Repairing Turkey’s relationship with the West through trade and trust

Maximilian Hess is the founder of the London-based political risk consultancy Enmetena Advisory and a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and associate fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

James Ryan is the Executive Director of the Middle East Research and Information Project. He has a Ph.D. in History from the University of Pennsylvania and writes frequently on politics and culture in Turkey’s past and present.

Nicholas Danforth and Aaron Stein recently cautioned that Washington and the West must ‘come to terms’ with losing Turkey’ as a key geopolitical ally. We disagree. A positive case for how to get the most from the current relationship and prepare for its growth in the future is more urgent than ever. Turkish domestic dynamics are at a particularly tender moment, as Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been dealt a defeat in recent mayoral elections, and is four years away from closing out his final term as President, according to the current constitutional rules.

There are many areas where the US can be a positive influence in the near and medium term, chief among them on Syria policy where the US and Turkey have long been at odds. As Erdoğan and Bashar al-Assad are sending signals of normalization of their bilateral ties, the US could work to make sure a Turkish-Syrian rapprochement does not continue to trample on marginalized refugee populations, or greenlight significant military action against its Kurdish partners. Additionally, Washington can still hope for positive contributions from Ankara with regards to Russia policy and European energy security. Washington’s demands have not, and will not, sway Ankara – but the right offers may.

There remain significant potential upsides to further developing the West’s relationship with Turkey, for both sides of the bargaining table – and in particular for the United States, EU, and regional and global governance. Looking ahead to a post-Erdoğan horizon, western policymaking institutions should find ways to non-coercively signal that a Turkey that restores rule of law, cleans up its human rights record, and reverses its authoritarian slide has friends and wealth waiting for it on the other end.

Addressing these challenges in the international relationship and in Turkey’s domestic dynamics will take work. But Ankara’s geostrategic position is not going away – and is only increasingly important. Even if the U.S. does somehow manage to extract itself from its long-standing overfocus on the Middle East – an always-unlikely outcome made all-but-impossible amid Israel’s war in Gaza and threatened expansion of the conflict – Turkey will remain crucial in a number of areas of Western interests – including with regards to migration towards Europe, efforts to constrain Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin, energy policy particularly on natural gas, and political transition and instability on the horizon in the Caucasus and in Iran.

As Stein and Danforth correctly identify, “U.S. policy is to now engage with Turkey on specific issues of concern, rather than simply build policy around Turkey as a crucial and trusted partner” but while they recognize that transactionalism can result in key benefits to the relationship, they also argue that “where U.S.-Turkish interests overlap…Turkey will work toward these interests without the need for American incentives. Where U.S.-Turkish interests diverge, Turkey will do what it wants regardless of what America tells it”. This is precisely the argument for both more assertive engagement and for offering Ankara more carrots that create an overlap of interests, rather than focusing on sticks and a strategy of coercion.

This relationship has worked best when the messaging from the West has encouraged deeper cooperation, and supported stable democratic growth, best demonstrated in the early years of the Cold War when the Marshall Plan and NATO membership worked to amplify democratic progress.
 

Carrots and Sticks

To understand Turkey’s role in the western bloc we must clearly understand how Turkey ended up joining Western institutions in the first place. While Turkey has perceived itself as “westernizing” in social, cultural, and institutional modes since the beginning of the republic, it would be a far stretch to say that the regime of Atatürk and his initial successor shared much ideological affinity with Western Europe and the United States. During World War II, the prime motivating factor behind Turkey’s quixotic neutrality was a fear of Russian encroachment on Turkish sovereignty – and it was for this reason Turkey only joined the Allies after the German defeat at Stalingrad, and even then in name only.

A large parliamentary chamber is set up in a semi-circle facing the speaker's chair, with second-story gallery seating on the sides.

Following the war, Stalin voiced several revisionist aspirations on the regime across the Straits and regarding borderland territories in Turkey’s northeastern provinces. This prompted Turkey to hew closely to the western bloc in the San Francisco conference in August 1945, and ultimately join the Marshall Plan in July 1947. It was only after signing those documents, which would ultimately provide Turkey with massive western-backed economic assistance, that Turkey would commit itself to a more democratic future, which would first erupt in the defeat of Atatürk’s party and the ascension of Adnan Menderes’ Democrat Party in the 1950 parliamentary elections.

This sequence of events is often credited to some deep commitment to liberalization on the part of Turkey’s authoritarian ruler of the time – President İsmet İnönü. On the contrary, İnönü had already proved throughout the war to be ruthless in his suppression of dissent and ambivalent in his commitments to liberalism and democracy throughout his career. Rather, it was the perception that limited liberalization and democratization would secure even greater security against a Russian threat that prompted İnönü’s decisions to advance multiparty politics in Turkey. This should be a key example to keep in mind as a post-Erdoğan future creeps closer to a reality.
 

Knowing what to ask

Learning from these past successful approaches, the West must take a selective but targeted approach towards offering Ankara carrots. The Turkish economy remains strained and Erdogan will likely grab at any and all such opportunities – for evidence one need to look no further than the benefits that Erdogan has extracted from Russia through the construction of the Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant, set to open next year that have stretched from Russian subsidies for its construction to extracting funds from the programme to help support the Turkish bond markets as they cratered in 2022.

The West – and in particular the United States – has the ability to offer far greater carrots, however, and indeed the Biden Administration and Western allies have quietly already begun to do so. We’ve already seen Turkey open to these efforts. At June’s St. Petersburg International Economic Forum – Russia’s alternative to Davos – Putin himself complained about the successes here, stating “it seems to me that the economic bloc of the Turkish government has lately been focused on obtaining, loans, investments and grants from Western financial institutions…but if this is connected with limiting the trade and economic connections with Russia then the losses for the Turkish economy will be greater than the gains”. Turkish trade with Russia did indeed stall in the first quarter of 2024. And while Washington has expanded its secondary sanctions threats over support for the Russian economy, no notable Turkish financial institutions or even smaller money transfer services were targeted in the first major round of such designations issued on 12 June.

It is, regrettably, unrealistic to hope that Erdogan will join the sanctions regime against Russia in full, or take significant steps to embrace it more. But that is not to say that Turkey is entirely unresponsive to Western sanctions policy against Russia. Erdogan will continue to seek to transact with Russia and the West, but it is clear that he also has very strict red lines for the relationship with Moscow. Ankara has never recognised Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and Erdogan has repeatedly granted Turkish state awards to members of the region’s indigenous Crimean Tatar population and called for the release of activists from the community, which suffers state sponsored discrimination under Putin’s occupation. Erdogan sees Turkey as the leading power in Eurasia, and his support for the Crimean Tatars follows in part from his efforts to position himself as the leader of Turkic peoples across the region, as seen through the Organization of Turkic States that Turkey founded when Erdogan was prime minister in 2009.
 

It is more urgent than ever that the West engage seriously with the idea that Turkey may be its energy hub of the future – and to transact accordingly – rather than leave open the door to future weaponization of energy supplies by Putin.

The economics of natural gas reveal how Erdogan’s interests are increasingly diverging from Russia’s, even as Turkey remains the main conduit for Russian natural gas entering Europe through the Blue Stream and Turk Stream pipelines and from Turkey to Hungary, Ankara and Serbia through the Balkan Stream pipeline. The latter two were even developed after Russia’s initial 2014 invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea. But so too were the Trans-Anatolian and Trans-Adriatic Pipelines, bringing natural gas from Azerbaijan to Europe. The launch of that network, the culmination of a goal first set by the European Union in 2008 to create a ‘southern gas corridor,’ to diversify away from Russia and long backed by the United States as well, came just fourteen months before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

While Azerbaijan carries its own substantial geopolitical risks given its still-unsettled conflict with Armenia and capacity limitations, Baku cannot alone become Europe’s key natural gas provider. Turkey offers the route not only to Azeri gas, but Ankara also itself offers potential crucial additional supplies given recent promising exploration in the Black Sea. Additionally, Ankara can help to push Russian gas further out of the European market thanks to Turkey’s substantial liquefied natural gas (LNG) regasification capacity, making it a potential import hub into the Balkans and south-eastern Europe’s pipeline networks. This is crucial to defeating the claims made by regional populists that there is still a need for Europe to secure Russian gas in the future. It is more urgent than ever that the West engage seriously with the idea that Turkey may be its energy hub of the future – and to transact accordingly – rather than leave open the door to future weaponization of energy supplies by Putin.
 

Human Rights and Democracy

Restoration of the rule of law and a return to democracy should focus on the independence of the judiciary, which has acted as the vengeful arm of the Erdoğan regime, in targeting political opponents and perceived conspiracists with trumped up charges and thin evidence for over a decade now.

In particular, diplomatic energy should be focused on loosening the grip on Turkey’s Kurdish-led DEM Party (previously the People’s Democracy Party, or HDP). DEM’s co-founder, Selahattin Demirtaş, is among Turkey’s most talented politicians and has been serving lifetime sentences for trumped up terrorism charges for several years. DEM’s elected mayors in the southeast continually face arbitrary suspension and replacement with AKP appointees. Increasingly, Kurds are becoming disaffected with the electoral process in Turkey and there is a serious risk of Kurds turning in bigger numbers to radical, armed groups like the PKK, and set the limited progress achieved in Turkish-Kurdish reconciliation over the past decade back 30-40 years. Releasing Demirtaş and normalizing relationships with the country’s Kurdish population will shore up human rights, democracy and rule of law, and could serve as a crucial step to bringing the US and Turkey closer together on Syria policy.

Behind a marble dais is a speakers chair. Off to the side are other chairs with microphones.

The current regime’s motivations in Syria are driven by a combination of personal animus with Bashar al-Asad, the economic value of refugee labor, the salience of anti-Kurdish nationalism in Turkish politics and the soft-expansionist aims of creating Turkish-sponsored buffer zones along the border. Opponents of Erdoğan might be less engaged on some of these aspects – if the 2023 election was any guide, they would like refugees sent back to Syria as soon as humanly possible – but they certainly share, perhaps with even greater fervor, the desire to freeze out potential Kurdish autonomy in NE Syria.

Any rapprochement between the two sides on this issue will be hard won as long as the United States is committed to cooperating with Kurdish groups in Syria, but calming tensions inside Turkey around this issue is a critical first step. If the Syrian groups are increasingly seen as the champions of Kurdish autonomy by their brothers inside Turkey, and Kurdish electoral advances are repeatedly met with arbitrary repression and prosecution, then the divides between the West and Turkey are likely to deepen no matter what corner Erdoğan’s successor may come from.
 

Building a healthy relationship

Turkey under Erdogan is a strong candidate for engaging with in a transactional manner, but the asks should be limited, not tailored. The country’s economy remains highly fragile and although Erdogan has allowed orthodox central bankers and Finance Minister Mehmet Şimşek to take the lead in trying to stabilize the still-inflating lira since the 2023 elections, there remain substantial risks to the downside. Erdogan recently declared that he still believes in his ‘neo-Fisherite’ economics – which flips the traditional relationship between interest rates and inflation – and may be his own worst enemy. But he has repeatedly adapted policy in response to economic carrots – as Putin’s aforementioned complaint alludes to. There are also already signs that the West is aware of this, with the World Bank, in which the US holds the dominant vote share, last September outlining plans to more than double credit to the Turkish government. Proving a positive partner on this front will not only be able to shape Erdogan’s policy, but help align interests with any future Turkish government. The West can also offer other carrots that would appeal to Erdogan, and even benefit Western interests.

