Tag Archives: foreign policy

American Foreign Policy and Ukraine

On 24 January, the President of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko, appealed to the EU and the U.S. to keep sanctions on Russia. The U.S. and the EU initially imposed sanctions in 2014 in response to Russian aggression against Ukraine. Shortly before leaving office, President Obama extended the sanctions for one year, until March 2018, to signal the commitment to continue to support Ukraine. And until now, both the EU and the U.S. have promptly acted on their commitments toward Ukraine as the country has been facing some of its most challenging times.

The fears of President Poroshenko, however, are not unfounded. Following the recent presidential election in the U.S., Michael McFaul, the former US ambassador to Ukraine and Professor of Political Science at Stanford University, said it was a particularly stressful time for Ukraine and that “Ukraine was the biggest loser in the world tonight.” The statement was not surprising given the previous comments made by President Trump. In his interview with the Wall Street Journal, for instance, he suggested that there could be a shift in American foreign policy toward Russia and Ukraine, putting in question whether the U.S. will continue to impose sanctions on Russia and support Ukraine.

Even though in the last week the news has mostly focused on the recent executive orders issued by the U.S. government, the question of the sanctions remained in the media. During the recent press conference, when further pressed on the question, President Trump appeared ambiguous and noncommittal in his answer, saying “we’ll see what happens, very early to be talking about this.” The question of Ukraine, however, is likely to come up again later this week during the Senate confirmation of prospective secretary of state, Rex Tillerson.

European leaders have not changed their position on Ukraine. Theresa May, the UK Prime Minister, who has just finished her first state visit with President Trump, reaffirmed the UK’s commitment to maintaining sanctions on Russia “until it met its commitments on Ukraine.” Germany has also remained a steady ally of Ukraine through its roughest times. However, it is maintaining the support of the U.S. in the months and years to come will probably be one of the biggest challenges of the foreign policy yet to come for President Poroshenko.

Wouter Veenendaal – Microstate Foreign Policy: How Much Leeway for Presidents?

This is a guest post by Wouter Veenendaal of the Koninklijk Instituut voor Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde / Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies (KITLV)

On 18 December 2015, James Alix Michel was reelected as President of Seychelles, defeating his opponent by a razor-thin margin of 0,30 per cent, or 193 votes. Michel’s election victory ensured that the Parti Lepep (People’s Party), which had been in office since its coup d’état of 1977, will remain in power in the archipelago. While multiparty democracy was reinstated in Seychelles in the early 1990s, putting an end to the Marxist single-party regime, the ruling party has won all subsequent elections. It has now been in power for almost 40 years.

Michel’s election victory was contested by the opposition, which cried foul over alleged irregularities. Commonwealth observers, however, noted that the fundamental rights of candidates, political parties, and the electorate had been respected. Regardless of whether the recent Seychellois election was fair or not, the outcome means that no major political changes can be expected in the island archipelago. This is especially true for foreign policy, which, as in other small island states, appears to be largely (pre-) determined by the country’s weakness and relative insignificance within the international system.

As actors in international relations, small states are typically considered to be vulnerable and dependent. Their survival rests on the benevolence of larger states, as a result of which small countries do not have the capacity to develop a foreign policy of their own; they are regarded as mere ‘objects’ in world politics. The extent to which individual leaders in small states can influence the foreign policies of their countries is thus considered to be inherently limited. The case of Seychelles appears to support this view: the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 necessitated a drastic reorientation towards the West, which was entirely motivated by a change in the international system.

In fact, however, the smallest countries in the world (so-called microstates) often act in remarkable and rather exceptional ways in global politics. Together, Caribbean and Pacific island nations for instance constitute the bulk of states that recognize the international sovereignty of Taiwan, and the Pacific microstates of Nauru, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu were among the first and only countries to extend diplomatic recognition to the Caucasian breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Out of the nine states that in 2012 opposed Palestine’s bid to become a United Nations observer state, five were Pacific small island states. How can these foreign policy choices be explained? The answer is: money.

The examples above highlight that microstates often make strategic use of their sovereignty, negotiating their political support in exchange for material gains. In return for diplomatic recognition, Taiwan, for example, develops ICT facilities, provides police cars, or constructs new government buildings in various small island states. As a token for its continuing support for the People’s Republic, in 2008 China, on the other hand, constructed a new parliament building for Seychelles, and recently donated two aircraft to the archipelago. And in exchange for Nauru’s diplomatic recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the Russian government bestowed this Pacific island nation with US $31 million in hard cash.

