The Showdown With Russia

Acting like a 20th century nationalist leader determined to restore Russia’s relevance on the world’s geopolitical stage and reestablish a sphere of influence in Eastern Europe, Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea and threatened Ukraine. His provocative military adventures triggered a swift reaction from the Western world. Over the last several months, the West has waged a war against Russia using crude oil prices and the international credit and currency markets as its theatres of conflict.

Since Ukraine erupted earlier this year, the price of oil dropped 40%. The decline in crude prices coupled with meaningful sanctions by the West precipitated a flight of some $125 billion of capital from Russia while its currency, the ruble, plummeted 40%, forcing the government to maintain its value against international speculators. Russian companies owe Western banks $650 billion and remain unable to refinance their debt because they do not have access to international credit, compelling the treasury to consider using currency reserves to pay $120 billion due next year. Putin severely underestimated the sophisticated arsenal of economic and financial weapons that could be employed against the Russian economy, now forecast to shrink next year because of the crisis.

Putin noted in his recent annual press conference that Russia failed to diversify its economy over the last 20 years. Oil revenues still account for nearly 60% of Russia’s total exports and 40% of its national budget. This remains a source of frustration and humiliation for Russia’s leadership. As the blood of the Russian bear runs the color of crude oil, can there be a more effective response to its aggressive behavior than a precipitous and dramatic decline in oil prices?

Some analysts contend the sudden and remarkable decline in oil prices simply reflects market forces, the result of a steady supply coupled with diminished global demand. But slackening demand and falling prices should entice leading producers to cut production, as OPEC did in the past. A number of countries, notably Venezuela, Iran and Russia, recently lobbied for this. But they were rebuffed by Saudi Arabia, whose oil minister flatly rejected any cuts. The ostensible reason for Saudi resistance has been to undercut the price and erode the market share of American shale producers. Yes, American oil imports have declined since peaking in 2005 because of domestic production, but the US still remains the world’s second largest importer and the biggest consumer of oil on a per capita basis. Moreover, the reduced cost of producing shale, at least one major deposit remains profitable even if oil declines to $50, renders the apparent Saudi rationale a rather speculative gamble. And while the major driver of increased oil prices over the last decade, insatiable Chinese demand, has eased with softer economic growth, the Chinese continue to purchase and stockpile cheaper oil to bolster their national reserves. So we find it difficult to believe the massive 40% reduction in oil price over the last several months can be attributed to reduced demand.

The bottom line is this: because Russia remains so dependent on oil revenues, it must sell as much oil as possible, leaving it stuck between a rock and a hard place. The more Russia sells at greatly reduced prices, the more it stands to lose. If prices remain below $80 a barrel, Russia will lose more than $100 billion this year.

In the short-term, the economic war being waged by the West will have a drastic impact on irksome nations such as Russia, Venezuela and Iran, effectively killing three birds with one stone. Each of these governments confronts an intricate global web of economic relationships that ensnare virtually all nations in the 21st Century. With respect to Russia, Putin appears cornered and recently made encouraging conciliatory remarks on Ukraine. Now is the time to signal Western readiness to offer an olive branch pending a lasting political settlement. The goal should be to entice Russia to act responsibly in the European and world community, not to demand capitulation and inflame further nationalist sentiment.

 

Neal Aponte, Ph.D.
Editor of Delano

What Does Russia Want?

In a celebrated passage from Democracy in America written in the 1830’s, Alexis de Tocqueville predicted the United States and Russia would become the world’s preeminent powers. For a few decades in the mid-20th century, Tocqueville appeared clairvoyant. But over time, it became increasingly clear Russia’s military might far outstripped its economic clout. And the demise of the Soviet Union undermined any illusion of Russia’s imperial pretension.

Western leaders underestimate how the Russian nation has been humiliated by recent history. We believe the most serious political and military crisis in Europe in decades must be understood as an attempt to reverse this painful trend. Vladimir Putin is determined to take greater risks to restore his country to what he considers its rightful place as a venerated player on the world stage. So identifying the sources of Russia’s humiliation will help us understand the root cause of the current crisis and construe an effective response.