Firstly, recognizing Ankara’s increasingly important geopolitical position across Eurasia – particularly in Eastern Europe, Central Asia and the Caucasus – and working through Turkey, rather than against it, offers a more credible alternative to the region’s strongman leaders who worry about Western interest only being fleeting in response to Russia and challenge Putin’s assertions that increased geopolitical competition there is somehow the result of Western expansion rather than Russian mismanagement. Secondly, by offering to partner with Ankara to boost its own gas production, and invest in LNG networks, Turkish interests can align more with Washington’s own broad desire for promoting American LNG and provide the EU with a sustainable pipeline alternative as well.  

Balancing these carrots will require the West remaining steadfast about its ‘sticks’ as well. The secondary sanctions threat regarding trade with sanctioned Russian entities has already proven effective and cannot be allowed to weaken going forward, otherwise Erdogan will exploit it to secure carrots from Putin as well. Similarly, the west cannot count on Turkey to be a reliable partner as long as power continues to be centralized in the Presidential Palace. Turkey is a tough negotiator, and under Erdogan particularly so. But it has not been lost to the West forever, and by improving the offer, and being serious about the value of democracy, there is still much to be gained for both parties.

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In the U.K. and France, There Was a Gaza Vote. And in the U.S.?

Today, Matt Duss of CIP and Daniel Levy of the U.S. / Middle East Project have an article in The New Republic arguing that a Gaza voting block helped the left in France and cost Labour votes in the U.K., and will likely play a pivotal role in the 2024 Presidential election in the United States.

Describing the UK experience, they write:

Among Muslim voters and a slew of progressive and younger voters, positions on Gaza had translated into electoral choices. That had never happened before in U.K. politics. While some of it may have been a luxury vote, assuming an inevitable Labour win, Britain’s governing party is well aware of the consequences for maintaining its rule if this trend cannot be reversed. In sum, the evidence suggests that the narrative that Labour’s aggressively distancing itself from Corbyn-era criticism of Israel by aligning with the Sunak government on Gaza was an essential element of its success was not only wrong but precisely wrong, with that shift acting as a drag on the party in the current circumstances.

Read the full piece here.

A Proposal for a Gaza Reconstruction Council

Omar Shaban is CIP’s inaugural Leahy Fellow for Human Rights and Security. He is also the founder of PalThink for Strategic Studies, an independent Gaza-based think tank with no political affiliation.

When the war on Gaza ends, the survivors will need immediate help and a government to administer that aid. Yet the debate on the post-war administration of the territory has continued throughout the invasion without reaching a concrete and comprehensive plan. The people who remain in Gaza will require immediate intervention to alleviate their suffering. The near-total devastation of the territory, enormous personal losses of loved ones, and the absence of a political horizon for ending the more than half a century of occupation that preceded October 7th create fertile ground for those seeking to foment more violence and extremism. A comprehensive plan for administration of the territory in the near-term aftermath of the war is necessary to ensure sufficient stability to rebuild the territory and prevent a relapse of fighting.
 

Terms for Reconstruction

This proposal for the immediate post-war administration of Gaza is built on a set of assumptions: That the Palestinian people have the right to live in dignity, safety, and normalcy, and that they cannot and should not wait for a long process of consultation before these rights are honored; that Israel will not accept Hamas having any political or governing role the day after, and will likely make it difficult for the newly appointed Palestinian Authority (PA) government to operate fully in Gaza; as Hamas did not give its blessing to the recently appointed Palestinian Authority (PA) government, it likely wouldn’t allow it to work in Gaza freely.

Additionally, it would be unrealistic and very risky to attempt to restore public safety or launch any reconstruction process without the adequate coordination and cooperation with the residual personnel of the Gaza de-facto authority, i.e. Hamas, which has been the governing body in Gaza since 2007.

The reconstruction of Gaza will require engaging civil servants of the previous de-facto-authority. Non-Hamas PA employees in Gaza are not enough. There are 5,000 municipal employees in Gaza, none of whom are PA employees. Before October 7,  this sector included approximately 24,000 civil public servants (in the education and health sectors) and 18,000 policemen. When Hamas was elected in 2007, all PA employees in Gaza –estimated to number around 25,000, of which 15,000 are civil public servants and 10,000 are security personnel– were dismissed. Many of them have been furloughed since 2007, and are thus in need of re-training and orientation. Therefore, engaging the public servants of the previous de-facto authority is absolutely necessary to get the process of civil administration started. It is not an option not to engage them to enhance public order and to reach results.

In light of those realities, this plan consists of four integrated elements: a Gaza Reconstruction Council, a police force for domestic security, monitoring and management of the Gaza crossings, and strengthening Gaza’s civil society.
 

The Gaza Reconstruction Council

The first would be to create a Gaza Reconstruction Council. Ranging from 12 to 15 persons, it will be composed mainly of the PA employees who live in Gaza, who will be paid by the PA in Ramallah and were previously granted permits by Israel to exit Gaza (i.e. who are previously vetted). This body will coordinate its work with the international organizations who will be working on the reconstruction of the Gaza Strip. It must be emphasized that this committee is the Gaza branch for the PA government, and it will fully coordinate its work with the PA government. Its members must be allowed to routinely and easily travel to and from Ramallah, meeting with the PA president and Prime Minister. This committee must also announce that it will be working with the public servants of the de facto authority. This is vital to gain Hamas’ cooperation and support.  The Gaza Reconstruction Council should announce clearly, its mandate has no political responsibilities, it is a temporary body whose responsibility is confined to launching and administrating the early recovery and reconstruction process. The council must coordinate its work, finance, and plan with the community; it must set up a website to declare its work to the public and to the donors on a regular basis. This council must ensure the separation of reconstruction funds. The Palestinian diaspora should also be involved in this effort, as many possess key technical knowledge and resources needed to mobilize and invest in Gaza’s future funds.

Positions in the regional council should include the: Head of the water authority, Head of the energy authority, Head of contracting syndicate, Head of businessman association, Chief of police, and 2-3 members of civil society.

In addition, the regional council should have representatives of: Ministry of health, Ministry of social affairs, Ministry of local government, Ministry of agriculture, and the Ministry of housing and public works.

As well as observer-liaisons from international organizations, including: UNRWA, World Food Programme, World Health Organization, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and Palestine NGOs.

 

Domestic and Border Security

The second element is to create a police force for domestic security. A force of 5,000 persons will be composed of 2,500 from PA security forces who have continued to live in Gaza, and 2,500 from residual employees from the Gaza de-facto authority. Responsibility for this force will be given to a head of police from Egypt or Ramallah. 20-23 senior police professionals from Egypt, Jordan and Morocco will be invited to come into Gaza to supervise, train, and orient the newly formed police force.  The head of the police force will have a seat on the Gaza Reconstruction Council.

The third element is the monitoring and management of the Gaza crossings. The European Union (EU) and USA in cooperating with the PA crossing department should be invited to be responsible for monitoring and supervising the in-flow of material, along with  local staff from different PA ministries from Gaza. This will also require coordination with Ramallah. At a minimum, Rafah crossing must be opened permanently to allow many of the qualified and technical people who exited Gaza during the war to return. There can be no reconstruction process in Gaza without them.
 

Civil Society

A fourth and particularly important element involves strengthening Gaza’s civil society. A special fund must be created by donor countries to help civil society in Gaza rebuild their offices, assets, equipment, and other infrastructure. This fund should support programs for tolerance, resilience, and non-violence, and complement the work of the council. This includes helping Gaza universities destroyed by the war to rebuild their programs.

There are obviously several conditions necessary for the successful implementation of this proposal. First, the United States, PA, Israel and EU must agree to the plan – and there must be a reasonable level of confidence that Hamas will not actively thwart it. Second, the council must announce it is a temporary body, it doesn’t replace any other governing body, and it doesn’t have any political agenda beyond the reconstruction of Gaza. Finally, the international community, mainly the US, EU and key Arab states must make and follow through on major financial pledges for reconstruction and budgetary support for activities coordinated by the council.

The political challenges to implementing this proposal are considerable, but leaders must show vision and courage necessary to confront and overcome them if we are to avoid repeating this nightmare.

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Inside Armenia’s geopolitical shift to the West

Omar Hamed Beato is a visual journalist based in the Middle East covering conflict, climate change, migration, and social issues. You can find him on Instagram and follow his work here.

Protesters march across Yerevan the night before the commemoration of the Armenian genocide on the 23rd of April. Manifestations like this are often used by political parties to foster nationalism. Omar Hamed Beato for Center for International Policy.

Protesters march across Yerevan the night before the commemoration of the Armenian genocide on the 23rd of April. Manifestations like this are often used by political parties to foster nationalism. Omar Hamed Beato for Center for International Policy.

As the sun sets over Yerevan –Armenia’s capital– on the verge of the 109th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, thousands of people flock to Republic Square to remember past and current struggles with neighboring Turkey and Azerbaijan. This genocide, often referred to as the first of the 20th century, claimed the lives of as many as 1.2 million Orthodox Armenians in the Anatolian peninsula during World War I. Over one hundred years later, the wounds of war and mass displacement remain wide open in the minds of the Armenian people. Continuous wars with neighboring Azerbaijan over the majority Armenian-populated territory of Nagorno-Karabakh in the 1990s and recent years have only exacerbated militaristic and nationalist sentiments within Armenian society. The territory,  known by locals as Artsakh, is a self-proclaimed republic within the borders of internationally recognized Azerbaijan. A mix of anger, sadness, and worry can be felt in the ambient – it’s been only seven months since the latest chapter in the war came to a close. Nagorno-Karabakh was completely taken over by Azeri forces prompting almost its entire population of 120,000 to flee to Armenia.

“In the second decade of the 21st century, the Armenian nation has been subjected to genocide once again,” said a speaker at a political rally in Yerevan the day before the commemoration of the genocide on April 24th –a cry that attracted the attention of attendees. “Genocide is the policy of the Turkish state [referring to Turkey and Azerbaijan], the enemy wants to destroy us. One part of Armenia [from Karabakh] was displaced from its homeland of thousands of years.”

Every year, Turkish and Azerbaijani flags are publicly burned in Republic Square, Yerevan. This is the portrayal of a society that is deeply hurt and humiliated after decades of conflict. Omar Hamed Beato for Center for International Policy.

Every year, Turkish and Azerbaijani flags are publicly burned in Republic Square, Yerevan. This is the portrayal of a society that is deeply hurt and humiliated after decades of conflict. Omar Hamed Beato for Center for International Policy.