Whereas Seychelles has been steadfast in its support for Beijing, other microstates have occasionally shifted their diplomatic recognition. The Caribbean island nation of St. Lucia, for example, recognized Taiwan between 1984 and 1997, but then withdrew its recognition and established relations with China instead. In 2005, the St. Lucian government decided to reestablish its diplomatic ties with Taiwan. Microstates like St. Lucia thus take part in the so-called two-China game, in which they essentially award their diplomatic support to the highest bidder. Instead of having a passive and submissive role in international politics, these countries therefore actively and successfully make gains by playing off two large powers against each other. The examples also demonstrate that small states often do have a range of foreign policy options to choose from, which supposedly gives more leeway to presidents and political leaders in crafting the foreign policies of their countries.

Another example is provided by the Micronesian island nation of Palau, which became independent from the United States in 1994. A large share of the public finances of Palau is derived from its Compact of Free Association with the United States, and it is hardly a surprise that Palau’s voting behavior in the United Nations General Assembly overlaps by over 97% with that of the US. In addition, in 2009 the Palauan President Johnson Toribiong came to the aid of Washington by agreeing to provide shelter to 19 Uyghurs who had been released from the Guantánamo Bay detention center, and under US law could not be returned to China. In exchange for financial aid, Palau, therefore, willingly plays the role of staunch US ally in the international system.

In addition to the United States, Palau maintains close ties with Taiwan (which provided crucial disaster relief after a typhoon had hit the island) and Japan (which constructed the Japan-Palau friendship bridge between Palau’s two largest islands). Although Palau, in exchange for economic assistance, always supported Japan’s position on whale hunting in international fora, in 2012 President Toribiong suddenly dropped this support, arguing that whaling is incompatible with Palau’s support for nature conservation. In a similar fashion, newly elected Palauan President Remengesau recently made some cautious statements about potential cooperation with China, raising suspicions in Taiwan and the US. These examples demonstrate that political leaders of even the smallest states can and do strategically influence or pressure larger countries.

In an upcoming article in Foreign Policy Analysis, I argue that the international relations between microstates and large powers can, in many ways, be seen as a patron-client linkage, in which political support is exchanged for material gains. Just like clientelism in a domestic context, from a normative perspective such relations can be denounced as opportunistic, immoral, or even corrupt. On the other hand, for microstates these relations offer unique opportunities to make the most of their sovereignty, and to independently position themselves in international affairs. While presidents of small island nations still only have a very limited range of foreign policy options, the presence of multiple potential patron states – and their growing number since the end of the Cold War – does give political leaders of microstates some say about their countries’ foreign relations.

Dr. Wouter Veenendaal is a researcher at the Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies in Leiden, The Netherlands. His research focuses on politics, democracy, and governance in small states, and he is presently part of a larger academic project that investigates non-sovereign territories in the Caribbean and elsewhere.

Romania – President Iohannis’ contested performance and a brief assessment of his exercise of constitutional powers

An article recently published in the German weekly Der Spiegel has called into question President Iohannis’ 15-month record as head of state. The verdict is unequivocal: when it comes to saying the right thing or taking the right action, Romania’s new president is a political “dilettante”. What about the use of constitutional powers? Is President Iohannis’ record lagging behind his predecessors’ when it comes to interfering in cabinet affairs, influencing legislative outcomes, and coordinating foreign policy? This post takes stock of the way in which President Iohannis has been using his constitutional powers since he was elected in November 2014.

President Iohannis was elected on an anti-corruption platform. He was widely expected to support the DNA anti-corruption agency after he put pressure on MPs to reject a bill on amnesty and pardons for prosecuted politicians. Nevertheless, his image as a supporter of the anti-corruption fight was dented at the end of 2015, when a final court ruling concluded that one of the several properties he owns in Sibiu was illegally acquired. The negative echoes of this affair continue in 2016, as the president has challenged the court ruling at the Supreme Court.

President Iohannis’ image as a committed supporter of anti-corruption policies suffered another blow in February 2016. This time around, the president criticized the approach taken by tax administration agency ANAF over the eviction of TV stations founded by Dan Voiculescu – a businessman and former leader of the Conservative Party who was sentenced to ten years in jail in August 2014 for fraudulent privatization and money laundering.

One of the president’s latest actions that caused uproar was to strip MEP Laszlo Tokes, the ethnic-Hungarian dissident priest who triggered the 1989 Revolution in Timişoara, of the “Star of Romania” order. In this case, though, the president’s discretion was minimal, as he was following a court ruling that validated the decision taken by the ‘Star of Romania’ National Order to withdraw the distinction granted to Tokes.