There are three major sources of Russia’s humiliation. Two of them are obvious. First and foremost is the end of the Cold War. In relatively short order, Russia lost its political and military sphere of influence in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. America emerged victorious from the protracted ideological, economic and political struggle to become the world’s only superpower. Secondly, the defeat of the Soviet Army in Afghanistan represented a significant blow to Russia’s military establishment.

The third source of humiliation is powerful and insidious: Russia’s position in the world economy vis-à-vis China. These erstwhile Communist allies underwent a process of economic and political reform over the last few decades. Scholars debate the most effective sequence and pace of these reforms: which should go first, how fast should they proceed? While the debate continues, the contrast between Russia and China has been undeniable and remarkable. In the last 25 years, China emerged as an economic and financial powerhouse, becoming the largest exporter and the second largest importer of manufactured goods in the world, as Russia remained dependent on exploiting its vast energy and natural resources. Fortunately for Russia, increased prices for their commodities resurrected its economy. But Russia’s overall economic progress was greatly eclipsed by China. We believe the divergent paths of these former Communist nations represents a profound humiliation for Russia’s political leadership. An inability to diversify the economy and inferior rates of overall growth pose an enduring challenge.

In this context, Russia’s use of military force in Ukraine must be understood not as a sign of strength, but as a signal of enduring vulnerability, insecurity and weakness. The West faces a greatly injured nation determined to salvage its national pride and self-respect. In other words, Russia’s actions can be summed up in a terse phrase: the best defense is a good offense.

How should the West respond? In the short-term, the effective response involves a measured and credible show of strength. This means presenting a clear message that continued aggressive behavior has disastrous economic consequences. It should not mean reduced cooperation between Russia and NATO. Nor should it mean a blanket demand for Russia to capitulate. This would only exacerbate Russia’s national humiliation. Putin does not want to go to war. But he believes NATO’s push eastward to include Ukraine represents a threat to Russia’s security interests. So over the longer-term, the West must develop a strategy to deepen Europe’s military partnership with Russia. For instance, NATO could take the lead in nuclear disarmament negotiations to encourage Russian reciprocity; coordination of anti-terrorism policy between Europe and Russia could be strengthened; Russia could be enlisted to play a constructive role in the Iranian nuclear standoff. This would enhance Russia’s international stature and reduce its chronic fear of being encircled by hostile military forces, enabling Russia to save face and alleviate its humiliation. Over a decade ago, Putin wanted to join NATO. How absurd that seems today. Yet integrating Russian and Western military and political interests would greatly defuse the current crisis and mitigate future conflicts.

 
Neal Aponte, Ph.D.
Editor of Delano

 

 

 

Moving Beyond the Code of Hammurabi: A Peace Proposal To End the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth was a defining principle of the Code of Hammurabi in the 18th Century BC.  Unfortunately, this horrific law of retribution still governs the interminable conflict between Israel and Palestine nearly four thousand years later.  The world community assumes that the roadmap to peace involves renewed bilateral negotiations.  But the time has come to recognize the obvious.  The tit for tat violence between Israel and Palestine will not stop.  Jewish and Palestinian parents and grandparents will continue to bury their children because neither side possesses the political will or the necessary visionary leadership to end the cycle of violence. And so the impasse will continue because each side feels victimized and aggrieved by the other and justifies its violent behavior in the name of self-defense. We believe the time has come to adopt a new approach to resolving this enduring conflict.

At first glance, what we propose may appear untenable and impractical.  But it merely involves embracing the fact that Israelis and Palestinians are and will remain unable to achieve a lasting peace through bilateral negotiation.  Since these parties cannot effect a durable settlement, then responsibility to secure it must be given to someone else.  What we have in mind is this:  The United Nations Security Council should appoint a committee of extraordinary individuals whose integrity and fair-mindedness is beyond reproach.  For example, individuals like Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma, Oscar Arias of Costa Rica, Jose Ramos Horta the ex-President of East Timor and Martti Ahtissari, the ex-President of Finland.