Yet, despite all the nationalistic sentiment, not everyone at the manifestation agrees on a way forward for Armenia.  Mariam, a young Armenian woman who took part in the event, whose real name is being withheld due to the sensitive nature of the topic in the country, sees it as simple rhetoric rather than a realistic possibility. “I think this gathering is quite populist,” she says while crowds prepare to march across the city. “Don’t get me wrong, I would like Armenia to retake Nagorno-Karabakh to allow everyone to go back home but I don’t think it is possible, Azerbaijan has more power,” Mariam says before the interview gets abruptly interrupted by other people overhearing it from the crowd.

Many in Armenia have lost loved ones to the different wars between these two neighbors since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, a collapse that reignited the dispute over the territory that remained relatively calm when Armenia and Azerbaijan were coexisting within the Soviet umbrella. For a while, Russia, as Armenia’s historical security guarantor and main economic partner, prevented Azerbaijan from escalating the conflict into a full-out war.

During the 2020 war –when Azerbaijan conquered adjacent territories of Nagorno-Karabakh that Armenia took in the 1990s– Russia played an important role in brokering a peace deal between both states. However, things changed in February 2022, when Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Unable to divert resources from the war effort, Russia was in no position to defend Karabakh from any incoming Azeri invasion. This was put to a test when Azerbaijan began the 10-month-long blockade of Artsakh in December 2022, rationing medicine, food, and fuel, practically isolating this territory from the rest of the world.

Russia’s inaction to the blockade triggered the belief in Baku that there would be no Russian intervention if it decided to go ahead with a complete takeover. Almost a year later, in September 2023, Azeri troops began to hit Karabakh with artillery and drone strikes making Armenians lay down arms within the first 24 hours of the incursion. The mass exodus of the population to Armenia began in September 2023, and on January 1st 2024 Azerbaijan forced the dissolution of the self-proclaimed republic.
 

Coping with a humanitarian crisis on its own

Despite a strong post-pandemic economic recovery, Armenia is still, by many means, a developing economy. According to a 2022 World Food Program report, about one-fourth of Armenians suffers from food insecurity and one in three lives below the poverty line of USD 115 per month.

Hence, since the fall of Karabakh, refugees have been struggling to start anew. The government has promised benefits to the newcomers: a one-off payment of $250 to every adult and a monthly allowance of $125, or about 65 per cent of the minimum wage in Armenia, to cover rent and other basic needs. Yet many refugees complain the much-anticipated money is stuck in bureaucratic backlog. Due to the global focus on the crises in Palestine and Ukraine, only 47 per cent of the $97 million pledged by the United Nations for the emergency phase of the crisis has been raised.

This has affected refugees like Andranik, 47, and his family. Like most displaced from Nagorno-Karabakh, they are living in a small village on the outskirts of Yerevan. He is living with his wife, mother, and three other children –all of whom complain about the lack of aid coming from the government since they arrived in Armenia.

Andranik in front of his house in Yerevan. During the 2020 war –which also claimed the lives of his nephew and younger brother– he was hit by Azeri bullets three times, which has hampered his mobility and consequently, hurt his prospects of finding employment. Omar Hamed Beato for Center for International Policy.

Andranik in front of his house in Yerevan. During the 2020 war –which also claimed the lives of his nephew and younger brother– he was hit by Azeri bullets three times, which has hampered his mobility and consequently, hurt his prospects of finding employment. Omar Hamed Beato for Center for International Policy.

He claims to only be receiving a $50 stipend for his disability –for some reason, he stopped receiving the $125 monthly allowance in February –which is insufficient for a large family like his to survive in Yerevan. “Our economic situation is very bad,” he explains. “We are not expecting any support from the government… [our only hope] is going back to Artsakh one day.”

Due to their economic situation, his family can barely afford any food or essential medicine for his aging mother. They rely on food donations to support their subsistence. “My friends support our family; time to time bring some wood, some food etc. My old friends from Armenia who served in [the military] in Artsakh supported us many times,” Andranik laments while speaking in front of his family. “I am cultivating the land of this rental house to support ourselves [with] some food. We grow some greens, onions, and potatoes. We [are also] keeping some chickens and turkeys as well.”

Andrianik’s mother, Nina, 86, shedding tears when talking about her home in Artsakh. Due to the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict, she has been forcibly displaced four times in her life, having to start from zero on every occasion. Humanitarian workers comment refugees haven’t received proper psychological support since they were displaced to Armenia. Omar Hamed Beato for Center for International Policy.

Andranik’s mother, Nina, 86, shedding tears when talking about her home in Artsakh. Due to the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict, she has been forcibly displaced four times in her life, having to start from zero on every occasion. Humanitarian workers comment refugees haven’t received proper psychological support since they were displaced to Armenia. Omar Hamed Beato for Center for International Policy.

Difficult living conditions and lack of job opportunities across rural areas in Armenia have prompted about three out of four refugees to settle in Yerevan and adjacent provinces.

“The situation for Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians is really bad” says Benyamin Poghosyan, a senior research fellow at the Applied Policy Research Institute of Armenia –an independent Armenian think tank. “They lack housing and many of them have no jobs. What the government is paying is barely enough to rent an apartment, especially in Yerevan.”

Beyond the Armenians displaced from Artsakh, the country has seen a significant influx of Russians opposing the regime since the war in Ukraine broke out. These recent arrivals en masse mean that the Armenian labor market is struggling to absorb all these new workers –especially as the country has historically been characterized by high unemployment amongst the most vulnerable.  A December 2023 report by the International Monetary Fund estimates these influxes to account for a 3.5 per cent increase in the labor force relative to 2021. Figures show a grim outlook for Karabakh Armenians –it will take until at least 2028 for them to be fully integrated into the job market.

Adella, 65, and her son Radik, 41, are examples of this. Once considered well-off in Karabakh, now they find themselves living in a warehouse in the town of Masis, some 30 minutes away by car from Yerevan. Since they moved here, they have struggled to find jobs – they are only able to generate some extra income when they sporadically sell on the streets some shipments of perfume sent by their relatives living in the UK and Russia.

“I would like to find a job, any kind of job. I will do heavy jobs if necessary,” explains Radik. “[Unfortunately], there are no jobs here.”

Lack of jobs and aid means mother and son live in an unhygienic house with no running water or electricity. “There’s no furniture inside the house –they just gave me a blanket. It’s just cold at night. [We have a] heater but it is not powerful enough,” says Adella as she gazes at Mount Ararat in the background. Due to inadequate infrastructure at home, Adella and Radik have to visit their relative’s house two to three times a week to shower.

Life on pause. Adella video calling one of her relatives living in Russia inside the warehouse where she lives. Due to her age, she is struggling to find work as employers prefer younger workers. Omar Hamed Beato for Center for International Policy.

Life on pause. Adella video calling one of her relatives living in Russia inside the warehouse where she lives. Due to her age, she is struggling to find work as employers prefer younger workers. Omar Hamed Beato for Center for International Policy.

To address the housing issue, the government initiated a program aimed at assisting Karabakh refugees in securing permanent housing. However, this initiative has encountered opposition within the refugee community. The government offers up to $13,000 for families to construct or purchase homes in sparsely populated areas, where employment opportunities are scarce, and $5,000 in areas near Yerevan. Benyamin argues that “this scheme only allows Nagorno-Karabakh refugees to buy old Soviet-era houses on the borders of Armenia,” where they do not want to live.

Anna, 45, together with another family from Artsakh, currently rents a house for $390 a month in the surrounding areas of Yerevan. She works at a tobacco factory six days a week, while her husband, Artur, 59, works in the land. They express concern that the government is failing to acknowledge the refugees’ apprehensions about living near Azerbaijan. “We are not prepared to endure another displacement disaster,” Anna laments, humorously remarking that the pledged funds would only enable them to afford “half a house.”

Portrait of Ararat, Anna’s relative who died during the 2020 war against Azerbaijan. Most families from Artsakh and Armenia have relatives who have died fighting in the last few years. Omar Hamed Beato for Center for International Policy.

Portrait of Ararat, Anna’s relative who died during the 2020 war against Azerbaijan. Most families from Artsakh and Armenia have relatives who have died fighting in the last few years. Omar Hamed Beato for Center for International Policy.

Greta, Anna’s 80-year-old mother-in-law, adamantly rejects the idea of purchasing a house in Armenia. Her thoughts are fixated on returning to her home in Artsakh –where she lived her entire life until September 2023. “I would love to return if the Azeris were not present. I long to visit the graves of my son and husband, and to see my house and everything again”, Greta emotionally expresses, wiping away tears. “During the day, I am in Armenia, but at night, my heart is in Artsakh.”

Greta next to the window in her rental house. Due to the inability to afford rent individually, many families have joined together, residing in crowded accommodations. Omar Hamed Beato for Center for International Policy.

Greta next to the window in her rental house. Due to the inability to afford rent individually, many families have joined together, residing in crowded accommodations. Omar Hamed Beato for Center for International Policy.
 

Is the West the answer to Armenia’s woes?

Unable to handle the humanitarian crisis on its own and with its security constantly under threat of further Azerbaijani attacks, Armenia has –in recent months– begun diversifying its alliances’ portfolio by mainly decoupling from Russia and looking to Western partners for economic aid and security assistance.

Since the fall of Nagorno-Karabakh, repeated meetings have been taking place –in Yerevan and Western capitals alike– between Armenian officials and their Western counterparts looking to establish new economic partnerships. This culminated in a meeting between Ursula Von Der Leyen, Josep Borrell, Anthony Blinken, and Armenia’s Prime Minister, Nikol Pashinyan, in Brussels on April 5th leading to a $293 million aid package from the EU over the next four years and another further  $65 million coming from the US.

“This shows that the European Union and Armenia are increasingly aligned in values and interests,” commented Von der Leyen during the press conference that followed the meeting. “The humanitarian situation of refugees in Armenia remains a priority…we’re ready to do more to support the long-term integration of refugees.”

In a recent meeting between US and Armenian officials in Yerevan on June 11th, the US reiterated its commitment to support ongoing efforts to accommodate refugees. “The United States acknowledges the ongoing economic and social challenges Armenia faces in supporting displaced persons and refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh and intends to continue to assist the Government of Armenia’s efforts in this regard,” reads  the press release. “The United States praised Armenia’s efforts to shelter displaced persons and refugees, and Armenia offered appreciation for the more than $21 million in humanitarian assistance the United States has provided to support displaced persons and refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh since September 2020.”

To avoid repeating history and the events of the last years and decades, Armenia is not only seeking new economic partnerships and aid, it’s also modernizing its defense capabilities. For instance, since 2020, Armenia has purchased artillery, radar, and missile systems from India and last November, France began supplying precision rifles, radars, and armored vehicles to the Armenian armed forces. “For Armenia, enhancing military capabilities is the least it can do because they can’t trust Russia anymore,” says Marylia Hushcha, a southern Caucasus and eastern Europe researcher at International Institute for Peace, a Vienna-based NGO promoting peaceful conflict resolution across the world.

Praying for a better tomorrow. Armenian youth has embraced Western values more than any other generation in the country. Despite the desire to pivot West, many feel uncertain about how, and if, this will be achieved. Omar Hamed Beato for Center for International Policy.

Praying for a better tomorrow. Armenian youth has embraced Western values more than any other generation in the country. Despite the desire to pivot West, many feel uncertain about how, and if, this will be achieved. Omar Hamed Beato for Center for International Policy.

