Shadow Government

Obama got it right on Security Council reform

I'd like to take a short break from my running critique of President Barack Obama's Afghanistan policy to laud him for supporting India's bid for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council. I don't know what the administration's rationale was for the shift in U.S. policy, but I think there is a strong realist case for expanding the Security Council to include not just India, but also Japan, Germany, and Brazil.

International institutions like the United Nations are mostly useless. At their best, they oversell their relevance. They do not exert much independent influence on world events distinct from the states that comprise their membership. What needs doing gets done by states, not by institutions. At their worst, institutions waste time and money on ill-advised causes. But institutions do serve a purpose. They provide regularity to the interaction between states. They enshrine norms and patterns of behavior. They provide a reliable talk-shop. They make it easier to conduct multilateral talks and negotiations. They (sometimes) provide a credible, neutral, third-party voice. They can become useful stores of expertise and data on highly specialized issues.

But institutions only accomplish these limited purposes if states see them as useful in the first place. The League of Nations withered away when its irrelevance and powerlessness was too obvious to overlook, while the Bank for International Settlements is celebrating its 80th birthday because it serves states' interests so well. The most successful institutions are the ones that retain the interest and activity of the greatest number of most powerful states. In other words, institutions succeed because they accurately reflect and respond to the underlying balance of power among states. They become an arena through which great powers can carry on their relations in a predictable and stable environment.

The U.N. Security Council no longer reflects the world's balance of power. The sole criterion for holding a permanent seat on the council is to have been a winner of World War II, which ended just a big ago. While the permanent five are undoubtedly among the most powerful countries in the world, no one seriously believes they are the only great powers of the 21st Century. The U.N. risks irrelevancy.

So who are the great powers? Happily, we can rely on a quasi-objective dataset to give us the answer. The Correlates of War measures states' national capabilities over time. It aggregates measures of states' population, industrial production, energy consumption, military personnel, and military spending to create a Composite Index of National Capability. According to this data, the top ten most powerful states are, in order, the United States, China, India, Russia, Japan, Germany, Brazil, South Korea, Britain, and France. The list conveniently includes the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and the four aspirants (and South Korea).

Reforming the U.N. Security Council to include India, Japan, Germany, and Brazil will help the council more accurately reflect the real balance of power in the world, which in turn would make the Council more useful and relevant to the United States and the other great powers. It will not solve the world's security problems and it will not end war. But it could save the United Nations from irrelevance, give the United States a more regular forum for engaging the other great powers of the 21st Century, and make rising powers feel they have a stake in the established international system. (And it will help balance China, support U.S. interests in Asia, and lay the groundwork for a loose Pacific alliance to compliment the Atlantic one -- but that is a discussion for a later post). Whether or not Obama intended all this in his speech to the Indian Parliament, he took a step in the right direction.

Michael Nagle/Getty Images

Shadow Government

The real choice Turkey has to make when it comes to Israel

While all eyes are fixed on the faltering Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, Israel is involved in another diplomatic standoff whose consequences may be just as dire for the future of the Middle East. The impasse in question is between Turkey and Israel -- erstwhile allies whose deteriorating relations undermine the security of the entire region. This conflict -- more than Ankara's outreach to Iran or tensions with the EU -- calls starkly into question the role Turkey will play in regional politics and peacemaking.

The current standoff between Turkey and Israel was sparked by the now-infamous Gaza flotilla clash of May 31. Ankara saw Israel's forceful interdiction of the flotilla and killing of nine Turkish nationals as violations of international law, and has demanded an apology and reparations. Israel saw the flotilla as a provocation irresponsibly endorsed by Turkish authorities, and has refused Ankara's demands and insisted its navy's actions were lawful.

While Israel previously dispatched high-ranking envoys in an effort to resolve the dispute, at present both sides seem to be digging in. Indeed, while the flotilla incident catalyzed the Turkish-Israeli conflict, serious trouble has been brewing between the two countries at least since the December 2008 Gaza war. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan not only walked out of a speech by Israeli President Shimon Peres in Davos in January 2009, but has characterized Israel as the "principal threat" in the region and spoken approvingly of Hamas and hosted its leaders.  

The motivations of Prime Minister Erdogan and the AKP government for eschewing Turkey's alliance with Israel are unclear. It would be easy to write them off as mere populism -- what easier way to garner votes in the Middle East than going after Israel? And certainly domestic politics sits atop the AKP's agenda at the moment as the party completes a near total consolidation of power.

However, this explanation may confuse cause and effect. Public support in Turkey for close ties with Israel was not always low, and previous Turkish governments have made the national-interest case for the alliance successfully. Instead, it appears that Ankara's recent antagonism toward Israel is a result of its pursuit of "strategic depth," a concept popularized in Turkey by Foreign Minister Ahmet Davotoglu. "Strategic depth" has meant distancing Turkey from the West and cultivating closer relations with Middle Eastern states like Iran and Syria.

Far from bolstering Turkish influence, however, deteriorating ties with Israel can only diminish Ankara's standing. Prior to the December 2008 Israel-Hamas conflict in Gaza, Turkey -- uniquely among regional states -- enjoyed the trust of both Israel and its Arab neighbors. This status allowed Turkey to serve as a mediator in Israeli-Syrian peace talks from 2007 to 2008 -- the most serious negotiations on that track in years. Turkey has not only sacrificed the trust of Israel since then, but through its outspoken defense of Hamas and Iran, has distanced itself from the positions of Arab states who see Tehran and its proxies -- and not Israel -- as their "principal threat."

By itself, Turkish engagement with Iran and Syria would be potentially positive developments for the Middle East. Ankara has proved -- through its mediation between Jerusalem and Damascus, and its successful if ill-timed nuclear diplomacy with Iran earlier this year -- that it is interested in using these relationships for useful ends. However, by viewing its foreign relations as a zero-sum game -- in which ties with Israel and the West must diminish in order for those with Tehran and Damascus to improve -- Turkey undermines its own role as a mediator in regional disputes. This represents a loss not only for Ankara, but for all nations interested in peace and stability in the Middle East who will regret Turkey's absence as a moderating force in a volatile region.

If Turkey truly desires to serve as a bridge between East and West and achieve "strategic depth," it would do well to shed such zero-sum thinking and find a way to repair its relations with Israel. Likewise, Israel must do its part by demonstrating a willingness to compromise regarding the flotilla incident and avoiding actions which exacerbate bilateral tensions. 

The choice facing Turkey has been sometimes mischaracterized as between Iran and its allies on one hand, and Israel and the West on the other. In fact, Turkey's choice is between opportunism and responsibility. Choosing the former may seem appealing in the short term to Ankara, but the long-term costs to Turkey and the region will be heavy.