This committee of Nobel Peace Prize winners would meet for one year to determine a final and completely binding resolution to each and every issue separating Israel and Palestine, including Israel’s right to have secure and peaceful borders, the geographical shape of a Palestinian state, the status of Jerusalem, and the presence of West Bank settlements.  This binding set of resolutions would be enforced by the entire world including a very sizable number of UN peacekeepers and law enforcement from around the world.

During the year of deliberations, there would be an immediate end to all hostilities enforced by international peacekeepers.  Moreover, each side would receive significant incentives from the world community, including commitments of sizable investment and other foreign aid, to adhere to this completely binding framework.

Of course, neither side would be happy with the outcome.  Neither side would achieve all its objectives.   But for the sake of a durable peace, we believe this is an acceptable price.  To the immediate objection that neither side would ever consider this proposal, what if elusive goals like Israel’s right to enjoy peaceful and secure borders with its neighbors and the Palestinian right to a homeland were guaranteed?  If these goals were established as sacrosanct at the outset, we could develop a constituency on both sides for this proposal.  And by taking responsibility to negotiate a lasting peace away from the warring parties, we remove the political pressure applied by hard liners on both sides to maintain the status quo.  We need acts of political imagination and courage to move through the intractable stalemate and end the violence.  By creating a new international framework that guarantees the essential objective of each side, we can begin to replace despair, cynicism and mutual distrust with the possibility of hope.

Neal Aponte, Ph.D.
The Editor of Delano

 

Breaking Taboos: Confronting the Ghosts of 1948

Every conflict between Israel and its neighbors including the recent fighting in Gaza stems from an enduring tragedy.  It is a tragedy few supporters of Israel want to discuss:  the creation of the Israeli state in 1948 ended one diaspora and created another.  Ever since, Jews and Palestinians have asserted ownership of the same territory known as Israel. Jewish claims refer back to the ancient world. Palestinian claims derive from more recent centuries. There is, of course, historical truth to support both positions.

We want to be clear about where we stand.  Israel has the right to exist and the right to enjoy peaceful and secure borders.  It is intolerable for any Israeli citizen to live with the threat of rocket attack and/or invasion by tunnel. These are not subject to negotiation. Never again should the Jewish people be defenseless and/or without a homeland.

But there will never be a durable peace without recognizing how the creation of Israel established a Palestinian diaspora. This is an important challenge confronting every Israeli citizen.  Honore de Balzac said that behind every great fortune lies a great crime. Regardless of how you feel about his statement, we believe the creation of every nation involves many great crimes, crimes including appropriation of wealth and/or land, a usurpation of political power and the murder of those in opposition, invariably signifying the death of many innocent people. Israel is no exception.

In 1948, atrocities were committed on both sides. And land owned and occupied by Arabs for many decades and/or centuries was taken over by Jews. Eight hundred thousand Arabs went into exile. The Jewish people who lived in exile for millennia should understand the plight of any people living in a diaspora, especially those sent into exile by the creation of Israel. For an older generation of Israelis and Jews living around the world, we believe unvoiced guilt makes it difficult to discuss the Palestinian exile. For younger generations and recent immigrants to Israel, the historical record of 1948 appears to be ancient history and irrelevant.  As a result, it is remarkably difficult to mention this inconvenient truth of history  without being accused of being anti-Israel or, worse yet, anti-Jewish.

But acknowledging the historical record does not make one anti-Israel any more than admitting the injustice done to Native Americans makes one anti-America. It is important to understand what happened in 1948 because the Jewish people must accept there are legitimate grievances on the other side. The historical injustice effected by Israel’s creation should compel every Israeli to conclude that nothing short of a two state solution will ever end hostilities between Israel and Palestine. Unfortunately, the political momentum in Israel has shifted away from embracing the need for two states. And any serious discussion of the origin of the Palestinian exile has become virtually taboo in Israeli political life.