“There is this fear in Armenia that Azerbaijan may attack again in the future, especially in the south,” she continues, referring to the dispute over the Zangezur corridor, a narrow strip of land connecting Azerbaijan proper to its western region of Nakhchivan and Turkey alongside the Armenian-Iranian border.

“The decision of the Soviet government to separate West Zangezur, our historical land, from Azerbaijan and hand it over to Armenia led to the geographical separation of the Turkic world,” posted Ilham Aliyev, Azerbaijan’s president, on X (formerly known as Twitter). “We will implement the Zangezur corridor, whether Armenia wants it or not,” he threatened back in 2021.

The geographical location of Armenia has made finding security all the more difficult. To the East and West, it is surrounded by adversaries Azerbaijan and Turkey. To the south, it borders Iran –which despite its historically strong ties with Armenia is increasingly cooperating with Azerbaijan on a variety of infrastructure projects like the recently inaugurated Qiz Qalasi dam. “Armenia has no allies in the region whereas Azerbaijan feels secure because it has its own military power but also it has the support of Turkey,” adds Marylia via video call. “Armenia has had a military alliance with Russia which isn’t working and Azerbaijan has an alliance with Turkey that is working”. An example of this close cooperation between Azerbaijan and Turkey, Turkish-made drones supplied to the Azeri armed forces played a major role in the 2020 war and the subsequent takeover of territories surrounding Artsakh, as did the provision of arms by Israel.

“You need two armies with similar power not to start a war. By acquiring more weapons from the West, Armenia is, to some extent, trying to counter Azerbaijan’s military advantage on the battlefield and enhance its security,” Marylia tells the Center for International Policy.
 

Armenia’s Russia problem

While Armenia has been taking concrete steps to decouple from Russia, the high degree of interconnectedness between them means there is still a long way ahead before the vision of the Armenian government becomes reality.

While former Soviet republics such as Moldova, Ukraine, and Georgia –all of which are now candidates to join the EU– took concrete steps in the 2010s to get closer to the West, Armenia’s government at the time decided to strengthen its cooperation with Russia. In 2013, Armenia announced it would join the Eurasian Customs Union, a free trade zone comprised of Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Belarus, and Armenia. To this day, Armenia is officially still part of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a security alliance akin to NATO formed of ex-Soviet states –although the government claims their membership is now on pause.

Graffiti showing resentment towards Russia. it reads "no water can wash the blood off putin's hands"

Graffiti showing resentment towards Russia. Many in Armenia blame Russia for leaving them vulnerable against Azerbaijan. Negative feelings against Russia will likely last for decades if not generations. Omar Hamed Beato for Center for International Policy.

Historically, Russia has been the biggest arms exporter in the region –to both Armenia and Azerbaijan. Given Armenia’s lack of indigenous military Industry, in the 2010s, 94 per cent of all the weapon imports came from Russia. This has served Moscow’s purpose of enhancing profits for its military industry and destabilizing the region. Achieving a quick modernization of its armed forces with Western equipment seems unlikely after decades of investments in Russian-manufactured gear. “The EU is not a military power and the US is unlikely to fill the gap to substitute Russia as a major weapons exporter to Armenia, especially as both are focused on Ukraine and Gaza,” Marylia comments.

Furthermore, Armenia’s former imperial power maintains control over all energy infrastructure in the country, along with key transportation systems like railways, where it continues to maintain approximately 3,000 soldiers until at least 2044. “Russia’s presence in Armenia is very strong”, explains Marylia. “Armenia is trying to reach out and connect with the West but practically it is very difficult –quite impossible I would say. It is unlikely Russia would not intervene if Armenia goes against Russian interests.”

According to Benyamin, the feasibility of this shift depends on the outcome of the war in Ukraine. “If Russia doesn’t lose the war, it will have more resources to look into other neighborhoods like the South Caucasus. Russia will say ‘ok guys, games are over and you were dreaming or making some steps against Russia. I am back and you will do whatever I want’. [This will happen] regardless of who is Prime Minister in Armenia.”
 

The road towards peace

The Armenian government has been signaling that it is ready to make concessions to Azerbaijan in order to reach a permanent settlement to the conflict. There have been no indications from PM Nikol Pashinyan and his environment suggesting any military action against Azerbaijan.

On the contrary, in January, the Armenian government launched the so-called ‘Crossroads for Peace’ initiative with the intention of enhancing “diplomatic initiatives, dialogue, and cultural exchange” in the South Caucasus. In an article by Armenia’s President Vahagn Khachaturyan published in the World Economic Forum, he wrote “Armenia is committed to turning the aftermath of the crisis into an opportunity for building lasting peace and promoting regional cooperation.”

“There is a belief in the Armenian government that Armenia cannot develop without normal relations with Azerbaijan and Turkey. [They think] Armenia should pay whatever price to get this normalization,” adds Benyamin. Hence, in April, the Armenian government gave up four villages to Azerbaijan in the Tavush region, located in Armenian’s north, villages it had conquered from Azerbaijan during war in the 1990s.

Yerablur military cemetery in Yerevan. Many families visit graveyards of soldiers on a weekly basis –mandatory military service in Armenia means many of these fallen soldiers were 20 years old or younger –a painful reality still highly present for many. Omar Hamed Beato for Center for International Policy.

Yerablur military cemetery in Yerevan. Many families visit graveyards of soldiers on a weekly basis –mandatory military service in Armenia means many of these fallen soldiers were 20 years old or younger –a painful reality still highly present for many. Omar Hamed Beato for Center for International Policy.

Yet despite the government’s good intentions, it is unlikely it will sail through smooth waters. The transfer of these border villages has sparked widespread protests around the country demanding the government revert this decision. The fall of Karabakh has created a sense of humiliation in Armenian society. It is unlikely that a peace deal –signed on Azerbaijan’s terms– will provide the much anticipated lasting peace to the region.

“At the end of the day, one day there will be a new government which may want to take some of the losses back. This [one-sided deal] will be the recipe for the next Armenia-Azerbaijan war,” says Benyamin.

Center for International Policy contacted the Ministries of Foreign Affairs of Azerbaijan and Armenia requesting comments on their respective views on the peace process. However, no responses have been received by the time of publication.

Armenia is in a weaker position than Azerbaijan militarily and politically speaking. Arguably, it needs the peace treaty more than Azerbaijan. Marylia believes the Armenian government is caught between a rock and a hard place as its approach to peace faces “resistance from the public and Azerbaijan is not the easiest negotiating partner.”

The shift to the West may try to provide the Armenian people with some economic relief and a renewed sense of security. However, it will take many decades until peace can be achieved, not only between governments but between societies, allowing cultural communication, trade, shared infrastructure, etc. “The EU [and the US] don’t have enough leverage over Azerbaijan to make it more accommodating with Armenia,” she adds. The West’s ambition is “to act as a mediator but their attempts have not worked.”

The Democratization of Foreign Policy in India’s Election

Mahika Khosla is a Research Assistant with the Stimson Center’s South Asia Program, and Associate Editor of its online policy platform, South Asian Voices.

In April, just before the beginning of the world’s largest and longest national election, a campaign video released by India’s incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) claimed that Prime Minister Narendra Modi personally halted Russia’s war in Ukraine to allow for the evacuation of Indian students. Later, in a campaign rally, PM Modi said, “Today the world is witnessing how much India’s reputation and status have grown in just ten years…Modi has not done it, you have done it. Your vote has done it.” Most recently, PM Modi said in a TV interview that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stopped bombing Gaza during the month of Ramadan on India’s advice.

Anecdotally, India’s rise on the world stage has become part of daily public and private discourse like never before. This highlights two significant patterns within the context of India’s ongoing general election, slated to end on June 4, 2024. First, debates on foreign policy under the BJP government have moved out of the drawing rooms of New Delhi elites to the streets. By domesticizing and even democratizing the consumption of foreign policy, the Modi government has metaphorically placed it on the ballot for the 2024 election. And second, this foreign policy rhetoric has created misguided and hubristic notions of India’s global standing within the Indian public that may not entirely align with global perceptions of the same. In a likely Modi third term, this dissonance could result in a more assertive and adventuristic foreign policy approach that is domestically backed, with both regional and international implications.
 

Foreign (Policy) and Domestic (Politics): Blurring the Lines

It is commonly understood in Indian political science scholarship that foreign policy has historically been contained to the realm of elite issues, discussed and decided upon within academic, policy, and military circles. With exceptions where Indian interests are directly affected, such as vis-à-vis Pakistan or China, public discourse around foreign policy has been sparse. As Devesh Kapur finds, it has been reserved for the upper classes in urban centers with access to international travel, culture, and technology. Foreign policy has also actively steered clear of partisan politics, as the ‘national interest’ has most often surpassed party lines. Therefore, on the demand side of the equation, the masses or the aam aadmi, have historically been unconcerned with foreign policy and more focused on tangible domestic issues of unemployment, development, and the economy. This trend is not distinct from other democracies – in the United States too, the importance of foreign policy issues in public opinion polls tends to be low during peacetime. For instance, prior to the ongoing genocide in Gaza, just five percent of American adults expressed interest in U.S. involvement overseas.

This trend is further reiterated when examining the production of electoral rhetoric in India over the years. Past Indian Prime Ministers have rarely used their foreign policy successes as electoral currency, with exceptions being during crises and threats to national security. India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, a staunch internationalist, anti-colonial leader, and founder of the eminent Non-Aligned Movement rarely mentioned foreign policy in his electoral strategy across three elections, despite its strategic importance under his administration. His successor Indira Gandhi’s use of foreign policy in elections did not extend beyond expected tributes to her achievements in the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971. Later Prime Ministers like Rajiv Gandhi, P.V. Narasimha Rao, and Manmohan Singh, despite initiating significant initiatives like the Look East Policy and the U.S.-India Civil Nuclear Deal, privileged domestic economic issues and did not integrate foreign policy into their election strategies. Atal Bihari Vajpayee, India’s only other Prime Minister from the incumbent ruling party, presents an exception. India’s 1998 nuclear tests which occurred under his leadership were emphasized in his election campaigns. However, this too was presented more through the lens of technological nationalism and national security rather than as a unique foreign policy achievement with global implications.

​​Prime Minister Modi’s election in 2014 marked a distinct shift in the role of foreign policy in electoral discourse. Beginning early in his incumbency, he made a spectacle of high-level visits and bilateral and multilateral meetings, while regularly engaging with his voter base on issues of foreign policy significance. He is known for his significant focus on enhancing India’s regional and global role and has utilized the digital age to engage in novel forms of ‘public’ or ‘twitter diplomacy’. Notably, of the 110 episodes of his radio show ‘Mann ki Baat’, through which he creates a personal line of communication between him and his voter base, 29 percent of the episodes include mentions of foreign policy. These mentions range from benign proclamations of International Day of Yoga being celebrated across France, Australia, and the United States and interviews with foreign presidents, to more hostile assertions about adversaries like Pakistan during times of national crises. Furthermore, foreign policy mentions across the eight seasons of the radio show have gradually increased over time, peaking in 2023 during the year of India’s G20 presidency, and reflecting the increasing importance of foreign policy in the Indian public domain.