Given this wave of negative judgments stirred by President Iohannis’ alleged missteps and having in mind the two major electoral tests scheduled later this year, one might ask about the extent to which the head of state understands to take advantage of the constitutional powers that allow him to influence political outcomes.

Cabinet politics and inter-executive relations

President Iohannis’ first year in office was marked by the cohabitation with the centre-left coalition government led by PM Ponta of the Social Democratic Party (PSD). During most of 2015, the relationship between the president and the prime minister was as conflictual and counter-productive as it had been during President Băsescu’s last two years in office. President Iohannis questioned several key government policies and repeatedly called on the prime minister to resign after a criminal investigation was launched against him. In this context, it is worth remembering that the president can suspend cabinet members from office only when a criminal investigation is launched against them for acts committed in office (article 109). As the charges against PM Ponta dated back to past activities as a lawyer, his continuation in government office could only be decided by the parliamentary majority or his party.

President Iohannis stepped up to his role in government formation when PM Ponta resigned in November 2015 amid mass protests triggered by a tragic accident at a Bucharest nightclub that killed 64 people. The Constitution grants the head of state considerable discretion in identifying a prime minister candidate, who has to face a vote of investiture in parliament (article 85). President Iohannis’ influence was boosted by the delicate context and the fact that most political parties refrained from nominating their own candidates for the prime minister post. Under these circumstances, the president appointed a technocratic government led by former European Commissioner for Agriculture Dacian Cioloş. While a technocratic government was certainly the outcome of negotiations between the president and the main parliamentary parties, the fact remains that non-partisan cabinet ministers and technocratic governments are usually seen, for good or bad reasons, as strong indicators of influential presidents. [1]

Legislative powers

President Iohannis has not refrained from using his legislative veto powers. Between January 2015 and March 2016 he asked Parliament to re-examine 20 bills and forwarded several others to the Constitutional Court. Some of the re-examination requests sparked new conflicts with the government, such as the veto on the Forestry Code and the Fiscal Code. Legislators were also constrained to amend a controversial bill on special pensions for MPs. However, the president was criticised for missing the opportunity to challenge the constitutionality of the amended bill, especially after the Constitutional Court ruled that a similar law on special pensions for local elected officials was unconstitutional.

The institutional dialogue between the presidency and the parliament seems on the rise as well. Since December 2014, President Iohannis has already addressed MPs six times. A marked increase compared with his predecessors – President Constantinescu (1996-2000) addressed MPs only one time, President Iliescu (2000-2004) 5 times, and President Băsescu (2004-2011) 17 times. [2] Certainly, the mere number of presidential speeches in parliament does not say much about their substance and impact. At least occasionally, though, the president has raised important policy issues. For example, as early as February 2015, he asked legislators to consider changing the local elections bill to bring back the two-round voting system for mayors – almost a year before the Liberal Party declared it matter of outmost urgency ahead of the local election scheduled for June 2016.

Foreign policy

One particular area in which President Iohannis seems to have taken a step back is that of foreign affairs. Other commentators have noted the president’s apparent lack of visions and strategies for foreign affairs, which is surprising given the extensive agenda-setting powers that the Romanian constitution grants the head of state in this domain. Other signs point in this direction too. For example, during President Băsescu’s time in office, there were huge disputes between the president and the PM as to who should represent Romania at EU summits. While President Iohannis continued to deny PM Ponta the right to attend EU meetings, he delegated PM Cioloș, a former EU Commissioner, to attend the European Council meeting in Brussels in December 2015. PM Cioloş also attended the EU-Turkey summit and the informal meeting of the European Council members on 7 March, as President Iohannis paid an official visit to Israel and Palestine.

This aerial view on President Iohannis’ record so far suggests that the head of state does not shy away from using his formal powers. Held against the standard of his predecessor, however, he certainly looks less assertive, slow to act, lacking communication skills and willingness to take the extra mile and overall unconvincing of having a long-term political project and leadership strategy. In other words, a dilettante. Here lies a paradox, though, as other commentators have noted – Iohannis is criticised for not talking and acting as his predecessor, President Băsescu, who attracted huge criticism for his personal and political behaviour.

Ultimately, it must be remembered that, as in most other parliamentary and semi-presidential European democracies, the Romanian president’s powers in policy-making are limited. Moreover, the presidential sphere of action shrinks even further in the absence of a supporting majority in parliament – which has not happened in Romania since the onset of cohabitation in 2012. Under these circumstances, it is highly unlikely that the head of state succeeds in overhauling the political system through democratic means. The president and the entire political class are nevertheless bound to face two important tests in 2016, with local and general elections scheduled in June and November respectively.