There are also fundamental challenges confronting Palestinians. Someone once quipped that forgiveness means giving up hope for a better past. Yet individuals and nations often fight one another to address previous injuries. But to do so perpetually is ultimately self-destructive. Can all Palestinians finally embrace Israel’s right to exist and to enjoy peaceful and secure borders? Can they accept that the reality of 1948 will not be overturned? Can they accept there will be no right of return that would demographically endanger the Jewish state?

Both sides must finally transform their respective national conversations about painful and difficult issues if an enduring peace agreement is to be negotiated. This will involve confronting and breaking political taboos. However, the entrenched positions of hardliners on both sides militate against this, prompting the ghosts of 1948 to haunt Israel and Palestine well into the 21st century.

Neal Aponte, Ph.D.
Editor of Delano

The Wall

It is known as a separation barrier, a security or an anti-terrorist fence or, as the International Court of Justice described it, a wall. When completed, it will be a 422-mile long physical barrier separating Israel from Palestine. Construction of the wall began in 2002 during the second intifada when Prime Minister Ariel Sharon approved it to protect Israel from suicide bombers. The wall’s exact location and route and its precise role in reducing terrorist attacks remain controversial.

The wall functions as an obvious physical barrier separating Jew from Palestinian, reflecting their tense and often violent relationship and the perceived Israeli need to remain apart. As a result, the wall greatly diminishes physical contact and cultural exchange between these two peoples. This is an ominous development. The reduced level of personal, professional and cultural interaction means that ordinary citizens on both sides have less experience and understanding of one another as flesh and blood individuals. Each side becomes a suspicious and feared and an increasingly unknown “other”. This allows Jews and Palestinians to more readily vilify and demonize one another as less interpersonal contact enables ugly and derogatory prejudices and stereotypes to flourish on both sides, unchecked by the wisdom embedded in actual relationships.

The political consequence of this cannot be overemphasized. As negative stereotypes abound, intolerant and even hateful rhetoric becomes an increasingly accepted part of the cultural landscape. Political discourse about the underlying conflict becomes more harsh and inflexible, reinforcing the intransigent positions of hardliners on both sides. In turn, the spirit of accommodation and compromise vital to any productive and successful negotiation to engineer a durable peace agreement becomes difficult to nurture and sustain. We believe this has already occurred on both sides.

We believe the wall has also engendered a false sense of security that reduces a sense of urgency in Israel to negotiate a final settlement. It contributes to what we perceive as an arrogant swagger by members of the ruling Israeli cabinet in response to John Kerry’s recent efforts to promote constructive dialogue. We remain worried about the rigid and unrealistic postures of the current Israeli government that help explain why there has been no concerted effort to broker a peace deal with Mahmoud Abbas, who still represents Israel’s only viable partner in any peace negotiation.

But there is a profoundly disturbing irony here that is often overlooked. Jews have a long and tragic history with walls. What are we to make of a people once coerced to live in communities enclosed by walls but who now feel compelled to enclose themselves from their neighbors? Could those who fled Europe, escaping or surviving persecution and the Holocaust to settle in Israel, ever imagine the Jewish state building a wall to keep itself safe and secure? This would have been too awful to contemplate. We do not equate the Warsaw ghetto wall with the barrier separating Israel from Palestine but the latter conjures the horrifying return of a Jewish nightmare despite the persistent refrain of “never again” and expresses the grim political reality.

The presence of the wall reflects the chronic failure of both sides to meaningfully address the sources of their conflict. But it also represents a failure to recognize the shared humanity that transcends the divisions expressed by any wall or separation barrier, one that yearns to live in peace with safe and secure borders and with dignity and hopeful aspirations for the future. It is a humanity that lies fractured by the physical wall that, in turn, reflects the presence of many walls separating Israeli from Palestinian and Palestinian from Israeli. Who on either side will have the vision and the courage to assert that humanity and defy what continues to separate and condemn both peoples to endless, pointless violence?