Indeed, the months leading up to India’s hosting of the G20 summit in September 2023 demonstrated the most palpable democratization of foreign policy. Bus stands, airports, taxis, public parks, and just about every public surface in cities and even small towns were plastered with advertisements, murals, and graffiti about India’s G20 presidency and its key goals. Surprisingly, the government also invited the public to give inputs on India’s G20 agenda, and information sessions were held to engage students in public universities as well. Marketed as Prime Minister Modi’s personal moment of glory, India’s G20 presidency enabled the BJP and right-wing media to cast him not only as India’s leader, but a world leader who has substantially improved India’s stature on the world stage. The BJP’s 2024 general election manifesto contains more than nine pages dedicated to foreign policy achievements and aims; a substantial increase from six and three pages in the 2019 and 2014 manifestos respectively.

While the BJP alluded briefly to PM Modi’s international outreach in the 2014 elections and relied more heavily on anti-Pakistan rhetoric in the 2019 elections following the Pulwama/Balakot strikes, foreign policy rhetoric in the 2024 elections has a distinct populist flavor. Marked by an emphasis on the quest – and even the achievement – of glorious global stature, the ongoing foreign policy election rhetoric is also imbued with a tinge of Hindu nationalism. Both during the G20 summit and in the ongoing six-week election, India’s global vision is articulated through Sanskrit phrases and Hindu civilizational motifs. The ruling party now refers to ‘India’ by its Hindi term ‘Bharat’, and the media frequently employs terms like ‘vishwaguru’ (world leader) to refer to PM Modi’s personal entanglement with reviving India’s civilizational power. This confirms Johannes Plagemann and Sandra Destradi’s assertion that “populists in power will pursue policies that reflect their mandate across a range of issue areas, including foreign policy.”
 

Factors at Play: Why Now?

There are several possible factors that contribute to increasing public interest in foreign policy. First, the exponential rise of China and its ongoing aggression on India’s northeastern border since 2020 have led to increasing Indian threat perceptions of China. Given the large power differential, India recognizes that partnerships with major powers like the United States are among the best tools to counter Beijing’s influence and strengthen its own capabilities. Foreign policy and diplomacy have therefore become more central to Indian debates on national security, which have naturally always been of public interest. It is no surprise then that India’s incumbent party would seek buy-in from its voter base on enhancing Indian global stature, particularly when it implicates India’s own national security. Simultaneously, the United States is increasingly looking to India as a key strategic partner to counter Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific, given India’s large population and fast-growing economy. Expectedly, this urgent geopolitical paradigm shift and India’s subsequent global importance is being felt on the ground.

Second, as India becomes a larger stakeholder in global affairs, it may face pressure to take certain actions in the foreign policy domain that leaders may not be comfortable with. Historical precedent reveals that in such cases, manufacturing domestic opposition from the masses can aid in resisting such pressure, particularly from Western partners. For instance, Indian public opinion seemed to have played a conclusive role in India’s lack of participation in the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. Pressure was mounting from Washington on then-Prime Minister Vajpayee to provide refueling facilities and 20,000 troops on the ground, but his domestic campaigns created public aversion to the same. Vajpayee was able to deny U.S. pressure on these grounds, citing public aversion and the democratic imperative to tend to his electorate. The Indian parliament passed a unanimous resolution on April 7, 2003 which stated, “Reflecting national sentiment, this House (Lok Sabha) deplores the military action by the coalition forces led by the USA against a sovereign Iraq.”

The public display of India’s foreign policy maneuvering today evokes Vajpayee’s strategies. India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar often incites public distaste towards Western media, and PM Modi even recently accused foreign powers of interfering in India’s election.​​ While the U.S.-India relationship is at its peak, India’s principle of multi-alignment and its strategic autonomy in foreign affairs remains of paramount importance. Some of New Delhi’s recent actions have been condemned by Western allies, such as the continuation of its relationship with Russia amidst the ongoing war in Ukraine and the alleged attempted assassination of Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, a U.S. citizen and advocate of the Khalistani separatist movement. By using electoral messaging and the pliant right-wing media as a mouthpiece, the government instills strong domestic sentiment that aligns with its foreign policy priorities, allowing it to fall back on ‘national sentiment’ when pressured by democratic partners.

What is essential to note too is that the foreign policy rhetoric used by the ruling party and the media ecosystem supporting it has labeled India’s rise as a matter of national, religious, and personal pride. The BJP’s foreign policy is distinct in this sense; it imbues its conception and account of statecraft and diplomacy with Hindu nationalism, an ideology with deep cultural and emotional appeal in India’s Hindi heartland. Foreign Minister Jaishankar, for instance, explains Indian foreign policy in his two books using characters and teachings from the Mahabharata and Ramayana, two of the most prominent Hindu mythological texts.

Indeed, what makes public investment in India’s global aspirations more intelligible is the fact that – as with Prime Minister Nehru’s international statesmanship – it has an affective face. PM Modi is presented not just as a Prime Minister but as the sole actor responsible for India’s global rise; as “one part king, one part high priest, and one part Mister Rogers” as Mihir Sharma sardonically writes.

There are also material factors to consider. Today, 52.4 percent of the population has access to the internet compared to 13.5 percent in 2014. Furthermore, India’s young middle class comprises 31 percent of India’s growing population and has been on a steady rise,driving a majority of India’s economic growth. With high economic aspiration, transnational business and foreign investment opportunities, and access to both travel and technology, the middle class is contributing to a more globalized and geopolitically attuned electorate. Furthermore, with 2.5 million Indians emigrating annually and the number of Indians giving up their citizenship increasing exponentially each year, more Indian residents are globally connected to family and business networks abroad. A rapidly growing Indian diaspora may well contribute to a growing concern of foreign affairs domestically.
 

Unclear Consequences

The electoral salience of foreign policy undoubtedly has mixed consequences and has been the subject of much IR theory and debate. Within democratic systems like the United States and India, deeper public concern for foreign policy issues would theoretically result in better mechanisms for democratic accountability on the country’s international role. In India, Vipin Narang and Paul Staniland found that accountability over foreign policy decisions has varied over time according to the type of issue, leading to varied policy consequences. Pakistan-related issues typically receive the most public interest and clearest clarity of responsibility, resulting in higher democratic accountability. China-related and defense acquisition issues receive some public interest and are opaquer, leading to less democratic accountability.

In theory, greater democratic accountability is a positive outcome of increased  foreign policy discussion in election rhetoric. For instance, the government’s emphasis on India being a net security provider in South Asia has manifested in positive examples of leadership, such as India’s support of Sri Lanka’s debt restructuring and its disaster relief assistance to the Maldives, Bangladesh, and Nepal. However, the foreign policy touchpoints in the ongoing election may have further unclear consequences, particularly if their framing is inaccurate. The often exaggerated rhetoric on India’s rising global status risks creating a misguided electorate with distorted and hubristic notions of Indian economic and military capability.

Given the virulence of the BJP and the state-aligned media in propagating this narrative, it is no surprise then that there is a chasm between the Indian voter’s perception of India’s global standing and international perceptions of the same. A poll published by the India Today Group revealed that ranked just below the consecration of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya, the second greatest achievement of PM Modi as seen by 35,000 respondents is the ‘rise of India’s global stature’. Paradoxically, a brand-new study called ‘Modi Mirage’ suggests that a majority of respondents across the UK, US, and Europe view India as less favorable than 10 years ago as a result of PM Modi’s leadership. Similarly, a 2023 Pew Research Center survey conducted prior to India’s hosting of the G20 summit reveals that while seven in ten Indians believe India is becoming more globally influential, only 28 percent of respondents across 19 countries agreed with this claim.

Nationalistic foreign policy discourse has more severe consequences on military and economic perceptions of India, within India. A 2022 survey conducted by CVoter and the Center for Policy Research revealed economic and diplomatic hubris; 33 percent of Indians believe that India holds the most influence in Asia, followed by the United States at a mere 15 percent and China at 14 percent. However, in contrast, India’s relationships with its neighbors, according to expert analysis, are in steady decline, as highlighted in recent diplomatic skirmishes with smaller South Asian states. Meanwhile, China is gaining a greater foothold in its place and Indian denial may not serve its geopolitical and strategic ends.

Most concerningly, a 2022 Stimson Center survey revealed that 72 percent of Indians think that India could defeat China in a war, with more BJP-supporters than not overconfident about India’s military capabilities. This sentiment mirrors political and military rhetoric that downplays the China threat and is evidently shaped by a media that frequently uses nationalism synonymously with undue military strength. However, by most expert accounts, this perception is worryingly inaccurate. China’s defense budget is more than three times greater than that of India’s, while China has significantly more advanced technology and production capacity. Given the blatant capabilities gap and recent Chinese encroachments into Indian territory, this disparity between public perception and reality could lead to public pressure on Indian leaders to escalate without the capabilities to match.

There is precedent for this caution too. Historical record suggests that in 1962, then-Prime Minister Nehru’s decision to go to war with China was significantly impacted by public opinion. Nationalist fervor and miscalculated public notions of Indian military capabilities at the time – propagated by the media and opposition parties – put undue pressure on Nehru to take urgent and assertive action in a war that India decisively lost. Indeed, Nehru himself shaped much of Indian public opinion of the Chinese bogey in the 1950s, but later Chinese aggression led to the Indian public’s hard stance against any concessions to China. As Kapur highlights, “While leadership can shape public opinion, this can backfire and hobble its room for maneuver.”
 

Looking Ahead to Modi 3.0

While much of the foreign policy promises in the BJP’s 2024 election manifesto are benign and related to India’s soft power diplomacy, this may likely be because much of its priorities and postures depend on the outcome of the U.S. general election in November. Beyond Indian foreign policy staples such as ensuring permanent UNSC membership and fighting terrorism, the manifesto commits to expanding Indian civilizational influence globally through cultural centers and bringing home stolen artifacts from abroad. Notably, Pakistan and China are barely mentioned in the document.

Indeed, each election in the last decade of the BJP’s incumbency has exposed a more nationalist voter base. While the domestic implications of this sentiment have been made clear with the treatment of religious minorities, the more obtrusive foreign policy implications are unclear but may be felt both regionally and internationally. Once considered the ‘big brother’ of South Asia, India is now leveraging its growing global status in minor diplomatic rows with neighboring countries. From PM Modi bringing up old tensions with Sri Lanka over Katchatheevu to win Tamil votes to Foreign Minister Jaishankar using India’s relative size and status to challenge the Maldives, there is a growing perception that India is now a ‘big bully’ in the region. Indian overconfidence in the coming term – manufactured for and bolstered by the electorate – risks damaging New Delhi’s relationships with its neighbors.  If India’s foreign policy goals are to de-hyphenate from Pakistan and rise above South Asia to gain a global standing, it needs peace in its neighborhood first. An aggressive foreign policy driven by a nationalist public may achieve just the opposite.