[1] See Octavio Amorim Neto and Kaare Strøm. 2006. Breaking the Parliamentary Chain of Delegation: Presidents and Non-partisan Cabinet Members in European Democracies. British Journal of Political Science, 36:4, 619–43.

[2] See Mihaela Codrina Levai and Camelia Tomescu. 2012. Atribuţiile Preşedintelui Romȃniei în raport cu Parlamentul – aspecte teoretice şi practice. Revista Transilvană de Ştiinţe Administrative, 30:1, 84–105.

Travelling presidents – Slovak presidents abroad

One of the main responsibilities of presidents in any republic is representing the country abroad. A number of presidents (particularly if they are elected by popular vote) also play an official role in (shaping) foreign policy, giving their visits to other countries more relevance. For instance, after Ukrainian presidents paid their inaugural visit to Russia Viktor Yanukovych’s first foreign trip brought him to Brussels in a bid to counterbalance his otherwise pro-Russian stance. Newly elected Polish president Andrzej Duda on the other hand chose Estonia as the destination of his first trip abroad, underlining his Russo-sceptic stance by showing support for the small Baltic nation which due to its border with Russia and sizeable Russian minority has feared to become the victim of further Russian provocation in the wake of the Ukraine crisis. Yet even if the government is in charge of a country’s foreign relations presidential visits abroad can carry great symbolic importance and are indicative of political alliances and networks. German presidents traditionally pay their inaugural visits to neighbour and ally France, neighbour Poland (although only more recently) and EU institutions. In this blog post I am looking at foreign visits of Slovak presidents between 1993 and 2015 and map and explain some differences between time periods and presidents.

sk prespow foreign visits

After Slovakia became in independent nation on 1 January 1993 it suddenly had to shoulder many tasks which before then had been performed by the Czechoslovak institutions, most of which – including the foreign ministry – were located in Prague so that hardly any structures were available (the lack of tradition in the foreign ministry is part of the reason that Slovakia is still known among foreign policy officials as ‘the country without protocol’). Although the Slovak presidency still lacked resources, the institution came to play a key role in the country’s recognition abroad – not only because the worldwide recognition presidents Walesa and Havel in neighbouring Poland and the Czech Republic seemed to make presidents the natural contact in the emerging nations of post-communist Europe, but also because Slovakia’s neighbours soon saw inaugural president Michal Kovač as their ally against the illiberal reign of Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar. Beginning with the term of Rudolf Schuster in 1999 (and after 15-month vacancy in the presidential office from march 1998), Slovakia’s first popularly elected presidents, the presidency’s actual role in foreign policy decreased. Nevertheless, the preparation of the country’s EU accession still gave sufficient reason for presidential travel to summits and international meetings (see peak in 2004). Schuster’s fondness of travelling also earned him notoriety among the country’s politicians and civil servants. Travel activity once again decreased under president Gašparovič (2004-2014), who was also generally less keen to engage in foreign policy. The sudden peak under new president Kiska can be explained by the fact that already shortly after his inauguration he had to attend several summits relating to the Ukrainian crisis.

sk prespow top tenn

When looking at overall numbers, it should not be surprising that neighbours Poland, the Czech Republic, Austria, and Germany top the list of most visited countries by Slovakia’s presidents. The United States as a traditional ally of most Central European states and Hungary, Slovakia’s neighbour to the South, too, should not be surprising given its proximity. The fact that Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia also appear on top of the president-specific lists is also conditioned by the countries’ association in the Visegrad group which holds regular meetings with locations rotating between member states. Relatively frequent visits to Ukraine, too, appear to result from its geographic proximity.

An interesting pattern are the relatively frequent visits to the Vatican. Slovakia is ca. 62% Catholic with comparatively high church attendance and although although the quick succession of three popes in less than a decade certainly contributed to the number of presidential visits, it underlines the political weight of the church (although – as the anti-LGBT referendum showed – its influence is waning). The fact that Italy appears in the total number of visits more often than a powerful European nation such as France can be thereby likely explained by the ‘convenient’ location around Vatican City. Until now, Slovak presidents have visited 42 different countries, most of which very clearly mark the country’s alliances with others. While presidential visits abroad tend to be organised in close collaboration with the foreign ministry and are often connected to international summits or other events, Rudolf Schusters travels show that there is still some leeway. Schuster completed the greatest number of foreign visits in one term (74) remains the only Slovak president to have ever visited another country in the Americas than the USA, i.e. Canada.

