relationship to the West, the supporting actors could ultimately matter nearly as much as the stars. Russia is boasting that it will survive the West's sanctions because it has alternative trading partners. Having been blacklisted by the West, Putin will either be left friendless or will succeed in turning the BRICS, a coalition of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, into a tight new clique. These countries' warmth toward him may affect his calculus on whether to push further on eastern Ukraine or call it a day with Crimea.

These nations also influence bloc votes at the U.N. General Assembly, where Russia’s actions were the subject of a new resolution -- brought forward by Ukraine on March 27 -- to not recognize the annexation of Crimea. One hundred nations voted in favor and just 11 against, but another 82 were either absent or abstained, including Argentina, Brazil, India, and South Africa. As the Russian president rewrites the rules on sovereignty and cross-border intervention, these countries will help determine whether his actions go down in history as an aberration or as a new normal. And as Washington tries to prove that it can still rally the world, these countries can affirm that the United States still has its mojo, or confirm a narrative of decline.

During the run-up to the Crimea referendum, Washington and Brussels seemed to be winning most hearts and minds. On March 15 at the U.N. Security Council, the United States rallied every member state, save China and Russia, to vote not to recognize the Crimea referendum. It was Nigeria's U.N. ambassador who warned, "The lessons of history are not far-fetched, and we are concerned that the mistakes of history must not be repeated by those alive today." Indonesia echoed the same sentiment, saying, "We cannot accept any move that violates sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine."

But history suggests that the support summoned in an immediate crisis doesn't always last. After the 2011 Security Council vote to stop Muammar al-Qaddafi's assault on Libyan insurgents, India, South Africa, and Brazil quickly slipped into voters' remorse. The specter of a Western-led military onslaught to remove Qaddafi from power tapped into old anti-colonial mantras, triggering an almost visceral aversion. Their turnabout translated to their resistance to international intervention in Syria, giving Putin a measure of cover for his support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

When considering faraway foreign-policy dilemmas, many of these rising powers are influenced by a competing trifecta of impulses: old anti-imperialist antipathy toward the West, especially Western shows of force; the liberal, democratic values most of these nations have espoused in their constitutions; and the desire to demonstrate their own sophistication and significance on the world stage. The Ukraine conflict inserts certain additional factors into the mix, spanning trade relationships, military partnerships, historical alliances, and concerns about how precedents on sovereignty and self-determination might play out locally.

On March 24, a BRICS meeting at the margins of the Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague announced that the group rejected sanctions and the use of "hostile language" (presumably by the United States and Europe) in the Ukraine conflict.

Citing a long-standing policy against sanctions that lack U.N. endorsement, India presaged the BRICS's pronouncement by refusing to back Western measures directed at Russia. Days after India's national security advisor said that there were "legitimate Russian … interests" in Crimea, Putin publicly thanked India for its "restrained and objective" stance. All things considered, this likely wasn't a tough choice for India: The country relies on Russia for three-quarters of its arms supply, and U.S.-India relations have deteriorated in the wake of the nanny-wage scandal.

Brazil, a major meat supplier for Russia, has been circumspect, breaking its silence only to blandly call for a negotiated solution to the Ukraine crisis. But its foreign minister, Luiz Alberto Figueiredo, confirmed that the upcoming BRICS summit will meet in July as planned -- a promise to Putin that he will be in the group photo with his fellow heads of state and government.

Although Argentina voted for the U.S.-backed resolution, its president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, has since linked the fate of Crimea to that of the Falkland Islands, which voted in a referendum in 2013 to remain part of Britain. The analogy is spurious, as the Falklands, a British territory since 1833, simply voted to remain so. Nonetheless, she called out Western hypocrisy, saying, "Many of the major powers, which have secured the Falklands' people right to self-determination, do not want to do the same in relation to the Crimea now. How can you call yourselves guarantors of world stability if you do not apply the same standards for everyone?"

It is already clear that Washington and Brussels will have a hard time sustaining the support of rising powers over Crimea. Key milestones ahead will reveal whether Obama or Putin is winning the battles of allegiance. If rising nations side with Russia, this could undermine the years of investment Washington has made in bettering relations with these countries, making the rift with Russia more costly.

The Obama administration can do three things to better its chances with key non-Western capitals. For one, it can make a public show of consulting rising powers as friends and allies, just as Russia has done by meeting with the BRICS. If there's one thing these countries hate, it is being left out of the conversation.

The administration should also ensure that Ukraine's young government has the bandwidth and resources needed to mobilize its own embassies and U.N. mission to directly approach foreign capitals for support -- places like India and South Africa, which have also resisted great-power domination.