On the international front, heightened public perceptions and expectations of India’s global position are driving a more assertive foreign policy, which might pose challenges for democratic partners navigating these tides. The Pannun assassination allegation is a prominent example where, despite the potential violation of international law and its strain on the burgeoning U.S.-India partnership, Indians anecdotally support possible Indian action abroad and are disgruntled by western criticism of the same. While anti-West rhetoric may play well domestically, it could alienate India’s partners and complicate efforts to cooperate to build its own capabilities.

Looking ahead, while Modi’s popularity will likely only be strengthened by a more nationalist foreign policy, diplomatic partners should pay attention to this shifting public sentiment when navigating their relationships with India over the next five years. Given Washington’s track record of intervention and the weakening of a rules-based international order with the ongoing genocide in Gaza, public criticism of India by the United States will not bode well domestically and will only be weaponized to further strengthen Indian nationalist sentiment. Instead, the United States should use private backchannels to raise the government’s treatment of minorities and by extension, its Hindu nationalist foreign policy approach.

India’s rise should not be on the West’s terms but indeed should be calculated with the interests of important partners in mind. The Indian government should use its domestic support to further balance against superpowers by representing the voice of the Global South. But in the quest for a well-earned seat at the proverbial table, India should be wary that it does not exemplify the same attitudes it condemns its partners for.

Compassionate migration policies are also the right call politically

Catherine Ellis is a freelance journalist based in Colombia who focuses on migration and human rights. She also worked for an NGO assisting Venezuelan migrants near the Colombia-Venezuela border.

More than 7.7 million Venezuelans have left Venezuela over the last decade – a quarter of the population. The vast majority of those who have left, around 84 percent, have settled in Latin America and the Caribbean, particularly Colombia, Peru, Ecuador and Chile. But difficulties in finding jobs, poor salaries and high costs of living have pushed some to pack their bags and set off once again, this time northwards towards the southern border of the United States. Politicians responding to these arrivals should resist the temptation to invoke overly restrictive measures, not only because they trample on the human rights of Venezuelans in desperate situations, but because compassionate migration policies can reduce the political salience of border arrivals, and benefit the U.S. both economically and morally.

Migration is as old as humanity, but the arrival of migrants to the southern border of the United States has been treated as a political crisis. A large wave of Venezuelan migrants arriving at the southern border over the past three years has fanned the flames – and been treated as a national crisis. In part, this is because the Republican governor of Texas has adopted a policy of shipping migrants further into the interior of the country, explicitly to burden social services in Democratic states far from the border.  As the Migration Policy Institute notes, in fiscal year 2023, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) encountered Venezuelans 266,000 times in the Mexico-US border, a more than five-fold increase in encounters from 2021. 

President Biden, after saying in 2020 he would restore the U.S.’ ‘historic role as a safe haven for refugees and asylum seekers,’ has introduced some progressive policies. Yet immigration has become more of a political headache than he envisaged. At a campaign stop in Michigan on April 2nd, former President Donald Trump called migrants ‘animals.’ At a stop in Wisconsin later that day, former Trump called Venezuelans criminals, before promising to unleash a mass deportation programme of undocumented migrants if he wins reelection in November. According to a February 2024 Gallup poll, immigration is the US electorate’s number one concern, with 28 percent of Americans saying it was the issue most important to them, and Biden has been steadily peeling back his open-arms rhetoric.

President Biden has reportedly been mulling various options for temporary border closures to stem high numbers of migrants entering the country, after a bipartisan border deal collapsed in Congress in February. Republicans didn’t think the measures, which included proposals to give the President the power to shut down the border, went far enough.

On May 9, Biden announced new proposals to assess migrants at an initial asylum screening stage, instead of during the interview stage. This would allow some percentage of asylum seekers to be turned away by officers at the border much faster than under current rules, so long as the officers deem the asylum seeker a national security or public safety risk. As Maanvi Singh wrote in The Guardian, “The proposed rule that was released on Thursday would only affect about 2 to 3% of asylum seekers, by the administration’s estimation, based on historical data. It also aims to solve a problem that doesn’t really exist.”

While this change might reduce wait times at the border on the margin, it undermines long standing asylum norms, and is also unlikely to satisfy anyone in Washington, including some in the Democratic Party, who want more stringent action, including executive action to fix what they call a ‘broken immigration system.’

 

Waiting outside asylum

Curiously, border encounters have already been dropping this year, mildly appeasing those even within his own party who want stronger deterrence measures. In December 2023, there were 46,919 border encounters of Venezuelans but only 16,492 in March 2024, according to CBP figures. Before border hawks celebrate a slow rate of arrival as the result of punitive policies, it’s important to understand that at least some of the slowed arrival rate is because migrants haven’t stopped trying to get to the US, they’re simply stuck elsewhere.

When migrants do get to the U.S./Mexico border, they are stuck waiting for slow processing at legal entry points. Should the migrants get caught up immigration enforcement in Mexico, they may end up deported south, out of the country. Venezuelans bottlenecked in Mexico are stuck navigating the slow waiting times to secure an appointment via the CBP One app. This initiative, designed to incentivize entry at legal ports of entry along the US-Mexico border rather than crossing the border illegally, needs to process arrivals faster to more compassionately usher asylum seekers and migrants into the legal immigration process. When it works properly, the scheme allows migrants to enter the US while they wait for their immigration cases to be heard. When it does not, it leaves people vulnerable.

According to a recent Human Rights Watch report, this wait “impermissibly limits the right to seek asylum for many people and compels them to wait in foreseeably dangerous and inhumane conditions in Mexico.” Appointments can sometimes take weeks or months to get. Many Venezuelans, often with few financial resources, often sleep in the streets or rely on overflowing migrant shelters, becoming easy targets for criminal groups. There have been disturbing tales of kidnappings, robberies and sex trafficking by criminal groups using the migration crisis for lucrative financial gains. The Washington Office on Latin America, a group that promotes human rights in the region, has recommended ramping up the number of CBP appointments and ‘urgent walk ups,’ at ports of entry as well as more asylum officers immigration judges.

Beyond issues with processing, current US policy also depends on Mexico to help the crackdown on migration, with disturbing results. Checkpoints and patrols have surged throughout the country, and police are sending migrants on buses heading southwards, or demanding exorbitant bribes for letting them pass. Mexico and the US have also recently agreed on further steps to crackdown on illegal migration, including stricter measures at railways, buses and airports. “The teamwork is paying off,” John Kirby, the White House’s national security spokesman, told the press in April. Migrants now say it’s Mexico, not the Darien Gap, a notoriously dangerous stretch of jungle spanning the Colombia-Panama border, that they fear most.

 

Through the sky legally

Expanding legal pathways to enter the US could help reduce the risks for Venezuelans considering traversing the Darien and then Mexico. A humanitarian parole program, where Venezuelans – and Haitians, Cubans and Nicaraguans – are eligible for entry to the US if they find a sponsor and arrive by air, offered hope for many Venezuelans when it was introduced in 2022. By the end of February 2024, 94,000 Venezuelans had arrived in the US through this scheme. But for those with no links to the US, finding sponsors is a challenge.

For those already in the US, ensuring they can be financially independent helps them live more dignified lives. The Temporary Protection Status (TPS) policy, which was offered to some Venezuelans in 2021 and extended to almost half a million in September 2023, enables Venezuelans to support themselves while waiting for their immigration cases to be heard. Although it doesn’t give full residency or citizenship, it enables migrants to be self-sufficient, alleviating the squeeze on overflowing migrant shelters, reducing the financial strain on cities, and helping fill vacancies in sectors such as healthcare and construction.

Extending TPS even further would provide a way for more migrants to become financially independent and contribute to the US economy. A recent report from the Congressional Budget Office, estimated that the labor force is projected to grow by 5.2 million by 2033, mostly due to higher net migration. Because of this it estimates GDP will grow by about $7 trillion.

TPS has long been criticized by Donald Trump, saying it attracts more migrants. But past experience shows this is not the case. A 2022 study analyzing TPS designated countries of El Salvador and Honduras found it did not lead to increased unauthorized migration and actually reduced pressure on factors driving US-bound migration.

The study’s authors say money sent home in the form of remittances helps stem further migration flows. People receiving the money in Venezuela, or other South American countries where they are settled, can buy food, medicine and other basic necessities, disincentivizing them to leave. The study found remittances sent to TPS designated countries were substantially higher compared with those countries who didn’t have TPS and the scheme reduced both irregular migration, and asylum claims.

Migration is a story of humans uprooted from their lives, gambling that a long journey to somewhere else will be reward them with a more stable future than living in the precarious conditions that have come to mark their daily lives. The majority of Venezuelans aren’t arriving at the border because of ‘the American Dream,’ but due to an economic, political and humanitarian crisis in their home country that has propelled them to leave their homes, and in many cases their families. A compassionate approach to migration will let them arrive in the United States with a warm welcome, rather than razorwire.

Violence Has Already Shaped Mexico’s June 2 Election

Michael W. Chamberlin is a non-resident senior fellow at The Center for International Policy.

Mexico is gearing up for its general elections on June 2, a crucial event where over 20,000 public officials will be elected, spanning from the Senate and the House of Representatives to numerous governorships and municipalities, and even the Presidency of the Republic. Notably, this election marks the first time both leading contenders for the presidency are women. Regardless of which candidate wins, the results of the election have already been shaped by political violence. It will take courage as well as international support for non-violent means to reduce the outsized role of armed agents, be they criminal or military, over the country’s democratic future.

The electoral landscape unfolds against a grim backdrop of violence across many regions of the country. A report by the think tank Data Civica titled “Vote Between Bullets” highlights a staggering 1,833 incidents of threats, murders, armed attacks, disappearances, and kidnappings related to electoral activities between 2018 and April 29, 2024. As of May 10th, there is a toll of 63 persons linked to the electoral process killed, 32 of them candidates, according to Laboratorio Electoral, another Mexican think tank. This violence, orchestrated by organized crime groups, has sadly become a tool to sway election outcomes.

The statistics paint a harrowing picture. The year 2023 witnessed the highest toll of political-criminal violence, with 575 individuals and facilities targeted, closely followed by 2022 with 486 incidents. Since January 2024 alone, the toll includes 22 pre-candidates and candidates murdered, 14 facing threats, 4 suffering armed attacks, 8 enduring assaults, and 10 subjected to kidnappings. Shockingly, over 2,000 candidates—about 10% of the total—have withdrawn from their candidacies due to threats and violence, particularly at the local level.

The infiltration of organized crime into the political fabric of the nation not only jeopardizes freedom of choice at the ballot box but also raises profound concerns about governance, the agendas that will prevail, and the vulnerability of citizens in the face of entrenched corruption and impunity.

It’s no secret that organized crime has burgeoned in Mexico, extending its grasp far beyond drug trafficking to control a myriad of legal and illicit enterprises—from human trafficking to monopolizing markets for staples like chicken, avocado, and lemons—often through extortion. Over the past 15 years, the “war on drugs”, initially backed by the Merida Initiative, has inadvertently handed over vast swathes of territory to criminal groups, with an estimated 30% to 35% of Mexico’s territory under their control by 2021.