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The data for this article comes from the official website of the Slovak president (http://www.prezident.sk) and Michal Kovač’ biography ‘Pamäti. Môj príbeh občana a prezidenta’ (MilaniuM 2010); it relates to both official visits and ‘working visits’ but excludes private visists. A MS Excel spread sheet with the data for this post can be downloaded here.

Presidents in the Baltic states and their activism in foreign & defence policy

The crisis in Ukraine has led to a an increased focus of media attention on the Baltic states and their geopolitical position vis-a-vis Russia. Interestingly. the presidents of these states – Dalia Grybauskaite (Lithuania), Andris Bērziņš (Latvia) and Toomas Hendrik Ilves (Estonia) – have recently taken the lead in demanding greater military protection and other guarantees for their countries. Hereby, their activism cannot be explained by their formal prerogatives in foreign policy and defence (which are not only limited but also vary between countries). Rather, the reason for their recent public engagement can be seen in a combination of factors specific to the political situation in each country.

Presidents Grybauskaite (Lithuania), Bērziņš (Latvia), and Ilves (Estonia) and NATO General Secretary Rasmussen during a visit to Camp Adazi in Latvia | photo via wikimedia commons

In line with international convention the constitutions of all Baltic States define presidents as the countries’ highest representatives in foreign relations and charge them with appointing and recalling diplomats. While these stipulations are comparatively vague, they generally do not give presidents much room for discretionary decision-making. Only the Lithuanian president is vested with the power to ‘decide on basic matters of foreign policy’ and conduct foreign policy together with the government, whereas in Latvia and Estonia this is left to the government. The Lithuanian and Latvian president are also formally Commander-in-Chief (the Estonian president is ‘Supreme Commander’ which recent constitutional changes have transformed into a purely ceremonial role) and constitutions stipulate a number of relatively vague ‘reserve rights’ in case of an armed attack on the country.

Of course, one also needs to take into account presidents’ general position in the polity. Hereby, the indirectly elected president of Estonia is the least powerful and has become a merely ceremonial head of state since the start of Ilves’ presidency. The president of Latvia is also elected by parliament yet possesses a few more prerogatives – particularly in legislation and government formation – than his Estonian counterpart. The Lithuanian presidency is generally the most powerful among the three Baltic states. This is not only due to its independent popular mandate but also because office-holders (particular incumbent Dalia Grybauskaite) have been able to extend their powers informally by interpreting ambiguous constitutional stipulations in their favour.

Nevertheless, these differences and similarities in formal prerogatives alone cannot quite explain why all three presidents are currently so active (at least publicly) with regards to foreign and defence policy. Rather, the explanation appears to lie in current political development in all countries.

Estonia only recently inaugurated a new government under the leadership of 34-year old Taavi Rõivas who yet has to find himself in the position of Prime Minister and despite taking over the leadership of his party still lacks political authority. President Ilves on the other hand previously served as an ambassador and Foreign Minister and has build up a reputation as an international expert on cyber-security, so that he can claim greater authority on the matter.

In Latvia, president Bērziņš was first publicly criticised for not returning quickly from his holiday to call and chair a meeting of the National Security Council after the crisis in Ukraine broke. However, since then he has also repeatedly voiced the need for greater military protection for Latvia and his approval ratings have improved. His actions therefore appear to be driven by public demand. This might appear counter-intuitive for an indirectly elected president, yet may actually improve his weight vis-a-vis the government whose new Prime Minister who – similar to Rõivas in Estonia – still lacks authority.

While formally vested with the most powers in foreign policy and defence, the main reason for Dalia Grybauskaite’s activism is the fact that she is currently running for re-election. After she already accused the Russian government of orchestrating a smear campaign against her earlier this year, her activism in the wake of the Ukrainian crisis could help her to once again win the elections without having to enter a run-off. Several representatives of government parties have also recently been criticised for defending Russia’s actions towards Ukraine. For Grybauskaite (who is in cohabitation with the government) this creates another opportunity to strengthen her position vis-a-vis the cabinet.

In sum, developments specific to every rather than constitutional powers can explain the fact that currently all Baltic presidents have chosen to play a more exposed role. Also, irrespective of how strongly they call for further military guarantees for their countries, they are also in the advantageous position that they do not have to ‘deliver’ – government and parliament are still the institutions that are eventually required and responsible for implementing any policy.