And, finally, the Crimea precedent could have dangerous implications for Tibet and Taiwan. Obama wisely met on March 24 with Chinese President Xi Jinping, a show of cooperation that flew in the face of the BRICS communiqué. Forced to choose between the United States and Russia, other developing capitals will be inclined to follow China's lead. And as the largest of the BRICS, China could well determine whether their united facade endures or crumbles.

Photo: Alexey Maishev/Host Photo Agency via Getty Images


The Empire Strikes Back

Forget just shutting down Twitter, now Turkey's embattled prime minster has taken to denouncing Ottoman sultans.

Casual followers of Turkish politics might have been surprised to read that among the long list of things Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has denounced of late -- the international interest rate lobby, porn lobby, and robot lobby -- he also found time to condemn the popular soap opera "Magnificent Century," which dramatizes the life of the 16th-century Ottoman sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent. After all, for almost a decade it seems, every news article about Turkey has reminded us that Erdogan and his fellow Islamists love their country's Ottoman past -- and that Turkish secularists, like their hero Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, reject the Ottoman Empire for its backwards and fanatical religiosity.

So why was Erdogan, who has since resorted to shutting down Twitter and YouTube in the face of a potentially career-ending corruption scandal, so preoccupied with distancing himself from a televised depiction of Sultan Suleiman? The answer, it turns out, has less to do with the facts of Ottoman history and more to do with Turkey's long-running battle to appropriate them for political gain.

Like the country's other Lonely Planet clichés -- torn between East and West, still caught on the cusp of tradition and modernity -- "neo-Ottomanism" has become an almost universal reference point for interpreting Turkey's foreign and domestic policy. But this glib and misleading version of Turkey's Ottomania, in which pro-Ottoman Islamists are pitted against anti-Ottoman secularists, has made it all too easy to misunderstand the country's already complex politics. Prior to the outbreak of war in Syria, for example, Erdogan's rapprochement with President Bashar al-Assad was regularly cited as proof of his neo-Ottoman ambitions. Now it's the Turkish prime minister's support for Syria's Sunni rebels that supposedly telegraphs his neo-Ottoman inclinations. More recently, Erdogan's growing authoritarianism has led many to portray him as an old-school sultan, despite the fact that his longstanding, decidedly non-Ottoman, friendships with the likes of Silvio Berlusconi and Vladimir Putin suddenly seem to explain a lot more than his religiosity.

A quick look back at the last century shows that there is not much neo about neo-Ottomanism. People in Turkey have always loved the Ottoman Empire -- they just keep changing what they love about it. More to the point, Turkish political movements have long manipulated -- or even invented -- versions of the past that suited their political needs. Many Turkish secularists imagine a secular Ottoman past, complete with Western-looking Ottoman sultans who drank scotch, enjoyed Renaissance art, and listened to classical music. Liberals, meanwhile, have imagined a tolerant, multi-cultural Ottoman Empire and sought to use this model to help solve Turkey's Kurdish problem. Turkish hipsters, for their part, have embraced a version of Ottoman nostalgia that revolves around hookah bars, Balkan folk music, ridiculous mustaches, and shirts emblazoned with slogans like "The Empire Strikes Back," in faux Arabic script.

The pious Ottoman Empire that Erdogan and his followers in the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) celebrate is just one version of the past among many, a fact that at least partly explains why they are so quick to defend it. When Erdogan objected to the on-screen Suleiman, he was questioning whether a man portrayed as spending more time in the bedroom than on horseback could be suitable role model for a new generation of Turkish children. Where once historians were forced to insist that the Ottoman Empire was not all harems and dancing girls, many now feel compelled to point out that some of the sultans actually slept with their many concubines.

When founding the modern Turkish state in the 1920s, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk used the "oriental" and "decadent" Ottoman regime as a foil for his secular, republican government. He colorfully denounced the Ottoman royal family as madmen and spendthrifts, while trying to wrest power from the last of the sultans. But after the Ottomans' ouster in 1923, the animus against them began to fade, making room for a newly secular, Western, and proudly Turkish version of the Ottoman Empire.

By the 1950s, the exploits of Ottoman sultans were the subject of salacious bio-pics, novels, and comic strips whose genre might best be described as Otto-erotic. Turkey celebrated the 500th anniversary of the Ottoman conquest of Istanbul in 1953 with poetry-readings, military parades, fashion shows, garden parties, operas, and soccer matches. Even the diaspora got in on the celebration, with Turkish Americans reportedly gathering in the Empire State Building to sip a drink called "Istanbul Magic," made from aniseed liquor, lemon juice, and crème de menthe.