Simultaneously, the country has witnessed a surge in militarization, initially aimed at combating drug cartels but gradually expanding to encompass diverse spheres including public security, environmental protection, social policies, health, customs, and infrastructure development.

A damning report titled “The National Inventory of the Militarized” reveals that between 2006 and 2023, civil functions or budgets were transferred to the armed forces on at least 291 occasions, with the Legislative Branch presenting 87 initiatives contributing to militarization, 77% of which surfaced in the last two legislative sessions dominated by the ruling Morena party.

This relentless militarization, stretching across three different administrations, underscores a concerning trend where the influence of the armed forces and organized crime transcends political boundaries, undermining the civil authority of the Republic.

So, what hangs in the balance come election time?

In the immediate future, there’s a looming threat of escalated violence potentially jeopardizing elections across nearly 30% of the country’s territory—a concern highlighted by the opposition coalition. In the long run, there’s a risk of eroding Mexico’s civil and democratic governance. Despite not being direct contenders in the elections, both the armed forces and organized crime wield considerable influence over the outcomes.

The failed anti-drug policies have inadvertently bolstered the political and economic clout of both these entities, with thousands of lives lost or wasted. Official figures from 2006 to 2022 paint a grim picture: 449,329 intentional homicides and 316,816 missing persons, of which 116,300 remain unaccounted for.

The enabling factors behind this surge in lethal power, whether on the military or criminal fronts, stem from the rampant corruption within the political elite, the prevailing culture of impunity shielding wrongdoers, and a dire lack of transparency and accountability across military ranks, political parties, and elected representatives, blurring the borders between state and non-state actors, criminal and governing bodies. Far from firing missiles at Mexico, the battle against organized crime must be waged using the tools of democracy and justice; guns have only fueled further violence.

If the United States aims to champion democracy and freedoms globally, it must actively support the strengthening of civil institutions and checks and balances within Mexico. Failure to do so risks empowering an already formidable transnational monster, fed through corruption by security assistance programs.

Counter-terror turned the Sahel into a coup-belt. U.S. policy in the region should move on.

Hannah Rae Armstrong is a policy adviser and writer with over a decade of field-based experience working on peace and security in the Sahel.

On March 16, military authorities in Niger, a key U.S. Africa ally, released a televised broadcast ending the country’s military agreement with the U.S. The dispute lays bare the conundrum the U.S. currently faces in the central Sahel, where a decade of counter-terror-led engagement backfired, worsening insecurity while empowering intransigent military leaders who went on to seize power and ally with Moscow. From 2020 to 2023, ‘transitional’ military-led governments in Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso took power and expelled France, the Sahel’s leading foreign partner over the past decade, leaving a vacuum that Russia quickly stepped in to fill. Since the latest July 2023 coup in Niger, a country where the U.S. has 650 troops stationed and three strategic air bases, Washington has been pulled in different directions. The policy debate ranges from arguments for stepping up and assuming more of a leadership role to drawing back and disengaging. The U.S. should not (and cannot) compete with Russia’s security offer; instead, it should forge a new path guided by day-after policies that transition away from counter-terrorism toward more effective, political modes of resolution.

Disengagement would perhaps be optimal. Washington, wishing to help resolve the crisis, inadvertently worsened the Sahel violence, which is now at an all-time high: 12,000 were killed in 2023 – up from 9,000 in 2022 and 6,000 in 2021; most of them civilians – and at least three million are internally displaced. The region barely shows up on the radar of the American public and in terms of strategic importance it ranks well below various other fires to put out. The implicit tensions between counter-terrorism and democracy promotion have become all too explicit. Our ally France, whose expertise and leadership have guided U.S. policy in the Sahel over the past decade, has been roundly ejected. And the usual tools for dealing with rogue leaders are proving ineffective – attempts to isolate Sahelian military regimes are failing as Russia, China, middle powers, and a deepening alliance among the three neighbors open promising alternatives. The easiest move would be for the Biden Administration to draw back. And yet, U.S. engagement is more likely to persist, in part due to the sunk fallacy costs of the air base assets and an indirect nuclear non-proliferation interest.

Mending the U.S.-Niger rupture will require genuine engagement with a new generation of sovereigntist demands. For years, policymakers had viewed the Sahel through the lens of  ‘the trifecta of alien demographic vitality, Islamic fanaticism and pauper migration that is the new spectre haunting the West.’. This can no longer be the case. Given legal restrictions and a Russian security bid that offers more to military regimes, the era of U.S. counter terror-led engagement in the Sahel is over. This is something to embrace, not to mourn.

 

Trans-Saharan Policy Options

Between 2012 and 2022, American counter-terror engagement in Sahel surged, chiefly within the framework of the Trans-Saharan Counter-Terror Partnership, launched in 2005 to ‘eliminate terrorist safe havens in northwest Africa’ (at that time, there were none). In 2012 groups with links to Al Qaeda and what went on to become the Islamic State seized a relatively contained territory in northern Mali. Following this, the conflict theatre spread into central Mali and the tri-border area, then deeper into western Niger and northern and central Burkina Faso.

In Mali, counter-terrorism meant supporting French-led operations with intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR). In Burkina Faso, publicly disclosed bilateral security assistance skyrocketed: from roughly $200,000 before 2009 to $1.8 million in 2010 to more than $16 million by 2018; an investigation suggests the total amount of U.S. security aid cooperation with Burkina may have reached $100 million between 2018 and 2019.

Niger was different: the U.S. did much more. U.S. special forces were accompanying Nigerien forces on operations, a fact only revealed in 2017 when four U.S. servicemen were killed in an ambush in Tongo Tongo. The troops were technically deployed for assistance, not fighting, although their deaths reveal the blurred lines between supporting and fighting). Meanwhile, the Pentagon and the CIA were constructing significant strategic assets in Niger. In 2019, after extensive delays, construction was completed on the second-largest U.S. air force base in Africa, Airbase 201 in Agadez, northern Niger. Although technically classified as a non-permanent “cooperative security location”, the base is the largest project in Air Force construction history and was estimated to cost roughly $280 million by 2024.

As the violence levels climbed, it was commonplace to read that radical groups kept growing stronger “despite” counter-terror campaigns, which Western pundits argued were necessary: friendly African states were struggling to defend their institutions, territory, and people from savage attacks waged by violent extremists. In reality, counter-terror tactics were throwing oil onto the fire. The French glibly trotted out nightmare counter-insurgency tactics that had failed and lain dormant for decades, allying with reprisal-driven ethnic militias and forbidding political negotiations with militant groups. Paris kept insisting, as the war gobbled more and more territory, that its methods were simply under-resourced and needed a bit more time to succeed. Militants with mostly secular grievances relating to land and political exclusion were bluntly framed as “terrorist threats”, fueling an ideological forever war whose resolution could only come through more militarization. Western support for unprofessional and often predatory partner state security forces emboldened those forces’ basest instincts while expanding their reach and firepower. It also set the stage for the rash of coups that would wipe out elected governments in all three countries.

 

The present situation offers an opening for long overdue reorientation of a counter-terror-led engagement that has proven catastrophic, and should be recognized as an opportunity to play a more supportive role in the region.

Soldiers seized power in Mali in August 2020 and May 2021, in Burkina Faso in January 2022 and September 2022, and in Niger in July 2023. These coups put the final nail in the coffin of an extravagant counter-terror-led strategy that, while ‘multidimensional’ and devoted to ‘stabilisation’ on paper, had in reality conditioned a dizzying loss of life and territory for already fragile and impoverished states. Soldiers and citizens united and rose up in protest against the ineffectual political classes that had greenlit such disastrous outcomes, grasping for new approaches that might actually deliver on promises of security and stability. Moscow seized the opportunity and plunged in.

Mali was the first Sahelian country to cast off the Western ‘stabilisation’ apparatus that had delivered so little, and try its hand at partnering with Russian paramilitary forces instead. Between September and November 2023, the FAMA-Wagner offensive on northern Mali delivered Bamako control over rebel-held territory for the first time in more than a decade, a spectacular, fast payoff on investment. It was practically a marketing campaign for Wagner to neighboring states.

 

Technical Obstacles

As the French-led coalition it supported melted away, U.S. policy struggled to keep up with rapidfire events. Section 7008 restrictions, which prohibit the continuation of assistance to governments toppled by coups, severely curtailed the types and amounts of aid the U.S. could disburse. In Mali, Washington continued providing limited security assistance to law enforcement partners and significant humanitarian aid, while sanctioning certain senior officials under the Russia sanctions program.

In Burkina Faso, the next state to fall, the U.S. waited weeks before calling the January 2022 military seizure in Burkina Faso a coup d’état, triggering Section 7008 restrictions that cut most U.S. aid to the country. When more than a year passed with no progress made towards a return to constitutional order, American diplomats tried to offer restoring nonlethal military assistance as leverage for preventing a partnership with Russian private security. “Burkina Faso is at a tipping point,” a senior DoD official told reporters. “Our position is that if we don’t provide assistance, then someone else will, whether it is Wagner or China or another group.” In an October 2023 visit to Ouagadougou, a senior delegation reportedly offered more assistance within the constraints of 7008 while telling 34-year-old junta leader Captain Ibrahim Traoré that doing business with the Wagner Group would cross a red line. The line was quickly crossed. In January 2024, Russian Africa Corps military personnel arrived in Ouagadougou with a mandate to defend the country’s leader and protect the Burkinabe people from terrorist attacks, according to an Africa Corps Telegram statement.

A similar scenario is unfolding in Niger. American officials waited until October 2023 – three months after the coup – to invoke section 7008. They then took a more hardline stance, severing types of cooperation and military assistance not bound by section 7008, such as DoD advisory support or attending exercises or providing support to non-military security force programs. This would leave room, it was thought, to offer some security cooperation in compliance with 7008 restrictions, if the junta softened its own rigid stance, particularly on two conditions that the West African regional bloc ECOWAS had cited as conditions for lifting sanctions: releasing the captive deposed President Bazoum and publishing a timeline for a return to constitutional order.

But the junta, formally the National Council for the Safeguarding of the Country (CNSP), flouted these conditions. In December, CNSP leader General Tchiani welcomed Russian deputy defense minister Colonel General Yunus-Bek Yevkurov (who was overseeing the rebranding of Wagner as Africa Corps), and signed a new security agreement with Moscow. On January 28, Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso announced they were leaving the regional bloc ECOWAS. One month later, ECOWAS lifted most sanctions against Niger, leaving the U.S. in the awkward position of supporting an ECOWAS policy that no longer existed.

On March 16, CNSP spokesman Colonel Major Amadou Abdramane concluded a visit by a high-level U.S. delegation by announcing on television that Niger was terminating the status of forces agreement it signed in 2012 with the U.S. The decision does not mean an immediate end to the U.S. security cooperation with key Africa ally Niger, which includes the deployment of roughly 650 soldiers and the holding of two “cooperative security location” air bases and a CIA drone base. It is more likely a negotiating tactic reflecting the chill in relations between Washington and Niamey, amid a broader regional pivot away from Western security partners toward Russia. The rupture with Niger can still be mended. However, Abdramane’s televised speech referred to charges of a secret agreement to sell Nigerien uranium to Iran, accidentally outing what may be the most cogent U.S. security interest in the region (and one that tends to be kept quiet): nuclear non-proliferation and having a say in who Niger, the seventh largest uranium exporter, sells it to.