Neal Aponte, Ph.D.
The Editor of Delano

Israel and Hamas: What is To Be Done?

Israel’s devastating air, naval and ground assault of Gaza will destroy many rockets and their launchers and the maze of underground tunnels, to say nothing of inflicting a terrible loss of life and property. The military threat posed by Hamas will be, for the short and even medium-term, seriously eroded. But what happens after the military campaign is over? Will this latest round of violence bring Israel and the Palestinians any closer to a durable peace? Sadly, as long as Israeli policy remains focused on responding to hostilities versus resolving the conflict, the answer is a resounding no.

Everything Israel does vis-à-vis its neighbors in Gaza and the West Bank should be assessed on its ability to empower Palestinian moderates and erode the popularity of extremists. Israel’s policy mantra should be: empower the political center, marginalize the extremes. Do the current hostilities help Israel accomplish this?

Quite clearly the reverse is true. Israel’s military campaign unifies Palestinian moderates and extremists around the perceived heroism and courage of militants who resist the continued “occupation” of Gaza and attack Israel. Of course Israel has the right to protect its people from rocket attack and from underground tunnels. No one disputes that. But the invasion of Gaza bolstered the image and popularity of extremists when support for Hamas was declining. At the same time, Mahmoud Abbas has been widely scorned if not ridiculed in the West Bank for having nothing to show for his long-term effort to make peace with Israel. In other words, current Israeli policy has enhanced support for extremists while eroded popularity for the political center. This is directly contrary to what Israeli policy should promote, indicating a need to change direction with a bold initiative.

There has been talk of offering a huge carrot to Gaza and its militant leadership: give up violent resistance and accept Israel’s right to exist in exchange for receiving a massive amount of development aid. We understand the sentiment here but the idea that diehard militants will be bought off represents a cynical calculation doomed to fail. A more plausible strategy involves offering assistance to someone Israel can do business with. The time has come to empower Mahmoud Abbas by allowing him to present something tangible to his supporters. Israel should negotiate an enduring peace with him, regardless of his unity pledge with Hamas, and offer massive aid from Israel and the world community to implement a Marshall plan for the West Bank. If a durable peace can be brokered resulting in significant new investment, many new jobs and a rising standard of living, Israel can develop a significant constituency for peace in the West Bank by linking an end of hostilities to economic prosperity.

Peace and prosperity in the West Bank would have a desired political effect in Gaza. As the economic and financial gulf between the West Bank and Gaza widens, Gaza residents, worried about being left behind, would apply increasing pressure on Hamas to change direction or risk being stripped of political power. If Israel is serious about regime change in Gaza, it will pursue a focused policy to connect peace with prosperity in the West Bank. Regime change will be undertaken in Gaza by the residents of Gaza themselves not by Israeli military campaigns. The only effective way to dislodge Hamas is from below.

So important questions remain: Does Israel have the political will to make a deal with Mahmoud Abbas despite Fatah’s unity agreement with Hamas? Could it achieve a durable peace in the West Bank and establish a political and economic wedge between Fatah and Hamas resulting in political pressure on Hamas from its own citizens? At the moment there is no sign of this policy shift, yet it remains Israel’s best chance to undermine Hamas and establish a lasting peace with its Palestinian neighbors.

Neal Aponte, Ph.D.
Editor of Delano

 

Why Delano?: A Statement of Purpose

Many of our discussions about important issues of the day suffer from a lack of political and intellectual imagination.  Conventional wisdom often militates against developing fresh ideas about persisting problems.  We believe that any effort to make individual and collective life more humane begins when we transform our conversation about the salient issues of our time. This blog will offer progressive ideas and uncommon common sense to provide new ways to think about important political and social problems and thoughtful ways to address them.  We welcome you to Delano and invite readers to engage in dialogue by responding to what is written  here.

Neal Aponte, Ph.D.
Editor of Delano

A Blog of Progressive Ideas