With Turkish and American soldiers fighting side-by-side in Korea, rumors spread that Turkish units trapped behind Communist lines had been visited and inspired by the spirits of Ottoman warriors. NATO, the Turkish press declared, was defending Ottoman ideals of peace, tolerance, and freedom while fighting against Russia, the Ottomans' traditional foe. American diplomats, for their part, were only worried lest all this talk of the Ottoman past upset Turkey's Middle Eastern neighbors. The State Department hoped Turkey would take the lead in organizing an anti-Soviet alliance among the Arabs states, many of which remembered the Ottoman era as a time of Turkish oppression rather than tolerance or Islamic brotherhood.

The very fact that today talk of "neo-Ottomanism" is automatically associated with Islamic politics is a tribute to just how successful the AKP has been at putting its stamp on the empire's past. As impressive is the fact that the ruling party has managed to promote an Ottoman empire that is at once multi-cultural, tolerant, and pluralistic -- while still being appropriately Muslim. While most discussions of neo-Ottomanism revolve around religion, the image of Ottoman tolerance proved a crucial but often-overlooked part of the regional outreach that was one of the AKP's earliest and most profitable foreign policies. For increasingly dynamic Turkish businesses looking to sell biscuits or build houses in nearby states, from Macedonia to Iraq, it helped to be able to talk about a shared history defined by cooperation rather than conflict. And following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, American journalists, academics, and policymakers, as well as at least a few EU leaders, were happy to have an example, however romanticized, of an era when Muslims, Christians, and Jews did something besides kill each other.

There was always a degree of tension between the images of Ottoman tolerance and Ottoman piety. In 2010, for example, the AKP won Istanbul the EU designation of "European Capital of Culture" by playing up its unique multi-faith heritage. Then, with the money that accompanied the award, city administration set about restoring historic mosques while ignoring crumbling churches. More recently, Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinç became one of the most prominent politicians to voice the long-time Islamist dream that Istanbul's Hagia Sophia -- a Greek orthodox basilica that in 1453 was converted into a mosque, and later, under Ataturk, a museum -- be reverted back into a mosque.

Yet despite the AKP's best efforts, others have succeeded in celebrating different versions of the city's past. A growing number of Istanbul's bars and fish restaurants, for example, use Greek names and Greek music to lure customers with a nostalgic evocation of wine-soaked, cosmopolitan life in the Ottoman capital. For patrons of these establishments, Istanbul's lost multi-cultural sophistication serves as a foil to the seemingly oppressive and homogenized vision of the country shared by nationalists and Islamists alike.

For many of the AKP's high-brow critics, the party's corruption and crony capitalism now appear to be the true threat to Istanbul's Ottoman heritage. In response to the government's proposal to transform Gezi Park into a shopping mall housed in a replica Ottoman barracks, protestors insisted that ersatz Ottoman architecture was no replacement for the real historic structures being lost or turned into hotels. A series of fake campaign posters appeared on Facebook mocking the AKP's zeal for tacky urban redevelopment with images of the party paving Venetian canals, straightening the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and painting the pyramids with rainbow stripes.

One area in which the AKP's appeal to a more tolerant Ottoman legacy has won the support of Turkish liberals, however, is the party's ongoing search for a political solution to the country's Kurdish question. In contrast to the intolerant nationalism that defined previous approaches to the Kurdish issue, Erdogan has sought, if somewhat inconsistently, a more inclusive approach that has often succeeded in marrying religion and pluralism. As early as 2009, for example, he spoke about the tragedy of Turkish and Kurdish mothers reciting the same prayers over the bodies of their fallen sons.

Such rhetoric has led some observers to draw a contrast between Erdogan's post-national Ottoman-Islamic identity and the secular nationalism of Ataturk. Yet there are plenty of people in Turkey for whom religion and nationalism go hand in hand. One of the first public rifts between Erdogan and the powerful spiritual and social movement led by the reclusive cleric Fethullah Gulen occurred when Gulenists challenged the AKP's Kurdish policy, even suggesting it was treasonous, by investigating Erdogan's intelligence chief for negotiating with Kurdish militants.

So while the Turkish prime minister faces nationalist opposition to what remains of the most liberal part of his agenda, he seeks to silence dissenting voices and soap-operas alike. As a result, it seems less and less likely that the Turkish people, faced with rival visions of their country's past and future, will get to choose among them democratically. And whether your preferred Turkish history begins with the enlightened 20th-century Westernization of Ataturk or the enlightened 15th-century tolerance of the Sultans, this grim development can only be seen as a betrayal.

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