 

Desert Power Vacuum?

Washington neither can nor should try to compete with Russia to fill the security vacuum left by the French departure. But disengaging is not really an option either. Beyond the sunk-costs fallacy of the Agadez base, in October 2023, the Senate overwhelmingly voted down a bill to withdraw U.S. troops from Niger. What might this mean for the future of U.S. engagement in the Sahel?

The present situation offers an opening for long overdue reorientation of a counter-terror-led engagement that has proven catastrophic, and should be recognized as an opportunity to play a more supportive role in the region. Military engagement is on a descending path, which is a good thing; what matters more now is political strategy. In light of these developments, non-military contributions might help the U.S. serve its interests in the region while being a good partner.

On the security front, the U.S. and Niger will likely work out some kind of arrangement that allows the U.S. to retain access to its bases. By the CNSP’s own statement, paying taxes and sharing intelligence ought to iron out the bulk of the dispute, not unreasonable demands from a country that is hosting a foreign military presence from which it derives little benefit. Uncomfortable as it is, the likely outcome of this arrangement will be some form of coexistence between Russian and American security forces in-country. While not ideal, this is also not without precedent. Washington should resist setting up new bases in the coastal West African states that would expand into new territory counter-terror cooperation that has been roundly discredited by its own failures.

Meanwhile, the best strategy for countering Russian influence may be to draw back and leave Russia with enough rope to hang itself.  The Sahel is a tricky terrain in which it is extremely expensive to operate. The Russian security offer may deliver short-term victories; however, in broader terms, it merely exaggerates the most explosive features of external aid over the past decade, empowering large-scale human rights abuses and civilian massacres while creating a smokescreen that ensures these do not get reported or investigated. These tactics, a continuation of the deeply flawed French-led strategy towards military eradication of problems that have political, economic, and communal roots, are not going to produce effective solutions; instead, they will stifle dissent, further weaken states and institutions, and create conditions of worse insecurity in the near-term future. An over-stretched, overcommitted Russia dealing with terrible infrastructure, enormous distances, extremely aggressive weather and new threats that keep popping up in new arenas will likely fall out of favor at least as quickly as the French did. In the meantime, Washington and Moscow could establish channels of communication and common security objectives around counter-terrorism and non-proliferation, either directly or through the mediation of Algeria, a regional hegemon with experience in transitioning out of counter-terror and a strong direct interest in avoiding conflict escalation.

In political terms, how might the U.S. effectively engage with a new generation of sovereigntist rulers expressing a profound will to achieve more equitable and beneficial forms of engagement with stronger external partners? Sahelian military rulers and peoples are together voicing demands for more meaningful political and economic engagement: a departure from recent decades, when “democracy promotion” and extractive interests propped up Sahelian autocracies whose profound structural flaws led them to lose much or most of their territory to radical extremists. A “values-based” approach that emphasizes timetables and other superficial signposts of democracy is an insufficient response to this demand. As one analyst recently argued, ‘work on the substance and not just the speed of transitions from military to civilian rule’. This could include engaging with transitional authorities to determine areas of mutual interest for strengthening institutions, via for example political party reforms, judicial reforms, and anti-corruption initiatives. Although it is no doubt more challenging to work with unconstitutional regimes against corruption, it’s important to be creative and persistent and recall that anticorruption is in their sovereigntist demand.

 

An over-stretched, overcommitted Russia dealing with terrible infrastructure, enormous distances, extremely aggressive weather and new threats that keep popping up in new arenas will likely fall out of favor at least as quickly as the French did.

In addition, the U.S. can play a useful role with respect to resolving and de-escalating conflict and addressing humanitarian needs. For example, it should remain vigilant on human rights monitoring. Recent policy in Burkina Faso suggests diplomats are committed to doing just that. The last ambassador met regularly with the military authorities, and the U.S. is balancing some limited counter-terror cooperation with non-military forces, and including Burkinabe forces in Operation Flintlock training exercises, with also speaking up against human rights abuses.

Other policies that might help resolve or de-escalate conflict relate to Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR), political dialogue, and disinformation. In Niger, a U.S.-backed program to amnesty Islamic State returnees collapsed after the coup, with hundreds of ex-militants simply vanishing (many likely rejoined extremist groups). The program was imperfect, and plagued by doubts and uncertainty; however, insofar as it represents a rare non-military means of removing men from the battlefield, it deserves more investment and more careful implementation.

In an increasingly blacked-out media environment that favors impunity for armed forces and sanctions anyone who dares to question or report on their abuses, the U.S. should prioritize training and work with journalists and civil society, while ensuring these activities do not compromise their safety. For the next generation of leaders, and compared to France and Russia, the U.S. still has a lot of appeal. Continuing to work with youths, civil society and journalists will pay off in the long term by building links with future leaders who care about truth and justice, and seek to build mechanisms for preserving and establishing these.

Finally, in terms of domestic policy, embracing the potential of a post-counter-terror partnership era means placing extravagant military overreach in Africa under civilian mechanisms of control and oversight. At a time when funding is scarce due to more pressing conflicts elsewhere, the State Department should have to be more transparent about and justify expenditures in the region. Peacekeeping operations allocations under regional programs like the TSCTP (which include counter-terrorism, military and non-military forces) – unlike the Foreign Military Financing program – do not include breakdowns by country or unit even for congressional reporting, as is standard elsewhere; these should be made routinely available.

A wry response to raising concerns about “U.S. policy in the Sahel” is the question, “is there one?” And yet, despite the carelessness and damage done by French-led counter-terror engagement over the past decade, the U.S. has gotten some things right, like speaking out against violence against civilians, and refusing to back militias, paramilitary groups or Mali’s military campaign against northern rebels. With the French out, whatever happens next is on us. The overarching bipartisan American policy goal in the region right now, which can carry right through the upcoming American elections season, should be ushering in a new era of post-“war on terror” engagement.

Exiled Iranian monarchists align with Israel’s hardliners

When Iranians drove out the Shah in 1979, a revolution that ultimately ended with the Islamic Republic, supporters of monarchy were driven into exile or underground. In the decades since, these monarchists waiting for a restoration of the Pahlavi throne have found themselves part of the opposition to the present government of Iran, but sitting uncomfortably alongside other opposition movements, especially ones that dream and fight for a democratic Iran. This tension is reflected not just in how the separate opposition movements protest in the country, but in how they position the role of Iran in the world. Notably, Reza Pahlavi, claimant to the overthrown throne, has aligned Iranian monarchists with Israel, leading monarchists to wave the pre-revolution flag at rallies in support of Israel’s war on Gaza.

As Sina Toosi, senior non-resident fellow at CIP, writes for Al-Jazeera:

“…since the outbreak of the Gaza war, the Iranian monarchist movement has shown strong support for Israel online and at pro-Israel rallies in Europe and the United States. Their often-aggressive tactics have concerned many pro-Palestinian activists, with pro-Pahlavi lobbying groups in Washington, DC, such as the National Union for Democracy in Iran (NUFDI), seeking to intimidate pro-Palestinians activists who have been critical of Iranian-American supporters of Israel, labelling them “supporters of Palestinian terrorist groups”.”

This hard-line is a break from the last Shah’s actual foreign policy, which balanced US alignment, security cooperation with Israel, and vocal support for Palestine. Out of power and in exile, Iranian monarchists have not had to make concessions required even of autocrats. Instead, they’ve aligned with the hard right in the US and in Israel, supporting intervention, sanctions, and confrontation with the Islamic Republic.

This, Toosi writes, is in sharp contrast to the human rights-aligned pro-democracy movement within Iran:

“Other government critics and activists believe the Iranian monarchists’ support from Israel and its right-wing allies in the US – evident in their close ties with pro-Israel lobbies in Washington and their reliance on media support from Israeli-government-aligned outlets and influencers – is not a benefit, but baggage. It has exposed their lack of legitimacy and credibility, and their disregard for the Iranian people’s democratic aspirations.”

While hardliners may have found common cause with monarchists longing for a restoration of past glories, these are forces aligned in a cynical disregard for the democratic aspirations of people in their own countries, and abroad. Read Toosi’s full piece here.

CIP Response to the 2024 State of the Union

Matt Duss is the Executive Vice President of the Center for International Policy

On foreign policy, President Biden’s State of the Union last night didn’t give us too much to work with. He did come right out of the gate strong, talking about Ukraine. I can’t remember the last time a president opened the State of the Union talking about foreign policy, but it really served to underline the urgency of the need to pass the Ukraine aid package which has been stalled in Congress for months.

The section on the Gaza war was unfortunately as expected. Yesterday’s announcement of the building of a Gaza port to facilitate humanitarian aid shouldn’t be dismissed  – more aid for Palestinians on the brink of starvation is obviously good. But as with the airdropping of aid it just reveals the incoherence of U.S. policy right now, in which we’re trying to ease Palestinian suffering while continuing to unconditionally arm and support the government that is intentionally inflicting that suffering.

The president seems to recognize that ultimately this conflict will require a political solution, but is still unwilling to bring the full weight of America’s considerable leverage to that goal. Biden’s potted history of the conflict didn’t help. Hamas’ atrocities on October 7 were obviously the precipitating event, but this war did not begin on October 7. It has been waged against the Palestinians every day for years in the form of a violent and humiliating military occupation. Any effort to bring this conflict to a just resolution will need to confront that reality, and Biden seems unprepared to do that.

On the bright side, Biden took what I think is exactly the right approach on his administration’s biggest foreign policy priority: China. He basically told everybody to chill out about it, he’s got this. This isn’t dismissing the challenge, he hasn’t done that, but I think taking a less hysterical approach is something that will lead to a more rational discussion and better, more effective policy.

On immigration, a key goal must be tackling root causes, such as corruption and violence, in US-Latin America policy. The president unfortunately allowed himself to be drawn into a back and forth with Georgia Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Green over the murder of Laken Riley, a 22 year old Georgia nursing student who was murdered by an undocumented migrant who had been released into the country after being detained. Biden’s statement that Riley had been “killed by an illegal” was a misstep that plays right into the right’s anti-immigrant rhetoric, which is unfortunately in keeping with his general approach to immigration lately, where he’s been willing to tack right and offer some pretty dangerous concessions to try and save the Ukraine aid package. But many of the principles and values at stake at our border are the same ones at stake in Ukraine: human safety and dignity, a commitment to international law. It’s wrong to think we can promote one while selling out the other.

But the bottom line is there just wasn’t much foreign policy in it at all. A few paragraphs in a nearly 90 minute speech. And that reflects his administration’s approach: they would like to talk about foreign policy as little as possible. President Biden has a strong case to make in terms of his administration’s domestic accomplishments. They’ve been able to get important things done that are showing huge benefits to the American people. He has a similar opportunity to advance a foreign policy agenda that improves the lives of Americans and global populations alike. Given that foreign policy is clearly going to be a much bigger issue in this election than anyone expected, I think it was a missed opportunity to stake out a bolder vision.